In Which Portly Embarasses a Groper at Woolworth's

As you can see, #5 won out (don't worry, Pido, Petulant, and Phyd -- I'll be getting to Box-Car Portly very soon, as it came in second).

Once upon a time, long, long ago, when Portly was 24 years old . . . . . .

(In the interest of full disclosure, I must acknowledge that this incident did not actually occur in a Woolworth's store -- in reality, it occurred in a J. J. Newberry's in downtown Portland, but I wasn't sure if everyone would immediately "get" what a Newberry's was -- trust me, it's EXACTLY like a Woolworth's -- only cheesier.)

I was in Newberry's with my girlfriend. Portland's downtown NB was a three-story classic which still had wooden floors, a soda fountain/luncheonette running down one side, and was full of the "useless plastic objects" which Nancy Griffith mentions in her intro to "Love at the Five and Dime".

I have no recollection of why we had gone to Newberry's, but I do remember that we were in the office products section when this happened.

My partner was down the aisle from me a bit, leaning over to look at something on a low shelf.

I was, maybe, six feet away from her when a very tall, handsome man in a very expensive and impeccable business suit passed by behind my lover. Suddenly, she shot bolt upright and shouted: "What the hell do you think you're doing!?!"

I saw her reach out and grab the sleeve of his suit-jacket as he began to accelerate toward me in what looked like escape-mode.

My girlfriend was what is termed "conventionally pretty" -- long, long honey-colored hair, tall and leggy -- kind of femmie/athletic -- but when I looked into her beautiful face at that moment, trying to figure out what had just happened, she had been transformed into a Fury. Her eyes were blazing as she stubbornly clung to the sleeve of Mr. 6'2, 225 lbs. She jabbed the index finger of her free hand toward him and spat: "He GROPED me!"

Freeze Frame:

I'm going to take a pause in the action here to fill you in. Remember that everything I've recounted so far has taken place in a matter of seconds. Counting the rest of the story below, the entire interaction was under two minutes, so I didn't get the following details until later:

When my girlfriend said that he "groped" her, she didn't mean he took a quick pinch. She meant that he inserted his hand between her legs from the back, and did a full clit-to-rectum slide -- with pressure.

My girlfriend was actually a pretty demure sort. She was closeted to everyone except me and a few very close friends who were also queer, and she would usually much rather ignore something than engage in a conflict. So, one look at her face, and the fact that she raised her voice and swore told me that something really bad must have happened.

Resume Motion:

The guy was trying to shake her off as he headed down the aisle in my direction, and I instinctively grabbed his other arm.

That's when he snarled: "Don't touch me!"

To which my girlfriend snarled back: "Don't ME touch YOU?!?!?!"

Whereupon, he began backing wildly toward the entrance of the store, dragging a dyke from each sleeve.

We were shouting to the staff people at the soda fountain and front counter as we struggled (unsuccessfully) to keep him in place: "Help! Help us stop this guy!"

This was a different era, when five and dime stores did not have "security" -- just a bunch of tired-looking middle-aged women, who stood steadfastly at their stations, displaying a panoply of expressions ranging from mild disinterest to rank fear above their uniform smocks.

I can only assume that he must have played football in college.

He dragged us both (a collective weight of 220 lbs or so) a full thirty feet to the front door, while we continued calling for help and pulling with all our might to keep him from getting away. As he stepped on the pad that activated the automatic doors at the entry, he suddenly lunged toward me and yanked his arm out of my grasp, then spun away from my girlfriend, freed himself, and ran into the crowd at the bus-mall. Not just jogging, either. Running. Serious Running. Running as if the Harpies were after him.

The thing that I recall most vividly during this whole interaction is his face. At first, he was simply astounded -- astounded that my girlfriend would dare to confront him at all.

When I saw that expression of dumbfounded amazement, I knew in an instant that this was not his "first time" -- I knew that he probably cruised through here every lunch-hour, counting on the fear his linebacker frame would induce in a lone female who had no witnesses and no support -- counting on humiliated silence and submission. I could see that he had not for an instant considered that the other woman just down the aisle would notice, or care, if he casually exercised his male privilege.

As he headed toward me in the aisle, attempting to shake my partner off, his look changed to one of derisive annoyance -- as if he was swatting at a fly -- but the moment I grabbed his other arm, things changed.

First, he hissed out his: "Don't touch me!" with all the outrage I would expect of someone who has never questioned his right to manhandle others with impunity.

When he heard my girlfriend's snarling response, and realized that we weren't letting go, his outrage dissolved into fear, crept over to terror, and then blossomed into stark fucking panic as he thrashed backward step by step, dragging us through the store.

I could almost see the dominoes falling in his head: The arrest, the headline, the agonized discussion with his wife (yes, he was wearing a wedding ring), the judge, the jury -- the public humiliation. Now, he looked like cornered animal.

He never bothered to utter a denial, or to pretend that he was innocent. He only wanted to get away -- to get away with it.

We didn't bother to chase him. One (only one) of the check-out ladies lazily inquired: "What was that all about?" When I told her, she half-shrugged, shook her head a bit, and turned away. That was all.

My girlfriend and I stood inside by the door for a few minutes. "You OK?" I asked. "Yeah. You?" she replied. I nodded. Then we just looked at each other.

It never entered my mind to ask the clerks why they hadn't helped. The collective attitude of "Let's Pretend That Didn't Just Happened" seemed monolithic, and I could even imagine bringing it up and having one of them respond to me in a Stepford Wife voice: "Man? What man? What are you talking about?"

Before I cap this story, I want to give an appreciation. You see, if this had happened a year earlier, I probably wouldn't have even considered confronting that man. However, about nine months prior to this event, I was with a friend on the bus-mall, (just a few blocks from said Newberry's, in fact) . . . .

She was a small, bird-boned woman -- a bit of a character. She dressed in a manner that was almost Victorian in its propriety, and always carried her umbrella with her, rain or shine (not a bad idea in Portland). We had been shopping together and I had stopped to peer in some window or other while she stood at the curb waiting for the bus.

You really have to imagine her to appreciate this story fully. She always stood like a well-bred English matron, feet together, folded umbrella point-down in front of her, both hands resting gently (and usually gloved) on the curve of her umbrella handle. Sort of a Mary Poppins type, at first glance.

A man came up behind her as she so stood at the curb, and pinched her on the bottom. She whirled in an instant, grabbed his shirt collar and held him at arms length as she punctuated the following speech with well-placed "thwacks" to his head and shoulders with her umbrella:

"I don't know what you (thwack!) were taught where you grew up (thwack!), but around here (thwack!), one does not (thwack!) touch a lady (thwack!) in that manner (thwack!)! So if you (thwack!-thwack!) hope to get along in civilized society (thwack!), I would suggest to you, Sir, that you Change . . . Your . . . .Ways!!" (Change. Your. Ways. being accompanied with Thwack! Thwack! and you guessed it -- Thwack!)

By this time, a small circle had formed around her and the man (who looked terrified, and now, surrounded, was darting his eyes this way and that, trying to find an escape-route from this mad-woman) said narry a word. When she finally let go of his shirt, he scrambled away like a rabbit. She then turned back toward the street, adjusted her hat, took a deep breath, and resumed her previous stance.

If I had not witnessed this encounter, I don't think I would ever have dreamed of confronting the molester at Newberry's. So, thank you, Leigh, wherever you are.

I've often wondered if it was better or worse that the Newberry Groper got away. I've wondered if the power of receiving a reverberating "NO!" and being publicly humiliated by two mouthy women who weren't afraid of causing a scene was more powerful than any court-date would have been. I feel fairly certain that he probably at least remembered this event the next time he considered sexually assaulting a stranger -- but perhaps it merely drove him deeper underground, and taught him to "be more careful" about being a practicing sexual predator.

It was impossible to discern, through the crackling static of his fear, whether anything at all registered in his brain -- anything like: "Oh my god, what am I doing? Why did I do that? I did something awful!"

I hope that it did.

In the past months, as I've witnessed and participated in discussions with rape-apologists on various comment threads, I've noticed a distinct difference between people who "get" the concept of how misogyny creates a rape-culture, and those who don't. Those who don't get it are constantly arguing degrees and circumstances, and don't seem to understand that it is an entire set of underlying assumptions and entrainments that make it possible for a man to think that an act like this is "no big deal".

Just this week, I witnessed people who claim to be "liberal" defending two men who held a woman down and cut her panties off of her in a bar because it was "just a joke". I've come to see more clearly why these people cling to such justifications -- and I believe that it simply this: Because they also want to justify other things. If they saw this assault for what it was -- a crime of power by men against a woman -- then they would have to question all sorts of things about themselves, and their abuse of power and privilege.

The longer I have looked at that incident when I was 24, the more I've become convinced that this man's actions had very little, if anything, to do with sexuality. He did it because he thought he could, and he got the message that he could from our culture.

When you get down to the heart of sexual assault, molestation, rape, etc. and simply call them crimes of abuse of power and privilege, suddenly, there's no reason to argue about degrees and circumstances. Which is why those who want to continue to practice misogyny with social sanction are constantly attempting to distract us with those arguments.

As my girlfriend and I drove home, we comforted ourselves with phrases like: "It could have been worse." "I'm glad he didn't hit you. I thought he was going to, for a second." These, too, are arguments of degrees and circumstances, and in fact, did nothing to appease the sense of violation we both felt, or to reduce the new vigilance that each of us carried every time we went into public after that.

I'm a rape and abuse survivor. The struggle to build my self-confidence and cultivate a sense of personal safety has been a long and arduous one for me, and I resent the perpetrators of every erosive experience like this that I have had in my life as an adult.

I have, however, taken a certain perverse satisfaction in the thought that he, perhaps, spent at least a couple of days wondering if we would file a complaint, or whether anyone had seen and identified him, and worrying that the cops might show up at his home or work (you can't know how many times I've wished that I had grabbed his wallet from his back pocket during that long drag to the doorway -- next time, I wouldn't hesitate).

Thank God I believe in Karma.

Posted byPortlyDyke at 8:00 PM  


The Cunning Runt said... December 29, 2007 at 10:47 PM  

Gurrrl, you just made the leap (in my mind, for what it's worth) from Icon to Hero. And I ain't feminizing that last noun for the world!

We ALL need to stand up to this bullshit. I have construction co-workers who want to beat the shit out of me because they think I'm gay.

And you know what? I don't argue with them (even though I'm "straight".) I tell them to "Try it" and see what happens.

And the cowards always back down.

This is what needs to happen. We ALL need to stand OUR GROUND against bigots and fools.

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm proud to know you.

J. Goff said... December 30, 2007 at 11:38 AM  

Wow. Wonderful post. I am increasingly disgusted with my sex the more I hear about it, and this story is the quintessential reason why. Fools like PiatoR and this fuckup make me want to wring their necks (and I'm a goddamn pacifist!)

If they saw this assault for what it was -- a crime of power by men against a woman -- then they would have to question all sorts of things about themselves, and their abuse of power and privilege.

This needs to be broadcast over airways the world over. Repeatedly. After every single crime against women perpetrated by misogynistic jackasses.

Anonymous said... December 30, 2007 at 12:07 PM  

I wish there was some word or phrase that could convey the "it", which you so aptly communicated. Something that could clear the fog, so that people could see ... what they seem to be unable to see ... without first hand experience.

Unfortunately, to arrive at such place of understanding ... seems to require such a specific series of events ... as to be quite surprising when it actually does occur. Such is our society ... and that thar is the reason why it needs to change.

A wonderful story, beautifully written. Thank you!


FriĆ°vin said... December 31, 2007 at 9:44 AM  

This was why I voted for this one. I knew it was going to be great, and yet you far exceeded my own expectations.

My partner was down the aisle from me a bit, leaning over to look at something on a low shelf.

And there are plenty of men out there who would say, by leaning over, that she was just "begging for a grope."

I'm not sure how the sick perverse male mind works in such situations but I'm proud you both took a stand against it. If this was in the 70s, as I suspect it was, it was a brave step indeed, and the attitude of the other clerks in the store was probably indicative of many attitudes at the time: just brush it off.


Anonymous said... January 3, 2008 at 2:17 AM  

Thanks for this.

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