He Lies Like An Eye Witness



I fell for this line the first time I heard it (supposedly an old Russian saying,) and adopted it with a few others that I keep on hand to ward off false thinking and unhealthy beliefs. It’s a comment on reportage which is the job of a journalist or a novelist, both of which I’ve worked at in my lifetime, probably perpetrating many lies, though not intentionally and perhaps not even harmfully.  Since all writing based on memory is subjective, and all stories about one’s past have been altered by the future of that past, all we writers can do is tell a story and hope it is recognizable enough to create an echo in the reader’s mind.

In this age of sumptuous lying, false facts, moveable truths, lack of conviction and inability to get a narrative straight, my old Russian saying is a quaint relic from days when the greatest lyric poet in English was able to come out with lines like: ‘Beauty is truth, truth Beauty, – that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Even I feel Keats went a bit potty there (the madness of the Greek dancers?), though we were raised in a world where the existence of god was certainly debatable but the fact of truth was unquestioned.   The New York Times was our Newspaper of Record, Science reigned, and police lineups relied on eye witnesses to point out the perp.

Our new dominion of boutique thinking, each person entitled to a private version of just about everything, from the origin of the earth to its imminent demise, has nothing whatever to do with the mutability of memory or the private truths of each individual that form a pattern that characterizes a particular life.

But back to the Eye Witness: someone who was present at the event, who can testify; who saw the rolled-away stone and met Christ walking in the garden. The person or persons who were watching what happened, like the silent observers behind their 1960’s draperies in Kew Gardens, Queens, as Kitty Genovese was stabbed to death repeatedly (35 times, it would be ascertained – by the coroner, not by the reports.)  Great emotions can surely color the event or even drown it into non-reality, as Freud showed us with “trauma,” the word taken from “dream” (Traum.)  An eye witness knows what he or she saw, but doesn’t thereby know what happened.

The key is in the word eye/I, the center of it all, the one who tells the story, narrates the novel, creates the history. The one to whom it happened, as The Great Gatsby happened to  Nick Carraway, as Moby Dick happened to Ishmael, as my life happened to me and yours to you.

Except, says the wise old saying, it didn’t. Not that way, not really.  Ask someone else.  Your mother if you can, your brother, your best friend from first grade.  It never happened at all, or if it did, if some vestige of your witnessing falls on receptive ears, then maybe it did happen, but not in the way you remember.  It was winter, not summer, the ground was covered with frost, not the petals of pear blossoms, and no one ever said what you thought they said, or what you reconstructed them as saying out of your wish to make a story where there is none, to wrest meaning from the cold dry ground because such memories convince you of your own importance or relevance. You were there, you SAW it.

But maybe it was only that someone described it for you and you appropriated it, and later told someone you’d been there, at that play, at the time. And then you told other people the same thing, and you could see yourself there, wearing that green silk (your favorite at the time), and now you begin to have a clearer view, you can remember what you thought of the play, where you went afterwards. . .  and soon the incident has become fact, something no one could have told you about because the details you remember are so clear that you had to have been there, you had to have experienced the play, the silk against your skin, the first shocking sip of an old malt whiskey, the bartender’s bald head and your companion’s knowing smile when you asked for another.  No one could make that up.

But they did. It’s all made up.  The truths about me are little stories, anecdotes, incidents, verses, memorized lines I’ve collected over a lifetime to describe myself to others and myself.  These are the memories, the scraps, the bits of clothing for the emperor who is trying to convince the people that he is fully dressed.  We start the process as children, when we really don’t know who we are (and don’t bother to think about it), but are improvising all the while, trying out this and that, putting ourselves in fairy stories, in the pictures we attempt to draw, in everything we encounter because becoming human is the process of acquiring an identity. “Once upon a time. . . ” there lived a little girl with my name and my thick braids who did all sorts of things, who became transformed into different people or animals, a fluid entity who could walk into paintings or sail like Thumbelina across the air on the back of a bird.  So it began.

I became my version of myself, and since then have been adding new versions, altering, refining, elaborating, editing version after version throughout my life and still now, still changing daily in some regard, making full use of language to clothe me in costumes to give me courage or make me beautiful or invisible.

But I could never – and neither can you – control the other versions, the tens of hundreds of versions created by others, versions of myself in relation to them or to someone else or simply their impressions, hastily drawn but fervently believed until I cease being what or who they believed I was at the time when they believed it.

Pirandello played with some of these concepts, Six Characters in Search of an Author; Virginia Wolf’s characters lived on the current of their consciousness, drifting off the page or into each other; the flowing river of time is ancient, repeated in every generation, the river of Heraclitus in which we cannot step a second time, the inevitability of change, mutability, transformation, desiccation, time and the bell, time and the river, time itself, so fragile a concept that a moment’s reflection changes it, and we can’t tell the passing minute from the passing hour, nor separate the living from the dead when they crowd our dreams.

I lie with passion and confidence, in the belief that my memory holds, that the people I cared about and loved existed in the way that I remember, down to the Yardley’s lavender sprinkled on my father’s white handkerchief that rose up like a small Alpine peak from his left breast pocket. I will forever remember my friend Connie, in Austin, sitting at her short wave radio early in the morning, listening to the BBC news with a can of beer in her hand – and then later, in Graceland with my son and two close friends, discovering with joy the t-shirt that said: Beer – It’s not just for Breakfast Anymore.

These incidents multiply, join, reflect from one to the other. Many people appear and for the moment I see them they are alive and we are the people we were then, or at least as seen by me, as seen by the I who was carried along the river of her life, noticing some things and oblivious to others, elaborating or simplifying, mixing up when what happened, but holding the memory (my own!) tight and complete, memories that expand into slides or action, others like snow domes, holding forever a scene that may have been influenced by what I read as much as by what I saw, but so real to me that I can smell the flowers of the Alpine meadow, the little brown chocolate flowers growing above the town of Lech in the Vorarlberg; or the vertigo that seized me at dinner in Mexico when I was 18 and I felt it was the Aztec gods, not the thin air of the high altitude, that played with my mind and brought me strange ancient shapes.

So much has happened, so much remembered and far more forgotten.  But what we hold on to, however we shape it, is the person we are, or at least the person we think we are and in either case, a quite different person from any other who ever lived.


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.