It’s Harlem, New York City, and it’s nearly 2 AM. I’m at a friend’s house, having just enjoyed a very fun Christmas day dinner that she and her boyfriend cooked for a few other guests and I. We were served chicken, vegetable cous-cous, mashed potatoes, wine, ice cream, cake, amaretto, and tea. It was delicious, and I’m tipsy, tired, and ready to head home.

I’m only 40 blocks from my apartment, I’m thinking, the subway will take forever, and I’d rather not spend the cash on a cab. I can walk it. So, even though this isn’t something I usually do, I decide to travel on foot.

I call Eileen on my cell phone because she called me moments before I left my friend’s apartment and because I want to talk to her before we each go to bed. After walking a short while, I’ve passed two large groups of hispanic and black men congregated on the sidewalks, never breaking stride and never breaking somewhat idle conversation about something or other with Eileen. I notice one man who is talking to another man eyeing me and then I note that his compatriot turns to look at me, but I continue by and nothing happens.

This is what’s expected. I’m a slender white Jewish boy, five-foot-eight-inches tall with long, curly red hair, glasses, and a long wool coat. I don’t look like I should be out in the middle of Harlem at 2 AM. What was I thinking?

Yet nothing happens. Nothing happens until I’m almost half-way through my journey and, having passed yet another group of almost a dozen rowdy men or so, am feeling somewhat more secure in my march towards home. I mean, I’m not so far away, and it’s not that bad a neighborhood (I’m even about to pass another friend’s house right now), and no one is really out to get me, and certainly not me specifically. What could happen?

I notice a group of six or so girls up ahead. I think almost nothing of it, as I typically don’t. Any real threat comes from men, I’ve been taught to think, since they are the ones who are violent, they are the ones who commit crimes, they are the ones the media has told me to fear.

I walk closer to the group of girls on my way towards home, making sure to stay on the side of the sidewalk closest to the street, furthest away from them. I’m just going home and I want nothing to do with these people. There’s nothing they have that I want and nothing I have that I could imagine them wanting. So what’s the worry?

I notice a taller girl, clearly hispanic, with long curly black hair and wearing a North Face down coat looking at me as I approach. What’s the worry, I remind myself, I’m just a curiosity in these parts at this hour. So I walk on.

As I pass them, my focus is fixed firmly within my peripheral vision, yet I’m still talking to Eileen on my cell phone. This girl’s fixed attention draws the attention of the others and now they’re all looking at me. In an instant, one girl from the small crowd crosses my path not half a foot in front of me and makes a loud noise in my direction, her face nearly pressed right against mine for a moment. I give her a somewhat quizzical but annoyed glance and keep walking.

In the next instant, somewhere between all the yelling that has suddenly and conspicuously begun too abruptly to be coincidence, I hear another girl yell, “Your nose needs surgery!” I look to my left to see one of the girls standing next to me with her arm raised in a fist. I put up my hand in a defensive posture, feel my breath catch, and my heart race. I hear the tall girl with the long black curls say with a grin in her tone, “Don’t you know you shouldn’t ever raise your hands up like that to a woman?!”

Then I feel a light pat on my butt and a cacophony of laughter. I whirl around to face all of these girls, unsure of what to do. “Jesus fucking christ,” I mutter to myself—on Christmas night no less—but keep walking onwards at an even more quickened pace. There are more shouts after me. I turn back around and hurry off.

Eileen is asking if I’m okay. “Yeah,” I say. “I’m fine…. Will you stay on the phone with me ’til I get home?”

I talk as much as I can on the way home even though, now, I am having two distinct conversations. One conversation is the one I have out loud with Eileen, the one my cell phone carries over the wire to her ear. The other is my internal monologue asking questions about what just happened.

Why was it all so appearance-centric? Men, as they have done once in the past, would have demanded money, confrontation, or physical altercation, but these girls were entirely gender-focused, even going so far as bringing up our different sexes vocally. How much of this has to do with race and how much with sexism, for that matter? Furthermore, how much of my reaction, and my fear, has to do with over sensitivity, my lack of a thick-skin, versus a real, perceptible threat? How much is real?

Is it my fault? I bet I just look like an easy target; what do people who aren’t easy targets look like? How can I be more like them? Do I want to? Should I have to? Why did they do this? Was it just for laughs, some harmless immature prodding at my expense? That wasn’t typical feminine behavior; one of them touched my ass! Where did these girls learn that? I have to wonder about how many times each and every one of the girls in that group has had the same experience I just had. How many men have touched them inappropriately?

I’m home now, and I’m fine, yet my mind is still having these thoughts and more. I’m tired and somewhat frazzled from the sudden rush of flight-or-fight impulses coursing through my veins. These girls were just hooligans, probably no real danger.

At some point, analyzing this exchange under a less drunken and more cognitive mindset might prove fascinating. The sexism, the racism, the group dynamics. It’s all fascinating.

But for right now, I’m just thankful to be home safely.