Author’s Note: It’s come to my attention that lots of people didn’t note that the event with the group of young men I describe below didn’t take place in Hartford. I thought the location was irrelevant, as this behavior happens everywhere, but apparently I was wrong. The post isn’t about Hartford anyway. It’s about fear, and the fact that we judge others for their fears. But most of you got that. Thanks.
On Wednesday I took the afternoon off from work to participate in a discussion of ways to use empty space in downtown Hartford. A group of 10 interested people met at JoJos.
As the discussion warmed up, one of the participants gestured out toward Pratt Street and said something like “As a woman, I’d be afraid to walk on that street alone at night.” I twitched a little and locked eyes with my companion at the table. “Empty storefronts don’t make me feel safe,” the woman went on to explain.
Yes. Fair enough. It has to be.
Once upon a time my hackles would’ve gone up and I would’ve jumped at the opportunity to argue about perception versus reality, the role of the media in perpetuating negative stereotypes, our culture of fear.
Today, I can’t do that. Who am I to tell someone what they should and shouldn’t be afraid of? Who am I to believe that everyone should feel as I do?
Simply this: I lived in a place where I felt very, very afraid.
It wasn’t in Hartford. It doesn’t matter where it was, actually. The fact is, I felt afraid. For the first time, after living in cities for 26 years, I felt afraid.
And I also found myself getting angry when someone told me I shouldn’t be afraid. And angrier still when someone told me I was simply unfamiliar with living in an urban setting.
OK. You believe that if it makes you feel better.
Truth of the matter is, once upon a time there was a drive-by shooting in my neighborhood. Was it scary? Sure, at the time. But guess what? The next day I was sitting on my front porch as if it had never happened.
And my house was broken into a couple of times. Was it scary? Actually, not for me. I’d been out of town. But the fact that the kid who was watching my cats was in the house with two criminals, one of whom had a history of violence, was scary as hell. But again, guess what? Soon I was hanging at home as if it had never happened. And the kid was happy to look after the cats again the next time I went away.
I’ve wandered around Barry Square, Downtown, the West End, Asylum Hill and Frog Hollow. All by myself. At night. Holding a backpack full of tech. Wearing really expensive jewelry. Strapped into shoes that weren’t made for running. Carrying $1200 in my wallet.
I’ve done this at high alert, for sure. Confident, bold, spine erect, footsteps purposeful and strong. Those are some of the rules. Others include at the very least making eye contact with the people I pass. Ideally I have an opportunity to greet them.
I never felt stupid or like I was taking unreasonable risks for doing any of those things. I was doing what I want to do or have to do in the place where I live. (Or don’t live, like New York or Boston, Athens or Dublin. All potentially scary places when you’re alone at night.)
I say I never felt stupid. Part of that is because I wouldn’t do anything stupid. Not on purpose anyway.
For example I was in a new place wondering where I might find tennis courts with a practice wall. A couple of guys told me there was a court with a practice wall down on Whatever Street. Near the highway overpass.
Whir. Click. Tick tick tick. (The sound of me thinking.)
“I wouldn’t go down there by myself,” I said.
“What are you talking about?” one of them responded in a tone I used to use. “Everyone thinks this place is more dangerous than it is. It’s just perception.”
I perceive that it would be stupid of me to go to a place I know to be sparsely populated, peppered with abandoned buildings, in the shadows of a highway, armed with only a tennis racquet, by myself.
I’m not afraid of cities but I’m not stupid.
But let me tell you about the time I was afraid.
Really, really afraid.
I had just left my apartment with Gracie, my dog. We were going to take our mile-long early evening walk. There was a group of young men coming up the street behind me. I went on alert – straightening my posture, putting intention behind every footstep. I felt uneasy and gripped Gracie’s leash like a security blanket.
The young men quickened their pace and started talking, ostensibly to each other, but in reality to me. They talked about what they were going to do to me. To Gracie. They said they were going to take her away from me. They said they were going to tie me up. They described what they were going to do with each of my arms, each of my legs. They described exactly how they were going to rape me. What I would say. What they would say. What it would sound like. How it would tear me in half.
I wasn’t even ten steps from my apartment door. In other words, I was home.
Recounting this incident later I was astounded by the reactions. Very few people were sympathetic. I was told I had overreacted. I was told that I just didn’t know what it was like to live in the city. I was told that they were “just trying to scare me.”
Just trying to scare me.
Apparently being violently verbally harassed wouldn’t have scared my critics. Just as walking down Pratt Street alone at night wouldn’t scare me.
Which is why I say today, I’m sorry that we live in a world that scares us. I’m sorry that we live in a world that threatens women and girls particularly, such that we have to have rules for walking down the street.
And I’m truly sorry if I ever jumped down your throat for expressing your fear.
You shouldn’t be afraid to do that.