I experienced an urban “food desert” first hand last week. As I wrote in my earlier post, this term describes locations where it is difficult to find healthy sustenance. In rural America, “food deserts” arise where it is not financially viable to have a grocery store. In inner cities, these locations appear where it doesn’t seem safe to set up shop.
Instead of wandering out into the sands of the Sahara, I walked out the front door of the Dayton, Ohio Crowne Plaza around 9:30 pm in search of toothpaste. The young woman at the front desk said it would be easy to find, just walk down a block or two to the BP gas station. Relying on the encouragement of the smiling receptionist, I went out into a harsh ecosystem for this Montana dweller.
My upbringing in downtown Minneapolis should have alerted me quicker, but I was out of my native environment. All concrete and stoplights, there were no evening diners passing by – within a block I realized I was in a tough part of town. I was kicking myself for a momentarily lack of street smarts when a young heavy set woman in a blue scrub shirt and black pants walked up to me and asked if I needed help. I explained my toothpaste dilemma and she said she was going that way and would walk with me.
Why did I go with her? To prepare for a conference on dialogue and neuroscience I was attending in Dayton, I had been avidly reading about how the brain parses information. Reviewing what I learned, I suspect I followed her was because she appeared unthreatening and felt like an appropriate ally; she appeared authentically kind, she was Caucasian and carried no bag. She, I found out quickly, knew the streets of Dayton. She was big and thus her heft and height somehow made me feel safer. I could have read the auditory and visual signals wrong — “Don’t try this at home,” should be subtitle to this word painting — thankfully, I didn’t.
We were on a busy street, yet, throughout our walk, we were clearly the only white folks in the area. Did that make it more dangerous? Debatable. Yet, brain research describes how our senses heighten whenever we encounter difference from our usual setting. Thus, my fight/flight reflex with in full swing by the time I made it to the BP as, “Toto, we surely weren’t in homogeneous Bozeman, Montana anymore.”
Again, the gas station was a busy place with a young woman and her four friends trying to put air in a tire and a few drivers getting gas. The station’s front doors were locked and everyone had to request items through a glass teller window from an elderly Asian man. What would have been buck-fifty tube of toothpaste at Target was $2.99.
If you were hungry, this is looked to be your only option in this neighborhood. Without a car, there were chips and pop for dinner shoved through a teller window. Walking back with my volunteer bodyguard I learned that she was homeless and that she often slept in a tiny room at a friend’s house. She had lost her fiancé a few blocks before she met me — he and a friend had taken off when she was in the bathroom. My twenty-something friend was also pregnant and had earlier been raped and robbed on these same streets. I struggled to take in all that news not only because of its potential personal safety implications, but also, because here she still was walking up and down those corridors.
As my tour guide, she pointed out what looked to be a quick drug deal in the middle of the street, some heavily pierced once-friends (“We don’t hang out with them anymore. They are so immature”) and, eventually, her fiancé and his buddy. Before leaving her to duck back into indoor safety, I slipped $10 for something to eat. Recounting her history, she explained that she was hungry and had missed the meal at the local church. True or not, she had provided safe passage and I wanted to give her something in return. I told her fiancé to make sure she ate soon, but now wonder, where that might have been possible in that strange, dark world outside my hotel window.