The scariest thing that happened to me wasn’t really seeing a rat in New York City. It was scarier, and most likely a more dangerous time when a guy chased me down the street with a knife when I was living in Istanbul, Turkey. My friend, Lesley, and I were walking home from work one sunny afternoon when we saw a guy peeing in the bushes. We hurried past him. “Don’t look,” Lesley said. But I couldn’t resist. I turned and saw him chasing us with a shiny butcher knife and a huge grin on his face. My heart fell to my knees, and we ran down the streets screaming. It felt so incongruous and strange: the knife, the manic, grinning face, the bright sunny day.
The truth is I wasn’t supposed to be in Istanbul in the first place. I refused to listen to my world-famous chemical engineer dad’s words of advice who told me to major in engineering. Instead, I graduated with an English degree from UC Berkeley, and with no immediate career prospects, got a job driving a bus. I crashed the bus into a parked car the first day of work and was fired on the spot. I took the next job that came up, which was teaching English in Istanbul
The city, with a population of six million at the time was filled with men—all staring at me: young, old, handsome, ugly. All this male attention felt exciting at first when I walked down the street, like I was a famous and glamorous movie star. As I began learning Turkish, I understood the awful things these men were saying, and wanted them to leave me alone. But no matter what I did, no matter how modestly I dressed, they harassed me constantly, like swarms of malaria-infested mosquitoes.
One time, while coming home in a taxi from a party at 2 a.m., four Turkish policemen, machine guns slung around their shoulders, stopped me, and forced me into the back of their car. They asked what I was doing out so late and threatened to take me down to the station for a virginity test. I sat resolutely, squashed between two of them in the back and said, “I’m an American. And an English teacher.” They were so excited, they made me sit there with them practicing their broken English. I was not amused. When they let me out and I got to the front door of my apartment, I unadvisedly screamed every Turkish curse word I knew. But my pronunciation was so bad, I doubt they knew what I was saying.
Another time, I was riding on a bus to Butterfly Valley, an alleged pot smoking paradise for backpackers on the Aegean Sea. A man across the aisle from me offered me a cigarette. I said no, but I could feel his eyes on me when I turned away and knew something bad and disgusting was about to happen. And there it was—his flaccid penis, which he pulled out of his pants. I screamed and ran to the front of the bus, trying to explain to the driver in my broken Turkish what just happened. “There’s a penis there, and a very bad man,” I said pointing to the man. The driver told me to sit in the front . “No, that won’t do,” I said. So, the driver pulled off the road and the man got off, the bus. For the rest of the trip, the whole bus sat in silent terror, as I—now out of my mind—lectured everyone about what a horrible time I was having in Turkey. “ I’m an English teacher. There’s a lot of dirty men in Turkey. I’ve had a lot of problems.”
No one said a word the rest of the 20-minute-trip, except, of course, for me.
None of that stopped me of course, from going to Butterfly Valley where I spent the next 72 hours, hanging out with the other backpackers, getting stoned, floating on my back in the waves, chest arched to the heavens in an ocean so warm, salty and buoyant, it seemed impossible to sink, and then later on sneaking off to make out in the bushes with a Scottish boy named Sammy with brown hair as soft as corn silk and the bluest eyes I’d ever seen.
Not long after that trip, Lesley and I were walking one night down a cobblestone street to go to a Reggae disco when a group of teenage boys passed by, and one of them grabbed my butt and ran down the street. I was in no mood for bullshit since the scariest thing of all had just happened to me two weeks prior, and I was recovering with a hard yellow cast around my arm.
I tore off after the boy, chasing him at top speed for blocks, screaming every swear word I knew at the top of my lungs into the empty city streets. I wasn’t scared about what would happen if I caught up to him. All I cared about was throwing myself on top of him—all 5’5” and 120 pounds of me—on top of him and killing him with my bare hands. When I came back empty-handed, the boys’ friends quietly skittered off. My friend, Lesley, laughed and said, “Well, I guess he’ll think twice before doing that again.”
I looked at the boys toddling off down the road .I looked back at Lesley, and said, “Yep, you got that right,” I said, and we kept on going to the disco.