"Look, we're always doing stories about the homeless issue in the city," Maggie said. "But always just people talking numbers and political positions about the issue. This is the real thing. A woman who was murdered on the streets of New York City. Sure, no one cares about her, right— But someone must have cared about her once. What if we do a profile on this woman—find out how she wound up dying alone the way she did—
"I knew her. Well, that is I used to see her on the street. You probably did too. She would stand in front of the coffee shop down the street from our building and hold the door open for people in hopes of getting a handout. I went inside the coffee shop and asked the people there about her. They didn't know her name either. But they said she used to call herself Cinderella. No one knew exactly why.
"She was found stabbed to death in the vestibule of a bank a few blocks away. They have no idea who killed her or why, and they probably never will. She's just another forgotten homeless person dead on the streets. But what if we make her more than that— What if we turn her into a symbol of everything that's wrong and tragic and needs to be fixed about the homeless people we see all around us—
"Maybe there's even an interesting story to her too. Clare, you always preach to us about how there's a story to every murder. All we have to do is find it, you tell us. Let's find out the story behind this woman. Who was she— Why did she call herself Cinderella— Where was she and what was she doing before she started living on the street—"
Maybe it was the fact that Maggie threw my own words back at me, which made it tough for me to argue about what she was saying.
Maybe it was the name "Cinderella" that intrigued me too.
Maybe it was my reporter's curiosity and desire to do some real journalism again, to escape however briefly from the confines of TV news.
Or maybe it was a combination of all these things—plus a bit of luck—that convinced me to do what I did next.
"Okay," I said finally. "Let's find out the story of Cinderella."
Her name was Dora Gayle. She was fifty-four years old and had lived in New York City for her entire life. Grew up in the West Village, attended college at NYU, then had a variety of jobs and lived in different locations around town until she finally wound up on the street at some point.
Those were the basic facts about her.
But they didn't really tell the story behind the sad and tragic life of the woman who called herself Cinderella.
"She told me once that she used to live in a big white house at the end of a street, with a fence around the yard and a garden in the back," one person we interviewed told us. "There was a porch too, she said. She remembered sitting on the porch with her husband and reading poetry and writing love sonnets to him. She said she was very happy. But then she would begin to cry."
We found out that Dora Gayle had grown up on Bank Street in the Village. Her mother and father, by all accounts from people still in the neighborhood who remembered them, were serious alcoholics who drank themselves to sleep every night. Dora frequently had to put them to bed and make sure they were all right, an awesome responsibility for a young girl growing up.
Maybe that's why Dora never drank herself back then. She'd seen enough of that as a child. She hated the sight of liquor. She hated the smell of it. And, most of all, she hated what it did to people like her parents.
Which made it even seem more tragic when Dora developed her own drinking problem—but that would all come later.
By the time she went to college, Dora had left the depressing surroundings of her parents' home and moved to a place on East 3rd Street. She walked each day to her classes at NYU, where she majored in English literature and became a very serious, introspective student. She read dark poetry by Sylvia Plath; listened to sad songs about death and despair; and worried about the poor and the desperate and the lonely—believing that their suffering was her own too.
Not exactly a fun date for the guys in college. Except for one thing. We found an old picture of her at NYU, and the young Dora Gayle was gorgeous. Drop dead gorgeous. She had long straight black hair that hung down to her waist. Big brown eyes. A beautiful face. Even though she hardly ever wore makeup, men were said to be captivated by her unadulterated beauty.
She told people her goal was to write serious poetry and teach literature herself one day.
No one knew much about exactly what happened to her after she left college.
But she popped up in a city Social Services report years later when she'd apparently tried to apply for government assistance. By that point, according to the report, she seemed like a totally different person from the pretty, poetry-loving student at NYU.
She'd worked in a variety of jobs—waitress, cleaning lady, department store clerk. None of them lasted very long. She'd started drinking somewhere along the line, and alcohol had completely taken over her life. She couldn't hold a job anymore.
After that, she just disappeared from the system again. Until she turned up on the street as a homeless person.
Everyone who encountered Dora on the streets seemed to like her—and many tried their best to help her. A woman behind the counter at the coffee shop where she could often be seen holding the door for customers gave her free sandwiches and coffee from time to time. So did the owner of a nearby deli. A bartender named Jimmy Landon at a place called the Landmark Tavern said he sometimes slipped her a bottle or two.
"She was going to drink anyway," Landon explained, "and this way at least maybe she'll have a little more left over for something else. She was a very polite lady. She always said thank you to me. I wish all my customers were as pleasant as she was. There's a lot of people who wander in here looking for free drinks. But she was different. There was almost an aura of...well, class or dignity about her. She was smart too. She'd quote from Thoreau or Shakespeare or some other guys I never heard. I always figured she was somebody once, but then things went bad for her."