It was the first Saturday of the school year, and I was shopping on South Street. I ended up spending a few bucks on a ukulele case, a Ms. Marvel Volume 5 comic book and two pairs of sunglasses — all very important purchases, let me assure you — and I began to head back to the subway. As I was making my way to the northbound Broad Street Line to catch the train to Main Campus, I heard a man call out to me.
Now, I have no idea how I knew this guy was talking to me, but I had a good feeling that he was. So I turned around, sheepishly said, “Hello,” and waved at him.
And that was supposed to be it.
That was supposed to be the extent of our conversation. We had made cordial acknowledgments of each other’s existence as black folks in America, and that is where it should have ended. But that was not the case.
At the time, the whole moment had gone out of my mind the second after it happened. I was continuing to make my way down three blocks, thinking about the purchases I had made and whether I would regret them later. Then out of nowhere, I heard someone slightly out of breath come up to my left side. I was shocked to see it was that same man.
“Hey girl, wait up.”
Now, again, I guess I should have done the exact opposite and sped up, but I didn’t, because I felt like that would be rude. And who knows? Maybe he’d actually have something worthwhile to say to me.
“How old are you?”
“17,” I lied with ease.
I hoped he got the subtext.
He did not. He continued to ask me more questions.
“Where are you from?”
“Somewhere,” I said.
“Where are you going?”
“Why were you on South Street?”
“Y’know, just ‘cause…”
My heart started to pound a bit because I could see the subway stop in my midst, and I didn’t know if he planned to follow me there. I could hear him talking, but his words began to fade before they hit my ears, sounding more and more like background music.
“Am I annoying you or something?” he asked.
This, my ears picked up clearly. Oh, so he did notice! He noticed, and yet here he was still uncomfortably close to me, still following me for God knows what reason. But “No,” I thought, “I could use this.” I just had to be tactful.
“No, I just want to go home,” I said exasperatedly, making sure to falsely hint that my annoyance and exhaustion were from something else, someone else — surely not him.
“Alright then,” he replied. “Be safe.”
Then he turned around and walked away.
And it should have ended there too. But it didn’t, because even after a few blocks I found myself looking over my shoulder. And on the subway home this uncomfortable interaction weighed on my mind.
“Was I too harsh?” I thought as I sat on the train.
I didn’t really know if he had anything sketchy in mind, so acting stiff must have been rude of me. I could have been more upfront from the beginning and told him I was tired and saved us both the energy. Or I could have been more friendly and ended our interaction amicably.
Sure, I was annoyed and sort of cautious, as many college-aged girls feel when approached by a strange man — I say “when” because it’s almost inevitable. But still, he was a person who deserved respect. Right? And maybe I should have brought some friends with me so he wouldn’t have singled me out like that.
All these thoughts about how I should have been a more considerate and empathetic human being came to me, but another thought from the depths of my mind yelled out, “Was this man treating me with respect?”
“No,” I replied back to myself. “He sure was not!”
Why did he take my awkward “Hi” as a chance to talk me up? Couldn’t he tell that I wanted to be alone? What did he mean by “Be safe”? Why didn’t I just shut him down? Why was I so scared to shut him down? Don’t I have some respect for myself?
My mind spun with all these thoughts as I walked back to my dorm. The happiness I felt on my way to South Street had faded and was now replaced with a headache and a tinge of annoyance. But also in the pit of my stomach, I felt something else: fear. It sat with me as the thought about running into this man on another excursion to South Street. And it unsettled me to a point where I realized that going back there anytime soon wouldn’t be a good idea.
And isn’t that the craziest part? That I felt fear? Fear to simply be a pedestrian like everyone else on the street and to enjoy my Saturday. And yet that’s exactly what I felt — it’s exactly what so many women I know have felt. And we shouldn’t have to feel like this. No one should have to feel like this.
But, yet, too often we do.
Chineme Aniagba can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.