Friday nights, I often stay home and skip dinner or eat a little bit of cheese (generally all that is left in the fridge by then), which I know is just about more excitement than any one person can handle. Last Friday, after working on a client project until 8:45, I decided to go out. After checking in with a few people, and finding no one in the immediate area, I went by myself, which doesn’t bother me a bit.
I didn’t go far, just a little taco place only about a mile away. I ate, listened to music, caught up on social media and a few blogs, and left feeling pretty content.
My car was parked a long block and a half away down a busy road, and about a quarter of a block up a residential street that had plenty of other cars parked along it. As I walked back to it, I passed a couple of guys on the sidewalk, and then a family, before turning from the busy street onto the residential one.
All of a sudden, the shadows of the two guys I’d passed loomed up much larger and more quickly than the prior distance between us would’ve suggested they should. I was only a few steps from my car, but out of instinct, when I saw their looming shadows, I looked over my shoulder to confirm they were far enough back not to be a threat.
Since I’ve been walking while female all of my life, my purse was sensibly strapped across my chest and my key was wedged between my fingers, pointed out, positioned to poke someone in the eye or trachea.
If you didn’t already know, plenty of women are trained to walk that way when they are out in the big, bad world—ready to attack the attacker. I do it automatically, the same way I put on a seat belt. The trend in keyless car entry has me wondering what women with newer cars use.
The guys weren’t so close that I thought I had to worry, but they were closer than before, and moving faster than the easy saunter they’d been doing around the corner. As I was sliding into the car and locking the door, one of them took a few running steps toward me and said to his friend:
Quick! She’s about to get in her car!
By the time I looked up, the one who’d come toward me had already crossed back to the opposite sidewalk.
I started the car and sat for a second. It happened so fast that I wasn’t yet worked up about it, or hadn’t noticed the adrenaline surge.
I thought about tailing them home, tailgating them and making them feel as unsafe as I’d felt. I considered turning around and reporting them to the officer around the corner, just a block away. I visualized pulling up across the sidewalk in front of them, jumping out and snapping their photo, or just lecturing them on how they were NOT FUNNY and how I could have been carrying a gun.
I did nothing but drive home.
Not exactly straight home, because a car was behind me. I took an extra spin around my block, because there was a car behind me for the last couple of blocks of the drive.
That’s another thing you learn to do, as a woman who returns home, alone, at night. I never pull into the driveway or park out front if a car is behind me. I always make the block just in case I’m being followed, ready to drive to the closest fire station or the municipal court-house nearby, where you can always find a cop. I have a safety plan that is pretty much automatic. I’m a little ashamed to admit how many times I’ve driven around the block after not recognizing a neighbor’s car.
* * *
I woke up Saturday to news of yet another mass shooting, one that happened as I was trying to calm myself down from my own much less serious but still menacing encounter with men who think that they are entitled to police my presence in the public sphere, or who think rape jokes are funny.
Reading all of the news stories, watching the creepy last video of the murderer, and checking the rushing flow of #YesAllWomen tweets created a weird context in which to consider my own experience.
I wasn’t out on a date with those guys Friday. Didn’t chat with them at the restaurant, or even see them there. All I did was walk past them on the sidewalk. They, knowing nothing about me except that I was a woman walking alone, had a good laugh at my expense. Knowing nothing about me except that I was a woman, they knew it would be easy to make me feel threatened simply by walking a little faster and commenting upon the fact that I was about to be inside my car, unreachable and untouchable. I played into their game by looking back over my shoulder.
Maybe they felt I was stereotyping them when I looked back, so their joke was a manifestation of the not all men objection that crops up whenever people try to have a serious conversation about institutionalized sexism, gender bias, and gender-based violence.
Maybe they were going to mug me, or rape me, or steal my car, but were too lazy to do it quickly enough.
Probably they were tipsy young guys blowing off steam on a Friday night who weren’t thinking very deeply about the implications of an ill-advised rape joke, or about anything.
Their intent doesn’t matter. The safe bet for any woman walking alone is to treat behavior like that as a threat. Better safe than sorry. Don’t let yourself become a victim. Good thing you have on practical shoes. Strap on your purse, arm yourself with your keys, and prepare to do battle as you walk to your car after a taco salad.