by Eleanor Cooney, November 29, 2017
When I was a teenager, older men followed me on the street, offering me drinks in the middle of the day, occasionally muttering obscenities in my ear. Something about me, some kind of vibe I unintentionally gave off, made them think I was sexually jaded and much older than I was. When I was fifteen, they thought I was thirty. I could walk into a bar on Madison Avenue when I was fourteen and order a martini.
I wasn’t blonde and stacked or “girly” or anything like that. Hardly. I was a babe, but of a very different sort from that type. I was tall, serious-looking, with Morticia-like dark hair, sturdily built, and had absorbed by osmosis a lot of the sophisticated mannerisms of my mother and her friends. I was a good mimic. I had an adult conversational and listening style and an air of worldliness and ennui way before I had any substance at all to back it up. The men who sidled up to me in bars or on street corners had no idea that they were speaking to a large child. These were not chickenhawk types, believing they were closing in on fresh, innocent jailbait prey. They thought they were sniffing around an experienced, world-weary, Gauloises-smoking divorcée.
Sometimes I’d actually get into sophomoric quasi-philosophical discussions with these guys. For me, with my grownup voice and vocabulary, getting into conversations was just an entertaining adolescent anthropological encounter. For them, it was a signal of imminent sex. Once they thought they got a whiff of that, a switch got flipped in their brains and they were just about impossible to shake off. I got followed onto buses, down into the subway, and once, all the way up the escalators in Bloomingdale’s by a rotund little lesbian who told me I looked like someone from Atlantis. I was so young and dumb that I had no idea why a woman would follow me, and I thought the woman was saying that I looked like someone from Atlanta.
But the men became bloodhounds. I’m sure they pictured it all: A couple of drinks, then up to their furnished rooms, the afternoon sun blocked out by amber shades, whiskey bottle and ashtray on the bedside table, my legs in the air. It never happened, though. They were all thoroughly repulsive to me, and I was, after all, only a kid. Oh, I’d read Lady Chatterley’s Lover and my own mother’s scorchingly hot erotic journals, and I was definitely interested in sex, but not with strange hairy forty-year-old men on the street.
I didn’t actually talk to that many of them. The ones I did talk to were the reasonably mannerly ones, not the ones who murmured ripely lewd suggestions. And some of them were ripe and lewd, let me tell you. It was quite an experience to be walking down the street minding your own business and suddenly have some man’s hot whiskery breath in your ear telling you what he’d like to do to you with his tongue or making comments about your anatomy, both what was visible and what was not. A dwarf once followed me for six blocks, saying he’d like to fuck me “all the time.”
It would be a few years yet until certain feminist writers would define for us the weird rush of feelings that followed these nasty little moments, the mix of shame and confusion, as if you’d just pulled your dress up over your head and weren’t wearing any underpants.
Point of emphasis: we’re not talking here about mere lusty wolf-whistles, guys on construction sites grinning and waving and calling out “Hey, Baby! Can I have a date?” or “What are you doing after the show?” or “Hubba, hubba!” That’s in an entirely different category, a world apart, and a distinction needs to be made. It’s basically friendly, and it’s genuinely flattering. I disagree with women who get huffy over that sort of stuff. It’s when men on the street actually talk dirty to you, say they’d like to eat your pussy and such, block your way, leer and waggle their tongues between their fingers, that the encounter crosses over into new territory.
And it took these writers to explain to us that those remarks were not “compliments,” not friendly, but hostile and ugly, a punishment for being naked inside your clothes out in public and having that “thing” between your legs, a punishment for centuries of ignorance and repression and just a little sip from the vast deep well of misogyny Germaine Greer, Andrea Dworkin and others say is under our feet most of the time with just some rickety rotten planks between it and us. Again, I don’t believe that all men hate women. But those moments reek of misogyny, and testify to its invidious vigor.
You learn when you’re young, one way or another, that sex is everywhere and that being female in the equation is very… complicated. I pretty much knew about the sex part, but the other part came to me more slowly. When I was a kid I didn’t have much of a sense of that misogyny Greer and Dworkin talk about. I grew up in a rarified atmosphere, surrounded by mostly very smart, very cool people, and I myself was never treated as a second-class citizen. But I got glimpses now and again, all the more vivid and strange because I wasn’t in any way prepared for it.
When I was about twelve, I went to Palisades Amusement Park for the day, just across the Hudson, with a pal close to my age. Her father took us.
This guy was a family friend. He was smart and funny, a writer, journalist and newspaperman, a University of Chicago graduate, a pugnacious little freckled Irishman, sort of a two-fisted, hard-drinking Nelson Algren wannabe.
We had a terrific day at Palisades. We went to the sideshow (one of the last in the country by then), saw the Alligator Gal (a woman with a bad case of psoriasis), the Cowboy Giant (pituitary disorder), and a man whose arms ended at his elbows with little vestigial fingers but who could hold a piece of chalk between his stumps and was a ferociously good cartoonist. There was a two-headed baby floating in a jar. We rode the Gravitron, the Octopus, the Tilt-a-Whirl and the rollercoaster, ate a mess of cotton candy, ran around and generally had a hell of a good time.
We were exhilarated, exhausted and happy by the time the shadows got long and it was time to go. We went home to their apartment on the Upper East Side, and my friend’s mother asked her husband if we’d had fun.
He lit a cigarette and looked at us.
They had fun, but I didn’t, he said.
And then he ripped into us:
They were snippy, squirmy, wriggly, silly, screaming, giddy, giggly girls, he said. He enunciated the word “girls” with bitter, sneering emphasis. There was nothing fun or humorous about it. We felt the full withering force of his contempt: Girls. And he went on for a while about what tiresome little bitches we’d been.
We were stunned, taken completely by surprise, still high from the fun day we thought we’d had. And of course, we were utterly unequipped to understand the size, shape or source of that contempt, or to counter it in any way. It was like being knocked over by a fire hose with no warning. The fun day evaporated and was replaced by hot angry tears and bitter confusion. Later, when we were in bed in my friend’s room, me on the top bunk and she on the lower, he came in and they had a little conciliatory tête-à-tête in the semidarkness. I heard her tearful urgent whispers, sounding like the appeal of a desperate jilted lover, his low murmuring voice, firm and authoritative. Young though I was, I understood that he was getting some sort of nourishment from her supplications, that some kind of dynamic between the two of them was being shored up, that in fact the whole deal was, on some level, deeply satisfying to him.
When they were finished, he stood up and addressed me in the top bunk before he left the room. There was just enough light for me to see him holding his finger in my face. And you, he said, not yelling or anything but his voice flat and unfriendly. I thought you were getting better.
Getting better? Was I supposed to know what he was talking about? Ah. I’ve looked back on that evening so many times, and wished that I could confront him now, as an adult, and let him have it. You take a couple of preadolescent girls to an amusement park, to the sideshow to see babies floating in jars and giants and Alligator Gals, let them eat cotton candy all day long and ride on crazy contraptions in the hot sun, act perfectly cheerful until you get them home, and then rip into them, hard and shockingly, for being giddy and girlish? Vent some kind of ancient heavy adult male resentment on them, knowing they can’t fight back, snarl at them for being “girls”? Very fucked up, my friend, very fucked up.
I never did get the chance. I did, however, run into this fellow a few years later, when I was sixteen or so, on a train platform in Connecticut. I’d seen him plenty in the intervening years, and had pretty much forgiven him, because he was mostly a good guy and a lot of fun. So there he was, waiting for a train into the city, and he was falling-down, shitfaced drunk. I knew he was a drinker, but I’d never seen him like this. It was interesting. By this time I was taller than he by several inches, and he now obviously saw me as some sort of adult. We had a conversation not unlike the ones I occasionally had with strange men in the street—sophomoric and a little daring, and he, drunk, was ramblingly candid and maudlin, and delivered an incoherent lecture on how important it was, and I quote, that …when the cock goes in the box, it’s gotta be your love. He said this three or four times, the way drunks do when they have an urgent message to convey, enunciating elaborately, trying to focus his eyes and get his point across.
Sure, right, of course, I said, as if I knew all about it. I felt sorry for him because by now he was sitting on a cement curb on the platform, helpless, his suit all rumpled, and looked diminished in so many ways. He was alone and drunk at two in the afternoon, and obviously had a lot on his mind, judging by our conversation. I started to piece some things together, saw a glimmer of a connection between this and the amusement park day of a few years before. Nothing he said shocked me at all, because I was pretty blasé, but I was absorbing big chunks of very advanced, very adult material. This is how it happens. This is how kids learn about the vast mysterious world awaiting them.
When I was seventeen, I had another friend, Kat, who lived in New York. She was about five years older than I, and only dated rich older men. I’d sometimes go along and meet these guys. Her manner was impressive. She was straightforward with them about the nature of these arrangements, which was sexual favors and congenial, witty companionship in exchange for gifts and money, and she had a knack for maintaining the upper hand in the most pleasant way. Huntington Hartford, the artist and museum founder, was one of her occasional squeezes. I remember sitting in a restaurant with the two of them, listening to her tick off a list of clothes, shoes and bags she’d be needing soon.
These rich older guys, like the men on the street, always thought I was much older than I was, and would sometimes make tentative passes. But they were just as repulsive to me as those guys on the street. Not necessarily because they were actually repulsive. Huntington Hartford was not a bad-looking guy, and God knows he was clean and well-dressed. But I was still a big child, and grown men were just sort of…icky, hairy, odiferous, too complicated, too much. I’d had some sex, and had liked it a lot, but with kids my own age.
Another one of Kat’s older rich guys was David Merrick, the legendary Broadway producer. When I met him, I was young and dumb enough to not really know who he was. I knew he was some sort of theatre guy, but I was too involved in my solipsistic teenage mental processes for it to mean much to me. I had one of my faux-adult conversations with him, and he invited me to come to his apartment the next day, saying he’d like to photograph my very long hair. Photograph my hair? Sure, I thought. Why not? Sounds interesting.
I went. He gave me a drink, and showed me an album of photos for a book he was putting together, of women in theatrical costumes, most of them see-through, posing against exotic backdrops on Cleopatra-style beds and chaises and such. I began to understand that his plan was to get me into one of those costumes. I’m sure he thought I was ten years older than I was and knew the score: when a famous Broadway producer gives you a chance to be in his book, you jump at it.
What I knew was that I wasn’t going to be undressing for this gross ancient guy (he was in his mid-fifties at the time, Methuselah to a seventeen-year-old). I wasn’t scared or shocked or afraid he’d rape me or anything like that. It was just a stupid embarrassing dilemma. I didn’t have the wherewithal to just say hey, we’ve had a misunderstanding, thank you anyway, and take my leave. So I demurred, a little sulkily. The more I demurred, the more he pressed. I think he believed I was playing a seduction game of some sort, saying no when I really meant yes, and so he brought out various costumes to tantalize me with, shiny sparkly dazzling things that had no doubt been on Broadway themselves. It was all lost on me, though, and at one point he got a little sharp and said something about how I shouldn’t flatter myself by thinking that his sex life was so deficient that he had to get into my pants. That hadn’t actually occurred to me. All I knew was that I wasn’t going to be taking my clothes off.
So there I was, as usual, in a ludicrous situation, my grownup voice and appearance inviting adult sexual projections and exaggerated assumptions about my worldly knowledge and intent, like the guys on the street, like my friend’s father on the railroad platform.
He was holding up some skimpy little black mesh item with sequins and feathers when his doorbell rang. A woman came in, a colleague with important business to discuss. They left me in the living room and stepped into his study to confer.
I sat there for a minute or two, then a few more minutes, a few more after that. Then I thought: what the fuck are you sitting here for? You’re too goddamned polite. They’re being pretty rude to you, leaving you out here waiting. Besides, here’s your chance to get away from this stupid embarrassing pointless situation.
So I crossed the floor stealthily (I was really good at that), opened the door carefully and silently, clicked it shut gently behind me, summoned the elevator, expecting David Merrick’s head to stick out of his door at any moment, but it didn’t, and I got away clean. It was fun to think of them coming out and finding me gone.
His book of photos never did get published, but a few years later I saw a batch of them in Playboy.
Guess I missed my big opportunity.
Not more than a year later, I would learn the true meaning of the term “manhandled.” Stupidly knocked up, I’d stupidly keep it a secret, and stupidly waited almost too long to do anything about it. Alone, I’d walk grim streets in Boston, New York and Jersey City looking for a “doctor.” I found plenty of them—mostly seedy old drunks and pervs whose practices had deteriorated to the point where this was what they did for a living in their run-down, ill-equipped, unsanitary offices. None was willing to do the job, because I was too “far gone,” as the first one put it, but all of them were willing to poke, fondle and breathe humidly during the “examination,” during which it was always just the two of us, alone in a little room.
After I made tentative arrangements with unidentified men over the telephone to fly somewhere in the Caribbean to a “clinic” where they did second-trimester abortions, a vision of my corpse sewn into a weighted canvas bag being taken out to sea jolted me to my senses. I did what I should have done in the first place: told my mother.
She made arrangements with a real doc, got the cash together and paid for it (it was expensive, let me tell you). She saved my life.
Just a scant few years later, Roe v. Wade became the law of the land.
To be a teenager can certainly mean having lethally poor judgment, and there’s a long list of ways for teens to die from sheer stupidity. The new law, which would have prevented my descent into the underground and my close brush with the Reaper, or with grave injury, took this particular way of dying young off the list.
Watch out, though—there are those among us who, in the name of “life,” want very much to put it back on. And they’ll be happy and satisfied when the underground abortionist is back in business, order restored, vigilante punishment dispensed at random. Will the protesters for “life” be carrying signs outside of the quack abortionist’s place of business?
I’d bet my life that they will not.