Slut Walk Fan Girl

I am loving all of this slut walk business. I woke up thinking about why it is so appealing and then my mind wandered to a nearly abandoned LIRR train station in 1979 that I haven’t thought about in many years (through the simple passage of time, rather than the willful non-thinking about it that defined that place in my mind for so many years before that.) I must have been eleven or twelve, the age my daughter is now, coincidentally. I had a lot of freedom at the time. For some reason my parents thought it would be a worthwhile experience for me to go to school in New York City for seventh and eighth grade, even though the rest of the family lived in Long Island.

So on Monday and Friday I would ride the LIRR with my father. Monday mornings we would wake up at 5:00 am. I despised those mornings, mornings that were still nights, cold and dark. He and I would drive, usually with little talking, listening to 1010 WINS or Imus-in-the-Morning. My dad had a parking space at the VFW parking lot. It wasn’t an assigned space, but there was an unspoken law of sorts that he must park in the exact same spot every day. By that point it was usually morning, and we would stop at “the Greek” and pick up the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and coffee. (Or he would. I would just stand there, shivering, or listening to the smack of spatula against griddle or antique cash drawer slamming cheerfully back into place in the large register.) I still love the combined smell of coffee and newsprint. Then we’d walk over to the train platform to await the arrival of the 6:10. All the men in suits and hats–many of them friends with one another in “real life”–would stand in clusters along the platform in stony silence until the train pulled around the bend and slid into the station.

For the return trip on Friday afternoons, I would take the M4 bus down Fifth Avenue. I had my tokens in that little miniature plastic bag inside my Mexican coin purse. I wore my Catholic school uniform. I tended to dawdle. I was that kid that talked to everyone and then found myself alone and late. On that particular Friday, I happened to be on time. Since my school schedule sometimes varied, there wasn’t always a set plan. If I made it to Penn Station in time to get on the 4:22, Mom would pick me up. Otherwise, I would wait at Penn Station for my father to get out of work and he and I would take a later train and drive home together.

I was going through a rebellious phase. My parents were unaware of most of it (sneaking into Studio 54 with thick black eyeliner…pretending to be Edie Sedgwick without ever having heard of her…Rocky Horror Picture show…experimenting with alcohol…), but they knew enough to be wary. I was way too young to be doing any of that, but New York in 1979 was still pretty raunchy and no one there seemed to mind. But anyway, that Friday afternoon I did make the 4:22 and even managed to have enough time to call my mom from Penn to let her know I’d be on that train. I used one of those one-minute pay phones they used to have. I was re-building my responsibility cred.

And then I fell asleep on the train. Passed out. I woke up at the end of the line with the nice conductor nudging me awake to the smell of stale cigarettes permanently embedded into orange vinyl. And I got off the train with the rest of the passengers. I was groggy. This was going to be so bad. My mom was going to be so pissed. We lived almost 30 minutes from the regular station, and probably 40 minutes from this one. No cell phones. I used the pay phone to call home. I think my brother may have answered and laughed that Mom had already called from a pay phone at the other station and she was pissed. She was already driving back home to wait for my call. So it seemed the best thing to do was just wait. If I got back on the train, my brother and I concluded, it would just lead to more confusion. So I waited. And waited.

And other passengers started getting picked up by their spouses or whomever and then there was just me and this other man waiting around the station. A lot of time passed in shuffling silence. I am not a sixth sense type of person. I walk into dangerous situations without the slightest frisson of anticipatory warning. I tend to be preoccupied.

Looking back, other trains must have come and gone, more passengers must have funneled through the station. But in my memory, it’s just that one man and myself waiting. And then, even I was getting the danger feeling. I felt guilty about my mom. She was going to end up spending two hours in the car on a Friday afternoon because of my carelessness. She was the mother of five. This was not insignificant. But I didn’t like this man. I wanted my mother to hurry the hell up. I kept looking firmly at the empty parking lot, wishing for her car to turn into the entrance.

“Do you have the time?”

I still wonder if I recoil just a tiny bit even now when someone asks it in just that way. Of course, I turned to face the faceless man and his pants were down around his ankles. And I kind of glanced down, up, away. And I was terrified. And then my mom’s car was pulling across the uneven gravel of the parking lot and I grabbed up my little Catholic school backpack and sprinted two-at-a-time down the cement stairs and must have looked happier than I’d ever been in my life (which I probably was) and that was not at all what my mother was in the mood for.

I got into the front seat, sort of flushed and panting from the quick running and the terror, and I started to apologize for being such a pain. And my mom launched into a whole litany of very reasonable questions (Why didn’t I get on the next train back to the usual station? She had waited for me there! What was I thinking?!) I was a stupid girl. I leapt to my own heightened conclusions that, ergo, bad things happened to stupid girls. Not that my mom meant that, or would even think that. In fact, she was probably trying to drum some sense into me so that the very thing that had happened would be less likely to happen.

How could I possibly tell her? That faceless man was so disgusting, I didn’t want anything to do with him. Talking about it would mean it really happened. It would conjure him. Why talk about it…dredge it up? I wouldn’t have been able to pick him out of a line-up. I purposely never looked at his face. But I imagined in hindsight that he was probably Satan. Or someone’s dad.

But why didn’t I tell her? She was aggravated, but she wasn’t fearsome. If I had told her right then, right when I got in the car, and pointed up to the platform, and said, “That man just asked me what time it is and when I turned to face him his pants were down and he flashed me…” I think she would have slammed the car into Park, marched up the stairs to where he had been (and probably still was) standing, and slapped him hard across the face, then driven to the police station and told them there was a flasher at the train station.

But I was guilty of so many other infractions. And I really, really wanted to get as far away as possible. And then it was too late. So I tried hard not to think about it and started joking with all my other friends in their Catholic school uniforms who lived in New York City and nearly every single one of them had been flashed…molested…some with a quick, “Hey” that garnered a look into a recessed doorway on the Upper East Side. Some with more pressing. So what happened to me didn’t matter any more. This was just a thing. Something that happened to little girls…men flashed them. Just look away, one friend chided. Almost as if my desire to parse it and understand it and wonder at the motivation of some lame middle-aged guy to expose his penis to me was just a waste of everyone’s time. She didn’t want it to matter anymore either.

And so I became one of those don’t-run-in-Central-Park-in-the-middle-of-the-night rape apologists. I should not have slept through my stop. I should have been more mindful. Vigilant. Alert. I should not have stayed at the station after I arrived there. I was foolish. Bad things happen to foolish people. And I still believe this to a certain degree. I am not going to walk into a bad neighborhood at 3:30 am (now) to relieve my insomnia. Common sense. But an LIRR platform on a sunny spring afternoon? That is not a crack den. I did nothing wrong. I know that now. And I wish I had told my mom and watched her kick that guy in the crotch on my behalf. It would have been a much better resolution. A much better story.

So that is why I love these slut walks. Because that 1979 rat bastard needs to know that his jig is up. I tell my daughter that she must always tell me if anything that anyone does at the mall or down the street makes her feel guilty or threatened. But she’s a space cadet like I am. She processes things days and weeks later. She will reference a line from a movie that she watched months ago because she has just realized why it is funny. She once apologized to a friend for something she had done two years prior (don’t pity her, it was egregious, and she damn well should have been feeling guilty that whole time).

I’ve told her all about the slut walks and why I love them. I want her to know that not only will I retaliate against anyone who violates her, I want to. We all want to. It’s not “flashing.” It’s child molestation and pedophilia. It is an insidious form of terrorism. And these slut walks defy that terror. These slut walks make me want to put up my dukes and yell, “Flash me now mother fucker!”

2 thoughts on “Slut Walk Fan Girl

  1. I was flashed in our public library. I vaguely remember what the guy looked like — his face, that is, not his junk. I told the librarian and walked away. I don’t think I was traumatized, but then I was older and I’d already been date raped (an event from senior year of college that didn’t even make my top 25 yuckiest things to happen to me — I really did have the Bad Childhood), so a common-or-garden variety flasher was barely a blip on my “I’m in trouble here” radar.

    But around that same time (late 80s), I was assaulted. I’d walked to my apartment building, which was on a busy street in my medium-sized city, and a guy followed me. He forced his way into my building and — well, I’m more certain what he didn’t do than I can recall what he did do. He didn’t “violate” me in a sexual sense, although there was a clear sexual intent to his attack, but he did manage to make it onto my list of 25 yuckiest things to happen to me. Impressive, really — that list is otherwise filled with family members.

    Anyway, here are the two things necessary for the end of the story. The police were called, the guy went into catatonic mode, and he was transported back to the local psychiatric center, a minimum security center for people with OCD, schizophrenia, and wildly inappropriate adolescent affect (sorry, can’t remember what the DSM-III diagnosis was on that one). All cases with a low-risk of violence. I know this because I’d had a summer internship at that psych unit when I was in graduate school, ten years before the assault.

    That would have been the end of it — the police didn’t want me to press charges because the guy had such a cut-and-dried psych defense — but for two things. First, my therapist (Bad Childhood, remember?) happened to be a biggish fish in the teaching hospital that included that minimum security psych ward. He got the guy, my attacker, transferred to a medium security facility a couple hundred miles away. I’m sure at the time I thought Mike had done that for me as a statement that he cared about me and was outraged that I’d been attacked. Now, 20+ years later, I suspect he would have done it no matter who had been attacked. Still, it felt nice, like someone cared.

    The other thing was that someone suggested I go to the rape crisis center, which I did. That was a bit of a shock. I met with a woman, I gave all the salient details (no sexual act was performed regardless of what the crazy guy’s intent was), and expected her to pass a tissue (I’d cried some dutiful tears, but by then I was over the worst of my reaction).

    Instead, I got a stern talking to. All about how vitally important it was for women to confront their attackers, etc., etc. Basically, I was letting down the entire gender by not insisting that the police insist to the DA’s office that this guy be charged.

    Look, I don’t know what good that would have done — at the time I didn’t know about Mike’s efforts to transfer the guy — but I couldn’t press charges. Maybe I’m deluding myself, but I was with the police on this one. The guy was demonstrably crazy, which is why he was at the psych center to begin with, and from a pragmatic point of view, he wasn’t going to get a fair hearing. In any court proceeding, I’d have been a credible witness, my neighbors in my apartment building who called the police would have testified that I’d been yelling for the guy to stop, and the guy would have drooled and said nothing. At the end of all that, the judge would have declared him unfit to stand trial, he’d have been sent back to the psych ward with a note that he attacked a woman, but that had all happened just as a result of his getting picked up.

    So getting harangued by the rape counselor was insult to injury in my mind: I felt like an object, a pawn in the larger game of gender politics and the quite necessary efforts to get police to take sexual crimes against women seriously. I understood their cause, but I also felt it was a bit hypocritical for them to blame me for not supporting their cause. Yeah, maybe if I’d been traumatized and thus not thinking straight, I don’t know. I just know that wasn’t who I was, that wasn’t how I’d presented myself (I don’t think the rape counselor saw me as an independent, autonomous actor any more than my attacker had done), and that wasn’t how I deserved to be treated.

    Which is one of the reasons that man’s attack made it onto the top 25 list: it’s bad to be attacked, and it’s worse to have your story twisted to suit the listener.

  2. I am so lucky to have never experienced sexual abuse or harassment, and my fortune makes me even more determined to fight against it. It’s just so appalling that men think they can behave like this.

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