As a woman, living in an urban environment, I love that I’m often not afraid of my surroundings. My first few years in California were spent in San Francisco, and I was proud I felt comfortable virtually anywhere in the city, frequenting some of the more sketchy neighborhoods before they were filled with hipsters and still grimy. Although I now lovingly call the East Bay my home, I still feel that confidence when I pay a visit to the other side of the Bay.
So, when a good friend invited me to an event he was hosting in the heart of the Tenderloin (one of San Francisco’s notoriously “bad” neighborhoods), I didn’t blink an eye. “Of course I’ll be there!” I was excited to see my friend and support his cause, and was admittedly excited to dust off my street savvy.
As it tuned out, my savvy appeared a bit, ahem…rusty.
Actually, no. I take that back. It’s not that I’m less savvy. In fact, I think I’m smarter and more aware than I was the last time I’d traipsed down the sticky streets of San Francisco’s underbelly.
No. The city had changed. While throngs of shoppers filled the bright and shiny San Francisco Shopping Center – recession be damned – a mere three blocks away, crack addicts and pimps were busy making their transactions as well.
I’d seen all this before. Nothing new, just part of living in a “big” city. Right?
If this was so normal, why did I feel like such an intruder? True, I no longer called San Francisco my home but I’ll always feel like San Francisco is still “mine” in some small way.
But that night, nothing about those streets felt nostalgic. I could no longer affectionately claim this section of the city as mine – and I don’t think anyone else could either. Resident or not.
There was a sickly stench of desperation that fogged the streets as I carefully paced my steps. Breezing past shadows lurking in doorways, yet avoiding the mistake of moving too quickly and risk appearing fearful and out of place.
Of which I was both.
The short walk from the parking garage to my destination quickly morphed into a much longer, more frightening journey. While my pride in my city insisted I walk slowly and calmly with my headphones still hanging in my ears, my sense of self-preservation forced me to slide my iPhone into my bag. The instant my hands demanded the warmth of my pockets, suspicion and fear reminded me I needed my hands free. I stopped short of balling my keys into my fist as a weapon, lest I be branded as a tourist.
When I saw the warm glow from inside the shiny glass doors of my destination I thought my journey had ended. I was safe. I was greeted with smiles, and hand shakes and friendly faces inside, but my comfort lasted only a moment.
After I sat down and tried my best to participate in the discussion, all my senses were screaming at me to turn around. Our backs were to the door – fully exposed the to the wild and terrifying world waiting on the other side of those glass doors. The entire evening, I resisted the urge to jump at every sound – fully expecting a mob of monsters to rush through the door at any moment to devour us all.
And then I remembered I still had to walk back to my car.
I was too embarrassed to call a cab, or ask someone to walk me at least a few blocks to a busier street. So, instead, I left a little early, hoping to avoid the melee that fear had assured me would occur if I stayed even one minute longer.
I smiled brightly as I left, hoping not to betray my true horror as I stepped out of the well-lit, warm safety of that room into the dark unknown.
This time, I left my pride far behind and walked briskly down the street. Hands free, hair pulled back and donning my best “don’t fuck with me” face.
None of it mattered. The hungry, lonely and desperate eyes could see right through my imaginary armor.
A mob of people seemed to materialize out of nowhere, forcing me to cleave right through a contorted mess of undulating bodies, trash, smoke of too many kinds to mention, one groping hand and more than a few unseemly comments from the sidewalk’s occupants.
I could see the light of Market Street just ahead, but it gave me no comfort. These streets were invisible to the outside world. I had no doubt, a scream for help would be swallowed whole by the sorrow and desperation that blanketed this still barely-beating heart of San Francisco.
When I finally did emerge from the darkness of the Tenderloin, I was not overcome with relief. As I walked by the squeaky clean windows of the shopping center, I felt no comfort, no peace.
Instead, I felt ashamed and incredibly sad.
Ashamed because I have the luxury of escaping the horror of those streets. I have the privilege of a job, health insurance, friends and family. All I did was walk a few blocks down a dirty street and observe a scene that was no doubt a PG version of what was going on behind those darkened doorways. I had briefly walked between two worlds, and although I felt sympathy for those that inhabited one, I was in no hurry save anyone but myself to get back to the other.
I haven’t been truly afraid – as in afraid for my life – for a very, very long time. I thought about my little list of fears on this site, and all the things I’ve been so “afraid” to do, and damn if that didn’t put shit into perspective.
The experience reminded me that fear has a purpose. In this case, it reminded me how fortunate my life has been, and more importantly, I need to do more to contribute to my community.
It sucks that I was afraid to walk down the streets of “my” city – but it’s far, far more terrifying that some people actually live in places like this.
I never thought volunteering was something I was afraid to do, but given how rarely I do it, and after this experience, I have to admit, I might be a little scared to get my hands dirty.
What about you? Do you have parts of your community you’re scared to set foot in? How have you used that fear to motivate you – or, how has that fear prevented you from taking action, and what would it take to get you involved?
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