By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
Together, James and Michelle see a lot of bands, predominantly of the DIY strain, and James, lean and tall, looks the part. A recognizable Northern Brooklyn fixture, he's the kind of guy who cuts a memorable silhouette along Bedford Avenue, standing with an intimidating posture, lips that look permanently puckered, and chestnut hair that's marvelously teased into a rock-star bramble. Michelle is diminutive and blond with fair skin, a huge and toothy smile, and cornsilk-blue eyes. The 2005 School of Visual Arts grad is also a talented artist with a finely honed sense of gallows humor, and she's been known to exhibit a trio of severed-head paper sculptures. As her boss, the painter Marilyn Minter, puts it, "She looks like Alice in Wonderland, but she's a very dark little girl."
That night in October 2010, the Bushwick couple decided to meet a friend at the Williamsburg DIY venue where trash-punk art-stomp fivesome Golden Triangle were still scheduled to play one of the space's many performance compartments, a gallery area called Live With Animals. Michelle remembers tossing her purse in her bike's basket. Hopping on their bicycles, the New Jersey native remembers shouting with James to determine what route they would take. She picked Kent Avenue because she trusted the road's wide bike lane. Then, BOOM, she's in an ambulance and everything's out-of-focus.
"All the sudden, there was this horrible pain—I didn't even know what was going on—this horrible pain, happening all over. I was screaming over and over, like, 'Call my mom!' I was reciting my parents' phone number—it was one of the only phone numbers I had memorized in my head. So I was just screaming that number over and over again. One of the ambulance guys was like, 'I think something might be wrong with her.' " Her outfit, a new dress she'd only worn twice, would be cut off and later handed to her mother in a bag. The package smelled bad.
In retrospect, she knows they did MRIs and CAT scans and made her drink some weird dye to make sure her internal organs were functioning. (They were.) But after a morphine-hazy week, things at the beginning are blurry. After her leg operation, she underwent therapy to learn how to get off the toilet and to bathe. For two and a half weeks, nurses came and wiped her off. She wouldn't learn to walk again until March.
Hospital snapshots provide a grim time capsule of the aftermath. In one image, James holds up his shirt to reveal a cloud-shaped bruise spread across his torso's left side that's a deeper purple than McDonaldland's Grimace. A profile shot of James's facial cuts and scrapes—marks that seem applied with watercolors—illustrates his stitched jawline, a gash as unruly as Frankenstein's forehead wound.
Michelle, meanwhile, looks like a prisoner of her own skin. Staples unite her scalp. Her forehead, normally a sprinkle of freckles, is swollen into a leaky jellyfish-like lump. Chin encased in a neck brace, she has violet raccoon eyes. Skin layers have been torn away into wince-inducing blotches on her heel, her hip, her knee, and she displays them, one by one.
"She was a mess," admits Minter, who visited Michelle in the hospital frequently, sent her balloons and delivered Dean & DeLuca sweets. "She lost all this weight. Her hair was falling out. She was a skeleton of what I knew."
"There were moments when she was saying that she loves me, but she doesn't think she's going to make it," James recalls solemnly. To cheer her up, he made her a sign that read "I [HEART] YOU AND THINK U ARE PRETTY." "It almost seemed like it. I've never seen anyone in that much pain personally. It seemed like something from the movies, like when you watch war movies," he pauses. "That was rough. That was very rough."
When Michelle finally left the hospital, after three weeks and change, James and his friends would realize that the cops weren't doing very much to help the case. So he and his friends resorted to their own grassroots-campaigning efforts, plastering Brooklyn lamp poles and local businesses and Facebook profiles with flyers of Michelle's unrecognizably puffy face—bandaged and bloody and bruised, stuffed into a Stormtrooper-like neck brace—begging for eyewitnesses. Conte was one of the four people who got in touch. He didn't get the license-plate number or see the driver, but remembers a girl that night who saw the car. "I think she even saw the person inside really quickly. I guess the police talked to her?"
That Saturday, he also recalls someone beside James wondering if they should get Michelle's mangled bike. "I said, 'No, leave it there,' thinking they'll maybe do an investigation or something." He pauses. "I guess that's a joke."
The NYPD complaint report identifies a 1990 Nissan Maxima as the vehicular culprit. The document also confirms the car was later found nearby the scene, on Banker Street between Norman and Wythe avenues. Turns out that automobile was registered to a Greenpoint address on the corner of Dupont Street and Manhattan Avenue, about a 15-minute walk away from the hit-and-run intersection: a big white-brick apartment building where the foyer-door lock is always broken and a first-floor air conditioner is secured in place with a plastic Folgers tub.