A Gentle Riot Act
“You see,” Amelia told me, about five minutes after we met, “I have a peaceful chip on my shoulder about Newark.”
The three of us—me, Amelia, and a loud-mouthed German shepherd named Xena—were gathered at the edge of campus at Rutgers University of Newark. Amelia had been out walking Xena, and I’d been headed back to my car from a belly dancing class. I was worrying about the two dark blocks between school and my parking spot when Amelia and Xena caught my eye. I didn’t know Xena’s name yet, but she did look warrior-like to me, a big dog on a tight leash protecting a small woman in a pink sweatshirt.
I’d smiled at Amelia. “It must feel safer walking around here at night,” I’d said, “when you’ve got a good dog with you.”
Now, Amelia was right in the middle of reading me the gentlest riot act I’ve ever been read. She’s lived in Newark for forty years, and the way people so often describe her city—as a dangerous, hopeless, generally unlivable place—drives her crazy. “I live right over there,” she told me, gesturing just across the street from where we stood. “My neighbors and I planted those flowers. We trim those trees ourselves. You see, this is my home. I have a peaceful chip on my shoulder about that.”
It was easy to nod at everything Amelia said, because I already agreed with her. I moved to the Newark area right out of college to take a job in the offices of a local school. I’d never doubted that Newark’s students were easily as bright, capable, and dedicated as my peers and I had been in the more economically privileged neighborhoods where I went to high school and college; but now, after two years of getting to know them, I had countless stories to prove it. I steadfastly believed in hope, in promise, in potential for Newark. How could I not?
The problem with those words, though, is that they all take place in the future tense. They leave people like Amelia, who live in Newark right now, in an inescapably unpleasant position. And while I also believed, at least in theory, that there was more to Newark than poverty or crime, I didn’t always act as if I believed that. In Newark, I never parked my car on the street, never took out my cell phone outside, and, above all else, avoided walking around by myself after dark. Those are all wise actions to some extent—reasonable safety precautions no matter where you are. But I didn’t take those precautions everywhere I went: I took them in Newark, and most of the time, I was motivated less by logic than by fear. Amelia suspected as much when I suggested she should be afraid to walk her dog there after 8 P.M., and she was right.
As I listened to Amelia, I realized I didn’t want to live in fear of Newark any more. And, although I didn’t mention it to her at the time, I began to remember the moment I started fearing Newark in the first place. Call it poetry or call it coincidence, but it had happened just down the street from Amelia’s home, a single block from the spot where we stood talking that night.
Gun Totin’ Mamas and Brick Walls
When I came to work in Newark, I didn’t know I’d be a part-time graduate student within the year, but I did know I wanted to keep studying and writing literature in some context or another. So one of the first things I sought out was a nice independent coffee shop where I could spend my Saturdays. In the four years I’d just spent in college, I’d managed with very little trouble to avoid learning that doing your reading and writing among people, caffeine, and the smell of fresh cookies is a luxury, not a need.
I was still in the early stages of figuring that out when I found my Newark coffee shop. The place was so idyllic that the moment I entered it, I stopped worrying about why none of the other Newark coffee shops had Saturday hours. This one was plenty good enough for me. Colorful chalkboard menu? Check. Advertising a slam poetry night? Check. Vegetarian options? Check.
I ordered a jam-and-cheese sandwich and a small coffee, no, just black, please, and settled by the door with the Kindle my parents had given me as a graduation present. The Kindle had a clean, green cover and a way to take electronic notes on your electronic pages. I hadn’t thought I wanted an e-reader, but I loved that thing. I clicked open Paradise Lost and stopped paying attention to everything else.
I didn’t notice when the barista and I became the only people left in the cafe. I didn’t notice the fifteen-year-old kid who (as the barista later told me) came in for a second, looked around, and left. I didn’t notice when he came back a second time, ordered an iced tea, and left again.
What I did notice was when the kid dashed in once more, grabbed the Kindle out of my hand, and ran for it. At the same time, another young man, this one a little older, was up at the counter, demanding money from the barista. He ran out, too, a second later, with the tip jar.
It felt exactly like being in a car accident. First, there’s the shock of something else crashing into you. Then, there’s the shock of comprehending what it was. Slowly, slowly, I came to understand that someone had deliberately crossed the imaginary boundary between my property—my body, too—and the rest of the world. Why had it never before occurred to me that someone can do that to you at any second—that the rules that protect you are rules, not brick walls?
The most embarrassing part of this story isn’t how naive I was at the beginning of it, but how naive I’m about to be in the middle. When I’d studied abroad in Morocco, our chaperones had told us that if we were pickpocketed in the marketplace, we should try yelling at the perpetrator, demanding our property back, and we might get what we wanted if we were convincing enough. I’d seen it work once or twice. So I stood up and yelled at the boy running away with my Kindle. “Hey!” I shouted. “Bring that back right now!”
But of course he just kept running, and I know now that I’m lucky he did. I knew even then that I was lucky it had just been the Kindle, not my wallet or my keys or my computer. I know I’m lucky it was just theft I was dealing with, because in Newark as in any other city, a lot worse can happen.
The barista locked the door behind them both, asking me if I minded staying to speak with his bosses about what had just happened. “I keep telling them,” he muttered angrily as he dialed their number. “I keep saying I don’t want to be alone here on weekends. Saturday in the summer, no businesspeople around, no students—what do they think’s going to happen?”
What really left me chilled, though, was what one of his bosses said when she arrived to take stock of the scene. She felt Newark had been getting more dangerous lately, and she’d been thinking of getting a gun to carry illegally in her purse. “If it’s going to be the Wild West around here,” she said, “I want to be the gun-totin’ mamma.”
I didn’t want to be a gun-totin’ mamma. I didn’t want to be a victim, either. Most of all, I didn’t want to think of a fifteen-year-old boy who looked exactly like any other high-school-aged boy I’d ever known as a threat. But for a while, because I just couldn’t figure it all out, that’s more or less what I did.
Newark, My Home
By the time I met Amelia, I’d already had a chance to think things through a little more. I’d remembered that the day my Kindle was stolen wasn’t the first time I’d learned that people can decide to ignore those boundaries that keep everyone feeling so safe. The first time had been in my hometown, a suburb of Los Angeles, on my eighteenth birthday. A man who turned out to have already gotten in trouble for touching himself in public had followed me through the local mall with his camera. What’s actually scarier? That a fifteen-year-old boy would be tempted by the money a stolen Kindle can bring in, or that a forty-year-old man would prey on a teenage girl in broad daylight and expect no one to notice? Even though there’s no real answer, the question disturbs that all-too-easy equation: “Hometown, safe; Newark, not safe.”
Amelia and I talked about that a lot: how Newark can be dangerous, but other places can be, too. How no matter where you are, you have to look both ways before crossing the street, and then cross the street anyway. She told me to be careful on my way back to my car, but also said she wasn’t too worried. “You seem pretty savvy,” she said. As we said goodnight and wished each other well, I already felt that maybe I was being savvy for better reasons than I’d been an hour ago. There was a kind of peace as I walked past that same coffee shop that I’d never felt at nighttime in Newark before.
Newark may never be my home in the same way it’s Amelia’s—I’ve been here for two years, not forty, and I live just outside the city limits—but it’s where I work and learn and exercise and order Thai food when I don’t pack a lunch. It’s where I go to the library; it’s where my co-workers and I descend on the farmers’ market like seagulls on French fries every Wednesday. It’s where, when I made my first real friend in New Jersey, we talked for three hours and had to jumpstart her car because we’d forgotten her lights were still on.
In some sense, Newark is my home. It’s not just the place where someone stole my Kindle; it’s the place where I’m spending my first years as an independent adult. From now on, I’ve decided, I’m going to spend those years staying safe, but I’m not going to spend them being afraid.