Jumping the Shark (July 15, 2011)

Living in Chicago, some form of sexual harassment, however mild, tends to be a typical facet of the average woman’s day. I was inaugurated into this confusing and often humiliating world of gender politics at the age of 13, when I began to receive car horn honks and wolf whistles from older teenage boys and grown men as I navigated the streets solo, or with a girlfriend. For many reasons, I could not begin to comprehend the behavior of these gentlemen. I was cognizant of the fact that I was still a child, and not a very attractive one at that (then as now, I was a frustrating mix of social awareness and shallow insecurity).

As with any minor annoyance, it began to recede into the background over the years, one of those tradeoffs you have to accept as a devotee to urban life. Boys will be boys and all that.

As I entered my 30s, and paradoxically gained more confidence in my overall appearance (Botox injections, adult braces and a brilliant hair stylist and personal trainer were undeniable assets), I noticed, with a surprising degree of disappointment, that the incidence of wolf whistling began to decrease markedly. Where I should have been grateful for the opportunity to traverse the streets in peace, I was instead petulantly annoyed that the Neanderthals of the Windy City had ignored my realization of true pulchritude capabilities in favor of younger, fresher targets.

My temporary salvation from increasing awareness that I am growing older, and thus less attractive to immature fellows seeking temporary diversion, arrived at a rather unlikely hour. Last night I left the gym after a strenuous group Russian kettlebell class, and took to the streets sweaty and unkempt. I was wearing a damp t-shirt, yoga pants and an exhausted look as I waited for the Northbound Red Line train that would take me back to my studio in Rogers Park.

I was engrossed in a copy of Jonathan Franzen’s marvelous Freedom, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed a rakish, extremely drunken young man approaching me. He could not have been 25 years old, yet with his confident smirk and Max Headroom sunglasses, he instantly reminded me of Tom Cruises’ character Brian Flanagan from Cocktail. The boy was a staggering, inebriated wild card and I was mostly concerned that I was about to witness someone die via third rail electrocution.

However, Mr. Flanagan had other plans in mind for a sweaty and irritated yours truly. “Whatcha reading beautiful?” he slurred over my shoulder.

Since I have already exposed myself as a shameless, compliment-seeking source of vapidity, does it surprise you to know this brought a smile to my face? I quickly displayed the cover of my book and figured that would be the end of the over served fella’s attentions. Not so.

“You’re pretty,” came next. Clearly, in the condition which I have described, I was as far from gorgeous as my new friend was from sobriety, but he really was adorable. In another decade, this story may have had a different ending.

I thanked my suitor politely and turned my attention back to the book as the train approached. Mr. Flanagan went quiet as well as he weaved perilously close to the tracks. However, he was apparently just saving his strength for his next attempt to engage me. This was executed via a comical attempt to pretend as though he was opening the train car doors with superhuman strength, just for me, as he loudly shouted “Move aside people, pretty girl coming through!”

The train was packed, as was the platform of would-be passengers, and by now, for a multitude of reasons, people were staring at us. They leered at Mr. Flanagan, curious as to how a young kid commuting alone could be so dead drunk at the early hour of 8pm. They were staring at me too, wondering what this disheveled aunty had done to arouse such attention.

And where I ought to have been embarrassed and revolted, I was instead pleased by this display. Clearly, this says nothing attractive about me whatsoever, but there it is.

The battle to achieve and maintain some sort of consistent self-esteem has been one of the prominent features of my time on this planet. My ego is a fragile as gossamer and subject to others’ approbation to a completely unhealthy degree. This state of affairs extends not only to my personal appearance, but my work, my social standing and family relations as well. I am introverted and standoffish by nature until I am teased out with some sort of approval. It is one of the parts of my character that I view with the most disdain, but I am actively working to resolve it.

Clearly however, my personal growth arrives in peaks and valleys. I had gleaned the wrong kind of attention from the wrong person for all the wrong reasons, yet I slept soundly knowing that I hadn’t yet jumped the catcall shark.