Home, a place of refuge against life’s vicissitudes. When we die, we tell long-departed loved ones, “I’m coming home.” Safety. Security. If we don’t have a house, we still create a home – if only a hotplate and lumpy mattress in a fleabag hotel, or an empty refrigerator box in hoboville – not much for many, but for some, home.
Then there is Home Invasion, creepier than robbery or mugging because it strikes at the heart of our castle, our home. Take my wallet, steal my car, but when I’m home, I’m safe.
Or am I?
I’ve always been at home in cities. People and places are constant surprises, though can be risky, even terminal. The concept of danger can be repurposed as the reality of fright. It is the price I pay to avoid the stifling sameness of risk-averse suburbs.
In my teen years, I delivered spareribs and chicken for the Bungalow Bar B-Q, a joint my parents owned in a working-class, mixed-race area near some of the Motor City’s auto assembly factories. We had mostly night hours, but two-thirty a. m. on weekends was bedlam, when the bars emptied and half-tanked revelers buried greasy chins in slabs of Morrell’s tender short-ribs.
I’m in bed. Did that noise come from downstairs? Maybe it was one of Lisa’s tenants putting something in the trash. Her trash cans are in the narrow alleyway between our houses, almost beneath my second floor bedroom window. In fourteen years neither I nor my neighbors have had a burglary, but one of the effects of my lousy hearing is that I can’t tell the direction of different tones.
On weekends, the streets of Detroit in the Bungalow’s part of town were a three-ring circus – my windshield a wide-angle lens to the gritty industrial cityscape – like the two women fighting with shredded blouses and flopping breasts, each circling in a half-crouch trying to flay the other with a broken beer bottle. Or delivering down dark streets to upstairs-rear apartments dimly lit by red bulbs and zoned-out men draped over drunken women dancing in their underwear, while the likes of Coltrane or Gerry Mulligan blew lullabies for feather-bed highs. Public sex, muggings, police brutality, and bar fights were common, as well as sights such as happy revelers high-kicking like Rockettes down the middle of Forest Avenue – all tableaux unfolding before my eyes, dioramas of strangeness like a dog walking upright in a tutu. Most people would get the hell out of there, but it was a show I couldn’t miss – broken rules and busted lives being more fascinating than phalanxes of lemmings.
A few years later, after a pizza guy refused to deliver a large mushroom and pepperoni because a riot had begun and I didn’t know it, I walked slack-jawed down Livernois Avenue near my home and gawked as gangs of angry black people exited smashed store windows with arms loaded with TVs, clothes, or whatever the stores had sold. Suburbanites safe in red-lined enclaves shrilly spewed racial anxieties, but I had no fear of walking on the two inch carpet of broken glass in the midst of looting, still-burning buildings, and people run amok. I knew the black people had nothing against me; rather, the smug institutions that felt liberal giveaways should placate them.
When I come in I think I have locked the door behind me. I twist the lever which slides the bolt into place. It’s a heavy door which takes a knee to properly shut. I think it is locked. It will be fine. It always is.
Later, as a young married guy, I was recruited to a job in Chicago where stunning skyscrapers reached for clouds and the blue water of Lake Michigan a chasuble for the City of Big Shoulders. Again, I had a city home, though now my typical ride took me down Lakeshore Drive in an orange Corvette past marinas and beaches to my office beside the Chicago River. There, the only crimes I witnessed were a martini with two olives instead of three at Johnnie Lattner’s, or maybe four martinis instead of one.
Brief stints in Boston and Hartford followed, then Philadelphia where I made my final home, and the worst urban insult I experienced was the slashed top of my blue Mustang convertible. It was a bitch to get it replaced but even then, I figured that’s why God made insurance.
I love my 1913 Arts & Crafts home near the University of Pennsylvania. It has fabulous woodwork, leaded stain glass windows and perfectly suited to my Stickley and Victorian furniture. Of sixteen rooms, only the first two floors are nicely appointed; the upper floors consist of tiny, impractical spaces, too many closets, and look as if constructed from salvage. The only improvement I made over fourteen years was having the stairs carpeted so my collie, Kate, could make it up instead of circling dozens of times, as if collie genes evolved for gentle meadows rather than what must look to her like El Capitan. At that, most times I just pick her up and carry her. This is her home, too.
During the thirty-six years I made my home in The Quaker City, I became a serious runner and often ran through Center City to the elegant Parkway, past the queenly Philadelphia Museum of Art and into Fairmount Park. But there was no neighborhood I wouldn’t run in, even Kensington – through knots of street-whores, pimps, dealers and macho tough-guys yelling derisive obscenities. I knew I could outrun them if they chased me.
Then, when I owned a couple of pizza shops as a sideline gig along with a partner, I bought a thirty-eight. One of the shops was in a tough area on Stenton Avenue where I often bumped bellies with rowdy habitues, after which I would turn my back and walk away, knowing it meant, “not afraid of you.” Yet, I knew anything could happen. When a guy from a nearby competitor got murdered, I began carrying the piece.
But back to the house where I now live alone, my Kate long gone. For all practical purposes, I only occupy a couple of rooms: my bedroom and my office. I never use the kitchen. Even the fridge has long been empty since I get take-out for all of my meals. Weeks, months, go by without visiting my basement or the top floor. My plumbing and heater work, and no leaks drip from my bedroom ceiling, so why go there? In cold weather I keep the thermostat on fifty-six degrees, enough to prevent the plumbing from freezing. I heat the two rooms I occupy with little electric heaters. Eccentric? I know.
During the day, when I run errands, I never lock my front door. I often return with packages and fishing for keys is a hassle. Despite floodlights, there are so many ways a burglar could break in via the alley between me and Lisa’s place, or the backyard, that an unlocked door doesn’t compromise safety. Or so I think. Sheer anonymity is probably a better defense against a miscreant. Besides, I have lived in cities too much and am way too hip to get caught with my pants down.
Lying in bed at night with the whole house dark except for the room I’m in, I am on the alert for prowlers. When my bedroom doors are shut, I occasionally glance through the transom window to the hallway, looking for untoward reflections of a flashlight; or going to the bathroom I listen for noises coming from downstairs, or look for shadows, or again, lights meandering the walls. If I discovered a prowler, I would make noise, let him know I detected him. They say that burglars are there to rob, and if discovered, will run. Finally, while in bed, I keep said thirty-eight loaded on my nightstand. It is always strategically placed on its left side with its grip angled just right for my easy reach and grab. I don’t realize it at the time, but my imaginings are rehearsal.
The gun does not have a safety. Its safety is a heavy trigger-pull, meaning it takes a lot of pressure to squeeze off a round, but cocked, becomes a hair trigger. It is loaded with hollow-points that when entering the chest or belly leave a neat little hole that may not even bleed, then ramble through the body like a freight train pulling carloads of flesh and organ tissue and bone and blood en route to the shattered spine and massive, gaping tear as it departs the other side.
It is about eight forty-five p.m. I am in bed in my usual state of undress, meaning naked. I am reading a manuscript. CNN is on in the background. Both of my bedroom doors are closed to conserve heat. I am secure here. Though crime is around this area, it is seldom more than a stolen laptop or bicycle, or a random late-night mugging of a naïve student for credit cards or cell phone. But I don’t feel too vulnerable. I am a city guy. I am comfortable in my skin. I am secure in my home.
A weird thing happened a few years ago. I accidently left my car double-parked with the door open outside the house. I was carrying stuff in but somehow got distracted and forgot to properly park the car. A couple hours later, neighbors noticed it and feared something had happened to me. They called the police. I was again lying in bed when I heard frightening shouts from inside of the house, “Hello! Hello! Philadelphia Police!” They had come right in through my unlocked door.
As I lie reading my manuscript I hear another noise. Where did it come from, Lisa’s tenants? Sometimes street noise echoes between our narrowly- spaced, four-story homes – revelers or thumping bass from a car radio or a motorcycle – maybe it’s a radiator. Random noises are an every night occurrence in a hundred year old house in the city.
I am calm. I am at peace. The holidays are coming and my daughter Amanda and her husband are leaving soon on vacation, as is my girlfriend Jackie who is going to Israel with family. Also, I am excited about the manuscript I am reading. My financial life is much improved after extricating myself from ventures done in by the real estate bust, and my remaining investment properties are well-situated. My health is good for my age, as is that of loved ones. All is well.
Out of the corner of my eye I see something. A belt is draped across the doorknob of the closed door. Did it move? It is swaying. Nah. Imagination. There were times I felt the whole house quiver though was never able to confirm even a mild temblor. But I felt it okay, no doubt. I decide I’m spooking myself.
The only other person who has a key is my daughter. She would never come in without calling. But taking a cue from my experience of the police coming into the house, firemen may come in too. A fire could start on my ground floor or at Lisa’s place; they might get a call even before I knew about it. I disarmed my smoke alarms when Kate was alive. They chirped and made her crazy. There were so many of them throughout the house that with my hearing handicap, I couldn’t tell which ones were chirping. I return to my manuscript and Wolf Blitzer’s droning.
My bedroom door slowly begins to open. By itself? The hair on my neck stands up and I feel shock and an overwhelming chill. I am momentarily stunned at this incredulous sight. What th…!
A black man slowly slides through the opened door directly into my bedroom. He steps toward my beside, saying something about money and brandishing a knife that punctuates his words. All I can process are stranger and knife. The machinery of my mind tries to reconcile this vision with my confusion and overpowering emotions. Is this someone I know? “NO!”it says. It takes a full two seconds for my brain to scream DANGER! DANGER! DANGER! and my fright is electric.
It takes an additional moment to adjust to the surprise and filter the possibilities. I toss the covers aside. He looks startled at my sudden movement. Now his eyes are wide. He’s not big – medium build, maybe five seven or eight. He is wearing dark clothes and a black watch-cap pulled low over his ears. He is unmasked and scowling, but instinct tells me he’s not a pro at this. Another flash of insight tells me it makes him more dangerous. I can’t make out what he’s saying. All I see is the knife as it stabs at the air in my direction.
In a single motion I leap out of bed, grab the perfectly placed thirty-eight from the nightstand, and cock the hammer; I brace the piece in two hands and scream,“No, I got YOU!” My zeal to defend myself secretes an ocean of adrenaline which quells my fear. I am hyper-alert. My hand is steady as I aim for the middle of his body. I am ready for anything.
He was eight feet away with the bed between us. The barrel of the revolver must have looked like the maw of a Great White. Before I could fire, or needed to, he darted through the bedroom door through which he had just nonchalantly entered. Then I heard a lot of thumping. Still holding the gun in both hands, I ran after him into the dark hallway, screaming, “Stop, motherfucker! I’ll blow your fucking brains out!” But I didn’t know where he fled. He might still be there, anywhere, crouched, ready to spring, hiding among all the house’s dark spaces.
I stopped in the hallway; he can see me but I can’t see him. Discretion demanded that I reign in my bravado and back up into my lit bedroom. Still aiming the gun toward the darkness with one hand, I punched out 911 with the other. I excitedly but clearly enunciated the address, that an intruder with a knife had broken in, that the house was second from the corner on the west side of the street. She asked me if he was still in the house. “I don’t know!” I yelled impatiently. She asked again, then again. “How in the hell do I know, lady?! This fucking place has sixteen rooms and I’m not about to explore! Send someone! Now!” “They’re on their way,” she said. Within two minutes, cops were in the house and shouting up the stairs. They came in through the front door the thug had left opened as he beat his hasty retreat.
Six policemen scattered over the property. I laid down the thirty-eight, put on clothes and met with them. One of them accompanied me as we began at the top floor and searched every room and closet for the assailant and/or accomplices. We discovered that when he fled, the intruder had escaped down my back stairs which lead to the kitchen. No sign of a busted door frame, broken windows, or forced entry. From the street, the house had been dark. He probably thought no one was home. When he came up to the second floor, he couldn’t help but see my bedroom light on and hear the TV. That must have been when he got the knife and planned his mayhem.
As I was re-enacting the sequence of events to one of the cops, another yells upstairs, “Mr. Larcinese, do you own a cellphone?”
Cop: “Where is it?”
Me: “Here, on my bed.”
My would-be robber (or worse) ran out in such a hurry, he not only dropped the knife, but also his cell phone which lay on my bottom step. One of the cops wearing gloves tinkered with the phone, held it up to my face and asked, “Is this him?” There, in a full-bodied selfie, was the scary dude, this time smiling for the camera and looking like someone’s dad or friend.
The knife turned out to be one of my own steak knives commandeered from my kitchen counter. It was long, strong, and pointy enough that plunged into my chest, would find my pericardium and a valve or two.
The next day, a friend asked, “Why didn’t you just put a pill into him?” I was ready for that if he had made any move toward me. I’m glad that didn’t happen, but when an intruder knows you’re there and brazen enough to confront you with a knife, his malevolent intention is clear as polished glass. Even had I offered up the hundred or so dollars I typically have in my jeans, I could identify him and an armed-robbery home invasion carries serious time. Who knows how far he would have gone?
The following morning I cleaned and oiled my revolver. It is on me or within reach at all times. The doors to my home now stay double locked. At night, it’s lit up like Las Vegas.
The manuscript I had been reading was a draft of a recently completed memoir. The first line of the preface, written many months ago, is, “A man’s life can end in an instant with a dagger through the heart.” The next sentence is “The soul is harder to kill.” When I wrote it, it was to mine the past, not predict the future.
The city is a Siren song, beautiful but dangerous, yet still where my heart lies, which, luckily for me, is still intact – except this time my arrogant complacency is lashed firmly to the mast.
Lanny Larcinese is a prize-winning Philadelphia writer, including first prize for the 2015 fiction contest under the auspices of the 2015 Philadelphia Writers Conference. He also took first prize for the One Book One — Lower Merion Library essay contest.
His current work-in-progress is a memoir, “The Trouble With Women (Or Is It Me?)”, He is also soliciting representation for his recently completed novel, “Dear Dad, They’re Dead, A Love Story.”
Lanny lives in West Philadelphia. He has been writing for publication for six years and deems the mastering of craft a never-ending quest.