Saturday, August 8, 2009

Window Incident

It must have been summer, because I was home.

Mom had called the window washing service, and they came, the two of them. The older man, she knew from before. Another man, a younger man, came to do the job with him.

It was always exciting when the window washers came. It seemed such a perilous job, hanging from platforms and ropes and harnesses, all for the sole purpose of giving the well-heeled, those affluent enough to afford your services, the privilege of looking out of streak-free glass to whatever lay across their line of sight...Central Park, the Chrysler Building, the New Jersey Palisades.

In our case, it was just other brownstones and an Italian deli. We had four floors of windows in the front and four floors of windows in the back. Not too arduous a task.

They came in and went upstairs to start their work, the younger man in the front and the older man in the back. Mom did her work in the kitchen and I did my work, playing with my toys and following her around. After a spell, Mom took two glasses of ice water up to the top floor of our townhouse. It wasn't "our" floor, it was my dad's bachelor friend Bob's, but we all had access to all of the house.

"Here," Mom said to the older man as she handed the glass through the window to where he perched in his harness, "you must need a drink. Where's your partner? I thought he was up here too, but I didn't see him."

"Yes, he's up here," the older man said. 'He's out in the front."

"I was just there, I didn't see him," Mom said."He's there," the older man said.

"I didn't see him," Mom said.

I watched from window sill level as the older man climbed back in, unhooked his harness, and went with Mom to the front of the house. I followed, unnoticed.

A knot, just a little knot, formed in my stomach.

"See?" she said as they entered the front room of the top floor. It was an empty, unused room, one it felt strange to be in. The wide-open window stared back from the other side.The older man's face clouded. He rushed past Mom to the window, leaned out and looked down.

"Oh My God," he said, and turned and ran out of the room. Mom leaned out and looked down.

"Oh My God," she said, and turned and ran out of the room.

I was left there, alone, and tried a couple of times to jump high enough over the sill, to look down and see what they had just seen. I couldn't.

But I knew.

I turned around. Mom and the older man were gone, halfway downstairs by this point. I should go down too, I thought. But I didn't want to see what they were going down to see.

But I'm a little kid. I shouldn't be on the fourth floor next to an open window by myself. They shouldn't have rushed out so quickly and left me here alone, no matter what they saw down there. They should have dragged me along with them out of the high room with the open window.

Lucky for them I'm a good girl, and not given to doing anything stupid.

I left the room, ran down all the same stairs. I didn't stop to listen or try to find where anyone was. I ran straight down to my room, to my street-level room which faced the tiny courtyard and the street that ran eastward outside our home. I ran in and threw myself toward my bed to hide my head under my pillow. I had to wait out whatever had just happened.

There he lay. Right outside my the window to my room, flush with my bed. The younger man, lying on his back, with his eyes closed and his mouth open.

There he lay, in "my" courtyard, maybe ten-by-eight-feet tops, the tiny courtyard where my friends and I played Cops & Robbers with the help of the tall wrought iron fence. The courtyard when our old-man neighbor, Frank Companagne, wrangled our garbage cans on trash pick-up day, an arrangement Frank finagled out of my folks the day we moved in, in exchange for a few bucks a week. There he lay, in same spot in the same courtyard where my sister and I posed for a photograph that hung on the wall of our living room.

I didn't stay. My little body turned in mid-dive to my bed when I saw the scene outside my window. I ran upstairs to the living room. I didn't know where anyone was. I had no intention of looking. I ran behind the sofa, took a two-second break to marvel that I was able to fit back there, then curled up into a ball.

I heard Mom talking into the kitchen phone, summoning an ambulance. The older man was most certainly outside, tending to his partner. I hoped he didn't try to move him. You aren't supposed to move people who might have a broken neck, or a broken back. Maybe I should go out there and tell him? No, he'd know. Grown-ups knew these things.

What if he's dead? Could he be dead? Right outside my bedroom window?

I kept quiet behind the sofa. I calmed down a little as I listened to the TV. It was the Hollywood Squares. That's good, I liked the Hollywood Squares. I listened to the entire show. Zsa-Zsa Gabor was the Secret Square.

I wondered when someone might start looking for me. I needed someone to help me come out. I couldn't do it alone.

Mom eventually did, a few minutes later. She called for me, and I called from the back of the sofa. I was relieved she finally missed me. There must have been a moment where she thought, "Wait! Where's J?" Though I hoped that moment would have come a little sooner, I knew that Mom, the older man, the ambulance guys, and probably a lot of the neighbors at that point, had their hands full.

He wasn't dead, the younger man. Mom and Dad visited him in the hospital a couple of times, and hired Marianne down the street to babysit when they did. He had some broken bones, but was fortunate enough to be a "karate expert," he told them. He had executed a karate movement on the way down from the fourth floor to the courtyard to "minimize the impact" of his fall. He could have been dead, but his "expertise" saved him.

Then came the lawsuit.

"How did he fall?" I'd asked. "Why is it our fault?"

"He fell," Dad stated emphatically, "because he didn't listen."

"I knew we shouldn't have visited that guy in the hospital," I overheard him grumble to Mom. "I knew this was coming."

I had to ask, and I had to ask Dad.

"Daddy, is the window washer going to be OK?""Yes, Honey, he'll be OK."

"So why is he suing us?"

"He's suing us because he believes it's our fault he fell out of the window."

I asked Dad how the younger man fell out of the window, and Dad explained what happened. There was a window on the top floor of our building, not easily accessed. It was a little window in a little closed-off room. Mom and Dad hadn't wanted to go to the trouble of opening that room and clearing the way for the window washers to wash that window, so Mom had instructed the men not to bother. The younger man decided, anyway, to reach over to that little window from the outside to wash it. He grabbed on to a piece of the concrete cornice of the window, it broke off in his hand, and down he went.

"So, we told him not to clean that window, and he did it anyway?"

"That's right, Honey."

"So why is he saying it's out fault?" I was feeling a little bad for the younger man, who, while he was told not to clean that window, was probably just trying to do a thorough job. He got hurt, but that wasn't our fault, and Mom and Dad were nice enough to go visit him in the hospital, so why was he doing this?

"Honey, I don't think he's blaming us, I think it's this man's lawyer who's blaming us. I think the window washer's lawyer told him that even if it's not our fault he fell out of our window, he could maybe get us to pay him some money...well, because he fell out of our window."

"That's not fair," I said. "You were nice to him after he fell, you visited him in the hospital. Why is he asking for money if it's not your fault?"

Dad might have rolled his eyes a tiny bit, but was silent. How much can you explain to an eight year old?

What he could do was hire Harry Lipsig, who, I learned over twenty years later when I read his New York Times obituary, was known in legal circles as the "King of Torts." Harry Lipsig, among other feats, represented a man whose legs had been crushed by a runaway car with a defective accelerator, and when he was done, the jury awarded twice what he had asked for. Harry Lipsig was known to bring tears to the eyes of juries when he told the dramatic tales of his clients' sufferings. He'd bring tears to his own eyes in order to bring a jury to its knees.

The younger window washer should have had Harry Lipsig. Instead, he had a lawyer, who when faced with Harry Lipsig, folded like a cheap tent.At the time, all I knew was we "won," and didn't have to pay the window washer for falling out of our window.

After more time, I learned that Dad paid a lot of money he could barely afford to secure the services of Harry Lipsig, a man, who, by reputation alone--for that was all it took--kept the young window washer (or his lawyer) from sending us to the poor house.

"Is everyone OK now?" I asked Dad, after the days where he and Mom had to go to court were over. Mom was quietly upset, upset that the nice young man, the one she had gone upstairs to bring ice water to, the one she and Dad had visited in the hospital, would do this to us. Dad was more matter-of-fact about the whole thing--the incident happened, the guy, or his lawyer, tried to get something out of it, and failed.

"Yes, every one's OK now, Honey," Dad said. "It's done."

"I'm glad he's OK," I said.

"Me too, Honey," said Dad.

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