THE LETTER came in the afternoon. It was placed in the mailbox and on the way home I stopped to see what it was. That lady's name was on the envelope. I put the envelope back. I knew what the letter said. It said I was wrong. The letter was right.
The letter was from a woman who gets cat calls and whistles from construction workers. She gets them when she walks to work. Sometimes men come up to her on the street. They say hello when she doesn't feel like saying hello. They say other things too. They ruin her day, make her feel like she's on display. She hates it. She resents it. She gets bitter and she cries and when she comes to me, first by letter and then by phone and finally in person, I wrote a column in which I said, more or less, to toss them a smile-smile when they say your name. Her letter was nice. She told me I was wrong.
Other letters came and they, too, told me I was wrong. They were not harsh letters, but thoughtful letters and they stung because they said I had let them down. Even in the office I got comments. R., the researcher, said she had read the column and then she said no more. Another colleague called me from home and read me out. A close friend, a real crutch many a time, didn't mention the column at all. The chill could make you shiver.
For a day, I stared at the letter in the mailbox and finally called. We met, and she told me where I had gone wrong. She was very nice about it. She understood that I am a man and a man cannot know what it is like to be a woman who gets talked to on the street. Men do not get yelled at and no one has ever told me to shake it, baby. There was once something close-years spent a long time ago in a neighborhood that was very "gay." Then men would come up to me. It was annoying. It was not threatening, as it sometimes is for a woman, but it was annoying. It was also futile. Men are not my cup of tea.
So for the column I wrote, I climbed up to the second floor of a renovated building and I yelled at women with the other guys. It felt all right. Not terrific, but all right.I yelled at just two women, I think, and neither one responded. I did not say anything obscene. I was nice. The guys who were there said they were always nice, too. They said sometimes the women stopped and talked to them. They did? I was surprised, but who's to doubt them. I've never talked to women on the street. What would I know? The construction workers said all they wanted was a smile. Give them a smile, I wrote. Give them a smile.
In the coffee house, the lady takes it all in. There is something more, she says. She has talked to her friends and she has come to understand that she is wrong for blaming herself for getting cat calls. It is not something she has done. She has come to understand, too, that she cares too much about all this-that she takes it too hard. But there is something more, she says something about hostility. What is yelled to her is not about smiles, she says, but about hostility-class hostility or sexual hostility. She is not sure.
So at the table I tell her what I thought after having written the first column. I thought of the nights in the cars years ago, a long time ago-summer nights out by the beaches and the boardwalks, a whiff of salt in the air. Cruising. Always cruising. All of us crammed into the car and going forever on a dollar's worth of gas. Bobby's driving and Irv's in the front seat. Maybe Neil, too. Me, Sam, maybe Mike are in the back. Sometimes Richie or Mel. We are looking for girls. This is what we tell each other, but this is not the case. Some of us, in fact, are afraid of them.
The car cruises on. We see a girl.Bobby yells something. He yells something crude and obscene. The girl almost ducks, Irv opens up. He yells louder. His voice is shriller. The girl cringes. We have her now.We yell obscene things and dumb things that we associate with sex. Most of the time I do not yell, but sometimes, just to sort of belong, I do. The car moves on and we laugh about what we have done. Bobby gets kudos. He can be really gross. We showed her. We start looking for another girl. We are seeking a smile, that's for sure-not even when we say hello. This is something among us-us boys, us men. Us. It has little to do with women.
I tell her the story. She nods. She understands. She has felt this all along. It is about hostility or something. I don't do it so I don't know. One thing I do know. I was wrong. She smiles. There's another way to make her smile. When you see her walking, keep your fat mouth shut.