You must be direct when confronted with would-be assholes. This I learned from spending several years behind the counter at game stands on the Jersey boardwalk, where every Vinny and Joey from Long Island thinks they’re the first one to ever ask you for a free CD. No, I can’t just give you one, I’d say. You have to play the game. And anyway, there’s cameras in the stand, and my boss is watching, and the inventory has to check out at the end of every day (none of that was remotely true). By the end of my tenure, it was just easier to say, “No, because I don’t want to.”
I also learned this lesson from years of being a guy in a world where I have to constantly compete with the image of guydom as portrayed by John Q. Average Barbeast, who is frequently seen treating women in his line of vision in public with all the grace and sophistication of a used car. The girls I’ve seen successfully respond to Barbeast are direct, unequivocal and uncompromising in their disinterest.
All this came in handy on Wednesday night as I sat at the Metropolitan bar, finding myself on the uncomfortable end of some inappropriate man-groping. Come to think of it, any groping is inappropriate. The scene:
This guy, maybe in his early 40s, who we will refer to as Mayor McGrabhands, walks in, plops down on a bar stool near the door and drops a messy wad of crumpled bills on the bar, like he just grabbed some loose bills out of a charity collection tin. He ordered a Jagermeister, downed it, and started pointing seemingly arbitrarily around the bar, which had maybe five other people in it. He pointed in my direciton once, though I assumed he was pointing to someone behind me that he knew. I turned around and saw no one acknowledging his point. Sign No. 1 of impending trouble.
A few minutes later, he gets up from his seat, walks past me and puts a $20 bill down on the bar next to me, what I assumed was a down payment on a beverage he hoped to order. I was desperately trying not to make eye contact, to no avail, because suddenly I felt a hand rubbing my back in quick circles. Before I could say anything and turn around, he had disappeared off into the bathroom. He left the $20 next to me, and I was determined not to touch it out of fear of some unknown mating ritual it may symbolize.
He returned to his seat after that and grabbed another 20 from his anthill of bills on the bar. He started holding it up and pointing at me. I started wondering if I had in fact inadvertently triggered a secret signal that starts some odd ritual involved in picking up a male prostitute. Like he was supposed to point to the bill, I was supposed to nod, he would order me a drink and we would slip out to his Nissan Altima in the parking lot. If I were gay, this would not be the way to pick me up, fyi.
To wit, I responded, “I don’t know what that means, sir.” He looked visibly frustrated at this sign, so I breathed a sigh of relief. By this time, a white-haired kindly old gentleman has taken a seat between us, and he and I shared our confusion at McGrabhands’ actions. The older gentleman got to experience it firsthand the next time this guy got up to go to the bathroom, because McGrabhands ruffled his hair as he walked past.
“I guess he’s just hitting on everyone in the bar, male or female,” the guy said, and I chuckled, though I wasn’t so sure about the female part. I felt slightly better when upon the return trip from the bathroom, he surprised the girls sitting next to me by slipping his large man hand along the small of one of their backs. “Woah, hey!” she said, more surprised than offended, as she had not been privy to the drama taking place on our side of the bar.
By this time, the man had gotten the attention of the bartender, our friend John. John said he works next door at the hair salon, but he wouldn’t hesitate to throw him out if it came to it.
Getting desperate at what he must have seen as his dwindling prospects for the night, McGrabhands then took the seat immediately to my left and locked his stare on me. This situation was clearly only going to end with direct confrontation.
“Hello, can I help you?” I said. “Is there something you need?” he retained the stare, which he must have thought makes a person feel entirely comfortable and at ease with his momentously awkward methods. I turned my gaze back to the front and hoped he would now go away on his own, when, suddenly, The Line was crossed: He had reached over and put his meaty man hand on my upper thigh.
And this is why directness is needed. Because if you live in a world where it’s OK to grope someone randomly without any indication that they would find this acceptable, you are not going to respond to demure refusals. “Hey buddy!” I snapped, throwing out the wagging finger of justice as he recoiled. “No, no no!” I told him, the way you scold a child for trying to stick their finger in a socket. “This is a no-touching bar, and you have violated that rule. No touching!”
I turned away and hopped over another seat, while he sat there dumbfounded, dense or obstinate, or possibly all three. John told McGrabhands it may be time for him to leave and slipped into the back room to get the DJ (a much larger, serious-looking man) to prep for a throw-out.
I told John I was bouncing because situation just got too weird. I looked at the bar, and the $20 was still there. After what this guy put me through, I felt no duty to return his cash. I pocketed it.
Then, walking out to the car, after a night of trying to avoid any mixed signals whatsoever, I realized I had just inadvertently set a rate for myself: Twenty dollars will get you a quick grope, nothing more.
Maybe I wasn’t direct enough after all.