Bystander

In Los Angeles, outside of my window, I saw a man grab a woman’s arm and shake, hard. I was already at the window because I’d heard them fighting from about a block away. She was pushing an old shopping cart. He was yelling about something. And then the shake. I immediately thought about calling 911, and then I froze. I had this blazing shameful feeling of, like, I don’t know what the protocol is. What’s worth a call? What’s just wasting their time? A man shakes a woman at night on a side street in Cypress Park, Los Angeles. No one has ever figured out how to stop him.

In the 1960s, Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death in New York City. The case is famous; I’m sure you’ve heard of it. Papers falsely reported that almost forty people heard her screams and did nothing. The truth was a bit murkier. One person did one thing. A man flung open his window and yelled, “Hey, get out of there! What are you doing?” and the killer ran away, leaving Kitty bleeding but alive.

But then, for the next thirty minutes, she was alone. Someone flung open a window but no one came down onto the street. It would have been so easy to run downstairs and carry her inside while her attacker was gone. But no one opened their doors, and as Kitty slowly dragged her bleeding body into the lobby of the apartment building, the killer came back for her. “I had a feeling this man would close his window and go back to sleep,” said the killer, in court, “and sure enough, he did.”

It’s not uncommon, living in a city, to hear a scream outside your window. Just like it’s not uncommon to hear something that sounds like guns but is actually firecrackers, or vice versa. Mostly it’s just happy drunken screeching by people stumbling to and from bars, but sometimes you hear the sort of scream that makes you leap out of bed and throw open the window. I always look from each window of my apartment when I hear a scream. Screams are weird aural things and it’s hard to know which direction they’re coming from. Once I got lost in an elaborate and terrible daydream in which I tried to drop a concrete block out of my window onto an imaginary perpetrator but smashed the victim instead. People like me are dangerous, with the will but not necessarily the means to save another human—or with a weak will, or no will at all, and a demon on our shoulders who whispers, Maybe someone else will take care of it and maybe it’s not all that bad.

In Los Angeles, I tried to make up for my fearfulness by going outside and following the couple in the darkness. I’m putting myself in danger, I thought, half-pleased with myself. I followed them away from the main street. I started feeling like the creepy one. I had my phone. If I see one more thing…I thought to myself. I didn’t see him touch her again and eventually they vanished and I, scared of the dogs that roamed the streets of my neighborhood at night, turned back home.

Once, years ago, someone saw me stumble in a dark alleyway. It was a dangerous Chicago neighborhood, sometime after midnight. The thing was that I was fine. I was with Charlie. We were having an amazing night. I forget what we were joking about, but we were cackling and pushing each other around, as you do when you don’t want the night to end. Just then a car pulled up and someone rolled down a window.

“Are you okay?” they yelled to me.

I said something like, “Oh yeah, yeah, this is my boyfriend, we’re just joking around.” But they didn’t leave. In fact, I remember being irritated by their skepticism, irritated by the way they lingered. They just stared at me through the open window for a long, quiet moment, waiting for some shadow to flit across my face. “I’m fine, I’m fine!” I chirped. It took them another minute to drive away. I still think of them, from time to time, and how beautiful it was that they took so long to believe me.

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