my mid-sized city has drawn, over the decades and centuries, some pretty hard-and-fast lines of segregation, with the result that downtown is very white and business-y but is ringed by impoverished black urban neighborhoods and poor-to-working class white neighborhoods, all of which become more white and wealthy as the circle grows outward, until eventually you hit the pricey homes owned by well-heeled white folk who are comfortable living a nice, safe distance from anything too very different or scary.

i live in the middle of this. i’m close enough to the tony folk to have heard them talk about not liking to go to certain neighborhoods because they don’t feel safe. i’m close enough to those unsafe neighborhoods to use them — to drive through them, walk in them, shop in them — and my sense is that they might be predominantly black but they are not particularly scary. and so i’ve been trying to parse this fear for myself, to determine whether it is rooted in racism and classism, or is just some general, generic fear of difference.

when i’m feeling heimlich i have a hard time figuring this out, since my world does not feel particularly uncomfortable to me. but a recent drive in the country altered my perspective.

our city is at the edge of a gorgeous rural expanse, which i drove through the other day on a rare errand. an hour away from home i stopped for gas and junk food. inside the convenience store i stood, listening to a customer chat up the cashier about the price of salami by the pound, struck by the customer’s (re)presentation of poverty and ethnicity. her pronounced accent was harsh to my ears, and sounded like what my parents (and their parents) would call “uneducated.” while i half-listened to the conversation i stared blankly out the storefront window, and suddenly was struck by the cars i saw in the parking lot: not old or run down, not resting on cement blocks, but all big. very big. and as i listened and looked i was struck by the odd sensation that i was alone, far away from anybody i knew, in the middle of redneck country. and i was scared.

it was a visceral fear, fully irrational and almost biological. the hairs on the back of my neck were twitching, alert and en garde. there was no visible threat in my immediate vicinity. i had a tank full of gas, car keys in my hand, and a cell phone in my pocket. it’s not as if i were stranded. but still: i was afraid. i felt surrounded by mean-ness: a smallness of spirit, a closed-ness, and perhaps, even a bit of hostility. i can imagine all the places from which i gathered these preconceived notions about these people whom i’d not only never seen but i still hadn’t even had a genuine encounter with — i was, after all, still waiting to be waited on, so i hadn’t yet even spoken to anybody. and yet there i stood, afraid.

i am a little humbled, a little chastened, by this fear. it’s small of me. and yet i can’t get over the deeply visceral nature of it, and so i am ambivalent about whether i should feel ashamed of something so close to animal in my own nature.

it’s a fear i have not felt in urban areas. but i imagine this fear i felt is a version of the fear my urbane almost-neighbors feel when they walk through an urban black neighborhood. even when no guns are pulled or knives flashed, even when the drug deals are covert, even in broad daylight with parking meters and pedestrians and other signs of “normalcy” around, even then, this must be a little of what they feel.