Sunday, July 26, 2015

190. The Village Nursing Home: Auntie Mame and Guinness Stout

     On my way to my dentist in the 1960s and 1970s, I walked past the big six-floor red-brick building at 320 West 12th Street that housed the Village Nursing Home, and on sunny days I usually saw some of the residents sitting in wheelchairs out on the sidewalk in front, getting a bit of fresh air (if “fresh” is appropriate for New York City air).  When my dentist, whose office was just across West 12th, told me of making visits there to tend the residents, I asked him how it was.  He gave a mixed review, saying that some of the staff were truly committed, while for others it was just a job, which is probably the case with most nursing homes.  At least, no horror stories emerged from there, so far as I recall. 

The Nursing Home building today.

     Two of its residents were legendary in the Village.  Marion Tanner, a graduate of Smith College and onetime actress often described as the inspiration for Auntie Mame, was made famous when her nephew, under the pen name Patrick Dennis, allegedly wrote about her in a best-selling 1955 novel that became a Broadway play starring Rosalind Russell (I saw it in 1957, loved it), then a movie that became a Broadway musical that in turn became a movie.  Ms. Tanner at first embraced the notion that she was the model for the eccentric, fun-loving Mame and coasted on it for quite a while, then distanced herself, insisting that she was a nicer person than Mame.  But as late as 1977 she was photographed in the nursing home, white-haired and smiling benignly, under a photo of Rosalind Russell in the film.

     Whether or not she was the model for Mame – accounts differ -- she was certainly a colorful Village eccentric, opening her home at 72 Bank Street to struggling artists, writers, freethinkers, and radicals (“Bohemian types,” she called them), whom she encouraged in their careers.  But in time she loosened her standards and also let in derelict drunks, ex-inmates, addicts, and shopping-bag ladies.  The house finally became a shambles, strewn with garbage and reeking of urine.  There was no lock on the front door, so while she would be off in a corner doing yoga and meditating, all kinds of people would be in and out of the house getting a free meal in the kitchen; the silverware soon disappeared.  Her nephew shared the dismay and disgust of the neighbors, and discontinued the monthly stipends he had been sending her.  She herself by now was sleeping on the top floor in a black sleeping bag full of roaches.

     Playing Lady Bountiful to these nonpaying guests took its toll financially as well.  In 1964, unable to keep up the mortgage payments, Ms. Tanner lost the house and, along with all the residents, was evicted.  By now, dowdy and straggly-haired, she herself looked more like a bag lady than Rosalind Russell’s elegant Mame, and she was on crutches as well, having broken her leg.  But on the day of the eviction she made sure the press was on hand, for she relished publicity.  The new owners hired a crew of four men to work twelve-hour days for a week cleaning and fumigating the house, and when they moved in, there was a crunch of dead roaches under their feet.

     Following the eviction Ms. Tanner moved into Bierer House, a halfway house for the emotionally troubled in Chelsea, where she was supposed to look after things while the owner was away during the day at work.  She stayed there for thirteen years and seems to have made a hit with the tenants.  In 1977, suffering from increased physical deterioration and senility, she found refuge in the nursing home, where her regal manner soon made her one of the stars; among her many visitors was none other than First Lady Rosalynn Carter, on an official visit.  But when, against Ms. Tanner’s fanatical will, the home’s assistant administrator had to wheel her out of her room so workman could proceed with much-needed renovations, she spat in the woman’s face.  In 1985, two months after a severe stroke, she died in the  home at age 94.  

     Marion Tanner was seen by some as a wonderful person, and by others as haughty, arrogant, and difficult.  Said the young deputy sheriff who evicted her, “She’s an amazing woman.  There’s no place left in our society for a person like her.  It’s too bad.  In an earlier time she might have been a saint.”  When a relative was informed of her passing, his only comment was, “Good.”  But at a memorial service for her at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, Al Carmine of the Judson Memorial Church gave the eulogy.  “In her presence,” he said, “things glittered.”

     When I checked out her Bank Street address recently, I was surprised to find it was only a five-minute walk from my building on West 11th and Bleecker.  It’s a plain three-story red-brick building, and no plaque identifies it as the onetime residence of the alleged prototype of Auntie Mame.  Maybe, even after all this time, the neighborhood would just as soon forget about the antics of Ms. Tanner and her waifs and strays.

     The other legendary resident of the Village Nursing Home was Genevieve Camlian, who in 1977 attributed her living to the age of 93 to her daily ration of Guinness Stout, the famous Irish dark beer that is marketed worldwide.  In earlier days she had run about doing fortune telling based on the I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination manual; one young man who encountered her called her an “Irish witch.”  Despite failing eyesight, after lunch at the nursing home she would trek down West 12th Street to the No Name Bar for her Guinness, which she, a native of Belfast, described as a “nutritional Irish drink.”  The bar’s owner, who let her run up a tab, had been captivated by the way she read poetry – she especially loved Yeats -- with her Irish lilt, and some twelve years earlier had arranged for her to enter the nursing home.  Little is known of her life before that.

     Long before I heard of Marion Tanner’s residing there, I had heard of Ms. Camlian’s residence at the home and her daily imbibing of Guinness.  In researching this post I wondered if the two had ever become acquainted, and imagined that a convergence of all that free-living eccentricity would have been dynamic, even explosive.  Then I learned that they had indeed known each other before, shared an interest in the occult, and “palled around” together, but by the time they were in the nursing home they detested each other and were no longer speaking; two prima donnas in one nursing home was probably one too many.  But the media loved them, and they were often mentioned in articles and TV news spots about the nursing home’s lack of funds and imminent demise; as a result, contributions poured in and helped save the home.

     New to the Village in the 1960s, I assumed that the nursing home had always been there, and that it always would be, which shows my ignorance and naiveté.  Like all old New York buildings, it had a long history, and that history was – and is -- still unfolding.

     The building that later housed the Village Nursing Home was built in 1906 by the wealthy New York City merchant William Martin as a residence for the young unmarried women who in those days worked in shops and department stores or in apparel and millinery factories, earning barely enough to buy food, much less pay rent.  Named the Trowmart Inn, the building on the outside was the same one I see today, a six-story red-brick building with granite facing and terra-cotta trim.  It could accommodate 400 women, each of its 10-by-12-foot rooms having a bed, a dressing table, a washstand, a table, and a couple of chairs: hardly luxury housing, but for working girls of the time, modest but comfortable accommodations. 

The Trowmart Inn.
Museum of the City of New York

     The building also had a spacious dining room, bathrooms, laundry facilities, a library, a full-time nurse, and six ground-floor parlors where the residents could entertain gentlemen callers, since Mr. Martin thought that the best solution for the working girl was a respectable marriage.  Rent was $3 a week for a shared room, and $4 for a single, and included breakfast and supper.  Staying out late was discouraged; the elevators stopped running at 11 p.m.  And under no circumstances were gentlemen to be entertained above the ground floor.  To be eligible, a woman had to earn less than $12 a week and be under age 35.  Within a year the hotel was full.

The dining room.
Museum of the City of New York

     Life at the Trowmart Inn was hardly dull.  Dances were held in the main  parlor three times a week, and silk hats and frock coats abounded, indicating that the gentlemen callers were of a certain status; to find favor with the girls, a gentleman needed to don his cleanest shirt and highest collar and, for a final touch, an artificial gardenia pinned to his buttonhole.  Many a ragtime romp ensued, and Mr. Martin’s goal was no doubt attained when, discreetly in the ground-floor reception rooms, marriage proposals were forthcoming. 

A dance at the Trowmart, 1908.

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John D. Jr., in 1920.
     But World War I brought change, for the U.S. government took over the hotel and used it to house the nurses and male attendants of a nearby army hospital.  With the war’s end, these residents moved out and the Trowmart Inn sat empty.  Then in 1920 John D. Rockefeller, Jr., donated $300,000 to the YWCA to buy the inn, renovate it, and reopen it for working girls.  Renamed Laura Spelman Hall in memory of the benefactor’s late mother, an abolitionist and philanthropist, the renovated building had 258 larger rooms for what were now termed “business girls.”  

     As the years passed, times changed again; the need for women-only hotels declined, and the purpose of the Laura Spelman Hall became obsolete.  In 1958 the building became the Village Nursing Home, the only such home in the Village, with a private, for-profit operator.  But financial woes beset it from the outset, and it had trouble meeting government standards.  (Wikipedia states that in the early 1970s the owner absconded with the home’s funds, but I’ve found no confirmation of this.)  Threatened with closing in 1977, it was saved by a community effort that got help even from First Lady Roslyn Carter.  “Save our nursing home” was the cry, inspiring neighbors to hold cookie sales and restaurants to donate $275,000 to buy the building, and a coalition of church groups and social agencies to form a nonprofit organization, Village Care of New York, to run it. 

     Village Care grew impressively with time, but in 2004 it announced that it would close the facility and open a network of community residential health-care sites called SeniorLife Choices.  The building had become cramped and outdated, with water damage and cracked walls; in keeping with the latest trends in health care, the new facilities would have more of a family feeling and less of an institutional one.  Clearly, this was a concerted effort to change the public image of nursing homes, which were often viewed with suspicion and contempt.

     In 2007 the building was sold for $33 million to FLAnk, a condominium developer, which waited several years until Village Care, facing construction delays at its new Houston Street facility, could leave, then gutted the building and created ten spacious units, including two duplex penthouses.  Thanks to the delay, the timing was right, for the luxury housing market, crippled by the Great Recession of 2007-2009, was now reviving with a roar.  Brought to market in June 2013, the units – “townhouses in the sky,” as the developer described them -- were soon sold for prices ranging from $8.75 million to $31 million, prices that, for the West Village, were without precedent.  Now christened the Abingdon, the building offers a 24-hour doorman, a gym, a sauna, and private basement storage rooms for each unit, not to mention fine views of Abingdon Square Park across the street and, for the penthouses, the Hudson River.

     And Village Care?  In 2010 the Village Care Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, to use its full name, opened its new facility at 214 West Houston Street, between Sixth Avenue and Varick, where it serves not as an end-point facility, but rather as a place where patients get rehabilitation and recovery care that prepares them to return home.  The 6-story, 105-bed facility is the first newly built skilled nursing facility for seniors in Manhattan in more than half a century.  On each floor there is a “commons” area where patients can socialize with other patients, dine, relax, and visit with friends and family.  A healing bamboo garden, offering a place for quiet social interaction and contemplation, reflects Village Care’s determination to offer “with it” twenty-first-century healing, as opposed to the traditional institutional atmosphere that characterized the old Village Nursing Home.  And Village Care has other facilities as well, treating a total of 14,384 patients in 2014.

     So ends, for now, the saga of the Village Nursing Home, aka the Trowmart Inn, Laura Spelman Hall, and now the Abingdon. When the scaffolding was removed in 2013, the old 607 Hudson Street entrance was revealed, its rounded arch flanked by columns and, carved in stone above, the words LAURA SPELMAN HALL.  I see it every day when I pass what was once a reasonably priced residence for young working girls and is now a luxury condo.


     For the new residents of the Abingdon who don’t enjoy a view of the Hudson River and sunsets over New Jersey, there is a view just across Hudson Street of Abingdon Square Park.  A small triangular park bounded by West 12th Street, Eighth Avenue, and Hudson Street, it has its history, too.  Originally it was part of a 300-acre estate bought by Sir Peter Warren, a British naval officer, in 1744.  When his daughter Charlotte married the 4th Earl of Abingdon in 1766, she received land in the area as part of her dowry, and the site became known as Abingdon Square.  After independence, in 1794 the City Council voted to replace all British place names, but the name of the square was spared, since the Earl and his wife had sympathized with the rebellious Americans, and he had argued in Parliament against British policy in the thirteen colonies. 

     In 1831 the Common Council decided to make a public park of the site and subsequently bought the land and enclosed it with a cast-iron fence that still stands today.  Then in 1886 the renowned architect Calvert Vaux was hired to create a new design for the park, which became a center of community life and the site of well-attended public concerts.  But in 1931, years before the creation of the Greenwich Village Historic District, a row of charming old red-brick homes on the north side of West 12th Street was  demolished to make way for the massive 16-story brick apartment building at 299 West 12th Street that towers oppressively over the park today, its awninged entrance presided over by a uniformed doorman.

     But all was not lost, for in 2003-2004 the park was renovated so as to restore its nineteenth-century atmosphere, with 1850s-style benches, bluestone walkways, and three cast-iron light poles replicating the gas streetlamps of another day.  Founded in 2000, the Abingdon Square Conservancy, a nonprofit community organization, now works in cooperation with the city to maintain the park, and I can attest that it does so magnificently, with frequent plantings of fresh flowers in season.  And, just outside the fence, on Saturday mornings throughout the year a greenmarket appears that I visit regularly to get bread and, in season, cherries and blueberries and apples from the farmers.  Presiding over the Park is the Abingdon Square Doughboy, a statue by Philip Martiny honoring the dead of World War I, whose dedication in 1921 was attended by 20,000 people.  Today, alas, its worn inscription is almost unreadable, and the statue itself is barely noticed by passing strollers, cell-phone addicts, and dog walkers.

     So if the residents of 299 West 12th Street and the outrageously wealthy new occupants of the Abingdon enjoy fine views of the park from their lofty domiciles, so do I when I stroll through there almost daily, and I don’t pay an exorbitant rent for the privilege.

     Coming soon:  Patent Medicines: Cocaine Toothache Drops (meant specifically for children), Hostetter's Bitters (why did it make you feel so good?), Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, and oh yes, Coca-Cola and 7 Up.

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder

Saturday, July 18, 2015

189. The Need to Kill

     I’ve become a killer.  This will surprise, even shock, my friends, who think of me as a reasonably calm, peace-loving character, but it’s true.  And I kill morning, noon, and night, though especially at night, when my victims are most plentiful.  I kill, and without a qualm, without even a hint of a flicker of conscience.  Not exactly with joy, but at least with a grim satisfaction.  And without mercy.

     What do I kill?  Bugs.  “What kind of bugs?” you ask.  I don’t know, just bugs.  Smaller than American cockroaches, some bigger than ants, some smaller, even minuscule.  Different kinds, though I can’t differentiate them, just call them bugs.  But maybe they are German cockroaches (Blatella germanica), smaller than other species of roaches, though I haven’t heard them speaking German.

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German cockroaches.  But they're really much smaller than this.

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This is the way I like to see them.
But I don't use K300.

Gadi Vishne
     Why do I kill them?  Because they’re everywhere, defy gravity by crawling up walls and on the ceiling of my apartment, won’t let me alone, and don’t pay rent.  In the bathroom in the morning they’re crawling over my toothbrush or hiding under the soap.  In the medicine cabinet I find their egg cases in the pill boxes and bandage wrappings, and their unholy droppings on everything.  As I breakfast in the kitchen, they try to feast on crumbs from my bread or a stray bit of banana, till I chase them away and they disappear under the table’s surface, where I can’t pursue them.  And as I continue to breakfast, they come back again, try to sneak another tiny bite.  Finally, as the day wears on, they disappear into their hidden sanctuaries: any crack or crevice in the walls of my ancient apartment, any bit of clutter, any remote corner of a shelf, any cluster of bottles, any pile of newspapers, any heap of plastic bags, and above all the dark infernal recesses of my ancient stove’s ancient oven.

     “Doesn’t an exterminator come once a month?” you may ask.  Of course.   His spraying here and there may result in a few small corpses in a day or two, but so what?  They are legion, and they proliferate.  The exterminator leaves a stack of glue traps that I dispose of at strategic points in the kitchen, and within days the traps reap harvests of stuck wigglies waving their antennae frantically.  Their death throes seem to entice more to join them, till the traps are so full there’s hardly any room for more.  On one 5-by-8-inch trap by the kitchen garbage can I’ve counted some 400 bugs in all, most of them tiny, some 50 of them bigger.  But so what?  They persist, they abound.  Through sheer numbers, I’m told, the insects will inherit the earth.  If they haven’t already.

     And so, in self-defense, I’ve become a cunning and ruthless slaughterer, determined that these marauders shall, in great numbers, die.  When at night, heeding the bladder imperative, I traipse to the bathroom and suddenly turn the light on, I have my trusty slammer handy – an empty pill bottle with a flat-topped cap – and bam bam bam I massacre as many as I can, as they flee in all directions.  They have the best chance of escaping if I catch them on a wall, for my slammer is less effective against a vertical surface.  On the wash basin I usually bam bam bam get several as the others scurry to safety, but if I find some in the bathtub, they are doomed, for their dark little bodies stand out sharp against the white enamel, they have a long distance to go before reaching safety, and I am determined that they shall die the death.  And they do.  And if I then go into the kitchen, their favorite feeding ground at night, and turn the light on, I convulse their midnight revels in the sink, as bam bam bam bam bam I wield my kitchen slammer, my Excalibur, and perpetrate a massacre of dozens, scores.  Some escape, many don’t.  

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My Excalibur.  Minus the vitamin B's, of course.
     Do I enjoy these massacres?  Yes and no.  My actions are strictly in self-defense, so I don’t consider myself a born warrior or sadist; when I mash them, their death is instantaneous, no writhing, no pain.  I don’t feel joy, but I do feel the aforementioned grim satisfaction, and if they annoy me enough, at least a momentary flash of anger.  And a sense of power, since I loom large over them like Yahweh smiting the Midianites.  And even, if they get on me (as they occasionally  do), a touch of loathing and hate.  But if, as they flee when I turn the light on, some of them run onto a glue trap cunningly positioned by me and get stuck there, or if, in the morning, I find a cluster of them – anywhere from five to twenty -- in an empty yogurt container in the garbage, and I spray them and kill every last one of the wee beasties, then, I confess, my grim satisfaction extends to the outskirts of joy.

     Mostly, it’s a game, and I’ve gotten fairly good at it, know where to place the glue traps and where to put my slammers – one in the bathroom and one in the kitchen – so they’re immediately available when the light goes on.  I always clear the kitchen table, so as to have a wide and unobstructed killing field, and if I find the creepy-crawlies in the toilet bowl – and I often do – I feel a kind of glee when I flush them away to oblivion.  And glee again when I find an empty egg case and some forty tiny creatures stuck fast in a trap.  And if I leave a coffee mug half full of water in the kitchen, in the morning I’m bound to find one, two, three, up to five winged corpses floating in the water.  (Yes, some have wings, though they never fly.)  Do I pity my victims, drowned or mashed?  Hardly.  For me, they aren’t capable of true feelings.  So what are they?  Bundles of instincts, tiny machines.  As for Blake’s wonderful line, “For everything that lives is holy,” I dismiss it as a beautiful lie.  Poets are notorious liars.

     There was indeed a killer in my family, but it wasn’t me; it was my father.  But to be fair, I should say a hunter and fisherman, for he loved the outdoors and loved to hunt and fish.  Fishing usually meant long hours on a quiet lake in northern Illinois or Wisconsin, sitting quietly in the sun, waiting, waiting, waiting.  Forced to accompany him, I was totally, utterly bored.  Did I ever catch anything? Once, as I recall, some small, flat finned thing that didn’t look like much, but I suppose we had to cook it and eat it.  But when my father, on his annual fall vacation, went to a lake in northern Wisconsin for two weeks, he caught plenty and shipped them back in ice.

     As for hunting, when I was sixteen he taught me to shoot a shotgun.  I didn’t like it, for the recoil made my shoulder ache, but I did learn a thing or two about guns.  He took good care of his guns and used them carefully, always carrying them with the barrel toward the ground, except when about to shoot.  From fall through spring he took me and my older brother to his gun club, where sportsmen assembled to sip coffee, swap hunting stories, and shoot trap, aiming at clay pigeons flung from either of two trap houses.  When they hit a pigeon dead on, it vanished in a puff of dust, and discreet congratulations were extended.  It was a man’s world, with one exception: the wife of a sportsman who was just as into shooting as her husband; my father, always quick with nicknames, called her “Pistol-Packin’ Momma” and, like all the men, accepted her completely.  My mother, if she went along for the ride, never set foot in the clubhouse, preferring to remain in the car with a good book.

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Not my father, but the exact same look.

     For hunting my father took me into bare autumn fields, hoping for a shot at a flock of blackbirds or a lone scurrying rabbit.  No blackbirds came our way, and if a rabbit did finally show up, I never got a shot.  Nor did I want to, having no desire to kill anything.  When one of my schoolteachers lamented the killing of deer – “those beautiful creatures” -- for sport, I queried my father about it.  Far from dismissing her as a silly old maid who knew nothing about hunting or life, he explained quietly that hunting is an instinct, stronger in some people than in others.  True enough: strong in my father, but weak to nonexistent in me.  And so, bugs notwithstanding, I insist that I am not a killer.  Left to my own devices, I wouldn’t hurt a flea.  (Unless, of course, it was on me.)

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A luna moth.  Too eerily beautiful to kill.
     On my many hikes in parks and woodlands, I never killed an insect, with the exception of a stray mosquito, and then in self-defense.  I loved watching butterflies, and once stared in awe at the haunting beauty of a luna moth sleeping on a tree trunk, but I never tried to catch, much less kill, any of them.  And if I saw a nectar-seeking honey bee struggling to free itself from the sticky pollen of the milkweed, I would take a twig and gently free it so it could fly away.  But there was one exception: if, in the late spring, I saw the white (often dirty white) tent of the tent caterpillar in the branches of a tree, I would knock it to the ground with a stick and then trample the teeming, writhing mass of tiny caterpillars inside it, so they couldn’t defoliate the nearby trees.  Something about that writhing mass of living things alienated, even disgusted, me – a feeling that I have rarely felt in nature.  Perhaps I should have let nature take its way, but I love trees and hate to see their leaves consumed by that horde of tiny mouths.

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They make me want to kill.
Brocken Inaglory
Sparrow hawks.
     Let nature take its way: there is mystery in that process, and death.  Once, toward dusk on Monhegan Island in Maine, I was watching a flock of migrating sparrows feeding on birdseed that Bob and I had scattered on the lawn outside our cabin window, when out of nowhere a sparrow hawk swooped down to seize one of them as the others fled.  In the dim, fading light I could barely see the hawk – really a small falcon, the kestrel – spread its tail to steady itself on the ground, as it consumed its prey.  It was unsettling, mysterious, awe-inspiring.

     And when I read about how a rattlesnake sinks its venomous fangs into a startled squirrel, waits patiently as the squirrel scurries off, each bound pumping the venom deeper till the squirrel droops, drops, and the snake follows at leisure and slowly consumes its prey head first, I get that same feeling of horror mixed with mystery and awe.  Killing is a part of nature’s way, common and necessary in the processes of life.  But is it necessary among humans as well?
     Here I will bring us back to New York, to the draft riots of July 1863, during our Civil War, when, even as a great battle raged at Gettysburg, Irish workers in the city rose up against the newly initiated draft, destroyed the building where the draft was being processed, looted and burned every other building they associated with the draft, held off the outnumbered police, and lynched every black man they could get hold of, blaming blacks for the draft and the war.  Some of their victims were hanged over a fire, around which the Irish women, by all accounts more savage than the men, danced in a frenzy.  The rioters were not drifters and the homeless, but men with steady jobs who deserted their workplace and for three days, joined by their women, raged in the streets.  What drove them to this?

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No women here, but they were usually present.  A Harper's Weekly print.

     That they resented the draft is understandable.  They had come over here to escape famine in Ireland, and to get free of centuries of English rule.  Deep in their psyche was a hatred of authority, of government, of being forced to do the will of others, and this hatred transferred to the American government when, desperate to crush the rebellious South, it initiated the draft.  And the cry “A rich man’s war, a poor man’s fight” had resonance, since the affluent, by paying $300 for a substitute, could quite legally avoid the draft, whereas the rioters didn’t have $300.  One also has to suppose a deep-seated racism that suddenly, under these exceptional circumstances, flared forth.  There were a few white victims too: policemen, soldiers, anyone who interfered with the rioters, anyone who looked like a “three-hundred-dollar man.”  Yet when, after three days of riots, the military arrived to restore order, the rioters went back to their jobs and resumed their role of quiet, steady workers. 

     Is there a killer buried deep in all of us, or do only a few of us nurse this hidden urge?  My pen pal Joe, while doing time in North Carolina, wrote a series of vignettes about prison life, including an unforgettable one entitled “Killer Friends.”  In the vignette he explains that, when doing time, you never ask another inmate what he’s in for; to do so is to court danger.  But sometimes an inmate chooses to tell another inmate, and so it was that Joe heard the stories of several convicted murderers.  One of the stories especially impressed me. 
     A young inmate told Joe how, at age fifteen, he had asked his parents for a motorcycle for Christmas, and they said they would see what they could do.  But when Christmas came, his parents explained that, regretfully, they hadn’t been able to afford it.  Instantly consumed with rage, the young man went to his room, got out his shotgun, loaded it, came back to the living room, and killed both his parents as they were sitting on the couch.  Then, panicking, he grabbed all the money in the house and rushed to the garage to get into the family car and flee.  And there, in the garage, he found a shiny new motorcycle; his parents had wanted to surprise him.  He is serving two life terms.

     What made this young guy tick?  I don’t know if he had a history of violence, but quite possibly he did not.  I can understand his disappointment, maybe even his rage, but I can’t understand a rage that precipitates murder.  Between me and him a vast chasm opens up. 

     Another of Joe’s stories is about a man who killed his wife in a drunken rage, when she announced she was getting a divorce.  He then put her body in his car, drove to some nearby woods, and buried her there.  But two weeks later the state police came knocking on his door to report that a bear had dug up her body and devoured some of it; could he explain how she came to be buried there?  He then confessed and got a life sentence. 

     In these accounts of murder two common denominators emerge: the murderers had trouble controlling anger and, closely related, they yielded to impulse.  In both of them there was an appalling lack of judgment, an inability to think of consequences. 

     Have I ever experienced violent rage?  Just once, years ago, when a waiter in a crowded West Village gay bar harassed me, telling me not to stand here or there, not to move around the bar – harassment so intense that I finally just handed him my half-finished beer and walked out.  Why he chose to bother me I have never fathomed; there was no history of antagonism between us, and I was behaving no differently from any other patron of the bar.  But I felt intense anger and stalked the streets for some time nursing it, hoping to meet a friend to whom I could pour out my story and, in so doing, temper my rage.  Alas, no friend showed up, so in the end I just went home.

     This is a trivial story, but it demonstrates that, when consumed by rage, I never contemplated any act of violence, wanted only to get rid of my rage.  I could have, at some cost, splashed my beer in the waiter’s face, or poured it on the floor, or dropped the bottle hoping it would smash, but none of these acts occurred to me.  Deep in me there was some kind of safety valve, some instinct of self-preservation that was stronger than any impulse to retaliate.  This safety valve, I assume, is deep in most of us, but absent or ineffective in a few.  We all feel anger at some point, often justifiably, but we don’t all resort to violence or kill. 

     I have seen the face of rage.  Once, long ago, when I was having lunch in a crowded student restaurant in Lyons, France, we all suddenly heard a great clatter at another table.  Instantly a burly kitchen worker rushed over to the table where the disturbance was, and found two students in a confrontation.  One yelled feverishly, “He can’t take a joke!”  The other said nothing, just glared, his features contorted with rage.  Fortunately, the burly man calmed things down, and we all were able to resume our lunch.  But I’ve never forgotten the look of the angry student, his reddened features warped with rage – rage on the verge of violence.  If the burly worker hadn’t intervened, who knows what might have happened?  Rage is ugly, it distorts.  No wonder it’s one of the seven deadly sins.

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The sin of Wrath, as illustrated by Pieter Brueghel the Elder: 
soldiers massacring or torturing all they encounter.

     Are killers born or made?  Is murder deep in our bone and blood, or is it a product of social forces acting upon us?  Some of us are born hunters like my father, and I would add that there are born writers, artists, dancers, gamblers, rebels, healers, scholars, and reformers.  From an early age I was writing – nonsense of course, but writing – so I’m convinced that I was born a writer, and circumstances then facilitated the urge.  So are some of us born killers, or at least born destined to commit an act of violence?  We don’t want to think so, but at times we’re inclined to assume it.  “Leave it to the experts,” you might say; leave it to the sociologists, psychologists, criminologists.  But at times we uninformed citizens are forced to have an opinion.  When on jury duty, for instance, and hearing a case involving murder.  Or as a voter, when called to vote on issues relating to the death penalty. 

     Once, when doing background research for a novel, I read some books on violent crimes and those who commit them, and was so shocked by some of the serial murderers described, and their early and total commitment to killing, that I ruefully concluded that some of us probably are born killers, or at least predestined to violence.  And when, on another occasion, I saw Matthew Brady’s photographs of John Wilkes Booth’s coconspirators, who were tried and hanged following President Lincoln’s assassination, the photo of one of them, Lewis Powell, who had attacked but failed to kill Secretary of State William Seward, struck me; in his hardened features I discerned a killer.  Of all Booth’s fellow conspirators, he was the only one who, following Booth’s instructions, made a serious attempt to kill a member of the government.

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Lewis Powell, after his arrest.  Not the Brady photograph, but the same hard look.

     The recurring question of police violence burst into headlines yet again when, on July 14, 2014 – just one year ago -- the police went to arrest Eric Garner, an unarmed African American selling cigarettes illegally on Staten Island.  When Garner seemed to resist, officer Daniel Pantaleo wrestled him to the ground and allegedly put him briefly in a chokehold, a tight grip around the neck that is banned by the New York police but that was caught on video by a bystander.  Then Garner, lying face down on the ground, said “I can’t breathe” no less than eleven times.  Taken to a hospital, Garner was pronounced dead an hour later.  The medical examiner ruled his death a homicide, but a grand jury decided not to indict Pantaleo, setting off protests and rallies nationwide, with passionate utterances of “Black lives matter!” and “I can’t breathe!” 

     Some see police violence – especially against minorities – as the actions of a few bad apples, while others insists that it results from an endemic police culture that countenances such violence and is never held accountable.  Once again the question arises: is there an urge to violence, even murder, deep in all of us that circumstances at times activate?  And is my satisfaction in killing bugs in my apartment -- trivial as it may seem – a faint echo of that urge?  One common denominator emerges: the victims are the Other, some living phenomenon from which the assailant or killer feels completely alienated.

     The death penalty is an issue where I flip and I flop.  Most of my friends in New York, good liberals, are against it, don’t even think it bears discussion.  But me, I waver.  Granted, it’s administered unfairly and can be opposed on those grounds alone.  And granted, those who are convicted may be innocent, and imprisonment leaves open the possibility of exoneration later.  But if, as can happen, there is no doubt about guilt, is the frequent alternative of a lifetime in prison without the possibility of parole – and some or all of it in solitary – really more merciful?  I wonder.  On the other hand, pictures of an execution can chill me to the quick.

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The electric chair at Sing Sing, ca. 1900.  As so often, whites executing a black.
     From time to time I hear of a crime so heinous that I’m inclined to justify a penalty of death.  When, last May, four Afghan men were sentenced to death for the mob killing of a woman falsely accused of burning a Koran, the circumstances of the woman’s death were so horrible that I, like many, applauded the sentence.  The 27-year-old victim, Farkhunda, was thrown from a roof, beaten to death, and run over by a car, following which the mob set fire to her body and dumped it in a river.  And when, two months later, a court overturned the death sentence of the four men, I shared in the worldwide indignation.

This is how the French Revolution did it.
     Truman Capote was criticized by some for not doing more to prevent the execution of two young men whom he had interviewed and befriended, and whose story of murdering a family of four in Kansas he had told with great sensitivity in his work of nonfiction In Cold Blood, published in 1966.  There was no doubt about the two men’s guilt, and they told Capote how, while hitchhiking after the crime, they were picked up by a lone driver and contemplated killing him and stealing his car.  But when the driver also picked up a teen-age hitchhiker, they abandoned their plan, since now they would have to kill two.  Reading this, I decided they indeed deserved to die, not just because of the murders they had committed, but because they had been ready to commit another murder as well. 

     One argument against the death penalty that I take seriously is the belief that life is a precious gift that the state has no right to take.  But those who present this argument are often advocates of free choice, meaning the right of women to have an abortion, which, no matter how you look at it, is a canceling of human life.  And conversely, many who support the death penalty are often right-to-lifers, fanatically opposed to abortion.  Granted, the unborn fetus has committed no crime, whereas those condemned to death presumably have.  Still, a life is a life.  I find these inconsistencies troubling.

     Lacking today in our secular society is a sense of the sacred, a reverence for the holiness of life.  Or if it still exists, it is often embraced by rigid fundamentalists whose general views many of us find repellent.  But perhaps it can be experienced even by secularists in the form of wonder.  Which at once brings to mind a famous statement by Einstein, who was not conventionally religious:

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious.  It is the source of all true art and science.  He to whom the emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand wrapped in awe, is as good as dead – his eyes are closed.  The insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion.  To know what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms – this knowledge, this feeling is at the center of true religiousness.  In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.  (Albert Einstein, Living Philosophies, Simon and Schuster, 1931.)

Only those who have experienced and acknowledged this kind of wonder can reach me with arguments pro or con on matters of human life like abortion and the death penalty.  Only to them will I listen; the others are just mouthing their biases.

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The mysteriousness of nature: a night sky.
     So where do I finally end up?  Somewhere betwixt and between, which many will label as wishy-washy.  I’m occasionally for the death penalty, which can impart a fearful significance, and almost even a dignity, to death, yet I have grave reservations about it.  I’m troubled by abortion, because it involves taking a life, but wouldn’t want it banned, since that would force women into seeking back-alley abortions, with all the risks involved.  Issues involving human life are complex and controversial, not easily resolved.  Are killers born or made?  Perhaps, deep in our psyche, there is a core of mystery that may never be penetrated.  Why in our ordinary daily lives most of us, whatever the provocation, do not kill, while a few of us do, seems to defy rational explanation.  Theories abound, but aren’t they simply that: theories?  I’m leery of those – and they are many – who think these matters simple; I cannot.  I join Einstein in marveling at the mysteriousness of life, and in acknowledging that some things are, for us, impenetrable.  We must cope as best we can, and humbly, with our dull faculties.

     Note on Goldman Sachs:  Speaking of killing, Goldman Sachs is a whiz of a bank that in the past has made many a killing in financial markets, as discussed in post #158, “Goldman Sachs: Vampire Squid or Martyred Innocent?” (December 22, 2014).  The squid or innocent (as you prefer) has just reported disappointing earnings for the second quarter of 2015, raking in a mere $1 billion, as compared with $2 billion a year ago.  The big hit on earnings?  $1.45 billion that it set aside for “mortgage-related litigation and regulatory matters.”  The bank is in the final stages of reaching a deal with the Justice Department over its sale of mortgage-backed securities before the financial convulsion of a few years ago – a matter too complex for ordinary folk like you (I presume) and me to understand, but one that evidently involved consummate naughtiness.  But Goldman will survive and flourish; it always has.

     Coming soon:  The Village Nursing Home: from shopgirls romping to ragtime, to luxury penthouses with a view of the river.  Plus Auntie Mame, and Guinness Stout at age 93.  And how did Abingdon Square get its name?  And after that, Patent Medicines, among them Coca-Cola and 7 Up.  (No, I’m not kidding.)

     ©  2015  Clifford Browder