This week, I started a new job that requires me to engage with the public. Thankfully, it does not entail holding a sign for, “the best New York Comedy Show” or dressing up as Elmo in times square. Instead, I am (wo)manning the Bryant Park art cart, which is a cart parked in front of the New York Public Library full of free art supplies for the public to use. Anyone can stop by to try out an assortment of high- quality drawing/ arts and crafts supplies (mon. 12-4, tues.- fri. 12-6). This is the cart's first time at Bryant Park so it is my job to inform the public about it and act as a Bryant Park Art Cart Ambassador. Because I am an artist with experience arts-and-craft-ting, I was looking forward to sharing these skills with the public and also simply spending more time outside away from the glow of my computer screen. If my life equation was simply: Art + outdoors, I would be a very happy creature.
Since my job is to engage the public, whenever someone passes by I put on my peppy face and try my best to promote the art cart, which really sells itself because who could say no to a cart of free goodies to play with? Except, the majority of Manhattanites passing by are rushing away into a swarm of pant suits…
However, some people, and by people I mean men, take this enthusiastic energy as an excuse to "get to know me," by interrogating me about my personal life. What they do not seem to understand is, my direct positive energy towards you, strange man who I have never seen before in my life, does not mean that I am making a move or inviting you into my personal space.
Now, I also want to emphasize that I have only worked at this job for TWO days. While I am alone at the cart, there are always other employees around and I have multiple numbers to call if I ever feel unsafe. However, I did not expect to have my personal life interrogated so many times in so little days.
I am mainly writing this to speak to one incident I experienced yesterday. It was a slow day, so I decided to sketch on my own time away from the cart. I noticed a man looking at the cart so I got up to give my little introduction. Obviously, as a service-person, it is important to be as amiable as possible, so when the man pointed at my drawing I picked it up and showed it to him. He told me that he was from a different country and he expressed no interest in taking anything from the cart, so I sat back down to resume drawing. He then decided to sit down next to me.
Though I was slightly uncomfortable with him watching me draw, I didn't say anything. Then the man began asking me questions: "do you have a boyfriend or are you single?" This question came seemingly out of nowhere and the man was definitely 10 years older than me. I was confused because clearly, I was so not interested, nor had I done anything to express that I was. Alas, I continued to sit there drawing.
I really wish that I had turned to him and said, “That is my private business, if you are not using the Art Cart please leave this area.” But a combination of shock and maybe instinct caused me to make-up a fake boyfriend. What a sad instinct. All I could think was, how can I get this man to leave me alone? “Oh, oh, if I tell him that I have a boyfriend, then he will respect the fact that I am taken by another man and leave me alone…” To my misfortune, that didn’t even cause him to stir. He actually responded by asking me if my relationship with my "boyfriend" was good. My relationship with my fake boyfriend is fan-fricken-tastic thanks for asking… because if it wasn’t we could go on a date?
The whole exchange made me feel icky and less apt to engage with other strangers passing by. I will admit that I am from a very sheltered small town and could probably benefit from a heightened level of “stranger = danger”, but, you know what, I should not have to feel uncomfortable doing my job and I certainly should not feel afraid to reject a stranger's invasive questions. After reflecting on this experience, I now know what to do should this happen again. I no longer feel like I need to make up a boyfriend and validate the strength of my relationship...I mean really WTF. I have the ability to just simply say no, I am not interested, especially in a public space! It saddens me to think that just two days ago, I was a naive college student excited to get paid while getting my art on. I JUST want to get my art on, and that is what I will continue to do, thank you very much.
A picture of me casually shouting into the universe...
Images courtesy of Kate Brian and moi.