On a rainy Sunday afternoon in March 1978, a talkative cabbie in a black-and-yellow taxi jammed on his brakes, screeched to a stop, and dropped me off on the corner near Clara Gold’s home. I had come to Clara’s to record the crime-victim stories I anticipated would be exchanged during a get-together of her friends, a group of New York professional women. I expected that these women, like most New Yorkers, would tell personal-experience narratives to one another. Their conversations would likely revolve around a familiar and traditional topic of city folklore: urban crime.
In New York City folk culture, the subject of crime and the experiences of crime victims and potential victims are often used as conversational icebreakers, invitations for humorous exchange, or a means to transmit street smarts. Crime-victim experiences are transmitted in these three ways at social gatherings, as well as in a variety of other common urban places: standing in line at a bank or a department store, chatting with fellow passengers on the subways, sharing a table in a crowded restaurant, talking at a party. Such experiences are so common, and a topic of conversation so popular, that even strangers feel at ease revealing to one another the details of victimization. In Clara’s living room, the women spontaneously shared crime-victim narratives for several hours on a weekend afternoon. Their enjoyable social event is illustrative of the way that many New Yorkers talk about these incidents.
The particular setting for this story-swapping session was a Brooklyn apartment on Park Slope. A group of New York City women were meeting for an afternoon tea. All were college-educated and middle-class. They met as members of a literary club and shared a love for mystery fiction. During the course of this Sunday afternoon, they discussed several common concerns of New Yorkers: crime, law and order, politics, cultural happenings, and neighborhood events. But a large portion of the discussion was devoted to exchanging crime-victim stories.
Like many literary-interest groups, this one was devoted to the fiction of Arthur Conan Doyle. Eight members of the group were present during the afternoon: four turned out to be narrators of crime-victim stories; four served as the audience. The women met periodically throughout the year, and several socialized outside of the group on a regular basis. As a result, a few friendships had developed and matured.1
Just because the women were interested in Holmes, one cannot presume that they had a fascination with urban crime events, as well. A distinction must be made between Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional accounts of notorious criminals and mysterious events, and the victimizations of day-to-day life in New York City nearly one hundred years later. One can attribute an appreciation for the stories about Sherlock Holmes to a fascination for nineteenth-century London and the trappings of the socially ordered Victorian world. The New York City stories reveal, instead, a world of chaos and unexplainable violence. The crime-victim stories were discussed separately from the group’s Sherlockian business affairs. That this group had a particular interest in detective fiction is a coincidence. Other groups of New Yorkers, just as well educated or from similar economic backgrounds, also incorporate crime-victim stories into their social conversations.
As already mentioned, four women at the event were prominent tellers of crime-victim stories. Irene Whitefield, the organizer of the group and coordinator of its activities, was a native New Yorker in her twenties living in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, a recently gentrified neighborhood. Irene was employed as a secretary and pursued her acting interests by appearing in off-off-Broadway theater. She was a flamboyant storyteller, perhaps because of her acting ability. Karen Green was a native New Yorker living on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Married, in her thirties, she was a registered nurse in one of the city’s largest hospitals. She was loquacious and dramatic in her delivery of stories, and she obviously enjoyed the group’s attention when she shared her city experiences. Pamela Day, originally from a small town in Massachusetts, had moved to New York City after graduating from a large university upstate. Pam was in her mid-twenties, lived on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and had continued to study as a geologist despite difficulty in finding employment. Clara Gold was a personnel administrator in her late twenties. She was a Brooklynite and was host of the gathering.
The four others in the group played an important role in the swapping of the crime-victim stories. Audience members are not silent partners. They enhance the narrator’s rendition by offering validating comments, expressing sympathy for the character/victim within the story, and urging the narrators to continue by expressing appreciative and laudatory comments such as, “Oh, that’s a good one!” or “That’s funny.”
During the afternoon, fourteen stories were presented: ten were specifically crime-related, while the other four related to common types of victimization. Broken down by subject, they told of one murder, four muggings, and five robberies and burglaries. The remaining accounts functioned as frames for subsequent stories or as lengthy introductory sequences, setting the stage for what might be seen as a narrative competition. Two remaining stories, one about a shopping-bag lady and the other about a shopping-bag man, presented two common urban characters that often appear in these stories. Additional characters include the victim, the offender, the apathetic bystander, and the ill-tempered subway or bus rider. With the exception of the victim, offender, and witness, none of the other characters are personalized; each is a stock character of the urban scene. They serve as the dramatis personae for these stories, and their actions are presented without explanation, since they are all well-known figures of the city’s streets.
The crime-victim stories the women related were included in a conversation that went on with few interruptions for approximately three hours. Occasionally, the conversation was stopped momentarily by members’ leaving the living room and walking into the adjoining dining room for refreshments. The women felt free to enter and leave the conversation at will. As the afternoon wore on and as the guests became more relaxed, narratives were exchanged at an increasing rate, and few interruptions occurred. The beginning of these narrative exchanges could be considered conversational icebreakers. Since the members had not recently seen each other, the stories served as a way to open up communication between them. They each could identify with a familiar form of activity: talking about crime.
The session began with a story about a handicapped person, a victim not of crime but of society. Like the crime-victim story, the story about the handicapped person is told as if it is part of a comedian’s slapstick routine. Why the women laughed at the handicapped person’s predicament is hard to tell, though there is a parallel here with a type of folk narrative, the urban legend. (By definition, an urban legend is a story about an extraordinary event, told for truth, and attributed to an ambiguous source.) The legend is about an injured man and an ambulance driver. Upon hearing how the patient became injured, the ambulance driver laughed so hard he dropped the stretcher, causing the man further injury. In the case of this afternoon session, the first story functioned in the same way as the legend.2 Though it is not a crime-victim story per se, it is an “urban” story, and the apathetic bystander character, in this case, is a policeman. Ann Holland, the story’s narrator, was a woman in her mid-thirties who worked as an editor in a large publishing house in New York City. Her Woody Allen-like tale of urban frustration began the round of storytelling. Ann then became a member of the audience and told only one other story during the rest of the afternoon.
Ann started by introducing her story, saying: “It’s a really terrible story, it’s sorta sick.” She giggled nervously and pushed her glasses up over her small nose and fidgeted with her short, thick hair. She sounded a bit tentative, almost apologetic, as she began talking, tugging at the hem of her skirt and pulling it down over her chubby knees.
She told about an incident that had happened a month before the tea. She and a friend were caught in a traffic jam behind a large oil truck that was making a delivery to a house on an icy, hilly street. A yellow car in front of Ann’s had pulled out and attempted to go around the truck. She had moved her car right behind it, and expected to wait until the delivery of oil was completed. Though two lane, the street was quite narrow. Suddenly, a Cadillac came up over the rise of the hill and was just about to collide with the yellow car that had pulled out beside the truck. With typical urban etiquette, the Caddy driver wouldn’t budge to let the yellow car pass. “Suddenly, a police car pulled up behind us,” Ann said dramatically. “And he’s gonna control everything!” Ann bellowed powerfully, imitating the policeman: “YOU GO DOWN THAT STREET, AND YOU COME DOWN HERE!” He commanded the drivers of the yellow car and the Caddy to go in opposite directions, but his plan was stalemated. Suddenly, the Caddy driver opened his car door and began yelling at the top of his lungs. “He’s sure screaming about something,” Ann said. “And, I look around the corner, and I see the wheelchair.” The yellow car drove around the tanker, and the Cadillac crept slowly down the hill. “So sure enough, behind this Cadillac is this guy in a wheelchair in the middle of the street. . . . You could see the chains on the wheelchair to take it up the hill.” Then the man fell out of the wheelchair, and as he lay prostrate on the icy street, the chair wheels started to spin around. Then she caught her breath and continued. “And the guy is lying there. THE GUY IS LYING THERE ON THE STREET!” Ann howled. Her indignation was directed at the policeman, who stared for a few seconds at the paralyzed man floundering on the pavement, then went back to his squad car and drove off. “I mean, the guy doesn’t have a license [laughter], and the cop looks at the guy, and I guess he determined that the guy was not dead, and that since he was not driving a motor vehicle it was not the cop’s concern . . . he wasn’t a crossing guard. . . . So he got back into his car and drove off!”
The group members, intent on hearing Ann’s conclusion to the story, let out squeals of shock and surprise, disappointed by the policeman’s show of apathy. But she resolved her story: “So about five guys from the neighborhood came running out. They hoisted him up in the chair and pushed him off! And we drove down the street falling over with laughter.”
Ann confided to the women that she had told the above story to several friends at the publishing house. “It’s really sick! The poor guy in the wheelchair . . . flipping over the wheels,” she said hysterically. But Ann continued almost immediately with another short story about another handicapped person and a confrontation with a policeman.
Once the laughter subsided, Karen Green, sitting next to Ann, presented her own story about another urban character type—the cabbie. Karen described a recent spill on the ice and a temporary handicap of her own. She had fallen into a pothole on a city street after stepping off a bus, twisted her ankle, and required medical attention. With her husband, she hailed a cab for a dash to a nearby emergency room. “The cab driver must have thought that I was in labor, because he started racing through the traffic, ’Goddamn traffic! Goddamn traffic! Wouldn’t cha know it! Just when you gotta get to a hospital in a hurry!’ ” At this point in her story, Karen switched from a serious to a humorous tone. Since the women were sitting in a cozy circle, she could glance around at them; she smiled and in a very pleasant and calm voice said, “I say to the cabbie, ’What’s the big hurry? . . . I ain’t gonna die yet!’ ” as she continued her story. The audience trusted Karen’s judgment about the seriousness of her accident, since she was a nurse at a major metropolitan hospital and faced emergency situations daily.
Pam Day, a taffy-haired willowy woman, had been sitting across from Ann and Karen. She broke into the conversation and started to tell of her own escapade with a familiar urban character—the ill-mannered transportation rider. Her delivery was fast-paced, different from her usual cool, reserved, unruffled style.
Pam told of an accident on a mid-Manhattan bus. “I’ve heard a one-liner that I will probably never hear again in my life,” she said. The story was about a blind man who was on a half-empty bus and found himself ahead of two men; all three were trying to get off at the Port of Authority stop. Suddenly realizing that the terminal was in view, a woman passenger from the back of the bus charged toward the front door. She pushed past the two men and started elbowing the blind man, shouting, “OUTTA MY WAY! OUTTA MY WAY! THIS IS MY STOP!” Everyone on the bus was shocked by the woman’s outburst. Then someone said sarcastically, “Lady, he’s blind.” The woman’s response: “I don’t care if he is blind, he should look where he’s going!”
Victimization and physical disability was the central theme in the above narratives. Yet in each of the three stories, the narrators used humor: to comment on urban aggression, as a way to make light of their own and others’ misfortunes, and to distance themselves from the trauma of the experience. At the tea party, humor was used in several common ways. For example, people often laugh at others’ frailties, at embarrassing situations (such as Karen’s spill), or at a lack of social grace (such as the woman on the bus exhibited).3 When Karen mentioned that she had fallen into the pothole, Clara Gold remarked, “What are you goin’ to do? Send a case of them to the mayor?” The women roared with laughter.4
The conversation could have been followed by a discussion about the problems of the handicapped in society. Instead, the tone changed when Clara jumped in, and in a shrill voice told her first story of the afternoon: “Listen to this. I’ve got one better.” She began:
Some woman is standing on the train station. It was like two o’clock in the morning, and she’s waiting at Forty-second Street or Fifty-ninth Street, or something like that. There were three people on the station. Someone goes over to lean over the platform and look, and she steps on another woman’s foot, right? And this woman whose foot she stepped on started screaming and said to her, “You know, when the train comes, I’m gonna push you in front of it.” And when the train came, she pushed her in front of it! I would be out on the street in thirty seconds. But I mean, it’s the kind of thing that if someone said to me, “Lady, I’m gonna push you in front of the train,” I would say, “Thank you. Sorry.” Kiss her foot and then, you know, not be hangin’ around. (MR-14)
One of the aims of the narrator of a crime-victim story is to shock the audience, and Clara did just that. While the dramatic style in which these stories are narrated is important for their telling, their illustrative, didactic intent is paramount. Clara’s story highlights the unpredictable consequences of urban living for the everyday citizen. What is so frightening is the precariousness of someone’s life in such a common setting. Yet, that is exactly the point. The ordinary setting and the extraordinary event that takes place within the story frame not only lend believability to the story but also insure its shock value. In the narrative above, the victim is suddenly thrust into a life-threatening situation.
After Clara’s story, Karen Green commented by saying, “I heard about that happening during the rush hour. I read it in the newspaper that it was rush hour. And that was the one where the train was coming out of the tunnel, and the lights were seen. The woman pushed the first woman on the track, and the woman went running up the tracks, and somebody at the far end helped to pull her out. Someone reached in and grabbed her. And they arrested the other one for attempted murder. They should have locked her up.”
Karen’s attempt to validate Clara’s story also toned down the horror of the preceding story, in which the audience, not given the details to the contrary, assumed the woman had been killed. The listeners felt relief. They were pleased that the would-be murderer had been caught and that a Good Samaritan had intervened. No one questioned the authenticity of the story or its newspaper validation, even though in Clara’s version, only three people were assumed to have been on the platform, and in Karen’s version the incident supposedly happened during rush hour. Up to this point in the conversation, the women’s stories included characters endemic to the urban scene. The cabbie, the loiterer, the ill-tempered subway rider, the Good Samaritan and the apathetic bystander are conventional characters in tales of New York City life. They are rarely given distinguishing features or personalities, yet they are the dramatis personae of these stories: since they are so well known, they are presented without any full explanations.
During the telling of Clara’s story, Ann nodded affirmatively several times and then commented about the unexpected danger described in it. She said that after watching a television program in which a young chid was thrown off a rooftop, some neighborhood children had followed suit the next day by throwing a youngster over an apartment-building rooftop to his death. After all, she sighed knowingly, “Children do live on the roof in the summertime.”
The above comment, as innocuous as it might seem, underlies another, unstated but significant, point about one of the functions of telling these urban tales: they impart street smarts. The audience accepts these stories without question because they reinforce something that they already know: being streetwise or street smart is essential when living in New York City. There is an urban folk wisdom, a common folk knowledge, about city living that New Yorkers possess. Surely, children do play pranks on one another, and those pranks often result in death. Rooftops are dangerous places indeed.
The women at the tea, typical of the tellers of crime-victim stories everywhere, used three narrative stances for reporting: (1) first-hand, or victim, accounts; (2) second-hand, or witness or bystander, accounts; and (3) third-hand accounts, in which the source of information is often a newspaper or television, or unknown—the speaker may use media accounts to validate or report a crime. The women changed narrative stances frequently and at random. This switching back and forth is a validating technique used to heighten the trustworthiness of a story as well as a feature of the oral style of reporting.
Shortly after Clara finished her story, Elizabeth, a member of the group, left for home. This interruption, however, did not change the conversations’s direction: the women devoted the majority of the remaining time at the tea to exchanging crime-victim stories. The sharing and swapping between tellers increased. The atmosphere was competitive but not hostile. One incentive for relating stories was to tell one that was more horrible, more incredible, and more unpredictable than the last. Pam Day continued:
This happened last November when our lease ran through. We were showing the apartment. One Sunday afternoon, I was alone . . . and there was a knock on the door, and somebody came to see the apartment. She was to come at five o’clock. She showed up at five-thirty. I was a little teed off. But I opened the door, and she said, “Gee, I’m sorry to be late, but I’ve just been mugged!” [tone of disgust] She came by way of the IND subway to the Eighty-sixth Street stop, when a man followed her off and demanded her money. And she said, “Look, I’m giving you my money, but let me keep my wallet. You can’t want my credit cards. You can’t want my driver’s license.” So she was taking her money out of her wallet when he grabbed her wallet and pushed her down a flight of stairs! (M-10)
Both Clara’s and Pam’s stories highlight one of the important functions of transmitting crime-victim stories: they tell women how to protect themselves in case of danger. The story presented above tells how the victim used self-protection, most likely recalled from the other victim situations that she had heard about, or perhaps previously experienced. It also implies that the victim was unaware not only of the danger she was in, but of the inconvenience she was to face from the loss of her personal papers. Her behavior addressed both. In the other story, Clara said her technique to avoid danger would be to leave the subway: “I’d be out on the street in thirty seconds,” she said sarcastically. Pams “victim” suggested not to fight with the mugger, but to submit and hand over the cash: “I’m giving you my money, but let me keep my wallet.”
Once Pam finished, the conversation switched from crime-victim narratives to stories about crime-prevention techniques. What should a woman do in such a situation? How can people protect themselves? The women talked about the “weapons” to carry. Ann Holland advised carrying an umbrella: “One of the best things is the Totes umbrella, because it can collapse. They have a nice handle. When I carry an umbrella, I don’t carry it by the handle strap. I carry it so that I can use it if I have to. . . . There are a lot of limping male sopranos in the city!” Pam admitted that to avoid being victimized, she usually “puts on the old poker face.” But she acknowledged that this technique is not always successful:
About a year ago, let’s see, I was taking a course at Marymount. I got home between ten and ten-thirty. I take a Number Ten bus at Eighty-fifth Street and Columbus Avenue. So one night I was going home, and I was walking on Central Park West to my apartment on Eighty-sixth Street. And this guy was coming up the other way. And he sorta looked at me and gave me the old, “How about it, dear?” And I put on my old stone face and walked, dat dat dat. . . . Got to my outer door . . . [and I go] to put the key into the front door, and this hand comes and grabs mine. He had turned around and followed me home, and I didn’t look behind me. So I missed his little trick. So first, I just stood there in shock. And he said, “A little shy, are you?” And I said, “Oh my God! That’s the way to the doorbells.” And I said to him, “If you touch me, I’m gonna start ringing these doorbells!” So . . . he wanted a little action [nervous laughter]. So he went away. I mean, I didn’t call the police even though I shoulda. I didn’t even tell my roommate because I didn’t want her to be afraid to go out on the streets. (M-53)
Pam’s narrative about thwarting victimization by putting on the “old poker face” or learning that it is important to look over one’s shoulder, and Ann’s urban weapons approach reveal three crime-prevention techniques practiced by women on the city street. These stories also reiterate how one must be on guard living in the city world. By sharing these crime-prevention techniques, the women reinforced a bond among themselves. Pam’s neglect to tell her roommate of the experience so as to preserve her roommate’s sense of security in the neighborhood suggests that the stories’ role in imparting street smarts is of major importance. As Susan Kalčik discusses in her work on women’s rap groups, women often use “kernel stories” in conversation. These stories “emerge from the context in which they appear to support another woman’s story, to help achieve a tone of harmony in the group, or to fit the topic under discussion or develop that topic with related ideas.”5 Both Ann’s and Pam’s explanations of their urban experience served this function, and they moved the conversation along.
Soon after the discussion of crime-prevention techniques calmed down, Irene Whitefield switched the topic to urban loiterers and told a story about a shopping-bag lady whom she had tried to direct to a church shelter. Then, Pam Day recalled an incident in which a shopping-bag man had trailed her through the New York Public Library while she was searching for a book. While both incidents could be seen as asides from crime-victim stories, they also deal with the social deviance of homeless people.6 While their stories were not crime-victim events, the tellers used them as bridges between narratives. Shortly after Pam’s comments about the homeless man, Karen Green jumped in with a story about another urban deviant—a loiterer who is suspected to be dangerous:
I’m on the seventh floor of a seven-story building, and there are steps to go to the roof, and there’s nothing on the roof except tarpaper. For some obscure reason, people manage to get into the building. There’s no intercom system, and there’s just a buzzer. One night, the door buzzed, and we buzzed back because we had expected company. We go to the door and looked through the peephole. We see this body come up the steps, come off the elevator, and start looking around. So Rob [Karen’s husband] stuck his head out of the door and said, “Get the hell out of here!” And the guy said, “If you come after me, I’m gonna knife you to death!” Rob quickly beat a fast retreat and shut the door. So we went and called the cops. In the meantime, the guy comes up the steps to the roof, and we hear shuffling around on the roof [group laughter]. So we go to the door again, and we’re looking around the door—shuffle—shuffle [laughter]—and the guy comes down again to the seventh floor, and a light goes on when you push the elevator button. He pushed the button at the exact second that the cops hit the button. So you couldn’t tell if someone downstairs was coming up. But you never saw anybody get such a surprise in their entire life when he’s standing there to open the elevator door and there’s these cops: “All right, get outta here!” [group laughter]
The audience cheered when Karen told them that the offender had been caught by the police. “He should have been locked up,” she said emphatically.
Sensing sympathy from the women, Karen next recounted a burglary. “But I got robbed in my apartment a couple of years ago,” she said. She provided the group with a laundry list of items that the burglars stole: “All my jewelry, my nursing school ring . . . the things they left behind I couldn’t get over. . . . We had a digital radio and a table radio and a $125 35mm camera they never took and a tape recorder. . . . We had a Sony television and a quad stereo. . . . But all my husband’s electric tools and my jewelry, two wedding rings, and my nursing school ring—STOLEN! I also had a fake diamond ring, BUT my garnet ring and my diamond earrings were left. Figure that one out!” At this point, Karen was overcome by emotion and nearly in tears.
Karen had presented her story as if it were a puzzle, asking the audience to help rationalize the offenders’ actions. Karen thought that “maybe they were spooked” or disturbed during the robbery, and consequently left behind the items she listed. Clara suggested that perhaps “the heist” was a part of the burglars’ “shopping around” for particular items. Still distraught from remembering the incident, Karen felt that insult had been added to injury when the burglars left her home with her valuables wrapped up in her own bedsheet!
As a coda to Karen’s narrative, Clara retorted, “What good is money in New York?” Pam added, “I’ve seen people take Oriental rugs as they are going out over the rooftops!” “Where else but New York,” they wondered, could such things happen? As the laughter subsided, Irene entered the competition. This time her cue was taken not from the previous narrator, but only from the content of the crime feat. Her opening statement acknowledges competition, suggested no doubt by the reference to the Oriental rug, the implication being that it was a large item for the sneaky thief:
But I can top that one! In my apartment building where I lived before, two people who lived in my apartment before me—one was a pianist, a professional musician—[proceeds with slow and deliberate tone] and THEY STOLE THE GRAND!
Beginning with a robbery involving personal possessions with the victim in their midst, on to Oriental rugs, and then to the theft of a grand piano, Clara finished the robbery sequence in which not only large items were taken, but all the victim’s possessions. These unbelievable but true stories delighted the audience immensely. Clara began:
There was a guy I used to know at my old bank. His wife was going to the doctor. She was not well, and her four-year-old was away at nursery school. . . . He got a hysterical phone call from his wife that day. It was two o’clock. It turns out that on that morning a van rolled up, and two guys dressed in work clothes moved out all their furniture. Everything! The carpets, the lamps, clothing from the closet, contents of the medicine cabinet, books, magazines, TVs, radios, THE WORKS! When they came back to their apartment, there was NOTHING except the four empty walls! They did not take anything from the kid’s room. That was completely intact. But every single thing was gone! Wall-to-wall rugs just ripped up and rolled away. EVERYTHING!
When Clara finished her story, several listeners tried to deduce the robber’s motives. Laughing, one woman said, “Maybe they were setting up housekeeping!” Clara mentioned that the owners were convinced that “someone had been there and cased the place.” No one in the group, however, had heard of the common technique of robbers’ coming to a home disguised as workmen of some sort.7
By this time in the afternoon, several hours had passed, and the women soon went on to the affairs of the literary group. Their business discourse was distinctly separate from the previous swapping of crime-victim stories: the stories were regarded as part of the social discussion of the afternoon. After the business matters were concluded, several of the women left for home. They walked together to the subway, assuming safety in numbers.
The social setting in which these crime-victim stories were transmitted was not an unusual one for this group, or any other group of New Yorkers. The mundane setting underlines the horror of the stories. The cozy atmosphere of the social afternoon previously described contrasts sharply with the dangerous world of urban violence and victimization portrayed in the women’s narratives. The depiction of urban life found in the crime-victim stories results in a common reporting technique, of which narrators are often unaware: the juxtaposition of narrative plots regardless of the severity of the crimes mentioned. For example, in the narrative setting just described, a mugging tale easily precedes a burglary story. What is being transmitted is not only a story about city life, but a shared perception of the effects of crime on city people and the need for safeguards against victimization. Because urbanites are aware of the possibilities of danger in the urban world, the theme of victimization easily connects the stories. Verbal cues from one story to another supply the invisible connective threads, while humor relieves the tension of the moment and enhances the personal interaction. The telling of crime-victim stories is a common outlet for diffusing fear, tension, and anger about an urban fact of life.
These stories not only highlight the need for street smarts (as Pam Day’s stories underscore), they also present a world view shared by the women. They all expected New York City to be a dangerous place to live. Throughout the swapping of tales, several of the women made comments such as, “This is New York,” or “Where else but New York?” Crime-victim stories reinforce common images associated with the urban setting, and these scenes are easily identified and visualized—a crowded subway platform, an empty rooftop above a busy street, a rider-crammed bus. The settings for these tales need no description or explanation: they are familiar places. They are urban données.
Crime-victim stories, in general, are an essential part of an ongoing urban socialization process, and are constant reminders to the audience and tellers that society’s laws and urban customs need to be obeyed in order for cities, in this case New York City, to function smoothly. Yet these stories also have another purpose. They reiterate that not all members of society follow society’s rules: some clearly and conspicuously defy the law. It is not only the physical violence in the stories that surprises the victims of crime and the audiences, it is also the offender’s defiance and disregard of the law, his violation of the victim’s personal space, or the stealing of a stranger’s possessions that infuriates both victims and audience. Consequently, victims and potential victims, that is, listeners to the victim’s stories, can learn about what it takes to live successfully in New York City. In other words, the crime-victim narrative is a testimonial to urban resilience. These stories celebrate survival. By sharing a story, the teller is proudly announcing, “I’ve survived! Here’s my story!”
Most middle-class New Yorkers share personal experiences by using particular speech rules and speaking styles. For example, New Yorkers often abruptly enter into conversation, welcomed or not, with strangers and friends alike. Deborah Tannen, a sociolinguist, notes that “many New Yorkers . . . finding themselves within hearing range of a stranger’s conversation . . . assume that it is appropriate to toss in a relevant comment.”8 Tannen suggests that in addition to “butting in,” New Yorkers have a speech style and conversation pattern that includes other distinctive features. For example, they will abruptly introduce new topics of conversation. Often they insist on being heard, even demanding attention. Conversations usually revolve around personal topics in which the evaluative components are prominent. Tannen contends that in conversation, taking turns is popular, and talking is at bullet speed. Frequently during conversation, two or more New Yorkers will speak simultaneously, each eager to intrude with an opinion or personal example.
Many of Tannen’s assumptions about the conversational style of New Yorkers were validated during that afternoon while the women traded crime-victim stories. Interruptions of their conversation, however, occurred in two ways. The women would periodically wander into the dining room for refreshments and back into the living room where the conversations were taking place. Because of the relaxed atmosphere, they freely entered and left conversations, and when returning to the room, they quickly jumped back into them. The other interruptions had more to do with the conventions of New York City speech. As Tannen mentions, one of the rules for New York conversation allows several speakers to talk simultaneously. While the noise level might be high, the practice of two or more people speaking at the same time is more of an indication of enthusiasm for the topic at hand than a display of rudeness.9 However, during the women’s discussion, and as the crime-victim stories became the central focus of the conversation, the atmosphere in the room changed. Only the narrator spoke, and the audience listened. So, despite the New York City “all-talk” style, each narrator drew attention to herself and to her story. The style of conversation switched from many speakers to only one, thus emphasizing the narrator and her story.
For example, Ann’s story about the policeman was a conversational icebreaker told for entertainment. To be amusing, the tellers of these stories, like Ann, often give them a sharp edge by narrating them in an abrasive, witty manner. This type of biting invective is a form of urban folk humor, especially popular in New York City. It is known to popular-culture audiences through such comics as Joan Rivers, Robert Klein, Rodney Dangerfield, and Woody Allen. These comedians grew up in urban areas and derive many of their routines from common aspects of city life: rudeness towards others, the constant violation of personal space, the variety of types of people found in the urban environment, the conflicts that result because of multicultural groups, the difficulties of dealing with city bureaucracy, and, of course, urban crime. In one of his nightclub acts, Rodney Dangerfield remarks about the dangers of living on Manhattan’s Upper West Side: “I live in the only neighborhood that when I plan my budget, I allow for holdup money.” His line is like Pam’s story about the woman who was mugged in Pam’s Upper West Side apartment building.
The popularity of this urban comedy results from an understanding between comedians and audiences that city life requires an urban invulnerability and a need to look out for and guard against unexpected danger. The stories told during the afternoon were often accepted with laughter, functioning in a way similar to the urban comic’s material. Both expect that urbanites, in order to live in the city, will need several essential psychological tools: a sense of empathy towards crime victims but an ability to distance oneself from and even laugh at another’s misfortunes; a sense of self-acceptance, especially if one has been victimized; and, finally, realization and acceptance that individuals alone cannot stop the city’s and nation’s crime epidemic.
Discussing stories within a particular sociocultural context, such as the afternoon gathering analyzed here, is one method that we can use to make intelligent assumptions and suggestions about how folklore and urban folk traditions appear within the context of everyday life. Crime-victim stories are more structured, more polished, and more traditional than most narrators and audiences realize. In both organization and style, they tend to utilize traditional narrative conventions. When stories related by different tellers are compared, similarities emerge in form as well as content. In addition, crime-victim narratives can be disguised as another form of folk story, the urban legend. In suggesting ways that urbanites can protect themselves from crime, these stories serve a particular function by imparting knowledge about appropriate urbanite street behavior. They also reveal how New York City is presented by those who fear it, by those who love it, and by those who have experienced its danger.