The company I work for leases the top ten or twelve floors of a big high rise downtown, and my co-receptionist, Nell, and I receive all of the FedEx, DHL, UPS and messenger deliveries for all ten floors on our floor. We serve as the public reception desk – there’s another one on the Executive floor and another on the Legal floor. When we get a delivery, we notify the recipient and they usually come up or down to get it.

Yesterday, one of the women from the Legal department, let’s call her Val, stopped by the desk while Nell was away and asked me if I remembered a delivery she’d gotten a week before.

“You know,” she said, “the big weird bamboo thing.”

“Yea,” I said, “I remember that one.”

Most people get flowers or balloons or even cookie or candy arrangements, but she’d received a big square vase of living bamboo shoots trained into a sort of umbrella shape. I remember her reading the card and looking puzzled and a little flustered. She actually told us she really didn’t want them, and did we want them? Before finally, grudgingly, bringing them upstairs (we have actually had a couple of women refuse deliveries like these from admirers. You’d be surprised)

“Do you remember who delivered it?” Val asked. “I mean, who actually came up here and delivered it?”

“The messenger service,” I said. I know the three messengers who work downstairs by name now: Tern, Brett, and Nessa. I once made Brett blush.

“So who are they? They’re employed by the building?”

“Yeah. What happens is the messenger services are employed by whatever company sent the gift, and dropped off with the building’s service, and then the building’s messengers come up here. It’s a security thing.”

Since 9/11, security downtown has been pretty tight. You have to have a badge to get through the downstairs turnstiles and another badge that allows you access to the inner doors of whatever floor you’re on. There’s *another* set of doors beyond the reception desks that you have to get buzzed through, as well, in order to access the rooms beyond. I only have a card that’s good on my floor and to get passed downstairs security. So I don’t have access to any other company floors. If I want to get into them, I have to have somebody who has access to that floor escort me through.

“Good,” she said, and she launched into this story about how she was shopping for furniture at Macy’s and discussing furniture with one of the salesmen, and she’d casually mentioned that instead of getting something delivered, she’d probably just rent a truck here downtown since she worked at XXX company here at XX South XXX street.”

He ended up giving her his card, with, convienently, his home number scrawled on the back.

She didn’t think anything of it until a few days later, when this bizarre bamboo tree complete with cheesy poem-of-obvious-interest arrived.

“So there’s no way he knows what floor I work on?” she asked me.

“No,” I said, “he couldn’t have gotten up here.”

She was more than a little flustered, and probably overly worried, but you know, when a guy puts his home number on the back of a card, pretty much anybody knows what that means. If she doesn’t call you back, it means she’s not interested. Sending something to her place of business after one casual conversation, after she *hasn’t* called you back… not a great idea.

It was a very strange moment, because I could sympathize with both parties. I’d love to live in a world where sending flowers to a stranger *wasn’t* considered an opening move to stalking.

“I’ve learned my lesson,” she said. “I’m never going to be so casual about telling strangers where I work again.”

There’s this belief that women are totally and absolutely responsible for any assault made against them. They’re expected to be constantly alert for psychos, to assume the worst of every nice guy, to guard their behavior closely in case they’re mistaken for sluts, for “asking for it,” for being too flirty.

And it’s a double-edged sword, because if you *are* nice to somebody who turns out to be crazy, then it’s your fault if he hacks you up after work cause you were dumb enough to *tell him where you worked* and if you’re cool and impersonal toward him you’re just some cold frigid man-hating bitch.

More often than not, women who are cool and reserved toward strange men are, in fact, protecting themselves. It’s not that we don’t want to be nice. I’d love to be nicer to people. But after smiling at guys on the street and having them assume that was some kind of invitation to harrassment or following me home, well, I’ve learned my lesson too insofar as city living goes.

In conversations with strangers, one of the best ways to establish early on that you’re not interested in anything romantic, of course, is to pull the “my boyfriend” card. Jenn used to do this when she worked at a comic book shop full of friendly geeky boys who liked to talk. She loved talking to them – she was just, obviously, never especially interested, so she made up a boyfriend, and made sure so work in a reference to her imaginary boyfriend any time a guy seemed to be getting super friendly (sure, you could make up a girlfriend or tell them about your real girlfriend, I guess, but I there can sometimes be anxiety around outing yourself to strangers because 1) they might give you shittier service/be assholes 2) be even more turned on and pushy at the idea ie “she just needs a good hetero fuck! I’ll cure her!” variety). It’s a nice way to establish the, “Yes, I like you, but merely in a friendly way!” thing without the guy heading for the hills in embarrassment. The ones who don’t back off after this probably aren’t the sort you’d want as friends anyway.

It’s an interesting dance, and I remember spending a couple of days in the kitchen at work here having lunch with some of the construction guys and Ms. Conner, the janitor, and laughing it up, telling dirty jokes, and generally just having a good time. The problem was, after the second day of that, the recently divorced guy with the type-1 diabetic daughter tried to push that a step further and made a comment about how great it would be if he and I just had casual sex without any strings, and ah, yes, alas, so much for casual joking days in the kitchen. The next time I saw him, I went from friendly to professional, and sadly, I saw him feel the chill, and I was kind of sad about the whole thing, cause we’d had a lot of fun joking around.

Negotiating interest feels like it’s one of those invisible privlege things that guys have. If a woman’s interested and you blow her off, you’re not usually worried about her pulling some psycho shit and stalking you (sure, it happens, but as a society, we don’t really train guys to be worried about this sort of behavior). As women, it feels like there’s this constant dance around boundaries, around establishing friendliness vs. interest and etc., and if there’s any mistake, if a guys *does* go wacko because you turned him down, it’s always going to be your fault for not being polite, for not being polite enough, for not mentioning soon enough that you had a boyfriend/girlfriend, for wearing that short skirt, for continuing to even speak in the same space….

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