Fight or Flight: Near Death Does Not Become Her (March 13, 2013)

I consider myself a fairly street smart woman. I was born and raised within Chicago city limits, moving across several different neighborhoods. I wear this as a badge of pride and honor and have been known to get mighty huffy with suburbanites who claim to be “from Chicago,” while oftentimes living in privileged unreality an hour or more from the city’s boundaries (you know who you are).

To choose urban life is to tacitly agree to occasional disturbances and harassments. It’s a trade off for the sort of cultural instant gratification that only life in a major city can offer. Do you want sushi at 4am? We have an app for that. Storefront or big budget theater experience? Take your pick. Want to engage in outdoor exercise and an automobile-free existence while enjoying a plethora of transit options? Move to the burgh.

Of course to enjoy the benefits necessarily means accepting the disadvantages. When I was in kindergarten, our home was burglarized (though this episode did give birth to a triumph of positive rationalizing, when my mother offered that perhaps our father merely took the giant-80s era, top-loading VCR with him to work). In high school, my younger sister was followed home from a CTA train ride by a nasty creeper who was not expecting to come in contact with a protective 140-pound beast by the name of Max. The largest, dumbest, sweetest Golden Retriever changed temperament on a dime if his girls were threatened. Signs and property get vandalized, wailing sirens might wake you in the wee hours and crazies are all about. Thankfully most of them are simply eccentric rather than dangerous, a population that deserves more empathy than fear. That’s city life. And I love it.

But I could have used Max’s snarling gate keeping when I encountered a situation last Friday night for which I possess no paradigm. After reunion drinks with a girlfriend I hadn’t seen for over three years, I happily climbed into a taxi and headed home. The archetype of cab driver malfeasance is the subject of much discussion as well as general acceptance. I have regularly been subjected to erratic driving skills, overly chatty professionals, the directionally impaired, what have you. But this time, several minutes into my ride, I became aware that this driver had no intention of taking me home – perhaps not ever.

I admit that I was distracted and slightly intoxicated, but as I said, I know my way around. Thus it didn’t take long to become aware that the driver’s route was circuitous at best. Initially I suspected that I was merely the target of a cabbie trying to make a few extra bucks, but upon voicing my concern with our path, I was greeted with a snarl. The driver pulled over and as I sat perplexed, he turned around to lunge at me. That’s when I knew it was time to exit the vehicle.

I took off running down a major Chicago thoroughfare and momentarily looked over my shoulder to see the driver continuing to give foot chase. He overtook me and grabbed my right shoulder as I started to scream: “Somebody please help me! Call the police!” It was quite honestly the first time I felt a genuine threat on my life from another human. Fortunately, as it was a busy street just before midnight, a man emerged from a liquor store and seeing my distress, shouted the driver away. Panting, I recounted the horror of the last couple minutes (it seemed that long but probably wasn’t) and my Good Samaritan said he would wait with me until the police arrived. He had actually witnessed the shoulder grab and may have been required to give a statement. Upon reflection, I can’t say for certain that the call to the police was ever placed.

And that became important to me as well as another passerby who stopped to learn the cause of the fuss. As the three of us were chatting and I was still taking deep breaths, the cabbie elected to make one last go of stuffing me back into his vehicle. After turning around, he screeched the taxi to a halt at the intersection where we stood and got out of the car again. At that point, the Good Samaritan placed his body between my attacker and I…..then he pulled a huge knife seemingly out of thin air, slashing the assailant’s front tire while uttering a hideous racial slur.

(Fade to black as Becky’s mind snaps).

I squealed, “Why did you do that?”  The Good Samaritan (who no longer appeared so benign) retorted with a sneering, “Why do you care? Just run.”

And I did. Over a mile all the way back to my apartment. I raced with tears of shock, shame and fear in my eyes, as fast as I could, angling for the small nook of safety that my living space represented in that moment. I ran without thought until I finally shut and locked the doors behind me. Then I broke completely. My partner unreachable at the time, I called two married friends who happened to be awake and willing to talk me through delirious, incoherent downloading. For mystifying reasons, it was imperative that someone more together than I confirm that I had done right with my flight, rather than waiting for police who might never have come. Because after all, I am a Midwestern woman raised on Protestant values. The appearance of wrongdoing is every bit as traumatic as an actual faux pas.

The husband, a trained military assassin and Jiu Jitsu black belt, assured me that I had no reason to believe anyone on that scene had my personal safety in mind. Obeying the automatic response of my body had been sound.

As I said, I had no paradigm accessible that could help me process what had happened. Violent predators I understand, but bloodthirsty “heroes” with their own racial axes to grind are less familiar territory. There was no clear picture anymore of the victims and villains. I needed assertive ideas of right and wrong like I needed oxygen.

The cabbie was a maniac and needed to be locked away, but does that make a hate crime the warranted response?  Was my rescuer just out looking for an excuse to fight? Was I blameless for fleeing the scene? The two men may well have killed each other after I turned and ran. Did that make me complicit in whatever followed? In this instance, ignorance is not bliss. It’s psychological torture.