Injured squatters try to rebuild lives after devastating accident

By Lincoln Anderson for The Villager, Jan. 26 - Feb. 1, 2005

Two weeks after nearly dying after being hit by an S.U.V. while crossing the street, Michael Shenker, one of the East Village’s most well-known squatters, is recovering and no longer in critical condition. Fly, an artist, who is a neighbor of Shenker’s in a former E. Seventh St. squat and who was also hurt in the Jan. 12 incident, said, contrary to initial reports, it did not happen on Avenue A but at 23rd St. and Second Ave. That explains why the East Village’s Ninth Police Precinct had no record of it.

Marc Wasserman, an attorney representing Fly and Shenker, said Shenker was moved out of Bellevue Hospital’s intensive-care unit on Jan. 23, after having been there 11 days, and is now in Bellevue’s neuro-rehabilitation unit (Michael has since been released and is recovering at home - PG). Wasserman said Shenker’s prognosis is “guarded.” “Really, we’re not sure what his prognosis is going to be,” he said. “He had blunt trauma to his skull. He had damage to his brain, the part of the brain that deals with language. He still has a significant amount of head pain.”

Fly said they were walking home at 9:30 p.m. after seeing “Million Dollar Baby” at the Loew’s Kip’s Bay theater at 32nd St. and Second Ave., when a big S.U.V. made a left turn off Second Ave. onto 23rd St.

“We were crossing the street, had a green light and all of sudden, boom,” said Fly, 41. “I didn’t see anything. We were walking and talking — and out of nowhere I felt the biggest punch in my face in my life.”

Shenker, 49, was knocked unconscious and was lying face down in a pool of blood. Fly said she feared Shenker was dead, and was screaming his name and trying to help him, but people cautioned her not to get up. She was bleeding from the mouth, having knocked out one of her teeth, broken another and loosened several more, possibly when she fell on her face on the ground.

Luckily, they were near Bellevue and an ambulance came quickly. At first it was feared Shanker might not pull through.

“It was touch and go for a little while,” Fly said. “Right after the accident he had some swelling of the brain, and they were talking about doing some emergency surgery to relieve the swelling.”

There was a reason Shenker didn’t respond to messages on his cell phone after the accident. Fly said that at the scene she had put Shenker’s cell phone in her bag, which also contained her dream journal — a handmade book in which she had recorded six months’ worth of dreams — but the bag is now missing.

Wasserman said Shenker’s glasses were shattered in the accident, but that Shenker’s eyeglasses store in the East Village has provided a new pair, which he will be getting soon. Fly had oral surgery last Friday, which she hopes will save her top two front teeth; they should have been splinted after the accident, she learned. She has two black eyes and her back hurts. Wasserman said the driver, a 46-year-old woman from Montebello in Upstate New York, did not leave the scene of the accident, and feels horrible about what happened.

“There was obviously no malicious intent,” he said. “It was an accident. There was no question she was at fault. When you hit a pedestrian in the crosswalk, you’re at fault.”

He said Fly and Shenker will seek damages for pain and suffering.

Word of the scary accident spread quickly through the neighborhood’s activist and squatter community. Bill Di Paolo, executive director of Time’s Up!, the nonprofit environmental group that publicizes the monthly Critical Mass bike rides in New York City, called both Shenker and Fly “pillars” of the East Village.