It was 10 PM and felt like it was ninety degrees in the atrium I called my office this summer. After seven hours of doing nothing but listening to Best Coast and checking emails, I finally got to lock up my desk and head home. Flipping the sign over to read “Please call our Safety Department in order to check in” was pure bliss.
I unlocked the iPad, locked away my laptop, stuck my phone in my bra and got ready to leave. My boob vibrated. The text told me that I needed to stay after and pick up an envelope from one of my employer’s guests, who would stop by shortly. Sure. Fine. I parked my ass back down and tried to look like I was anything less than colossally irritated. There was no one else in the building to hear my stream of cussing.
A short, burly, middle-aged dude and his similarly appointed companion came through the the doors, and I did my best to put on a winning smile. “Hello! I’m Teagan; I hear you’ve got an envelope for me?”
Burly Dude 1 winked. “Sure do,” he said, and proceeded to empty his pockets on my desk to find the thing. I felt my eye start to twitch. If you can’t remember what’s in your forty goddamned pockets, you shouldn’t have forty goddamned pockets. The spread he laid out on my desk included, but was not limited to: a very nice leather wallet, a pocketknife, a pack of matches, a dented cigarette carton, several receipts that had certainly been through the wash, and the last of my patience for the evening. Once the envelope reached my hands, I stood up to leave. Burly Dude packed away his array of clutter.
“I hear Church Street is the place to party around here, huh?” Burly Dude 1 asked. Burly Dude 2 nodded. I wondered if he was Burly Dude 1’s hype man, or if he always jerked his head like he was on meth.
“I guess? I wouldn’t know–”
“Aw, why’s that?”
Again with the polite smile. “I’m not twenty-one yet,” I told them, willing myself to be graceful and not pissy. “I’m not the person to ask about the party scene.”
“Aw, hon,” BD1 said with a little laugh, “that’s no good. Come down and party with us!”
I froze up a little. You’re at least double my age, I thought. I don’t even know your name, I thought. You know I’m under 21, I thought. You just showed me you have a knife in your pocket, I thought.
“Hah, no thanks,” I told them, “I’ve had a long enough night already.”
BD2 spoke his first words of the night. “C’mon, sounds like you could use a little fun! Sitting at this desk must get boring.”
Let’s review: me, a five-foot-five twenty year old, alone and on the clock in a very large building. Them, two large, sturdy, middle aged dudes, at least one of whom has a knife. Somehow, in this situation they felt it was appropriate to not only ask me to party with them, but to insist after I declined. I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen too many newscast obituaries to remain entirely comfortable.
I told a friend about this afterwards, and he told me I was overreacting. “They were just trying to be friendly, man,” he said, swigging a beer on my couch. “Like, I get where you’re coming from! I do. But like, you can’t assume everyone’s out to get you.”
I’ve spent a lot of time wrestling with the validity of his proposal. Am I assuming everyone’s out to get me? (Yes, always, forever.) Do I think violence is more prevalent than it actually is? (Debatable.) Have I watched too much Law & Order: SVU? (That’s a given.) Burlington’s murder rate is lower than my hometown’s, and the rape rate is only negligibly higher. Most murders and rapes are committed by people the victim knows, so my friend was technically right–I can’t assume everyone’s out to get me, only the people I know and love.
So why is it that every night of my summer shift, when I walked from campus to Spinner, I fought off panic as I passed by every dark parking lot, under every burned-out streetlight?
All I can think is that it’s gut reflex. I’ve been taught ‘stranger danger’ for fifteen years. Once I hit puberty, I got the lectures on holding my keys between my knuckles, on using the buddy system, or making passwords to text friends if I was in trouble. For Christmas my freshman year of college, my dad got me a pocketknife with a five-inch-long blade to go with the mace my parents gave me as an off-to-college gift.
I’ve been being told I’m in constant danger for fifteen years.
Why is it that, in situations like this, it’s my responsibility to give them the benefit of the doubt? Making my safety priority over all else has been shoved down my gullet like a feeding tube for years, yet as soon as my safety is up against making some old dudes feel unwelcome, then I’m taking it all too seriously?
This is a game we’re set up to lose. We’re told to be constantly on guard, but if we act like we are, we’re rude. We’re making assumptions. If we’re right and we erred on the side of politeness, we’re hurt, we’re tortured, we’re killed.
There is no way to win both sides, but from here on out, at the end of a long night, I’m done giving a shit about the feelings of strangers. I’m keeping my phone in one hand and my knife in the other.