The Neighborhood



The most famous person never to get out of Kew Gardens alive was Kitty Genovese, whose murder made the front page of the New York Times, was later discussed in college classrooms around the country and even the world, spawned articles and books over the years, gave rise to the creation of emergency number 911 and the expression “Bystander effect.”


On March 13, 1964, Kitty came home late, after 3 in the morning as she always did from her bar-tending job in a nearby town, and parked her car in the parking lot of the Long Island Railroad.  The man who stalked her, Winston Moseley, was the father of two, a quiet man from South Ozone Park who had a habit of choosing female victims at random and killing and raping them, though all she knew was that someone was following her.  She ran, he caught up with her in the vestibule of her apartment house and stabbed her twice.  She screamed.  “Oh God, I’ve been stabbed!” and he ran away.  Nothing happened.  He returned and stabbed her several times, and again she screamed.  A few lights in bedroom windows may have gone on then.  He fled.  When he returned the third time, her stabbed her again (an estimated 17 times in all) and raped her as she was dying.  Then he stole her wallet.

For more than half an hour 38 respectable, law-abiding citizens watched a killer stalk and stab a woman in three separate attacks in Kew Gardens, wrote the New York Times. Not one person telephoned the police during the assault; one witness called after the woman was dead. . . I didn’t want to get involved,” a witness said, using a phrase that was thought to encapsulate the age.

I was living in London at the time, but Kew Gardens remained home, the place where I’d lived up to the age of 15, where my memory always returns at the cue of “childhood.”  Reading about the murder in The Guardian, I could picture exactly where Kitty had been at each point of the assault, her bloody trek up Austin Street towards the pay telephone on the corner at Lefferts Boulevard, past the bar that was already closed, a bar I passed every day, though on the opposite side of the street because it was too rowdy and frightening.  I remembered the day I was walking there with Oma, my father’s mother who never wore anything but black, a small gray ruffled dickey at her neck, her face long and lined, a hat on her gray hair, her blue eyes faded as she walked to the right of me, speaking German because her English, once tenuously captured, was fast escaping.  We didn’t hold hands because we never touched or kissed or hugged.  She had had t.b. earlier and didn’t want to infect me, or at least that’s how the story went.

As we passed on the opposite side of the street, headed for Lefferts Boulevard, a drunk was kicked out of the bar and landed in the gutter where he lay absolutely still.  I was sure he was dead, my heart was beating in my ears and my first thought was that I had to protect Oma.  I engaged her in some talk of which I have no memory, but she was forced to turn towards me, turn to her left and away from the bar, and I went on talking whatever it was until we were well out of view.  I never mentioned it afterwards to her or my parents.  I carried a strange sense of responsibility in my girlhood, the sense that nasty things, “American” things that might include violence or bad manners were somehow my fault, and that I had to shield people like my mother and grandmother from them.  (My father, who had gone to Horace Mann school in New York, alternating with his school in Vienna, was made of sterner stuff.)  Had the bar not been closed unusually early that night – or morning – of March 13th by a substitute barkeep eager to get home, Kitty might have found help.

After Kitty’s murder the city installed a system whereby New Yorkers could call the police without first going through an operator or identifying themselves – by dialing 911. The “Bystander effect” stated that the more people involved in an emergency, the less likely any one person is to help.  So, the Kew Gardeners roused from their sleep that night rationalized that it was probably nothing, drunks at the bar, a lover’s quarrel – or that somebody else was probably doing something about it.  As it turned out many years later, some parts of the original story had to be revised, and A.M. Rosenthal, the New York Times reporter who first wrote the full front page article on Kitty two weeks after her murder later wrote a book (Thirty-Eight Witnesses) in which he said that a few people did make an effort, though in essence the account still stands.  Over the years, many new details about the whole affair and about Kitty herself have come to light; it’s a story that never lets go of me.

Or of Kew Gardens.  Kitty’s fame, in death, is greater than the town’s, a place filled with German-speaking immigrants at the time we lived there.  Mimi’s Bakery had my favorite chocolate cake slices, layered with chocolate butter cream and a rosette on top, in the center of which rested half a maraschino cherry, that detestable cherry which I would have to remove every day.  The slice itself was called a “favor” by Mimi, because of me, and because the word “favorite” was too long and difficult to pronounce.  At Bauer’s butcher shop I would get a few slices of bologna which I loved, whenever we shopped there, and one time we got a kitten from them with six toes which I named Freaky.  Mr. Bauer stood with sides of beef and pork hanging behind him as he worked on the butcher’s block wearing his bloody apron, and Mrs. Bauer remained forever inside her cashier’s cage like a huge plump bird with protruding light-colored, almost yellow eyes.  The town, built as a “garden community” by Englishmen who named it after the royal gardens at Kew outside London, retained old-world charm in its Tudor style houses lining the street that at one point would become the railroad bridge, our miniature Rialto.  A few doors beyond Bauer’s and next to the steps leading down to the station platform stood the candy and newspaper store, which sold penny candy and Wonder Woman, Katy Keene and of course the Archie comics, and later, Photoplay the movie magazine and Modern Romance, that taught me about lesbianism.  The candy store had a smell so Proustian that I can still conjure it up a lifetime later, though I can give no name to it.  Possibly it was a combination of fresh ink and boiled candies and licorice and such; it is a smell that inhabited many stores of its kind but then disappeared, though for a while I would occasionally find it again in some out-of-the-way place (until the last decade or two) and be instantly transported back to my pigtailed self, holding out the dime I was ready to spend on that week’s extravagance.

Up by the subway, on the far side of Queens Boulevard next to the Kew Gardens Courthouse stood a statue we all feared, of a naked man holding a sword on his shoulder and standing, so it seemed, on a couple of female figures beneath him.  It was said that boys were hiding behind it and if you ever went up to the statue they would come out and rape you.  None of us ever tested the truth of this legend, but then, we were very young and not allowed to cross the Boulevard.

We called it “The Rape” (Civic Virtue Statue)
Not far from the statue, at the dividing line between Kew Gardens and its neighbor Forest Hills (known for the tennis in those days) stood the Kew-Forest school, a private school that my parents at one point suggested sending me to.  I screamed and carried on as if they’d suggested branding me with a hot iron.  In my still-forming and muddled mind, “private school,” “boarding school,” and “reform school” were all synonyms and to go there was a punishment from hell.  They dropped the idea, I continued at P.S. 99 (which never had a principal in all the years I went there but only Mrs. Oliver, our “acting” principal, the flesh of whose arms hung down below her elbows and whose face was puckered into a continually disapproving expression.)

Kew-Forest is the school Donald Trump went to before he was released for disciplinary reasons, even though his father was on the board of Kew-Forest, and sent to military school from then on.

The Trump family lived not far from us, in Jamaica Estates, a subway stop away. Grandfather Trump, Friedrich, had emigrated from Germany at a time when the family name was still Drumpf, settled in Seattle and opened up a casino-cum brothel in the red light district.  It was wildly successful and Friedrich moved on to open a string of brothels in the Yukon.  (Bedrooms had scales in them, so customers could pay in gold dust.) In trouble with authorities, Grandpa moved back to Germany in 1901, but was deported for having evaded military service there.  He returned to NY and later died of Spanish flu.

His son Fred showed early entrepreneurial talent, and after World War II took advantage of federal housing grants to build rental apartment buildings in Queens and Brooklyn.  Since many tenants were Jewish, he claimed to be of Swedish descent.  His buildings did not rent to “coloreds.”  Moreover, Fred seemed to have a close connection to the KKK and showed a history of racial bigotry.

His son Donald continued the Swedish claim, and after graduating from Fordham got a military exemption – because of a “heel spur” – from the draft.  Instead of going to Vietnam he went to Manhattan with over one hundred million dollars’ worth of bank loans secured by his father and thus proceeded towards his present eminence, leaving many bankruptcies behind him – his airline, his “university,” his beauty pageants, football team and of course his casinos, at which Grandpa had been far more successful.  He is now running for US president without a platform or an understanding of most anything, the most poorly prepared candidate in the history of this country who has never for one minute lived with less than multi-millions to support him, and who is intent on defrauding his fellows, his workers, his country and the world.  He uses a capital HE when speaking about himself.

While Donald was still at Kew-Forest, another eminent American was then living in Kew Gardens.  Ralph Bunche received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950, “the first Negro to win the award,” as the New York Times headline of Sept 23 announced, for his work in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict through the 1949 Armistice Agreement.  A diplomat and scholar, Bunche had received a Ph.D. in political science from Harvard, the first African-American doctorate in political science in America. Later he worked with Eleanor Roosevelt to create and adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  He believed in equality for all and “the essential goodness of all people.”

Bunche’s father was also named Fred.  He was a barber in Detroit. His mother, Olive Agnes, was an amateur musician.  Their earliest ancestor in the United States was an African indentured servant, presumed to be the first slave in Virginia.

In Kew Gardens the American Dream was still very much alive in the years after the Second World War.  It was mainly a town of immigrants, refugees from Hitler Europe who would otherwise have been murdered for no greater sin than having been born.  It was a tiny melting pot inside the cauldron of the country and it melted away our differences, making us all American and all worthy of respect.  Of course there were exceptions to this, including a fuss made by some residents when Dr. Bunche first moved in, the fear that having a “Negro” in the neighborhood would lower property values.  We ourselves had minor scandals: Monique, my favorite doll was kidnapped from her doll carriage by B., whose mother changed husbands (and surnames) nearly every year and who was also known as the mistress of New York City’s mayor.  But on the whole, Kew Gardens was decent, in the old-fashioned meaning of the word.

Then came Kitty.  Her brutal murder by Winston Moseley (who died in April, 2016 at the age of 81 at Dannemora prison after being incarcerated for 52 years) and the inaction of thirty eight silent observers gave rise to new questions about human indifference to others.

And now we have Trump.  As they say in the subways: If you see something, say something.  Or as the King of Denmark explained when he wore a yellow star during Hitler’s invasion of Europe, “We are all Jews.” Now we are Mexicans and Muslims; Migrants, Menstruators and Minorities.  Surely enough to topple a clown.

Unpleasant Women



London, 1963: I am having dinner in Notting Hill with Val, a Viennese-born economist, smart and nice but not my type.  Suddenly there is a shriek, followed by a crash as a whiskey bottle is hurled across the room. “That’s the woman,” a voice screams, “who’s fucking my husband!”

I turn to Val, my face a question. “Henrietta,” he says.

I know who that is. The English wife of a slim, beautifully-featured Indian poet who drinks like a school of fish and who has conceived a crush on me that keeps him humming beneath my window on Tottenham Street all night, and he’s still there on the bench in the morning when I wake.  His crush has been driving me crazy.  One day a carton of champagne arrived and later the Poet came over to tell me he had tickets for us to go to Paris that afternoon.  I was not interested.  Henrietta is still shouting.  Val has taken care of the bill and we get up to go.

When we pass Henrietta’s table, I say, “I have not been fucking your husband.”

“Why not?” she screams as we head for the door, “Afraid of having black babies?”

Continue reading “Unpleasant Women”