Why I Will Always Be Afraid Of Walking Alone


When I am walking alone at night, and often during the day, I become strikingly aware of everything around me. Each rustle of grass, every creak from the surrounding houses, all the potential footstep sounds that could signal that I may be in danger. My ears regularly get chapped in the winter because I’m too afraid to wear earmuffs or a hat; to do so would limit my hearing, and I can’t exist that way. Not in public, not at night.

Recently, as I’ve elaborated on several times over the past few months, I moved to Portland, OR. Having found my place on Craigslist prior to leaving the East Coast, I hadn’t seen the area yet. Since I was moving in with a roommate, I asked him before I left New York whether the area is safe or not. “Yes,” he replied, “it’s totally safe. I feel fine getting home late, walking alone, whatever.” Forgetting that males’ senses of safety often differ than those of women — not because females are somehow hysterical or exaggerative in our fears, but because we are simply given more situations, both firsthand and from others, to feel unsafe in — I took his word for it.

One evening, I took the train with a friend for the first time. It was the middle of winter, so the sun went down before 5 PM each night, and since I had never been on the train before, I grossly underestimated how long it would take to get home; by the time I got to the stop I thought was mine (I later found a closer one), it was terribly dark. I got off and walked in the direction of my house. I briskly moved past a Taco Bell, a motel and a few other buildings, including what I have dubbed the Blair Witch House, as it is dubious in every way (you know those houses that just have to be at least a little bit haunted?). Then I heard it: scrrraaaaape.

My ears perked up. Am I imagining shit? I asked myself, as I have gone through quite a bit of therapy to reduce the amount of anxiety I have regarding any sign of danger, any indication of a potential threat. Don’t get carried away, it’s definitely somebody’s car from far away, or a cat, or a person taking out the trash.

But then I heard it again. Sccrraaaape.

Across the three-lane street, a man was pacing back and forth, brushing something metal upon the chain link fence next to him in these long, menacing strokes. He turned and faced me. I couldn’t tell if he was looking at me; my eyes aren’t great and it was dark, but whatever was in his hand was glinting and it was making a metal-on-metal sound with the fucking fence.

I began walking much, much faster, expecting to have to run soon but not wanting to attract more attention to myself in the event that he had just happened to turn my way and hadn’t been looking at me directly. I put my keys in my hand so, in four blocks, I would be able to get into my new house right away. I tried to remember which door was easier to open. I glanced at my fingernails, wondering if they were sharp or long or strong enough to scratch a person’s eyes out.

But he didn’t come for me. He semi-shouted something inaudible, then walked the other direction. Was it vulgar? Was it angry? Maybe, but I was just glad to not have to find out. I then began to run home, frightened and confused and kind of angry with myself for being so afraid, once more, of this new place that was supposed to be my “fresh start.” But there I was, feeling the same old fears despite the shiny new environment, unable to calm down despite the unrealized danger.

That’s the thing, though: the realization of danger and violence is only a portion of why people such as myself are afraid of walking alone.

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    • Abby

      Glad I’m not the only one; my family calls it the “what if” game. When you enter into any given situation (walking, at the store, going to your car. etc.) and think “what if someone was to ——”. What if someone is hiding under your car? Or approaches you while you’re walking? And you work out all of the scenarios of what could happen. It’s like your senses are perpetually heightened. I hate being tense and alarmed everywhere I go but it’s like an immediate state of being now.

      • http://www.facebook.com/sameurysm Samantha Escobar

        Yes! Yes yes yes. I am always thinking “what if,” probably because my parents trained me to do so. It’s an impossible mindset to get rid of, right? When I first got a car, my dad and uncle went through an incredibly long list of all the ways in which somebody could kidnap or kill me via situations involving my car; while I’m glad they warned me of stuff, it also rendered me borderline incapable of driving on my own at night.

      • Fabel

        So much car stuff. Walk with your keys in your fist (so they’re sticking out between your fingers, making a punch more painful to a possible attacker). Never leave your door open as you’re getting settled. Check under the car. Lock the doors immediately upon getting in.

        I told all this to a guy friend once, & he was completely astounded. Because of course, I don’t do any of that shit when I’m with a guy, only when I’m by myself.

    • Katie

      This rings true. I still always walk around alone, because otherwise I can’t go anywhere. But sometimes you feel more afraid than others. Living in Chicago and getting off the train at night was always exciting, but one of the scariest experiences was at 9:00 AM walking to school. I decided to walk down the street I lived on to school about a mile instead of the busier road a block behind it. And a man driving a van decided to yell at me out of his van. All ‘nice’ things, but still unnerving. And then he showed up again 3 blocks later to continue the conversation. I made it to school about 5 minutes faster than usual. So not fun.

    • Lastango

      This is a good summary, and matches my experience. I live downtown in a city, and for the past several years I no longer walk at night to the supermarket four blocks away. I drive instead. I don’t walk anywhere around here at night unless necessary, and that goes double on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday night. I’ve had far too many close calls and unpleasant experiences. When I do have to walk, I keep my head on a swivel and I move fast. A few months ago in this neighborhood a late-middle-age man was beaten to death on the sidewalk, by three total strangers, for no apparent reason. It wasn’t a robbery. (FWIW, he was coming back from the supermarket. His groceries were scattered around the street, at the spot where they killed him.)

      It’s worth noting that I’m male, fit, and don’t look or move like an easy target. Yet I’ve had to deal with all kinds of crap, and I’ve had to become very cautious. Some of the aggression just doesn’t make any sense. For instance, I’ve been yelled at from cars, called a faggot by complete strangers (like most downtown areas there are a lot of gays around here). The last person to do so snarled “You stupid faggot!”. This was a female, about 25, apparently by herself, in broad daylight, and on a busy street. It took me totally by surprise. She was walking the other way, and we had already passed each other. I heard the words, and turned around to see who was talking and who she was upset with. I was stunned to discover she was talking at me! I hadn’t even noticed her, and I still haven’t a clue at what set her off. She looked normal, not like a druggie, street person, or someone living a high-risk lifestyle.

      I’m cautious all the time now. For instance, I’m aware that parking lots at malls, shopping centers, etc. are especially dangerous. When I can, I park where I’ll be able to see all around the vehicle when I come back to it. When I’m getting in or out, or putting something in the trunk, I’m taking a look around to see anyone who might approach. When I get in, I lock the door right away. The people I’m most worried about are the professional predators; it’s their business to make sure I don’t notice them until it’s too late.

      • Lastango

        One other thing, about professional predators: they often work in teams, and one of them is often a female. The female makes the initial approach, and distracts while her accomplice sneaks up unseen. Last week, a male-female pair attempted to abduct a schoolgirl by luring her into their car. She had been “street-proofed” enough by her parents to decline.

    • Cate

      I feel fortunate in that this is something I cannot identify with at all. Maybe it’s because I’m tall, because I’ve lived in absolutely terrible neighborhoods for most of my adult life, or just because I am fearless to the point of stupidity, but I would probably be more afraid of walking alone in northern Maine, where I couldn’t shout to my neighbors on a windless day than I would walking in say, Englewood.

    • Chelsea

      I’m from and currently live in Portland, OR. It IS scary at night because there are so many wackos here!!! I am constantly paranoid about people and with good cause! My boyfriend is 6’5″ but he’s no help because he’s a young scaredy-cat. Welcome to the city, by the way! Maybe we’ll bump into each other :) … In the middle of the day.

    • JennyWren

      I think the fact that people WILL say it’s your fault if anything happens is what makes it worse. I mean, women are people- we have jobs, or classes, or commitments that require us to be outside at night, often alone. But if some nameless predator does decide to grab you, it’ll be all “why was she alone at that time of night?” We can’t win- if we live our lives so as to negotiate every possible threat we’re paranoid wannabee victims, if we do occasionally make a calculated risk and the worst happens we’re careless or stupid or just the wrong “kind” of girl.

      • zanbrody

        I got violently mugged/assaulted 5 years ago. If it somehow comes up, I always feel the need to say “And it was on a weekday early, right outside my apartment after I’d come home from the gym”. Like to be sure know one thinks I was coming home late from a bar on my own. I hate that I find myself doing that!! And also I was talking on my cellphone when it happened, and I’m always way overapologetic in saying how “stupid” I was to be walking down a usually busy city street talking on my cellphone in the early evening.

    • MR

      Have you ever been to Portland, Maine? I like to hike and camp in the outdoors, but could never live there – that includes Acadia National Park.

      • MR

        So you haven’t been there, huh? It’s a really nice small city. When I go I always backdoor my way in, via the routes thru southern VT and NH. My grandfather (my mom’s dad) was born and raised there. He immigrated during the Great Depression, first to Fall River, MA, and then to Nyc. He and my Grams used to take us there to the beaches south of it in mid to late August, when my brother and I were younger. The waters are the warmest then, that’s why going to Cape Cod in early September doesn’t phase me. But yeah, the water at the latter’s temperture requires a little getting used to.

    • anna

      this is something my mother drilled into me, that all people (especially men) are out to get me. it’s strange, because although she is a smart lady, she is always the optimist/innocent, but my safety is something she never fucked around with. it was terrifying as a child, and still an upsetting mindset, but it’s one i’m feel safer for having.

    • jamiepeck

      I’m moderately scared of walking alone at night, but I often do it anyway, because I am a nocturnal party creature and that’s not going to change any time soon. That said, I have felt a lot safer since I moved into a place that is two very well trafficked blocks from the train. I still always have my keys out. That ended up saving me once at my old place when I got chased down the street by some shitty teenagers, so it’s not just paranoia!

    • anna

      on another note, my friend left me a terrifying message the other night after a party. she called 8 times around 5 am, when i was sound asleep. she sounded like she was crying and running and just kept saying she was being followed. i called her back as soon as i heard it, and she said she had to run all over west side because a man was following her and she didn’t want him to know where she lived.

      now, my friend is 4’9 and weighs maybe 75 pounds soaking wet. she attracts alot of creeps, because well, if i was a predator, i would think she would be easily snatched. she was wearing heels she was tottering around in and a mini skirt, also not an easy outfit to fight in. but the thing i was most worried about was she was calling me. NEVER be on your phone in that kind of situation UNLESS YOU ARE CALLING THE COPS. it takes up part of your mind that should be used for being alert and evading the predator, and also shows your fear. don’t be on your phones!! she was so lucky, i’m so glad she’s ok.

      • anna

        but of course, this doesn’t mean that the only targets are tiny girls or girls in high heels or drunk girls late at night. we all know that anyone, anywhere could be a target. she just kind of screams “easy target”, sadly.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jen-Clark/100000568225513 Jen Clark

      When I was 16 I worked about 4 or 5 blocks away at a local mcdonalds, now I walked to work around 3pm each day, no biggy, I have no problem walking alone in the day, but I absolutely dreaded walking home, since I would leave work at 11 on a good day, but it was usually 12:30-1:30 in the morning. I had to walk down a mainly secluded back road, and right past a small studio complex well known for housing drug dealers, most of them were large men that would often stare at me or holler as I walked past in the afternoon. There were many times that a van that usually consisted of about 5 Bosnian men, would slowly follow me as I got to the entrance of my complex. (my complex was massive and in a horseshoe shape and I lived at the very far end up a hill) And a couple times, there would happen to be a guy walking on the other side of street, in which after passing, they would cross the street and start walking behind me. It’s terrifying honestly, especially for someone 5ft who averages 106lbs, I’m 20 and still the same exact size. Thankfully for me, I was also agile and an extremely fast runner and could bolt and be long gone at the slightest hint of danger. Being able to clear fences, tread hills, and zig zag through woods I feel saved my ass many times. Thankfully I found a stable ride.