Monday, October 29, 2012

Hurricane Bookends

Last year for Hurricane Irene, I was back in Pennsylvania, temporarily homeless after the house fire, and listening to the howling wind tear through the countryside.  Even back there, it was pretty frightening, and I’m assuming the wind was much stronger where it first hit the coast.

And now that I’m on the verge of moving back to my apartment, after 14 months of waiting, we go and get nailed by Hurricane Sandy, which is kicking in right now as I write this on Monday in the apartment I’ve lived in for the past year on the edge of Queens.  I’m starting to hear those big wind gusts every few minutes, and as the woman who lives here (and has to work today) has two gigantic oak trees in her backyard, you better believe I don’t want to hear that horrible cracking and slamming sound of a large tree falling down.

Got plenty of fresh water stored away, enough peanut butter, bread and power bars to eat a few days, two fully-charged Kindles with lights, fully-charged cellphone, this laptop with USB broadband plug, flashlight and a table-top radio with two sets of batteries.  Check, check, check, etc.  And all I’m going to do is sit down here and wait this bitch out, hopefully without drama.  NYC Transit completely shut down today, wouldn’t be surprised if it was shut down tomorrow, too, so we’ll see how things stands then.  I think the worst thing I’m worried about is a prolonged power outage which, forget about light and electricity, means no water, and going outside to relieve myself like a dog in the streets.

Phew.  And I’m one of the more sane people you’re going to run into!  I got groceries Friday night, knowing how the supermarkets would be yesterday, knowing full well how shitty people get in these situations.  People around here can be shitty enough normally.  There’s a Waldbaums about 10 blocks from here that is constant angst and bad vibes any time I go there, so I can only imagine how grotesque it was on Saturday, people with thick Long Island accents squabbling over meat, bread and milk.  Yeah.  Meat, bread and milk.  Used to be cigarettes, too.  Only four things you need in an emergency.  Never mind if you don’t normally eat meat, bread and milk.  Just fucking get it.  And now’s a good time to start smoking.

But I did have to go out yesterday for batteries, which was an ordeal, as I made the mistake of going to the local Ace Hardware, which was picked clean like a roadside gopher carcass by crows.  Ditto, Sears.  As it turned out, no one thinks “rugged survival” when it comes to Bed, Bath and Beyond … and they had a surplus of the Size C and D batteries I needed.  What blew my mind was most people were shopping as they normally would there: casually buying over-priced bedding and cookware.  Now?!  You’ve got a special fondue you make for hurricanes?!

Had a burger and fries at the local diner around sundown … me and about three other customers.  I had noticed the place was packed in the morning, so I guess everyone wanted their cabin fever meal early.  Hell, I might go down there later today, but would also rather hold on to my cash for the time being, too.

And I keep hearing this fucking portable generator, although there’s no need for it.  Normally, that’s the dumpy 24-hour gyro cart across the street that drives the landlord here nuts, the doomed soul manning it running the generator for heat in the dead of winter.  But that cart is long gone now, and I have no idea who has this generator going, which sounds like an idling mini-bike, must be one of the neighbors.  Obnoxious things.  I can see turning it on for an hour so everyone can shower, shit and shave, but otherwise, man, I’d go without.  This is especially odd considering we have power, and whoever’s running that thing is just wasting valuable gas he might need later.

Went outside a minute ago to get a feel for this thing.  I hate to say it, but it felt good.  Wind wasn’t over-powering yet, strong, but not frightening.  Light rain falling.  Probably the same kind of feeling I got walking along the Scottish coast on a windswept day, gazing out at the North Sea.  Bleak, but the sort of bleakness that suits your bones some days.  I looked up at those towering oak trees.  I can’t picture them coming down, they’re so damn big, but stranger things have surely happened. 

I’m tempted to go out walking, but probably a better idea to stay put.  I know I’d enjoy the walk in this kind of obtuse, rare weather, but I’d also have to consider people driving like lunatics and the possibility of falling tree branches/downed power lines.

All this pushes back the return to the apartment in Astoria.  I’ve been going back there the past few Saturdays, unpacking my belonging from black trashbags and getting them back onto shelves and in drawers.  It’s felt strange.  Most of this stuff is dusty and grimy after sitting unattended for over a year, so I feel the need to get it clean before I get it set up.  And I’ve spent the past year with so few possessions: clothes, cooking utensils, bathroom stuff, laptop, iPod, Kindle, DVDs, lawn chair and roll out bed with blankets.  Period.  I have to re-train my mind to get used to the concepts of real furniture, large CD and DVD collections, a lot of clothes, a normal bed.  Just unloading books put me in a weird mood … most of them, I probably won’t be re-reading.  And they’re so damn heavy to unpack.

There’s something to be said for freeing yourself up from possessions.  I’ve always been a “less is more” person, but this past year has been A LOT less.  “Psychic clutter” is the phrase that occurred to me while I unpacked: this stuff made my life feel heavier.  I can only imagine what it’s like to have a house full of this stuff as opposed to a few book cases.  Do yourself a favor and throw things out that serve no purpose – I mean that in more ways than one!

So, I took a few hours that first time back, got all my stuff unpacked and put in place, realized I’d have to come back again and do another big cleaning, then set about untangling the ball of cable wires feeding into the apartment by one of the windows.  That took some doing, but eventually got the TV and computer cables separated, pointed in the right directions, now let’s get the cable TV box and DVD player, see if I can arrange the plugs in that magical configuration that gets everything working right, think I got it, good.  Now, the TV set …

I couldn’t find it, because it wasn’t there.  That was the one thing we didn’t put into a black trashbag back in March as it was too bulky.  Landlord’s daughter recommended just turning it face down and leaving it on the cabinet where it was standing.  That’s where I left it.  Can’t recall seeing it again when I went back in September to give directions to the landlord’s nephew for the work crew on what not to throw out – then again, I wasn’t looking for it.

I’m assuming someone stole it after March – stuff like that doesn’t get accidentally thrown out.  When I told the landlord, she slapped her head and said, “Ah-Billy, they-ah got some of my fine-ah Chinah, too!  I-ah think it was-ah the bunch of Filipinos my-ah nephew got in here to clean-ah out the junk.”  Yeah, well, there were any number of people who could have picked that thing up some quiet Friday evening and walked it out to his waiting car.  I had thought since a family member as handling the construction that I wouldn’t have to worry about stuff like this, but I should have also considered that guy would be hiring any number of people to do side jobs: debris removal, plumbing, electrical, that could have conceivably left any of these workers in that apartment alone for hours.

Ultimately, I have to blame myself for being so lackadaisical with an item that cost a few hundred dollars and would obviously be eye candy to any schlubby, low-level thief.  As it was, when I told the landlord, she said she’d try to get her old 42-inch flat-screen TV for me since she got a new TV under her insurance, which was very nice of her.  We shall see.  I shouldn’t get too upset.  Here I am, espousing the joys of less possessions, when some low-level prick does me the favor of lightening the load by stealing a TV set that, for all I know, might have been water damaged.  (It was positioned in that one area of the floor where water was coming through the ceiling.)  I figured it would cost me a few hundred bucks to move back in, just in terms of replacing minor items like rugs and small appliances.

And I was back there Saturday, doing one last big clean, foaming down my easy chairs and scrubbing the year-long grime out of their fabric, dusting, mopping, getting the place as clean as possible, because that’s what struck me after the first visit, the place still felt dirty despite the landlord hiring a cleaning lady to go over the place a few weeks earlier.  As far as I’m concerned, I got it just-so that day and am ready to go back …

… only to have this shithouse storm blow in out of the Atlantic and put everything on hold!  That’s how life works sometimes.  That’s surely how it worked the night of the fire, when I was standing on the sidewalk in a pair of shorts, holding a cellphone, and thinking that might be all I walk away with.  One thing I noticed while unpacking my shoes was the pair of sandals that the couple down the block had given me that night, the first sign that other people were looking at me like a human in need and acting accordingly.  I’m keeping those, and if I see that couple again while I’m out sweeping or shoveling snow, I’m going to go back in my apartment and return those sandals.  Which I don’t wear anyway, but those things felt so good in my hands on Saturday, reminded me that not everyone’s a prick, and some people will go out of their way to help you.  Things to keep in mind over the next few hours and days.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Outcasts in Scoutland

I’m just finishing up the memoir by Damien Echols, one of the infamous West Memphis Three, who were placed in Arkansas jails for nearly two decades (Echols on death row) for the murder of three small boys in 1993 in a patch of woods in West Memphis (Robin Hood Hills), but were recently released under an Alford Plea that, as the Wiki page notes, “allows them to assert their innocence while acknowledging that prosecutors have enough evidence to convict them.”

Strange stuff, and a strange ending to a troubling case.  This is the end of it, unless someone comes forward with either a blockbuster confession or fresh evidence.  Echols isn’t a bad writer, although he leans into purplish prose too often for my tastes.  His wild abuse of the word “magick” (he spells it that way) is something that should have been reined in by his editor – the word appears every other page.  It’s like reading a treatise from a private-school rebel who insists on using the word “America” constantly and spelling it with a “k.”

The pain of it for me is … I think he and his friends might be guilty.  “Might” is the key word there.  Thank God I didn’t have to sit on a jury for this case, because it’s one of those cases with a ton of circumstantial evidence, some physical evidence (but no smoking guns) and both direct and secondary confessions that can all be interpreted in any number of ways.  I touched on this case briefly in another post a few years ago.  You could tell at that point I had watched the documentaries and read one of the books on the case, all of which are stacked decks leaning far towards the not-guilty side.

The few hours of research I’ve done in the past few weeks while reading the Echols book have been illuminating.  I hadn’t known there was so much evidence available regarding the case.  The  Callahan site is a mother lode of material: evidence, testimonies, confessions, etc.  It would take weeks to wade through the whole site, and hats off to whoever compiled that mountain of material.

Why do I lean towards the guilty side now?  Well, I’d recommend that if you have any experience living in a small town, you should think about your small town and how this case would have happened there.  My hometown in Pennsylvania was and is surrounded by woods.  When we were growing up, we had a place on the edge of town called Scoutland that was a few acres of trails and cabins that must have been used as a camping site in previous decades.  By the time we got there in the late 60s and 70s, the cabins were still there, but no longer used.

We loved Scoutland.  If you were a kid, and you had a bike (meaning every kid in town), you went to Scoutland and spent a lot of time there, especially in summer.  Kids were there all day in summer, riding bikes through the woods, playing army or cowboys-and-indians, hiking, or just hanging out.  It was also a popular place for mini-bikes – these days, you would find four-wheelers.  Many kids probably had awkward first kisses and sexual encounters in those woods.  I think someone bought that property a few years back, so it’s probably no longer open to the public.  I’m not even sure how it was open to us back then, but it surely was.

And all I can think now is, Jesus Christ, the horrible shit that could have gone on there.  We were completely separated from the outside world.  Had we screamed, people in the few homes near the edge of Scoutland could have heard this, but probably would have assumed it was just kids messing around.  If anything strange, violent and/or sexual happened there, we would have had to deal with it on our own as children.  I recall once, sitting by a stream, just talking to myself and day-dreaming, when I suddenly heard a voice in the bushes nearby mimic what I had just said and snicker.  I was sure it was one of the older kids from town, probably out there getting stoned with one of his friends, but I pretended not to hear it, got on my bike and left as fast as I could, because I realized I was being watched, and being watched by someone I knew was a scumbag.

The same thing that happened to those kids could have easily happened to any of us there.  But ask yourself.  Who hangs out in the woods?  I can answer that easily: other kids.  Kids on bicycles.  Kids playing in the woods, because they present another world from the rural/suburban one with parents.  Kids with BB guns, shooting at birds and squirrels.  And not just those relatively innocent 8-12 year-old-kids.  Kids who are too young to drive, or old enough to drive but can’t afford to have cars.  When you get past that certain age of innocence, kids who are up to no good.  Getting high.  Drinking.  Hanging out in the woods because they feel dislocated and strange.  The woods are cool because it lets them escape from a world they see as complete bullshit.

I rarely saw adults in Scoutland, and if I did, they were there as part of some Boy Scout or fresh-air program.  Adults just didn’t go there of their own free volition.  You went there if you were a kid.  I don’t doubt Robin Hood Hills held the same allure for kids who live in West Memphis.  It was put forth that the three kids who were killed had some type of tree house or fort they were frequenting in that area.  It would make sense that they’d go there after school on a nice day in May and hang out.

It’s been put forth by some people that the crime scene at Robin Hood Hills was only a drop-off point for the already-murdered children … but two of the boys essentially drowned in the small creek there.  They were found with water in their lungs, i.e., still alive after they were bludgeoned, then hog-tied with shoelaces and not just thrown in the creek, but tied to sticks stuck in the creek bed with their own clothes so their bodies would stay submerged.  Meaning whoever killed them, killed them right there. 

Besides, think about it.  The boys were seen in the vicinity of those woods just before all this happened.  They were clearly headed there on their own.  Someone is going to go to the trouble of abducting them from those woods, taking them in a car or van, killing them somewhere else, and then bringing them back to dump them in the same place where they were last seen?  No.  We’re talking rural Arkansas.  This was a patch of woods on the edge of a town by an interstate.  If someone who saw those boys go into the woods transported them somewhere else and killed them, I’d wager that there were a few thousand better places to dump the bodies than a patch of woods on the edge of town by an interstate.  If it’s anything like Pennsylvania (and it is), there are places you can drive to for miles, dump a body, and the body may not be found for weeks or months, if ever.

So, I’m thinking whoever killed them, killed them right there in those woods, and had no way of transporting them out those woods.  It’s been put forth separately that two of their step-fathers were possible suspects.  Mind you, not acting together.  Three kids were killed.  I’m assuming one adult will not be able to kill three kids.  At least one of those kids could have broken free and run away when he saw what was happening.  This also rules out the possibility of a vagrant performing the murders.  There had to be more than one person present.  Either step-father acting on his own … forget about why on earth either of these men would want to murder his own son and two other boys … I’m not seeing how either could accomplish this on his own.  Or why.

There had to be more than one person involved.  I’m not sure of the alibis of the step-fathers, but they were apparently good enough for the police not to consider them suspects for long.  Whereas the three teenagers convicted had alibis that didn’t hold up in court.  Two of them tested positive for deception in polygraphs.  One of them, Echols, was seen walking near the woods later that night in muddy clothes.  One of them confessed to the killings numerous times: Jesse Misskelley.  (You can listen to a few of those confessions here, although be forewarned that it's gruesome listening.)  It’s been put forth that his extremely low IQ should have discounted at least the first confession to the police.  But he then confessed again, with his defense attorney present, and once again after being convicted, to two deputies driving him from the court. 

His story had holes in it.  And you could look at it this way.  If his story was air-tight and matched every loophole that could have occurred in this situation, then it would have been clear that he had been coached and somehow coerced into giving this air-tight explanation of what happened, case closed, they did it.  As it was, he got facts wrong and appeared confused at times … which is exactly how I’d picture someone with an extremely low IQ confessing.  He’s going to get things wrong, and embellish, and possibly just say stupid shit that is outrageous and totally incorrect. 

And if he’s supposedly that dumb … how on earth would he have the imagination to concoct such a story, especially the “cult” stuff the he claimed was going on in the woods previous to the murders?  I’d love to hear what cops said to him in the three hours before the taped confession, and what was publicly known about the case on June 3rd, when he was first interviewed, to compare with what he put forth.  They should also understand Misskelley’s father was allowed to attend the questioning as his son was a minor, but chose not to, which boggles my mind, if I had a kid being hauled in by police on a murder investigation, you better believe I would make myself available every step of the way.

It’s this combination of things that has me wondering what happened that day.  In my mind, knowing how woods are in rural areas, knowing who spends time in them, only other kids, probably older kids, would have committed this crime.  And I don’t buy into the satanic bullshit (unless it was half-assed teenage attempts at mimicking this sort of decadence), which the prosecutors used successfully in a heavily Baptist/Christian part of the country.  (Believe me, if it had worked in the defense team’s favor, they’d have done this, too.)  Echols described himself as a Wiccan at the time and was clearly dabbling in the occult to judge by the evidence.  Even a cursory examination of his mental state around that time shows a severely troubled kid, not the sweet, well-meaning outcast, which is exactly how he remembers himself in his book, when the evidence suggests a much more mean-spirited kid.  But I’m just picturing him and the other two killing time in the woods, as bored teenagers often do, maybe drunk or stoned, when these three boys enter the woods, the older boys start picking on them, one of the boys fights back, things escalate, and next thing you know, this horrible turn of events.

But did that really happen?  There’s very little evidence to suggest so, and there’s the rub.  It’s hard to believe that three teenagers getting out of control like this and killing three small boys would not leave behind more evidence.  Granted, dumping the kids in the water destroyed what was more than likely a ton of DNA and blood evidence.  I doubt that was the killers’ motive – they just wanted to hide the bodies as much as possible.  But it’s unquestionably strange that in all these years, more evidence could not be produced linking any of them to the crime scene.

In his book, Echols makes a point of noting that people never grow up, actually when he was referring to Wiccans, that they somehow get stuck emotionally in their teen years and want to stay there forever.  Point well taken.  He makes a lot of good points in the book.  Frankly, I like the guy as I’m reading the book.  The interviews I’ve read of Jason Baldwin since his release, he seems like a thoroughly likable person who learned a lot from his time in prison.  Misskelley has been pretty quiet, but also seems to have shown some humanity by desiring to be close to his father and living quietly in that same area.

Which doesn’t mean they’re innocent!  It just means that I’m prone to liking them personally, or at least how they’ve been presented to me as someone reading along with recent developments.  Echols doesn’t consider that inability to grow up emotionally a positive thing.  But he should.  Because I’d put forth that’s the reason why he’s now free.  He and the other two have had a groundswell of support over the years, thanks mainly to the documentaries, from people who clearly view themselves as similar outcasts who could have easily been in their place in similar circumstances.

If you read along with the various guilty/not guilty websites, it’s clear that a lot of the people leaning in the not guilty direction know well that rural/suburban sense of dislocation and misunderstanding that kids like Echols were wandering around in circa the early 90s.  I’d say they view that sense of being outcast as a shadow that follows them around as adults, but I’d go a step further and suggest the shadow has become who they are.  They can’t or don’t want to let go of that teenage sense of dislocation, because it had such a deep impact on their psyche at the time, because it permanently tainted their view of humanity.  They spend all their lives viewing any authority figure as an alien presence that always means harm, and themselves as purely innocent people just trying to make sense of the world around them.  When reality is just as much them positioning themselves against anything that threatens this “innocent” view of the world.  Their entire lives are one big defense mechanism, which is how most people seem to go through life now, much less people with authority issues.

The world as I’ve experienced it has crossed itself so many times over, in terms of what I should or shouldn’t believe in, what is or isn’t true, how much I do know, how much I don’t, that I’d be hard-pressed to live by any set rule in terms of how I deal with other people, especially authority figures, some of whom I’ve found to be no more or less human than I am.  I treat each situation, each person, differently, based on what I’ve learned about life over the years, and I’m a lot more cautious/less trusting than I used to be, mainly because appearances can be deceiving.  I’d also put forth that I bend over backwards to avoid situations that could end up with me being institutionalized in any sense, particularly in places like court rooms, hospitals or prisons, because those worlds look like hell to me, and mainly because of the complete lack of control one is allowed to have over the course of his life in such places.  I can't blame these guys for wanting to go free after a few decades in that environment and seizing the opportunity,whatever the circumstance; we'd all do the same, innocent or guilty.

I really don’t know what happened here and am assuming very few people do.  But hopefully what I’ve noted above sheds some light on what I understand about small towns and “the woods” that surround them.  What I’ve noted above is an honest recollection of personal experience hanging out in the woods as a kid, which I’m putting forth because I really haven’t seen anyone else come at the story from this angle.  Which doesn’t make me right or wrong, or anyone guilty or innocent, but hopefully adds more things to think about with this awful case, as I'm sure there are plenty of other adults out there who remember the woods in their town the same way.