Thank you to everyone who wrote me with kind words for yesterday's post! I wanted to talk a little more about The Accused, since it's a good example of victim-blaming and rape culture. I was only 8 years old when this film was released (to huge controversy), and even at that tender young age I thought she could have prevented her rape by not getting drunk around a bunch of guys. Yup, by 8 years old I was already conditioned to blame the victim, but what's even more alarming is that I thought her rape was inevitable, that it was normal for men to expect sex from a sexy, "loose" woman, while at the same time thinking those men were awful to do this to her. Do you see how messed up that is? Here's to hoping the next generation holds predators accountable for their actions, rather than penalize victims who dare leave the house to you know, live their fucking lives. Sigh. Anyway, here's another story that could have ended tragically.
Many people mistakenly think you can travel with ease in New York City, but in reality the subway system is designed to take you from the outer boroughs into Manhattan. Your commute is easy if you live in Brooklyn and work in Times Square, yet commuting within Brooklyn via train or bus can be a never-ending, screechy nightmare! When I lived in Prospect Heights and commuted 15 minutes to Union Square, life was good. Then I moved to Flatbush and had to make it to my teaching job in Bushwick before 8am. It would take me about 90 minutes door-to-door, which means three hours a day just commuting, so I opted for an 80-minute roundtrip bike ride instead. Wouldn't you want to cut your commute time by half?
This all happened in Bed-Stuy, a community that has had to weather a lot of economic storms, and the likes of Jackie Gleason, Bobby Fischer, Biggie Smalls, and Chris Rock (to name just a few) call it home. I may get in trouble for writing this, but being white-skinned and riding around on a bike made me kinda conspicuous, like it or not. Most of us simply go about our day, and I'd wager 90% of the time things were fine, but the other 10% really demoralized me: attempted attacks, spitting in my face, rocks thrown at me, etc. It used to enrage (sadden) me that I couldn't simply ride my bike freely; it gave me insight to what a person of color may feel if their car broke down in Howard Beach. I only wanted to get to work faster, dammit! Type A's get very nervous when we're told we can't take the most efficient route, just a little tidbit for ya. Anyway, politics and economic warfare has made us angry and distrustful of one another (all done by design, folks). Most of us find that if we simply let go of our prejudices and insecurities, the world will appear less scary. I managed to undo a lot of inner racism from over the years and didn't view Bed-Stuy with fear, but I was cautious. Pretty much anyone on a bike in NYC is a moving target, but being a short blanquita tends to put a bullseye on you; part of undoing this is not viewing everyone as archers. I lived in a Caribbean neighborhood and commuted through a black community, arriving to a Latino high school for work. In other words, I was often the minority and nothing serious ever happened to me. Just another day, you know?
I'm certainly not suggesting black neighborhoods = trouble; I hate it when that's the assumption, but back when NYC was broke Bed-Stuy was a tough place to survive (listen to Biggie). Poverty had stamped its ugly footprint, causing buildings to be sold to slumlords who deprived their residents. The end result? A disenfranchised people who were then held socially accountable for the actions (or inactions) of said evil slumlords, and if that doesn't help expedite a community's decline then I don't know what does. For the record, Bed-Stuy's having a renaissance of sorts, though its hot housing market is causing evictions of the very people who struggled to keep the community alive back when cabs refused to drive there. Putting this in context, you can see how a white person's presence can be a cause concern, something I was aware of then and now. I'll expand on this in a later post...enjoy!
Now the bike I used was my trusty touring bike; its tires didn't go flat easily (they also slow your roll, though it's a small price to pay for durability). You pretty much know when you have a flat, and your biggest fear as a cyclist is to break down in an unsafe place or not have your tools. Pretty much both happened to me one sunny afternoon as I rode home from work: I felt that familiar bumping and just knew it was flat. I pulled onto the sidewalk to patch the tube and was horrified to find I had neglected to check my bag before leaving the house that morning. The day before found me taking the bike apart to clean it, and as a result I was now missing a spare tube, my frame pump, tire levers...and I forgot my wallet. While I did have a patch kit, the glue had dried out due to age, bummer. I dug around some more and found a self-adhesive patch, thinking I could simply fill my tires at a gas station and be done with it. Fortunately my tires had schrader valves, which are the same kind your car has; all I had to do was find that gas station. Easy enough, right?
Soon enough I walked my bike to the gas station to find the air-pump was busted. Dammit! No money for a cab, no patch glue, no pump, no air! I stood there a moment, squinting down Malcolm X Boulevard as tried to come up with an alternate plan.
"Hey, you need something?"
I looked up to see a very thin woman standing by a small truck. Her smile displayed broken teeth and pale, sunken cheeks, common features for someone addicted to hard drugs. Her long blonde hair was straggly but pulled back in an attempt to tame it. Faded tattoos decorated her abscessed arms.
"Well, I've got a busted bike, know of a bike shop nearby?" I asked. She thought a moment and called out to someone on the other side of the van. A man emerged, his mustached face exhibiting the same addiction markers as his female counterpart, his jeans worn, fingernails dirty, eyes dull. I covertly glanced over his vehicle, which contained the sort of items that betrayed its use as a traveling house: blankets, food wrappers, clothing, etc. Somehow through conversation we discovered a bike shop over on Fulton Street, and as I made my way out of the gas station, the woman called over to me.
"We can give you a ride," she offered.
I thought twice about this, I really did. Without my phone or wallet I was kind of at the mercy of others. I studied the two people who should have been asking me for help. I walked over to the woman and quietly told her I had not a dime on me. I could see the man kind of stiffen with disappointment, but he got out anyway and to put my bike in the back. Something in my gut told me I'd be okay, so I accepted.
"You can sit in the front with us," she said, the man still wordless. Exhaling, I stepped in and sat on the bench seat, smack in between the two of them. All sorts of scenarios raced through my mind: at the very least they could take my bike, but what if they decided I was the valuable item they needed? What if they were like, the Meth Mickey & Mallory? I realized that by sitting between them, I wouldn't be able to jump out if things got weird...which they soon did when I felt hot breath on my neck. I froze.
"Don't worry, he's friendly," she assured. To my horror, a giant gray pit bull climbed its way over the bench seat and somehow managed to sit in my lap, his face right up against mine. Great. In addition to riding in a van that probably had a meth lab in the back, I was now the property of a beast with a terrible reputation for unprovoked attacks. My eyeballs dried out as he panted in my face, and I wondered just what the hell I got myself into. Occasionally he'd bark at something he saw through the windshield, making my blood freeze. Now I really couldn't get away...
...but nothing bad happened. We arrived at the bike shop maybe ten minutes after we left the gas station. Soon my bike was on the street, and I thanked my good samaritans profusely. When I entered the bike shop I was met with a lot of curious looks, given they just watched this nerdy teacher emerge from a drug van. I explained my situation, and they agreed to simply patch my tube, fill the tire, and let me go. I hopped on my Bianchi and made my way down Flatbush Avenue as the sun set, feeling nothing but gratitude for the beautiful encounters I experienced.
Was I lucky? Well, yes and no. I felt lucky that no one hassled me, or that I wasn't hit by a car, but please keep in mind that I listened to my gut, despite conventional signs of danger. I felt worry but not true fear, which is why listening to my inner voice paid off.
That all being said, I can't believe I did that!