I am a child of the 1950s and 1960s. Sexual harassment was common. Something about me seemed to attract too much attention.
We were ten the first time my best friend was allowed to go to a department store without her mother. I was a city bus veteran who had been going to the movies and stores for a year or more with other friends and/or my little sister.
Bloomingdales in Fresh Meadows was my go to store and much nicer, but Natalie’s mother wanted us to go to Gertz in Jamaica as it was one straight bus ride. We would have had to change buses to go to Bloomingdales. After we bought our mothers perfume (White Shoulders for mine) Natalie and I went to the ladies room.
Though it was a Saturday the area near the ladies room was empty. A security guard exposed himself to us. We both wanted to throw up but our other reactions were very different.
I wanted to report him to the police; Natalie said that we shouldn’t as it was the most embarrassing thing that had ever happened to us. And who would believe us? He was a security guard.
I was pretty sure that store security guards were like the super in my old apartment building–not very important and probably drunk. But Natalie was insistent that it was probably our fault; we must have done something to set him off, and aside from that it was too gross to ever tell anybody about.
So we left the store and never said another word about it
In the 1950s and 1960s most fathers weren’t actively engaged in their children’s life. On many Saturdays my father was the primary parent. He would take us into the city while my mother went to galleries.
When I was very young he would take me into urinals as he rarely saw a woman he trusted to take me into ladies rooms.
I still can picture a urinal in detail. It wasn’t the penises that affected me but how so many men missed the urinal. All the yellow splatters–yuck!
My father was very protective of me because once in Macy’s, a man threw a glass of water on me and spew obscenities. I don’t remember that at all but I do remember how the personnel at Macy’s let me pick out clothes–anything I wanted. I wanted red jeans, a red and white plaid flannel shirt and red sneakers. As I was three I thought these clothes were the ultimate in cool. I still do. My father called my mother who thought differently but it was my decision.
My father wouldn’t let me grow my hair. I had to wear it very very short–like a boys. It was blond and curly.
When I was five my mother told my father that he was stunting my emotional growth, and he had to allow me to grow my hair. It was thick, very thick, and I was almost never allowed to wear it down.
My parents took us to Greenwich Village where we saw all types of people. I particularly liked watching transvestites dancing together. They were so colorfully dressed and looked so happy. We learned a lot very young and nothing about the body bothered me–except when I stopped growing inches a year and began gaining weight. I had little buds by the time I was ten.
We moved to real Long Island when I was twelve. I don’t remember when I was allowed to go to the city by myself but I know I was younger than the other girls in my class.
The city was my playground. It was a beacon that shone lights of many colors onto me and I loved almost everything about the city. Almost everything.
There was a cacophony of noise constantly in the background and it wasn’t the buses, ambulances or the other noises you associate with the city.
No, my city noise was the noise of boys and men catcalling me. They said horrible things. They said nice things. It didn’t matter what they said; they were talking about and to me. I was a shy girl. I could deal with men exposing themselves but this….this was more personal. It made me scared.
Yet it never made me scared enough to stop going into the city. By the time I was in college I had spent nights in East Village apartments. Yes, I was half-impressed with my own coolness and half-scared to death.
One summer I had a job just off Park Avenue South. To get to the building I had to pass a group of construction workers. They were horrible. They said things to me that I tried not hearing. They liked my breasts, my waist, my hair, even my horrible legs. They hated that I was a hippie. I hated them.
I felt sick one day and tried staying at work until the final bell rang but I couldn’t. It was hot, oh so hot as I walked up the block to the corner the construction workers were on. Just before I arrived at the corner a huge blond man took his large arms and hands, and before I could do anything, enveloped me in them. He was too strong. I couldn’t break away from his grasp. He stunk of liquor.
I remember the second of true fear I felt. Before he could do anything, the construction workers rushed from their ladders, pulled him off me, and screamed at him to get away before they beat him up for trying to attack me. They would have if he hadn’t run across the street.
“Thank, thank you,” I stammered to the construction workers some of whom were truly cute. “But, but you hate me.”
One of the older men smiled at me: “You’re very young. We don’t hate you. We like you. Now go.”
The construction workers spent the rest of the summer being nice to me. We would talk about the weather, and other neutral subjects. I couldn’t help smiling every time I saw them.
Something changed in me that day. I no longer hated construction workers nor did I hate cat calling. I wondered what it would feel like when the cat calling stopped.
Several months later I got a job at a publishing company on Park Avenue South. A few months after I was hired, I would find out why I was hired.