August 14, 2009

A Narrow Escape

Let me just put this out there, foregoing all suspenseful narrative structure: I was grabbed in Inwood Hill Park today.

I managed to escape with my life and my possessions, but something inside of me died back there.

I'd chosen to spend the day outdoors in the gorgeous, sunny weather instead of meeting up with old co-workers for drinks. The last time I'd attended a happy hour sponsored by my former employer, I was mauled by one of the young assistants, who drunkenly threatened to give me a "cunt punch" (with accompanying gesture) and then placed his palm over my mouth when I tried talking to someone else. I decided not to subject myself to that kind of treatment again this afternoon (especially considering the circumstances under which I left my last job), and instead go to the park, where I could enjoy nature, and a bit of solitude.

After my treks through many of New York City's parks, which often have placed me frighteningly alone in deep woods, I thought I would take it easy with a little meander through the park at the very tip of Manhattan, in Inwood - a neighborhood which, as I discovered last weekend our walk through Fort Tryon, is quite nice, and not as foreboding as the neighboring Bronx. Inwood Hill Park promised a salt marsh, stunning views of the Palisades and of Henry Hudson Bridge, as well as the northern terminus of the Harlem River - plus a rock marking the historic purchase of Manhattan island, supposedly in the exact spot on which it happened.

The park entrance at 218th Street was bright and airy, full of families lighting their charcoal, bicyclists, and Canadian geese.

There aren't technically hiking trails in the park, just running and biking paths, which is perfect for the kind of stroll I was looking for. I headed north on one of the paths to the base of the Henry Hudson Bridge, hoping for a footbridge but instead encountering a lot of construction (and a sign from 2007 a little farther in, saying that the HHB pathway would be closed for three years). Although I was looking for nature and solitude, I felt safe seeing the Parks Department trucks parked along the pathway, saying hello to a couple workers hauling two-by-fours and sweating under their hard hats. (At least one of their projects was installing or rehabilitating fire hydrants in the park.) "Nice day..." we said to each other, as I plodded along, hoping that the path wouldn't be closed like so many others around the city had been.

Henry Hudson Bridge

I was following a clear, paved path - wide enough for construction trucks - along the westernmost perimeter of the park. At the end of the construction, where the final truck was parked, I could have crossed under the Henry Hudson Parkway through a tunnel to go deeper into the park, but instead I went a bit further and to the footbridge that crossed above the Amtrak train tracks to what looked like a riverside park. A nice-looking, athletic man with salt-and-pepper hair was walking his curious spaniel across the bridge towards me and said hello as the dog gave me a sniff. I was hoping for a shot of an Amtrak coming towards the bridge, so I climbed up to its crest and gave a look in both directions. No train, but I startled a man walking up to the bridge from the river's entrance, walking with his arms heavy on each side, holding something that looked like a pair of shorts and smelling like he hadn't showered in a day or two. When he saw me, his face didn't move, except his eyes, which flashed only for just a second. The rest of his face was stone, pushed forward in a kind of pout, empty, disturbing.


I didn't like the way that he looked, and since he was lingering on the footbridge, I decided to go back into the park rather than hang out with him there. I backtracked to the tunnel and crossed under the Henry Hudson Parkway, and the man from the bridge followed me, his longer legs bringing him there more quickly than mine could. I saw that what he'd been carrying was actually a blue-and-white striped sweater, which he'd put on. It was a bad sign to me, because I was sweating in my tee shirt, and I could only imagine that he was trying to disguise himself from something he'd already done, or something he was about to do.

In the distance, up the path, I spotted the friendly man with the dog and hiked quickly towards him, so quickly that my shuffle and heavy breathing startled him, excusing himself and letting me pass as his dog continued to explore. I wanted to stick close to him, seeking shelter or at least solidarity to discourage the now-sweatered man from following me any further, but he'd managed to get in between me and the man with the dog and was trudging along, with purpose, without expression.

I slowed down and let him pass me, walking fairly closely behind him so I could monitor his movements. The three of us, and the dog, walked like that for a while, til the sweatered man followed a fork in the path to the left. It was less paved and more remote over there, so I continued south, keeping one eye on the highway below to my right, and turning back occasionally to make sure he was gone.

I was anxious to get out of there, and I was certain if I followed that path, it would lead me to the southernmost entrance to the park, so I stayed the course. I also knew that if I had to, I could run down the steep cliff onto the highway and seek help, especially if chased. The entire time, I knew I was in danger, and I was plotting. Sure enough, I turned around one more time and faced the sweatered man, who again was walking behind me. The dog-walker was nowhere in sight.

We were alone, and his intention was clear. He was not just out for a walk. He was out for me. What did he want? My camera? My money? My soul?

In a last ditch effort, I tried to shake him. I spotted what looked like the ruins of a building foundation, and I veered off to the left to investigate. I only walked a step or two and then turned around quickly enough to be face-to-face with my stalker, who placed each of his hands on each of my forearms and looked at me intensely.

I shook him off and invoked my best set of crazy eyes as I shouted at the top of my voice, "HEY - WHAT ARE YOU DOING?" He uttered something, murmured it, maybe in English or maybe not, and started backing away. I advanced.


He didn't run and I didn't chase him. He just backed away, and then retraced his steps at the same pace he'd been walking the whole time. I was clutching onto my camera, desperate to get a photo of him, but terrified at what would happen if he heard the click of the shutter. So I just watched him walk away, shouting obscenities and threats at him. I was convinced that he would turn around and head back for me a second time, so I stood there in place for a while, until he was out of sight.

When I couldn't bear to stand there any longer, I turned around and headed south again, praying for another footbridge or park entrance, which I reached quickly after striding down the winding path a short distance. I kept looking over my shoulder, ponytail swinging, waiting to see him peering at me again, but he was gone, and I was out of the park.

But was I safe? Have I ever been, and would I ever be?

What was he going to do to me? And what was that that he said to me? While walking behind him, I'd examined his hands to see if he was carrying a weapon - a knife up his sleeve or something like that - but they were relaxed, cupped loosely, dangling. Surely in most circumstances like this, I would have been knifed, drugged, beaten, held at gunpoint, raped, slaughtered, dragged through the mud and buried. Was he just an amateur, to be scared off so easily? And if so, what attracted him to me as his first victim in the first place? My nonathletic build? My gender? Am I automatically a prime target just because I'm a woman? As a woman, am I already a victim by nature?

I held it together in the park pretty well, my anger fueling my escape, but once I exited onto the street, I cried a little. I composed myself enough to find the 207th Street subway station, and boarded the downtown A train, cursing that my day had been cut so short. I've thought of death often, have imagined many lovely ways of fading into the abyss - from car crashes, bathtub electrocutions, faulty amusement park rides and overwhelming ocean waves. And I've always said that I do not fear death, which is true. But today, I feared not death, but dying. Worse yet, I feared dying at the hands of another human being, someone who would enjoy my pain, and the extinguishment of my life, my hope, my plans, my potential. I looked all around me on the subway and the bus ride home, examining each face for its own malicious intent, the thoughts that boil inside and cause the feet to plod in despair, destruction, demonic possession. But they all looked the same as they always do, mouthing along to songs on their iPods, mumbling complaints about people who sit too close to them, meeting my gaze and rolling their eyes at my stare.

I couldn't wait to get home, but once I got there, what then? I stopped for a beer and a dozen oysters on the half shell to calm my nerves and procrastinate my return. But eventually, I had to return.

And now that I'm home, what now? What do I do Monday, when the weather is nice, I'm dying to get out, and there's no one to accompany me? Do I stay home? Make do with Madison Square Park, which is embarrassingly small, flat, and overrun by babies and dogs? Get out of town? Get a job? Get a can of mace?

For now, I think I'm staying in this Friday night. I've had enough of New York City's excitement for one day.

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