Light on the Dark Side

A Meaningful Life

by L.J. Davis, with an introduction by Jonathan Lethem
New York Review Books, 214 pp., $14.95 (paper)
Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times/Redux
L. J. Davis at his former town house, Brooklyn, April 2009

One Manhattan mid-morning in the spring of 1967, I heard the crack of a gun going off below, along the broad reach of Central Park West. I jumped up from the table where I was working on my second novel and looked down five stories to the street, on the other side of which breathed the quiet greenery of Central Park. What I saw was a man lying in the middle of the street attempting to raise himself up from the waist, like a seal, collapsing, trying again, then falling flat.

At the same moment that I looked down I saw Billy the doorman glance up at me. We had both witnessed the murder.

Shortly after, two detectives arrived at the door of my apartment. Billy had reported to the police that there was another witness, me.

The detectives drove me to the local precinct on 102nd Street where I was questioned for nearly two hours by a third detective. In the course of the searching interrogation I was led to recall, bit by bit, watching the victim rise up and fall, seeing out of the corner of an eye a green sedan slowly driving by and from a backseat window an arm thrust out its hand holding a gun and firing a second time.

That evening when Martin, my husband, came home from teaching I reported what I had seen. “Oh God!” he said. “We’ll have to move out of here.” Later: “Maybe Brooklyn.”

I dreaded the long commute such a move would mean for my two sons and me. I had managed to get them full scholarships at the Ethical Culture’s school in Riverdale, Fieldston. I taught in Ethical’s elementary school located many blocks down Central Park West, at 63rd Street.

The neighborhood we were living in was a slum in the midst of which our apartment house thrust up high in the air like a great watchtower. In the late evenings, hanging out of the bedroom window, I liked to watch what was going on down below on 104th Street. I had once seen, less far down, an elderly woman being mugged on the gravel-strewn roof of a tenement across the way that a century ago had been someone’s mansion—a thin youth grabbed her purse, knocked her down, and departed in no great haste, in full view. Often I saw ambulances parking to pick up the wounded or the dead, the vehicles’ roofs emblazoned with a red cross. I listened fascinated to drunken conversations echoing upward. So much happened after dark that I began to see the street as a movie set, distance flattening horror as it usually does, turning the suffering of others into a troubling but nevertheless absorbing spectacle.

The Saturday after the shooting, I drove across…

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