November 25, 2009 by David Gillaspie
WHAT DO YOU DO?
A little boy in Portland, Oregon went home with his dad after being accidentally left on a train platform. A young woman stayed with him until his father returned, a bystander who saw what happened and took time to care. Those ten minutes ended happily. It doesn’t always work out that way.
Where was the caring bystander for Kitty Genovese during her struggle for life in New York City? Would it have been you in 1964? Consider this before answering: the name Genovese had special meaning in New York. Why? It wasn’t because of Kitty Genovese, but maybe her neighbors didn’t know that.
The Genovese name that made you run and hide in Queens, New York belonged to Vito Genovese, not Kitty. By all accounts he was a dangerous man, which was important in his line of work. ‘Don’ Vito was a mafia kingpin, a known killer, the boss of bosses.
What do you think of when you hear the name Kennedy, Rockefeller, or Ford? Those names carry special significance even with those unrelated to the dynasties. The name Genovese carries special significance too. A casual reading of Vito Genovese’s profile is chilling enough.
Imagine seeing that name on the mailbox of your apartment building. While there is no excuse for standing by while a neighbor is murdered on the street, the name Genovese may give pause. The thirty eight witnesses may have connected Vito and Kitty when their only connection was the name.
The haunting story of Kitty Genovese might not matter to the young woman who stayed with the little boy on the Portland train platform, but it made me cross the street one evening.
Northwest Portland was my neighborhood. In the early 1980’s it was Portland’s answer to Greenwich Village. Not yet a victim of gentrification, NW 21st was not too clean or pretty and the rent was cheap. It was just right. Everything you needed was within walking distance.
Cinema 21 screened the widest variety of movies in town and still does. I was inside watching Personal Best. I walked out to the sidewalk with the crowd and noticed weird reflections coming off the plexiglass bus kiosk across the street. I turned to the couple behind me.
“Do you see that?” I asked, pointing. “Let’s check it out.”
The reflections came from someone bouncing off the plexiglass. A closer look showed two people, one pushing the other. The street in those days had some homeless people who came up from Old Town. It was probably two drunks arguing, at least that’s what I expected.
Then I heard the voice, a woman’s voice. It wasn’t Kitty Genovese’s voice, but it could have been.
“Ooof,” was the sound after each punch in the gut.
“You can’t do each time you get drunk,” the woman said.
A guy blasted her back into the plexiglass with a body shot, caught her on the rebound, and set up for the next one. The woman didn’t fall. She could take the punishment and still talk. She just couldn’t make him stop, so I did. At least that was the idea.
“Hey? Hey? HEY? Leave her alone,” I said.
He punched her again, deaf to my words while he caught her and loaded up for another whack.
“STOP OR I’M CALLING THE POLICE.”
I think the word Police caught him. Instead of punching the woman, he spun and redirected his fist. I leaned in to yell at him again when he nailed me right between the eyes. He was a little guy with a big punch. My new photo-gray wire rimmed glasses broke in half and cut the bridge of my nose.
The guy stopped pounding the woman, but now he was after me. I backed up and barked orders at him like a dog trainer with a bad pooch.
“GET BACK. STAND BACK.”
I wasn’t there to fight, but to break up a one-sided beat down. My job was done, but not quite the way I wanted it to end. The guy turned, grabbed the woman, and they both ran off. My glasses fell on the ground. A bystander looked at me and stepped on the lenses.
“Stay in Old Town with the rest of your bum friends,” he said.
I was in shock, but I wanted to punch that guy.
I was bleeding, my nose broken. The couple I crossed the street with said I wasn’t looking so good. I touched my face to make sure everything was where it was supposed to be, then picked up what was left of my cool glasses. The woman whistled a cop down who gave me a ride to my apartment on Lovejoy.
Nothing turned out right, but at least I stopped the guy from beating up a defenseless woman. Before I got to my apartment the cop heard a call over the radio. They had the puncher and the girl in Couch Park. I rode over to ID them. Once there the woman said her boyfriend was defending her from me. A simple thank-you would have been nice, but that’s not what happened.
The next day I went to the DA’s office to press charges. The Assistant DA stood on his chair and raised his hands overhead to drop a ream of connected computer paper that unfolded to the floor.
“What are you, the last of the Good Samaritans?” he asked. “This is a dangerous man, one step away from doing time. If you had lost an eye we could put him away. But you only got a few scratches. The best we can do is getting him into anger management.”
That was it. Four hundred dollar glasses down the tube unless I wanted to sue him in civil court; a broken nose and bloody gouges; anger management for the hitter. And the woman taking the hits turned on me.
I wasn’t happy, but I wasn’t going any further with the incident. I did what I set out to do. I used my face to give the woman a chance to get away, and she didn’t take it.
Am I glad I got involved? Not really, but it was my neighborhood and I couldn’t walk by. Am I happy with the results? No. Would I do it again? Yes, I would. If the Kitty Genovese story means anything, then you have to step up.
What would I have done on that New York street in 1964? Using what I learned on the Portland streets, and what I’ve learned as a caregiver, I would have stabilized the conflict by blindsiding the assailant. I would have comforted the victim and called for help. Would it work? Well I won’t lead with my face again, and since Kitty’s killer had a knife, I’d probably get stabbed for the effort.
All it took on the train platform in Portland was a calm voice helping a lost little boy. It took a young woman to show kindness to a stranger. You can downgrade her action as one of common decency, but you’d be missing the larger point. She was the right person in the right place at the right time.
She was a witness who wasn’t afraid. People like that are hard to find when you need them. Are you one of them? You should be.