A couple Thursdays ago, after new student orientation for my night job, Grace, my friend and boss, gave me a ride home. We drove along talking and laughing. On Dean Street, almost to Classon, we saw two women on the right hand sidewalk, fighting. One was holding a baby, waving at passing cars, calling out for someone to help her, to call 911. Grace pulled over immediately … which illustrates a significant difference between me and my friend. Yes, I saw the need for help. And I wanted to help. And maybe I would have helped … but people fighting scare me, and I wanted to help from a slight remove.
I pulled out my phone and dialed as Grace got out of the car and walked over to the still fighting women. They were struggling hard, maybe fighting over possession of the baby, but fighting so hard that the baby almost fell head first to the street. The young woman — child, by her looks — kept calling out, “This is my baby. He’s my baby!” When Grace said we were calling 911, the other woman ran off. This should have made me feel better, but didn’t. Maybe the thought of the police had scared her off, but maybe she’d just gone for back up. And I figured she’d have time to come back with who or whatever she went to find because the 911 dispatcher seemed singularly uninterested in the situation. “There are two women fighting over a baby? Alright. Where are you? You pulled over? What for?”
It was about 20 degrees out, and the young woman had on a t-shirt. The baby was snuggled up in a thick fleece suit, but his mother may as well have been naked. Grace had her come sit in the car. They were beautiful, the girl and her baby . But really beautiful. The mom, Janelle, was 18 (though she looked 15). Turned out that the woman she’d been fighting was her mother. Her mother had thrown her out of the house, so Janelle had bundled up Jamar in his fleece suit and picked up her phone to call for help. The phone was what set the fight off. Her mother wanted the phone, or didn’t want Janelle to call anyone. Or something. She had chased her daughter and grandson out to the street to. get. the. phone. She had almost caused her grandson to fall head first to the ground to. get. the. phone.
Did Janelle have somewhere to go? No. Her family live in Pennsylvania and North Carolina. (Turned out her family is from Fayetteville, just like my father.) What about Jamar’s daddy? He lived in Manhattan but wasn’t an option. Grace apologized for all the personal questions, talked about the fact that we work in a program for kids a lot like Janelle. Did she need to get her GED?
We hung out in the car for a while. Grace held the baby, both of us cooed over him. We saw a couple of police cars cruise past on Classon without stopping. I called 911 again. I got a different dispatcher, of course, so I took a moment to bring him up to speed. He found the record of my first call.
“Yes, here’s the call. Are you still fighting for the baby?”
“I was never fighting over the baby. I called to get help.”
“So is the fight still going on?”
“No, even when I was on the phone the first time, one of the women ran off. I told that to the dispatcher.”
“So what are you waiting for?”
“You. We’re still sitting here with the young woman with her baby. We were told the police were on their way.”
“What do you mean, you’re sitting there with the woman?”
“We’re in our car. We had her come sit in our car.”
Why were we talking? He was judging our decision to help? “It’s cold out here. She has no coat. She has a baby with her. We put her in the car. Where are the police?”
“They’ll be there as soon as possible.”
I had my doubts. We waited a while longer. Janelle was on and off the phone with her aunt in Pennsylvania. The aunt was willing to take her in … but not until the next day. The aunt called Janelle’s mother then back to Janelle. The mother was ‘full of remorse,’ really sorry for everything, willing to have Janelle and Jamar come back for the night and put them on a bus to Pennsylvania in the morning. Janelle was willing to trust her aunt and go back to the house for the night. I had my doubts about that, too.
Just as she was getting ready to get out of the car — give up on the cops and just go back to the house — I noticed a police car parked down the block behind us on the other side of the street. Grace and I got out and waved at them. They were the response to our call. Why were they sitting half a block away? Good question. Studying the situation, I guess, wondering why there was no visible fighting going on, perhaps. So frustrating and disappointing.
They pulled alongside and gave me the fisheye, clearly thinking I was one of the fighting women and that Grace was the foolish do-gooder who’d gotten herself involved in my drama. “Dispatch said you had no coat,” the non-driving officer said. Yeah. So this was the point? We drew their attention to Janelle. “So you’re not fighting now. What can we do?” We helped them understand that Janelle and I were never fighting, trying hard not to accuse them of jumping to conclusions based on the fact that Janelle and I are black and Grace is white. They still didn’t see any way that they could help. We suggested that perhaps they might like to escort Janelle home, make sure she was going to be safe. Janelle had gotten out of the car, was once again standing in the icy cold with no coat. The cop wanted to pull over and walk her home because she didn’t live too far away. While he was saying that, I was putting Janelle and Jamar in the back seat and Grace told them to drive to the house, pointed out the miserable cold and Janelle’s t-shirt. More frustration and disappointment.
Janelle waved goodbye to us and the car pulled away. Grace drove me home. We tried to process it, but what could we say? We were both surprised by how easily Janelle got in the car when Grace invited her. To get in a car with one stranger is hard enough, but she climbed in with two strangers. Without a moment’s hesitation. Was that the cold, the level of her desperation, the fact that Grace and I couldn’t possibly look in any way dangerous? I don’t know. I’m glad she got in, though, glad she knew she could trust us. I wish I’d felt so sure about the police officers.
More than a week has passed, and I haven’t stopped thinking about Janelle. There’s no way to know what happened, to know if or how she got through that night, to know if she left for Pennsylvania the next day, to know anything.