Saturday, September 16, 2006

Walking Home

I have always been a walker – it is my preferred travelling means to the unreliability of public transport, the unpredictability of taxis and the expense (not to mention parking hassle) of a private vehicle. There are downsides of course: pragmatic shoes, sweating in Brisbane sweltering heat, limited distances and time.

When I was a carefree university student (ha!), I lived in a lovely student neighbourhood that was, as the crow flies, a mere kilometre from the university grounds. But there was a river that wound its way between my Queenslander share house and my place of study, and no bridge. To get to university I could either catch two buses – one into the city (away from the university) and then do an about-face to head back towards it – or walk about half an hour – again away from the university but keeping it always in my line of sight – and then alight onto a CityCat (catamaran / ferry – Brisbane's pride and joy). Both took me equal amounts of time, so my preferred method was to walk and then catch the CityCat.

Often I would stay at university quite late. At least half of my days at the university I stayed until the library closed (I'm not incredibly studious – my days usually did not start until after lunch). I would catch the last CityCat home. There was a bus which met the CityCat and that went into the city, skirting near my house. Occassionally I would catch it if I was laden down with text books or the weariness of a too-long day with my head in those dusty case books. Through some quirk of time, the bus ride and short walk home cost me as much time as a much longer walk home. So, usually, I walked home too.

One night, as I was leaving the law library and strode off towards the CityCat terminal, a young man ran after me. He studied law too, and lived nearby. I did not like him much. He was pleasant enough but, even now, my lip curls as I think of him. He was greasy. He was, I surmised, a sexist boor . He had a girlfriend who stood behind him and whom he proudly identified as 'looking after' him and making his packed lunches. His girlfriend was Asian (I never spoke to her, nor she to me, so I can be no more precise than that) and he gave off those shudder-inducing waves of Asian fetishism. These are all my impressions, and my prejudices, and I freely admit I could be wrong. I had a non-Asian boyfriend at the time, and he often blithely and to my great irritation opened conversations with: “Where's J?” Because I knew I would have to endure him on the CityCat and in future classes, I slowed down to let him catch up and we made small talk about our studies and assignments.

As the CityCat pulled into our home terminal, he asked how I was getting home and I said that I was walking. He offered to give me a lift home and I politely declined. He said: “What would J think of you walking home? It's dangerous.” I snorted. “It's none of J's business that I walk home, actually,” said I, bristling. He stared at me, and then said - “If you were my fiance, I would not let you walk home.” Sometimes people push me over the edge, and he'd done it. But a veneer of politesse remained with me as I said, as pleasantly as I could: “Good thing for both of us that I'm not then.” A woman nearby must have heard the contempt in my voice, because she said to me, to my disbelief: “Dear, he's just tryng to be kind. Why don't you accept his lift?” And I was gone. I gave up my best behaviour and let me colours show: “Lady,” I said loud enough for him to hear too, “He and you are condescending pricks. And I can take care of myself.” I could feel them shaking their disappointed heads at my reckless back. I'm not exactly proud of being horrible to that woman – but I had no regrets about finally telling the greasy man what I really thought of him. No more pretend niceties in classes or in the library. I see him occassionally about the city, and his eyes flicker recognition, and I respond in kind. But we don't bother saying anything to each other. And that's just how I like it.

I have only once had an unpleasant, and slightly dangerous walking home encounter in my many years of walking home at 9 or 10 at night. I can assure you the man who followed me ended up more frightened of me, than I of him, when I finally – sick of walking a circuitious route home – confronted him and asked him to leave me alone (in no uncertain terms). In retrospect, the confrontation was reckless, but I had been poised to run should it turn ugly.

I walk to and from work now, too. It takes me a bit longer than half an hour, which is roughly the same amount of time as the bus, depending on traffic and the number of other people trying to get to work. A lot of people are shocked to discover that, when I leave work of an evening, I walk home, even when it is quite dark. Especially in winter, I can be coming home in the complete dark. It is difficult to evade the concerned murmurs of my co-workers. Occassionally I lie to them: little white lies about how I intend on travelling home. Once, one of my bosses on seeing my trainer enclosed feet insisted that I accept a lift home from him. Now, I try to leave at a different time to him so that he is not burdened by generosity.

People who have concerns about me encountering dangerously crazed and criminally intent people on my walking commute, do not always realise how much more dangerous the young professional men are, at a post work Friday drinks function. I am always more on edge, more alert and more often uncomfortably confronted when walking through the city on a Friday night than I am when walking along the river home on weeknights. They move in groups, these self-assured men, and they goad each other on. Sometimes into reprehensible deeds.

I recalled all of the above CityCat story when I read Galaxy's blog, and in particular, her Public Transport Diaries. I once attended a talk on sexual violence where the speaker insisted that women live in fear. To illustrate it, she asked us to write down what we would do if we were working very late in the office. Unthinkingly obedient, I started scribbling the things I would do: phone/email my partner; check the time of the last bus; grab a taxi voucher from work if it was permitted. The speaker stopped us, and asked a few women if they noticed anything when they started to write their lists. No, was the general response. She asked some women to read out items from their list. Similar things to mine – ring a partner, move the car closer / check public transport times etc. Then the speaker asked some of the men what they did, and if they noticed anything unusual when writing their lists. Mostly the men would phone a partner, and that was all. The speaker, with her view of the audience said this is what she noticed: Whenever she asks a group of men and women to perform this listing task, the women, almost as a cohort, bury their heads and scribble frantically. The men put pens in mouths, write one or two items and look around, waiting for the speaker to resume. Her point was that women live in fear because they take all these safety measures. She was not suggesting that women should not take care of their safety – merely highlighting that the threat of violence to women was, at whatever level, real for all women. And not present for men.

I am not stupidly and recklessly setting off into my endangerment. I do not wish to be constrained by a fear of violence; a fear that is misplaced because violence usually emanates from someone one knows and rarely the archetypal stranger in a dark alley. Rather, I undertake some basic safety measures, and I remain observant of my surroundings as I walk home (even when plugged into my orange i-river). Although I have a partner sometimes waiting for me at home, and sometimes on his own way there, I prefer to rely on myself for protection, and for transport.


Galaxy said...

What p's me off the most is that the onus is on us to change our behaviour. The place where I do some research work issued a security bulletin last week with the description of a man who had assaulted a woman on a foot bridge. I could walk that way, but I go the other isolated way, through an underpass where the light is broken. I got frightened and angry when I read the bulletin. Now I will take my chances with the traffic and mid-road islands.

About the groups of semi/inebriated young men: What always strikes me is there lack of awareness about how they fill space. When a single woman is walking along, they part so she has to walk through them, effectively surrounded. I can't figure why they don't all just move to one side, so I feel less intimidated.

btw Thanks for the inclusion on your blogroll.

OTT said...

I couldn't agree more!

In one of the bathrooms where I work there is a sign on the mirror that says: “You are looking at the person responsible for your safety.” I work in employment law – I am very tempted to graffiti back: “No. I am not. My employer and the building managers are.” It’s a bind, because it is not as if you don’t want to look out for your own safety! But you do want an organisation – you know the ones actually in charge of the infrastructure of a place – to take more responsibility: like putting nice bright lights where you walk, for eg; or having security posted around an area if it is a common walk area and known to have had assaults.

I think the young men who do these things are well aware of the intimidatory nature of their actions – it is actually why they do things like force a person to walk through a group, rather than around a group. I think the problem is that they don’t have a sense of how real the fear is for a woman in that situation. And then, if they have girlfriends, they are probably patronising pricks towards her if she does want to walk around in the dark.

re blogroll - my pleasure!

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