Sunday in the City

You’re a privileged white woman who wants to disprove the stereotypes, so when a young black man walks toward you along the sparsely populated East River jogging path this Sunday afternoon just after New Year’s, you do more than meet his eyes. You smile.

But he doesn’t smile back. Instead, he raises his fist. With a single punch—and a blade between his fingers—he rips open the flesh between your hairline and the corner of your eye. Then, unflustered, he keeps walking north; you stumble south, your hands clutching your forehead.

Fire! you yell, because you remember that safety snippet about bystanders being more willing to assist fire victims. It’s a cold, atypically quiet day; you’ve passed no baby strollers and only a few leashed dogs on your jog. But after a few moments one man—white, about your father’s age—sees you. He doesn’t hesitate. He tries to calm you while calling 911 and looking for someone—presumably, a large, vigorous, and utterly fearless someone—who might catch the attacker.

So much blood. If you’d attended medical school, like so many of your Ivy League friends, you’d know that the head bleeds profusely. You’d understand that this unstoppable liquid staining your blue fleece jacket and soaking your fingers as they pull and press together the edges of your wound isn’t necessarily catastrophic. But for now, you are ignorant. Something from a long-ago first-aid class tells you that you should sit, or maybe even lie down on the chilly ground, to keep the blood from pumping down as well as out from your head.

Still, you begin to crumble, because you can hear that the 911 operator just doesn’t understand this nice man on the phone and can’t figure out exactly where you are, on this walkway between the park and the river, where there isn’t a cross street. Or any street. The ambulance will get there too late, and you will die without seeing your family again, the last image before your eyes your own bloodstained fingers and the pigeons flying above the waterline.

The nice man keeps trying to calm you between his diligent efforts to enlighten the dispatcher. Another stranger joins the pair of you.

“She wants to call her parents,” the first man says. “Can you give her your phone?”

The newcomer, who also appears to be a prosperous white man in his sixties, hesitates. “So much blood,” he says. “I don’t want all that blood on my phone.”

You almost laugh. You envision your father responding similarly. He can be squeamish; he doesn’t regret that you and your sister were born in a time and a hospital that barred him from the delivery room.

The first man, who had placed his jacket around your shoulders while waiting for the 911 dispatcher to get with the program, seems annoyed. A compromise is reached: the second man will call your parents himself. They’re back in the city from their holiday, unpacking groceries in their apartment. An hour ago, before you began your jog along the river, your father had stopped by to drop off a bagful for you. He knows that you’re nearly 40, that you’ve lived on your own for almost two decades, that your steady paycheck renders you entirely capable of purchasing groceries. But he’s the son of Holocaust refugees; he simply must bring you groceries. Just in case.

You manage to recite your parents’ phone number. When you hear your mother’s cheerful Hello—and somehow, you can hear it clearly even down there on the ground—you nearly weep.

More people gather. The asphalt is cold beneath you, and that extra jacket isn’t sufficient. You’re shaking, as the man with the phone will soon tell a New York Times reporter.

The paramedics materialize. They promise that they will take care of you. You will be fine.

Almost simultaneously, your father arrives. “Mom will meet us at the hospital,” he says. His voice is steady. He squeezes your hand. He tells the paramedics, when they ask, which hospital you prefer. He responds that yes, you would like to have a plastic surgeon available.

You can’t believe how well he is handling this. You’re proud of him.

They’ve wrapped your head in something. Gauze? Bandages? Your eyes are closed and covered. You are moved onto a stretcher and carried to wherever they managed to park the ambulance. It is your first time in an ambulance.

So much lies ahead. Three dozen stitches on your forehead. Nerves so jangled that you will be unable to sleep. Interview requests that you will decline (technically, your mother will decline them, because she won’t leave your side for days, and she intercepts all incoming phone calls). The news people will cover the story anyway, and you will be shocked to see your own image, culled from the Internet, flashing across your television screen.

And then, heartbreakingly, there will be the visit to the precinct to view a lineup. You won’t be able to identify the attacker, but oh, the shame and rage and other devastation you will read on the faces of the men assembled on the other side of the glass, emotions that you will also see etched into the old mug shots that the sketch artist will ask you to review down at One Police Plaza not too many days later. At those moments, you will again want to weep, guilt pressing behind your eyes and in your heart, because you are facing this trauma (and everyone assures you that it is, indeed, a trauma) with privileges and resources that none of these men will ever possess.

But all of that rests in your future. In this moment, on the stretcher in the ambulance, you hear the door shut. Your father continues to hold your hand, tightly. The sirens wail.

Erika Dreifus lives in New York City. She is the author of Quiet Americans: Stories. Visit Erika online at and follow her on Twitter: @erikadreifus.