Sunday, April 7, 2019

403. Breaking the Law


Countdown:  As of 7 a.m. today, 3 weeks, 4 days, 2 hours, 3 minutes until the release of The Eye That Never Sleeps, at which point all pre-ordered books will be shipped. (Assuming the publisher starts shipping at 9 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.)

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A story of the strangest friendship that ever was: a dapper young bank thief and the detective hired by the banks to apprehend him For more about this and my other books, go here.  

Fascinating New Yorkers has been reviewed by The US Review of Books.  Reviewer Gabriella Tutino says, "There's something for everyone here in this collection of profiles, and it serves as a source of inspiration for readers who love NYC."  For the whole review, click on US Review.

                                        Breaking the Law

         This post is all about lawbreaking and those who do it, and why.  But first, I should explain that I’m taking “law” to mean, not just statute law, but any rule or regulation put forth by authority.   As for lawbreakers, I’ll start with myself.

         Years ago, when I was still hiking in city parks and beyond, I went to Pelham Bay Park to hike and pick raspberries that grew there in brambles all over the park.  As I was picking them, a park vehicle stopped nearby, and three park employees came rushing over, two young Latinos and an older woman.”
         “Picking berries is forbidden,” announced the woman.
         “Oh, I didn’t know that,” I said in all honesty.
         “Yes, it is.  Just leave them for the birds.”
         “I will,” I said.  “I honestly didn’t know.”
         It was agreed that I could keep what I had already picked, but no more.  That settled, the trio returned to their vehicle and drove off.  Why all  three of them had to come running over, when a quiet reprimand from one would have sufficed, escaped me.  Nor had I ever seen birds eating wild raspberries; mulberries, yes, but never raspberries.

File:Rubus pedatus.JPG
What got me in trouble.

         Later that day, having traipsed about the park, I was leaving, when I saw a motor vehicle of the Parks Department mowing a growth of grass and weeds.  Near the edge of the park was a stand of chicories, a common summer roadside wildflower, a lovely sky-blue in color.  Though the chicories were not blocking any path or other feature of the park, the vehicle, driven by another park employee, quickly mowed them down. 

         This angered me.  Since the park people were so insensitive to the beauty of wildflowers, I vowed then and there that I would pick raspberries to my heart’s content.  But not in plain sight, and not near a path that could accommodate park vehicles.  Since the park is large, and there are many narrow paths where vehicles can never go, this was easy, for the stalwart guardians of the park were wholly motorized and never left their vehicles to patrol on foot.  So I became one of a multitude of park visitors who harvested wild raspberries in the month of July.  And since my fellow law breakers came on weekends and harvested every ripe berry in sight, I learned to come on Thursday or Friday, by which time another crop of berries would have ripened.  My diet was enriched for several weeks with fresh wild berries, nor was I robbing the birds of a feast, since I never saw one in the brambles.

Here am I, breaking the laws of a vegan diet.
Gooey goodies are verboten.

         This was not the only time that park employees proved overzealous.  In 1986 the Parks Commissioner took exception to Steve “Wildman” Brill leading groups on foraging expeditions in the city’s parks.  Brill, a bespectacled, bearded ecologist who on these tours usually wore a pith helmet, was teaching people how to forage, that is, to find free food growing in the parks.  So on Saturday, March 29, two undercover park rangers signed up for a trek, paid Brill in marked bills, and tagged along as he invaded Central Park, taking photos of him as he foraged.  At the end of the tour the two minions of order radioed for help, and two uniformed park police arrived, arrested Brill for criminal mischief, handcuffed him, and whisked the desperado off to the Central Park station house, where he was fingerprinted and given a summons to appear in court April 18. 

Steve Brill, eating something wild.
Photo courtesy of Steve Brill.

         Interviewed by the press, Brill confessed to picking and eating dandelions and other weeds in the park.  That a man had been arrested for eating a dandelion in Central Park was widely reported, but the public, instead of sharing the Parks Commissioner’s indignation, gasped in disbelief and then erupted in laughter.  Of all the crimes to be arrested for – eating a dandelion in Central Park!  Both radio and press went wild.

Parks Muzzle Weed Maven
The Man Who Ate Manhattan

Planted Decoys Nab Foraging Botanist
The Man Who Ate Manhattan was nabbed in mid-bite.

          The charges were soon dropped, and since he knew the parks’ edible plants better than anyone, the miscreant was hired by the Parks and Recreation Department to lead foraging tours in the parks, but to limit his attention to plentiful species.  Sometime after that I went with Brill twice, once in Central Park and once in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, and can testify that he had always harvested only plentiful species that grew abundantly in certain locations year after year.  
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File:Dandelions in grass close up photo (42392901081).jpg
What got Steve Brill in trouble.
Tony Webster
And on those tours he recounted gleefully how he had once been arrested for the heinous crime of picking and eating a dandelion in Central Park.  That was years ago, but to my knowledge he is still leading groups on foraging tours in the city and elsewhere.  And I on occasion, while hiking alone in Pelham Bay Park, have at times picked, not only raspberries, but also in late summer a bunch of mugwort, an aromatic plant that grows there abundantly to the point of choking out other species; I use it to give a tang to my salads.

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R. A. Nonenmacher

         I have broken other laws as well.  In years of drought, the state has often closed its trails to  hikers, for fear of fires.  But hikers’ associations have protested, arguing that seasoned hikers build no fires in drought-stricken areas, and would be useful scouts for reporting problems along the trails.  Once, not knowing of the closure, I went to hike along the Palisades and found the trail shut off.  I hesitate, undecided, and along came a runner who had been running along the trail.  If he can, I can, I decided, and I’m not about to start any fires.  So off I went.

         This reminds how, when the solons of Washington managed to shut down the government a few years ago, friends of mine who loved to hike in Acadia National Park in Maine found the park closed.  Insisting that they, as tax-paying citizens, owned the parks, they found a way in and hiked the trails like always.  And they weren’t the only ones; there were dozens of other patriotic intruders doing the same.

         So far, these lawbreakers, myself included, can justify their actions, which were a reaction to arbitrary and unreasonable authority.  Now let’s take it a step further.  Back in the 1970s, when you entered the subway system by inserting a token in the turnstile, a friend of mine admits to having used slugs instead.  The slugs were flat metal disks about the size of a token and thus let you ride the subway free.  Did she feel guilt?  Not at all.  This was back when a rebellious young generation embraced the motto “Don’t trust anyone over thirty.”  Being under thirty, she considered herself a member of the counter culture, and the MTA – the Metropolitan Transportation authority, which ran the subways – was clearly the establishment.  The trains were old, without air-conditioning, and filthy, and muggings on the platforms were only too common.  She got the idea of substituting slugs for tokens from a Vietnam vet who came back from there very angry.  She finally stopped using slugs when the girlfriend of someone she knew, who wore a fur coat and had an executive position at Exxon, got arrested by the subway cops.  My friend still has one of the slugs and is proud of her act of subversion.

         For me, her story is problematic.  I’m not a born rebel, got along well in school without breaking rules as my older brother did, thus often getting himself in trouble.  Not that I’m a blind conformist, just one who can usually fulfill himself without breaking rules or wanting to.  When, occasionally, I’ve seen someone jump over a subway turnstile without paying, it annoys me, since I’ve always paid my way.  So it becomes a question of when can you justify breaking the law, and how do you avoid the implication of self-interest.  My friend knew why she did it.  What justification did the executive in the fur coat have?  Nothing convincing, I suspect.

         Once, to avoid jury duty, I lied.  Jury duty is always a chore, but I had done it many times, sometimes at a cost to myself, since I was a freelance editor working on my own, with no employer to continue paying me while I served.  But one day, when I was in a second-hand bookstore on Fourth Avenue, some people came in who had just been to the jury duty office downtown.  They were livid with rage, having been treated nastily, and had to tell their story to others so as to recover a bit of sanity.  Their story so angered me in turn that I decided to dodge jury duty.  When next summoned, I wrote a short note saying I had left the city and moved to Illinois.  I forwarded the pre-addressed, sealed note to my mother in Evanston, Illinois, and asked her to mail it.  She did, so it arrived with an Illinois postmark and I was not summoned for jury duty.  Then, in time, when jury duty conditions had been improved, I decided to move back to the city and be a dutiful citizen; when summoned next, I served.  And served and served, until age finally made me exempt.  Did I feel guilty about my deceit?  Remembering the story of those people, I did not.  But having absented myself for a while, honesty finally won out, and I resumed serving until legally exempt.

         Now here’s another story about lawbreaking that raises a key issue.  While corresponding with a gay inmate in North Carolina, I encouraged him to write his memoir, which, sometimes with great pain, he did.  In the course of it he told me of working as a camp counselor in a boys’ camp in North Carolina, where a boy of about sixteen told him in confidence a story.  The boy – let’s call him Don – lived in a small town with his parents and younger brother.  One day he heard from the other boys his age that a man had moved into town and was having sex with the boys.  The sex was consensual, and the kids liked it.  So Don connected with the man, liked him, and had great sex.  Then his younger brother likewise connected with the man and had sex.  Then one day the police turned up at Don’s house.  Having heard rumors about the man having sex with underage boys, they had arrested him and needed a witness to testify in court.  The man was a threat to the community, they insisted, and had to be locked up in prison.  Under great pressure, Don agreed, though he said nothing of his younger brother’s involvement.

         So on the day of the trial Don and his father went to court.  When Don was called to testify, he saw the man in detention and reflected.  He liked the man and the sex, and he didn’t think the man had harmed him or anyone.  So he admitted that he knew the man, but denied that they had had sex.  This threw the whole courtroom into an uproar, with prosecution and defense shouting at each other, and the judge pounding his gavel for order.  The judge ordered a brief recess so the prosecution could confer with the witness, and Don and his father met with a social worker in a side room.  The social worker, a formidable older woman, told Don that he had to testify, so they could lock the man up and put an end to his criminal behavior.  But Don didn’t think the man had ever harmed anyone or posed a threat to society.
         “Lady,” he said, “right now I’m more scared of you than I am of him.”
         The woman’s jaw dropped in astonishment.
         “If you don’t mind,” said Don’s father, “I’m taking my son home.”
         So Don and his father went home, and for want of a witness, the charges had to be dropped.  Don’s father kept Don at home for the next few days, until the man moved away.  So ended Don’s story.

         Hearing this story gave me cause for reflection.  Being under oath, Don had committed perjury, but I felt he was justified, for he was being forced to do something that he thought was wrong.  I then reached a conclusion that has stayed with me to this day:  It’s not enough to tell the truth.  You must tell the truth for the right reason.

         Do I then advocate perjury?  Only in very special circumstances, as was the case with Don.  But there are times when the standard rules don’t hold, and we have to recognize this and act accordingly.  But these exceptions are rare; usually the rules hold up.

         None of the people mentioned so far were lawbreakers in the usual sense of the term; they were not habitual offenders posing a serious threat to society.  Have I ever encountered a true lawbreaker?  Once, in a case involving a drug addict, but not even then, for he was to be pitied. 

         One other incident comes to mind.  Once, in the subway, I did encounter a man who struck me as dangerous.  He was sitting across from me, talking with a strange fervor to the woman with him.  Something about his intensity alarmed me.  He and the woman got off at the same stop where I did, and I could see them hurrying ahead of me.  As they passed a newsstand on the platform, the man reached out and grabbed a newspaper without slowing his pace for a moment, and the two of them then disappeared in the crowd.  He seized the paper so quickly that I knew he had done it before and thought nothing of it.  I was sure he was some sort of habitual criminal, and dangerous.  No hard evidence, just a gut feeling of my own, but I have a hunch I was right.

Billy the Kid (1859-1881).  Born in New York City!

         Americans have always had a tendency to admire outlaws: Jesse James, Billy the Kid, John Dillinger, Bonnie and Clyde.  There is something romantic about these people, and their image is only enhanced by their violent deaths.  We don’t want to be them, but we envy their living dangerously, their rejection of conventionality and routine.  This lax attitude is balanced out in our psyche by our judgmental streak, our relish at the downfall of the great, our need to find and prosecute villains – spies, Communists, child molesters, terrorists, Muslims – in short, our need of witch hunts.  Woven into our lives are lawbreakers, whether we fear them or admire them, or both.  Either way, we can’t get free of them; they’re a part of us.

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An FBI poster, 1934.  He sure got attention.

Coming soon:  ???

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