The Scorekeeper



23rd St. & 2nd Ave., NY, NY 10010

Neighborhood: Murray Hill

One of the oddities of growing up in a big city like New York is that the discussion and anticipation of crime enters into everyday childhood rather unremarkably. In many ways it is the first real adult problem children are asked to deal with and conversation about murders in general were, by necessity, exceptionally frequent in my childhood, New York being quite a violent place in the 1970’s and early ‘80’s. In the sixth grade, for instance, our class was given an assignment to come up with a list of things we would tell the hostages who were about to be returned from Iran. The list was meant to be a re-cap of all the major world events that had taken place in the time they were gone but somehow all we came up with was a long list of local murders, thefts and attacks and had to be prompted to come up with some of the more positive world events. The most we could conjure was a summary of happy personal achievements like the long-awaited removal of extensive orthodontia.

In spite of this familiarity was lawlessness, the bizarre insistence on the part of a neighbor that I join him in his obsession with the Son of Sam murders left me unable to sleep or be without adult company for an entire year.

Lenny Wiseman and his wife Angela moved into an apartment on our floor sometime in the mid-seventies and it seemed to be only a matter of weeks before their presence, or at least, before Lenny’s, had our entire building in lockdown. Lenny, who was, shall we say, on the early side of evolution, was at least 6’3”, at least 250lbs. and spent at least two hours a day at the gym. Beautifully groomed, Lenny wore different variations of a polyester navy blue and white Adidas track suit and white canvas sun hat each and every day of his life. He wore a gold chain with a Star of David the size of a small Frisbee around his neck, a gold ring on each of his perfectly manicured hands and a heavy blanket of Jovan Musk. Angela, who also seemed not to work, left the house no more than twice a month but her relentless screaming at Lenny, and eventually, her children, made it feel as if she had set up camp in all of our living rooms. This started the night after they moved in and continued for almost twenty years.

New York apartment buildings often take on the patterns and dynamics of a small town with the residents of one floor gossiping about the residents of another and everyone knowing more than is healthy about everyone else. It seemed as if it was just a matter of days before Lenny earned the title of Town Crazy. Although he said he held a high government office and often talked about having lunch with the Mayor, Lenny seemed to be on vacation in perpetuity as he spent all day loitering in and around the building. To pass the time, and there was a lot of time to pass, he began acting as an unwanted concierge of sorts for the building. Interfering in overheard lobby conversations and keeping unnerving track of the comings and goings of residents, Lenny’s unwelcome suggestions and commentary on all our lives made him the most avoided occupant of the building.

Aside from his officiousness and astounding lack of maturity, his almost aggressive need for friendship with the building’s children prompted all our parents to limit, if not entirely forbid time spent with him. Although he clearly envisioned himself as the Boo Radley of the complex—no more than a misunderstood, friendly man who wanted nothing but the camaraderie of the building’s Under Ten Set, the residents saw him as an unwanted nuisance that no one could figure out how to shake. Had Lenny ever actually done anything sinister and justified everyone’s instincts, dealing with him might have been easier. That he did nothing concretely nefarious made everyone nuts.

Of course the problem with adults disliking someone, is that children, by reflex or defiance are instantly drawn to that person and Lenny was the perfect means by which to drive our parents insane. In New York, where most mothers work and most families eventually use the services of a nanny or full-time babysitter, children being handed over to the care of another is common enough that a day spent with Lenny could easily be covered with a small lie. (“Willow’s dad is taking us to Serendipity’s for lunch—I’ll be back at 4.” “Keisha’s au pair is taking us skating at Rockefeller Center. Yes, I have my gloves.”) While our parents thought we were out and about in the cultural wonderland they had carefully chosen for our upbringing, we were all at Lenny’s country club in New Jersey playing shuffleboard and having long buffet lunches—all at Lenny’s expense.

The problem was that after a while we tired of him as well. It wasn’t long before the country club lost its glamour and Lenny’s orchestration of our time there began to wear on all of us. His insistence that we complete a certain number of laps in the pool or hit the ball a certain number of times across the tennis net made these excursions start to feel like a weekly boot camp and so we used the skills that got us into the club in the first place to get us out. We let ourselves get caught. This not only relieved us of the obligation to go but got Lenny in trouble as well, which, by the time we were done with him, was just as exciting as going to the club.

Apart and aside from Lenny’s peculiar personality was the fact that he was deaf. Although Lenny could speak quite well, it was clear that unless he was looking straight at someone’s lips, he was not able to hear them. In the months that he was taking us to the club he taught us sign language, usually while driving (yes, driving). Not enough to have terribly sophisticated conversations but enough to be able to converse without actually speaking. While it wowed our parents and the kids at school, more importantly it established a line and precedent of communication between us that could not be understood by our parents. It was this link that at least, in part, gave Lenny the opening for involving me in the strange obsession we would eventually share.

I was in the lobby of the building waiting for the friend I walked to school with when Lenny approached me with an open New York Post. Gleefully he summarized the Post’s report of what was turning out to be a series of murders in the surrounding boroughs, relaying both the circumstances of the events as well as the number of shots it took to kill each victim. With a slight laugh he signed “S-o-n-o-f-S-a-m” and pointed to the paper. A few weeks later my own nanny and I passed him on the street and as he walked by me he held up five fingers and quickly signed “L-a-s-t-n-i-g-h-t”.

Although Lenny had involved all the building’s children in his previous exploits, he now concentrated his efforts solely on me. Lenny had known for some time what he had in me fear-wise and his coverage of this current crime was actually not the first. He had started by chance with a re-cap of the Manson murders (an event Lenny had no idea had taken place the day I was born) over a lunch at the club. As he elaborated on the bloodshed and the unusual level of gore found at the scene, I felt the beginnings of small, irrational tears begin to form. Suddenly my eyes locked with his. From that moment on he reported to me every conceivable act of violence, mayhem or tragedy he could come up with.

When Lenny left for a month to see his daughter from his first marriage in Michigan, I began to relax. With no one to yell at, Angela’s cries came to a halt and all that could be heard from the apartment was the unusually loud screams of game show contestants. Even with Lenny gone, Angela kept the volume up full blast on the television, radio and phone. All was right with the world until one morning when our elevator delivered my father and me to the ground floor of the apartment building. When the little window in our elevator lined up with the window of the elevator of the lobby I heard my father quietly whisper, “Oh shit.” He instinctively hit the buttons of several random floors in a futile effort to get the elevator not to open and instead go back up, but it was too late. I knew instantly that Lenny was back.

“That’s fifteen,” he said as the elevator doors opened and my father and I negotiated our way around him. He was clearly pleased and exhilarated by the thought that this ghoulish milestone had been reached in his absence. His New York Post cheat sheet was folded under his arm along with a betting form and as he spoke he jabbed at his front teeth with a toothpick, occasionally sucking back in whatever the toothpick had loosened. As if he had never left, this Provocateur Extraordinaire was back and ready to do business.

While he certainly made no effort to sugarcoat the details of any crime, the Son of Sam killings set off in Lenny a creative and almost literary spark that trumped all previous enthusiasm and it was for the strangest of reasons. His first son, who was born a year or two after Lenny and Angela moved in and just before the start of the murders was named Sam and this seemed to give Lenny the impression that he had some kind of deeper understanding of the events than most people and therefore, an even greater right to expound on them. He spoke endlessly of what he felt was a link between his family and these events. Like most of Lenny’s lines of reasoning, little of this made sense. For starters, what adult in his right mind would want his newborn child to be associated in any way with a serial killer? Working under the theory that any publicity was better than no publicity, Lenny bragged about this the same way that other residents bragged about their children getting into law school or getting bat mitzvahed.

The other glaring problem was that the Son of Sam, was the Son of Sam, while Lenny’s Sam was Sam, the Son of Lenny. The name association was almost right, but yet also completely wrong. It was like someone named Scott trying to claim royal blood by citing Mary, Queen of Scots as a connection. The sounds added up but the meanings didn’t come close.

The third and final absurdity in all this was that Sam wasn’t even his son’s real name. With their very public arguments and the fact that Angela had to scream to be heard by Lenny no matter what her mood, it was no secret that the Wisemans had been deeply, almost violently divided over the baby’s name. Angela all but threatened divorce if Lenny didn’t agree to name the baby Daniel and although Lenny finally agreed to legally name him that, he continued to call it Sam throughout the pregnancy and into the first three years of the baby’s life. Number Two Son followed in short order and finally Lenny’s dream of having a child named Sam was fulfilled. As though they had passed down the name Sam along with the onesies and old shoes Sam #1 (whose name now reverted back to Daniel) had outgrown, they legally named the second baby Sam (even though the spree was over by then and the association not as obvious). Why Angela was so opposed to calling the first baby Sam and not the second could be attributed to several things: Exhaustion, resignation or perhaps even the beginning of a shared interest in acquiring a certain level of fame for her child regardless of how inappropriate the form.

The killings had started when Daniel/Sam was about a year old and when they did, Lenny started an “I told you so” crusade with Angela that could be heard in the building lobby, the elevators and through the paper thin walls of the apartments. Even though his child’s legal name had done nothing to deter him from publicly connecting him to the killings he seemed to want it publicly understood that it was Angela who had objected to the Sam idea, as though Lenny was an underestimated genius whose prophetic brilliance had been extinguished by the less instinctive. His “what might have been” campaign continued until the birth of Sam/Sam.

That the killer had not been found seemed to elevate Lenny’s role from reporter to representative, although which side he was taking was not always clear. About once a week Lenny would find me somewhere in the building—the bicycle storage room, the playground or the building’s community room and give me a run down of each incident. “Only 20 years old…”, “Fought him as hard as he could…” and “Begging to die…” were oft-repeated descriptions. As fascinated as Lenny was with the deaths, he seemed to be even more taken with the victims who lived. As though these were individuals capable of surviving a nuclear holocaust, Lenny lauded their will to live with phrases like “At first the doctors gave him a 2% chance of survival…” and “…clinging to life at such-and-such hospital…” Lenny kept especially good track of what hospitals the victims ended up in, although I am unaware if he ever actually went to see any of them as he said he intended.

Somewhere towards the end of the summer of ’77, Lenny began to express vigilante fantasies about being the hero in this seemingly unsolvable drama. While he had no problem scaring me to death with the details, he vowed that if ever given the opportunity, he would calmly slash David Berkowitz’s throat and toss his head in the East River and his body in the Hudson. “One over there, the other over there,” Lenny would say with arms outstretched, pointing both east and west, almost Jesus-like in his stance. It didn’t seem to matter or interest him that my parents might be standing by while he explained his plan of attack. They acted a neither a deterrent nor audience as Lenny seemed interested only in telling his plan to me. When the idea was first hatched, I thought perhaps he was trying to indicate that he was going to protect me, especially since he’d made such a point of letting me know that all the girl victims had hair like mine. But when he began to describe in detail what a slashed throat looked like and how he might feel while slashing it, it was clear that altruism might not be at the heart of all this. The more elaborate the plans became, the less difference there was between what Lenny wanted to do and what the Son himself was actually doing. Only Lenny’s presumably good intentions separated one from the other, although whether the only agenda was benevolence seemed open for discussion.

What magnified my own preoccupation with the murders was the lack of worry other kids felt about them. This was the situation from earliest childhood when pretty much anything with a potential element of fear was concerned. As always seemed to be the case at story time at the library or later at slumber parties when someone told a ghost story, the other children seemed to accept the pastness and even implausibility of whatever tale was being told. They seemed to understand that these were events that were either over and done with or never really happened in the first place, whereas I, on the other hand, had no perspective on what was even theoretically possible.

For example, it mattered not to me that my chances of being eaten by a bear in New York were slim, or that my lack of a red hood and sick grandmother might exclude me from acting as the victim of that particular story. I felt that I was just as susceptible to this crime as any other and I had better not get caught unaware. That the fear of the building’s other children over the Son of Sam seemed to ebb and flow while mine soared exponentially by the day further convinced me that I was somehow singled out in all this.

Of course, this time, I wasn’t completely alone in my fear. Older kids going to discos traveled in packs and young women started wearing wigs so as not to resemble the prototype of the killer’s victim, but at least these people avoided reasonable situations. My madness, on the other hand, had no discernable rationale and I made no distinction between places he might be and places he couldn’t possibly show up. To me, he was everywhere—hidden among the children in the school cafeteria, shopping for produce at the supermarket and naturally, where every self-respecting serial killer is sure to be seen, at every ballet recital. As though I were trapped in an amusement park haunted house, I was forever anticipating that the Son of Sam would pop out from any corner at any time and I began to think of my own potential involvement in these crimes as not a question of if, but when.

The morning after the day David Berkowitz was caught, I opened the door of our apartment to go roller skating and found Lenny standing with The Post in his hands rather than rolled under his arm as it usually was. The look of profound confusion on his face was one a reasonable person might associate more with someone who had just found out about the murders rather than the arrest of the killer and I knew something big had happened.

His voice was down to a whisper as though whatever he was about to say was more than he could take. “It was a parking ticket. They caught him from a parking ticket. Are they shittin’ us?” he asked me with a conspiratorial tone that implied this ending did not live up to the crescendo he’d envisioned and seemed to reflect his disappointment at having had no part in the final capture.

His look of deflation reversed our adult/child roles and put me in the odd position of consoling him over the killer’s apprehension which was especially strange because for me, this was the ultimate answered prayer. All the worry, anxiety, the total preoccupation, the refusal to go to Brooklyn where our dentist was, the gingerly stepping around corners just in case, the daily updates in the elevator—all suddenly, miraculously over. My hand was beginning to sweat slightly as it grasped the doorknob. As Lenny went on about the killer’s stupidity in getting caught with such a lack of drama, I planted my feet into the ground like a track star readying for a race so that I could run upstairs and check the television the moment he left.

David Berkowitz has now been in prison for twenty-eight years and, I recently discovered one night during a week-long bought of insomnia, has his own semi-literate website. Like most serial killers with time on their hands, Berkowitz has found Jesus Christ and has even written a book about it. (Isn’t it fascinating that no one in prison ever seems to find Judaism?)

Although he is not allowed computer access, e-mails can be sent to him through the website. Exhausted and plied with anti-histamines, I almost sent one and then thought better of it, remembering all those daytime talk shows with segments like “I Write to a Serial Killer”. Shows I always watch and think “What is she thinking?!?!?” as the pen pals of people like Erik and Lyle Menendez try unsuccessfully to convince Maury Povich or Montel Williams of their new friend’s underestimated gentility. Even if I did write I have no idea what I would say anyway, “Thanks for the memories?” Besides, in truth it wasn’t Berkowitz who scared me—it was Lenny and although I am an adult and Lenny, Angela and the Sam’s all moved out after the couple’s divorce in the early ‘90’s, every time I go back home and enter my parents’ building I find myself as I was in the beginning. Slowly turning every corner, checking the mirror in every elevator and getting short of breath at the delivery of every New York Post. —————————————–

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