People are scary when you’re a stranger

Sometimes, I’m more frightening than I really want to be.

No, I’m not referring to my attempts to use humor in the classroom (those end up far more awkward than frightening); I do mean actually frightening. Scary. Worrisome.

Every now and again, I find myself walking through the streets of Champaign after dark. I know Champaign is a reasonably safe place to live, and I do keep to well-lit, highly frequented streets; nevertheless, when there’s barely a car or two in sight and I hear a pair of footsteps behind me, it can get my heart beating a little faster.

Which, as I write it, does feel a little silly. I’m 24, male, tall and broad enough that I fit the description of the stereotypical mugger much more than the stereotypical muggee.

And that makes me wonder how other people see me as I walk down the street on those lonely Champaign nights.

I tend to talk to myself and gesture as I walk, so I imagine I only need an ever-present-despite-the-weather hoodie and a pair of dark sunglasses to complete the look of a demented psychopath. When I’m joined by that solitary pair of footsteps, I’m likely more frightening than frightened. Still, I try to shake anyone’s misconception of me as much as I can, offering a friendly smile and nod of the head to anyone I happen to meet coming the opposite direction.

If I seem a bit stuck on the topic, it’s because I did get a much larger fright the other evening. I heard glass shattering and what sounded like rocks being thrown into a nearby apartment. I flicked off all my lights and grabbed the largest knife from the kitchen in case I needed to defend myself, but beyond that I was caught in a moment of cowardly indecision: I had seen the apartment’s tenant — or so I believed — outside not long before, and was unsure if they had forgotten their keys and lost patience with any other ways of re-entering their apartment.

So I stood for a long time, thinking. Should I stick my head out and see what was the matter with my neighbor (knife clutched discreetly behind my back, just in case), or should I call the police? In the end, it didn’t matter: someone else called the police.

Though I do not know the details of the situation, I feel as though there was no violent intent, and I was perfectly safe despite the damage being dealt to the poor window. It was, in some part, an unintentional frightening.

That I can appreciate. When walking home at night, I catch the eyes of some people with my smile-and-nod, and they immediately duck their head and shuffle by as quick as they can. I might dismiss it for social awkwardness around strangers were it not for the frowns on their faces.

It’s irritating in a way that’s hard to explain, like an itch in my lungs that wants to jump out and shout, “Hey! I’m not a bad guy, all right? There’s no reason to be afraid of me.”

It would be trite to say it’s the fear of the unknown; calling it a cliché would itself be cliché. There’s no way to reason with the part of our brains that gets nervous at the sound of footsteps on a dark night, and shouting would only result in more nervousness.

It’s a sad fact of life, that we can, despite all intentions otherwise, upset, disturb or frighten people: perfectly innocent actions may be interpreted otherwise. At night, when the normal societal security of light and crowds are missing, we may catch a glimpse of each other for a moment, and something in one of us — whether it be gender, age, race, build or type of facial hair — sets off the wrong thing in the other.

I don’t think there’s any advice I can give that would make such situations better.

But I will say, if you find yourself in that place, dear reader, bumping into a stranger at night, unsure of how to act, and if they try to diffuse the tension with a sheepish smile and a little wave…

Please.

Smile back.

We don’t like to be thought of as the bad guy.

_Joseph is a graduate student._