For this story to really make sense I need to set the scene: I was 22, fresh out of college, and 3,000 miles from home to do a service year in Sacramento. Sure, I had a degree in social work, but I had no experience working with substance abuse or homelessness, and I definitely didn't know anything about running a program. But there I was doing intakes and assessments to place people in a sober-living program for homeless men and women. I definitely faked it until I made it.
I had been working at the program for a few months and I was feeling pretty good about it. I was processing referrals with zero problems and running the program like I totally knew what I was doing. Sometimes, I felt like your friendly homeless-drug-addict ambassador to the sheltered citizens of Sacramento.
My service-year program provided housing, and ironically, I was living in a remodeled crack house — literally a house where crack used to be sold until it was foreclosed on, purchased and redone as really cute apartments. Now the crack was being sold in a park a few blocks down.
My friend lived a few streets away in the same not-so-great area, and I frequently made the nighttime walk between the two locations. Rarely had I encountered any problems. Some cat-calling here and there, but nothing that made me feel like I was in danger. The people everyone was afraid of were typically the ones I worked with every day. They were my people.
One night, my roommate and I had gone to a party over at our friend's place a few blocks away — the same walk I did all the time. We felt fine making the trek because there were two of us; we knew the route and had the whole safety-in-numbers logic going on.
We were about halfway home when they round the corner — a group of large men, clearly wearing gang colors, and their attention was focused right on us.
Welp, I had a good 22-year run, was the first thing that crossed my mind. Picture a skinny blonde girl already preparing to pull her wallet out of her bag and getting herself pumped up to run just in case. That was me. There was a quick moment of guilt in there when I realized I could totally outrun my roommate. Sorry, roommie, I love you, but we've all heard that you don't have to outrun the bear/zombie/whatever — just your slowest friend.
The men got closer and just as they started yelling for us to hand over our money and phones, a voice among them interrupted the demands.
"Whoa, whoa — hold up," came from somewhere in the group. One of the guys stepped forward, walked up to me, and pointed in my face before saying, "Hey, you're the drug-program girl! I had a meeting with you yesterday!"
I'll be honest: I didn't recognize him at all, but of course I play along. The men no longer wanted our money and phones, and we ended up being allowed to walk away with him yelling, "See you Tuesday, girl!" behind us.
Thank goodness he missed his appointment so I didn't have to face the awkwardness of the near-mugging affecting the social-worker/client relationship. There is no handy how-to guide when it comes to navigating that.