I decided to walk home from yoga tonight. The walk is about a mile and a half long and tonight is glittery and cold, but I needed to stop at the grocery store on the way so I said screw it and walked. The walk itself is pretty harmless most of the way. But, as I leave the grocery store and begin to walk along the side of Humboldt Park – vast and quiet and dark and beautiful and because of those things dangerous – I think about how stupid what I am doing is.
Every time I walk home alone in the dark in my fringe neighborhood I think about how stupid it is, but generally, I shake the thoughts off quickly. I refuse to be afraid of the world in which I live.
A billion people have told me how stupid doing what I am doing is. And a billion people have told me that if I am going to be stupid, I should at least carry mace.
But I don’t.
I am not particularly spiritual, but feel like doing that invites negativity into your life. To preemptively prepare for the worst is to open the door to it. And so I refuse. I know doing so implies risk, but I adamantly believe that people are generally good and I choose to live my life that way.
But tonight the dark feels murkier than usual. Ominous almost. Heavy. Tonight, I feel a bit unsafe.
Maybe it is that I recently turned 30 and I am feeling my mortality a bit more than usual. I found out this week that I have borderline high cholesterol and for whatever reason, that realization hit me harder than my actual 30th birthday. I grew up hearing my parents and adults talk about things like cholesterol and high blood pressure and “adult” things. And while I am one of the older people in my friend group, I suffer a bit from Peter Pan Syndrome and have never felt like an “adult”. And so that realization shook me a little, and maybe tonight I am feeling just a bit more mortal than most nights.
Anyways, as I walk I spot a man up ahead. He is wandering along the dimly lit park-side of North Avenue, walking slowly toward me. I tense, immediately nervous for no real reason other than that the man does not appear to have a purpose to his walking. Instead, his gait is loose… slow. He is wrapped in a dark jacket and wearing pants that I can tell are hanging down loosely in the style many young black guys wear their jeans in Humboldt Park.
And he is big.
And I am not sure why, but for the first time in my life I let myself think about the fact that if he decided he wanted to hurt me, there would not be a fucking thing I could do about it.
I value independence above most other things. I am in control of my life and my career and my world. I self-label as a bad ass with a voice and opinion and I value that. But in this moment I realize that none of those things change the fact that I am a 5’2 woman who does not happen to be a ninja, MMA fighter, or have any self-defense qualifications whatsoever. And the fact that he is big and I am small and it is dark and he could hurt me if he wants to resonates in my newly 30-year-old self like those things never have before and I feel scared.
Uncomfortable, I move over to walk along the far right-hand side of the sidewalk as I near the man.
He holds his ground in the sidewalk’s center. Hands in his pockets. Eyes on me.
I step off the sidewalk.
He takes a lazy step closer to my side.
My heart thumps loudly. I curse myself for not crossing the street earlier. Should I do it now? I wonder.
Five feet away, I watch as he looks me up and down. Our eyes connect for a moment. He does not smile.
I feel his eyes on me as I look down and hurry past, heart racing.
People are generally good, I chant in my head. You are reacting to a stereotype. People are generally good. I wait to hear footsteps behind me. I am cagey, my hand balled into a fist in my pocket, little good it would do. I breathe deeply, listening…
…but nothing happens.
I continue walking and so does he.
Three more minutes and I break free from the park; just one big, well-lit intersection and one block to go before I reach my apartment.
Ahead, I spot two small boys at the Kedzie and North Avenue bus stop. The woman in me immediately notices that neither is wearing a coat and they look cold. As I walk up, I see that they cannot be much older than 10 or 12 years old. One of them steps toward me, eyes meeting mine, hand extended.
“Do you have any money?” he asks.
“No,” I shake my head, my heart breaking a bit. I do not carry cash.
“Do you have a bus card? Can you put us on the bus? It’s right there,” he points up the street, where I can see the North Avenue bus heading our way.
Both boys look at me hopefully, and I crumble. “Sure,” I answer.
We all stand there awkwardly for a moment. The boys cannot stand still and they remind me of my nephew. They begin bickering about something, but I miss what exactly.
“Where are you boys trying to go?” I ask, thinking it odd that they are in Humboldt Park at 9 pm on a freezing cold night with no coats.
“Home,” the first boy replies.
“Is it far?” I ask.
“The bus and then two train switches.”
I wonder what the hell they are doing up here, but do not ask. I am not sure I want to know. Seconds before the bus pulls up they start fighting with each other, again, I am not sure over what.
“Fuck you!” one shouts, shoving the other one.
Instantly and without thought I snap into teacher mode, my years as a riding instructor for young kids bubbling to the surface. “Easy boys,” I say warningly, in my you-do-not-want-to-fuck-with-me voice.
“Do you need that bus card?” the first boy asks.
I nod. It is attached to my bank account, so I can’t give it to him.
The bus pulls up and they jump on, moving to the back of the bus, back to bickering with each other and without a word to me. No thank you. Nothing. Instantly, I am annoyed, but then chastise myself. Regardless of how they behave, they are children that were alone in Humboldt Park at night with no money. None of that spells a good situation.
The bus driver looks at me quizzically.
“I am just paying for them,” I say. She nods.
I swipe my card twice and jump off the bus, unsure how I feel about the experience. Mostly, I am angry. But I do not know at who or what.
As I walk the remaining block home, it strikes me that the whole evening could be a metaphor for this city in general. Chicago is dark and beautiful and dangerous. She is wild, will take all of your goodness hungrily and she will give you little or nothing in return.
And at the end of the day, no matter how much you give or how hard you strive to help or how much difference you try to make, she needs more.
She deserves more.
She demands more.
And you are just one person.