Only once in my life have I thought, “This is a sitcom moment.”
It was the time I wound up on a stranger’s fire escape, peering through the window at a topless woman armed with knitting needles.
This is not an advisable position for anyone, especially for Latino males, who have been known to provoke white women to rush into traffic just by making eye-contact.
I was on the fire escape that evening because my girlfriend (now my wife) and I were celebrating one year of living in New York City. We had grabbed a bottle of cheap champagne and went up on the roof of our Manhattan apartment building, which offered a great view of the city.
Right after walking onto the roof, I turned to her and said, “Don’t let the door close because…” The words “it locks automatically” were subsumed beneath the sound of the door clicking shut.
So now we were trapped on the roof late at night, six stories up. It was obvious what we needed to do.
We drank the champagne.
With that accomplished, we began the perilous climb down the fire escape that led to a suitably grimy NYC alley. To say the descent was difficult is not an exaggeration. New Yorkers have such little space that fire escapes often become extensions of their apartments. So we had to sidestep around furniture, bike racks, and whole gardens clogging the metal stairs. If the building ever had a real fire, dozens of us would die in the impeded scramble to safety – either trampled to death by our neighbors because we couldn’t move quickly enough, or asphyxiated as we lay tangled in someone’s improbably located azalea bush.
Still, I reached the bottom level of the fire escape, where I saw that I had two options. I could drop the remaining fifteen feet into a pitch-black alley that was strewn with trash (my imagination insisted that broken syringes and rusty metal pipes glistened in the dim light) and then I would have to hobble on my twisted, gashed ankles to the end of the alley and climb a tall fence topped with razor wire.
Or I could simply knock on my neighbor’s window. The woman, with whom I had a nodding acquaintance from sharing the occasional elevator, was home but had not noticed my presence on her fire escape.
I peered into my neighbor’s apartment. Then I turned and told my girlfriend that she would have to tap on the window.
“She’s lying on the couch and wearing only panties,” I said. “I don’t think she wants a brown-skinned guy knocking on her window in the middle of the night and demanding to be let in.”
My girlfriend acknowledged this logic. So she approached the window while I retreated up a flight to safety.
“And she’s knitting, with big needles,” I said as my final piece of advice.
A moment later, after what was surely the most awkward request my girlfriend has ever made of a stranger, the window opened. I climbed back to the roof, arriving just as my girlfriend opened the door to let me back in.
“My feet barely hit the floor of her apartment,” my girlfriend said. “That woman just grabbed me and pushed me toward the lobby.”
But we were saved.
Because the whole thing was such a sitcom premise, I thought about pitching the incident as the pilot episode of “The Wacky Latino,” a heartwarming, life-affirming, knee-slapping show about the adventures of a klutzy Hispanic. But then I remembered that there are no shows about Hispanics on television, and I abandoned the idea.
Sure enough, a year or so later, an episode of “Friends” had a subplot where Ross and Joey get trapped on the roof and have to shimmy down the fire escape. When I saw it, I said two things to my girlfriend: They stole our plot, and our version was funnier (no topless female knitters appeared on that show).
And now that I think about it, I feel doubly ripped off because two white males co-opted a moment that rightfully belonged to a Latino male and a white female. There is clearly no end to the oppressive hegemony.
In any case, even a decade later, I still have no answer to the question that haunts me to this day: Who the fuck knits while topless?