Kym Cunningham

Street Walking

 

San José is a city of boys playing at being men, of teenagers who think they are men. The city is obsessed with its own masculinity, evident in its thickly coiffed hair, mustaches, and beards. It is a city like many others in California, a state that for all its claims of social progress maintains a strict divide between that which is female—make-up and perma-smiles—and the gravity of masculinity.

But unlike other California cities— Los Angeles, San Diego, or even San Francisco that teem with women in high-waisted shorts and bikini tops and paper dresses—the streets of San José remain relatively free of plumped limps and freshly-blown hair. Transplants to this suburban metropolis ask confused: where are the women? A recent census estimates that there are almost 20 percent more men than women in what many have not-so-affectionately termed Man José.

Visitors see evidence of dearth everywhere. The toilet seats of public bathrooms are forever up; lines snakes outside of men’s restrooms. In fact, the male inhabitants find the lack of facilities so frustrating that they frequently relieve themselves outside, generating a film of urine that blankets the city.

San José lacks prolonged female engagement, like the loft-style apartment of a too-long bachelor. Aside from piss, it smells of sunbaked metal and reflected glass; its buildings are large and imposing against a too-bright sky. Ardent in its masculinity, it fights with Nature, trying to tame Her trees into well-organized rows.

But Nature fights back, stubborn to a fault. Her roots push up through freeways and out under buildings. The plates of Her spine scrape against one another in fissures that bend man-made sidewalks. The streets of downtown are in a constant state of (dis)repair, affording construction crews ample employment spreading coal in latex-form to cover the cracks in the city’s skin. Nature rumbles in displeasure at Her forced modesty, but She bides Her time, waiting until Man feels comfortable before She sets Herself afire, to rise—naked and triumphant—among the flames.

Unlike the farmers who established San José in the late 1700s, modern San José-ians—who view fallen bookshelves and uneven pavement as part of the high cost of living within Silicon Valley’s technological empire—largely ignore the Goddess’ tremors and warnings. To distance themselves from that which they can neither control nor understand, modern San José-ians surround themselves with the unnatural, tearing down Victorian wood to make way for the steel-cage infrastructure of multimillion-dollar apartment buildings and parking structures.

While other cities run off a variety of power sources, San José wants to consolidate, to control everything with the tap of a finger. Cash-only restaurants are viewed with suspicion; businesses without fast, complementary Wi-Fi are chastised and mocked. A downed power line is remedied within the span of two hours as residents are urged “not to panic” on instantly refreshable company websites. The confluence of heavy Internet usage and the lack of female residents causes the atmosphere of San José to vibrate with a kind of untapped sexual energy, a hum similar to the background of a backseat porno.

Although some entrepreneurs have credited the city’s pent-up virility with redirecting men’s creative juices into innovation, this metropolis also views the lack of female presence as dangerous. On liquor-laden nights, fights erupt on downtown street-corners, often pulling in unsuspecting bystanders. Brawls are so commonplace that police rarely step in to break them up, instead idling as casual observers to the drunken violence.

“Can’t you do something?” A citizen exclaims, glasses broken, eye beginning to bruise in recompense. “Can’t you make them stop?”

The cop shrugs, looking out at the scene on the other side of the street. He knows that the presence of his uniform would only break up the fight temporarily, that later, both parties would be back out searching for release. Better to let them wear themselves out now than have them out prowling the streets again later, he thinks, refocusing his attention on lukewarm coffee. He turns away.

Monthly stabbings and the occasional shooting elicit a more active response from SJPD. Lights and sirens scream through the night as a dozen armed officers descend, blockading the crime scene, subduing anyone drunk or mouthy enough to be deemed an aggressor. On these nights, Black and Brown men line the curbs of First Street, hands cuffed or zip-tied behind their backs.

“It’s because there are no girls here,” San José natives admit by way of explanation. “There’s a whole lot of sexual frustration here, and then you add alcohol to that, and you’ve got a recipe for violence.”

Others agree. “If you’re a guy, at some point or another, you’re going to get into a fight. It’s inevitable,” they say, shaking their heads. “You gotta be ready.”

When I first heard this justification, I thought it absurd. These men just need better self-control, I thought. They need to stop blaming other people for their problems. But I was only half-right. After three years of living in Man José, I noticed worrisome trend, at least among my group of male rock climbing friends.

While their hands resemble gnarled tree roots, veins heavy and protrusive with life, my friends are not fighters. Some of them are nurses, some are lawyers, some mechanics and students. Of course many of them are techies. They drive Audis or Beamers, Toyotas or beaters, and more than a handful ride motorcycles. Some of my guy friends comb their hair but most do not, preferring instead to leave it standing on edge and smelling of chalk and sweat.

But they all wear t-shirts or hoodies to cover bulging biceps and mountainous shoulders outside of the gym’s safety. In Man José, exposed skin is viewed as provocation and well-developed male musculature is equivalent to saying, Fuck you!

These guys don’t want to fight, although they won’t back down either. They look like a band of misfit stoners, half with glasses, the other half too skinny to seem to account for anything, but their hands are experienced, their reflexes quick and absolute. One guy—a graphic designer with a lazy grin—recently broke his hand after an outsider swung at him. The outsider tried to sucker-punch my friend while he was drinking a beer, so my friend put his beer down, took off his glasses, and methodically pounded the guy until our other friends pulled him off. I was told later that the outsider was trying to bum a cigarette, as though this were adequate justification.

I was not around for the altercation, like all other fights of which my guy friends find themselves in the middle. I am not there when they get black eyes trying to break up fights between strangers; I am not there when they are passing by and get pulled by shirt collars onto the ground; I am not there for the bruised knuckles and busted lips and possible concussions. I only see the aftermath.

“What the Hell happened to you?” I ask, eyeing the purpled fractals of day-old contusions. “Jesus Christ, are you okay?”

They nod, and I learn the story later from another guy, who saw what went down, who pulled our buddy out. I never learn the story from another girl. Fights do not start around women. Around us, our guy friends do not care when an outsider bumps into our table or mistakes a drink for his own. Around us, inflammatory comments are brushed off as easily as cigarette ash; the group becomes self-contained, unaware of the world beyond the shouldered circle. In San José, altercations only seem to arise in female absentia.

And yet, the idea that aggression arises out of female absence is, in and of itself, troubling. It indicates a kind of responsibility on the female end, that to be female in San José is to be implicitly charged with the placation of its male populace. Adherence to gender norms aside, this belief in feminine responsibility belies something much more systemic and disturbing within San José’s cult of masculinity. Rather, it suggests that the wholesale attitude of the city’s populous towards women to be one of utility, of entertainment. Within this environment, women exist as toys for the city’s men, interesting hobbies with which they can occupy their free time. In this context, they—we—are not and can never be equal.

And with this inequality, with the understanding of this belief in female utility and its consequential repudiation of female personhood, it becomes easier to understand San José customs such as catcalling.

While catcalling is not a practice unique to San José, it is so ubiquitous within the city culture that many female residents rarely notice the whistles or hoots from the passenger’s side as cars blow past. These are the most benign San José catcalls, the ones that we can almost believe are meant for someone else, the ones that make us smile wryly as “No Scrubs” coasts through our minds. We forget these incidents almost as soon as they happen.

More troublesome are the cars or bikes that slow down. We can hear the speed of the vehicle change, and we tense up, feeling leering eyes trickle down our body in appraisal. We flip into fight-or-flight mode; our heart pushes up against our ribcage. This is what it feels like to be hunted, we think, waiting to react.

Sometimes nothing happens. Sometimes we whirl around, deciding fight, and they speed off in presumed embarrassment. Sometimes they try to chat us up, try to give us their number, Joey from Friends saying “Hey baby, how you doin’?” and we roll our eyes and keep walking.

Sometimes they offer us a ride. When we say, “No, I’m fine. Thank you,”—polite, but firm, trying to keep our voice from shaking. In our minds, we scream: you must be a fucking idiot to think I would get in the car with you. If you don’t get the fuck away from me I’m calling the goddamn cops, fingering the cellphone in our pockets.

Sometimes they don’t take the hint, or sometimes they try to justify themselves: “You look lost.”

At this point, our heart is in our throats, a mixture of fear and anger that chokes us. When we speak again, we hope only the anger seeps out. “Nope. I’m good.” Our voices become gravel, growling like cornered animals. We forget that we ever sounded different.

Sometimes they’ll speed off after that.

After they’ve gone, split-second images peel through our minds—a kidnapping flipbook. We see hands grabbing from the darkness of vans, hairy arms we scratch and gnaw against. The voice is already dead in our throats and we know we will not survive.

If this happens during daylight, it’ll take a week to stop flinching when V-8s rumble past. If it happens at night, we might never get over it. Instead, we’ll start listening more intently when colleagues tell us about the new lanyard their girlfriend sells on Etsy: two thick strands of rope braided into a ball at the end, attachable to a keychain, with the potential to bruise or break bones. We look to any solution that makes us feel safe.

“I started carrying around a knife,” a friend says, pointing to the metal clip on the belt of her cut-offs. “It wasn’t even that bad either. I mean, living in San José, I’ve been catcalled a bunch of times. But somehow, this was different.”

She was walking down First Street, on her way to work at a local café, when a group of businessmen started making loud comments about her ass.

“It was super weird, you know? I couldn’t even tell if they were following me, or if they just happened to be walking the same way, but it was creepy. And they were, like, fifty, dressed in expensive shirts, probably on their way to a business lunch. I’m just fed up with this shit.”

What most of us are fed up with was the anxiety that comes from the possibility of male persistence. We have walked the streets of downtown enough to know that any male or group of males is a possible threat, that at any point, a singular comment can turn into trailed footsteps that don’t stop until we call the police. We have all been followed.

We have been followed down alleys we wish we hadn’t taken; we have been followed to the threshold of our homes, keys shaking in unsure fingers. Some of us have confronted these men. “Are you following me?” we ask, accusingly, trying to catch them off-guard.

We have called the police. “Now he’s just standing outside my building, staring. Can you do something, please?”

By the time the cops send a car over, the man will have vanished. “We can take down a formal statement, if you want,” the cop tells us as we try not to cry in frustration, “in case it happens again.”

And when it does happen again, when we hear that even-paced scuffle behind us, soles hitting pavement in horrorshow metronome, and we try not to panic with our hearts wild in our ears, sometimes we turn—but there is no one there. Other days, we are not so lucky.

Because to be female in San José is to be defined by the men who surround us, by their actions, by their words, by their conception. We exist in a state of being publicly gendered, although exactly what being publicly gendered entails relies upon the individual male’s interpretation. We are up to his discretion.

If, for example, we do not smile when we brush past a man on the streets of downtown, hurrying so that we are not late to work that morning, he can catch up with us, stop us and say: ‘Excuse me, miss, you dropped something.

We stop, pat down our pockets—keys, wallet, phone—look behind us on the ground, flustered: “What?”

He beams with self-pleasure: “Your smile.”

Because we are women, we are expected to smile, part of the California female uniform. As a man, it is his duty to remind us of this accessory that we have clearly forgotten, the same way we sometimes forget our glasses or our wallets at home. As a man, he is worthy of our time.

Two responses are expected from us when we are harassed—a quiet laugh and a shake of the head, or ignorance—which are really the same response: acceptance. A man does not expect to be denied, flagrantly rebuffed when he asks how we’re doing tonight, calling us beautiful.

“Fuck off,” we snarl, not in the goddamned mood tonight—it’s late, we’re hungry, we just want to get to our car so we can go home. At first, he is taken aback, surprised, and we revel in the silence, wishing it would surround us. This is how witches who were burned at the stake must have felt, we think, finally free.

But the freedom only lasts until he regains his composure, until he dons his armor of righteous anger. “My bad,” he yells, “I didn’t realize you was a man then.”

This statement is the ultimate indication of our betrayal. We did not accept his advances ergo we are not female. He has spoken.

We are not meant to find amusement in his admission of latent homosexual inclinations, of finding another man beautiful. We are meant to be offended.

And yet, we are not meant to be offended when a different man, riding past us on a bike, stops to ask: “You workin’?”

It is nearly eleven on a Sunday night, and we are outside smoking a cigarette on the street. Our hair is still shower-wet and zit-cream spots our otherwise naked face.

“No, I’m about to go to bed. Why would I be working right now?”

Not until after he has left, when we crush our cigarette beneath the sole of our moccasin slipper do we realize his assumption: alone, the nocturnal female body is for sale.

We have seen other women get mistaken for prostitutes. Men in black shirts talk up girls with tight shorts and high boots, backpacks slung against slim shoulders. “Hell no,” the girls say, the noise of passing cars and a landing airplane muffling their irritation.

“Psst,” whisper red station wagons that slow down as they pass. We ignore them; they circle the block and find us again. “Hey, mamí,” they proposition, wanting us to acknowledge their desire. We look the other way.

But across Market Street, next to the Weinerschnitzel, we see girls who do not ignore these men. Young girls with flawlessly dark or silky-tan skin hold thin cigarettes off to the side as they talk to groups of darkly-dressed men outside a closed grocery store. They wear faded yellow dresses or taut silver skirts; they have hair as straight and thin as their bones. They hug goose-prickled flesh, standing on one heel, then the next. Cops drive past and do not stop.

Other girls walk by in short white dresses, their wedges thudding black against the pavement. The men make comments regarding “inventory.” The girls pretend not to hear.

Down the street, cars honk in empty parking lots. Eyes locked on phone screens, short-shorts saunter towards the black SUVs, ample hips undulating with each step. The SUVs honk twice now, filling the air with aggression. The girls put their phones away as their boots climb up into Chevys, heels hitting silver as the door closes. The cars sit for a minute, maybe more, and then pull into darkness as leaves fall, head-over-heels, from the sepia-toned highway above.

The only women who are safe from the advances of Man José are those already accompanied by men. The night before Halloween, parades of women strut into clubs—Hooters Waitresses and Sexy Vampires and Naughty School Girls—on the arms of indistinguishable dates. South First Street is covered in a flash of legs, cleavage, and heavily-rouged faces—the makings of a good porno.

Even on nonholiday drinking nights, female club attire seems remarkably similar to that which can be found a few blocks down getting into impatient cars. On any given weekend, girls in knee-high pleather boots drag their boyfriends down First Street, the tiny black of ruched dresses barely covering asses that down the sidewalk. The darkness of lip liner seems as drastic as Olympia’s black ribbon clutching pale throats. But even on the streets of Man José, these girls are protected when they are with men.

When we walk alone at night, we do not wear silver-seined skirts or bare flowered dresses, pleather boots or heavy rouge; we wear floor-length black maxis and hoodies, jeggings and tank tops. We think that our clothing protects us from misconception; we try to make ourselves believe that if we lower our voices, hide our faces in hoods, don’t wear makeup, tie back our hair or cut it all off, we can control what happens to us.

If only we don’t look like women, we think, they will leave us alone.

But what we don’t realize when we dress with purposeful androgyny is that this engages the same passive acceptance as when we ignore the catcalls, when we feign a tightened smile over an inappropriate comment or a too-long look. With our unflinching gazes set straight ahead, focused on nothing at all, we try to ignore that we are—that I am—a part of the problem.

I’m at the climbing gym when I run into a guy I haven’t seen in at least a year, the kind who disappears one day and no-one seems to know where he went; he’s just gone. I almost didn’t recognize him—he’d shaved his six-inch beard and is wearing a t-shirt, covering the knot of muscles and tattoos wrapped around his usually half-naked body.

“Holy shit, dude,” I say after an awkward half-hug. “How you been?”

He pauses for a second, a bare lull in unbounded energy. “To tell the truth, it’s been a rough year,” he says, not breaking eye contact. “I was going to ship off to basic training for the army, but then I got arrested, so that kind of put a damper on things. Now I’m just trying to figure out what to do with the rest of my life.”

Climbers lack subtlety in most areas; their seemingly universal disgust for small talk is the main reason I find their company enjoyable. So I don’t hesitate when I say, “Shit dude, that sucks. What happened?” I expect a quick story about intoxication that ends with a laugh.

He almost smiles. “I was riding my bike up here on First and I slapped some girl’s ass when I went past. It wouldn’t have been a problem except the dude she was with was an attorney. The whole thing was stupid.”

I am silent, staring at him, so stunned with offense that my mouth hangs slightly open. It takes a second for me to regain my composure enough to ask: “What?” my voice a mixture of confusion and disbelief.

He shrugs and looks away briefly, not understanding that what I really meant to ask was: excuse me, you did what?

He continues. “Yeah, so now I’m on probation and there’s all these legal appeals I have to go through, so the whole army thing is a no-go. Really makes you think how one stupid decision can fuck up all your plans.” He pauses. “Anyway, it was good seeing you. Maybe I’ll catch you around sometime.” He smiles and jogs off to another girl he recognizes.

I know I should say something, anything, but I’m not sure where to begin. And I know, with my silence, I have allowed him to believe that this story, that his actions, were somehow justifiable, something other than reprehensible. That it was all in good fun.

Because that’s the thing, isn’t it? It’s not fun for us. It’s not fun when we’re constantly looking over our shoulders, afraid to walk downtown streets in the presence of maybes and uncertainty. Because being female in Man José doesn’t mean that we are put on pedestals, anomalies among a vastly male population. Rather, it means we are treated no differently from latest Apple product: we are entertainment, available for purchase. The question is only our price.

But Nature has no price. She cannot be bought, or sold; she cannot be tamed. So I think that for the females of Silicon Valley to reclaim our personhood, we must first reclaim our Nature.

Nature doesn’t apologize for what she is, blood-red in tooth and finely-hewn claw. A man wrote that, but when I hear that statement, I can’t help but think of the mountains lions who prowl the redwoods just beyond Silicon Valley. In the hillside campus of UC Santa Cruz, students warily check cell phones for updates on predatory sightings.

“The worst was when you were walking back from campus at night, and your cell phone buzzes: there’s a mountain lion somewhere between you and your dorm. You just book it back, hoping, praying that you don’t run into it. It was fucking terrifying,” my partner explained over coffee and croissants.

I smiled slowly, staring at him with unwavering eyes. “Now you know what it feels like to be a woman.”

A week prior, I was walking back to my car from a late class. Through the darkness of San Fernando Street to the parking garage, I touched the place in my pocket where my knife should have been. It’s a small knife, in bad need of tightening and oiling, but its metal pressed into my hipbone makes me feel safe although I’ve never used it.

Where the Hell did I leave it, I asked myself as I took the stairs two-at-a-time to the garage’s topmost floor. My climbing bag, I realized, coming around the last concrete corner. I stopped. Spread out before me was a scene that could have been in Law & Order: SVU: the top floor was covered in guys, standing around, three or four to a car, waiting under the sepia-glow of lamplight. All the parking spots were taken; there was not another girl in sight.

Jesus Christ, there have to be like a hundred of them, I thought, as they watched me, heads turning, almost in unison.

It’s Rush Week, I remembered, trying to breathe steadily, box my shoulders, walk evenly towards my car. Two hundred eyes, that didn’t stop following me until I was inside my car, out of sight. Then they went back back to waiting.

I thought about calling the police, letting them know that a frat horde was hanging out in the parking garage.

“Well, were they harassing you?” I imagined the cop asking, confused. “Did they threaten you?”

They’re so far removed from Nature, they don’t understand.

If you have to ask, you’ve never been hunted.