Ronnie Polaneczky: '09 mob robbed him of job, joy

Tom Fitzgerald suffered brain damage in an attack in South Philly.
Tom Fitzgerald suffered brain damage in an attack in South Philly. (Photo by Marcia Houston-Leslie)
Posted: June 28, 2011

IF ANYONE KNOWS what Emily Guendelsberger might be feeling right now, it's Tom Fitzgerald.

Guendelsberger, 27, is in Hahnemann University Hospital awaiting surgery on the leg she broke during last Saturday's teen stampede, which tore through her neighborhood like a tornado.

At least the damage inflicted by a tornado isn't personal. Not so with the assault that Guendelsberger endured at the hands of 30 to 40 animals. They surrounded her near Broad and Green streets, punched and kicked her, then moved south on Broad, looking for more victims to terrorize.

The reason for the pounce? Guendelsberger had the gall to step out with friends for a lovely evening of socializing.

How dare she.

"I'm sorry to hear about this," says Fitzgerald. "It makes me sad all over again."

On May 30, 2009, Fitzgerald, 56, also had the temerity to cross the city on a balmy Saturday night. He'd just gotten off work at the Wistar Institute in West Philly, where he worked as a maintenance mechanic, and was biking home to his South Philly apartment when he was attacked by a flash mob near Broad and Bainbridge streets.

He was beaten nearly to death. He suffered a frontal-lobe brain injury, broken facial bones and ribs, contusions and a punctured lung. He was in a coma at Hahnemann for weeks and is still undergoing rehab. Though his seizures have ceased, he doesn't know if he'll ever return to work.

"I get tired all the time. I can't focus or make decisions. I can't find the right words. I can't explain things. I get confused," says Fitzgerald. "My neurologist says after two years, your recovery slows down. So where I'm at now might be where I'll always be. It makes me sad."

Sad is a word Fitzgerald uses often when he ponders life since his brutal beat-down.

He is sad that he now spends his mornings sitting at a local Starbucks because he is hungry for a social routine. He is a reserved man - "I guess I'm a loner," he says - but he used to bike early to work, to mingle pleasantly with co-workers before beginning the day.

He's sad that, instead of handling with aplomb the complicated mechanical systems at Wistar, he now labors over crossword puzzles, hoping his locked-up brain will loosen words that used to tumble freely from his lips.

He's sad that he's now wary of walking anywhere alone, when he used to be an intrepid traveler - driving cross-country on his own and exploring towns in Europe with solitary ease.

He is sad that the small house he was preparing to buy, before the assault, had to be sold to someone else because he was incapable of signing legal documents after his brain injury. Now that he's on disability, his income has dropped so low, he couldn't afford the place anyway.

"The house was on Fitzgerald Street. I thought it would be fun to be 'Tom Fitzgerald from Fitzgerald Street,' " he says wistfully.

Mostly - and this is what I find extraordinary - he feels sad about Steven Lyde, who eventually pleaded guilty to the vicious beating. Last week, Common Pleas Judge Susan Schulman sentenced Lyde, 23, to five to 20 years for the assault.

"He beat me up, stole my credit cards" - Lyde used them to buy clothes online from Nordstrom - "and now he'll be in prison, doing nothing. What a waste," he says.

He can't imagine the miserable life Lyde must have had, if just the sight of someone biking home on a warm evening was somehow an affront.

"I had over 50 years of good life" before the assault, says Fitzgerald, who is single and helps care for his elderly parents. "Lyde is only 23 and he'll be in prison. I feel bad for him."

That is why, he says, he accepted Lyde's courtroom apology last week, when he said he was sorry for the pain he'd wrought on that gorgeous May evening.

An evening with weather as perfect as it was last Saturday, when Emily Guendelsberger wanted only to traverse a city street, the way Fitzgerald had.

Harming no one, expecting no harm.

Email polaner@phillynews.com or call 215-854-2217. For recent columns:

www.philly.com/Ronnie. Read Ronnie's blog at www.philly.com/RonnieBlog.

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