I moved to Washington from New York City two months ago, after an apartment search that made the quest for the Holy Grail look like a kindergarten scavenger hunt. It wasn't that I couldn't find an apartment; it was that I couldn't find one that felt safe. The classifieds yielded dozens of wonderful-sounding places to live, but with each tour, my heart sank -- a "quaint Arlington studio" was actually a bottom-floor room with an easy-to-open window at eye level; a "spacious room to share" in Falls Church would have involved my taking on a dangerously friendly male roommate.
Then it happened: I discovered a spacious apartment in Glover Park with an adorable female roommate who became a fast friend. All we could talk about was how lucky we were -- the central air, the hardwood floors, the library a few blocks away, the playground on the corner. We had hit gold, and we knew it.
I developed a reputation among my friends for real estate savvy and loved my evening walks home from the bus stop -- the scent of fading summer suspended over my neighbors' gardens, the dense greenery of the park, the red brick and wood of the townhouses that lined the streets. In the safe enclave of my new home in a strange city, I half expected to encounter the frolicking woodland creatures of Disney fame.
On Sept. 6, a young woman reported that she had been sexually assaulted within fifty yards of my apartment. She told police she had been running on the local jogging track on a Saturday afternoon when she was dragged at knifepoint into the woods. No one around her noticed anything, and the police still have no information about the identity of her attacker. My neighborhood was transformed.
I no longer scanned the front yards and playgrounds for jubilant small animals, but for predators. A local paper suggested that women prepare themselves for the possibility of an assault by imagining what they would do if they were attacked. I imagined. I'm just shy of 5-foot-2 and regularly travel with a backpack twice my size. What would I do? Would my neighbors hear me scream? How far could I run? Could I scratch my attacker with my keys? I can never find my keys.
I decided I needed a better way to protect myself, so ignoring the obvious solution of never leaving my apartment, I turned to the ultimate oracle of my generation, the crone by the well: Google.
On www.peppersprayinc.com I found I could give myself the gift of safety for $30, with free shipping. This safety, in the form of a solution made with cayenne peppers, came in a plain aerosol can, or containers designed to look like a lip gloss or pens. Those disguises were so realistic I bypassed them, for fear of temporary blinding myself when trying to touch up my lip gloss. I was just about to purchase a variety pack, containing a travel can, a key chain and a visor, when my roommate interrupted me. "My dad just talked to the police and they said pepper spray can be used against you. He said the best thing to do is walk in large groups."
I pictured, unsuccessfully, trying to round up a herd of young females at seven in the morning to escort me to Van Ness. My boyfriend suggested that might be a contract job for the Swiss Army. "Or get a real mace," he suggested. "You know, the kind with the spikes on it."
It is easy to make fun of safety suggestions. Most of the advice I have received in the last few weeks would serve me better on Seinfeld than on the street, but the real problem is not with the advice, but with the fact that women are limited in their options to keep themselves safe. A practitioner of Krav Maga, which offers targeted self-defense sessions for women based on exercises from the Israeli military, raised an interesting point. Women, still our country's most common caretakers, have a hard time hitting people, she said. That gives me pause. If attacked, would I be able to hurt someone? Would I, even given the opportunity to find and aim pepper spray, be able to blind someone to give me time to get away?
However, the real problem is not the monster in the park but the monster at the dinner table, and while most women (80 percent) do fight back against their attackers, 77 percent of those women will know their attackers not as strangers, but as relatives, neighbors, acquaintances and boyfriends.
Last week another assault was reported in my neighborhood by what appears to be the same attacker. A safety notice was shoved under my door, warning tenants to be careful and to try not to go out alone. But what about the other warnings women should receive, not about strangers in the bushes waiting to hurt you, but about that cute co-worker or your best friend from high school?
A month ago, we all took a moment to remember that last day that safety seemed possible. Do you remember that beautiful Sept. 11 a few years ago, when the sky seemed impossibly blue and the last moments of summer lingered? Did it take you a moment to turn on the news, to realize that while you were in your kitchen drinking coffee, or boarding the Metro, the world as we had known it had disappeared?
A one-month transplant to the Metro area from Manhattan by way of Jersey, Sarah Tomkins says her favorite things in the city include law school, the giant pandas and the free museums. She is a first-year law student at the UDC School of Law and has a B.A. in religious studies from Princeton University. In her spare time, she enjoys sleeping, visiting the aforementioned pandas and working on the world record for caffeine consumption.