When I started work at the Winston-Salem Journal in the summer of 1985, a dark cloud hung over me, especially as I walked to work from the public parking garage that first day of work. It was an unease that was with me until I was safely inside the building.
The previous year, on her way to work, newly hired copy editor Deborah Sykes was murdered just a few blocks from where I was walking. (Sykes had just been hired by the Journal's then-afternoon paper, The Sentinel).
Although the circumstances were slightly different—I was going into work at 9 a.m., a busier time than her early a.m. entrance—I felt her ghost with me every morning and every evening as I walked to my car, even after I got to park in the closer-by company parking lot.
A few weeks later, I moved up to Boone to work at the paper's Northwest Bureau. I relaxed there, unworried about keeping late hours since my office was on King St., the town's main drag. I could park my car right in front at night and walk to it straight from my building.
But just weeks after I left Boone for graduate school in Chapel Hill, a young female reporter at the local Watauga Democrat was found murdered near the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Her first name was Jenny. She was young, sweet, dark-haired, still fairly fresh from college. The newspaper accounts at the time said she'd been on her way to work early in the morning, probably accosted in downtown Boone and driven out to the Parkway where she was murdered.
"That could have been me"—a whispered epiphany. Since then, whenever I've left work in the dark, I've enlisted co-workers or building guards to walk out with me, especially when the streets are quiet and empty. I don't feel paranoid, but cautious—a caution composed equally of regret and sadness and fear.
Is it the price women pay when we walk alone? If not death, then the persistent threat of death, no matter how undeterred or indifferent we pretend to be. It is the price two newspaper women in one state paid in the space of two years. Since men outnumbered women at newspapers at the time, imagine the statistics.
Maybe the worst thing about these murders was that they were expected, in a horrible, subconscious way—they were out when no one else was out, they were women, they were alone. Yet in that time period, as far as I know, no male reporter in North Carolina (or anywhere in the United States, as far as I know) was murdered or assaulted.
I put on a brave face, walking out of the Winston-Salem Journal and into the dark. I was one of the guys when I was in there, typing away, drinking coffee, slinging words around. But out there, in the silence, I was different from them, vulnerable in a way they probably couldn't understand, a vulnerability I probably would have denied, even to myself.