Washtenaw Jail Diary: Reader’s Update

In other news, I have continued to follow the Washtenaw Jail saga in the Ann Arbor Chronicle (I wrote a brief post about it a couple months ago). In fact, the series concluded at the end of December. The anonymous author had a compelling story to tell, and he told it exceedingly well. If you’re curious what it might be like to be plucked from what you consider your safe, normal life and tossed into the detention system we’ve set up for our fellow citizens, it’s a must-read.

One thing still gnaws at me, though. The author avoided ever mentioning the offense, or offenses, that prompted a court to jail him for five months. Whenever he mentioned the case, he suggested he may not have really been guilty of whatever-it-was — or not as guilty as the record makes him look.

I’ve been thinking about why it might be an issue that he doesn’t say what the case was about. I’ve read comments on the Ann Arbor Chronicle site from people who suspect the heinousness of the author’s offense would undermine his credibility. I don’t really share that view. The repulsiveness of some crimes aside, I think a child molester could be as persuasive on the subject of jail conditions as a bank robber or a drunk driver.

I don’t believe that the writer is under any absolute obligation to come clean or that readers have some absolute right to know. I think the problem for me is the selective disclosure involved here. He asks readers to trust his account of jail and the courts but refuses to trust them with the most relevant facts about his part in the story. I imagine there could be legal reasons the author can’t go into detail. Maybe he would violate conditions of his probation to go into detail about his case. But his stance in the narrative seems to say something else: “I only look guilty. This whole thing didn’t have to wind up with me in jail. Between my (unspecified) mistakes and a rotten legal system, this is where things went. But you, readers, aren’t going to get to judge one way or the other about the quality of justice I got.”

I recently re-read excerpts from “The Night of the Gun,” New York Times columnist David Carr’s memoir of cocaine addiction and trouble with the law (worth a read if you haven’t seen it). Most of his account’s magnetism comes from its specificity about what had gone wrong in his life and where it led him (yes–I make allowances for self-dramatization and other factors that might make his account less than 100 percent of the truth; but Carr’s work is in itself an investigation of memory and self-dramatization ). Of course, I also note that it took 20 years for Carr to come to grips with his life in print.

So maybe that’s what the Washtenaw author needs most — time to come to grips with all the events that led to his imprisonment. Maybe it’s too soon to do that in print. In the meantime, he has produced something memorable. Good luck to him on whatever he does next.

Ghost

stuenkel121809.jpg

A week before Christmas, while I was visiting family in Chicago and environs, I drove out to the south suburbs to see two old friends, Jane and Mort. They were teachers at my high school, Crete-Monee. Mort taught English and writing, and we formed a lasting bond over that. I became friends with Jane when she married Mort. We’ve stayed in close enough touch that I still try to drop in once in a while, and I’ve never forgotten their phone number. For the afternoon and evening I was at their house in Crete last month, we talked up a storm, lit the last of the Hanukkah candles, and ate pizza. By the time I left to drive back to the North Side, a weak, intermittent snow was falling. I gassed up in University Park, which I still think of as Park Forest South or even Wood Hill, then drove west on Exchange and north on Monee Road toward our old house.

I parked first down near the bridge over Thorn Creek, at the intersection with Monee and Stuenkel roads. That’s the picture above. I remember that corner during a heavy pre-Christmas snowstorm one night when I was 16 or so. I think school had let out for the holiday earlier that day, and then it started to snow. One of our friends from the road was coming back from college in Iowa. We roamed the neighborhood–it consisted of a couple short stretches of rural roads–and marveled at how heavy the snow was and how quickly it was piling up. We wound up beneath the lamp on the corner, talking, watching the snow come down through the light, talking some more. Maybe there was some snowball mischief involved.

After I took the picture, I got in the car and started to drive toward Park Forest. But I thought, no, I wanted to go up our old road and see if there was anything to be seen up there.

Oak Hill Drive was a quarter-mile long lane, arrow straight through stands of oak and maple and up a little rise, barely wide enough for two cars. It was gravel when we moved onto the road in 1966, and there was always a swampy, potholed stretch about a third of the way up that seemed immune to all efforts to fix it. Walking up there in the dark, it seemed almost inevitable you’d stumble into one of the muddy ruts. The road was eventually tarred and chipped, then paved at some point.

I drove up to the end, where the road ends in a cul de sac and where our old driveway follows a fence line into the trees. I parked in the turn-around–aware the whole time of what we had always thought when we saw a car come to a stop out there and douse its lights: “Someone’s up to no good.” But I parked anyway, got out of the car, and walked back down the road.

It was then I had a strange sense of not quite belonging, of being in a place I knew intimately and not at all.

About 20 of the two dozen homes along the road, each built on a lot of about an acre, were there when I grew up. I remember each house, who lived there, and whether we were on good terms. The Sullivans. The Flemings. The Euchners. The Phillipses. The Pattersons. The Janowiaks. The O’Donnells, Everharts, Ihles, Keetons, and Hartmanns. A parent committed suicide in one house. Another was home to a family that lost both a mother and a brother to untimely deaths. And without looking too hard, one might find equally dark and disturbing stories up and down the road.

Looking across one section of open yards, I saw a light in the back room of a house I knew well–the home of my best friend growing up out there. That lamp looked like it might have been the same one that was shining there on my last visit, about 30 years ago. It might be. My friend’s parents are still there. But all of those other people I remember are long since gone.

I got down to the bottom of the road, then turned around and started back up. A car turned into the road and passed me. I wondered what the driver was thinking. Probably some variation on, “What’s somebody doing out here in the snow this late at night?” I realized my imagined answer to such a question–“I grew up out here”–wouldn’t explain much. What most people would see was a middle-aged guy walking in a dark, cold place the week before Christmas.

I watched the car turn into a driveway, then listened to the loud crunch of gravel under the tires. It occurred to me the driver might not have seen me at all. Maybe I’d been invisible. A ghost visiting his memories.

Ghost

stuenkel121809.jpg

A week before Christmas, while I was visiting family in Chicago and environs, I drove out to the south suburbs to see two old friends, Jane and Mort. They were teachers at my high school, Crete-Monee. Mort taught English and writing, and we formed a lasting bond over that. I became friends with Jane when she married Mort. We’ve stayed in close enough touch that I still try to drop in once in a while, and I’ve never forgotten their phone number. For the afternoon and evening I was at their house in Crete last month, we talked up a storm, lit the last of the Hanukkah candles, and ate pizza. By the time I left to drive back to the North Side, a weak, intermittent snow was falling. I gassed up in University Park, which I still think of as Park Forest South or even Wood Hill, then drove west on Exchange and north on Monee Road toward our old house.

I parked first down near the bridge over Thorn Creek, at the intersection with Monee and Stuenkel roads. That’s the picture above. I remember that corner during a heavy pre-Christmas snowstorm one night when I was 16 or so. I think school had let out for the holiday earlier that day, and then it started to snow. One of our friends from the road was coming back from college in Iowa. We roamed the neighborhood–it consisted of a couple short stretches of rural roads–and marveled at how heavy the snow was and how quickly it was piling up. We wound up beneath the lamp on the corner, talking, watching the snow come down through the light, talking some more. Maybe there was some snowball mischief involved.

After I took the picture, I got in the car and started to drive toward Park Forest. But I thought, no, I wanted to go up our old road and see if there was anything to be seen up there.

Oak Hill Drive was a quarter-mile long lane, arrow straight through stands of oak and maple and up a little rise, barely wide enough for two cars. It was gravel when we moved onto the road in 1966, and there was always a swampy, potholed stretch about a third of the way up that seemed immune to all efforts to fix it. Walking up there in the dark, it seemed almost inevitable you’d stumble into one of the muddy ruts. The road was eventually tarred and chipped, then paved at some point.

I drove up to the end, where the road ends in a cul de sac and where our old driveway follows a fence line into the trees. I parked in the turn-around–aware the whole time of what we had always thought when we saw a car come to a stop out there and douse its lights: “Someone’s up to no good.” But I parked anyway, got out of the car, and walked back down the road.

It was then I had a strange sense of not quite belonging, of being in a place I knew intimately and not at all.

About 20 of the two dozen homes along the road, each built on a lot of about an acre, were there when I grew up. I remember each house, who lived there, and whether we were on good terms. The Sullivans. The Flemings. The Euchners. The Phillipses. The Pattersons. The Janowiaks. The O’Donnells, Everharts, Ihles, Keetons, and Hartmanns. A parent committed suicide in one house. Another was home to a family that lost both a mother and a brother to untimely deaths. And without looking too hard, one might find equally dark and disturbing stories up and down the road.

Looking across one section of open yards, I saw a light in the back room of a house I knew well–the home of my best friend growing up out there. That lamp looked like it might have been the same one that was shining there on my last visit, about 30 years ago. It might be. My friend’s parents are still there. But all of those other people I remember are long since gone.

I got down to the bottom of the road, then turned around and started back up. A car turned into the road and passed me. I wondered what the driver was thinking. Probably some variation on, “What’s somebody doing out here in the snow this late at night?” I realized my imagined answer to such a question–“I grew up out here”–wouldn’t explain much. What most people would see was a middle-aged guy walking in a dark, cold place the week before Christmas.

I watched the car turn into a driveway, then listened to the loud crunch of gravel under the tires. It occurred to me the driver might not have seen me at all. Maybe I’d been invisible. A ghost visiting his memories.

Last of That, First of This

So: The old year ended in Fair Oaks, California, east of Sacramento, among some very old friends (and some newer friends and acquaintances) reading pomes and other literary fare. There may even be a video of me reciting "The Mountain Whip-Poor-Will." Then everyone else went home, and we went to spend the night in a motel.

This year started a little rainy and with a stroll around an office park in Rancho Cordova to give The Dog his first morning walk of the New Year. The office park–sprawling, green, and empty-looking. Probably plenty of business there on a non-holiday, but also lots of empty buildings and signs advertising available space.

And then later, home to a bowl game or so. We only had a rooting interest in one team: Oregon over Ohio State in the Rose Bowl. That didn't turn out the way we'd hoped. In fact, it seemed like a typical ingredient for New Year's Day, which has always felt a little flat to me. Not hung-over flat. Just a day on which the celebration has always seemed a little forced, and the celebrators a little spent and maybe looking ahead to the winter that still remains and the resumption of all the responsibilities that have been put on hold for the holidays.

But aside from the football game, the long hours we spent with people today–our son Thom, his most excellent friend Elle and her folks, then later with our neighbors the Martinuccis–were warm and satisfying and very calorie-filled. And in fact I came out of the day with one firm determination for the years to come: from now on, I'm calling our 21st century years "twenty-whatever," where "whatever" is a component of an actual or expected year. I look forward to being so decisive and productive tomorrow.