The worst was the vandalism-by-condiment: a pool of congealed salad dressing that had just escaped the to-go container next to it. It sat on my windshield in a sad, inert clump. The bit that had managed a slow exit was barely enough to add flavor to a side salad, let alone my whole car.
Usually when a person finds condiments on her (or his) car, the perpetrator could be anyone. It might not even be a perpetrator, per se—maybe some innocent passerby just missed the garbage.
Except that I knew a guy who worked at the sandwich shop around the corner from my apartment. He’d been screaming “Bitch!” at me every time he saw me for weeks.
I’d been having short conversations with this guy—who I knew only by his graffiti tag, Problematic Person*—nearly every day after work for a couple of months. PP would watch me park my car, and before I walked to my apartment he’d start a conversation. I was a little wary of his intentions, but he never said anything outright inappropriate. We would talk about innocuous stuff for about five minutes. Then I’d go upstairs and have dinner with my then-girlfriend.
One day, PP and I were both in the liquor store next door to my apartment. The same mid-40s guy was always working the front desk at this store. Because my girlfriend and I were his 20-something neighbors in a big city, he treated us like we were his daughters.
One day the cashier heard PP talking to me and said, “I know what you’re trying to do, but you’re barking up the wrong tree. She’s got a girlfriend.”
“That’s fine,” said PP. He even managed a nice goodbye when I left the store.
Then the “Bitch!” thing started happening. And then the throwing-condiments-at-my-car thing. And finally a new car thing: the initials from PP’s graffiti tag written in permanent marker on the back of my car. He was marking his territory.
My girlfriend bought me pepper spray, and I ignored PP as much as possible. But the calls of “Bitch!” kept coming. In fact, the harassment intensified—sometimes he was joined by a friend, or two, or three.
I wasn’t so bothered by salad dressing or permanent marker on my car, but I was afraid of things escalating. So I called the police, who told me I should call them again if he physically harmed me and left without filing a report.
Not wanting to wait around to be attacked, I limited the places I went and brought pepper spray everywhere.
And then, one day, it stopped.
When I got out of my car and PP was standing in his usual spot, he did and said nothing. He looked almost scared. I was confused and worried, wondering if this was somehow worse—that he was scared because he knew he was about to do something awful. When I got upstairs, my girlfriend told me she’d spoken to our friend the liquor store cashier, who had subsequently said something to PP.
When I asked our liquor store buddy what happened, he told me the conversation with my harasser had taken no more than a minute or two. The cashier had told him to leave me alone, and PP had said, “Okay.”
After all the measures I’d taken to protect myself—the pepper spray, limiting my activities, attempting to file a police report—the most powerful weapon turned out to be a word of warning from another guy to leave me and my girlfriend alone.
In an ideal world, women wouldn’t have to rely on men for protection. But the truth is that many men are more inclined to listen to other men than to women. This is why we need male allies: because you never know whose words might matter.
*Not his real graffiti tag