I had my choice of gyms when I moved to the Pittsburgh area, and I chose the local Y due to its indoor track. Three walls are windows, the glass extending to the beginning of the roof as well. In any weather you can run in natural sunlight and that does wonders for your soul.
The track is small–14 laps equals a mile–with three lanes and decent traffic. Signs direct runners inside and walks to the outer lanes. Its a familiar set-up, setting rules of etiquette I’ve followed in field houses across the East Coast.
The track circles around a basketball court and a large layout of fitness equipment like bikes and treadmills and Nautilus machines. And for some reason I can’t come to peace with, older white men love to stand on the inner lane and talk to their buddies using exercise equipment. Like every single damn morning. It’s not even the same one or two guys, but seemingly all of them in the Y at the same time as I’m running.
Its not like I haven’t experienced this before. Women are socialized to take up as little space as possible, always ceding it to the men around them. And men? I don’t think men are even aware of their own space let alone that of others. But you’d think a large, heavy-breathing woman running past them would signal a need of space.
I spent one run weaving around these men, zig-zagging into other lanes, almost colliding with walkers, and that’s all I could handle. I was so mad, so angry that more than one man was doing this one and off throughout my 30 minute run. And its not like they have to; in every situation the man could have moved to the other side of his buddy, to the side where there isn’t a track and human traffic rotating by. So I’ve stopped weaving, stopped risking injury to myself and others, in favor of taking my space back. I run and run and run, each time brushing the guy back until he finally moves out of the way. I get looks. I am met with reactions that communicate I am asking for too much. But it’s my space. I’m done giving way.
My all-white neighborhood of 50 houses is filled with polite people who treat each other with a comfortable distance. That is it’s all white save for the first house on the street, a house lived in by a language teacher and her Mexican husband, their child the same age as one of my own. We are friends, this family and mine. We visit and play and enjoy each other’s company. We know them better than we know anyone else here.
So shortly before they hosted several events for the husband’s students from the local university, and a kids’ art show for the neighborhood, they staked a small sign in their yard that says, “No matter where you’re from, we’re glad you’re our neighbor,” in three languages. Days after all their hosting duties were done, their hospitality spent, they received an anonymous letter signed “Several of Your Neighbors.” It was toothy and biting and trashy in the way that anonymous letters are. It was about their sign.
While my friend has taken several steps to address the situation, to appeal to friendly neighbors for reassurance, it is a message hard to shake. The little bit of space her family takes up has not met with approval from all. So I’ve done the best thing I know to do; I’ve borrowed her sign. I’ve placed it in my own yard, symbolically annexing my space to hers, showing the world we are here taking up our space without apologies. I hope that every time the letter writer drives past, they feel my presence brush against them, sending the message to get back in their lane and make way.