Friday, September 28, 2012

You'll never walk alone

A note to my friend Dana: I have been too harsh on you for your hesitance about being out late at night. I haven't trusted your judgment sometimes when you're weary about doing certain things because they might jeopardize safety. This blog isn't just for you, but now that I've begun writing it, I can't help but think that I can better empathize with you. Now onto the blog itself...

It always bothered me a bit that we had to get back from the city before it got dark. Or that you didn't enjoy riding the El because you always assumed someone creepy would show up on it - either to stare at you with blood red eyes or to scare everyone in the car out of their wits by saying very loudly, "Hello everyone, I'm an ex-convict."

I gave you a hard time, saying that we'd be fine and that it wasn't necessary to be so careful.

I still believe that to a degree. Avoid going out at night and you miss out on all the beauty that it consists of. Twinkling lights, cool (sometimes frosty when we're in Chicago) air, less-crowded streets, events around town that only happen in the evenings.

But after a day and an evening out on my own, I don't feel so sure anymore. At least not as much as I was when I came to this city, assuming it was one of the safest in the world.

In the past couple of weeks, I've taken to clutching my purse a lot. I fear pick-pockets. Having seen Oliver! one too many times, I know stealing from someone's coat pocket is so easy a child could do it (quite literally, if you assume Oliver Twist is representative of reality).

I've taken to keeping an eye out as well. For myself (i.e. Is my skirt flying up? Should I put my hair in a pony tail?) and for those around me (i.e. Are there any seedy situations or people I should avoid right now?).

But most of all I've taken to being paranoid. And it's one of the greatest and most trying gifts of all time.

"Enhanced awareness" perhaps is a better name for it. That feeling of needing to make sure everything is in order and there is no chance that you or anything important to you is in jeopardy. It comes about much in the same way that wearing your heart on your sleeve does. You can't help but feel the cowardice, and you need to act on it even if it makes you look silly. Like crying when someone hurts your feelings, it's just the only way you know how to react.

This afternoon, I went for a stroll around Regent's Park. In the past week, I've realized what a comfort this place is to me. With its wide open spaces, its friendly-ish patrons, its adorable animal inhabitants and its beautiful topiaries, you half want to sit down and take it all in and half want to pitch a tent and live there. So I've gone back practically every day.

I sat down at a bench and tried to read a book. The Marriage Plot. It's "One Day with George Eliot thrown in," says The Times (according to the front of the paperback). I need romance sometimes too, even if it only comes in the form of a novel.

The guy the next bench over must have received the memo.

I looked at him once and saw that he was angrily gesturing at one of the pigeons. Being the Pigeon Queen as of late (I've learned to love feeding pigeons at London parks), I was a little bothered by this but chose to ignore it. I looked over at him again and periodically he would look back at me too.

Then he came over. He asked to sit with me and we chatted for at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour. About school, about family, about home and abroad, about being foreigners in London, about friends and values and drinking and smoking and everything else. I didn't get his full name.

What I did get was a brief comment he made in passing - some time after I'd mentioned that I didn't drink, smoke, do drugs, have caffeine or party at all. He told me "you're a strong woman."

Woman. Strong. Two words I never really associate with myself. A few years ago I went to visit my grandparents in Florida and when my grandpa insisted on calling me a young woman, I quickly corrected him and told him I am a young lady. No womanhood here. Just ladyhood. It's more sophisticated, I guess.

I took the comment as a compliment, if only because I was pleased this guy had not come up to me to chat me up and then been pleased to encounter that I was ditzy and easy. Because I am neither of those things. I am the complete opposite of those things.

Still, I backed away from him. Because at my very core, I believe I know when I want to continue friendships and romantic relationships with people. And for some reason, it didn't feel right.

And as I walked away from the park bench and left Regent's Park to go back to my room in the pouring rain, I thought a bit about the "strong woman" comment. Am I really a strong woman? What would indicate that from an hour-long conversation?

A few hours later, I found myself walking to Covent Garden. I had already scoped out the location of the theater where I'd be seeing Our Boys, a play about British army veterans who are struggling with injury and facing military injustice during their stay in a hospital.

When I walked into the theater, I was given my will call ticket at the box office and then turned away because the doors wouldn't open until 30 minutes before curtain. I walked back to Covent Garden and sat on a bench to pass the time. A man came up to me. But this one was not interested in talking to me about my family or what I'm studying. He didn't tell me about his religious or political leanings, his values or anything.

His first thought was to ask my name. And when I reluctantly gave it to him, he asked where I was from. And upon saying California, he pressed for more information. So I started lying.

"I'm from San Francisco."

"Do you have a Facebook?"


"What about an email address?"

"I don't give it out to people I don't know well." (Okay, that's not a lie actually)

"But you know me."

I turned away and wouldn't look at him again. Once he'd walked a reasonable distance away, I ran for the theater again. Though the doors to the stalls had opened, we were still not able to wait in our seats. But being in the comfort of an organized establishment made me feel safe again.

So what does this mean? How can I interpret these events toward a solid conclusion?

When I let a strange man (boy, sort of) sit with me in Regent's Park, was I being a strong woman? Alternatively, when I lied to the scamming scoundrel asking for my email address that I live in San Francisco, was I being a strong woman?

Or am I just the petite little thing who suddenly feels more vulnerable than ever walking around the London streets at 10:15 on a Friday night?

I don't know quite yet. But what I do know is that I never want to walk alone. At least not in a public space in the evening when I'm wearing a periwinkle dress with chiffon and lace. Because that may be representative of my personality in some ways, but it is not the personality I want to set forth to thieves, robbers, rapists and anyone else who asks me why he hasn't heard my accent around London before (everyone has heard an American accent, but cheers man).

The rest of the night, I walked around with a scowl on my face. This isn't typical of me, but it was how I wanted to present myself in an environment where I felt that I could be in danger at any minute if I wasn't paying close enough attention. A strong woman is well-equipped for the vices that lie ahead. And for now I will say that yes, I'm a strong woman.

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