A Place for Innocence on The Night Streets


Every street lamp that I pass

Beats like a fatalistic drum,

And through the spaces of the dark

Midnight shakes the memory

As a madman shakes a dead geranium.

- T. S. Eliot

I AM returning home late, after attending a concert. At my subway stop, a trickle of people scatters into the night's darkness. My steps are quick; I still have things to do before going to bed.

I turn the corner and see ahead of me the back of a young woman, also walking quickly. As my longer strides slowly close the distance between us, I wonder what she is thinking: Is she mulling what she did today, outlining the tasks awaiting her at home, thinking of family? She must hear my footsteps, for she turns her head and looks at me. But on her face is not the joy of returning to loved ones or relief after a hard day's work, but a tautness, a wariness, an on-edge alertness that almost makes me look

back to see if there is someone ominous behind me.

I have seen this look before and have thought about the feelings that prompt it. Indeed, I have felt them myself, walking down a poorly lit city street late at night.

But in this case, I am the looming figure - a "criminal" awaiting an opportunity. Even as my mind comprehends this fact, I am repulsed by it, knowing that I am no threat to this woman. I probe within myself, trying to dissect this reaction.

In the daytime bustle, this woman would have been just another face in the crowd. On this quiet night, she is the only animation in sight and has lost her anonymity. Still, the fact that I notice her should not alarm her - I wish her good, not ill; joy, not fear. How can I communicate this?

"Good evening," I might say. "Sorry to give the impression that I'm sneaking up behind you, but I just happened to also be going this way. Pay me no heed - I'm not dangerous." Somehow I doubt that would ease her mind. Am I right to feel that any communication now would be more ominous than my silence?

Everyone has a unique perception, and I wonder what this woman's world looks and feels like. Does my silence free her? Do my presence and my consciousness of her make her inherently uncomfortable? Is she utterly unable to feel free outside at night?

There must be an escape from this world we have created for ourselves, this urban jungle of lurking dangers and constant suspicions. Too often, we expect the American dream of ever-increasing wealth and convenience to provide a quick fix.

Putting up walls - both literal and mental - is easy. Iron bars on the windows keep burglars out. A blank face keeps strangers at bay.

What is the price of these "protections"? Bars and bolts make our homes resemble jail cells. Instead of finding freedom, we end up trapped in a solitary confinement of our own design. If we put up similar mental barriers, how free are our minds?

I am offended by attacks on women and affected by the fear and stereotyping they create. What can be done about it? I'm not sure. But I know that by doing nothing to break the spell of tension between this woman and me, I become its accomplice.

As I confront this mentality of fear and inaction, it appears formidable and unyielding. The night has always contained undercurrents of mystery, of the unknown and the dangerous. Women, especially, would seem to be justified in harboring such feelings.

My female friends have told me of frightening encounters I can hardly believe. Maybe a way for men to understand the way many women experience the darkness is to go through a late-night walk - or perhaps an entire day - viewing everyone, everything, as hostile until proved otherwise.

Ultimately it has to be damaging, if not downright disabling, to treat all surroundings as hostile. When a woman views herself as a defenseless victim, surrounded by threats, she is defining her world as bleak and dangerous. And I do not appreciate being conscripted as one of her world's threats - there are enough real dangers in the world.

We have a moral obligation to our fellow beings that is not fulfilled by stereotyping or ignoring them. But as we become more and more dependent on others - for our food, water, services, consumer goods, information - we seem to be losing the cooperative spirit that makes human society more than just the sum of its individuals.

The woman and I turn off onto the same side street, then make another turn together. By this time I am consciously trying to make myself less threatening - walking in the street where she can see me or on the opposite sidewalk. But our paths keep converging.

And she never looks back at me as she climbs the stairs of the house next to mine.

Perhaps the solution, at least in the case of my walk home, is the same as the goal. If I simply go out of my way to greet people and act as a true neighbor, I am working to exorcise this demon of distance and fear, at least from myself. Will others think me odd? Perhaps. But they will be forced to consider whether this oddness is dangerous, and not just assume that I am a threat. A small crack in the wall of perceptions framing their perceptions, perhaps, but a gain nonetheless. Better a neighborly ecce ntric than a suspected criminal. Better a misperceived shard of light than an ominous shadow.

"Good evening," I will say....

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