This is a 100% true story that happened two days before my mother returned from Florida.
The door bell rang at 3AM, and I wasn’t sure whether it was a dream or reality. I staggered out of bed, my eyes half closed, fumbling in the dark for my glasses. I banged my foot against three enormous piles of laundry, a reminder to myself to do a major wash in the morning. I was naked, with nothing clean to wear to bed.
I live on the first floor of an eight-story apartment building in Queens, and except for the infrequent rumblings of the early morning delivery truck to the Red Apple supermarket, this time of night usually cloaks the neighborhood in a sleepy black silence.
“Who is going to ring my doorbell at 3AM?” I asked myself, as I reached the front door. It must have been a dream.
I turned around, backtracked my steps, and slid back into the bed, covering myself with the warmth of the comforter.
Quiet returned, but only for a moment. I heard a sound more ominous than the doorbell. It was the jingle-jangle twisting of the front doorknob! I jumped up and ran to the front door. There was not doubt anymore. Someone was on the other side, trying to turn the knob. What the hell was going on? The door was locked, and there was no sound of any key being used. Was it my mother, returning home early from Florida? Was it my mother’s friend, Margaret, an eighty year old woman who lived down the hall, who has a history of heart trouble? Did she need my help?
The person outside my door cleared his throat. It was clearly a man.
I should have called the police. I should have asked, “Who is it?” I should have looked through the peephole, but I imagined a huge, blood-shot eye starting back at me. The best approach was to remain quiet, giving no sign that I was hiding in the darkness. Was I afraid? Yes. But I was more confused at my failure to understand.
The man cleared his throat again and headed down the hall. His gait was distinctive, like a peg-legged pirate.
Clip Clop Clip Clop.
My imagination was going wild. Why would there be a peg-legged pirate in Flushing, Queens trying to break into my apartment at 3AM?
Clip Clop Clip Clop.
It didn’t matter. He was leaving. But then the steps grew loud again.
Clip Clop Clip Clop.
He was returning to my door!
A shadow blocked the thin ray of light coming from the bottom of the door. The doorknob jangled. It was like being in a real-life Hitchcock film. I was on one side of the door, the dark side, naked and vulnerable, protected only by an ancient safety bolt. He was on the other side, inches away. I imagined him bathed in the florescent-yellow energy-efficient hallway lights.
There was a secondary lock on the front door — a simple chain and latch. We never bothered to use it. Holding my hand as steady as a surgeon and as quiet as a ninja, I inserted the chain’s peg into the lock’s hole, adding an extra 3% protection.
And then I went back to bed and promptly fell asleep.
No, I cannot adequately explain my action, other than to use a theatrical term. My tired brain needed an act break.
Act Two opens with another ringing of the door bell, this time at 7AM. Sunlight was peeking into the room, giving me the courage to find out what is going on. I decided to answer the front door. I needed some clothes to wear. I opened my dresser to find something, but with every piece of clothing dirty, I could only find one clean item to cover myself.
I unlatched the chain, and opened the door, wearing a red and yellow bathing suit.
It was Margaret, my mother’s friend, the 80 year old woman from down the hall. She handed me a letter that was accidentally placed in her mail box. She looked exhausted, her eyes sunken. I thanked her, but as she walked away, the events of last night flooded my brain, and I wondered if I misjudged the situation. Perhaps it WAS Margaret at my door last night, needing my help, and I ignored her.
I ran after her, still in my bathing suit and bare feet, leaving my door ajar.
“Margaret,” I yelled, “Are you OK? Is something the matter?”
“I’m just tired,” she said. “I was up all night. You see, at 3:30 in the morning, this man rang my doorbell, waking me up.”
“He did?” I asked, confused. “And what happened?”
For one thing, Margaret was braver than me. She OPENED her front door, thinking it might be ME. The “pirate” turned out to be an elderly man from the sixth floor, a gentleman with Alzheimer’s. Wearing only his bathrobe, and using a cane (explaining his pirate gait,) the man took the elevator and wandered onto our floor, the first floor, ringing doorbells and asking to use the bathroom.
Margaret didn’t allow him into her apartment, not knowing him personally, but early that morning, she went down to the office to tell the manager to contact his family.
“And how are you?” she asked, changing the subject.
“I’m fine,” I said. “I might have heard a doorbell last night too, but I thought it was a dream.”
I was too embarrassed to tell her the truth, to expose myself as a coward. I felt ashamed at my behavior. I should have opened the door — fearlessly — and did something to help this man.
Margaret entered her apartment, and I headed back to my own. When I reached my door, I saw that the wind had blown my door closed. I was locked out of my own apartment. Luckily, my mother had given a spare key to a neighbor — Margaret.
I rang Margaret’s door bell, and no one answered. I rang again. Nothing. I assumed she was now in the shower, or on the toilet, and knowing how age made it hard for her to stand and sit, I might have to wait. And I waited — for at least fifteen minutes.
As I stood there, ringing Margaret’s bell, other tenants started to leave their apartment.
Art Gold, the plumber, went off to work. Ms. Kawasaki left apartment 1M, rushing her twin boys to school. The Orthodox guy in the black hat was off to morning prayers. All of them stared at me, looking unfriendly.
Suddenly, I figured it out. I was wearing a bathing suit and no shoes. And worse than that, the elderly man must have rang EVERYONE’S doorbell last night, wanting to use their bathroom. And now, they all think it was ME!
“Just waiting for Margaret,” I told Ms. Kawasaki. “She’s probably in the bathroom.”
“Uh-huh,” she said, pulling her twins along.
Eventually, I got the spare key and went back to bed. An hour later, my mother called. The rumor mill had already found its way down to Boca Raton.
“What WERE you doing in the hall last night?” asked my mother. I told her the story, and that I wasn’t really walking around the hallway in my bathing suit (another lie), which developed into a discussion about families we knew dealing with the tragedy of Alzheimer’s.