I was standing on the sidewalk outside my apartment building, impatiently waiting for my dog to go pee. Just under four months old and maybe seven pounds, Benny was scared of the outdoors. At nine p.m., the neighborhood was dark and filled with terrors—like windblown McDonald’s wrappers and planes flying overhead. Getting Benny from the apartment to this stretch of grass was a task in itself. He had to be carried down each set of stairs (even the two steps at the front of our complex. Anyone who dared walk within plain sight had to be stared at until they passed us. We had to stop and sniff every blade of grass or crack in the sidewalk to figure out who and what had been here before us.
A man in his late-20s or early-30s walked by where we stood and got into a black ’90s Expedition, parked along the street. I’d driven a car just like that during my senior year of high school and the start of college—after my Explorer (the smaller version of that car) broke down on me too many times. Since Benny wouldn’t take two steps without stopping, we remained in the same general vicinity as the man sat in his car, playing with his cell phone.
“Hey,” the man said through his rolled-down passenger window. Though I assumed he was talking on the phone, I looked up out of sheer curiosity.
“Hey,” he said again. “I have a favor to ask. If I give you ten or twenty dollars, will you save my spot while I run to the store real quick?”
“I’ll be back in like ten minutes. I can give you cash right now.”
“Um, I’m not going to be out here for that long.” It was the only response I could come up with.
“I’m just going to the store and coming right back.”
“Sorry… no. I can’t.”
“Okay,” he said. And then, under his breath as I pulled Benny back toward the front gate, “bitch.”
The thing is, the name calling wasn’t the worst part of that interaction. I’ve been called a bitch before. I can shrug it off, laugh it off, ignore it—and move on with my day. It was that this guy actually thought it was an acceptable request to ask a complete stranger to guard a parking spot for him. In the dark. In a neighborhood just blocks away from Inglewood. As a small woman. With a tiny puppy too scared to pee outside. Was I supposed to just stand there, saving enough space for a large vehicle, for an indefinite amount of time? Defending the spot against other cars who’d be excited to find an empty space on this crowded street? And then, when I politely refused this unreasonable request, he had the nerve to call me a bitch?
Nothing happened here—the guy called me a name. The end. However, it was the expectation and muted hostility behind his words that got to me. The fact that this man thought I owed him a favor. I don’t know where he got this sense of entitlement from. Why would paying me offset the possibly dangerous and uncomfortable task he was asking me to do? When you park on a public street and leave, you don’t retain any claim over that spot. Upon your return, you should have to drive around—in circles or up and down nearby streets—until you find a new one. I’ve had to do it many times. It sucks, but it’s just a part of living in LA.
In the midst of the #MeToo movement, I’m so grateful that I’ve never been sexually assaulted or been in a position of real danger purely because I’m a woman. But—similar to this Expedition-driving man incident—I can rattle off hundreds times where a man has expected something of me or made me feel uncomfortable just for being a female.
Not even thirteen years old, and grown men would whistle and holler and honk their horns at me as they drove by slowly. I didn’t even realize how disturbing this was at the time. I was a child, but men two or three times my age saw me as as an object of desire.
After I’d been at my first job for a few months (I was 16 or 17), I found out a coworker had called “dibs” on me, forbidding another coworker from making a move on me. While I may have been slightly flattered, these guys were more than ten years my senior and arguing over who was allowed to entertain the idea of pursuing me. For a while, I dressed up as the restaurant’s mascot—a giant bird—twice a week for extra pay. The outfit was made up of a pair of yellow leggings; a fat, red body; a giant head with limited visibility through the mouth; and a pair of clown shoes. One night, a man groped my leg and whispered, “I know you’re a girl bird.” A quarter-inch of fabric separated his hand from my thigh, and I couldn’t even say anything. It was against bird-code to talk (just like at Disneyland).
On my 18th birthday, I went to a club for the first time with a group of girlfriends, wearing a strapless, zebra-print dress that was easily the most scandalous outfit I’d owned at that point in my life. Two songs in, and a man danced up behind me and tried to slide his hand up my dress.
As an adult, I’ve encountered more and more men who act as if I exist just for their entertainment. Until my current position, I’ve been told to smile more at every single job I’ve worked. I’m balancing a tray of hot food on my shoulder, concentrating on not dropping it or running into someone—why am I not smiling? It’s 7 a.m., there’s a line wrapped around the store, and we’ve just run out of soy milk—why don’t I look happy? I’m carrying my third cup of coffee to my desk to churn out 1,500 words on plumbing in the next hour—why don’t I look excited to be here?
I’m not going to apologize for not having a permanent smile on my face. Telling me I look so much better when I smile is not going to force the corners of my lips upward. Asking why I look mad or scared or tired won’t change the position my face naturally falls into. I refuse to change who I am solely because someone else thinks I should.
My fellow ladies—please don’t ever feel that you have to say yes to something that makes you uncomfortable, that you have to smile just because someone tells you to cheer up, or that you aren’t worth what you know you are (and it’s a lot; you are amazing, in case someone hasn’t told you that today).