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The International Writers Magazine: NY Life Stories

The Kindness of Strangers - a true story
Annie Lalla

"Hello, Hello!" I yelled louder and louder hoping someone would respond. My face was pressed up against my tiny bathroom window. I was straining to see 5 floors down to the street behind my building. "Hello" I kept yelling -voice rising in desperation, hoping someone, anyone would answer. My eyes scanned nearby windows for signs of life. All I needed was one human to notice me and help would be on the way.

But this wasn’t a main street; it was a quiet alley, exactly the kind you’d want your place to back onto, especially if you’d just moved to New York to become a writer. However, if you happened to be trapped in your bathroom mid-afternoon on a winter’s day, this is the last space you’d want outside your window.

I wasn’t locked in, no, nothing as ditzy as that. The door, newly painted had closed emphatically behind me and simply refused to open. I tried, believe me I did. I tugged and I pulled till my fingers were raw but the damn door wouldn’t budge. After 5 minutes of Herculean efforts I sat on the toilet and pondered my situation. I could see the comedy, even laughed out loud, then it dawned on me the gravity of my predicament. My mobile was outside lying on my bed, my apt door was locked so no one could get in and I had no contact with the outside world, except through a tiny portal 2 feet squared above a back street where nobody walks.

I peered through the window to scope out the possibility of climbing my way down. No chance. The fire escape was too far and the 5 story drop to concrete meant sudden death. Eyes scanned, mind whirred and slowly, possibility and impossibility presented themselves in tandem. Thoughts came along like this: If I spot someone down below I could call out. And when what? Well I could ask them to phone one of my friends who would of course come over and rescue me. Right. Except I don’t know any of their numbers off by heart. So a passerby with phone was still no use. I could ask a stranger to come rescue me directly but they’d be locked out of my building. Course, they could always buzz another tenant until someone let them in. But even if they got in the building, they still wouldn’t get into my apt with its auto-locking front door. Hmmm…what to do. I knew there was a superintendent on the first floor and he must have a master key. Aha, that’s it!

Finally I saw someone. He was young, black cap, nice shoes, cute…perfect. I hollered down. It took two calls before he looked up to my hands waving furiously. "Hi" I shouted across the distance, "My name is Annie, I just moved in and I’m locked in my bathroom. I cannot open the door, it’s stuck and left my phone outside." I grinned a plaintive smile and went quiet, hoping he’d feel sorry enough to help.

Two things were going on inside me. I didn’t want to ask too much of him, he was clearly en route somewhere. I rarely ask family or friends to go out of their way for me, far less random strangers. On the other hand, I did need help and actually noticed a slight pleasure role playing this damsel in distress; it was delightfully feminizing. This externally imposed state of begging secretly felt good, especially because it was mandatory. Being forced to submit to behaviors almost against my will and fight back against habitual restraints like my fierce independence was strange and exciting.

"Want me to call someone?" my savior hollered up from below, phone in hand.
"Well, yeah that would be great." My ego was paying an unwanted visit; instead of admitting I didn’t know any of my numbers I began shouting out random combinations resembling a friend’s mobile. "xxx 646 1619, try that, her name is Jena." He tried, it didn’t work. "How about xxx 942 1916?"…no go. One last try "xxx 947 1916"…not in service. I apologized and we both stared back, stumped and bewildered.

I knew what I had to ask him, but my desire to be polite was making it difficult; I’ve always struggled to ask for help. However, he was the only person I’d seen walk by in ten minutes and who knows how long it would be before I saw another victim. This might be my only chance.

"There’s a superintendent on the first floor, maybe you could let him know I’m stuck?" I asked tentatively. "If you’re too busy I’ll understand, I could always ask someone else." There I was ashamed of inconveniencing another, forgetting of course that beggars can’t be choosers. "It would help me out so immensely, if you could find the super, I don’t know what else to do?" Funny how desperation gives us sudden courage.

He was already walking around the side of the building headed for the front door. "Thank-you sooo much!" I screamed after him. "If you save me I’ll love you forever." I’m so dramatic, I know.

It was cold while I waited, sitting patiently on my toilet; the window was open. In tank top and jeans I shivered in silence. Every few seconds I looked out the window to see if my savior had returned. He finally showed up, his face furrowed and said "I met the postman in the hallway, he told me today is the super’s day off. We buzzed him anyway, but no one was home."

My heart sank. Shit. What do I do now? There were only 2 keys that could help me, one was on my bed and the other was with George, the absent super. I suddenly started to get scared. If George was off and I had no phone, how would I ever get out? I might be stuck in here for days. I had no scheduled meetings or people until Friday so no one would miss me. What if I starved to death! Panic was courting. I looked back out the window…my would-be savior was staring up in limbo. I let him go, told him I’d figure something out, faked a cavalier smile and thanked him for his effort. He frowned sympathetically and said he’d come check on me in ten minutes. Apparently he worked at a tavern on the corner: note to self.

Now what. I looked out across the barren street and noticed two carpenters staring up from a lower unit under construction. I waved; they smiled and opened their window while I explained my situation. They offered some technical tips on how to jiggle the lock and push on the handle, but what they didn’t get was my door wasn’t locked, it was stuck, wedged closed super tight from a recent coating of paint. They continued to encourage me to jostle the knob and push hard. I felt my frustration rising inside at their well-meaning but unhelpful suggestions. "If I could open the door myself I’d already be out!" I answered with irritation. I knew that anger, unbidden, was making its way into my mind and all I could think was if you’re not part of the solution, you’re just part of the problem.

I sat on the toilet again trying not to be stressed. "Breathe", I mumbled. If I could just keep calm and breathe, something good would manifest. I’d once done 10 straight days of solid meditation and none of it was helping me now. Suddenly, "Hey, anyone up there?" It was a new voice outside my window.

I leapt up and saw a uniformed serviceman looking up from the ground. He explained he was the same postman my would-be savior had met in the hallway. "So George-the-super isn’t here?" I asked one more time.
He shook his head knowingly, like he’d been coming here for years. "Nope, Wednesday is always his day off."
I explained my conundrum again: new to city, brand new apt, first time in bathroom, recently painted, door too tight, couldn’t open, no phone, no super…fucked.
He called up a question, "Your apartment door…is it only the bottom lock that’s locked?"
"Yes." I confirmed.
"I could try jimmying your front door open with a credit card, but I thought I should ask first." This street savvy postman was already my friend.
"Really?" I lit up. "Yes, please…please could you? Do it, break into my place, whatever it takes. If you save me, I’ll love you forever." This time I meant it. He smiled and disappeared around the corner.
I waited. Two minutes, three minutes. My heart was pounding with possibility. Then I heard some noise outside the bathroom door and knew he was in my apartment. I began knocking from inside to get his attention. "I’m coming," he answered "just stand back." All of a sudden the door flew open and at last I was free!

I ran out and doused him in a shower of thanks -glowing with exuberance, adrenaline and relief. There he stood…bald, chubby, middle aged, with warm open eyes -he was exactly what a local hero would look like. "You are my hero!" I squealed emphatically, giving him a hug.
He smiled wide, "I liked the: I’ll love you forever part."
"I do." I re-iterated and confirmed my eternal debt.
Shyly, he offered "well maybe we can go out for a drink sometime; since you’re new I could show you around town."
"Absolutely," I agreed, "anytime". He pulled out some paper, asked for my number and happily I wrote down the right one. We waved bye as he disappeared down the hallway.
I flopped on my bed and started to write, it was the only thing I could do to capture the impromptu madness of my first day, in my first apartment in New York.
Oi veh.

© Annie Lalla Feb 2008

this 10 min story told out loud in my own voice: damsel, distressed

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