I bustled in the door at half past 8 last night, buzzing with energy. After unwinding over a glass of wine at the kitchen table, I filled in Jason from the day’s events as he idly tinkered with my Macbook Air that had unceremoniously died in the middle of the afternoon. I sipped my wine as we shared peppered tidbits from our days: Breakfast in the suburbs. Our daughter’s hug with a friend at the playground. Scheduling our week around the next two Broadway show openings on his radar.
We let the breeze roll in through the windows out front as I interrupted, just briefly, to say, “It’s really great to come home to this apartment after being away all day.”
“It’s pretty great, isn’t it?” he replied.
And then — a rapid series of popping sounds. 8, 10, 12.
“Fireworks?” he asked, but I knew better.
“No,” I said solemnly, sitting up straighter. A final pop rang out and it confirmed what I’d worried all along. “Gunshots.”
We stared at each other wide-eyed across the table and I raced to the window to hear a woman on the street shout out, “Duck for cover!” Then I shut the windows and we turned off all of the lights. And waited.
Violence is an unfortunate part of life, of course. It happens everywhere in the U.S. to some degree, but it does tend to be a reason that some people avoid urban city centers. The idea that you might get shot at any street corner is just too much randomness to process.
By some accounts, things in New York seem to be getting worse. As of mid-August of this year, more than 1,100 people in New York City had been shot — which The New York Times estimates as “roughly double” the year to date numbers from 2017 to 2019.
Whether that is a lot or a little depends on a lot of factors, of course. One way to look at it is by sheer numbers. 2,000 shootings a year out of a city of 8.5 million people means that about .02% of people are impacted by shootings. You might look at that and think, “Yeah, I suppose that’s about right. When people are packed on top of each other in crazy pandemic conditions, it makes some sense that people snap about .02% of the time.”
But then you might turn your mind to Tokyo, the most populated city in the world with more than 37 million people. But somehow, that country, with its 127 million people, rarely sees more than 10 gun deaths a year. So maybe it’s not just “how it goes sometimes” in cities.
The question is, where do you draw the line? And what do you do when it’s happening on your street corner?
In times of stress, your mind tends to latch onto little things. For me, I fixate. And at that moment last night, after placing a 9-1-1 call to report what we’d heard, I focused on the next pressing thing: The food delivery person who was en route to our apartment at that moment.
I knew that just a couple of weeks ago, there’d been an incident just a few blocks away where a food delivery person was stabbed while en route to his destination.
What kind of monster would I be, to invite a stranger to bring me food into an unknown active shooting scene? I decided to get in touch with the restaurant and ask them to not deliver my order.
So while my husband set about investigating what was going on with police scanner activity and social media traffic, I contacted first the restaurant (who didn’t answer) and then ultimately the Seamless support line for delivery services.
“Hi, I’m just trying to intercept and cancel my order because I heard gunshots on the street corner and I don’t think anyone should come here right now,” I gushed out, hurriedly.
“I apologize for your frustration,” said the customer service associate, apparently reading off a script that wasn’t quite primed for this particular situation. “It appears as though this order has already been dispatched by the restaurant and is in progress.”
“I know it’s already been dispatched, I don’t really care about that, but I just don’t think it’s a good idea to send someone here now for safety reasons. Can you convey that message?”
The minutes ticked by as I was transferred and then put on hold on another escalated customer service line, where I was guaranteed multiple times that my food order would be refunded in full before they finally confirmed the cancellation request.
“Is there anything else you will be needing tonight?” asked the attendant.
“No thank you,” I answered quickly.
“Thank you ma’am and have a nice night,” he said. I flinched. He laughed nervously and that was the end of the call.
I breathed a sigh of relief and then turned back to my husband.
“Sorry about your dinner,” he said.
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I think I’ll have that beer now,” he said.
We sat down at the table together and turned to Twitter.
The unease crept around us both as we pieced together the story over the course of the evening and morning.
A man and a woman had been shot. It happened in the courtyard behind the building on the same corner of our block, which is why we heard it ricochet so distinctly from our apartment. Nobody seems to have died. The gun was found. The shooter is still at large.
We sat across from each other at the table and asked, “How worried should we be right now?”
First, there was the “close call” stuff. That we’d both been right in front of that building, on that corner, just twenty minutes earlier, was one level of unease. If I’d decided to take the subway home instead of a taxi, I would have been arriving at the intersection right as it all went down.
Second, there was the extrapolation question. Does the incidence of one violent event in your proximity increase or decrease the odds of another? Is there any correlation at all? What’s the right way to think about the level of risk, practically speaking?
Third, of course, was the future-state question. What will things look like when our daughter walks around that exact block to walk herself to school in a few years? Will things be better then, or worse?
In so many ways, we are lucky. The crime in New York City has disproportionately impacted some neighborhoods far more than others. We are incredibly fortunate to live in a neighborhood where we are asking ourselves these questions for the first time. Where incidents like this are a rarity as opposed to a regular occurrence. And yet…
Five minutes into our existential crisis, our doorbell rang. I crept outside and carefully called out, “Hello?” into the ether, then saw the telltale sign of a bike helmet from a delivery person.
I cursed under my breath and greeted him urgently: “Hey, thank you for coming here, but you know I tried to cancel this order because we just heard gunshots on the street corner. Be careful on your route right now.”
“Oh yeah,” he said, and shrugged in the direction of the police activity on the corner, then trotted away as usual.
I suppose he’s seen it all before. Like it or not, the city keeps moving.