Friday, December 28, 2012
Are They All Creeps?
I’ve just had a lovely night at the theatre, a Christmas treat for my mum and me to see A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. On leaving the theatre, I was tired, content and slightly concerned that I might never erase from my mind the image of Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush humping an audience member on the aisle. Walking down Little Bourke Street at 11pm is an experience I rarely look forward to. All manner of drunks litter the pavement from Billboard to the rear entrance of the Swanston Street Club X, drinking, slurring and urinating or, in the case of one fine gentleman tonight, pretending to urinate in public to amuse his mates. The ‘Commit No Nuisance’ signs painted on the laneway walls, a relic of late nineteenth century ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, are lost on these young men.
It was a relief to finally reach the car, parked at the Arts Centre, and begin the short drive back to Brunswick. ‘Do you know where you’re going?’ my mum asked from the passenger seat, always an anxious CBD driver. ‘Oh yes, I’ve done this a hundred times,’ I say with a confidence that borders on arrogance as I twist and turn through the back streets of Southbank eventually finding my way to Kingsway and onwards north.
We were driving along King Street when I first noticed him. The driver of the car in front of me had his hand, no arm, out the window waving at something. I turned briefly to my right and the row of strip clubs, in search of the poor underdressed girl at the door whose attention he was seeking. A block later he was still at it. I kept reminding myself to keep my eyes on the road, to stay within the speed limit and, above all, ignore the idiot. At one point, the driver was pounding on the door and roof of his car and I’m sure he even turned around to try and make eye contact with me.
It wasn’t until we were out of the CBD and we were the only two cars on the road by Flagstaff Garden that he started to slow down, and that was when I began to panic. Arm still extended out the window, he indicated left, changed lanes and really, really slowed down until we were side by side. At that exact moment, no longer with the bright lights of the city or with his break lights shining in my face, I realised that my own headlights were switched off and had been since I left the car park in Southbank. And he had spent the last eight blocks trying to tell me that very fact. The look of exasperation on this man’s face was enough to make my heart sink to the bottom of my stomach.
With his civic duty done, he drove off and I was left humiliated and feeling pretty small. And not just because I had called him several unsavoury names up to that point. I immediately wondered what he was thinking and feeling. Aside from the frustration of attempting, and failing, to get the attention of this idiotic driver, he would have known that the reason for my disinterest and outright rudeness was because I considered him to be a raving lunatic capable of hurting me, intimidating me, possibly raping me. And my mum.
For the rest of the drive home, with headlights on, I expressed my guilt for having been such an awful person. I should have paid more attention to what he was trying to say, I shouldn’t have rushed to the assumption that he had ill intentions. My mum disagreed with me, asserting that it’s important to stay alert, to be wary of strangers and to put my safety ahead of all else. She is my mother, after all. No doubt recent tragedies have had an influence and put more weight on those words. The randomness of Jill Meagher’s attack still rings in the minds of women, and men, more often than we would necessarily verbalise.
Given these recent incidences, are we to fear most strangers who are male and who occupy the streets after dark in various capacities? A male friend of mine, I understand, would often cross to the other side of the road if he finds himself walking in a quiet and dark street near a woman. He does this to ease any potential threat the woman might feel. When I first heard about this, I thought it was incredibly chivalrous and considerate. Right now, I wonder how often he had been mistaken for a dangerous creep before deciding to adopt the pre-emptive jaywalk. How many other honest, decent and harmless men have, at times, been feared or misjudged for simply walking home, being alone or, in the case of my driver tonight, trying to do an honourable thing? Without wishing to dilute the important message that it is the men who mistreat women who have to change their behaviour rather than those at risk who must be on higher alert, tonight I was left wondering whether there is still a place for trust between strangers.