Wednesday, July 13, 2011

My Life of Crime

Some time ago I got heavily into crime. Not big or interesting crime mind you, like serial murder or death camps, but rather tiny crime, rubbish crime - the kind of thing unusual enough to fill 150 words in a newspaper, and then disappear forever.
My interest in this inglorious subgenre started in Russia, where the mind-bendingly dull Moscow Times would very occasionally publish something readable, strange one- or two-paragraph stories from around Russia, often featuring an element of crime. I vividly recall the tale of some kids who were found playing soccer with a human head near Smolensk. 

This story made an impression on me because:
1)    Well, kids were playing soccer with a human head.
2)    I had lived in Smolensk, thus the severed-cranium kicking felt a little closer to home.

A handful of paragraphs long, and written in bland newspaper language, the story nevertheless captured everything that had gone wrong in Russia under Yeltsin - it was an image of total desensitization to horror, of the deepest cynicism and cruelty. In truth, it was not really a rubbish crime. But people were so inured to evil back then that it was reported and forgotten, as if it were an amusing story about a chimp that smokes cigarettes.
After a while the combination of violence, abrupt ends, and oblique revelations in these tiny newspaper stories made me wonder if there wasn’t some literary potential here. Thus, about a year ago I started writing a true crime column for a Texas website.
Each morning I’d scan the internet for local crime. I wasn’t looking for psychotic horror but rather everyday violence that exposed un-glamorous corners of the world or sad stories that revealed something about a person - what Pushkin referred to as Little Tragedies. My goal was to treat each story like a micro novel.
I remember a cop caught sniffing paint in a DIY store car park - so wrong on so many levels. OK, so I understand some cops take drugs, but paint? And in public? Here was a life gone badly wrong, in a banal yet mysterious fashion. What happened next? Reader, it was not reported.
Other crimes revealed something about a place. I was struck by the quantity of killings occurring in the town of Killeen adjacent to the Fort Hood military base. At least once a week somebody got stabbed or shot. Many of the victims were soldiers. When they weren’t at war, violence followed them home. 
Best of all however was the amazing rapist who had spent years in a wheelchair, only to stand up one day while in transit to another prison, snatch a gun and flee. I was fascinated by the ability to live a lie for so long. Had he not chosen rape as a career he would have made a great spy.
All human life was in these stories… or at least the sad parts of it. I wondered if I could build an avant-garde novel out of these fragments: a mosaic of low rent rooms, lonely people, and desperate acts. Alas I quit before I got started because the site administrators made no efforts at promotion.
Today, as I reflected upon my spell as a crime reporter I felt nostalgia for the days when I had my finger on the pulse of local wickedness. So I did a quick Google search to see what was going on in the world of crime.
There was a corpse in Killeen, as usual; a bank robbery; and a cop who shot himself in the feet and was suspended from his job as a result. There had also been a standoff between a SWAT team and a psycho just down the street from me, but it ended without a shot fired.
Not a good day for crime.
And then out of nowhere, I found a perfect story - an individual with a triple Mohawk had been arrested for hitting a man on the head with a skateboard after he had taken his picture.
Of course, it’s bad manners to take somebody’s photograph without asking. But surely if you wander the streets of downtown Austin with a triple Mohawk you are begging for attention - indeed you’d be disappointed if nobody gawped? I have seen the gentleman’s hair and it’s quite grand, if immensely stupid looking. In fact, it’s so stupid I have done worse than take a picture. I have written about it on an international website. Hey, here’s a link to his police mug-shot so you can enjoy it too.
Now I admit there’s no tragedy here, not even a little one. But it is very stupid. And it is good also to be reminded that there are some really, really stupid people in the world.
I just hope he doesn’t whack me with a skateboard.