Dispatches
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Trouble

Justice Served

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012: Stories, Trouble.

After years of avoiding or being dismissed from jury duty, I was finally selected yesterday as a juror on a trial in which our county sheriff’s department had filed a criminal charge of assault on a peace officer, naming a 20-year-old man I will call Brady as defendent.

Brady is a convicted felon who at the time of the incident was living in a single-wide trailer in a trailer park on the outskirts of town with his mother and two 10-year-old boys, Brady’s brother and a cousin. Brady looks a bit like Justin Timberlake with the crewcut and stubble beard. We never learned the nature of his felony, since it wasn’t pertinent to the current charge. He was on probation for the felony conviction and has an admitted drinking problem, for which he was in a program called Drug Court, entailing daily monitoring and testing by county officers.

The night before the incident, Brady’s mother had left for the state capital to accompany a friend who was having a medical procedure. She had left Brady in charge of the little boys. On the day of the incident, Brady got up early, woke the boys and made sure they had what they needed, and left for his construction job at the historic downtown hotel which is being refurbished.

The boys went to school that day and returned home in the afternoon, where Brady met them after getting off work, again making sure they had what they needed for the evening. Then he went to the gym, where he regularly tried to work out the stress of his probation and all that micromanagement of his life by the county. In early evening, the sheriff’s department got a call from someone at the school, expressing concern that the boys were unsupervised at home, and a junior officer was dispatched to the trailer to make a “welfare check.” He found the boys alone and was told Brady was taking care of them. His superior, a sargeant, arrived a few minutes later.

At the gym, Brady got a call from a neighbor who said the trailer was surrounded by cops, so Brady raced home and skidded to a stop behind the junior officer’s vehicle. He saw the two officers standing outside the door of the trailer and shouted “What the fuck are you doing here?”

The junior officer, standing at the door, on a small porch at the top of three steps, said they were conducting a welfare check on the two boys, and Brady, now at the bottom of the steps and increasingly agitated, responded “Show me your warrant!” The officer mentioned the welfare check again, and Brady started up the steps.

The officer, who was larger than Brady, shoved Brady in the chest, and they both fell backward onto a small cement landing containing a large rock. The officer, on top of Brady, turned him over and cuffed his hands behind his back. The two officers pulled him to his feet, marched him to the nearest patrol car, and pushed him into the back.

While the sheriff’s officers waited “for Brady to calm down,” the junior officer went into the trailer “to make sure the boys had something to eat,” despite the fact that the primary goal of the welfare check – to ensure that the boys had supervision – had been met. When the officers returned to the patrol car, Brady apologized for his initial hostility, and they released him from the car and the cuffs. Then Brady’s mother arrived, back from her trip, and the officers explained why they were there and departed.

That night, the junior officer opened a report describing the welfare check, but omitting the incident with Brady.

Brady had bruised a rib in his fall on the rock, and the next day he and his mother filed a complaint at the sheriff’s office.

Finally, four days later, the junior officer completed his report, claiming that Brady had “charged up the stairs at him in a threatening manner” and he feared imminent physical harm, and the department filed a criminal charge of assault.

In the trial, the only witnesses to the incident were the two officers and Brady. The boys had been inside the trailer and only came to the windows after they heard the men crashing to the ground. But the officers’ testimony was vague and conflicting. Neither could remember precise dates or times, and the sargeant admitted under defense examination that when he thought Brady was “charging” the junior officer, Brady could equally likely have been trying to get into the trailer to make sure the boys were okay. During the incident, both officers had recorders on their belts which they had failed to turn on, so there was no objective evidence of the exchange between the three men.

Both the boys and their mother were brought in as witnesses for the defense. It was clear the boys idolized Brady, and they both seemed like good boys, but it also became clear that Brady’s younger brother had been coached by his elders on what to say, so their testimony didn’t do us any good. The mother was nervous, flustered and inarticulate, her voice seemingly ravaged by cigarettes, whiskey, or worse, so she couldn’t do much good either.

Brady had been serious and subdued throughout the proceedings, but when the boys were brought in, you could tell he was concerned for them. His own testimony was articulated simply and straightforwardly, with concentration and apparent sincerity. He said he wasn’t threatening the officer, he was just trying to get into the trailer to see the boys.

The judge in the case was a pleasant, mild-mannered woman who mostly just let things roll. Both the prosecuting and defense attorneys were big men with huge bellies; the defense attorney resembled 1950s TV personality Captain Kangaroo and had a distinctive rocking gait and dramatic gestures. The state prosecutor – our paid servant – repeatedly misrepresented the facts we had been shown and the testimony we had heard, in an obvious attempt to cloud our judgment. His voice and arrogant presentation reminded me of Agent Smith in The Matrix movie. The defense attorney, on the other hand, overstated his case so much that we were kept hours beyond the expected close of the trial.

After the opening testimony of the two officers, I had made up my mind that there was ample reasonable doubt about what happened at the steps of the trailer. But during the hours that remained, I agonized a bit about what the other jurors – all women, all strangers – where thinking. What if a majority believed Brady guilty? Would I have to sacrifice my convictions for a unanimous verdict?

Finally we found ourselves alone in the jury room. One of the women laid a notepad with notes on the table in front of her, looked at me and said “You’re the foreman!” The other women all chimed in “Yes!” I sighed, considered for a few minutes and agreed, always unwilling to shirk responsibility. I asked the woman across from me to share her notes. They turned out to be points of doubt that we all agreed with. I signed the Not Guilty form and we returned to the courtroom, where the judge read our verdict, Brady and his attorney rejoiced, and we jurors were quickly led out of the building into the mountain sunshine, where the cottony clouds of monsoon season were mustering around us in the sky, their bellies darkening under the weight of impending rain.

We can never know exactly what happened between Brady and the officer, but it had become clear to us jurors that the junior officer had been the aggressor in the incident, that he had exceeded his duty by entering the trailer against Brady’s wishes, as a form of intimidation, and that days later, after Brady filed a complaint, the sheriff’s department had decided to retaliate with a criminal charge, seeing Brady the convicted felon as an easy target. We, on the other hand, saw Brady as someone working hard to turn his life around and be a responsible caregiver for the boys. If the sheriff’s department had its way, Brady would have ended up in prison, and the boys would be left with a broken family and a discouraging experience of an unfair society.

And I was reminded again that the people who are paid to serve us sometimes try to harm us instead. It was only the incompetence of these officers that betrayed them in their shameful mission.

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Moments of Release

Tuesday, October 9th, 2012: Stories, Trouble.

Last night I watched Never Let Me Go for the second time. Again, I cried at the ending. I cried gloriously for fifteen minutes, in waves of convulsive sobbing that propelled me staggering through the house, blindly clutching doorways and furniture.

I never know how much pain of loss I’m bottling up inside until something like this opens the gates of grieving, and, unfortunately, my hands have more fingers than my life has moments of true release. I suppose it’s how I was raised, my midwestern reserve.

I’ll never forget that night, alone in bed, my first year in San Francisco. I was in my 20s, making good money at an easy job, and I was a creative powerhouse, turning out experimental art, music and writing every day, circulating in the vibrant creative underground, meeting new people every week. But in the near-suicidal aftermath of a 6-year relationship, I’d been single and unloved for three years, I was living alone, and that night I couldn’t get to sleep because I couldn’t find my heart. It was sinking out of sight, shrunken and black, into bottomless depths. My chest felt empty and although my mind was filled with images of loss, no tears would flow. All I felt was a terrifying numbness, and I wondered if I would ever be able to cry again.

That question was answered the following year, just after I’d moved into the Loft. I was sleeping with an art student from Brooklyn who was nearly a decade younger than me. One night after making love, sensitive to our age difference, she tried to pick away at my perceived maturity by probing for old memories of loss, rejection, injustice or cruelty. Very cleverly she trapped me in a downward spiral of memories I’d been avoiding, until I was broken, sobbing and moaning in her arms.

Grieving can assume an epic scale in the desert. Twenty years ago, I was living and working on a remote ecological preserve in the Mojave, staying in touch with my city girlfriend via an old pay phone in a lab trailer, when one night she announced that she’d been sleeping with the bass player in her band for the past couple of months.

The cabin I was sharing with co-workers was at the high end of a valley ringed with low cliffs, and from the cabin an old trail led out of the valley into an empty, isolated basin. Under the full moon I walked that trail away from the company of men, until I got to a circular clearing surrounded by Larrea clones, the stark, moonshadowed shrubs my only company, still and silent, ranks of them standing off into the distance where granite cliffs rose up white as bone.

There, I went down to the ground and howled and pounded the gravel, thrashing like a mad man, wearing myself out in a frenzy of raw pain. Night after night I had fallen asleep watching the moon moving slowly through the sky, imagining that she was my distant girlfriend. And now, like the girl who had attached herself to someone else, the moon seemed cold and pitiless, shining clinically on my suffering.

Do some of us feel things more deeply? Or is it just that we bottle up our feelings until they get out of hand? You’d think that those of us who work in the expressive arts would have plenty of outlets for grief and loss, but that probably works better for some – actors, maybe? – than for others.

All I know is that I owe a debt of gratitude to those artists who give me random moments of release – like the creators of Never Let Me Go.

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25th Anniversary

Friday, October 17th, 2014: Stories, Trouble.

Condemned

25 years ago on this day, I was at work in the Berkeley Marina. My home, across the Bay in San Francisco, was, according to a well-travelled friend, “the most beautiful loft in the world.” But since building it out 8 years earlier, I had known that the tall, crumbling concrete building couldn’t withstand a major earthquake. Only 2 months earlier, there had been a sharp tremor in the early morning that knocked over and shattered a big mirror, and I had spent a week at a friend’s house until I was calm enough to return home.

On that Tuesday afternoon in October, I was standing in a doorway in our 2nd floor office when the wood frame building suddenly turned to rubber. Walls and floors rippling and swinging me from side to side, bookcases and filing cabinets crashing down, dust rising inside and outside the plate glass windows. Then, as the rolling and tumbling subsided, people began yelling to each other, climbing over furniture, coming together and heading outside.

I knew the moment had come – I had lost my home and studio across the water, and I was in shock – but Mae, my assistant, also had a home, and a partner, in the City, and I felt responsible for her. The phones and the power were out, but I had a new mini-SUV – my previous ride had been totaled a few weeks earlier by crackheads in a hit-and-run.

The long, straight Marina road, facing the UC Berkeley campanile and the Berkeley Hills, had been split down the middle, with the lanes separated by a wide crack, one lane lower than the other. Straight ahead, somewhere near campus and downtown, a mushroom cloud rose ominously, thousands of feet into the sky.

There was nothing but noise on the radio. We were just trying to get home – we had no idea what we would find ahead. When we reached the freeway, we could see it was a solid mass of stopped traffic. We turned onto the frontage road, where traffic was moving slowly, and made it to Emeryville, where we found a chaos of vehicles backtracking and looking for a way out, since they couldn’t get to the Bay Bridge and traffic lights were off.

I suggested that we try to reach my drummer’s house in Oakland. After a while I was able to reach the warehouse district on the other side of the freeway, where the main through street was completely jammed. Putting my new vehicle to the test, I drove over a curb, up an embankment, and across the railroad tracks, and following back alleys and back streets for miles, we finally made it to Mike’s.

“The Bay Bridge is down, and San Francisco is burning!” he shouted when he saw us. His house was fine and the phone and power were on, but we couldn’t get through to the City. On his TV, the same three video clips rotated over and over. In the first one, shot from a helicopter in the north of the city, block after block of fallen buildings were burning, as if they’d been bombed. All the power was out and the helicopter kept a safe distance. What we could see looked like a war zone. Another scene showed a smaller fire that seemed to be closer to the loft, and the third, taken before dark, showed the huge section of steel and concrete that had dropped from the upper deck of the bridge, cars piled up at random angles in the gap.

Mike’s girlfriend joined us, and we all sat around silently watching and waiting. Hours later, the phone rang. It was my roommate, John, calling from the loft. The power was out, things had been thrown around a bit, and a big chunk of concrete had fallen from the wall and crushed the toilet, but the building was still standing. Mae reached her partner, who was safe at home, with the power back on. We decided to try to reach the city by way of Marin County and the Golden Gate.

In the wee hours of the morning, having dropped Mae off at her Noe Valley apartment, I was driving through a canyon of dark tenements down a wide street filled with debris and lined with burning trash cans. All power was out here in the city’s core, and ahead of me, as far as I could see, the black silhouettes of homeless people lurched back and forth between the flames.

It took days for the government to respond. In the meantime, our landlord’s first response was to replace the toilet. Our neighborhood was one of the two most devastated parts of the city – parts of buildings had collapsed, killing people. Communications had broken down across the region, and we didn’t hear about the freeway tragedy in Oakland until days later.

Everyone’s lives and routines were put on hold as the streets filled with officials, cleanup crews, and dump trucks. I didn’t want to sleep in my threatened home, and Mae and her partner offered me their guest bed. Two days before the quake, a new roommate had moved into the loft, a young artist who had had a disturbing dream her first night there. In response, she had created a big spooky drawing, of three figures wrapped in shrouds, that was hanging on the wall in her room. After the quake she had been stranded in the East Bay, so I drove the long way around to get her. That night, we joined Mike and Kele high up on the Oakland Hills, gazing soberly over the vast metropolitan area with its new patches of darkness, freeways mostly empty, the usual rumble of traffic muted.

On Friday, the fourth night after the quake, power had been restored, and Leslie and I decided to sleep at home. The first night, I dreamed I was carried, suspended upright, though a dark tunnel beneath the earth, toward a glow that was the epicenter of the quake. As I approached the center, the glow increased, and I was filled with a growing sense of well-being, a sense that a great tension had been relieved. The earth was showing me what had happened, and why, and I woke up refreshed.

After the weekend, the landlord brought an engineer to look at the structural columns and foundation – all cracked through, with rusted and broken rebar hanging out like spaghetti – and our front door was red-tagged for demolition. It was the end, the end of almost a decade of artistic drama, an ever-changing community of inspired and unstable young bohemians – the highs and the lows, the all-night sessions of drawing, painting, jamming, rehearsing plays, partying, sharing ideas and passions. Could it also be a new beginning?

After packing and moving everything into storage, Leslie and I were brought together in our search for a new home. Property owners had responded to the crisis by raising rents across the entire region – they were asking twice or three times what we had been paying, even in the East Bay. So we slept on friends’ floors and couches. She got a temporary room in a dorm at her alma mater in Oakland, where the doors were locked at sundown and I had to sneak around back and throw rocks at her upper window to get her to let me in.

John had met his new girlfriend just before the quake, and they decided to squat in the red-tagged loft until the bitter end, camping in the ruins without utilities, hauling jugs of water to drink, bathe, and flush the brand-new toilet. They stayed for a month longer, until the doors and windows were boarded up by official decree.

Weeks after the quake, after two episodes of standing in line at makeshift government offices, Leslie and I finally got a FEMA voucher that allowed us to stay in a cheap motel in a poor neighborhood. Using a food voucher, we grabbed steak dinners at Sizzler and a six-pack of beer at a corner store, and climbed the urine-soaked stairs to our room. We ate, it got dark, we drank a couple of beers. We got used to the smell until we hardly noticed it. In the darkness by the open window, with the sounds and lights of the avenue outside, it began to feel like an exotic, romantic place, like a flophouse in Bangkok. Leslie got up, went over, and stretched out on the sagging bed. “Give me a massage,” she said.

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Eve of Destruction

Monday, August 10th, 2020: Black Range, Hikes, Hillsboro, Nature, Plants, Southwest New Mexico, Stories, Trouble.

In my endless rotation of weekly hikes, it was time to return to the 10,000′ peak east of town. It was looking to be another hot day, but as usual during the monsoon, I was hoping for cloud cover and maybe even rain later in the day.

Starting from the trailhead I saw damp ground in the shade, evidence that it had rained last night or late yesterday. Vegetation was lush and humidity was high as the sun beat down on me. Since the first half of the 5-mile hike to the peak is exposed, I was racing to climb up into the shade of mixed conifer forest. And I was scanning the sky for clouds that might develop into thunderheads.

I’d gotten an early start, and I reached the peak shortly after noon. I immediately started down the backside on the continuation of the crest trail, into old growth firs and meadows deep with grass and ferns. I came across several deer and a small flock of wild turkeys, maybe the same I’d seen here a few weeks ago.

At the saddle that marked the end of the maintained trail, I decided to try fighting my way through the big blowdown that blocked the rest of the crest trail. It descends into a broad bowl that funnels into a ravine. The trail has been mostly obliterated. I climbed over log after log, found a remnant of the trail with a couple of old cairns, and continued down to the bottom of the bowl, where I faced even bigger logs. There, the trail ended in a heavily eroded gully where debris – piles of rocks – had filled in where the trail used to be. There was no clue where to go next, so I turned and fought my way back to the saddle.

On the return hike, moving slower, I noticed wildflowers I’d missed on the way in. I’m sure I’ve seen most or all of these before, but they seemed new and exciting. I heard thunder overhead, and it began to rain, but never hard enough to require my poncho.

The temperature up there dropped thirty degrees or so, and despite the sporadic rain, my sweat-soaked shirt soon dried out. I continued to make my way in and out of dark cloud shadows, rain, and brief spells of sunlight, enjoying the flowers along the way.

Finally I reached the highway and drove home.

The next morning I woke late, went to the bathroom, smelled toxic smoke – like burning plastic – and suddenly smoke billowed out of the heating vent at my feet. I ran outside in my bedclothes, yanked the basement door open, and saw my basement engulfed in flames. At that moment I knew the life I depended on was over. I ran back inside, called 911, rushed into pants and shoes, grabbed my keys and wallet.

My music studio was directly over the inferno, so I raced in there and grabbed the two instruments I’d taken out of storage – my precious vintage electric guitar and a cheap electric bass. Then I ran outside. Police were arriving, blocking off the street.

I moved both my vehicles out of the driveway. Finally after a few minutes, a fire engine arrived. Firemen ran hoses down the driveway. The police moved me out of the way, to where my neighbors were gathering. I couldn’t see what was going on at the back of my house, but smoke was coming out of my roof. I was terrified and in shock.

Much later, another fire engine arrived, and they ran another, larger hose to the back of my house. I asked for information but they couldn’t tell me anything yet. I asked why there weren’t more engines and firemen, and they said this was all that was available now.

More and more smoke poured out of my house. I literally couldn’t stand, and collapsed on the sidewalk in front of my neighbor’s place. So they brought out folding chairs. After an hour or so, getting up and peeking around the yellow police tape, I could see firemen coming in and out through my front door. They’d opened all my windows. I asked a policeman if someone could try retrieving my computer from the office, and within minutes they’d brought it out. Later, I remembered my phone was still on my desk, and a helmeted fireman got it for me. Finally, I was told the fire was under control but they had to clear the smoke. They set up a fan at my front door.

Looking down the driveway, I could see a growing pile of blackened, sodden trash. Firemen were pulling everything out of the burned basement because it was now flooded and they needed clear space to pump the water out. That pile of blackened, sodden trash was all that remained of my Archives – the history of my life since earliest childhood, all my correspondence, journals, high school yearbooks, university transcripts and degrees, reference material, the history of my bands and art projects, recent tax records. My old friend Katie’s wonderful sculptural art – dozens of pieces incinerated. My camping gear. Old clothes and shoes, surplus furniture. Nothing of great material value, lots of sentimental value.

The silver lining was that a couple months ago, unable to work on my painting project, I’d carried all my archival music tapes up to my office, planning to finish digitizing them.

Gradually, the firemen and police left. The fire marshall stayed for hours, investigating the source of the fire. In the end, he had no definite conclusions, but the water heater and old electrical wiring were possible culprits. There remains the question of insurance, which keeps me in a state of uncertainty.

My neighbors have been wonderful as usual. One fed me breakfast as I waited for the fire marshall’s investigation. I’ve moved into the guest room of their house next door. Every five minutes or so I remember something I need and return to my damaged house. The kitchen and bathroom are coated with black soot, and the burned smell makes it hard to spend more than a few minutes in the house. It looks like the floor under the kitchen and dining room/music studio will need to be replaced, plus half the central heating ducting and attic insulation.

It’s sad because my builder was just finishing his restoration of my back porch, with its floor of antique oak tongue and groove. Most of his work has been destroyed, along with one end of the floor. All the utilities to my house have been disconnected, and I will need to hire an electrician, a plumber, and a licensed contractor to get everything going again. Not to mention the cleanup. Rough estimate is 6-8 months before I have a home again.

Living from minute to minute. So lucky I woke up just as the fire was starting! So lucky the firemen were able to stop it from spreading!

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