Skid Row Coffee Talk: Learning from Sitting Still
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
The rare rainy evening in Los Angeles. I stepped off the escalator emerging from the Metro at 4th and Hill. Rounding the corner I immediately ran into a bottleneck: three men standing on the narrow sidewalk in front of the seedy Fantasy Club.
To my right was a fedora wearing Baby Boomer shaking off his umbrella preparing to descend the stairs to the club. To my left was a tall man whose girth engulfed most of the narrow sidewalk. Just beyond him, stood a third man sheltered in the doorway escaping the rain.
I felt uneasy about walking through this pack of testosterone-fueled strangers loitering at the entrance of this infamously sleazy sex club. I considered stopping and pretending to look at the Metro map. That may have bought me enough time for Baby Boomer to quit jerking around with his umbrella and clear the sidewalk so he could go downstairs and jerk whatever.
But I opted to keep moving. I pressed on by circling the outside of the group skimming past Baby Boomer who seemed to be the least menacing. Behind him I hugged the curb, careful not to misstep and slide into the rain soaked gutter.
Success! I cleared Baby Boomer. But as I took another step past the group the real threat came to light.
The third man took up walking right next to me in lock step. Damn, Red Flag #1.
I quickened my pace. He quickened his. Damnit, Red Flag #2.
I slowed my pace. He slowed his. Goddamnit, Red Flag #3.
I fell back on a favorite tactic that has gotten rid of a creeper every time. I stopped suddenly and pretended to read a sign just above his head. He stopped too. Right next to me. God #$@&%*! damnit, Red Flag #4.
This last trick had worked for me every time. I’ve been using it for years and no one had ever called my bluff. This guy was brazen.
I lowered my gaze and locked eyes with this yellow-eyed stranger.
Fear left me.
Like prey, I had evaded all that I could. The only thing left was a direct challenge to his maneuvers.
“Wassup?” I snarled with the annoyance used to address a pesky younger sibling. But there was also a “fuck you” edge to the question. This was going to end here and now.
Yellow Eyes smiled at me, revealing gnarled, scummy teeth underneath his full, shaggy beard.
He muttered something inaudible. I swept my right arm out pointing down the street. “After you,” I growled.
Yellow Eyes slowly began walking. I cautiously followed at a measured pace. After a few more steps he wandered into the street and jaywalked across 4th. He continued in the same direction but I breathed a sigh of relief at the distance now between us. A block later he made a right turn and went on to become someone else’s problem.
Self-defense classes generally teach two things: be aware of your surroundings, and then how to beat the crap out of the aggressor. But what about that blank space in between?
That blank space is where most of us walk around everyday. It is in those blank spaces where subtle unchecked aggression can escalate to something more dangerous. You know, like that creepy guy on a half empty, spacious train who slithers closer and closer until he’s suddenly pressed up against you. Whether you were practicing awareness and you saw it coming, or he caught you by surprise— what do you do? The traditional self-defense approach is generally aggressive, masculine and physical. But physical confrontation risks injury and other complications. Do you really want to risk all that over a non-life threatening assault?
These are some of the questions you have to answer in the blink-of-an-eye in the blank spaces. These are questions that most self-defense training doesn’t acknowledge, much less answer.
More than anything, I love to walk. While Thoreau walked the woods to contemplate, I walk cities to I discover food, art, history and culture outside my own experiences. The perfect day for me is to simply walk for hours in a city taking in the swirl of humanity and finding the unique pulse of each neighborhood.
Quite early, however, I learned that a female moving through public spaces can be seen as prey. The first hint of this came from my well-meaning parents who tried to forbid and restrict my obsession for exploration. Despite their warnings of the boogey man around every corner, I persisted.
My first real lesson as prey vs predator came when I was ten. As I strolled down a picturesque street, a car rolled up next to me. Three grown men were inside. I was too young to understand their comments, but their leering faces terrified me. I slowed down, then sped up my walking, but I couldn’t shake them. Suddenly I looked up from the sidewalk as a wave of indignation rose up from my toes, rolled through my body and I turned to squarely face them. “Fuck you”, ten-year-old me yelped. I stood frozen in my fear, but miraculously it worked. In a flurry of curses they peeled away, tires screeching.
It seems the most important things I learned about personal safety I learned as a young girl determined to explore the world around her. Years before I ever set foot in a martial arts school I had developed a solid toolbox of tricks that allowed me to evade, and when needed, confront threats on the street. As basic as wearing sunscreen or warm clothing, personal safety and awareness became a requirement of moving through public spaces while female.
Just a few days after my run in with Yellow Eyes I rounded the corner at 4th and Hill again. I barely gave him a thought. I was excited to meet my friend Lauren for coffee and do some people watching.
Lauren is a longtime downtown Los Angeles (DTLA) resident. Despite DTLA’s 21% violent crime spike and the problems accompanying the 75% increase in homelessness, Lauren effortlessly moves through the chaos. I wanted to learn more about personal safety through her eyes.
As I passed the spot where I finally shook Yellow Eyes, it dawned on me that what I’ve learned about the blank spaces, I had to learn while on the move. This forced me to observe and make quick decisions on the fly. But my coffee date with Lauren was a unique opportunity to sit still and identify the blank spaces.
Lauren picked a spot just a few blocks from Skid Row. From busy professionals, drug addicts, students, street hustlers, tourists, to people in the midst of a mental health crisis, it was a wide swath of humanity.
I grilled Lauren about her impressions and she was very granular in her distinctions:
When the man in a wheelchair urinated against the wall outside our window we watched the reactions of unsuspecting pedestrians approaching the pool of urine. Horrified tourists took giant steps while aloof residents nonchalantly stepped over. The truly clueless didn’t notice and stood in the middle of the puddle collecting around their feet as they waited to cross the street. Conclusion: Easy targets stand out for those who are looking for them.
Another man leaned his bicycle against the wall and entered the coffee shop with a friend. Lauren and I were certain his unsecured bike would be gone in short order. Soon, a tall man in a red jacket approached eyeing it. We were sure it was a goner. Instead, he entered the coffee shop and slipped a brownie into his pocket before getting chased out by the baristas. As we continued to observe bicycle man we noticed that he was likely a well-known and beloved figure in the neighborhood and perhaps that is why his unsecured bike remained untouched. Conclusion: Someone’s known status can determine whether or not they are targeted.
The most enlightening observation however, was of one particular woman. She caught my eye as she stalked down the street and into the coffee shop desperately clutching her car key in her raised hand. She looked ready to jab at the slightest provocation. Rather than deterring crime, she reeked of fear as she appeared desperate to protect her purse.
In an effort to stay safe, is this where we have landed? Tense, joyless, unadventurous and unable to distinguish real threats, like Yellow Eyes, from imagined threats lurking around every corner?
In contrast, by sitting still at a coffee shop off Skid Row — despite the chaos we observed — ultimately we saw the world is less threatening than we are often lead to believe. Because mostly what we saw was people going about their business and not seeking to victimize others.
Yes, the threats are out there. And despite my own experiences as an occasional target, I still love to roam cities. But as I learn to sit still to read the environment, I’m sharpening my skills in distinguishing real threats from imagined ones. And that’s helping me explore my favorite cities on a whole new level.