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home : commentary : shesaid April 29, 2016

How safe are we, really?
That was the year I was Darling and Hi Beautiful, the year I was a Betty, identified by a variety of names by a variety of men I didn't know.
--Tami Mohamed Brown

by Tami Mohamed Brown

The first summer I lived alone was a hot one. It was in the mid-1990s, and Minneapolis had been labeled "Murderapolis" in the New York Times for the city's record murder rate. I skipped through the summer, unfazed; I didn't think it affected me, neighborhoods only blocks away from my own, worlds away.

The heat carried through to the end of that summer. Every morning I left behind my uncurtained, unlocked kitchen window that opened onto the fire escape, locked the flimsy door of my stale third-floor apartment and walked to work, oblivious to anything but the movement of air on my skin.

As I made my way down the sidewalk, an otherwise-nameless almost-every-girl, I sometimes became Sweetheart and Honey and Baby. I was the nearly-flattering Pretty-Blue-Eyes and Hey There Red when I dyed my hair a bold auburn from a box, singled out, like countless other women, by product salesmen and waiters, approached by men who looked as if they were in town for a convention but who were really looking for something else.

That was the year I was Darling and Hi Beautiful, the year I was a Betty, identified by a variety of names by a variety of men I didn't know - men who sat all day panhandling and worked as bicycle couriers dropping packages and rang up the food at the deli.

And while I realized that those daytime calls from across the street or whispered under the breath of a passer-by, those names tossed in harmless fun across the front desk of my office were indeed harmless, they were also a tamer version of some deeper probability that I couldn't name but could feel, awful and tight, a building panic under my mask of makeup, under my skin electric with adrenaline.

One night, late off work in front of the Checks Cashed storefront on 7th Street, a man in a wheelchair with a dirty red bandana on his head rolled up next to me, matching my pace.

"Hey, Darlin'! You got a dollar?"

I didn't answer, didn't feel I had to, but walked on, his coasting in time with my step, in silence, toward Hennepin Avenue, the late summer air sleepy, languid.

Suddenly, the man was out of the wheelchair, legs capable, one hand strong on my wrist, pushing me off the sidewalk, off balance, into the alleyway, his words hard in my ear.


And while I knew they were only words, because there were far too many people around for anything dangerous to be happening, because it wasn't that late and because the traffic was going by steadily, and because we were practically under a corner streetlight, I screamed.

It wasn't even a scream, but really more of an angry yell, from somewhere lower than my chest, more like my gut. And with a shove, simply, like that, it was over.

People on the sidewalk kept their distance. They looked, but said nothing as I stood, short of breath and furious in disbelief at what had just happened in the imagined once-safe city of my mind.

The wheelchair had disappeared. The man in the dirty bandana, too, was gone, vanished, like some sort of sick magician's trick performed simply to leave the audience on edge and uneasy and wondering if everything was truly all right with the world, leaving me alone on the hot end-of-summer asphalt, suddenly and fully aware that everything truly wasn't.

Tami Mohamed Brown lives in Bloomington with her family. She was awarded a 2013 Minnesota Emerging Writers Grant from the Loft Literary Center.

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