A couple of months ago, I was sexually assaulted in the Bronx and don’t want to tell you about it. I want you to like the Bronx as much as I do, despite — and because of, sometimes — its grit. But I want to be honest about the intricacies of doing what I do, so here it is:
I could say it was a weekday after work around 3 p.m. in the sun, but that doesn’t matter. I could say that I was grabbed from behind and forced to the deserted ground by a big man, that I had a box cutter held to my ribs with such intensity that it took a month for the marks to fade, that my face took on a purplish tan of bruises, cuts, blood, that I went limp under his body until I could kick and knock my way out with my head and legs, that it seems dizzying to type all of this but it’s easier to do all in one long sentence. I’d like to feign nonchalance and say that I can defend myself. I know that’s silly to say. Things could have turned out differently.
"Shut up, you stupid cunt."
I ran, I think. I ran, but I don’t remember. There was bricks and shrubs and limping. Maybe I should remember.
I rode the subway downtown and switched to another train home. People in the Bronx didn’t pay attention. People in Manhattan stared, yet avoided my eyes. I realized my phone was gone.
"Scream and see what happens to you."
What happened to me was foreign in the world I had returned to, in the safety of my neighborhood in Queens.
I couldn’t close my jaw right.
"Bitch, you say one word, this knife hit the ground through you."
I made up a story afterwards for people that had to see me, largely because I didn’t want anyone to know. I could hear the voices going on about safety, how foolish I am to ever be walking in the South Bronx alone, despite my working there and wanting to enjoy the neighborhood. How, I, as a woman, need to be vigilant, that people there are dangerous. Saying something negative about the area seemed a betrayal, but here I was, unable to stand under the shower spray for weeks without wincing, losing the ability of good dreams.
The neighborhood I so love has a myriad of problems, among them a commonplace violence that is near cultural and that, at times, runs amok. Things are stolen and sold: sex, money and drugs. It’s lovely too, with its soul and its hydrants in the summer and expressive, colorful population.
There seems to be sides to the media — exposition of the streets’ darkness and a reactive, combative effort to show scenes of lightness, of beauty. But things are ambiguous. The neighborhood improves, but it staggers in its strides towards normalcy.
It’s true, what happened to me could happen anywhere, but it’s more likely to happen in certain parts of the Bronx. Violence has infiltrated and woven into large segments of the community, and things need to be fixed. It doesn’t mean the area is worth holistically fearing. On the contrary, it’s worth understanding.
"Don’t even look at me, bitch."
Afterwards, not knowing what else to do, I went to Hunts Point. People looked me in the eye there, expressed outrage, defense and an innate understanding, though I didn’t say what had happened. To them, my face wasn’t a surprise but something of a fact of life. “You show me who did this. You know I’d go back to Rikers for you.”
The response was a very Bronx-like thing, to become irate and to move on, the attitude and reality in a place where solutions aren’t easy to find.
I felt a skim of the risk that people there have grown up beneath and periodically face, things about which they have to worry for themselves or for their wives or children. The point of my writing this isn’t about me, but about a swab taken from the life of a neighborhood.
By coincidence, soon afterwards I received a letter, part of which reads as follows:
Hi, Cassie. I’m writing to you on behalf of a friend of mine who’s currently studying photography in Manhattan. She’s really interested in photojournalism and bringing awareness to issues of poverty and injustice that are so prevalent in so much of New York City, and yet so often get ignored. Her main barrier in pursuing this is fear and insecurity stemming from her status as a young woman. I was wondering if you had any advice on how you, as a female, overcame the stereotypes of violence and danger in order to commit to working in the more invisible areas of the city, like Hunts Point. I would really appreciate if you had any advice I could share with her, because the world really needs more people willing to show the truth!
This letter sat mutely in my inbox for a week before I could reply. What to say, after all this. I couldn’t, in right mind, blindly cheer for another woman to do something similar. I still can’t. I recounted a small bit of what had happened to me, and I never heard from her again. That, to me, was tragic, that someone who might have been impassioned instead was lost.
But we have to admit what can happen and what does happen and be willing to fight for something beyond it. What I felt was minimal, something briefly dealt to a wisp passing through. The community feels it all.
In the end, my message to the young student, and to you, is this: Don’t be scared. Don’t nurture your fear for a neighborhood you know little about. Be willing to love and support an area and to make and encourage positive growth. In other words, respect it. I had a scuffle— they have thousands. Realize that your fear and what you’ve been told to believe about a place is symptomatic of both its problems and what gossip has cultivated. Communication about the issues is weak, which you know because you want to get into talking about them. Work for what you believe in in a way that fits you, and push yourself. Take care, always, but fucking fight because it’s for something.