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  • Last night, someone screamed and moaned in agony in my apartment building's stairwell. My neighbors took charge of the situation. They called 9-1-1, let in the paramedics, and reacted like all good people should in a crisis situation.

    Meanwhile, I barely managed to wake up and acknowledge what was going on.

    This isn't the first time I've slept through something awful. I've been on 13th Street and Avenue B since 1993, when crime was common, in the days before the squatter evictions had brought us a thoroughly patrolled police state.

    Right after I moved across the Hudson from Jersey City, a woman had been raped downstairs at knife point, between the mailboxes and the trash cans, just next to the stairwell that went down into the base of the old tenement's air shaft. The "Stuyvesant Town Rapist," as local TV news had dubbed him, was a serial rapist who apparently was widening his geographical horizons. He'd been caught shortly after.

    I recall ignoring the New York 1 news cameras when a reporter tried to waylay me at the First Avenue L train.

    "Excuse me. Do you feel safer now that the Stuyvesant Town rapist is behind bars?"

    What? Seriously? What kind of answer do they expect? Who would say no?

    The tenants in my building mobilized in response to the rape. They hired a lawyer, went on a rent strike, and got the locks on the front doors repaired. They took the building owner to court and won us a decent intercom and security system. I admired them for their proactive stance and took to peering around the mailboxes via the little circular mirror they'd installed.

    I owned my unit. I couldn't go on a rent strike. Who would I refuse to pay? Myself?

    The next incident that I recall was between two and three in the morning, sometime in '94. My bedroom window is right above the corner of 13th and B. I was having a strange dream. In my dream, there was a woman yelling in a pained, singsongy voice.

    "You broke my leg, you broke my leg...you wanted my money but you broke my leg."

    Dreams and the sleep state are timeless—I have no idea how long this "dream" went on. Through the haze of sleep, I slowly realized that this was not a dream, that there must be a woman with a broken leg right under my window.

    I managed to force my eyes open and look out the window. A woman lay on the curb, her leg twisted awkwardly. Across the street, a teenage boy stood by a pay phone. He held her purse in one hand, his mouth agape. Obviously, the woman was right—he just wanted her money and breaking her leg had been an unfortunate side effect. Now he looked unsure if he should help her or run for it.

    All of this registered, and my eyes fluttered shut.

    A second later, I sat up.

    Wait. What?

    I stuck my head back out the window, at the same time that my next-door neighbor's voice rang out into the night.

    "We've called 9-1-1. The ambulance is on the way."

    The kid took off with the purse. The squatters from across the street poured out of their row houses, approached the woman, told her they'd wait with her.

    Nothing more to be done here. I'd blown it big-time. I thought about when I was a kid, how a small airplane had crashed a block from my house. I'd slept through fire trucks, ambulances, and the entire neighborhood rushing down the block.

    Next time, I promised myself after the woman with the broken leg night, I'll do better.

    I'll force myself to wake up.

    For the next few years, the creeping gentry continued their ascent east and north, disturbing me into wondering if I was a member of their ranks. The police stalwartly guarded their hard-earned empty buildings across 13th Street, keeping our neighborhood safe for real estate development but also keeping us insulated from petty crime. The drug dealers moved a few blocks south, then east to Avenue D. Once two boys stole an old man's dog, and I watched as a policeman caught them and returned the dog. I saw the Puerto Rican storeowner across the street chase a rat with a dustpan and broom. Other than that, the area was undisturbed and sanitized. Double-parkers were ticketed and restaurants that sell duck entrees opened up.

    Then, at 6 a.m. last night, a constant, irritating noise disturbed my sleep. A simple yelling won't wake me, or any other New Yorker. The repetition of the noise is what's effective. So a victim has to be in pretty serious pain to get any attention. I couldn't tell if the yelling was real or part of a dream and I wasn't sure if it was coming from outside or inside. But I knew that I must wake up and see, since I had reacted so slowly to the previous incident, four years earlier. I managed to get my eyes open and stumble towards the noise, which seemed to be coming from the hall. I peeked out the front door and saw nothing, but heard a loud constant moaning, with the "help" refrain being occasionally repeated. I hesitated, confused. Should I race inside and call 9-1-1? Go to the woman first? What if she was assaulted and the criminal is still there, hovering above her? What if she was bleeding? Should I grab some towels?

    Once again, the next-door neighbors were faster. Three of them were suddenly in the hall, fully dressed.

    "We called 9-1-1. There's an ambulance on the way," said one of them. The moaning got quieter. One of the neighbors went downstairs to the woman. Again, I collapsed back into my bed to sleep.

    In the morning, a policeman came to the door. This happens whenever there's an incident in the vicinity. The police knock on every door and write down what everyone heard or saw.

    I told the detective I'd heard a person, a woman, that there was only one voice when I heard it, not two or more, that the neighbors had called 9-1-1. He told me that no one knew what had happened. The woman was a building resident and had been unconscious when the paramedics arrived.

    In a crisis situation, I tend to sleep.

    I'm okay when awake. Years later, I'd be on the phone to the police in a flash when a man in a wheelchair was hit by a truck in the street downstairs, his coffee splashed out across the intersection. Another time, I'd call 9-1-1 before the SUV up ahead even screeched to a halt as it skidded along on its roof along the exit ramp in New Jersey.

    But sleeping? Nothing rouses me.

    What if it were me, I wonder. Would someone help or would I be surrounded by people like myself? And what if someone broke into my apartment in the middle of the night, while I was sleeping? I wouldn't even notice while they cleaned out my computer gear.

    Next time, I promised myself, I'll wake up and do something when someone needs help.

    In the meantime, maybe I should get a better deadbolt for my front door.
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