One Wednesday night last September, I turned in a story and drove home to Old Seminole Heights. Then, for the first time ever, I padlocked the gate.
I'd spent the entire day writing about Joseph Frye, a rapist fresh out of prison who lasted 27 days in the free world before he was accused of breaking into the home of an elderly woman, threatening her with a screwdriver, taking her gun out of her hand and raping her at least three different ways.
In my neighborhood. On a nicer street, at that.
I dead-bolted the front door.
I locked my bedroom door.
In the back of my mind, I felt a little silly taking all of those precautions. I counted the hundreds of other houses between mine and the crime scene. It helped me fall asleep.
The following day, I had already taken off to another assignment when I got a phone call from my editor. She told me Frye had been captured at a neighborhood motel.
The one on my street. A block away from my house.
I didn't feel silly anymore. I felt scared.
Coming from Miami, where it felt like people killed, raped and maimed strangers all the time, I found a kind of comfort when I moved to Tampa and covered crimes which, in many cases, involved people who knew each other. I didn't belong to a gang. I wasn't involved in an abusive relationship. I felt I was exempt.
Last fall proved me wrong. A University of Tampa student was shot dead near campus. A woman was attacked, police say, in an Ybor City parking garage in the middle of the day.
I now know better.
I'll walk every inch of downtown by myself during the day, but at night, I'll ask a security guard to escort me to my car. I'll circle Ybor City a few times to get the perfect street-side spot so I don't have to maneuver shadowy garages alone.
I don't sleep with the doors unlocked like my friend in Palma Ceia does. I never did that — even when I lived in Hyde Park, where the number of registered sex offenders within a 1 mile radius is one.
Where I live now, an urban corridor dotted with cheap motels, it's 51.
Do I feel safe in my neighborhood? The answer is yes — with conditions.
It's a place where residents shine flashlights on hookers and keep cops on speed dial. Where police send out crime alerts. Where my neighbors look out for me and my mailman knows my name.
But that doesn't mean I don't lock the doors, even when my dogs are in the yard. Or that I don't look out the window every time they bark to see why. Or that I still don't break out that padlock, depending on the news of the day.
Alexandra Zayas can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3354.