The Moth has been hosting storytelling events for 20+ years, and the thousands of storytellers who have graced their stages are proof that every story is unique, and that the best stories come from our personal experiences.
In this story, as told by Phyllis Bowdwin, we hear about a time she encountered an abusive mime, and her decision to then cut this person – so to speak – down to size. In one sense, it’s a strange story, but the underlying theme of someone not being respected, and then discovering a new side of themselves during the experience, is a common one for personal storytelling.
Note the passion in her voice and the vivid descriptions that she offers. You feel as though you were there in the crowd watching the event unfold. Now, think of your own life. Was there a situation or event in which you discovered something different about yourself? Maybe a newfound strength that you could rely upon going forward. Such stories inspire others to ask that question about their life.
It’s 1979, and summer in New York City. That was 38 years ago, when I was being interviewed for a promotion from secretary to coordinator of daytime casting at ABC.
I wore my new silk blouse, matching slim skirt, and two-inch yellow sling back heels. I thought I was ready. Although there was some who thought I wasn’t tough enough to hold onto a job like that.
And somewhere in a tiny corner of my mind, there was a part of me that suspected there, that they might be right. I even had a secretary come up to me and say, “Phyllis, you’re too nice.” To which I responded, “Thank you.”
In any case, I was meeting a friend for lunch across the street before my two o’clock interview. And when I got there, I found hordes of people spanning the length and the width of the sidewalk in front of the building, three people deep.
But I found a gap, cut through it, and when I got into the center of this human oval, something came up behind me, grabbed me, prevented me from moving, pinning my arms to my sides. And I looked over both shoulders to see if I could find out what it was, but I didn’t see anything, so I started to struggle.
And the more I struggled, the tighter the grip became. And then I looked to the sea of faces for some clue, some information that would help me to understand what was holding me, what was going on, but they were just placidly chewing and eating their lunch and staring at me.
Suddenly, the pressure was released and a set of rough hands groped me in every part of my body and then pushed me in my lower back. I stumbled forward almost falling, but I regained my balance and I turned around to find a six foot mime leering at me.
He was in full dress with the beret, the face paint, the polar shirt, the suspenders, the black pants, and the very comfortable sneakers. He was beckoning to me and slapping his behind, inviting me to hit him, and I took the bait.
I wrapped the strap of my purse around my hand, and I went after him and I swung, and just as my purse was about to connect, he bounced to another side of the oval and leered at me again, and beckoned me a second time, and padded his behind and wagged it at me as an invitation to come and try again, and I did.
And this time, I swung so hard that when he darted out of the way for the second time, the momentum pulled me forward, and I almost stumbled and fell. And then the people started to laugh,
and I was feeling like a real fool.
So when he beckoned me for the third time, common sense prevailed. Slim skirt, heels, sneakers, I’m outmatched. “You got it,” I said, and I turned and walked away and tried to go up those stairs to get into the building when he rushed up behind me and grabbed my behind and squeezed it, and then darted to safety down further in the oval, and people started to laugh.
And I just stood there as waves of humiliation and rage ran through my body. And I’ve finally got myself together, got up the stairs, got into the building, got to the cafeteria where they was serving my favorite, turkey tetrazzini.
And I went through the motions, paid for my food and sat at the table, but I couldn’t eat or speak, I had just been blindsided, bullied and blatantly violated by a strange man in the street with the approval of hoards of other strangers.
And I was very sure that they had rewarded him handsomely for what he had just done to me. And the thought that I had no way to protect or defend myself, made me feel so powerless that I wanted to cry, so I just sat there.
Then I remembered something that I might have at the bottom of my purse that I bought from a 99 cent store 4 months prior as a joke. And I started digging down into my purse, and the minute my fingers touched that cold, hard canister, I realized that I might have some options after all.
I picked it up, I wrapped my napkin around and then I said, “Got to go,” and turned and got back outside to see if he was still there, and of course he was. And I worked my way to the front of the crowd, because it had swollen to five people deep, to see what he was up to.
And just as I looked up, a beautiful blonde in a pretty, red dress cut through the crap, just as I had, and just as she was about to mount this terrace, he snuck up behind her, and as she raised one foot, he insinuated his way between her legs and stood up, essentially mounting her on his lower back like a rider on a horse.
He reached under her dress, grabbed her legs and proceeded to gallop around the oval with this woman’s hair flying, arms flailing,
holding onto her purse while trying to keep from falling backwards. When he let her down, he promptly lifted her dress up over her head and held it there to the hoots and the whistles of the men.
And when he finally let her go, she staggered into the building and quickly disappeared. And I said to myself, “Is this 1979 in New York City, or have I been dropped into “The Twilight Zone”?
How could this be happening? Where are the police?”
And as I said that, this elderly gentlemen, tall, handsome, distinguished man, stepped into the oval with an old woman in tow, she was holding onto the back of his jacket, and he strolled over to the mime and she peered out at the mime, cringed, and darted back.
And I said to myself, “Now, what did he do to this old woman that would have her cringing at the sight of him?” And sure enough, the old man started shaking his finger in the mime’s face, and the mine feigned innocence. The hands and shoulders went up in the air like he was the victim. And he put on this terrible, sad face and mimed crying and someone in the crowd yelled, “Boo boo, leave the mime alone.”
And the crowd picked up the chant, “Boo boo, leave the mime alone.” And the old man looked up startled into the hostile, menacing eyes of the wolf pack, consisting of executives, clerks, messengers, a UPS driver, a postal employee, even a hot dog vendor selling his food, was enjoying the spectacle.
And the old man shook his head sadly. Gently took the old woman by the hand and led her out of the crowd. And that’s when I got it. This was nothing but a big show. This was theater in the round, and every unsuspecting woman who cut through the crowd became a player, whether she wanted to or not.
She became the catch of the day on the mime’s lunchtime menu,
subject to any form of abuse he chose to cook up to feed vicariously the appetite of his patrons. And so when he started looking around for a new player, I stepped back into the human arena and waited.
He spotted me, he came towards me, and as he got closer, his eyes narrowed, and I couldn’t tell whether it was because of his recognizing me from before, from what he had done to me, or whether he was strategizing how he was going to launch this frontal attack because his MO was to play dirty pool, and sneak up behind the woman and catch her off guard.
But when he got two feet away, I lifted my can of pepper spray and I sprayed him in his face. Yes, yes, and his eyes got wild and he reached for my throat, and I took two steps back, and I sprayed him again and again. I sprayed him like a roach.
And then he began to cough and wheeze and sneeze, and he started staggering towards the street, and his loyal patrons pardon and let him go. He wound up on the hood of a parked car and I stood there and enjoyed watching him wheeze and sneeze.
And I was doing that, something karate-chopped my right hand. It’s another mime.
And this one is twice the size of the other one. And this hulking Goliath of a man is glaring at me like he wants to kill me. And we both hear my canister rolling slowly, but noisily down the sidewalk and he lumbered towards it. And I whirled around, and I went after it. And the two of us scrambled to get to that canister,
and I got there first.
And he moved towards me, and I took a wide stance and I got all the way down and I started rocking and I said, “You want this, motherfucker?” “Come and get it.”
He stopped cold in his tracks and we looked at each other, both knowing that if he ever got his hands on me, he could break me in two. But that day I had had enough and seen enough pushing and grabbing and groping. That day I was prepared to die. And I wasn’t leaving the planet alone, I was taking him with me.
He must have seen it in the rockin’ already in my eyes because they was saying, “Kill the mime.” Because he backed up, turned around, and disappeared back into that crowd. And by now, the spray is starting to spread to his patrons and they are coughing and wheezing and sneezing and quickly disperse without leaving a dime in his beret.
So I dropped my canister back in my purse, and I stood up, only to realize that I had bent the heel on my shoe. And I had split my seam on my skirt all the way up to my behind, and I had an interview at two o’clock. So I hobbled back across the street, and I got on that elevator and got to my office and grabbed my scotch tape and my stapler. I rushed into the ladies’ room, locked the door, took off my skirt, turned it inside out and pinched that seam back together.
I pinched and stapled and pinched and stapled until I got that whole thing closed.Then I taped down one side with the scotch tape, and the other side, and then one going straight down the center in the hopes that no one would ever know what had just happened across the street.
I went to my desk and I reached in my bottom drawer for a pair of flats that I always keep there, and put them on, and waited for that call from personnel. And when they called me, I went upstairs, marched into that office and aced that interview and got the job.
And that was the day that I got in touch with my other side. Now, she doesn’t make many appearances, but she’s available on an as need basis. And I call her my quiet fire.
And we both thank you.
[Note: all comments are my opinions, not those of the speaker, or The Moth or anyone else on the planet. In my view, every story is unique, as is every interpretation of that story. The sole purpose of these posts is to inspire storytellers to become better storylisteners and to think about how their stories can become more impactful.]
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