I'm walking up Central at 5 p.m. against a cold wind. It's January, and dusk is quickly turning into night as I stride east, mall walker-style, toward my evening class at UNM. Only a block into the journey at Central and High Street, a man yells at me from a large, moving truck. I don't catch the particular crass flattery, but do get an earful of "Wooooo!" A loud honk follows and the vehicle speeds away. Humiliated and angry, I want gestured and spoken obscenities to flow forth and assault these degenerates, but for fear of retribution all I can do is seethe. As I continue walking—under I-25, past Presbyterian, by abandoned and defiled storefronts, passing hooker upon drug-addled hooker—I can now only see the city's ugliness and despair. Along the way I am heckled three more times.
For women who walk in Albuquerque, this is not an unfamiliar scenario. It happens to every woman, everywhere she walks, repeatedly. And traveling by foot, while almost always humiliating, can be downright dangerous. For me, walking in Albuquerque, while occasionally pleasant, usually ranges from nerve-racking to moderately terrifying, embodied in everything from random insults to being solicited as a prostitute to sexual assault.
For context, a few anecdotes: 1) On a morning last fall as I walked Downtown, two men and a pit bull strolled past me on the opposite sidewalk, shouting, "Hey, girl!" After realizing I was ignoring them, one man finally yelled, "Fuck you! You're not that hot!" 2) Walking home from work one day this past spring, a man slowed as he drove by, circled the block, and pulled up beside me, asking if I wanted a ride, calling me "sweetheart." I ignored him, but he did not relent. I finally told him to "fuck off." He promptly pulled into a parking lot up ahead. Fortunately, I was able to duck into a nearby business, call the cops and wait for him to leave. 3) While walking home from UNM a few years ago, I was followed and grabbed, sexually, by a man who appeared out of an alley. He ran away, I made it home and could barely form the words, through the tears and hyperventilation, to tell my roommate what had happened. For months, walking anywhere was awful, even with the Xanax prescription.
For those of you who might be wondering, this attention is not solicited (I never dress or walk "sexy"). The question of why a simple walk in Albuquerque always turns into a forum for any man to comment upon any woman's sexuality is a whole other column. I can tell you one thing, though. I've done my fair share of walking in other cities, and this type of foreboding and relentless catcalling has never happened to me anywhere else. Never.
So what's a female pedestrian to do? Unfortunately, other than learning self-defense, packing debatably effective weapons like mace or a stun gun (I own one) or riding a bike, the options are few. Sure, there are city buses, but as I've found during my involuntary investigation into an autoless life, Albuquerque's public transit is insufficient at best. After repeated half-hour waits for buses that supposedly come every 10 minutes, one begins to realize the schedules are meaningless. At worst, taking the bus can be a harrowing journey into the realm of untold American poverty—half-dead homeless stare straight ahead, the untreated mentally ill offer a glimpse into their dark worlds, the working poor discuss time in jail, and every now and then there are gruesome sightings of bodily disfigurements straight out of the Middle Ages and strange wounds taunting modern medicine. Cities with successful mass transit serve a spectrum of socioeconomic groups. Here in Albuquerque, buses are mainly for criminals and the underclass (that's me).
Whether Albuquerque will ever be a city with viable public transportation remains to be seen. Hopefully, I'll have a car by that time. In any case, the city and state are certainly making strides toward better mass transit. With more bus and Rail Runner stops opening all the time, and a modern streetcar system between Nob Hill and the BioPark, and from UNM to the Sunport slated for the fall of 2009, things are looking up. Even the mayor is excited: "I think this ridership trend will continue and more and more people will experiment with public transportation."
That's great, Mayor Martin Chavez, so while we're on this topic, here are some things the city might consider for us fans of "alternative transportation": 1) We all know Albuquerque has a little problem with crime, so why not put more pedestrian and bike cops on the streets? Something tells me that if cops were riding through that tunnel under the railroad between Downtown and walkable-
And ladies: Godspeed.