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  • The Incident in My Park
  • Jane Bernstein (bio)


Astranger punched me in the face one beautiful morning in late April. It was the first clear day after weeks of rain, and I was walking my dog on a trail in Frick Park, in Pittsburgh. High up, the leaves on the oaks had begun to unfurl, and the undergrowth was greening. I was in a dreamy place, not paying close attention, and when a man on a mountain bike barked out an order to move in a particular direction, I stepped to the wrong side of the path. “I said left, bitch!” he yelled as he sped past. “Asshole,” I yelled back. He made a tight turn, rose slightly from his bike seat, and punched me in the jaw hard enough to send me flying onto my back.

I got up, brushed off the dirt and leaves, and staggered forward. If I’d been lucid, I would have contacted the police immediately, but I was stunned, barely able to figure out what had happened. Ten minutes must have passed before I was oriented enough to call 911 and another 20 minutes before the patrol car pulled into the lawn-bowling area adjacent to one of the park entrances.

I told the two cops about the man on the bike, and they asked me to describe him. He was white, I said. Thirties to 40s, well built without being fat. Curly hair, sunglasses, square face.

The cops asked what he was wearing and the make and color of his bike. I hesitated, unsure of these basic details. Then, as they continued to ask questions, I became less certain about what I’d seen. Had he been wearing a helmet? I hadn’t thought so, but possibly...His T-shirt was... black, I’d thought, but maybe not. His bike was a mountain bike or hybrid, and the [End Page 99] color was...I closed my eyes and tried to recall what I’d seen a half hour before.

I’m good with faces and interested in bikes, and the incident already felt etched into my brain: the man’s quick circle on the dirt trail, the way he rose in his seat and hit me so hard that I flew like a movie cowboy in a barroom brawl. But his face, his clothes, the bike. It was like the toy I had as a kid, the one that came with a blank face and an assortment of stick-on features. When I closed my eyes, I could see the biker with curly hair, and I could see him with a helmet that obscured his hair. His eyes were brown when I conjured his face, but I could also see him wearing wrap-around sunglasses. He was wearing a black T-shirt and shorts; he was in bike clothes.

“I’m sorry,” I said, embarrassed that I had wasted their time.

Of course the details that had vanished would return: there was no way I could have forgotten. I just wished it would happen soon because I did not want to regret having made that call. This man who punched me in the face was free to repeat his actions; he was riding around in my park. That was what I’d said when the cops arrived, and what I found myself repeating. “This is my park.” I knew what I meant, though not right away: a stranger had punched me in the face at 9:30 in the morning, a violent man on a bike tearing through this place I loved, and I was outraged.

One of the cops gave me a card that had his direct line on it and urged me to call if I saw the biker again. When I got home, I put the card on my desk, never expecting anything to come of it. The incident was trivial. The police had bigger crimes to fight—robbery, rape, murder. So I was surprised by a phone call two days later. A detective wanted to know if I’d seen the biker again. If I could identify him, would I still be willing to press charges?

You bet...


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pp. 99-110
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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