There he sat, between the magazine racks. Gray beard spidering down his neck; the sort of shabby, baggy clothes that anyone from a homeless man to a house painter might wear. He wasn’t noticeable, and I didn’t notice him, until he spoke to me. Our first conversation went like this (I was wearing red cowboy boots):
HIM: Are you a cowgirl?
HIM: (leering mildly) That’s too bad. I really like cowgirls.
I rolled my magazine cart away, vaguely annoyed, but this is the sort of conversation you learn to put up with when you work at a public library and are a woman.
The next day he asked me if I was an Aries. “I’m an Aries,” he offered. “My birthday’s next week.” I told him I was not an Aries. I did not tell him my sign, despite the pleading sort of light in his eyes.
A few days later he found me elsewhere in the library and introduced himself. “I’m Jack*,” he said, extending his hand. Politeness compelled me to shake his hand and give him my name. He asked if I was married and I said that I was, hoping that would end the conversation, but it didn’t. “Maybe we could be friends,” he said. “I don’t have many friends.”
I mumbled something noncommittal.
“Maybe I’ll start wearing my teeth when I come in here,” he said, and walked away, leaving me at a loss for an appropriate response.
Since then, things have gone downhill with Jack. In no particular order, he has:
- suggested I read a book titled Big Girl Panties
- told me a joke about women gaining weight after marriage
- realized I was unamused by the joke, asked if I was a feminist, and offered to tell me a joke about men (I declined)
- told me I looked better without a hat
- implied that I was too pale and needed to spend more time outdoors
- offered various other unsolicited remarks about my appearance
I never know what to say. But Jack—the whole, human mess of him—brings me face to face with the problem of being tolerant vs. standing up for myself as a woman. There are many men, especially older men like Jack, who still believe that women, like the library, are public property. They therefore feel free to remark upon women’s bodies/appearances as though they were submitting comment cards to the idea boxes placed around the library for suggestions about books and programs. A woman’s cheerful reception of these remarks is, to their minds, a given, especially if she works in a service position.
Jack’s remarks are more irritating because they’re not what I would consider reportably inappropriate. That is, I can’t go to my boss and say, “This guy’s a creep, we need to do something, I feel unsafe.” There’s nothing threatening in his manner, he’s not sexually harassing me, he’s just irritating the bejeezus out of me. It not only offends me personally, but it offends my sense of justice that I have to stomach some commentary every single time I go out to do my job.
I am tired of it.
Specifically, I am tired of smiling at men while they say insulting things. I am tired of giving them the silent “bitch-face” in lieu of saying something corrective. I am tired of never, ever having those corrective words on my tongue when I need them. Jack is not the only man who has presented me with this problem, he’s just the most recent, and the most persistent.
I am also tired of feeling like my response to Jack somehow makes me a humorless bitch. Intellectually, I know I am not. I can take jokes—including those at my own expense. I can take flirting. I have loads of cheerful, lighthearted, meaningful interactions with people every single day. The fact that I don’t like Jack makes me feel bad, though. It’s not because my employer has pressured me to behave any particular way—it’s more complicated than that.
The thing is, if I told Jack to piss off—as I so desperately want to—he probably would. But I would hurt his feelings, of that I am certain. Therein lies the problem.
I feel conflicted about telling him off because I’ve been conditioned to be a “nice girl” who “doesn’t talk back” etc., and also because I’ve unconsciously swallowed all the societal dogma that posits men are superior to women and that their interests are more important than my own. For the past year or so I’ve been doing some dirty soul-work, sifting through messages I’ve accepted since I was a girl, and reevaluating them in light of certain attitudes I hold and decisions I have made. Someone close to me recently suggested that, on a very deep level, I’m angry at myself for being a woman. That accusation rocked me to the core, because in some ways, I think it’s true.
My point is, figuring out my feminism isn’t easy. But in my case, it’s crucial.
But the matter is further complicated by my spirituality. I’m constantly trying to decide what is the right response toward others, including people who piss me off and maintain odious perspectives. We can forget all the spiritual stuff from my upbringing, about how women are supposed to be submissive and have long hair and basically shut the fuck up and do some lady-chores. That stuff does influence me subconsciously, I’m sure. But that’s not the issue here.
The issue here is compassion.
Jack is, after all, a person. With a soul. His attitudes and actions are also unconsciously influenced by the above-mentioned societal dogma. He probably can’t understand why every time he tries to talk to me, it’s a big flop. So I wonder if I shouldn’t just cut him some slack. Just smile and make small talk and make his fucking day. He’s lonely, after all. He told me so. He spends all day, every day at the library reading magazines—not exactly the habit of someone with a kicking social life. Or any life, really. He might even be homeless, in which case I really have no right being mean to him.
Sidebar: Last year I had a mystical experience, wherein I was not only shown but actually experienced the feeling of all-encompassing cosmic love. God’s love. Oneness. Whatever you want to call it. I’m not bragging, just explaining something; hang with me. I could say that it was amazing, but there aren’t actually any words for it. I don’t know why I had that experience—I hadn’t asked for it, and I hadn’t behaved with any particular kind of virtue to merit such a thing. But it changed my life.
You might think something like that would make everything easier, that I’d be able to go around bestowing love and light like a PEZ dispenser. It was like that for about 24 hours. But afterwards, I was left with this really kind of painful, unshakable awareness that everyone, everyone is loved by God. And that actually makes everything way harder, because I can’t just go around acting like some people are great and other people aren’t because that’s not how it is. Even super-annoying people are so beloved. Even Donald Trump. Everyone. All of creation is precious in a way that we really can’t understand. Not like each grain of sand is precious because the beach as a whole is precious. I mean, you really have no idea how much you matter. It sounds dumb, I know. Like I said, there aren’t words. But I felt it. It was the truest thing that has ever happened to me.
What I’m trying to say is that on one hand, I feel compassion for Jack as a simple, flawed human being, and as one of God’s creations. I understand that he is precious beyond measure, etc., and I want to treat him accordingly. I can’t imagine why else I was granted that profound mystical experience unless it was so that I could treat people accordingly. But I’m also trying to work out my shit with being a woman and all the crap that comes with it, all the expectations I have to buck. I feel reasonably confident that part of this journey involves standing up to men, and possibly telling them to fuck off when they are being inappropriate. I don’t know how to do both of these things with Jack. It seems way too advanced.
Probably this guy has been put into my path for a reason, though. I’m inviting conversation here. Any advice/perspectives you might have, dear readers, is welcome.
(Unless your advice is to shut up and go do some lady-chores.)
*Jack is not the guy’s real name.