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Chapter OneNew York City's Central Park covers 843 lush acres of the most valuable land in the world. Stretching north from Fifty-ninth Street to 110th Street, and east from Central Park West (CPW) to Fifth Avenue, it sits serene and resplendent, the center jewel in the dazzling crown of Manhattan.
The park celebrates the seasons in a brilliant kaleidoscope of colors and aromas. In summer, Frisbee players energetically toss plastic comets above the emerald carpet of Sheep Meadow, an expansive, manicured quiet area that serves as a communal picnic blanket and sunbathing haven. Guitar players, perched on benches in Strawberry Fields surrounding the "Imagine Mosaic" in honor of the late John Lennon, strum Beatles tunes as the crowd sings along.
In the fall, red leaves from European beech mingle with yellow and orange from pin oaks, while the acrid pungency of ginkgo permeates the crisp air. After the leaves have fallen and the temperature plummets to single digits, some 26,000 trees, 29 sculptures, and 36 bridges and arches take center stage-stark subjects in a muted and still background.
In spring, cherry blossoms cheer the winter weary. Lining the slopes below the track surrounding the Reservoir, they offer a downy pink protective canopy for joggers. Thousands visit theChildren's Zoo to see some of the fourteen hundred animals. Others head to the Carousel for a ride on some of the largest handmade horses in the world.
In every season, during the daytime, dogs, finally freed from their apartment confines, retrieve balls and look for their barking buddies. Bikers, Rollerbladers, joggers, and power walkers share the lanes abutting the roadways, jockeying for position as they try to get the most out of their sandwiched exercise time.
Never as dark or as silent as the country, Central Park at night is as close to mysterious as the urban landscape gets. Officially closed from 1:00 to 6:00 A.M., the park, however, is never totally empty. Late at night and into the early hours of the morning, certain areas stay alive with people high on booze, drugs, and even life. High-school kids out beyond their curfews mingle with dropouts, as runaways from upstate make fast friends with slick hipsters. Old people who've been down on their luck for years mix with energetic, anxious teenagers.
Some of the night parkers are longtime regulars, people who live in the park by choice-mostly the homeless, variously labeled as "weirdos," "losers," "boozers," "druggies," and "vagrants" by the media. The most articulate and lucid of the nighttime parkers insist that they are independent-minded citizens who have chosen an alternative lifestyle, while those with the least tenuous hold on reality are unable to explain or even comprehend who they are.
Most night parkers know each other by face, if not by name, and often congregate in the same area night after night-in Strawberry Fields, at the Bandshell, on the perimeter of Sheep Meadow, on the Great Lawn, at the playground near the southern end of the park, or in the Ramble. Each location has a distinct personality and an unwritten set of rules.
Police cars from the Central Park Precinct, located along the Eighty-sixth Street transverse, patrol the roadways and even ride on some of the fifty-eight miles of footpaths and 4.25 miles of bridle paths. Most of the time, the officers simply tell late-night drinkers and assorted NYC nightlifers to move along.
Frederick Law Olmsted, who, along with Calvert Vaux, designed Central Park in 1858, remarked that the park "exercises a distinctly harmonizing and refining influence upon the most lawless classes of the city-an influence favorable to courtesy, self-control, and temperance."
However, in the early hours of Friday, May 23, 1997, courtesy, self-control, and temperance were not in existence as a blast of violence engulfed Central Park in a murder that horrified a city, where, all too often, crime is a distinct fact of life.
Chapter TwoThursday, May 22, 1997, was a perfect spring day. The breeze was gentle and comforting.
For Daphne Abdela, it was a perfect day to hang out, Rollerblade in Central Park, and get high with friends. She had more than enough time on her hands. Just two weeks before, she'd been asked to leave Loyola School, the exclusive Jesuit-run private school she'd attended as a freshman since the fall. The administration cited disciplinary reasons. Her attitude was unacceptable, way off the chart of the school's norms for tolerable behavior. She picked fights, disrupted classes, and acted in a loud, hostile, and aggressive way. Often she arrived at school already wasted, and during lunch and sometimes between classes, she could be seen smoking up or gulping down liquid in a brown paper bag. Drinking early in the day had become relatively routine for this B student. In one particularly bravura performance, she celebrated her school's basketball win by parading through the halls in her bra, after having yanked her T-shirt over her head.
But now, free at last, her days were no longer confined to sitting in sterile classrooms and attempting to pay attention to boring teachers droning on about topics of little interest to her. Instead, she was pretty much on her own with only a few tasks that she really needed to do: study for finals, which the school said she could take at home at the end of the term, and read pamphlets for out-of-state boarding schools, which her parents had sent away for in the hope that she would find a place of interest for next fall.
That Thursday morning, with the temperature a mild 65 degrees and the sky already a slate blue-gray from car exhaust, smoke, and chemical fumes, Daphne left the apartment she shared with her parents, on the corner of Seventy-second Street and Central Park West in a building known as the Majestic, crossed the street, and entered Central Park through Women's Gate-not an actual gate, but bookends of stone between which the Seventy-second Street park transverse road begins. Once inside, it took her no time to hook up with a group of guys to share a sixpack. That was the great thing about the park. You could always find someone willing to join you in the vice of your choice, no matter how bizarre. If you wanted to take acid, for example, there was always someone around to trip with you; if you wanted to get laid in the grass, you could count on a willing sex partner. If you just wanted to find someone to chat with about the Yankees, the Grateful Dead, or even politics, you could always find someone willing to comply.
After drinking and chilling for a while, Daphne decided to head east toward Carl Schurz Park. At around 3:00 P.M., as she was walking along Madison Avenue at Eighty-second Street, she recognized two older boys she'd met somewhere before. After engaging in small talk, she asked them if they'd get her Phillies-cigars she used for rolling fat joints called blunts-and a "forty"-forty ounces of beer. They told her she was a loser for drinking forties in the middle of the day. By now, she'd already downed two wine coolers and three pints of Guinness and wasn't the least bit bothered by their comments. It was just around then that she began boasting to anyone who would listen that she couldn't wait to get totally wasted.
Armed with her goods, she continued on to East End Avenue and Eighty-fourth Street, the southern entrance to Carl Schurz Park, also called "East Side's best-kept secret." There, visitors are treated to spectacular views of the East River, the Triborough Bridge, the Queensboro Bridge, Randall's Island, and Roosevelt Island. At its northernmost end sits pristine and elegant Gracie Mansion, home to many of the mayors of New York. Arriving at around 4:00 P.M., Daphne immediately made her presence known. With her standard fare-a six-pack of Coors, a forty, some Phillies, and a wad of $20 bills-it was obvious that she was already buzzed. Animated, provocative, and defiant, her bravado was oozing like an ulcerous, festering sore. Hangdog behind her was a newcomer, a nerdy-looking guy with rimless glasses, a fade haircut-short and tapered on the sides, longer on top-and a vacant look on his face. All the regulars knew Daphne, but no one recalled having seen the kid before. Truth is, they were surprised Daphne had shown up at all, since she hadn't been around for the past couple of weeks.
Wearing her signature loose-fitting grunge clothes, she wasted no time laying claim to her domain and staking out her parameters. The chess tables. The Catbird Playground. The benches by the basketball courts. Within minutes of putting on her Rollerblades, she approached hunky sixteen-year-old José Gonzales and started slap boxing with him, a customary way of saying hello and bonding all in one. Swinging at each other with open hands, she did her best to make a go of it, but after only a few seconds, it was clear that she was no match. In fact, she was pathetic, unable to land even a good one close to his face. José didn't want to take advantage of her. It wasn't his style, so he called it quits. Daphne cursed at him. She wanted action, but José wasn't taking the bait. He walked away and then rode off toward home on his bike.
Meanwhile, the regulars were engaged in their usual MO. A newcomer? Test his mettle. On their bikes, they began darting at him-again, and again, and again-missing his feet by inches. Would he flinch? Fight? They needed to find out. It was part of the initiation.
But the kid did nothing. He didn't move. He didn't yell. He didn't challenge. He stood stock-still and stone-faced-unfazed. Just as well, cause if he dared challenge them, they'd ice him. With no reaction from the robot, they soon became bored and left him alone.
Restless and on the prowl, Daphne looked for another slap-boxing partner. Carlos Magriz was hanging out nearby, so Daphne skated up to him. Magriz, however, wasn't interested, but Daphne kept taunting him, hitting his face again and again. Finally, he slapped back, knocking Daphne to the ground. Seemingly unfazed, she picked herself up and moved on.
Daphne then Rollerbladed up to a girl she'd seen before, trying to engage someone-anyone-in anything at all, and asked her what school she went to. The girl shot her a chilly stare, turned her head, and went back to talking with her group. Daphne cursed her out and skated off to the chess tables. Seeing the girl's father there playing chess, she bolted over to him. Moving in too close, she hung over the man, breathing on him. Annoyed, he barked, "You looking for trouble?"
"We are trouble," she shouted; then she skated off, back to some of the regulars to persuade them to kick the crap out of the man. Always up for an adventure, the gang returned with her, ready for action. But when they saw that the target was just some old dude playing a game of chess, they backed off and told her to do the same. After some convincing, she finally relented and reluctantly left the man alone.
Still pulsating with aggressive energy, she approached Brian Miller, a fifteen-year-old who many thought was her boyfriend, at least until she arrived today with this weird new guy, whose name they learned was Christopher. Daphne tried to kiss Brian. Rebuffed, she went up to an old flame, Nick. They had had an on-again, off-again, relationship-by most accounts, mostly off-again-with Nick breaking up with her time and time again. She asked him if he liked her, if he had a problem with her. He pushed her away and rode off on his mountain bike.
Meanwhile, Christopher, sitting on a park bench alone, was drinking beer and munching Pringles, a solitary bird on its perch, watching.
Increasingly more desperate-no romance and no one to fight with-Daphne began bragging, tossing off hyperboles like some mini Muhammad Ali. She told one group, which included friend Francisco Lopez, she was going to slice someone. To another, including Michael Thomas, she screamed that before the day was over, she would kill someone. She implied that she had a knife and was looking forward to using it. By that time, she was really feeling it, riding the bullet. But no one who heard her took her seriously. Anyone that wasted would say anything.
As Daphne's bluster grew more belligerent, the new kid began to show signs of life. At first, Christopher talked to Daphne quietly, trying to calm her down. But when her threats continued and she became even more combative, he began feeling nervous. Soon his agitation turned to panic. Trying to deflect attention from Daphne, he began challenging people to take him on, boasting he could kick their butts from one side of town to the other. In spite of all the bravado, it was a piss-poor performance. Nobody paid him any mind. Nobody, it seemed, was the least bit interested in either of them.
At around 7:00 P.M., bored and restless, the pair left Carl Schurz and skated over to the West Side. Along the way, they picked up two other bladers. Now they were a pack on the move. As they entered Central Park, at Seventy-second Street and Fifth Avenue, they saw a group of homeless dudes sitting on the benches. Daphne dashed over. Scanning the group, she singled out one man, an enormous guy who weighed around four hundred pounds. Looking straight at him, with unflinching eyes, and speaking in a loud voice so everyone could hear, she screamed, "That fatty there, that's the one I'm gonna gut like a pig." And then off she zoomed, a speeding train heeding no signals, hell-bent on a bloody wreck.
The intended target, Frank, was stunned. For a split second, he wasn't sure he had heard right. "Did she say what I think she said?" he asked Billy, who was sitting next to him reading the newspaper.
"Sounded like she just threatened to kill you," Billy said.
"She's gotta be kidding, right?"
"Didn't sound that way to me."
For the first time since he began living in the park, several months before, Frank felt fear. In fact, for the first time in his life, he felt afraid. "I could barely breathe," he recalled later. "My stomach was churning. I knew something crazy had just taken place, but for some reason that's not easy to explain, I didn't doubt that she meant what she said. It was something about the look in her eye. She was capable of it. I knew it was real."
As a kid growing up in College Point, Queens, as a trucker in Texas and cross-country, and as a mover in California, Frank had always been able to take care of himself. Nobody messed with "Big Frank." Homeless by circumstance-all his belongings were stolen from the storage compartment in a Greyhound bus on his way from California to New York-he wasn't what many people consider a "typical" homeless person. Frank never drank, smoked, or asked for a handout. A tournament-winning bowler, he was among the smartest people in his high school in Queens, New York. With sympathetic clear blue eyes, a bushy white beard, and long white hair, Frank was a friendly figure on the park benches, always ready to chat it up or lend a hand. "But you gotta understand," he said softly, "when I was sleeping in the park, once my eyes were shut, anything could happen. Even a ten-year-old could do damage-with a switchblade." Recently he'd read a story in the newspaper about a homeless woman who was doused with gasoline and set on fire. And then there was the article about a man sleeping on a park bench who was kicked and punched until he died on the spot. "Hey, look at me," he said, "don't you think I can handle anything while I'm awake? But when I'm asleep, I'm as vulnerable as a baby."
Leaving the guys on the park bench to figure out just what the hell had happened, the teens continued on their way. Eventually Daphne and Christopher broke off from the others and skated over to Blockbuster, on Sixty-eighth Street and Amsterdam Avenue. It was only a five-minute trip, but it gave them a sense of power and invincibility. People had to move out of the way as they took over the sidewalks. Each long glide or quick, deliberate crossover, each swing of the arm, each dart in and out, assured them that they owned their ground. They were somebodies.
Excerpted from Baby-Faced Butchers by STELLA SANDS Copyright © 2007 by Stella Sands. Excerpted by permission.
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