Pepper Spray: An ode, ish

It’s interesting the things that build on each other. Someone gives you a smile, you then lend a hand, it sparks your day, the sunset is perfect. Is it beautifully vast with electric colors and amazing clouds? No its rainy as shit out, but because each step of your day played off each other, it feels the sun is lending you an invisible ray. This leading of things doesn’t always end beautiful, comforting, bad, good or in-between. It may lend you a different thought path, a new way to enter a story, a realization of how all the little minuscule interconnections fit so nicely, or, not nicely. They just are.

Yesterday as I entered the gym, I had an encounter with two men that immediately left me wanting to write about it. Of course, the day progressed and as dusk fell into night and my shift started at work, the interaction, and the story it inspired, drifted away. Today, while waiting for the Bart at Civic Center events continued to transpire, and before I knew it I was sitting at SFO with a piece to write regarding all the circumstances of the last two days that had, and continue, to build on each other.

As I walked into the gym, I had a canvas bag with me. I usually make the walk from my house (Hyde and O’Farrell) to 10th and Market empty handed with the exception of my water bottle. I have found that in my new neighborhood I feel much more comfortable if I have nothing extra with me. A few bucks in my pocket, headphones, water bottle, and keys attached to a black and red bottle of pepper spray that “Santa” left for me in a red velvet stocking, suffice. My inner conversations go something like this: “the less you have on you, the easier it would be to run, defend yourself, or the less likely someone would want to attack or mess with you.” That being said, I leave the house sans bag as much as I can.

This day I had returned picture frames that failed to fit a picture, and thus had broken my bag rule. As I walked into the gym, and began rummaging in the bag in search of my keys, I realized the spray had fallen out of its cloth pouch. Moving to the side so others could sign in at the front desk, I took the bag off my shoulder to get a better look, and as I pulled the canister out from the bottom, I noticed the two men behind the counter were watching me. The older of the two exclaimed, “wow what is that? Is that lipstick?” My first thought was confusion, I was certain their first words, if any, would be in regard to pepper spray. They wouldn’t be asking me what it was, but would be making some remark or joke about the defense mechanism,“no one should mess with you!” or something of the sort.

“It’s pepper spray,” I replied. Many of the women I know walk around with spray, this couldn’t possibly be the first time he had seen a woman with some?

“Why do you have that? Do you take this everywhere?” he asked. I was shocked. How could I NOT have pepper spray? And how could he not know that women carry some? I see him every day, we live in the same city, walk on the same streets, hear the same news, was this not obvious?

Before I could respond another gym member walked up and asked a question, and I continued inside. As I put my headphones back in, I was unsettled. Clearly our lives are different, but how could my carrying pepper spray be of question. Why did this man not know that it was out of necessity. How could he not compute that every day I take to the streets I feel the need, and know I may need protection? Are we all that disconnected with each other’s day to day? In this beautiful city of ours, that acts as a sanctuary in its acceptance of race, gender, sexual orientation and choice, a city that was home to Alice Walker, Harvey Milk, Rebecca Solnit. . . how was it possible that a man my age, and one a bit older, wouldn’t know why I carry mace. It’s understandable that they may not realize women carry spray, but to not understand why. . .?

As I walked home, canvas bag resting on my shoulder and my keys/mace on the ready, I was bothered. I am incredibly on edge on some streets in our city, in fact every time I reach my front gate and get in I experience a massive exhale. Living down here is nothing like my old neighborhood. I walk out and see men and women hunched completely over, eyes glossed, not really conscious. Up on Divisadero I would pass by many people and know what I could expect from them. There was no change in awareness or a tensing up of my body. Down here, I never know what to expect from someone. I know I may turn a corner and see someone shooting up, or cross a street and spot numerous syringes. But as I stride with “confidence” up Hyde, as soon as someone starts walking directly towards me or screaming, or veers near I freeze up. I do my best to smile at everyone I can, but I walk around on edge; every one I see has the potential to hurt me.

And I don’t want to mistrust everyone. I also don’t want to carry the weight of fear and the energy of “stay away from me” around. Almost every walk from my house to Civic Center is a battle: I want to smile at everyone, offer all the kindness possible when one is just passing another, but I also fear what that may lead to. There are men always on the corner of Larkin and O’Farrell that I now recognize, smile at, and say hello too. I don’t want to be another person that just passes by, but I also remain hyper aware of my space.

After having a run in on Capp and 16th, an incident in which a woman sitting against a building got up as I turned a corner, ran at me from behind, and hit my left shoulder with her metal water bottle, I became incredibly aware of my physical space, and how easily it could be penetrated. For those of us who have never been assaulted we imagine an almost invisible field of protection, one in which we are not used to others crossing unless given permission. In the states when you bump into someone on the bus or on the street, our immediate reaction is to look back and apologize. Having our spaces unintentionally coalesce is still foreign to us. It jolts us, causes us to apologize, or makes us keenly aware; that being said, my assertion is that our space being invaded is not something we anticipate, it comes as a surprise. After my interaction with the woman who left me running down Capp street, I am now profoundly aware of how easy it is for someone to bust that imaginary line. In fact I think about this with regards to everyone I pass: as I was running down Polk street a few mornings ago, I realized how easy it would be for someone I run by to merely put their arms out and push me into passing cars; I have also been the victim to numerous men grabbing my hair on Muni, in fact I even had a woman do it at an old serving job who thought I was ignoring her.

I think about my body, and the way it enters and moves through public spaces, and it no longer feels protected. There is no invisible barrier, no line that can’t be crossed. If someone chooses to enter my space or touch me, they can. And this is why I carry pepper spray. My body and chosen space is no longer solely dictated by me. Of course I have the power to say no, and do everything I can to protect myself, but the dark reality is that it might not be enough. The pepper spray, this small bottle that demurely hangs from my keys, settles my brain, and empowers my sense of space. I know there is no invisible barrier, but with the spray, I have the opportunity to forge one. With the spray, I am not alone. With the spray, I have power.

Today, almost twenty four hours after my “lipstick” encounter at the gym, I packed for my monthly trip to San Diego. And as I was leaving the house, I realized I had to take the spray off my keys, to get through airport security. I told myself nothing would happen from here to Bart, or from Bart to the airport, and left it on my dresser. As I walked to Civic Center, I again became hyper aware of my small rolling bag: how easy it would be for someone to run by and grab it, what I would do, would anyone help, would I chase them, would I fight them for it, etc. As soon as I was under ground, among others, my body eased, and I let go of some of the tension I was carrying. Moments later a man came up to me, and asked how I was doing. I said fine, smiled, and asked him the same question. He began to answer, and as he did so, he pulled out two versions of Street Sheet. I agreed to buy them both, and was grateful to have this interaction that reminded me to chill the fuck out. We shook hands, and he continued to the next person nearby.

Moments later another man, with a grey sweatshirt that was now black, shoeless, and pants that were well below his hip line (he had to hold one side up so as to not lose them), began walking around and stopping near waiting passengers. He would get about two inches from someone and just stare at them and grunt. I of course, being vigilant at all times, tensed up and prayed he didn’t come near me. But soon enough he came my way and stood about 3 inches from my right side, though I could smell him from fifteen feet away. I suddenly remembered I had no pepper spray and felt incredibly naked, yet also aware of a voice telling me to just be kind and smile at him. As I turned toward him, his face changed and he abruptly yelled out something incompressible and then moved from my right side to standing directly in front of me. My desire to be welcoming immediately dissipated and I went into survival mode. I quickly rolled my bag away and chose to go stand near an older gentleman also waiting for the train.

Until I had the “safety” of another’s space next to me, my own felt incredibly fragile. With no spray, what was plan B? It took not having the spray to be reminded of the questioning at the gym, to then realize how much significance I place on this metal bottle. What’s more disconcerting is how many of us don’t know the fears that someone else may be walking around with. What are the stories you tell yourself to feel safe? Do we have similar tales? How do you feel walking alone at night? Do you avoid streets? Do you walk in the street, off the side walk, like I do? Do you cross when a man, who is alone, is walking down the same side as you? Who do you fear?

I write this not as a victim, or a pepper spray sales woman. I put this into the world to invite inquiry. Ask your female friends how they feel about the streets they walk on. Take the time to consider your own space, and how it interacts and weaves through the outside world. Think about the way you move through our city, or your own: are you an ally? Are you prepared to help another in need? Can you defend yourself? Who can you make feel more at ease? I can’t speak for all women, but I know many who carry similar fears as I do, so, consider acknowledging each other on the street. If you see someone walking alone in the same direction as you, offer or ask if you can walk with them. Watch out for each other. Ask questions you don’t know the answer to. Ask your mother, sister, girlfriend, co worker if they feel safe, and how you can support them. Engage so as to understand. Become aware. Know the facts and act accordingly:

“[C]olleges spend more time telling women how to survive predators than telling the other half of their students not to be predators.”

“Women worldwide ages 15 through 44 are more likely to die or be maimed because of male violence than because of cancer, malaria, war and traffic accidents combined.”

“Last summer someone wrote to me to describe a college class in which the students were asked what they do to stay safe from rape. The young women described the intricate ways they stayed alert, limited their access to the world, took precautions, and essentially thought about rape all the time (while the young men in the class, he added, gaped in astonishment). The chasm between their worlds had briefly and suddenly become visible.”

“A woman is beaten every nine seconds in this country. Just to be clear: not nine minutes, but nine seconds. It’s the number-one cause of injury to American women; of the two million injured annually, more than half a million of those injuries require medical attention while about 145,000 require overnight hospitalizations, according to the Center for Disease Control, and you don’t want to know about the dentistry needed afterwards.” -Quotes from Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me

One thought on “Pepper Spray: An ode, ish”

  1. I am so torn reading this. What shoots out of my brain is why would anyone want to live in the city? Why would anyone subject themselves to this kind of energy every day? What does this choice mean, to want be apart of our community, to be part of change and yet be so afraid within it? How do you live in your own integrity, your “harmony” and carry the energy of spray? I sat with a great friend one day at a restaurant with an outside patio. About 15 feet from us was a homeless man, not unlike the one you describe above, ranting (to himself or someone in another dimension I couldn’t see) I averted my eyes. My friend said a prayer and physically created a “new energy”, I wasn’t aware of this until later. He came over to us within moments,asking for the time, again I remained somewhat invisible. She looked him in the eye, said a few words, gave him the time and he SWEETLY moved on. Ranting energy gone, look of anger gone. Can we prevent and change energy of those so disconnected from community? This leaves lots of questions unanswered, and great concern for those in the city with the desire to create kindness and still be safe. With all these “words” I am still at a loss.

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