COLUMN

The ‘wilding’ of the vanities

Allan Fotheringham May 8 1989
COLUMN

The ‘wilding’ of the vanities

Allan Fotheringham May 8 1989

The ‘wilding’ of the vanities

COLUMN

ALLAN FOTHERINGHAM

Every first-time visitor to New York is struck by one thing. It is the blasé nature of the inhabitants. The pedestrians on Fifth Avenue, intent on their pursuit of Mammon, seem to be willing to walk over their mothers to make it across an intersection. Everyone is in a hurry, everyone is rude and everyone seems hardened and cynical—the price of living in the overcrowded, dirty and dangerous town that never sleeps. New York, in short, seems the most unshockable city in the world.

That’s why it is news when the blasé residents are actually stunned and outraged, jolted out of their head-down pursuit of their dubious goals. The case of the wolf pack and the jogger has done that. For once, New Yorkers seem in genuine rage. Mayor Ed Koch, a poseur, calls for return of the death penalty. Editorial writers pontificate in ponderous terms. The letters to the editor seethe with anger.

A gang of marauding kids roam Central Park, stoning bicyclists and beating up on joggers. They are, they explain to police later, “wilding”—suddenly a new word in the New York dictionary, simply going crazy just to get some kicks. A mob of them attacks a 28-yearold woman who is jogging alone. The kids, as young as 14 and the oldest only 17, punch her, beat her with stones and bricks and a 12-inch metal pipe, gag her, gang-rape her and leave her in the April mud bleeding profusely, comatose. It is more than three hours before she is discovered by passers-by. If she lives, she may have suffered permanent brain damage.

The contrast could not be more extreme. The wolf pack is from Harlem, which fringes on the north end of the huge, beautiful, leafy breath of air that the park gives to the vertical life of Manhattan. They are, of course, black and Hispanic. The woman, of course, is white. She is the epitome of the marvel of this century—the liberated, educated, professional female who is more free than any man. She went to Wellesley, one of the most expensive and private of the private schools for girls. She graduated from esteemed Yale and was an investment banker

at the prestigious Salomon Brothers firm on Wall Street.

So the rage. The contrast, naturally, increases the rage. But New York, the richest city in the world, emphasizes and exaggerates the contrast. On Fifth Avenue, which is supposed to be the exemplar of society’s display of opulence, blind men stand with their tin cups of pencils. Crippled men beg for quarters. Scruffy men play saxophone in hopes for droppings in the music case before them. Take a daughter to Manhattan; observe the astonishment on her face.

When apprehended and taken to a police station, the adolescent animals of the wolf pack whistled at policewomen, joked and sang rap songs in their cells. One of them said the attack was “fun.” There was no remorse, no guilt. This is New York.

In Manhattan these days, there is a feeling that they are filming The Invasion of the

Stretch Limos. Outside every major hotel, outside the swish restaurants, outside the theatres, there are the stretch white limousines, seemingly large enough to contain the entire New York Knickerbockers basketball team. Windows darkened to shield who-knows-what hidden pleasures, they display to all passing— Harlem kids or whatever—that here is opulence, publicly displayed, that mere mortals will never achieve.

The leather trench coats, soft as butter, sashay down the streets. The mink, reaching to the ankle, mince past the blind man and the crippled man and the out-of-tune sax man. Gold glints from necklaces and from the wrist and reflects in the gold facade of the Trump Tower, where the town’s most conspicuous vulgarian has erected a monument to himself, just down the street from the next blind beggar.

There is too much contrast in New York, too much incitement for the wolf pack who want to get their anger out on someone—anyone—and set like animals on some innocent woman who has the world before her. Tom Wolfe, in his brilliant The Bonfire of the Vanities, laid it all out in a manner worthy of Dickens: a Yuppie broker going through hell because a wrong turn resulted in a hitand-run in the black dregs of the Bronx.

This is the town where an anonymous phone call from a tipster in Central America led to the arrest of Wall Street trader Dennis Levine, who then ratted on Ivan Boesky, who then ratted on Michael Milken, the junk bond king at Drexel Burnham Lambert, who turns out to have made, in 1987, not only more than Drexel’s entire profit but more than the whole McDonald’s hamburger world chain. His annual take: $500 million.

It’s insane, it’s sick, as sick as the wolf pack that went out hunting one night because their lives seemed bereft of thrills. Because of the Reagan budget cuts in the social safety net, thousands of borderline cases in mental homes have been released to become street people in Manhattan, sleeping on the heating grates that exude steam alongside the curbs where the white stretch limos sit with the sybarites inside.

The Mafia is not the real problem in New York. The real problem is not the disparity between the haves and the have-nots, but that the disparity is so apparent, so flung in the faces every day of those on the bottom end who eventually, not being treated as humans, decide to act as animals. Francis Albert Sinatra sings, “New York/New York/if you can make it here/you can make it anywhere.” Who wants to?