Arts & Culture Police & Fire

Copp’s Hill Moment: False Alarm

(A confrontation with vandals leads to danger in the street.)

Fire call box by Tom SchiavoniIt was a cold Sunday evening in December about 10 years ago when I heard drunken shouts in the street below. I didn’t even budge from the couch in our 4th-floor apartment and chalked up the yelling and alcohol-fueled expletives to a close-scoring NHL game at nearby Boston Garden. I assumed that the beer concessions had been flowing freely for a sold-out crowd late into the final period of a hotly-contested hockey match. I also supposed that inebriated Bruins fans were staggering up the hill like penguins to illegally-parked vehicles. Their owners likely knew that the roving meter maids would probably knock off early on a chilly night. But, at the crash of metal against the pavement, I bolted to the window and spied a toppled street sign pried off a pole by a boozed-up group of young men looking for a late-night souvenir before retreating to the suburbs.

Why I didn’t stop to dial 911, I’ll never know. It was a visceral reaction. My neighborhood was being violated. Something snapped in my frontal lobe. Without a moment’s reflection, I raced down four flights of stairs to the sidewalk. With grey thinning hair and a middle-age paunch at my equator, I guess I assumed that I had diplomatic immunity or that I looked completely harmless. (NOTE: This form of rationalization is referred to as ‘magical thinking’ by psychiatrists.)

At the building entrance, I slammed the outer door behind me and instinctively patted my trouser pockets for my keys. Had I just locked myself out? Like jackals startled from a blood meal of freshly-killed prey, five young men spun around, eyeing me with a combination of suspicion and menace. At their feet was a memorial plaque recalling the death of a neighborhood kid who had served in World War II and never came home. Such commemorative markers can be found all over Boston. They transform the intersection of two humble streets into a “square” dedicated to a local fallen hero.

With my hands thrust into my pockets, I meekly approached the wild beasts.

“Ok, guys. Leave that sign there. It honors a man who gave his life for his country. Please just leave now.”

One of them snarled – soon joined by the others in a barrage of obscenities. I will leave out their four-letter words, but not their standby alternate three-letter F-word.:

“You old fag. Get out of here!”

Now you would think that I would be stammering at this point. Pounding heart. Elevated systolic rate. All kinds of stuff racing through my mind as I approached such a crazed gang. But I wasn’t. I found myself strangely puzzled by the word “fag”. What was the connection between vandalism and homophobia? I wondered.

Veterans Sign Square by Tom SchiavoniI froze in place: “We don’t need any trouble. We’re not looking for a problem. Please, just leave now.”

My soft-spoken entreaty wasn’t scoring any points.

“What did you say, you fag?”

This was screamed over and over and over in high pitched hyena-like voices. I now realized that we would be going into overtime play in this macho showdown.

I moved from the front of their parked van towards the rear and ever so slowly pulled a pen from a trouser pocket. Amid the raised voices and derision, I began to scrawl the license plate number on the palm of my hand. The black ink was smudged by sweat, but still legible.

I was now surrounded – so closely that I smelled their beer breath. One man snatched the fine point pen from my grasp and held it in a stabbing clench inches from my carotid artery. That’s when I realized that we might be skating into sudden death overtime. I visualized a fatal puncture wound and spurting blood that could not be stanched. I was incredulous and thought about my parochial school teacher, Sister Paschalina who admonished her second graders to always make a perfect act of contrition when death was near. Maybe this was it, I thought.

Oh, my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee, and I detest all my sins … and what was I doing here and how was I going to get out of this jam?

“You fag. What are you going to do now?”

I looked down at the asphalt as if to ponder that question. From the corner of my eye, I spied the red pole. Still corralled by the beer-breathed thugs, I inched my way backwards. I was now pinned against a fire call box. I could feel the cold hard steel against my shoulder when I – again very slowly – pivoted on my heel and yanked the emergency lever. A whirring sound from within the mechanism meant that a signal was being routed to central dispatch.

“I can’t believe it. Do you see what he just did?”

The young men were astounded. I, on the other hand, was positively cheerful, even jaunty now that I knew that the entire opposing team was about to be sent to the penalty box. That is, if I could keep on my feet and stay alive.

“Gentlemen, you have about two and a half minutes before a fire truck and a police car respond to that call and block you in. “

They piled into the van, gunned the engine and, in a screech, careened down the hill, leaving me behind to explain to the firemen leaping from a hook-and-ladder just how I had gotten myself into such a pickle. They shrugged wearily and instructed me to wait for an approaching cruiser so that I could tell the officers why a middle-aged guy without a coat was standing in the street on a cold December evening.

When I finally returned to the apartment after my ‘adventure’, I was out of breath. But, it was not from the exertion of climbing four flights of stairs. In a delayed response, a rush of adrenalin started to kick in. I was relieved to find my wife still asleep because, with a pounding heart, now I could skip the instant replay.


From Boston’s North End, Thomas F. Schiavoni writes about neighborhood life and city living.

This incident was dramatized in a MassMouth story-slam competition on YouTube at: “Where I’m From” Story Slam – Thomas Schiavoni.

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