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Jewish World Review August 23, 2002 / 15 Elul, 5762

Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin
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Consumer Reports

Never Ask, 'What
Can One Man Do?' | He was walking through the soft night, going away from his house at 211 Lincoln Pl., heading towards Bedford Avenue, when he heard the loud noise behind him, back near his house, followed by screaming.

His name is Harry Castel, and he is 49. People on the street call him "H." He is a martial arts teacher at a studio on Steinway Street in Astoria. He was saying that he remembers turning around and running back to where a crowd was writhing and shouting over the body of a child who had been hit by a vehicle.

The child was 3, a girl, Tiamani Gittens. Now she was in the street, with death reaching for her.

The vehicle was a green van and the driver did not stop. He kept going down the street until people jumped out and made him stop.

The driver got out of the car. His name was Solomon Stern and he was 42 and scared. The Hasidic dress made him look much older. The crowd came around from the front of the car and screamed and cursed. Stern, shaken, walked and was shoved back up the block towards the spot where he hit the child.

The crowd was about to fall on him.

Colin Small, 44, a construction worker, was playing dominoes outside his house directly across the street. He was the point man for the evening, meaning he was the one who kept leaning out to see if the cops were driving down the street. They break up the beer drinking of the men playing dominoes.

This time, Small heard a car coming, fast, probably the police. He looked out and saw the little girl across the street being held by one hand by an older girl. The little girl looked out between cars. This van hit the girl's head.

This night was 11 years after Gavin Cato, 7, was killed by a car driven by a Hasidic less than three blocks away. There were street disturbances. A Hasidic student, Yankel Rosenbaum, was killed by a knife. They called it the Crown Heights riots and it supposedly split New York.

Now all these years later you had another vehicle driven by a Hasidic driver, frightfully injuring a black baby.

And you had a furious crowd of blacks surrounding the Hasidic driver. Many were shouting, "Get the Jew!"

The least that could have happened was that the driver would have been badly hurt. Perhaps even killed. That happened in Chicago a few weeks ago, and all involved were of color. Here, there would have been a chance for a black and white riot.

This was on one of those streets nobody in Manhattan knows, a tight street one block off Eastern Parkway. Tuesday night, it held this city in its hands, a city so obsessed with the weeping fantasy of the World Trade Center anniversary that it would be unable to digest the real life of a riot in Brooklyn.

At this point of absolute danger, "H" came across the street with his woman companion. He looks like a favorite in any riot. He says he weighs over 200. It is cement slab 200, not roast beef. Hair goes down to his shoulders and the shoulders start a big strong upper body that can be dissuading. On a street of shouts and shrieks, of people crowding and pointing, H has a placid face and speaks softly. He says people get angry, but never out of control.

H walked across the street and Colin Small left the domino table. The two walked down the street quickly to Stern, the Hasidic driver. A couple of others, going to the strength, joined them. Harry Castel said to the man, softly, "Take it easy. Don't be scared."

They had him at a chain link fence and formed a semicircle to protect him from the crowd.

A baby was still on the street, bleeding. A crowd wanted the driver. The only thing that the driver had, the only thing that this city had, was Harry Castel and the woman with him and Colin Small.

After the police took Stern away, Small, on his side of the street in the night, was asked, "Why did you do it?"

"I was just trying to help the guy from getting hurt."

"Could he have been?"

"Oh, yes. That was a mob. He could have been killed."

Castel was across the street in front of his house.

"Before you did it, did you think about it?" he was asked.

"Just that I didn't want to see anybody hurt."

Harry Castel explained the moment in a soft voice and understated words. "He was distraught and fearful. It was the right thing to do to calm him down. We told the people to stay back. The police would take care of it. If we weren't there, the crowd could have hurt him."

He stayed far away from the word "kill." He also would not characterize the crowd as being out of control. Just incensed. And angry.

"Were you afraid of them getting by you?" he was asked.

A thin smile almost came on his placid face.

Jimmy Breslin, a long-time friend of JWR, needs no introduction. Comment by clicking here.

© 2002, Jimmy Breslin