Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Computer Guy Gets His Jollies Writing About Psychopaths

Ex-software consultant Dave Zeltserman has recently become one of the hottest commodities in the world of Boston crime fiction. I have yet to read him, but plan to soon. I have a soft spot for computer dudes with a jones for crime, having slung a line or two of code myself back in my career as one of the underworld’s wiliest debuggers. However, while I was Whitey Bulger’s PC doctor (at least for an afternoon), and smuggled the occasional CD-ROM full of SSN’s and Credit Card numbers out to assorted other miscreants, Mr. Zeltserman did high-class honest labor for the likes of Digital and Lucent. He struggled for years to get his crime fiction recognized by the dickheads in Big Publishing, but they tended to reject his work because it was – ahem – “too dark”. Accusing crime fiction of being “too dark” is like bawling out a T-bone steak because it has too much meat in it. Anyhow, Zeltserman is a hotshot now, an increasingly well-known go-to man for those who like their psychopaths straight-up. This is not to say he doesn’t draw from his own experience as a working stiff. One of his latest novels is Outsourced, the tale of a couple of downsized IT guys who get themselves in deep shit planning a bank heist. I can’t think of any subject trendier than that, can you?

Anyways, here's a gaggle of links about the dude to whet your interest in his work.

Boston Globe article about crime fiction
The Amazing Zeltser-Man (Bleeker Books)
Dave Zeltserman's page at CrimeSpace
Dave Zeltserman's website
"The Myth of Publishing" by Dave Zeltserman

Friday, May 27, 2011

Saugus Goodfella Becomes Idaho Cowboy

A Mafia hitman named Enrico Ponzo – seen on the left in the photo above - was recently discovered living as a rancher in Idaho. Don't get too excited though. The place was hardly any Southfork. He had exactly 12 acres and 12 cows. To give you an idea of how much land that is, consider that 12 acres is less than 2 percent of a square mile. This is the kind of micro-ranch that my wife’s cousin has in Texas, where he raises a tiny herd of bulls for the rodeo market. I helped feed the hulking little devils one drunken Christmas evening. Hemmed in by a maze of rickety fencing and pickup trucks the size of cabin cruisers, I offered to them what appeared to be giant gerbil pellets. Each of them could have gored me to death with a toss of his head, I surmised. Having a hitman as a neighbor is similar, I would imagine. One moment they may be as cuddly as all get-out, and then their mood turns…

The 42-year old Ponzo had been indicted in 1997, along with 14 other men, of numerous federal charges. These included racketeering, conspiracy, murder and attempted murder. During a gang war in 1989, Ponzo and his pals had murdered three other hoods and tried to whack at least seven more. He was allegedly one of a group of masked gunmen who had assaulted “Cadillac Frank” Salemme, the head of the Patriarca family of the New England Cosa Nostra, at a Saugus IHOP. By 1994, however, Ponzo had skipped town to escape drug charges, and nobody had seen his butt since.

It must have been hard to top such an impressively active youth, but Enrico tried. He fulfilled the American Dream of owning a ranch in The West. He became a well-liked resident of Marsing, Idaho, calling himself Jeffrey John Shaw (“Jay” for short) and traipsing around in “bib overalls and a straw hat”. This idyll, which sounds like an episode of Crime Story morphing into Green Acres, came to an end this spring – and very possibly for reasons of sentiment. It turns out he was engaged in a custody battle for the children he'd had with his estranged girlfriend. As the battle heated up, he began to take risks by asserting his false identity in court documents and whatnot, and that may have drawn the notice of the Feds. This is one lesson that any Anti-Hero of Classic Noir could have taught him. Never Get Emotionally Involved – especially when you're on the lam.

His newfound friends said he was a great guy, always ready to fix your computer or to get jiggy in front of a Wii screen. The quality of his friends makes you wonder though. After he was arrested, several of those same buddies were themselves arrested for "using a jackhammer to break through the foundation of Mr. Ponzo’s house, then using a blowtorch to open a steel safe beneath the floor and stealing more than $100,000 in cash, as well as gold and other valuables."

Enrico Ponzo (Boston Globe)
Fugitive wanted for attempted Saugus mob murder arrested in Idaho (Wicked Local News)
Enrico Ponzo Captured (Huffington Post)
While the mystery of who Enrico Ponzo is has been solved, other questions remain (Idaho Statesman)
An Ardent Friend Forever; Then Came the Theft Charges (New York Times)
Idaho Rancher Revealed as Gangster From Boston (New York Times)

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Does The Cosa Nostra Have Fans In The North Of Ireland?

Pictured is an eatery-slash-nightclub in Ballyshannon, Donegal called "Sopranos". Although they do have bands (and therefore singers) that perform here now and then, the "Sopranos" in the name of the joint does not refer to anything musical. At some point in its recent history, the owners of the joint decorated it on the theme of The Sopranos of HBO fame - Tony, Paulie, Christophuh and the whole gang. And we do mean gang. My gun moll and I stopped here for some chow about four years ago on a trip to Ireland in search of Whitey. We ended up ordering a vegetarian pizza which - unfortunately - consisted of canned corn and carrots dumped on a pizza pie. Sort of reminded me of a similar meal the humorist David Sedaris once, ahem, "enjoyed" in France. We ate it though. We were hungry. We devoured our repast next to the entrance to the joint and, since it was summertime, the door had been left open in that homely tradition known as "Irish air-conditioning". Flies pestered us like little Beelzebubs reincarnated from dead mafiosi. TV shows popular in America are popular worldwide, so that is the main explanation why we managed to find a pizza joint called "Sopranos" in Ireland. But then again, we were very close to the border with Northern Ireland, and perhaps this fondness for a fictional Cosa Nostra family expresses a displaced nostalgia for the devilish excitement once generated by the IRA. In Boston at least, the IRA and the Cosa Nostra probably had actual connections. We know Whitey Bulger rubbed shoulders and knocked knees with the wise guys, and you can't tell me he didn't run a gun or two for the IRA. Whitey all by himself could inhabit a single "degree of separation" between the Irish Republicans and The Mob.

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Friends Of Eddie Coyle

The Friends of Eddie Coyle is not only one of the best crime novels about Boston – and arguably the best thing George V. Higgins ever wrote – but also one of the best crime movies about Boston as well. Granted, there is something dull about the pacing and the cinematography of the movie, but that only makes it more faithful to its subject. It seems to take place in Boston during one of our more colorless and dismal months, such as March or November. It also takes place in the 1970’s - the very nadir of Boston’s economic decline before it rebounded as a hi-tech and financial powerhouse in the eighties. This ambience of rundown drabness reflects the state of the protagonist, too. Eddie Coyle, played by Robert Mitchum, is an aging third-rate mobster who has to inform on his cronies to keep out of jail. He hands a gunrunner over to Richard Jordan’s undercover cop, and then finks on a stewardess-bonking bank robber played by Alex Rocco. When the mob kingpin-cum-bartender he works for gets wind of his efforts, he treats poor tired old Eddie to a Bruins game and a night on the town and then shoots him in the head as he begins sleep off the booze on the way home. Ironically, the kingpin – played by Peter Boyle with sinister restraint - was himself an informant, and to the same cop at that. Nobody can trust anybody in this story, to an almost comical degree. This is a trope that unifies this piece of classic crime fiction with the so-called “paranoid style” of the 1970’s. (Tellingly, Higgins later wrote an ill-received screed called The Friends of Richard Nixon.) At the same time its baroque theme of betrayal makes The Friends of Eddie Coyle a precursor of later movies like Reservoir Dogs that are themselves postmodern parodies of the old double-cross.

The original novel was the first one George V. Higgins published, after 17 failed attempts, and he went on to write more than twenty others before he died in 1999 at the age of fifty-nine. He also had a busy career as a U.S. Attorney. His books are unique in that they are written almost entirely in dialogue, usually profane and often very lengthy, the same guy talking on for pages. The movie script for Eddie Coyle was nearly catatonic in comparison. He presents an interesting contrast with Robert B. Parker. They were both born in the 1930’s, started publishing around the same time and cranked out reams of stuff about their chosen territories. Yet Parker remains an icon of detective fiction while Higgins is scarcely remembered.

For an interesting tidbit about the movie, consider that the bank robber Jimmy Scalise was played by Alex Rocco. Rocco was a native of Cambridge, Mass. who grew up in Somerville and hung out with Whitey Bulger’s Winter Hill gang in his youth. According to Wikipedia, he was involved in an incident that set off “the Boston Irish Gang War of the 1960’s”. Young Rocco had the good sense to leave Boston for California, change his name (from Petricone) and become an actor. All of us miscreants should make such lucky choices in our own lives.

George V. Higgins (Wikipedia)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Wikipedia)
Alex Rocco (Wikipedia)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle (Amazon.com)
Obituary - George V. Higgins (The Independent)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Semiotics Of "Juvenile Delinquent" Vs. "Youthful Offender"

I began my quasi-bogus career as a "juvenile delinquent" at the age of eight when I shoplifted five sticks of red licorice from the local five-and-dime. Later I expanded my imaginary rap sheet when, as an angry fifteen year old, I stalked into the playground behind my old grammar school after supper and broke half a dozen windows. Or more. Maybe a lot more, I don't quite recall. It was after dark, it was winter, the grammar school had been closed for good anyway (it would later be gutted and turned into condos), and there were huge chunks of ice and frozen snow lying around. My vandalism was both convenient and redundant. No one cared about some kid busting up a joint that was gonna be demolished anyway. Still, vandalism is vandalism, and this adventure made the little devil in me very proud. I could now apply to myself that grandiose term "juvenile delinquent". This was a bit of bureaucratese that someone dreamed up in the late forties or thereabouts to make bad kids sound like some kind of official social problem. For all its fancy-ass syllables, "juvenile delinquent" became an iconic phrase, spreading meme-like through the movies and the press in the fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond, gathering images and acolytes as it rolled like a big black tarball down the hills and valleys of the American soul. James Dean. Elvis Presley. Marlon Brando. Vinnie Barbarino. Michael Madsen and Mickey Rourke, even. The Blackboard Jungle. Rebel Without A Cause. The Outsiders. Jailhouse Rock. Switchblades and bicycle chains. Guys with ducktails in leather jackets with upturned collars, smoking, sneering, raising hell. Somehow this pompous euphemism that was meant to elevate the seriousness of teenaged crime merely gave it a legendary gloss. And then, eventually, although I don't remember exactly when it happened - probably during the PC late eighties-early nineties - a new euphemism appeared.

The latest legal moniker for bad kids is "youthful offender". It isn't very Latinate and it doesn't have the musty bureaucratic quality of the older term. It doesn't evoke police stations with file cabinets against the walls and typewriters on the desks, judges sentencing you to the "reformatory", and grimly hysterical mothers in flounced dresses weeping themselves silly. The "youthful" part of it makes the term sound almost hopeful, as if the "offender" deserves to be treated lightly and given another chance. As such, it conjures up, if not police precincts and the courts, the Politically Correct dictatorship of a college campus, in which everything that is said, about anyone, must be neutral and respectful and only blandly descriptive. "Youthful offender" is actually an even purer, fakier euphemism - surely one that can never face up to the reality of fourteen year old sociopaths with souls as old as evil itself. The only good thing about it is that it sounds so lightweight and stupid that no self-respecting "bad kid" would want to claim the title. It almost sounds like something your mother would say. That is, if she were some middle class Pollyanna who smelled nice and belonged to a book club. Nowadays, about the only time you hear even a faint echo of the older term is when Chris Meloni refers to "juvie" in Law And Order: Special Victims - and I'll bet there are more than a few kids who, with puzzled looks on their faces, ask their parents WTF that means.

Juvenile delinquency (Wikipedia)
Juvenile delinquent (Definition)
Youthful offenders (Definition)

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Muggers Are Bullies All Grown Up

I have been mugged at least twice in my life, and that's enough. Knock on wood. Never thought of becoming a mugger myself though, mainly because it's one of the most puerile crimes imaginable. For one thing, it's a stupid and impatient young man's game, wherein brute force wins out over subtlety and skill. At the same time, it seems like a survival into young adulthood of that vile species known as the Schoolyard Bully. I remember once when I was a kid - a real kid, I mean, a little dude about ten or eleven. I was coming up from the five-and-dime one dreary Saturday afternoon in March 19__, walking up by the playground fence of the school I went to. Two slightly older kids cornered me against the rock wall at the base of the fence. I can't for the life of me remember what the little fuckers said, only that they were hassling me, harassing me for harassment's sake alone. Hey, kid, where ya live? Ya live in ahh neighborhood? Dis is ahh neighborhood, kid. And like that. Total furrow-browed inanity with no purpose in mind. I didn't know them, and they didn't know me - which is never the case with actual bullies, as bullies are among the most intimate enemies you'll ever have, the ones you see every freakin' day... They weren't quite muggers yet either, since they were too obtuse to even ask me for money. There were ornery little in-betweens caught in their evolution from Bully to Mugger the same way that some fuzzy cocoon in a tree crotch is halfway between bein' a caterpillar and bein' a butterfly. When I ran into my first actual mugger, I was comin' home drunk down Mass. Ave. in North Cambridge, and this pudgy dude - a veritable poster boy for The Non-Athletic, in fact - confronts me. More of that silly territorial palaver about "Dis is my neighborhood...Duh..." Despite my inebriation, I catch his drift, smile at him and say, with as much insulting disbelief as I can muster, "You're... you're trying to...to mug me, aren't you?" If the guy were a dog, his ears would have been drooping just then. "Yeah..." he says. "Oh, that's touching," I mutter. "You got any change on ya?" "Well," I reach into my pocket at a leisurely pace, dredge up some coins, and tell him, "About 47 cents." "I'll take it," he says. I hand it over, more grinning than trembling. He grunts again, "Dis is Nawrth Cambritch... You watch your ass aroun' here, you got that?" I nod, and he stuffs his tiny prize into the front pocket of his overstuffed Levi's, then turns and flabbily waddles away. Funny. He didn't seem like a natural bully, and - having survived junior high and senior high - I knew bullies. He wasn't big enough to scare a guy by bigness alone, nor small enough to have the Napoleonic nastiness of those pint-sized contenders, and he sure wasn't one of those proto-alpha male bullies that the mean girls always like. He seemed more like a ex-victim of bullies than a bully. Sort of reminded me that even Mike Tyson, who first earned his street-fighting chops as a mugger, had a high voice and a lisp. Maybe, for some, becoming a mugger means having a second chance to be a bully more than anything else.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Dr. James A. Fox - Our Local "Dean Of Death"

Here are some links pertaining to James Alan Fox, a Northeastern University criminology professor who has been nicknamed “The Dean of Death”. Since I first returned to Greater Boston fifteen years ago from my cigarette-smuggling operation in North Carolina (only kidding – my real crimes were something else), I have seen this dude every once in a while on the tube. A little pat sometimes, in the way of those profilers who continue to insist that sociopaths can never, ever feel true emotion (sob…), but otherwise thoughtful and informative. In fact, watching him makes me wish I had studied criminology myself back in college. It almost makes me wish I’d gone to Northeastern, like this big honking dude I used to work with in a clothes store near South Station who was going to N.U. to become a cop. (I always thought he was dumb though.) As for moi, I am pleased to say that I was an A student in anthropology and psychology and the field of criminology is just a stone’s throw away from those. I suppose I can always pretend to be a criminologist, the way Kenny Bianchi pretended to be a clinical psychologist, but somehow I think that would not be fully satisfying. In any case, Dr. Fox is the prominent go-to man for analyzing the mindset of just about anyone who generates mayhem in these parts. In fact, he keeps a regular “Crime and Punishment” blog at the Boston Globe website that may be worth following.

James Alan Fox (Wikipedia)
Dr. Fox's "Crime and Punishment" blog (Boston.com)
Dr. Fox's books (Amazon.com)

Boston Homicide Squad Worst In The U.S. (According To 2005 Article)

I had posted an earlier version of this blog entry just a few days ago, and mysteriously enough it disappeared. Someone out there may be touchy! At any rate, I discovered an article from a 2005 issue of the Boston Phoenix that pointed out some rather sobering statistics about our local police department’s ability to solve homicides. The situation may have improved since then. I can’t say, but the “good” part of me hopes so. Nonetheless, here are some highlights of how things stood six years in the past:

1) While the homicide acquittal rate for urban counties nationwide was 6 percent, 27 percent of homicide cases brought to trial in Boston in the eight years prior to 2005 had resulted in acquittals.

2) When the murder victims were black males between 17 and 35, the arrest rate was only 31 percent.

3) Boston’s murder rate between 2001 and 2005 increased more than 50 percent over the rate for the previous four years, while at the same time the homicide rate had been declining in most American cities.

I would imagine the Boston police department has made some effort to rectify these shortcomings since then, but they don’t indicate a healthy trend. And, hey, some of my own relatives were Boston area cops. One of my Irish grandfather’s cousins became a cop back in the day, and so did a couple of his sons. Get your act together, boyos – if you haven’t already.

And, you know, Free Speech, dudes!

The Worst Homicide Squad In The Country (Boston Phoenix)

George Nassar And The Myth Of The High IQ Killer

One of the enduring mysteries of Boston crime is whether or not Albert DeSalvo really was the Boston Strangler. After all, he was convicted of rape, not murder, having earned the nickname “The Green Man” through his wiley ruse of gaining entrance to his victims' apartments by pretending to be a repairman. When he was incarcerated for these crimes, he allegedly outed himself as the Boston Strangler to a fellow inmate, who was himself a murderer named George Nassar. The fact that there was a $10,000 reward for any information about the Strangler muddies the waters of DeSalvo's actual intentions. According to some, Nassar and DeSalvo hatched a scheme by which one of them would confess to the murders, the other would collect the reward money, and the two men would later split the dough. Talking about boneheaded... Anyway, Nassar conveyed word of these jailhouse confessions, bogus or otherwise, to his lawyer, F. Lee Bailey - and the rest is, as they say, history. DeSalvo's accounts of the crimes were hair-raisingly accurate enough to prove that he was either the killer himself - or had been coached by someone who was. DeSalvo remained for the rest of his life in the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane, eventually getting himself shivved for selling drugs more cheaply than his prison competitors. (Hey, nobody can say this guy didn't know "how to sell".) Years later, when DNA analysis became available, trace evidence from one of the Strangler's last victims, 19-year old Mary Sullivan, was tested against a sample of DeSalvo DNA - and it didn't match! Speculation that DeSalvo was never the Strangler, always present, grew dramatically. For some, George Nassar must have been the Strangler. While DeSalvo was no great shakes in the brains department, Nassar was not only a psychopath but had an "extraordinarily high IQ". And this was according to F. Lee Bailey, who was himself something of an IQ obsessive, boasting of his own IQ test scores to reporters, boosting Patty Hearst's IQ back up to ordinary middle class brightness after her brainwashing by the SLA, embracing MENSA membership, and elevating his own IQ (apparently through repeated self-testing) to a towering 172. Clearly, a man who knows all about "smart". The fact (or myth, perhaps) of Nassar's huge and nefarious intellect has led many to believe that only someone like him could commit the Strangler's crimes and not get caught. On this note, I beg to differ. Successful sociopaths are best known for their ability to dissemble, to charm, to convince others that they mean no harm when, in fact, they mean all the harm in the world. Think Ted Bundy. Think John Wayne Gacy. Think Bernie Madoff. Being smart helps with this, surely, but not always. Sometimes it does the reverse. A quick examination of George Nassar's bio reveals that he was most likely the type of smart dude who could not fit in at all, much less charm anyone. According to Wikipedia, "At school, his teachers found him reserved, quiet, and a poor mixer." It's bad enough to begin life as a social inept, but George Nassar never had the chance to mature into a smiling, glad-handing Ted Bundy type. A crime spree with a couple of pals resulted in a murder conviction that put Nassar in jail at the age of sixteen. When he was finally paroled in 1961, he was twenty-nine years old and probably even more socially backward than ever. Indeed, within three years, he committed yet another murder, of which he was convicted and for which he is still serving time. Intrinsically brilliant though he may be, Nassar strikes me as a kind of nerd manque or closet Aspie who achieved the dark gloss of a mastermind not through guile or clever manipulation, but through feral violence. He specialized in spree killing, which is the metier of a loner frustrated by his own social ineptitude. He is the criminal equivalent of the dude with the genius IQ who can't relate to anybody and ends up sweeping the floor of a McDonald's for the rest of his vocational life. Serial murder requires patience, restraint and a modicum of social skill. Albert DeSalvo, a married guy with kids and a job, a boastful, friendly, goofy-looking extravert who could convince anyone of anything - now that's your serial killer for you, the criminal equivalent of the best life insurance salesman in town.

George Nassar (Wikipedia)
The Boston Strangler (Tru TV)
Article in the North Andover Eagle-Tribune

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Night I Felt Sorry For The Mafioso

Back during my Providence days, I insulted a Mafioso. Fortunately, he was a lower level Mafioso. Otherwise, I assume, I would now be dead. I had the day off before Thanksgiving that year, and on Tuesday night I went out and got a touch blasted. Once my binge ended in the wee hours of Wednesday morning, I attempted to recoup at a downtown coffee shop. There I encountered four other guys. One was this Vietnam veteran truck driver. Another was a black guy dressed in hospital scrubs who worked as a male ER nurse. A third was a fellow who had just been charged with possessing a firearm in Massachusetts without a license, was out on bail, and could very well spend the next year of his life in prison. This fellow wore his knit cap crooked, causing the top of his left ear lobe to stick out at a right angle to his head. He did not seem too bright. Altogether, he had the vaguely discombobulated look of a person who should never be allowed to carry a gun, legally or otherwise. The discussion amongst these three was lively, and was all about guns. The Vietnam vet - an ex-Marine - royally dissed the M-16 and confessed how, when he captured an AK-47 off some dead Charlie dude, he smashed his own rifle against a tree trunk and carried the AK-47 instead from that day forward. Or so he said. The male nurse, on the other hand, just shook his head and waxed all High And Mighty about The Damage A Gun Can Do To The Human Body. After which, he convulsed with the chuckles, slapped the counter and admitted, "But, you know, at least it keeps me employed." Meanwhile, the guy with the gun possession charge sat by just looking confused and gunless. So very, very sadly gunless. And clueless. I couldn't resist their conversation, and eventually I got myself invited over to their booth. Oh, and I almost forgot about the fourth guy. This was the Mafioso. He was sitting all by himself at the counter, smoking a cigarette and staring at us. He had the look of an eighties Providence mobster. A light gray suit, a chocolate brown silk shirt, this sort of weird albino paisley tie with a raised weave that had all the psychedelic paramecium patterns that paisley usually has but was all white - and a toupee worthy of Howard Cosell, let alone Buddy Cianci. Eventually, he kind of slithered his way up to us. He fluttered his sallow eyelids at both me and the black guy, trying to seduce us with mumbled promises of cocaine. "You're with the Mafia," I said, cutting him off mid-flirt. "You're what they call a Mafioso." His eyes got shifty and he sputtered a little. "A gay Mafioso," grunted the Vietnam vet. "A gay Mafioso with a toupee," I added, and everybody at the table laughed. Except for him, who stood above us, shaking a little and still smoking. The black guy and I winked at each other, and the black guy said, noting the odd asymmetrical bulge in the lower part of his silk shirt, "A gay Mafioso with a toupee and a colostomy bag!" Now all four of us at the table, even the gun possession guy, howled without mercy at this poor nebbish for all his mob connections. It was cruel, this behavior, not to mention homophobic - but at the same time I at least felt that you could not accuse me of bullying the helpless or the pathetic, because if this dude was what we thought he was - and, perversely, we hoped he was - he could have had us killed if he wanted to. What good is laughter without risk, after all? But he didn't want to kill us. He never denied his Mafioso status, but he didn't suddenly pull rank on us either. Our rejection just confused him. His voice seesawed Andy-Devine-ishly as he answered our taunts, then he gave up and staggered away. He was even drunker than us, I imagine. He began to weep a little, lit another cigarette with even shakier hands, and returned to the counter. By sunrise on Thanksgiving Eve, he had slunk back to his hole back up on Federal Hill or wherever. When it got to be 7:00 AM and my coffee shop companions decamped for a local dive that had just re-opened, I didn't go with them. I wasn't that much of a drunk. Instead, I went for a long, long walk. I covered 17 miles that morning, trying to walk out my hangover as I shook my aching head at what assholes we had all been the night before. Then again...

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Two Thumbs Up For Dennis Lehane's "Mystic River"

My favorite Boston crime novel thus far has got to be Dennis Lehane's Mystic River. The only other Lehane novel I've read is his first, A Drink Before The War, which seemed quite slick, although I wasn't exactly sure where "The War" in the title came in. I believe I originally thought it was one of those retro crime novels set, a la James Ellroy, during the salad days of noir in the late forties or early fifties. No such luck. The main characters, however - Patrick Kenzie and Angela Gennaro - seemed to have a kind of retro vibe going on between them, what with the cuteness of the repartee and all, sort of as if they were Nick and Nora, except with Boston accents. As I say, I appreciated its slickness, but it did not hit me the way Mystic River did. The latter novel evokes notions of "tragic irony" and "poetic justice" as affectingly as any American novel I've read in recent years. Jimmy Marcus's daughter is murdered by the sons of a man he himself murdered (but who did not know their father was dead, and did not kill the girl for that or, really, any other reason). Meanwhile, Jimmy murdered his old friend, the molestation-haunted Dave Boyle, under the mistaken impression that he had killed his daughter, when Dave, in fact, had killed someone else - a child molester. The plot twists contained therein were reverberant and (at least not to my dumb-ass Irish brain) not entirely predictable, making for a satisfying and deeply poignant ending. I liked the movie, too. I even liked the idea of Dennis Lehane and Clint Eastwood discussing the screenplay in the Union Oyster House. The very image of these two extremely distinct, and also very different, looking dudes sitting across from each other totally begs for a Hirschfeld caricature. However, I did have some issues with the casting. Sean Penn and Tim Robbins are superb actors, but these guys were well into their forties when Mystic River was made and they're supposed to be playing guys in their mid-thirties. Granted, hard-living working class guys can age quickly, but in this climate they aren't even remotely the kind of wrinkly-browed, leather-faced dudes that hard-partying Hollywood bad boys get to be by their fifth decade. Lots of Bostonians I know in that age bracket (their thirties) are even downright fresh-faced, almost like scaled-up versions of their own children. We don't get that much sun up here, guys! I was also somewhat amused by the complicated ethnic paranoia that compelled the makers of the movie to change the name of Jimmy Marcus to Jimmy Markham (apparently to Irish-ize a name that could easily pass as Jewish) when he was played, of all things, by an actor with an Irish-sounding name, AKA "Sean Penn", who himself happens to be half Jewish. Keeping the name Jimmy Marcus would have been just fine. All sorts of ethnic groups have historically contributed to both working class life and criminal lore in Boston, and having a multiethnic dramatis personae would not have hurt the movie one whit - or offended any minority either. Still, two thumbs up for Mystic River, both book and movie.

Dennis Lehane (Wikipedia)

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

My Convenience Store Summer

During my college days, I spent a summer clerking in a convenience store in Allston, at the corner of Harvard and Brighton. I had the eleven to seven shift. Lots of fun. I got the job 'cause my girlfriend was raggin' my ass for being unemployed, and therefore playing the gigolo without actually deserving to be treated like a gigolo. The store got ripped off about twelve times while I was there. Ten was the number of Marlboro packs I stole because I resented the fact that the only surveillance camera in the place was pointed right at me, not at the back of the store, or from behind me looking straight at the customer. In fact, if the camera had been behind me, it would have caught my surreptitious pilfering of the cigarette racks, which were pretty much hidden from that Big Brother machine that was so obnoxiously in my face. Anyway... That leaves two other times, neither of which was my fault.

The first time was when some freakin' college kid bolted out the front door with a two-liter bottle of Coke and a ginormous bag of chips. "Hey!" I shouted, and I jumped out from behind the counter, left the store and starting chasing him. After half a block, I was gaining on him so Chariots-of-Fire-ishly well that I knew I was going to catch him. My "man of action" spontaneity, which I would have been so proud of at any other time, had left me in the lurch. What was I gonna do if I did catch him? I'd have to tackle the dude, which means the two-liter Coke would probably burst and the chips would be crushed. No saving the merchandise there. What would I do to him? Beat him up? For chips and a Coke? After a few nanoseconds invested in this ethical quandary, I realized that the convenience store was wide open, with no one guarding anything. I stopped chasing the guy just as I was about to... Never mind. I doubled back, resumed my post, and saved the day - or, rather, the night.

The second time I was robbed, I barely even knew it was happening. After a busy night, with all sorts of folks in and out, I had closed the place down at 4:00 AM, as usual, to swab down the floor and had gone into the back to get the mop and bucket. I saw this wiry young black dude astraddle the door between the back of the coolers, where we kept the milk and shit, and the back room itself, where we kept the cash. The dude saw me, I saw him, noted where he was, and darted my eyes toward the cash drawer, which still looked closed. Naturally, I assumed I'd caught him in the act or - so I hoped - right before the act. I had no weapon on me, so I wasn't exactly gonna to perform a frickin', ahem...(drum roll here please)... "Citizen's Arrest". So I just said, "Hey, you can't be back here. You got to go." He mumbled something I remember not, and I said, "Come on..." With his electrically guilty little eyes darting all over my twenty-something six-foot-one-ishness, he mumbled some other unintelligible damn thing and pointed at his sock, which seemed to have a lump in it. Maybe he needed some ice, I dumbly thought, but ultimately I didn't give a shit. I just wanted to hustle the guy out the door so I could finish what I started. Three hours later, at the end of my shift, when I went into the back again to replenish the till, I noticed the cash drawer had this tell-tale V-shaped dent where it had been jimmied open just far enough that you could reach down with your hand and... I opened the drawer. The 200 dollars (or whatever the fuck it was) that we kept in the drawer was gone. It was now the lump in that little black dude's sock. I went into the back of the coolers where I'd first seen the dude, and found a tire iron resting on an orange crate. It had been within his reach when I caught him, and if I had made a fuss... I kept a cool head throughout, pretty much amazed that I still had a head intact enough to keep cool at all. I kept such a cool head, in fact, that the fuckin' cops gave ME the fish-eye when I gave them the guided tour of the crime scene. When the store manager finally arrived to relieve me - this petite four-eyed blonde with a demeanor depleted of moxie by excessive "good breeding" - she asked me in the meekest of voices why I had not detained the black dude. I looked at her like she was whack. What did she expect me to do? Wrestle him to the ground? Lock him in the store, leaving him to destroy everything in sight, while I hightailed it to the nearest police cruiser? I quit that day and never worked at any of those fuckin' places ever again. There is just so much you can expect a guy to sacrifice for the minimum wage.