By Anna Shults
If you’ve driven down St. Charles Avenue in the last three years and noticed a college-aged female runner with brown hair and purple shoes, chances are you’ve already seen me.
If you stopped before making your turn across the neutral ground to let me pass, on behalf of all St. Charles runners, I thank you.
I’ve been a runner for the last five years or so. No matter how overwhelmed I am by school or work, it’s something I can always make time for. It’s my necessary “me” time, when I feel capable and in control, no matter what else is clouding my life at the moment.
Two weeks ago, I started my run around 7 p.m. It was still light outside, at least another 45 minutes before sunset. I’d planned on 5 miles, giving myself plenty of time to get home safely. I looped my clunky black headphones over my ears, turned up my music loud enough to drown out the occasional inevitable honk, and started on the six blocks down Calhoun Street to St. Charles. Before I’d reached the end of my first song, however, policemen pulled up beside me and rolled down the windows.
I removed my headphones. “Can I help you, officers?”
They explained that I hadn’t heard them, though they’d been following me for blocks, and that I was taking a risk by running with my volume turned that high.
“We just want you to be safe,” they told me. “Do you know what’s been happening in this neighborhood?”
I did. There had been two rapes in the Uptown university area. One of my friends had been the victim of an attack the night before, not far from my apartment. She was at home, asleep, when her apartment was broken into.
“Be careful out there. Keep your keys out. You have pepper spray? Good. Keep one headphone out, and be aware. I don’t want to see you out running when it gets dark.”
I thanked the officers and they drove away. Suddenly, I felt vulnerable, exposed, as though the driver of every car passing by was watching me with impure intention. Instead of feeling strong and capable, I felt like I was running with a target on my back.
Instead of continuing to Louisiana Avenue, I made a left into Audubon Park, ran a lap, and went home, kicking off my shoes with a full 20 minutes left before sunset. That night, my unease still had not faded. My doors were dead-bolted, yet I felt like a sitting duck.
It was the first time that I’d felt truly afraid for my safety since moving to New Orleans. I knew that I was squarely in the target demographic — female co-eds — of the attacks. Mine was a child-like, pure fear, one that I hadn’t felt since I was kid, terrified of the shadows on the wall and monsters in my closet.
At 1 a.m., I realized I was not going to sleep at all unless I did something. I had taken all the proper precautions, but paranoia was setting in, deep and erratic.
I texted a guy I’d been dating, who lived down the street. For the early-twenties crowd, text messages asking someone to come over after midnight typically aren’t for safety purposes, but rather tend to be booty calls, exertions of power.
But I was admitting defeat. I didn’t feel safe, so I had a boy come over. Before, I hadn’t felt that I needed a man around for protection, but his presence helped. I slept soundly and dreamlessly.
The next day, I briefed my mom on the events of the night before. Rather than getting the usual lecture (“Don’t invite boys over unless you want herpes and children at 21”), she said, “Good. You did the right thing. I don’t want you staying by yourself this summer. Maybe next year you could look into getting male roommates.”
Though I know that was meant to reassure me, it solidified my fears. There was real danger, enough that my conservative Catholic parents agreed that I should have boys staying over to keep me safe.
I know that crime happens everywhere, and that I should expect it living in a major city. I know that my demographic is not the only one targeted by criminals, and that I should feel lucky that the police are slowing down to give me safety advice, rather than to ask me what I’m doing.
That does not, however, nullify the real danger of assault: After all, a young woman who should have been safe, who was doing all the right things, was assaulted in her own home. I am doing all the right things. I am taking the proper precautions, perhaps to a paranoid degree.
But I have been faced with the devastating realization that I will never be 100 percent safe. It’s arguable that this is true anywhere, that bad things are an unfortunate fact of life and we all have to learn to live with the risk.
Until then, please don’t honk at me on St. Charles. I’m a little jumpy these days, and I’m just trying to get in my 7-minute mile. During daylight hours.