Situational awareness. It’s something in short supply these days evidenced by the hordes of meanderthal phone zombies clogging our city’s sidewalks. If they aren’t getting their gadgets snatched by opportunistic muggers, they’re bumping into fellow pedestrians or walking into traffic. It pays to keep your wits about you on the city’s streets, since threats to personal safety can even occur in familiar areas where we feel comfortable.
I’ve always been incredibly lucky to have been able to commute to work on foot. In 1999, I lived in Russian Hill and worked near Levi’s Plaza—pretty much a straight shot up and over one of the city’s impressive peaks. The Vallejo Street steps offer one of the city’s most scenic stairway walks, with gorgeous plants and trees, postcard-perfect views of Coit Tower and Alcatraz, and the occasional flock of parrots swooping in to snack on berries. The morning walk was usually invigorating but coming home at the end of the day was another story. The daily commute dampened my teenage enthusiasm for hurtling up hills in search of parks for illicit beer-drinking.
In 2000, I started working at an office downtown. When I started my new commute, I still took walked over the Green or Vallejo hills to North Beach and then cut over to downtown. This was the year that I struggled with regular bouts with insomnia so I was often spacey and bleary-eyed when I reversed the trip at the end of the day. I still usually walked home since the exercise was a good stress reliever—certainly more calming than being crammed onto a MUNI bus at rush hour.
One evening, I decided to walk up Green Street instead of my usual Vallejo route. This was a little more challenging because the hilliness was only broken up with one set of steep, narrow, set of stairs. As I approached the steps and started up, I could see someone sitting on one of the landings. You get used to seeing vagrants in the city, so that didn’t surprise me much. I was wearing headphones to use the power of music to propel me out of the insomnia stupor and up and down hills, but something about this person’s presence made me click off the music. I kept my steady pace trudging up the stairs and glanced at him when passing. I kept climbing toward the top but felt an internal nudge to look over my shoulder. I saw that the guy had left his spot on the landing and was following me up the stairs! I sprinted the rest of the way to the top and halfway down the next block before turning around again to see if he had continued after me. I’d had a couple years of karate training and I was ready to fight if needed, but he did not emerge from the stairwell. (Most predators prefer an easy take-down.) Heart pounding, I continued the rest of the way home, making sure he wasn’t following me.
After this incident, I experimented with other commute routes and found one that had less dramatic elevation changes and no narrow stairways. I eventually moved out of Russian Hill and now my walk home takes me right by Krav Maga SF, where I’ve spent the last several years developing skills that can serve me well if I am involved in a physical assault. The training also challenges us to utilize these skills under stress conditions and to hone the all-important habit of developing situational awareness.
Considering all the years I’ve walked the streets of San Francisco at all times of the day and night, I’ve had very few experiences where I felt a real threat to my safety. But even the most vigilant people have an day where they are feeling sick, tired, or just distracted. Not all street attacks happen at night in the Tenderloin—they can just as easily happen in a “good” neighborhood before sunset.