The Comma Interrobang: Finding Safe Space


For the past few months I’ve been volunteering at an independent bookstore downtown that takes very seriously its aim to be a self-proclaimed “safe space.” If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it essentially means a space (whether literal or figurative) where individuals show respect for and awareness of each other’s backgrounds, experiences, and personal boundaries. Some standard policies in a safe space include, for instance, asking rather than assuming one’s preferred gender pronoun, or shutting the hell up rather than striking up a conversation about, say, a sexual assault you watched on “Law and Order” last night. While some laugh or roll their eyes at the concept of a safe space, it’s my opinion that any effort to offer individuals respite from the daily dose of shame, traumatic triggers and general discomfort they experience simply because of who they are and what they’ve endured, is an effort well-made. Being in spaces like these, I feel undeniably good. They should honestly be called “good vibes spaces.” 

The other day, though, I was working at the store, when something really surreal happened. I was behind the counter with another female volunteer. At the moment there were no customers – it was almost time to close – and our only other coworker at the time, who happened to be male, had just stepped out for a cigarette. Suddenly, as soon as he left, a middle-aged man walked in, carrying a giant duffle bag and smelling of pretty much whiskey and nothing else. He walked up to the counter and immediately launched into a terribly unconvincing sales pitch for pepper spray, at one point even unzipping his dirty bag to reveal cans upon cans of the stuff. At first we politely declined, laughing a little under our breaths at the absurdity of it. 

But then, something happened, something switched, and he became obstinate, surly, and angry. He started guilt tripping us, telling us that “ladies” living in New York can never be too careful, “if you know what I mean,” and that we were being really careless just walking around unprotected like that. At one point he laid his hands on the counter and got as close to us as was possible with the solid barricade between us. 

It was truly surreal. First, of course, there was the laughable irony I was experiencing in having the sudden urge to mace the man trying to sell me mace. But also, there was the shock of having my safe space invaded – that this was happening here, where nothing bad was supposed to happen, where I always felt invincible. My safe space no longer felt safe.

I walked home that night, alone, after my shift ended at 11:30 p.m. I was suddenly made eerily aware of the distortions of the night. My footstep, cast in the shadow of the moonlight, looking ten feet tall. My keys, clutched tightly in my fingers, suddenly a potential weapon to use against an unwanted advance. My mouth, suppressing any urge to relax into a smile lest someone treat it as an invitation to approach me. Maybe I was just afraid of the dark. Maybe I was being overly dramatic. But I do remember thinking as I walked home that safe spaces are definitely important, because, so often, they’re so hard to find.