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“The white folks like to pretend it’s not, but their music’s in the air”

January 29, 2008

I moved in November, as i’ve mentioned. I moved to downtown from the cool hippie-dippy neighborhood where everyone is out walking their dogs in the afternoon, and you can walk to the grocery store and my favorite bar. I didn’t move to the trendy part of downtown that has “lofts,” but to the edges of downtown, that has, primarily, law offices. And there are random little apartment buildings (like mine) tucked in amongst the businesses. I’m about two blocks from the Salvation Army, and next to some kind of veteran’s service thing, right down the street from work (which is largely why i moved here). But it’s not exactly residential – i actually feel a little self conscious walking Dog around here – and there’s one bar/club down the street, but otherwise it’s about a 20 minute walk to the part of downtown where people actually go.

It ain’t a bad place to live. It’s fairly convenient, i love my apartment, i feel safe – which is an extra important concern for someone who travels primarily on foot. But apparently i’m the only one who feels it is safe. Because there are bums. And black people. Well, that’s mostly overlap – with few exceptions, the people who walk around this part of town are homeless black guys. And you know what they do? They say “good morning” and “running a little late today, huh?” and “hey now, did you bring enough for everyone?” that time i was eating my breakfast on my way to work. Or nothing. Sometimes they call me “beautiful” in a way that isn’t creepy at all (and, well, i would still rather they didn’t). Occasionally they’ll call me “pretty” in a way that is creepy. At worst i get panhandled.

I guess it is not the safest part of town (a friend got her car radio stolen around here somewhere), but it pisses me off when my friends act like it’s the goddamn ghetto. Because, while i might be less paranoid than most, i’m not stupid. It may come as a surprise, but i value my life/safety/etc., and there are parts of this town i damn well wouldn’t walk around alone. This isn’t one of those.

Maybe it’s because i’m kind of used to interacting with the homeless. I grew up in a big fuckoff city, and i spent a lot of my teenage years walking around it, and, well, the homeless were just about the only other people who walked in that city. But, really, it’s not that hard. They’re people; i think it’s pretty much basic manners. If someone says “good morning” you say “good morning,” or nod, or something. When someone talks to you, you respond. When i pass someone on the street (where there aren’t many people on the street) i give them a heads up or a “hey.” Panhandlers are a little different, ’cause i know people fucking hate being panhandled. Usually i just say “sorry, man, i got nothing,” sometimes with a, “good luck.” If i’m in a good mood, or some other random circumstance (like having any), i’ll actually hand over some money…but i’m kind of tight, really. The only time i straight up ignore people is if they catcall me. Because you can fuck off at that point – that kind of thing certainly doesn’t deserve a polite response. That is also when my “danger” antennae perk up a little bit; i know that that is not situation i want to get into, because, if nothing else, i have to extricate myself (in my experience, while nothing bad has ever come of this, these are always the people who want to strike up a conversation and be creepy at you for a long time and not leave you alone when you hint at it).

Then there’s race. My friends are the sort that i really do think this is less of an issue than the bum thing, but it’s still fairly subconscious in our culture in general. I’ve always liked to think that i don’t much succumb to that…and then i think, well, yes, don’t we all like to think the best of ourselves. But something interesting happened a little while back. I was walking Dog on a Saturday, which are totally dead around here. The only people i saw the whole time were these two groups of guys, a few minutes apart. It was like the perfect social experiment, because they were almost identical – three kind of scruffy-looking men walking toward me, and no one else around – but one group was black and the other white. I passed the black guys, no real interaction, i probably gave them a little nod, as i do. Later, i saw the white guys a block or two off and crossed the street. I had just the tiniest blip of fear, like my danger antennae said “this is almost certainly fine, but i’d rather not find out if i’m wrong.” Moreover, i didn’t even realize what i’d done ’till later – it kind of amused me. But it also got me thinking, and i think that white redneck men are the stereotypical group that i’m most afraid of, because i have no idea how to interact with them.

I was not raised around that. I was raised around middle-class multicultural, about a block from the black ghetto. And as a kid i knew that you don’t leave the neighborhood after dark, or alone. But not because that was the black part of town, or because it was the poor part of town, but because it wasn’t safe. That was simply a fact, and i didn’t connect that with the first two facts (or, perhaps more importantly, no one connected them for me). I think that is one of the big reasons that my idea of what is safe and unsafe differ so much from so many people i know.

Two other things affect my view: i’ve been lucky so far, and i feel that luck has quite a bit to do with it. The first is pretty basic – nothing really bad has ever happened to me, so i’ve got nothing concrete and personal to be afraid of. The second is partly that that there’s not much you can actually do to keep bad stuff from happening. There are some basic precautions you can take (which are important!), but beyond that it really is pretty random, and there is no point in living in fear of the bad thing that might happen at the expense of the good stuff you know could be happening.

Lady Brett
“Shaming of the Sun” – Indigo Girls

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