Personal Essays

Brushes With the Law

Who knew what evil once lurked in our hearts? Arsonists, accomplices, troublemakers all, here are nine lives of crime, cut short.

Jessica Francis Kane Knew the Shooter

The year my little brother was 11, he set up target practice on Shadford Road, our street in Ann Arbor. He knew he was not allowed to shoot his BB gun unless our father was with him, so he thought it would be a good idea to conceal himself and a buddy behind the curtains in his second-floor bedroom, overlooking the street. He opened the window and aimed at tree trunks, curbs, the stop sign on the corner; with any luck, the episode might have ended quietly. Maybe a dead squirrel or sparrow would have shocked him into an early, poet’s sense of the fragility of life. Instead, as he poked the gun out the window and took aim, he failed to notice a car making its way up the street.

As the local newspaper would later explain, the family, from southern Ohio, was making its first-ever visit to friends down the street, friends who had invested many months trying to persuade them that Ann Arbor was not a dangerous suburb of Detroit, but a serene college town. These Ohioans, apparently, had an almost pathological fear of Detroit. Their particular concern: drive-by shootings. When their back window blew out in front of our house, they were exactly one block from their final destination. No one was hurt, but without so much as a stop for snacks, they turned around and drove home, all the way back to rural Ohio. That night they called their friends and explained why they would never again be crossing the Michigan border. Their friends called the police and the next day there was an article in the paper referring to the as-yet-unapprehended “gunman of Shadford.” The article also contained the words, “shots rang out,” which I enjoyed.

My brother confessed and ultimately did some hours of community service. Among other things, all fall he had to rake the leaves of the former friends of the family from Ohio. After that, my brother was not much of a shooter, but sometimes we still call him “the gunman.”

Todd Levin Was Always on the Run

Contrary to what you may have read in my (largely fabricated) memoir, Cop Killer: Writing from Both Barrels, I’ve never experienced any real conflicts with the po-po. (Yes, po-po. Look it up, honky.) I have always been what criminal psychologists call a “good boy.” However, that is not to say there weren’t many close calls. My mother never had a flair for enforcing rules at home, so when I was a small child she would respond to every single breach of conduct by threatening to alert the authorities.

Using the threat of some large, scary, and unknowable authority was not a discipline technique of my mother’s own invention. It had been with her family for many generations; rearing innocent children into complete neurotics was their legacy. My mother’s own mother leveraged a similar threat against her and, before that, as a child growing up in Poland, my grandmother knew it was time to adjust her attitude every time her mother sat down at her desk and began drafting a letter to Hitler.

The police calls worked very simply. If our behavior became unmanageable—for example, if one of us ate a piece of zucchini bread intended for that evening’s mahjongg group—my mother would cry out, “I’m calling the police now! I have my finger in the nine.” It was chilling to witness my mother coiled defensively around our rotary phone, her finger paused in the dial’s “9” hole, maintaining the perfect level of tension before setting it on its slow, suspenseful counter-clockwise revolution. The nine takes a while to travel around a rotary dial but, man, those two ones follow in a hurry. I came to believe the police specifically designed the emergency 911 phone number around the rotary phone system. The nine functioned as a last-minute reprieve for criminals-in-progress; it was polite society’s way of giving them one last chance to change their ways. That nine’s long journey around the dial effectively told criminals, “As of this moment, you have approximately three seconds to stop murdering me.” If the warning was not heeded and murdering persisted, a victim could flick out the two subsequent ones in rapid succession and justice would be loosed. My mother took great pleasure threatening us in this manner. On every phone in our house, the nine was noticeably larger than the other holes, elongated from years of abuse.

Upon hearing the “chk-chk” of the ones, my brother, sister and I would instantly drop to the floor, following atomic war survival procedures we’d learned in elementary school. We were bracing ourselves for the worst. As kids, there were obviously things we did not know. How long did it take the police to arrive? And were they told to enforce justice with extreme prejudice? Was there an Albany County Police Department squad car responding to “gross domestic misconduct with intent to spoil appetites for dinner?” Were they amassing a file on us, overflowing with violations like Refusal to Play Quietly, Infringement of Magic Marker Anti-Trust Legislation, and Criminal Destruction of Lego Property? I expected that upon my 18th birthday a district judge would pop out of my cake and sentence me to life in prison, retroactively, for all of the crimes I committed as a six-year-old.

Kate Schlegel Was an Innocent Bystander

Very late one Saturday night (so late most people would probably say it was Sunday morning) a few winters ago, I was standing on the F platform at the Fourth Avenue and Ninth Street stop. I was slightly drunk and pretty peeved, because I’d just raced up from the bowels of the N-R platform and missed a Coney Island-bound F by a few steps. While I waited, I wandered my way down the platform to where the rear of the train would be; even though it was windier down there, I’d be in the right spot when we reached my stop.

There were two other people on my platform, down toward the front end. No one on the opposite platform, which seemed like a lighted stage across the way, with the darkness of the tracks in between. A G train came clacking along, executed its slow reversal, and clacked back out, up the hill toward Smith and Ninth streets. Then an F train pulled in on the opposite track and sat there. It sat much longer than is usual, keeping its doors closed for a good minute. Through the windows, I could see passengers fuming inside, “He’d better open these doors.”

Finally the doors opened, discharged the few passengers, and closed, and the train pulled out. As the tail end of the train cleared the platform directly across from me, I could see there were two people walking toward the stairs: A short man carrying what looked like a bag of Chinese carryout and a taller, larger man, behind him. Suddenly, the larger man yelled something—it sounded like, “Here!”—and started running after the shorter man, who jumped like a rabbit and tried to make for the exit. He didn’t escape, though; a second man, this one with a police badge hanging from a chain around his neck, came running up the stairs, his gun pulled. The first policeman—his own badge now swinging clear of his coat—grabbed the smaller man by his arm, twisting it behind him and forcing him to the platform floor.

Just then, my own train pulled in, obscuring my view to the theatrics across the way. Through the windows, I watched the suspect get put into handcuffs as we left for Seventh Avenue and home.

Jonathan Bell Engaged in Criminal Mischief

Being a teenager gives one a special cloak of invincibility. We would roam the streets of London after dark, taxi funds nonexistent, and the last tubes long departed. This was a thrilling era of small sweaty venues and loud American bands, our very own punk rock that felt unknown to almost everyone else. To celebrate these gigs we would scavenge poster artwork from illegal flyer sites, off the sides of bus shelters, post-boxes, and billboards, down dark alleys or in the full glare of passing traffic. Left too long, these flimsy posters would become unattractively wrinkled with glue and rain, as they layered upon each other, each slathered across earlier events’ remnants, their edges forming frayed strata in the urban geography. But if you could find a freshly hung poster, the thin paper could be slowly peeled off like a banana skin, as the still-damp glue satisfyingly de-bonded from the posters below.

Late one night, after a show, we set out to get a souvenir. Finding our prize, we set to work. The police car didn’t exactly screech to a halt alongside us, nor did the officers leap out and spread-eagle us over the hood. Nonetheless, there was still a frisson of guilty fear as a car pulled up alongside us, and suddenly our fingers were hastily thrust into pockets and gazes nonchalantly directed elsewhere. Our concern was misguided, for we had no fear of the police, with no illicit stashes to covertly drop down a drain and no underage drinking to conceal. And anyway, what exactly were we doing?

Clearly the sight of three or four youths, with wayward hair and bad skin, torsos contained by scrappy black T-shirts and thick overcoats, scrabbling indistinctly at a poster-coated wall was suspicious enough. And so, deploying the stock weapon of the British policeman—sarcasm—we were given a gentle grilling. We answered as best we could in our polite private school accents. What were we doing so late at night? (Going for a walk, officer.) Did our parents know we were out? (No, officer.) What were we doing to the posters? (Taking them down, officer?) This final answer was a puzzle. We were committing no crime—the crime was putting the posters up in the first place—but that didn’t square with our being caught in the act of doing something. The policemen took down our names and addresses in a little notebook, conferred amongst themselves, and that was that. No searches, no nothing. The sharp-edged palette knife that lurked in the depths of my friend’s pocket would remain a secret. We were left alone, our names noted and probably instantly forgotten.

It was late and we should probably have given up. But our bare bedroom walls were crying out for coverage, so we turned our attention back to the poster, and hacked away until it came down.

Pasha Malla Alerted National Security

Believe it or not, global terrorism existed before Sept. 11, 2001. In the mid-1980s, militant responses to the Indian government’s storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar (the assassination of Prime Minister Gandhi, the bombing of Air India Flight 182, etc.) resulted in a state of high alert that would make the Patriot Act look like a fourth-grader’s impromptu rules for Capture the Flag.

Despite the simmering violence, in 1986 my dad took me with him to visit our relatives in India. I was eight years old, and to me the notion of terrorism was only exciting: fake moustaches and mirrored sunglasses, ticking briefcases, laser beams shot from satellites obliterating entire continents. But about a week into our trip, my dad decided to shave his beard—a seemingly inconsequential act at the time. That is, until we tried to leave the country, and the photograph on his passport clearly showed a fellow with a full, dark beard.

Standing there at the airport with my father’s potentially stolen passport drawing increased suspicion and heavily armed security, I got the idea to pipe up with something hilarious to lighten the mood. “He’s a terrorist!” I chirped. “He kidnapped me and killed my real dad, and he’s a terrorist!”

My dad told this story last year at Christmas, nearly 20 years later, and finished it off by smacking me in the back of the head, and saying, “Idiot, idiot, idiot.” Still, who’s the one who had to take his pants off in a little room surrounded by men with guns?

Not me, Pops. Not me.

Tobias Seamon Hung With a Fugitive

To this day I have no idea where Rob Person came from. I was a pothead in my late teens living in Albany, and a big Saturday night for my circle consisted of skulking around someone’s stoop with 40-oz jugs of St. Ives and listening to Jane’s Addiction. But in the burgeoning grunge era, Rob was distinct because he stuck to jeans and plain T-shirts. Of middling height, moonfaced with short black hair and freckles, he was an oddity at parties for several reasons. First, who was named Rob Person? It was something out of an Existentialist fable. Secondly, the dude always had a lot of weed and was more than happy to keep packing the bong no matter how many leeches crowded around the couch. Suspicious at first, I asked around but no one really knew much. The only information I got was from a chick named Cassie—the kind of demented addict who thought “Two-for Tuesdays” on classic rock radio was a reason to party—who said Rob had a cousin who was hooked up with the Mafia or something. Anyway, it wasn’t long before Rob was selling dope to nearly everyone and I was making regular visits to his basement apartment.

Remembering that place still gives me the willies. His apartment was at the end of a long interior hallway, all of which was plastered with pictures cut out of horror movie fanzines. Everywhere you looked: mangled bodies, blood, Freddy Krueger, Leather Face, Pumpkinhead, and Children of the Corn, plus pentagrams and Bela Lugosi for a touch of class. Adding to the effect was a green bulb overhead, which steeped the montage in a half-lit underworld glow.

Inside, the apartment was hardly better. The sole window was covered with a purplish Indian tapestry, the lamps had low-wattage red bulbs in them, and a heart-shaped helium balloon Bob had given his girlfriend for Valentine’s Day slowly deflated in one corner. For some reason there were a lot of pills around, and alongside downtown stoners and frat boys buying weed, there was often some Percodan-addled wreck collapsed in the one comfortable chair in the place. Whatever he was dealing, Rob was doing brisk business and seemingly moving up in the black market scheme of things. Then it all went bad.

Looking to score, I called Rob and he told me to come by. But things weren’t right. Letting me in the front door he kept looking up and down the street, plus he was all hunched over. Once inside I got the story: Rob had been stabbed. He said someone had stuck a radio antennae an inch or two into his guts. He wouldn’t get into details but it was something to do with his cousin. He was chugging Budweiser as fast as he could, refusing to go to the hospital. The poor guy actually apologized for not having any stash around. I told him not to worry but he insisted he could get us some weed. I’ll never forget the pallid smile when he said he could really use a bag himself. So I drove us down into Albany’s South End ghetto to get dime bags from a notorious street corner. Rob grimaced with every bump and twice we had to stop so he could puke out the window. Even the gang guys on the corner gave Rob a strange look when he crabbed out of the car and bought a couple dimes. We smoked on the ride up the hill and I dropped Rob off, telling him to take care of himself. I wanted to get out of there as fast as I fucking could.

That was the last time I ever saw Rob Person. Just a few days after the stabbing Rob was arrested. Apparently the cops had been onto him for a while, though it was more to do with that cousin than anything else. Rather than turn rat or go to prison, Rob hanged himself in his cell. My friends and I shook our heads, then started plotting where our next connection would come from. Less than a year following that, I remember mentioning Rob’s name to Cassie as we passed a bowl back and forth. She gave me a blank look, then giggled, “I totally forgot about him.” I dropped the subject. Rob Person was gone like he never existed, his freckled cheeks and deflated Valentine’s balloon relegated to horror show cutouts in the half-lit underworld of memory.

Liz Entman’s Grandfather Knew a Thing or Two

In the summer of 1950, my grandfather, the director of a Jewish nursing home in Florida, was invited to the White House to attend President Truman’s national conference on aging. Naturally, my grandmother kvelled at my grandfather’s entrée into the WASP-y bosom of power—no small achievement for a tailor’s kid from Brooklyn.

The day before he left, however, my normally sensible, unflappable grandfather did something very odd. He gave $200 in cash to my uncle, then 13, and said quite seriously that if he was ever arrested, my uncle was to put my grandmother, my father (then eight), and himself on the first train to New York so my grandmother’s brother could protect them and, if necessary, hide them somewhere in the Catskill Mountains.

There is no one alive now who can explain why my grandfather did this, but there are clues. For the White House security check, my grandfather had been required to disclose any association with a long list of “subversive” organizations. According to my sister, who has seen my grandfather’s FBI file, he was friends with known Communists and may have been one himself—which was pretty much de rigeur for any college-educated Jew living in New York City during the ‘30s. Those who knew my grandparents when they were young thought they may have been involved in raising money to buy weapons for the socialist Popular Front faction during the Spanish Civil War, although no one could—or would—say for sure.

According to my uncle, my grandfather never disclosed any of these connections during his security check. My uncle supposed it was because of the anti-Communist (and, less explicitly, anti-Semitic) hysteria surrounding Julius Rosenberg’s arrest for espionage earlier that summer. My grandparents didn’t know the Rosenbergs personally, but their orbits had surely overlapped in New York, and my grandparents must have worried what the investigation would turn up.

On Aug. 11 of that summer, Ethel Rosenberg was arrested; that same day, my grandfather gave the money and evacuation orders to my uncle. Perhaps my grandfather was afraid that if the truth was discovered, whatever it was, he would not be the only one to pay for it.

Or perhaps he simply recognized how easily the profile could become the crime. Both my grandparents had lost entire branches of their families during the Holocaust, and they were surely hypersensitive to how far this kind of unchecked rabidity could go.

My grandfather was never arrested. The money was forgotten and remained where my uncle hid it, until he found it several years later and used it to buy his college textbooks. My grandfather apparently never mentioned this episode again. He died in his sleep, beside my grandmother, in 1980. Most of his FBI file is still redacted.

Sarah Hepola, Vandal

On an otherwise pleasant Saturday afternoon when I was in fifth grade, Officer McDonald hauled me into the police station. Because I was 10, and because I was a good little girl confused by her bad-little-girl fixations, it did not occur to me to question the possibility of my guilt: I had been caught cussing or sneaking a cigarette from the babysitter. My heart thudded with the possibility of exposure and volunteer hours. But Officer McDonald laid out a vastly different crime scene than the one plaguing my conscience. A lady in the neighborhood, he explained, had accused me of vandalizing her yard. Relief crashed upon me. I could totally keep cussing!

Oh, this was true, all right. But it was to “vandalism” what “Will Smith” is to “rap.” One day, on the way home from school, my friend and I plucked a dozen flowers from the garden of the woman in question. That’s all. That’s it. It was a mistake—and, Mom and Dad, it was totally, totally wrong—but come awwwwwn. Even at 10, I knew you’d have to be a Christian camp counselor to punish such a pansy transgression. Officer McDonald sent me home with a warning and a cookie. Looking back, it was pretty awesome.

But, a week later, we got another call. The woman had accused my friend and me of the classic knock-and-run (pfft! so third grade!) and, weirdly, of placing bricks behind her car tires. It was a lie, and everyone knew it, and this time when I came to the station, even Officer McDonald was embarrassed. Afterward, my parents took me to a matinee of Footloose and chased it with pizza and ice cream. A reward, I guess, for being innocent.

The funny thing is that I wasn’t innocent—I was guilty, so guilty—only they had accused me of the wrong crime. Teaching everyone at school about blowjobs? Guilty! Drinking the occasional Pearl Light? Guilty! I hadn’t messed with this crazy woman, because doing so would be pointless, and rather boring. But I didn’t feel falsely accused. Honestly, I felt lucky.

As a peace offering, or at least a Hail Mary, I bought a bouquet of flowers for the woman. When she didn’t answer her door, I left the gift on her doorstep, with a gentle note of good will and apology. When I told my mother later, she cupped my chin in her hand and smiled: her little angel.

TMN’s Contributing Writers know where to find the purple couch. Long live the pan flute, mini mafia, and Michael Jackson. More by The Writers