It was in the early a.m., after a meeting of the New York Fanoclasts, just a few days after a young woman named Kitty Genovese had been knifed repeatedly outside her apartment in Long Island. To her screams of terror and pleas for help, her neighbors had locked their doors and closed their windows, doing nothing because they Didn’t Want To Get Involved — so her attacker, initially run off by her screams, had been able to keep coming back until he killed her.I was struck by the entry on the Subway Incident this morning when I was leafing through Dr. Gafia’s Fan Terms. This is a story about a story that didn’t happen.
Dave Van Arnam had been particularly vehement in his condemnation of “those scumbags who pass for human beings” at that Fanoclast meeting. On their way home, Dave, Earl Evers, Mike McInerney, Steve Stiles, rich brown and perhaps others were all in a subway station as a train pulled in, and a knife-wielding man inside one of the cars was seen chasing a terrified woman.
Dave stepped in, simultaneously shielding the woman with his body and holding the man at bay by threatening him with his balled up fist. Van Arnam kept the door of the car open with his shoulder until the motorman — who simply wanted to leave — called the police. Earl Evers kept the man with the knife wondering by going into a low karate crouch and sidling around behind him, while the rest tried to look like they would back Dave up.
After the police came and took the man away, everyone urged Dave to write up the incident. He started doing so the following week but always digressed before telling the full story — this is probably the only place it’s been told in this detail — in his fanzine First Draft.
The mythic version of Kitty Genovese’s murder, inaccurate but unforgettable, is the story by Martin Gansberg that ran two weeks later in the New York Times: Thirty-Eight Who Saw Murder Didn’t Call the Police. Gansberg reported that many of the neighbors in Genovese’s highrise saw or heard the attacks, but did nothing because they “didn’t want to get involved.” Her attacker stabbed her, then was driven off by her screams. When no one responded, he returned, stabbed her repeatedly, and raped her as she lay dying.
Since rich brown’s account of the subway incident quotes a line from Gansberg’s story, I think it took place a few days after the story was published, rather than a few days after the murder — not that that makes much difference. The story of Kitty Genovese that mattered was the one that happened inside everyone’s head, as they wondered what it said about human beings, American society, and the loneliness and alienation of cities. It’s been reverberating ever since.
We don’t know anything about the knife-wielding man on the subway. Maybe he was a copycat made bold by Gansberg’s story. Maybe he’d have been waving knives at women anyway. What’s easy to see, though, is that if he had knifed the woman, and if the motorman had pulled out of the station rather than calling the police, news reports of the incident so soon after Kitty Genovese’s death would have been seen as confirming every dark, ugly, alienating speculation stirred up by Genovese’s murder. That would have been a different universe.