Walking Alone

I went to a bachelorette party Friday night in the city. It was my first solo “night out” in … well … an embarrassingly long time. I was home most of the week with the sick boy, so I was also anxious to get out of the house. So I got dolled up,  (Translation: jeans and a sparkly tank with a jacket and I actually did something with my hair and wore make-up) kissed the Hubbs goodnight, and took off for the BART station. I had a wristlet clutch with me and a pen in my back pocket.

Did I mention that this party started at 9 p.m. and that on a normal night I’m in my pjs by 11 p.m.? (I am so boring.) Anyhoo. The party was at AsiaSF — which, by the way, was freaking awesome. (Those boys walk around and dance in heels better than most women. Including me. ) Its also about 8 blocks or so from the Civic Center station. I was running a little bit late — naturally — so I was walking at a good clip, but paying attention to my surrounding to help find my way back later in the night.

At 9 p.m., a lot of stores were closing for the night, which meant the street would be a lot darker on my way back. I also had to pass a large empty lot at one point. It was closed off with a chain-link fence, but there were at least two places that had been cut so people could get into the lot. It made the hair on the back of my neck stand up. It was darker than anywhere else around there. It would be so easy for someone to grab you, and push you through the fence, down the embankment, and isolate you from everything else. I decided to walk a different way on my return trip. Preferably in a cab.

Along the way, I got “cat-called” twice. And not one of those harmless “hey baby!” cat-calls from a car window as the driver passes. I’m talking about a guy walking past you on the street, looking you slowly up and down, then saying: “Come here” or “Hey. I said HEY.”  In both cases I kept walking, pretending I didn’t hear. I knew they wouldn’t follow or bother me. (How did I know? Read “The Gift of Fear”.)

Something my dad taught me: When you’re in a strange place, act like you belong. For me, that meant: Stand up straight, know basically where you’re going, and walk with purpose. Looking lost/at a map makes you a target. I had two couples stop me to ask for directions I couldn’t give. I had studied my map on the BART ride and had a general idea of where I was going already. I had folded my map so it fit in the palm of my left hand; if I needed a quick look, I just looked at my hand and nobody could tell it was there unless they were looking for it.

I had a great time at the party, and had exactly one drink — and was tipsy after drinking only a quarter of it. (I really can’t help it. Cheap date.) By the time dinner and the show was over, I had 20 minutes to catch the last train home. I had a $20 in my pocket and stepped outside to look for a cab.

There was none. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

I felt a moment of slight panic. You need to take a cab, something told me. But it wasn’t an option, so I set out on foot. I had exactly 20 minutes to get to the station. I was also breaking one of my father’s cardinal rules: When you’re out late at night, don’t walk alone. Always have a friend.

As I walked, I was hoping a cab would pass or I would walk by one. No such luck. I passed a few guys on the street, and tried to follow for the appearance of numbers, but they turned off onto a different street. I was alone. So I did the only thing I could: Act like you belong. Walk with purpose. Head up. Stand straight.

I detoured down a different street to avoid the dark, empty lot onto one that was more brightly lit. I turned the corner when an old homeless guy yelled at me. “Hey bitch.” I looked at him as I walked. He was holding his shopping cart, knees shaking, fragile looking. He was old enough to be my grandfather. He was standing in front of a brightly-lit laundromat. I moved closer to the street. He’d have to take four steps to even get close enough to lunge at me. As it was, I didn’t think he could walk without the help of his cart. “Know what you’re gonna do?” he sneered. “You’re gonna come over here, get down on your knees, and suck me off. DO YOU HEAR ME YOU BITCH?!”

I blew past him, pretending not to hear. He continued to talk about what he was going to do to me until I was out of earshot.

Fifteen minutes to get to the station.

I was a little more than one block away from 8th Street — and the BART station — when the hair on the back of my neck stood on end. I quickened my pace slightly, but tried to walk a bit quieter. Footsteps behind me. Not close, but close enough. I stopped under a light post and pretended to fiddle with my shoe so I could sneak a look behind me. A man had also stopped. He was facing away from me, as if looking for a cab. He was wearing an over-sized black sweatshirt with the hood pulled up. Both his hands were in the front pocket. But the front pocket dipped too low. There was something there — heavier than his hands.

I started walking, fast this time. The man followed. The street I was on was darker than the rest — unfortunately — and we were alone. He was still a good 20 feet behind me, but he had quickened his pace too. My heartbeat was surprisingly calm. My breathing actually slowed.

And I suddenly knew what to do.

When I was a mere half block from 8th Street, I abruptly stopped, turned around, and looked at him. Made eye contact with him and held it. My back was ram-rod straight and my hands were balled into fists at my side. I could feel the weight of my pen in my back pocket as if it were reminding me that it was there. Two words rang through my head: Bring it. He had stopped when I spun around, obviously surprised. And after five full breaths, he was the one to break eye contact. He half turned, his side facing me, and rocked back on his heels, trying — unsuccessfully — to look innocent. I jaywalked to the other side of the street and turned the corner.

He didn’t follow.

I practically ran down the steps to the station and down to the platform. I had made it with four minutes to spare. On my return trip, I sat in the first car, within eyesight of the conductor. Only when we pulled away from the station did I start to feel safe.

And as I sat there, I started to think: Was that guy really following me or was it just my imagination playing tricks because I was alone? Was I just paranoid and freaked some random guy out?

No. I wasn’t paranoid. He was following me. I knew it now and I knew it then. And me turning to face him and stare him down? Told him I knew he was there and I wasn’t going to be an easy target.

Think about it: If he had just happened to be going the same way as me, he wouldn’t have stopped walking when I did. Most guys would probably go to the opposite side of the sidewalk at that point to give me more room. This guy was about 20 feet away from me and was walking directly behind me. When I faced him, most guys would register more surprise, maybe put their hands up and say they’re sorry that they didn’t mean to startle me.

This guy didn’t do any of that.

The next morning while we played with the kids on the floor, I told the Hubbs what had happened. He shook his head. “See, these are things men don’t have to worry about. You puff yourself up and act like you belong and nobody messes with you.”

We both looked at our daughter. I hope she never encounters things like this in her life, although I know that she will. Every woman does. So I’ll do my best to prepare, protect, and teach both her and my son.

I may even pull grandpa in for the lessons.

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2 comments on “Walking Alone

  1. Erin says:

    Good grief Shell! No more walking alone in the city AT NIGHT for you missy. Gawwww.

  2. No kidding. I didn’t WANT to walk alone. Its just that there were no taxis and I was afraid I’d miss the train if I hung around waiting for one.

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