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Statues at a Bus Stop

The letter from Marnie began, “The victim lay struggling like a baby bird in a blood-soaked nest of red-green grass. . . .”

I don’t get many letters that start that way. Most of them just say, “Martinez, this time you’ve gone too far. . . .”

They usually want to know if I’m gay because I anguish over AIDS, if I’m a Communist because I protest police violence or if I’m a satanist because I’m a skeptic.

A gay, fellow-traveling, devil-worshiping grandfather. Right. That’s me. Next question?

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The letter from Marnie was compelling. She was out taking pictures near West L.A. College one day when she found herself trapped in a scene of surrealistic violence.

She remembers the sun was high and bright, and the flags of the college fluttered like pennants in a parade. About 30 people, some of them students, waited at a bus stop.

Two young men came down the street from her right. Marnie wrote, “The guys were facing each other and seemed, at first, to be dancing . . . spinning around, side-stepping, zig-zagging, pulling apart, coming back together . . . “

But what appeared friendly turned abruptly and unexplicably hostile. The sidewalk ballet became open-handed sparring, and the sparring closed-fisted battering.

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“One guy was stronger,” Marnie wrote. “His fists pummeled and bashed the other one’s face and head, knocking him down.”

A third man appeared from nowhere, yelling “Kill him!” and joined the fight. “Now two guys were kicking and smashing the guy that was already down. . . .”

At the bus stop, no one moved.

That’s what got to her.

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“Some were looking the other way,” Marnie wrote. “One girl munched an apple. Why weren’t their eyes wide and panicky and their mouths gaping?”

She asks: “What’s going on here?”

Marnie isn’t her real name. She’s terrified that whoever was doing the fighting will seek her out if they discover who she is. I told her that was unlikely. She wasn’t convinced.

It was all so strange and murderous, she reasoned, why wouldn’t they be capable of going after a middle-aged woman with a camera who saw it all?

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“The victim was repeatedly being kicked in his stomach, kidneys and back. Four iron fists were looping the air, ripping and bludgeoning his head from ear to ear, chopping and hacking where his face had been. . . .”

But no one at the bus stop moved.

One could argue it all happened so quickly that there was little time to gauge the danger, make a decision and react. Maybe so, Marnie would say later. It was just that even their faces were stone.

There was no horror in their expressions, not even surprise.

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Marnie herself was in a state of panic. The thought popped into her head, Take pictures! The camera was out of film. She tried to reload, but couldn’t. Her brain was on fire, her hands all thumbs.

Then it was over.

The incident ended as suddenly as it had begun. A car pulled up and its male occupant grabbed the victim, shoved him in the front seat and sped off. The attackers stared after the car, grumbled and left.

Marnie wrote, “The crowd was still frozen around the bus stop. The girl who had been munching the apple tossed the core into the street.

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“Why weren’t people banding together in little huddles and talking about what had just happened, the way strangers do at a fire?”

Again: “What’s going on here?”

She asked the same question later in her Westside apartment. Memories of the beating flashed through her mind like scenes from a war.

To exorcise them, she put them down on paper and sent a copy to me.

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The victim lay struggling like a baby bird in a blood-soaked nest. . . .”

“A police car came and went,” Marnie said to me. She’s a petite, attractive woman with the nervous mannerisms of a bird. “No one seemed interested. It was like nothing had ever happened.”

What’s going on here?

We’re afraid, Marnie. That’s what’s going on. I mean, we are scared to death. It isn’t just a question anymore of getting involved. We stopped doing that a long time ago.

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Now we don’t even want to know what’s going on. Reality overwhelms and the brain short-circuits.

We turn from the sight, block out the sounds and hope that whatever howls in the darkness won’t reach us. We survive, even when someone else doesn’t.

Empathy fades in America, Marnie. When it dies, we’ll bury it here.

Those statues at the bus stop were simply protecting themselves. See no violence, hear no violence . . . and no violence exists. It’s as simple as that.

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And it terrifies me.


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