It was cold in my little town Friday night, and trucks and cars poured in and out of the municipal parking lot downtown. Technically, the lot is there for city hall, but on weekends people park and walk to the bars half a block away. City hall doesn’t get a lot of business at 10 PM on a Friday.
Except I was standing there, waiting for the police to show up with three people – two of them charged with murder, one with robbery. The accused killers were 19 years old.
I used to do this a lot – stand some place, wait for something to happen. I don’t do it any more, except for rare one-offs like Friday night.
A car pulled up. The window rolled down, a woman looked at me and said “Is there an arraignment here tonight?”
Yes, I said.
“Are you the judge?”
No, I said, press.
Much earlier Friday, a young man had been stabbed to death inside his apartment on a city street four or five blocks from where I live. The street’s been going downhill for 30 years, but if you drive just a block or so, cross over one of the main streets in my town, you’re on an old money street, where you can still find doctors and such maintaining large houses built for the era when a family of six was small.
Back in the 90s I ended up in New York City one afternoon, looking for the family of a notorious murder suspect. I was working with a freelance crew that specialized in getting footage of crimes and fires, most often in rough neighborhoods. But as we got close to the address, the neighborhood didn’t seem to be getting worse – in fact, it was a little better. Two blocks, one block, one of the guys remarked how nice everything was, we turned a corner and…everything went to hell. It was like rounding the back of a Hollywood set. What was propping up the nice neighborhood we saw on the way in was not nice at all. The guy not driving turned around, looked at me and said, Get in, get out.
You could get something of the same effect here Friday. You’re on a decent, ordinary street and all of a sudden there’s police tape and flashing red lights blocking your way. And the neighbors a block over are no doubt wondering why they haven’t gotten out before now.
The woman looking at me out the car window was the dead guy’s mother. I didn’t say I was sorry – one of the things that grates on me most is the way reporters tell the families of victims how sorry they are, right before grilling them – not that I haven’t done it myself. So I just answered her questions – Yes, you can be here for the arraignment. Yes, this is a parking lot and you can use it.
The newspaper’s reporter dug in with her for a bit. It sounded like a tough life all the way around. Then it was time to go in. The D.A. and the detectives made weary, professional small talk with each other. It had been a long day, but from their point of view a good one – three people in custody and in court at 11 PM for a killing at 5 AM.
The court appearances were almost over before they started; no one had lawyers yet, so there wasn’t much for the judge to do besides say, You’re charged, you’re in jail, come back Monday.
The suspects were smaller than I expected – they looked like three-quarter size scale models of themselves. They were younger looking in person than their mug shots, and you could imagine them each in their last year of high school. When the lead suspect, the guy who allegedly did the stabbing, came out, the victim’s mother said loudly “Go to hell.” The cops and the D.A. kept trying to quiet her, like a teacher quiets a recalcitrant child. They looked like they knew it was a losing proposition; when the last of the three had appeared, the mother stood up and announced “See you Monday.”
As for whether any of the three gets what they (allegedly) did, or how thoroughly they’ve wasted their lives, I have no idea. They didn’t look especially one way or the other – not visibly afraid, but not making a show of bravado either. If, as seems likely, drugs were involved, then this killing may be no more complicated than business dealings gone bad, unremarkable except that it ended in a death in a town where such things are still rare. What days like Friday do is add a small increment of doubt: is this the way we’re headed? (To the extent there’s a ‘we’ at all, or that there’s one direction.) It hasn’t happened so far, and it’s hard to see there being enough potential business here for things to get really bad. But they have elsewhere – an even smaller mill town a hundred miles from here has struggled with foreclosures and drug dealers from out of the area. The word that comes to mind is tenuous – we can’t fully put into words how broken things are, our tools for fixing it don’t seem up to the task, and we’re stepping very carefully, hoping the 19 year olds with knives and guns don’t get too close.