Friday, March 1, 2013

Dangerous Neighborhoods

Growing up in small town America felt very safe. My friends and I strolled around Chippewa Falls with no fear. There were no dangerous neighborhoods there, only dangerous places. One tavern in particular was famous for its brawls. My father said it was not a place for ladies. All we had in those days was our reputation, once sullied, never again regained. And so my friends and I stayed clear of brawling taverns.

So you can imagine my shock when in college I was chased one evening while walking back to the sorority house. Our housemother had warned us that there was a rapist loose in the neighborhood and we were never to be out alone at night. We were to call her and she’d pick us up. But I’d left the library in a hurry and forgot about calling and here some guy in dark clothes was following me. I’d seen him lurking under the awning outside the Christian Fellowship Community Hall. I continued walking and soon heard footsteps behind me. I peeked. It was the guy. I started walking faster. He did too and soon I was racing with him chasing me. I ran into the middle of the street praying, hoping someone would see me. But no one did. Finally, I spotted the fraternity house of the fellow I was dating. I raced into the house and plunked down into a chair, my heart beating wildly. “Being chased,” I managed to blurt out, and the house emptied as the fellows ran into the street. They didn’t find anyone, but they walked me to the sorority house and then serenaded us for an hour. All’s well that ends well. But I had learned there are truly dangerous neighborhoods.

When I lived in Atlanta (1956), it felt in some ways that the entire city was a dangerous neighborhood. There were all these rules and regulations about what you could do where, when, and with whom. For instance, you couldn’t sit at a table with any, who in those days were called “colored.” However, you could stand with them, even in crowded elevators. “Colored” had to sit in the balcony at the theaters. When the movie Hamlet was showing, one of the “colored” professors borrowed her white friend’s children. With them in tow, she looked like a nanny and got to sit on the main floor. Such a crazy business. “Passing” was an interesting phenomenon. That meant that a light-colored person could “pass” as white. I had a neighbor who bragged about her southern blood. She would never use a bathroom that a “colored” person used. Never. In fact, she boasted that she and her mother had checked out of a hotel in San Francisco when they learned that “colored” people had rooms there. One evening, at a dinner party in a fancy Peachtree Street hotel in Buckhead (a white suburb), I happened to go into the ladies’ room and there was my neighbor. As I entered, a beautiful woman exited one of the stalls. I could tell she was “passing.”  When she left the room, I mentioned this to my neighbor and asked how she could explain her being in the same bathroom. She was flustered and waved her hands about. “Oh…oh…that’s just different.” As I said, the whole city was caught up in this crazy business, a truly dangerous neighborhood for all.

While still living in Atlanta, we took a trip to Milwaukee to see my parents. Dick decided to drive through Chicago to give the children an opportunity to see the city instead of the freeways that surrounded it. We were driving through south Chicago when someone threw a rock at the car. We were shocked. And then another rock came and another and someone shouted, “Go home, Georgia cracker!” We got away as quickly as possible, but it left us all stunned. Those people throwing the rocks didn’t know us, what we thought, how we lived, and yet they had formed an opinion about us. I had a tiny understanding (and so did my young children) of what it must be like to be dark skinned in a segregated city. If this nonsense was to continue, I despaired for mankind.

While living in Mount Lebanon , a suburb of Pittsburgh, in the early 1960s, I joined with five other women to do something about civil rights. We chose an interesting area of Pittsburgh, a mixed neighborhood with about 60% white, 40% “black” (the word we used then), and all poor. The neighborhood was filled with beautiful old Victorian town houses, all beginning to show their years. We talked the Presbyterian Synod into renting a storefront space for us. We named it The Meeting Place and it was truly that. There were activities all day long and well into the evening. Someone had organized a teen group and we took turns being there so the parents could relax and know that no “hanky-panky” was going on. One evening, as I herded the kids out and prepared to close up, I laid my purse and car keys on the table. One of the boys (a tall sixteen-year old) grabbed the keys. Two boys joined him and they began to tease me about taking me for a ride. I looked at these boys. Cute, full of life, ready for an adventure and I knew I was responsible for what would happen. I pulled up the “mother” inside of me—that female tiger that rises whenever her kids are in danger. I held out my hand and pointed to it. There was a moment, one of those times that seems to freeze. Then the boy laughed as he dropped the keys into my hand. We had escaped a truly “dangerous neighborhood.” From that day on, those boys became my protectors. I wanted to adopt them.

Los Angeles has its share of dangerous neighborhoods. One evening in the early 1980s, I finished leading one of the EST Seminars and met with my logistics team. We had gotten into the habit at the close of a seminar to allow people to ask for someone to walk them to their cars. But this evening, for some reason, I neglected to ask someone to walk with me. Soon everyone was gone and my car was parked in a very dangerous neighborhood. My friend Judy always said I carried “safe” around with me, and I hoped she was right. I was exhausted and all I could think about was getting home. All of a sudden a fellow staggered up beside me. “Lady, how about having a drink?” I turned to look at him. He was just a bit taller than me, but he was huge. His straight black hair was pulled back into a long ponytail, his face broad and ruddy colored. His thick neck disappeared into the broadest shoulders I’d ever seen. He looked like a brick wall. “Sorry,” I said and walked away. He raced up to me. “Oh, Jesus, lady, don’t be afraid of me.” I stopped and looked him in the eye. I was terrified and yet felt oddly compassionate. It was obvious his life was hard, but in some strange way I knew this scenario was up to me and I needed to keep us safe. “I am not afraid. I’m hungry and tired and I’m going home.” I clutched my purse to my chest and walked to my car. I got in, locked the doors, thanked God (literally), and started the car. Suddenly, the front of my car dipped. I looked up. There he was, his arms spread wide, pushing the front of my car to the ground. Again, for the sake of both of us, I felt I had to be in charge. I gunned the engine, put the car in gear, and released the clutch. He leaped out of the way and I drove home. I’d been lucky, but knew I needed to be more careful. Like a cat, that mother tiger has only so many lives.

I’ve been in other dangerous neighborhoods. I remember especially some corporate team meetings and a few cocktail parties in Los Angeles and New York City where careers and reputations were on the line. It seems those dangerous neighborhoods are all over the place.

I’m being careful, but there’s one neighborhood I can’t avoid. In Augusten Burrough’s book Dry, he writes about his experiences with alcohol and rehab. One of his counselors is a recovered alcoholic Ph.D. therapist named Rae. During one of their sessions, she advises him, “Think of your head as an unsafe neighborhood; don’t go there alone.” Good advice. Wish me luck.


  1. I interned in Washington, DC in the 1980s and remember coming home one night after seeing a play and my (non-white) bus driver chewed me out for being a young, white woman out that late alone ... as he drove me right to my front door.

    I traveled through Germany, Austria, and Czechoslovakia alone in 1990 when the Berlin Wall fell. I slept on my backpack to protect my medications, but I wasn't afraid. A moment I will never forget was on the streets of Prague when a gentleman came up to me and asked for directions. I must have looked like I knew where I was going and felt perfectly safe wandering around.

    Then I went to law school on the south side of Chicago and only remember being scared for a moment when someone walked up and tried to take my money - I was paying for my food at a drive-through.

    But now, after 15 years of feeling safe in my home with the companionship of my husband, he tells me I regularly have nightmares that wake him up.

    Apparently it is only alone in my mind that I am afraid!

  2. Catching up on your posts. For me they are fascination glimpses into the life and times in my home state of Wisconsin and chapters of family history I am learning for the first time! Thanks so much. Keep going!