I RETURN from an evening at the movies with friends. In the hour before the show, we feasted on Swensen's biggest ice cream sundaes.
This year my husband and I are living in separate cities as we pursue our careers -- his at New York Law School and mine in Washington journalism. On the weekends we can't get together, Saturday nights can be lonely if I don't make an extra effort to get out of the house. I hate to spend Saturday nights waiting for the Sunday paper.
It is about midnight. The park next to my apartment building is vacant and a bit more intimidating now in the cold dark than in the summer when it hops with men drinking beer and wine and playing transistor radios. The center of the park is absolutely taboo for anyone white, particularly white women, on any night, an unwritten rule of this Capitol Hill neighborhood on the fringes of the ghetto. Renovoation is moving rapidly through this neighborhood; each freshly painted townhouse means another displaced family and mounting tension.
I wish I could find a parking place close to my apartment building, but the cars are parked as tightly as they are Sunday mornings in front of the neighborhood church. I notice a man inan Army parka walking parallel to my car. Slightly unnerved, I drive around the block, making sure he is walking in the opposite direction. I walk across the street in the glow of a street light, thinking of light as a mild crime disinfectant. The only sound in the street: my boot heels drumming the pavement. Anyone else -- the man in the parka, for example -- could tell I am afraid and running, by the quickening beat of my boots.
The man in the Army jacket is waiting for me at the corner. My keys are out, ready to unlock the front door. While I cannot hear him, he must have run, because he catches the door before it closes.
I despair instantly of fighting as I notice a knife in his right hand, a long silver blade. The single woman's nightmare come true: rape, theft and then multilation in 20 pieces. I throw my pocketbook, large enough to carry books and jeans, as a peace offering. He grabs it and looks me over again with contempt, as if he has full right to do whatever he likes with me. He is black, with a round, mean-looking face. He looks like the kind who would stab even after you are dead.
I scream so loudly I cannot remember hearing myself and collapse against the doorway, expecting to be unconscious. Through some stroke of fortune, he runs away, back to his cover of night.
Some people do not scream and they usually get cut, the officer tells me 10 minutes later. My scream, buried deep in conversation, was something primeval, an ape call of survival. It woke up my roommate Cyn and my nextdoor neighbor, who couldn't figure out if it was part of her nightmare. It brought Jack down from the third floor and Mary Margaret from the second. I am so relieved to be alive, I do not start shaking until I begin reenacting the scene for the policman.
"You did just the right thing," he tries to assure me. "Usually, it's just the money they want, so you give it to them without a struggle. OK, what did he look like, black male?"
If I were a black male, I might have been offended by the officer's assumption. But I am a white female, whose nice city life has come crashing down. I once thought I was safe because my building appears dilapidated, unyielding of riches and, therefore, disqualified. But I think now this offense against me, and other muggings I have heard of in recent months, are rooted in hatred and sexism.
The officer interviewing me in Mary Margaret's apartment is not too comforting. I am only one of the night's statistics. The officer might get 20 calls like this in a night, but few are caught. He radios to other policemen in the neighborhood. By that time, the assailant is probably resting in his living room, discovering that all he got was $3 and a loaf off fruit-and-nut bread. Because he wielded a knife, he could be charged with deadly assault, a felony which could put him in prison for up to 15 years. Sunday
I call my husband John in New York City about 3:30 a.m. and we try to figure out strategies for suurvival in the city. I have always prided myself on living independently, even when single in New York. I would only give a few second thoughts to not going out alone. It seemed to me an admission of female vulnerability to cut down activity for fear I might be attacked. We agree that if fI must go out at night by myself, I should take a taxi and ask the driver to see me safely inside.
Midmorning, my neighbors gather on the back porch -- actually, a 20-by-20-foot concrete courtyard, traversed by fire escapes. We try to think about the next time. I was lucky last night to get by without a scratch. The next time, Jack advises, yell his name, rape, murder, anthing to let him know there's danger. Then what? How do we defend ourselves? When she heard me scream, Cyn grabbed her guitar, the most lethal weapon at her disposal. For the first time, I considered the advantages of owning a handgun. An ironic idea, considering Michael Halberstam's widow is fighting for handgun control; Dr. Halberstam was shot as he surprised a burglar. I would aim to incapacitate, not kill. My roommate says she would aim it straight at the face. I am astoundedd that the idea appeals to me.
Cyn and I search through the nearby alleys and garbage pails for my pocketbook. I am poised on my tennis shoes, ready to run if we should meet muggers. Monday
Detective Hannah phones me at work. He wants to know if I can identify the criminal from pictures. The prospect of tracking him down through the safety of a photograph offer the opportunity for armchair vengeance. Hannah arranges to come to my office at 1, provided he's not called out on an emergency "You know we've got a shortage of police." He doesn't show up, to my disappointment.
I tell the story over 20 times during the day, purging fear through the telling: to a congressman I've just interviewed, my banker, a woman waiting with me at the bus, people in the office. As the word spreads at work, about half the reporters come up to my desk to relate their mugging tales. One woman who has been mugged twice about a block from my house hugs me: "Welcome to the club!" Another, who has never spoken much to me, spouts off a 15-minute story of his being knocked to the ground by two young thieves. They took his wallet for a grand total of $6. We share relief at surviving. A librarian, minding her own business early last night, was robbed and killed six blocks away. Mugging is the common bond of city folk.
While talking is sort of therapeutic, the shock has worn off my nerves and I am on edge. At home, my nextdoor neighbor walks her dog under my window. I hide behind the sofa. The assailant has all my identification. I arrange to get a new driver's license and open a new bank account. I miss the odds and ends which were in my pocketbook and of no use to anyone but me: makeup, a nice leather wallet and the roomy, cloth bag (both given to me as Christmas presents), W2 forms, a schedule book where I had plotted out the month's activities and appointments, all run awry.
Driving home from dinner with friends, I call Cyn to watch out for me as I come home. The only parking places are out of Cyn's sight. I park illegally, close to the apartment building so she can watch from the window. i keep checking to make sure no one is following me. I see Army parkas in the distance. Paranoia seems perfectly justifiable. Tuesday
Two policemen are writing a parking ticket for my car. I cannot talk them out of it. Why aren't they using their energies for the real nitty gritty? Detective Hannah is delayed again; this time he is chasing a car theif in Prince Georges County. Even if I were to identify the culprit, the chances are slim that they could ever find him.
With D.C. police manpower down by 200 men, the chances of catching an armed robber are set at 2 percent. My enthusiasm for pursuing him wanes. Why should I alienate him if he'll just come back to harass me? Mary, who lives down the street, thinks it may be the same person who accosted her friend at knife point. He lives on the block in the house we suspect is a shooting gallery. Wednesday
My plans to come home safely are challenged every night as I stay late at work. I used to enjoy walking. Tonight, Steve offers me a ride. All my friends have been so helpful. They volunteer to spend the night with me or to pick me up if I'm stranded somewhere by myself. I hate this "little helpless female" act. It's inconvenient. I wait for Steve to finish his work and accompany him to the grocery store. I advise him on how much broth to buy for spinach soup.
The shopping is oddly reassuring.
At home, Cyn has nailed towels over the windows to make sure no one sees in from the street. I always like to watch the parade of people and dogs through the uncurtained windows. More than ever, I am aware of the bars on my windows, and now the towel. I am a prisoner in my own home.