Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Who Killed My Neighbor?

Someone murdered April Wagner and dumped her body beneath an exterior staircase behind St. Raphael’s Church on 41st St. – four blocks from my house. According to a New York Post police blotter column, a maintenance worker discovered her badly decomposed remains on August 18, 2009.

Did she die three days earlier or five? Did she die there, or did her killer shove her corpse into that shadowy spot? What caused her death:  stabbing, blunt force trauma, gunshot, strangulation, suffocation?

Who was this young redhead looking down her nose at me as I read the Crime Stoppers poster seeking information about her death?

I spotted several such posters around the Port Authority last fall. Each time I walked past April Wagner’s defiant face, I felt a chill crawl up my neck. No one cared about me when I was alive; no one is losing sleep over my homicide.

I wondered if April was right about that. Crime Stoppers and the NYPD printed posters; surely they wanted citizen-detectives like me to dig into this case and help solve it. Right?

The poster provided few clues. No cause of death, no information about April’s past, not even her age. Was she homeless? A sex worker? An addict? A Bon Jovi fan? A waitress? A mother? No answers.

Who was running this investigation? Tips could be dialed into a hotline, but who’s in charge? No names.

Around Thanksgiving last year, I decided to ask three officers who were sitting inside Empire Coffee, discussing a favorite cop-talk topic – retirement – that offered me a way into my topic:  jurisdiction.

“Gentlemen, who handles homicide cases in Hell’s Kitchen?”

Their spines straightened, jaws clenched. They wanted to know why I was asking. I told them about April. One explained how the area got jigsawed.

“We’re Port Authority Police. We handle cases inside the building and around its immediate perimeter. Midtown South handles some Hell’s Kitchen crime; 10th Precinct handles others. Where was the body found?”

I told them. They conferred, not entirely sure which unit would be in charge of the 41st Street and 10th Ave homicide. The superior officer said, “10th Precinct. Chelsea.” I thanked them; they didn’t appear thrilled with my interest in the intricacies of their profession.

I went to the 10th Precinct station soon after. The detective in charge of the Wagner case, Det. Barberra (phonetic spelling), was not in. Another detective listened to my questions and answered none. “It’s an active investigation; we can’t discuss specifics.”

“How are citizens supposed to help the police if the police won’t provide any information about the murder or the victim?”

“If you want to leave your card with me, I’ll give it to Detective Barberra.” I left my card; no one contacted me. Not a big surprise. When it comes to information, law enforcement largely remains a one-way street.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I appreciate police officers, I do. The NYPD saved my life a few years ago. I know how awesome cops can be. They could be even more effective if the system allowed citizens to better understand (and potentially solve) cases like April Wagner’s murder.

It can be done. I saw it being done in Greenville, South Carolina.

A poster taped up at the Greyhound bus station there outlined multiple cold case murder investigations, listing the victims’ ages, professions, cause of death, and other details (not many, but plenty) that reasonably inform the populace. The GPD Web site does the same and provides complete contact information for officers in charge of each case. Kudos to Chief Terri Wilfong and her team.

Unfortunately, the NYPD’s Web site does not publicize its cold cases. We can study mug shots and grainy video stills of its “Most Wanted” criminals; we cannot learn about cases that do not have suspects.

I tried.

In June 2010, I called the 10th Precinct to check the status of the April Wagner investigation. Detective Barberra was not in. Lieutenant Burgos told me the case was still open and that officers, “were speaking to some individuals to help us with it.”

I wanted to make one more attempt to learn at least April’s age and cause of death. I filed a request for her death certificate from the city health department, enclosing the $15.00 fee. On June 16, the city returned my check along with a form letter, a check mark in the box that says, “A death record is not a public record.”

By July 2010 most of April’s Crime Stoppers posters had been taken down. One remained stuck to the front window of Project Find, a homeless shelter across Ninth Avenue from the Port Authority. I called the Crime Stoppers number to see if I could obtain some posters. The operator said I would have to ask Detective Barberra to request posters on my behalf. I didn’t think that would be a good use of his time.

Sorry, April. You’ve been dead for over a year, and that’s still all I know about you.

Equivalency Exam: Soybeans and Labor

Strong societies form, grow and improve through capitalistic activity. Up to a point.  A point Western society passed 20 years ago with the Internet’s arrival.

We’re now one global economy, people.  Mourn the atavistic American Dream all you want, but crying won’t change a damn thing. (I’m sad, too. But I’m a capitalist who hates delusional thinking more than I fear change.)

Modern capitalism mystifies. Owning the means of production no longer puts you in charge of your economic destiny. Being a worker – whether unskilled or multi-degreed – puts your labor on the global market to be priced, diced and sliced as a commodity. It’s galling. It’s also reality. Many of us have yet to accept this fact.

I winced while reading the August 17 NYT story about union workers fighting wage cuts at the highly profitable Mott’s factory:

Tim Budd, a 24-year employee who belongs to the union’s bargaining team, said he was shocked by one thing the plant manager said during negotiations.
“He said we’re a commodity like soybeans and oil, and the price of commodities go up and down,” Mr. Budd recalled. “He said there are thousands of people in this area out of jobs, and they could hire any one of them for $14 an hour. It made me sick to have someone sit across the table and say I’m not worth the money I make.”

I empathize with and share Mr. Budd’s plight. But so does the lawyer whose practice competes with Mumbai attorneys; the North Carolina chocolate artist whose livelihood is threatened by one guy, Anthony Ward, who’s managed to corner the world cocoa market; the sick-making Mott manager whose job can end any time the Dr Pepper Snapple board decides to shutter his plant.

We are all at the mercy of this merciless system. I don’t see how individuals can win within its confines. And I don’t know what will happen next. Revolution? Maybe.

Or maybe we’re asking the wrong question.

Mr. Budd laments having his worth diminished via lowered wages. True, in economic terms. But what if we started asking ourselves about worth-metrics outside the capitalistic system? Could societies improve through people uniting to increase worth that cannot be measured in dollars? It’s difficult to wrap our brains around the concept, so entrenched are we in money-minded methodologies.

I believe we should try. If global capitalism is a game we cannot “win”, let’s find another. I’ll play if you will.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Southern Comfort

Inscription on an old federal building in Asheville, North Carolina.


Saturday, August 21, 2010

See Something (Nice)? Say Something.

Talking with strangers is a neglected free entertainment, requiring only curiosity and nerve. When initiated with a compliment – and without any agenda material, sexual or political (tough to imagine, right?) – such conversation is bound to lead somewhere interesting. Even a simple acknowledgment of someone’s existence can make that someone’s day.

It’s easy. Why don’t we do it more often?

A recent encounter had me renewing my vow to say something nice when I see something nice.

I went shopping for NYC postcards to send to Australian friends. Just outside Time (sic) Square Convenience on 42nd St. were two racks to twirl through. One featured cheap snaps – 5 for $1 – of landmarks. The other offered fanciful pictures of Gotham graffiti, open fire hydrants and street vendors – 2 for $1.

A thin woman with graying curly hair crouched near the second rack, refilling slots from an open briefcase.

“Do you work for this company?” I asked, searching the back of a card for a name. It was a woman’s name. “Are you the photographer?”

She looked up and slowly stood. “Yes, I made these pictures,” she said.

“They’re fantastic. Great work, Genevieve Hafner,” I said.

She smiled. “Oh, thank you very much.”

I bought six.

I wondered how she made ends meet as an East Village artist. I didn’t ask. But now I look for her each time I pass the shop. She’s known.

[Three pics above are my photos of the postcards created by G. Hafner; poor quality is my fault, not hers.]

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Pondering Squandering

A howl from the bowels of nonprofit development, The Ask by Sam Lipsyte is a perverse heist-movie of a book. Coen brothers funny, it offers poignant humiliations and not-quite redemption.

A scene on page 270 between narrator Milo and his preschooler, Bernie, struck me dumb. I’ll spend the summer mulling over this Lipsyte insight.

“Listen,” I said.
“Yes, Daddy?”
“Squander it. Always squander it. Give it all away.”
“Give what away? My toys?”
“No, yes, sure, your toys, too. Whatever it is. Squander it. Do you understand?”
“Not really.”
“Don’t save a little part of you inside yourself. Not even a scrap. It gets tainted in there. It rots.”
“What does?”
“I can’t explain it right now. Someday you’ll know. But promise me you’ll squander it.”
“I promise. What’s squander?”
“You don’t need to know that yet. Here’s what you need to know:  The boy can walk away from the ogre’s castle. He doesn’t have to knock. Some people will tell you that it’s better the boy get hurt or even die than never know whether he could have defeated the ogre and won the ogre’s treasure. But those are the people who tell us stories to keep us slaves.”
“Daddy?” said Bernie.
“Can I have a stegosaurus cake for my birthday like Jeremy got?”
“Yes, of course. For your birthday.”
I yanked him to me, buried my face against his strong, tiny neck.
“I love you, Bernie.”