HI, IT'S ME, Cohen, reporting live, as it were, from the second floor of a gutted office building in downtown Washington. I am up here, hanging out over a nonexistent window, peering down the street looking for girls. I am standing so as not to soil my clothes, but the men with me, all construction workers, are sitting, their legs dangling over the side of the building. They are on their noon break. Someone spots a girl-young, dressed all in black. "Hey," yells one of the guys. "Up here," yells another. "Hello," rings out a third. They look at me. The girl has not looked up. I take a deep breath. "Hello," I yell and wait in this era of women's liberation for God to strike me dead. Instead, the woman looks up and half smiles.
I had been watching from across the street. I sat on a park bench and listened to the construction workers call out to the women who passed below them. I went across the street and stood below them to hear what they said. Finally, I stepped out and said I wanted to talk to them.
"What about," yelled a guy wearing a red safety helmet.
"It's hard to explain," I said.
"He looked at his friend, a guy with a mustache, and then he looked over to the other guys. Heads nodded that I was welcome.
"Take the elevator to two."
This all happened because of a woman we shall call Doris. She wrote to me and then we met for coffee. She is tall and blonde and young, and when she walks down the street the men of the construction trades say things to her. Most of the time they simply say hello, but sometimes they get a bit rougher. All in all, by the time Doris gets to work in the morning, she is either depressed or furious.
"I work in a building that is still being completed," Doris wrote. "Construction workers are everywhere. My co-workers laugh when they hear me fume about the "lowest form of human life. I know it's an overreaction, but to me it's sexism . . ."
Doris and I met for coffee. We went to one of those places where they play Bach on a hi-fi and serve espresso, and she talked about her experiences. She is, she acknowledged, an extreme example of the sort of women who seem to attract the attention of male construction workers. Not only is her reaction extreme, but she also seems to attract men right on the street. They come up to her and say hello. With contrcution workers, she closes her eyes and fantasizes that she has a gun and plugs them all between the eyes. They topple backward from their steel beams. With men on the street, she sometimes tells them off. She did just that recently.
"It occurs to me that you mustknow that I don't want to talk to you," she told some guy. "Let me affirm that. I don't want to talk to you!" He stepped back.
"Well, good morning anyway," he said.
Doris felt rotten all day.
So, because of Doris I am up on the second floor of the gutted building. I get out of the elevator and walk across the exposed floor boards and go over to the window that isn't there.Five men are working on that floor, two of themsquatting in one window, eating a pizza. I tell them about Doris and how she feels and they understand. They know there are women like that. As for themselves, they are not the types to insult women-just a friendly hello.
"We're not rapists or anything," says the one in the red safety helmet. "We're just ordinary people. We want to say 'hi.' It gets pretty lonely up here-just you and these walls." He waves his arm around.
I move closer to the edge. The fellow with the mustache talks. "I just say hello. A lot of them say hello back. Sometimes we talk. Over on 19th street it was terrific. It's not so good here." He looks up and down the block. I can see nothing, being too far from the edge. He says there is nothing coming. I move a bit closer to the edge. "Jay Deemet that chick over on 19th street," he says to his partner in the helmet. "That chick Jay Dee met over there is going to bust up his third marriage." The two of them laugh and I creep a bit closer to the edge.
"Here comes one," says the fellow with the mustache.
A woman in a raincoat, plain-looking at best, is coming up the street.
"Hello," the one inthe helmet sings out.
"Hi," yells the one with the mustache.
A chorusof greetings come from the men at the other windows.
I edge closer to the ledge. The one with the mustache looks and makes way for me. Now I can see the entire street and the woman just below. The other construction workers are looking at me. I am on.
"Hellooo," I yell.
The womankeeps walking.
"Hi, hi," I am trying.
The guy in the red helmet speaks up. "All we want is a smile," he says. "A smile can make my day."
The woman crosses the street and fades into the crowd. All she wanted was to be left alone and all they wanted was a smile. Youcan understand he feelings-understand how she did not want to be bothered just because she is a woman.
After all, a woman is a person.
But a smile is a smile.