A One-Man French Revolution
Paul can't remember much of what happened around the time of the accident. He was drunk, he wasn't that drunk, he doesn't remember the details of what happened before, during or after. It's the same with his childhood, and most of the rest of his past. If he thinks hard he can recall the alarm that went off in his brain when Judd Platz's 500cc red Honda Shadow slammed into the passenger side of his rented white Dodge Intrepid. He doesn't recall Platz's body flying over the roof of the car, but he remembers the adrenaline rush, the certain knowledge to flee. Car wrecks serve as navigational points in the lives of Paul and most of his friends. Unlike just about anything else, they are definitive. Cars start out with great hope and end up being wasted. Like dogs (lost, stolen, run over, poisoned by jealous ex-lovers) cars rarely die a natural death. The CVCC, the S-10, the Silverado ... cars are wrecked, they're re-possessed, they're abandoned, they are not traded in.
The police report gives the events some coherence – a coherence Paul's consciousness lacks. This, of course, is its purpose: forcing events into a narrative structure, a chronological recounting of facts that constitute proof of the suspect's guilt. You're either guilty or innocent. Guilty As Charged. Paul and I have all our best conversations while we are driving. He'd been sober nine weeks short of two years when we met, an achievement he credits completely to his surrender. We like taking the truck over to Grants, then driving north on the two-lane highway to Zuni, across Indian land. It's easy to talk about things while you're in motion, it makes your ideas somehow less binding. Still – he gets very angry when he correctly surmises I am an atheist, or a secular humanist, as past generations would have it. Paul isn't running the show anymore, he's turned it over to God. Paul protects me. He has a big heart. Meeting him is like falling into a hole. I was bored with the cosmetic incoherence of art school, theories strung out between half-digested misunderstood facts ... In Paul's world there are no theories and there are very few facts.
Still – the police report tells a story. It begins at the moment of impact, the crash, and ends with Paul's arrest at the Wyndham Hotel at 3 the next morning. Everyone – the victim, the prosecutor, the police sergeant who made the arrest – is especially appalled that Paul didn't simply drive off, and instead went through the delirious motions of ditching the car and reporting it stolen. His elaborate deception, his self-defense.
The prosecutor also makes much of Paul's fugitive status – he's eluded the State, she repeats, for more than ten years – despite the fact that the warrant was never dispatched beyond Arizona, where he never lived. Had it been on the list of outstanding warrants in the New Mexico system, Paul would never have been released from the Las Lunas State Prison in 2003. In fact Paul – at this point, 15 months sober - had actually asked his prison caseworker about the old Phoenix warrant when they prepared his parole hearing. He'd done this with much trepidation, because anyone with an active out-of-state warrant is denied parole, and then at the end of their sentence, extradited to the state holding the warrant instead of being released. But when the caseworker re-checked the database of fugitive out-of-state warrants, she found nothing there.
Unfortunately Paul can't declare this obvious proof of his honesty and good faith because, so far as anyone knows, the prosecution isn't aware of Paul's New Mexico record, and Arizona's a Strike Three felony state. Paul, his attorney and I have been dancing around this conundrum for weeks. Because even though technically, chronologically, the 1997 Phoenix charge should be a Strike 1, since it was committed prior to his 2003 felony conviction (Credit Card Fraud, $1200 in charges run up on a Halliburton fuel credit card in Farmington, after he'd quit), it seems very risky. Subsequent, prior ... in the right or wrong prosecutor's hands, the sequence could flip. Worse still, they could concoct a new charge out of the fugitive thing, and the penalty structure around a Strike 2 compounds faster than credit card debt.
Paul can't sleep, his heart pounds wildly at odd moments, he can't think. He's been sober 3 ½ years, he's gone back to school, he only wants to be rid of this shit. But instead of facing a sentence ranging from probation to one year in jail, his original charge of Leaving the Scene could carry up to 12 years if re-classed as a Strike Two.
Everyone knows the, sadly true, urban myth of the retarded non-violent felon spending his life behind bars in California for – Strike 3! – swiping a pizza slice... I've read about this in an ACLU email, now in the Trash file of my computer, together with urgent missives about the Patriot Act Global Warming Electoral Re-Districting The Permanent War in Iraq... the emails arrive 5 times a day, and if I read them I wouldn't have time to do my job, which is, more or less, to talk and write about art.
And while Paul's lawyer thinks such an outcome could be overturned on appeal, that could take years and why take the chance? And in Phoenix – where foreign nationals illegally crossing the state border from Sonora, Mx. can be charged as felons – stranger things have happened, and do, on a regular basis. So each time the "fugitive" thing is brought up, Paul keeps his mouth shut, fumes inside.
The prosecutor is a blonde woman in her early, mid-30s, overweight in strange way – averagely built from the waist up, she has enormous saddlebag thighs and a size 20 ass encased in a tight beige crepe-polyester knee-length skirt, which outlines the contours of cottage-cheese cellulite. Her ass is a 3-D lunar landscape, and no one can take their eyes off it. How did this cellulite happen to her? Why does she wear such a tight skirt? She doesn't seem very intelligent, but this is neither a plus or a minus. The two other prosecutors are a fairly normal brunette who moves with relaxed alertness, destined, perhaps, for better things, and a squat, 1950s-style butch in a black trouser suit and a button-down shirt. That a prosecutor in this redneck Bush-Cheney county can show up in court every day dressed like a drag king is one more anomaly.
The public defenders look like overworked high school teachers or burnt-out social workers. There's an obese fair-skinned man with a crew cut, and a middle-aged woman with thick graying hair pulled back in a ponytail. Both these people are stooped under the weight of dozens of bulging manila file-folders. The prosecutors keep their files in briefcases. Perhaps they have a file room adjacent to court, offstage?
To his credit, the fat male public defender makes an effort to speak to the heavily tattoo'd animals who are his clients as if they were human. Before and during the hearings, and even on breaks, this man strides the diagonal line from the defense table (upstage left) to the enclosed, guarded bench (downstage right) where his clients, the animals, are kept. Their hands are cuffed in the front, their legs are shackled together. Paul tells me later these inmate-defendants have most likely been up since 3 or 4 in the morning: shaken awake in their cells or tents by the guards, searched, hand-cuffed and shackled, then led to the mesh-barred van that shuttles between Maricopa County's five jail holding facilities. Their expressions are blank. Still, this public defender leans over the half-wall in front of the bench to explain the terms of their pleas, sometimes even putting a hand on somebody's shoulder. There is not much conversation. Everyone knows they'll have to take the plea, but for this moment, at least, their gazes are equal with their defense.
The first time I sat in this court, I was moved almost to tears to see the imprisoned defendants shackled like this to the bench. Seeing the Day Labor shape-up outside the Home Depot for the first time when I moved to LA, I remember I wept. Later, I hired them. Most often they stole, or were too strung out to do a good job, and then, like everyone else, I complained. Still: these people are suspects, they have yet to plead guilty to any crime, and the only reason they're shackled together in their sadistically comic black and white Keystone Cops pants and tunics stamped "Sheriff Joe's Inmate," wearing hot-pink plastic cuffs is, they couldn't raise bail... bail can be paid in full or advanced by a bondsman so long as you have collateral, a house or some seize-able asset.
Most of these cases were non-violent felonies or misdemeanors... car theft, drug possession, date rape, shoplifting, DUIs, domestic disputes, and the poor hang themselves, they're the first to call cops over practically nothing.
Still: it seemed an outrage that these defendants weren't unshackled and allowed to sit next to their lawyers during their own hearings and trials. I remembered images of Black Panther defendant Bobby Seale shackled throughout his trial in the Chicago federal court of Judge Julius Hoffman, how this shocked the world as a powerful emblem of American in/justice. But this was before Abu Ghraib and before smoking was banned in most public places. It was before people drove to the gym to walk on a treadmill and buy $3 bottles of tap water. It was before meetings in restaurants and bars were softly restricted by a blood-alcohol limit equal to two glasses of wine, before Guantanamo Bay, before the despondence of suicide was redefined as an act of asymmetrical warfare. It was before people burdened by credit card debt Made A Decision To Turn Their Lives Over To God and Humbly Asked Him to Remove Their Shortcomings at 12 Step Debtor's Anonymous meetings while Citibank raked in billions.
Each inmate holds his (or in rare cases, her) manila folder of paperwork between his cuffed hands. One sheriff's inmate has somehow gotten hold of a pencil and decorated the entire front of his folder with a gigantic heart, Mike Loves Alicia, circled by flowers. At various times he turns towards the gallery, grins and holds up the folder. Alicia giggles. Unlike the others, Mike seems pretty alert. He knows this is the best he can expect out of his court date.
Paul sits next to me in the gallery, wearing a jacket as good as his lawyer's. He's just finished his junior year in the Psychology Honors program with a 3.85 GPA. He's going on four years sober; he is in therapy. Two years ago, when he moved back to Albuquerque after Las Lunas State Prison, he decided to take any job he could get. The first week, he had two job interviews: one to manage apartments for me, the other at WalMart.
Would he be sitting beside Mike on the bench if we hadn't met? Maybe yes, maybe no ... One of his old Las Lunas friends, Carlton Johnson is back at a Level 3 prison, for a parole violation (Carlton, an ex-dealer and pimp but never a user, was in an apartment where Cops Were Called less than a month after being released. Wrong place wrong time: he spent more than a year back in prison even though no new charges were filed ...) Another, Jim Myers, borrowed 300 bucks and skipped off parole on a bus to San Francisco. Paul gave his old Farmington friend Terri Guilder 4 months free rent so she could get back on her feet; her drug dealer moved in with her.
Paul tries so hard you can feel the effort burst through his skin. The first time we met he told me: I am pursuing a life of rigorous honesty... He is a one-man French Revolution, he's possessed by the energy it takes to remake everything, but is effort ever enough? Without material and psychic help, could even the most determined dig their way out of this cyclical punitive quicksand? When Paul tried signing up for university, he found out he couldn't get financial aid because the $3000 loan he'd taken two decades ago when he was semi-attending community college had somehow mestatsized (late fees, penalties, interest, all of these charges compounded annually) to $18K. I paid the loan, Paul enrolled, only to receive a Dean's Office saying his enrollment was being suspended pending further review by campus security because of his felony. Everywhere Paul turned he hit a wall. He got angry.
This is the fifth time we've traveled to Phoenix for court in the ten months since he was arrested. There are Status Conferences, there are Trial Management Conferences, there are Postponements and then Re-Scheduling Meetings. It's the brutally slow pace of the system that led to Paul's fugitive status here in the first place. After his arrest at 3 in the morning at the Wyndham Hotel in Chandler he was arraigned and spent a few days in jail. Meanwhile, his brother Kenny signed papers using his house in Albuquerque as collateral with a bondsman.
Released on $25,000 bail, Paul lost the well-paid technology job he'd come out to Phoenix to take within a couple of weeks. He'd accepted a transfer/promotion from his employer in Albuquerque to be an engineer at Fab 12, their new Phoenix facility. He'd never been given a drug test during his 2 years as a technician at TDC-Albuquerque, but in Phoenix drug tests were routine and he failed. Luckily he'd already cashed their Relocation Subsidy check. He didn't care much about losing the job. He'd never set out to be a micro-con specialist, he'd just borrowed a suit and talked his way into it 2 years ago. He stayed with Dylan awhile, and then moved into a house with a woman who offered to give him a blowjob and then accused him of rape.
By then it was time to go home. Drinking and still unemployed, Paul moved in with his mother at her small house in northeast Albuquerque, caring for her during what would be the last year of her life. Mentally ill since Paul's birth (Schizophrenia, Bi-Polar Disorder, Manic Depression), she was already terminally ill with Type C Diabetes. When the first summons to appear at Maricopa County Superior Court came in the mail, Paul caught a Greyhound to Phoenix. He no longer had a vehicle, and anyway his license had long been suspended. The case was postponed; the prosecution needed more evidence.
He did this two or three times. Each time, the case was postponed once he got there because of unavailable witnesses, vacationing cops, collection of evidence. Paul barely remembers this year, but just looking at maps gives some idea of the effort it took for simple compliance. Phoenix is 468 miles away from Albuquerque; the bus ride takes 10-11 hours. When Paul's mother died, his five brothers and sisters decided to fix up the house and sell it. Paul remembers building a fence. And at some point during the year, he recalls, Kenny received a release of the lien on his house from the bondsman. Did this mean the case was over? When his mother's house finally sold, Kenny came over and told Paul he'd have to leave, and he did. For the next six weeks Paul was homeless. If summonses came to his mother's old house, he'd left no new address for mail to be forwarded.
I didn't take anything with me, I said fuck it. I started walking. I just kept walking. Was it early Fall? I remember it was pretty cold at night. I slept under a tree on the ground. This went on maybe a month? During the day I would just walk around, see if there was any work, try and find somebody to let me work, steal food. There were other people around. You go out on the street, and you think that's it, you're alone, story's over, but in fact you're just stepping in to a whole new situation. After awhile I started getting this really bad sore on my foot, so I decided I'd try and go see my Aunt Janey, and she let me into her house.
Three of the six people working for me in Albuquerque had, at one or two points in their lives, been homeless. Several students in my UCSD writing class related Knut Hamsen's intermittently homeless narrator in Hunger to recent experiences of family members and friends. My therapist says I should draw out the link between Paul's and my experiences, but really there's none – I can't begin to compare the physical difficulties of being in jail or sleeping out under a tree with my unremarkable childhood. My childhood doesn't interest me much at all, one more reason I'll never have a career as a female writing American fiction. But the question of reversibility interests me a great deal.
Did I mention Paul had two large dogs during this period? Greta and Gus. Gus, he'd bought as a liver-spotted Dalmation puppy seven or eight years before. Greta, a German Shepherd, he'd bought for his father and then taken her back when he died. His parents, at war as long as Paul can remember, died within less than a year of each other. Paul has special names, special ways of calling his dogs: "Good Golly Gus, Greta Fedda Gedda."
Aunt Janey gave me some food and I slept. After that I got in touch with my old track coach from high school, Coach Holt, and he helped me get into a trailer. I moved into this teeny little trailer that he helped me get, near Rio Rancho. I got a job managing a Peter Piper Pizza, I worked there awhile and while I was working there I started smoking crack, and I started stealing money, 10s and 20s, from the register. Why did I start smoking crack? (laughs) I thought it would be a good experience. Then one night I was out with my crack buddy and we didn't know how to get any money, so I went in the store and I got about 250 bucks, man... all this time I'd been writing checks too, you know, bad checks, and when I went back to work the next time I was promptly fired. And then the sheriff started coming round my little trailer. I had a car, a little red Honda CRX, I was making payments on it, and I pulled up one day and saw the sheriff in front of my trailer so I just kept going, I took off. I had my two dogs with me and I fled Albuquerque in a stolen car with two large dogs, a wing and a prayer.
Paul headed for Farmington, an oil rig town at the northwest edge of the state, where he did, or did not, stay with one of his sisters. If he did stay with her, it wasn't for long, because I lived in my little car, man. I was drinking, I got a job. Soon he had two. Once he got settled in Farmington, Paul started work at a golf course at 5:30 a.m., finished at 2 and then drove to his second job at a restaurant. Meanwhile a fugitive warrant for his arrest was issued in Phoenix for the original felony plus a new charge Failure to Appear. Were there also warrants in Albuquerque for the now-stolen Honda and the bad checks? Paul doesn't remember. This was almost decade ago, before information was automatically stored and transmitted and in a poor state like New Mexico, you could be one person in Albuquerque, another in Farmington... underclass life still took place off the grid.
In Farmington, he worked 16 hours some days, with one day off a week. He was well liked at both jobs. He moved into a trailer, and the restaurant owner sold him a truck, which meant he could ditch the hot Honda on a logging road in the woods. It's easy to do this, I've done it myself in New York: you just take off the plates. The new truck was a five-year old Ranger, and his boss let him pay it off by the week. Paul remembers this year as one of the happiest times in his life. Away from his family, he felt very secure. He was living alone, taking walks with his dogs, drinking at night after work. Then his neighbors Anthony and Tara came over while he was watching Monday Night Football and Guess what? They pulled out some crack.
Paul tells me these stories after we've known each other more than a year, three months into the case. In some ways, I guess they're what he has to exchange for my help. I've got my Powerbook out, I type what he says. While Paul knows my past isn't crime-free, White Lady English Teacher is within my repertoire, and it's to this persona he speaks. Shit happens, he likes to say, knowing how much this expression pisses us White Lady English Teachers off, and I'll spare you the diatribe about the globalization of stupidity on every socio-intellectual level, the fascist reduction of language, rogue states harboring terrorists, Having It All, Nazism permeated the flesh and blood of the people through single words, idioms and sentence structures which were imposed on them in a million repetitions and taken on board mechanically and unconsciously, wrote Victor Klemperer, God Bless Our Troops, Why do ex-punks always invoke the Nazis? its so cliché, Visit Us On The Web, the imposition of tautological scripts on every employee of corporate America, Click Here To Learn More, the way the word "learn" has been redefined as passive absorption, the media-assisted putsch in which Arnold Schwarzenegger deposed Gray Davis as Governor of California, just how this shit happens has been minutely detailed in books by people like Gary Indiana, Renata Adler, Greg Palast, but these are the books hardly anyone reads.
"Oh kitten," says Paul, "you're such a geek."