A ruckus on the sidewalk outside my front window. A woman tearing at a man’s jacket with both hands. The man punching her in the stomach and chest, her shoulders, wherever he can land a blow. I run outside and try to break it up.
I’m screaming: Stop it. Don’t touch her.
He stole my money, the woman is saying. He won’t give it to me.
The man becomes rigid with indignation when he sees I’m getting in his way.
She is a prostitute, he shouts. There are faces in the windows across the street. A few people have opened their front doors. He turns and runs around the front of the car idling at the curb and jumps into driver’s seat.
The woman lurches at the car, grabbing the passenger door. The car tears away from the sidewalk. The woman’s body goes limp and she presses her hand to her forehead, as if to hold herself upright. Then she collapses on my front step.
He hurt me, she says. I need that money to get home.
She is probably 22 or 23 and she’s addicted to something ravaging.
Whatever it is, it’s new in town.
I had been on a reading tour with a bunch of writers five years ago and an Irish poet talked about the recent collapse of the economy in Ireland.
I’d said, Newfoundland is in the middle of an oil boom.
The poet said, Well, you better say hello to organized crime and hard street drugs.
I have lived in an old three-storey row house in downtown St. John’s for a little over 20 years. The bay window of my living room looks out onto the street and across from me there’s a grassy traffic island full of mature maples. Two years ago, because of a ‘Shame the Johns’ campaign one block south, a prostitution ring moved up to our street.
Every night for the last two years, young women stand on the corner of the island, or walk down the centre of the road with their cellphones glowing, a pale phosphorescent green.
Even in winter, the women wear flat slip-on shoes with no socks, and sometimes just a cotton hoodie over their jeans. I have seen the sharp bone of a bare ankle sink into puddles of slush.
The field behind the houses across the street is littered with needles and earlier this morning there were clots of blood and vomit splattered over the fresh white snow.
Since the women moved up to our street there is a constant, crawling flow of traffic that circles the block, mostly pick-up trucks or souped-up cars with men at the wheel. They drive beside me when I walk home, the vehicle keeping pace with my stride. I walk past my front door so that they won’t know where I live. I tell my daughter to do the same. My thirteen-year-old son is watchful.
Often the trucks pull up into the parking lot of the church across the street where I walk my dog, a black and white English Setter. The trucks will park in the corners of the dark lot with a single dome light burning, a woman in the passenger seat, while the dog tears through the drifts, kicking up snow.
One night my dog wouldn’t come when I called. A truck pulled up into the parking lot and circled me three times, each tight circle cutting off my path to the street. I felt for my keys and threaded them between my fingers. Finally the dog galloped toward me out of the dark and the truck pulled out onto the street and was gone.
Twenty years ago we used to leave the front door unlocked and at times, in the middle of the night, it would blow open. We would wake at three or four in the morning to the sound of revellers walking up from downtown after the bars had closed. Somebody would stick his head in the front porch and yell up the stairs to us while we slept: Hey, your door is open. I’m just going to close it for you, have a good night.
Now we keep the doors locked, even during the day. We aren’t afraid of the prostitutes, or even the johns, who for the most part are pathetic and callous, alone and getting old. We don’t really know what we are afraid of. Something getting inside, something worse coursing through.
My daily commute is like a small gear of mechanical time, of epicycles upon epicycles, where days turn to months and to years, and the seasons cycle through. The rhythms of time are constant, but the changes they bring are not.
We all noticed Le Gounod 1, a boxy (ugly) new condo building, but we didn’t care much. New people in the neighbourhood, we thought. Maybe the local diner, Nick: Le Roi du Sous-Marin, will get more business. Nick’s reacted by introducing a “Bring-your-own-wine” policy.