The bystanders

July 8th 1967, Saturday

Yesterday was Kitty Genovese’s birthday. It would have been her thirty-second. I turned twenty-five yesterday and spent the entire night working at the bar, listening to old men babbling about President Johnson whilst playing poker. One of them was Michael Voorhees. He is a sixty-three year old fellow whose wife died last month. They say that she died of cancer and never went to see a doctor about it in first place. I wonder how she had managed to hide her pain. I’m sure there is no true love evident behind all this. Voorhees lives in the same neighborhood as Fred – in the Bronx. That is why I know about him. Fred brought Voorhees along to the bar that evening. He even decided to open the bar a little bit earlier than usual, because Voorhees was in such a bad state and needed some cheering up. I was actually hoping to finish early yesterday evening, so that I could go spend the night with Fred in the Bronx, but I already gave up on it as Fred seemed to care more about that old man. I told him last week that I wanted to spend the night with him and a bottle of red wine. After all we were having red wine at the goddamn bar together. And there was no Happy birthday. I’m sure that someday birthdays will become absolutely meaningless. I remember being scared of the heart dying, that the child in me would eventually grow up and wither. I think losing the enthusiasm in one’s birthday is already a serious symptom. My mother used to value her birthday a lot and gradually I’m beginning to wonder why. When I saw Fred laughing at the table with Voorhees, I knew that the old man hadn’t had such a good time in ages. His cheeks were burning red and it looked like his cheekbones were about to break through flesh. For some reason I couldn’t look at them any longer and I went to clean up the glasses in the kitchen.

We left the bar at around 4:30am. All of them appeared to be kind of sober, which was impressive. It must have been the morning light, I guess. Fred knows that I am unable to sleep when it’s bright and he has no curtains in his bedroom, either. He fell asleep within minutes and turned his back on me.

“You’re an idiot, Fred Myers!” I whispered sharply and hid my head under the blanket.

I couldn’t sleep well and left his apartment three hours later. I took the subway back to Queens. I went to grab some groceries before I went home to prepare some breakfast.

Something weird happened in the grocery store. A middle-aged man with pitch-black shades was observing me from the produce department. He had short dark blonde hair, which shimmered red under the horrible fluorescent lights in the store. Even though he only looked at me for about three seconds, it seemed much longer. I must have gone paranoid because of those dark shades. He had no reason to fear his actions, because no one was able to see his eyes. Strangely, I was not afraid of him. I felt safe in my guts.

However, the moment I stepped out of the store, I heard the firing of a gun inside. I let go of my shopping bag to block my ears. I screamed and bent down. I didn’t dare to look inside. I saw cops from across the road hurrying towards the store. I grabbed for my bag, left those apples on the path and walked away with frantic steps. People had their eyes glued at the store and all their mouths fell open like that of a nutcracker. Witnessing crime scenes usually scare the hell out of me and bring me to tears. It makes me want to shout at President Johnson: “Is this the Great Society that you have dreamed of?”

I knew that man was up to no good. All of them looked up on Truman, who, in my eyes, was nothing but a bomb planter, who thought he had created peace. If peace comprises millions of deaths, then it’s non-existent for me.

July 10th 1967, Monday

I’ve not been sleeping well lately. It has been incredibly hot and I keep getting headaches. I am tired but when I go to sleep I would wake up an hour later because my throat is too dry and then after that I would wake up again just because I need the bathroom.

There was a little article in the New York Times about the heist in my local grocery store. I was relieved when I read that no one was harmed. A stranger had thrown salt into the thief’s eyes and then knocked him down. Before the thief could fire his second shot, the stranger had broken his hand with a single kick. Each hostage was saying something different:

“The man was moving so fast you couldn’t see a single thing!”

“He used his elbow to break the robber’s wrist! Each of us could hear the crack!”

“He broke the criminal’s hand with his knee, upon which the gun fell onto the floor and slipped against my face!”

“…The next moment I looked up the stranger was gone. He must’ve left through the backdoor. The thief was lying there unconscious.”

It was an incredible story and people didn’t bother publishing this piece of news with the other major ones on the front pages, but instead it was placed on the page after the obituaries. I am aware of the fact that robberies happen daily, but this case is different. We have a hero here and nobody seems to care. Finally we have someone more useful and braver than the cops, someone who stands up for justice, but to the people out there it was nothing more than a one-off show. They are all ignorant and apathetic. Or maybe the atomic bombs are at fault that we have become so indifferent and torpid towards life and death.

July 11th 1967, Tuesday

I had a fight with Fred last night. So I refused to spend the night at his after work. He must have thought I would take the cab home, but I didn’t. I was too stingy to spend my last ten dollars. Besides that I needed to cool my head. I thought it would be safe anyway to walk on the main road where a few off-licenses were still open. It does not matter what kind of clothes you wear in New York.  Certain people will always notice you; even if you only wear casual clothing that normally wouldn’t draw any attention. I always pay heed to what I wear anyhow, as I’m a woman. I don’t wear skirts, because they make me feel vulnerable. Femininity causes nothing but trouble in this world. I was thinking of Miss Genovese whilst walking home and how she must have suffered. Did she wear a skirt? The thought of her made me feel even worse than how I had felt about Elizabeth Short. I must have been about seven when my parents talked about the murder of a woman in California. All I knew was that California was far away and that we were in no danger. It’s different with Kitty Genovese, because that murder happened in my neighborhood. There I was walking home in the dark and suddenly my guts were sensing something unpleasant. I had to change to 26th Street, because the main road was closed due to a severe car accident. It was enough for me to have seen the two crushed cars: a Chevrolet Corvette and an Imapala. Several people were standing there, gaping around whilst the cops were investigating the situation. I couldn’t take it and rushed into 26th Street. My heart was racing and for one moment I wished I were elsewhere; it didn’t really matter where. I just wanted to be out of New York. The street was dark and brittle, but you could tell that many people lived there and accepted the way things were. There was light coming out from nearly each window. But suddenly I heard whispers coming from the corner. It must have been some kind of an alley, but I couldn’t quite detect it. The streetlights were very dim, though still bright enough to recognize faces. I followed the smell of urine and the whispers became clearer. This time I even heard someone cry, begging whoever to let him go. I heard water flowing down and the cry got slightly louder, more mortified. When I reached the alley, I saw a group of men urinating on a half Asian boy. He must have been in his early twenties and was surrounded by four tall men dressed in black. They were calling him names and then one of them boisterously punched him in the face. Another hit the other side of the face. They began shouting racist names and I saw a few more lights going on. Some people were looking outside, but not for long. There was this man who had immediately switched the lights off as if nothing was happening.  From another window someone shouted:

“Shut up! And get your business done elsewhere!”

The Asian boy’s face was covered with blood and all of a sudden one of the men pulled a knife. I swallowed hard, took a step back and then began to scream my lungs out. Across the road was a man whose face I couldn’t identify. I took more steps back until I stumbled on an old man who was holding a hunting musket or a rifle of some sort.

“Where’re these fuckers?” he mumbled and I saw no teeth in his mouth.

The four men came out of the alley and immediately put their hands up. The old man was seriously ready to shoot at them, but before he could do that, I stepped right in front of him and said: “No!”

He pushed me aside and started firing at the group, but they had escaped.

“I shoulda let you die, shouldn’I?”

He threw a very resentful glare at me. Then the old man went back into the house and left me standing there on my own. The man who was standing across the road was gone. I was looking up to all the windows and saw how several lights went off, one by one. I rushed back down to the alley and saw the young man lying there, unconscious. I dragged him all the way back to the main road, because I didn’t know what else to do. My clothes were covered in blood; my fingernails were bloody… I was crying. The cops were still there investigating the car accident. The gaping people noticed me first and started pointing at me with their ignorant fingers.

It’s been a while since I had my last panic attack. My hands were bloody. The cops drove me home in the end and told me that they’d get back to me about the incident. However, I know they will not. I don’t know about the young man’s condition and I’m not sure whether I should try to find out. There is just one thing that I’m not sure about. Should I have let the old man kill those criminals? What if they do the same thing again elsewhere and this time with success? People in their homes will only switch the lights off as if nothing.

July 15th 1967, Saturday

I haven’t been to work for five days. Fred didn’t call me until day two. I never answered it. I’m sure he thinks I’m still angry with him, but I have no intention of telling him the truth about what happened. Maybe he won’t be interested or maybe this is something I want to keep to myself. To be honest I haven’t quite digested it all, yet. Already the thought of the blood, the smell of the urine and the old man’s musket terrify me. Sometimes when looking at my hands I see blood. Instead of washing the clothes I wore that night I threw them all away. The nights are harder to get through now. Despite the heat there are other concerns that won’t let me sleep.

July 17th 1967, Monday

I couldn’t believe my eyes when I read the New York Times today. Four criminals were found dead in 26th Street, Queens. All four got brutally beaten up and died of internal bleedings. In the article they write about innumerable bones being broken, but nothing got stolen from them. I went totally numb after reading. They were previously convicted for robbery and rape. The cops presume that there had been a gang fight. Apparently the people living in that area had heard nothing. Usually they would at least admit of witnessing something. Surely it couldn’t have been a silent fight. Little by little I’m starting to wonder whether the term justice is more than just a term. The Asian boy appeared in my dreams again. This time I saw him dead.

July 20th 1967, Thursday

I nearly faced death on Tuesday. It was late at night when I was taking my trash out. There was a black Chevrolet El Camino in the middle of the quiet street. The lights were dim and it was too dark. I couldn’t see the person in the car. Shivers were running down my spine when I opened the damn trashcan. Before I could sense the danger in my guts, I was suddenly feeling two hands around my neck. I made choking noises and attempted to set myself free by kicking and elbowing the person, but it didn’t seem to hurt him one bit. It was a stranger with a lunatic expression in his face. The way he looked at me made me believe that I had done him wrong. His eyes were glassy and his teeth yellow. I saw my face in his eyes. I tried kicking him again; this time between his legs. Finally he released me with a loud howl. I fell against the trashcan and then onto the bottom. My cry for help was useless. I knew that people heard me, but no one came for my rescue. He called me a bitch and pulled a knife. He said he would cut me into pieces and feed me to his dog. Tears were running down my face. He threw himself over my body, and I began to scream. I was holding both hands in front of him and the knife went through my left hand. I screamed again and closed my eyes. Before I was able look through my tears someone had pulled the lunatic away from me. I wiped my eyes and saw the man with those pitch-black shades fighting the lunatic. Each punch and kick ended in a painful scream. Both of the stranger’s fists were firm and enraged.

“Go”, he told me with a deep coarse voice.

It took me a while to take that in.

“GO!” he said again, angrily.

The lunatic’s eye was squirting blood. I acted under his demand. I was running up the stairs back into my apartment. Something inside of me told me that everyone knew I was in danger, but they did nothing except for looking through their keyholes. Again there was blood on my hand, my own blood this time. Although it needed treatment badly, I couldn’t think of anything else except for what was happening outside. Was he the one they mentioned in the newspapers? The one I saw in the grocery store? About ten minutes later I heard the ambulance outside. I would have expected the cops at least, if anyone had bothered calling for help. It didn’t take very long until the ambulance men were knocking on my door. They took me to the hospital and I ended up staying there for the night. A sleeping pill helped me to sleep; however the sleep came with multiple nightmares:

Starting off with the fight with Fred, the robbery at the grocery store (with me present) and the attempted rape. When I woke up on Wednesday I was more exhausted than ever. It felt like having a mental breakdown or something. The moment I looked into the mirror I didn’t recognize myself at first. I looked like thirty. However, I didn’t feel as bad as I should have or perhaps I was only repressing all the emotions that people would consider as psychologically normal. But no, the truth is that I had someone in mind and this person needed to reveal himself to me.

I saw the man with those pitch-black shades after leaving the hospital. He was sitting in a coffee shop on Roosevelt Avenue. His shades were glaring at me and I knew that he was observing me, probably waiting for me as well. I went inside with no hesitation. His face showed no expression. He was wearing a black leather jacket and a black pair of jeans. It was the same dark blonde hair that shimmered red in the light. I sat myself down, although it didn’t look like he would have asked me to.

“Who are you?” I asked.

His cup of coffee was still untouched and there was no steam coming out of it anymore. I noticed a little smile around his mouth; a tantalizing smile that already signified that I would not learn about the truth. Carefully, but elegantly he took off his pitch-black shades and placed them silently on the table.

“I admire your courage”, he said with his hoarse voice.

I couldn’t say a word. I was examining his deep blue eyes. I saw myself in there and felt comforted. I still had my soul. Those blue eyes made him appear slightly younger than I had expected, thirty-seven maybe. If his face didn’t appear so worn out I would’ve guessed thirty-five.

“What did you do to the man?” I asked.

“He got what he deserved.”

He sounded firm and determined.

“I don’t believe in killing, you know….”

My voice was trembling when I said that. He smiled again, as if he was going to laugh at my statement.

“Justice is not just a word.”

I cautiously laid my injured hand on the table.

“But I’m not dead, am I?”

“You would’ve been”, he explained.

“So what makes you think I’m courageous then?” I wanted to know.

He lowered his eyes as if he wanted to put his shades back on.

“You are no bystander. You take action.”

It sounded like a compliment, but I didn’t want to go deeper into that, because I knew myself well. I was there to learn more about him.

“What’s your name?”

“I’m Joe.”

“Joe…what?”

“Just, Joe.”

He put his shades back on and was ready to leave.

“Please don’t go! I have so many questions.”

“I’ve said too much already.”

He stood up and walked towards the door. I grabbed hold of his arm and asked him quietly:

“Will you stop killing?”

He shook me off.

“That’s not the idea of justice. You can’t be serious!” I shouted.

“Sometimes you have to drop a bomb to show how serious you are.”

The feelings I have for Joe are so ambivalent. On the one hand it feels like I’ve been talking to Truman and on the other there was Joe’s idea of moral absolutism. In today’s New York Times I read about the murder of the necrophiliac criminal Jason Krueger. He had strangled five women to death in Brooklyn and was found dead in Queens. I recognized the picture of the lunatic.

July 21st 1967, Friday

I met Joe again today. He appeared on my balcony. I don’t know how he managed to climb all the way up to third floor and how he knew which apartment I was in. I was looking at him through the glass. He was not wearing his shades and therefore refused to look at me. I opened the glass door to let him in, but he wouldn’t move. His lips were motionless, so was his entire body.

“Joe?”

“Too many innocent lives have been annihilated, but no one endeavors to do anything about it, except me.”

A long pause followed. I wanted to say something, but I knew he was not yet finished.

“I was in love with Kitty Genovese…”

I stopped breathing for a while.

“But she never knew. You bear resemblance to her…”

He finally raised his head and looked at me.

“However, this is not the reason why I saved you. Murderers will deal with death and all other felons deserve life-sentence.”

“Is this your idea of a Great Society?” I asked.

He then asked me back: “Do you think peace exists?”

I began to shake my head tentatively.

“There’s your answer then. But it doesn’t change the fact that I have faith in my city. I spill vermin’s blood and watch it flow down the gutter.”

“Will this bring Kitty back?”

“THIS IS NOT ABOUT HER!” he shouted and ultimately seemed to regret having told me all that.

Quietly he carried on: “You can make justice happen with your own hands…You encounter this moment of relief. Unfortunately it doesn’t last for long.”

There he was vindicating himself and I could do nothing except stare at my hands, which, for one second, were full of blood again. I turned around with arms folded, trying to think of a way to persuade him.

“Do it for me!” I suggested and turned back to the balcony, but he was gone.

July 23rd 1967, Sunday

I can’t deny the fact that I feel safer now, as if Joe is watching over me. Last night I was overcome by fatigue, I didn’t even bother responding to Fred’s call. I lay myself down on my bed and fell asleep immediately. I dreamt of Joe lying next to me. When sleeping, he appears to be very delicate and slightly vulnerable. I knew that if I touched him, he’d open his eyes. When I woke up this morning, I noticed a black leather jacket covering my body. My balcony door was open.

July 25th 1967, Tuesday

Today they finally mentioned Joe in the New York Times. Of course no one could identify him; they portray him as lithe and lissome, but strong as hell. His shades are as dark as the night. Though, these are the words of the criminal, who got arrested. His name is Pat Bates, a triple murderer, someone who in Joe’s eyes would deserve death. According to the newspaper, Pat Bates, during an attempt to kill a helpless foreigner, got beaten up severely: broken rips, arms and nasal bone, two black eyes and internal bleedings. The ambulance arrived just in time to save him.

I smiled.

by Paula Deckard (c) 2009

In dedication to Rorschach and Kitty Genovese

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