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Just Walk on Byby Brent StaplesMy first victim was a woman—white, well dressed, probably in her early twenties.I came upon her late one evening on a deserted street in Hyde Park, a relatively affluentneighborhood in an otherwise mean, impoverished section of Chicago. As I swung ontothe avenue behind her, there seemed to be a discreet, uninflammatory distancebetween us. Not so. She cast back a worried glance. To her, the youngish blackman—a broad six feet two inches with a beard and billowing hair, both hands shovedinto the pockets of a bulky military jacket—seemed menacingly close. After a few morequick glimpses, she picked up her pace and was soon running in earnest. Withinseconds she disappeared into a cross street.That was more than a decade ago. I was 23 years old, a graduate student newlyarrived at the University of Chicago. It was in the echo of that terrified woman’s footfallsthat I first began to know the unwieldy inheritance I’d come into—the ability to alterpublic space in ugly ways. It was clear that she thought herself the quarry of a mugger,a rapist, or worse. Suffering a bout of insomnia, however, I was stalking sleep, notdefenseless wayfarers. As a softy who is scarcely able to take a knife to rawchicken—let alone hold it to a person’s throat—I was surprised, embarrassed, anddismayed all at once. Her flight made me feel like an accomplice in tyranny. It alsomade it clear that I was indistinguishable from the muggers who occasionally seepedinto the area from the surrounding ghetto. That first encounter, and those that followedsignified that a vast unnerving gulf lay between nighttime pedestrians—particularlywomen—and me. And I soon gathered that being perceived as dangerous is a hazard initself. I only needed to turn a corner into a dicey situation, or crowd some frightened,armed person in a foyer somewhere, or make an errant move after being pulled over bya policeman. Where fear and weapons meet— and they often do in urbanAmerica—there is always the possibility of death.
In that first year, my first away from my hometown, I was to become thoroughlyfamiliar with the language of fear. At dark, shadowy intersections in Chicago, I couldcross in front of a car stopped at a traffic light and elicit the thunk, thunk, thunk, thunk ofthe driver—black, white, male, or female—hammering down the door locks. On lesstraveled streets after dark, I grew accustomed to but never comfortable with people whocrossed to the other side of the street rather than pass me. Then there were thestandard unpleasantries with police, doormen, bouncers, cab drivers, and others whosebusiness it is to screen out troublesome individuals before there is any nastiness.I moved to New York nearly two years ago and I have remained an avid nightwalker. In central Manhattan, the nearconstant crowd cover minimizes tenseoneonone street encounters. Elsewhere—visiting friends in SoHo, where sidewalks