When I met Lesia Pupshaw, she was one of the ubiquitous young crusty punks panhandling on Saint Mark’s Place. As with the homeless who pepper the city’s streetscape, the “crustys” are tolerated, if often disdained. At times they may elicit guilt, pity, empathy, anger or a combination of these things.
Although she could live with her mother in the apartment she grew up in on 6th Street, Lesia told me she chose not to, because her mom was a “ginormous” alcoholic. Lesia, whose teeth were little black stubs due to her use of crystal meth, said she wanted to be a nurse, and admired her half sister, who is married with children in California.
The night of May 8th, according to eyewitness accounts related to police and reported in the Villager and elsewhere, Lesia was attacked by a gang of three or four teenage boys, reportedly Hispanic kids from Avenue D. They threw glass bottles at her, hitting her on the head. When Lesia collapsed, they beat her on the head with what may have been a metal rod, or possibly an aluminum baseball bat. She went to the emergency room, but was sent home. She went to sleep at her mother’s that night, and never woke up.
Friends say the casket was closed at the wake because her head was so badly beaten.
On a recent weekend, I went to talk to her friends in Tompkins Square Park. They were easy to find, as the crustys take over rows of benches, spreading out with their assortment of dirty backpacks, dogs and garbage.
I asked a girl — sporting facial piercings, matted brown hair pulled to the sides in Pippy Longstocking fashion and overalls stiff with dirt — if she witnessed the attack on Lesia. Although droopy-eyed, she was friendly and helpful, and began asking around. No one seemed to have been with Lesia the night of the attack, but a girl with bright green eyes and long black hair approached me, saying, “I heard you give $25 for an interview.” When I told her that was not the case she shrugged her shoulders, saying, “I used to go to catholic school with her. The nuns were sad ’cause she was a normal girl who got high a lot and went a little crazy.” A short guy with stringy shoulder-length hair and teeth stained red asked me if I was writing a story on heroin, “’cause I’m an addict.” He added, “They can never get rid of the heroin around here.”
They told me that a local homeless man named Markey had been attacked by the same group of kids. When I found Markey, he confirmed that his description of the kids matched eyewitness accounts of Lesia’s attackers.
The attackers, according to Markey, are a gang of three or four kids from the projects on Avenue D — one, he guesses, could be as young as 13. They have attacked Markey on three separate occasions. The last time, they came up behind him, hit him over the head and taunted him, “Hey, we beat you up before!”
“Put in your story how broke up I was when I went to her wake,” Markey told me. “She was 26 years old, that’s half my age. It ain’t right, it just ain’t right.”
A photo of Markey’s bruised, beaten and bloody face has been posted on Neither More Nor Less, the website of local blogger Bob Arihood, who spends his nights on Avenue A documenting the street drama and inevitable conflicts between the Avenue’s revelers and underclass. Among recent posts reporting on neighborhood violence is an account of “a group of 10 to 15 young Hispanic, black and white males” who attacked a man who was walking back from a bar with his girlfriend.
For his part, Markey has recovered and, due in part to Bob’s posting, has been picked up by the Department of Homeless Services, who were quick to provide him with a room in a safe haven.
As I was talking with the crustys and punks in the park, I noticed a boy sitting on the bench wearing a hot pink silk skirt, knee-high black-and-white striped stockings and a hooded army jacket. His lips were smeared with red lipstick, which ran down at the corners. As I was standing there, a cleancut young white man came out of nowhere and grabbed him, shaking him by his collar. The girl I was talking to, with the help of a couple other crustys, pulled him off. “Don’t you see there’s kids around here?” she yelled at him.
As I left the park, the boy in the skirt careened ahead of me, headed east on 7th Street, alternately angrily kicking over garbage cans and asking people for a dollar. He was on his way to the corner bodega for a fortified beer, which the owner keeps conveniently stacked in cases by the door. He was immediately spotted by a group of young Hispanic men sitting on a stoop about mid-block. They intercepted him at the corner, pushing him away from the bodega, and as he continued to try to push his way past, one of them punched him in the jaw. The kid stumbled across the street in front of the German beer bar on the corner, its sidewalk overflowing with the weekend brunch crowd, who laughed and pointed as he violently overturned the trashcan on the corner.
Following him along Avenue C, I asked, “Why are you so angry?” He stopped and looked at me, his arms hanging limply by his side. “Because,” he explained in a hoarse voice, “my mother was a lesbian and they wouldn’t let her keep her kid and so she killed herself.” He sniffled and swayed as big tears began to roll down his dirt-smeared cheeks. “Why do people keep hitting me? My face hurts,” he sobbed, rubbing his jaw. “I just want to be free!”
Friends describe Lesia as a sweet girl who had recently kicked heroin, though reports on Neither More No Less suggested she had been using prior to the attack. For the police’s part, Dennis de Quatro, commanding officer of the Ninth Precinct, told the Villager that the attack had been ruled out as the cause of Lesias death: “The woman definitely did not die of any injuries she sustained in the altercation.” The investigation, however, is still ongoing, and the Medical Examiner’s office still has not announced a cause of death. Neither the Medical Examiners office nor the Ninth Precinct has yet responded to my requests for comment, or issued a statement as to the cause of death. It may simply be more convenient for the police to deny any link between Lesia’s death and the beating she sustained just hours before.
Other victims of assaults downtown, such as Dougie Bowne, a musician who was attacked in April in the West Village, have been discouraged by the police from filing a report. Dougie was on his way home from a show and standing on the corner of West 8th Street and Sixth Avenue when a van stopped in front of him. The doors flew open to reveal a flashing disco ball as a group of large men engaged in a brawl tumbled out of the van. As Dougie tried to extricate himself from the situation, he was hit on the back of the head by one of the “revelers,” rendering him unconscious. Dougie called the police, who met him at the emergency room that night; but when he went to the Sixth Precinct the following day to file a report, the desk sergeant merely shrugged — “What’s the point?” — because Dougie couldn’t tell them who assaulted him. “The point is,” Dougie said to me, “had they taken a report the night before, it was a 40-foot land yacht, you know?”
Perhaps the point, as far as the police are concerned, is to try to keep the reported numbers of violent assaults — already on a steep rise — under control. In the Ninth Precinct, which is the area in and around Tompkins Square Park, reported assaults have risen over 27% since last year. In the Sixth, where Dougie was assaulted, there has been an almost 43% increase in assaults, according to the NYPD’s CompStat Unit.
More bars and less income may be contributing to mounting tensions in downtown Manhattan. While a recent New York Magazine article optimistically theorized that the recession will make us all kinder to one another, a recent Post dispatch reported on the increase in assaults downtown, which Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne attributed the increase to the bar scene. When I spoke with Bob Arihood, he speculated that, “Most of the reported assaults are in front of bars for legal reasons… [Bar owners make them] to protect themselves.”
Assaults on the homeless, crustys and punks often go unreported. And as Dougie’s case shows, even when a “regular” person wants to report an assault they may be discouraged from doing so.
When I was talking to the crustys in Tompkins Square Park, I mentioned my concern over the recent rise in assaults. “Yeah,” the girl in the overalls said. “A friend of mine was sleeping over by the river and some kids took her backpack, set it on fire, and put it under her. Another friend of mine had his throat slashed right here in the park. It just missed the jugular, he was sitting there, like, bleeding, and nobody did anything about it.”
Said a skinny kid perched atop the benches, “If you’re homeless it rightly don’t matter.”