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It’s early evening in Adams Morgan, and I’m tracking a nice ass in a pair of bluejeans as it glides down the Columbia Road sidewalk. I’m matching its pace, keeping my distance, 15 steps or so behind, so I can watch, so no one notices I’m watching.
I’m not the only one. As the woman moves up the sidewalk—past a vendor’s cart booming Spanish music, past another vendor selling belts—men crane their necks and follow with their eyes. Guys walking toward her turn and stare as she passes. They mutter to themselves and shake their heads.
The ass belongs to Kimberly Klinger, a 5-foot-3 27-year-old who moved to D.C. from Pittsburgh in 2001. The attention doesn’t please her. But it’s not the hungry eyes that make her want to hit somebody. It’s what often comes next—the kissy noise, the “Hey baby,” catcalls of “Hey, mami, you look so good,” and “Hey, I’ve got a big one for you.”
A week or so earlier, when I first heard about Klinger, I didn’t believe her story. I know it happens. But every day, sometimes more than once? Klinger must be supermodel hot, delusional, or walking around in a bikini top.
Now I’m following her, waiting for something more than stares, feeling ridiculous. She has agreed to walk the streets as a live decoy to show me what life is like for women in D.C. In addition to the jeans, she’s wearing tennis shoes and a black tank top that shows just enough cleavage to be in good taste. It’s the outfit she wore today to her job at a film production company. She is good-looking. Not supermodel hot, but sexy. If I were the type of guy who yelled out to women on the street, she’d be a candidate, I guess.
We’ve been walking for three blocks when I see him: about 30 yards out, on the far edge of the sidewalk, a short man in a baseball hat and jeans. When he sees Klinger, he cuts an angle, makes a beeline toward her. He keeps coming as they approach, bearing down, leering. Klinger looks straight ahead, keeps walking. Then, at the last moment, just before the man crashes into her, he straightens out, brushes by. “Sexy,” he says in her ear.
Not, “Hey sexy, can I get your number?” Just “sexy.” He doesn’t look back. He veers to his side of the sidewalk and moves on. That was bizarre, I’m thinking. I should follow him, try to interview him, learn more about this brazen and creepy approach. But my bait is strolling away. I follow her, taking quick steps to catch up.
As we move on, I realize we are just getting started. A block up the sidewalk, outside Mexican Pepito’s Bakery, two guys are eating cheesecake. They are swiveled around in tall chairs, scoping out women. I can see what is about to happen. When Klinger enters their range, the younger one in sunglasses starts calling out “Hi…hi…hi.” Again, Klinger doesn’t break stride. She passes by the two men as if she’s deaf.
“You could say hi,” the younger man yells to her retreating form. When I reach them, their eyes are still locked on it. “She’s got an ass though,” the young guy says to his buddy.
I follow Klinger to the corner, speeding up to catch her. “Not bad, huh?” she says, and flashes an ‘I told you so’ smile. And she’s right. I am surprised. More than that, I’m intrigued. Klinger asks if I want to keep going, draw out a few more. Maybe another day, I tell her. I double back to the bakery where the two men are on to a topic other than Klinger’s curves. I introduce myself.
The guy in the sunglasses is Rudy Contreras, a 25-year-old limo driver. The other man is Sam Gannon, 40, his boss, who owns the limo company. Gannon tells me Contreras is the man to talk to if the topic is street hunting for women.
“Yeah, I always do it,” says Contreras. He is happy to explain the process. “What I do is I ask how is their day. I ask to help with their bags. I give a nice compliment to her. I say, ‘You are beautiful. Can I get to know you?’ ”
Contreras is a nice guy who seems to have an incredible, almost insatiable attraction to women. The way he describes it, he’s like a Boy Scout, on the lookout to help any woman with anything she needs, to make her life more comfortable, maybe to pick her up in the process. The catcall is one of his tools.
I ask if it works, if women sometimes stop in their tracks after a particularly deft compliment. Does he get a date out of it? “Of course,” he says, but he doesn’t offer specifics, just a motto that boils down to the old one about how you have to swing the bat if you expect to hit a home run. “You’re not going to get a number looking at her,” Contreras says. “You’ve got to say something.”
I ask him about Klinger, the fastball he just whiffed. He’s excited to talk about that, too. “It’s tough in D.C.,” he says. “Especially with white girls. They are stuck up, man. Bitches.”
Contreras thinks it is bad form for women like Klinger to walk by without acknowledging a compliment, to just ignore you like you aren’t even there. It pisses him off. “At least wink at me or wave back,” he says. “Giggle or something. Don’t walk past like you didn’t hear me.” He says it’s different in Texas. He says white women there are crazy about Hispanic guys and yes, they do respond to catcalls.
So why the hell do you take Columbia Road home and why live in Mount Pleasant, anyway, if you can’t tolerate a few catcalls? Klinger knows the argument about how catcalling is part of Hispanic culture and how she shouldn’t impose her values on others. She doesn’t want to come off as the silly liberal-arts girl shocked by the big city, but when it happens to her, it grates on her nerves, scares her, makes her feel dirty.
“Why should we accept that?” she says of the culture argument. “Why can’t I hate that?”
Klinger calls herself a “raging feminist.” She admits she is probably more sensitive to callouts than others. She is savvy enough to realize some women brush it off, some take it as a compliment, and some might even get off on it. But to her, the shouts are blatant objectification, Women’s Studies 101.
After meeting Contreras and Gannon, I’m thinking maybe Klinger’s approach is a bit too academic. Contreras seems like a good guy on the lookout for a good woman. Maybe the shouts are just men trying to pick up women, no different than starting a conversation at a bar, just more cut-the-shit, more matter-of-fact.
And maybe it works. Maybe a well-placed catcall sometimes gets you that phone number, gets you a date with that woman you notice on the street. Maybe it gets you more. Why else would a man coo “Hey, baby” to random sets of legs unless every once in a while a nonnworking girl asks you back to her apartment? For the next week, I roam Washington considering these questions, talking to women, following them, hunting for habitual catcallers, trying to learn their secrets.
It’s early on a Monday morning. I am leaving the Chinatown Metro station when I see a blond woman standing well over 6 feet in platform heels. Her tight black dress hangs inches below her ass and drops deep in the front, exposing a good portion of breasts that are surprisingly large for her rail-thin body. Catcall bait for sure. I step in behind her as she walks.
As I follow her, she passes groups of idle young men waiting at bus stops, homeless men begging change, suits on their way to the office. She passes them all and nothing happens. Not a single comment. Maybe it’s the time of day. Maybe it’s the section of the city. I keep following.
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Then, on the corner of 8th and E Streets NW, she hits fertile soil. Five hard hats—white, black, and brown—lounge on the sidewalk eating Cheetos. I have visions of ear-splitting wolf whistles, guys chewing on their hands like Lenny and Squiggy, the full treatment. The blonde doesn’t cut to the other side of the street. She strolls right past them, unsteady on her heels, bare legs at eye level. A couple of the men glance up from their snack. No one says anything.
Catcalling is unpredictable. One day, I am near the Columbia Heights Metro station, talking with two high school boys trolling for girls in front of CVS. I’ve just watched one of them yell to a sexy teenager and receive no response. I ask him what he usually says to girls on the street. “When I’m drinking, the words just flow out,” he says. “When I’m sober, I don’t know what the fuck to say.”
Then, as I wait to see more of the boys’ follies, a small, stocky woman in a pink polo shirt walks by holding the hand of a little boy. By the looks of her wrinkled face, the boy is her grandson. As they pass, a green Voyager minivan slows down on the street. The side door slides open. A man leans out. “Hola, señora,” he yells in a sticky-sweet tone of the international come-on. He slides the door shut, and the van drives off. I’ve just witnessed a drive-by catcall of a grandmother.
In general, those caught in the act don’t want to talk about it. Over and over as I approach catcallers, they answer my questions with, “No, man, I don’t want to be in the paper.” Some express, or feign, a failure to speak English.
The exceptions are high school boys, for whom the catcall seems more a rite of spring than the creep-out come-on of the middle-aged man. On a Friday just before dinnertime, four boys from César Chávez High School are standing in front of the shops at Gallery Place.
As I reach them, a high school girl walking with a friend is yelling “that’s not my name,” in their direction.
Van Reed, a 16-year-old, says this spot is one of the best in the District for scouting girls, but he’s had better luck at Largo Town Center and in Silver Spring. “Yeah, it works,” he says. “But you’ve got to look at a girl and see how she carry herself. You try not to yell. You walk up, ask her for her phone number and keep walking with her.”
“It depends on what she looks like,” adds Daniel Smallwood, a 16-year-old in a red polo shirt and a visor turned backward. “If she’s a slut, you have to treat her like a slut. If she’s not, I say, ‘How you doing young lady?’ Everybody says ‘baby’ or ‘shorty.’ I say ‘young lady.’ ”
Smallwood and Reed are smooth, and the group is buzzing with teenage hormones. They take turns approaching girls, whipping out their cell phones, asking for numbers.
What do they expect? At worst, before night is over, they expect a few new girls programmed into their cells. At best? Well, anything is possible. What do most 16-year-old boys dream of on a Friday night? This group calls it “the long stroke.” Reed and Smallwood pantomime for my benefit—fists balled up in the classic pose beside pumping thighs.
But in the 20 minutes I watch them before they break at Potbelly Sandwich Works, the boys fail to persuade any of the dozen or so young women they approach to stop walking or give a number. But the girls don’t seem angry. They laugh, taunt, and joke with the boys. The boys are not discouraged. It’s only 5:10 p.m.
Later, I call D. Howard, the 26-year-old who runs Don’t Be Silent, a D.C. blog where women post their stories of street harassment and, sometimes, cell-phone pictures of their harassers. Howard, who did not want me to use her full name, says she is harassed on average two times a day, in every section of the city. What do they say? “They say, ‘Hey shorty, can I talk to you? Can I roll with you, sister? You’re looking good.’ ”
Howard is originally from Buffalo, N.Y. Street harassment happens there too, but not nearly as often as in D.C., she says. Howard is black, and it troubles her that the men who come on to her are almost always black as well. She blames that on rappers like Snoop Dog and 50 Cent, the bitches and hos thing. “They don’t learn how to properly treat women,” she says.
Contreras comes to mind. As much as I liked that guy, I can’t help but feel sorry for Howard when she talks about the way men treat her. “It hurts, it really does,” she says. “It takes away from your self-esteem. It’s hard to hold my head up when I deal with this on a regular basis.”
Howard often ignores the men who call out to her, but she is experimenting with other methods, including direct confrontation. She has had mixed results. Some of them back down when a furious woman yells back. “Some want to get aggressive and get in your face,” she says. “They say, ‘Fuck you, bitch, you ugly anyway.’ ”
Eddie Curtis, 55, is known variously as “Casper” and “Mississippi Slim.” I meet him one morning in front of the Rhode Island Avenue Metro stop after a long and fruitless search for catcallers.
Casper, unemployed and a former drug addict, is waiting for the P6 bus to a friend’s house. Tall, thin, dressed in track pants and a mint T-shirt hanging to his thighs, Casper calls out to almost every woman who passes during the 20 minutes we talk. “When they got a frown on their face, you have to think of something to take that frown away,” he says.
I ask him to show me. When a woman in her 40s with tight, long braids and a flower-print dress comes out of the subway exit, Casper shuffles toward her and leans in. “You’re looking nice, young lady,” he says and flashes a smile. “I had to do a double take.”
“Thank you,” the woman says and smiles back at him.
That’s a nice exchange; it’s a shtick that only an old man can pull off, but it’s charming. When a slightly older woman passes, Casper tries it again. “Hello there,” he says and hits the smile. “If I hadn’t got old so quick, I’d be chasing you.”
“I’m old, too,” the lady responds, chuckling.
Casper is an equal-opportunity man. He tosses “Hola, señoritas” at groups of Hispanic women. He calls out to old ones and young ones, thin ones, big ones, women hard to call pretty.
It’s because he’s not trying to pick them up, just looking to get a smile, he says. “I’m 55. I’ve had all the pants I need. I’m speaking to them because they are God’s creations,” he says.
And maybe the women are faking it—smiling because that’s easier than going on a rant—but almost every woman who passes smiles back at Casper. If they don’t at first, if they try to ignore him, Casper troops on, gives them a “Smile a little bit” or a “Let’s see a little smile” or some variation. Then he lights up his own grin.
“Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about,” he says when he succeeds, as if he’s just seen the best thing in the world.
Casper may be an exception, more of a compliment man than a dirty uncle, but even the “show me a smile” guys have their detractors. After Curtis catches his bus, I run into 24-year-old Shonda Tish. She says men have been approaching her with that mess since she was 13. “A lot of it was from older men, too,” she says. “And when I was 13, I looked 13.”
As far as Tish is concerned, the compliment men like Casper are the flip side of the “Let me roll with you” crowd. Yelling from the street corner isn’t the way to approach a lady, regardless of the message, she says. “Sometimes people have a bad day,” she says. They shouldn’t have to offer up a smile on demand, just because some old skinny guy without a job says, ‘Smile, things aren’t so bad.’ ”
“A guy did that to me on the day my dad got killed,” she says.
After a week of wandering, I have yet to witness a man bring in a woman with a callout, but I’ve met many women sick of them trying. I’ve heard there are women who enjoy being catcalled, but I haven’t met any who admit it. Still, I wonder how it would feel to toss out compliments to women from the street corner.
Around lunchtime, I walk to Mexican Pepito’s Bakery, where Contreras ogled and catcalled Klinger a week before. I pay for a piece of strawberry cheesecake and take a seat on a tall chair outside.
Several attractive women pass before I get up my nerve. When she approaches, I notice her first reflected in the open restaurant door. I turn and watch—about 10 years younger than me, jeans lynched with a silver heart-shaped belt, tight brown T-shirt with hershey’s printed on the front. As she gets closer, I catch the red nail polish on her toes. I take a breath.
“Hey, baby. You look nice today,” I shout. Now that it’s out, it doesn’t feel half as strange as I thought it would.
A second passes before she registers that the voice is meant for her. Then she turns and looks at me, screws her face into a confused snarl. I smile. She turns away, keeps walking, doesn’t look back.
I’m surprised at how bad that feels. Despite what I had seen, all the women I had talked to, I thought maybe it would work.
I pick at my cheesecake and wait for another chance. Soon, a middle-aged woman in a light dress the color of tangerines approaches. I decide to try the Casper Method: Throw the older lady a compliment, maybe come up with a “Thank you” and a smile.
“Hi. You look beautiful. Let’s see a smile,” I say, a bit softer than before.
The woman looks at me with a look of incomprehension, the face people give when they don’t speak your language.
“Smile,” I say and give her a grin. She doesn’t. She turns away and is gone. Soon a fat man sits down next to me with a taco. My cheesecake is gone, and I’m through swinging for the fences.