“Hey, I like that smile!”
I had already hurried past the two young guys in front of the New Haven Public Library when I heard these words behind me. I had smiled at one of the men, the taller one, as I walked by, and I knew it was him talking. “Can I see it again?” he called after me.
I was in a good mood, and though his tone was ironically coy, it wasn’t sarcastic, so I thought, “What the hell,” and flashed my pearly whites again over my shoulder. He laughed, and I caught a glimpse of his wide grin before I kept walking.
“Can I take a picture?” he shouted.
After three years in this city, I’m used to this occasional attention. Whether it’s 9 AM or dusk, I’ll show you a genuine smile, and I’ll walk away grinning.
My night smile is different. When a dark figure approaches on my late walk home down Chapel, I give a weak grimace – no teeth – staring a little too long and walking briskly. And though my heart doesn’t race, my brain starts churning with possible outcomes and contingency plans:
Will they threaten me? If they pull a knife or a gun on me, will I run? Freeze? Give them everything? Fight? Knee to the groin?
Most of these aren’t fearful thoughts, just prepared ones. At least that’s what I try to tell myself, that part of this is practiced awareness and preparedness. Better safe than sorry. After traveling alone for three months in Europe, I’m an expert at being overly cautious and ready for anything. But in New Haven, underneath it all, there’s a part of my reaction that feels somehow unwarranted, and that makes me uncomfortable.
“If you smile at everyone you walk by on the street, do you think you’re more or less likely to get mugged?” I asked my boyfriend in August when he was helping me move onto Howe Street.
He looked at me with his you’re-such-a-weirdo face. “Ummm, I don’t know,” he said, shrugging.
I love my new neighborhood, but I know from Ronnell’s emails that it’s far from safe. My question had been mostly in jest, but it’s something I still wonder. The playful, unpredictable side of me likes to smile at strangers as much as the idealistic and friendly side does because I like to remind people that kindness is out there where you least expect it. The self-protection side of me wonders if a big, warm, unassuming grin might be just enough of a surprise to make an opportunistic thief change his mind.
A few weeks ago, I planned to explore the West River where it runs along Ella T. Grasso Boulevard and discover a secluded picnic or study spot. Not able to find an available friend, I decided to wander over there alone after class. I looked up the way on Google and gathered my keys, my phone, my book, my ID and nothing else, and, resolving to be home before dark, I set off down Chapel.
I’d walked that stretch of Chapel before – twice round trip, each time to and from the Game as one member of a drunk parade of Ivy Leaguers that flood into Westville on the way to the Yale Bowl. I imagine that we are intimidating as a group, or at least far too annoying to deal with. But this time, alone, I felt distinctly uncomfortable after only a few blocks. Not long after the Hospital of St. Raphael, I knew that I had crossed some invisible line, and I admitted to myself that I was scared. Surrounded by peeling paint, empty storefronts, untended grass and what felt like dozens of staring eyes, I was acutely aware that I’d wandered somewhere I didn’t belong.
I desperately wished for an internal filter – a barometer to tell me if I was afraid because I was legitimately unsafe or if my trepidation was driven by color, by that R-word that, pretending to be colorblind, we minimize into whispers or joking accusations.
After an eternity of throwing quick glances over my shoulder and trying not to make eye contact with anyone, much less smile, I found a park bench looking out over a deserted soccer field, an empty parking lot behind it and the river just beyond. I pulled out my book and read about ten pages, but I kept looking behind me at the quietest noises and the sun kept sinking lower, so I admitted defeat and turned back toward Yale.
I walked home down Frontage, where there are fewer run-down homes and more cars on the road. I searched for friendly faces behind the windshields, and I tried to walk quickly without running. When I finally reached Howe Street, climbed up the stairs and dead-bolted the door behind me, the mixture of relief and confusion and frustration at things I couldn’t even name tied knots in my stomach.
Every once in a while I walk home down Edgewood late at night. For just the one long block from Pierson’s locked gate, it feels stupid and weak to call Yale Security.
But a 16-month-old child was shot in a drive-by this past Wednesday just four blocks from my apartment. Ronnell sent no email this time – that block is two streets too far to concern most Yale students – but, confused and frustrated, I followed the story on Twitter. After a few tweet updates from WTNH, I realized in my vision of the shooting, the driver and the child weren’t white.
I tell myself I’m not a racist.
I tell myself that if the man walking toward me were white then I would be equally cautious. But the truth is that I don’t always believe it — and I worry that, as much as I fight it or deny it, there’s an invisible gravity that’s pulling my subconscious off track.
I want to look at every person I walk past with an off-puttingly genuine smile. And I want to trust my sympathetic nervous system without wondering if my gut is responding to body language or to color. But I’m still trying to figure out how to figure out what I’m feeling. I’m still looking for that barometer.
A shorter version of this story originally appeared in print on Oct. 12 under the title “The Two Smiles.”