There’s an office building about half way down the block that has a steep gravel driveway running behind it, from the street level up to a hilly area in back. I walk that stretch of Eastlake twice a day. They were a ways ahead of me but caught my eye immediately when I stepped outside onto the sidewalk. She, in her faded jeans, worn jacket, tennis shoes and backpack. He, in black pants, black shirt, black baseball cap and gold hoop earrings. He had a backpack too, a nicer one. Purple. He may have been as old as 22. She definitely wasn’t. It immediately felt off. As they walked she ducked her head slightly toward him the way 17-year-old girls do when they’re insecure and under the control of someone who they think loves them. He paid her no heed. They didn’t speak. He never looked at her. She was with him but they were not together. And his grip…. He held on to her, not by the hand but by the top of the wrist. They weren’t going somewhere; he was taking her somewhere. I was getting closer when he turned up the gravel ramp toward the weeds under the Mercer Street ramp. By the time I crossed the street they were at the top of the ramp. He cut off along the chain link fence and they were gone.
I know she was not safe.
There are times when the sense of paralysis is swift and overwhelming. ”You have to do something!” careening through your brain mixes with “There is nothing I can do to stop this.” The whole thing lasted seconds but my thoughts covered a lot of ground in that time. Angry tears flushed mascara to my lap as I drove home. I was livid. With him, with me, with the whole situation. Should I have tried to talk to them? I was so far behind I’d have had to make a bit of a scene to do that, but I’ve made a very public scene before on behalf of a young woman and it worked and I would do it again…and better. But do it and say…what? Or call the police? “Yeah, um, I think the girl down the sidewalk is in trouble; could you send someone right away? and I’ll climb the fence and try to find them in the foot-trails under the freeway and if I do I’ll follow or stall them until you get here.” Maybe I should have called. The police here have done a fair amount of work around trafficking issues. Or maybe I should have attracted attention in hopes that they’d think I needed help. Sometimes, though, attention places the girl in more danger than she’s already in. The need to prove loyalty intensifies. The wrist grip tightens. To notice her is personal. She is not there for her. No one should notice her.
And yet, notice is imperative.
There are a couple of women in my life who I wonder about all the time. They are young but adult, relatively independent, making choices. They have taken and stopped many a hand extended toward them. Some of those hands were extended for good, some for ill. They don’t always know the difference.
We have this idea that we can do so much. We raise money, we write letters, we call our senators. We host awareness events, we attend conferences, we volunteer on work trips. We write books, we change laws, we throw people in prison. We rescue and we provide counseling and job training and we talk about systemic problems. The modern-day abolition movement runs on the very idea of eradicating slavery forever. It won’t happen. At least not in this lifetime. It’s good work but I don’t believe any of it is enough for all time.
But I do believe in doing it.
And then in doing it again.
“Write me of hope and love, and hearts that endured.”
– Emily Dickinson