It all started with me feeling obligated to go out because I bothered to get dressed on a Saturday. It ended with ABC News footage of me crying and calling people names.
New Yorkers like privacy. It’s bad enough that strangers—usually smelly and crass—obtrude in our physical space on the subway and sidewalks and shops every day. (Once a man fell asleep on my shoulder on a subway over the East River. The other day, a band groupie started bouncing her hefty posterior an inch from my coffee shop table.) When I go out, I expect some personal bubbles to remain unbroken. I may have to be touched, but I don’t want to be talked to, hit on, troubled, disturbed, or have my equilibrium in any way mussed.
So when I purchased my coffee and rugelach, climbed up on my stool and opened my book in a quiet Park Slope coffee shop, I expected my personal peace to remain at least partly intact.
Park Slope, Brooklyn, is where I imagine I live—where brick brownstones rest between churches on quiet avenues, boxes of free books yield Shakespeare plays and George Herbert poems, and organic clothing in children’s boutiques costs more than my most recent bridesmaid dress. And it’s where graying Park Slope mothers reign with delicate, manicured fists. The Park Slope mom feeds her IVF-conceived infant mashed organic food. She speaks to her child as if he were a professional colleague—in flat and modulated tones.
But not this Park Slope mother. I’d heard about mothers like this, but I thought they only existed in The Nanny Diaries or Real Housewives of New York City. This mother was very much here in the flesh, sitting at a table in a gray suit with her papers spread out, when her daughter and her nanny walked in and she found out her employee—a short, black woman in the kind of tight, bright yellow shirt you find for $5.99 in the part of Brooklyn where I actually live—forgot to mail a FedEx package. Then she got angry, got loud and got louder.
“Did you take the dry cleaning? Did you do the laundry? Did you get the dinner? Did you clean the upstairs?” I watched as she pounded her nanny’s sense of worth to a pulp. I could almost see her bruise. “You’re a moron. I pay you too much. You know what else? You eat too much of my food. You’re fat!” Her volume rose. She slammed her hand on the table. She grabbed the nanny’s arm. The nanny cried, pleaded for the two weeks of pay she’d been promised—and said she couldn’t get home without.
I exchanged shocked looks with the woman next to me. I closed my book and fidgeted with my phone. I looked out the window and tried not to listen. But I felt a tug I’d felt before—twice before, in fact, when I had seen people sit on the subway and cry. Both times I wanted to break my New York bubble and offer sympathy or prayer; both times I told myself that people don’t like anyone to notice them crying and looked away until it was too late to say anything. So this time I forced myself to turn around on my stool and watch.
“I’m not interested!” the woman snapped at the nanny. Then she pointed at me: “She’s interested!” She grabbed her daughter and moved toward the door.
I am a non-confrontational person. The type who does my roommate’s dishes to avoid telling her to clean up after herself. This time something in my passive little soul snapped and I slid down from my stool as anger—an impulse I’m usually able to check—volleyed forth and I shrilled:
“YOU’RE A BITCH!”
People gaped from the back of the coffee shop as she turned at the door and roared, “Why did you call me that?”
“You can’t talk to other people like that,” I blathered. “You should talk to her like she’s a human being, you’re abusing her and I don’t care if she’s your employee!”
Then I started to bawl—an impulse I can never control—grabbed my bag and bolted. A woman turned and looked at me as I ran, and her face was a mixture of naked sympathy and embarrassment. Maybe I fled because an entire coffee shop full of people was watching me cry too hard to be able to cuss anyone out anymore. Maybe I fled because I was terrified.
My first Good New Yorker/Samaritan moment took a twisted turn when I sobbed down the sidewalk and four women hopped out of their car clutching clipboards, with OMG great footage! glints in their eye. “Don’t be upset!” they consoled me. They were only reporters from ABC News, manipulating people’s sensibilities in the name of “social experimentation,” journalistic enterprise and of course, mistreated nannies. The setup was fake. And while they may not have heard me call their actress a bitch, the hidden cameras they’d placed in the coffee shop certainly caught the whole altercation. Would I be willing to subject myself to an interview?
Psychological manipulation upsets me. Once I participated in a psychology experiment for Psych 101. They gave me a word puzzle, told me I’d flunked and that meant I would never succeed in life or career, gave me ice cream to eat, then told me at the end that the puzzle was meaningless but they wished to test people’s eating habits after receiving horrible news. I felt violated.
So I wiped my nose and eyes and shook my head. But the next thing I knew one woman had a firm grip on my arm (to keep me from wandering into traffic in my distracted state) and we were crossing the street to a nest of cameras and microphones.
The interview was raw, but I was not too shaken to know I was still spilling blather. My sense of irony kicked in when the interviewer asked, “How did seeing this make you feel” and intoned, “Some people might call what you did heroic.” Then I hoped he would put the footage of me telling him, “God made everyone and we can’t treat human beings like that” right next to the footage of screaming, “YOU’RE A BITCH!” He mispronounced my name. I half printed, half signed a release form with a description of me—blonde, black sundress and black flats—and took a business card with the producer’s contact info.
I walked home and reflected—deflated—that it all made sense. The first time I had the courage to take a public stand for injustice, the injustice would have to be staged. And the first time I got on ABC it would have to be footage of me spouting obscenities and erupting into tears.
As I turned down my street, a man—leering, decrepit—rudely obtruded again: “Hey gorgeous. I saw you this morning.” I moved out of earshot and fumed—this time under my breath. I didn’t want to be talked to, hit on, troubled, disturbed or in any way mussed once more.
Alisa Harris is deputy editor of Patrol. She teaches journalism at The King’s College in Manhattan.
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