Bernhard Goetz: Notes From Underground

“On December 22, 1984, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, Bernie Goetz boarded a southbound number 2 Seventh Avenue IRT train at 14th Street and his life changed forever. So did the lives of Darrell Cabey, Troy Canty, James Ramseur, and Barry Allen.”


The slow and tedious processes of justice brought Bernhard Hugo Goetz last week to a fifth-floor courtroom at 111 Centre Street and there, at least, the poor man was safe. Out in the great scary city, the demons of his imagination roamed freely; across the street, many of them were locked away in the cages of The Tombs. But here at the defense table, flanked by his lawyers, protected by a half-dozen armed court officers, the room itself separated by metal detectors from the anarchy of the city, Goetz looked almost serene.

By design or habit, he was dressed as an ordinary citizen: pink cotton shirt and jeans over the frail body, steel-rimmed glasses sliding down the long sharp nose. His hair looked freshly trimmed. You see people like him every day, passing you on the street, riding the subways, neither monstrous nor heroic. From time to time, he whispered to the lawyers. He made a few notes on a yellow pad. His eyes wandered around the courtroom, with its civil service design and the words In God We Trust nailed in sans-serif letters above the bench of Judge Stephen G. Crane. Goetz never looked at the spectators or the six rows of reporters. In some curious way, he was himself a kind of spectator.

So when it was time to play the tape-recorded confession that Goetz made to the police in Concord, New Hampshire, on New Year’s Eve, 1984, he, too, examined the transcript like a man hoping for revelation. The text itself was extraordinary. Combined with the sound of Goetz’s voice — stammering, hyperventilating, querulous, defensive, cold, blurry, calculating — it seemed some terrible invasion of privacy. We have heard this voice before; it belongs to the anonymous narrator of Notes from Underground, that enraged brief for the defense.

Goetz furrowed his brow as he listened to this much younger, oddly more innocent version of himself that had ended the long panicky flight out of the IRT in the second floor interview room of police headquarters in Concord. He started by telling his inquisitor, a young detective named Chris Domian, the sort of facts demanded by personnel directors: name, birth date, social security number, address (55 West 14th Street, “in New York City, and that’s, uh, that’s zip code 10011”). But it’s clear from the very beginning that he realized these would be his last anonymous hours.

Goetz: You see, I’ll tell you the truth, and they can do anything they want with me, but I just don’t want to, I just don’t want to be paraded around, I don’t want a circus … I wish it were a dream. But it’s not. But, you know, it’s nothing to be proud of. It’s just, just, you know, it just is.

Exactly. It wasn’t a dream, certainly not a movie; it just was. On December 22, 1984, at about 1:30 in the afternoon, Bernie Goetz boarded a southbound number 2 Seventh Avenue IRT train at 14th Street and his life changed forever. So did the lives of Darrell Cabey, Troy Canty, James Ramseur, and Barry Allen. Within seconds after he boarded the train, they were joined together in a few violent minutes that changed this city. And when you listen to Goetz making his jangled confession, you understand that on that terrible afternoon, there were really five victims.

Domian: Okay, let’s start with the person that was, uh, on the right, so to speak, laying down.

Goetz: Yeah, I think he was the one who talked to me; he was the one who did the talking.

That was Canty. He is now 20, finishing an 18-month drug rehab treatment at Phoenix House. Before he ran into Goetz, he had pleaded guilty to taking $14 from video games in a bar. In his confession, Goetz is trying hard to explain to Domian (and to officer Warren Foote, who joined Domian) not simply what he did, but its context. The resulting transcript reads like a small, eerie play: the man from the big city explaining a dark world of menacing signs and nuances to the baffled outlanders.

Goetz: I sat, I sat down and just, he was lying on the side, kind of. He, he just turned his face to me and he said, “How are you?” You know, what do you do? ‘Cause people joke around in New York a lot, and this and that, and in certain circumstances that can be, that can be a real threat. You see, there’s an implication there … I looked up and you’re not supposed to look at people a lot because it can be interpreted as being impolite — so I just looked at him and I said “Fine.” And I, I looked down. But you kind of keep them in the corner of your eye …

Domian: Did he say anything else to you?

Goetz: Yeah, yeah … the train was out of the station for a while and it reached full speed … And he and one of the other fellows got up and they, uh  — You see, they were all originally on my right-hand side. But, uh, you know, two stayed on my right-hand side, and he got up and the other guy got up and they came to my left-hand side and … You see, what they said wasn’t even so much as important as the look, the look. You see the body language … You have to, you know, it’s, it’s, uh, you know, that’s what I call it, body language.

That’s what started it off: “How are you?” and body language. It just went from there. Goetz remembered: “He [Canty] stood up and the other fellow stood up. And they very casually walked, or sauntered — whatever you want to call it — over to my left side. And the fellow … uh, he said, ‘Give me five dollars.'”

This is the moment that helps explain the intensity of the public response to the Goetz story. It is one thing to read with detached amusement about Jean Harris or Claus von Bulow; such tabloid soap operas have little to do with our lives. But for millions of New Yorkers, what happened to Goetz is a very real possibility. Being trapped on the subway by four bad guys demanding not a dime or a quarter but five dollars is similar to the nocturne about the burglar beside the bed in the dark. A quarter is panhandling; five dollars is robbery. Such scenarios don’t often happen, but you wonder what you would do if they did. For Goetz, it happened.

Goetz: One of the other fellows, he had in his fur coat, he had his hand or something like this and he put a bulge … And even that isn’t a threat. Because the people, you see, they, they know the rules of the game, the rules of the game in New York. And you know, they’re very serious about the rules … You see you don’t know what it’s like to be on the other side of violence. It’s, it’s like a picture. When it happens to you, you see, you see it … People have the craziest image; they see, like Captain Kirk or someone like that, getting attacked by several guys and boom, boom, boom, he beats ’em up and — and two minutes later, he’s walking arm and arm in, with a beautiful woman or something like that. And that’s not what it is ….

Goetz was not Captain Kirk. He was a frail bespectacled young man living in New York and he had learned the rules of the game. He knew what was meant when one of four young black men told him he wanted five dollars.

Goetz: I looked at his face, and, you know, his eyes were shiny, you know. He, he, he was, if you can believe that, his eyes were shiny, he was enjoying himself … I know in my mind what they wanted to do was play with me … You know, it’s kind of like a cat plays with a mouse before, you know …

Domian: After you got that impression, what did you wind up doing?

Goetz: That’s not an impression, that’s not an impression …

Throughout the confession, Goetz struggles with what he clearly believes is an impossible task: to explain to his rural auditors the terrors of New York.

Goetz: … You have to think in a cold-blooded way in New York … If you don’t … think in what society’s going to brand it, as being you know cold-blooded and murderous and savage and monstrous … I feel it’s irresponsible … How can you understand that here in New Hampshire? How, how, how can you?

He explains to the two New Hampshire cops that he began, in his mind, to lay down “my pattern of fire.” He would shoot from left to right. That was the only thing he could do, he insists, because this act wasn’t premeditated: “I never knew those guys were on the train, you know, and like I said, I’m, I’m no good guy or anything like that. But if they had acted a little differently, if they hadn’t cornered me … ” Clearly what he feared most from them was humiliation. And so he decided to shoot them with the unregistered nickle-plated featherweight .38 caliber Smith & Wesson Special that he had shoved inside his pants.

Domian: Your, your intention was to shoot these people?

Goetz: My intention, at that moment, let me explain: when I saw what they intended for me, my intention was, was worse than shooting.

Domian: Okay. Was it your intention to kill these people?

Goetz: My intention was to do anything I could do to hurt them. My intention — you know, I know this sounds horrible — but my intention was to murder them, to hurt them, to make them suffer as much as possible.

No, he explained, he didn’t have a pistol permit, because the New York police department had turned him down. And then, recalling all this to the cops in New Hampshire, the core of his rage began to burn. The reason he wanted a pistol permit was because he had been attacked three years before and was left with permanent damage to his knee. The cops caught the man who did it, Goetz said, and two hours and 35 minutes after his arrest, he was back on the street without bail, charged with malicious mischief; Goetz himself claimed he spent six hours and five minutes filing the charges and talking to the bureaucrats in the victim aid program.

“That incident was an education,” he said, his voice beginning to tremble. “It taught me that, that the city doesn’t care what happens to you. You see, you don’t know what it’s like to be a victim inside.”

And he began to explain what it’s like to live in an almost permanent state of fear. This can’t be sneered away; thousands, perhaps millions of New Yorkers live with this most corrosive emotion. Most of us have adjusted to the state of siege. We are tense, wary, guarded; but most of us function and do not explode. Goetz was different.

Goetz: … I kind of accept my life, as I know it, is finished. But, but, boy, it would be just — to lead a normal life. If, if you can’t, I mean, is it too much to ask? … To live being afraid is unbearable, you know? It’s too much to ask, goddamn it .. .”

All over the tape, Goetz talks about fear and its denial. “I’m not afraid of dying instantly,” he says at one point. “I don’t have a family or anything like that. What I’m afraid of is being maimed and of, of these things happening slowly and not knowing what’s going to happen from moment to moment. The fear, in this case, the fear is a funny thing. You see, this is really combat.” He then becomes even more analytical, sounding like a man who had mastered the theory before engaging in practice. “The upper level of your mind, you just turn off. That’s, that’s the important thing. And you, you react … your sense of perception changes, your abilities change. Speed is everything, speed is everything.”

And so, with speed, he shot Canty, Allen, Cabey, and Manseur. “They had set a trap for me,” he tells the cops, “and only they were trapped. It was just so bizarre. It was — I know this is disgusting to say — but it was, it was so easy. I can’t believe it. God.” He insists that he knew exactly what he was doing when he was doing it. “I don’t believe in this insanity stuff. Because you know what you’re doing. You cannot do something and not know it. I mean how could I do it and not know it? This is, this is all bullshit … But if you can accept this: I was out of control … Maybe you should always be in control. But if you put people in a situation where they’re threatened with mayhem, several times, and then if, then if something happens, and if a person acts, turns into a vicious animal — I mean, I mean, you know, how are you supposed, you know, it’s, it’s, it’s, it’s, what, what do you expect, you know?”

After firing the first shots, dropping Canty, Ramseur, and Allen, he saw Cabey sitting down.

Goetz: I wasn’t sure if I had shot him before, because he just seemed okay. Now, I said I know this sounds, this is gonna sound vicious, and it is. I mean, how else can you describe it? I said, “You seem to be all right. Here’s another.” Now, you see, what happens is, I was gonna shoot him anyway, I’m sure. I had made up, I mean, in my mind, that I was gonna pull the trigger anyway. But he jerked his right arm. And on reflex, he was shot instantly. You see, that’s the whole thing. You’re working on reflex. You don’t think …

Scattered through the confession there are many other examples of Goetz’s fury and rage, which sound as if they too had become reflexes. “If I had more [ammunition] I would have shot them again and again and again.” He says that “I wanted to hurt them as much as I possibly could.” But even in his rage, he could recognize the fallen men as humans: “I wanted to look at his eyes, I don’t even want to say what may have been in my mind. And I looked at his eyes … there was such fear.” It was as if Cabey’s fear was the only sign to Goetz of their common humanity. “You know, the, the, the look had changed. And I started — it was kinda like slowing down. All of a sudden it’s like putting on the, screeching of the brakes, and you just start slowing down … ”

He talked about the reactions of other passengers, the train slowing down, a conductor coming in and asking what was going on. He talked about jumping out into the tracks after the train stopped in the tunnel, and coming up at Chambers Street and taking a cab home, and then a long drive that night in a rented car to Vermont because “instinctively, somehow I kinda feel like heading north is the way to go if there is a problem.”

Goetz stayed in Vermont for a week. And if you can believe the confession, he seems actually to have been happy. What he did in the subway, he thought, would be considered just another New York crime. “… When I got back to New York, the stuff was still on the news and people were talking about it. You see, up here people have just forgotten about it. It was one more piece of, excuse me for using the word — one more piece of shit that happened in New York.”

Hearing himself say those words, Goetz massaged his temple, and then lifted his glasses and rubbed his eyes. In the end, the eruption that Saturday afternoon on the IRT wasn’t just another piece of shit that happened in New York. It was a lot more than that. ♦

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 7, 2020