It’s almost 3pm on a Saturday afternoon in late January when I push open the door to my favourite coffee shop in town. I’m greeted with a gentle cacophony of conversation and a lingering coffee smell. Big cups filled with flat whites and steamy pots of tea float from the kitchen to the tables where old couples and groups of friends sit, discussing how life’s been lately.
I settle into my chosen spot near the brick wall at the back, overlooking the kerfuffle in the room. Confidently, I adjust the cushion and sit down, dumping my handbag on the floor. I pull out my laptop and a Spanish textbook, planning on spreading out, getting some work done and letting the keeping-it-low-key atmosphere of the café wash over me. After flipping open my book, I start a reading comprehension exercise, before rummaging through my pencil case for a blue biro. This is when I first become aware of a man sat to my right, in a window seat looking over the busy street outside. His features are set into his skin, deepened by the black attire he’s sporting. ‘You’re learning Spanish at school?’ he asks, upper body tilting towards me. ‘Um, yeah...’ I respond, ‘You need help?’ I shake my head. ‘Thanks,’ I quickly reply, ‘but...’ ‘I can help you!’ he repeats, and before I can get in another word, he used my pause to delve into telling me about the ‘fundamentals’ of the Spanish language. ‘Did you know that? The most important thing!’ he says, spit flying onto the back of my hand which rests on my keyboard. I apprehensively lower it to wipe on the front of my jeans. ‘Is that ‘estar’, ‘estoy’! It’s used very commonly. It’s different to ‘ser’!’ Information he relates somewhat like it was a cure for cancer or an encrypted message that Putin had just announced war on the UK. ‘Did you know that?’ When I let him know I’ll keep it in mind, he points his finger at me. ‘No! It’s not something to keep in mind, it’s the most important concept.’ Continuing to persist in relaying pieces of information about Spanish grammar for a good five minutes. At this point, there’s only so many more nods, polite smiles and eyebrow raises I can give him before I turn my gaze back towards the words on my laptop screen, pulling my earphones out my bag under the table with one arm. Although I don’t automatically turn on my usual Lo-Fi playlist, instead waiting until I hear his faint mutter eventually subside as he realises I’m not engaging anymore. However, the slight feeling of relief is short-lived. My back tenses in place when I feel his arm rest heavy on the radiator that runs against the wall behind me, noticing the shifts of weight as he stretches further and I become more rigid. I decide to emphasise my disinterest by pulling out my other pair of headphones (yes, I am the type of person to carry around two sets of music-transmitting devices) and put them on top of the wired earphones. Desperate to focus on the task at hand, my eyes squint - but try as I might, nothing stops the words blurring on the word document and my fingers lying limp and powerless on top of the notebook. Instead of reading Spanish verbs, I concentrate on not tilting my head to the right too much, and so running the risk of giving him any signal that I am looking in his direction.
He leans over again, this time peering at the spine of my textbook.
‘Is that Spanish?’ ‘Can I have a look?’
My shouting inner monologue is so loud I’m surprised he can’t hear it. I’m aware
my eyes are for sure communicating the message to, you know, respectfully, or
not so respectfully, f*ck the f*ck off!
But, somehow, I find myself responding, ‘Umm, sure’, before uncovering the
book from the sheets of paper its lying underneath of and gingerly hand it over,
half expecting him to start ripping the pages or do something dramatic.
I restrain myself, facing forwards once again, feigning deep preoccupation with
my laptop. But all I can think is ‘I hope he doesn’t spit on those pages, that cost
My breath catches as, in the corner of my vision, I notice him reach into the
inside pocket on his jacket for his hand to emerge holding pair of glasses. He
proceeds to flick through the heavy textbook for all of 45 seconds before
announcing that ‘this is easy stuff’, it’s ‘a very basic level’ and that ‘It doesn’t
even have conditional tenses’ ‘like’, he thinks for a moment... ‘if I was king I
would make you my queen, you know?’
For some reason I feel as if I must agree, and I force my voice to sound assured.
‘Yes, it’s a very basic level. I am learning.’ But I’m not sure he registers any
ounce of confidence.
‘Very simple! Very easy, very easy’, ‘You know what I mean?’ he continues,
almost back-tracking -fully aware his comment has left me uneasy.
He orders another Turkish coffee, and another 15 minutes pass before he
realises I will continue to ignore him no matter how much he rests his hand on
the radiator. That’s when he stands up.
There’s a wide enough gap between the two tables to get up and walk around
them without causing a safety hazard, but it doesn’t feel that way when he
places his hat on top of the books on my table.
I feel obligated to remove the layers of earphones I’ve shielded myself with and
hold them in front of my chest to look up at this man. He imparts more godly
wisdom about Turkish, languages, Latin, grammar and how difficult French is for
another few minutes before FINALLY walking away.
Astonished and slightly relieved, I whip my head around the café, and am
surprised nobody is even looking in my direction. I can’t help thinking of how
easy it would have been for the manager walking around clearing tables to have
come and taken my empty drink away, or stepped into the situation in some way
or another. Even the rowdy table of football guys next to me don’t take a second
glance as the man walks away.
The unfortunate thing is, I’m not that surprised. Because this happens to me all
the time. On a regular basis, a member of the male species - be it somebody I
know or a complete stranger- will go significantly out of their way to explain
things to me. Especially when I didn’t ask, or give them any signal I wanted them
to. Because I guarantee you, nine times out of ten, I either already know what
they’re saying, know more than them, didn’t want to know, and/or couldn’t give
a flying cow about what they’re trying to spell out for me.
While a situation like this can be infamously hard to judge, one of the most aggravating elements of this experience is that nobody noticed - or chose to do anything about it. But whether it be on the bus, at the gym, in a bar or at your own dinner table, this unconditional desire to establish power (even intellectually), no matter the scenario, is a form of PSH not many seem to consider all that much.
I can’t help but relay his words in my head afterwards. I shouldn’t have let him read my book, why didn’t I just refuse? Why didn’t I just ignore him? Should I have left and gone to another café, or would that be letting him win? The truth is, sometimes it’s hard to tell whether you’re experiencing harassment - it’s not always a clear-cut, sexualised yell from a window of a van, but can also be somebody mansplaining to the extent at which you feel stupid and taken advantage of; just somebody someone used to make themselves feel more powerful or superior.
Which leads me to say, I think it’s high time to cut the cute old man narrative. Now, I’m not declaring war on all grandpas, but I couldn’t help thinking that it was possible nobody stepped in because he was clearly an older man, for whom excuses are made. He’s not aware of social protocol, he’s just lonely and wants someone to talk to, he’s being friendly... Age is a weak justification for perpetrating public sexual harassment, and it’s not my job to stroke your ego or keep you company. I just don’t need an old man making me feel stupid.
Annika Basu (she/her)
Hi! I’m a staunch advocate for making the world a safer space for people to be in. By day I’m also a stressed student currently doing an international baccalaureate diploma, but by night (or 7pm, because I’m an old woman at heart) I like to write stuff about things that interest me and I care about, usually while listening to Platform B.