By Rita Papazian
It is amazing how random acts of violence grab our attention and keep us mesmerized. We read every word in newspaper accounts or switch channels to hear repeated news reports. On the internet, we Google names to read more news accounts and commentary, and we scroll through the gruesome photos of bodies that lay dead on a city pavement.
We repeatedly click on the gray, foggy video that captured a killer walking between planters overflowing with summer vines and flowers and a Manhattan main thoroughfare where tandem city buses barrel down carrying morning commuters and shoppers to their destinations. We see the shooter turn as two cops confront him. We watch pedestrians go about their business, unaware of what is about to explode on a summer morning, steps from a national landmark. Suddenly, they hear the shots, and run quickly in the other direction.
A 53-year-old man, as one headline yelled out, “dressed to kill,” is himself dead on a city pavement. Around the corner, another man, 41, dressed in summer casual attire for his sales executive position at an accessories import office, is also sprawled dead on a city pavement.
We’ve come to learn that the alleged shooter, a disgruntled employee who had been laid off a year or so ago from his job as a designer for the import company had blamed the sales executive for his job loss. In the past, the two had had face-to-face physical confrontations leading to the two of them filing complaints at a local police precinct.
We are drawn to this story. Why? Could we have been one of the nine people caught in the shooting mayhem that erupted on the Fifth Avenue sidewalk so close to the entrance to the Empire State Building? Police Commissioner Ray Kelly suspects the injured bystanders were the result of bullets ricocheting off the planters. Conflicting reports indicate that the shooter Jeffrey Johnson, may or may not have fired first at the two cops before they shot him dead. Some wonder why the police so quickly opened fire on a public sidewalk teeming with tourists and people heading to work.
We are drawn to this story for so many reasons. We sympathize with the parents of the victim Steve Ercolino. He was so close in age to my own children. We sympathize with the rage expressed by the victim’s brother seething with anger towards the media for publishing photos of his brother who lay lifeless on a city street. In his rage, he said that more respect had been accorded Bin Laden following his assassination than that for his brother. Yes, this violent act again brings up the topic of responsible journalism. Should the public see a dead body lying on a city pavement?
We are drawn to the human element of this story — the victim, in the prime of his life, a young man who loved life, loved his family and his girlfriend. Reports indicate he was planning to get married in the near future.
Surprisingly, I am drawn to the assailant. We read reports that he lived alone with his cats and was very upset over the death of one of his cats last year. He was a birdwatcher who was a familiar sight photographing a red-tailed hawk in Central Park. He would call his mother who lived in Georgia every Sunday until they had a falling out. Reportedly, she hadn’t seen him in 22 years.
I can’t fathom such distance between a mother and offspring. My three adult children and their children went away for five days together in New Hampshire recently. I told them to have a good time and not to waste time talking or thinking about their parents. They took my advice. I missed them even in that short period of time because I knew they were out of cell phone range and would not be calling or emailing.
In The New York Times this week I read of a telephone interview with Johnson’s mother, who appeared distraught over her son’s death and the loss of the victim’s life. Searching for an answer, she cited a childhood accident in which her son was struck by a car when he was 11 and lay in a coma for five days. Maybe the injury had resulted in some damage undetected in her son as an adult, she wonders.
What really upsets me about this story is the narrative we read in news reports of the work environment — the relationship between the designer and the sales executive. News reports relate that Johnson was upset that Ercolino allegedly was not selling enough of the apparel that Johnson had designed and therefore the designer was eventually laid off.
Workers witnessed the bad blood between the two co-workers and some have detailed the animosity between the two to reporters. These accounts bring to mind my own work experiences — the conflicts with co-workers and supervisors and the eventual loss of a job. I lost my job twice when a publication folded or it was sold. I also lost my job when a co-worker did what she could to see that I resigned or got fired.
The loss of jobs led to my decision to be a freelancer and independent contractor. I had a conversation with a niece recently whose live-in-partner has been out of work a long time. She said he is now willing to take a lower pay and less of a title. When he goes for interviews potential employers wonder why he is willing to settle.
I wish we could be more compassionate in the workplace. Why couldn’t Ercolino and Johnson have found a way to address their conflicts? Why couldn’t the employees have worked together to address the issues? Instead, compassion becomes evident when it is too late–when we see photos of complete strangers consoling victims struck down on a city street by a stray bullet following a police shoot-out.
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