Friday, January 04, 2013

Peace of Mind is a Privilege

Walking home alone from the middle of Glasgow city along the Gallowgate and through the Barras to our dingy flat in Calton is not a tour of the scenic parts of Glasgow. Do a search for 'Calton' and in quite a number of hits the word 'deprivation' will also appear, along with frequent mention of the fact that the life expectancy of a male in Calton is 54 years, which puts it on par with Iraq and Gaza, areas which experience military combat. The Tongs used to call it home, to the point where Calton was once known as Tongland. It is still wearing that reputation of violence, even though the gang has moved on and the violence has mellowed. I have heard it said that Calton has the highest crime rate in Western Europe, but haven't been able to turn up anything to substantiate that.

Suffice it to say, this place isn't pretty. It's tenement blocks and abandoned schools. Three of the latter within a three block radius of our flat, to be honest. There are vacant lots overgrown with grass and nettles and full of trash. The streets are well littered, plastic bags and polystyrene take away containers, drink bottles, buckfast bottles, straws and bottle caps, couches, fridges, miscellaneous pieces of large broken plastic, window frames and chocolate wrappers, you know, rubbish. That which is unwanted and yet does not go away. There's grass growing in all the roof guttering, personalitiless graffiti, and numerous potholes in the streets. I've written previously about that which goes on in our tenement alone. Add to that list now finding a complete and used heroin kit (very budget, I might add) in the hallway, used syringe and dirty spoon and all. Add to that the kids smoking pot who kicked a massive crack in our front door when an upstairs neighbour told them to get out.

Tonight, while walking back from the pub, a sole man of subcontinental lineage attached himself to me. He was well presented and did not ping on my threat radar. Comments back and forth concerning how warm it was (look, 11ยบ in January is warm for Scotland, okay?) were similarly non-threatening, but because I am not only an introvert but a woman walking alone at night who is hyper aware of the risks faced by all women walking alone at night, I attempted to part ways quickly.

This completely failed because, as it turns out, he lives exactly one block down the street.

Normally this would unsettle me, as, well, I don't know him. I don't like random strangers who want to make conversation knowing where I live. I don't think anyone does. However, his cousins were unloading the car as we walked up, and there is an odd feeling of community in our little corner of Calton, and I really did not feel threatened.

What he did do, however, was warn me against walking in these streets, being a sole woman.

This lead to talking about the nice places in Glasgow, the west side where all the rich people are, which led me to:

  1. bristle and fume that a man dares attempt to offer advice on how to keep myself safe because holy shit I know already anyway this post is not about that; and
  2. reflect that safety, or the idea of safety, is a privilege of the wealthy.
Having lived in Calton for around half a year now, I can state that no, it isn't the nicest of neighbourhoods, and yes, its reputation is greatly exaggerated. While the detritus of junkies is unpleasant to behold, the kick in the door is the worst we've had. In all my solo darkness jaunts I have not once had trouble, I've never even had anyone call out to me. Calton is full of the elderly, who walk slowly to the corner store to buy cigarettes and the paper, and grandparents who own large dogs in small flats and walk them regularly, and young families the kids of which leave their bikes on the grass out the front of their tenements. As a freelancer I'm nocturnal. I walk all hours of the dark, from 4 in the afternoon to 3 in the morning. The Neds are present and visible, and have never once bothered me.

And, if we could afford it, I'd be out of here in a second. 

(Before this goes on, I want to state that living in a lower socioeconomic area does not guarantee crime/danger, nor does living in a higher one guarantee safety. From my experience, living in a well to do area simply means that the ability to hide any problems from attention is present and used.)

I don't want to be hyper alert when walking. I don't like constantly scanning my surroundings and gauging whether to cross a road or keep on this side. That I am uncomfortable sitting in the front room, with our window at street level, is a stressful thing, as this should be my safe place. I hate knowing that my uneventful time here is attributed not only to vigilance but luck as well. 

But we couldn't afford the west side. 

When we get home, back in Melbourne, Australia, we'll face the same decision: at exactly what point to compromise between affordable rent and safe surroundings. 

Safety is something that can be bought. You buy or rent in a safe neighbourhood, in a quiet street. You can pay for taxis to take you home instead of walking. Hell, you could even own your own car.

It must be said that I do tend to walk alone at night not only because it's cheap, but because I refuse to avoid the streets due to fear, a fear that may be unfounded. The distances are small enough here that, should I wish it, I can take a taxi home and it won't kill our bank account. There are buses running most of the night. Walking is a deliberate choice on my part.

But it is worth bearing in mind that on those occasions you feel someone may be putting themselves in unnecessary risk merely by getting from A to B, or by living in C, that they may not have any better option open to them. 

In such instances, telling them that it's not safe is remarkably unhelpful, because believe me, they know it, and they know it a hell of a lot better than you. Don't berate them for what they already know they cannot do anything about. Remember that it is not for you to dictate another person's threat tolerance, nor is the insistance on some alternate means of movement that would require extra finances ever wanted. 

If it is in your means and desire to make a difference, walk or drive that person home, if they wish it. If they need to have a momentary break and rant or whinge about the streets that scare them, support them in that moment. They will get back to being unafraid in a bit.

Most of us don't live in a nice safe world. We can see it, or something closer to it only a few kilometres away, but we can't live there. We compromise. We struggle for better. Sometimes we get better, and sometimes we don't. 

We all decide what we are willing to live with, within the restrictions we live with. Remember that although what each of us decides may be different, it is not for any of us to force our priorities of finances or safety on others.


  1. I know and understand every word. My experiences drove me out of a city I otherwise enjoyed, because I couldn't afford to live in a part of the city where I wouldn't feel the need to have a cherry club within easy reach. My neighborhood wasn't *that* sketchy (for Baltimore, anyway), and "exaggerated" is exactly the right word for what my parents, for example, thought about where I lived. Most of the residents were in their 20s-40s making maybe 25-45k a year, enough to get by. The ghetto was only a mile down the road, and we had some problems with drugs and vandalism, but nothing that warranted a great deal of alarm.

    But the crime eventually did land right on my doorstep and I don't want to see something similar happen to you, because it was so terrifying to me to have my home, my respite from the outside world, violated like that, and I know it would hit you as hard as it did me.

    And I find it hilarious when people fret over me walking home by myself at night all the time here - HERE, which is light years away from where I was in terms of safety. Could something happen to me here? Sure, but the odds are low enough that it's not going to stop me, and I know how to avoid putting myself in dangerous situations in the first place. So do you, obviously.

    But I still fret, because I remember.

  2. The person of sub continental lineage cared and he, probably, has heightened sensitivities given what has happened in India in the last couple of weeks.

  3. ...and you are is a privilege. Raising living standards brings about the possibility of a law abiding society.

  4. Jaime, yeah, I know you know exactly. It seems to inch closer, the menace. Probably brought out of late by the holiday season and winter. Usually the menace is happy hanging out at the basketball court.

    DC, he may care, but what a lot of supposedly chivalrous men fail to take into account when approaching a lone woman in the street is that he's still a total stranger and no, his presence doesn't make that lone woman feel any safer.

    I read a story once of a man who realised he'd inadvertently scared a woman by walking behind her, and calmly apologised and crossed to the other side of the road. THAT is making a difference.

  5. I walk to and from work, and over the last five years I'm known by sight if not by name by a lot of people who use that route. People occasionally stop and offer me rides. I will never accept one from a man unless I know him, with the excuse that my fat ass needs the exercise. I know 99% of them mean well (especially here in the South), and it's not personal, but I won't take the risk. The last time I did so, about 12-13 years ago, the driver demanded a kiss as payment after the third ride. Never again.

    Women, I will. There is of course still a risk, but it's much smaller.

    I had to put my hair up in a ponytail or sloppy bun whenever I took the bus in Baltimore or was out walking in the city (turned out to be necessary in Atlanta, too) because it guaranteed unwanted attention from men. And then they get offended when you tell them to fuck off, and act like they were doing you a favor by harassing you.

    People wonder why I never take my hair down...