As I watched the viral video showing a woman's experience with street harassment swirl around my Facebook and Twitter feed this week, I found my reaction both curious and defensive. Immediately, I thought: I don't walk like her, I don't look like her, and, crucially, my experience is not exactly like hers. But, with some distance, I found myself feeling intimately connected to the video's message about the very real social costs of the daily experience of harassment.
As a single female city dweller in my mid-twenties, I often joke with my friends that I am in a deep and committed relationship with my city. Relocating since college from the charming streets of Boston to the metropolitan mecca of New York City to the cosmopolitan bustle of London, UK (where I currently reside), I've come to grow attached to personal relationships with cities and the variegated experiences they offer. Their sights, smells and sounds have greeted me mornings and evenings, day in and day out. The city streets and their residents simultaneously invigorate and frustrate me daily, and, most of all, their glamor and grit provide me with the distinctly urban feeling of home.
While I wasn't raised in a city, I always felt drawn to urban living. The anonymity juxtaposed against the opportunity. Busy attractions and grids set against the nooks and crannies of treasured neighborhood corners. Getting to know each city took careful patience and persistence. My routine experiences were peppered with regimented attempts to explore new restaurants, bars, cafes, and concerts, and -- occasionally -- the rare and treasured sanctuaries of urban green space. But what has invigorated me most of all about cities is not their physical offerings and amenities, but their 'human factor.'
Cities are cosmopolitan by nature. They bring together people from all nationalities, walks of life, educational backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, socioeconomic classes... all cobbled together in small spaces where people simply can't help but interact. This doesn't mean it's always rosy and interconnected, but it certainly leads, in my opinion, to a powerful and largely unavoidable widening of perspective city dwellers benefit from.
A big part of this advantage of urban perspective comes from interacting with strangers. While I often find myself clinging to form some sort of social safety net in cities bounded by friendly and familiar faces, you simply can't help but interact with new people in cities -- you inevitably cross paths daily with strangers -- strangers you can unexpectedly learn from, strangers that, sometimes, even become friends.
In fact, perhaps due to with some degree of naiveté about the dangers of city interaction, some of my favorite experiences have included interaction with strangers on city streets.
Last month, as I was running between a midday choir practice in West London and an evening seminar in the east of the city, I found myself rushing across the space separating London's Buckingham Palace and its closest tube stop called Green Park. As is all too often the case, I rushed past the park's entry gates with my eyes glued to my iPhone with my destination, the nearest subway stop, looming off in the distance. As the sun began to set, I barely took a minute to take in my surroundings.
Suddenly, I began to feel the presence of someone slowly locking into step next to me.
At first, without raising my eyes, I moved to slow my pace, hoping the stranger might pass. His feet slowed as he again locked steps with me. "Hi" he whispered, as my steps began to quicken. "American?" he followed up -- and, while every instinct told me not to respond, I heard myself immediately blurt out, curiously, "How did you know?"
"The way you carry yourself," he replied. I tried to shield an inquisitive look and stared back at my feet, furiously trying to remember if my clothing or bag had any sort of identifying American features. I had another 12 minutes or so of time it would take me to cross the park, and I finally let my curiosity get the best of me and looked up, this time locking eyes -- just for a second. I checked that other people were around us in the park -- I logged just a few.
I began, slowly, to notice small features of his -- the toe holes poking out from the front of his worn down canvas shoes. But I couldn't fully register his features before we were enwrapped in conversation. "What do you do?" he asked, and, as I battled with how to pace myself and how --and whether or not to respond with some broad estimation of the truth and a goodbye, I immediately heard myself speak -- "I am a PhD student" I blurted out immediately, truthfully.
And so our conversation began. Paul -- as I later learned his name -- was ferociously curious about my life. And, despite every instinct to try to lock out of step, I continued to engage in fluid conversation like that with an old friend. He asked me question after question about what I do, and about international relations (what I study). Each question was seemingly more complex than the next, engaging far more deeply than the level of engagement I tend to reach in discussing my work with friends. While I began, as I often do, trying to evade the boring details of my work, he persistently pressed me to discuss my life as a researcher and my work on the topic of diplomacy, human rights and security. He asked basic, but probing questions. How do you find the answers to your questions? He asked. Who do you talk to? How many books do you have to read? What kinds of books? What are they named? He had an insatiable, childlike curiosity. And he was well-informed on current affairs, as if he read newspapers daily.
The conversation only lasted the length of Green Park. In between answering questions, I found myself asking some too -- and learned about Paul's life on a House Boat on London's Embankment along the Thames. He was born and raised in southeast London, I learned, and once worked in construction. He had fallen on hard times and was looking for work. He loves reading about politics. He blurted out a familiar cliché that still, somehow, made me smile. "Politicians are the problems and the solutions," he told me. "Young people will change the world," he added. We reached the subway entrance and he offered me a quick and easy nod goodbye. And like that I was safe, and on time, if not a bit taken aback -- and on to my next destination.
I would have passed those 12 minutes alone. Instead, I was able to get to know and enjoy the company of a kind soul who helped widen my perspective and invigorate my sense of purpose.
My short-lived experience with Paul sits with me today as I continue to pass through city streets, and, like the woman in the catcalling video, regularly shoulder greetings from strangers of many stripes. Despite a positive encounter with Paul, I continue to walk straight ahead, ignoring any attention. I have seen too many episodes of the evening news, let alone of Law and Order SVU, to do any differently. And yet, I still find myself thinking, every so often, that a stranger I pass has the potential to be a Paul -- a kind soul I can pass an otherwise lonely urban moment with, and learn from.
What makes me sad is that I cannot in good conscience advise my friends today, let alone a future daughter tomorrow, to take the chance to get to know a Paul. City life can be dangerous, particularly for women who walk alone through their streets. Women must develop hard shells to navigate cities safely alone. But this necessary armor robs us of precious human interaction.
I desperately hope for a light at the end of tunnel where cities become safer places for women -- and for us all -- and where the uncomfortable and at times impossible to navigate experience of verbal and physical street harassment comes to an end. But until things change, humanity is missing the opportunity for rare, powerful moments of connection on our city streets. And for that, we are all missing out.