After a grueling 11-hour shift managing one of New York City’s busiest restaurants, I stepped outside into the chilly November night to begin the 45-minute journey home.
Doing the absolute worst thing for my health, I lit a cigarette and took a drag. Before I could take that next step toward the weirdly-scalding-in-the-winter subway system, a mousey brunette girl approached me and simply asked, “Can you spare a smoke?”
She couldn’t have been more than 23, with a messy bob and bundled up against the cold. NYU had dorms nearby; she would have fit right in. I was easily a head taller, a decade older, bearded, and as I like to believe, radiating positive vibes.
I reached back into my pocket and fished out my pack. Smoker’s code has always been: if you can give, do so. So, with a cheery pitch in my voice, I responded:
She snatched the cigarette from my outstretched hand and gave me a meek, “Thanks.”
Then a hastily added but forceful, “Don’t call me sweetheart.”
And she was gone.
The whole interaction took a whopping 20 seconds. A skippable ad on YouTube. A CDC recommended handwashing session. And yet…
I was shook. By that, I mean I spent the next few hours fuming over that whole microscopic moment. Crammed in a subway, I wondered how could she be so rude? On the walk to my apartment I thought, should I have grabbed the cigarette back and snapped it in half for that added snark? Even with my morning coffee the next day, I had to ask—where did this girl get off being indignant when I did the favor?!
I didn’t have to give her anything. I didn’t owe that child a smoke and she certainly didn’t need to respond with such hostility. I was a nice guy and she was being ungrateful. And for what?! Because I called her sweetheart?!
News flash: I’m gay! Also, I was raised by a diner waitress. Honey. Baby. Sweetheart. They were words thrown around all the time and ended up in my vocabulary. Kids are sponges, we absorb more than we realize. How is that my fault?
But what else did I absorb on my way into adulthood? See above and a pretty simple conclusion can be drawn.
Months would pass, but occasionally, a flash of anger at that moment would bubble up. I was fixated on that chance encounter and how I had been so casually insulted. While doing laps around my restaurant on a slow weekday, I stopped by the hostess stand.
I was specifically in charge of that team, made up entirely of women. Each one of them called me something different and it was rarely my name. I was their guncle—gay uncle—or dad. I knew each one of their career aspirations, how they were doing in school, preferred schedules, and dating troubles.
In close quarters, eavesdropping naturally occurs. Plus I’m terrible at social cues. Regardless, I happened upon a conversation and my ears perked up as one of the hostesses loudly proclaimed, “I hate being called sweetheart.”
I leapt at that and inserted myself into the conversation. “But I call you sweetheart all the time…”
“It’s different when you do it.” She reassured my bruised ego. “I know you don’t have any gross intent behind it”—she’d met my husband. “The word just comes across so condescending, like guys are talking to me as though I’m a child.”
There it was. I was validated. Vindicated. Victorious. I wasn’t the problem, that silly begging girl was. Again, I’m a nice guy. At least, that’s what I had to keep telling myself.
See, I have this habit of overanalyzing even small moments of discomfort. Replaying scenes in my mind until I can safely say I was the hero in that story. I’m not a predator, I had no ill intentions toward her, and every woman who knew me could attest to that.
And there’s the problem.
How could she know I’m rigorously gay; that I’ve only ever driven stick? Beyond that was my approach to the whole situation. I felt. I was insulted. I. I. I.
Empathy happens when we take ourselves out of the equation.
She asked me, a taller, broader, gruff bearded guy, for a cigarette. And I expected what? Eternal gratitude?
There are so many excuses for why men ignore a woman’s request to be respected. I’d given plenty for my own actions, and I’ve heard so many others:
“But my mom’s friend’s nieces’ sorority sister says she enjoys being catcalled.”
Go find her specifically and only her.
“But the cashier is much prettier when she smiles.”
She has been on her feet for hours listening to a looped soundtrack in the store, only broken up by constant beeping from registers. All while an invisible life is buried so deep that no customer truly wants to know about it. If she isn’t smiling, let’s assume there is a reason. Move on.
“But I’m different. I’m a nice guy.”
“Nice” is up to her to determine. Telling someone that doesn’t make it true.
And so I sat in that discomfort, replaying the moment over and over again until I stepped outside of it. A small request was made. A courageous request was made. That woman had no idea how I would react but persevered to stand up for herself.
I’ve dropped a few words from my vocabulary but I’ve gained understanding. It’s a fair trade. She spoke. I continue to listen.
The scene plays differently now.
She graciously replied, “Thanks,” and then roared, “Don’t call me sweetheart.”