It was already scorching hot at 5 a.m. and the morning sun already lit up the city streets that stretched east and west, and those that stretched north and south, as well as the rivers that bounded the city limits, when the three cops parked their squad cars and walked into the street-level mini-mart on the southwest corner as soon as it opened. The morning coffee was hot and fresh, from the first batch of the day. The donuts, fresh and chewy. The three cops walked back to their squad cars, ate their donuts, drank their coffee, and talked. In the background the scratchy 911 dispatches were already steady.
Joe the gay guy who lived on the ground-level apartment of a 3-story building in the middle of the block that housed the mini-mart was up early, as he usually was. But this morning was different, not just because it was so hot so early. This was the gay guy’s first morning unemployed, and he was awake out of habit. He used to wake up early to open up one of the neighborhood gay bars. I actually never knew this: For all the years he and I were neighbors I never asked him what he did for a living.
Somebody else was awake at 5 a.m. – the black guy who was making his way up the fire escape of our building, past the vacant second floor, and in through the tiny bathroom window that was open on the third floor. I first saw him as I heard the words, “Take off your clothes,” and opened my eyes to see him standing above me with a 12-inch knife blade pointed right at me.
I’ll skip the next ten minutes, except to say eventually the gay guy heard a lot of screaming and figured it was just my TV. When the screaming didn’t end, and when it sounded really loud to him, he went to his phone and called 9-1-1. Then he went out to the street and waited for cops, with the front door wide open.
As fast as a donut crumbles, the three cops were there at the front door and running up the winding staircase stairs to my 3rd floor apartment. The cop with the biggest foot bashed the door down and all entered behind him.
Hearing the decisive call “POLICE,” the assailant abandoned his struggle with me, ran out the kitchen door that led to the fire escape, down the fire escape, down the path, and jumped over a high wooden fence, to the narrow cobbled street beyond.
The cops watched as he jumped over the fence, then quickly ran back out to try to capture him. My gay neighbor Joe came up to my apartment to see if I was okay. I offered Joe some apple juice that I’d had in my fridge and had a little for myself. I think it was the first time that Joe was in my apartment. That’s also when Joe pointed to my hand and showed me that I’d been stabbed.
The next time I saw a cop, one was assisting me in getting downstairs to the street in front of my apartment where I was asked me to ID the guy, who was then led into the back of the waiting paddy wagon; and then the cop assisted me into the back seat of a squad car and sped me off to the hospital.
Later that day after I came back to consciousness, a black detective, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt, was by my side, gently asking me questions and writing my answers. His being there was comforting. I never saw him again; I think he got everything he needed.
The second day in the hospital was special. Beaten and wounded, I was recuperating when three cops came into my room. Three white cops, standing shoulder to shoulder, by the side of my hospital bed. They introduced themselves: Gary, Pete and Mike. Gary, Pete and Mike.
One said, “You look beautiful.”
I’m thinking to myself, my face is swollen and black and blue. I can’t find the glint in my eyes because the whites are now red. They told me even that the swelling had gone down from what I looked like the day before. (How mangled did I look like the day before??)
I asked “Why didn’t you shoot when you saw the guy running away?”
Gary said, “You can’t shoot at somebody who is escaping from a crime.” I think about that nowadays especially.
Pete told me how the guy, who was cornered in somebody’s back yard, was capture. He had “the business end” pointed at him – I had to use my imagination but figured out what that was – but didn’t use it and didn’t need to.
Mike was the guy with the big foot, and apparently his big foot left a big mark in the door.
Eventually I was discharged from the hospital, and then had to meet with the District Attorney on my case. He was a big D.A. – what I mean by that is that he was a big black guy with the smile of a teddy bear. I hadn’t seen many smiles lately. I liked him right away. I asked, and he told me a little about himself, where he had gone to law school, and about his father being a military man, about how his little son was looking forward to him coming home that night so they could have a “man to man talk.” As difficult as it was to go over the details of the case, as difficult as it was to look at photographs from my apartment, now the “crime scene,” I was comfortable and confident around him. We met again before the preliminary hearing. Same soft smile. Same personable air.
The days and months leading up to the trial involved lots and lots of physical therapy appointments.
People would see my injured arm and ask, “What happened?” They were more than I little surprised that the answer wasn’t something simple like “I was ice-skating” or “I fell off my bicycle.” It was painful to review the incident but I’d answer the basics, at least what they needed to know. My answer was usually something like “A guy came into my apartment early one morning….”
A good bit of the time the first question back to me would be:
“Was he black?”
“Why do you need to know that?” I’d ask. Or maybe I’d ask,”What does that matter?”
I never ever got an actual reason why. But maybe half the time they’d ask.
Sometimes my answer would be, “Why do you need to know? My DA is black and he’s really really great.” People cared when the criminal behavior reinforced a negative notion they already had of the black race, but didn’t care, or weren’t impressed, when the person and his behavior was exemplary.
About one month later, I went back to my old building and visited Joe. Joe-whose-last-name-I-don’t-even-know. Joe the gay guy. I thanked him for what he’d done to save my life. He didn’t see calling 9-1-1 as anything heroic. Thinking about it now, I should have gotten Joe a gift. But at that time, and for many many months after, I was traumatized. I wonder where he is, what he’s doing.
During the months of my recuperation and while awaiting the trial, I heard on the radio that one of the three cops had been brought up on charges of abusing somebody he was taking into custody. One of the three cops who had visited me by my bedside. One of the three cops that had rushed into my apartment, and that had pursued the assailant through the city streets, and who had been so careful to not injure an escaping assailant. To the court, I submitted a written character witness statement, and showed up to his trial to attest to his character. The lives these cops live.
In the middle of everything, the Italian judge sitting on the case was fired for corruption charges and we had to wait until a new judge was assigned.
Then I was told that I had a new D.A. Why? The name of my very likeable District Attorney had been submitted by President George W. Bush to serve as a United States Federal Judge. Sorry to lose him, but cream rises to the top, and he was recognized, and he was deserving. But the Republican Senate refused to ratify him. I followed for months, when his name was resubmitted by President Bill Clinton and he was approved by the United States Senate for the Federal judgeship. Which is where he honorably serves to date.
My next D.A. was also male, and he was white, like me, and Jewish, like me.
What a varied bunch we were, working together for life and for justice. But that’s what it looks like, in order to secure the blessings of liberty… And some cop to tell you – when you’ve been down and almost out – that you look beautiful.