During the summer I spent working as a waitress in a tourist town, my job often demanded that I start work in the evenings and not get off until late night. Typically, I’d find myself walking home around midnight or 1 am… and strange men would offer me rides.
Once or twice wouldn’t have bothered me, but for the entire summer I worked there, it seemed like I couldn’t get through my walk home without a random man driving up in a car and offering me a ride. Always a different guy, in a different car, on some of the loneliest stretches of my walk home.
I joked to friends that these were the world’s worst kidnappers, as I had no intention of getting in a car with anyone I didn’t know, but the truth was that I felt targeted. I started ramping up my bitch face and putting on headphones that weren’t playing any music in order to look more unapproachable, but nothing I did worked, and night after night the encounters continued.
You can see where this is going, don’t you?
One night, after around month of this scenario, yet another guy pulled up, rolled down his window -- and I cut him off by yelling “Fuck off!” at him before he could launch into the same routine.
I’d only made it a few steps past his car before he screamed back “I’LL RUN YOU OVER, YOU CRAZY BITCH.” I stopped, horrified, and heard the engine rev.
Without taking the time to look back I broke into a run for the nearest house, not stopping until I was on the porch of a complete stranger. Then, as I watched unbelievingly, the guy simply revved the engine a few more times and drove off, not even having bothered to follow me half a block.
“Fucker,” I said, pissed at myself that I had fallen for it.
That wasn’t the last time that I went out at night and found myself regretting it. I’ve dressed up in full goth gear, only to retreat back to my hostel when I realized I’d have to make it through a gauntlet of leering guys in order to get on the metro. I once attended a college Halloween party only to find that my ride had inexplicably driven off, stranding me miles from home. And during my teen years, when I went to medieval reenactments with my dad, people warned me on the regular not to wander around Pennsic after dark, specifically because someone might rape me.
But despite all these experiences, I continue with my vice of walking in the evening or after midnight, even when I’m not forced to it by economic necessity. One half of me knows that, in actuality, wandering around at night isn’t actually a guarantee something exciting will happen. The other half remembers that, at Pennsic, it was only after dark that the fire players, kinky circus acts, and belly dancers would come out.
What it all boils down to is that, in the end, I keep going out for the dumbest of reasons: I love the things I stumble across. Once, me and my fellow theater interns ending up at a club where we watched Justin Bond perform as Kiki for what I now know was one of the last times. We also stayed in Central Park after dark and met a group of the NY Jedi practicing by the light of their lightsabers.
I cherish the less New York-y vignettes too, like the time a friend and I spied on urban foxes frollicking around the Jefferson Memorial. Or the time I rounded a dark street corner to find a barber shop pumping Latin music into the night, the impeccably styled men clashing adorably with the tiny shop dog in the doorway. Or the moment when, searching for an ice cream fix at 11 pm, I found a man teaching his girlfriend to swing dance under streetlamp before they entered a nearby club.
Night walking is also when I stretch my muscles after a long evening of writing, and one of my greatest pleasures is popping in my headphones for a jaunt around my own neighborhood. When I was a kid, my mom always made sure our blinds were tight shut after dark so no one could look in, but seems that no one on my street got this memo.
One house keeps its living room windows perpetually blind-free so as to showcase their huge panther statue. Similarly, there’s the guy who isn’t shy about showing off his geekery with six-foot-high shelves filled with books, DVDs, and VHS tapes. Then there’s the house that has been completely redone on the outside to look like something out of the Jetsons, or the one with the dozens of duck statues and fairy balls that’s helpfully lit so you can see its glory even at midnight.
My best night walk of all, however, was during the first minutes of 2013. I had started to turn the corner on my depression, but my friend circle was still in shambles, so I spent New Year’s Eve baking and Skyping with two long-distance aquaintances and pretending that was enough.
Then, on a whim, I decided to walk around the block at the stroke of midnight. My usually quiet street was filled with happy drunk people and their families spilling out of their houses, singing “Auld Lang Syne.” Even alone, I felt connected to my weird little suburb for the first time, and as someone’s illegal fireworks burst in the sky above us I thought, Everyone should do this.
But I know not everyone can. Sites like Hollaback are proof that many women don’t feel comfortable walking around their own neighborhoods even in daylight, and I know deep down that the good experiences I’ve had come more from luck than being able to project badassery like the chicks in Death Proof.
Still, I hope that someday, all the Slutwalks and Take Back the Nights will add up and we will all be able to do what Sylvia Plath dreamed of: “to be able to sleep in an open field, to travel west” and, most importantly, “to walk freely at night…”
*Months after this incident, a friend of mine mentioned “black taxis” -- basically, people unconnected with any taxi company driving around and offering people rides in their own cars. As this was around 2008 and the tourism in my little town had hit rock bottom, this made sense, but I can’t confirm it because none of these guys ever mentioned there being a fee.