Dancing with Emily Post

October 6, 2011 § 2 Comments

The State of American Manners

One evening last week we stopped in at Target to pick up laundry detergent and a birthday card. We were hardly in the door before a gaggle of teenage girls eclipsed us, shrieking with laughter.  I’d stopped to browse in a bin of inexpensive toys and they snatched and grabbed at things right in front of me, as if I were not even there.  They jammed “roast turkey” hats onto their heads and screamed with the hilarity of it all.

“It’s animal day tomorrow, we have to get these!” one shrieked. A blonde girl knocked into me reaching for something in a bin. She seemed not to notice.

“That would be freaking awesome,” another roared, doubling over with laughter.  They gobbled and cackled in their roast turkey hats, screaming with delight at how ridiculous they were, overcome with how amazing they would be at school tomorrow. The noise rolled over me in waves.

Then, like a whirlwind, they moved off towards the clearance racks in the women’s department, tossing and shrieking and laughing all the way.

I like kids. I even like teenaged kids. It hasn’t been so long that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be in the midst of laughing, silly, hysterical group of girls. No doubt I’ve irritated plenty of adults in my day.  (Though the presence of someone my mother’s age would have inhibited me a bit.) But these kids, these nice upper middle-class, well-fed, privileged girls were behaving like, well, savages.

No sooner had their whoops and wails faded from earshot,  they were replaced by something even worse.  The detergent aisle of this store is directly across from Girls Clothing. There, in a shopping cart, a little girl about five was screaming. Sobbing.  Her mother, trying to pretend that nothing was amiss, went on browsing like she was totally unaware of her daughter’s meltdown, examining the details on a sweater collar or holding up a pair of leggings for size.

It was everything I could do not to march over there and ask her what the hell she thought she was doing, and what on earth gave her the idea that it was okay to “teach her daughter a lesson” at the expense of everyone in the store.

I held on to the shelf of Tide, knuckles white.  The little girl continued to wail, hiccupping, sobbing some more.  That spot, just above my left eye, began to throb. Finally, the girl’s father came and wheeled the cart away, the child silent in their departure. I suppose she’ll grow up to think it’s okay to knock into other shoppers and shriek in public and throw merchandise around in stores.

My husband and I talked about the two sets of rude people as we drove home.  It seems we’re spending more time talking about rude people, lack of decorum, the inconsiderate among us. This is what happens all day long in public America—we’re running amok.

Drivers no longer merge onto highways, they barge. I’d point out that “yield” seems to mean nothing to people, but really stop signs don’t carry much importance either. Communities have had to install cameras at busy intersections because so many people blast through long after the light’s turned red.  (Apparently Dayton has $450,000 owed them in unpaid red-light tickets.) People speed up so that you can’t enter the roadway in front of them.

They either park so sloppily over the painted lines that they take up two spaces or they intentionally take up two spaces so their precious vehicle doesn’t get dinged by some ten year old flinging open the door of the mini-van. They tailgate.  On the interstate, they pull in front of you from the adjacent lane with inches to spare, just enough space provided you don’t speed up one more mile an hour. (Which of course they would do if you were trying to get in front of them.) They blow their horn if you don’t jackrabbit into the intersection the minute the light turns green, and God forbid you actually STOP before making a right on red. They pass on double yellow lines. They pass on city streets.  Taking to the public thoroughfare is more and more like something out of Death Race 2000.

The police promise and threaten to be more active in going after aggressive drivers. If they are, it’s not having much effect. A City of Kettering police officer once stopped my husband for driving too slowly. We were meandering home in our Saab on a Friday evening, doing about 25 mph on a quiet city street. No doubt he thought “sporty car going slow equals drinking.”  He was wrong. He said to my husband “Well, at least try to go the speed limit.”  Excuse me?

When another driver actually allows me to merge into the lane in front of them, I am always surprised, and respond with a wave,  “Hey, thanks!”

In Wim Wenders’ film,  Wings of Desire, Peter Handke wrote that our cars are our kingdoms and in them we are kings of our own tiny empires.  Tonight, a man in a minivan (arguably the worst category of drivers) pulled out from a gas station, crossing the road directly in front of us. He pushed past another car waiting for the traffic to clear and turned left across four lanes of traffic, in a cacophony of screeching brakes and blaring horns. He was on his cell phone and seemed not to notice. We may have constructed a cocoon, a paradise of “I,” but we are not islands unto ourselves. Everything we do in public affects someone else.

Not that the sanctuary of home life exists anymore.  My husband is a fan of political commentary and talking heads inundate our living room with a constant stream of lies, scandal and notoriety. I suggested once that we go on a diet from this kind of television, if perhaps that would help us feel less at odds with our fellow Americans, less despairing of their behavior.  There’s just no way that you can listen to a steady infusion of this stuff and not feel pissed-off. Just a week, I suggested, but we haven’t tried it yet.

Certainly there’s no haven from rudeness in cyberspace. It would be hard to imagine a playground where people are less courteous. The comments made on newspaper sites, forums for various hobbies and the ubiquitous Facebook go right past rude and often into the muck of verbal abuse.  And I’m guilty of the same. Without the nuance of gesture or inflection, we are quick to take offence.  Freed from inhibition by distance and a shell of anonymity, we post things that we would never in a million years say to someone’s face.

Sometimes this even happens between real life friends. A comment is made, a retort follows. Maybe the response was meant wryly or with a kind of nudge—but the recipient only sees the naked type on the screen, devoid of charm or affection, and the offense is laid bare.  Friendships, some long-standing, end over these exchanges.

Staying connected via the cell phone has become a kind of hallmark of rudeness. Not just those texting or talking while they pull into oncoming traffic, what about the people who won’t get off the phone in the drive-thru of the fast food place, or the check-out line at the grocery store?  Of course the reverse is true also. How aggravating is it to deal with a cashier who won’t look at you or speak to you or is too busy chatting with a colleague or flirting with the bagger to exert the minimum amount of grace required for his or her job?

One afternoon at Kroger, even though I was in a hurry to be somewhere else, I stomped off to find the manager to complain about just such a cashier.

“Oh, that surprises me about her. She worked at Elder-Beerman’s for forty years, ” he said, not bothering with an actual apology.  I guess after 40 years in a pretentious department store, there’s no need to acknowledge the lowly grocery store customer.

Of course, there are still the garden variety bad manners: a cousin and his wife who have yet to thank us (by note, by email, in person or on Facebook) for the wedding gift we gave them. (A really nice stockpot, but maybe they were offended that we didn’t use their registry?) Of course, they haven’t thanked us for baby gifts either.  Or the kennel club meeting to which I brought a lemon-raspberry cheesecake and one person, one person said thank you.  It’s not that we do these things to be thanked, we make these gestures out of affection and goodwill, but you know it would have been nice to have the effort acknowledged.

I don’t want to give the impression that I think I’ve been perfect in this regard. I haven’t. Sometimes I have failed terribly at etiquette.  I know the thank you notes for our wedding gifts went out far too late.  I know I have been sharp when I didn’t need to be. Once I beeped my horn at a pick up truck about to back into our car in a parking lot and the driver jumped out, rushed back and spewed invective all over me. Not knowing then what I know now, I gave back as good as I got. He went back to his truck briefly and returned with a large handgun. Thankfully, passersby intervened before our lack of manners took a tragic turn.

Though I’ve never drawn a gun on anyone, I too have indulged in a few spectacularly public temper fits.  Years ago, a man took the last table at an outdoor café, racing in front of us (laden with a tray of food) and sitting down to read his newspaper. We argued about his right to the table when he had not yet purchased food. When he turned his back to me and sat down, I slapped him hard across back of his balding head.

On an evening more than a decade ago, a woman in grocery store line behind me started piling up my groceries on the belt, so she could take her groceries out of the cart sooner. She said something about not wanting her bread to get crushed.  It didn’t amount to more than some angry words and still today, there’s a part of me that wishes I’d come even more unglued—that I’d thrown her bread on the floor and stood on it.  If you’re going to have Bad Manners make it a real production number rather than just this day to day loss of civility that’s gnawing away at reasonable discourse.

But I didn’t. And these days I think I could handle it a bit more deftly. (A lesson learned from the gun-wielding nutcase in the parking lot.) That’s a large part of what makes manners—stifling one’s emotional impulses for the greater good.

The other part is making the effort to acknowledge the others whose lives intertwine with ours, no matter how slight the connection.  A wave to an acquaintance still serves to show that we are open-handed and unarmed. A smile begets a nod, even among strangers. Holding the door for other people is still generally appreciated, though there will occasionally be louts that sail through without a word as if you are a uniformed doorman.

Among my books are half a dozen navy blue volumes, each of them a different edition of the Emily Post Book of Etiquette, ranging from the 1920s through the 1950s. I have found them in thrift shops and book sales, each one cast off as something no longer necessary. It’s amusing to read about silverware arrangements or what sort of hat is appropriate to wear to tea, or the proper wording to decline an invitation to lunch.

People think these kinds of manners are archaic, and some of them are. Gentleman are no longer required to walk on the outside of the street to protect their feminine companions from harm. (Though it might not be a bad idea.) You will not be the scandalous talk of the town if you fail to use the correct fish service.

The essential elements of manners are still consideration and kindness, and they are still essential. Yet we are uncertain about them at time, reflected in the  popularity of Judith Martin’s charming “Miss Manners” character  (who has surely penned as many books as Miss Post by now) and the syndicated newspaper columns dealing with ethics. It’s as if we don’t remember quite how to behave—or we know how to behave but we want someone to share our outrage at the boors with whom we have to contend.

Living among others is a kind of dance. Sometimes it seems a series of missteps, other times we find ourselves gliding along gracefully with a minimum of effort.  You lead.

Show a little consideration. Say please when you ask your teenager to take out the trash. Turn off your cell phone and stow it while driving. Let another driver go in front of you. Count to ten. Slow down. Don’t tailgate. Stop and smell the roses. Turn off the television. Write the thank you note, or at the very least, the thank you email.  Don’t say something online that you wouldn’t say in person. Take your exhausted child home. Remember that you may be having an uproarious great time but the person next to you may be infirm or in pain.  Don’t interrupt your wife on the telephone to ask her something trifling. Give a little extra. Stop listening to angry people, especially those that are overpaid.  Smile at strangers. As our mothers instructed us when we were little more than babies, play nice.

I’m going to work at it too.

Retrieving the Pink

October 19, 2010 § 5 Comments

The Marketing of Breast Cancer in America

One bright blue Saturday morning this October, on my way home from an assignment, I made a left turn into a throng of pink, and came to a stop. On the previous blocks I had seen a few groups of people, two or three or five, dressed in pink caps, or pink t-shirts. I hadn’t thought much of it.  It’s October after all, Breast Cancer Awareness month, there’s a lot of pink about.  But here on the long stretch of Monument Avenue, the pink undulates like a vast sea before me. Muttering to myself about how poorly the Dayton media alerts us to these things, I settle in to wait.

Pink sneakers, pink wigs, pink bandanas, pink balloons. A number of women carry pink long-stemmed roses. One scowling ginger-haired boy is bedecked with a pink plastic lei. There are dogs wearing pink dresses, and men in pink sweatshirts proclaiming “Real Men Wear Pink.” (I also saw the somewhat crass “Don’t let cancer steal second base.”) Pink jackets, pink sweaters, pink feather boas.

“Pink, it’s my new obsession,” I thought, hearing the Aerosmith song in my head.  “Pink, it’s not even a question.”  But this army of pink from the blush of a petal to the violence of fuschia, this has nothing to do with that. This, this is all about one of the most successful sales campaigns of all time: the marketing of breast cancer.

Rare is the person who hasn’t contributed in at least some small way to raising money for breast cancer awareness. We’ve bought yogurt with pink lids. We’ve bought the t-shirt. We’ve bought a pink bucket of fried chicken. A few weeks ago I made my profile photo pink on a social networking site, because being one of the half a million people that did so would increase a Canadian telecommunications company’s donation to the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure to $200,000.

Breast cancer is such an easy cause to support. We think of breast cancer and we think of mothers, wives, grandmothers, sisters, daughters who might be (or are, or were) afflicted with this scourge. In truth men get breast cancer too. In 2005, 1700 men in America were diagnosed and given that the breast cancer survival rates are about equal among the sexes, more than 300 men died. Breast cancer is free of those pesky lifestyle questions that tend to dog causes like AIDS and lung cancer. People ask you and you give. The amount we’ve given collectively and as taxpayers is staggering.

One question nags at me as I thread my way through the pink. What about the other cancers?  My father died of laryngeal cancer. Is there a color for that? (The answer is: not really.) What about lung cancer victims? What about people suffering from colon cancer? Or leukemia? Or cancer of the pancreas? Where is their march, where are the yogurts and sneakers and blenders I can buy to support fundraising for them? When I got home I did some reading.

Cancer of all types accounts for about half a million deaths a year in the United States. That’s considerably less than the number of people who die from heart disease (616,067 the last time the Center for Disease Control counted.) The American Heart Association has seized their own month (February) and color (red) but it is has failed to saturate popular culture in quite the same way. When we see a red t-shirt or hat, we might be more apt to think “Red Sox” or “Ohio State;” but when we see pink garb, we see breast cancer.

Every year 205,000 people are diagnosed with breast cancer and 40,000 will die.  That’s a mortality rate of about 19 percent.  And if someone you love, or you yourself is one of those people, well that’s at least one too many. Consider for a moment some of these other deaths: colon cancer will claim 48,000 (with a mortality rate of 45 percent). 57,000 women will die from genital system cancers, of which ovarian cancer is the most pernicious, claiming 76 percent of those diagnosed. 77 percent of the 17,000 people diagnosed with a brain tumor will leave us this year. The 30,000 people that die from pancreatic cancer represent 98 percent of those diagnosed. Even with a poster boy like Patrick Swayze, the most deadly cancer there is cannot get the traction that the breast cancer industry enjoys.

The cancer that claims the most Americans every year is, hands down, lung cancer.  Although there are fewer lung cancer diagnoses than breast cancer diagnoses, there are four times the number of dead; 160,000 people annually. A hundred and sixty thousand people! That’s the population of my fair city. Every year.

Among the interminable list of those we’ve lost to lung cancer are Walt Disney, Nat King Cole, Steve McQueen, Johnny Carson, Yul Brynner, Humphrey Bogart, Edward R. Murrow, Sammy Davis Jr., Duke Ellington, George Harrison, Louie Armstrong, Ed Sullivan, Lucille Ball, Count Basie , Spencer Tracy, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Harry Reasoner, Peter Jennings. And my old friend Bobby Block’s marvelous wife, Donna. And my dear friend Noelle’s beloved father, Dan Sullivan, who succumbed to lung cancer secondary to Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

Noelle’s father (like Dana Reeve, 44 and Andy Kauffman, 35) was one of the 17,000 people who die from lung cancer every year in this country who never, ever smoked.  Where is their parade? Where can I buy a colored ribbon magnet for my car?

Other prominent causes of death in the U.S. include stroke (135,000) respiratory illnesses (like emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, 128,000) Alzheimer’s disease (75,000) diabetes (71,000) and the flu (53,000) none of which enjoys the kind of media attention and generous funding that breast cancer does.

The National Cancer Institute is one of the eleven agencies of the National Institutes for Health, a division of the US Department of Health and Human Services.  The N.I.H. allocates approximately 2.5 billion dollars a year towards research for the treatment of heart disease. The N.C.I. funds six billion dollars a year towards cancer research. So, even though twenty percent more Americans die of heart disease, it gets less than half the funding cancer does.

In a 2008 piece for the New York Times, Tamara Parker Pope delineated the amounts that NCI spent “per diagnosis” and “per death” in the most prevalent cancers. Prostate cancer got one of the smallest amounts per diagnosis, a mere $1318. But because the prognosis of prostate cancer is generally not fatal, the amount is a whopping $11,298 per death.  Colon cancer research gets $2361 per diagnosis, or $4,566 per death. Pancreatic cancer, reflecting its sad death-sentence nature, gets $2297 per diagnosis, which works out to $2200 per death. Lung cancer (remember 160,000 deaths a year) gets the worst funding of all– $1,518 per diagnosis, $1,630 per death.

And breast cancer? Breast cancer’s allocation is $2596 per diagnosis, or $13,452 per death.  The total amount of funding NCI provides to finding effective treatment of lung cancer is $261 million dollars a year. The total amount they provide for finding effective treatment of breast cancer is $538 million dollars.

This is not the money from the pink sneakers or the walk-a-thons or “DVDs for the Cure.” This is money collected from taxpayers to be allocated by the federal government. Given that this is government funding, it might be reasonable to suppose that it be allocated in accordance with the number of people afflicted by type of cancer. It’s not. Perhaps it is allocated by the deadliness of the particular cancer?  Nope. It’s allocated on the basis of the strongest lobbying efforts. There’s something morally wrong with that.

Then there’s the money from all the other sources, the “pink” money. The money from the Canadian telephone company, from the sales of pink Snuggies, pink Barbies, pink golf clubs, pink m & ms, tickets on Delta’s pink Boeing 747.

The revenue stream for the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure in 2009 was $298,685,007.  (Or about $7,467 per death.) Since 1982 they have funneled tens of billions (that’s with a “b”) into breast cancer research and awareness. Do they have any answers yet? The sad truth is no. Though the Centers for Disease Control reports a one percent downturn in both cancer diagnosis and deaths across the board, there has not been any significant improvement made in the area of breast health.

Though many people know the name “Susan G. Komen,” (and have supported the organization, either intentionally or unwittingly), most couldn’t tell you who she is or was.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 1977 at the age of 33, Susan Komen died three years later. Her younger sister, Nancy Goodman Brinker launched the foundation in her sister’s memory in 1982. On the 25th anniversary of the organization, the name was changed to “Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure,” and adopted the explicit (and utterly unattainable) mission to “end breast cancer forever.”  Such a pie-in-the-sky goal would seem to indicate a basic lack of understanding of the mechanism of any cancer.  They might as well express a desire to farm unicorns.

But their supposedly naïve expressed goal to “end breast cancer forever” is actually something far more cynical. They know that there will be no “ending breast cancer forever.” By hoisting such a lofty and impossible goal they can go on raising money forever, and they want to because as it turns out the commercialization of breast cancer research is very big business.

It used to be that October shopping meant autumnal colors, or orange and black for Halloween. Not any more. Take a look down the cosmetics aisle of any drugstore and what do you see? Pink. There are pink tennis balls (promising 15 cents per can donation to “a breast cancer research organization.”). There are Lean Cuisine boxes sporting a printed pink ribbon. (There’s actually no donation associated with these at all. But there’s a notice on the box directing you to the Lean Cuisine website, where you can buy a pink Lean Cuisine lunch tote, and five dollars of that price goes to Susan G. Komen.) There are pink treadmills, pink appliances, NFL players in pink cleats, pink stationery, even fishing guides on the Madison river in a pink driftboat. Pink pink pink pink.

“Don’t get me started about the “pink” money,” my friend Kelinda wrote. “I left the cancer center to work in mental health . . . night and day difference in funding.”

A woman commenting on a story in the Boston Globe about the pink phenomenon wrote: “The pink ribbon is one thing, but pink everything is way, way too much. My mother survived with breast cancer for 12 years and if I thought for one minute that a pink blender would have helped her cause I would have gone out in a heartbeat and bought one. But it doesn’t help the patient, only the corporation.”

There’s the rub. Corporations are making a lot of money off of breast cancer, and as a woman in a Toronto Globe and Mail said “It’s the commercialization of my disease.” Breast cancer research groups and activists have coined the term “pinkwashing” to apply to corporations that they feel are trying to boost their own image through breast cancer fundraising, even though they manufacture products that may (or may not) contribute to the incidence of breast cancer. Considered “pinkwashing” are BMW’s one-dollar-donation-per-test-drive  (because cars contribute to air pollution) the pink branding of many cosmetic companies (because wearing makeup can be harmful to your health) and Kentucky Fried Chicken’s pink bucket campaign, in which Yum! Brands donated fifty cents per pink bucket.

The chief objection to the KFC fundraising seemed to center on the concern that eating fried chicken isn’t healthy, and that given the location of many KFC restaurants in low-income areas that Yum! Brands was promoting unhealthy eating on the back of breast cancer awareness. (Gee, maybe they should have been raising money for heart disease. That seems like a more direct link.)

However, it is important to note that through this campaign Yum! Brands made a two million dollar donation to Susan G. Komen for the Cure. (And they sold about sixty million dollars worth of chicken in the process.) Talk of “pinkwashing” or not, Susan G. Komen Foundation lent their name to the promotion and they took the money, so they are as culpable as the businesses with whom they climb into bed.

Last Christmas I unwrapped a pink Cuisinart hand mixer, and my heart sank.  I wanted the mixer, it wasn’t that. (I have a Kitchen-Aid stand mixer, but sometimes (like whipping cream) that’s more mixer than you need.) The Cuisinart is an excellent mixer. I absolutely hated the fact that it was pink. Even before I’d looked into how much money is funneled into breast cancer research, even when I only suspected that companies were probably making an obscene amount of money on these special pink items, they felt exploitive to me. (Cuisinart gives three percent of the purchase price to Susan G. Komen, so about two bucks for my mixer.)

I looked at that mixer in my hands and I thought about how breast cancer gets so much attention and the other cancers so little. I wondered what it would feel like to have breast cancer and see so many people making so much money off of it, and I put the mixer away deep in the back of the cupboard.

Then one day I had cause to use it, and as I was fitting the beaters, I thought about how breast cancer activism and marketing has stolen pink from us. I’ve had some great pink things. A favorite pair of lace-up leather boots, pink-striped pajamas, pink lipstick, pink peonies, pink socks, a pink mohair sweater.

Pink used to make us think flamingos and bubble gum and cotton candy.  Pink should be ballet slippers and Peter Seller’s panther, pink ladies and strawberry ice cream.  That’s when I decided that my pink mixer would be the pink of pink cadillacs, of baby hats, a froth of tutu, Memphis’ Pink Palace.

We can be “tickled pink,” or “in the pink.” Let us all be pinkos and let none of us get pink slips. We can grow pinks and eat at Pink’s Hot Dog stand, listen to Pink Floyd and sleep on pink sheets. (Or get our stock quotes from them.) There is summertime, with pink watermelon, your dog’s pink tongue, her pink collar.  There are pink collar jobs, usually held by women.

And there’s the pink triangle. The Nazis made homosexual prisoners in concentration camps wear pink triangle badges. 15,000 pink-triangle wearing men were annihilated during the Holocaust. In the 1970s, the pink triangle was reclaimed by gay activists and re-invented as a symbol of gay pride. (As a side note, the Nazis had a wide variety of colored triangles: red for political prisoners and liberals, green for criminals, blue for foreigners, purple for Jehovah’s witnesses, black for gypsies, the mentally-ill, alcoholics, pacifists, and lesbians and yellow for Jews.)

The American Cancer Society has an official roster of colors for the various cancers, some are a little thoughtless: yellow for bladder cancer, black for melanoma, gray for brain cancer. Lung cancer doesn’t have a color, just “clear.” Clear t-shirts? No wonder they’re not marching. And pink for breast cancer.

Except that we don’t have to go along. Fight to reclaim pink, all the Crayola colors from Carnation  Pink (1949) to Ultra Pink and Shocking Pink (1972) Tickle Me Pink (1993) Pink Flamingo, Piggy Pink and Pink Sherbet (1998).  Don’t let your daughters grow up to think that pink means fear and fighting and chemotherapy. Sing of Little Pink Houses and dream of pink elephants.  Tell your kids to turn down the P!nk CD. You can be pink with embarrassment with talk of pink canoes and pink sausages.

Give directly to charities that are important to you. Donate to heart disease research. Make a gift to fight specific cancers. Give to your local animal shelter. Spend your money to end domestic violence. Breast cancer research has already had more than its fair share of our collective wealth.  We’ve been conditioned: we see pink, we think breast cancer. It doesn’t have to be so. Reclaim pink in your own life. Stop feeding the pink pig. Stop buying. Put an end to marketing of breast cancer “awareness,” end the exploitation. Cancer can’t be cured through shopping.

The Lost Girl

November 6, 2009 § 3 Comments

This piece originally appeared in June 2008 on True Crime Weblog, the website of noted crime writer Steve Huff, and appears here with his kind permission. This case remains unsolved. 

by Larkin Vonalt

The woman is screaming into the television camera. There are words coming out of her mouth, but all you really hear is rage. Rage, and despair.  The pain is writ so large upon her face that even at a distance one cannot help turning away out of respect. The camera pans from the shattered woman back to a twenty-something television reporter. The reporter smiles, embarrassed, and with a tilt of her head, brightly offers her reprise to the night’s top story.

Hours before, Tammy Walker trod the hallways of the city morgue, her own green mile, to identify the body of her daughter. 77 days earlier she and her husband filed a missing person report for Heather Nicole Walker, age 18. The police, by their own admission, never looked for her.  Heather’s family and friends ran off flyers of the missing girl, posting them everywhere they could think of.  Now it was all for nothing.  When they’d turned out the lights the night before, there had still been hope, dangling on a string. There was still a chance that Heather would come banging through the door of the house on Gummer Street. Today, with the rising of the sun, that string snapped.

This evening Tammy Walker has returned to the alley where her daughter was found in a trashcan. Surely screaming can be the only reasonable response. 

Dayton, Ohio is a city of 157,000 people. The crime rate falls somewhere between that of Baton Rouge and Rochester though violent crime in Dayton is significantly less than both those cities.  Last year the Chief of Police was pleased to tell the media that Dayton had enjoyed its second straight year of diminishing crime. 

In the days following the discovery of Heather Walker’s body, the police defended their lack of action.

“Many adults go missing throughout the year,” Sgt. Chris Williams told the Dayton Daily News, adding that  “very few” turn out to be victims of foul play. They offer this information without apology. They are just cogs in a slowly grinding machine, one with no capacity to look for the needle in a haystack that is a girl lost in the streets.

Heather wasn’t the high school valedictorian. She wasn’t an accomplished coed at a prestigious university. When the media speaks of her they don’t use words like “gifted” or “promising” or “popular.” As if death wasn’t insult enough, they drop labels on her like stones: Troubled. Habitual. Runaway.

Heather’s parents had reported her missing before, six times in point of fact. But this time, Robert and Tammy Walker had been emphatic with the police: she had not taken her cell phone, or her wallet. In the past she had always called to let them know she was okay. Not this time. It didn’t matter that Heather’s absence was more sinister this February than on past occasions. She had passed that magic age. 18: you can’t buy a beer, but you can be tried as an adult, serve your country and be liable for your own debts. Oh, and the police won’t look for you anymore.

Mary McCarty, a Dayton Daily News columnist, chastised the police in a May 1 editorial for arbitrarily dismissing reports for missing individuals over 18, citing her own son, a 19-year old High School senior, as evidence of how childlike we still can be at that tender age, suggesting that the “cutoff” might be a little later.   McCarty quotes Kettering, Ohio Police Sgt. Craig Moore deftly sidestepping the issue: “That’s a societal thing; we’re simply following state law as it is written,” Moore said. “That would be a change for the state of Ohio to make.”

The Walkers’ coltish daughter, half-woman, half-child, had early on seized the privileges usually reserved for adults, and did not bridle easily to the very adult responsibilities of raising her young son.  The running away began when she was pregnant and reached epic proportions after Devin was born. The sixth time the police brought Heather home, just over a year ago, she left again ten minutes later. There would not be a seventh time.

Though suburbanites fear the predominantly black west side of Dayton, these blocks—east of Keowee, north of US 35—these are really Dayton’s mean streets. But like the natives of South Boston and the Bronx, the residents of East Dayton take pride in their gritty neighborhood, wearing their survival like a badge of honor. 

Largely white, it is an area plagued with vandalism, theft, prostitution, homelessness, drug abuse and murder. The kids here ape black culture, posing on their MySpace pages and YouTube videos with rolls of cash, guns, bottles of Jagermeister. They imitate the speech, the dress, the swagger of the ghetto. It might be comical if it wasn’t so deadly. They’ve got the rims, the grills, they throw up the signs, pose for photos at the gravesites of their friends.

It isn’t just Heather they mourn, but also Andy Rush, who died Easter Sunday last year, accidentally shot in the head by his best friend, Tommy. His “Moms” had died just a few days before that, of cancer. Younger brother Mikey eulogizes all of them on his My Space profile. A few days ago there was a reference there to Heather, he called her his “future wife;” but to look at the profile now you’d never know they were friends. A guy’s got pressures, you know.

Heather wasn’t much of a diarist; she started four or five MySpace pages, but was never a regular presence there. Even so, the media noted that those pages were  “laced with obscenities.”  On both the pages that she got off the ground, she fusses about Devin’s father, Justin James Holbrook. “And for those bitches who want my baby daddy, go ahead and have him. He may look good to you and everything, but the thing is he has nothing to offer you, he don’t even have anything to offer his own son.”

On one of Heather’s early, abandoned profiles, Justin commented “hey if u ever get on here n check ur shit delete me from ur friends cause i dont want u to know nething bout wat i do so do me a favor n delete me k.” Their son, Devin, was about three months old then, and Heather was out the door as often as not.

It’s the pictures on Heather’s profile that finally provide a real glimpse of the girl behind the pose. Heather, laughing. Heather scowling, and yes, Heather (and a friend) stacking gang signs.  Heather vibrant, her arms bare and smooth, a curtain of shiny hair, a wide, wide grin, goofing for the camera. Heather alive. 

As a juvenile, Heather Walker had brushes with the law; shoplifting a pair of shoes, joyriding in a stolen car, the details carefully spelled out in the local newspaper days after her body was discovered.  There is no record for her as an adult. She had dropped out of Belmont High, but she wasn’t alone in that. Four out of every ten students there don’t make it to graduation.  On “academic watch,” the Dayton public high school features a “computer technology theme,” but has no school website.  93 percent of its students are considered “economically disadvantaged.”

On Wednesday, February 6, Heather is thought to have been on her way to a birthday party for her older brother, Rob. She is seen about 7:30 in the parking lot of Sam’s Market, a down-at-the-heels corner grocery on East Third Street, two miles from home, three blocks from where her body will be found.  By Saturday morning, she has still not come home and her parents turn to the police.  The police follow procedure as for any missing adult, other than those considered “endangered.” They issue a 72-hour alert, and when it expires, they forget about her.

Eleven weeks later, on a warm April morning, three passersby wend their way down an alley half a block off East Third.  One of them spots a pair of shoes hanging out of a city-issued trash bin. Deciding to take the shoes, they cross thirty feet from the alley to the edge of the abandoned building where the green plastic can rests. Reaching for the shoes, they make a horrible discovery. The shoes are still on Heather’s feet.

Heather’s friends bring balloons to the site. Balloons, and stuffed toys. Letters, poems, photographs of their lost friend. It is raining, the notes run, the photos smear, the candles flicker. In the rain, in an alley in a gin-soaked neighborhood, her friends weep, stunned with grief. A photograph of Devin visiting Heather’s shrine shows a beautiful and bewildered little boy.

Heather’s father has mapped his grief upon his chest, an image of Heather; peaceful, contemplative, is newly tattooed there.  Two dozen of his Mixed Martial Arts students file past, their heads bowed. Bushi Combat, where he teaches, honors Heather on their website. All that combat training, and no one to save her.  Robert Walker does not rage into the television camera as his wife does, but it is clear that the death of his baby girl has broken him.

The coroner issues a statement that Heather Nicole Walker had been dead “for a while,” yet her parents identify her in the hours immediately following her discovery. While her father concedes there was decomposition, he ventures that “her head hadn’t been bashed in or anything.” It’s unlikely Heather spent eleven weeks in the trash can, as the mild Ohio spring would have rendered her to state that no one would ask a parent to contemplate.

On the box that houses her ashes, the date of death is March 1, 2008; an estimate arrived at with the help of the medical examiner.  It begs the question. Where was Heather for the 23 nights between February 6 and March 1?  Was she captive? Was she frightened? Was she cold?

No cause or manner of death has been established. There were no signs of trauma on her body. She was not stabbed or shot or strangled. There was no blunt force trauma. Determining asphyxiation after a certain point of decomposition is very difficult. Life isn’t like CSI: lab tests take weeks, sometimes longer, to complete. Sometimes the answers never come.

As if rushing to pre-empt the media’s speculation, Robert Walker muses to a Dayton Daily News reporter that his daughter might have died of a drug overdose. Without the toxicology reports, the Montgomery County Coroner is not willing to make that leap yet.

The Coroner’s office director Ken Betz told the paper that he “cannot support that, because pathologists have not officially determined when and how Heather Walker died.”

If the cause of death is revealed in the toxicology report, it may well put an end to any homicide investigation. Without evidence of having been dosed against her will, the best the D.A. can offer her parents in that circumstance is the possible charge of “abuse of a corpse.” That is, if they ever find anyone to charge.

Drug overdose or not, no one is buying that Heather climbed into a trashcan on her own. Why would someone go to such lengths to conceal an accidental death? Or was their means of disposing of the body some kind of cruel joke?  Though the house near the site is empty, the grass is kept mowed. Heather’s father said he talked to the people who had cut the grass just a few weeks before his daughter’s body was found.  “They said that trash can was not there when they mowed,” he told the Dayton paper. “Someone killed Heather. I am staying on this.”

Heather Walker: daughter, mother, sister, friend.  Not just lost, but stolen.

A Death in the Family, Not Our Own

September 1, 2009 § 3 Comments

Observations on the Death of Edward M. Kennedy

My eyes are tired from crying. They feel tight around the edges, and gritty. I don’t know why I’ve been crying, really. I didn’t know the man. I’m sure I voted for him a time or two. But since Wednesday afternoon I’ve curled in my velvet armchair with a tissue in one hand and a cup of tea or a bit of toast in the other and I have watched television and I have wept.

My husband woke me early on Wednesday morning, touching my shoulder. He’s been downstairs to make coffee, watch the morning news. “Hi.”

“Hi.”

“Senator Kennedy died,” he says quietly, setting a coffee mug on the table next to the bed.

“Oh no,” I mumble, still sleepy, trying to process. That’s right, he’d been ill. Cancer. Some pundits speculated that he might make it back to the hill for the health care vote. No wonder the President wanted to see a vote on the bill before the recess.  “I guess he didn’t have as much time as they thought,” I say to my husband.

Drifting back to sleep, I dream about my father. In the dream, I am sitting with him and with his wife and we are looking at a calendar for this October.  I am trying to work out a time to visit with them again before October comes, and I am asking if Dad will have enough time, if there will still be time then. When I wake up, the coffee is cold. My father has been dead for more than three years, from cancer.

We’d thought there would be a bit more time. I’d said goodbye to Dad just before Christmas, we’d rushed back to Montana so that our 11-year-old son could fulfill the obligations of his role in the school play. Why didn’t the school tell us that someone else could have filled in? Why did we even care?  It doesn’t matter now. There were plans to go back before New Year’s, but on the day after Christmas the call came. 

The dream has left me feeling unsteady.  It was the worst of times, in some ways, that parceling out of Saturdays and holidays and the weeks that may or may not be left. Dad had already been robbed of his speech by then, his larynx taken in an aggressive attempt to stave off a more aggressive cancer. It made the difficult discussions nearly impossible. Emails had gone misunderstood, or unanswered, or sent back too quickly in anger.

I am scattered, unable to work, or concentrate. I can’t get comfortable in my Aeron chair, I keep thinking about the 800 miles between here and Massachusetts. I don’t understand why I want to go.  On most television channels, nothing has changed; it is a normal Wednesday afternoon– soaps, Judge Judy, Ellen deGeneres.  But my husband is watching MSNBC, and there they have begun to bang the funeral drum.

In the kind of fortuitous timing that television producers only dream of, Chris Matthews (the host of Hardball, the man who never lets his guests finish a sentence) has just finished a documentary about the Kennedy brothers, and he has been promoting its debut for Thursday.  They’ve moved the first showing up to Wednesday night, and they will air it every night for the rest of the week. I carry the laptop into the living room to watch the talking heads talk about Ted.

I could catch a 3 a.m. train out of Toledo, Ohio that would get me to South Station at 9 p.m., with a return on Sunday that gets me into Toledo at 11 p.m. It’s a three hour drive from here to Toledo. I can catch a flight on Friday, out of Dayton. Do I really want to spend $350, though? I mean, why is it I want to go?  It’s an 800-mile drive, 13 hours no matter how you cut it. When I picture myself driving to Boston, I am not behind the wheel of my Saab, but rather in the driver’s seat of my 1984 Volkswagen Rabbit. The one I bought new in Brookline, Massachusetts 25 years ago.

Boston. My old town, a hodge podge of memories, pieced and crumpled; some things stand in sharp relief, much more is faded from an 18 year absence.  I might have met Ted Kennedy then, or not. Like Duvall Patrick says at the Memorial Service, “I knew him long before I ever met him.”  I worked campaigns for Mike Dukakis and Mel King and Walter Mondale.  I remember meeting John Kerry and Joe Kennedy. Perhaps I just saw him at a distance. It doesn’t matter.  He belonged to Massachusetts and Massachusetts belonged to him. His death is like that of a distant family member; we grieve regardless.

And there is that other thing, that Kennedy thing. Seeing those patrician faces drawn in sorrow, to hear their strong voices crack and tremble excavates memories, milestones of a childhood in turbulence.  I was not quite two when President Kennedy’s life came to an abrupt close. A Friday, around lunchtime, in Murray Kentucky. My father would have been teaching. Perhaps my mother had put me down for a nap. Though I think I have no memory of the assassination, I’m certain that memory resides within me: my parents bowed with sadness, that sense of order shattered forever.

The June morning after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy I jumped out of bed, six years old, braids flying, ready for another summer day and found the house silent, my parents stunned and weeping, the world turned topsy-turvy once again.

The melody of this death is different, but similar. He is the only brother to have lived anything like a natural life expectancy; a man who must have expected at any time that he might be gunned down by some lunatic. He’d cheated death twice before, in a plane crash that left his aide and the pilot dead; he was pulled from the wreckage with a broken back and negligible pulse.  And again in the notorious car crash that took the life of Mary Jo Kopechne, he was left physically unscathed. When they review his length of life, they compare and we remember, and we grieve again.

Now we are spying on his great barn of a house in Hyannisport. They tell us that last week Teddy was rolled down to his schooner, the Mya, in a wheelchair, and that, somehow miraculously shielded from the press, he was taken for one last sail.  We watch one young grandson (Teddy III, as it turns out) pull faces at the camera crews as he flops and flounces around the driveway, killing time. He’s 11. His hair is to his shoulders. Another grandson, young Max, a year older, comes out in a Navy blazer, khaki shorts and flip-flops. No wonder the world is going to hell in a handbasket, even the Kennedys can’t get their children to cooperate.

The casket comes to the hearse borne by the honor guard, who move precisely in that strange shuffling half-step that looks like they might break out into a Busby Berkeley routine at any minute, though of course they never do.  The family flows out from the house, cascading down the steps and out across the lawn. They stand together for a moment, in a brittle silence as the casket eases into the hearse, and then disperse again, like a spilled drink spreading out across the floor. A couple of the men pat the flank of the funeral coach as they pass by, the way you might pat the neck of a willing horse.

We watch the journey from Hyannisport to the Library, as people line the roads and the overpasses and stop their cars and getting out to stand as the hearse passes by. We watch thousands fill the sidewalk to the presidential library, waiting. They mop their brows in the August heat. I am glad that I decided not to drive out, putting pragmatism over sentiment: my father would have been proud. Later, we watch ordinary men and women, those constituents that Kennedy long championed, file past the flag-draped casket. A few dip in reverence, or make the sign of the cross, hand flashing brow to chest, shoulder to shoulder. Others simply stand and stare.  

Friday is punctuated with real life interspersed with television commentary. I don’t have much to say, though my husband is more and more responding to the unending parade of stories with remarks like “That’s so sad,” or “I had no idea he did that, wasn’t that wonderful.”  The rants of talk radio hosts outrage him. I am just too tired to feel rage, and besides, why would they change their stripes now? Occasionally I help him sort out one of the Kennedy clan from another. Joe. Carolyn. Rory. Patrick.

That evening we tune in to the Memorial Service at the Presidential Library, which MSNBC brings us without commercial interruption. I laugh long and hard at the stories told by John Culver, a former Senator from Iowa who had been Ted’s longtime friend and classmate at Harvard. His account of crewing (fifty years ago) for Kennedy on the Victura (now berthed outside the Library) could have been out of an old Shelley Berman routine. As someone who has been dragged out in heavy weather to sail with someone who promised there was “nothing to it,” I understood his tale very well.  As the stories unfold across the evening, the people who love Ted Kennedy breathe life back into the memory of the man.

We hear about how Kennedy loved to paint, and sing. The “history trips” on which he shepherded his children and his nieces and nephews, escaping from the last one (a camp out) and seeking refuge in the Ritz. We hear of his never-ending concern for the common man, his generosity, his astounding memory for names and faces, and his larger than life gestures. Duvall Patrick tells a story of inviting Senator and Mrs. Kennedy to dinner at their house in the Berkshires. By the time the event rolls around, the Senator has added six or seven more dinner guests, including musicians from nearby Tanglewood, amidst Mrs. Kennedy’s aghast apologies. There’s a familiar bell in that story.

We weep along with Orrin Hatch, and note the catch in Joe Biden’s voice when he talks about the comfort Kennedy brought him after the deaths of Biden’s wife and young daughter in a car accident. We argue gently about what race is Brian Stokes Mitchell. (Black, as it turns out.)  He is there to sing “The Impossible Dream,” but his rendition is so perfect that it doesn’t stir me the way I expected. Perhaps if Willie Nelson had sung it instead.  At the end I sing back to them an occasional snatched phrase of “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.”  The broadcast ends, but the song goes on.

I knew another man who lived like this, larger than life. A man who loved to paint and sing, one alternately adored and despised by those who knew him. The kind of man who invited people to someone else’s dinner party. My mother married him; he became my stepfather who was not quite my father, just as my father became somewhat not my father either. A British physician, he also sailed an enormous schooner (the 62 foot Charlotte Jean, as compared to Kennedy’s 50 foot Mya).

He made me believe I could do anything and he instilled in me a great deal of confidence. That is, when I wasn’t wishing I could crawl under some rug to escape his booming enthusiasm, his demanding standards and all the eyes upon us. He too had never-ending concern for the common man, often treating patients without charging them, should they not be able to pay. He took in the stray, the wounded, the faint at heart and he gave them jobs, a place to sleep (sometimes in the guest room, and if that was full, on the sofa) he challenged them and encouraged them, rode them hard at times to make them better.

The stories about him still are legion. How he drove through the worst snowstorm in 20 years to deliver a baby. How if you admired something he’d give it to you. The way he’d hand off twenty dollar bills to panhandlers in the street. I heard echoes of those stories in the Kennedy library. I know what a man like those men are like, and it makes for wonderful tales, but it’s also a very hard way to live, in the shadow of the Lion. And yet, I would not have been what I am today without him.

He took his leave over ten years ago, his heart exploding in his chest, dead before his body reached the floor, roaring out of this world and into the next. A scientist will tell you that energy is never destroyed, that it is merely transformed into some other sort of energy. His energy was prodigious and it spilled over into more than a year’s worth of strangely comforting if somewhat disturbing array of phenomena. He left quickly, but he did not go gently.

No wonder I weep now.

On the fourth day the cameras train their gaze on the familiar face of Our Lady of Perpetual Help. The basilica where Kennedy is venerated is a block down the street from the house of an old friend. When you walked down the hill from his house, towards the college we both attended, it was as if we were walking to the church. Once we reached Tremont, we’d turn and continue down the hill. Online now, he complains bitterly about his freedoms being curtailed due the funeral. He is reminded that the entire government sits in the basilica on this rainy Saturday, all three branches. His inconvenience is a minor thing in light of that. He wonders aloud how the Kopechne family must feel about all this.

Around the corner, on St. Alphonsus, some jerk had come careening through a stop sign and wrecked my little Volkswagen. That was more than twenty years ago. Both my father and stepfather were very much alive then, would be with us another decade, longer. Ted Kennedy too. I didn’t realize how rich I was, back then, afforded the luxuries of sweet time.

Seeing the Bushes and the Carters and the Clintons and the Obamas gathered together in the pews, the rarest of fraternities, drives home again the way in which so many people felt connected to Edward Kennedy, and serves to underscore how they were the closest we ever had to a royal family.  There’s not another political family where we can name most of the siblings and who they married and how each one died and can name at least some of their children, and their accomplishments and their failures. It seems that Al Gore must not have cared much for Uncle Teddy; his absence among the pols is conspicuous.

The boys are deft at eulogizing their father; Teddy Jr. polished enough to set the pundits speculating that perhaps he could carry the Kennedy torch, even though it is Patrick who has a reasonable career in the political spectrum. It was the pundits that thought the older brothers were the brighter lights back when it was Jack and Bobby and Ted, too.  Grandson Teddy (III) is courting the press now that he intends to follow in Grandpa’s footsteps, he says. When, in the line of cousins, he steps forward to speak, he parrots his grandfather’s 1980 concession speech  “the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”  Without the thunder, it’s only words.

When we return to the television late in the afternoon, the body of the Senator has not yet arrived at the Capitol steps. As has been the case from the beginning, the schedule is awry.  Senator Robert Byrd, age 91, sits on the curb in his wheelchair, wiping his eyes, holding a small American flag.

Many of the Hill staffers have gathered here, for more than an hour in the muggy August afternoon. They are quiet and orderly, standing patiently as if for an enormous group portrait. On the Washington mall, more people wait. Along the boulevards of the District, they wait, along the bridge over the Potomac, in the Lincoln Memorial, lining the path to Arlington, they wait.

When at last the family does arrive, utterly exhausted, finally crumpling from the weight of their sadness and the endless duties of public mourning, the crowds erupt in a brilliant show of admiration. The only “off” note comes here in the form of an officious and awkward Congressional chaplain, who takes Vickie Reggie Kennedy firmly by the elbow and steers her away from the people she has come to meet so that she can stand at attention while he makes his fussy speech. As the motorcade drives away through the streets of Washington, people call out–  “Thank you!”  “We love you!”

At Arlington, the sun is beginning to set, just as it was for the burials of the two brothers. Cardinal Terrence McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, gently leads the last rites in the deepening gloam of evening. The images on the television become grainy and dim, until finally the cameramen give up and focus instead on the bugler playing taps, outlined in the light from Arlington House; lingering on the vibrant dance of the eternal flame.

Teddy’s granddaughter steps up to speak. Kiley Kennedy, just 15, begins, catches herself in a sob, and cries out “I can’t say anything!” But she pulls herself together and goes on to recount the happy hours spent sitting with her grandfather early on summer mornings on the porch of the Hyannisport house. But she is cloaked in darkness now; we can’t see her, even if we can hear the anguish in her voice.

When it is all over, I turn off the television before yet another replay of a Kennedy documentary. Enough is enough. I am exhausted, as if I too had waited in the line, as if I had sat in the pew under the soaring arches of Our Lady, as if I had stood on the steps of Congress waiting through the afternoon.

I carry my cup of tea outside and sit on the patio in the dark, looking up at the stars. I miss my father. I miss my stepfather.  Even though I won’t feel Ted Kennedy’s absence, I will miss his guiding hand and heart in the senate. I keep thinking about how the funeral ran late at every turn, and I wonder if that was perhaps by design. Surely it is more secure not to stick close to a well-publicized itinerary?

Most importantly, though, it gave the family an opportunity for a private ending to a very public life. In the end, in the dark they make their peace and say goodbye. They reclaim their own, and we release him.

The Thinking Man

May 19, 2009 § 8 Comments

an endorsement

 

Often, when an endorsement is written, there’s a little disclaimer at the end of it – in fine print– revealing that the writer has some other, additional relationship with the subject of the piece.

Given the manner in which David Esrati approaches the hail of ideas, people, conundrums and opportunities that come flying at him each and every day, it is more appropriate to put that disclaimer right here at the beginning, right up front where everyone can see it:  I know the man.  And the “how” of that says much about the extraordinary person that he is.

A year ago this spring I wrote an essay about the discovery of the body of a young woman, Heather Walker, in a trashcan on Dayton’s east side.  I found that David Esrati had also made mention of the murder on his own website www.esrati.com, and referenced a long ago controversial Esquire magazine cover by George Lois of a woman in a trashcan. There are plenty of websites that feature crime; it remains a compelling subject for many readers. Fewer are those that mention an erudite magazine in the same breath.  I left a comment on Esrati’s site and included a link to my own piece.

It wasn’t long before I heard back. David Esrati suggested lunch, but I was literally leaving town the next day for the whole summer and had to put him off until the fall.

I had been back in Dayton just a few days when he got in touch again: he had not forgotten.  After agreeing to lunch, I did a little research. I found a photograph of David Esrati in a black ninja-style hood at a City Commission meeting, and an account of his arrest. I dug further in court records and found an opinion by the Second Appellate Court. It made for fascinating reading.

Esrati had appeared in the hood at a Commission meeting in February 1997 to protest secret closed meetings the Commission had been holding to discuss eliminating public comment at Commission meetings. 

Federal and state “sunshine” laws require that all meetings and records of public regulatory bodies be announced, and open to the public. There are a few well-delineated exceptions to this, generally in instances where a person’s right to privacy is at stake – the performance review of a city employee, for instance. Removing the public’s right to comment would not have fallen under the very narrow strictures that allow for closed meetings.

David Esrati donned the hood at that meeting in silent protest, and was ordered arrested by then Dayton Mayor (and current US Republican Congressman) Mike Turner and was charged with four misdemeanors, all of which were later dismissed by the Municipal Court.

At great expense to taxpayers, the City of Dayton appealed to the Second Appellate District Court of Appeals, who affirmed the lower court’s decision and dismissed the case with prejudice. The City of Dayton again appealed, this time to the Ohio State Supreme Court, who declined to hear the case. The opinion stood affirming David Esrati’s constitutional right to freedom of expression and asserting that Mayor Mike Turner had lied under oath about the incidents of the meeting.

As a journalist, Esrati’s protest interested me. Not just because it made for good copy, and not just because it allowed one overblown politician to be hoisted by his own petard, caught on the hook of his own lies. Not just because  the sunshine laws are near and dear to my heart. But rather because open meetings are of essential importance to ensure fair governance. Still, I’m not sure I would have gone to jail for them.

I was late for our lunch meeting (the garage door wouldn’t close) and arrived flustered. Everyone in the room seemed to know Esrati. He pointed out various people and their respective roles in Dayton as movers and shakers. Some waved, others looked away frostily. Over the course of lunch we talked about Dayton, and how I’d managed to land there. I’d much rather be the interviewer than the interviewed and I was ill prepared.

Still, regardless of what David Esrati thought he saw before him (a somewhat rumpled middle-aged woman who wrote well and talked too fast, perhaps) I know that he saw this: a potential resource for his own business (a remarkably sophisticated marketing firm The Next Wave) and two “problems” to solve.

How much money is there to be made in writing about crime? he asked.

Not much, I admitted.

Had I met many people here yet?

No, not really I said.

He thought he might be able to find me some job-writing gigs. He also had some ideas as to how I might meet kindred souls in Dayton.

This is how David Esrati works. He wants to fix things. In ad agency parlance, he’d be The Idea Man. He has a keen sense for what might not be working quite as well as it could, and he has ideas, not just for better widgets, but for better schools, better economies, better government. But we are getting ahead of ourselves here. First to address the matter at hand:

David Esrati is running for City Commission.

Dayton, a city of 160,000, is governed by a four-member City Commission, with Mayor Rhine McLin at the helm and a largely invisible city manager in the works. Only one commissioner, Dean Lovelace, survives from the 1997 lawsuit debacle. The two commissioners who vie with Esrati for the two open seats are Joey Williams and Nan Whaley. 

Williams is a black man, a senior Vice President for Chase Bank and a second term member of the Commission who has been somewhat decried as “spineless” for abstaining from the vote on contentious topics.

Nan Whaley, freshman commissioner, is as whitebread as her Indiana upbringing. Lacking much in the way of real world experience, she is a fervent proponent of “landbanking” which many rightfully fear paves the way to seizure of property by eminent domain. She is a student at Wright State University.

The Commission’s Mission is stated as follows : “As stewards of the public trust, our mission is to provide leadership, excellent services, and participatory government to enhance the quality of community for all who live, work, raise families, play, or conduct business in Dayton.”

While the mission statement is fairly standard boilerplate adopted by commissioners in many American cities, it is the Commission’s “Vision” statement that is frighteningly rudderless and confused: “Dayton is a community where people choose to live, work, play, and raise families.  We serve as a regional leader and resource in offering cutting-edge services to our many customers.”

While Dayton is certainly a community where people live, work and play (would there be a community without that?)  this struggling city can’t be considered a “regional leader,” given it’s locale less than 70 miles from Columbus and Cincinnati, cities that really do “lead” the region.

The precise definition of a “resource in offering cutting-edge services to our many customers” is a mystery. One wonders who are the customers of this city, and what “cutting-edge services” are they being offered. This is Dayton’s official “vision.” No wonder we’re in trouble.

“I’m running to make Dayton a better place,” Esrati says  “where we can have an intelligent conversation out in the open about how to solve our problems.” He has a pretty firm grip on what ails Dayton and its government.

When asked what he thought are the three biggest problems facing Dayton, he went not to the nut and bolt answers that most would: jobs, economy, development. Those are issues that every city faces. Instead, his answers went to the heart of Dayton’s problem. The city, he says, is plagued by its poor self-image.

“It’s our perception of ourselves,” he explains. “No one is going to believe in Dayton until we do.”  He points out that the public’s perception of Dayton Public Schools is largely misinformed, and that the local media does tremendous damage by playing up every crime story, even those as penny ante as stolen holiday decorations or a convenience store break-in.

David Esrati believes that the problems in city government hinge largely on a climate of reactive politics instead of pro-active decision-making. He is unhappy with Priority Boards, which he believes disenfranchises the voter and adds another layer of bureaucracy with which the public contends. He would like to see better delivery of basic services and a feedback mechanism through which the public could effectively communicate their concerns with their elected representatives.

“I believe we need to re-task the City Commission as a board of directors who must keep the City Manager focused and on mission, with clear goals and objectives. However, that which you don’t measure, you can’t improve and without some kind of tracking system for complaints and requests, we can’t even start making the kind of changes we need to see if we want to make Dayton great again,” he explains.

A long time champion of Dayton, Esrati’s platform is plainly available through his website where he comments daily (sometimes more often) on issues confronting our community. Through the forum, he has already engaged the community in an often-lively debate about the challenges the city faces, but it is a far cry from doom and gloom. Indeed, some of the nicest things ever said about Dayton, and the people that call this city home, and the businesses, fledgling and otherwise that take root here are among the entries on Esrati’s blog.

He gets some ribbing for his ego, but nothing of worth was ever achieved by sad sacks. David Esrati’s Achilles’ heel is not his arrogance so much as that he sometimes forgets to sell himself, playing up his struggles more than his considerable achievements.

The Next Wave is where Esrati spends most of his waking hours and the work he does there is exceptionally fine; he has a knack for making stuff look good. His philosophy as a businessman carries over well into political currency.

~From the Next Wave website:

We had a different vision: The Next Wave is here to help people stay ahead of the competition, not abreast of it. We actually study marketplaces and people and buying habits, and we create a brand experience that is bigger than just advertising. We do it by finding honest positions that our clients can own and that set them apart from the standard price-and-product, dog-eat-dog world of mediocre advertising that tries to sell something rather than build value in the consumer’s mind and the client’s balance sheet.

David Esrati can do a lot for Dayton with those same skills. He understands what appeals to people, and how to create desire for a particular kind of experience. Those talents and his experience would be invaluable assets to helping Dayton pull itself up by the bootstraps.

Unlike many of Dayton’s critics, Esrati is quick with a list of what makes Dayton vibrant. He grins as he recounts them: “We’ve got a lot of water, a temperate climate, a great location. We aren’t in an area known for devastating natural disasters.  We have a reasonable cost of living, a decent cultural scene, something for almost everybody. We’re a diverse city, with great post-secondary educational opportunities and a tech-driven work force.”  He pauses for a minute and then adds. “And people are nice here. Not fake nice, but genuinely nice.”

There’s probably nothing on which David Esrati doesn’t have an opinion. I don’t agree with his philosophy on the Death Penalty, for instance, but it seems unlikely that he’d have the opportunity to implement it from the City Commission. He is passionate for education, and for the arts, for economic development, and historic preservation and for justice. Oh, and ice hockey. 

 The son of a journalist, he has been schooled from birth on the importance of education, information and rights, both civil and human. David Esrati has a tendency to call people out on their bad decisions. Maybe that’s not popular, but it is essential. There’s already too much laissez-faire in the city government.He sees clearly through the Oz-like machinations that so many politicians engage in.

Yes, he can be abrasive. But you know that under the bluster is a rock solid support, a dependable man, a thinking man who will put Dayton’s best interests first. It will take vision and creativity and ingenuity to help get Dayton back on the right path. In a place that prides itself on being a city of originals, no one could be better suited to serve than David Esrati.

Breathless

March 25, 2009 § 10 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

 

A young woman is standing on the sidewalk in front of a printing business. It is the end of July in Ohio and it is hot, already more than 80 degrees that morning. She is holding a cold glass bottle, a chilled SoBe for her boyfriend. She is seven months pregnant.

The boyfriend arrives, and if he isn’t thrilled to see her, he is very pleased to be met with the ice cold drink. It will turn out to be the highlight of an otherwise wretched day. His paycheck bounced. He’s living with a new girlfriend, who is 22 and demanding. He wants to marry her, he thinks, but he still has some unfinished business.

Heather, 7 months pregnant, has been evicted from the apartment they once shared, and is basically living on the street. He is concerned about her, about his child whom she carries. She’s on a waiting list for Section 8 housing, but until then, she’s sleeping rough. He is hoping to convince the new girlfriend, confusingly also named Heather, to let the pregnant girl come live with them.

We know this because Anthony Shuri, the boyfriend, has written about it in his online blog on OKCupid, a website not so much for dating but for hooking up. In his profile, the 31-year-old refers to himself as Nibbles the Owl, and he says he’s really good at “oral sex, driving, smoking pot and making as ass of himself to impress women.”  There is a photograph of a pudgy man of mixed race (“Yes, the fat one is me”) standing next to two women: one skinny as a boy, (“Rachel giver of advice,” he writes) and the other, in shorts and a t-shirt, her hair tucked behind her ears, is “Heather (Momma).” Her name is Heather Skelly and she is 23 years old.

By the end of August, Heather has moved in with Anthony and his girlfriend. Online, the girlfriend rages:

Get you and your pregnant ex girlfriend out of my apartment. The shit is your fault. You CHEATED on me and expect me to be ok with you having her live with me.. You just stare at me when I try to tell you how I am feeling.. You never say ANYTHING to make me believe that you want things to be better. I have been faithful to you since day 1 and I always turned my head when you spent the weekend in batavia.. and then you said you were still in love with her.. but you wanted to see what would happen with me.. Then You got HER pregnant. Just one month after I found out you had been sleeping with her and I thought it had stopped. Jump ahead about 6 mo and you get evicted.. because of her.. and we get a place together.. after a month of being with you, to myself, what I had wanted for so long I come home from work one day and find her shit in the middle of my living room floor, and its still there. All I want, have ever wanted, was to me with you. Why else would I put myself thru all this.. I just want us to be happy together, I keep waiting.

A day or so before Anthony had posted a coy, online apology that his girlfriend initially thought was addressed to her. But upon re-reading it, she realizes it is not about her at all. She thinks (perhaps correctly) that it is a message for yet a third woman, Brooke, a woman consumed with knitting and at some point, anyway, consumed with Anthony. She had used him for a model for a knitted hat she designed and wrote, in reference to that: Beware the obsessive man, though. As I was knitting the navy and white hat (see left), he said, “Ooh! What’s that?”I said, “You don’t need another hat.” He said, “Yes, I do! I only have two! What could I say? It’s his.

The photographs on knitty show Anthony in a blue jacket and a knit cap, reading. It makes you think of someone reading in a prison yard. There’s no doubt that the women in Anthony Shuri’s life would describe him as resembling Adam Duritz, the frontman for Counting Crows. If one can judge from Brooke’s online knitting blog (which puzzles Anthony) she seems to have her life a bit more together. Perhaps the knitting gives her focus, she quotes “knitting calms the drunken monkey of the mind.” Still, though, imagine the incessant click click click of knitting needles as the soundtrack to this story.

Imagine too, Heather Skelly. Hugely pregnant, sleeping in a cramped apartment with the boyfriend who left her and his new girlfriend; all of her worldly goods piled in the middle of the living room floor. She has nowhere else to go. Her suburban life came crashing down when she was a teenager. Her mother died suddenly of a heart attack when Heather was 15, her father two years later from cancer. Heather was left in the care of her older brother, Guy. But now Guy has drifted away too, living in his car, on the streets. Anthony is being self-righteous; he has to be there for his son, he has to put the child’s well being first. As if she is nothing but a vessel. She is grateful to not be on the streets, but it is a small enough gift.

Two weeks later, Anthony’s girlfriend has news for him, presented with a plastic stick on her outstretched hand. She too is in the family way, with a due date in May. On September 13, he writes: Two lines …not one, not none, but TWO lines… uh… whoops. Time to panic.

The next day, he rails about wanting to be a good father: Why is it automatically assumed that I won’t be a good father simply because we aren’t married? This is one of the dreams I’ve had all my life, for fuck’s sake! Some boys want to be firefighters, some boys want to be astronauts, and some boys want to be racecar drivers.. but you know what I want? Huh? I want to be a good father. If that makes me a bad person, then fuck you.

He has his chance soon enough, for five days later, Heather gives birth to Dominic Alexander. He has arrived a few weeks early, weighing in at just over five pounds. It must be a relief to be in the hospital, where at least no one is screaming. Heather’s experience of the birth is described off-handedly by Anthony as “a twelve hour Morphine nap followed by fourteen minutes (his emphasis) of intense pushing.”  The very next day he is vilifying her in order to prop himself up, but a day later finds comfort in something his boss says to him, that this is his chance to be a hero. “I don’t have to impress anyone else in the world,” Anthony writes, “because this boy is going to worship me for the rest of my life.”

When the baby is ten days old, Heather tells Anthony about a program she’s found that will shorten her waiting time on the public housing list. It should have made his day. She and the baby would be safe; they would be out of the newly pregnant girlfriend’s apartment. Heather would be on her way to putting her life together for herself and her son. But Anthony’s chief response is concern: will the program allow him to see the baby?

The boy is not even a month old before Anthony is weighing what’s in it for Anthony.

Seriously, aside from all the feel-good crap, what’s the point in my “taking responsibility” here? Pros: someone to get child support from, “male role model”(which seems rather pointless at the proposed 2 or 3 days a week), unconditional love (which is, admittedly, a really big one )and…? Cons: G/F hates the idea, “momma”‘s friends won’t talk to me, I have no legal rights in his care or upbringing, child support is money I can’t afford to spend (right now), Children’s Services wants me to take time off work (that I need to PAY child support) to take parenting classes (for my 2 days a week??), mom wants to switch from breastfeeding (which is by FAR superior to formula), simply so she won’t have to feed him as much (and I can’t say “Don’t do that, it’s bad for him”, because I have no rights)… I just keep running this list through my head over and over, and yet, other than guilt, and Dominic’s need for a “role model”, what’s the point? Tell me that, if you can.

For the next month Heather and her son don’t make enough of an impact on Anthony’s life for him to comment, even though they are still living there with him and his girlfriend. He is caught up instead with having heard from the “girl he lost his virginity to” and her claims (unfounded, says he) that he is the father of a child she gave up to the foster care system. He refers to the woman, Kelly, as “pure evil.”  Then, on November 6, a two-line entry: “Dominic and his mother have moved to a shelter in Xenia. God this sucks . . . I miss him already.”

Heather and Dominic find refuge through the Interfaith Hospitality Network of Greene County, part of national network formed to provide assistance to homeless families. As part of the program, the network runs a “Day Center” where clients can make phone calls, and receive training in job and life skills, like budgeting, nutrition and parenting. Local churches on rotation provide overnight shelter. It’s only temporary, two months, and Heather is still living out of a suitcase, but it is surely a blessed relief after the apartment.

Very quickly, Heather finds a job. She meets Nina Ivy through the Interfaith Hospitality Network, and is hired to work at Custom Care Cleaning in Xenia, a housecleaning company providing services to the elderly. Nina Ivy describes Heather as a “real hard worker,” “very determined,” and “very sweet.”  Heather must feel the best she’s felt in a long time, she’s finally starting to get her feet under her.

Two days before Thanksgiving, Anthony Shuri posts his second-to-last entry on his blog.

Okay.. I tried. I tried not to be bitter about this, but I can’t help it. Dominic’s mom get cash assistance from the state of Ohio (thanks, taxpayers), foodstamps from the federal government (thanks again), free clothes from various churches, and on top of all that, she should start getting child support soon… but the funny thing is, if I complain about it, I’m a horrible father, and of course, as pointed out earlier, just the fact that I got her pregnant means that I, and I alone, have ruined her life, and made Dominic’s worthless… but that’s okay, because I’m being “responsible”. Did I mention that I haven’t worked this week because my paycheck from Friday still hasn’t cleared? No, I guess I didn’t. I work all week for a sack of shit who can’t even make sure there’s enough money in the account for me to cash my check, but if I complain, I’m being irresponsible. Well, you know what? Fuck you. Tell me why the hell she is a more worthwhile parent than I am, or shut the fuck up.

The last entry of “Nibbles the Owl” is in January 2007 and consists only of the lyrics of “Bliss,” by the band Hinder, the theme of which is “I don’t wanna know it’s over.”

In May, when his girlfriend gives birth to “Nathan,” Anthony is a father again. Anthony takes Dominic a few days a week. Heather must still find him charming, as sometime during the heat of July, she finds that she is pregnant again. DNA tests will show that he is the father. Anthony, still, is trying to make a go of it with the girl he lives with, Nathan’s mother. In October, he travels to Everett, Washington with the girlfriend, and both boys, Dominic, age 11 months and Nathan, five months, to visit his adoptive mother, Vivian.  Vivian Shuri has photos made of the occasion, of her assembled family. In the pictures Anthony posts on his MySpace page, they look like a jolly, overfed family.

Did the girlfriend hear the echoes of Brooke, though, who had made this trip to Everett before her? Click click click. The only comment on the pictures is from “Kelly,” who muses that she wishes that her long lost daughter might have been included also.  (Kelly continues to be a constant, lonely presence on the social networking page.)

On Friday, November 17, 2007 Nina Ivy calls the police. Her usually reliable employee, Heather Skelly, hasn’t shown up for work for four days. Ivy is concerned. When police arrive at the apartment on Superior Avenue in Fairborn, they find Heather naked on the bathroom floor. She has been strangled.  She has been dead since Tuesday.

Dominic is found safe at the apartment of his father’s girlfriend. It takes the police four months to come for Anthony Shuri. First, they had been sent looking for a red herring, that “suspect” turns out to have been in the county jail at the time of Heather’s death. The autopsy reveals that Heather is four months pregnant, and we know what the DNA tests show. The autopsy also reveals semen in the vaginal vault; tests will show it is Anthony Shuri’s.  On March 6, he is arrested without incident.

The red file jacket in the Greene County courthouse tells the story in one word, writ large in magic-marker: Murder.

At last there is news coverage of Heather’s death. Until reporters find the charge on the Greene County court docket, the end of a young woman’s life on the bathroom floor of a Fairborn apartment didn’t merit their attention. The only photograph they can come with for her is the one on her Driver’s License.

Fairborn Police believe they have a pretty good idea of what happened in the apartment. Detective Lee Cyr tells a reporter from the Dayton Daily News that they believe that Anthony Shuri killed Heather Skelly to stop her from telling his girlfriend that she was pregnant by him for the second time.

Shuri’s friends will say this isn’t true, that Anthony loves children, that Heather and the girlfriend are “acquaintances,” and probably it is true that Anthony didn’t care if his girlfriend knew or not. But did he want all that grief all over again? We know how well it went down the first time, because he told us. Click, click, click, click, can’t you hear those needles making fabric of the yarn?

In the four months Anthony has to dream up a story to tell the prosecutor he comes up with a doozy: Erotic Asphyxiation.  Some like to call it asphyxiophilia. In either case, participants seek to enhance their sexual experience by being deprived of oxygen in the moments leading up to orgasm. (For a while there seem to be a rash of young men accidentally killing themselves masturbating in nooses. That’s auto-erotic asphyxiation, a term that was mistakenly used more than once in the reporting of Heather Skelly’s death.)

It’s a dangerous practice and people do die. Asphyxia is achieved by a number of methods, but most frequently the partner performing the asphyxia puts significant pressure on the carotid artery. This is an important detail, as the manner of most accidental deaths that occur in during erotic asphyxia are from ventricular fibrillation, caused by the interruption of the electrical impulse to the heart, which in turn was caused by the interruption of the blood supply via the carotid artery. Heather Skelly was strangled.  Strangulation, during mutually agreeable erotic asphyxia is almost unheard of.

There is one other inconsistency. Generally when someone dies during intercourse, the partner calls 911. Perhaps they try to revive their partner. They don’t drag the naked body of their partner to the bathroom, put on their pants and go home. In Seattle, Anthony Shuri’s mother, Vivian confirms that erotic asphyxiation is a practice that her adopted son engages in. While one readily expects that a mother might say any number of things to protect her son, who would think that the son would discuss such unusual sexual habits with his mother, especially when he was struggling just to find a way to tell his Mom that his girlfriend was pregnant.

He went away and left her body cooling on the floor.

Anthony Shuri was charged with murder, reckless homicide, involuntary manslaughter and illegal termination of a pregnancy.  His attorney told reporters that he felt the prosecutors had a weak case, given that they had added the reduced charges and that it had taken them four months to bring any charges at all. Additionally he felt that the fact that Shuri was having intercourse with Skelly when he murdered her clouded the issue. “Apparently we have a sexual component to it, which instantly gives a defense to it, opposed to normal murders which are usually more black and white.”

The defense attorney also admitted that he’d never even heard of erotic asphyxiation, let alone been involved in a case that centered on it. Nonetheless he  is convinced of his client’s innocence, telling the Greene County News that the Fairborn police were mistaken in their theories. “Clearly, he did not have any anger toward her about the child, otherwise he wouldn’t have been having sex with her.”

Anthony Shuri left her on the bathroom floor. Walked away. Told no one.

Who knows why Greene County prosecutor Stephen K. Haller offered the deal he did. Repeated phone calls and an in-person visit to his office in Xenia failed to gain an audience with the man. The deal was if Anthony Shuri pleaded guilty to two counts of reckless homicide, which would result in reduced prison time, the other charges would go away.

Could Haller have won a guilty verdict from the jury? You bet.

Was there motive? By the boatload.

Evidence? Enough to make Horatio Caine smile.

Are there holes in Anthony Shuri’s story? Holes big enough to drive a truck through.

Half an hour on the Internet would have given Stephen Haller enough information about erotic asphyxiation to show that Anthony Shuri was lying. He just couldn’t be bothered. Perhaps the good people of Greene County will remember this when he stands for reelection, but it’s doubtful.

Heather Skelly’s friends turned out to see Anthony Shuri plead guilty to two counts of reckless homicide. Nina Ivy was there. Gale French was there. She told the Dayton Daily News that the relationship between Heather and Anthony was “never good,” and described Anthony as “overbearing, demanding and abusive” towards Heather. She came to court on May 15, 2008 hoping to see justice for her friend. She went away disappointed.

Reading the trial notes in the red-jacketed folder in the Greene County courthouse reveals Common Pleas Court Judge Stephen Wolaver seemed frustrated at the few options presented to him by the prosecutor’s deal. He invited Anthony Shuri to make a comment, but for once Anthony Shuri had nothing to say. Judge Wolaver sentenced him to the absolute maximum sentence the charge of reckless homicide allows: five years for the death of a 20-week fetus, five years for the death of Heather Skelly.

He left her on the floor.

Heather’s son, Dominic, just 18 months old at the time of his father’s sentencing for the death of his mother, is living in Seattle with his grandmother, Vivian Shuri. He will be just shy of 12 when his father is released. Somehow it seems unlikely that he will worship Anthony in the way that Anthony thought he would.

Anthony’s girlfriend is still in Kettering with her son, waiting for her man. Through MySpaceshe is in regular contact with Kelly, the woman who claims to have borne Anthony Shuri’s first child. Somewhere in Ohio, Brooke is knitting. click click click click.

One of Heather Skelly’s neighbors, Mark Neyman, paid for Heather’s cremation and claimed her ashes. He is trying to find Heather’s brother. “She was a sweet girl,” he told the Greene County News. “I can’t think of a bad thing to say about her. She was never in a bad mood; she would do anything for anybody. Unfortunately, she would do anything for Anthony, too.”

 

 

 

Murder Up the Street

March 19, 2009 § 10 Comments

by Larkin Vonalt

It is a beautiful spring afternoon. The leaves are not fully out yet, and I can see through the hedges and hear from their barking that there is a small boy teasing the dogs from the other side of the fence.

So I walk out the front door, and down the block to the cross street that marks the boundary of our large lot. I can hear the boy beating on the fence with a stick and yelling “Get away, stupid dogs” and “I’m gonna get you.” The dogs bark back at him. When I round the corner, he looks up, ready to flee.

“Oh, no,” I say softly. “Let’s talk for a minute.” He nods, yes he understands that holding out the stick to the dogs, retrievers at that, is like someone holding a candy bar in front of his nose. He learns the dog’s names. Does he live over there? No? Oh, is he from down there, with Renee? He says nothing, but his eyes give him away. “I’m sorry,” he says. “I won’t do it no more.”  I kind of wish I had a candy bar to give him.

Walking back around the corner and up the block to the front porch, I see the lights of many police cruisers a few blocks further up the street, in the parking lot of the fried chicken place.  “Another hold-up,” I think glumly. They seem to get robbed on a regular basis. For a while it was always the same guy, a former employee recognized through the holes in his ski mask. With more people living off credit cards, using bankcards, his take, even in this neighborhood, where fried chicken is very popular, is usually about sixty bucks.  He actually made more money working there.

“Looks like Church’s is getting robbed again,” I say, going through the front door.

“What,” asks our son. “Let me see. How do you know?”  We step out to the curb and I point out the commotion three blocks up. “Oh yeah,” he says. “Wow.” With that one word assessment, he returns to whatever he is endlessly doing on the computer.

Though we rarely watch the 5 o’clock news: the CBS affiliate anchors have been at those desks since 1970, we turn it on to see if there’s something on about the robbery. They have a story, but it wasn’t a robbery. Instead they are reporting a double homicide on Broadway Street between Riverview Avenue and Negley Place.  “We’ll go now to Danielle Elias on the scene.”

“You think they would have sent the other one, whatshername, Brittny McGraw,” I say to my husband. Not because she’s black and in a predominantly black neighborhood, she would have had been more readily accepted on the scene, but because she’s competent. Danielle Elias, a striking young woman of Lebanese descent, couldn’t keep her plummy assignment at CNN because, well, she’s just not good at her job.

And there she is, up the street, wooden as Coppelia, leaning down to interview a strung-out woman in a car, the child in the passenger seat screaming throughout. There is no indication that they have anything to do with the scene other than simply passing through it.  “There’s always something goin’ on in the Daytonview,” a young black woman tells Danielle. 

Of course, that’s no more true here than anywhere else, and somewhat less so than some other places. Before we bought this house, three blocks from the scene of the murders, I requested and received, from the City of Dayton Police Department, a complete report of all crimes in this section of this district in the last three years. Nothing stood out, except the armed robberies at Church’s Fried Chicken. This is not to say there’s no crime, there’s crime everywhere, but nothing to support the reputation the neighborhood has.

But what this woman had to say—“always something goin’ on in the Daytonview” supports WHIO management’s misinformed opinion of this-side-of-the-river, so they go with it, even though it adds nothing to this story about a double homicide. A double homicide. We hadn’t even heard the sirens.

ABC/FOX must have quite an intrepid reporter, as they come away with a more vivid description of the scene:

When crews arrived at the Broadway address, they found two men badly wounded inside the home. One man had been shot in the head, the other in the torso. One victim was still talking and police were hoping to get some information about the crime, ‘The way he was talking was delirious, said Sgt. Bill Keller, ‘he kept saying let me up, let me up. We asked him what happened, what happened, he said let me up, let me up.’”

NBC doesn’t bother to cover the story at all.

By the eleven o’clock broadcast, the murders are no longer the top story: they’ve been replaced by the death of a (white) motorcyclist, who was hit by a little pickup truck after racing in and out of traffic up on Needmore.  Today, the story of the double homicide is gone from all of the broadcast outlets, though all three continue to report on the accidental death of the motorcyclist. He has now been identified as Matthew N. Edwards, 33, of West Carrollton, a lifelong scofflaw with a list of traffic convictions as long as your arm. (The information about the DUI, concealed weapon and reckless driving arrests doesn’t come from the news media, but from a cursory look at the Montgomery County Public Records court databases.)

The reason we didn’t hear the sirens of the Dayton PD rushing to 515 N. Broadway is because they were already practically on the scene. Around three o’clock officers responded to reports of a fight and someone with a gun on Ferguson near Superior. I know where Ferguson near Superior is. It is in a park; the map calls it Dayton View Park, but people in the neighborhood just call it Broadway Park. It’s a long green rectangle with trees and a playground, some hoops, bounded by Broadway on one side, Ferguson on the other and Superior to the north. The south side peters out into a little overgrown section of alleyways. Church’s Fried Chicken is just down the street from the park, close enough that some days you can smell the chicken frying. The house where the murders occurred is next door to the fried chicken place.

Last November, I put two dogs outside for “last call.” They slipped under the fence and disappeared into the winter night. An hour later I found one of them trotting down Superior Avenue, the park behind her. An hour after that, Muscleman Sam, a homeless guy who’d done some yard work for us, flagged me down.

“Are you looking for your dog? I just seen her in Broadway Park up there.” When he said he’d seen her just a few minutes before, I hightailed it back to the park. I didn’t care that it was two in the morning, but she wasn’t there anymore. I kept going back, thinking she might return, posting flyers, canvassing the people who lived in and around the area. I left my sweater and a bowl of food at the edge of the park and checked back there several times a day every day for nine days until she was found, thin but safe, three and a half miles across town. I know the park well. I know it in the cold light of dawn, in the hush of the smallest hours, in the bright sunshine of the afternoon.

On this warm spring afternoon, officers are investigating an altercation at the park, and have taken into custody one man who seems to have been pistol-whipped. They are still there when dispatch alerts them to shots fired at 515 N. Broadway, about two blocks south. When they arrive at the shabby Victorian house they find two men inside, dying on the livingroom floor. Let me up, let me up.

The morning paper carries the story of the afternoon murders on the front page, below the fold. (Front and center is reserved for a story about ten (white) girl scouts who were killed in a car – train collision fifty years ago.) The Dayton Daily News identifies the victims as Dennis Glover, 27 and Gerald Brown, 39; not exactly the profile for gang-bangers killing each other. In fact, Gerald L. Brown, born October 14, 1969; has had a ticket or two – a broken taillight, an expired tag. That kind of traffic stop.  Dennis Glover’s one serious brush with the law was an attempt to buy crack in 2005, for which he got probation.

Kyle Nagle, a staff writer with the Dayton Daily News, interviewed the girlfriend of one of the victims, reporting that she had been on the phone with Dennis Glover just before he was shot. She told Nagle that she heard an argument in the background, but that the call ended before any shooting began.

“Tawana James said Glover was a homebody who liked to cook, work on their house on North Paul Laurence Dunbar Street and watch games and movies with her, her four kids and her two sisters,” Nagle wrote. “James said she was on the phone with Glover while he was at the North Broadway Street house but he wasn’t involved in the argument. James said she didn’t know what the argument was about or who was fighting. ‘He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,’ she said. ‘He was always trying to be there to help somebody. He tried to be a protector.’”

Commendable are Nagle’s earnest efforts to portray the victims sympathetically, quoting a neighbor who describes Gerald Brown as “a quiet person who got along with everyone” and enjoyed talking about his dogs, the young reporter cannot resist the urge to fulfill the stereotype, to note that Gerald Brown’s dogs were “pit bulls.” He cannot resist condemning the neighborhood, in a paragraph that should have been blue-lined by his editor.

The neighborhood has seen its share of violence. The two-story white house is across the street from a barbershop where a man was shot in the left shoulder in July. That man’s injury was not life-threatening, according to a police report. Neighbors said a nearby market, on the northeast corner of North Broadway Street and Riverview Avenue, has been the site of multiple robberies.”

As if that’s not true about Dayton’s east side as well. As if that’s not true in Riverside, or Harrison Township. As if that made the deaths of these two men something to be expected.

Law enforcement is looking for two black men in their twenties. There were witnesses to the shooting, but they have fled. You can hardly blame them.

Less than twenty-four hours after the deaths, the crime scene tape is down, blowing from one fence post where it still is tied. A bicycle lies across the steps leading up to the door. Lawn chairs go on rusting in the yard. There is nothing to suggest that two men met a violent end there yesterday. No flowers left on the steps, no teddy bears, no votives flickering. Just the wind whispering “Let me up, let me up.” 

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