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City Survival Skills: Making friends with fear

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

DTLA | Photo by Brian Donnelly

I had just finished my workout as I leaned up against the wide pillar on the underground train platform at LA’s Pershing Square station. I was exhausted and annoyed because I had just missed the last train and after 8pm the Red Line runs every 20 minutes. There were no benches and my legs were crying after an ungodly amount of medicine ball squats. But it was just as well as the pillar offered cover and required only a 240 degree view of my surroundings vs. a constant 360 degree view.

As I settled in against the cold concrete pillar I plugged my ear buds into my ears and debated on whether to listen to a podcast. The ear buds are always in when I’m underground as it generally does a good job of keeping people from talking to me. Depending on the environment and who is around, I may allow myself the luxury of a podcast. But if the scene is questionable, I’ll keep it turned off to keep my hearing abilities at a maximum.

I was at my usual spot down past the first set of stairs towards the end of the platform so that I can board the last car. This spot has become my comfort zone away from other people (lessening the odds of a perv, thief or general all-around crazy person) while providing cover, good visibility and access to a quick escape.

But I never go all the way down past the last set of stairs, that’s where the creepers hang out. As I glanced through the space between the stairs I could make out a gathering of shadowy figures blasting music and settling in for a party. With their unruly presence I opted to not turn on my podcast. That only added to my grumpiness as I waited for my northbound train.

Hollywood/Highland Station | Photo by Brian Donnelly

As I waited I would occasionally surrender the refuge of my pillar to walk closer to the edge of the platform to glance up and down to see who was around and what they were up to. Generally I do this in response to a disturbance of some sort, but often it’s out of boredom while I wait. During one of my recon missions I noticed a trio of LAPD officers making their way down the platform. I felt a bit of relief when I saw them and went back to my pillar to chill.

As the officers got closer I gave them a nod and said, “Thanks for being here.” They nodded back and replied, “You’re welcome” as they continued to the end of the platform. They had a brief exchange with the folks behind the stairs. I couldn’t make out what was said, but after the encounter the music was turned down and the officers looped back around to continue their patrol.

As the officers approached this time they spoke to me first, “What time does your train come?”

Alone on this section of the platform, my mind raced: Oh my God, corrupt cops. They’re going to rape and kill me and throw my body onto the tracks. I won’t be found until my mangled corpse has been half eaten by Skid Row rats the size of chihuahuas and dragged into Union Station by an on-coming train.

I quickly dismissed the paranoia fueled by nothing but movies, media hype and hysterical Facebook posts about outliers.

Trusting my instincts I answered, “The Purple Line just went by, so probably another 10 minutes or so.”

“We can wait with you until your train comes,” one of them offered.

I didn’t even realize how much tension I was holding until it instantly drained from my body. With their offer to wait with me, in that very moment, my body relaxed knowing I could lower the guard that I constantly have up while underground. For once, I could just chill and let someone else be vigilant.

I had thanked the officers for being there because I had noticed since LAPD’s increased presence over the last few months, there seemed to be fewer shenanigans. Their kind offer to wait with me was much appreciated. As I awkwardly searched for conversation with these three well-armed and imposing men we found common ground in talking about the Metro. They never rode it and they expressed shock when I told them I had been riding it everyday for about 5 or 6 years. They couldn’t get their heads around the fact that a middle-class, middle-aged white woman would choose to take the train.

Now, if I had a dollar for every person who has expressed horror when they learn that I ride the trains in LA… well, I wouldn’t be rich, but I could have a really nice dinner and a couple of martinis at Musso & Frank. With dessert too — they make a killer chocolate mousse cake.

But these guys were armed with guns, tasers, training and backup and they were implying that the train was dangerous? I can give native Angelenos a pass to a degree — they grew up immersed in car culture and public transit is still this weird thing to many of them. For me however, I feel freer with public transit — less confined, less claustrophobic and the only thing I have to worry about managing is my own body rather than a two ton metal box. Driving is so much more stressful to me than riding the train.

Photo by Brian Donnelly

But that’s not to say there aren’t things to be aware of on public transit. I’ve heard all kinds of assumptions about who rides the trains and the horrible things that happen down in the seedy underground. And you know what? Those assumptions are true. There are some pretty scary and smelly people down there. Assaults happen and I’ve seen some ugly things. Beyond what I’ve seen and experienced, 2016 surveys of LA transit riders have found:

  • 25% said they had been groped or fondled while using the system

  • 20% said they had experienced “unwanted sexual behavior” or sexual harassment

  • Nearly 30% of previous riders stopped riding because they felt unsafe.

As a rider, especially as a female rider, I have all of these same concerns and fears. But then I remember those same scary people and situations are above ground too and that I’m not any safer because I’m in my car:

  • 37,000+ people die in car accidents every year

  • 400,000+ people are injured by distracted drivers

  • It takes an average of three seconds after a driver’s mind is taken off the road for any road accident to occur

Yep, even as hyper-aware as I am on the Metro, I find it way more relaxing than driving my car.

When people have expressed their fear and distaste for the train I’ve generally responded, “pppppppppfhfhfhfhfhfhfhfhfh”. I’ve taken public transit in cities all over the world since I was a kid. It was as an adolescent girl taking the El through West Philly that I first developed my skills of how to not get fucked with including:

  • How to look nonchalant while secretly eyeing potential threats

  • Knowing when to become invisible and blend into the crowd vs. when to throw my shoulders back, chin up and swagger

  • Staying alert to reflections and shadows

  • Taking corners widely

  • Knowing just the right amount of eye contact to make

  • Discerning when to scowl vs. when to smile

  • Not caring about being rude in response to unwanted attention

And then of course luck has been a big factor. It was often sheer luck that allowed me to develop these tactics and instincts that have helped me successfully spot trouble on the street for decades. Trusting my instincts has also helped in my personal life as they have spotted the bad boys there too. It doesn’t mean that I’ve always listened, but that inner voice always alerted me when trouble was coming. That’s a story for another day.

But something else crept in over the years despite staying safe as I’ve explored some of my favorite cities on foot. With all the horror stories and statistics, I had been contaminated by this contagion called “fear”. Perhaps there was once a healthy level of fear my parents initially instilled in me allowing me to develop the tactics that I did. But as a pedestrian and public transit user in LA the daily state of alertness was beginning to take its toll.

Then I stumbled into this thing called VioDy. VioDy is short for Violence Dynamics, a 4-day workshop I had learned about in reading the works of Rory Miller. Perhaps best known as the author of Meditations on Violence, Miller is also one of the founding instructors of VioDy. A fan of his books, I jumped at the opportunity to put his principles into practice in the workshop. It was an immersive 4 days with equal parts of physical drills and lectures with topics ranging from the Logic of Violence to insight on how adrenaline works and how to optimize it to your favor.

As a student of martial arts for nearly 30 years and a reformed self-defense instructor, VioDy was a profound paradigm shift for me. Prior to VioDy I looked at my daily commute from the perspective of the prey. I would have never admitted or even known that before as I had moved through street life with my “don’t fuck with me” air. That, and my old friend luck, had worked quite well for me.

But I realized at VioDy that despite my tried-and-true tactics, deep down I still felt like prey. That was a humbling and hard realization to confront. But once confronted, I was able to soak in the lessons of VioDy, which shifted my perceptions from thinking like prey to thinking like a predator.

So much of what’s taught in self-dense training is from the point of view of the person being attacked. And it feeds that culture of fear: Look out! Potential attackers around every corner!

But at VioDy, that was turned on its head as we approached scenarios from the point of view of the attacker. Whoa. Talk about your paradigm shifts. By better understanding how predators think, I’m now even more alert just… way more chill. And I’m actually having fun with it too.

One of the most fun and insightful parts of VioDy was the advanced people watching exercises we did out in public spaces. By noticing people’s behaviors, distractions and intentions, it has allowed me to pick up on details I hadn’t consciously noticed before. Now back at home I’m continuing to develop my people watching skills and really seeing things for the first time that I had glossed over a million times before.

For example, I pass hundreds of people a day on the sidewalk and Metro and unless they were unique in some obvious way, they were all a blur to me. But now I’m recognizing the faces of ordinary people I’ve passed by hours or even days before. As the blur of the masses comes into sharper focus, I’m spotting the ideal targets who are distracted by phones, kids, shopping and otherwise not at all paying attention. Sure they’re just happily living life, but as some of these folks stroll along I’ve been playing with “joining” them as they walk — sidling up to walk right beside or close behind them. Its stunning how close I’m able to get to these strangers without them seeming to notice or react.

As I turn my focus out on the specific behaviors of those around me, I’m less tense as I am seeing most people are more interested in going about their day than victimizing others. That’s where I’ve chilled out a ton since VioDy. But for those of you who are up to no good — now you’re easier to spot too.

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