In the beginning was the Word.
San Juan, I, 1
When in 1979 I ran into my first serial killer, I didn’t know there was such a thing. The term serial killer was not known except in the closed world of FBI homicide behaviorists and investigators, who in the 1970s faced, in different jurisdictions, a sudden increase in unsolved murders that seemed to be linked to those responsible Unique and unknown. Ted Bundy, who murdered at least 36 young university students in six states, emerged from that era as the prototype of a postmodern serial killer. But in movies, in reality and in fiction literature, in the media, in popular culture and even in forensic psychiatry, there was no agreed term to define Ted Bundy, nor for what I I found myself, as we have it now: the name serial killer.
My brief casual encounter with one of them (the first of my three random encounters with different serial killers before they were identified and arrested) took place on a Sunday morning in December in New York. I had been lying in the city over the weekend and needed to find a cheap place to stay until Monday. I decided to try a hotel at the end of 42nd Street (the Far West), in the outskirts of the Times Square district.
Unlike the current version sweetened for tourists and families, in the 1970s the neighborhood surrounding Times Square and 42nd Street (the latter nicknamed Forty-Deuce or the Deuce) was quite unpleasant: a massive souk of bookstores in Hard porn, erotic shows, X cinemas, cutlery, massage parlors, strip bars, live sex acts, souvenir shops, hot dogs and “handicrafts”, as well as prostitutes of all ages, shapes and genres. It was the Whitechapel of New York, illuminated by neon and with its own Ripper, as he was about to discover.
In 1979 there were 40,000 prostitutes patrolling the streets and portals of the New York stores, so many that at one point the City Police Department had to place barriers along the sidewalks of Eighth Avenue to prevent girls and their pimps would invade the street and block traffic.
Unless you were in a hurry to the bus terminal of the Port Authority, or you came back from it, you were in the Deuce for one of these four reasons: buy, sell, be sold or stopped, if you were dumb enough or neglected. In 1979 there were 2,092 murders in New York and the following year 2,228. In 1990, the murders reached a record 2,605.2 It was dangerous. Only on the block of 42nd Street between the Seventh and Eighth avenues, an average of 2,250 crimes were reported annually, of which between 30 and 40% were serious (homicides, rapes with violence, robberies).
As I approached the hotel that Sunday morning, just dawn, I thought I had a pretty clear idea of where I could be getting. I had already visited New York many times for my film and documentary projects, and had shot all sorts of provocative things. Sometimes I had stayed in one of the knives surrounding Times Square, but this was the first time I had left the map, moving away to Tenth Avenue, that is, entering the neighboring neighborhood that since the 1880s had called the Kitchen of Hell. Today it is full of famous restaurants, trendy bars and apartment buildings, and the neighborhood itself boasts Clinton’s most exclusive and pleasant name. But in the 1970s it was still called, and on the occasion, Hell’s Kitchen. Between 1968 and 1986 the Westies, an Irish band, killed between 70 and 100 people here, and dismembered them in the bathtubs of the small apartments that were then, where the trendy restaurants stand today.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to spend the night here, but the place was very close to the movie lab I had to go to the next morning before catching my flight back home, and it was also cheap. So, before committing to checking into this medium-sized five-story hotel, I decided to sneak through its lobby and hallways, explore them and see with my own eyes how bad it was or what might be lurking in the halls.
While waiting for the elevator in the small entrance hall, I thought it had stopped forever on a higher floor. It was irritating. I was young and impatient. When the elevator finally came down and its sliding doors opened, I looked hard at the cretin who had had me waiting for almost an eternity, although it probably hadn’t been more than a minute.
The man looked… well, he looked like any man. Another white subject of thirty-few. The only strange thing was that, despite the cold weather, he wore a feverish sweat coat on his forehead. He got out of the elevator and passed by me as if I hadn’t been there: he collided with me, hitting my knee and shin with a bag that seemed to carry bowling balls inside; round, hard and heavy balls. He said nothing, did not apologize, did not even look at me. It looked so common that if they had asked me to describe it for a police robot portrait, I would not have been able to do it. But as he had irritated me, I took a good look at him to recognize him if he saw him again, even if he was not able to describe him. My last vision of him was from the elevator, when the door was already closing. I turned my back and walked calmly towards the door of the street with the bag swinging at his side.
It was a totally fortuitous encounter with a monster that had tied, drowned, raped, tortured and brutally murdered two prostitutes on the street in their hotel room, cut off their heads and put the severed parts in a bag. As I approached the hotel lobby, he left his headless torsos on pools of blood that was already clotting on the mattress, soaking them in lighter fuel and hitting them on fire. Then he left with his bag full and calmly took the elevator down while I waited impatiently and raging in the lobby below.
Of course, at that time I didn’t know anything about all this.