AS I suspect is the case with other Kossacks, my writing career began as a teenager working for the High School newspaper. I wrote editorials that took politicians, administrators and other Powers That Be to task and my future wife spent her time bailing me out with the Principal as my Editor in Chief. I was decidedly more trouble at that time than I am now, my only filter being the one at the tip of my Camel cigarette.
It would be fair to say I was happy in that role. Anymore, though, my open public writing is oriented toward flowers, basement cats and rocks crushers while only on occasion dabbling in the political. In comments I can still be a troublemaker. In real life it's a dedicated manuscript. And so the world turns.
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"He may be a very nice man. But I haven't got the time to figure that out. All I know is, he's got a uniform and a gun and I have to relate to him that way. That's the only way to relate to him because one of us may have to die."
Author, poet, and social critic James Baldwin on the police
Another half an hour went by, and then an hour, and now I am really furious ... and worried. It was around 12:00 pm when the doorbell rang. My heart threatened to jump out of my chest ... my son had a key. I opened the door and he was standing there with a cop. "What's happening?" I asked nervously. Even at thirteen my son was as tall as the burly cop. "Now, now," said the officer, "Let's go inside and talk about this." I ignored him and addressed my son, "What did you do?" He refused to look me in the eye and muttered something that I didn't understand.
"Let's go inside, Mrs. X," the cop insisted. We went inside. The officer took command of the situation, "Before we do anything, I want you to relax," he said. "Take a couple deep breaths. Your son may or may not have done something stupid tonight..." It turned out that my son and his older classmate took a cab and when it got to a block from the friend's home, he jumped out and ran without paying. The driver suspecting that my son was in on this, promptly locked the doors and drove to the precinct.
"You did what?" I exploded, as I lunged at him. "Now now, calm down," the cop said as he placed himself in front of my son - shielding him with his body - as he took me by the shoulders. At various times throughout our talk, the officer would actually push my son back behind him and it was almost comical to see him peering at me nervously from behind his protector. But this is the key part of the evening: said the officer with the beautiful turquoise eyes (as best as I can remember), "He is a boy and boys do stupid stuff. I swear it's in their DNA. I have two boys at home and they are the reason I have no hair (he was bald). Let me tell you, they have done worse. Much worse." He gave my son a good talking to, he gave me his card and had me promise to call him if I ever needed to talk, and he complimented me on the fact that my son was only concerned that I was going to be hurt and disappointed, and then he took his leave.
My son said that when the angry cab driver made his complaint, the protective cop was actually defending him (my son). The cop told the cab driver that my son had not run; that he had stayed in the cab and so could not be accused of doing anything wrong. And then he said, "Come on son, I'll take you home."
He was white (I expect that he still is).
That type of policing cannot be enacted in law; I know that. You are either that kind of person or you aren't, but the pendulum should not be swinging from one extreme to the other. There should be a livable medium.
I was blessed that evening. We live in Connecticut and not in Ferguson, Missouri.
My cop went over and beyond the call of duty.
Most times I hear him before I see him. I hear a familiar hesitant shuffling. I hear him moving in fits and starts. The cautious sound of unsure and timid feet. Checking every nook and cranny of the house. Like a small child looking semi-anxiously in the towering and numerous aisles of a large store to find his unexpectedly misplaced mother or father. He doesn't like it when people call out to him. He thinks everyone is just looking for an excuse to yell at him. It's best to just sit and let him find you. My mother says sometimes it's like watching a person re-live a day.
When he finds me he moves like he's on a mission. He stands right beside me in the chair. He just stares down at me for a second. "Shoes," he says. Pointing down at his feet. White laces dangling besides both of the navy blue sneakers we both stare down at. "Tie my shoes." He says like he's going to be five in a few more months. Like he is going out to play, the other kids are all waiting, but for these infernal knots that elude and torment him. Then he steps back. One step. Two. Staring at you, staring back down at his feet, staring back up at you.
Not this time. This time he nearly gave me a heart attack as he suddenly said "Shoes."
His solemn and unsettlingly pale blue eyes are more watery now. Sad. The years of exposure to sun, wind, and the elements from the icy dark seas of his childhood Norway to the wicked cold gales of my youth on the South Shore of Massachusetts have all left their marks. His lids are heavy, almost hooded, peering out at the world like he's waiting for something elusive. He always seems like he is looking at something a thousand miles away. But not now. Now he wants me to please hurry up and get down on my knees and tie his shoes. Which I do.
The iron hands. The ones hardened from years and years of hauling and tying ropes as a Merchant Marine and from swinging a carpenter's hammer when he became an American have passed into myth and legend. The hands I see now dangling just about at my eye level as I get to work making the loops and tucking the laces up and under. They are strangers to me now. Almost like the film prop versions of those terrifyingly strong hands that I always will remember from decades past. "Good," he says as I finish the left one. "Now do the other one."
Ten anxious fingers begin to wave side-to-side to stop me cold in mid-movement.
"Not too tight," he says. Warily. Like I sounded at five, fearful of onions snuck in the sauce.
He is eighty five now. Eighty five. He can tell you about the SS officers he saw in the early 1940's, or about his memories of going to shore in Rio in the 1950's, or about living in Brooklyn in the early 1960's at the drop of a dime. But sometimes its a coin-flip if he will remember something that happened in the last twenty years. He is a full three inches shorter than his official height measurement on his treasured US Citizenship forms from 1964. He insists that his shoe trouble is entirely due to the aches and pains of bending over or kneeling down.
But I have seen him. When he thinks he is alone and nobody is watching. I have watched him with my own eyes. Staring intensely at a single upheld shoe. Slowly, meticulously, like he's disarming an unstable bomb, as he fiddles around with the two laces. Intent to get it right. This time. This time for sure. Only to toss it down on the floor after a barrage of attempts. Exhaling in exasperation and impotent anger. Pride dissolved to shame cruelly cutting him like invisible thorns. Wondering if maybe forgetting these bits is a tiny odd mercy. Only he doesn't.
That? That he remembers. Like humiliation and shame is recorded on sterner stuff.
My mother pulled me aside one day I was visiting to say that he is only allowed to use the stove to boil water. In the tea kettle. But casually, keeping back so he doesn't feel like people are smothering him, make a note to check on him even then. His older sister died in rural Norway last Summer. At Christmas time she wandered out at night in her night clothes, alone into a swirling snow, apparently to see that her cousin had properly shuttered her home. This cousin who had died thirty years ago. Her granddaughter found her half-frozen at sunlight.
By mid-July they got the call that she passed away due to complications from that night. 89.
After that, my father going off alone for walks without telling anyone he was going out in the southern Nevada desert heat became an even bigger hypothetical nightmare for my mother.
My father gets on the telephone with his still-living brothers and sisters in Norway. He speaks Norwegian for hours on the phone. Then, when he hangs up, he sometimes forgets to switch back to English. Or he doesn't realize he's not speaking English. A nightmare for a man whose memory is fading. Being greeted with baffled and bewildered stares as he repeats himself, loudly, in Norwegian to people who don't understand the strange sounds coming out of his mouth. Like an ugly American tourist having a "DO YOU SPEAK ANY ENGLISH" moment abroad.
"Bind min sko." He might randomly say matter-of-factly.
"What?" I might hesitantly reply in bumfuzzled surprise.
"BIND. MIN. SKO." He retorts, holding out his arms in exasperation with a 'duh' look on his face. "Min SKETCHY. Min Sko. Min Sko. Min TENNY Sko." I'm just staring at this point. I'm staring at him like he just told me that he had no internal organs, because maybe he did.
(My dad has been American too long, and yet not long enough. As this is the point where the rude American tourist in Paris or Tokyo begins angrily spelling out the English words slowly at the top of his lungs to the baffled foreign soul who doesn't understand him at any volume or speed. I'm literally staring at him and waiting for S!... K!... O!...)
People who are aware that they are slowly or rapidly losing their memories sometimes have anger, or even rage, issues. They often feel picked on. Persecuted. Set up to be yelled at. They wonder if people are moving things around they can't find for their own sick amusement. There can be suspicion issues and mistrust that is hard to unwind or unpack once you get in the habit of responding negatively or with anger. When I get pissed off at my dad, I don't vent it on him, back at him, but away from him. I choose not to make things worse whenever I can.
My grandfather, deeply scarred by the rise and rule of Quisling and the Nazis that came with, was loathe to have any of his sons wear the military uniform of a nation that so easily went fascist in his eyes. Even just debating mandatory military service after the war enraged him. One day he dragged my dad and his brother down to a busy dock in Molde, he was seventeen and his brother was nineteen, he put one on a Danish ship, one on a Swedish ship, and sent them away. My father to America, my uncle to Australia. Neither ever saw his parents again. So. I don't speak Norwegian. The language of being sent into exile "for your own good" in 1947.
"Dad. You're speaking in Norwegian." (And it's like Archie Bunker Borat. Which I might share with Mom, but with you? That I won't share, as you hate both.)
"Oh. Oh. Oh. The English. Shoes. Tie my tennis shoes. The sketchy sneakers. The Sketchers."
Okay. So. For future reference... Bind min sko. "Bind/Tie My Shoes."
Anyone who has ever served as a caretaker will tell you that if you didn't laugh at some of the absurd things that arise from dealing with a loved one in crisis or decline, you'd go insane.
Tying my father's shoes is a sobering ritual. This man who is fading and fraying like his old denim work clothes did in my memories of him from when I was young. He has developed a fascination with watching previously loathed television game shows as he navigates through his later years. "They never change," my mother says, "they stay the same. Wheel of Fortune in 1985? Or 2005? Or 2015? Three contestants. A Wheel. A Word or Sentence. A smarmy host. A smiling letter-turner. Spin. Bankrupt. Buy a vowel. Bonus round. Prizes." The Elysium Fields of knowing.
The once derided becomes the friendly familiar. Even with many changes its still all the same.
"I'm finished. You're good to go." He is suddenly far less child-like. He rises up a wee bit taller.
"Good," he says. He picks up one foot, then the other, and jangles them until he can see the laces are tied. Then he confidently thanks me by my brother's name as he shuffle-strides away. A second later he freezes. He turns around. "I mean, thank you..." and then he sheepishly says my actual name before nodding once. Then turning around and returning to muscling his way towards the copper-clad cane he keeps leaning besides the front door. I can tell that he's profoundly proud that he caught himself. As I said. The Elysium Fields of knowing.
There were crunching sounds under the Lucy feet. It was not something that she was used to, she was city bread, and she was used to only a little grass here and there. This expense, of not only grass but trees and brambles was a completely different story. Not only that, but she could not see a building in any direction, and that disconcerted her, almost as much as anything else. Also, there were mountain ranges, in every direction that she looked. She had not realized that there were so many. Actually they were foothills, but she saw them as towering. In the classic book by CS Lewis, this was not extraordinary, because the children were use to it, and thought nothing of it. But these children, coming from a different background, knew no such landscape. It might as well have been on the dark side of the moon, yes trees were there, but there were many more, and they were taller, most were second growth, that is they were densely packed in. what this means is before they are where trees, the entire forest was denuded, all of the trees were second growth. What Lucy did not know, was that someone had done so, rather recently. And that someone didn't like trees at all, not one bit.
Is it their smile, their voice, their touch? They both give me so very much. I cannot imagine my life without either one. I am most definitely in love with two men and I'll openly admit it. Daily they both tug on my heart. They are so very much alike. They are men of few words, unless they are sharing about interests and passions. Surprisingly, they both have birthdays in the same month; September, the sapphire month, the Forget-Me-Not month. Each is considered handsome and similar looking, highly intelligent, with a sense of humor and the ability to take me into their world, submerging me in the details of who they are and what they're all about.
Our time together is all too limited and painfully so. Yet that precious time is prized as the most important part of my day or even week when I see and/or speak with them. Often I wonder, where would I be without them? But even more so, who would I be without them? They are the men I love, now and forever. Read on as I'm sure you too will come to love the two men I love.
"What's been going on, man? You need to pick up the phone."
"I've just been off the radar. Sorry."
"No, it's more serious than that. They have a warrant out on you."
I sought the counsel of another friend, who called his lawyer brother. "What should he do," my friend asked. "Turn himself in, immediately," the voice on the other end replied.
I raced the more than three hours home a few minutes later. I drove through the night, arriving at my parents' house for a kitchen table sit-down that still haunts me after all these years. "What were you thinking?," my parents asked, in a tone that communicated the seriousness of what I'd found myself in.
I had been a straight-laced kid for most of my life. My mom used to tell stories about the notoriousness of my rule-following as a very young man. No criminal record, of course, but that didn't mean much. In the part of the world where I grew up, and with the kind of family I had, it would have been very difficult to casually collect a criminal record. Boys will be boys, and all, and when those boys are white, South Carolina cops tend to let parents handle most things.
But this time was different. I'd stolen, and from a close friend. The challenges of college, the lack of maturity, and my parents' quickly deteriorating financial state explained, but certainly did not excuse my taking of what was not mine. The amount was large - just over $1,000, which I intended to pay back, just like most people who covertly steal.
The conversation with my parents meandered between a problem-solving session and a very private form of shaming. On one hand, they were interested in helping me out of trouble. Another part of them wanted me to face down what I'd done. My dad, always strong in a crisis, worked his back channels like a seasoned pro.
We weren't rich. Not even close, really, but my dad had enough money to pay back the victim. He also had the sort of social capital - the right appearance, the right dress, and a clean record of his own - required to hold a reasonable conversation with police and other personnel about how this might be handled.
We decided I would turn myself in to police the following Monday. In the meantime, I returned to my university Friday night, just in time to take in our game against Duke the following Saturday. Then came the longest 24 hours of my life.
My parents made the drive up, and we went to the police station together. I was booked, fingerprinted, and processed. I sat in a cell at the city jail. There, a detective allowed me to keep my cell phone while I was in the holding cell awaiting an arraignment. I shared my space with no one, but a few men occupied the cells beside me. In the toilet, fresh urine from the night before festered. I made the mistake of using the bathroom myself, stirring up an unspeakable smell that I can still recall with enough effort.
There were bars and a small, cloudy window. It was a type of dungeon, and I spent what seemed like 12 hours staring at the door, hoping someone would enter to take me out. I cried. It was fear and little else. That short time spent in jail, not knowing exactly what my fate might be, produced a sort of anxiety that's still not been matched in any other of my life's experiences.
The detective finally came in to retrieve me after two hours. He laughed as he said, "I'm glad you didn't hang yourself with your tie." At some point, he said, "Why'd you do this?" I answered honestly that I didn't know.
At my arraignment, the judge discussed the seriousness of the charges. I got to sit in a small room occupied by only the judge, me, and my father. I was released on a PR bond, saving my parents the money they might have spent hiring a bail bondsman.
That set into motion a few critical steps. We discussed the many options. Maybe I would do pre-trial intervention, a program designed specifically for non-violent first-time offenders. It never came to that, though. I never saw the inside of a courtroom again. In fact, I never even had to hire a lawyer. My dad consulted with a few lawyers he knew, asking for advice on how to handle the situation, but I was only represented by my father and my white privilege.
We approached the victim, a high-school teammate-turned college buddy, who was hurt, but accepted my apology. It took many years to re-build that relationship, but at the time, he was willing to cooperate with anything I needed. I met with his mother, explaining to her the circumstances that led to my action and taking responsibility for my mistake. She eventually wrote a letter to the solicitor asking that the charges be dropped.
There's just not much political gain in going after a nice looking white kid, especially when the victims aren't pushing for it. At the preliminary hearing - the portion of the case when the state makes the case that it has a case - prosecuting attorneys announced that all charges had been dropped. I didn't even have to go. The backchannels had been successfully worked, and I'd had a felony dismissed without so much as a community service requirement.
This week, noted anti-racist author Tim Wise asked his followers on Facebook to face their privilege, writing and talking about their experiences with law enforcement that have ended very differently than they might have if those people had looked like Michael Brown. For a long time, I've had to face that. What I've learned is that my experience has both shown me some of the things faced by mostly poor black kids and many things that they don't face.
Young black kids face the fear - the terrifying, paralyzing fear - of jail cells. The bars are real, and they say something to a young person about his identity. You're a criminal. An animal. Not fit for public consumption. In many parts of this country, young people are housed in prisons with adult offenders. The state of Florida, for instance, holds more than 350 young people in adult prisons, including kids as young as 13. These kids are significantly more likely to be sexually assaulted, as they're seen as easy prey in a system that treats them like adults in the face of extraordinary evidence that they are still vulnerable children.
I recognize that young black men growing up in poor neighborhoods may see no legitimate way out of their financial plight. There's certainly nothing that excuses crime, but there are many things that can explain why a person breaks from the straight and narrow. Living in poverty can be one of those things.
These experiences have brought me closer to the communities I will soon represent as a public defender. I have a very real way to connect with the fear I see in a young client's eyes when he realizes that the jail cell is real. I can understand the frustration of knowing that you don't have enough. I can also identify with the guilt and self-loathing that follows when you make a terrible decision and experience the public shame that accompanies an arrest.
As I've gotten more involved in the criminal justice system - this time on the right side of the aisle - I've seen that my situation is better used as a teacher if I think about what I did not experience.
Young black men who steal things do not get the opportunity to surrender peacefully, in a starched shirt and tie, five days after their crime is discovered. If they tried to flee town - as I did - they'd be marked as fugitives, and their crime might turn into a capital one. When I face my privilege, I see that a young black man in my situation would never get to enjoy one last college football Saturday in the very town where a warrant was out for his arrest. More likely, he'd have his door knocked down by a fleet of Marine-like SWAT members.
Young black men who steal things don't always get the benefit of a PR bond, especially when they're facing felonies. More often, they have bond set in the five figures. For many kids, whose families don't have the money to pay or the collateral to satisfy a bail bondsman, this means sitting in prison for weeks or even months. It means missing out on classes - high school or college - if they happen to be in them. It means losing jobs and apartments all because the judge in their case established a financial litmus test that determined whether or not they could walk free for a non-violent charge.
Many of the things that allowed me to wiggle off the hook with no official consequences would scarcely apply for a young black man who stole something. He wouldn't be granted the presumption of innate goodness that I was granted. Throughout the proceeding, there was a very real sense among everyone involved that I was a good kid who had done a bad thing. Operating within that framework, it made sense that all parties would seek a resolution that would allow a good kid to go back to doing good things. Did I deserve this presumption? Maybe. I tend to think - and must hope - that the presumption was true. And maybe it worked. I haven't accrued a criminal record since, I graduated college, got into and finished from a good law school, and have set out toward a career in public service. I wrestle with the question of the best means of achieving equality. Ultimately, I've found we might be asking the wrong question.
Sports talking heads often talk about how they want "consistency" in their quarterbacks and their shortstops. But they're wrong. A QB who throws the ball to the other team every time he drops back is perfectly consistent. A shortstop who strikes out every time up is consistent. What these people want is someone who is consistently good. When we say that we want "equality," we're using the wrong term. A criminal justice system that treated every young first-time offender like dirt - black or white - would be equal. But it might not be effective. I was granted the benefit of the doubt and the ability to outlive my mistake. While I could never argue with a straight face that I deserved the kind of leniency I received, the system would benefit from a face lift in which black kids were given the presumption of goodness rather than the assumption of criminality. It'd be a paradigm shift that might provide those young black offenders with a chance.
I know that few black kids would have had the opportunity to work the back channels like I did. In places like South Carolina, judges, prosecutors, and most upper-level detectives are white. As a white business person, my dad had the sorts of connections that were able to work the system in my favor. The assistant police chief in my town is my parents' neighbor, and he advocated the idea that I was a pretty good guy. These things don't happen by accident, and they're the sorts of connections not available to most of the kids picked up out of poor, urban neighborhoods.
It should be clear to most that the final outcome of my case - walking with only stories to tell about a few days spent in the system - would have looked very different for the average black kid. This is not to say that all municipalities throw away the key when young people commit their first non-violent offense. Houston, for instance, is notorious for handing out two-year deferred adjudication offers to a certain class of non-violent offender. While this is a deal that might let that kid walk, it looks very different from the one I got. Deferred adjudications come with a long list of requirements, and they force the defendant to stipulate his guilt. If he fails to adhere to any of the conditions, or if he's picked up on any charge in the subsequent period, his admission of guilt for the original charge will be entered, and he'll be subject to whatever sentence accompanied that first crime.
While you can argue the merits of this system - some argue it's a good way to cut first-time offenders a break, while others argue that the high fees and cumbersome requirements are designed so that poor offenders must fail - you can't argue that it's an arrangement that looks very different from the justice system I saw. And that's a real shame.
Nearly ten years later, I've dealt with my guilt. I've taken the steps necessary to ensure that I don't make the same mistake again, and I've made right with the parties I hurt, including my parents. It's taken a long time, but I've found the meaning in that particular struggle, not allowing a moment of weakness to define me, but rather, allowing it to power my own desire to do right by young, poor offenders who won't be given treatment commensurate with mine. I benefit from the very real truth that when nice, middle class white kids like me commit crimes, those crimes are seen as an aberration in an otherwise valuable trek through life. They're painted as the time a person of good character broke bad. They're bewildering, and even if they're looked on with regret, those events don't define who I am or who I can become.
Young black kids don't get to shake their criminality, and often, they wear the scarlet "C" even when they've done nothing wrong. It's why one study done recently suggested that white people with a criminal record are still more likely to get hired than black people without one. The very fact that I can tell this story is a testament to my white privilege. That I can use my story as a way of shining light on inequality sets me apart from the young black kid whose criminal conviction will forever keep him from a job, career, bank account, or even an apartment.
There are two Americas. And certainly two criminal justice systems. And when I think back to what I've done, and what I've been able to accomplish since, I'm saddened by the number of potentially valuable black lives our system throws away.
A couple of weeks ago, commonmass did a diary about coming out and told his personal coming out story. He also invited others to tell their stories, and many did. I’d strongly encourage you to read his diary if you have not. It's a wonderful diary and a number of great stories are in the comments as well. Anyway, I was otherwise occupied at the time and did not get to mine. So, follow me below the fold for my coming out story.
By the way, there is still time to tell your coming out story if you'd like to. You can tell it in the comments here, or write your own diary.
With all the open carry dumbasses making so much noise lately, I thought someone might enjoy this story from the gunniest corner of Arizona.
My dog Rooki Kahoo and I were adrift, living in motels for a long time in the period after her rescue in Los Angeles. She was profoundly fearful, so I looked for places where she could hike out in open country and work on being a dog. We spent some time in the area around Tombstone, just north of the border with Mexico.
When it comes to the exemplification and glorification of guns and open carry, Tombstone, home of the Shootout at the OK Corral, is America's Shining City on the Hill. The whole place is built on the memory of that shootout, even if its most famous participant, Wyatt Earp, spent the rest of his days trying to forget it. Streets are named for murderers long forgotten for everything but plugging someone. There are billboards featuring dead people with well-dressed gunslingers towering over them. And, of course, there are dozens of re-enactors dressed to the 1880-nines walking around with six-shooters strapped to their waists.
If you're into gun culture, Tombstone is the place to be. This is what happened to us there.
He goes on to tell of how he came to remove his guns from his home for his family's sake.
When my son was born, all of my questions suddenly had a very basic answer. I would love for him to grow up as I did, enjoying shooting but understanding that every gun is loaded and you never touch one without an adult and you don't point it at anything you don't intend to shoot. But more than that, I'd love to believe that he'll have no mischievous accidents, no suicidal depressions or homicidal rages, no moments of weakness or fits of pique or questions that can be answered by the pull of a trigger. As with all the other scenarios in which I'm the good guy with the gun, I can never be sure. I carry my permit, as I always have. But now all my guns live with my father.I made the decision not to buy a gun for similar reasons. Meet me after the fold.
In a sketch on Euphemisms, George Carlin mocks the way that language has changed, “squeezing all the humanity” out of a term that needs to describe a state of extreme pain and distress. “Shell shock” became “battle fatigue” became “Operational exhaustion” became Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Join me below the fold for a discourse on vernacular, euphemisms and triggers.
Hello all. Haven't done this in a while but I felt compelled to write again, to sing again, to share again. For the first time in a long time.
You see I'm been a bit downhearted lately. Watching blame and mud and hate from the sidelines may be popcorn time for some, but for me it gets painful. And it just makes me remember why--at least I believe--we are here....