How I Learned the Danger of Being Friendly to Strangers

Collective Action for Safe Spaces - ending street harassment in DC
“How I Learned the Danger of Being Friendly to Strangers”

Is it possible to be outgoing and friendly to strangers without making yourself a target for harassment?

By Katie Bailey 

When I first moved to D.C. from the suburbs of Houston, Texas, this past summer, there were some things about city life that took some getting used to.

Specifically, there were some people that took some getting used to. One day in July, a man on a bike followed me for several blocks as I walked home from Fort Totten Metro Station. He was screaming nasty things like “hey you, whore” and “fucking bitch” at me. It was the first time I felt truly frightened while by myself in public. I clutched my keys and power walked the three blocks to my apartment, trying not to hear him but also listening to make sure he wasn’t coming any closer. He stayed on the opposite side of the street and kept shouting until I rounded the corner to my street.

Another summer day, I was walking to my bus stop near my apartment and an older gentleman said hello to me.

It was the first time I felt truly frightened while by myself in public.

“Hello young lady, how are you? You are looking very beautiful today,” the man said, stepping back to make way for me on the sidewalk.

I was in a really good mood because it was Friday and I was on my way to a picnic in a garden, so instead of politely smiling and nodding, I engaged him.

Please note this as Mistake # 1.

“I’m doing very well, thank you! And you?”

He was doing great, as you can imagine. I did that thing where I tried to finish the exchange on the go, where you keep walking and talking until your neck is so craned that you can either turn around and stop, walk backwards or just end it and keep walking. Thank you, that’s great, you’re great, goodbye!

I kept walking, crossed the street to my bus stop and pulled out my phone to check how much longer until my bus came. When I looked up from my phone, I saw the man jaywalking across the street toward me.

“I don’t mean to disturb you, but do you know how much longer until the bus comes? I’m not following you, I promise, I just need to know because the bus is my only form of transportation. Am I bothering you?”

After a beat I waved my hand limp and sang, “Nooooo, you’re not bothering me! The bus comes in 2 minutes.”

…Mistake # 2.

Long story short, he boarded the bus and kept talking to me. He was sitting across the aisle at first, but then asked if he could sit next to me. I SAID YES. WHY? For a few reasons, I think:

  1. I care what people think of me to a fault. I didn’t want him to think I was rude, even though he was obviously being a big ol’ creeper.
  2. I’m on a personal quest to make anonymous friends, obviously.
  3. I’m an idiot.

Unfortunately, my destination was at the very end of the line. And I told him this. (Please see above).

It only took me a few weeks in D.C. to realize that it’s often dangerous to be friendly to strangers on the street, especially men.

So we talked and had a fairly amiable conversation. The only extremely uncomfortable moments for me were when he told me:

  1. How beautiful I am. After the sixth time I said “Haha, OK…you can stop now.”
  2. That when he lived in Germany he had four wives. At the same time. And then he said “If only you could be my wife!” Instead of screaming “GET AWAY FROM ME” I laughed nervously and said “I don’t think my boyfriend would like that very much.” ?????????
  3. That he promised to “behave himself” because he didn’t want a criminal record. He had made mistakes in the past and wanted to be “right with my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” I thanked him and looked out the window with a silent scream on my face.

Too many mistakes to count at this point.

He got off at the last stop with me and walked me a few blocks, nodding excessively to the police officers we passed. They just frowned, looking back and forth between the two of us. Part of me was offended, thinking the cops insensitive and close-minded, but most of me was praying one of them would ask me if I was OK.

None of them did. I guess I looked like I had things under control. But looking back on the encounter, I had very little control. I don’t want to be paranoid to a fault, but I realize now just how naive and stupid I was being. He kept pointing down side streets, suggesting that we take those instead of Pennsylvania Avenue. For all I know, he could have pushed me into an alleyway and attacked me. At least I had the sense to stay on the main drag.

When we got close to the garden, I told him that it was time to say goodbye. We shook hands and he thanked me very graciously for my company. I turned to walk away and heard him say these words, which now echo ominously in my head: “I know which bus stop to find you at!”

Since then I haven’t seen him, probably because I’ve been avoiding the bus stop.

It only took me a few weeks in D.C. to realize that it is often dangerous to be friendly to strangers on the street, especially men. This may seem like a “duh, you idiot” moment, but I was raised to be polite. I always made eye contact and at least nodded to people walking past me on the sidewalk. But doing that in Fort Totten seemed to be interpreted by men as “Hello, please make a comment about my eyes/hair/boobs/ass and maybe even follow me.”

Now I usually have my headphones on and keep my gaze on the horizon.  It makes me sad that I can’t be my usual, friendly self, but I realize it is for my safety.

Katie Bailey is a writer who recently moved to Petworth from Houston, Texas. This piece was adapted from two posts on Katie’s blog, FindingMyQueendom.

Discussion Questions

  • Many of us may feel, consciously or subconsciously, that our actions, whether it be the way we’re dressed, the neighborhood we’re in, or the things we say, are the cause of the harassment that we experience. Comment to tell us about a time when you’ve blamed yourself for harassment.
  • Bystanders are important players in preventing harassment. They have the power to change the environment that makes it okay for harassers to harass. In the scenarios described in this piece, where could a bystander have stepped in to intervene?

 MORE FROM “My Streets, Too”:


“My Streets, Too” is CASS’s ongoing series on personal writings on street harassment by members of the DC community. Email Renee to submit writings using your full name, initials, or anonymously (just let us know). Please be sure to use the subject line “My Streets, Too.”