I like walking places alone. I like going out at night. I love trains. I love the freedom that walking and trains give me to explore, with little cost and little commitment. The trains are dependable, ubiquitous, and cheap. I don't have to hunt them down, convince them to stop. I don't have to worry about parking or blood alcohol percentages. I don't have to coordinate my level of fun or comfort with anyone else's - when I stop enjoying myself, I can leave, instantly, could even throw my unfinished drink down and run out screeching into the night.
If I wanted to.
I can become annoyed at the smug bartender and very crisply deposit my single empty pint atop a single folded dollar on his cash-only bar and take my needs for food, water, and politeness to another establishment.
I am the director and the star in the drama I am writing. My exit is my own and depends on no one.
Which also means if I start to get skeeved out by the lecher next to me, I have to time my exit accordingly. I have to pay attention, and watch him, and watch the streets. I don't mind doing this. It actually is a little empowering, trusting your gut reaction but then employing your primate brain to outwit the predator. To observe the skeeve and his mannerisms, to make predictions, to feint.
There was a drunk skeeve next to me at The Dakota, probably a regular there, slurring at the pretty bartenders, fumbling with piles of cash he was blowing, staring at me with unblinking fishy eyes. I kept waiting for him to talk. He didn't want to talk. He wanted to watch.
Well, ok. So watch. No matter how long you look, no matter how long your fish eyes are uncovered, you are not going to discomfit me. I'm not going to giggle nervously and start talking to you. I'm not going to leave the bar so you can corner me on the street. There are so very many things I am not good at, but this little game - I am very good at. I have lots of practice ignoring hostile or inappropriate stares, disengaging from people right next to me on the school bus, performing with crystalline manners. It is a game. The other person's goal is to make you uncomfortable and put you off balance - once you are off balance, all sorts of things are possible. Tara and I used to talk about the "monster magnet," the unnameable something that seemed to draw crazies and horrible boundary-disregarding boys to us in high school, and I think that this is it. The monster magnet is when you reveal a level of insecurity that says, "I won't stand up for myself. I don't trust my gut. I will do anything, even start a conversation with someone I absolutely do not want to talk to, just to avoid awkwardness. I am prey." I know, because most of my adolescence and twenties were spent trying to escape situations I created for myself with my own monster magnet. But I was learning, taking notes, adapting. Wax on, wax off. And now I am a Jedi.
It's not that I never looked at Dakota Skeeve. I did, several times. I made eye contact, smiled shrewdly, and went back to enjoying my prosciutto (thanks to my mother, I can perform "eating hors d'oeuvres" in front of the Astors or a Jerry Springer audience with aplomb; thanks to Marti Gukeisan, I can also add a little edge to the performance) or my book or chatting with the bartender about Ypsilanti. I just chose not to acknowledge that he was a giant slavering troll. For two hours. He got his check about 20 minutes after I arrived, and just slavered for the rest of that time. Finally, he realized he couldn't goad me into initiating conversation, and couldn't outwait me to leave, and so he opened conversation.
He said something about my book - asked me if it was good. I started to respond about the book, purely literary criticism, and he interrupted roughly, "It must be good, because you are so engrossed in it!"
Pause. Beat. Beat. He realized, I think, his mistake. I smiled slowly, opened my eyes a little wider, "Why, haven't you ever seen anyone read at a bar before? Is that not done here in New York?" My voice was very sweet. I blinked at him once or twice, still smiling. He was stupefied. This is not the droid you are looking for.
He left less than five minutes later. About two minutes after that, I asked for my check.
It was still daylight when I left, on the Upper West Side, sidewalks buzzing with people.
The situation was a little different in the pub I went to in "South Slope". Still a skeevey guy, still a busy bar, but this time the sun was down and the neighborhood was devoid of foot traffic. I could not figure out why. Did all these people drive? Do they just go to the one annoying hipster pub and then go straight home a few blocks away? Dunno, but I did know that I wasn't going to get served dinner at this place, that I needed water, that I needed to find a restaurant soon before I was out of luck. I didn't have the same luxury of wait time. And I didn't have the protection of the herd.
I left, and listened. There was a man behind me, but not the one from the bar. He was too close, though, and he was making the same turns. I stopped to look at him, but he didn't speak, smile, or defuse the situation in any way. There was light, but no businesses on this block, so not that much. Skeeve from bar could still be in shadows. I crossed the street.
My target was about a block farther. The couple I spoke to there assured me that this was one of the safest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. "But where are all the people?" I asked. On a warm Saturday night, at 10:30? The man looked confused. The woman answered with authority, "On vacation. Everyone is away for the holiday."
I suppose. I suppose because there were so many businesses, shops and shops, twice the size of Ann Arbor's downtown,(though it seemed to me, fewer bars and restaurants), and someone has to be supporting them. But how safe is your neighborhood if there is only one type of person in it, the type who drives to dinner, leaves town in the summer, and only uses the sidewalk to walk the dog? I've noticed, wandering around, the distinct disappearance of foot traffic when I walk into a "nice" (richer, whiter, more likely to have vegan restaurants, less likely to have active building construction projects) areas. Less foot traffic, no people gabbing with their neighbors on their stoops, no one lounging around with their kids on the sidewalk. People in the "nice" areas are gone? Inside their air conditioned apartments? On a mission, frowning with bags of groceries and cell phones? All of the above, I guess. Whatever the reason, the result for me, as a single female on foot, is that I feel less safe.
Is it scary to be walking down a street with a guy yelling at invisible people? Or a woman snarling under her breath? Yep. But there are also 50 other people not yelling or snarling on the street with me. I feel pretty good about the statistical likelihood that one of those 50 people would call for help if yelling man or snarling woman attacked me. Or maybe even intervene. And the very fact that there are 50 people with me makes me less noticeable as a target. And this doesn't even address the fact that yelling man and snarling woman, as scary as they are, are far less likely to be interested in me, less likely to approach me, less likely to harm my person, than skeevy guy watching me in the bar.
When I'm alone, on a street with lots of nice houses and no pedestrians, all it takes is one creep to put me in danger. One guy who thinks he's entitled to something or that he can talk me into something or that I'm an easy target. I better be able to handle it on my own. Fortunately, my route home takes me through busy train stops and blocks with lots of late night traffic. The better to shake off stalkers. But I'm still very curious about what makes us feel "safe." I tried to think about it in terms of familiarity. I feel comfortable walking home through Kerrytown late night, even though it is pretty empty. I still think it has more foot traffic, but let's say it doesn't. Is Kerrytown safer than Park Slope? Why or why not?
Do I feel safer in Kerrytown because it is more known? I know where the police station is. I know where there will be people closing up Zingerman's. I have done the walk so many times I have a good intuition of things that are out of place or off.
Do I feel safer in Kerrytown because I have to, because it is where I live? Because I refuse to let fear keep me from doing things I want to do?
Do I feel safer in Kerrytown because it is tiny? No matter how empty it is, the next block over is a pile of drunk college kids at a kegger. You can hear them from where you stand on the empty street.
Do I feel safer because everyone looks like me? Because the economic divide between neighbors is not really that steep?
Do I feel safer because the men who sometimes try follow me home are college kids, rather than adult men? Is it even rational for me to feel less afraid of a 20something than of a 50something man?
I'm not sure. I know that I feel capable of handling Kerrytown at night. And I feel capable, though definitely more alert & watchful, in Bed-Stuy. But something about empty quiet streets at night freaks me out, and getting to the "downtown" block and seeing less people than are on Ann Arbor's Main Street at 2 am, watching the restaurants shutter up at 10, just makes me feel exposed. I just thought of something else - women. There weren't women out by themselves or in groups. Women were paired with men. And there were lone men. But no clouds of female voices. Maybe that was part of what made the scene seem so freaky. But there weren't clouds of any voices, because people weren't bar hopping or strolling or smoking or anything. They weren't outside.
What makes you feel safe? What makes you feel unsafe? How does it change from place to place?