It wasn’t a problem until it was a problem.
See, I have this crazy belief that as a citizen and taxpayer, I have the right to go about my business every day. I have the right to walk around town, engage in commerce, visit public buildings, and do whatever I want, as long as it’s legal and it doesn’t bother anybody. I persist in believing this even when I’m honked and shouted at by Rude People out of their vehicle windows while I’m running, bothered by barbarians on the bus, or pestered by perverts at the public library. What is a genteel lady of mature years to do?
Plan ahead, that’s what.
A lot of things changed for me when I took up martial arts. I started to feel more strength and self-confidence. I started to be more situationally aware in a new way. I also began to realize that the vast majority of belligerent people are shouting or posturing to appear threatening because they are afraid and don’t actually know how to fight. As I practiced various techniques like escaping from chokeholds, I started to watch action movies and crime shows from a completely different perspective. I began to reassess my assumptions about my public life.
That process is ongoing. It certainly wasn’t complete the day I realized I had a problem at my local cafe, a place where I do hours of work every week, a place I consider to be a safe haven.
The first time, I was deeply absorbed in my writing when another customer demanded my attention. I looked up, assuming he had some very important and urgent reason for interrupting me. “You look good,” he said, leering. Um, thanks? I didn’t ask? I’m a married, middle-aged person in sub-casual clothing, sitting in a back corner of a coffee shop. What about me says PLEASE INTERRUPT ME, RANDOM PEOPLE?
Okay, whatever. Back to work. Trying to flag down another train of thought since the first one has left the station and is no longer in view.
The second time, I happened to be sitting in the same spot doing the exact same thing, which was 1. Minding my own business 2. Not bothering a single soul on this sweet earth and 3. Obviously working. I had a timer to remind me that I needed to call a Lyft and get to a business meeting. As I gathered up my things, a voice came at me from my elbow. I didn’t even realize it was directed at me, because why would I? I was alone and the only people I knew were the staff.
The voice repeated itself. I looked up, only to realize that the same Interruptor from the previous week was sitting not an arm’s length away, turned sideways in his chair and spying on me. Possibly even reading my screen. He had a broad grin and looked delighted with himself.
I understood several things at that moment. 1. This person recognized me. 2. This person believed he had a right to interact with me, sit near me, speak to me, and press for an acquaintance. 3. This person may indeed have been on my turf hoping to run into me again. 4. I had no idea how long he’d been there. 5. This person now knew something about my schedule and habits. 6. If I wanted to avoid him, I’d either have to give up my cafe habit altogether or start going to the location two miles away.
I really did have to leave within a few seconds. I didn’t say anything; I did what I’ve done so many times and simply held up my left hand, showing my wedding ring.
“That’s good,” he said, “that’s good.”
I left, feeling flustered and grossed out and annoyed.
A week later, I realized that I had unintentionally upended my work habits. It clicked that I was creating reasons to avoid my natural stomping grounds. Since I had just come home from a lesson in advanced Krav Maga, I also realized that I was being dumb and that they call them ‘stomping grounds’ for a reason.
No way am I letting some old lecher scare me away from my three-square-foot corner of the neighborhood. No way am I letting this person establish himself as a behavioral norm. What if he moves on from bothering me to bothering someone younger and less secure? Or lots and lots of others?
See, this is more of a Boomer thing. I’m forty-three today, and over the past thirty years of my life, the vast majority of men who have taken it upon themselves to aggressively “flirt” with me have belonged to the same generation. There’s a certain cultural assumption about thinking you should shoot your shot with someone ten to thirty years younger than you. I had always assumed I’d eventually age out of this sort of thing, that I’d become blissfully invisible. Instead, it continues to happen, and all that changes are that both parties are incrementally older. I still think it’s presumptuous and annoying and they still think they’re doing me a favor by “flattering” me in some way.
I’ve had these conversations. If you get mad, they think they’ve got a chance because they’ve obviously aroused your tempestuous, passionate nature. Either that or you’re a bitch. If you ignore them, they think they should just keep trying, because you haven’t asked them to go away yet, and even if you did, well, you’ve noticed them and that means they have a chance. If you get nervous, that’s just proof of your innocence and purity, and boy could they change that for you. There’s no response in that echo chamber that comes across clearly as GO AWAY AND STAY THERE.
My husband offered to come down and “take care of things” for me. He didn’t take it well, the thought that random ruffians would bother me even though I wear the world’s most unambiguous wedding ring.
I told him I’ve got it. As soon as I realized I was psyching myself out and changing my patterns to avoid someone else’s inappropriate behavior, I knew I had to take a stand. I started rehearsing.
The truth is that this sort of thing happens to people all the time. It isn’t always an overconfident, entitled dirty old man. Sometimes it’s a rude sales clerk, a notorious gossip, a religious missionary, or an aggressive panhandler. The more timid among us retract ourselves, living in a smaller world rather than pushing back against the obnoxious behavior of others. We forget that in reality, there is always an ally nearby. A bus driver, security guard, waiter, or even a passerby will stand with you when you speak up. *Nobody* wants unacceptable behavior, especially if it might lose them customers or create a legal liability. If someone else is acting up, the majority will be on your side when it’s time to put an end to it. This may not be their first offense, but hopefully it will be their last.
There are a bunch of ways I can easily make it clear to the cafe creeper that he should probably get up and leave if he sees me coming.
I haven’t seen the cafe creeper in weeks now. I’m starting to relax and feel like maybe brandishing my wedding ring actually did the job. I still feel a little anxious when I think about going to the cafe alone on weekday mornings. Then I remind myself why. I’m a good customer, and, like the majority of customers, I spend money quietly without detracting from the atmosphere. I have the right to the occasional use of a table from time to time. If I need to, if it ever comes to that, I also have the right to cause a minor kerfuffle. If you don’t like it, then mind your own business and don’t interrupt people while they’re working and you’ll be perfectly safe, just like the 99% of other people in the room.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.