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Recently, I had to switch delis. As a New Yorker, this is huge. You love your deli, the one that makes your bacon bagel sandwich exactly the way you like it, the one that throws in a banana with your purchase just to appreciate your patronage, and the one that employs people who don’t judge you when you add on a second box of Nilla Wafers to your purchase just so you can make the $7 credit card limit.
At my now ex-deli, Deli Sheen Bros Co., Raul makes the sandwiches and Jose mans the register. Whenever I would go in, they’d call me names like “beautiful,” “linda,” “mami,” and – after I lazily answered my phone on speaker – “Sarita.” Normally I would politely stare at the stained floor, take my animal cookies and leave, but today was different.
Raul and Jose had their short, fat friends over behind the counter for a social visit that involved eating ham and watching a foreign soccer game. When I came to Jose’s counter with my loot, the visitors clicked their tongues and said “How did you get to be so pretty, mami, eh?” They were noticeably admiring my hoodie that was over my head, strings tied under my chin to make me look like an American Apparel pilgrim.
They said they liked the way my lips were glossy (Vaseline) as Jose made the transaction. Finally, as Jose dilly-dallied in giving me my receipt, I couldn’t handle it anymore. “Good lord shut the FUCK up.” I swore as I walked out with a bottle of wine and box of Oreos (yep). I trotted off, angry that I was sexually harassed in my house clothes.
“HEY!” One of them was hanging out the deli doors and calling after me. “HEY!” Jose and Raul were outside too, laughing and egging the yeller on, he ran to catch up with me and blocked me in my trek back to my apartment. “HELLO.” He repeated, as if we were quoting lines from Clueless back to each other. He smiled and advanced on me. “Ees dat how ju treat so’one who tells ju ju are beautiful?”
Yes, he was just telling me I was pretty, but this was my block and I would treat this man with the same hospitality that I give all of the creepy street-walkers who try and court me in Alphabet City. “Cállate la boca, hijo de puta.” I said as I walked around him. He froze there on the curb. Raul and Jose continued to yell sweet nothings at me, but my follower did not refute and tell me that no, I was the puta, as some are wont to do. I tied my hoodie strings tighter and walked on to a similar encounter with the guy in the backwards Jets hat who leans against the lamp post on 5th and A.
To answer his question, yes, I do treat them all that way. All the men that hit on me are usually privileged enough to have me flip them a ladylike middle finger. I react with such anger because of experience and exhaustion. Every morning on my walk to work along Avenue A, delivery boys stop pushing their carts of Bushmills meant for the Lower East Side bars stop to greet me or simply say “Mm!”
When this happens, I am reminded that the only people that hit on me are people that one avoids in subway cars. I am pursued relentlessly, habitually, and without care by short, squat, chicano men who occupy all the manual labor jobs in this city, and I tell all of them to shut the fuck up. Every. Single. Time.
This is not a new thing for me, and I’ve learned to deal with the attention by learning rude Spanish phrases and exercising my death stare. When I was on a trip to Costa Rica with my family, a young native selling crude crack pipes that were fashioned into clay penises whistled at my sister and me. My sister was 12 and legitimately scared of this guy who was blowing us kisses. To help her with this fear, I told her to look at him like she was plotting to kill him once he fell asleep that night. Look at him like you know where he lives and where he fries his plantains, I told her. “Then he’ll be scared because he’ll think you’re on your period, and he will leave you alone.” This was logic gained from years of being whistled at from Camaros.
My friends tell me I’m incredibly rude to men who hit on me in bars and clubs. But it’s not my fault that the men who hit on me are always the ones who own Laundromats and have spurs on their shoes. If someone in a suit wearing a Rolex were to offer me a steak dinner at Outback or something, I would gladly smile and bat my eyelashes. But that has never happened.
Because of my attractiveness to those of South-of-the-border heritage, things have gotten weird in the workplace. When I worked for a man who owned hotels, his cleaning people sent me love notes and tried to kiss me goodbye at the end of their shifts. As a bartender, I got so much special attention from the busboys (my bar was spotless, the liquor had always been brought up, and lemon wedges were cut into beautiful flower shapes), that the manager had to intervene. When I was working at an office in Boston, the guy who took out the trash actually WAITED for me to finish work one day and offered to walk me home. NO.
Every burrito assembler, flower stand attendant, and guy-who-hands-porn-flyers-on-the-strip-in-Vegas has loved me at first sight. I am Aphrodite to anyone who can’t pronounce their J’s. I know that most women would say “stop flattering yourself, those guys will whistle at anyone,” but please, take a walk down Avenue C with me. I think I emit an aroma of a Mets game and double shot margarita because I get an unprecedented amount of attention for someone who barely brushes her hair in the morning.
And yet, here we are in February, the one month where we all decide to actively hate ourselves and everything around us. It’s not just because of Valentines Day that February is the most awful, awful time of year. I’m fairly certain that even if Valentine’s Day fell in the perfect month of June, all relationships would sour during the insipid, cold, dark, evil Stepmother month of February.
The logic supporting this theory is that it’s cold outside, no one wants to go out, so we stay in and watch movies. You learn a lot about someone when you watch more than a few movies with him or her. When I watch movies by myself I fast forward through the scary or sexy parts, which, when you’re in a relationship, are the moments that bring you together. Needless to say, people always discover my true colors and by St. Patrick’s Day we’re no longer snuggling under heated blankets.
After I successfully screwed up another winter-time romance this past weekend (after sitting through a painful and ironic viewing “Fatal Attraction,” mind you), I sat on my bed, contemplating love; wine bottle in one hand and Oreos in the other (I’d been craving Oreos since the scene in “Fatal Attraction” where Glenn Close consumes the treat as she’s stalking Michael Douglas. I realize how this may sound, but I also crave oranges whenever I watch The Godfather, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to sever a horse and put it in a Central Park carriage-driver’s bed, calm down).
With a lick of fresh frosting, I realized that the last person to physically say “I love you” to me was a very short, very round Hispanic man with greased back hair. He was on the subway. I was not on the subway. There was a giant pair of shiny, double-steel, bulletproof doors between us. He had his headphones in and his orange backpack on. As a lady’s jarbled Queens-raised voice blared over the loudspeaker of the 34th Street station, our eyes met and he mouthed the precious, sacred words of “I Love you.”
I had my artillery ready. I’d been practicing “ugh, as if!” in Spanish for weeks now. But today, being a day in February, I decided to try something new.
“Really? You love me?” I asked him in full volume. People turned to look at me, because I was being very loud. When they saw that I was just another girl in a flannel talking to herself they went back to their AM New Yorks.
The train was stalled. My vato didn’t look startled by my response. “Yes. Yes I do.” he nodded in earnest. I stared at him until the train rolled away, just to be creepy. He stared back, creepy by nature.
And this was the last man who told me he loved me. Sure I could have called my dad or brother to get a 1-4-3 out of them, but I didn’t. I can’t stop thinking about the poetry of it all: it’s February, it’s cold, and New York is LONELY, no matter how many friends or dates you may have. Something about the city reminds you of sordid things from your past, perhaps because it seems like everyone else is trying to forget theirs. And this guy was just like any other guy I’ve been involved with; he told me what I wanted to hear when he knew he was on his way out.
We’re all looking for passionate romances, but no one really knows what that is until its sitting right in front of them. There are certain things we all want: someone who is trustworthy, supportive, and sings your praises. We also want someone who gives us gifts and writes us love notes, like my Latino lovers. Every time one of these men hollers at me on the street, they look at me with the same sincerity as my subway romance did. They truly look like they have eyes only for me. What would they do if I stopped and indulged them? What would they do if I forced them to sit and listen about my day? That parallel universe doesn’t exist, because these men KNOW I’m going to keep walking.
Perhaps this is why I’m so mean to them. I hate that they’re playing me like that. I lash out at them, making New York an even more lonely and cruel place.
But at some point, we all have to stop feeling sorry for ourselves because we as humans have the capacity to hurt one another. Yes, I’ve engaged in and am maintaining unhealthy relationships with men, as any 22 year old should, but I am taking that anger out by YELLING AT STRANGERS ON THE STREET IN SPANISH. I am Glenn Close emerging from the bathtub (sans knife) just screaming for the fun of it. I express my rage to an undocumented immigrant who just feels like telling me I’m pretty, perhaps because he thinks I need to hear it.
The only consistent affection and love that I get in this city is from the dirty, ‘hood dudes that sell flowers, hand out flyers, and work behind deli counters. And for that I should be thankful, because in this town, it’s the only love I’m going to get.
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