SOS Etiquette

Written by Jeanne Martinet on . Posted in Opinion and Column.

What happens when you become trapped in your New York apartment?

By Jeanne Martinet

When the doorknob came off in my hand, I couldn’t understand what had happened. It was as if I had been shaking a friend’s hand and had somehow pulled it completely out of its socket, like a scene from a horror film. After the initial shock, I felt incredibly stupid. I had known that the knob was loose; it had been loose for months, but I had put off doing anything about it.

I stood there with the detached knob in my hand. Panic started to take hold—mostly, I confess, because I was experiencing, on a fairly urgent level, the call of nature (having just woken up), and it was sinking in that I was stuck inside my bedroom with the bathroom on the other side of the door.

“Don’t get hysterical, just use your head,” I told myself. I took a deep breath, and slowly, gingerly, attempted to reattach the doorknob to the scant 3/4 of an inch length of spindle that was protruding from the doorknob hole. (The spindle is the square rod that connects the two knobs. You can see that I am now an expert.)

This proved to be a mistake; it slid backwards, threatening to fall out the other side. Cursing, I took the knob back off and grabbed onto the spindle with my left hand. I tried turning it with my fingertips, but the piece that was sticking out was too short to get a good grip.

At that instant I realized the fix I was in.

There was no phone in the room; my cell was charging on the hall table. What was I going to do? How would I ever get out? Would I be found weeks later with a brass doorknob in my lifeless hand?

Since I couldn’t open the door, my only course of action seemed to be to call out the window and hope that a stranger, in one of the dozens of apartments lining my inner courtyard, would come to my aid.

But would anyone listen? We boundary-conscious New Yorkers are pretty good at ignoring the outside world when we’re at home. We learn to tune out people’s loud moments of temper, frustration and other passions.

A lot of people scream out their windows when they are mad, or drunk, or both. It’s no wonder most of us are a bit suspicious when someone we don’t know yells something out there. Is the person unbalanced? Dangerous? Trying to scam us in some way?

And exactly what should I say? I could go with the traditional, and yell, “Help!” But this seemed too extreme for my situation. The last thing I wanted was to make anyone think I was seriously hurt or being attacked, and then have the police breaking down my door.

Also, I would have to give my address, which might be audible to hundreds of people. (I could see it now, the whole thing would be Tweeted: Woman in apt on Upper West Side, NYC, trapped in bdrm, yelling out window. If u want to know who this idiot is, her address is_____.)

What if I were to calmly, but loudly, call out, “Excuse me? Is anyone able to hear this? I’m sorry to bother you but I’ve been accidentally trapped in my bedroom—can you make a call for me?”

Then I remembered that the friend who had my spare keys is on my speed dial, and I couldn’t remember his phone number! Was he listed? Would an unseen bystander be willing to go that extra mile and look up a number? It seemed a lot to ask.

Perhaps I should I start with “sorry to bother you”?

The truth is that without visual contact, it’s very hard to get a New Yorker’s attention. And I am not a good yeller. Having lived in this city for many years, I have become a good nagger, a good bargainer and good at talking to strangers. But yelling to unseen hordes?

I decided I really didn’t want to yell out my window, unless it was absolutely necessary.

I steeled myself for one last attempt at saving myself. I reached into a bureau drawer, where I latched onto a cotton handkerchief. Carefully, praying under my breath, I wrapped it around the end of the spindle. The fabric was stiff enough that I got traction, and the door opened.

I sleep with a screwdriver in my bedroom now. And you would not believe how carefully I listen to the sounds coming from nearby apartments.

Jeanne Martinet, aka Miss Mingle, lives on the Upper West Side and is the author of seven books on social interaction. Her latest book is a novel, Etiquette for the End of the World. You can contact her at

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