On Being a Woman, After Dark, in New York City — Running Edition

Tonight was the first night I carried with me the pepper spray that M’s boyfriend got for us after a spate of violent robberies in the neighborhood took place this spring. 

At my grandma’s, in Minnesota, I kept up my running schedule for the first few days, before she went into the hospital. After my first run, in early morning sun around the formerly industrial town, my grandma called me “brave” over breakfast for running by myself.

“It’s broad daylight, Grams.”

“I know. But I couldn’t do it.”

I looked at her, surprised and perplexed. She had done so much, and done so much alone, that this didn’t make sense to me.

She went on. “When I was about 10, I was out riding bikes with a friend from the neighborhood. She was a little older, and she was pretty, and she was sassy. I liked going around with her because I would do things I wouldn’t do on my own, I was too scared to do on my own. One day, we were riding bikes and it was almost dark. I should’ve probably been home already. All of a sudden, these boys from the Polish side of town surrounded me, and they poked and grabbed at me and I was frozen. I was so scared, and they just kept grabbing at me. And my friend, she yelled, ‘Ride, Donna! Ride home fast as you can!’ I never stayed out that close to dark again.”

She’d never told me this story. I knew she felt like an outcast, like the tall, unwieldy, unpretty girl in the neighborhood, but this victimization was new. This was the woman who imbued in me a sense of confidence in traveling alone, who, in the way she carried herself, gave me permission to be a larger-than-average woman in public space. I hurt for the ways she’d hurt, and the ways she’d been required to cover that hurt, over the years.

A little over a year ago now, I wrote about a frightening incident in my neighborhood.

Then, last fall and winter, I came to appreciate running after dark, after work. It was particularly helpful during my boss’s six week paternity leave. I was thrust into a role I wasn’t really prepared for and to combat the anxiety and impostor syndrome, running over the Queensboro bridge every other night allowed me to shake off whatever had transpired that day, and get a night of sleep minus dread.

Luckily, most of Manhattan (and most of the Queensboro Bridge) is lit well enough that I wasn’t in too much darkness for too long. At first, running in the dark was off-putting. As a woman you watch every shadow. It’s impossible to ever fully zone out because you’re paying attention to the alcoves in every building, movement between cars, and your reflexes are poised in the event you need to sprint, or throw an elbow, or kick at someone. But after awhile, even with that, the darkness let my mind calm down from its usual level of cacophony of second-guessing and over-analysis.

This summer has been bad for running outside. I might have every intention of going for a run and the minute I step outside someone has pressed a hot washrag to my mouth and nose and told me to breathe through that. Today was the first day in at least a month that the humidity hasn’t been thick as a quilt. I knew this morning I could run today.

Recently, though, two women were murdered while out jogging, in daylight, one in a residential part of Queens.

So when today turned into tonight and it was nearly nine when I got home, I reconsidered my plans to run. When I told M I was going, she made a noise.

“Errr… I mean. Not to get all up in your business, but where are you going to run?”

“Oh no! Not at all,” I said. I was surprised that she was apologizing for asking. This is fairly standard practice for us, looking out. “I’m staying in the neighborhood. And when I do that, I run down to 71st, and then run up and down every block until I get back here, or I go to 80th or 82nd, just to get an extra mile in.”

She looked like she was going to add something.

“And, I only go to 35th. Just the one block.”

“Oh, okay. I was going to say — just stay away from Northern.”

“Yeah, no. There’s no one over there. At least 37th is always jumpin’, jumpin’.”

(She gave me a Look, but I’m not one to turn down a Beyoncé reference.)

“I’m also taking my pepper spray.”

On my way out the door, I remembered iPhones can be effective safety tools…I just couldn’t remember how. I didn’t want to have to drop a pin, I wanted her to be able to see me in real time if necessary. My running app had the option available…for an upgrade and a fee. Apple Maps is useless. Google Maps didn’t have anything readily, or intuitively, available. And then I remembered Find My Friends.

Find My Friends resides on my sixth screen, next to Stocks. I don’t regard it very highly and, if we’re being honest, I’m suspicious of its necessity. Why would I turn this app on for people to find me when I can just text whoever is supposed to be close by? Apps that let you see who you know nearby while you’re out have always seemed thirsty to me, and I’d rather eat at a bar by myself than pop in on someone unannounced just because an app tells me we happen to be within blocks of each other.

But that wasn’t the point of it tonight. I asked M if she would mind if I shared my location with her, and we walked each other through turning on location sharing and linking me to her. What’s really nice is the option to share my location either for an hour or a day or an indefinite period of time.

Our ‘hood is busy enough that I wasn’t really worried about anything happening, but you never know. The two of us live together, but alone, in the city. It’s better to have someone with eyes on you than no one. Most importantly, though, I refuse to let a handful of creepy men, or beings with dangerous tendencies, win. The habits I changed this evening —carrying pepper spray, leaving my headphones behind, enabling Find My Friends—is about as far as I can go before the murderers win.


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