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Essay On My Neighbourhood Heroclix

On the day last month when the earthquake touched us so timidly, I came home late, near midnight, and parked my car close to the cluster of small, tidy housing projects near my apartment in Brooklyn.

In addition to public housing, South Williamsburg is home to shabby artists’ lofts like mine, apartments of Hasidic Jews and one extremely tall, high-priced condo. There isn’t much crossover between subdivisions: I’ve never been in the condo or the public housing units, and have been in the Hasidic buildings only three times, to turn on or off various electrical fixtures on the Sabbath or High Holy Days. But I’ve lived here nine years, and by now I know more than a few of my neighbors. We recognize each other’s faces; we stop to pet each other’s dogs.

This night was different. When I got out of the car, I noticed across the street, in the direction of my home, a large crowd of people. I watched as a shirtless, taut young man marched through the group and then paced angrily once he reached the center. The crowd went silent: he had their attention. Then other men started yelling, then shoving. It was impossible to tell what the fight was about. Some of the people looking on thought it was hilarious, others were shaking their heads. No one was going to stop it.

It got noisier and more heated. I began to feel afraid, and took off toward my apartment, pulling out my phone to dial 911. I was sure I would be safe once I rounded the corner. I’d walked down that street a thousand times alone at night. I had the surface of things memorized. There’s a parking lot on the right, and the front entrances to a handful of public housing buildings on the left. Street lights overhead, and a row of empty garbage cans near the curb. This was as much my street as anyone else’s, and I felt safe there.

And then, the shirtless man turned down the same street as me. He was moving quickly. Others followed. The crowd began to shift in our direction.

What must my face have looked like? A 40-year-old woman, summertime tan suddenly paled, I shrank into myself. Once I saw him up close, I could see that the man was a teenager really, just a puffed-up kid. But in that moment, I was scared.

A door to one of the public housing buildings opened, and a woman motioned me over nervously. “Get in here,” she said. A bunch of other women were crowded in the lobby, along with some teenagers and a few children. “Are you O.K.?” I thanked her and told her I was fine. “It’s a little crazy out there,” I said, and then I shut up, because there was nothing I could tell them that they didn’t already know.

Some of the women were working their cellphones, trying to track down their children, who had been playing hide-and-seek outside. One woman ran upstairs to find another phone. I didn’t think to offer mine, because I, childless and single and in a daze, thought: who has numbers memorized anymore? Later I was ashamed to realize how foolish I’d been, that if you’re a mother, you have plenty of numbers memorized. I assumed one of them had already called 911, so I never bothered to hit “call.” Most of us just stood there, peering out the window, waiting for whatever was swelling out there to subside. Someone said, “You live around the corner, right?”

After a few more minutes, the darkness outside lighted up with the flash of lights from a police car, and there was a deep release of breath. “Cops are here,” said the woman who had invited me in. “You’ll be all right now.” I said, “Thank you, ladies. So much,” and pushed my way out the door, hustling the block and a half toward home, looking back for only a second to see the police cars partly concealed by the thick of the crowd.

Out in front of my building I ran into two of my neighbors, one of whom was walking a three-legged dog she was taking care of for a few days. She was cheerful, and the dog was sweet, and whatever had happened down the street hadn’t touched them. My story surprised them. We all talked about how nice it was that the women had taken me into the lobby, though the word “nice” didn’t seem grand enough to express how I felt about it all.

In the morning the streets were clear and empty, and as I walked back to my car, the clip of the cool weather was a relief. Last night was a fluke, I thought. I know where I live, and I’ve never seen anything like that before. And then I stopped cold in front of my car: on the front windshield was a bloodstained white T-shirt.

What had happened after I left? What had happened on those streets after I went home? Who was inside, and who was outside?


Jami Attenberg is the author of “The Melting Season” and the forthcoming novel “The Middlesteins.”


An excerpt from this article appeared in print on Sept. 25, 2011.

Townies is a series about life in New York, and occasionally other cities.

It was impossible to tell what the fight was about.
We peered out the window, waiting for whatever was swelling out there to subside.

My neighbourhood essay

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