My childhood home was a brand-new two-family brick house in The Bronx. It was the end house of a row of ten attached houses that looked exactly the same: each house was the mirror image of the one next to it. We were fortunate because we had a corner house which meant one side of the house was unattached, giving us a bit more property and providing access to our backyard via a walkway from the front. All the other homeowners gained access to their backyards through a door in the master bedroom or from the basement.
We lived on the first floor – my mother, father, sister Rosemarie and I – and always rented out the top floor. Over the years we had many different tenants ranging from an older couple and their unmarried daughter to newlyweds from our church. Almost all our tenants were people we knew; very few were new faces via word of mouth or people answering an ad posted in the local grocery store window.
Like most Italian families, we made good use of our large basement. We converted it into a comfortable open concept living space complete with bathroom, kitchen/dining room, TV area, a laundry and sewing room for my mother and workshop for my father. It was where we ate all our meals, did our homework, watched TV and basically hung out.
The basement had an iron girder running along the ceiling which supported the framework of the house; three floor-to-ceiling iron posts were positioned approximately10 feet apart and were attached to the girder. The cement floor was covered in a light-colored linoleum and the kitchen/dining area was painted a cheery yellow and white. One day my Dad came up with the idea to drill two holes about 20″ apart in one section of the girder. Using an indestructible S hook, he attached a wooden chain swing to the girder for me and my sister to play whenever we were unable to go outside. Pretty clever of him and great fun for us! When not in use we simply took the swing down and stored it away.
We only used the first floor for ‘formal’ entertaining and sleeping. There was a nice living room, a kitchen, dining room, bathroom and two bedrooms – the master for my parents and a second room shared by Rosemarie and me. The design of the second floor which we rented was very similar to the first floor with the same number of rooms and basic layout. With my mother’s permission, and only when my parents were home, certain tenants were allowed to use the laundry room in our basement. Mom was very circumspect as to who she allowed into our basement and not every tenant passed muster.
My parents rarely left me and my sister alone during the day and never at night; however, one evening they had a wake to attend and our tenants were not at home to watch over things. Our parents were reluctant to leave but Rosemarie and I pleaded with them to let us stay home by ourselves; after all, they were only going to be gone for an hour or two.
My parents finally relented. They didn’t want us thinking they were treating us like babies so, without our knowledge, they asked our good family friend John Barbato who lived across the street to keep an eye on the house. John was a retired NYC cop and when he was asked to keep an eye on something you can bet he took his task very seriously.
After Mom & Dad left, Rosemarie and I settled down in the basement to watch TV; all was quiet and we weren’t the least bit uneasy about being left alone for the first time. We were watching our favorite show, Dr. Kildare, gazing into Richard Chamberlain’s dreamy eyes, when there was a sudden commotion out in the backyard. We heard running down the stairs, a dog’s loud barking, banging on our door and a man’s gruff voice. We clutched each other’s hands and huddled close together on the couch in fear. Then we recognized the voice of John Barbato shout out “Rosemarie! Nancy! Are you in there? Is everything ok?”
Relieved but still rather apprehensive, we peeked through the back door window curtain and saw John brandishing an official police flashlight. He had a concerned look on his face as he reined in his skittish German shepherd ‘King’ who was literally chomping at the bit. King was always friendly around us but in his frenzied state we decided it would be wiser to keep the chain lock on the door. Opening the door just enough for John to see us, we asked what was going on, if everything was alright. John, apparently reassured to see us safe and sound, immediately tried putting on a nonchalant face as he pulled King away from the door with a “Quiet, boy. It’s ok.”
“Oh, hi girls” John replied breathlessly. “I was just taking old King here for a walk. You, know – getting our nightly exercise – and just stopped by to say ‘hi’. You and your folks watching TV?”
John was not a good liar; Rosemarie and I knew right away this was not an ordinary social call. One look at our friend with his agitated guard dog and a huge NYPD flashlight that could knock someone out in a single blow was not normal behavior for John. We told him our parents were out for a while and we were fine. He seemed content and with a self-conscious chuckle said “Well, ok. I’m right across the street if you need me. Goodnight, girls.” John instructed us to close the door and secure it with the deadbolt, which we did. Then he was off, King huffing and puffing at his side.
Rosemarie and I looked at each other as if it to say “What was that all about?” We returned to watching TV, both aware that we were sitting just a bit closer to each other than before John and King showed up. I couldn’t help asking myself one question: if John thought our parents were home and we were all peacefully watching TV together, why did he shout out our names and ask if we were ok?
Less than an hour later, Mom and Dad returned and asked how our first evening alone was.
“It was fine” Rosemarie replied, “except something strange happened with John. He and King came by looking all nervous and asked us if everything was alright. We talked with him for a few minutes and he left when he saw we were ok. He reminded us to lock the door with the deadbolt.”
My father didn’t even take off his coat. He went straight upstairs to use the phone which was odd because there was a phone right there in the basement. A few minutes later he came back downstairs and said he had to go talk to John. When Dad returned, he looked agitated and Mom quickly announced it was late and shooed us off to bed; we didn’t even get to watch the end of our show! From our bedroom Rosemarie and I could hear our parents talking but we couldn’t make out what they were saying.
The incident with John and King was forgotten until four days later when the third house down from us was broken into via the basement door. Items were stolen but worse than that – the woman living there had been assaulted. That scene with John and King at our basement door came rushing back to us. That was when my father admitted that John told him he was certain he saw someone sneaking around the back of our house the night my parents were out. If there was someone lurking around our house that night, they were gone by the time John and King arrived. Who knows; maybe someone was scared off when they heard John and his agitated dog approaching.
Fortunately, the woman who had been attacked was not badly hurt and was able to give the police a good description of her assailant. He was quickly apprehended and the revelation of who he was shocked everyone, especially my family.
The intruder was our very own upstairs tenant.
NAR © 2022