“My bike got stolen less than two weeks after I moved into Sprout House. It was a bummer, not because I particularly liked the bike, but because it allowed the white, middle class people in my life tell me they weren’t surprised.”
Writer’s note: I am a young, white woman from an upper-middle class background living in a predominately non-white, low-income neighborhood. It’s quite likely that you will find some aspects of my writing about this interaction problematic. My goal was to represent my thoughts and actions as accurately as possible without filtering them according to what may seem politically correct. I do not believe I could have written this piece correctly. So I wrote it I honestly.
[Excerpt from larger work]
Last night there were shouts poking at my dreams. I lay caught, floating in and out consciousness until Peter’s voice pushed me awake.
“Do you hear that?” he asked.
I became aware of the shrieking that for so long had been sticking needles in my sleep; the occasional low growl of a man’s voice and a continual thud that sounded like a body being thrown against a chain link fence.
Peter peered out our third floor window—open, no screen—for weeks now we had chosen the vivid sounds of the city over the crushing third floor summer heat. The beating of a woman was taking place across the street and halfway down the next block from us, but it sounded like it was happening only feet away.
“Are you going to go out there?” I blurted out the first thought that came to my sleep mind.
“I’m going to call the police,” he said.
“Your phone is on my desk.”
As I listened to him give our address and start to explain the situation to the operator, I couldn’t help but notice his willingness to call them so quickly. Peter was a seasoned activist and a long time critic of police brutality. Yet he, like most people still relied on the police to keep order. When someone’s safety was in jeopardy, he still wanted them to come to the rescue.
And, frankly, I didn’t have a better idea. I was still stupidly tired and hadn’t even managed to sit up to look out the window.
Peter wasn’t even done talking to the operator when I heard the screech of wheels on asphalt.
“I think they drove away,” I told him.
He repeated the information to the operator and I heard her ask if they should still send a car.
“What language were they speaking?” Peter asked after he hung up. “I’m going to talk with the police again tomorrow.”
“Spanish,” I said.
“I thought they were speaking Somali, but maybe you’re right.”
I began to doubt myself. I didn’t speak Spanish. Peter spoke a little. I held little hope that anything was going to come from this police call.
Later, we were too horrified to fall asleep. Peter held me tightly. I marveled at how, as a woman, I felt no fear, only comfort and security in his arms.
“I’m so lucky you don’t hurt me,” I murmured.
“It’s sad that you ever have to feel that,” he replied.
I thought of the woman and wondered where she was right then. My mind played with different scenarios. She could be badly injured, raped or even dead. Perhaps that type of thing happened to her all the time. Or perhaps this one night would scar her for the rest of her life.
I wondered if any of the neighbors had heard—if their windows had also been wide open, breathing in the city, or if they had promptly shut out the noise, grumbling that this type of thing happens all the time, or if they too had tried calling the police.
I wondered how often fights occurred outside my window. Like the sirens, the sounds of fighting seemed to frequent my dreams. It sounded familiar.
The next morning I woke up sick with anxiety. My body felt like it had been injected with lead during the night. I warmed up a mug of rice milk and wandered outside to sit on one of our couches on the front porch. Shivering, I curled my knees up into my chest. The temperature had dropped significantly since the day before.
I looked down the street to where the fight had occurred and the lead thickened in my chest. I felt like all happiness and joy had been sucked out of me and it occurred to me that perhaps this was a small glimpse of what trauma felt like. Except, if I had actually seen it with my own eyes, it would have probably felt much worse. And if it was someone I knew and loved, I might not get over it for a long time. And if it happened to me, then I might never get over it.
I almost felt embarrassed by how trauma-free my life had been. I felt a desire to do something to prevent domestic violence, but I wondered how long that sentiment would last. How traumatized did we have to be before we are willing to fight for something and never stop fighting? But if we are too traumatized, would we be able to fight at all?
My housemate Emily came outside and joined me, a small bowl of yogurt, granola and strawberries in her lap. When she asked how I was doing, I hesitated. I wanted to be honest with her about how I was feeling, but it wasn’t even eight in the morning and she was about to head to work. I wasn’t sure that my story would be a sunny start to her day. But lately I had been complicating the notion that I always needed to make things sunny and pleasant for people.
After I shared what happened, she told me about the night that our housemate Gabe had moved into Sprout House. She had taken him on a tour around the neighborhood and she said that, when they got to Lake Street, they had come across a Somali woman getting beat up in a van. Emily said it was especially horrible because it looked like it was her daughter who was beating her up. They had been confused what to do and whether to call the police. Ultimately the fight ended before they were able to do anything, but Emily still wishes that they somehow had been able to stop it.
I wondered what I would have done in that situation. Would I have stopped and said something? What would I have said? Would I have tried to stop them? I had an image of myself talking to two little kids. “That’s not ok. That’s not how we treat one another.” Who was I to try and tell them that? But it wasn’t ok. A woman was getting beat up and, whether or not it was her daughter, it still wasn’t ok. I hated to admit it, but it seemed like the smarter thing to do was to indeed call the police. But what would that do besides perhaps convince the woman that perhaps, next time, she should do the beating up in the privacy of her home instead of out on the street.
I had no sense that this woman was any worse of a person than Emily and I. But she had a different sense of what’s ok and I had no illusion that I or the police could do anything to change that.
The lead feeling in my chest migrated down to my stomach and up to my throat. I remembered that I had come out to the front porch with the intention of meditating and told Emily that.
“Right now?’ she asked.
It occurred to me that it probably seemed kind of bizarre that I wanted to start meditating in the middle of our breakfast conversation. But I didn’t really care. I was done talking.
As I settled into a cross-legged position and closed my eyes, the thought came to me that perhaps one of the reasons I was so checked out from my neighborhood is that I spent a good deal of time on the front porch with my eyes closed.