Street Smarts

I ventured into a new neighborhood this weekend. One of the creative catalysts I met through church – a painter – invited his community group et moi to his studio in East New York. Brooklyn, only a few stops away... a whole world away.

I exercise caution in new neighborhoods. It was daylight, but an underpass was the required pathway using the route I took. A nanosecond calculation was done of my surroundings as I deemed the underpass to be safe enough under the current conditions: two women were emerging up from the stairwell, into the sun, just as I was comprehending my necessary descent into and through it. "Well, if they're coming out..." I thought. Plus, they seemed to be from the area, which meant it was a frequented route in the neighborhood. A new adventure into an underpass!

Emerging successfully on the other side, I headed further east along a diagonal path. Pop-art graffiti colors surrounded me, with litter strewn throughout the streets and by the bridge. The neighborhood was clearly run down, but it didn't matter. I sensed struggle and desolation, but I also sensed comradery, hope, and loyalty to the hood – all in a bewildering and intoxicating elixir. I was a little bit in love. I'm sure the brightly tagged purples and pinks skewed me into a Lisa Frank enchantment.

The first gentleman I passed was not a gentleman at all. He was destitute. High, maybe? Schizophrenic? Possibly. Unbeknownst, though not a physical threat. His only movement was a back-and-forth rocking, with no signs of other erratic movements. You're good. Keep walking; no need to cast a wider perimeter here. Just pray for him.

I glanced down at my GPS to make sure my marker was moving in the direction of the final destination. It was. Two blocks, then break a left. A bodega came up, with some dudes hanging about. As I approached and then passed them, no cat-calling occurred. Either I looked like I knew where I was going, or it was too early to cat-call – which all of us women know is not a thing. I chalked it up to the former and reminded myself of the sense I got earlier: You'll find protection here if you need it.

The glory displays of modified cars in an otherwise dilapidated neighborhood – without the overt hootin' and hollerin' misogyny – reinforced a feeling which inclined me more towards safety than towards fear. I imagined cash pickups going down at various neighborhood points. People, handling their businesses. People, with things to do.

A few hundred feet down to my right, a deteriorating body shop and makeshift junkyard appeared. A second gentleman loitered by the entrance, lighting his cigarette. He was older, maybe in his late 50s. A cheery face with the countenance of a hard life prompted me to speak out in an even, medium tone. "Good morning!" I casually smiled his way. He smiled back and repeated the same.

See? You'll have help here if you need it.

Shoot. I had overshot my destination. Doubling back, I waited at a stoplight. The Ford Explorer slowed down as it approached me on a green light. Here it is, I braced myself. I caught a quick glance of his face and noted his vehicle make and color before focusing my eyes to a point further in the distance.

The driver rolled down his window. "Hey!" he leered. Avoid eye contact. Pause a beat and ignore. Don't wait for the crosswalk – just keep walking. I crossed the street from behind his vehicle so he couldn't get a good look at me as I walked. On the other side of the street, he made gestures to grasp my attention again.

"Need a taxi?" The driver steered along to await my response. He's going to wait till I respond. Better acknowledge him and call it a day. "No. I'm good." My intonation was distinctly deeper and more assertive than with the junkyard man. Registering my directness, the creeper gassed off.

I arrived at the building. In the front, two local guys from the neighborhood were parallel parked and talking trade, talking cars. They were younger than the creep, perhaps in their mid-30s. Working men. They paid me no mind at all.

Neighborhood, I thought. Not unsafe. Just gotta make the right friends.

FreethoughtShawn Li1 Comment