NEW YORK — I went to see Brian Watkins’ deathbed. His mattress was concrete. His sheets were silver gum wrappers. All that remained was a splotch of blood on the bottom step near the token booth, where he collapsed Sunday night chasing the strangers who put a knife in his chest because they needed money to go dancing.

“Mire,” said a fat man in Spanish, pointing out the whole thing to a friend. He pointed to the D train platform, where the knife was first pulled, and he pointed to where the Watkins family, visitors from Utah, saw their peaceful life turn to horror. They had spent the day at the U.S. Open, mother, father, two brothers, brother’s wife. They loved tennis and it was 10:20 p.m., and now they were going for something to eat.

And then, suddenly, here were these horrible kids flying down the steps and grabbing at them and slashing the father’s leg and grabbing his wallet, and the mother screamed and they punched her face. Brian, the son, instinctively said, “They can’t do that” and lunged for them, and it was welcome to New York City. A “butterfly” knife — four-inch blade, maybe it cost $20 on 42nd Street — went into his chest.

And still he chased them. He and his brother, they chased after these wild kids who had punched their mother, up one flight of steps, across a platform, another flight of steps, they ran, the blood spitting out of Brian, until the wild kids were gone and Brian couldn’t stand up anymore. He fell at the foot of a big wall poster of “Cats,” now showing at the Winter Garden Theater.

“Mire,” the man said again, pointing now at the blood stain on the filthy concrete. He and his friend shook their heads and the friend said, “Ooo-eey.”

City from hell

I shivered. I know this subway station. Back when I lived in this city, it was my stop, 53rd Street and 7th Avenue, I rode the subway here every day, ignoring the danger, hoping, like thousands of others, that these trains would carry me to some exhilarating life, a flashy career, the stuff that leads people to New York in the first place.

The stuff that led Brian Watkins here. He dreamed of being a pro tennis player; it lured him every summer. His family would get tickets to the Open and Brian would watch and recall how he had been a state high school champion in Utah. And although he was 22, he still thought, “If I keep training, with a little luck. . . .”

But New York is no place for luck, it is a city from hell, a city where they shoot you for breathing, for turning a corner, a city where a gang of 19-year-olds wants to go dancing so they leave the house with no money figuring to pick some up from the nearest available victims. They even have a name for this. They call it “getting paid.”

Brian Watkins paid. And his family will never stop paying. Every vacation, every tennis tournament, things they once loved will now be full of tears, and the mother will always wonder, “What if I didn’t scream?” And the father will always wonder, “If only I had jumped in. . . .” Eight strangers caused these nightmares. Five of them were arrested after the stabbing at Roseland Dance Hall. They were dancing at street level as Brian Watkins died in the subway. They were dancing on his grave.

Legacy of fear

What have we come to? What kind of place is this where the victims don’t know the killers and the killers don’t care. You could be a priest, you could be a grandmother, you got a couple dollars, down you go. Sports writers in New York boast of their tennis tournament’s gutsy atmosphere, the noise, the heat, the tough crowd, the legacy, but this is part of the legacy now too: Family from Utah loses son in subway. Attend U.S. Open at your own risk.

The tennis goes on. The crowds ride the subway. But they look over their shoulders now and see Brian Watkins’ ghost, the ghost of random violence, crime without provocation. It can hit anyone, any time, sports lovers, innocent people, and so it is chilling, the breath of fear. It is what New York City is all about these days.

Down in the 53rd Street station, a transit worker ripped the “Cats” poster off the wall. I asked if he had been here Sunday night. “I don’t work weekends,” he said, and moved the bucket closer to Brian Watkins’ deathbed. You wonder how much time the killer will get for this one.

As they shipped the body back to Utah, a police spokesman said Watkins
“did what every red-blooded American hopes he has the courage to do.” But all that is left of the red-blooded American is red blood, dried and fading on the subway steps. A kid who came to see tennis. Since when did you need courage to do that?

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