Lately, members of my Zoom writing group, most of whom live in the western United States, have been dumping on New York City. One has created a character who deems New Yorkers rude and always insisting on having the last word. Another cited the Kitty Genovese case as evidence of how New Yorkers ignore people in distress.
The tragedy of Kitty Genovese’s death is taught in college psychology and other courses and periodically cited by the news media. A woman returning home in 1964 was raped and murdered while thirty-eight neighbors ignored her cries for help. The story has had an enduring effect on New York City’s reputation. However, the New York Times, at the forefront of the story fifty-six years ago, acknowledged in 2016 that it was, at a minimum, exaggerated. It’s possible that two people were in a position to know what was happening and failed to act, definitely not thirty-eight. Others heard a commotion but figured it was lovers quarreling or drunks.
What strikes me about this revised reporting, which does credit to the Times, is my sense that the original story was fit around existing assumptions about life in the big city. Today, setting aside questionable fears around the Black Lives Matter protests, the feeling has been that cities are safer. A new and more sanguine revisionist view is possible.
I came to live in New York City in 1979, at a time when it was recovering from a notorious financial crisis. I’ve developed a deep attachment to it. Still, the recent barrage of criticism, including Donald Trump’s labeling the city an “anarchist jurisdiction,” brought to mind several incidents in my own life through the eighties that were or felt threatening. It’s worth recounting them.
One rush-hour evening, a man on a crowded subway train during the five-minute ride under the East River from Manhattan to Brooklyn demanded to know where I was getting off. Although his query ostensibly implied an offer of help, he spoke aggressively and made me nervous. I told him I would be fine and not to worry. He persisted in questioning me. The train arrived at my stop, and I waited until the last moment to get out in the hope the doors would close between us. But as I stepped forward, a number of fellow passengers silently surrounded him and prevented him from getting off. He yelled in frustration. As I walked to the exit, I wished I could have known something about the people who blocked his way and thanked them.
On a quiet Sunday afternoon, my girlfriend at the time and I were standing on a curb, about to cross the road to Brooklyn’s Botanic Garden, when a biker swept past and snatched her necklace, leaving her neck scratched. As the days went by, she surprised me by how she got past the incident. By contrast, I entertained a stupid fantasy for long afterwards about recognizing what the biker was about to do and pushing him to the ground. Had I succeeded in such a reckless response, I would have become the target of his wrath, and both my girlfriend and I would have ended up much worse off. Around that time, I took to carrying several twenties in my pocket as what I called “mugger money.”
Another time, a group of teenage guys surrounded me on a subway platform. No threats, no taunts, but they made me nervous. The arriving train left me wondering if I’d only imagined danger.
A fourth incident occurred in the former World Trade Center. As I was walking through the underground mall toward the entrance to Tower 2, my white cane swiped the leg of a stranger standing with his back to me. He turned around and punched me in the nose. I think his action was instinctive, since he hadn’t seen me come up from behind. He ran off. Even though there were many commuters racing to work like me, no one stopped, but it’s possible that the incident hadn’t registered on them. It was over in a flash. When I arrived at the office with a bruised and mildly bloodied nose, my dismayed colleagues could hardly have been more considerate.
As I’ve been writing this post, other incidents occur to me. Occasionally, I traveled to New Jersey destinations from Manhattan’s Port Authority bus station, which, on my way home, meant an underground walk through mostly unfamiliar territory from the bus station to my subway line. Twice, the same man offered me assistance after I left the bus. Both times we arrived at the subway turnstiles maybe ten minutes later, and both times he asked for money. When I told friends afterwards, they were appalled. My feeling was that, ever since I’d earned an income, I’d paid people to read print materials to me. The difference was that I negotiated pay with my readers, while my escort from the Port Authority had presented himself as a good Samaritan. He manipulated me into giving him cash, which, assuming he was desperate, I did. On balance, I didn’t begrudge it. After all, he had been a help.
Then there was the prostitute who literally chased me for a block. No prostitute had ever solicited me before, and I was delighted that she would offer me an equal opportunity for her services. But, discovering I was uncomfortable with the idea, I worried about her finding out where I lived. I stopped, and we had a short talk. I politely declined her invitation but handed her some money anyway. She turned back, heels clattering on the sidewalk.
One evening, a disgruntled member of the public followed me as I left the government office where I had a supervisory role. As he’d made clear when I’d tried to calm him down, he was unhappy with my staff’s handling of his complaint. I didn’t know it, but he tracked me through Chase Manhattan Plaza, then on the subway and along the street from my station. At last, as we approached the next corner, he made his presence and demands known. As with the prostitute, I stopped and faced him. He said his piece, I made some promise or other, and he relented. Unlike the prostitute, he wasn’t wearing heels, which meant I had to listen extra carefully for his footsteps returning to the station before resuming my walk home.
There were the two objects of sentimental value that disappeared from my apartment but whose loss I didn’t notice until some weeks and several visitors later. One was a small-scale imitation of a Rodin sculpture I’d brought home from Paris. The other was a lovely model of a goose in flight. I’ve been spared burglary, an especially intrusive violation, but it bothered me that I’d misplaced trust in someone and couldn’t determine who it was.
At last I turn to the incident that came to mind as I thought about my fellow writer’s Kitty Genovese reference.
In those days, several homeless people hung out around my local subway station. I can’t remember how it started, but one of them made a habit of greeting me and walking alongside me. From his voice, he was black. Each time I’d hand him some money before we reached the corner where I turned for home. Why? One reason was my sense of fairness: I was fortunate to be making a living, he unfortunate not to be. Another was that he seemed like a gentle soul, and I liked him.
It was so long ago that my memories of our walks together are dim, but I more clearly recall the evening he told me he’d be away for two weeks on a job training program. I wished him well and no doubt gave him some cash. A few weeks later, he turned up again. I think that walk was our longest. It was late enough to be dark, around ten o’clock, and we were still talking when we reached my street. We kept going. Halfway along the block to my apartment building, a middle-aged woman from a neighboring building came up and greeted me. She’d never approached me before. The man walked away.
I vaguely knew the woman as a real estate agent. She said she’d seen me many times on that block and that there had been something not right about the man. Did her intervention suggest racial prejudice? I live in a mostly white neighborhood. On top of that, I expect that as a homeless man, he looked like, well, that he didn’t fit in.
I never saw him again. Our routine had lasted months, possibly a year. It’s hard to believe he’d been plotting some horrible fate for me that entire time. I hadn’t felt threatened by him, that evening or any other. Even so, I thanked my neighbor. She may well have been unjust to the man, but she left me feeling the security that my neighbors, though strangers in every other sense, would look out for me. Refusing to be a bystander, she’d been brave. The resolution wasn’t morally satisfying, but her intervention was undeniably reassuring.
Writing this post has been a trip down one of memory’s lanes that I haven’t visited in a long time. Other than the vicious grab of my former girlfriend’s necklace and my once getting my nose punched, no harm was done. That girlfriend came through fine, as did I. Otherwise, they were the kinds of incidents that make for the story of a life.
I’ve spent time in many places in North America and Europe, in some cases for weeks or months. However, the only other city I’ve lived in for years is Boston. Those were the three most social years of my life. Friends from college had also moved there, and I made friends with a number of my fellow law students. But when I was out and about on my own, I didn’t meet anyone new, and I don’t recall a single instance of someone offering assistance. I’m sure my memory is flawed, but I’m confident my overall impression is valid. In Boston, strangers just don’t interact. At any rate, they didn’t in the seventies. For the record, I hated to leave the city, which I did for a good job, and I remain nostalgic about it.
Some of the threatening encounters I experienced in New York in the eighties could have turned out badly. Had any of them done so, the tone of this essay would undoubtedly be very different.
The Kitty Genovese story, even as it is told today, is distressing: A 28-year-old woman fled from her attacker while being repeatedly stabbed. Also newsworthy at the time, her lover, asleep in their apartment, was a woman. What she must have felt on being woken up and told the news is unimaginable. The murderer was caught and died in prison in 2016. Closure, yes, but a nightmare like that never entirely leaves our consciousness. The story keeps being picked up and continues to cast a pall. It is surely one reason why Donald Trump feels he can get away with labeling New York City an “anarchist jurisdiction” as a pretext for limiting our access to federal funds during the pandemic.
But what happened to Kitty Genovese is not the whole New York City story. Far from it. It’s a city of generosity and utter selfishness, good and evil. In those ways, it’s the everywhere city. But it’s hardly the everywhere city when it comes to the arts, cosmopolitan sophistication and high energy. It’s also as diverse as any place on earth, with residents from different nationalities, different parts of the U.S., different ethnic groups. It’s exhilarating to encounter, almost daily, people from everywhere in the world and every conceivable background. And in New York, I’ve always been able to count on the kindness of strangers.