The Complicated Politics Of Flipping The Bird At A Man

Photo: Getty Images.
When you bike, drivers are mean to you. I'm sure this is a universal fact (in cities, anyway), applied to male and female bicyclists in equal measure. They simultaneously resent you for existing and zoom aggressively around or in front of you as if you don't exist.

But what happened to me last night felt different. I'd stuck out my left hand to indicate that I'd be crossing the street to zip into my driveway. The car behind me leaned on the horn — angry, presumably, that this meant he couldn't pass me on the left. This has happened before. I hopped off my bike to open the gate blocking my driveway, and he kept honking. So I flipped him the bird, not looking. More honking. I looked out and he had pulled over a little ways up the street, still honking, now with his window down and his head bulging out at me. I couldn't see his face, but I screamed at him as I struggled to link the gate behind me. "What, I'm not allowed to turn left?!" I shrieked, heart pounding. "I live here!"

At that, he let out what sounded like a giggle and drove away. It wasn't until I got inside that something hit me: That car looked an awful lot like the one that belongs to my sweet landlords, a 40-something couple who gave me wine at Christmas and always ask how I'm doing. He could have been honking just to get my attention, to yell hello and share a quick, "Hey, look, we both happened to be here at the same time!" I was mortified. I imagined them discussing the incident, shocked and insulted and so disappointed. I felt ashamed. I quickly shot off an email, beginning with "I'm not sure if that was you in the car but..." and ending in myriad apologies.

Next, I took to a text thread of friends to relay the situation; my dude friend could not stop LOL'ing ("so Seinfeld, it's perfect"; "I recommend never addressing it"). But it was my sister who finally said, "It is weird that they kept beeping at you! That's kinda aggressive, esp if you're a girl."

I hadn't even processed it: I was a woman, alone in the dark at night, and a man in a car had pulled over to honk at me. Like a dog backed into a corner, I'd reacted by snarling and snapping. Now here I was, doubly shaken that a decent man was going to think I was a bitch, an angry, reactive, inappropriate asshat. Maybe men should know not to pull over in the dark and lean on the horn at a woman who's by herself?

It reminds me of another situation: The very first time I took an Uber, I needed a ride to the airport, and in a now-familiar slapstick situation, the driver couldn't find me. I'd asked him to pick me up on a complicated, multi-lane corner in downtown Manhattan, and we had one of those super-stressful, so-common-with-Uber phone conversations: "Wait, where are you?" "I'm wearing a red coat and waving!" "It's a one-way, I have to go all the way around." I was new to the app, so I didn't know to look for the license plate, to check the car's make and model. When a black car finally pulled up and a smiling man popped the trunk, I started to get in.

I was a woman, alone in the dark at night, and a man in a car had pulled over to honk at me.


We were blocking an intersection, sort of. So when the man in the car behind him leaned on his horn for a full 10 seconds, presumably because we were in his way, I finally flipped him off before slipping into the backseat.

You can probably see where this is going: The car I got into was a random livery cab; the honking car was my Uber. When I'd sorted it out and gotten into the correct cab, tail between my legs, the driver couldn't stop shaking his head. "Why would you do that?" he kept repeating. "Why would you flip me off?" I explained that I thought he was just a regular driver angered by me blocking the road, but he didn't listen. My Uber customer rating must've felt the hit for years.
I'm not advocating for flipping strangers off, which is obviously rude. But the indignant shock it puts in the hearts of men reveals how little they know about how many times in a day women feel belittled, or threatened, or less than human, or afraid. The kajillion little ways society metaphorically gives us the bird, if you will. If you, as a woman, are going about your fucking day, it's totally conceivable that delaying a driver by 20 seconds as you heave your luggage into a trunk, or making a left turn into a driveway on a bike when a car really wants to get around you, could really piss someone off — someone who believes he has more of a right to that time and space than you do, a deeply embedded idea that he probably couldn't even express. I don't think I was being a Crazy Bitch by assuming these men were angry with me. And in both cases, I was wrong: Here were dudes not showing their impatience but just trying to get my attention. Their beeps were salutatory, not aggressive. And I was so embarrassed to discover this.

It's the age-old dilemma: If a decent guy offers to help carry your groceries to your door and you refuse, you're a bitch. If you say yes and he winds up raping and killing you, well, you shouldn't have been so stupid. Should I really feel ashamed for behaving the way I did? Is it truly surprising that I reacted less like a sweet, obedient female and more like an animal fending off a threat?

I got an email back from my landlords this morning: "We're so sorry that happened to you, but no, that wasn't us." I felt a pulse of relief, the lingering shame lifting. Then a realization: A man felt a need to pull over and continue honking at me. And now he knows where I live. I'm not sure if I should've flipped him off or not. I just wish I hadn't had to.

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