stories from manhattan: security, the city, and saying “no” to help

Posted: December 9, 2009 in Musings, new york

So this afternoon, I carried this very heavy box of microwave oven ( by my own unreliable estimates the box was around 5 pounds) for two and a half blocks, all the way from the store to my apartment. Clearly, I was in over my head so to speak by insisting to carry the box by myself and not agreeing to the salesman to buy a push cart where I could placed it in. I was huffing and puffing on the street. Cold sweat dribbling from my nape down my back. The air was thin because of the cold, and I was running out of breath. I made sure to stop at every five steps to rest. On the way, I passed by several young men, sturdy-looking able-bodied human beings whom I could have asked to help carry the box, or whom I expected or wished to offer to carry the box for me. But I resisted on asking for help yet at the same time, I also prayed they would offer.

When I was already a few meters away from my place, a man in his 60s wearing thick spectacles, dressed like a European tourist, passed by me, looked at me, then went on his way. I walked on a few steps, and just happened to look back and caught him staring at me. I walked on a few steps, huffing and puffing, telling myself that yes, the trail is almost over, my sacrifice about to pay off, when suddenly, the man in spectacles appeared beside me and said:

“Sweetie, do you need help carrying that box?”

Taken aback by the word “sweetie,” I replied, “oh no thanks, I’m almost there.”

“How far away do you have to go?”

Breathing heavily, I said, “there” pointing to the path in front of me and to nowhere in particular.

“Are you sure? Okay, I offered…”

“Thank you. I’m sure,” was all I could muster.

He walked away.

I really don’t know why I said “no” to the man when clearly, I needed help. Maybe it was the way he looked, his entire appearance said something of a stereotype I see in movies that most women are subliminally told to avoid. He looked like your typical serial killer character, an “unsub” in TV series like Criminal Minds or CSI.  Or maybe because being in a foreign country, I am suddenly afraid of strangers, a certain type of stranger, that in moments like this one, childhood messages like “don’t talk to strangers” that my mother embedded in my psyche easily comes out to the fore. Maybe because he said, “sweetie” thereby further reinforcing the preying wolf stereotype.

The irony is I was praying for help during those moments when I was walking down the street carrying that heavy box. I was secretly wishing those able-bodied young men would offer their help. And when I was offered help by an older man, I refused it.

What was it in those able-bodied brown boys, most of them Hispanic looking, that were different from the white man who offered his help? Another question I asked myself is that if those Hispanic looking young men I saw in the streets would have offered, would I have said yes?

What was in me or How did I look that prompted that man to offer help in the first place? He went by me, and then came back to offer help. It was interesting really to think about what was on his mind when he did so. And what made him call me “sweetie”? If he hadn’t, would I have said yes?

So many questions surrounding a very simple story. If that happened to me in Davao, I would have without any doubt said yes. But if it happened to me in Manila, would I have said yes to the offer?

I don’t know the answer to this. But what I am interested in by way of ruminating about this particular experience is not just the gendered aspect of communicating help, but also how cities influence us in our ways of interacting with each other. That even a simple offer of help can be construed in different ways. One thing I realized when thinking about this particular story of mine is that security was very important to me when I considered dealing with the man. In fact, it has always affected the way I communicate with other people in this city.

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