Pretty Woman, Walkin' Down the Street

I grew up in Cleveland. 

The city is home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Cavaliers basketball team, and a crime rate of 126.4 rapes per 100,000 residents (compared to the national rate of 40.4 rapes according to the National Crime Information Center). 

I never felt safe. My mom drilled countless, unachievable, and often conflicting rules into my head every time I left the house: Never walk alone. Bring a man, but trust no man. Don’t wear headphones. Don’t wear feminine colors or clothes. Don’t wear tight clothes – not too loose either, that can be grabbed. Don’t show cleavage. Cover your skin. Tie your hair up – it can be pulled. Don’t make eye contact, but always be alert. Don’t go in the dark. You’re not safe in the light – too obvious. Don’t trust strangers. Don’t trust family friends – they kidnap, too. Don’t go out at night. You can’t trust the police. Never accept a drink. Never stop to give directions – it can be a trap. 

Not surprisingly, these rules did little to combat the wills of the waves of men roaming the street freely. Unlike me, their mother didn't beg them not to leave their home. Unlike me, they never had to think twice about what they wore or where they stopped to rest. Unlike me, they assumed ownership over the women who invaded their territory.

I remember the very first time I ever wore shorts during a private walk down the street. I was only 12 years old, yet I already knew the risk that I was taking. But the quiet tide of teenage rebellion mixed with a dreaded heat wave convinced me to dress not for safety but for comfort. I was playing some Disney music – “Strangers Like Me” from Tarzan – and was, for once, relaxed. Cleveland is truly beautiful in the summertime; little gardens spring up on the curbside, and you can run through sprinklers on your neighbors’ lawns (as long as you don’t get caught). But this beauty is only accessible to the privileged few, and I was not an inheritor of that liberty. Soon, the car honks began, followed by the cacophony of whooping and jeering. All from afar, from men hiding behind tinted windows. Harassment, sure, but little risk (until they begin to follow you, of course). 

Then I saw them. A group of four men – boys, almost. Dressed in dark clothes and walking silently, they nearly faded into the background. Until the first yell. “Ay!” I kept walking. “Ay you! Ay yo, slow down.” The voice sounded more insistent this time, more like a threat than an entreatment. “Hey sexy-come here.” I walked faster. “Bitch, don’t walk away from me.” One of the men started to run towards me, arm outstretched to grab me, to pull me back. I bolt – the path home never seemed so long. “What, you think you’re too good for me? Who do you think you are? You can’t walk away from me.” There is nothing more dangerous than a man’s fragile ego. The houses seemed to stretch out before me, growing longer and longer as my desperate steps slowed with exhaustion. They didn't stop the chase until I reached my driveway, tears in my eyes, my lungs heaving with every breath.  After many years of street harassment and groping, I had developed a morbid way of dealing with the disrespect and fear: I engraved the instances into my memory by memorializing not only how many catcalls I received but also where and by whom. This task forced me to stay alert while simultaneously permitting me to take my mind off of the seriousness and offense of the crimes being committed against my childhood. My nightly route usually featured a dozen catcalls, though this number increased if I wore anything more revealing than an oversized hoodie and sweatpants. 

When I was 16, my friend Issa and I decided to bike to the local grocery store (about 4 miles away). I had never biked to this particular grocery store before, so Issa and I decided to continue my macabre method of mapping the city. This bus stop is where an old man grabbed my arm and tried to throw me off my bike and into his car. That church is where my sister got chased by a gang screaming obscenities of what they will do to her when they caught her when she was only 11 years old. That Dunkin-Donuts is where I would only enter with a boy at my side due to the numerous times I had been followed and grossly examined by a crowd of male workers. 

We began to count once we passed the bus stop previously mentioned. Very quickly, one catcall turned into 20. The first time we were chased was outside my grandmother’s apartment. Once we had counted to 100, we stopped treating it as a game. We rode in silence past the pizza parlor run by my dad’s ex, past the relics of abandoned convenience stores and bars with windows lined with rusted metal bars. Issa cried on the ride home – every jeer wounding her like an arrow. I biked faster than I ever have in my entire life, desperately trying to run away from an inescapable birthright. We didn’t leave the house for the rest of the day, and Issa still refuses to go on bike rides with me. 

Though these traumatic childhood experiences haunted me, they did not stop me. As I grew older, I grew bolder. With every car horn came a “fuck you.” With ever catcall came a middle finger. When the hands did grab me, I slapped. I didn't regard nightfall as my curfew. In a move of stupid yet so, so welcome freedom, I began to take nightly rides at 10, then 11, then 12 a.m. throughout Cleveland and its suburbs. This was when I first became an urban wanderer. I would grab my bike – the one I bought at the police auction after mine was stolen – and would ride for hours. I would wear a dark green hoodie (“Don’t look like a woman,” my mom would advise) and place headphones in my ears (which blocked out the catcalls – unfortunately, it also prevented me from hearing men as they snuck up on me). I would wind up and down the streets of Cuyahoga County, becoming intimately familiar with every alley, every home, every church, and convenience store. I met countless characters during my nightly journeys. The cool, sweet smelling air seemed to call the city’s hidden underbelly into the moonlight. 

A man only known as Wolf prowled the night near the white chapel across the boulevard from my home; he lived in a tent behind his estranged parents’ house (according to whispers, he hadn’t spoken to them for years despite living 10 feet from their back door). He would call to me by name as I biked down the street. Never threatening but always harboring a wild, untamed look in his eyes. A woman, probably in her late 70’s or early 80’s, could be seen talking to herself near the Wendy’s parking lot. She had long, thick, black dreads that would probably touch the floor if she did not wear them proudly atop her head like a coiled halo. The most mysterious character that I passed frequently was a man who constantly wore a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses (never taking them off at nightfall, as if even the starlight was blinding). Most peculiarly of all, however, was the boa constrictor that he wore around his neck. Its deep green scales wrapped loosely, over and over, on his entire upper body. I remember the first time that I saw him – I was riding past the library when I heard a slight commotion from inside. The librarian – an old, grey-haired woman who seemed to despise any disturbance to silence – was motioning violently out the door. “No snakes allowed,” she whispered through gritted teeth. The man asked for the sign which forbade reptiles before reluctantly walking outside with his cold-blooded companion, giggling to himself like a child. 

Cleveland and I still share a toxic relationship. I regard it with aversion and fear, yet I find myself drawn to the people hidden in the shadows, to the mysteries waiting to be uncovered in the cracks of concrete. It was this devilish brew of constant fear and objectification mixed with my simultaneous desire to discover the hidden quirks and idiosyncrasies of the strangers that surround me that inspire me, even to this day, to rebel against the constraints imposed upon female urban wanderers and reclaim the streets as my own.