I felt as if I had done something wrong. I felt dirty, ashamed, scared, nervous, angry, trapped, alone and overwhelmed, all of this with a feeling of helplessness. What did I do to deserve this? How was this possible at this place and this time?
It happened more than 40 years ago, while I have gotten over it, I have not forgotten. I never will forget. How do you forget…when the doors closed.
I remember it like it was yesterday, Orlando, FL, and I think I was about 12 years old. Each summer our family would go on these magical vacations. They were usually associated with church conferences that my father was to attend. During these conferences, I was able to meet up with other PK’s (preacher’s kids) from across the country and we would commandeer whatever hotel was fortunate to have us. We would play pinball and video games, eat at the restaurants, swim in the pools and basically made a nuisance of ourselves with the hotel staff. What fun and adventurous summers those were.
Our parents trusted us and the environment we were in – no one would harm or bother us. It was a church conference for goodness sake, filled with ministers, pastors, bishops, missionaries, and good ole fashioned church folk. This was our summer village, where everyone was your Mom and Dad or at least your Aunt and Uncle. They fed us, gave us quarters for the video games, gave us money to buy stuff, and they watched over us.
On this day, I was headed back to our hotel room from the lobby and for whatever reason, I was alone. I got on the elevator with this man. I did not know him by name, but I knew he was a minister, because I had seen him with my Dad’s friends. He was one of us, one of the “safe” persons. I was not concerned, nor did I feel uneasy. He was part of my group, an extended member of the family, someone that I was sure that once I had met him officially, would become one of the many “Uncles” I had. A person that I could count on and depend upon to watch out for my PK comrades and I, or at least supply a quarter or two to play pinball. Then the doors of the elevator closed.
I developed my breasts at the normal age, but they were fully grown and out of training contraptions very early. I knew that I had them, but it wasn’t until much, much later that I could comprehend the power that they held, especially to men. I mean I was all of 11 or 12 years old, and very naïve for my age, until the elevator doors closed.
It never occurred to me that a grown man would look at me, a kid, that way. I did not even know all of what “that” way even meant. I had never been leered at, ogled at, felt as if I was a piece of meat before the doors closed. I never knew what it felt to feel threatened in a way I could not verbalize, felt smothered, and searching for the fresh air before the doors closed.
As this man approached me in the confined spaces of the elevator, my mind was spinning as I was thinking what should I do, and more importantly, what is he going to do to me. I felt uneasy, and knew that something was wrong with this situation. I was cornered and trapped as he came closer and closer with a smile on his face that was not a smile, but more of a smirk. I held my breath. I could not find the air to breathe, and I felt tears beginning to well in my eyes, but I would not cry, I could not cry. I was just frozen in time, knowing that something bad was about to happen, and there was nothing that I could do to escape from it. I had nowhere to run nor hide. The doors to the elevator were closed.
He was looking at me like I was about to be some secret treat, as he reached out to put his hand on my breast. I was frozen in fear and was confused. Should I scream, should I kick, should I run? But where to go, I am in an elevator, and the door is closed. All I could do was close my eyes. Close my eyes and wait for the bad thing to happen. Close my eyes so that I could not see. Close my eyes so I could not remember, but, as you see, I do remember. I closed my eyes and waited.
I must have been praying because the elevator stopped, and as the doors opened, he abruptly exited as a group of women came on, laughing and talking amongst themselves. They paid no attention to me, and I began to finally breathe and wipe the tears that found their way down my cheeks. I got off on the next floor, and just sat in front of the elevator, not sure what to do. Later in the trip, as we were at dinner, I remember seeing the man again. We were in line to eat at the buffet. He smiled and spoke to Dad, and commented on what a lovely family we were. I got sick.
I was afraid to tell my Dad, because I knew he would make me find the man, and he would literally kill him. I did not want my Dad in a Florida jail, and that is exactly what would have happened. I don’t know why I did not feel I could tell my Mom. Maybe I felt too embarrassed, and I think she would have told Dad, as she should have, and then my Dad would be in jail.
So I kept the secret. That is, I kept it until today. So why share today? I don’t know, maybe it was time. I don’t know who this man was. He was an African-American minister wearing a brown and mustard plaid suit, with a solid yellow shirt, brown, yellow, and orange striped tie, matching pocket square with brown wing tip shoes. Salt and pepper hair, and probably about 6 feet tall. I don’t know where he was from, I don’t know how he sounded, but I remember that suit. I will always remember that suit.
I am sure that he does not know the damage he caused. My feelings of insecurity around men for many years. Purposely buying and wearing clothing that was larger than my true size so that I would not invite unwanted attention because things maybe too tight. Gaining weight so men would not be attracted to me. Believing that men only were interested in me because of my breasts. The years of promiscuity because my breasts equal attention and attention must be affection and affection must be a relationship, and a relationship must be love. Only to discover that none of that was love or worth anything, and I can beat you in determining that I am worthless way before you can. There is a list of issues and dramatic problems that I had, but years of counseling and therapy are amazing blessings that more people should take advantage of.
Now, this could turn into a rant about the need to have more than discussions in the black church about the problem of predators in the pulpit, and the need for a call to real action. We all know Rev. So-and-So who likes little girls or little boys, but we are hoping that we can just “pray” it away and/or hide it under a rug. It could also become a statement about why women in the Bill Cosby case waited so long to tell their story. Embarrassed. Humiliated. Ashamed. Scared. Who would believe them against this man with power. Or it could be about what is our role in protecting all the members in the community against those who will abuse their power and position…but this is not that piece. This is about me. My story in my time, power and in my voice.
For many years, I spent church conferences looking for him, hoping not to run into him, but more importantly hoping that he was not touching some other little girl. That he was not making some other little girl feel less than what she is worth because in a corner of an elevator somewhere, there is a man in a brown suit, leering at a little girl holding her breath, praying more than anything that the elevator door will just open.