I’m so happy that Meditation On A Theme is back! And at the LGBT Center, where I first attended one it back in… 2009, I think? And I remember I sat there and thought…. “I wanna do that.” I took part in 13 of them before the hiatus two years ago. The last one I did was in June, 2013 – You Can’t Do That On Television. I was just a few weeks into dating my partner Chris and it was the first time he got to see me get up and actually DO something. And my parents always attended, so they were there and it was the first time they got to meet him, so… really there was no pressure at all. But it turned out OK and we all lived happily ever after.
Chris lived in Kew Gardens at the time. This was my first mixed relationship, and by that I mean the first time I was dating someone who lived outside of Manhattan. I did that selfish “you come to me – I live in the cooler place” thing for as long as I could, but eventually I had to reciprocate and venture out there.
Our first stop was coffee from Odradeks next to the Kew Gardens Long Island Railroad Station. This is at the end of a row of two story Tudor-style buildings on Austin Street between the train station parking lot and Lefferts Boulevard. There’s retail at street level on both the Austin Street side and on the rear of the buildings, with apartments on the second floor. The back faces the train tracks, where there is a foot path and steps up to Lefferts. The most prominent business here is Austin’s Ale House, which has created an outdoor dining area on the track side of the path. This is where we had dinner later that night.
Since my high school days, I had noticed both Kew Gardens and also the next stop Forest Hills from the window of the Long Island Railroad as I’d traveled into Manhattan, so it was interesting now to be the one sitting on the shore as the trains came and went.
If you look at the map, Queens and Brooklyn are physically ON Long Island and I was a total Manhattan snob and felt that if I was going to live in either borough I was basically a failure and practically moving back home. But after a couple of decades of that sort of thinking, here I was starting to enjoy spending time out here… with Chris, in the country with trees and flowers and stuff. One night we saw a raccoon walking on the top of a chain link fence a few feet from the sidewalk and I’m like… I was on a subway 5 minutes ago…where the fuck am I?
So I was moving forward in a new relationship and letting go of the idea that Manhattan was the be all and end all and considering the benefits of living in Queens with more space and quicker access to family on Long Island because nobody’s getting any younger out there and I’d still be back in Manhattan every weekday for work anyway, and I’m not even going to get into the whole “falling out of love with the East Village that is a shell of its former self and unaffordable and blah blah blah…” Countless essays have been written about that.
But things were shifting… slowly.. and we continued to divide time between both places as the relationship progressed.
In March of the following year, I was watching the news and they had a segment on the 50th anniversary of the murder of Kitty Genovese. This was the boogie man story of all time to scare people out of moving to the big bad apathetic city. I had heard about this when I was growing up. In 1964, this pretty young woman was murdered and all her neighbors watched and nobody intervened.
I later learned that the reportage of this case produced one of the most famous articles in New York Times history. The headline screamed: 37 Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call Police with the lede paragraph: “For more than half an hour, 37 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks… Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead.” I pictured these blank people eating popcorn watching this attack from their tenement windows.
The piece ran at a time that perfectly played into the fears of the day: anxiety about the anonymity of urban life and also the fear of random violence in post-JFK America. This was only 4 months after his assassination. A 2014 New Yorker magazine piece revisiting the slaying said “The New York Times story fed into a version of reality that was molded to conform to a theory…” basically that life is cheap in the naked city, baby. You’re just one in a million and those cold heartless bastards wouldn’t cross the street to save your life.
The outrage over this story was never about the killer or the actual killing. The attacker had already been captured by the time the Times article ran two weeks after the murder. This was about The 37 – later amended to 38 – The 38 apathetic people who saw something and said nothing. This was also about selling newspapers by scaring the crap out of everyone.
Books were written about the case. Songs. More than one Law & Order episode ripped it from the headlines. The HBO show Girls just did a whole episode that referenced it. There were psychological and sociological studies about what is now known as “The Genovese Syndrome” – when bystanders fail to intervene when a crime is taking place. This all snowballed from the New York Times article. And because of the prestige of the New York Times, nobody really investigated to see if the story was accurately reported. And unfortunately, it wasn’t. People in the neighborhood where it took place knew it. If this happened today, they could have taken to social media to correct the story. But it took 40 years before anyone in print media started to try get it right.
But before I get into that… Where do you think this symbol of urban indifference took place? In the version of the story I envisioned with the people in the windows with the popcorn, it was smack dab in the middle of Manhattan. Hell’s Kitchen! Because that was the worst of the worst and of course it happened there. But no. I’m watching the news report on the 50th anniversary of this horrible event and they are live on the scene… in Kew Gardens. Kitty lived in an apartment above the back of what is now Austin’s Ale House. That foot path along the back that I mentioned? Some older neighborhood residents call it Kitty Genovese Way.
Here’s another interesting tidbit that went unreported for 40 years: Kitty was a lesbian, living with her girlfriend Mary Ann Zielonko. She was killed on the one-year anniversary of the day they had agreed to move in together. While this “unfortunate gay condition” was still regarded as a mental illness at the time, this was not the angle that the New York Times was going for, so the women were referred to as “roommates.” In recent years Mary Ann has started to give interviews and open up about the guilt she has felt her entire life, having slept through the whole incident.
So here’s what happened: Kitty was a manager at a bar in Jamaica. She was driving home around 3am when Winston Mosely spotted her. He was driving around looking for, in his words, “a woman to kill.” She parked her car in the LIRR parking lot and must have realized she was being followed because she didn’t go around back to the footpath to her apartment – she started to run up Austin Street toward Lefferts Boulevard, possibly headed to the front of the bar that is now Austin’s Ale House, but that bar had already closed. She was screaming for help when he caught up to her and stabbed her. Some people in the apartment building across the street later said they thought they heard a drunken altercation or a lover’s quarrel outside the bar. One man opened his window and yelled “Leave that girl alone” – this was enough to scare off Mosely. Kitty, who was already mortally wounded, slowly made her way back down and around to the back of the building, headed towards her apartment. She managed to get into the vestibule of her neighbor’s building when Mosely found her, raped and stabbed her again.
So there were two attacks in two different places. Nobody could have seen or heard both. Someone did call an ambulance, and Kitty was cradled by a neighbor – a 70 year old woman who held her until the ambulance arrived. But none of this fit the grand narrative of urban indifference.
On the other hand, the neighbor whose building she managed to reach, a guy who was actually was a friend of hers (but may have been drunk) opened his door, saw something going on with Kitty and some guy in the vestibule, freaked out, closed his door, called a friend, went out the window to another friend’s apartment and eventually called the police. It’s not as if he blithely said “I don’t wanna get involved” and went back to bed, as it was reported.
In an interview for a new documentary about the case called The Witness, which is about Kitty’s younger brother Bill investigating what really happened, the author of the original New York Times piece basically admitted that he made up the number of witnesses. But he felt that his version of the story had done a lot of good and brought to light things that needed to be said.
Some sources have said that the outrage over the incident led to the creation of the 911 emergency call system. In 1964, a person had to look up the number of their local precinct in the phone book. But really, the 911 system wasn’t put into place until 1968. And in this particular case, it turns out that people did call the police. One person who called said that they were told by the precinct that “police were already aware of the situation.” But the police didn’t come. Why? It has been speculated that, because the initial attack was perceived to be a domestic dispute, it was ignored. People don’t like to get involved in how a man disciplines his woman. That’s nobody’s business.
But…. what if the focus of the New York Times article had been on the reluctance to get involved in what some thought was a domestic dispute? If some didn’t call the police because of this… and the police didn’t send someone out because of this… couldn’t that have been the shocking focus of the piece? Maybe that caveman thinking could have been dealt with sooner rather than later?
The author of a 2004 revisit in the New York Times said “If the story had been reported more accurately, it would have been a two- or three-day, maybe even a four-day story, but it would not have been a fifty-year story. We would not still be sitting here talking about it today.” As sure as Mama Cass did not choke on a ham sandwich, 38 people did not stand by and let this woman get murdered. But you can’t fix an urban myth.
The Genovese syndrome might exist but it didn’t in this case. Or at least not in the numbers reported. But there were a couple of people that did not help her. That’s no urban legend.
Yes, there are horrible people in this world. There are enough mass shootings to confirm that. But with every tragedy there are stories about the acts of heroism of everyday people. I’m not going to end with some Anne Frank bon mots like “In spite of everything I believe all people are good at heart.” I’m sorry but some people in this world just absolutely suck. But you have to hope that there aren’t too many, or that they aren’t concentrated together.
Later in 2014, Chris and I moved in together in Forest Hills – the next stop closer to Manhattan, in a Tudor-style apartment building right alongside the railroad tracks. I later discovered that two different Son of Sam murders took place down the block back in 1977. But that’s another story…. Shortly after we moved in, signs went up around the neighborhood for the filming of “37” – a dramatization of the Kitty Genovese story, with Forest Hills standing in for Kew Gardens. I immediately thought the worst – the title didn’t give much hope that they were actually going to set the record straight. And this was what I thought, literally up until yesterday, when I read a Facebook post from one of the actors in the film, and what followed was a dialogue in which he assured me that the movie does address the inaccuracies and how the story affected society.
And this made me think back to the 2014 New Yorker magazine article, which concluded that “The real Kitty Genovese syndrome has to do with our susceptibility to narratives that echo our preconceptions and anxieties.” See, I just kind of did the same thing with this film that I haven’t even seen.
Picture a link to the original Kitty Genovese New York Times story scrolling by on your newsfeed. And let’s just assume you already think that New York City is dangerous and the world is a shitty, horrible place. And you read that article and express your outrage and shake your head and shake your fist and wing off a visceral response and click “share.” And it was one source. One embellished source.
So I guess what I’m saying is … If you see something… check around a little. Google. Check Snopes. Think for a minute. Then say something.