My parents had once described it as "feeling violated," a mingled sense of fear and outrage over the fact that a burglar had actually dared to invade their home. I had listened. Until now, I had not understood.
Kate and I were watching a tape of the last episode of "Twin Peaks" when we heard the scream. At first, we were certain that it came from the street outside our first-floor window, so certain were we that no one would dare attack someone inside our building at 9 p.m. on a weeknight. There was that common moment of inaction, of asking ourselves whether we had imagined it, but another cry, muffled by the sounds of a struggle, told us someone was being attacked in the hall right outside our living room. Our next-door neighbors, Joe and Portia, reacted more quickly. They threw open their door to find a man trying to drag a woman who lived down the hall from us into the stairwell.
You are never prepared for this, and instincts -- good ones or otherwise -- take over. Joe, barefoot, chased the man into the basement and out into the alley, while Portia pulled the victim into their apartment and called 911. She was answered by a recording that, we later learned, kept her on hold for a minute and a half.
I threw on shoes and ran outside, but saw no one in the alley or on the street. By the time I walked back around to the front of our building at 17th and Willard in Northwest, Portia had come outside and was frantically pointing at a stocky young man in an Army surplus jacket who had just walked into view.
"That's him! That's the guy!" she yelled.
He took off into an alley between 17th and New Hampshire, and I ran after him, across New Hampshire and 16th and onto Swann Street. I was gaining on him when I felt the hamstring in my leg rip. I hobbled on for another block, trying to keep him in sight for the police, who I assumed were about to arrive. This little drama, after all, was played out one block from Third District police headquarters. But the police never came, and I lost sight of the man as he ran east on Swann toward 14th.
In the time it took me to limp back to the apartment, two young officers had arrived and were interviewing the victim and taking statements. It was at that point that we learned we were not going to be on the police department's short list that night. There had already been a shooting, a knifing and a suspicious fire. Our victim was not seriously injured, although she had been beaten and kicked repeatedly, and the guy had failed to escape with her purse.
We felt for the woman. A bruise was rising on her face, and she kept repeating that she faced the biggest business meeting of her life in the morning and didn't know how she'd ever be ready for it now. She asked us to lower her storm windows and lock them for her, though she had always left her windows open at night for fresh air. And though she had always had a friendly greeting for anyone who passed in the hall, we knew that now she'd be someone who would find it hard to smile at strangers, particularly at night, and who would view every unknown man with suspicion. We were watching yet another person who had been "violated" by this city's crime wave.
The second-guessing came later, from Portia, who spent the next day flinching at noises in the building; from Kate, who remembered that she had emptied the garbage down the chute next to the stairwell just five minutes before the attack (had he been lurking there, behind the door, sizing up potential victims?); and from Joe and me, who wondered if we were lucky that we hadn't caught the guy. What if he had been armed? Maybe I was fortunate to have ended up being hobbled only by crutches.
But there is solace -- none of us thought twice about coming to the aid of a neighbor in peril. How many times, in my days as a police reporter, had I written about people who had been attacked within easy sight and hearing range of occupied homes and apartments, only to find that no one had helped? The answer: too many times.
A couple of nights later, there was a reminder of the incident in the form of notes on the apartment doors from the rental manager. I visited the woman who had been attacked and saw a toughness and a resolve in her that I had never noticed before. I invited her to join us for dinner. Something can always be made from pain. This time, it's friendship. -- Ronald D. White is a member of the editorial page staff.