Today's blog post was composed somewhere near Morristown, New Jersey.
There is a park that is adjacent to a horse stable. There is a small woods and a play area for kids, complete with jungle gym. There is a softball diamond, and enough open grass to play football or Frisbee or just lie around. There are also picnic tables and benches, and there I sat to write this piece, under a tree, surrounded by strangers, on a perfect sunny autumn afternoon.
I went strolling through the woods. The trail is narrow, and the trees are old, and close. It must be a horseback-riding trail. The crickets were chirping, and the canopy shaded me from the sun. A narrow, shallow stream wound through the trees. As I walked, two angry squirrels chased each other until they caught sight of me. Then they stopped abruptly, sniffing. How dare I invade their space, I wondered, smiling.
I walked on, slowly. The woods got quieter and quieter. A light breeze ruffled my hair and I wondered what the trees were whispering to each other. I started singing to myself softly; I couldn't help it. I felt utterly, wonderfully alone.
I've never really liked people much. I love the idea of people - of being part of a community of beings like me, who build things and adorn things, who write and make music and invent games and exist on a slightly higher plane of awareness than other creatures. Unfortunately, the reality of people, on a grand scale and a personal one, falls far short of that ideal, and in my latter years of childhood, in disappointment, I turned away. The older I get, the braver I have become, and now, at 33, I seek out the companionship of like-minded folks - although it took a long time for me to realize there were more than just two or three on the earth who I could relate to. I find them now almost everywhere, but I retain a layer of distrust when dealing with strangers. This may partially explain why I have done as well as I have in New York, and, at eight million souls, why I am now strangely reluctant to leave it.
As I was walking in the woods, singing to myself, a flash of reddish brown caught my eye. I slowed to a halt and looked. Just a few yards from me was a deer. A small doe, drinking from the stream. She regarded me, weighing her options. Neither of us moved. Just for fun, feeling somewhat magical, I sang to her.
I have never been that close to a wild animal before. I know this is New Jersey, and there are so many deer here that they invade neighborhoods and backyards, destroying suburban flower beds, but still - a wild deer! Well, a somewhat-domesticated deer. I wondered if singing might scare her off, but her ears were enormous, and she seemed relaxed. She listened, I think. I removed my hands from my pockets, and the movement didn't frighten her. Eventually she resumed her drinking from the shallow stream.
I slowly continued on my way, singing, but stopped after a few feet when she tensed, staring at me again. I looked away from her, to the woods ahead, to show that I wasn't interested in her, and walked on. She didn't run.
The path wound around the stream, and the stream crossed the path. I had to walk in closer proximity to the doe to stay on the path. I kept my eyes averted from her, and sang softly. She didn't run. Eventually I passed so close, I heard her breathing. I didn't look, but I probably could have touched her. I went on my way. The last I saw of her, she was peacefully munching the grass near the water.
In 1996, I was assaulted on West 57th street as I was walking to the subway from tenth avenue. It was late morning, and I had just come from an audition, so I was wearing a short dress and heels. Out of the corner of my eye, I had seen the homeless man walking jerkily up the street, muttering to himself, but mentally ill homeless people are everywhere in New York, so I thought nothing of him. Before I realized what was happening, his hand was up my skirt, grabbing my crotch. I screamed. In some kind of knee-jerk reaction, I managed to place my high-heeled right foot squarely in his face, a move I must have seen in a Paula Abdul video. I pushed forward and he fell backward. I ran as fast as my legs could carry me. I heard wild screaming and babbling behind me, but I didn't stop. I ran right into traffic, nearly causing an accident. I kept going, running right across the street, and down another block to the train station. Numbly I dropped in a token and sat down on the train. My crotch burned. My face burned. I breathed hard. Everything seemed frozen still, as though time stopped and no other humans existed in the world, just me on an empty train, speeding away, away, away, faster, faster… My mind drifted to thoughts of Gray's Papaya hot dogs with onions and virgin Pina Coladas in Styrofoam cups. I thought of getting out at 72nd street for a cheap lunch, but I was paralyzed in the seat. I rode home to 95th street, mechanically walked out of the train and up to my apartment, stripped off all my clothes, and got in the shower.
I cried then. The screams came, then the sobs, then simple quiet tears, then nothing. I stood there silent a long time, feeling the hot water streaming down me, listening to my neighbors opening and closing doors, moving furniture upstairs, the TV and dog downstairs. Eventually the hot water ran out, and I stood there, letting my skin freeze, letting my blood freeze, letting my heart freeze.
When I heard the front door open and close, I came out of the shower. I have no idea how long I was in the shower, but I remember my fingers were numb. My roommate greeted me, asked how the audition went. "I got called back," I said. We watched TV and went to bed.
I was never attacked again. For the next seven years, I did not wear short skirts on the street without an escort. When I got my cell phone, I began the practice of flipping it open and pretending to be in a conversation whenever a blue-jeans wearing street guy looked at me while I was walking alone. I have been approached by total strangers and asked for the time, the weather, my itinerary, my name, my phone number, and once my CIA Clearance, but I learned to stare them down, tell them loudly to please stop bothering me, or to simply walk away, ignoring them.
Nobody on the street, in the train, on the sidewalks, or anywhere asked if I was ok or needed help. And I never talked about the incident for almost two years.
If they don't look at me, I don't feel the need to run. Even if they are singing to themselves. Even if they are singing gitchy-gitchy-ya-ya-da-da while listening to headphones that aren't attached to anything. Even if I am on 106th Street at 10:30 at night, or on the lower east side.
Nowadays, in the year 2004, I can walk alone through certain neighborhoods at 2AM in a dress, alone, after a few drinks, and feel completely in control. I wonder if I have become desensitized. I came to New York simply to have a shot at a more exciting, fulfilling life. I know I am just one more domestic immigrant, and I never expected to be handed anything simply for being here. I am like that deer, wandering through an over-populated city, helping myself to the basics of life, hoping someone doesn't take a shot at me, or smash their car into me as I'm running for my life across a busy road. I am one of millions of country creatures who've moved to the city, more of a nuisance to the locals than an exotic, just a tourist who decided to stay.
Last Friday, I had lunch with a friend at the Key West Diner. I was wearing a short summer dress with sandals. My long red hair tumbled down my back. I walked the few blocks home alone, in the bright sunny afternoon. Across the street from my apartment building, as I was waiting for the WALK light to blink, a handsome young man in a white linen shirt asked me if I was single. I answered that I was, but I had a boyfriend already. He asked if I'd like another, and told me I was beautiful. He stood a respectful distance from me, looking at my face. I smiled, said no thank you, and have a nice day. I then turned away from him and climbed the steps of my apartment. I heard him walking away down the street, whistling lightly to himself, focused on the path ahead of him, no longer interested in me. I smiled to myself, feeling somewhat amazed, feeling flattered, feeling safe.