“The soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone.”
By Anna Brüner
All kids, I imagine, have been warned by their parents at some point about the dangers of walking alone. If you’re a girl, you’ve especially been warned. “Don’t go by yourself,” “Make sure so-and-so goes with you!” “Call me when you get there,” “Make sure you’re back by this time,” “Who’s all going to be there?” This has been the chorus of my childhood.
What I am about to tell you will no doubt give my mother a panic attack, and believe me, I’m expecting the angry phone call promptly. But, all fear of maternal instinct aside, you should know that for the past five years I have been wandering cities alone. And not just American cities. New York, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, D.C., San Francisco, Asbury Park, Paris, Berlin, Hamburg, Nice, Amsterdam, Dresden, New Orleans, Savannah…maybe I should stop there. I’ve been going through them alone, sometimes for a few hours, sometimes for days, and while I have plenty of stories and photographs as evidence, I have kept most of it private.
As an only child I am used to being alone, and, having nothing else to draw comparisons from, learned very early on to enjoy my time alone. To say that I was “independent” from a young age is an understatement; I much more prefer the term “self-sufficient.” I have always been able to entertain myself. By age nine or so I could cook and clean for myself, and by twelve I was allowed to stay alone while my parents were at work or out with friends. It was during this time that I first started leaving the house to walk around town by myself, having always been allowed to explore and play in my neighborhood unattended since starting grade school. My parents were far from the overly protective yuppies whose sheltered children I babysit today. Soon I was walking all the way across town after school, sometimes sneaking out at night to do so, always in search of some yet-to-be-investigated patch of my small corner of the world.
My parents also travelled a lot, and were cool enough to forego all intimacy in order to bring their one and only progeny along. My mother made it her personal crusade that I would see all 50 states, no matter how long she had to sit in a car with me, and by the time I was a junior in high school I had been to six different countries (nine by the time I graduated). My attraction to cities especially, coupled with my comfort of roaming around unaccompanied, spurred a need to break away and explore by myself. I haven’t stopped since.
It started innocently enough. I would be permitted by my parents to wander off for a short window of time, always meeting back with them at some pre-determined location. It soon turned into me sneaking out of hotel rooms, running off from class trips, sneaking away during the tour group’s lunch, or flat out lying about my weekend plans to drive four states away. In Europe, I developed a particularly dark gift for convincing teachers and tour guides that I knew where I was going and that someone would be with me at all times, before jumping on public transportation and delving deep into the heart of a foreign metropolis….my comrades always too frightened to even step foot on the train platform. I wanted to stroll museums, party in gay clubs, hang out in red-light districts, peruse casinos. I was in search of something real. Something authentic. Something that would make me feel like I could maybe fit in there.
I would have taxi drivers take me to their favorite restaurants and shops, would have strangers order off menus for me, and would almost always come away with a story, a phone number, or a token of some sort that some kind local was willing to pass on. I’ve had a drag queen teach me how to roll a perfect cigarette, have had a Czech emigre tell me about how he didn’t hear about the Beatles until 1983 because he lived behind the Iron Curtain, have had a Russian cabbie offer me relationship advice, and went to the Love Parade in Berlin. I’ve exchanged screenplay ideas with old Italian men playing bocci ball in the park, drank absinthe on a rooftop overlooking a port in the south of France, and had my fortunes told by countless boardwalk psychics. I was invited to a Belgian artist’s BBQ where we argued over James Cameron’s Avatar in three different languages, had street vendors give me chili pepper covered mangoes the size of my skull after trading them German playing cards, discussed philosophy and the afterlife with heroin addicts in west Philly, and have tasted the best Trinidadian food in all of the Midwest. Had I done what I had been told all my life — to stay close, stay with somebody, don’t go out alone — I would have experienced none of it. I would have seen nothing beyond a hotel room balcony and a bus window.
Keep in mind, there was always somebody waiting for me after all of this, somebody who would care enough to report me missing. I wasn’t totally ignorant to the dangers of going off for a few days to rummage through abandoned warehouses, or kick it in Oakland soup kitchens, or creep through the alleyways during the London riots. I always had someone who would notice if I was gone for too long. I was always in the daylight or in the bustling public, always knew twelve ways back to a safe place, always took note of every possible exit…and even while being cautious, while being careful, I never felt scared. I was never harassed or assaulted. Was never made uncomfortable. Was never isolated. While going through cities alone, I always felt fully immersed and accepted within my environment. I felt like I belonged there.
Why do I do it? Besides being, in my opinion, the one true way to get an authentic experience from a place, exploring a city alone is also an act of rebellion. All my life, I have been told to never go anywhere alone — mostly because I am a woman. But countless men I know travel the world alone, or travel their own cities alone. They photograph graffitied warehouses and empty high rises, strike up conversations with strangers on trains, cruise an isolated Chinatown or Little Italy block alone at night. No one ever discourages them. No one ever tells them they’re being reckless. No one ever warns them about what might happen if they don’t “take so-and-so along.” All very real dangers of the world aside, I have never let my sex be enough of a reason to be treated any differently.
Yes, something bad might happen to me. But something bad could happen to anyone in these circumstances. Something bad could happen in a group, in a hotel, in your own neighborhood. The world we live in, let’s face it, is chaotic, cruel, and above all: random. But it is also beautiful and diverse if you embrace it. I’ve seen things and met people and had experiences and conversations I wouldn’t trade for anything, and it has always been worth every risk. I might give my mother a panic attack for doing this, but my mother didn’t just raise me to be defiant and independent. She raised me to take care of myself, and to go after what I want, and to enjoy life. And what I want is to walk through cities alone, and see them for what they are: beautiful, dangerous, strange, and welcoming.