She couldn’t have been more than 20. Judging by the books in her arms and her slightly exhausted pallor, she probably was a student who had just gotten out of an evening class and was waiting to take the elevator from the third floor in a building on the University at Buffalo campus.
I had just finished teaching my class. I had gathered my things from the department office, rounded the corner and saw her standing there, alone. She already had pushed the "down" button, so there was nothing for me to do but abide by the hard-and-fast rules of elevator etiquette: Smile, avoid eye contact and shift in place uncomfortably.
But standing there, at the end of another day of news reports about powerful men harassing, abusing and assaulting young women, I felt something I had never felt in that situation: fear.
Not for me. For her.
Maybe she had lived her life to that point never once hearing an unwanted comment about her looks or feeling an unwanted hand on her. Maybe it never occurred to her to worry about wearing the wrong shirt or saying the wrong word or giving someone the wrong impression.
Maybe. But now I know from reading the news and talking to women that it's far more likely she had experienced one or all those things and had reason to be terrified of the middle-aged man standing beside her late at night in a nearly empty building.
I wanted to tell her she had no reason to be. I wanted her to know I was raised to be a gentleman, to treat all people with kindness and respect. I wanted her to know that there really are good guys in the world, that there are a lot more of us than there are of them.
But I didn't — partly because I'm no longer so sure of that but also because that's not the point.
The Reckoning continues to purge from public life a host of men who mistreated and abused women. That is both a good and overdue development; any suggestion that these men are being victimized by a suddenly overzealous culture looking for payback seems hopelessly removed from the reality of the lives they have destroyed.
So too is the predictable response from a lot of men: "It's not ALL of us, you know. Some of us are OK."
As one of those men who thinks he's OK, I can tell you that it doesn't matter. It's not about the men who believe it's unfair to be lumped into the same category with the Harvey Weinsteins of the world, who say they never have done anything close to what he and others are accused of doing.
This is about women. It is a time for some men to make amends for what some women have survived, to be sure, but it's much more about all men trying to understand what virtually all women have endured.
An ABC News-Washington Post poll from October found that 54 percent of all American women have experienced “unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances” at some point in their lives. An earlier study published by the Harvard Graduate School of Education showed that 87 percent of women ages 18 to 25 say they have been sexually harassed.
Some men hear these statistics and say they are outraged because they have a wife or a sister or a daughter. Good for them, but that shouldn't be part of the calculus. You don't have to be related to a woman to get this, any more than you have to be related to a bank teller to feel bad about a robbery.
What you need is to do something that seems increasingly in short supply: Put yourself in her shoes. Ask yourself what it must be like to be alone late at night in a nearly empty building, to hear footsteps coming down what you thought was an empty hallway, to see a stranger turn the corner and realize that although you have never seen this person before, your life experience has taught you to feel afraid because of one simple fact: He is a man.
I asked myself that question. I hated the answer.