Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Dodging Snagglepuss

I walk into the bodega for my cafecito looking forward to my day when there he is. Snagglepuss. That’s what I call him. Not that he knows that, but if he keeps harassing me, he just might find out.

Snagglepuss is a tubby, not-quite-menacing-yet-not-quite-comforting, gap-toothed dude who lives in my neighborhood and my latest recurring headache. He claims to be my age, but hard knock life makes him seem a decade older. Every time he sees me he says hello in that way that doesn’t strike me as very neighborly. So I ignore him, but then Snagglepuss calls after me, insisting that he’s known me since high school. I may forget a name, but I’m pretty good with faces, and with an unforgettable (and not in a good way) mug like that? No, I don’t know Snagglepuss. Never did. Dude’s lying.

I’m tired of being in this position – not knowing if it’s best to ignore a character like this or to make an effort to be friendly. Street harassment is easier to deal with when a woman encounters it outside the neighborhood where she lives. For the most part it doesn’t matter how you handle it – ignore the unsolicited invitation or opinion, attempt to engage the perpetrator in a diplomatic session of consciousness raising or fire off a pithy comeback meant to shrivel homeboy’s testicles long enough for you to escape around the corner. Just assess the circumstances, follow your instincts, and keep it moving. The chances are very high you’ll emerge unscathed and never see this joker again.

Not so when the perpetrator resides in your neighborhood. The stakes are higher because the creep knows where you live. He knows which stores you patronize and which subway you take. He can discern when you come and go, when you’re with company or by yourself. And if he’s entrenched in the street life, he knows more people than you. People you make a point not to know.

So do you ignore him or do you try to make nice? Ignoring him might get him riled up, unnecessarily escalating the situation. Then again, maybe a little small and quiet hello is all the man needs. Perhaps acknowledging him for the human being that he is will quell his desire to objectify you. And maybe it’ll even have practical benefits because he’ll tell the other corner boys, “Leave her alone. She’s a'ight.”

But what if you’re wrong? You just might decide to be neighborly and have your friendliness rewarded with more of the same harassment. In fact, it may spread like a virus. What if you give homey an “in”, and he runs with it? Yeah, I know her, dog. She fine, rah? Ayo, shawty…! Now you can’t go to the Chinese takeout for some rib tips without him and all of his boys hollering at you from the liquor store across the street.

Like I said, I’m tired of having to think about this shit, especially this early in the morning. Buying a cup of coffee at the corner bodega shouldn’t require that I run the mental calculus of street politics at the speed of light. I should be able to offer a genuine hello to anyone in my neighborhood without pausing to assess whether the gesture will result in my being me more or less safe.

But there’s really no ignoring Snags today. I’m trapped with him in the narrow aisle between the counter and the junk food rack as I wait for the bodegüero to prepare my cafecito. “Good morning,” he says, eyeing me up and down. Because there are other people in the store, and the proprietor is keeping a fatherly eye on me, I decide to err on the side of humanity.

“Uh, yeah, hi.”

“Oh, my God!” yells Snaggle. “That’s the first time you’ve talked to me in years. Like I said, I went to high school withchu.”

I’ve done what I’m about to do now and have regretted it, but I decide to do it again. Be honest with the man. “What you need to understand is that a lot of guys say that they know me when they don’t.” I say this with a tone that unmistakably conveys And the jury’s still out on you, bruh. “But when I try to be nice and say hello, the next thing I know, they’re following me around and harassing me.”

“That’s ‘cause they do,” he insists.

Aw, shit. Should’ve kept my mouth shut. But I can’t now. “No, they don’t. I know who I know,” I say. “And just because you see me around don’t mean you know me.”

“Yeah, you be keepin’ to yourself,” concedes Snagglepuss.

Then he launches into how much better the neighborhood is now as compared to the eighties at the height of the crack epidemic. He recalls how at this hour the street would already be teeming with people buying and selling crack. I glance at the bodegüero, and it becomes evident that Snagglepuss has never been nor will ever win customer of the month here. He rolls his eyes at Snaggle’s lament which does seem to smack with a bit of nostalgia. His mouth says, “Yeah, it used to be so bad back then,” but his bloodshot eyes tear: Ah, the good ol’ days.

Apparently, the proprietor has enough of Snaggle’s fake whining and wants him out his store, but he’s not going anywhere while I’m there. So I rope the poor guy into the conversation. I translate Snag’s lament in Spanish. "Eso lo qu’esta hacienda él ahí," he smirks as he snaps open a paper bag for my coffee. "Vendiendo drogas." The second he says that, Snagglepuss bops out of the store without having bought a thing. Clearly, he understood what the proprietor said about him, but somehow I don’t think he learned that in Mrs. Bitetti’s Spanish class.

I chuckle, “Siempre ‘ta diciendo que me conoces.” I peek out the door to see if Snaggle took off, but he’s loitering out front. “Dique asistió la escuela conmigo.”

The bodegüero scoffs at that one. “¡El nunca fue a l’escuela!”

I start laughing. True that, too. Snaggle doesn’t even know where the high school is. I take my coffee, wish the proprietor a good day and head out.

No sooner do I step onto the sidewalk is Snagglepuss sidling up to me, doing exactly what I hoped being nice to him would avoid. “You have a nice day,” he leers.

I’m thinking Sure, once you leave me the hell alone. But I mutter, “Yeah, you, too.”

“You married?”

This time I make sure dude can see me roll my eyes. “Yeah, I’m married,” I lie. I hate that I have to do it. I shouldn’t have to do it, but you do what you have to do in the ‘hood. Time will tell if it even matters. s

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