CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE STREET KIND
Walking the same street with a baby, and then without, is like taking two entirely streets. The with-baby street is a maze of indulgent gazing and at times invasive, unsolicited questioning. The without-baby street remains the terrain of appraising check-outs, as women on their own are cast in the same light they have been since they first traversed city streets on their own. The solitary woman ‘street walker’ can still find that she is in fact negotiating a definitional tight-rope of sexual ambiguity. Both kinds of public occupancy can prove obstructive and invasive for women – though at times they have their compensations by forging human contact and a sense of community.
While sitting at a café table on the street with my baby, lunching with a friend, a young woman approached whose head nearly exploded with rabidity at the sight of a baby in the adult dominated world of corporate William St. I would advise new mothers to learn up fast on the difference between passing baby ardour and very close encounters of the invasive kind. The young woman required a veritable tome of information about my baby, her sleeping and eating habits, developmental progress, birth details and finally – and this is where she crossed the line - whether my lunch companion and I were in fact lesbians.
I should qualify that my daughter is an unashamed magnet for every conceivable type of street perambulator. And she does like to put me in the awkward position of declaring ecstatically that every passing male is in fact her ‘DADA!!’ But her quest for familiarity also evokes human contact as she elicits smiles and coos from passers by. The truth is that while babies are handy prising devices into any passing mother’s life circumstances, we brand new mothers, too often stuck at home and isolated, can also be the worst offenders. Supermarket aisles are not for the faint-hearted when a couple of newly delivered mothers manoeuvre their prams into cue.
It can be a little disconcerting how readily women will speak in blood curdlingly explicit terms with women they hardly know once they’ve squeezed a baby out into the world. Anything, from hemmroid size to the number of stiches, even the occasional reenactment of grunts can be breezily shared about. I wondered if it was some kind of post partum maternal impulse to recount details that make the splatter genre seem a mere elaboration on sprinkler systems, and the Sexpo a rather coy family outing. But maybe the ready intimacy and sharing of personal detail that comes with the territory of having a baby out on the street is part of how women experience public space differently – particularly after years of walking the streets without baby, and being alienated from contact as a defence against appearing too ‘friendly’ to men.
Maybe the closeness women so readily share on the street, made permissible with baby, is one of the ongoing effects of women not being allowed to even walk about in public space without being chaperoned until the turn of the last century. As many women would attest, still fighting off the slings and arrows of verbally abusive men, means a chaperone, preferably long-haired and with very sharp teeth, can come in handy to this very day.
Last century (not so many eons ago) Truth Newspaper was warning of 1920s ‘Business Girls’ that their ‘contact with the opposite sex – even chance contact – affords a pleasure. It is flappers of this type who form obstructive groups on the footpaths of crowded thoroughfares, and who persistently defy the “keep to the right” injunction. Sex hunger, sub-conscious perhaps, but a yearning, nevertheless, for the vicarious satisfaction afforded by the bumping and squeezing of passing males’.
Hard to believe, isn’t it, that Truth ever held such prohibitive, indeed censoring views about the public visibility of young women. But this view of women in public space as ‘the sex’ unlike men who are simply ‘the humans’ has meant that women continue to be sexualised simply by being on the street. But rather than consider that maybe the stares and snickers of passing men is obstructive, women have been cast as the distracters and obstructors in the orderly flow of city life.
The curious thing is that during my travels up and down the bitumen I’ve always found, as have my women friends, that it is in fact men who obstruct this orderly flow. It is men who have proved incapable of adhering to the ‘would you let go of my bottom, no I will not sit on your face, I wonder if you could address me as distinct from my breasts, and could you keep a civil tongue in your head rather than gesticulate wildly at me with it’, injunctions.
But I suppose I should concede that not all men are ‘mashers’ as they were called in the 1920s. And not all women are excessively intimate as compensation for firstly, our radical exclusion from public space, and secondly, our persistent misapprehension as common street whores when we finally did put in an appearance.
Only this morning a very dapper elderly gent was shuffling past us when my daughter rapturously declared ‘Dada!’ He gave me the glad-eye from under the rim of his fedora and said with a wink, ‘It’s a blessed shame when your memory fails”.
9 August, 2001