Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Fear of Walking

3:48pm. I'd only been walking 12 minutes. I felt like I should walk more. Wanted to walk more. But where I really wanted to go was near the park area a block down and a block over. It has a really cool lookout over the city, but is always populated by people who looked...well...sort of shady. Why are there always cars parked on the roads on the edge of the park, often with people sitting in them, all day long? Of course, I have some assumptions about why they are there, which might be wrong since sometimes I sit in my car just to kill time. But it is hard enough to enjoy walking on my own just around a few blocks, without having any major anxiety, so I decided to quit while I was ahead and just go inside the building where I go to my therapy and write. Hell, if it had been dark, I might not have been able to go on the walk at all.
When TyRoy was visiting, he would walk from his girlfriend's work to the downtown library, not far from where my therapy center is. In fact, the week after he left, when I had several hours between my individual and group therapies, I walked down there to read. In an email that night, I expressed that, though it was a brisk Midwestern January day, I enjoyed the walk, that I like walking through cityscapes. He agreed, said that he found the walk invigorating. But I'd seen him walking away from my car on his way back to his girlfriend's work, laptop bag hoisted across his back, and I'd seen a confidence, a carefree-ness, a self-possessed-ness that someone watching me, even on a sunny afternoon like today, would not observe.

The only time I've walked alone in my own neighborhood without my dog or a (male) friend was a few times when I walked to the bar a few blocks away and when I used to walk to work, which was only 5 blocks away. When I was a kid, I watched with envy when characters in movies would wander around late at night, whether they lived in a city or not. I envied people living in densely populated cities who could walk where they were going, or at least from the subway. I envied their autonomy, that they got to do this alone, without having to tell a parent or bring a friend or a dog. (Yes, now that I'm older, I realize that most of those people wish they could just drive their own car around and park it right in front of their house like i do.) Whenever my mom and I were out, or even if we were watching one of those tv shows or movies where I was envying a character's autonomy, she would drill into my head that you had to be vigilant while walking anywhere, watch out for robbers or rapists or murderers. Don't go here. Stay in the light. Keep your keys in your hands. Be aware of who is around you and what they are doing at all times.

Even once we lived in a better neighborhood, I wasn't allowed to just be out by myself (or at least that's how it felt.) I could walk short distances alone, like to friend's houses or the bus stop, but only if there was a specific person or people waiting for me on the other end of my journey. When I got the bug up my butt that I was going to get up early and go for jogs, my mom made me take the bigger and meaner of our two dogs. I was not told that this was because the dog needed the exercise, but that she was with me to keep me safe.

I know that my mom was just trying to keep me safe and trying to teach me how to keep myself safe. And I don't know how much it would have been different if my name had been "Christopher Michael," but I know some of it would have been. [Here is where I start to deal in some assumptions and some broad generalizations, but they aren't wild guesses. They're based on my observations and what I've read of/heard from/know of other people. Bear with me and don't be too quick to dismiss it.] You know why TyRoy walks down the city street like he owns it? It's because he does. Though he is subjected to a different cultural narrative as a black man, and I'm sure there are places where he will get a second (and third) look, a street in this part of the city isn't one of them. While I don't know this for a fact, I doubt he has been taught that everywhere he goes he needs to be constantly vigilant for someone who seeks to victimize him. I doubt he was told as a kid that he couldn't walk down his street without his dog or a friend and I know that didn't translate into an adulthood where he doesn't walk around his neighborhood without a dog or a friend.

My belief, deep down, is that I don't have any business walking around by myself, especially if I'm not going from one set point to another set point. If I do choose to do that, I need to be constantly aware (read: fearful) because I am a victim screaming out for a criminal.

Don't get me wrong. I don't agree with this. I don't think that women (or any people of color or gay people or transpeople) should feel any less welcome to walk down the street in safety and confidence. I just know that is not the lived reality for many people. (And, yes, I do know that there are plenty of non-minority cis men who live with these fears, but they don't have this fear because of this cultural narrative.) 

I just know how stifled and constantly fearful internalizing this cultural narrative has made me. Right now, I'm lucky enough to have constant access to a car for any and all transportation I might need to do, ample parking, and a small yard for my dogs to use the restroom in, but I'm not sure what I'd do if I suddenly didn't have those things available to me. Obviously, I'd have to use other options, but how do you switch that off? Just the other day, I mentioned the possibility of going on a walk later in the day to my mom. "Better take the dog" she said. Rrrr, "It might rain. She's such a princess. She hates walking in the rain," I replied. "Who will protect you then?" she asked, sorta joking, sorta not. What happens if I needed to walk to work or to public transportation because I didn't have a car or the money for gas or car insurance/tags? How do I suddenly turn off that fearfulness that doesn't let me leave the house without a friend or a dog? And if I am supposed to be scared enough not to go out alone, does anyone really think that my stupid little Corgi is going to make me feel suddenly safe and secure? As long as this shadowy robber/rapist/murderer petted her, she'd love them.

For me, it's also become bigger than just being fearful of going on walks alone. As I said earlier, that has seeped out, turned into a belief that I have no place on the street by myself which then turned into I have no right to be out on the street by myself. Then to not having a right to my own self. It sucks and it's horrible and I hate it, but that doesn't change the fact that if something bad happens to me, someone will ask why I was there at that time, because it's my job to be constantly vigilant, not that the person or people who victimized me absolutely should not have done it.
A week later. The weather has turned back to what I think January should be like. It snowed this morning, though the streets are clear now. I bundle up, pop my earbuds in my ears, and force myself to go on another walk between individual and group. I even wore my ugly ass hiking boots, which are usually used for walking the dogs when it has snowed. I walk several blocks farther today. I left everything but my phone, ID, and debit card back at the therapy center. I try to walk with my shoulders back. The few people that I do pass on this chilly afternoon I look in the eye, smile, and say "hey" to. I'm not so much un-fearful today as I don't give a fuck. I don't walk all that long, just long enough for my face to be starting to feel numb. But this day I went for a walk. By myself.


TyRoy Washington said...

I do walk like I own it.

But My Mom still tells Me to be safe. All the time.

I have literally lived on other continents. I have been shot at in multiple countries. I have stood neck to an IED. My Mom told Me to be safe when I was home at Thanksgiving.

That is a very Mom thing to do. At least in My experience.

I am still going to walk like I own it. Because I do.

You can own it too. You will own it too.

AvaAlso said...

It's more than just that thought. You haven't spent your life being told you're a target, being a target, bc of your sex and/or gender.