I had a couple of experiences which jolt me with surprise about how I view my safety.
1. Walking home from work
I walk home from work through a large expanse of park, called ‘The Common’. I find this an exceedingly pleasant way to end my working day. With the long summer hours, I can even walk home when I have had a late day at work. I tend to change my working shoes into running shoes, and I leave my work shoes at work, under my desk.
Other uses of The Common are fellow walking-commuters, evening-exercisers, dog-walkers and youthful layabouts. I say hi to the exercisers and dog-walkers, but my fellow walking-commuters ignore me (and I them), and I am much too uninteresting for the youthful layabouts.
A couple of weeks ago I was walking home and otherwise meandering inside my own head. There were three youthful layabouts, two female, one male, sitting on a park bench. As I passed, one of the girls said something, which I knew to be aimed at me, but which I did not quite hear. The tone was derisory. I chose to ignore her. Then she spat at me. Frothy white goop landed at my feet; I stepped over it and kept going. Behind me, the boy shouted something I could not make out and all three started laughing. When I got home, I was shaken. No one has ever spat at me before. I have had racist comments yelled at me. I have had sexist comments yelled at me. I have been grabbed, and held, by a mentally unstable man – I did not feel threatened by him and managed to extricate myself. I have had a broken bottle shoved into my face, also by a mentally unstable man, and again, I did not feel particularly threatened (although I was scared). The spitting was just uncalled for. And it made me feel unsafe. (I half knew the man with the broken bottle would jab it in my face).
2. Walking to the shops
I walk to and from the grocery stores. Not too long after the above spitting incident, I was walking home with my shopping. Picture, if you will, a young east-Asian woman in a pinstripe suit with a grocery bag under each arm – one bright orange, one hessian – just minding her own business and perhaps frowning a little as she carried her heavy groceries home. Going in the opposite direction, on the other side of the road, were two young women and one young man. The young man shouted something at me, which sounded like: ra ra ha ha ra. And then there was laughter. I stopped. I went to turn towards them to say something – anything – back. Except I did not know what. And the thought that ran through my head? This is not a nice area. I’ve heard of cars being burnt here. I walked on in fear. About a few metres later, I got really angry. I hate it when fear prevents me from defending myself against inanity.
3. Running through the Common
I occasionally (I’ve done this once, but I would like to more, hence the choice of word) run through the Common on my way home, for excercise. Usually when I run in the Common (on weekend mornings) I stick to the large paths. My partner on the other hand has waxed lyrical about how lovely ducking into the woods themselves are.
On my first afternoon run, I took the large paths, then darted off on a walkers only path. I ran up beside the lake and saw a lovely path into the forest, that twisted enticingly out of view. I took it. I ran until I came to a junction where three paths crossed. I chose one that veered off in the direction of home, as it was about roughly time to circle back again. The path I chose got narrower and narrower, and windier and windier. I leapt fallen trees and dodged nettle as much as I could. Then the blackberry bushes grew so close together I had to use my hands and shoulders to clear my path. I had turned so much I no longer knew which direction I was facing. I heard laughing voices in the near distance. I freaked out, did an about face and retraced my path back to the junction, back to the walkers only path, back to the nice large open concreted-over path. Heart thumping more from fear than from the exertion, I jogged on home again.
Not only had the laughing teenage voices reminded me of my earlier unpleasant encounters, I realised that no one knew where I was. My partner knew only that I was running home, via the Common. He would not expect me for another hour, would not start to worry for perhaps another two hours. I know that I would not, in his position. Work would not realise until the next day, and no one knew which direction I headed off in anyway. Only my partner and work would note my absence in the short term.
When I lived in a share house and went running in the early mornings, I drew a map of my planned path and my expected return time for my housemates. I almost always returned before any of my housemates even aroused themselves from sleep. Only one housemate, in my five or six years of house sharing, even saw my map. But I felt much better with the thought that, if I did not return and there was a note to say where I had been, someone would think to come looking for me.
When I lived with my parents, the rule was that I would inform them if I would not be home before dark. In my early university years, my mother got used to me walking out of the house calling out not to expect me home before her bed time. I once overheard my mother on the telephone to my aunt, complaining about how I was always out and she had no idea where. I tried a few times to tell her I was at a library until it closed, but she did not believe me. I think she wanted to believe that I was out with boys, taking drugs and partying hard, rather than holed up on the fourth floor of the law library with casebooks, or the second floor of the arts library with journals. At worst, I was in a cafe or movie theatre with friends. My juvenile delinquency never did get off to the right start.
I have got lazy. I do not do the little things anymore that make me comfortable doing activities which otherwise put me at risk of the nebulous thing out there that is dangerous to young women. I forgot to live in fear, because I have my mobile phone and my partner is well-versed with my habits. But the fear has come back in this New Place, so I need to find my parameters again.