Saturday, March 31, 2012

Surveillance: Party Lines and Water Glasses

At the risk of sounding like some troglodyte, I'm going to start this post with the reminder that when we were growing up in the 1950s/60s, phones were black devices that sat on hallway tables and each house had only one; TVs showed images in black and white, we had 3-5 channels, and each house had only 1 (usually located in the "parlor" -- living room was a term coined later); and people talked to each other face-to-face, usually across a cup of coffee or tea, to catch up on what had happened that day.  Our "entertainment" was simple and wholesome, for the most part, but when the gossip got "hot," the only way others found out was the beat of the tom-tom -- that sharing of info that usually happened in kitchens or back porches, transmitted by women who wore aprons to cook dinner and who wrapped their hair in bristly pink rollers every night before they went to bed.  Those women were our mothers.

It is only now that I look back to the projects where I grew up that I realize just how "entertaining" the stories of other people's family business was to my mother and her sisters (my aunts).  Though they usually shoo'd us out of the room as they stirred sugar into their tea and shared shortbread cookies, many times I chanced punishment and sat behind the kitchen door, holding my breath, to hear the latest gossip.  But sometimes I was lucky and the gossip happened right in front of me.  Such was the case with what transpired with the family who lived next door to us.

Though I don't remember their names, I do remember the faces of the female members of the family whose voices traveled through the paper-thin walls that separated our apartments.  The mother:  thin, hollow dark circles under her eyes, black straight hair to her shoulders, a frightened grimace that stretched her mouth every time she tried to smile (which wasn't often).  She wore gray or light blue shirtdresses, never shorts or peddle-pushers like the other women in the neighborhood.  Most of the time, she ventured outside her apartment only to hang her wet clothes on the clotheslines strung down the middle of the center of the projects. And when she did go out, she didn't talk to anyone, except my mother, and only occasionally.

The two daughters resembled their mother so closely that they could have been miniature versions of her.  The older one, only a year or two younger than I, had large brown eyes, the kind you see on an animal ready to be slaughtered.  The younger one, probably a year or two younger than my sister, tended to laugh a bit more often than her sister or her mother, as if she had no clue what her life would be like a few years later.  I think back now and wonder whether I might have noticed bruises on either of them, but at that point in time, it was normal for kids to be regularly spanked so I probably wouldn't have thought it was unusual.  I had bruises myself from time to time.

I mention the bruises because it was the mother who sported black eyes so often that there would be weeks she didn't come out of the house and my mother would hang her clothes out for her or offer to cook something for dinner.  The stories surrounding what happened to our neighbor brought the afternoon tea/gossip to a hush.  I think everyone in the neighborhood knew something horrible happened in the apartment next door to us, but no one ever said anything, until that night.

The three of us kids shared a bedroom on the second floor of our apartment and the staircase downstairs acted as our "buffer wall," but there were evenings that even that dead space couldn't stop the screams and thuds coming from the apartment next door.  On one of those nights when the noises woke me up, I padded into the hallway.  When I reached the top of the stairs, the sounds of a woman screaming and crying were so clear, she could have been downstairs.  Rubbing my eyes, I started downstairs, and I saw my parents crouched at the bottom of the stairs, heads together, talking so animatedly between them that they didn't notice me.  It wasn't until I was within a step of them that I noticed my mother holding one of our juice glasses to the wall and pressing her ear against it.  She saw me in that instant, held up a hand to indicate I shouldn't speak, and said quietly to my father, "Don, we need to call the police.  He's going to kill her tonight."

They argued for a few moments.  My father didn't want to get involved.  My mother thought they didn't have a choice.  Each of them concerned that if they stepped in, either they would have to take care of the woman or, on the other hand, the man might unload his anger on them rather than on his own family.

I think of how long the argument ensued now and how I ended up in that woman's same predicament many years later, and I wonder why my parents waited so long to offer that poor woman the help and safety she needed.  But that was another time, a time when men had the "right" to "punish" their wives and children without interference from others.  It breaks my heart that the cries of our neighbor went unheard until that night when my mother finally won the argument and made the call to the police.  Ironically, our phone was a party line and my father had to interrupt the people we shared the phone with in order to make the call to the police.  That is another story, but finally, he was able to dial out and within moments, the sirens and blue lights filled our neighborhood.

The next day, the projects erupted with the story of how the father had been dragged away in handcuffs that night, about how bloody and beaten the mother had been, and about the silent children who clung to their mother as she was taken to the hospital, about the children who had no other family members to take care of them, about the children who were so bruised along their backbones and legs that their skin was no longer white.

The father never came back to the neighborhood.  I'm unsure to this day whether he was simply thrown in jail or whether he chose to desert his family.  But I do remember that the mother started coming to our kitchen to share tea and cookies with my mother after the bruises healed and about how she started smiling and laughing before she and her two girls finally had to move.

Perhaps we have more privacy now, but I wonder if it's worth it.  I wonder if all of our societal "party lines and water glasses" make for our global neighborhoods now, but if someone hears us crying on the other side of the wall, are they still likely to pick up that phone to save us, or would they be more inclined to switch the channel or to send another message on Facebook before taking the step and the chance of endangering their own safety to intrude on our family life and speak about what is right.

Though my mother never had a license to drive and never worked, though she never went to college and often didn't go out of the house for weeks on end, she knew that a husband didn't beat those he loved and she knew how to fight for what was right and how to reach out to those in danger.  There aren't many times I can remember that have made me more proud of my mother than the night she tore the screen off the tragedy that almost happened in the apartment next door to us, and I think if that woman and her children are still alive, they probably sent up more than one "thank you" to my mother for the gift of life and independence she gave them.

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