It’s mid-afternoon and I’m standing at the Muni with a look on my face that I’m sure reflects exactly how unaccustomed and lost I feel. I’m staring at the sign above me, which should inform me exactly where the next train is headed, but I’m wondering, Am I supposed to board at this station or the one across the street?
In the corner of my eye, I spot a short teenage girl with light blonde hair and a grey hooded sweatshirt approaching. We make eye contact briefly, I open my mouth to speak, and then I turn away again for a second, only to realize she’s still watching me, waiting for me to verbally acknowledge that I have no idea what I’m doing.
“Excuse me,” I give in. “Do you know if this train goes to Church Street?”
“We’re on Church Street right now,” her answer is swift and confident. “The train goes all the way down Church and even further.”
“Oh, sorry; I think the stop I’m looking for is Church and Market.” I have no clue what I’m talking about.
Somehow, our encounter warps into a full-on conversation about our backgrounds and current living situations. I discover a good deal about my helpful Muni confidante in the three minutes that we stand at the Muni station and talk. Fact one: She is a high school student who just moved to San Francisco a year ago. Fact two: Her mom stays at home and her dad is a contractor. Fact three: She’s wearing dark eyeliner and exudes an aura that growing up in suburbia could never cultivate: street smarts.
“I live in the Mission,” she tells me.
“Oh!” I exclaim. “I’ve been trying to find an apartment there.”
“Yeah…” her voice trails. “The Mission typically gets the most sun, but it can get pretty creepy there, especially at night. Whatever you do, don’t live near the 16th St. Mission BART station. That place absolutely freaks me out.”
I reflect briefly on my high school years, when my single fear was not getting accepted to a decent university. You’ve got it good, I imagine myself traveling back time and slapping my angst-filled, adolescent self upside the head.
Fact four: she’s afraid to walk around in her own neighborhood.
Last night, I volunteered at a tech awards show. It was an extravagant, swanky event—think Oscars for techies—that took place at an enormous, grand symphony hall downtown. Because all tech events must commence in a drunken follow-up session known as the after-party, I was well-aware that I wouldn’t be finished with my duties until late evening. I explained my plans to my friend:
“You’re going to take the Muni at midnight… on your own?” my friend regards me with apprehensive eyes.
“Yeah,” I shrug. “What else can I do?”
“I’ll drive over and pick you up.” Thank God she did.
I hop off the Muni at 6 p.m., just a few minutes early for my shift. Before exiting the station, I ask the information desk for directions, and she points me to what I believe to be the right direction. I climb the steps, exit the station, and before I even plant both feet onto the sidewalk, a nearby spectator shouts crude remarks in my direction. Do not make eye contact, I remember my friend warning me. I walk on, quickening my stride, my breath shortening with each step. Do not make eye contact. I pass raggedy men pushing shopping carts filled with paper bags, and behind me a homeless man trails along, shouting requests for spare change.
Do not make eye contact.
I am at the end of the block. I hear the homeless man approaching and, in a frenzy, I turn to a nearby biker and ask again for directions. The venue should only be a three-minute walk from the station but I believe I’ve made a wrong turn; sure enough, the biker tells me I need to turn around the block and walk another three blocks down.
I thank him hurriedly and make an abrupt turn to the right. I’m walking, faster than ever, and the homeless man is still dawdling behind, chanting the same line. After two blocks, I see Hayes Street—finally, a street I recognize—turn a sharp left, and, for want of getting rid of random-homeless-man-trailing-closely-behind, approach a man standing at the edge of the sidewalk to ask again for directions. I’m so flustered that I haven’t even stopped to observe my surroundings. I seem to have caught the guy off-guard, because he hesitates a bit before he speaks, flabbergasted at how I can’t figure out a simple address on my own when we are clearly standing on the correct street. I wonder, too, if he senses the tinge of anxiety in my voice as I ask, for the third time that evening, “Do you know where 270 Hayes Street is?”
The homeless man walks up to us as the guy is explaining to me how to read street numbers.
“Got any spare change?!” he stands a foot away, looks directly at us, and shouts his request three times.
Do not make eye contact. I wince a little and stare straight ahead.
“Sorry, man,” my unknowing bodyguard replies without a glance.
And with that, the homeless man departs.
After a couple minutes of deliberation, the guy points me in the right direction. It’s across the street, about ten steps away. I thank him, and he replies with a nod.
I recall the incident to my friend later that night as we sit in her warm, small car. She listens with measured sympathy, interrupting me at intervals to impart advice (“don’t look scared and vulnerable when you walk because they will take advantage of that”), and concludes with a single truth:
“You’ll toughen up.”
Today, I walked briskly and stony-faced, staring straight ahead, never letting my eyes wander.
I’m learning that being a woman in the city is not intended for the faint of heart.
Being a woman in the city means being schooled in self-preservation. It means setting aside a budget every month for emergency taxi rides for those late nights out when it’s no longer safe to roam the streets or ride the bus alone, knowing the city like the back of your hand and being aware of which street corners to avoid, recognizing when not to trust Google maps to take you to your destination (but why would it tell me to walk down that street with all the drug dealers?)
It means that our first order of business when we are searching for housing, aside from budgeting and rent costs, is the all-too-familiar question: “Is it a safe area?”
It means putting on a tough exterior—and faking it even when we aren’t feeling it.
It means ignoring lewd jeers and cat calls, as if that should be the norm.
It means growing a thicker skin.
Yes, being a woman in the city is a bold undertaking. I grew up in a safe, contained bubble of a town and can’t say that I have it down yet, but I will say this: to all the fairer sex city-dwellers out there, keep your head and spirits high and your feet treading along.