(this is annie)

What holds us apart

After work yesterday, I scurried to BART it to the north end of the Mission. I was walking quickly on 16th Street, keenly aware of the six minutes that remained before I'd be late — and I hate being late — when I heard a man call out to a woman. "Excuse me! Miss?" he said. I kept walking. He kept calling. Then I turned and realized he was talking to me.

I am ashamed to admit that when a strange man approaches me in the city, my first instinct is to wonder if he wants money or to sexually harass me. Because of this response, I am always a little guarded. I looked at the man slowly.

He was a small, slight man with one of those faces that could be 40 or could be 55. It's not that his skin was completely rough and leathery, but it had spent some time in the tannery. Like kidskin. He had bright eyes, dark short hair, and wrinkles that suggested a painful past made livable by trying to smile through it. He was pretty well put together in the way I always imagine Ethan Allen Hawley to be: wearing inexpensive shoes, but wearing them with a shine.

"Hi!" he said. Very nervous.

"Hello," I said.

"Hi," he repeated. "You're a fast walker." This is true. Even with a still-not-quite-right foot that ached, I was marching toward Valencia quickly. I smiled politely and said that it was just a habit.

"Hard to keep up with ya," he said. He was nervous, not slick. "But I saw you and I thought, 'I gotta say hello to her,' and you heard me!"

"Well, hello," I said. "Are you from San Francisco?"

"I was born here, but then I lived down in San Jose, and now I'm back. You're real pretty."

I smiled, this time genuinely. Truthfully, I had been tired all week, and my face showed the kind of exhaustion that makeup cannot conceal. If you are a stranger, especially when I look like the female version of Dorian Gray's decades-old portrait, flattery will get you everywhere!

"You have a pretty smile," he said, all dazzle-eyed. "Amazing smile. Beautiful."

I laughed. "Thanks," I said. "I've had braces three times."

He chuckled and then we were at Valencia. "Well, this is my stop," I said. "Going to meet someone for a drink."

"Oh," the man said. "Maybe I'll see you again?"

"It's a small city," I said.

"Goodnight," he said. And then, his sweet, heartbreaking coda: "Thank you for for being nice to me."

As I watched him cross the street, I wondered how often he talked with women, and how often they were or weren't nice to him. Later that night, I thought about how frequently people (myself included) are too scared to speak. We worry about what someone might think of us, or we talk ourselves out of going after what we want because we don't believe we deserve it. And then we wonder why we're dissatisfied with the situations we've created for ourselves.

Vulnerability is often seen as a sign of weakness, but paradoxically, the more you embrace it, the more courageous you become. I'm glad that man approached me because he inspired me, as corny as that is to say. In a quiet, subtle way, he was the strongest man I'd encountered all week.

I hope someone out there enjoys the Chain of Strength allusion because that band continues to crack me up.

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17 Responses to “What holds us apart”

  1. # OpenID Laurie BK


  2. # Blogger Galactic Sounds

    so true. people are so skeptical of one another--be it on the street, on the bus, or in a store. they want to avoid eye contact and potential awkward situations.  

  3. # Anonymous annie

    I'm as guilty of avoiding potential awkward conversations as anyone, but lately I've been thinking that doing so as the default is making life lonelier. It's wise to avoid creepy weirdos, sure, but not if it makes us feel increasingly alienated and disconnected.

    Of course, I say this now, but just watch: tomorrow I'll smile at someone and he'll take a poop on my shoe.  

  4. # Anonymous Anonymous

    i'm a guy, but i think girls in this city have good reason to be guarded when approached by strange men in this city. i've heard too many stories of creepy/awful stuff happening to girls i know because they let some strange character on the street within arms' reach . . .  

  5. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Thank you Annie I love this post! I am new in area and have been reading San Francisco blogs to get a feel for the city. I have also been walking around Mission neighborhood a lot and I like Valencia, there are lot of nice bars and beautiful girls lol.

    The thing is I have cerebral palsy and often get varied reactions so I almost never initiate conversation with a woman like this man did. Usually I either get women who won't look at me at all or will smile and engage me right off which is less than ten percent. The other day a woman ask me if I had tips for her about her 2 year old daughter has cp. Odd question but I know she was just seeing it as chance to learn something so we had a nice talk until her bus came.

    I like this post because I see that I should be open more to initiate conversation. Thank you and thanks to the brave man who did not care if you would think he was a creepy weirdo!



  6. # Anonymous Anonymous

    oh forgot to say if we ever meet I promise not to poop on your shoe!


  7. # Anonymous annie

    Welcome to the neighborhood, Davis. Thanks for not pooping on shoes. I think you'll make more friends that way. I'm glad you and the woman were able to connect.

    Anon: yes, there are quite a few creeps in the city, but so far I've had only one man make me get close to tears. (He lunged toward me, tried to grab my breasts.) A man in New York is the only street harasser who did something so gross that I burst into tears and kinda had a breakdown. I still feel sick when I think about him.  

  8. # Blogger Chris

    This was a good post Annie; it even warmed my heart, and there is not a lot that gets to that blackened lump, let me tell you.  

  9. # Anonymous Anonymous

    Nice Post Annie,
    It really feels good to know how women look at this kind of a scenario; what their take is!  

  10. # Blogger Jocelyne

    Very sweet, especially for this blog! I have the same habit of being cold to random people who try to talk to me and might look a little different. As a woman we do have to be careful I also think It's partially a learned trait from living in Seattle for so long. People never talk to each other there and tend to be passive aggressive. I find it so sweet that people say hi and complement others here, it's such a breath of fresh air.  

  11. # Anonymous annie

    Thank you both. Chris: maybe your blackened lump of a heart is like a log that's been set ablaze, and if you poke it with a stick, the black sooty exterior gives way to a hot orange glow underneath.

    Anon: It's just my take, but generally, my days have often been made by the kindness of strangers. It is amazing to see how a tiny gesture of unexpected kindness can brighten someone's day.  

  12. # Anonymous annie

    Jocelyne: I agree, I think women wind up having to be careful in a way that many men don't consider one way or the other. Not that they don't run into trouble on the street, but it's usually not sexualized. Never been to Seattle but that's an interesting description of the city.  

  13. # Blogger Jocelyne

    I didn't mean in my comment that it was "sweet for your blog" I was referring to Mission mission. Sorry! They are usually so cynical over there, you seem great!! :) Seattle is beautiful but people are not as opening friendly as they are here. There are lots of amazing people and once you meet them things are great but people just don't really talk to new people like they do here. Thanks for the lovely story. It reminds me of the many encounters I have on my walk to work in SOMA. Marriage proposals, cat calls, honking, lol!  

  14. # Blogger Philip

    I find Jocelyne's take on Seattle interesting. As a New Englander who moved to Seattle 8 years ago, I've found it to be the opposite of what she says: people here are more openly friendly on a superficial level than back East, more willing to engage in small talk, but much harder to get to know in depth. In fact that phenomenon is known as the "Seattle freeze". However, Jocelyne's comparing Seattle to San Francisco, so in that sense it may well be as she describes. (Also, no disputing the passive-aggressive nature of Seattleites, which is part of the "Seattle freeze"; just saying that I've found people here more openly friendly on a casual level.)  

  15. # Anonymous annie

    Well, it works either way, since I'm not always sweet myself.

    I always joke that I get marriage proposals all of the time, just none of them are serious. Ah, street harassment.  

  16. # Blogger Abby and Owen

    I wouldn't be ashamed of that reaction. Speaking as a guy, guys who randomly approach women in the street tend to be freaks. Thanks to all those weirdos who make women uncomfortable in public, I find myself crossing the street so some woman I've been walking behind for a while won't think I'm some jerk following her.

    It's cool this guy turned out to be nice, but I wish the other 99% of creepers would stop ruining our collective reputation!  

  17. # Anonymous FWMJ

    this post is fun  

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