I climb aboard the night bus from Port Authority headed back to my apartment in New Jersey. The bus hits no traffic, and I reach my bus stop at about ten. I gather my belongings and step off the bus, large satchel in hand. It’s freezing out, the skies filled with stars, snow rimming the road and the sidewalks.
I begin the half-mile walk to my apartment, the cold beginning to seep into my bones. I walk quickly — the sooner I get home, the sooner I get warm. No traffic at this hour, deep quiet, houses in the neighborhood all buttoned up against the cold. Sade sings in my Walkman headphones as I walk down the sidewalk, my silhouette shortening and lengthening as I go from one light pole to another.
A Silhouette in the Night
A pitch-black silhouette suddenly appears on my left, small at first and instantly growing. The silhouette grabs the handles of my satchel. Reflexively, I tighten my grip. I swing around and see a man, slightly taller than I, positioned mostly in shadow, a watch cap pulled over his dark stubbled face. He yanks the satchel. I pull back. We start a tug of war on the hard sidewalk. He breaks my grip, grabs the satchel and runs down a cross-street. Angry, I give chase, yelling “Stop! Robber! Stop!” and following his soles as they flip up and down in the dark street. The robber takes a sharp turn into a nearby yard, leaps over a fence and disappears, crashing noisily through dark yards.
I jog the streets trying to find him, but I see nothing. I spin around in the middle of the empty street. I howl, “Help! I was robbed. Help me!”
A couple houses away a storm door slams open and a man in his sixties rushes into the street in his bathrobe. “Ma’am, are you hurt?” The adrenaline coursing through my body begins to drain. “I was robbed,” I shiver, starting to sniffle with tears. “A man snuck up behind me on the main road and stole my bag. I chased him, but he jumped a fence. I lost him.”
“Come inside,” the man says as he shepherds me gently toward his house. “We’ll call the police.” His wife, also in her bathrobe, waits at the door. She sits me down and gives me a cup of tea. “My husband always sleeps with his window open, even in the middle of January. He heard screams and knew someone was in trouble.”
The neighbor dials the town police. When he hands the phone receiver to me, the story spills out. Five minutes later a detective arrives at the neighbor’s house. I thank the man and his wife, and leave with the detective. Together we walk quickly around the block, looking for my bag, for footprints, for clues to the robber. A police car prowls the streets with a searchlight trying to penetrate the darkness of the yards. The detective takes me to the police station to file a report, then drives me back to my apartment. I have no keys or wallet. They were in the satchel the robber stole. The detective climbs the fire escape, jimmies open my apartment window and after checking for intruders lets me into the lobby and the apartment. He warns me to lock my door and windows, then says good-night.
I do not feel safe. A sound on the street or in the lobby is the robber returning to find me. He has my wallet, my credit cards, my driver’s license. He knows where I live. I close the curtains. Double-lock the doors and the windows. I turn on all the lights, I tuck into my couch. It’s late, and I instinctively reach to call my dad. My heart breaks: My dad died two months ago. I call my mom to tell her what happened. Scared and nervous, she asks questions I did not consider: “Diane, what would you have done if you caught him? What if he had a gun?”
A Slow Recovery
I make new keys for the lobby, the apartment door, the car. I replace my credit cards and my driver’s license. I never again use that bus stop. Instead I drive across town and take a bus on a busy street. I never again walk at night on the sidewalk. A few months later the detective calls. A neighbor doing spring yard cleaning found my leather satchel drowning in a muddy brook. Everything is inside, including my wallet and key ring. The robber must have dumped the satchel in the muck as I chased him.
I still do not feel safe. When I drive through town I keep my eyes peeled for the robber. One day I see him on a sidewalk near my house. My heart races, my mouth goes dry. For a second I want to steer the car directly into him and kill him. I do not.
I was safe one day, unsafe the next. A line of demarcation. Within months I move out of New Jersey and return to my family home in Connecticut. Finally, I am safe.