On dog-calling and what a woman is worth

jerry summer

Last year, we moved to a new West Side apartment and bought a pit bull. My fiance and I had been in the casual market for a dog for awhile, but our one-bedroom didn’t have enough space for him, me and my purse collection, so a dog was right out. But when we moved into a three-bedroom with plenty of storm-off space, the time was right.

One afternoon, Nick emailed me a photo attachment with the subject line, “This is our dog.” And there he was in all his perky-eared, wrinkly forehead glory: A 40-pound brindle pit terrier mix named Jerry. It was love at first lick. One meet-and-greet, two days, one neuter appointment and a fraught whine-filled car ride later, Jerry was officially part of the family.

My parents had adopted a lab puppy when I was a kid, so I was more or less prepared for the indoor accidents, the chewing of throw pillows and whining while crate training. Teaching Jerry to walk on a leash was no walk in the park (pun heartily intended) and we spent many evenings at home frantically googling “How to crate train a puppy” when Jerry wouldn’t stop barking when in his “house,” but all in all, the puppy training came as no shock to me. What did come as a surprise was the unintended side effect of walking a large dog around my eclectic neighborhood.

Let’s get one thing out there, right off the bat: Jerry is friendly to a fault, and my neighborhood is a relatively safe one. Our street is populated mostly with immigrant families and young people getting started in the city, and the West Side on a whole is in the midst of a rapid gentrification that, while problematic in its own ways, has dramatically increased the safety of its residents over the past decade or so. But. I am a single, 20-something white female and in any area, in virtually any city, that comes with its consequences.

“Hey girl, you wanna park that on my porch?”
“Hi beautiful, why don’t you smile for me baby?”
“Mamacita, you got the body!”

And so on.

Walking as a woman comes as an invitation to so many men, it’s astounding. In my neighborhood, the catcalls come in English, Spanish, Farsi and Karen. They come from skinny white dudes in tank tops working on cars, buff Hispanic men smoking on front porches, petite Burmese guys in leather jackets and patterned skirts. They come from African American boys in jerseys, from white kids on homemade motorbikes, from everyone who feels entitled to have an opinion on me, my body and what I should do with it.

Pre-Jerry, walking down the sidewalk was a social experiment. Those men who called me names wore down my patience, but not my self-esteem. I’m confident enough in my personhood not to let it waver due to a few crass words from a drive-by. Still, they gave me pause at my own doorway. I thought twice, more than twice, about walking to the grocery store instead of driving. See, it takes mental energy to keep walking past verbal assaults, when they come as reliably as traffic lights. It takes self control not to turn around and unleash the anger burbling up from beneath their words. It takes a strong throat to swallow the feelings being called everything from “a beautiful baby” to “slut in a skirt,” on the same walk.

Thanks to my now 50-pound pup, I take at least two walks a day. In the morning, we sniff around trees and telephone poles as trickles of kids run past. Some shout, “Hi Jerry!” Others scream and skirt us, the same mock-fear every morning. I nod and smile to sleepy parents, ignore the occasional eyes from less familiar faces.

“Is that a brindle?”
“Hey, beautiful dog!”
“Hi puppy, aren’t you pretty!”

I call it dog-calling. The tone is different, the faces, the mood in the air between the callers and us. Since I’ve walked with Jerry, twice a day for the past year, I’ve never once been catcalled. Not. Once. Jerry has been dog-called by the same men who’d catcalled me before, but this time is different. Their eyes smile with their mouths, shoulders softened by a wagging tail. “I’ve got one just like him!” so many say. Or, “I wish I could have a dog, yo.”

I wish I could get the kind of respect my dog gets.

Yo.

It’s not an unwelcome change. With Jerry on the other end of the leash, I feel safer on my own streets. Not just because he’s 50 pounds of muscle and sinew. Not just because his bark is scary and large, or because I think he wards off unsavory intruders, although all of those are certainly true. But because when I have Jerry with me, I’m less visible to the men who see me as an object for their appraisal. But that invisibility makes me wonder why the change occurs in the first place. Why do men feel it’s ok to catcall a woman alone, but leave her be once she’s with her dog?

Jerry doesn’t mind the attention. He’ll happily take an extra head scratch, a new pal around the corner, another pair of shoes to sniff. I don’t mind taking a few seconds out of our walks to say hello, even while we continue working on polite ways to greet strangers. (I’m looking at you Mr. “Waving my paws while sitting isn’t jumping, right?”) But I do think about the societal shift he’s brought with him. I wonder how it will continue to evolve, as the dialogue continues surrounding catcalling and how women, of all colors and economic statures, are treated in public and in private.

I sit here in my white skin, feeling every inch of the privilege that brings. I’m unlikely to be shot when I walk to the corner store in a hoodie and jeans. I’m not liable to find myself in an altercation with the cops just for standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, my own front yard notwithstanding. Annoying as they are, the persistent catcalls are unlikely to manifest themselves into anything more threatening than that. But I sit here as a woman and realize that I am also vulnerable because of what’s between my legs and on my chest and how the world feels about its entitlement to those things. I didn’t get Jerry for protection, but I don’t dispute he’s brought with it a comforting degree of just that. Perversely, he’s highlighted the necessary realization that, at least in my singular experience, the anonymous men of my streets respect my animal more than me.

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