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On alert


I was walking west on Morrison in downtown Portland yesterday late afternoon when I heard a voice behind me. “Passing on your left,” the voice, male, said. I thought, gee, some guy is riding his bike on a busy sidewalk? What a jerk. But he wasn’t. Riding a bike. Or a jerk.

He was an ordinary looking 40ish white guy dressed in conservative jeans and a short-sleeved dress shirt, and he passed me on the left, walking. I watched him out of the corner of my eye. Then I couldn’t help myself. “Hey,” I said. He was only a few steps ahead of me. “I’ve never had anyone say ‘passing on the left’ who wasn’t on a bike.”

He seemed slightly taken aback that I opened a conversation. I was also slightly taken aback. He slowed his pace so we were walking side by side. “I didn’t want to startle you,” he said. We then we had a spirited four-block conversation about how men don’t realize how threatening they can be when they walk closely behind a woman or pass by her when she isn’t expecting it.

He said all of that. I didn’t.

Of course, I have spent my entire adult life looking over my shoulder if I find myself walking alone on a sketchy street or in an iffy neighborhood or, on the best streets in the loveliest of neighborhoods when it’s dark. I take note of the man walking behind me and pay attention to the sound of his footfalls. Is he getting closer? I check out the man on the other side of the street. Is he making a move to cross the street? I am not in a panic. This is just what I do. I stay alert to the potential threat. The threat a man on the street poses to me. The threat men pose to women.

If it’s a man – race isn’t the issue, gender is — I am on alert. If it’s a woman, I’m not. Yes, I know that most men don’t attack women, but in Chicago, on the street just a half a block from my apartment, one attacked me. He wanted my groceries and my money, that’s all. I was lucky. Yes, I know women can be attackers, but in Seattle, on a downtown street late at night, it was a man I had to run from.

The fact that this unassuming, sort of dorky (no PDX hipster was he) guy was sensitive to what his presence might mean to a woman alone – that was a revelation. I hope he has sons.


1 Kim in Oregon { 08.02.17 at 10:14 pm }

Another thoughtful piece that gives me hope that our world is better than I think it is.

2 Jane { 08.03.17 at 12:37 am }

Reminds me of Brent Staples’ “Black Men in Public Spaces” essay, which I used to use in class when I taught freshman comp a long time ago. I think you make an important point, though, that it’s gender that brings fear (or at least caution) rather than race. Women develop radar to detect TMV (threatening male vibes). How nice that the guy was aware.

3 Lauren { 08.03.17 at 4:03 am }

It IS radar, Jane, you’re right. I don’t really turn it on or off. It’s there. I did work very hard to turn it off in Vienna, where I walked alone all the time and often at night. It is an extraordinarily safe city. I almost relaxed into that.

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