Navigating the Invisible Fair

I walk everywhere. I own a car, but in my city, walking is usually faster and easier.

People out walking with me for the first time think I’m very strange, sometimes. I walk for a block on one side of the street and then cross the street for three blocks and then cross back. Sometimes I circle a block instead of walking along it.

But not every time. Some days I take a totally different route. Where I circled this block yesterday, today I’ll go straight. Where I stayed on the north side last week, I’ll cross to the south side today.

Of course, this is totally insane. Unless you know why I do it.

I get hot really easily. I hate the heat like other people hate nails on a blackboard. So, if it’s hot, I prefer to walk in the shade. In fact, I’ll go a block out of my way to keep to deep shade. I also know where all the public fountains are and will walk by those for the fine mist. I avoid sunblasted concrete chasms like the plague. Because the sun moves, that means I take on route on a July morning and a very different route on a hot September afternoon.

Once you realize that I’m Shade Walking, suddenly my route becomes obvious. I’m a rat running a maze with walls that you can’t see until you know what they are.

(In the winter, I have a good mental map of who has shoveled and who hasn’t and which storm drains are actually barely-iced-over ponds of boot-topping slush and plan my route via those invisible walls.)

I was thinking of this all weekend as I watched about a quarter of the population of my super-geeky city suddenly start navigating their own invisible fairs. People — singly, in pairs, or in large groups — would walk down the street with their phones out, point at an empty square on the sidewalk, and then hurry forward and making strange gestures at the empty space.

Of course, because I’m a geek, I knew what invisible thing they were navigating. Pokemon Go just came out. But a lot of mundane folks who don’t know about Pokemon Go were totally bewildered at the strange behavior of these people. The Muggle reaction has ranged from annoyed (with good reason sometimes — it’s not a good idea to stand smack in the middle of the busy sidewalk) to bemused to angry to completely unaware of this complex-but-unseen world.

Pokemon isn’t my jam, so I don’t have intimate knowledge of the various spots, gyms, and monsters in my area. But I know that they exist and I am happy that other people are enjoying their hobbies. (Unless they stand in the middle of the sidewalk.)

It’s been a very hard month or so in the U.S. Reading the news is like a body slam. It’s brutal. And it’s hard (or impossible) to have a decent conversation with most people about these issues.

And I realized, watching a bunch of Pokemon Go players all cluster, excitedly, around a tiny historical marker yesterday, that it’s because a lot of people refuse to believe in other people’s invisible mazes.

Most men don’t even recognize all the little things that women do to navigate this world. One day, as an experiment, I decided that I wasn’t going to get out of men’s way when I walked and we both had equal claim to the sidewalk. They crashed into me constantly. All day. They ranged from apologetic to angry to just confused, but I’m willing to bet that none of them realized that they counted on the fact that most women they saw just naturally got out of their way. Women were navigating an invisible maze.

It’s not just who gets precedent on a sidewalk, either. The small things women do every day to navigate this maze are all so ingrained that we don’t really notice them. Couching our words in qualifications. Not going out after dark alone. Gauging the length of our skirts or the depth of our exposed cleavage. Never putting our real names on the Internet.

I’m white, but I’ve read enough articles by people of color to know that they have to navigate a similar, if more deadly maze, when dealing with authorities. Move slowly, be polite, don’t make sudden moves, show your hands.

Similarly, trans* folks make decisions based on things I would never consider — safe bathroom facilities, among them. Gay people have to decide if it’s OK to hold their SO’s hand in public.

In the past month, watched people on Facebook get furiously angry because they insist that they can’t see the maze, so it clearly doesn’t exist.  And nothing anyone can do will make them see it.

There’s no solution that’s ready to hand, of course. There’s no magical app that I can put on their phones and suddenly they see the Pikachu that’s bouncing on the corner. It requires emotional labor, empathy, and imagination to understand that other people even have mazes. Those are qualities that bigots lack, by definition.

But damn, I’m tired of it.

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