34 Years Ago Today: Remembering Bernie Goetz And His Victims
The 1984 holiday season in Ohio ended on a festive note, perhaps a touch too festive. A near-paralytic hangover, courtesy of a pre-birthday celebration with friends the night before, clouded my two-hour flight from Cincinnati CVG to LaGuardia NYC. If nothing else, my wretched condition made the early morning trip hurtle by in a blur and I collapsed on my lower Ninth Avenue futon couch before lunchtime. Eventually I emptied my suitcase and descended to the ground-floor diner for a therapeutic chicken soup and two containers of coffee to go. As usual, copies of the Post and Daily News rested on the counter and I perused the front pages while one of the two near-identical Greek-American countermen, both named Georgie, prepared my order. But on this particular day, December 27, the day before my 27th birthday, for once the tabloid headlines grabbed attention without resorting to morbid irony or puns. History had happened while I was on vacation.
Five days previous, a racially charged shooting occurred on the Downtown IRT number 2 train. Five pistol shots were fired by a white man, aimed at a group of four young black men, all of whom were seriously injured. Dubbed the “Subway Vigilante” in the media, the shooter turned out to be an electrical engineer named Bernhard Goetz.
The incident began as a common occurrence. Since the doors between subway cars were left unlocked back then, riders were free to roam and pass from car to car. As a result, a steady stream of beggars, assorted crazies and most often gangs of rowdy teenagers patrolled the trains, intimidating passengers for sport or worse. I once looked up from my book and saw a man flashing a smile at me — gripping a razor blade between his teeth. He moved on, but forever after I refrained from interacting with random people on the subway. Not all the kids who wandered through the trains were muggers or aggressive beggars, but a lot of them seemed to enjoy fucking with people. Bernie Goetz claimed his victims had attempted a shakedown on the train that infamous day. And he wasn’t having it, not on December 22 1984 anyway.
Goetz alleged that Darrell Cabey, Barry Allen, Troy Canty and James Ramseur (all in their late teens) approached and asked him for $5. “I have $5 for each of you,’’ he said smoothly. Drawing a .38-caliber Smith & Weston pistol from his waistband, he shot them one by one, and then escaped into the darkness of the subway tunnel at the Chambers Street station. In an era of rampant street crime and strained racial relations, Goetz was both celebrated as a hero and maligned as a cold-blooded killer. In the end, he was convicted of illegal firearms possession, and cleared of four counts of attempted murder. Two of the four men he shot remain paralyzed to this day; James Ramseur committed suicide on the 27th anniversary of the shooting.
Though it would be almost another decade until crime statistics took a turn for the better, the “Subway Vigilante” incident arguably represents the nadir of public safety in New York City. Maybe Charles Bronson’s rampage in Death Wish was prescient after all, I reflected glumly after watching the revenge-porn B movie on TV not long after the “Subway Vigilante” incident. But the real impact Bernie Goetz had on me was a little shiver of recognition when I finally realized why his picture in the newspaper looked vaguely familiar. He was a regular at the Courtney Restaurant on West 14th Street, favorite haunt of Jeff, the middle-aged and mega-eccentric superintendent at my first apartment in Manhattan. In fact, Bernie Goetz lived upstairs in The Courtney high-rise. What a small world.