The Perils of Politeness

I’m half British, and while my father never actually said the words “stiff upper lip” or “be a good soldier,” the attitude was instilled in me early. Be calm under pressure, don’t make a fuss, try not to be a bother. Add to this growing up in the south, and I can be ridiculously polite. When I was in fourth grade, I was standing near the classroom door when my teacher left, shutting the door behind her. Somehow my thumb had gotten in between the door and the jam, so as she tried repeatedly to close the door, my thumb got smashed over and over. A normal kid would have screamed. I just went silent, and probably green, as something alerted my friend Jenny that something was wrong, causing her to scream, “Miss Fuglar, look!” Miss Fuglar opened the door, saw what had happened, and asked if I was fine. I was nodding that I was fine as blood was pouring from my mashed thumb. I did let them call my mom to take me home that time.

My last apartment in Austin was in an old converted house, three apartments downstairs, two up, my efficiency and a one bedroom. The floors sloped, my closet was in the kitchen, and there wasn’t enough hot water in the winter to make the walk from my warm bed across the cold apartment to the freezing shower seem worth it most mornings. The building had no central heat, or heat of any kind, just individual electric radiators. The wiring was old, so you had to remember to turn off the heater if you wanted to turn on any other appliance with a heating element. I ran into my neighbor from the other upstairs apartment most mornings that first winter, downstairs by the circuit box. We’d nod at each other. ‘Hair dryer,” I’d say. “Coffee maker, again,” she’d reply. And then back to our apartments. That was the extent of our relationship. Polite and a little reserved, that’s me.

The place had lovely old wooden sash windows, but the system of ropes and weights that make them work properly were long gone, so you had to use a piece of wood to prop them open, and be careful closing them so they didn’t slam suddenly and shatter the panes; they were really heavy. Come spring, I was opening the window beside my bed most days, to get a nice breeze through. It opened up on to the flat part of the roof, so I could climb out and sit there and pretend I had a roof deck. Seeing as the raccoons had no trouble climbing up the tree out front and also using my roof deck, I closed the window at night. I was in my ratty tank top and boxers one night, in bed, and leaned over to close the window. Took the wood out, carefully put one hand on the lower sash to steady it as I lowered it, and then felt a snap as the pane my hand was on broke, and pain as my hand slid through and was stuck between the two sashes of the window. Completely, totally, stuck. No way to free it with my other hand. And the telephone was on the floor, inches out of reach to dial 911 for help.

Now, I’m pretty calm in a crisis. I’m the person you want when things go ape shit, because I keep it together, don’t freak out at the sight of blood, just get it done and get through it. But at that moment, I started to freak out. It’s ten o-clock at night, I’m alone, my heavy front door is locked and bolted, my hand is jammed in the window and hurting more by the minute, and the phone is just there. Useless. On the floor. I have no plan, no idea what to do.

I started half-heartedly calling for help. I wasn’t even sure what kind of help to call for, I figured the fire department was the best bet, they’d be able to break down the door, and likely have tools to get my damn hand out which the cops wouldn’t. And they say people are more likely to respond by calling 911 if you cry “Fire!” than anything else. But there was no fire, and I’m oddly truthful, even when my hand is trapped in a damn window and I really need help. At another apartment, my oven caught on fire, and I just stood there staring at it as the temperature dial melted off, not wanting to call the fire department because it was just a little oven and I didn’t want to bother them with it. Yes, I have issues. That time I had access to a phone and called my landlord and he reminded me I had a fire extinguisher. Ok, so I’m not perfect in a crisis, but I am calm.

But I couldn’t reach the phone this time, no matter how hard I tried. And I was trying, stretching, wondering if I could dial with my feet. Nope. I was alone and stuck. I can be really loud when needed, and I think something in my overly polite head finally clicked on that this would be a time it was needed, and I started really calling out for help. Not sure what I was yelling, I think basically “Help me, I’m trapped, please help me,” or the like. I didn’t have much hope of success. It was late, there was no one walking around outside. I was envisioning being left there for days, wasting away, until my cats started chewing on me for sustenance. The sturdy wooden door, with its strong locks, really had me worried. Even if I did manage to summon help, how would they get in? Would they have axes? They would need an axe, and would my landlord take the damage out of my deposit?

Finally, my neighbor, whose window was next to mine, heard me and called out to find out what was wrong. I explained the situation, hand stuck in window, phone out of reach, door locked. She said she’d go get the building manager and be right back.

I’d forgotten about the building manager. Because he wasn’t so much a manager as a strange man who lived in a shack behind the building. It was like a tool shed, with a bunk for him to sleep. I never looked close enough to figure out what his cooking and bathing facilities were. He was a friendly guy, but gave off that vibe that made you automatically take a half step back, just needing that little extra bit of personal space. But any port in a storm, he had keys and tools, so bring on the creepy shaggy man! While I sat and waited in a stretched out tank top and baggy boxers, hand stuck in the window, wondering how much more ridiculous this situation would get, wishing I were wearing more clothes. Or just clothes that consistently covered everything needing covering.

It took a few minutes, but Shaggy got into my apartment, and my neighbor, a lovely woman who also happened to be a nurse, came along as well. He pried my hand free from the window. I’ve blocked exactly how painful it was, but I don’t think it was anything like the nice hand massage you get from the manicurist. My neighbor slapped an ice pack on my poor hand, and made herself comfortable on my bed, staking claim and making it clear to Shaggy that she’d be staying with the slightly freaked out girl in the gaping tank top, thanks so much for your help. He said he’d call the landlord about the window and would take care of fixing it and, after a few moments of awkward, left her to minister to me. For being stuck between two old, heavy wooden window sashes for about 1/2 an hour, my hand was oddly fine. It should have been crushed, bloody and bruised, but it was just a little scraped and swollen. My neighbor sat with me for a bit, making sure I was ok, then went back to her apartment. I called my parents and finally let myself freak out, hyperventilate and cry. I’m fine during the crisis, I wait to fall apart until it’s past.

The next morning, I woke to Shaggy replacing the broken window pane, sitting on my roof outside, mere inches from my sleeping self. He was very friendly about it. Being groggy from sleep and a little surprised at being confronted by a strange man while still in bed, I think I managed to pull off polite thanks at his promptness in fixing it. And soon looked into curtains for that damn window. Double checked the locks I’d installed the autumn before.

I’ve extended my politeness to always make it a point to introduce myself to my neighbors now when I move to a new place, and say hi when I run into them around the property. You never know when you’ll be screaming for help in the dark of night, and you want neighbors who will come to your aid, not just turn up the TV to drown out the noise.

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August 10, 2010. Tags: , , . Life, the universe, and whatnot. 1 comment.