Problem Child

It all started with a big bang — the sound of something heavy smashing against a wall, and it came from the apartment directly below mine. I headed out into the hallway to see what had happened, and was greeted by the second floor front door being violently flung open. A middle-aged couple emerged, fear etched on their faces.

“Hey, what’s up?” I asked them, leaning over the old wooden bannister.

They answered in broken English – something to the effect that their son, who had some mental issues, was on a rampage, and they didn’t know what to do. Could I call the police for them, as they were afraid to go back into their apartment.

Problem Child Ron Kolm photograph Daniel Kolm
photograph by Daniel Kolm

I did, and eventually calm was restored. I later learned from them, in difficult to decipher English, that they had emigrated from Romania, and that the father was the natural father, and the mother was a stepmother. They were both in their fifties, and their son was twenty-five. The son seemed to have gotten unhinged by the fact that his natural mother wasn’t still in the picture – she had stayed in the old country – and he wouldn’t talk with anyone other than his father. They had tried to get professional help for him, but because of the language problems, nothing had worked out.

About a week later, as I was coming home from work, about to enter the front door, I heard a whimpering sound coming from above me. I looked up, and there was the son, crouched on the fire escape in a fetal position. I could see the open window behind him.

“Hey, it’s dangerous up there! Go back into your apartment.”

“No, it’s dangerous for you down there. I’m safe here.”

I thought about that for a moment or two, and then shrugged. “Yeah, you’re probably right, but still…”

“Aw, fuck,” he finally said, and edged over to the lintel above the main entrance to the building and swung down.

“Are your parents home?” I asked him.

“Nah, they’re out buying a used car or something. I can’t always understand what they’re saying. I don’t speak Romanian very good. They sent me to the states with my aunt when I was very young to go to private school.”

“I hear you on that,” I replied, as an ambulance pulled up in front of the building. It turned out that a neighbor had witnessed the entire event and called 911. The kid was strapped onto a gurney and hauled away.

His parents panicked when they finally got home and I told them what had happened. Because of their inability to communicate, I was the one who called the hospital and explained what the situation was. I had to take the train in to Bellevue with them, and we were finally able to get him released. Because of that, I became their best friend. They would put plates of exquisitely cooked food on the landing outside of my apartment.

But the brief respite didn’t last. About a week later they banged on my door and gestured for me to follow them down to their apartment. They pointed to their phone lying on the table and made motions of picking it up and talking into it. I did, and it was the Lincoln Tunnel cops on the other end. Their son had been picked up doing jumping jacks in the tunnel, and was now in a holding cell. The police had gotten the parents’ phone number from a scrap of paper in their son’s wallet.

Even that problem eventually got worked out – the police decided not to keep the son in jail, as no one was going to pay any bail money, so they simply shrugged their shoulders and sent him, minus his shoelaces and belt, over to the Eighth Avenue subway line with a subway token as a parting gift. Not too long after that, the son took his parents’ used car and split, heading south, on old Route 1. From what I managed to glean from his Father, he ended up being a lifeguard in Florida.

–Ron Kolm


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