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Christopher Wilde
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Thursday, April 17, 2008

What Happened Today

By Christopher Wilde

My paying job is lightly technical.  Through the course of my day I hit between thirty and forty homes.  Today I was at an apartment complex and I heard a man screaming at a woman.  I waited a second to see if it would subside but instead it only became more pronounced.  This is the domestic abuse situation I'm always hearing about.  It's a situation that is easy to walk away from, and walking away is also a common psychological response.

   Years ago I was a talk radio host and it is something I use to speak about on the air.  It is a situation that was revisited in college when I was studying psychology.  More recently you might have seen such a situation profiled on an ABC television series called, "What would you Do," (scroll down to the heading, "When do you speak up?").

   My first thought was to call the police, I'm sure that is what they would like me to do.  If I knock on the door, there is no telling what could be behind it or how volatile the situation.  The door could open to a gun in my face.  Still, I ran to three apartments trying to identify which one the argument was coming from.  It's a tough decision to make, if I call the police I have to call 911 because I don't carry every local police number.  Ultimately they may not be able to do anything.  Domestic situations are tricky and unless there is more than screaming going on, that they can verify, the most they can do is issue a warning.  It just seemed to me I needed to better assess the situation before I made that call.

    Was it on the second floor?  No.  Was it coming from another building, a balcony, and wafting through?  I ran through the breezeway and out the other side.  No, the voice was father away.  Just a man playing with his child out here.  First floor door?  No, ok second again, no.  Ok.  Ok.  To the third floor.  Wow.  He's still screaming.  Man he is really laying into her.  It's the third floor, top apartment.

   I stood outside the door listening.  Nothing being thrown.  She doesn't say a word, and yet he's really screaming at her.

     "After what you did to me this morning...  I didn't need that.  Oh, that's right.  Because I'm a piece of shit.  That's right I'm just a piece of shit." He said to her.

    I listened.  She said nothing back, but he was responding to her.  She must be in the far back room.  "Why should I?" He kept saying.  It took a turn, he was attacking himself verbally.  "That's right, I'm a worthless piece of shit, I have no job, everybody does to me just what you do.  I have no one.  I'm just going to end it all."  He repeated that in various forms before I decided to knock on the door.

  The young man who answered the door was shirtless, his hair was  buzzed equally all around.  He wore shorts.  He was sweating.  He opened the door just enough for me to glimpse him.

"What?" He asked defensively.

"I want you to stop yelling.  Whatever it is it's not that bad."  He opened the door a little wider.

"Who are you?"

"I'm a guy passing by on the street who can hear you."

"Well, it's none of your business, you're not helping."

"I need you to calm down."

"What's it to you? It's none of your business.  I'll keep it down.  You should stay out of my business."

"Whether I'm in your business or not is something that is entirely in your control.  If I can hear you on the street.  That is entirely in your control."  He was progressively softening.  I was listening this time, intently.  Would the girl come to the door?  Was she angry?  Hurt?  Defiant?  I've had a few experiences with this in the past, it is not uncommon for the victim to protect an abuser.  He may not have hit her, it could just be yelling.  He was threatening to hurt himself, nothing specific, but I did hear him say, "end it."  Could have just been an empty threat, he's hurt, clearly she's hurt his feelings, he want's to hurt her back, or more likely he's trying to get her to come to his aid, give him attention.  She's not fleeing, she's not coming to the door.  He's taller than me and I have been told that even at 5'11" I'm intimidating, how must he be to her?

"I'm sorry," He says, "I'll keep it down."

"Ok, I don't want to have to come back."  I say, softly, but firmly in the same even tone I've used for the entire conversation.  He shuts the door and I walk away.  Down on the second floor I pass a young woman going into a back apartment.  I walk over to her and give her a heads up.  "I have to leave, but if you hear anything don't hesitate to call the police, Ok?"

"I doubt I'll hear anything," She says.  She doesn't want to get involved, even to call the police.

"You'll hear it." I tell her, hoping to give her the courage.  At this point even if I called the police they couldn't do much more than search the apartment.  Talk to the girl, check her condition.  I'm not leaving just yet.  I haven't done the work I came here to do.  I'm at my car.  Is he watching to see if I leave?  I get my tool belt, lock the car, and go around to the side of the building where I do my job.  Five minutes and I'm back to the car.  I open it and put my tool belt in; listening.  My, he's at it again.  He slowed down for only five minutes.  Crap.

  I don't want to call the cops, that's a hassle.  I can't verify the danger.  If I call the cops then I have to wait for them. Explain the whole situation in detail to the 911 operator, then explain it all over when the cops come.  I just went through that a few months ago for a totally different reason.

If I do all of that, the next time I come to this building am I going to find my tires slashed?  I see the same people over and over again.  I wait, listening.  You would think he would have looked out the window and saw me, that he would know I hadn't left.  A stranger coming to your door usually rattles most people.  He's so loud.   I wonder if that girl I stopped in the hall can hear them in her apartment.

I warned him, I could call the cops, but like I said its' a hassle.  I know the threat level now.  My risk seems low.  I just need to make sure the girl he's screaming at is ok.  I can make him leave, or escort her out, whatever I need to do.  I finish putting my tool belt in the car, lock the door, and start up the three flight of stairs.

I've lived in apartments, I've lived in houses.  There's a big difference in the sound.  When you are in a house you hear the cars on the street, you hear the guy mowing his lawn, you hear the kids playing in the neighbors yard, and their dog when they don't take them in on a cold night.  They are relatively simple sounds punctuated with the steady quite hum of suburbia and your own life.  Apartments are different.  You hear the people above you, below you, the constant opening and closing of car doors.  People having sex, fighting, crying.  You especially hear foot falls on the steps, the vibrations of the metal railings as people put their weight upon them.  I'm not sneaking, I'm making noise.  I'm taking advantage of all the normal sounds.  I'm coming.  Does he hear me?  Does he stop?  Nope.

KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!  The yelling stops.  He's still talking to her though.  He sounds more desperate.  He knows I'm at the door, but he's not rushing to the door.  He's really engaged.  I strain to listen.  He's more threatening this time, directing his pain inward.  He's saying things in an angry voice, gruff.  He's screaming at her but it's all about him.  He's hurt, she hurt him, every one's hurt him, he's worthless, he has no life.  What's really going on here?  I bang on the door again and finally he comes.  He swings the door open wide now.  He's not hiding from me anymore.

The apartment is sparse.  It didn't look as if a woman lived there.  There was a hole in the back bedroom door.  The place is tossed, like someone just moved out.

"What?" He says.  It's loud, but it's not really anger.  It's pure defense, frustration, a sense of loss.

"You said you were going to keep it down."  When he answers me, if it had not been so loud it would have been a whimper.

"I tried, I tried."  Am I just another person hurting him?

"I'm worried about you, I'm worried about the person you are screaming at.  Do you need to leave?"

"It's my place.  Who are you?"  He looks at my shirt.  It's a work shirt, dark blue, but my company name is an acronym, the full name of the company is below but in hard to read embroidered cursive.  He can't make sense of it and he looks back to my face perplexed.

"She's not here, she left, she already left." 

I didn't see anyone leave.  He's flushed, here are marks on his left arm, pretty intense, like someone grabbed him hard, dug their fingers in deep.

"She's not here?"  I use her name, the name he's been screaming over and over again.

"No, I said she left. Why do you care?"  He fires at me.

"I care.  Can I come in and check? I need to see she's not here."

"No?" He's incensed, "Why is it your business, who are you?"

"I'm someone who cares, I want to make sure you are not hurt, that no one's hurt."

"I'm the one who's hurt.  I'm the one who punched the door." 

That explains the hand.

"She's not here," He continues.

"If she's not here, who were you yelling at?  Where is she?"

"She's on the phone."  Instant relief.  I believe him, but still.  I don't want to walk away and see this apartment on the news.  I couldn't live with that, not again.

It was a long time ago, and I worked security.  Same situation, couple fighting, drunk and doing drugs.  I gave them a warning, second time I came back I separated them.   I left her in the room and took him for a walk, he was less angry.  He was able to give me more information about the situation.  While I was talking to him she came out on the balcony to yell at him.  He was on the street with me.  She was screaming and shaking, her long black hair flying with all the same rage that was in her voice.  Then she fell off the balcony.  Head first, right in front of my eyes.  There was a lot of blood on the pavement and asphalt, blood that pooled up and coagulated in the space between the concrete sidewalk and the parking area.  That was a long time ago, and I forgot.  I always forget that.  It is a good thing to forget, but that was then, and I'm standing here talking to this different guy and suddenly I remember.

"I'm the one who's hurt, she attacked me."  He says.

"She's really not here?"

"No, she's on the phone."  I'm relieved, but surprised  she hasn't hung up on him.  That she keeps him on the phone, there's a story there.  I file it away for later.

"Really?" I say this skeptically.  I want him to know I don't believe him, but I do, deep down I believe him.  I just need to be sure.

"Look, look?"  He stands back, opens his arm wide so my view can follow his fingertips around the room.  To my right is a bedroom, it's dark, then a living room with a kitchen off to my right, rooms in the back.

"Can I come in?"  He starts to say no, I cut him off. "Just to check, make sure."

"Yes. Come in."  I take the invitation.  First the room to the left, then straight to the back of the apartment.  He continues to talk.  Being inside, seeing that she's not there, makes me feel better, but ups my guard considerably.  I'm in his territory now.  I'm not just looking for her now.  I'm watching my back, I'm looking for weapons, drugs, anything that will key me in on his mental state.  I've been attacked before.  I'm wearing my glasses.  Every time someone takes a swing at me, I'm wearing my glasses.  Damn allergies.  They make my eyes itch, so I wear the glasses for the first few days until the Claritin kicks in, but he doesn't seem the type.  He's not really confrontational.  He want's the girl back, he's hurt, but doesn't know how to channel his emotions.  Early twenties?  Just a kid.

He's torn, he wants to get her on the phone again.  He's just waiting for me to leave.  At the same time, here is a stranger, giving him some attention.

"Who are you,"  He asks again.  "Why is it any of your business?"

"This girl, the one who left, who you are talking to on the phone?"  I use her name again.  He cares about her, it helps to use her name.

"If where she is now someone was screaming at her like you are, wouldn't you want me, a stranger to look in and make sure she's ok?"

"No."  He lies.  It's a bad lie, it's an eight year old kid telling his mom, yeah I would jump off the bridge if all my friends do.

"No?"  I say?

"No."  He sticks to the lie, but his heart is not in it.  Now I talk to him.  I'm not worried for her anymore.  I'm worried for him.  I've been there I tell him.  And I give him enough information to let him know that I know how women can make you crazy. 

"You don't need her.  She makes you crazy, and maybe you contribute to that.  That's toxic.  You need your friends and family as much as you have them, you need yourself, but you don't need her."  He may not have friends and family.  There's a real possibility he's alone.  His possessions are so meager, he doesn't seem to have much beside this apartment and that girl.  He needs help, more than I can give him.

He's listening though, and that is a plus.

"You seem like a smart guy, a lot of potential."  He softens even more.  I'm betting he doesn't hear that a lot.  I get that, people take for granted the benefit they got from their parents.  Every time someone who loves you helps you live up to your potential.  Every time a parent sits down and does homework with you, that's worth more than toys and a hot lunch together.  In most cases they go hand and hand, parents that don't have to worry about giving their kids food and toys  are more likely to spend the time doing homework.

We talk a little more.  When I leave, he might get back on the phone.  All I can hope to do is let him know that someone cares.  When you live in inexpensive apartments you see this from time to time.  Sometimes it's enough to let someone know that a stranger will intervene.  There isn't much more I can do.

He shakes my hand.

"Thanks for caring," he says sincerely.

"Trust me, I've been there.  Be patient, take it easy.  Do what you need to do to take care of yourself and it will be there."  I say that, I'm hoping it will work for him, it's not the kind of thing that I believe for myself, but that's a different story.  Most people, they respond to a kind word.  Especially when it's out of the blue like this.  I can hope.

Leaving, I worried.  He really could use someone to talk to; a professional.  It's when you feel like this, that an intervention from a therapist could have the most benefit.  It's hard to maintain your standard defenses when you are down.  Once a week with a good therapist for two years and who knows what that kid could do.

He has no job, at least that's what he said to her on the phone.  Most likely he has no insurance, with no job he won't be in that apartment long.  How much could I do?  Oh, I suppose I could get on line, dig out the usual list of overburdened social services.  They could just as easily be an insult, not to mention that once he tries to use them the paperwork alone will be enough to drive him to suicide.  It wouldn't be much better if he had insurance.  Most insurance barely covers therapy.

I'll keep an eye out for him the next time I'm over there.  Chances are in a few weeks he'll move on.

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