Okay, first your thoughts: the poll is only for out-of-towners who don’t visit New York City, please. My 2¢ follows.
Thirty, thirty-five years ago, New York City was a scary place: crime had jumped to third-world standards (you had a 1.1% chance of being a victim of a violent crime each year). The Bug comic doesn’t begin to express the fear and lack of hope many New Yorkers felt.
(Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City is a well-written and highly readable book about the time though, as the title suggests, author Jonathan Mahler tries to do too much, using the out-of-control New York Yankees team as a metaphor for New York City. Or maybe using New York City as a metaphor for the out-of-control New York Yankees team. Or something.)
But that was then.
Eventually the City changed from a lawless jungle to someplace I’d allow my teenagers to wander without adult supervision, and that change is best illustrated by the Bernhard Goetz saga.
Goetz was on a New York City subway in December of 1984, when he was approached by four young men carrying makeshift weapons, who “asked” him for money. Subways being the fear equivalent of the proverbial “dark alley” in 1984, neither Goetz nor any of the frightened passengers around him doubted that this was a mugging. Goetz responded by pulling out a gun and shooting the four. One of them, 19-year-old Darrell Cabey, was left paralyzed. The other three weren’t seriously wounded.
The tabloids quickly dubbed Goetz the “subway vigilante” and while not everybody approved of him opening fire in a crowded subway, everybody could understand.
He was eventually convicted of one count of illegal firearms possession, and served a little over half a year in jail (New York City’s gun laws made this more-or-less mandatory).
Cabey’s lawyers filed a civil suit.
It’s fairly safe to guess that Goetz would have been been found not guilty in a civil trial in 1984; but the wheels of justice turn slowly, and the case didn’t come to court until 1996.
The City was a different place in 1996, and it was difficult to remember what it was like more than a decade earlier. Goetz had ridden in a dirty train in which most passengers wished desperately to be somewhere else. In 1996, jurors rode to the courthouse in subways which, while likely crowded, felt no more threatening than the overcrowded tram that takes them into Disney World.
(And in fact today, you’re more likely to see and interact with a major Disney character in Manhattan’s Times Square [click thumbnail, left] than on Disney’s Main Street; last week, no joke, I almost got knocked down by Mickey Mouse, who was for some reason rushing down Seventh Avenue. But I digress.)
Cabey’s attorneys painted Goetz as a “racist aggressor” and, absent any real understanding of the Number 2 Express line in December of 1984, the jury awarded Cabey $43 million.
© 2012 by Bill Bickel unless otherwise noted.