Four days after the Presidential election I was punched in the head by a man I had never seen before, after we had words in a corner bistro in Boreum Hill, Brooklyn. This happened at a neighborhood French place called Bar Tabac. It’s the kind of hipster venue that blocks off the street and assembles sandy pits for petanque-playing on Bastille Day. My friend and I had been at our table for about forty minutes unhappily unpacking our thoughts about Trump et al, when a young man and woman were seated next to us. On first glance, I’d had two quick thoughts: ‘New to Cobble Hill’ and then ‘Finance,’ but that was a snap summation with little evidence. I had admired her knee-length leather skirt and her Archie Comics high black Veronica ponytail; she was stylish and confident, though maybe a little joyless. They seemed to be in their early thirties. I wasn’t sure they were a romantic couple. I moved my bag for her to sit, and then got a better look at her friend, but he made little impression other than that he was short.
My friend and I continued our jeremiads without missing a beat. After a few minutes, the woman leaned over, and for a second I thought she was going to break in and agree in agonized camaraderie, but she was very angry, and she snapped at us: “Stop talking that way, you’re ruining our night.” Her ferocity and apparent disgust were startling. This is snowflake-Brooklyn, and there are ways of asking neighboring tables to stop doing something that is bothering you. This was not it.
My friend and I looked at each other over our French fries and Sancerre and signaled: What? and Weird! Were we too loud? I wondered to myself what too loud would mean in a fake French Bistro; it was kiddie dinner hour as well as adult cocktail time, and the place had its usual busy, chaotic din. A baby screamed in the back room.
After a minute, my friend said, “Jeez, we are just talking here.” They continued to stare at us.
I asked them, “Are you Trump supporters? Is that what this is about?” I asked them twice but they refused to answer me. When I understood it was not our volume that was bothering them, but our content, I was incensed. Election night had constituted the worst night of my national life. Because I was not at my best that horrible week, and since I apparently had these two to thank for it, in addition to 62,000,000 other voters, I said, uncivilly and exhibiting poor manners that my mother would have been ashamed of: “So fuck that, and fuck you.”
The man then threatened to beat my “ass” in the street, (with the caveat, he would do so if I were a man); otherwise he was going to stare daggers at me while his girlfriend complained to the waiter that I had sworn at them. I told the man that at five feet tall, he did not scare me in the least. The couple was moved to another table, ate in fury, glaring back at our table, paid cash, and left. Then, he alone returned ten minutes later, running to the back of the restaurant to punch me in the head. He pushed aside a man holding a baby to get at me, leaned over a table and aimed a closed fist at my head, getting me pretty good, but not as badly as he wanted.
What a shock! Sucker-punch! I’d almost forgotten about the couple and hadn’t noticed when they left the restaurant. I had been looking at the menu, when I half-saw the sandy-colored blur out of the corner of my eye and felt a focused barreling energy coming towards me. He was unhinged and determined. The punch happened in a second, and then everything got very quiet in what had otherwise been a hopping dining room. Then there was a lot of confused commotion, and as I stood up I let a nice woman put her arms around me. Some people thought I was choking.
I cried a little bit from being stunned and shocked.
The nice man with the baby was apologetic. “I would have tackled him if I wasn’t holding the baby.” It had all happened so quickly.
My older female friend said: “Boy, you really provoked him.”
At first, the sound of his fist hitting my skull, not so much the moderate pain, which came later, was what echoed in my mind. The sound of the contact—that “klonk”—plus the word “wallop” kept flashing in my mind as I swam towards clarity. It was so base, so simple, and so far beyond the pale: a human had hit another human on the head like it was the Stone Age. A strange man had done something no other man had ever done to me before, though there were those who may have wanted to. The social fabric had been ripped.
The spastic manshape had fled, shouting that he wanted to kill me and, to those in pursuit, “You don’t know who I am!” Indeed, the couple had paid cash, and there were no cameras in the restaurant. The waiter who caught up to him said the man climbed into a white BMW, his girlfriend driving getaway, and sped off. What in the world?
After four days living with President-Elect Trump, the city was in a strange and tragic mood, with strangers commiserating as the situation settled-in; but not this guy: this punch was about our divide, something he seemed to relish. You may be surprised to hear that the punch itself has faded in my mind as the true insult of the night. It has almost completely receded in importance compared with what happened next.
Two police officers from the 84th Precinct arrived and took down accounts of what happened as I stood rubbing the left side of my head, still stunned. A commanding officer then drove upon the scene in a big NYPD SUV—one bearing the promise of “Courtesy—Professionalism—Respect.” I was led to the driver’s window where a supervisor—a sergeant—sat behind the wheel. Where the initial cops had done their jobs properly, this man was, to my confusion and instant alarm, adversarial and aggressive.
“Okay, why did you call the police tonight?” he asked.
“I got punched in the head by a strange man,” I said, rubbing my head. “I didn’t call; the restaurant did.”
It was dark out, about 7pm. I peered into his car. Shops lights were on.
“You say that you were punched?” he continued. “How do I know you got punched? You don’t look like you’ve been punched. I don’t see any blood, I don’t see any bruising….”
Time got sticky. How to answer this rationally? I didn’t think he could see where the man had hit me, on my head where my hair is, and I wasn’t sure what he was insinuating by questioning what a restaurant full of people had seen clear as day. Was he implying that I was lying or exaggerating? I’d been punched, but I could still stand. I had, in the spirit of wanting the whole thing to go away (which I assign to my mother’s teachings of what a strong woman does when in distress) waved off calling for an ambulance. He seized on this, and instead of showing concern, suggested the entire situation did not interest him in the slightest. Did he think this was a bar fight?
“You say you don’t want an ambulance, so…” He shrugged, unconcerned.
I’ve been a pretty bad feminist, believing Gloria Steinem had fixed things in the 70s, and we were all on a road of continual refinement. Still, even I understood that something very wrong was happening for the second time that night, and that the reaction was, as I have finally learned to call it at fifty years old, “gendered.” I would eventually tease out that the punch had come from the new Trump-era misogyny, where it is permissible for a man to put his hands on a woman (our leader and his pussy-grabs and kamikaze kisses), as well as on others, even in violence (Trump’s calls for manhandling protesters at his rallies), and that this insult had been compounded by an older, more entrenched badness, i.e. the male cop’s old-school patriarchy. As I interacted with this officer, I tried to imagine how other women might fare with him (minorities, women in hijabs, transgendered women, women who can’t speak English well, women who are afraid of their attackers). I feared for them, and I still do.
“Why are you talking to me like this?” I asked.
I watched the officer’s focus switch from the incident (which he refused to believe happened, despite witnesses) to my lack of respect for him. This low-level act of defiance enraged him. Despite the fact that he was showing me no respect, I was expected to be deferential to him. Class issues were now perfuming the air.
“Oh,” he said, almost brightening at my reaction. “Oh, so, do you have a problem with me?”
“Oh my God,” I said, still rubbing and shaking my head, staring at the face of this white man in the dark SUV. I could not formulate a further response, which is unusual for me. This cop was exhibiting overlording behavior, with a little gaslighting thrown in, to deal with a female victim of a male assault. One of the okay cops on the scene saw what was happening and led me away from the SUV window back to the sidewalk.
When I asked him why his superior had asked those questions when there was a restaurant full of witnesses, he said, “He shouldn’t have spoken to you like that. He shouldn’t have asked you those questions.”
The next morning as I went over the bizarre events, I saw that I had challenged two men’s concepts of their power and station in the world that night, and they had both tried to put me in my place. I’d never had male attempts at dominance present themselves in such stark relief.
I called the precinct to find out what would happen next. I learned then that the incident had been labeled “harassment,” which meant it would not be investigated. I was confused. I had been punched—like, assaulted, battered, or, as the English say, bashed—not harassed, which by legal definition requires repeated offenses. The detective and I went over the incident, and he let me know—if I would just stop talking for a minute—that most likely I had been deemed not “hurt enough” by the calculated punch to have it reach the level of assault. I had not reached the threshold of “sustained pain.” I assured him I had a splitting headache and felt pain when I touched that side of my head, though it was true I had waved off an ambulance at the scene. My eyeball wasn’t hanging by a thread, but wasn’t that a good thing? I felt that if only it had been, my complaint would be taken seriously. Was he interested at all that the guy had screamed that he also wanted to kill me? I asked him why a male officer was making medical determinations for a woman? I kept getting this feeling he thought I was exaggerating; I assured him I took no pleasure in this, and that the word “victim” gave me no happiness at all. Why would it?
When I got off the phone, I looked up the New York state definition of assault. To classify an attack as an “assault,” the victim must experience physical injury, which in legalese means “sustained physical pain.” Without that pain, “there is no completed crime,” according to an internet lawyer who seems to be an expert on failed punches. He argues that the best defense to an assault charge is one’s own inability to punch someone hard enough: “One of the key components to assault…is that you inflict or cause a physical injury to another person. Well, what happens if you strike or hit someone and you don’t bust their lip, give them a black eye or, or cause any pain at all? …your weakness or their toughness could be a blessing to you!” Violent, weak men across the state: your hobby is cool in the eyes of the law.
This is a dangerous definition of assault, especially when dealing with male-on-female violence. Male muscle mass affords men superior physical strength, which has been a big part of women’s historical subjugation. Why do they have to leave a woman maimed in order for physical violence to register as a criminal assault? Why would the miscalculation of landing a fist in an otherwise intentional and planned physical attack render the attack not criminal, not an assault? How many women have been intimidated by men whose physical attacks did not rise to the legal definition of assault? How did they feel about themselves after it was deemed that nothing too bad had happened to them when their boyfriend punched them in the face? No loose teeth? No blood? No assault. Tell her to suck it up and stop complaining: according to the law, nothing happened.
It is sad and humiliating to admit that my first thought after the punch landed was that I deserved it. That was the first thought, not anger at that jerk. The next feeling was remorse; I was mortified to be part of causing a scene, something a “nice” girl doesn’t do. Another thing a nice girl doesn’t do is push back verbally, and now I was reaping my punishment. Assertive women are dangerous, unlikeable agitators. I assert myself verbally, so much so, in fact, I been told I have “an answer for everything,” and have been called a “communicator” and “Queen O’ the Last Word,” always by men, and not as compliments. My Irish-descent newspaperman father taught me mixed messages about my verbal power, meaning my de facto power. By his example, I learned to strip any situation down to its barest bones and state the ugliest facts in unvarnished language. But when these skills were turned on my father himself, my articulate anger got me Lear quotations. I was a “thankless child,” with ice water flowing in my veins to say such things. I often intervene instead of demure; I inflame instead of soothe. A friend confessed days after the incident: “I wanted to ask what you had said to him, but I didn’t know if that was like asking a rape victim what she was wearing.”
* * *
In order to get the charge changed to assault, I had to get a medical evaluation, so I went to see my doctor, who could not believe what I was telling him.
“They won’t look for him,” he said. “The cops are Trump supporters. This kind of thing is going to happen more and more.”
I took my doctor’s note, which indicated that I had a contusion, bruising, and a three-day long headache, to the 84th Precinct. Even with this magic note, the 84th showcased their combative, mistrustful universe, and for days I fielded knee-jerk negative responses, along with a discombobulated messaging system. The only people who listened to me, finally, were two female police officers, one who truly broke through, saying to me as she rolled her eyes at the lameness of her male peers, “If he hit you, that is assault.”
Two Kafkaesque weeks later, I was assigned to a female detective on the second floor of the Precinct, who no doubt had gotten a heads-up that this was a problem case with a difficult and pushy victim. I had been successful in getting the charge changed, which I have been told is not an easy thing to do. The female detective called me once to say she doubted they could catch him, then again two weeks later, to say, breezily and without explanation, Yes, nope, she was right, they couldn’t find him. When I asked if they had followed up on footage from the nearby shops and restaurants that I had canvased after the assault, she accused me of harassing shopkeepers.
“What did you just say to me?” I was shocked. “I got hit in the head, and you are accusing me of harassment? I didn’t hit anyone in the head. Do you see the irony in this?”
The last time I called the detective she screamed at me: “I don’t have to answer your questions!” and hung up. I sent her an email and told her she had just failed all NYC women, and that I hoped that she—or her daughter—is never punched in the head by a male stranger, because nothing would be done. How would she feel about that? How would her daughter feel?
* * *
It is now eight months since the punch, and the men and women of the 84th precinct still have not revealed the name of the superior on the scene, though I have asked for his name verbally, in emails, through my councilman, and now in certified letters that the involved parties refuse to sign for. The Blue Wall of Silence is real, anti-American, and illegal. The scant investigation into the attack is a result of the dangerous policing of the original superior officer: all badness flows from him downwards.
Two months after the punch, another NYPD commander, Captain Rose at the 93rd precinct, betrayed his antiquated thinking when it comes to sex crimes. Discussing increased sexual violence in Greenpoint, Rose said that authorities were not “too worried,” since several of the rapes had been acquaintance or date rapes. “If there’s a true stranger-rape, a random guy who picks up a stranger off the street, those are the troubling ones. That person has, like, no moral standards.”
Tell that to the woman who was just raped by her Tinder date.
In the last eight months, I have vacillated between feeling guilty and not guilty over getting punched; most days I favor that it was my fault and that my innate badness brought this down on myself. I am told I get automatic angel wings—sticks and stones and all—but that is hard for me to believe. My mind turns to the sergeant in the SUV, and the helplessness I felt standing before him, though I do think occasionally about the guy who punched me. I wonder if he feels remorse. Does he brag about hitting me to his friends? Has he been practicing boxing since November? What if, after bashing me in the head and suffering no consequences, he decides to try the same on his girlfriend? Indeed, he is now free to come after me again. Or another woman who challenges his fragile sense of himself. While my boyfriend wanted him caught and charged, I would rather have talked to him to find out what the hell the problem was. Our hatred of each other was incendiary and complete; our disagreement escalated like an argument in a trolled chatroom. In close quarters, at our wobbly little wooden café tables on Smith Street, we were a divided citizenry, emblematic of the country at large. We looked as if we could be familiar to each other, but we were the strangest of strangers.