Back, way back when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time exploring the margins of my world. I had a special affinity for railroad tracks, both for the romantic allure of freight trains and for the practical reason that train tracks usually were the best source of unsettled land in an urban area. There was one particular sliver of land, called for historical reasons Pranklin, that ran between freight tracks and where I-205 and I-84 diverged. One night, at the age of eighteen, in February, I decided to spend a night sleeping in the unfinished tunnel between two freeways, a tunnel that at the time was Portland's foremost destination for graffiti writing but is now the home of the Red Line. I lived about five miles away, in downtown, and at the age of eighteen it made perfect sense to me that if I couldn't sleep, I should take public transit to an unfinished railroad tunnel and try to sleep there on a February night. I don't know exactly what I was thinking, but I remember an infatuation with Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus was involved.
I mentioned the appeal of railroad tracks to a woman I knew, and that a stroll along them was a great experience and lesson, and she responded, of course, that she had been told that railroad tracks were probably not the best place for a teenage girl to go walking by herself. And while the risk perception might be exaggerated, it is still real. If I were growing up female, all the pieces of land that I took to be festive and fun places to explore as a teenager would be an odd terra incognito, glimpsed out of the corner of my eye as I went about my business. I can imagine, now, being a young woman going to the medical center across from those railroad tracks, and looking over it and thinking, so to speak, "here be dragons". And then perhaps putting it out of mind as she goes in to have an appointment with one of her ten different medical specialists.
But while women were being raised to fear secluded areas, the dark, and strangers? What was I being raised to fear? I was afraid of retail and restaurants, or if not afraid, not totally comfortable. Approximately three minutes after finishing my meal at a restaurant, I would start to fidget and worry that the waitress was tired of me. Sometimes while eating my meal, I would leave a bill on the counter, to show I wasn't a bum. I was afraid of officers of the law, because who knows when I might "look suspicious". While this is more obviously a problem with black youths, I think it is a lesson that most young men learn growing up. I was afraid to walk at night, not because of criminals, but because a homeowner might take me for a prowler and shoot me. I was afraid to talk to a child or go into the children's wing of the library, because that could be seen as predatory behavior.
And then there were the more subtle things: not things I feared the consequences of, but things that made me feel simply uncomfortable. To me, seeking employment wasn't a matter of what I could do, but of who I was, and I felt I stuck out as being out of place. Asking professors for help in college seemed to make me a burden and a nuisance. Casual socializing with people I didn't know well always provoked anxiety. The idea that the world of commerce, education and recreation were made for my comfort was foreign to me: these places were anxiety provoking pits where I had to keep my persona on at all times. I felt that with nothing to contribute, I shouldn't be in a place.
So there was my inverted topography of fear: the places that I should feel comfortable made me feel anxious. The people who were supposed to protect me made me feel afraid. The places where I belonged made me feel outcast. But this wasn't because I was a nervous wreck or had an anxiety disorder: quite the contrary, the idea of sleeping next to the railroad tracks, or talking with a stranger on a thousand mile busride, were quite fun notions for me. I had my own world of safety and comfort, a world where I was outside of confusing expectations, where I had to depend on my self and not my persona, and a world of darkness, solitude, and lonely marginal spaces. And I don't believe that this was due to some paranoia on my part: as mentioned, many of the threats that young men must face when dealing with the world are objectively real. One of the reasons that I wrote this is that after many years of being told that these feelings were irrational, I want to posit that they are not, that as a man growing up I was afraid of the things that I should be afraid of. That the world that I viewed it, with the outside as safe and the inside as dangerous, was a rational response to a society that said that I stood as at best a nuisance, and at worst as a threat.