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Some Crimes You Can't Ignore, No Matter How Hard You Try

June 20, 1996|GERALDINE BAUM | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — One man attacks four women he doesn't know and I am reminded that no one is safe. They were all New Yorkers, these lone women going about their lives, but this is not just about them and here.

It's about you, there, in a house on a quiet street in the Midwest or even you driving a sports car down Melrose.

But we New Yorkers, in particular, don't like hearing that life is random. Everyone here tries to be so orderly and professional. So when a woman was beaten into a coma and sexually assaulted in Central Park near one of my son's favorite playgrounds, I didn't quite know what to do with my "to-do" list that day. Throw it out, I suppose or think wryly of Jacqueline Onassis admitting that she wouldn't have done so many sit-ups if she had known she was going to die so young.

Initially, I looked for reasons to ignore the young woman beaten unconscious during her walk in Central Park--and I found one. A nanny at the playground told police she thought she had seen a man and woman arguing in the spot where the victim was found about the time she was found. Oh, so she knew him, I thought, mentally getting myself off the hook from worrying about random violence.

But no such luck.

It turns out the victim didn't know him and it turns out she is just the kind of New Yorker we can't help but romanticize: a young aspiring artist--a concert pianist and writer who loves Beethoven, ballet and books. Her friend told a local paper: "She went to museums. She went to Central Park and the East River. She loved sunset, dawns, river sounds, ducks crashing on the lake."

She loved museums, sunsets, river sounds, I thought. So loved nature and then she was ambushed in broad daylight in Central Park. I was anguished. Central Park may be a created piece of nature but it is our sanctuary. It is the lungs of Manhattan, where we air our congested urban lives and become human again. While people in the suburbs throw open the backdoor to the yard when the kids get rowdy late in a summer evening, we in Manhattan ride the elevator down to an oasis to let the kids run around until they are calm enough to return to the apartment.

But sometimes we get nature wrong. Central Park is not some enameled lawn where I can satiate my hunger for nature. While crime is lower in Central Park than on the nearby streets, it is not Thoreau's Walden Pond. It is a real place. You'd think I had watched enough National Geographic specials over the years--you know, the ones where the big insect is always devouring the little insect--to get the analogy by now.

In the days since the June 4 Central Park attack my feelings about the incident have mutated. The media, of which I am a part, have been in high hysteria over our pianist, and I'm getting weary of the daily reports from her bedside. It has stopped being a human thing and become a media thing.

The scream let up for a few days but then an older woman was murdered as she was opening her dry-cleaning shop on Park Avenue. New York, the ultimate media echo chamber, went into full howl again. The unfortunate woman became "the lollipop lady" because she gave sweets to all the kids who came into her shop. I guess the murder received some extra bells and whistles because it happened on upper Park Avenue where a lot of rich people live in king-size apartments with doormen. People aren't supposed to have their heads smashed apart in that part of town.

I'm struck how rarely we devote this kind of relentless attention to people slaughtered for less random reasons or in less romanticized places. When's the last time a local newspaper devoted 3,000 words to a man killed in a crackup on the New Jersey turnpike or to a woman stabbed by her husband in Spanish Harlem--a few blocks north of where the lollipop lady was slain?

Which brings me to the woman in Yonkers.

A few nights after the Central Park incident and before the Park Avenue one, a 26-year-old woman was walking across a Yonkers drawbridge on her way home from work when someone beat her head against the pavement. She was found a few hours later in the fetal position, her jeans pulled down below her knees, her shirt pulled up. She had been raped. She is still in a coma.

I can't tell you much more about her, like if she's an aspiring artist or a dry cleaner's wife, because at first she didn't merit more than a single brief story in each of the papers. Maybe if it had been a drawbridge in ritzy Scarsdale or Bronxville we would have learned more. But in the coming days I'm sure I'll find out if she liked Beethoven or Bach because the same man who confessed to the Central Park and Park Avenue brutalities and to assaulting a jogger along the East River also admitted to leaving that young Yonkers woman in a pool of her own blood.

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