A Love Letter to DC: Part I

When I lived in DC for just a semester during my undergrad, now two years ago, I didn’t fall in love with this city. I left not entirely convicted that it was where I wanted to be anytime soon. Weirdly enough, upon returning from Europe, coming back to DC was a given for me. I couldn’t tell you why and no one really questioned it, but I knew this would be my first post-grad move. Painfully predictable, really, considering the thousands that do. But it felt remarkably comfortable to return, like falling back into a beautiful life I had started and simply put on pause. Then I fell in love with it. I love the community of friends I have here; the city’s borderline psychotic commitment to brunch and happy hours; even the excess of knowledge, good intentions, and opportunity; and all the wildly different neighborhoods that seem like endless adventures. Like any place, the longer I stay the more there is to love – and to learn.

I was thrilled to move into an old row house in the H St Corridor of Northeast DC last year. My neighborhood in particular is a quirky and humble one, home to a mixture of long-time DC residents, young families, and ambitious, but mostly chill Millennials. While that mixture makes this a cool place to live, it also makes it a complicated one; but for those with due self-awareness, this isn’t something we ignore. It’s a discussion we recognize as fundamental to being a part of this city, and as part of the often detrimental changes that continue to take place here. I have always prided myself on being committed to that conversation and a life that reflects that.

This has recently become much more real for me, though, after I was assaulted and robbed at gunpoint on the street near my own house. Although it’s a pretty common crime in DC (as in many metropolitan US cities), it was scary and personal, forcing a lot of processing and reflection. And I would be lying if I said it didn’t make me feel self-righteously indignant, angry, and even judgmental toward the community I have staunchly defended from sweeping, unfair judgments. As you can guess, this post was prompted by that very real experience.

What is feels like to be attacked…

After leaving work and dropping off groceries at home last week, I left my house just before 7pm, pulling the hood of my LL Bean jacket over my hat to cover from the wind and snow. Taking a left out of my house, I turned down a street I have walked or biked a hundred times. It’s how I get to the best used bookstore in the city, to one of my favorite coffee shops, to church each week, and to two of my closest friends’ houses. This time I was going to one of those houses for dinner – choosing to walk, not knowing how well my road bike would fair in the thickening snow. Nothing was different. I didn’t notice anything or anyone out of the ordinary. I had no bad feelings.

When a young man appeared in the corner of my left-side vision, stepped in pace with me, and leaned in slightly, my first and only half-formed thought was if he was about to ask for my number or comment on some part of my body, just another guy harassing me on the street who I could respectfully ignore. But before I could finish that thought, he turned too quickly, a red light flashed, and his hand was locked tightly around my upper arm, aggressively pulling me off the sidewalk and backward into an alleyway. And so I fought, pulling hard against his grip, reaching out with my other arm to grab hold of anything in front of me. I remember losing my breath, unable to scream, but exhaling out through clenched teeth the word “no,” audible only to myself, I’m sure. In the fighting, I was turned around to face him. Despite the fact that I was then literally staring down the barrel of a gun held inches from my head, with the attached red laser blinding my vision, I felt what I later recognized as relief in that same moment to hear the words, “Give me your bag.”

I went perfectly calm.

My voice came back, steady and clear; my hands held themselves up; my whole body went still; my eyes looked down, non-confrontational. Rational decision-making and situational awareness replaced both my instincts to fight and run, so powerful only seconds before. I remember thinking, Okay, you’re fine. He just wants your stuff. He’s not really going to shoot you. So I said to him, “Okay, okay” and gave him my backpack. He asked for everything in my pockets. “This is all I have,” and I handed him my iPhone, knowing he could see the headphones, now tangled around my arm, leading into my pocket. But I even ran a split-second thought process: He can’t see the cash, the keys, your IDs, the cards in your pockets. Don’t give it to him. Don’t reach down again, and calmly repeated, “That’s all I have.” Preoccupied with the iPhone, he got agitated, shook the gun at my head, threatened me, demanding for the password. When he finally accepted the fact that there wasn’t one, he backed up a step, lowered the gun, turned, and ran down the street I had just come up. I distinctly remember the outline of my backpack, hung over his arm and held away from himself as he ran toward the street I live on, next to a neighborhood elementary school where I volunteered at the elections in November, around the corner from a restaurant with Taco Tuesdays and Trivia Nights…

Then the world opened up again. I noticed it was unbelievably quiet in that moment.

With my attacker turning the corner, a man on the other side yelled across, “Did he do something to you?” I could only reply, “He stole my bag.” He went to chase him around the corner and I looked around for a house with it’s lights on, feeling vulnerable and exposed standing on the same street I had walked a hundred times before. It wasn’t until I was invited into the home of a young couple, given a glass of water, and sat down on their living room chair, that every inch of my body began to shake and I began to cry. I took a deep breath and said a prayer of gratitude.

Processing & Reflecting

The mental replay of those minutes was naturally non-stop the first few days, trying to make sense of what and how it happened, wracking my brain for more details, analyzing what I did and didn’t do in the situation; what he did and said, how he acted, what he looked like. The police and many of the people I have told since are treating this as a simple robbery. The little piece of paper the detective gave me with his contact info simply has the words, “robbery. hold up. gun.” And that’s all it was. I believe that’s all his intentions were – to find and steal something expensive, which he found on the back and in the pocket of a 22 year old girl walking to her friend’s house for dinner.

But my mind and heart have been processing it somewhat differently. I remember feeling confused when I read the word “robbery” on that piece of paper – Is that actually what just happened to me? I remember the slightly surprised look on one of the detectives’ faces when I absent-mindedly mentioned that my arm hurts and pulled my sleeve up to show bruising that had already formed – Of course I had bruising. He was strong. I fought really hard. I felt deep frustration and anger when they and my family were dismissive as I obsessed over my iPhone for the next two days – But they can track it. The police said they would try to track it. It took three more days for me to realize I wasn’t actually communicating to everyone what I thought I was: my obsession was not in the lost piece of property, but the knowledge that they could use it to track him, to find exactly who and where he is. It is an unnerving thing, even now, to not know – Do I keep walking by him on my way to work?

The mental replays are subsiding, but with each re-telling during those days, my hands shook most and my voice cracked when I told someone how he grabbed me first; when I mentioned the ring of bruises around my upper arm in the shape of his hand, and the soreness through my shoulder and neck from the force with which I pulled against that grip. I think because my first emotional and physical reaction was the result of being attacked from behind and pulled toward an alley, my mind is processing this not only as a random robbery, but as a more targeted assault – what I thought in the first moments of the attack was headed toward a violent one. This is something few have been able to recognize when I tell them what’s happened – and I notice that it is exclusively women. Only young women who are comfortable enough with me have been able to quietly say what they’re thinking: “Thank God that’s all he wanted from you.”

Naturally, I have been hyper aware of everything around me in the days after. I feel that same vulnerable sense of exposure when I’m on the street now, as I did just after it happened. It snowed again this week, too much to get on my bike, so I stayed inside. I still freeze a bit when someone walks up next to me; and often, when I leave my house, I stand on the porch and involuntarily look left, able to see the end of the street it happened on, subconsciously scanning the area before walking down the steps. This is not a reality I ever wanted to live in; nor a level consciousness I wanted to gain. But I know it will pass with time. The bruises are faded now and I replaced the soreness from the attack with a better kind from a few good hours of climbing at the rock gym. I have done some healthy external processing with trusted friends, who have responded with a depth of concern and care, and took advantage of my coworker’s offer to talk with her mother, who is a psychologist. Ultimately, I was just mugged. As a neighbor and coworker even told me, “It’s just a risk to living in this city. It’s like a rite of passage. Everyone gets mugged.”

The Making of A Love Letter…

It was a difficult thing to wrap my head around, but for those that know how I process things, it will come as no surprise that like everything else, I’ve sought to find some kind of worthwhile understanding, meaning, silver lining… It wasn’t difficult to find here. Again, the District is a complicated place, with a complex history, marked by stark differences among those who live here. There are gaping inequalities in education, health care, job opportunities from the people living in one row house to the next. And those divisions are too fiercely, albeit passively drawn along racial and socioeconomic lines. In the midst of a national conversation on this topic, I am continually challenged to discover more of it here; It was never quite so personal until now, though. What I’ve chosen to do this season of Lent is to not turn away from that conversation, to not let the anger, fear, or even the knowledge that I’m leaving this city soon allow me to brush it off.

So, I didn’t know where else to start – except to write a love letter of sorts! I write a lot of these to people in my life, and this isn’t even the first to a particular place I’ve made a home, but I think this will certainly be the first written, in part, to an anonymous young man who decided to make me a victim.