The Bystander Effect & Synchronicity: A Tale of Two 28-Year-Olds and Some Crucial Phone Calls
Fifty-Two Years Ago Today Almost 40 People ‘Witnessed’ a Murder, Did Not Call the Police — and My Grandpa Lead the Investigation
I remember clearly — and I too hesitated to call. It was spring semester 2006 in SOP3004 (Social Psychology), a freshman among mostly upper classmen sitting in stadium seating class at the University of Florida. I only qualified because I passed the AP Psychology test in high school — and I was the official class note-taker because, well, I absolutely loved the subject.
Perhaps it was in my blood.
It was early 2006 and we were learning about an intriguing case from 1964: a woman brutally stabbed one evening — at least a half dozen times in three attacks — and several ‘witnesses’ who did nothing: no one calling 911 let alone running over to help.
It was wildly ‘random’ and equally unfortunate, but also intriguing to the public and academia is that so many neighbors apparently heard the screams, and even wondered, yet took no action; different recounts of history tell of one onlooker calling the police minutes later, many who were apprehensive to attract attention as former Holocaust victims, and one claim that Kitty’s friend held her as she lay dying. However, the overarching idea that gained media attention is that the witnesses heard havoc and essentially ‘assumed someone else would call’.
One of the most known and notorious psychological phenomenon — recounted in textbooks, translated across the globe, made into films and mulled over in classes to this very day (see scores of videos on YouTube) — happened that night and it is now famously known as ‘the bystander effect’.
The teacher mentioned that it happened in Queens and I was pretty sure that nearly all my family was living in New York at the time. In fact, my Grandpa was in the NYPD; I was mindful of this because I grew up with his book, ‘Chief!’ displayed prominently in my house. I read sporadic sections of the 500+ pages but went years without knowing the contents almost at all, and could not exactly recount hearing any stories from family.
I had always loved mysteries though — Matlock, Murder, She Wrote and Diagnosis Murder were among my favorite shows — and it was a chilling story to hear during class; so afterward, I couldn’t run outside into the scorching sun and open my flip phone fast enough — in a time when ‘Googling’ was not quite ubiquitous — to call my mother.
Her words were something to the effect of “Yes, Pop had something to do with that case.” Little could I have guessed just how much from her air of nonchalance. I should have heard utter excitement on the other end . Slightly bewildered, my feelings, too, soon plateaued. But not for long.
Meanwhile, I also had the greatest source of all to call —Pop: the Chief himself.
By this day, I was 18, and had grown up living only one hour south of Pop— albeit one boring, seemingly eternal stretch of highway in South Florida — but our relationship at times nonexistent. He came to my preschool, maybe elementary school graduation and we spent at least a few holidays together and a wedding. As any other kid, I was not exactly going to take any initiative to reach out to my grandfather.
Not to mention, my landline was used to prank call boys while dreaming of ‘Leo’ from Titanic, while Pop was already long distance by telephone standards and reality — mostly an intimidating figure in my living room foyer — a man who famously did not reciprocate President Nixon’s smile — “It is very hard to smile at Albert Seedman when he is not smiling at you,” Peter Hellman once wrote in The New York Times.
I had a disconnect. I did not know this man — staring discernibly unto the camera, poignant eyes ready to pierce through the hard cover. My memories were of a man who resembled him but whose grays had completely taken over his hair and brows; never a suit but maybe a polo and some golfing pants; never a cigar but instead a two full rows of teeth smiling ear to ear as he let out jokes and impressions galore.
Further illustrating my naivete, I thought everyone’s grandpa wrote a book, or looked like the man on the cover (just as I thought every man had a birthmark on his leg because my dad did; I am sure this has a name in psychology!?). The Chief was of course more lighthearted with his family, but as many families can relate, there was room to be closer, and I easily didn’t realize the meaning of family so young. I had instead watched the years go by, and I can attribute it to immature, shy and probably awkward, Clueless-the-Movie-loving— and ironically, clueless-I-was — teen years.
That day, Pop was 87 and probably on the couch next to his wife, watching the PGA Tour — as he had finally put down the clubs himself once and for all — in his ‘modest’ West Palm Beach, Florida home that day. Surely he would have welcomed such a call from his granddaughter.
Without realizing at the time, as the details about Kitty flowed out of the teachers mouth, so it all began. That moment was the catalyst to establish a relationship with my grandfather.
Because, as time does, it made me grow.
Because sometime between then and the following summer, I couldn’t hide behind my excuses longer.
I made the call.
And like flowers on a glorious Spring day, our relationship blossomed. I visited Pop and Henny (his wife) on the way to and from Gainesville sometimes (ever grateful to a couple friends who joined such as Caryn and Philip).
In fact, in the Summer of 2007 I finished reading THE BOOK. I vividly remember walking around my apartment for hours on the phone with my Grandpa those days. He told me stories, and I listened intently — the greatest lessons I’ve learned come from those days. Then, a good 90 years old, Pop and Henny took the four hour road trip to attend my college graduation.
Over the next few years we spent days going around town, exercising at the gym, sharing meals together, playing with the computer and iPad and I even surprised him on his birthday in New York City. There weren’t many holidays that I didn’t spend with him.
It was special connection.
Our phone calls — the glue.
I soon learned first hand that if any of the late night whiskey’s he had at 240 Centre Street, or the cigar puffs he took while solving the most infamous crimes in history shortened his days surely years were added on by his laughter, so real and contagious.
In this way, Kitty’s death is not in vain: because I know my Grandpa.
Actually, we became best friends — 68 years apart.
I love looking back at old pictures of my Grandpa.
But when I get to May 2013, I look and look away, just as fast. It pains me. It does not cease to bring tears to my eyes.
I rejoice in my ability to read a couple pages of my own words in front of an adoring congregation, but when I look at the pictures of the police officers and others in uniform saluting him — I have none.
Chief Pulaski said, “Alison. I’m just a chief. Your grandpa was THE Chief.”
Pulaski made the procession happen and saluted my Grandpa right along with the regular detectives.
My Grandpa’s funeral was held only miles from where Kitty took her last breath.
A building on a beautiful tree lined street, the neighborhood of Kew Gardens still faces the turmoil brought on by such a horrific tragedy, more than fifty years later.
I hadn’t taken note of the sun shining in the picture above, but in looking at it now I like to think that it was Kitty. I can’t help but think about what a free spirit she is after reading about her and seeing the picture of her on the hood of a truck!
Alas, I have found the picture: me standing in front of the building where it all took place. Where my mother — the only daughter of Chief Seedman — who so graciously researched the location of after the funeral, took me. In a somber black dress I stand, wearing Pop’s watch — which he handed me in the hospital and that ticks like the rhythm of a heart — on Austin Street.
I have gotten to know a few current and former NYPD members by virtue of social media. A couple years after this was taken, I had sent one of the detectives with whom I am close, the same picture as above; days later he recreated it, same angle and all, of him and his nephew — wearing my city’s baseball cap, to boot. I was deeply moved and continue to be, knowing that he considers my Grandpa his idol.
Actually, he also let me know the perpetrator of this crime is one of the longest serving inmates in New York State prisons— serving a twenty-year-to-life sentence — and in November was denied parole for the 18th time.
Just the same, I didn’t wake up today knowing it was the anniversary of Kitty’s last day, but it wasn’t hard to find out after a couple minutes on Facebook this afternoon.
It is evident that the legacy of Kitty Genovese and Chief Seedman will continue to be told and heard — by the families affected, by academia, by the public in awe.
And that gives me solace .
There are so many affected indirectly and directly — answers only the universe holds — about the legacy of both Kitty Genovese and Albert Seedman.
Ironically, the lack of phone calls that cold, March, New York night led to hundreds (between me and my grandpa), like clockwork — and sacrosanct at that.
We all have our own journey. Kitty’s brother, Bill, decided to serve in Vietnam War as a result of losing his sister.
Within just a few weeks of losing my Grandpa, I signed up, earned my Yoga Teacher Certification, and taught a class — all by the end of June 2013.
And now I know the significance — and the synchronicity, if you will — of the truck pulling a dozen golf carts as I drove away from the hospital that fateful day.
It’s really other-worldly how alive someone’s spirit can be — if you want it to be. For me, my Grandfather’s essence started strong, and as I continue to grow more in tune, I feel him often.
I wrote in November later that year:
I miss you in a different way
because I knew to hug and hold you
I miss you in a lovely way
because I have those hugs to hold
I am eternally grateful to anyone who has ever or will ever share the legacy of or hold respect for my Grandpa as a human in or for his life’s work.
Ever grateful to Peter Hellman (co-author) and a few others from whom I am so fortunate to feel the love (Mary Ellen, Alan) as they refresh Chief’s legacy so often.
To anyone who was merely just amazed by a story — even if just for a short time — because one second is a moment in time and that means the world: friends who have retold it (Jackie, Rob, Jerry), New Yorkers, Shomrim Society members, Facebook fans, the 10–13, the NYPD (Sergeant Bill, Sergeant Y), a number of crime shows, films and documentaries to tweets, blogs and news articles. Anyone who stood in line, asked for an autograph, read the book.
As with Kitty, keep Chief Seedman and his persona alive; keep the husband, the dad, the uncle, the friend, the idol you have in him — alive. I’ll keep the Grandpa alive. And — do the same for yours.
I didn’t get home this evening with any idea I would write this, nor into the light of day — and without a yawn. But I’m so glad it found its place on my journey, and so freely and serenely — as if in meditation: A set of meaningful coincidences. Subconscious intention. Diving intervention. Surefire synchronicity.
If you want to see it, if you want to feel it — you can.
I had written, “I will make you so proud,” on a paper to my Grandpa in the hospital bed. So I hope that even just one person gets my message — which I shared with the professional sports team I led in yoga the other day, and that is:
Wake up. Do not be a bystander.
Do not be a bystander of your own life. And do not be a bystander of your family history.
Ask questions. Be brave. Get involved. Make calls. Take pictures. Write it down. Take it all in.
I think it was my Grandpa guiding my fingers today. And in a way — Kitty, too. For I had watched these thoughts for more than two and a half years, but today I was not a bystander — I held the pen.
- Follow twitter.com/NYPDChief
- Like facebook.com/NYPDChief
- Stop by Amazon to learn more: amazon.com/Fifty-Years-After-Kitty-Genovese-ebook/dp/B00IOVUSNG
- Chief! is also available for purchase: amazon.com/Chief-Peter-Hellman-ebook/dp/B0050VRO8K
Comments: Feel free to send your thoughts for the amazing souls Chief Seedman and Kitty Genovese. Nowadays, I am able to Google my grandpa a bit more, but every word you can share is read and deeply appreciated.
Sharing: A friend in college with whom I shared my story about reconnecting said I had inspired him to do the same but that unfortunately it was too late. If you find value in any part of this post, please do not hesitate for one second to reach out and share it. Especially if it’s with your grandchildren.