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.
Over the past three months since my arrival and that evening, I have had numerous people come up to me “just to talk.”
There is a difference, by the way, between approaching a woman just to talk and coming up to her “just to talk.” When a person, typically a male, comes up to a female and it’s in an appropriate situation to greet a stranger — say, at a party or friend’s house or singles dating event — it can feel totally fine when done in a friendly manner that feels casual and unforced. However, it is less fine when a guy starts talking to an unfamiliar woman about how she “looks so confident today in that dress” or whistles or calls her any of the following as a name: sexy, sweetie, honey, baby, girl, bitch, sugar, gorgeous. It’s quite often uncomfortable for the woman, but even when it’s not for an individual female, the random admirer had no way of knowing this and should still not have called out a woman in such a direct way. It is awkward, pointed and stressful; in my case, it makes me feel like I don’t want to come near that block again.
On my street, there appears to be some sort of unofficial rule that requires residents to have some form of creepy van or truck. Really — there are three abandoned-looking ice cream trucks, two vans with black-painted or tinted windows, and one food truck that has no wheels, like there’s some hungry hipster remake of IT going down all the time.
That alone feels a little strange when I’m walking alone at night, but the bigger issue is that when I am walking down a few specific blocks — unavoidable ones, as they go over a bridge and there’s no way around them without walking a very, very long time on much less safe roads — I always get spoken to. Sometimes it has been friendly-flirty with one or two random guys calling me something affectionate and inviting me to come with them; sometimes, it feels more pressured; once, a car pulled up and the passenger began yelling vulgarities at me. I don’t walk alone ever anymore; I just drive with one of my roommates or a friend. As a result, I have had a lot of long nights at home after sunset, too afraid to walk a couple of blocks to the bus or train stop so I can venture elsewhere.
None of these experiences are unique to me and my life; most of the women, and many of the men, that I know have had similar things happen to them. Many, if not most, friends of mine have been followed, yelled at, pushed, harassed, poked, squeezed, assaulted — all by strangers (acquaintance harassment is a whole other story for a different day). Most people have plenty of tales of discomfort at another person’s hand and at least one story where they felt genuinely unsafe in public, particularly when on their own.
How people, especially women, are treated while walking alone each day does nothing but indicate to me that actions — and attitudes — have not changed nearly enough. I often notice just how comfortably my fear sits, and just how far we still need to go so fewer women in the next generations do not feel comfortable with this same fear.
I want my daughters and sons alike to feel safe while walking alone when they’re of the age to do it without hanging onto my hand. I know that the world is unpredictable, and that there are so many dangers that they will face; I just don’t want them to constantly let those fears be so prevalent and so pervasive in our society and minds that they are unable to live their lives happily, freely and without the constant peek over their shoulders.
I admit that I’ve always been a bit paranoid; to be fair, though, I feel most of us have more than enough reasons to be anxious. After all, we live in a world where sexual advances towards teenagers is seen as complimentary, where public harassment goes unnoticed by bystanders, where where your friends and peers can document raping you and people will find a way to make it your fault. I do not feel safe in the world; honestly, I never really have.
This isn’t about my experiences, though; it’s about millions, probably billions, of people’s lives who have been at least somewhat affected by harassment, danger and fear of violence. People sometimes tell me that being afraid “is just life” and that “things are just like that,” but I really don’t feel like we should accept the explanation “shit happens” for things that ways in which others choose to behave in order to intimidate or hurt other human beings.
Do I believe that someday, I’ll be comfortable enough to simply do it? Sure. I think that someday, when I am old and have retired to my own farm in Northern Maine with neighbors I can barely yell to on a windless day, when there is next to nobody near me, I will possibly not fear walking alone — maybe even at night.
Photos: Repulsion (1965) and http://www.petsadviser.com.