Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Yet another tale of scary Iowa

When I was in college, a kid a few classes behind me was walking home from a party when a black van pulled up beside him. A bunch of guys jumped out of it and beat him down to sidewalk. They started to kick him then, all of them, and when they were finished one yanked his leather jacket away while another held a gun to his head. “If you’re gonna do him, hurry up and do him,” a third said and after that there was a long time when no one moved. The drive of the van honked his horn and the moment was broken: the robbers dashed back through the sliding door, pulled it shut, and went speeding off down the dark and dirty street.

I was in criminology classes then, and the things I learned there helped me to keep this event in perspective. What happened to that kid was terrible, no question about it, but it was also a statistical rarity. Stranger-on-stranger violent crime is extremely uncommon everywhere in this country, and it’s even more uncommon in Iowa. There were reams and reams of data to reassure me of this. Furthermore, there was nothing in the incident that suggested a pattern, and nothing that would indicate that the victim was selected for any reason other than opportunity and convenience. For him, the old cliche about the wrong place and the wrong time became real.

This was comforting to know, especially since many people were very disturbed by the attack. We were rich kids slumming in a poor part of town–to a lot of us, it just made sense that we’d be victimized. For the most part, my classmates came from cul-de-sacs and bucolic farming communities; a vast majority of us were weak, sheltered, and drunk half the time. This crime, then, stoked a great deal of fear. Bloodthirsty thugs were on the rampage, some thought. Remorseless killers were after us all. None of us were safe.

I don’t want to seem dismissive, though: I think I understand why people are so terrified by random crime and I don’t hold it against them. A story of brutality is always going to be more compelling than the statistics which point out how anomalous such happenings are. We’re a narrative people, and the easy, terrifying myths of crime are always much more crowd-pleasing than the dull, textbook facts. When most any person hears about some violent awfulness befalling someone, it is the most natural thing in the world to consider it a kind a cautionary tale: this is the horror that lies in wait for you if you do this or don’t do that, if you go into those neighborhoods or forget these important rules.

Knowing all this, however, failed to make much of a difference when it came time for me to walk home alone from the library late one Wednesday night. My apartment was only a block away, but it was long, desolate, and barely-lit block. I crossed the busy avenue that separated my college from the city and started down it, already thinking of how that poor kid was assaulted less than a hundred yards from campus; how it happened on a weekday just like this one, on a lonely side-street just like this one. My sociological training told me that these factors were of little importance to my overall level of actual risk, but my regular mind had me glancing at every stray shadow, had my eyes chasing every single crack and whistle of the night.

No one will see you, why don’t you all the way home?, this side of my brain suggested, while the educated and reasonable me was busy regurgitating whatever friendly factoid it could come up with. It isn’t midnight yet, I told myself, the likelihood of falling victim to a stranger-perpetrated armed robbery increases after midnight. You are not in the lower socioeconomic bracket. The vast majority of stranger-perpetrated violent crime happens to those in the lower socioeconomic brackets. Financially-motivated violent criminals tend to choose their targets based on, in descending order, ease of approach and escape, possibility of great monetary gain, and a sense that their victim is helpless, drunk, vulnerable, or otherwise unlikely to put up serious resistance. I am a sober and penniless English major with my mean face on. Now, I have to admit that I’m not sure if any of these are true. True or not, they sure didn’t put my mind at ease. Especially not when the van came swinging around the end of the block and began a slow, steady creep towards me.

I almost turned right around and made a mad dash back to the library. I’m not sure why I didn’t. It might have had something to do with the undergraduate-criminologist in me shrieking out, What, you’re scared of a VAN? What are you, some kind of COWARD? Everyone in Iowa has a van! Your OWN FAMILY has a van! What a pathetic little VAN-O-PHOBE you are! I used to be very sensitive to ridicule, even self-ridicule. So I soldiered on, heading straight for the certain-deathmobile, commanding myself to be brave, steadying myself with snatches of Wright and Decker.

Oh, murderous people in your battered old van, I thought, don’t you know how statistically-unlikely you are to do me serious harm? You better not try, because that will seriously skew the data. You hear me, van-driving sociopathic killing gang? The authorities in the field have serious doubts that you’ll choose me as a victim! Don’t you do it! Don’t you prove them wrong!

I was sweating beneath my windbreaker. I was clutching my backpack as though I’d be able to use it as some sort of weapon if any shit came down. It was ridiculous. It was particularly ridiculous at the crescendo of my panic, when the van came close enough for me to notice its black paint-job and–not a second later–I got a glimpse of the ninety year old woman in the driver’s seat. Don’t kill me! Don’t kill me!, I was pleading on the inside, Don’t kill me, elderly woman! Please!

The tail-lights were lighting my red face up even redder by the time I realized that the danger that hadn’t really existed had just passed me by. I hurried the rest of the way home, popped myself a cold Diet Coke, settled into the comfy sofa my roommates and I had pulled out of someone’s dumpster, and gave thanks that I had survived all the not-very-perilous perils of the Des Moines night.

By the way, this same situation--with some subtle variations--would happen to me again a few years later in Harlem, of all places. That’s a story for another day, though.