Tuesday, January 14, 2014



The bell buzzed. Then again, more forceful this time, and lingering. I woke up; the clock read 12:36. “Someone’s at the door,” I whispered to Joe, who slept heavily beside me. He barely stirred. The buzzer sounded again, and I tapped him. He gasped, awake now. We listened. The buzzing continued, like something broken and angry. Joe got up, crept to his office, grabbed a set of bicycle handlebars. My heart pounded. I took the cell phone, dialed 911, kept my finger on send.

Growing up in Rudy Giuliani’s New York, I’d never been robbed. It wasn’t until college that anything really dangerous happened to me. Senior year, a man made multiple visits to my bedroom in the middle of the night. The first time, I woke to him standing in the doorway. At first I thought he was the kind-of, sort-of boyfriend I’d recently started dating. But then my brain caught up and I recognized the man’s height and build as foreign. “Who is that?” I asked. “Who’s there?” He ran, leaving the front door open. I gazed into the dark and didn't see anyone. In the morning I wondered if it were a dream.

The second time he came, he tried to break down the bedroom door. I dialed 911 from the phone beside the bed. From the living room he ripped the phone cord from the jack, and the phone shot out from my hands and beneath the door. I screamed, grabbed a standing lamp—the only nearby object that could function as a weapon. He slammed his body against the door. I felt myself become an animal, my nails become claws. Soon I heard pounding on the porch steps and saw light bouncing around the floor: flashlights. So there are others. He has brought others. This is it, this is how I am going to die. People bounded up and down the stairs, footfalls I didn’t recognize, but that would turn out to belong to the police.

They didn’t catch him, not that night. Not for years.

From that night until I met Joe, I slept with a weapon (knife, baseball bat) by my bed. Even with that “protection,” I couldn’t sleep in an apartment alone without torturing myself with fantasies of robbers, stalkers, men hiding in the closet. The discordance was like something out of a novel: by day I made a living teaching English in a tough Bronx school, by night I lay awake, a victim preparing to become a statistic.

To state the obvious, and even in a place as wild as New York City, the bedside weapon also put a damper on my dating life. Remarkably, though, Joe understood. For years he’d slept with a weapon—a bicycle seat-post—too. That’s because in college he had also woken to someone creeping in his room, attempting to steal his laptop. The man had punched through the window to let himself in, and then knocked over a couple beer bottles, which woke Joe. “What the hell are you doing?” he asked, as if there were a rational answer for this. The man’s hand was bleeding. His other arm wrapped around the computer, he assured Joe he didn’t want any trouble. “Put down the computer and get the hell out of here!” Slowly, slowly, the man did as he was told. After, Joe didn’t call the police. He went to sleep. But this snapshot alone made Joe feel the necessity of arming himself against the unknown.

It would take half a dozen years, but the two of us would meet. Thanks to a chance run-in in an East Village bar, life would arrange it such that we became the couple who slept with weapons beside the bed: scissors. A heavy flashlight. Two knives, and a cell phone, when Joe was out of town. 


When we moved from Brooklyn to Syracuse two summers ago, I knew little about the city. But the more I heard, the less I liked. Those early weeks, casting around for a job, I met a woman whose daughter lived nearby to us and who had been robbed only weeks before her wedding. The burglars came in the night and stole the engagement ring, wedding bands, necklaces for bridesmaids’ gifts. They’d been watching the house, said the woman’s mother, which is how they knew what to steal.

After that, tales of violence seemed to accumulate at our doorstep. Some came by email—the University sending alerts about students robbed at gunpoint. Others came through the grapevine, like the friend who returned to a ransacked apartment, where thieves had stolen cash, her passport, IDs, and credit cards, setting off a nightmare attempt to get her identity back. Still others showed up in person, like the mobile crime scene unit that parked in our driveway one Sunday morning. At first I wondered if it were possible that, despite my vigilance, I hadn’t noticed a crime take place in my own house. (This, I imagined explaining to the writing class I was teaching at the time, is what is known as “cosmic irony.”) But the detectives headed to the house across the street, which had sat vacant and open all winter, its door flapping in the wind. When they came to ask whether I’d seen anything suspicious, they explained that the house’s copper wiring had been stripped.

“That’s it? No body?” I half-joked.

No, they said, their disappointment evident.

I didn’t trust our new city. I was convinced the ringing bell had to be a trick, people trying to tempt us outside, where they’d knock us out and rob us, if not worse. We’d just leased a new car, which perhaps made us seem better off than we were. I thought about the group of boys living across the street, whom Joe’s father had dryly noted seemed to be in “manufacturing."


As we crept closer, the buzzing stopped and the knocking started. Joe waved me back, then tiptoed close enough to see who was on the other side. He made a sound between a guffaw and a sigh. “Oh, hey,” he said, undoing the three locks and opening the door.

“Just wanted to tell you. Your lights are on. In your station wagon.”

Our upstairs neighbor. We thanked him, laughed, admitted he’d scared the shit out of us, thanked him again.

“Next time I’ll wear a mask,” he said, noting the handlebars, which in the darkness looked like fused rams’ horns.

We went back to bed, hysterical with adrenaline. Joe blew on the handlebars, making the “all-clear” sound. This loosed something in me, and I tried to remember the way I thought about the world before my college night-visitor, the person I used to be: more open, eager, excited, confident that what I couldn’t yet dream up, that whatever surprises other people had in store for me, could only be good.

This feeling did not last. What has is the unexpected comfort borne of our over-surveillance. Since that night, we have made plans in case of fire, nuclear meltdown, flood, break-in, tornado, or some heretofore unimaginable disaster befalling our sleepy Rust Belt town: wrap the cats in blankets and run like hell. But by laying bare our fears, we’ve made plain our commitment to each other: if we’re going to escape, we’re going together. And it's that knowledge that brings us a new safety.

It’s time to put away the weapons. We are going to be fine.


Photo via chunter1/flickr.

Rachel Somerstein is a PhD candidate at Syracuse University, where she studies visual culture. Her essays and art criticism have appeared in Afterimage, ARTnews, and n+1, among other publications. She holds an MFA in creative writing from NYU.

14 Comments / Post A Comment


I attended Syracuse University for grad school, and while our times didn't overlap, I am very familiar with those emails about theft at gunpoint. We had a weird rash of attacks by sawed-off shotgun.


Wow, man that was incredible!!!@j


My apartment building isn't in a bad area. It's a decent, if densely populated neighborhood right next to a well kept golf course.

That being said my apartment is a basement apartment with full size windows at ground level and I have opened blinds to find screens open from the outside. Our windows stayed locked and our blinds stay down almost 24/7. We only open the windows if we are awake. Mr. Core keeps a knife on his nightstand and when he is out of town, I keep it on my nightstand. Even if it's a placebo I feel better knowing it's there.

up cubed

@cupcakecore: I once had ground floor windows and the renters before us put mirrored film on the windows, so we could see out, but other people can't see in (during the day). At night it isn't effective, since lights inside make it ineffective (so we'd close the blinds).


Jesus christ, I am so happy to live in a city where is is 100% normal and standard to have bars on your windows and doors.


Jesus christ, I am so happy to live in a city where it is 100% normal and standard to not have bars on your windows and doors and where I feel pretty safe in my own home. (Although I am a pretty nervous person and hate when my partner isn't home at night.)

Roxanne Rholes

@sissyemily Word to that. My mom was horrified when I moved to Boston for college and she saw all the buildings had bars on the windows, but really, lady, would you prefer they NOT be there?


After a late-night doorbell ringer last week, I've been sleeping with a hand gun in my bedside table. I never intend to use it, but knowing it's there makes me feel safer.


The discordance was like something out of a novel: by day I made a living teaching English in a tough Bronx school, by night I lay awake, a victim preparing to become a statistic.

Yes, this! Not every night, but I definitely know this feeling. I also keep a stash of things at my bedside. The useful one is my phone. The rest (heavy object, etc) are probably less practical and more like totems of safety, but at least they have worth that way.

A few years ago, after an incident in my apartment building, I became quite anxious about my windows. What eventually calmed me down was to install peel-and-stick alarms, like the safety alarms parents of toddlers put on their windows. Again, they probably have more psychological benefit than practical, but it did make me feel better.


The one time I really felt that surge of panic was when we heard the doorbell ring at 2am in our old apartment. We lived on the third floor of a three-family house, so I had always felt moderately safe (why would a robber climb the stairs for OUR tv when he could just break in to the first floor and steal THEIR tv?), but the minute that stupid doorbell rang all bets were off, man. It turned out to be the police, looking for a car vandal, and they were wondering if we were harboring him or her.

It took my heart at least a half hour to return to its usual rhythm, so I cannot imagine what it's like to have an actual bad guy show up at your door/break your windows/try to steal your stuff.

Miss Kitty Fantastico

Ugh this is making my heart race. The worst thing that's ever happened to me was my next-door neighbor trying to get into my apartment to sleep on the couch when she left her keys and phone in a cab. It was TERRIFYING especially because she was pounding on the door and jiggling the door knob without saying who it was.

The worst part by far, though, was that I tried calling 911 multiple times while I was barricaded in my bedroom and none of the calls went through. What would have happened if it had been a real break-in instead of a drunk friend?


I don't understand why doorbells in the middle of the night make people uneasy...no one is going to alert you to their presence before they break in, yes? I mean, unless they think you're naive enough to just open the door, but who is a big city would do that without knowing exactly who it is?


@hotdog Some burglars will ring the doorbell to determine whether or not someone is home. More often than not someone robbing a house wants to get in and get out, without any sort of altercation. That *should* give you/me/us a bit more comfort, because more likely than not if a stranger intent on robbing you rang the doorbell and realized you were home, they'd run. But then again, some crazies ring the door to make sure you *are* home. It's a double-edged sword.

I will say I was far more terrified living by myself in my parents' house in the boonies than I am in Midtown Atlanta. I do have a dog and a fiance with a shotgun now, so that might be part of it. But to me, people means if I scream, someone will hear. (Now, whether they come to my aid, that's a different story.)

Greg Munno@facebook

This might not be the most appropriate comment given the subject, but this was a really fun read. I liked the pacing and the imagery and can almost see your neighbor glancing down at Joe's hand to see him clutching the handle bars. In my mind he's thinking, "glad these city slickers don't believe in guns!"

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