"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Nuts And Sluts–Hoarders, Flashers, And Murderers

‘Nuts and Sluts’ was the popular name for Psychology 101, a popular freshman course at Yale.  It always attracted hundreds of first-year students who, like most of the rest of us, wanted to hear about sexual deviation, aberrant behavior, and untamable psychoses.  In other words to go from the pages of the National Enquirer to the ivied halls.  Yale would provide academic rigor to the craziness around us.

I grew up in a small town in Connecticut, one which, on the surface at least, was a model of New England propriety and rectitude.  As in most other communities like New Brighton, people went to church on Sundays, tipped their hats to friends and neighbors on Main Street, and led lives of quiet and simple devotion to God, family, and country.

The stories of why Hedda Lundberg gassed herself in the garage raced through our community like wildfire.  “I always knew that she was nuts”, said my mother. “Besides, anyone married to Herbert Lundberg would have every right to kill themselves”. 

Once the news of Hedda Lundberg’s sorry demise made the newspapers, there was no end to the speculation about why she had done it.  Many wives in our town had difficult marriages; but most women murdered their husbands long before turning the gas on themselves. 

Betty Parsons, for example, was the head of the Hospital Auxiliary and the reference librarian at the New Brighton Public Library..  She was quiet and proper, but anyone who paid attention could see the hinges on her tightly-closed emotional doors start to come loose.  Jimmy, the smoke shop oracle, said that in November she started to look at the girly magazines in the back of his store, usually the redoubt of the town’s old men.  She always politely thanked him, Jimmy said, and paid for her copy of Cunt! in exact change.  “I wasted a lot of good paper bags on that lady”, Jimmy complained.  Most of the men who came into his shop couldn’t care less who saw their copies of Slut and Come, but Mrs. Parsons insisted on brown paper bags.  She carefully place her magazine deep into the well of her handbag and covered it with her sweater, scarf, and hanky.

I thought of Betty Parsons when I saw the French movie The Piano Teacher which told the story of a sexually repressed woman who takes a young lover but who makes him humiliate and debase her. This is not an unusual pathology, but most women who like to be pissed on, tied up, and whipped do not murder their husbands.  She did what Lisbeth Salander did to her parole officer in the film The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – she trussed him up like a chicken – but instead of carving warnings on his chest, she cut off his offending member and let him bleed to death in the double bed where she had been subjected to carnal misery for twenty-five years.

The point is that everyone has nuts and sluts for neighbors.  We don’t call them that anymore, but that doesn’t mean they have disappeared.

Small towns are always called up and criticized for their inbred incivility - especially in the South where the Gothic novel holds sway; and where weird, twisted stories come out of ordinarily God-fearing communities like Eupora, Hope, and Rice Corners.  There was the case, for example, of Mrs. Prentice Lee, a distant but recognized relative of the great Southern general, who shoved her husband down three flights of stairs in their elegant antebellum home because of what we would now recognize as a chemical disorder, but in those days was the result of a fevered, jealous mind.  Prentice Lee was a known philanderer and abusive husband, but for some unknown reason his wife loved him desperately and despaired when he went tomcatting in Jackson.  When she found him buggering the downstairs maid in the pantry, something in her snapped.  She calmly picked up a slice of pound cake, quietly shut the door, and the next day sent poor Prentice tumbling down the elegant staircase to his death. 

The only difference between a small Southern town and a major metropolitan area like Washington, DC, is that you hear about these minor depravities more often in small communities because everybody knows everyone else. Not only do you hear of murders, suicides, pedophilia, and embezzlement, but also run-of-the-mill oddness. Whenever Elizabeth Baines’ name is mentioned in Drake, Alabama, people raise their eyebrows and give a knowing, wry smile.  Elizabeth is a dotty as they come.  “As nutty as a fruitcake”, said a congregant at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church who lived down the street from her. “She waters her geraniums at three in the morning”.

Everyone in Drake, it seems, has some kind of chemical imbalance. No one simply gets married, has children, and goes quietly and serenely into old age.  There has to be a ruckus.  Lois Ames, for example, tossed her drunken husband onto South Street at midnight and he ended up by getting doused by the street cleaners at 6 AM. Logan Roper, an Assistant Manager at the Wells Fargo bank, stockpiled more guns than the State armory and liked shooting squirrels from his porch swing with one of his prized possessions, an AK-47 used in the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. 

The neighbors were not at all surprised at Roper shooting squirrels, for they all did it, but thanks to his big-caliber gun he was obliterating them in a bloody spray, and the bits and pieces of squirrel that were scattered on the sidewalk made it difficult to walk.  Even the old-time police chief who thought he had seen everything, was surprised at the cache in Roper’s basement.  The man had everything from .22 plinkers to grenade launchers, bazookas, and 50mm cannons. .

There was a flap in the community about abrogating his Second Amendment rights. Constitutional hardliners insisted that Logan Roper should not be singled out just because he had more weapons than anyone else. 

Life in Washington, DC is no different.  Small towns have nothing on us when it comes to crazies.  You just don’t hear about them so much.  None of us knew, for example, that the man who lived at 4950 was a demented hoarder until he died, when the fire department had to extract him from a crawl space between ragged piles of old newspapers, magazines, books and electronic parts. The way the Washington Post described the scene, there was no unlittered space anywhere in the house, only narrow, crooked pathways through the junk piles on the stairs and out the back door.  From the outside the house didn’t look much different from any in the neighborhood – a bit shabby and in need of some roof repair, but nothing out of the ordinary.  Inside, however, was another story.

On our block lived a dog poisoner, a pedophile ex-priest, and a widower who disabled any car which parked in front of his house.

For years neighbors had reported unusual illnesses in their animals.  Bertha, the jittery boxer next door suffered from unusual torpor and indolence – surprising in a dog which liked to jump, run, and play.  The same happened to the cocker down the street and the Portuguese water dog in the next block. 

They all recovered, but never completely; and because they didn’t die, no autopsies could be performed.  It turned out that the clever poisoner knew his dosages, and only gave the dogs enough to stun them. He got careless, however, and an alert neighbor found a sachet of rat poison in his rose garden.  One thing led to another, and the offender was caught. No one knew why he poisoned dogs, and we all accepted him as just one more nutcase.

The pedophile ex-priest had been enrolled in a diocese witness protection program.  However Joseph O’Reilly had not been a witness to buggery and child sexual abuse, but a perpetrator.  The Church, as it had in many cases, chose to protect its own rather than expose them for the criminals they were; and O’Reilly had been defrocked and told to leave Kansas City.  He moved to our neighborhood, but since he had never received any counseling or psychiatric help, he couldn’t keep his hands to himself.

In a well-publicized case of successful profiling, the DC police stopped and detained O’Reilly because he fit the classic description of a flasher.  He was standing outside the playground of the local elementary school in a raincoat and slouch hat.  An alert patrolman noticed his bare legs, plaid socks and dress shoes; and decided to check him out.  O’Reilly was naked under the raincoat, and gave no resistance to the police who took him to the Second Precinct and booked him.

Handley Reefer was a widower who had lost his wife ten years ago and was clearly distraught and disconsolate. In the early Spring when his neighbors finally opened their windows to let in the warm breezes and the scent of apple trees in bloom, they could hear him crying - more of a tormented wailing and an anguished howling which he kept up night and day. 

One day, the anguish abruptly stopped. At about the same time an unusual rash of petty vandalism began.  Owners of cars they had parked in front of or near Reefer’s house found their tires slashed, windows scored, and gas tanks fouled.  The police, responding to numerous complaints and taking note of the unmistakable narrow radius of vandalism around Reefer’s house, questioned him; but there was nothing suspicious or untoward about this mild-mannered, polite, and well-dressed government civil servant.  One night, however, he was caught in flagrante delicto pulling distributor wires out of the motor of an old Ford which had been left unlocked.  He was remanded to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and remains there to this day. 

The moral of this story is that one should stop picking on small Southern towns for their inbred insularity and gothic horrors.  They don’t have any more crazies and nutcases than the rest of America.  It’s just that in a small town where everyone knows everyone else’s business, the nonsense just comes to light more quickly.  God only knows, my tony Upper Northwest Washington neighborhood would have been far better off if we had poked our noses around. Fewer dogs would have been poisoned, fewer third graders flashed, and fewer cars vandalized.  We might have saved the hoarder at 4950 from his demented and ignoble fate.

The second moral of the story is that there is far more craziness around than any of us are willing to admit.  Wheels get wobbly and come off at an alarming rate regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, or demography.  Although I don’t like to hear nutty stories, perhaps the current confessional trend is a good thing.  Recognize your loose screws, get them tightened, and talk proudly about your survival.

I have to admit I got a little spooked spending so much time in small Southern towns, but I now realize my mistake.  My sophisticated, highly-educated, wealthy, and culturally evolved community in Washington is no different than anywhere else.  It’s just that we keep our nutcases under wraps.

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