Dangerous Men, Like The Air We Breathe

The truth is that, as women, there are just so many dirty old men out there that if we called the cops on every single one we would never stop calling the cops. 

I was still in bed when the phone rang.

“Oh my god I’m so freaked out. It was terrible! Just terrible! I’m shaking! What do I do? HE WAS NAKED!!!”

It was 7:15am, the girl who worked the morning shift had only been there for 15 minutes before she had to deal with the naked man.

Her voice shook as she described walking out of the store to go to the restroom in the hall. She had barely opened the clearly marked women’s room door before she saw him preening in front of the full-length mirror, a dime-store Monet water lily looking on helplessly beside him. It felt to her as if he had been waiting for someone to walk in and catch him. She screamed a horror movie scream and made a mad dash back into the shop where she locked the door and called 911 and then me. I did my best to assure her that I’d be there soon and so would the cops.

On my way downtown I stopped at a gun store to buy some mace. I had owned mace once before. My mom had gotten it for me the summer I left for college. Big as a can of Aqua Net hairspray, there was a giant trigger mounted on the top that was fitted with a safety cap so you couldn’t accidentally spray yourself in the eye. It was sheathed in a fake leather case with an inch wide strap on the back so you could wear it on your belt if that was something you felt like you might want to do.

“What am I supposed to do with that giant thing?” I asked my mother as she pulled it out of the paper bag and reverently placed it on the kitchen table. “It’s for your protection at school. If somebody attacks you, you kick them in the balls and spray them in the eyes with this. Then you run away.” She said this in the same manner she would use if suggesting a fabric softener, just motherly advice. “It’s supposed to shoot 20 feet and it has colored dye in it so they can find your attacker if he gets away.” I could admit it seemed like a good idea, I just quietly wondered if such a thing came in a more manageable size.

The mace I chose for the shop was small and could be easily hidden near the register. I felt bad I’d not thought of it before the naked guy, considering the people who worked for me. All of my employees were young women and it made sense that at some point a creep might bother them. In college and cute, one was so popular with our male customers that the attention she received was both obvious and inappropriate. She did nothing wrong. They never do. It was just the men.

Located in an office building that housed a number of professional service firms like law offices and accounting agencies, our employees were a big reason for our popularity. I had first noticed how improper some of the attention directed at one of my girls was when I had to cover her shift a few mornings. Older men would come in, guys in their forties and fifties and sixties, big smiles on their faces. When they rounded the corner and saw me, their disappointment and relative disgust was obvious. “Where’s Chelsea?” they’d demand, like a child who was expecting ice cream and had instead gotten meatloaf.

“She’s out of town.” I’d tell them. “Can I get you anything?”

“Oh. No. Thanks anyway…” They’d hang their head and sulk back out of door.

This scene was repeated whenever we switched shifts. What stood out most about these men was their age, as without fail they were old enough to be her father. They wore business suits and wedding rings. They would order their coffee and make corny jokes. She was a sweet kid and she would humor them and ask them about their jobs or what they had planned for their weekends. They ate it up, all of that positive attention from a pretty young girl. Almost like she was there of her own free will to spend time with them every morning and not like I was paying her $7 an hour plus tips for her trouble. For them she was a regularly scheduled ego boost, every morning all smiles and concerns about what was going on in their lives. They wanted a personal connection with a young woman, and for the price of a cup of coffee they could have it.

When I got to work that morning I showed her the pepper spray. I had grabbed a baseball bat before I left home and tucked that under the counter too. I hoped the combination might buy her some peace of mind. It’s not easy to find reliable employees willing to work at 7am and I needed her to feel safe so she wouldn’t quit, but also, because she deserved to feel safe.

Still visibly shaken by the morning’s events, she described them to me again in detail. The police had come back and they had found the guy. He explained that he didn’t realize that he was in the wrong restroom and he was sorry that he had frightened anyone. The police didn’t buy it; they had actually had complaints about him before. But surprisingly there was very little they could do. He was in a restroom, not wandering the building, and he didn’t attack anyone. The building managers filed a notice with the police department and he was officially banned from the premises. If he ever came back he could be arrested for trespassing. That was it.

Frustratingly, our naked friend didn’t disappear. For the next few days and weeks he could regularly be spotted walking on the other side of the street directly across from our window. He was always dressed for his hobby of choice and I could see that some planning had gone into the outfit: gray sweatpants and a matching gray hooded sweatshirt. I guessed sweat suits were handy when a person wants to be naked real quick. Anything with buttons or that required a belt would be too cumbersome and cause delays. This guy was good at what he loved.

Our naked guy was a reminder of something that had happened in college. During my senior year, women regularly woke up to find a man in their bedrooms masturbating as they slept. As soon as they’d spot him and scream he’d scurry through the window and escape. Composite sketches were placed all over town. Absurdly vague they all depicted a nondescript man in a gray sweatshirt, the hood tightly drawn around his face. This was the mid-90s and it looked very much like another famous sweatshirted composite sketch being widely circulated at the time. Laughing to hide our nervousness we called our college creep “The Unabomber” after that other, more-famous criminal. As I watched our naked guy walk down the street and thought back to our Unabomber, I puzzled at the similarities and wondered if there were people other than perverts who ever wore gray hooded sweat suits.

A couple of months later and still on alert from Chelsea’s naked guy, I had a dirty old man of my own. Close to quitting time I ducked out quickly to the use the restroom before I started the long process of closing up. We hadn’t had a customer in over an hour and the dark street outside the window was still and empty of traffic. I had just walked back into the store when I realized there was a man inside facing the window, his back to the rest of the store. He was not looking at the menu or waiting at the register, he just stood at the window, his hands at his front.

I walked around behind the register at the back of the shop. To sell a cup of coffee (or defend myself?) either way, that’s where I needed to be. “Excuse me?” I called out to get his attention. “Can I get you something?” He was an old guy, late sixties, gray hair, very skinny. He was no customer. He wore a tattered blue and white seersucker suit and had a large black leather satchel that he set down on the table by the window. It took a very long time for him to answer me and I realized it was because he was adjusting his pants. He was clearly putting himself back together from where he had been standing in my front window masturbating.

As he turned around and started to speak I picked up the phone. “Mister, you need to leave.” I said loudly. I tried to say it with authority. I was tired and a little scared and I didn’t want any bullshit. I mustered a fair amount of indignity that he would think he could do whatever he was doing and that I would have no say in the matter. He finished adjusting himself and raised his hands as if in gentle protest. He smiled.

“Oh come on now. We can be friends. I’d like to stay for awhile. What’s your name? How old are you?” At this point, furious, I shouted “GO!” And made like I was dialing. He stopped smiling, grabbed up his bag and hurried himself back into the night. I rushed around the counter to the door and locked it behind him, satisfied to be alone inside.

I was shaken but I still had work to do closing out the register, totaling receipts, rinsing out the coffee pots. By the time I was finished and walking to my car the earlier panic had almost completely disappeared and was instead replaced with an odd little “guess what happened?” story I’d share with my husband when I got home.

When the cop walked in the next morning I felt differently. He started talking before he even got to the counter, “I wanted to ask you if you’ve seen…”

I didn’t let him finish. “A creepy old guy masturbating?” I answered. He stopped in his tracks with his mouth open a little, as if still waiting to finish his question. I liked this cop. Normally we were on very friendly terms but he did not seem pleased with me just then.

“Why didn’t you call us? You are the fourth store to have seen this guy yesterday and not one person called the police. He terrified the little old woman across the street. Said all sorts of terrible things to her. And not one person called to report it. What is wrong with you?” He wasn’t mean about it, just frustrated and genuinely confused.

I thought about it hard for a moment as I stood there. It upset me deeply that the woman across the street had been frightened. Her store was a high-end baby boutique and the lady who worked the last shift was at least 70. I could only imagine how afraid she must have been to realize she was helpless. My friend the cop paused and placed his giant hands on my counter, leaning over so he could more effectively look me in the eye. “Please explain to me why none of you women called the police last night after you had seen this guy doing all of this stuff. That’s what we’re here for. Why wouldn’t you let us help you?”

I thought about it for a minute and I knew the answer but I also knew I could never really explain it to this big, strong, mustached cop.

The truth is that, as women, there are just so many dirty old men out there that if we called the cops on every single one we would never stop calling the cops.

I thought of the variety of creepy men that we interacted with on a daily basis. We had one very popular customer, a young intellectually disabled man, who had drawn me a pornographic rendering of a stick woman. She had triangular breasts complete with nipples and a square-shaped vagina. It was highly inappropriate but it also made us laugh. We kept it under the register for quick reference in case someone we liked stopped by and we wanted to make them laugh too. It was rude, it was sexual, it was creepy. Should we have called the police on him? Or the other regular, who by all outward appearances was a perfectly normal guy but who had remarked to me once that he always found it erotic when female baristas would wipe off the steam wand after making him a latte. I never made him a drink again after that, insisting instead that my husband do it, the once mundane up and down motion of cleaning the steam wand that was a part of my livelihood dirtied forever.

How much more or less creepy was my dirty old man when compared with the slew of married guys that paraded into my store every day to make time with the beautiful young college girl who was nice to them? A girl who played such an important role in their day that they couldn’t properly begin it without her? To me, my dirty old man was really no more or less disturbing than they were. Just different sides of the same coin.

I decided then and there that all properly dirty men, regardless of age, should be required to wear gray hooded sweat suits, both the tops and the bottoms, just like The Unabomber. That way, as women, we could properly prepare ourselves when we saw them on the streets, or in restaurants or in stores, or god forbid, unexpectedly in our bedrooms at night.

Unfortunately that was something too difficult to explain to my favorite police officer. That type of uniform would be too hard to enforce. And so it is that all too often the dirty men just go about wearing suits and ties and khakis and oxfords enabling them to blend into the crowd just like everyone else.

Jenny Poore is a public education advocate and activist from Virginia who writes about pop culture, parenting, and social justice. More of her work can be found at jennypoore.com.

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