Walking With Fear

You love your city. You love how your city transforms from day to night. You love it when the suburban people leave and the city people look knowingly at each other.

You love walking. You love walking in your city. You love seeing how people have chosen to fill up the spaces between destinations, the places too small to do more than flash by even on a bike. You love the myriad reasons city people chose to walk to get themselves around.

People try to make you afraid to walk in your city at night. They don’t always say it. Sometimes they just look at you with all the confusion that you don’t share their fear painted across their faces. Sometimes they assume you need a ride to get anywhere.

Sometimes you do want the ride, but not because you’re afraid.

All that fear has a viscosity to it, a clamminess. No speed of walking, no brisk night breeze can brush it away completely. It can’t claim you, but it’s there. It chitters to itself while hoping for your attention, a distraction from your city, your night, your walk, your love.

When you’re alone, the fear tells you that you’re far from help. When someone is near, the fear tells you that you don’t know what they want. When you’re in the dim, the fear tells you that you cannot see what or who may be around you. When you’re in the light, the fear tells you you can be seen.

Other people’s fear can’t make you listen. It can’t make you afraid. But it can refuse to ever rest silent. It does.

Then, one night, you’re out walking in the early darkness. You have somewhere to be, and you chose to walk while you can. Soon, there will be snow and ice and real, reasonable danger from walking in poor light.

The fear has been very concerned, so helpfully concerned, as your route took you through a non-residential area where the only nearby people were in their cars leaving work. Then it was concerned as it took you through a residential area where no one home quite yet. Then as you passed a park emitting the scattered noises of people who weren’t quite ready to leave when early sunset declared the place closed for the evening.

Now you face a dark stretch between the nearly deserted park and the adjacent deserted school. Even the deserted houses retreat. One of your shoelaces came untied a few blocks back, and you haven’t found a good place to stop to retie it. You can just make out that there is a a paved path to follow.

You can also tell that someone else is on the path, heading the opposite direction. It’s sound mostly, to start, footsteps crunching leaves and occasionally scuffing the uneven blacktop. There is a silhouette against the backdrop of neighborhood lights: tall, broad-shouldered, and so dark that he is visible only by his absence of light.

You know you and your silver and blond hair are visible. This is a good thing. You walk quietly, and the last thing you want is to startle someone in the dark.

The fear? Oh, it’s there, chittering uselessly. It can’t compete with the absurdity of the moment, of the stereotype of danger you’re walking through.

As you pass on the path, he says, “Hello.” His voice is soothing, calming, denying the possibility of fear in the moment.

You’ve heard that tone before. You heard it in your own voice not so very long ago. You were talking to a cop with his gun drawn and nothing but a chain-link fence between you. The gun wasn’t pointed at you. It was still there.

The officer wasn’t sure what was happening in the house, whether the other cop inside was in danger, whether he need to rush in. You were feeding him information, talking to him as though across a desk, keeping a pleasant expression on your face, using first names to humanize your neighbors, pretending that the gun wasn’t there and wasn’t made for someone’s death. You did it all in that soft, low tone.

“Hello.” You know he is afraid of you. He is afraid that you are afraid. It is a real, reasonable fear. Your whiteness sits between you like a weapon. He won’t remind you it exists, but it must be addressed, soothed.

Warm, sodium-vapor streetlamp with an Arts and Crafts design glows against a black sky. To the left are bare branches of a tree, lit by the lamp.
Winter Night, Bus Stop” by Josiah Mannion, used with permission

You want to open your hands, to show your lack of fear. You want to offer him a respite from his. You smile in the dark, knowing it can’t be seen, hoping it will be heard.

“Hi.” You’ve been walking for a mile and a half in cold, dry air. It comes out as a squeak. You sound afraid even to yourself. You both walk on. Twenty feet later, the streetlamp cycles back on, too late for him to see your face.

A couple blocks further on, you near your destination. As you turn the last corner, you run into a chihuahua. It’s nervous. You’re a stranger. Its owner holds it back as it lunges and barks in its fear.

You laugh a little bitterly as you step out of the night at the end of your walk.

Walking With Fear

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