The sound of breaking glass
Everyone has their own Krystallnacht; but some have more than one: November 1979
The crack of breaking glass woke me, sounding like chimes as the shards fell to the concrete.
In another place other than Passaic, I might have mistaken the sound for a Chinese mobile, the sound was so sweet.
Yet even from my bed near the alley-side window, I heard something else, an undertone of violence more typical to the neighborhood.
At night here, the streets swarmed with petty pirates seeking to dig up treasures from unsuspecting victims, shattering car windows for radios and tape players, or the front doors to the local grocery stores, a summer activity for the young that kept their habits fed and their residents cringing.
Yet this was not summer, but the darkest days of late November, and the sound had not resembled any I had heard before, lacking the usual car or burglar alarm, and inevitable siren after that.
In winter, everyone tended to bed down, one vast hibernation that even the junkies found hard to resist, the bite of cold more vicious than knifes, making even the least honest of the city's citizens duck for cover.
I did not want to get up or shed the triple layers of blankets that kept me from the chill of my cold water flat. At night, I turned the gas heater down to save money, making the morning ritual that much more difficult: me crawling across the floor to the stove, fumbling with the lever that set the flame higher. Even then, the gas jet took a long time to warm the metal, and longer for the heated metal to warm the room.
In the dim light, I saw the steam of my other breath, and wondered what fool would be out now breaking into cars, getting himself frost bitten for all his trouble.
Then, someone screamed, and I bolted up from the bed casting covers aside: the sound so close I thought it had come from the room in which I slept.
It had not, but from just outside my window so that I could make out shapes in the darkness as two figures stood under the street light.
At first, I thought them lovers, since some younger polish immigrants sometimes sought out my alley in the early morning hours to escape the wary eye of their family, who did not like them violating too many of the old ways, lovers who sometimes stood embracing each other for hours, struggling to contain their passions as well as guard against the cold.
But if these were lovers in the blue light, something had turned sour, and the tall man loomed over a smaller woman with his fist raised, apparently having struck and missed her already. But he had not struck the glass, she had, her small hands pounding through the window to the garage as if to escape, the shards of the window behind her like gaping jaws.
I should have slipped away from the window and called the police, yet I could not pull myself away, seeing myself standing as the man had stood, not braced against the cold of Passaic, but against the heat of Los Angeles a decade earlier, both of us wearing the same grim face -- teeth pressed against the lower lip, eyes wide open.
The man started to say something, and the woman whimpered a reply, and when he lifted his hand to strike at her again, I slid up my window and shouted: "What's going on out there?"
A blast of cold swept through window with the sting of some previous snow across my face. The man halted, his expression showing the same hunted look mine had, caught in an act for which he was ashamed.
I remembered confronting my ex-wife in a hotel lobby, shouting at her, pleading with her, and when she would listen to neither, striking her across the face before grabbing her arm, realizing only at that moment the number of witnesses to my crime, each glaring at me the way I did the man outside my window.
At home later, we fought again, in private, me as angry at her for my embarrassment as for whatever had set me off in the first place, me grabbing my ex-wife as she washed for bed, both of us struggling for some imaginary sense of control neither of us could obtain. I could not own her the way I wanted; she could not break free of me to be herself. Then, in the middle of it, a drinking glass shattered, one shard somehow sinking deep into her wrist, blood spouting from the wound as if from a drinking fountain.
From the window slightly above the couple outside, I saw cuts on the woman's wrists from her confrontation with glass, and for a moment, I believed myself to blame. I repeated question: "What are you doing out here?"
"None of your business," the man said, and then turned to the woman again, who cried out in a voice clearly directed at me, telling me in that single note that he might kill her if I didn't intervene.
Even then, I could have called the police, reporting the sound of breaking glass, satisfied that I had done my part to help save her while knowing full well if she was to die she would before the police arrived, that a man like this man, or like myself, could dispatch her with the snap of his fingers, leaving nothing but to bury the body and track him down for trial.
I'd never killed anyone, in a fit of lust or even in self-defense, though imagined myself capable of doing so in both circumstances. I knew how easily I could have done away with my ex-wife had opportunity presented itself, one second or two between life and death, and I knew now, staring out the window at the man, he could, perhaps would, and only I could stop him.
With a groan, I fished my clothing from the dark, put on my shoes and my jacket and charged out my door into the alley, only to hear the sound of glass breaking followed by yet another scream, as man and woman entered one of a line of garages.
I rushed to the small door into the garage.
"Stop that!" I shouted.
The man paused, again with his fist lifted, only now I could see the woman pressed against the side of a car, a trickle of blood working its way down her jaw from the corner of her mouth.
"You get out of here," the man said, but his command lacked conviction.
I knew his type from the inside out, knew that such men could beat women, but not other men, that their bravo was built on bluster and little else.
I took a step deeper into the garage, unable to recall who rented it, though I knew most of those who rented here, each man working on some dream car, fixing it a rusted piece at a time.
"I'm not going anywhere," I said, wishing now that I had called the police, knowing that if push came to shove I would have to fight the son of a bitch when I hadn't fought anyone over anything let alone a woman since I split from my ex-wife.
Again, I understood the confused expression on my opponent's face, and felt the pang of fear he was feeling, knowing he would have to fight me to make me leave.
"I don't want to hurt you, mister," the man said. "So if you go right now, we won't have to get into it."
I wanted to go. I felt so uncomfortable in the same room with that man it would have been easy to run away, not have to look at him, think about him, or acknowledge how much I had been like him, as arrogant and foolish, and as mean.
I shook my head, and made my way another foot or so into the garage, trying to get a better look at the woman, who stood under a dim light.
She looked scared, and desperate, and her stare pleaded with me to stay, the way my ex-wife's stare had pleaded with men like me passing during my beating her, they as uncomfortable as I was now, not wanting to inject themselves into someone else's business, even when the bruises proved how much my ex-wife hurt.
Standing there shivering, I felt foolish and wrong, knowing I had stepped over the line, but unclear as to who I was, my brain causing a flickering in my that made me hero in one instant and villain the next, me alternating between the witness and the criminal.
I took another step towards the man, and saw him put his hand deep into his coat pocket where he seemed to grip something.
I did not need to know what it was to realize its danger, or see the gun or knife to fear its ability to hurt me. Nor could I stop myself from taking yet one more step.
The man's gaze looked mean now, less like the lost kid I had been, and more like a common thug, someone who I'd seen mugging drunks on the street at night, who I chased away sometimes with a stick.
In the distance, I heard a siren.
Perhaps someone else in the apartment building had heard the disturbance out here, calling the police when the glass first broke, rather than coming out to see who it was doing what.
Or perhaps, the siren had nothing to do with us here, and had another destination, one of the many other crimes going on at this very moment, with many other victims.
The man heard the siren and presumed the worst, stepping towards me from the dark drawing out the knife from his pocket, the flash of its metal flickering like a shard of glass as he waved it towards me.
Even then, I could have run away, and should have. Who could have blamed me for seeking help against a knife?
Yet I also recognized the look in the man's eyes as he glanced back at the woman, blaming her for my arrival, blaming her for breaking the glass. In that accusation, I saw the threat, and that if I managed to escape his blade, she wouldn't.
"Why don't you put that down before someone gets hurt," I suggested, taking yet one more step towards him, hoping my insistence would discourage him, prove him the coward all men like us are down deep.
But he waved the blade at me again, and then at the woman.
"What a big man you are," I told him. "You can beat a woman, you threaten people with a knife. I'm very impressed."
The tone was not lost on him, because his face flushed and his eyes narrowed, and he ceased waving the blade at the woman and advanced towards me.
I backed away as he came, glancing around in the dark for a loose tool I might use as a weapon against him, but the mechanics in these ghetto garages locked everything up before they went home, knowing how easily anyone could access the garage itself.
I found nothing.
While the distant siren grew closer, I knew it would not arrive in time.
Perhaps I was even surprised by the man's advance, understanding that some fiends aren't completely cowards the way I was, and that this fiend would make a victim of me the way he had the woman and the way I had my ex-wife, and while I found some justice in the last, I had no intention of letting him stab me.
He waved the knife and advanced, and I shrank back into the dark, around the half-repaired car, until he and I stood on the opposite side from the woman and the door.
"Run!" I shouted to her. "Get out while you still can."
She did not move.
"Didn't you hear me?" I shouted again.
She made no sign but stared across the car as the two of us, shock and horror showing on her face.
He lunged, I feinted to one side, then the other as the blade sliced the air where I had been. I knocked the knife aside with the side of my arm, but not out of his grip, and he waved it at me again and again, until he tore my jacket, and the blade stuck in the fabric long enough for me to pound down on his hand with my fist.
The blade clattered on the concrete floor. He stared at it, as I hit him in the face, not once, not twice, but repeatedly, each blow leaving some small token, red marks on the cheek or jaw, or blood spouting from his nose or lips.
"Stop him!" the man screamed, talking to the woman.
The woman did not move, just stared, and the man fled back around the body of the car as if each blow from my fist pushed him. By the time we reached the door, the police arrived, barging in with their bright badges and drawn pistols, eyeing me, not the man.
"This asshole attacked me," the man said. "He came after me and my girlfriend with that knife."
He pointed to the floor where the blade lay. The cops looked confused.
"Tell them," the man shouted at the woman. "Tell them this asshole attacked us."
Then, slowly, as if womanhood had finally eked its revenge on me, the woman's head rose and fell, and I was arrested.
Hours later after much shouting and the arrival of my landlord to testify on my behalf, I convinced the police of the truth. But by then, the man had woman had slipped out of the police station, leaving me to the shaking head of the desk sergeant.
"Fool," the cop said. "Don't you know better than to get mixed up in a domestic dispute?"