I was home alone in the kitchen of my ground-level brownstone apartment on the night of the Fourth of July when I heard a woman’s screams amid the popping of fireworks set off by neighborhood kids.
“Help! Help! A man is trying to kill me!”
I continued typing on my laptop for about 30 seconds, not fully registering what I was hearing. The cries for help continued. Living in a big city can diffuse our sense of personal responsibility and in a flash I thought of Kitty Genovese, the Queens woman whose 1964 stabbing death became a symbol of urban malaise when it was later reported that 37 of her neighbors had ignored her pleas for help over the course of more than half an hour.
I stepped out my backdoor to try and locate where the screams were coming from.
It was a neighbor who lives on the third floor of our building in West Harlem. She had barricaded herself in her bedroom following a violent altercation with her boyfriend. She urged me to call the police. With her boyfriend looming outside her door and her cell phone in another part of her apartment, she couldn’t make the call herself.
Calling the Police
I took a deep breath. My first impulse is to distrust the police. Too often the cops use their power callously and without regard for the people they are supposed to “serve and protect.” But I did as she asked and called 911.
The NYPD, however, was nowhere to be seen. Venturing out of my apartment, I found her boyfriend standing impassively on the front stoop of the building. He took out his cell phone and showed me that he had also placed a 911 call. He said that his girlfriend was “troubled” and that he was concerned about her well-being after she had attacked him and torn up the apartment in the process.
I continued upstairs to check on my neighbor. The door to her apartment was slightly ajar. After I announced myself and repeatedly knocked on the door, a woman’s face peeked out at me. She blinked and a single tear appeared. A dark bluish-black mark marred the left side of her face just below the eye. (Her mascara had run, she later told me.)
I ascertained that she was not seriously hurt. When I mentioned that her boyfriend was downstairs, she became agitated. She urged me to tell him to leave. When I conveyed her message, the boyfriend insisted he would stay until the police came because he wanted to make sure she was OK. I urged him to go home and call it a night. He wouldn’t hear of it.
I went back upstairs. This time, the woman allowed me into her apartment. I stepped across piles of magazines that were lying on the floor near the front door. Her bedroom looked as if a tornado had blown through — a shelving unit was toppled and books and personal effects were scattered on the ground. The kitchen floor was also a mess with items that had fallen from another shelf.
“I would never do this to my own home,” she said.
I asked why her boyfriend called 911 and stayed on the scene. She explained that he was in a custody battle with another woman who was the mother of his small child. After trashing the apartment, the boyfriend had calmed down and realized he needed to stick around and discredit her version of events. After what had just happened, she could testify against him in his child custody case. Noting that her boyfriend is a military veteran, the woman worried aloud that the police would take his side.
The woman was just finishing telling me her story when we heard the heavy footsteps of police officers coming up the wooden staircase. The four officers (three male, one female) were calm and professional. They asked me to stand off to the side. After listening to the woman and her boyfriend explain what had happened and asking follow-up questions of both parties, the police took the boyfriend to jail.
Afterwards, I spoke with the woman in the front foyer of our building. I asked if she would take her boyfriend back. She shook her head and said, “no.” They were done. She appeared both stunned by what had transpired and relieved to have survived the ordeal.
“I’m so embarrassed,” she said. “I’m college-educated and have had good professional jobs. I never thought something like this could happen to me.”