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Jewish World Review August 14, 2000 / 13 Menachem-Av 5760

Julia Gorin

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Consumer Reports

Dangers in do-goodness --
LAST MARCH, shortly before death tolls in the Balkans began to monopolize headlines, newspapers in New York were consumed with the death of just oneóa fresh-faced 26 year-old social work student from Kansas named Amy Watkins.

Watkins was walking home from the subway after work when she was stabbed from behind by a stranger with a 10-inch kitchen knife, who then ran off with her bag.

The unconscionable violence of the incident, both in its randomness and swift intent, took my breath away: the knife coming through the girl from behind and she, realizing what had happened, going into cardiac arrest and dying on a street of Prospect Heights, Brooklyn. The fact that this girl was my age exactly hit even harder. For over a year I couldnít get her name out of my head.

Thankfully, neither could police, who last week apprehended David Jamison and two accomplices after boasts by Jamison sealed his idiotís fate.

People who gave comments to the press that March had chalked the tragedy up to a senseless, violent act that could have happened to anyone, anywhere.

Only it didnít. It happened to Amy Watkins, and there is an equation here not to be dismissed: where you live + where you work + the people closest to you = a) a longer life, or b) a shorter one. Amyís life equation proved to be the more fatal combination. For, if even one of these factors had served to keep her out of harmís way, her chances of survival would have been better.

For work, Amy counseled children, the mentally disabled, and battered women at a housing project in a tough Bronx neighborhood. For home, she lived in a Prospect Heights building that the papers described as "rundown," in a neighborhood that long-term residents admitted was unsafe despite the false sense of security felt by the young, white, professional-class newcomers who have been gentrifying it while remaining oblivious to obvious warning signs.

With the first two parts of the equation working against Amy, it was up to the third part, the people in her life, to help see her through. But they failed her, although Amy herself would never have seen it that way.

Even as long-time residents said they werenít surprised by the slaying, given the area, Larry Watkins, Amyís father, said he didnít regret his daughterís choice of neighborhood, and that it didnít contribute to her death. "This could have happened anywhere," he said.

Could it have happened, I wonder, at his well-lit Upper East Side doorman building on a busy Manhattan street? Less likely.

Larry Watkins, an eleventh-grade schoolteacher, affectionately described days when he and his daughter would discuss social issues while sipping coffee or eating an organic meal Amy would prepare. The image of this parent-educator with his daughter, recently arrived in New York from Kansas, pontificating on the broad problems plaguing society when he had yet to visit the neighborhood she had chosen to call home is almost perverse. (His first visit to the area was the day after Amy's death.) At the same time, while raising a daughter with a social conscience, he'd forgotten to instill a self-preservation instinct. It was only a matter of time before the broad social issue made itself known to him on more intimate terms. Until then, even the manís ideas about the death penalty had been abstract.

"You hold these convictions intellectually," he said, "If nothing had happened to Amy, weíd be opposed to the death penalty." For example, if it were someone elseís child

This fatherís brand of parenting stands in stark contrast to that of my Russian-born friend Florinaís father. When Florina was moving out of her parentsí Long Island house to live by herself in Manhattan, she found an apartment that suited her and was ready to write a check to the landlord when her father, grandfather, aunt and uncle came in like a vice squad, in time to wrestle the checkbook from her handsóhaving noted that it wasn't a doorman building. Florina told her dad if he didnít like it, he could find her another apartment himself. A week later he did, for the same money, plus a doorman.

The day after her murder, Amyís community organizer boyfriend, Adam Green, said, "If there is anything we can learn from this, we can use this to live our lives every day, very fully. She did. She was doing exactly what she wanted."

So was he: Green was having dinner at his parentsí home in Manhattan instead of escorting Amy home that night. Iíd settle for a lesson in walking your girlfriend home, come evening.

Amy had declined dinner, but normally, Green said, he would have walked her, since they lived only a block apart. (i.e., not because he felt it was his manís duty to do so, but because it wasnít inconvenient.)

I asked my husband what he would have done in Adamís place.

"Thereís nothing to talk about, because you wouldnít be living in that neighborhood," he answered.

"But say we lived there," I replied, "and you had to be at a dinner in the city."

"Iíd have taken you home and then gone to dinner."

"Youíd miss the dinner."

"Then you would have had to join us."

Green did call Amy late that night, but she wasnít home. "I had that thought that every New Yorker has when someone they think should be home by now isní t," he said, "but I put it out of my mind and went to sleep."

After he found out what happened, Green felt some regret, saying "If I had been there, it probably would not have happened." He cut the moment short, adding, "But thereís no point in going down that road right now. Itíll just drive me insane."

But there is a point. My guess is this didnít happen in his life so he could put it out of his mind the same week. Maybe if he forced himself to "go down that road" just a little longer, he wouldnít repeat the error next time.

At his daughterís wake, Larry Watkins wasnít in any mood to punish himself with guilty thoughts either. "Iíd give anything to have her back, but Iím very proud of the life she lived " he said. "Some people live a long, long time but never have a life," he added, seeming prematurely reconciled. "Amy lived a brief life, but she did something with it."

A friend of mine once held similar employment at the Legal Aid Society. She was frequently used as a body shield in physical disputes between her more depraved clients. She also received constant threats from the parents or spouses of those to whom she was so passionately committed to helping. We, her friends, respected her choice and admired her dedication to something she felt so strongly about. Still, we all breathed a sigh of relief when she changed profession.

Even the story of Lori Berenson, the young woman who moved to Peru, shacked up with terrorists and agitated against the government, has relevance here. Her permissive parents, who once let their daughter go to a high school senior prom when she was 13 because she was "mature for her age," raised no objections when she told them she was moving to Peru to write for an anti-establishment paper. In several interviews, the Berensons said they respected their daughterís choices and wouldnít dream of stifling her ambitions.

But if those close to us could practice greater vigilance, and parents remembered to be parents to their kids first and friends second, today Berenson might still be living in New York near her parents instead of rotting away in a dark, cold Peruvian prison cell, going blind and scratching at open sores on her face.

And Amyís dad could be enjoying her cooking and conversation even now.

JWR contributor Julia Gorin is a journalist and stand-up comic residing in Manhattan. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2000, Julia Gorin