When to Call 911

It's a winding tale, but worth the time.


Washington Square Park is one of our home bases. When we moved here, the eastern third of the park was closed for renovations, but we loved walking the paths, listening to jazz bands, watching the dogs queue, and playing in the sweet, but tiny, toddler park. I love this little spot, I really do. Bama and I went many late afternoons to have a last play, and once a week, we met up with Aunty Zobot.

image from flickr.com(Aunty Zobot with Rabbit, Central Park, 5 July)

We stared at the cordoned off section of the park, eyeing the giant playstructures, wondering what else was behind the layers of fences.

When it finally opened in June, we were thrilled. Sand, swings, water, slides, shade. All the components necessary for a good time to be had by all.

image from flickr.com

Exploring what's in front of him.

image from flickr.com


Hiding in a tunnel with Uncle Bryan.

image from flickr.com

Swiftly riding into the sunset with Bird.

We love this park. It's convenient, I can get tea beforehand, we can get (the only good) burritos (in NYC) afterwards. We can listen to jazz. We can watch the juvenile red tail hawk (yes, hawk) learn to fly and hunt. We can practice flower identification.

There's an incredible, and incredibly famous, fountain.

image from flickr.comIn which we can wonder at double rainbows.
image from flickr.com

Splashing in the fountains with friends as we spy the colors in the spray.


But with the east end of the park reopening, the climate of the park has changed. Sure, there were dope dealers on the west end, but those guys never said anything to me or to my kids except, "Hey little mama!" or "Look at that scooter!" 

Enter the drunk meth heads who sprawl across the main plaza. The fountain is closed to waders, swimmers, splashers because of public bathing, urinating, and who knows what else. The day before this incident, there were guys sitting in the fountain, drinking from beer bottles. Broken glass?  Because the fountain is off limits, I avoid rolling through the plaza even though its a fun place to people watch. Bama wants to go into the fountain and talks about the fountain for the rest of the day, wondering why she can't go in. I've told her that the rangers don't think it's safe, want it clean, whatever. Should I say, "Because dirtball drunks have ruined it"?

Everyone needs a place to go, and just because you're homeless and a meth head doesn't mean you shouldn't get to be in a wonderful park like Washington Square Park. However, I'm not interested in chatting with NY Jets-shirt guy whose teeth are falling out about what a great dad he is (to a son who lives in Atlanta, GA). "His mother and I aren't together anymore." Really? Go figure.

Most of the crew that's hanging on the lawn keeps to themselves. They are like a little family. But a few stand out, like the scary crazy guy who sat near us while Bama danced to a jazz trio near the toddler park. He stared at her and me the entire time, calling me a fucking cunt and bitch, among other things. Low, but loud enough for me to hear him. When we rolled on, the musicians looked embarrassed, sorry, uncomfortable.

So, this week. Scary guy was in the plaza, which against my better judgement, I rolled through.  The dude is sitting on one of the stone benches near the fountain, sees us, and puts up his hand and mimes machine gunning us as we go by. It's hard not to want to call him a mother fucker, but I've got Rabbit strapped to me and Bama in a stroller. I'm not nimble and I'm certainly not willing to get into it with my six-month old strapped to me like a shield. We walked on and into the park.

Where we had a fabulous time with Bird and Aunty N. The girls played in the sand, went on the swings, ran through the sprinklers. Then we sat down to lunch. There is a high fence around the park, and then trees, shrubs, flowers, then a knee-high chain rope (think velvet movie rope but heavy links and low to the ground), some wooden benches, a path, and backless stone benches (the benches are effectively in two rings around the plaza and fountain; it's pretty). Drunk girl we see whenever we're there gets into it with drunk boy, also a regular. F bombs are dropped, and then she jumps him and starts pounding his head. Scary dude leaps up and pulls her off, sits her down, and tells her to cool it (thus revealing he's not actually crazy, that he knows right from wrong and how much he can get away with which makes him all the more menacing). She continues to rant, telling her tale of woe to anyone who will listen. Two Japanese women move closer to watch the action. A nanny sitting with her infant charge also stays put (I'm not big on nanny-narcing, but I'd fire this one). 

Enter this guy (you can see how the fence, landscaping, and so on are laid out). He climbs over the chain, then proceeds to walk up to the big tree in the middle, while unzipping his pants. Aunty N and I are sitting with our girls and my boy, there is a French family of five next to us, other toddlers are zooming around, some are playing nearby in the water and in the sand. Lots of visibility. "Oh no," I yell, "Turn yourself around. Don't you pee on that tree. There are public bathrooms over there." I yelled more. He stepped back and peed on the fountain side of the tree, peeking around at us. Now, I'm at a loss. Which is weird, because if we had been in Oakland, I would have yelled and called the cops (a decimated police force that would have shown up, nonetheless) immediately. There I am, casting about for a park ranger (I can seem him near the little dog park), we're talking about whether to call the police or someone else, and he charges up to the fence.

image from www.flickr.com

Where do your dogs pee? He asks, rheumy blue eyes looking at me. (Okay, so he's calling my kids dogs, which I didn't get until later, but my response, "I don't have dogs. I have children. They pee in the portable potty I carry with me, or in a bathroom" worked.) He swore at me, said pee is pee, yelled at us, always careful to stay just far enough back. I told him it wasn't okay to pull his penis out, that no one wanted to see it. He grabbed his junk a few times, then he broke a branch off the tree and threw it at us (it hit the tree, don't throw tree branches drunk). 

The guy stumbled away, packed up his stuff and moved to the other part of the park. Bama's in tears, caught on video because the tree branch episode scared her, the French family looks stunned, and I'm still sorting out to call the cops or not. 


Aunty N might remember more of the exchange, I was left feeling angry at him for threatening my children, embarrassed for creating a situation that threatened my children as well as Bird, frustrated at how trapped we were by the fence, the park paths, my ergo (babycarrier with Rabbit in it). 

When a young male-female couple comes in the park without kids. Always noticeable. "We called the cops for you," the woman says. Not only that, but they gave a detailed description of the guy. Now, we can see the cops have come into the southern entrance of the park and the dirtbag is doing his best to be inconspicuous in his bright red hoodie. But we see another woman talking to the cops, gesturing, and then they move in on him. And move him out of the park, not without incident. And a third woman comes up to the fence and says that she'd also given a description of events to the cops and pointed him out. Wow.

The couple, Aunty N, and I have a long talk about calling the police, something Mister and I did with unashamed regularlity in Oakland. People will say that Oakland is dangerous, and I can't argue against its high murder rate. However, I never felt threatened in the parks. I didn't encounter people sleeping on benches, throwing beer bottles around, whatever. The parks aren't perfect, we found unsavory items a few times on arrival at our local park, but I didn't think about avoiding our parks. On the other hand, had something happened, I'm not sure anyone would have called the police. In San Francisco, I'm positive no one would bother. I am thankful that so many people did something that day. (Note: not one person in the children's playground said anything.)

Reenter drunk girl and drunk boy, continuing to fight and harrass people. He climbs a tree, breaks a branch, comes out a bit later. 

After watching her charge up to a woman sitting on the bench, who throws her hands up like "okay, back off," I'm done. I call the cops. The police car, same cops, comes in from the north side of the park this time. The first officer spies the girl, then the guy, who has climbed over the chain rope to hide from them. Yeah, good one. She kicks his feet, "Get up. Get up. Get up. Don't say anything. Get up. Get out." And out they both go.

Today, we went somewhere else. The incident creates a quandry. Do I avoid the park in the name of keeping my children safe (my brother is shouting, "YES!")? If we avoid WSP, as we did today, we lose out on a place we truly love. And, if we don't go, and others start to avoid it, then we all lose out because Washington Square Park becomes a park and playground for mean drunks.

When to Call 911

9 thoughts on “When to Call 911

  1. Mindy says:

    That is really frightening and unsettling. I think, though, that you’re right that you shouldn’t have to avoid a place that you and the kids love to visit. And I find it really encouraging that you had so much support from others. I have to believe that the good people outnumber the not-so-well-intentioned, even in urban parks. I’m sorry you all had to experience this.


  2. Thanks, it was unsettling. I mean, I don’t think we were in imminent danger, though we walked a circuitous route part of the way home, but it’s not just me anymore. The good people are definitely around, especially in this urban area. We are helped by someone every day, holding a door, lifting my stroller (strangers do it all the time) over bumps.


  3. Michelle says:

    Heartbreaking. Hearing J cry makes me want to take the redeye and kick the &^%$ out of that )(*&^%$*(&&^.
    I totally relate to your quandry and don’t have a good answer for you. I think about it all the time, and the moving to Orinda/Walnut Creek discussion will come up periodically at our house. Like when my car got stolen this month. Or when our neighbor got mugged at noon on a Friday. All I can say is that I stopped being nice to crazy people who invade my personal space long ago. And once I had kids, I found myself enraged when any of that energy encroached on their space. I can feel your rage, Mamma Bear. RAWR!!!
    I’m proud of you for yelling. I’m glad that people called the police. J won’t remember any of this. But I still want to kick that guy’s ass.


  4. Thanks so much. I think you summed up so much of what I’ve been feeling, especially about invasion of space. You want to mime shooting me? That’s one thing. My kids? You want to pee on a tree? Bugger. Near my kids? No way.
    I hear you about the “where to live” debate. But, we had that car on fire thing, and the guy who was running from the cops who tried to get into our house … Orinda/Walnut Creek are safer. But so hot! 😉
    xoxo back at you


  5. She is, thanks. I am, too. I think it shook me because it’s the first time I’ve been with them and felt the “something could happen” bug. I came so close to tell the machine gun guy to go fuck himself as we walked by him, but thought about how fast I could/he could move. Anyway. xo


  6. Merrilee says:

    Mama G, you did the right thing – don’t let them be “ignored” or they will do more and more. The ore I read, the more I wanted to help! Calling the cops was the right thing – so glad you had so much support. Surprised the Moms in the kiddie area did nothing – that should prompt some conversation in the future if you knew any of them. Perhaps a petition to your current Mayor might help keep the place cleaned out of scumbags, or maybe even deluge the Mayor’s office with complaints, or the Park Department. WSP is a treasure that needs to be treasured, not decimated.
    Love you, can’t wait to see you.


  7. Julie says:

    What a scary incident, and such a bummer about the park in general..I totally understand your dilemma; give up enjoying certain experiences in the name of safety, or rough it out and try to make things change.. It sounds like they could use some ranger reinforcement in the park, but I suppose that’s the eternal problem just about everywhere, isn’t it? (at least in big urban areas) Glad you weren’t alone, and that so many people stepped up w/ the cops.


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