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.