A call came in from an unfamiliar cellphone number. I grabbed it, and it was a documentary film producer. She told me that she got my name from Ron Kuby. That was my first clue. Ron and his partner, Bill Kunstler, represented Darryl Cabey, one of four young men who were shot by Bernhard Goetz in 1984. That was when I met Ronny and we became friends.
My partner, Howie Meyer, and I represented one of the other young men, Troy Canty. Cabey was the most sympathetic of the four, having been paralyzed by Goetz. Canty was the least sympathetic, having been the kid who asked Goetz for money on the subway, the kid who pointed the mythical “sharpened screwdriver” at Goetz.
Howie has since passed away. Bill too. It’s now just Ronny and I, the surviving lawyers*. The producer, in a cold call, wanted to know things, starting with where Troy Canty is today. I told her I have no clue. It was surprising to someone who today viewed this monumental case, a case with lessons and messages that deserve to be remembered and retold, that someone intimately involved wouldn’t have followed this closely forever, but the truth was that we did what we could to help Troy Canty survive the nightmare, change his life for the better and then, well, life moved on.
At first, Troy Canty enjoyed the attention that engulfed him after he and three other teen-agers had been shot by Bernhard H. Goetz in an IRT subway car, Mr. Canty’s lawyer said yesterday.
For the first time in his life, the young man from the mean streets of the South Bronx was a star of sorts. He was wined and dined and ferried about in limousines by reporters hungry for exclusive interviews.
”This was great fun for about a week,” Mr. Canty’s lawyer, Scott H. Greenfield, said. ”But the press did everything it could to vilify those boys. He has suffered many consequences because of the notoriety of this case.”
Now, more than four years later, Mr. Canty would like to crumble up that page of his life and fade into obscurity, his lawyer said.
There is something surreal about an invisible street kid suddenly becoming a media obsession. For a few days, it’s like being a superstar, but the shine fades quickly. They may feed you, give you limo rides and flatter you, but they don’t love you. They just want to use you, fit you into the narrative already written. You talk to them and see something completely unfamiliar on the page. They seemed so nice, so understanding, when you talked. How could they have written something so false, so insulting? How did they make you the villain of your own story?
Those were heady days for a kid lawyer. Howie and I had moved from the 13th Floor, where our office was down the hall from Norm Reimer, now NACDL executive director, and his partner, Frank Gould. Norm was one of my heroes, a really cool young lawyer who had an article about his exploits defending weed in High Times. Our new office was on the third floor, with Goldberger and Dubin, who let Eddie Hayes use the library when he wasn’t out hob-nobbing with celebs at Regine’s. His best friend, Tom Wolfe, came by all the time, as he was writing Bonfire of the Vanities, always dressed in a white suit. And I got to watch and learn.
I remember bits and pieces of those days. Some fondly, such as getting Troy into rehab, a precursor to any chance of getting off the street and doing something with his life. Some scary moments. In order to preserve Troy’s right to sue Bernie for shooting him, we had to file a civil complaint for damages. The next day, I was up in Albany to argue a case before the New York Court of Appeals. I called the office to find out what was happening, and was told by my secretary that I had 97 death threats.
It turned out that the New York Post’s headline that day was “What a nerve,” referring to the filing of Troy’s complaint. It inflamed people in a city on the edge, and they let me know about it. I called my wife and told her not to answer the phone that day. You never know who could find my home number, even though it was unlisted. Plenty of reporters had found me, and if they could, so could the crazies.
Troy eventually decided to drop the case against Bernie. After cleaning himself up, he decided to become a chef and planned to attend the Culinary Institute of America, CIA. Once we no longer represented him, and he no longer wanted anything to do with that chapter of his life, we lost touch. I would reach out every once in a while to make sure he was okay, but eventually his telephone number returned a message that it was disconnected. He never called again, and life went on for all of us.
I wasn’t able to answer the producer’s question about where Troy Canty is today. She found it surprising. I explained that this was decades ago for me, even if it was this moment for her. She then asked me more questions about those days, and I realized how little I still remember about the nuts and bolts of my representation of Troy Canty.
There is much about the Bernie Goetz case that would be illuminating today. Bernie represented the white backlash to the fear of black crime and drugs that “good” people feared was consuming New York City. Push too hard and there will be pushback. Bernie became the poster boy for every impotent white guy who had enough of living in fear and wasn’t going to take it anymore. He fought back, and for that he was a hero, if only for a moment.
But just as so many claims and accusations are arising these days of things that happened decades ago, revisited through the lens of the moment without any real consideration of context and culture of the time, it’s all just a fuzzy memory. I hope Troy is alive. I hope he’s doing well. He wasn’t pure and innocent, but he wasn’t the personification of evil as he was portrayed at the time. He was just a kid trying to survive under tough circumstances. In retrospect, me too as far as I can remember.
*The producer asked me who represented James Ramseur, one of the four. I couldn’t remember at the time, but now recall it was Ron Kliegerman.