Victimization and crime prevention are among the most popular and traditional topics of conversation for New Yorkers. The crime-victim stories are within the realm of believable daily experience. Meeting up with a street criminal, hearing about a neighborhood murder, or witnessing a violent attack is seen as an unpleasant contingency of living in a large metropolitan center. The crimes these stories deal with are primarily street muggings, rape, and murder, in that order of frequency. Only two of the many possible outcomes are emphasized: survival and death. Unprovoked or senseless violence, untimely death, escape from danger, suspicion of others, and bystander apathy are all plot elements of crime-victim stories. The central and recurring themes are the ability to think quickly on one’s feet, take control of a dangerous situation, discover one’s vulnerability—even mortality, and accept victimization as part of urban life.
The possibility of meeting with a sudden, violent death because of a chance encounter with an unknown, armed stranger is the underlying theme of these narratives. Relating them invokes a common outcry of moral outrage against such gratuitous violence. These stories express indignation about what tellers perceive as a decline in the social order; they are a cry against antisocial violence and behavior. But perhaps more important, they emphasize the value our culture places on life and self-protection, an emphasis that makes them culturally significant. Most tellers present offenders who inflict harm and then escape unpunished. In other folk narratives, punishment is meted out against the antagonist for violating a law or breaking some taboo, thus maintaining the social order.1 In contemporary crime-victim narratives, it is this very lack of punishment, this failure of the legal system, that provokes the victim/teller’s outrage. As a result, the primary focus of these stories is surviving the criminal assault; the theme of punishment is emphasized much less.2
THE GENERAL FEATURES OF THE CRIME-VICTIM STORY
The crime-victim story may take several forms, depending on the narrative stance of the teller. A story told by the victim tends to be lengthy and elaborately detailed; folklorists often call this form a memorate, a remarkable-experience story that may evolve into an urban legend. When told by a second-hand reporter, such as a victim’s relative or friend, the tale tends to be shorter and the descriptive scenes condensed. Even so, these stories are neither less dramatic nor very different from first-hand accounts. When stories are told by second-hand reporters who know only snatches of the details, and do not know the victim personally, the plot is emphasized.
While these third-person stories may seem like skeletons of narratives, or what William Labov would describe as “minimal narratives,” tellers clearly identify them as stories, and not mere incidents.3 “I have a story to tell you,” a teller often says, and follows the remark by relating a string of connected events, perhaps several incidents that occurred during the course of a day. “Stories” or “tales” included here are structured, have a plot, and are viewed as a native category by the informants. Personal-experience stories about victimization are recapitulations of criminallike experiences that may or may not contain traditional folklore content. However, they are similar in narrative content, structure, and style to one another.4 Personal-experience narratives of crime victims or people associated with them may sometimes be told as anecdotes, but only rarely are they transformed into jokes.5
Similar to other categories of culture-bound narratives, such as the ethnic or the occupational personal-experience narrative, the crime-victim story falls into subcategories and has specific narrative characters.6 The first subcategory contains narratives about urban crime experiences that victims believed were caused by a stroke of bad luck, i.e., by being “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” A second subcategory includes stories about bystander apathy, where witnesses are too fearful to intervene in ongoing crimes. Each story has some “telltale sign” that indicates its placement in that particular subcategory.7 These signs can be expressed in the victim’s words, by how the victim acts in relationship to the other story characters, or by the teller’s evaluative comments about the characters, expressed in narrative asides as the story is being told. For example, the teller might say that the offender acted unwisely or was extremely vicious.
In addition to specific narrative subcategories, crime-victim stories have stock characters, one of the earmarks of traditional narrative.8 Though statistical studies show that most murders take place between persons who know one another, crime-victim narratives project fear of an anonymous criminal, a stranger lurking in a dark alleyway ready to pounce on an innocent victim.9 Like the ogre and bogeyman of older folktales, this stereotypical urban character evokes an ill-defined fear of physical assault and danger.10 In the crime-victim stories, stock characters, both as offenders and as victims, are commonly portrayed as tricksters. The trickster has long been a familiar type in folklore,11 and it is not surprising that this character would appear in contemporary narrative. Tricksters typically escape from threatening situations, and like con men, they are common in the urban scene and its literature.12
In crime-victim stories, the victim protagonists are generally people who meet up with an unfortunate situation. They often insist that they abused or misunderstood a common rule or folkway of urban life, such as allowing a “friendly” stranger to enter a locked building behind them or using an elevator without being wary of fellow passengers.
I had a friend, and this is when I was living in Manhattan. She went to visit a friend who was living on the sixth floor. They were going up the elevator, and it stopped at three. A guy comes in, and the elevator started going up again. She started to walk out, and this guy stepped out and stabbed her in the back. She didn’t feel the stab. It was like a sharp pierce. Just missed her spinal cord. . . . (M-68)
Victim protagonists often appear as trusting, polite, and law-abiding citizens who follow the accepted rules of public behavior. Many victims in these stories are sophisticated urbanites who have a repertory of crime-prevention skills and techniques, but whose cultural knowledge of how to behave in an urban environment fails when put to the test. They do not see themselves as urban bunglers, and are surprised that they were victimized. In fact, a common phrase is, “I thought this would never happen to me.” Most victims for this study repeated only a handful of incidents about themselves, which they saw as isolated in their own lives but as part of the collective experience of urbanites. When the victim protagonists are not the narrators, tellers often portray the victims as naive, and they are consequently unsympathetic towards them. These characters are viewed as “city greenhorns” who lack street smarts. On occasion, especially if tricked by an offender, victims may describe themselves in such terms as well.13
The offender antagonists are usually depicted as secondary characters in these stories, although it is their presence that provides the narrative with its raison d’être. The offender is often presented either as a stupid, unthinking person, or as a crafty manipulator who delights in preying on innocent victims. Offenders take the victim by surprise, appearing almost out of nowhere. These antagonists are the anonymous and fearsome stock characters of the stories.
Crime-victim stories emphasize more than the chance encounter between victim and offender; they show that victimizations take place in common settings. Most of the story events occur in public places, but in areas where entrapment is easy.14 As one informant said, “It’s the kind of thing when you are in an elevator and you are trapped, and someone comes in and you really can’t get out.”15 The recurring settings include the elevator, the subway, the apartment lobby or vestibule, the public street, and the public park. Ironically, the criminal incidents often occur in the midst of ongoing urban activity, such as a mugging happening in front of the Public Library or on a busy street filled with passersby. For example, a narrator may mention that he or she was being robbed while others were walking past, unaware of the moment of jeopardy: “There were people who were walking by, and they saw what was going on, and there was a policeman on the corner, but he just kept walking,” said one informant.16 Victims sometimes express their anger about having to live in a city where physical assault or verbal abuse is so frequently a part of the lifestyle, it is accepted as commonplace. For example, Susan Roberts recalls an incident in which she was molested by a fellow subway rider at a busy mid-Manhattan subway station:
People on the escalator saw the entire thing happen. It was a quarter to nine in the morning, and I was going to school. And they just stood and watched. Stood there. And I was screaming hysterically. Stood there. . . . This one woman sort of came up and got a cop. And their reaction was, we [the Samaritan and the cop] know you are upset because you are embarrassed by the situation. I was trying to tell them I wasn’t embarrassed but that this pervert did this crazy thing to me and I was screaming for help! (R-11)
Significantly, the informant’s comment includes several themes of the crime-victim narrative genre: the incident occurred in a public setting; she was accosted within an enclosed environment, the escalator; several people witnessed the event, and only one offered help; and, finally, the situation had an unsettling and powerful effect on her. When she told the story, her anger was obvious; her voice was shrill, her face taut.
The public or semipublic settings of the stories are familiar and comfortable to the victims because they use them everyday. They therefore are perceived not as dangerous, but rather as places to be trusted. In fact, a common theme is the victim’s surprise that he or she could be harmed or violated in such familiar surroundings.17 For example, Norma Schultz overheard a conversation between a mugger and his victim in the elevator of her apartment building, where she had been a tenant for over forty years:
We had a mugging in this house with a knife. It was in the elevator. I thought I saw him. I was here with Clara. I had taken her for a haircut, and we were waiting for the elevator. While the elevator was going up, I thought I heard someone say in the elevator . . . as it went by . . . “I want it now!” But that didn’t mean anything to me. Then we waited for the elevator to come down, and someone. . . . But when the elevator came back, as I was opening the door, I heard somebody coming down the steps. I turned around to look, and there was this man. A young boy. No shirt on. And I thought I saw him put a big kitchen knife in the back of his pants. But I thought I must be seeing things, and he looked at us and he ran off. But I wasn’t sure who he was, and I didn’t say anything to her, and I took care of my business, and that was all.
When I came home that night, I thought I must have imagined all this. The next night I ran into Frances Fried, my neighbor. She said, “Did you hear what happened?” She said there was a young man, Hispanic man, no shirt on, who was standing downstairs outside of the building. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon. There were people around. There were women with baby carriages and playing with the babies. They all got into the elevator together. One got off on the second floor. One got off on the fourth floor. And one got off on the sixth floor—[he] held a knife to her throat and took her purse. And he said, “Don’t call anybody for at least ten minutes, or I’ll come back and kill you.” She didn’t say anything. Later, she went to Frances Fried. The woman was Russian, and I don’t think she speaks English well. And they called the police. But who are you gonna catch? (M-24)
The incident described above occurred at two o’clock on a sunny afternoon. The young man appeared outside of the apartment building, where many mothers congregate and talk while pushing their babies to sleep in their carriages. He had garnered their trust by chatting with the women and admiring their children. Within a few minutes, he gained entrance into the locked building. That the incident took place in such familiar territory was a surprise to Norma, for it violated her belief that places used daily are safe places. She refused to see herself as an urban bungler, rationalizing that she had misjudged the situation. She was surprised to have been witness to violence, and at first even refused to acknowledge that the offender had a weapon. These themes present in Norma’s story are common to other, similar crime-victim stories.
The victims in these stories often die a senseless and meaningless death or are needlessly harmed, in contrast to the hero character in the American folk tradition, who may die a tragic death because he has broken some cultural taboo that supersedes an act of bravery. For example, in the Anglo-American occupational ballad tradition, death usually results from an accident, and the rationale for death is the violation of the heroic code.18 These occupational songs teach about the results of carelessness, recklessness, or overwork.19 Such rationalizations are missing in these crime stories, where death is violent and shocking. The stories remind the audience that violent death occurs not only in the world of glamorous television detectives or underworld figures, but also in the world of the ordinary citizen. In the first example given below, one driver shoots and kills another on a Brooklyn street corner because he thought he was being cut off in traffic. In the second story, the motive is unclear. These stories are not sentimentalized, but are presented in sad and tragic terms and in gruesome detail. Victims have little chance of defending themselves, and motives for the crimes are often unknown. So, it is up to the listeners and narrators to make sense out of the baffling events. Because the stories involve the untimely death of a victim, the tellers may begin to reevaluate their own lives, much like a patient recovering from a serious illness. After all, knowing about such violent events may provide the first opportunity for individuals to discover their own vulnerability and mortality. The listeners may show sympathy for the victim’s plight and may also express shock at the story’s events. The themes of senseless violence, untimely death, death without reason, and the reversal of an everyday routine because of crime, appear in the following two stories. The first is about a man in his early twenties:
This happened several months ago. . . . The young man picked up his friend, and they were going somewhere. This happened on Flatbush, on the corner of Cortelyou and Flatbush. They were about to make a turn, and this other car came by. And they [the first driver and his passenger] were standing in line, but evidently the other car thought he [the first driver] cut him [the second driver] off. So, he [the second driver] pulled up on the side of him and shouted all sorts of obscenities. They didn’t even answer him. The next thing he [the first driver] knew, he [the second driver] pulled out a gun and shot him [the first driver] and drove away. And he left the friend with a fellow who was dead, and he [the passenger] didn’t even know it. They started to drive away.The car was moving forward, and they crashed into a tree. And then he realized he was dead. He died from a gunshot. That’s it. (MR-18)
The second narrative was collected from Roberta Wolf and Norma Schultz in Brooklyn. Both women contributed to its telling. The victim was a neighbor, a young religious woman.
You heard about the Chassidic girl that got killed in this building? The girl was killed in the city. It was the worker’s son—the elevator operator or something. . . . The Chassidic pregnant girl—who got crushed to death, or they found her in a garbage can or something. . . . It happened in the Garment Center. She had gone to New York to buy a coat for her mother. . . . And she didn’t return. And they went to New York. But she had not returned. It was during the week. And they couldn’t find her. And they went looking around. Then finally somebody noticed there was a carton outside the building that was dripping blood. They opened it up, and they found a part of her. . . . It seems that she had gotten into the elevator. And the elevator had been slow, and she said to him, “Why don’t you hurry up?” It was somebody she knew. And it seems that he was eating his lunch, . . . he was very annoyed and irritated by the bells ringing. He took her down to the basement, he raped her and sodomized her and stuffed her into the furnace. . . . And then he tired to dismember her. But they caught him, and they had the trial, and half of the neighborhood was there. She had a tremendous funeral. (MR-5)
The above two stories emphasize the unpredictable actions of the antagonists and the senselessness of each death. The situations in which both victims found themselves are very common. One was battling city traffic, and the other was dealing with the abuses of elevator etiquette. A common motif of the crime-victim stories involving murder is the reversal of an everyday situation: a benign moment turned into a scene of unexpected danger. Death without sufficient provocation is another common motif.
While unprovoked danger and murder are prevalent themes in these stories, another is the suspicion city dwellers have of those around them, sometimes without cause. Many of the stories deal with street smarts: awareness of the environment and any elements of danger, and the ability to act accordingly. In other words, victims insist on the importance of following one’s intuition. In the followng example, the victim is described as a “city greenhorn,” a person who should have been suspicious but wasn’t, and paid the consequences:
She was walking down the street one evening. She saw three or four kids coming towards her and she said . . . she was thinking to herself . . . “Why not go across the street.” You know, ’cause you never know. But she started thinking why should she do that because there are just four kids walking down the street. Well, they got her! One had a knife and took her money and all that. (M-20)
Since these crime-victim stories are so much a part of the city’s oral tradition, and because victimization is perceived as common by the tellers, they stress that being on one’s guard is an important part of one’s urban behavior. Clara Gold of Brooklyn told the following story:
I’m coming home from the Metropolitan Opera two weeks ago, and I’m walking around with three hundred bucks in cash. Five o’clock, six o’clock at night. It’s pitch black. I’m walking around Grand Army Plaza [Brooklyn]. It’s freezing cold. Nobody in the street. So instead of walking around the Plaza itself, I walk around Plaza Street, where at least they have houses and doormen. And I hear footsteps behind me. It’s still pretty deserted. So, I’m looking around, and there’s this black kid about seventeen or eighteen [years old]. Now, if you’re a New Yorker, any person between the ages of fourteen and twenty-two is immediately suspect anyway, whether they are black, white, green, pink, or orange, if they’re male especially. And as this kid comes up level with me, I turn around and look at him again, and he looks at me and nods and smiles and says, “Don’t worry, lady, I’m a cop!” He keeps on going. I started to laugh. I really cracked up. I said, “Okay, two points! You got me!” I felt kind of chagrined, but I laughed because obviously he could tell the state of my mind. He must be pretty used to it all at this stage of the game, too. (M-70)
The narrator’s amusement afforded her a sense of relief, and she was able to recognize her own “paranoia.” Her laughter rippled through her rendition of the story. She was relieved, yet concerned and frightened. But sometimes, misjudging others, as Clara did, can have unpredictable results:
We were sitting on the subway [station], and this man came walking in not paying his fare. And the man in the booth called him, and he said, “I have no money. I just came from the hospital.” What he was doing here when he came from Coney Island Hospital, I don’t know. . . . And we got up on the train [platform], and we walked away from him as far as possible. He looked peculiar. He had black eyes, and he was black and blue. He didn’t look right. And we thought he was drunk or something. And we got on the train. And then he sat down right opposite us. So, we paid no attention to him. Then, he asked us a question about where the train was going, because they were very irregular because they are fixing the tracks. So, being polite . . . we told him the train was going the way the N train was going. He said, “That’s good. I have to go to Fourteenth Street. I just got out of Coney Island Hospital. You wouldn’t believe it, but my wife and I were on the B line train. We got off at Seventy-first Street on the B line; Seventy-first and New Utrecht Avenue. And four young men about twenty-five years old,” he said. “I’m thirty-one,” he said. “They were almost my age.” He said they were at least twenty-five. “Nicely dressed young men got up, asked me for money,” and he said, “What do you want my money for?” And they started to beat him up and his wife. They blackened her eyes. They cut him with a knife across his forehead. He picked up his hair to show us the cut [gestures]. And he said that he was in the hospital for a week and a half. They took $140 from his wife and $80 from him. But these were white, nice Italian boys. He said they were most likely Italian boys. They looked like nice Italians. It was in an Italian neighborhood. And they beat him unmercifully and cut him and all. He said that they only blackened his wife’s eyes. They didn’t hurt her more than that. But they hit her and slapped her around, too. And he said he was very angry. He said he had a little five-year-old-boy, and he asked, “Daddy, why did they do that to you?” And he said, “They were bad people.” He tried to explain it to the child. But you know, so the child shouldn’t be so fearful. It just happened. But here was this man, and we were so afraid, and he was a victim. (M-81)
In the above narrative, the teller, Esther Silverman, a woman in her mid-sixties, makes it clear that she and her companion avoided the man: “He didn’t look right.” At first, the man acted strangely; he did not pay his fare, and his appearance was peculiar. When they discovered that he would not harm them, but had been harmed himself, they sympathized. While telling her story, Esther discussed her wariness towards the victim. Then after the revelation, she expressed compassion towards him and his family. It was because she and her friend identified with the victim that they could make this turnaround; however, tellers are not always that empathetic.20
The Fated Victimization
The prognostication of good and bad luck and the belief in omens and signs have long been a part of the American folk tradition, and are generally regarded as a response or desire to control the future. When good things happen, Americans often attribute their success to luck. When bad things happen, such as the loss of the family fortune, the assumption is that fate has stepped in to precipitate a reversal of luck.21 Since street muggings are seldom premeditated, victims often surmise that they were just “in the wrong place at the wrong time.” By relying on fate and ill fortune, they can then absolve themselves of blame. In the following example, the teller, a second-hand reporter, attributes the victim’s unfortunate experiences to being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”:
There’s another one that was in the paper at Columbia. This sophomore girl . . . took the Number Three train instead of the Number One. Instead of getting off at Ninety-sixth [Street], changing for the local [subway] to get off at Columbia [University] she stayed on. She got off on 116th Street. The numbers are the same, I think: 103, 110, 116, except they’re on Lexington Avenue. VERY BAD. It’s on the other side of Morningside Park. She got out and realized her mistake. It was about five o’clock in the afternoon. She decided to walk through the park. On the way, she met this gang of boys, about five or six of them, aged ten to maybe eighteen. They all successively raped her. She got raped like a few times by the gang. Then she started to run away after they were done and got stopped another time by this huge guy. He raped her. And then she ran the rest of the way home. She got raped like four times in the same afternoon. It was written up in the Spectator [Columbia University student newspaper]. She was interviewed about a week later. She said it didn’t bother her. She just realized what the situation was, and she was in the wrong. She wasn’t traumatized by it at all. She said, “I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I made a mistake, and this weird thing happened to me.” (R-3)
This narrative about such a horribly violent experience is significant for several reasons. The story is a recapitulation of an event that the teller first heard about in print and then refashioned into an oral account. It indicates that the acceptance of such a vicious crime can be the result of fate or destiny: “She said, ’I was in the wrong place at the wrong time.’ ” The narrator would have us believe, then, that her offenders are without blame. And the narrator—not the victim—makes the summation, “She just realized what the situation was, and she was in the wrong.” This in no way implies that rape is not a traumatic or brutal experience. However, it is the narrator, a young woman of twenty-three, who makes the assumption that the rape victim was not traumatized by what happened to her. The teller implies not only that the subway ride was a dangerous one, but also that the error of taking the wrong train was in a sense responsible for the subsequent events. Characters, then, can be portrayed unsympathetically, and informants may blame them for not following their intuition, or for making some error in judgment, such as getting lost, not knowing safe areas from unsafe ones, or not following their intuition. These urban greenhorns, as they appear in these stories, commit such blunders. But many times, second-hand reporters do identify with the victims, as the example below shows:
This happened to Jean, one of my neighbors. It was funny, because I was coming in the lobby. I probably came home about six-thirty that night, and I walked into the lobby of my building, and there is the neighbor from downstairs and an apartment over. She’s sitting on one of the chairs in the lobby. And two other neighbors are talking to her. And it looked like a fairly unusual situation. And as I walked in I said, “Something happen?” She had just been mugged. She was at the corner of Montgomery and Prospect Park West, and two kids, two black kids, ran up to her. This was Halloween, and there had just been a spate of egg-throwing incidents. Kids from across the street had been throwing eggs at people who had been coming home from work. And she was coming home from work. Two kids came up to her, grabbed her purse, and vanished into the park. She was sitting downstairs because she didn’t have a key to her apartment. She couldn’t get in. Her brother and sister-in-law live in the neighborhood, and she had tried to phone them so they could come over to let her in with their key. She was waiting for them to let her in. She hadn’t been hurt or anything. It was just very frightening. And the amazing thing was that I walked past, it must have been ten minutes after she had gotten mugged, and absolutely nothing. People were walking around as if nothing had happened. I didn’t see anything. I didn’t hear anything. And I literally missed it by five or ten minutes. (M-88)
Clara Gold’s story about her neighbor highlights the possibility that Clara herself could have been the victim. During our interview, she said anxiously, “And the amazing thing was that I walked past, it must have been ten minutes after she had gotten mugged, and [I saw] absolutely nothing.” In this example, Clara provides several of the themes found in many of these narratives: the unpredictability of being a victim, fear and apprehension toward others, and personal inconvenience because of victimzation.
A common complaint of many New Yorkers is bystander apathy, and its prominence as a narrative category and motif in these stories is not surprising. The unwillingness to become involved in a crime-victim situation is one of the trademarks of urban city life. Studies on bystander apathy, one, in particular, by Bibb Latané and John Darley, indicate that emergency situations are clearly related to the witnesses’ concept of responsibility. When several people witness an event as a group, each person assumes that another group member will intervene, and consequently no one person acts or assumes responsibility. In other words, the more bystanders that witness an emergency, the less help the victim receives:22
I saw a bunch of guys who were about twenty or twenty-five. One of them was chasing another with a knife. I saw the blade flash, you know, the white flash of the metal. And I saw them chasing him. And there was a crowd just standing on the stoops [of a building], and they didn’t run after them. They were just—THEY WERE JUST WATCHING THE WHOLE THING! JUST WATCHING THE WHOLE THING! I didn’t see a cop around at all. And they were just WATCHING THE WHOLE THING! (M-47)
The narrator of this story, Robert Ross, was one of several narrators who were outraged at the indifference citizens showed towards one another; yet he himself did not jump in to aid the victim. The role-reversal theme that appears in this story and the one below is prominent in these bystander apathy stories. Some informants were infuriated by the bystanders’ lack of responsibility towards the victims, but they themselves exhibited this same feature.23 In the example below, the narrator, Marvin Woltz, carries the motif of bystander indifference further: “There was a policeman on the corner, but he just kept walking.” While Ross expects assistance from the police, Woltz complains that their presence does not, in this case, make a difference. The example below was recalled sixteen years after it happened:
And I bought some things in Klein’s [department store], and I headed over to May’s, and I was looking in the window. And I turned around, and these two big black guys were standing there with hunting knives in my stomach. Yeah, they were hunting knives. No exaggeration over the years. And they asked for my money. There were people who were walking by, and they saw what was going on, and there was a policeman on the corner, but he just kept walking. Also there was a guy sitting reading a book. . . . And he just looked over and continued reading his book. . . . And then, let’s see, they took my money—my twenty-two dollars. They took me down to the subway and left me there. . . . (M-27)
Bystander indifference and the expectation of victimization are two common themes of these stories.
The Trickster Offender
A character type common to the crime-victim stories is the offender who poses as a trickster. This offender is manipulative, scheming, and cunning, and preys on the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of his victims. He dons several disguises, posing most often as the friendly neighbor. He is unpredictable, demanding, even childlike, and he is quick to anger. The offender is usually dangerous because he is able to physically overpower his victim, and is often armed. The following narrative illustrates several features of the trickster character. First, he appears as the friendly neighbor, revealing a childlike insistence on doing a good deed. The narrator of the story focuses on its trickster twist. The transformation of the friendly neighbor into the manipulative, violent man who nearly murders his victim infuses drama into the story, and turns an everyday event into a horrifying one.
There was one incident I heard. A woman comes home from Florida on her vacation. And as the taxi man left the bags on the curb . . . there were two bags . . . a young fellow came over to her and said, “Can I help you with the bags?” He says, “I live in the building.” She says, “No.” She says, “I can manage.” He says, “Oh, those are too heavy for you. I’ll help you up.” So she figured, “well, he was nice enough to offer to help her up, so she let him do it. So he helped her up, and she opens the door, and he brings the bags in for her, and then he said, “Good-bye.” And she said, “Thank you very much. Can I offer you some money?” He says, “No, not at all.” He says, “It’s only a good neighbor policy,” and went out. And she thought to herself, “Gee, what a nice young man that is.”
The next day the bell rings. So she opens the door, but she has it on the chain lock. And he says, “Do you remember me? I’m the young fellow that helped you with the bags.” So she said, “Yes, what is it?” He says, “Well, when I came in with the bags I dropped a ring here, and I want to know if you found it.” She says, “No, I didn’t find anything.” And he said, “Well, would you mind if I look, because it was loose, and I know that I dropped it here.” So she didn’t think anything of it. So she opened the door. He came in, and he took her jewelery, beat her to a pulp, and then ransacked her house and walked out and closed the door. That’s another gimmick they have. (M-1)
The return of the man to find his ring, a gimmick he uses to gain entry, adds the twist to the story. The victim who “didn’t think anything of it” was duped because of her own sense of trust in the man. The coda to the story—“That’s another gimmick they have”—suggests that a well-known fact of urban life is being transmitted. The offender is wearing the mask of the “friendly neighbor” as well as the “Good Samaritan,” and seemingly wishes only to aid the intended victim in some task. The common characteristics of the trickster—manipulative, preyful, deceitful—appear in several of these collected narratives:
There was one incident where a friend of mine came to the elevator, and a young fellow said to her, he says, “I think I have friends that live on the fifth floor.” So he says, “Do you know this party?” So she says, “No, I don’t. He says, “Well, what floor are you going to?” She says, “Well, actually I’m going to go to the third floor.” He says, “Well, I’m going to look for this party.” And she went into the elevator alone, and he went ’round up the steps. When he saw the elevator didn’t stop on the third floor, he ran up to the fourth floor. The elevator stopped, and he caught her just as she got out of the elevator. He beat her up very badly, and she was in a wheelchair for quite a few months. It is really pitiful. (M-12)
The initial harmlessness of the offender provides the story with the added twist needed to remember it. The mugging happened in an enclosed area and in territory familiar to the victim. She courteously responded to a simple request made by the man, who asked a common question. The assumption by the narrator, Ruth Melberg, is that the trickster is totally amoral. Ruth provides no rationale for the attack but suggests that a display of physical violence by the offender is a possible motive. The theme of gratuitous violence, common to many of these stories, is highlighted.
Female trickster offenders use the same devious methods as their male counterparts.24 The offender often appears friendly and attempts to share the same territory as the victim, and then suddenly tricks him or her and turns on her prey. In the following crime-victim narrative, the assailant is a black woman in her mid-twenties. She introduced herself to her victim, Esther Silverman, by pretending to look for another neighbor. Both the lobby vestibule and the elevator, two confined areas, provided the setting for the entrapment. The victim had positive sentiments toward the physical environment; she felt safe, since she had been a tenant of the building for more than thirty years. The trickster (and others like her) manipulated her victim by winning her trust. The victim, a retired schoolteacher in her mid-sixties, anxiously discussed the viciousness of the attack:
It was in April, 1983. I was on a sabbatical, and I was taking courses at Kingsborough College. This was the day I didn’t have classes. And I went shopping. I came back at three o’clock in the afternoon carrying two bags of groceries. And there was a woman in the lobby who was looking at names [on the building register], and she said, “Do you know that sick person, the sick man?” And I said, “Oh, you mean the man on the third floor?” And she said, “Yes.” And I said, “He’s on the third floor. I think he’s in Apartment 3C.” She said,”That’s the one I need.” We have a lot of black ladies, young ladies, taking care of sick and old people here in the building. So, she opened the elevator door for me, and I got in. And as soon as the door closed, she took out a pistol and hit me on the head with it. And I said to her, “What the hell are you hitting me for? Here’s my pocketbook!” So she pushed the first floor [button] again, and she said, “Don’t yell!” And I said, “I’m not yelling. What good would yelling do me in the elevator?” And she got out. She hit me several times. I have a picture that the police took, and I was all bruised from a pistol-whipping on the head. I gave her my pocket-book. And she ran out. Sent me down to the basement. When I came up I ran out, but I couldn’t find her. I went looking for her. Then I came up here [to her apartment], and by that time I began to be in real bad pain. I got ice and I put it to my head, and I called the police. . . . (M-79)
Shortly after reporting the incident, she was asked to go down to the precinct house, where she met several of the offender’s other victims, who had strikingly similar incidents to report.
The Clever Victim
The clever victim, another common character of these crime-victim stories, is the trickster’s foil. Faced with a dangerous situation, the clever victim acts in a level-headed yet devious fashion, trying all the time to elude the offender. In some instances, the clever victim has been mugged previously and as a result has taken precautions. For example, victims might carry “mugger money,” just in case they meet up with danger. One informant, Mary Simmons of Brooklyn, discussed her brother’s experiences:
My brother carries mugger money. He puts his money—like he put a dollar bill in his pocket ’cause he lives on Church and Ocean Avenues [Brooklyn]. . . . He has been mugged several times. So what does he do? So, he carries like a dollar in his pocket and his wallet someplace else. He was stopped just recently. He told me the story. A bunch of kids circled him into the middle. They said, “Give me your money!” One of them had a knife or something. He said, “I only have a dollar. I was going for the paper.” He had a wallet with money in it. But he put his hand into his pocket and said, “Here, look in my pocket.” And he emptied both of his pockets. He said, “Here, all I have is the dollar. I’m going to get the paper.” They took the dollar. And they left him alone. He carried that dollar purposely. He’s been mugged several times. He’s never been hurt. He’s been lucky. And that was that. (M-66)
Studies show that muggers act spontaneously, and seldom think of the consequences of breaking the law.25 In the above narrative, the victim is the schemer, prepared for danger. His sister makes it clear that in his several experiences with this urban ritual, he has been lucky and has not been seriously hurt. That he has been “lucky” reinforces the theme of the fateful encounter engendered in so many of these stories.
In the following narrative, the victim trickster takes on the muggers single-handedly. Two common themes appear: the mugger pretends to belong in the environment, and the victim responds by upholding the laws of urban civility. But like most narratives in this category, this one has a twist. The teller gives details of setting, place, and time that provide some orientation to how the mugging was thwarted. Unlike the previous victim, who carried mugger money as an urban survival tactic, this next victim underscores the surprise of being singled out as a victim. Here, Bobbi Taylor boasts about her ability to think quickly on her feet. She assumes a knowledge of the motive for the mugging—drugs. Like other victims, she is angry at being a target.
This was when I was living on the Lower East Side on Seventh Street between Avenues B and C. This was many years ago . . . probably around the late 1960s. . . . I was coming from Hunter College. I had just been having one of my marathon sessions with a professor . . . for my master’s thesis. And I had a ton of books that I was carrying in my arms. Both arms. Those were the days when I didn’t have a book bag. People didn’t have book bags then. I had a little purse that was sort of stuck down between my books and my bust. I had a dollar. That’s all I had was a dollar. And so I got off the subway, and I took the Avenue B bus, and I got off at Avenue B between Seventh and Eighth streets. And it was late. It was like eleven, eleven-thirty at night. So, I’m walking to my house. We didn’t have a lock on the front door. So I just pushed the door with my shoulder, which is what I always did. And I didn’t have hands because I was carrying books. And there were two guys behind me, and they looked like friends of upstairs neighbors. So I held the door for them. Both doors, the outside door and the inside door. I held the door for them because I’m a polite person. Then I start trudging up the stairs with my armful of books and the one dollar in my purse stuck between my books and my bosom. And the next thing I know is that these guys are real close behind me, and I feel a hand over my mouth. And he starts to pull me. At first, I was angry. I opened the door for this motherfucker! I got real angry. He does this after I open the door for him! I thought, I only have a dollar. Let me give him the dollar. Then, no, I thought. He’ll kill me. That’s not enough for a fix. And so I could feel he was shorter than me ’cause he was reaching up. He had a hand up against my mouth. So I just let myself fall back. We went bouncing down a flight of stairs with him underneath me. He was a little shrimpy fellow. And his partner took off as soon as he saw us coming. And he looked up at me. And then my old neighbor came out and started rattling garbage cans. He was really a crazy old guy. He always rattled the garbage cans. And this guy looked up at me, and then he hobbled away. So they didn’t get my dollar. And I was able to get my vindication. And I won’t leave New York. (M-83)
This story isolates two common themes of the trickster/victim story: being taken by surprise, and quick thinking on the victim’s part. The narrator suggests that the criminal picked a wrong target: students are often without money. In the narrative itself, the victim manipulated several stereotypes about criminals for the audience, one being that muggings are motivated solely because of costly drug habits: “I thought, I only have a dollar. . . . That’s not enough for a fix.” Stopping the assailant worked in this case because the “shrimpy fellow” had met up with a victim twice his size who overpowered him. Few stories have this theme, and in some stories, the victim that shows cunning does not always escape danger.
By and large, most victims resort to giving the offenders the money, rather than putting up a fight with someone who is armed. “Giving in” is seen as a solution rather than a defense. Moreover, most narrators seem to want a resolution of the crime and to know that the offenders might be apprehended. Many times, informants end the story with the appearance of the police. The following narrative, reported second-hand, has several of the trickster themes. Despite the victim’s ordeal she thinks quickly on her feet, and helps in the apprehension of the rapist:
Uh, let’s see. I was working . . . there about 1973. . . . So it would be like ’72, okay? She came in one day all excited and said something about her girlfriend had been raped, or we had been talking about rape at that time. Apparently, her girlfriend was single, living on the East Side somewhere, and . . . two blacks broke into her apartment and proceeded to completely rip off the apartment, and then they raped her. And apparently they also asked her for cash. Well, she had no cash on her. She had about ten dollars. And they said, “You’re goin’ to be in bad shape if we don’t get any kind of money.” So she said, “Well, listen, I’ll write you out a check.” And he said, “Okay, fine. Write me out a check.” And she says, “Do you want me to make it out to cash?” And he says, “No, because if you make it out to cash and I bring it into a bank, nobody will ever cash it for me. So make it out to my name, okay?” And he gave her his name. . . . as soon as they left, she called the cops and says, “Such and such happened, [he] took my apartment apart, raped me. But his name is SO AND SO!” They picked him up in a couple of days. They found the guy. (R-4)
The humor of the story contrasts with a vicious rape and ransacking. The victim is depicted as representative of many urban, single women. She lives alone and has a fashionable address, yet she can’t escape from crime in New York City, even in the confines of her own home. Though she suffers the attack, she is quick-witted enough to ask for the rapist’s name, and he is foolish enough to give her the key to his conviction. The clever victim, in this case, is symbolic of the woman who takes some control of the situation by reporting the rape to the authorities.
The tellers of these stories view the tricksters and offenders as people who prey on the kindnesses and good graces of unsuspecting, law-abiding citizens. Offenders, and even more trickster/offenders, are amoral characters testing the boundaries of the social order. There is always an imbalance of power and a reversal of the characters’ status. Victims are quickly placed in subordinate roles once the attack by the offender is made apparent. The offender’s display of power infuriates the victims or narrator. “How dare he point a gun at me?” is a common response once the event is over and the victim is free from danger. Victims may resent that they have become an accessory to a social problem, such as the relationship between crime and drugs, or they are angry at what they perceive to be an overwhelming increase in street crime and police indifference and the law enforcers’ inability to control it. At times, victims boast of how they got themselves out of a dangerous situation, and their actions often elicit praise and admiration from listeners. What is being praised, however, is the victim’s return to his/her initial status and power. Second-hand reporters and listeners identifying with the victim in the story see the clever victim as a projection of themselves. The win for the victim is a win for them. This projection is one reason these clever-victim stories are so well received by listeners. They serve as an outlet for channeling hostility toward offenders.
TRADITIONAL STORIES TOLD AS CRIME-VICTIM NARRATIVES
Several second-hand narratives recorded for this collection can be recognized as versions of other folklore forms. Though cast as crime-victim stories by their tellers, they are adaptations of urban legends, traditional tale plots, stories about the traditional scam—the confidence game—and the shaggy dog story.26 They show similar features in style and structure to the crime-victim stories and serve similar purposes. Both address human predicaments by showing how people act in times of crisis and danger. In some cases, they reveal how little human ingenuity, character, and responses to such dangers have changed over time.
The process of folklorization shows that other folklore forms, such as urban legends, may serve as models for reconstructing everyday experience.27 An urban legend, for example, may masquerade as a crime-victim story. This process also indicates that what has been wisely regarded as traditional material by folklore scholars continues to circulate in urban society. The human tendency to use folklore as a shield against the darker side of human nature seems to be flourishing in contemporary society.
As these crime-victim stories were being collected, one incident was recast as a shaggy dog tale, a modern joke type which the narrator introduced as part of his own crime-victim repertory. This type of tale, filled with detail and repetition, characteristically ends with a humorous punch line that reveals the tale’s twist, i.e., “The joke is on you.”28 The following tale was embedded into a conversation about crime in New York City. Tom Christiansen, a college professor, told the story shortly after relating how he had foiled the robbery of his car as thieves attempted to steal it from his garage one winter night in 1977. Here is his version of the urbanite’s need to intercede in situations where crime can be thwarted:
Something similar happened to a student of mine which happened to her boyfriend. This girl told me this story about her boyfriend who goes to Duke University. He was at some store buying all packages, and he was paying for some stuff. And he dropped a twenty-dollar bill. The boyfriend said, “Can I have the twenty-dollar bill?” And a man said, “Can you prove it’s yours?” And he said,”No, I can’t prove it’s mine.” And the man said, “Well, do you know the serial numbers on it?” And he said, “No, I just dropped it. You saw me drop it.” And the man said, “Well, I found it, so it’s mine.”
The boyfriend went out. He was really mad. He was going to the car, and as he was getting into his car, he had started his car—and he saw the same man coming out of the store. His car was parked right next to his, and he was carrying all these packages. So he put the packages in front of the car. They were all in a big shopping bag. And he started to open the car with a key. And her boyfriend jumped out of his car and grabbed the packages and drove off with the packages. He figured they were his packages. So he got home with the packages. Now the question, What was in the packages? The answer is bologna, like the rest of the story. (M-39)
The shaggy dog tale, with its brag ending, which is common to the genre, is not unlike the trickster/clever victim story. Both rely on a twist ending or a trick played on the character within the story. The two narrative types share other similarities, as well. Both are told to infuse a moment of suspense into what at first seems to be an ordinary encounter in a routine day. As with the trickster tale and other crime-victim narratives, the veracity of the story is hardly questioned. In the shaggy dog tale, it is only at the end of the story that the listener realizes that he or she is getting a good leg-pulling and some comic relief to a possibly dangerous, but common, confrontation. The shaggy dog tale is so convincing because, as in the crime-victim story, rude and dehumanizing behavior is recognizable. The familiar nastiness of the store’s patrons makes the listener even more gullible. Both stories emphasize the hostility and lack of civility urbanites show one another. Unlike the shaggy dog tale, crime-victim stories have endings that are usually tragic. And most crime-victim characters, perhaps with the exception of the clever victim, would rarely act like the man in the above tale. Most shy away from revenge because of fear.
It is not surprising that informants of first-person narratives and secondhand retellings include some examples of traditional urban lore. For example, informants told stories about the confidence game, or the “pigeon drop,” alongside crime-victim stories, making little, if any, distinction between narratives about crime victimization and those about “victimless” crimes without physical danger. In the confidence game, the unsuspecting target is usually approached by two tricksters asking for aid. The first example, told by Bernadette Potter, emphasizes how she was aware of the ruse and refused to be duped, unlike her co-worker, who fell for the scheme:
I was still working in midtown. On my way to the bank on Fifty-seventh Street and Broadway . . . these two people stopped me. Two black people. A black woman and a black man. They had Southern accents. One person came over to me. “Miss, can you help me?” She had an envelope that had some really bad handwriting on it. It was obviously written by someone who didn’t know how to address an envelope. So, I was telling her to go to the post office or a policeman, and maybe they could help her. All of a sudden, a man comes over. “Miss, did you ever find the address?” “No, this lady is going to help me.” All of a sudden they said, “Let’s open it up and see what’s in the envelope.” That’s when something clicked in my head. Then they read this note. “Dear Sam, This is the $10,000 that I owe you from my trip to Las Vegas.” No, “my trip to Cuba.” That’s what it was. “Thanks again, Love, John.” That’s when I said, “This is shit!” Come on, this is the confidence game! . . . And I just looked at them and said, “Ah, come on!” I think I told them to go to hell, and then I walked away.
Half an hour later, I get back to the office, and everything was in a stir. I said, “You’re not going to believe what happened to me!” Then I started to tell them the story of what happened. Elsa walked in five minutes later and said there was this girl who was ripped off in a confidence game. And everybody just froze. I said, “What did they look like?” And she gave a general description. I said, “Of course, they were the same people who accosted me, and they obviously ripped off this girl for fifty bucks.” It was her last money or something like that. I called the police, and they acted very nonchalant about it, but they took my description anyway. And that’s what happened. I don’t know if they were ever caught. That was very weird.29
The second example, told by Irene Whitefield, underscores the gullibility of the target:
When I was a kid, the New York World’s Fair was in town in 1965. I remember reading a Life article . . . about con games you had to watch out for. And now, you know, so many years later it’s happening again. I couldn’t believe it. It’s so old and ridiculous. But a woman that I work with was in Rockefeller Center, and sure enough, this woman came up to her and started doing a routine that is called the “Found Money” game. Somebody says, “Look, I have this problem. I found this envelope, and I don’t know who it’s for, and it’s bothering me. What should I do? Let’s see what’s inside.” So you look inside, and there’s a lot of money inside. And she says, “Oh, golly, I think I’d better take this to my boss, please come with me.” And eventually you’re supposed to either put in part of the money or take it, and eventually they switch it around. I couldn’t believe they were trying this on this woman, but they did.30
In both stories, the narrators emphasize the gullibility of the victim, and express surprise that con games still continue on urban streets despite warnings against them.31 A few crime-victim narratives in the collection can be classified as urban legends. Though not all urban legends deal with crime and victimization, several well-known, popular legends do, including “The Hook” and “The Killer in the Backseat.”32 Several narratives told as second-hand crime-victim stories were, on closer scrutiny, urban legends. Both narrative types share some common features, so the adaptability of the urban legend to the crime-victim story should not be all that surprising. For example, both are believed or supposed to be based on true experiences. Urban legends “mistakenly” told as crime-victim stories circulate widely, are localized, and contain traditional plots. Both are told as events that happened to a friend of a friend, and of course, the source of the story is rarely, if ever, verified.
While there are many different urban legends that circulate nationwide, three well-known ones use New York City as their setting.33 All three deal with victimization or the expectation of violence. In the popular mind, New York City is believed to be crime-ridden, so that view lends plausibility to the legends. Most urban legends circulate to express the fears and anxieties of the majority. In this case, they project a generalized fear of anonymous muggers and of New York City in general. The first is about a jogger in Central Park, the second is about a hurt robber, and a third is about a bus rider.
“The Central Park Jogger” concerns a man taking his usual run through the park when a fellow jogger brushes by him. Incensed, the jogger thinks that the man has stolen his wallet, so he picks up his pace, determined to catch him. He runs up to him, looks him in the eye, and yells: “Give me the wallet!” Frightened, the second jogger quickly hands over a wallet, which the first man puts in his pocket. The first jogger continues his run and heads home. When he arrives there, he finds his own wallet, which he had absent-mindedly left on his bureau. Thinking that he was the victim of a crime, he finds that he himself has committed one. Esther Silverman, whose other crime-victim stories have been previously cited, was convinced that the incident was true:
Yes, I’ve heard that story, but it’s been going around for a while. I heard that they thought he stole his wallet. And he ran after him, and he beat him up, and he took his wallet. And when he got home, he found that he had two wallets. (M-82)
This popular urban legend was circulating at a time when running fever had gripped the city. It is actually a modern, or current, variant of an urban legend collected by Katherine Briggs in 1912, and used by Neil Simon in the film version of The Prisoner of Second Avenue.34 Known as “The Five Pound Note” in Briggs’s collection The Folktales of England, the story is about a woman who goes into town to do some shopping. Her brother gives her a five-pound note to spend. On the train, she sits next to a woman who dozes off. When the shopper happens to open her purse, she sees that her five-pound note is missing. She then looks in the woman’s purse, and sees a five-pound note on the top of her belongings. She pockets it and silently accuses the woman of stealing it. When she returns home, the woman is surprised when her brother asks her how she could have purchased anything in town, since she had left the five-pound note at home.35
The similarity between the two legends is obvious, but there is one substantial difference. While both falsely accuse a stranger of theft, in the Briggs version the woman clearly expresses concern and remorse for her action. “ ‘Old scoundrel,’ thought Mrs. M. . . . ‘She’s poor and old, and I oughtn’t to have put temptation in her way.’ She wondered what she ought to do. It would cause a great deal of delay and bother to call the police, and it seemed cruel to get an old woman into trouble, but she must have her money.”36 In the urban legend about the man in Central Park, in contrast, neither the jogger nor the teller exhibits any remorse about the mugging. In fact, the mugger’s actions are regarded as right. Certain that the other jogger mugged him, he indignantly—even bravely—asks for his wallet. No remorse over stealing or even “restealing” one’s own money is shown. Central Park is, after all, a mugger’s haven, and the act of asking for the wallet back seems almost noble. Though a listener might wonder what story the victim has to tell, the humor and the case of mistaken identity—actually human fraility and suspicion—give the legend the ingredients needed for it to be remembered.
A social worker, Susan Roberts from Brooklyn, narrated several stories about her clients who met weekly in a neighborhood agency. One story in particular sounded like an urban legend. It was told as a second-hand report of a crime-victim incident that Roberts insisted was true:
She’s a very articulate woman—when she went blind four years ago, she really got herself together. She’s very independent—she’s totally blind, but she is mobile. She gets around, does what she has to do. She went through a bad depression, except nothing stops her. She took mobility training, and she’s independently strong—very wonderful woman. And she’s really a kind, generous woman. She went home from the agency, and then the doorbell rang. And she has a chain on her door, and she just opened the door. Someone said it was a messenger or something, and she didn’t really question it. She opened the door—this guy grabbed her entire arm and took sandpaper and just started scratching her entire arm up and down. And he told her to break the chain or he’s gonna ruin her arm with this sandpaper. And she just tried as much as she could not to present herself as a victim, you know, the idea that you can’t be hurt, or that you can’t be treated as a victim if you don’t present yourself like a victim. So what she did was she grabbed the guy’s arm and said, “You have no right treating me like this! Who the hell do you think you are?” She grabbed his hand, and with all her energy she took his fingers with all her strength and broke them all—all his fingers broke like spaghetti. And he ran off. She called the cops. And they picked him up a few hours later because he went to an emergency room in a hospital because he had five broken fingers. She refused to be a victim. (M-9)
As with many urban legends accounts, the teller never questioned how someone could be fatally hurt by sandpaper. Nevertheless, the teller believed the narrative to be true and could clearly identify the victim. It is difficult to tell how the story was embellished, or whether it took the features of the well-known urban legend of “The Robber Who Was Hurt.” In this urban legend, well documented by Jacquelyn Simpson and Jan Brunvand, a robber breaks into a woman’s apartment.37 In attempting to defend herself, the frightened woman picks up a hot fireplace poker and burns the intruder. He immediately leaves, and she runs downstairs to tell a neighbor about the incident. The neighbor is upset herself, because her husband has just come home with a severe burn. As in the narrative about the blind woman, the offender is identified by the assault brought on by the intended victim’s act of self-protection. This brings to mind the crime-victim story told by Bernadette, who marked the rapist’s heel with a knife, resulting in his identification by the police hours later, or the story of the rapist who cashed his victim’s check.
Sociologist Lyn Lofland points out that in today’s urban society, it is difficult to differentiate between the Good Samaritans and the harmdoers.38 Clearly this is a message of the crime-victim stories that are disguised as legends, and particularly that of the Central Park jogger who assumes that anyone approaching him intends to do harm. The hurt robber legend warns listeners to be suspicious of those at the door. Both legends reinforce a theme discussed earlier: always suspect danger.
City stories many times use public transportation scenes or the difficulty of getting from one place to another quickly as a motif. For example, a transportation strike can set the city into near-panic; muffled radio traffic reports can create confusion, as can gridlock street conditions. Motorists continually tell stories about the rude driving habits of others, the battles in traffic court, the ruthless meter maids, or the day their car was towed for illegal parking. Urbanites also talk about their experiences with subways and buses, for these are two places where victimization is expected. In several stories, the subway is the scene of the crime.
It is not surprising that legends, or threads of legend plots, or even their settings form the kernel of some of these crime-victim stories, since both reflect a human response to a threatening situation. Since events are set in places of public transportation—the subway car or the bus—it seems credible that violent incidents could occur.
Following is a legend that has circulated in New York City for some time, though it has not been documented in the folk literature. Again, this story was considered true by the informants and was told as a crime-victim story; but it is actually a popular urban legend. The legend is about a man on a bus. He is wearing a trenchcoat, and the sleeves are so long that his hands are nearly covered. Because the bus is overcrowded, he is shoved by a nearby passenger. Suddenly, a woman’s bloodied hand, jewelry on its mutilated fingers intact, falls to the floor. The passengers are horrified.39 This legend, like the crime-victim stories, highlights or underscores the possibilities of witnessing or being party to a crime. Below are two crime-victim narratives that bear a striking similarity to the legend mentioned above:
I’ve witnessed chain rip-offs. I’ve seen a lot of them. That’s when someone pulls a gold chain off someone’s neck and runs off. This was about a month ago on the subway. I see these two guys. They were looking around for trouble. You could tell. They were looking around. There was a woman near the door on that subway. And I wanted to warn her, but they were watching me, too. They were watching me watch her. I was too scared to say anything like, close your jacket. Atlantic Avenue came. And they got the chain and ran off. And she was screaming. And that was it. They just rip it and leave and run. I was feeling real helpless. I could see they were up to no good. (M-76)
Clara Gold, who knew of the above incident, narrated the following one:
There’s the one that horrified everyone, of course, the one out in Astoria of the woman wearing a very large Greek cross. You didn’t hear that one? This is something. I heard about it, and I read about it in the paper, but it has gone around. People are discussing it. A woman was wearing a large Greek cross, which means that there are two crossbars—gold with rubies. Somebody tried to grab it off her neck . . . the latest refinement on “Let’s Snatch the Chain”—you drive up in a car next to someone crossing the street and you rip, and then the person guns the engine. In this case, they opened the door; the guy was on the passenger side. He grabbed the chain. But the chain itself was not gold, and it was a gold alloy, and it wasn’t soft enough to break, and they dragged the woman for a block and a half. . . . Her head kept banging into different cars. Oh, yeah, she died. They got the guys, too. (M-71)
These three examples of legends told as crime stories, and crime-victim stories that have a legendlike flavor and content, are interesting for several reasons. First, they show a transformation of content from one genre to another and a malleability between forms. Second, they show the possibility that crime-victim incidents are actually the basis, or origin, for unexplainable, crime-centered urban legends. Third, the crime-victim stories indicate how stories are cast into the wider net of urban legends, both explaining a human response to a feature of modern urban life.
As demonstrated in this chapter, crime-victim narratives have repeatable themes, content, and character types that continually resurface. Their repetition lends evidence to the argument that these stories constitute a subgenre of the personal-experience narrative. Because of a lack of corroborative research on the folklore of crime, it is difficult to establish the derivation of the content of the stories using a systematic and conventional method common to folklore study. As a result, comparisons between these narratives for their themes and characters and parallels in folk tradition have revealed that these crime-victim stories bear the stamp of folklore from the urban world.