75: It Started with Potatoes

75: It Started with Potatoes

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Empowered Woman

It Started with Potatoes

The best protection any woman can have… is courage.

~Elizabeth Cady Stanton

It was late afternoon as I left the schoolyard. My friends and I had been engrossed in our favorite pastime — skipping rope. Even though it was December, we never felt the cold.

The time slipped away from us. Most of us were latchkey kids, and our moms didn’t worry about us as long as we came home by dark. That day, we’d been having so much fun we never noticed that the sun had gone down.

At last, we said our goodbyes and went in different directions. I had about a six-block walk through the streets of Long Island City, New York. Although I was shy socially, I was not afraid to walk alone, even after dark. I knew my way around. I came this way every day while attending junior high.

New Yorkers do not let their fear or anxiety show. If we act like we know what we are doing, we are less likely to be harassed.

But that evening, leaving the schoolyard, I got an eerie feeling. Something was wrong! The streets were deserted. I didn’t see a soul, but I felt I was being watched. From between parked cars, a shadowy figure suddenly emerged in front of me. It was a man about fifty — old to me — in a black raincoat and a blue baseball cap. I tried to circle around him, but he blocked my way. When the streetlight shined down on him, I could see him clearly. The best way to describe him in my then-teenage way was that he was creepy. He sneered at me, saying, “Hi ya, kid,” and proceeded to make lewd sounds and gestures with his mouth.

If that weren’t repulsive enough, he then opened his coat. For a fleeting second, I thought I was going to be sick. I had never been exposed to something so vile before. I was terrified! As soon I regained my composure, I fled. I ran all the way home, turning around only once to see him following me. But he was blocks behind and had a hard time keeping up. He was huffing and puffing. I was young and could outrun him easily.

When I got home, I went straight up to my room. I wasn’t sure how to deal with it. I felt soiled. I never told my mother a thing. I was too embarrassed and appalled.

If I can forget it, maybe it will just go away, I thought.

The next afternoon, my friends and I were in the schoolyard again. This time, it had been snowing, and we were building snowmen. It was a competition for the biggest and best snowman. It started getting dark, but the snow was still coming down. It only increased our enthusiasm. Then I remembered the previous evening’s unpleasant incident, so before it got any later, I said goodbye to my friends and left. But not before I warned them of the obnoxious man on the loose.

“Go home early and stay safe!”

I had to stop at the grocery store to pick up some potatoes for my mom. After making the purchase, I headed home. I had to walk past the schoolyard again.

Several girls were still there building their snowmen. I was wishing they would go home. In the back of my mind, I was remembering my unnerving experience the previous night.

Suddenly, it was him again — the revolting man! I’d have recognized him anywhere. He was wearing the same cap and raincoat. He was walking in front of me toward the school. He hadn’t seen me. He appeared to be playing with the buttons on his coat, as if ready to open them.

My first instinct was to run home quickly, but then I remembered my unsuspecting friends. We were all about twelve or thirteen, but some of the girls were smaller, more delicate and appeared to be more vulnerable.

It dawned on me suddenly that although I was just a girl, I didn’t have to be afraid of him. I was young, but I was tall and strong. I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I still remember his shocked expression when he noticed me and realized I was running toward him and not away from him. I didn’t chase him as fast as I could because I didn’t know what I would have done if I caught him. I just wanted to scare him away.

Suddenly fearless, I started yelling at the top of my voice, like the spunky New York girl that I was.

“You dirty bum!”

“You filthy rat!”

I yelled at my friends to alert them. “Watch out for the scumbag!”

The potatoes we were supposed to have for dinner came out of the bag as I started flinging them at that vulgar lowlife. One hit him in the back. It felt good to fight back. I wasn’t a helpless little girl after all.

When the girls noticed what was going on, they quickly got into their gutsy New York City girl mode. No shrinking violets were we! The snowmen they had been building were quickly transformed into snowballs. Soon potatoes and snowballs were being hurled at the predator from all angles.

The creep was getting bombarded. We had surrounded him. It felt good to be defending ourselves. I almost felt sorry for him — but not really.

Then one of the potatoes or snowballs must have hit the school window because the lights went on suddenly, and the custodian came out with his helper. One of them ran after the perpetrator as he tried to run. A short chase ensued as the man almost got away. Eventually, he was apprehended a few blocks down because some quick-thinking citizen had alerted the police.

When I got home, I had to explain to my mom why there were only two potatoes left from a five-pound bag. She said I should have confided in her sooner about what had happened to me. She also made it clear that I should have reported the pervert to the school authorities right away. But then she added, “I am so proud that you had the presence of mind to take matters into your own hands when you needed to.”

As I grew older, I realized more and more that my gender doesn’t define me. I can be anything I want to be. I am a female, but not powerless. I have a will, a voice and the ability to help myself and others. And, if necessary, it’s all right to ask for help.

If all else fails, I can still resort to potatoes and snowballs.

Today, the words “I’m only a female” would never enter my mind.

~Eva Carter

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