Lately I’ve been writing in the library of the local women’s college, where signs hang on every bulletin board courtesy of public safety warning all to “never leave your belongings unattended.”
(This is an improvement from last year’s signs, which stated “Laptops have been stolen from the library. All laptops were stolen because they were left unattended.” Actually, the laptops were stolen because someone was a thief. The police recommended a risk-reduction strategy of watching your stuff.)
We—the social work students, the undergrads taking summer classes at the big University down the road, the sketchy writers and hangers-on such as myself—slouch into the library burdened by our laptops, our index cards, our messenger bags, our snacks, our water bottles and giant iced coffees. We spread out on the glossy coffee tables or the tasteful club chairs and ottomans and settle in for the long haul of brain work.
And sooner or later, we have to pee.
So an informal cultural practice has sprung up. Mesmerized by the light of my own screen, I’ll catch a hopeful smile gliding into my airspace. I pull out one ear bud. “Would you mind,” she says, “watching my laptop?”
This scene repeats over and over all day, each of us taking our turn. I take my turn, almost every day.
Now, it’s possible that the person whom I approach, supplicant—gesturing at the detritus of my research; my Timbuktu bag that holds a burner cellphone, $4 in cash, and an index card of things I want to talk about in therapy; my aging laptop with its dead battery—is exactly the person who was about to steal all of it when I turned my back.
But in the course of asking, I’ve looked into someone’s eyes and issued an expectation—I expect you to be a safe person with whom to leave my stuff. I might not know your name, but I know who you are—you’re the social worker with the hipster glasses and the vegan lunch. I’m the dyke with the tight fade and the bright kicks. If you mean to do me harm by taking my stuff, I’m going to find you.
But because most people are not thieves—most people will not take one another’s stuff, and want their stuff not to be taken—I’m probably not taking much of a risk. I’m probably just making transparent the truth that we are already in relationship. The fact that we are not actually strangers but neighbors, with a common interest in maintaining the integrity and ownership of our property.
What if we did this around interpersonal violation and violence?
What if we felt the same right to have our persons held harmless as we do our property?
What if we had the chutzpah to look into another person’s eyes and say, “I expect you to be someone who will honor my bodily integrity and my personal desires?" To say, “I expect you to be someone who will help me be safe.”
What if we had a cultural practice of asking those around us—friends and neighbors—“Hey, could you keep an eye on my boundaries?”
Would it mean our friends and neighbors might feel empowered to take action when they saw someone crossing them?
I think of the countless times the younger me was crowded by some man’s violations in public. Often, I caught the sad and compassionate eyes of a neighbor who knew exactly how I felt: shamed, silenced, stuck.
What if those people had spoken up? “Hey, she looks like she doesn’t want to talk to you right now,” she might have said. Or, “She told you to stop touching her. You’re not listening.” Or, “For fuck’s sake, man, no one wants to see your junk. Put it away.”
I know there are intentional communities where people don’t worry about their stuff, where everyone has covenanted around the safety of property. We’re not there yet in the wider world, either about property or interpersonal violation.
The first step is to ask each other for help. To begin a conversation which, at its core, says, “We all want to be safe.” The first step is to lift our eyes from our solitude and say to each other “Hey, can you watch my back? I'll watch yours.”