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Watching The People Watchers

Never a dull moment when ambulatory in this town, I tell you.

Casually tossing peanuts in my mouth, I walked out of the office building and towards my car for another round of Feed The Hungry Meter. As I crossed the street, the van turning left around me slowed down and out came the chronic “Hey, sexaaay!” Expectedly, this interjection would have been more of a compliment had the driver not been a toothless old buzzard with bloodshot eyes and, man, did you drink that booze or shower with it?

My thoughts turned to Tilo and Ammani, with a mental note to add this phenomenon, often known as eve teasing, to another long list of why people don’t have to leave the United States if they want to experience what they call the “third world.”

Aaah, The Famished Meter. As soon as I pulled my credit card out of the “New” Parking Meter (really one of many specimens of utter fecal matter for which this city paid way too much taxpayer money — technology used to make inferior machines irritates me), I realized that I had overpaid by 20 minutes. I don’t normally bemoan the loss of an amount less than $2, but this is a matter of principle — the NO Parking Nazis will not get one more cent out of me than they already outrageously charge. Should I kick the infernal appliance and make it cough up my change Bender-style? A trio of guys, walking up river from the Quarter, passed by me just then. Naaah, destruction of public property in front of witnesses is not an astute move. One of the three amigos, who resembled a goateed, post-weight-loss John Popper, smiled at me. I returned his greeting with a relatively happy smirk that belied my thoughts. Ok, they’re going away. Maybe if I stare at the damned thing really hard.

As if to take my mind off Meter Ministrations, Not John Popper stopped, turned on his heel and said out loud for the entire street to hear, “You have a very pretty smile.” “Thank you,” I muttered, and prepared to walk back to work with a quickness. If I give you the $1.50 that I choke out of the meter, will you go away?

“What’s your name?” he pressed on, and offered his hand in greeting. Dude, you’re talking to an OCD girl who is eating peanuts; do you really think I’m going to touch whatever your hand has all day?

Not John Popper: “My friends here think I’m anti-social, but I’m really a nice guy. My name is C******.” (I’ll leave off his most-common name out of politeness. I’m nice.)

Me: “I’m Maitri. Nice to meet you.” Can I go now?

NJP: “So, how do you like this weather of ours?”

Me: “It’s much hotter than the previous summers, that’s for sure.” Oh. Yeah. Idle banter on the weather is Talking Point #1 in my book. Where’s my Exit Stage Left cue?

NJP: (takes off Indiana Jones hat and wipes sweat off head) “Phew, I’ve lived here 7 years and this one’s a killer.”

Eeeeeew! I shook your hand! Where are my PhoneKleen Pre-Moistened Antibacterial Wipes®?

Me: “Uhhh, nice to have met you. Stay cool.” And take that hat to the leather cleaners.

NJP: “Nice to meet you, too. You take care of yourself, you hear, pretty lady?”

He reached out to shake my hand again and … *wince* … covered my right hand with his left. Squeam! Squeam! Red Alert! Action Stations! Women and children first! Emergency antibiotic treatment stat!

It gets better: Right as we turned away from one another, not yet six feet apart, NJP shouted to his peeps, “I told you FUCKERS I’m not ANTI-social!!! I told you!!!” Hekyll and Jekyll laughed and yelled me their apology.

The mood and the lighting change as I pull myself up to my full half a foot short of six. Hold on a humid southern moment here: You talked to me and attempted to be as charming as you could be so you could prove a point to your friends? One that shows that you’re not antisocial? No, no, no, my friend, no one outwatches the peoplewatcher, the social experimenter, albeit one much more discreet and capable of engrossing conversation than you. Do you also notice the irony in that loud proclamation to your peers?

Dear Not John Popper and insecure misanthropes such as yourself, the next time you go to cover a lady’s polite handshake with your sweaty left palm, remember one thing: Her left hand is still free to slap some sense into your sweat-addled head.

Man, I should have just forsaken the car, leaving it at the mercy of the Surly Parking Amazon and her big wad of $20, international-orange-colored parking tickets.

15 comments… add one
  • tilo June 23, 2005, 9:12 PM

    sorry :-(. And especially with your OCD. yee……..w!

  • Saheli June 24, 2005, 2:11 PM

    Oh my god. Yuck! I’m so sorry. Pack some alcohol wipes. Avoid antibiotic gels though.

    Yeah, I never quite know how to deal with the “You have a pretty smile” right off the bat crowd. To a lot of men, it’s clearly culturally acceptable to make that kind of advance on a woman, but to me it’s really not. At the same time, I don’t want to either be rude/cruel or provoke rage in the truly creepy.

  • Sri June 24, 2005, 2:41 PM

    Look on the bright side.. by being nice to him, you reinforced his self-confidence that he can have a decent social conversation. And you do know the power of positive expectations, right? Some day he’ll look back and remember you as the girl who helped him take this baby step towards becoming a well adjusted person.. Seriously.

    Hey, as a third worlder, I take exception to being labeled some kind of misogyne/lout.

    “often known as eve teasing, to another long list of why people don’t have to leave the United States if they want to experience what they call the “third world.”

    Is that what third-world-dwelling men are like? Really? All of them?

  • Maitri June 24, 2005, 3:15 PM

    No, Sri, not all New Orleans men are like this, either. My point was that I detest it when people say that “this sort of thing” doesn’t happen in the west, in the civilized parts of the world, and how they have to watch out for themselves when they travel in the developing part of the world. Are you kidding me? It happens here in New Orleans along with the potholes, crime, overpopulation, pollution and general apathy towards living conditions.

    Have been getting reports of such behavior from D.C., Chicago and L.A. as well. So, like I was saying, big cities the world over have a higher dickhead factor, but New Orleans has that along with other “local color” that reminds me a lot of Madras or a large Arabian city.

  • Maitri June 24, 2005, 3:25 PM

    Oh yeah, when I mentioned this to D, his first response was this Eddie Murphy line from 48 Hours.

    I just about slipped out of my chair laughing!

  • Sri June 24, 2005, 4:05 PM

    Maitri – I misunderstood. That said, I’m abashed when I see these things happen. As you point out, it happens not because men are poor, but because some men are badly behaved.

    I witnessed one of the funniest things ever when I went to college in a small town on India’s West coast. It had about 15,000 students and it was acknowledged that engineering students were the worst behaved (heck, we reveled in our reputation as uncouth savages) and women in medical college were easily the most attractive (and endured uncounted numbers of completely healthy men seeking medical attention).

    I was walking down a street with a friend, a girl in med-school, after lunch one weekend. Some lothario, with a shiny new motorcycle, came riding along behind us, and slapped her shapely bottom and rode away laughing.

    As I looked on, with some anger and a lot of bemusement, she handed me a rock the size of a 12 oz can, and her flashing eyes asked me if I don’t plan to fling it after that idiot and regain her honor.

    Though I thought that was a bit extreme, I had to be chivalrous and threw the rock. Unfortunately it connected too well, and instead of denting the bike, I dented his head. He was thrown off the bike, which crashed against a lightpole, and he was knocked unconscious.

    On coming to, the moron had to endure the ministations of the only person who knew first aid near there – my friend. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone more embarassed and tearful as him. The doctors in Casualty, all of them my friend’s colleagues, decided to play Jury, Judge and Executioner.. Oh, the poor fool !! I bet he became a Monk on Mt. Athos after that.

  • Maitri June 24, 2005, 4:18 PM

    Holy cow! That’s funny and sad all in one. Poor fool indeed. Had I been in your friend’s place, I would have been so much less agreeable. Wonder if the guy has crawled out from the under the rock he found for cover.

    My friend’s brother is one of Bangalore’s pros in the arena of harassing women. It makes me want to scream when he talks to his elders of honor and what not, and they point out what a nice boy he is. Hypocrite!

  • Sri June 24, 2005, 4:34 PM

    Well, if you provide his coordinates, on my next trip to Bangalore (soon, soon! I can almost smell the jasmine!) I can test if the years have dimmed my skill :-). Can’t guarantee there’ll be a doctor around though.

    I saw the biker several times around campus after that. He was 6 inches shorter and 30 lbs lighter, so he contented himself with throwing glowering looks in my direction, like it was all my fault !

  • tilo June 24, 2005, 9:24 PM

    http://blanknoiseproject.blogspot.com/2005_01_01_blanknoiseproject_archive.html

    OK Mites – just as luck would have it this project is Banglore-based. If Sri doesn’t get him first that is!

  • Sri June 24, 2005, 11:55 PM

    Wow, I’m taken aback and impressed !

    Taken aback because I hadn’t realised this was a persistent problem. My attitude has been, NIMBY – Not in my backyard. I don’t do it, and if someone tries it on women that claim my affection, they get whacked. But nothing beyond that. (Yeah, I know that’s a tribal reaction.) I’d heard friends and cousins complain back when we were teenaged, but not recently..

    Impressed with what Jasmeen and her associates are doing. I never thought I’d ever see agit-prop which I would support, but there it is ! Wow ! Good to see, in action, one truth I believe in – ‘Freedom is never given. It’s always taken.’

  • Sri June 25, 2005, 12:35 AM

    About this form of harassment, there are many signs that foundations underlying this bad behaviour are withering. To explain..

    I wonder if you folks are familiar with Sudhir Kakkar and his work. He’s an Indian psychotherapist. One part of his work I agree with and think worth learning about are his observations that Indian men born before the 1970s, on average, seemed unable to form strong working relationships with peers.

    His interpretation was that through the 1960s the average Indian daughter-in-law became an ‘insider’ only when she presented her in-laws with a baby boy. Since how she was treated changed drastically with that one event, she treated her son(s) as the source of all her power and spoiled them, too far beyond their own good. Part of this ‘spoiling’ was an overt hostility to anyone who might hurt her boys – including other young boys on playing fields. That hostility/mistrust was absorbed by boys, and they never developed an ability to form strong horizontal peer groups. That’s why most men of that generation, including several of my relatives, exhibit a ‘kiss up, kick down’ behavior and a dismissive attitude towards women. Mind you, most of them found wives without the least effort at courtship or romance. And most of them had wives who didn’t have an independent economic identity.

    What happened in the 70s was that huge numbers of middle-class Indian women entered the salaried workforce. Apart from their economic power, they were also constrained for time. So, they raised their kids, who were fewer in number, to be far more disciplined than previous generations. If Babloo threw a tantrum, he quickly learnt to stop it, or face painful consequences. Harried mothers encouraged kids to participate in organized sports, leading to better socialization. That generation of young men is now coming to positions of power and I hope contributes to accelerating changing social mores. Since they’ve never seen girls treated any way but as equals, feeling ‘power’ over them is a distant memory – a vestige of a quaint past, not one they particularly care to remember.

    Just as GE and Maytag changed women’s lives in the US in a big way, BSRB drove changes in India ! (Banking Services Recruitment Board – a standardized testing institute based on which tests banks hired clerical employees).

    This might explain why bad behaviour against women is spread all through the social spectrum. I hate to make generalizations, but on Bangalore’s streets most of these louts are either from semi-feudal Indian states (you know which they are) or land-owning gentry from semi-rural exurbs of Bangalore (again, you know who they are). These communities have the fewest number of employed women within their households.

    Repeat after me, economic mobility gives social mobility.

  • Maitri June 25, 2005, 1:39 PM

    I wasn’t aware until your comment that a similar change in the perception of women went on in India from the 70s on, and that it was because of workplace empowerment; I attributed it to increased access to education on the part of middle-class men. My parents always wanted me to marry a man of Indian origin, but I thought most of the ones in my peer group too chauvinistic (the marriageable men in question, in this case, born between 1968 and 1975), including the ones born and raised in the States. If you learn how to be a man from a father who possesses old-world paternalistic qualities, I guess you, as a man, are more likely to develop a skewed view of women as well.

    Also having seen many female desi friends and cousins marginalized when their brothers came along, I just couldn’t deal, as they say in the modern parlance. Only recently, as my online network has grown to include people outside the sciences, the American midwest and parts of Europe, do I find more and more male Indian-American peers as smart, respectful and cool as my dad is with my mom. A very close female cousin married one such guy recently, and I am very happy (and relieved) for her.

    Dude that I mentioned earlier is of the “land-owning gentry from semi-rural exurbs of Bangalore” variety. Also, stereotypically enough, his friends and he emanate from families with “the fewest number of employed women within their households.”

  • Rachel June 25, 2005, 1:46 PM

    This guy doesn’t sound like a creep, just a typical dumbass. What’s wrong with “You have a nice smile?” You said you smiled at him. Just say thanks and *walk away* if you don’t want to deal with it. It’s only when someone starts following you that it gets creepy. And Saheli, why is it not “culturally acceptable to make that kind of advance on a woman”? He didn’t ask for her number or anything. Compared to the smelly Frenchman who asked me to marry him via e-mail 24 hours after meeting me, I think “You have a pretty smile” and a handshake is a nice compliment. New Orleans is the South, and people in the South generally talk to strangers, just like Irish people will tell you their life’s story while waiting for the bus. It’s considered friendly.

  • Maitri June 25, 2005, 1:54 PM

    If only it were as simple as you describe. A lot of guys in New Orleans, the nation over and Europe (Ireland included!) tell me I have a nice smile, followed by thanks from me, and off we go.

    Did you read the whole post? In this particular case, I did say “Thanks” and turned back to what I was doing. The fact that he stayed, persisted and kept chatting about nothing in particular while referring to me as “sugar” and “pretty lady” after he had asked for my name and received it (if I tell you my name, use it, moron!), followed by the decidedly anti-social yell to his friends after our conversation is what pissed me off. Don’t waste my time because you want to prove something to your friends. That’s just RUDE, and I don’t need it. Neither do I require the incessant “Hey, sexy, come home with me, what the hell you doin’ with him?” when I am with my man. That shit is so old. I don’t consider that “friendly.”

  • Sri June 26, 2005, 11:53 AM

    Hey, don’t knock ‘old world paternalism’.. There are many fine qualities in there which I’d like to see retained. Most of all, the sense of responsibility for others, especially for people around you. It must be tempered by empathy though, not a need for power.

    To get a diaspora perspective on India you should try V.S.Naipaul’s trilogy. In the proper order, first “An Area of Darkness” (shock and horror at the poverty and degradation), then “A Wounded Civilization” (analytical understanding of a society-in-stasis overrun by motivated barbarians) and finally “A Million Mutinies Now” (society using its deep civilizational memory to rebuild itself).

    Naipaul showed me what I’d missed entirely because I lived too close to the action to see patterns.. That each day ordinary people question any “it’s always been that way” and decide to mutiny. Multiplied by a billion people that’s a whole heck of a lot of chaos. But Naipaul – he, the eternal pessimist! – says he sees a positive regeneration, to what he calls a modernized society. So each young girl who rides a motorcycle, or each young peasant who doesn’t become his father’s apprentice but takes a different job, and each woman handing out posters telling men how offensive it is to be stared at, is a mutineer ! It’s too big to fully ignore, but too small for Luddite conservatives to really fight it.. Sorta like boiling frogs.. the cool water they’re in is heating up too slowly for them to panic, but by the time it’s boiling hot, they’re too enervated to jump.

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