Safety Not Guaranteed

Last weekend Jason and I went for a bike ride through Minneapolis. We rode from South Minneapolis through Downtown, stopping at Big Brain Comics and continuing into Northeast for an afternoon of breweries and Thai food. It was a beautiful day, and a serene ride. There was only one unpleasant encounter with a driver. And though it spiked our blood pressure, it was only briefly. As we always do when these things happen in the Twin Cities, we turned to each other and said, “I’m so glad we’re not in Savannah anymore.”

In Savannah, combative drivers were the standard. If you have not been there, I’m not sure I can fully convey the deep truth of that statement. But I will tell a few stories, and try.

Our first apartment in Savannah was in what is called the Starland District, which has supposedly been up and coming for a long time now. It was some months of living there before we learned we were one block away from the red light district on Jefferson.

I lost count of the number of times we saw cop cars, sometimes four at a time, parked outside our house. (The memory that stands out strongest is the one that was fatal.) It wasn’t that we picked a bad block. All of my classmates, and most of my professors, had stories worse than mine. Stories of drive-by shootings that broke windows and made everyone drop to the floor, stories of neighborhood men waiting on the front steps of an apartment where they knew a woman lived alone. Just yesterday, a former classmate who still lives in Savannah posted on Twitter:

Stopped by the cops on my bike right as I was leaving the house. Apparently there was a shooting two doors down. Never heard it :/

One professor, who has lived in Savannah for over a decade, has been in almost a dozen car accidents, none of which were his fault. I understand that if you have not lived in Savannah, you are probably thinking, “that can’t be true; he must be a terrible driver.” A few years ago, I would have been with you. But now, having lived in Savannah, I understand that if one remains there for any length of time, no matter how cautious, collision becomes not just likely, but inevitable.

Let me put it this way: Savannah is a city where more than once I saw an ambulance slow for a car, because the car refused to wait. Jason once watched a driver careen through the Historic District with a cell phone in one hand and a huge chicken leg in the other.

Jason and I did not own a car while we lived in Savannah, so our concern was not with dented fenders. We got around by bike and foot. Without much money, or sense of safety, my world shrank to the area between our apartment and my school building. Jason, who loves biking, and sees somewhat less doom and gloom in the world than I do, ventured a little further.

I worried about him constantly. It was my fault we’d come to Savannah, for my grad program. My fault Jason had trouble finding work, my fault we were stuck in a city that thrives on the tourist attractions of Paula Deen and fake ghosts and the Confederacy. I had recurring nightmares of home invasion, or of wandering the streets with loved ones unable to find shelter. When I couldn’t sleep, I would think about Jason, and tell myself fervently, obsessively, that if anything happened to him in Savannah, if some horrible driver met him on his bike, I would destroy the entire city, burn it to the ground, finish what Sherman started, maim and kill everyone in my path.

Jason, knowing my worries, waited months to tell me the following incident: at 6:30am one Sunday morning, biking to his job at a cafe, he approached a windowless white van pulled over to the side of the road. A woman got out, scrawny and disheveled. The van immediately pulled a hard U-turn into the street without looking or signalling. Jason slammed on the breaks, going over his handle bars but somehow landing on his feet. He yelled to the driver, “hey, you almost hit me!”

The driver, a block away at this point, slowed down, stuck his head out the window, and yelled, “I WILL RUN YOU OVER!” Then he sped away. The woman, tottering along the side of the road, called to Jason, “It’s okay; he’s drunk!” The many people who watched this from their yards made no comment. Jason fixed his bike on the side of the road and went to work.

On the last day of a writing class, during that first year in Savannah, the writing professor (my favorite) let us watch Slingblade. He, a native of South Carolina, and longtime resident of Savannah, had quoted Slingblade repeatedly that term, and was shocked that so few of us (myself included) had seen it. I loved it, and gushed afterwards, “it shows the way it is here in the South. There’s this seething anger, this violence, always simmering under the surface.”

Yesterday I went for a run in my current neighborhood. I am fortunate enough, right now, to live blocks from a beautiful lake, and yesterday, with the sun out and the wind low, it was especially beautiful. Some may dismiss this neighborhood as “yuppie” and I wouldn’t say they’re wrong. But every single time I run by that lake, every single time I return to my home unharassed, unharmed, I think “I’m so glad I’m not in Savannah anymore.”