The man on the other end of the intercom had warned me he was going to call the police. When he said it, The Observer knew he didn’t mean the kind that would pull up to the curb in a blue and white squad car with the letters NYPD stenciled on the door. This was Borough Park, after all.
The neighborhood, a stronghold of the city’s Hasidic community, has its own ambulance corps, rabbinical courts and civilian security squad, the Shomrim. The Observer had been drifting around the area, a stranger in a strange land, and given our mission, we weren’t surprised to see a neighborhood enforcer bounding towards us. He had a huge belly that parted his suspenders, a sandy beard and noticeably thick hands.
Seeking to avoid a confrontation, we gestured to the house next door. On a block of McMansions, the place stood out. It was encircled by a chain link fence. Behind it, a porchlike appendage that seemed as if it had been slapped right onto the front of the home was strewn with dust and rubble. A vague framework of bare steel girders rose from the platform, as if some structure had been planned and then abandoned. The house itself was in shambles, with pieces of the facade ripped away, windows broken and boarded up and the roof bowing and in some places missing altogether.
“Do you know what happened here?” we asked the Shomrim volunteer, whose name was Abraham. He shook his head.
The Observer explained the situation. Benjamin Herbst appeared to have destroyed his neighbor’s home, and we were there to ask him why in person. He refused to come out.
“Well why don’t you call him?” Abraham suggested.
We had called Mr. Herbst, but the tale he’d spun over the phone was so outlandish and confusing, and the litany of papers he had emailed us so convoluted, we had hoped to persuade him to guide us through it face to face.
“Try coming back another time, it’s getting close to Shabbos,” Abraham said.
He was right. The shadows were getting longer and soon, most people in the area wouldn’t so much as flip on a light switch, forget about answer the door for an obvious outsider. Seeing we weren’t much of a threat, Abraham turned away, got on his walkie-talkie and disappeared down the street. It was time for us to go as well.