A few days ago, I posted the opening chapter of my first spy novel, NOBODY DIES FOR FREE. This was in anticipation of the upcoming third book in the series, which will be called NEVER THINK TWICE. Today, I'd like to share the first chapter of the second Richard Monroe novel, UNDER THE RADAR.
I hope you enjoy the chapter. If you'd like to read the rest of the book, links are provided after the sample.
I’m a Spy, Not a…
“Where are you?” Mr. Nine asked.
Richard Monroe had the phone on speaker, his hands on the wheel. It had been a good evening and Monroe, adrenaline pulsing through his veins, was enjoying every curve of the Boston freeway, passing slow drivers, and resisting the temptation to soar over the speed limit.
“I’m on my way home.”
“Coming from where, Monroe?”
“I was out with a lady, sir.”
“Are you alone now?”
“Head straight home; I’m waiting for you.”
“You’re at my place?”
“Yes. Are you armed?”
“You know I’m always prepared, sir.”
“Leave it in the car.”
“Sir, what’s going on?”
“You’ll find out soon enough, but you’ll be observed on your way in and carrying would be a bad idea tonight. You have to trust me on this. Just get here as soon as you can. It will all make sense soon enough.”
* * *
Monroe flattened his foot against the accelerator as his excitement level rose. Any word from Mr. Nine meant something interesting was about to happen. Monroe normally received his assignments and other operational information as encrypted files sent to his phone or by courier. Face to face meetings were rarely required. Most of the time, Monroe had no idea where in the world Nine was, and now he was suddenly visiting Monroe at home. Something very unusual was going on.
He arrived at his apartment block, pulled into the underground garage, and immediately knew he was being watched. He glanced around, saw nobody, for it was late, well past eleven, but he knew. In Monroe’s business, instinct could save your life and you learned to trust it. The eyes were there somewhere, checking his movements carefully. But he trusted Mr. Nine. He had to. His life revolved around his work and Mr. Nine was his link to the world and the events he found himself involved in when the call came.
He reluctantly took the ten-round Glock 34 from his shoulder holster, put it in the glove compartment as instructed. He felt naked without his trusted weapon at his side. Moving slowly, he got out of the car. Once standing, he took off his jacket and hung it over his arm, walked slowly toward the elevator, and rose to his floor without seeing a single human being.
The hallway on Monroe’s floor was empty too, but he knew he was still being watched. The cameras were being controlled by someone other than regular security; he was sure of that now. So he went unarmed to the door of his penthouse, not knowing if he was about to be shot dead upon entry, be beaten in an ambush, or really find his supervisor waiting behind the door. The uncertainty was thrilling and he wouldn’t have traded it for anything.
The key went into the lock, turned, the door opened. Monroe went in, scanned the room quickly, muscles coiled to spring into action should it be a trap. But he couldn't have been more wrong. It wasn't a trap. Abruptly, he snapped to attention and saluted.
Monroe found the President of the United States sitting in his living room.
At first he was honored to host such a prestigious guest, but just as quickly he realized that this was not a social call. The president was there for a reason. A chill went up Monroe's spine.
President Patrick Davis had borrowed Monroe’s favorite chair and sat puffing on a Parliament, a habit his staff must have carefully concealed from the public, for Monroe had never heard a single word in the press on the subject of the president smoking. Mr. Nine stood behind the president, dressed in a trench coat. Monroe looked up at his superior and noted the cold stare from his one good eye. The other eye was made of glass.
“At ease, Monroe,” Mr. Nine said. Monroe nodded, let his spine relax just a tad, and dropped the salute.
“Good evening, Mr. Monroe. Your … friend here speaks highly of you. I’m hoping you can help.” Davis extended his hand, and Monroe shook it.
Richard Monroe, despite having loyally served his country for over a decade and a half, had never been in the same building as a serving president. Now he had one as a guest.
Monroe took a seat across from the president. As he tried to relax, feeling a bit star struck, he kept his eyes on the Commander-in-Chief. Monroe had been working for the CIA and stationed in France during the last election. He had not voted for Davis, but he liked him. Davis was fifty-four, an old-school Maine Republican with distinguished gray hair and a charming smile. While Monroe rarely agreed entirely with a politician’s opinions, he respected the office and admired the man who currently held the position.
“I should have known it was Secret Service watching me on the way in,” Monroe said.
“I’m sorry to have surprised you,” Davis said, “but no one can know I’m here tonight.”
“That’s understood. Would you like a drink, sir?”
Mr. Nine cleared his throat. “This is not a social visit, Monroe. The president needs your help.”
“I’m at your service,” Monroe assured them.
“I realize,” the president began, “that you work alone on most assignments, are extremely discreet, and act on matters that threaten national security but could escalate if large agencies involved themselves.”
Monroe nodded. “That’s been my standard mode of late, yes.”
“Excellent. This isn’t as big a situation as your recent disposal of Garrett Khan, Monroe, but a different sort of problem, the kind that could create severe embarrassment for the government and for me specifically.”
“I see.” Monroe was surprised, though he kept it to himself. Patrick Davis didn’t seem like the sort to jump headfirst into potentially scandalous waters. What was it, Monroe wondered: an affair, a slip of the tongue with some foreign official, blackmail over some long-ago indiscretion? As far as Monroe and the public knew, Davis was solidly respectable, had a strong marriage, a daughter with a bright future, and no big black marks on his record. But something was up. Visits like this didn’t happen often, if ever. He waited for the anvil to drop, wondering who he was about to be ordered to kill.
“My daughter Sophie has disappeared, Mr. Monroe.”
So that was it, Monroe realized. That’s what all the secrecy and the clandestine visit was about.
“You mean someone’s taken her and you don’t want it getting out for fear of what the kidnappers might do?”
President Davis laughed. “No, Mr. Monroe, that’s not it at all, thank God for that! The little brat has run away and I need you to get her back for me.”
“That’s not my usual area of expertise, sir.”
“Monroe!” Mr. Nine broke his long silence. “Your area of expertise is whatever I say it is. Don’t worry, Patrick, he’ll do it.”
Monroe’s curiosity was piqued when he heard his supervisor address the president so casually, but he knew better than to ask. “Yes, of course I’ll do whatever must be done. What do I need to know, sir?”
“Do you see this?” the president held up his cigarette, which had just about burned down to the butt by now. “This is a great state secret. It shouldn’t have to be, it shouldn’t be a big deal at all if the man with one of the most stressful jobs in the world finds that a nicotine fix every now and then helps him relax. But it is a big deal because the public has a certain image in their heads of what the president is and isn’t supposed to do in the modern age and right now, Monroe, smoking is on the restricted list.”
“Your daughter, sir,” Monroe reminded him.
“I’m getting there. I was making an analogy, perhaps a long-winded one. The cigarettes are a big secret and now I’m going to tell you another one. My daughter is a perfectly normal nineteen-year-old woman! How’s that for scandal? What I mean, Monroe, is that Sophie is human. She’s not the bright, shining, genius, virgin, perfect example of everything anybody could ever want to be that the media has taken to portraying her as. Yes, my daughter is lovely and intelligent and certainly has a wonderful future ahead of her … but she’s normal too and has all the urges and desires that any young woman of her age experiences. I’m sure you read in the papers how Sophie is taking a year off before starting at Yale so she can explore her ‘spiritual side.’”
“Yes, I recall something about that, sir.”
“Well, that spiritual side bullshit is a phrase we made up to give them something to report. The phrase, ‘Girls just want to have fun,’ might have been more accurate. Now of course, there’s nothing wrong with young people enjoying themselves and I was perfectly happy to let Sophie have her time off and do whatever she wanted as long as it was safe, was governed by common sense, and, of course, she had Secret Service with her at all times. I didn’t think that was too much to ask. You would know, Monroe, being in the business, how many threats, valid or otherwise, are made against the presidential family each year.”
“Then you understand the value of security,” Davis continued, “and you see why I had to keep my daughter on a leash, even if I did loosen it from time to time.”
“Yes, sir,” Monroe said.
“Good, I’m glad we’re on the same page. But anyway, Monroe, it’s time to cut the long story short. Five days ago, Sophie asked if she could spend a day or two at our little cabin up in Maine. She’s loved that place since she was a tiny little tot. Of course I said yes. She headed up there with her Secret Service escort and all seemed fine … until she slipped away in the middle of the day, in broad sunshine, from right under her watcher’s nose!”
“How did she manage that?”
“We’re not entirely sure yet. The buffoon who was supposed to be guarding her claims he was sick and may have dozed off, but I don’t know how true that is or if he’s hiding something. That cabin is our one refuge from the real world, and it always has been. My wife was adamant about not installing the battery of cameras we have in all our other usual haunts. Now we haven’t seen or heard from my daughter in five days now and I’m afraid to think what she might be doing out there.”
“I’m sure she’s all right, sir. She sounds like a resourceful girl.”
“I’m more worried about me, Monroe! Sophie’s certainly got a wild side, despite what the press says, and she’s obviously angry with me if she’s going to run off like that. I’m worried she’ll do something stupid and cause a scandal of some sort while she’s out in the world enjoying her new found freedom. I don’t have any patience for paparazzi and controversy. I’d prefer the focus to be on my work as president and not on family issues.”
“That’s as it should be, sir.”
“I’m glad we agree. Now I want you to use any resources you think necessary to locate my daughter and bring her home. Everything I have to offer is at your disposal, but I demand discretion. Keep it quiet and get the job done as fast as you can. Mr. Nine will keep me updated on your progress.”
The president stood, marched right past Monroe, opened the door himself, and was met in the hall by two large men who escorted him off into the shadows.
Before the footsteps’ echoes had faded, Monroe was up and pouring scotch, two glasses. He handed one to Mr. Nine, took the first sip of his own.
“That was bizarre,” Monroe said after swallowing.
“You enjoyed it and you know it,” Mr. Nine reacted.
“I did … and I’m honored. I just had a symbol in my living room, the man who stands for the country I’ve devoted everything to. Corny as that may sound, it was an amazing experience. But what he just asked me to do …”
“What he just asked you to do, Monroe, sounds like a vacation to me. Nobody to shoot, no malicious threat to take down or die trying; just a young lady who’s run away from her mean old daddy. Use your skills, track her down, convince her to come home, and you’ll have the president’s gratitude and probably a nice reward to go with it.”
“Sure,” Monroe said, “and when I find her, what do I do? Put her over my knee and spank her and throw her over my shoulder and carry her back to the White House kicking and screaming? I don’t have kids; I’ll probably never have kids. What do I know about dealing with them?”
“Damn it, Monroe, I know you were just thrown out of your element, but didn’t you hear a word Davis said to you? You’re not going after a child. You’re hunting down a nineteen-year-old woman with a wild streak who’s run off to have a good time. That, Monroe, is right up your alley and it’s something you truly are very, very good at. This will be an assignment you can enjoy … and you’ll be doing your country a big favor in the process.”
“Sir, it’s the president’s daughter. I can’t just …”
“Monroe, in case you didn’t quite catch his meaning, I think Patrick Davis just said, not in so many words, that he’d rather you went there than some random young man his daughter happens to encounter on her impromptu road trip.”
“I’m forty years old, sir! I could be her father!”
“Would that stop you if the target were anyone else? And that’s only one possible way of bringing her in, Monroe. If having her kick and scream suits you better, then so be it. Just get the damn job done.”
“I will, sir. I'll require a full dossier on Sophie, and any friends and acquaintances that she may seek out. And the president implied the Secret Service operative assigned to watch her may have been involved. I'll need a complete run down on him. And, of course, anything else you deem important, sir.”
“You’ll have that in the morning. Get some sleep, Monroe.”
Mr. Nine put down his glass, straightened the collar of his coat, and walked out of the apartment.
Monroe sighed and went to bed.
UNDER THE RADAR is available at Amazon in the following versions:
Sunday, January 29, 2017
Friday, January 27, 2017
Back in June of 2013, Pro Se Press released my first spy novel, NOBODY DIES FOR FREE. This book was the result of the interest in spy stories I've had since I saw my first James Bond movie at the age of 7. The novel features my American intelligence agent Richard Monroe, who then went on to appear in the sequel, UNDER THE RADAR, which was published in May of 2015.
I'm pleased to announce that the third Richard Monroe novel, NEVER THINK TWICE, will be coming soon.
Today, for those who haven't read it and might be curious about Monroe, I'm posting here, free to read, the first chapter of the original Monroe book, NOBODY DIES FOR FREE.I hope you enjoy it. If you'd like to know what happens to Monroe next, links to order the book, which is available in print, Kindle, and audio book editions, are at the end of the chapter.
NOBODY DIES FOR FREE
Chapter 1: The Cradle or the Grave
Richard Monroe had invested his entire soul in one woman, and then she died. It was as simple as that.
Her blood ran out through his fingers, the last product of her slowing heartbeat, and Monroe knew that it was too much red, far too fast, for his hand to contain and save her. It spilled out and stained the street outside the Paris Opera where, only seconds earlier, they had been joking about the Phantom as they waited their turn to enter.
At that moment, Monroe did not care where the bullet had come from, why it had struck, or what the gathering crowd of policemen and gawkers were shouting. He cared only that he was about to lose her, and five years suddenly seemed shorter than the blink of an eye.
He whispered her name one last time as her soft brown eyes closed.
And she was gone. Richard Monroe held her until the police dragged him away from the body, but already he was alone.
Six months later, the CIA seemed a world away, a different lifetime for Monroe. The week after the shooting had gone by in a mostly emotionless blur as Monroe had gone through the necessary motions: identification of the body, burial arrangements, and notification of Genevieve’s few scattered relatives. Then he saw to the distribution of their money, most of which had come from her inheritance, into various accounts tied to various banks in various nations. Finally, he put down onto paper his official resignation from the agency that had stationed him in Paris five years earlier. When Genevieve was gone, Richard Monroe severed all ties to his old life, abandoned everything he had planned for the future, and erased himself from the eyes of those who had known him in the years before the shot outside the opera hall.
Genevieve had softened him; he was fully aware of that. With her by his side, he had shifted from a life of movement, change, upheaval, and violence to one of tranquility, happiness, music, fine food and high style.
But she was gone and now the softness of proper civilization had to go away, too. Monroe sharpened himself again, let the cultured, educated façade slip away into the night and hardened into something like what he had been before her, but perhaps worse. He set into motion a metamorphosis that would have made him unrecognizable to his friends, if he had any left who might happen to see him in the dark places he now traveled.
He stopped shaving and let his hair grow until he took on a grizzled appearance and his hair became a semi-hippie mop. He discarded his perfectly tailored suits and took to wearing clothes that put him just one level above a bum. He became the sort of man who nobody looked at twice, who nobody would want to look at twice. Easier to blend in that way. His face went from the younger side of thirty-nine to the ragged wilderness of the far side of fifty. He made the changes in Paris while crashing in a small rented room all the way across the city from the spacious home he had shared with Genevieve. When he was satisfied with his transformation, he put it to the test.
Monroe shuffled into the bank where he had been a frequent customer, his height disguised with a slouch, his face peering out from the jungle of his beard, his movements cautious and without his traditional smooth confidence. He roamed into the bank and stood less than six feet from the bank manager, who knew him very well, and stared the man down, glad to see not a sliver of recognition cross the French moneylender’s face.
Having satisfactorily melted from the face of the Earth, Richard Monroe began the hunt. He had no personal computer now, having abandoned it along with his house, car, and suits. He went into an internet café in one of the rougher corners of Paris and hacked his way into the United States Federal computer system. The US government has over a dozen levels of classified files and Monroe knew how to get into all but the highest of them. He had five minutes in there and began to check statuses and memorize the contents of the secret sites. In minutes though, the intrusion was detected and the visit shut down. No matter. He left the place.
He hit two more pay by the hour computers in Paris and then moved on to Nice, travelling by train and sometimes by bus. Lyon and Toulouse were next, and then back to Paris, followed by a quick side trip to Marseille. He avoided hitting the cities or their internet cafés in any sort of logical pattern; his travels were now as random as his hair. He did not confine his jumps to Paris either, but made it into Belgium once or twice, then Portugal, and finally all the way over to Sofia, Bulgaria. All the while, he memorized names and faces and the details of those to whom the faces belonged. He knew that there were a limited number of men in the world capable of setting up, taking a shot like the one that had stolen Genevieve away from him, and then fading into the night almost before their presence was realized. What Monroe needed to do was figure out which one of those men had been in the right place at the right time to have been the one who destroyed his life.
He had lost count of how many times he had hacked into those files for a minute here and ten minutes there and sometimes as little as thirty seconds before being detected and tossed like a drunk who just pissed off the bouncer. But finally, late one night in Sofia, Richard Monroe struck gold and his blood felt like ice as he saw the face of the man who had indeed been in that place at that time. He would no longer need to go to those classified sites. He would not need to print any documents. That face, that name, that dossier were burned into his memory as if branded with a white-hot iron.
His name was Baltasar al-Hamsi. A former Syrian intelligence man now gone freelance, al-Hamsi was a killer, and a good one. He would shoot anyone for the right price and had never come close to being caught. It was only due to a few small leaks in the chain of darkness that binds together men in al-Hamsi’s profession that the CIA and DHS had any idea who he was. In any case, they had never had sufficient evidence or reason to go after him, to finish him. He was simply on a handful of watch-lists. Those lists had failed to keep Genevieve safe.
Monroe had no idea who might have hired al-Hamsi, for he had spat in the faces of many nations in his CIA career, but he knew who had pulled the trigger and, for now, that was something. And what was more, the CIA, at that moment, according to the information Monroe had just stolen, knew where the son of a bitch was. Richard Monroe would have to go to Istanbul.
Turkey was hot as Hell and Monroe was sorely tempted to shave off the beard; it made him itch terribly, but he resisted. He had to keep looking like a man who nobody wanted to look at twice, had to blend in. It was no problem locating Baltasar al-Hamsi. Monroe, despite his ragged appearance, still had a nice chunk of money in his possession and buying information was easier and easier the further east one went. The Syrian sniper was apparently taking a break between jobs. He had done one a month earlier, although the provider of the information did not know who the target was and the CIA’s files had not made mention of the job, either. But that was nothing new; it had not made the connection between al-Hamsi’s sights and Genevieve. But al-Hamsi had certainly been in Paris that evening and left on the next flight available after Monroe had desperately tried to keep his wife’s blood in her veins. That was proof enough.
After the information was in Monroe’s mind—al-Hamsi’s address in Istanbul, his favorite café, the brothel he frequented—Monroe spent a bit more of his vengeance fund. He found a dealer of antiquities, medieval in specialty, and he purchased a misericorde. This was the instrument of the final death-thrust for warriors of the Middle Ages, a long, thin blade easily concealed—such as up a sleeve—with a narrow point that could quickly and quietly be slipped right between the ribs to pierce the heart and stop it cold with a minimum of noisy fuss. While Monroe had often entertained the thought of taking al-Hamsi somewhere secluded and giving him a lifetime’s worth of pain before putting him down, it was not his style. Not after Genevieve any more than it would have been before she had softened him. He was willing to stoop to being a beast to end her killer’s life, but he would not become a complete animal. He had to hang on to some part of Richard Monroe. If he did not, he would be as dead as Genevieve, and she would not have wanted that.
It was after midnight on Monroe’s fifth day in Turkey when he caught al-Hamsi’s scent. The Syrian had gone for a woman, spent almost three hours in his preferred whorehouse, and finally wandered back onto the streets looking exhausted but content. Good, Monroe thought, a tired target goes down easier.
Al-Hamsi would take the subway home and Monroe followed him into the tunnel, boarded the same car, and sat five seats away from him. They were the only two men in the car. They were alone, and yet al-Hamsi glanced only once at the bearded, bedraggled stranger.
Monroe got up, shambled over to al-Hamsi, doing his best to feign slight inebriation, and finally swayed back and forth for a moment in front of the assassin.
Al-Hamsi mumbled something in Turkish. When the ragged man showed no clue, he tried Arabic but still got nothing. French came out next and Monroe understood but did not show it. Finally, the irritated Syrian let English fly out.
“Fuck off, you stupid asshole! I have no money for beggars!”
At those words, Monroe unfurled his hand and let something slip from his grasp and fall like a leaf into the lap of Baltasar al-Hamsi. The seated Syrian looked down and saw the photograph settle gently into his lap. It was a picture of a woman, the head and shoulders of a stunning brunette with a joyous twinkle in her eyes.
Recognition came to al-Hamsi like sudden thunder, putting the fear of all gods into him as he understood what was happening and what the ragged man wanted with him. He went for his gun. It was too late.
The arm that tried to get the gun from the belt left an open space, just a few inches, between the elbow and the side of the body. Monroe leaned forward, thrust the misericorde in, felt the slight scrape against the bars of the ribcage, and watched Baltasar al-Hamsi cease to exist.
Monroe did not smile, did not display any emotion whatsoever. He pulled the thin blade out of the dead man’s body and wiped al-Hamsi’s blood onto the subway seat. The misericorde went back into Monroe’s sleeve where it would stay until he let himself think normally again and could decide whether to get rid of it, perhaps in some river somewhere, or keep it as a souvenir of the mission that had meant the most to him of all his assignments over his many years in and out of the business of secret lives and secret death.
Monroe made it out of the subway at the next stop. He walked out casually and roamed in random circles around many streets before taking a room at a small, cheap inn. He fell into bed at one-thirty in the morning and slept better than he had in months, better than he had since the last time he could feel the warmth of Genevieve’s body beside him in the darkness.
He rolled out of bed when the light of the sun came through the window. He stepped into his shoes, having slept in the rest of his clothes, and sauntered out onto the streets just as the imams were calling out for morning prayers. Coffee was needed, the Turkish kind, strong and bitter and all-powerful. He glanced around for a café and caught the scent of one. At that moment, he thought of Genevieve and it hit him hard that finally justice had been done and she was avenged. He allowed himself to smile and, just for an instant, his automatic guard dropped, his years of training lost to sentimentality and satisfaction. That instant was all it took. He was grabbed, counted four strong hands taking him all at the same time, smelled cheap aftershave, and felt a heavy blow to the back of the head, and that was all.
His head still throbbed when he woke up in the Turkish prison. He cursed in his mind. Had he been on camera in the subway? Where had he slipped up? He was screwed now, and he knew it. Turkish prisons were the worst, and murder counted for, at the very least, life inside the walls. He found himself hoping for execution and wondered—and religion was not a frequent subject in his mind—if he might possibly find Genevieve in the afterlife.
His death hopes were short-lived. A key rattled in the cell door and a small Turkish man in a tan suit waltzed in. The mouth opened and smooth English poured out.
“I am the warden here and I want you to leave my prison immediately.”
He tossed an envelope onto the floor in front of the slab Monroe had slept on.
“In there,” the warden said, “is the money my men found on you, as well as two tickets for an airplane trip and a new passport bearing your real name, Mr. Monroe. You will leave here and go to a hotel where you will make yourself not stink so much. You will purchase new clothing. You will go to the airport and board a flight to Chicago in the United States. When you land there, you will get on a bus, one of those Gray Dog buses that are so famous in your country, and you will ride to the small town of Cradle, located in the state of Wisconsin. If you do not go to Cradle, then you will be sent to your grave.”
Monroe almost laughed at the warden’s unintended abuse of an old expression, but he refrained and let the last words come from the small Turk’s lips.
“Do these things now. Get out of my jail!”
NOBODY DIES FOR FREE can be found on Amazon in
Sunday, November 27, 2016
In the blink of an eye, we’ve gone from “Ask not what your country can do for you,” to “Fear what your country can do to you.”
That’s what it feels like now, and I’m not the only one who feels this way. I would so much rather be writing about something else right now, something not so real, but this has to come first.
I am a writer of fiction. Mysteries, horror stories, fantasy, science fiction. That’s what I do, how I express myself. Some people think I’m good at it. Some of them pay money to read my stories, and I’m still amazed when I think about that, and I’m grateful.
But, lately, I’ve hit a snag. I can’t write fiction right now, and it’s been that way for the last two weeks. My total output during that time has been to finish a short story I’d started weeks earlier, and I can’t seem to get my head together enough to start something new. There’s too much real world stuff jamming the signals that usually provide me with a seemingly endless supply of characters and situations and concepts. Too much has happened in the past fortnight and it’s been consuming too many of my thoughts, to an extent that the fiction can’t break through. So, I need to bend my creative energies toward real life matters for a change, and maybe it will unblock me, and maybe, in the best case scenario, it will do some good to somebody else. I don’t know, but this is all I have right now, and it might meander and it might seem to drift from subject to subject and change directions a dozen times before I’m done, but I’ll give it a shot, because I don’t know what else to do with words right now.
Being able to write fiction, being able to let my imagination flow free and create worlds is a privilege I can enjoy because of the freedom of expression I have as an American, and while I’ve never written specifically about what it means to be an American, it is the condition of the nation during my lifetime that has influenced me, perhaps usually unconsciously, but I cannot deny that it has to have had an impact. And now that condition of the country is under threat, and how heavy that threat will be remains to be seen, but it does not look good. So, if I am to continue to write, I must address this.
I am a writer, as I’ve already said. But what else am I? I don’t like to label myself in too many ways, because I’m always changing, at least in personal ways, if not in ways that can be detected by anyone viewing me from the outside. I’ve never called myself a Democrat or a Republican, or a Conservative or a Liberal, and that’s because I don’t think I’m capable of taking a bundle of ideas and accepting them as whole. I prefer to judge individual issues. I don’t vote for parties, but I do vote for candidates. I’m not a Democrat or Republican. I’m not a Conservative or Liberal. I’m a human being who tries to make the right decision, whether those choices are personal and effect only me or go beyond my own life and impact the lives of others, and I look for that sense of responsibility in the candidates I choose to support and vote for.
I voted in this year’s election, and this time the choice was an obvious one. We had, on one hand, a candidate with political experience, an imperfect person (because there’s no such thing as a perfect person) who would have probably made an acceptable president for these United States. Maybe a good one, maybe even a great one. At the very least, she had business running. So I voted for her, and so, it seems, did many, many other Americans.
She was the obvious choice. For many of us, she was the only choice, because, on the other side, was a man completely unqualified for the job, a man with a personality that comes across as completely unlikable, a man whose campaign was fueled by reprehensible statements on his part, statements and stances that brought out the worst, not the best, in many of those who expressed hope that he would win. Even his campaign slogan came across as an insult to the very nation he was pursuing a chance to lead.
I didn’t think he had a real chance to win. I thought the vast majority of my fellow Americans would resist the idea of such a man holding one of the most powerful positions in the world. And then the unthinkable happened. He won. He won, at least, via the electoral college, if not the popular vote. And it felt (to many of us; it’s not just me) like a nightmare, and it still does, and it gets worse every day as we see the people he’s appointing to his staff, people with, in some cases, histories and opinions that should be repugnant to human beings who care what happens to other human beings. And he demonstrates more and more each day that he has, apparently, no idea of the scope and nature of the job he’s campaigned himself into.
This is frightening. This is disturbing. This is bizarre and absurd and tragic and dangerous. This is very, very bad. Bad for all of us, potentially worse for some of us.
In past elections, I’ve preferred one candidate over another, but I’ve always felt that, regardless of who won, we would be all right and that America would still be America. Now, for the first time in my life, I am afraid of what the next president will do to this nation, what those he chooses to help him do his job will do to it, and what his followers and supporters will perceive his victory as a license to do to their fellow human beings. We should all be afraid of this.
With that little preamble out of the way, I’m not sure where to go with this next. There are so many things I feel compelled to say, so I’m just going to let it flow.
I've told this story several times since this whole Trump thing started, first months ago when the whole idea of him winning the election seemed absurd, and again post-election, as the racism of some of his cabinet appointees became apparent and some of their ideas became known. Now, I’ll tell it again.
My great-grandmother was born in 1899. She was the youngest of 13 children and the only one born in the United States. The rest were born in Germany and the family, once they moved here, kept close contact (mostly through letters back then) with their relatives back there.
When I was a kid and she was in her 80s and 90s, I loved visiting her; I was fascinated by how old she was, by the stories she would tell, and I think she liked having an audience. She died in 1996. One day, when I was maybe 7 or 8, she showed me an album with photos from the 1930s. In one picture, 2 of her older brothers were fooling around on the banks of a local river, just 2 young men having a good time. But I noticed one of their shirts. A T-shirt adorned with a swastika. Even at that age, I knew what it was, I knew what it represented, I knew that it stood for what my grandfather (her son-in-law) had risked his life to fight against. So I was shocked to see it on a relative of mine (one who died before I was born). She saw my confusion and tried to explain.
"You have to understand," she said, "that at the time, we thought it was just a political party back home in Germany. We had no idea what would happen. We didn't realize, we didn't understand until it was too late." And as she said that to me, I could hear her voice crack, and I could tell she didn't want to talk about it, maybe couldn't bear to talk about it. I turned to the next page in the album and that part of the conversation ended right there, but I never forgot the way her voice sounded at that moment, and I never heard her sound that way again for any reason. It truly scares me that things are happening now, and here, that have me thinking of that moment so often.
There’s always been racism (and other forms of discrimination) in the world, in the United States, and we’ve always known it’s there, and sometimes it’s more obvious than at other times. Lately, it’s just spewing forth all over the place, like all the toxic sludge that’s been pooling in the minds of bigots has suddenly been given permission to puke itself out all over the targets it’s always wanted to hit.
I’m watching all this racism drip out of the woodwork and wondering where it comes from. I’ve never thought it through in detail before and there are probably two reasons for that lack of analysis on my part. First, as a white male I’ve rarely been the target of any racially-motivated negativity, and, second, I don’t feel the impulse toward being a racist in myself. But now I sit here thinking about where it comes from and I have to theorize that it must be most common in those whose life experience has been very, very limited in terms of their interactions with those who don’t share their skin color or religion or sexuality.
I was born in and grew up in Paterson, New Jersey. I went to school there. It’s a city where the school system is a mess. The elementary school I attended was one of the better ones in the city, but high school was different. I remember going there and, at the same time, knowing kids who went to school in neighboring areas like Wayne and West Paterson and being jealous of the fact that they were being taught things that were far ahead of what the Paterson high schools were offering. There in John F. Kennedy High School, we barely scratched the surface of basic science, hardly got into history at all, and it often seemed like we were all trapped in a factory that’s only goal was to provide enough education to squeeze the kids through the system and spit them out into the world so the public schools wouldn’t have to be responsible for them anymore. I felt bad for the teachers who tried their best but were up against too many obstacles. In terms of learning the subjects after which our classes were named, it was not a good experience.
The deficiencies of the school were not the fault of the students, although it is true that many of them had no desire, it seemed, to learn anything, or to even try.
And I’ve often blamed the school for giving me a lousy education and for making me feel like I didn’t want to go on to college because I needed to get away from that system for a while, and I never really went back. Now, years later, most people assume I went to college, because I’m a writer and I seem to know things about various topics. But my “education” has been self-endowed. I read, I listen, I watch.
So, yes, my formal education was lacking in many ways. But now, in the light of all the racism and other vileness being spewed about the country, I realize that my four years at JFKHS gave me another sort of education, a kind that is very important in a world of discrimination and categorization and Donald Trump’s influence and the atrocious attitudes of his fans.
What I said earlier about life experiences that involve interactions with people who aren’t just like you, well, that’s what I had in high school. For four years of my life, for seven or eight hours each day, in that little microcosm of the world, I was in the vast minority. The student body of JFKHS was about 40% Latino, 40% black, and about 10% Muslim, with the rest a mixture of Asian, Indian, and white. In my graduating class, there where, if I recall correctly, four white kids: me and one other having been born right there in Paterson and the other two being immigrants from Eastern Europe.
Now, I cannot possibly compare that short period of time to being a minority all the time, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, for a lifetime, but it gave me just the tiniest hint of what that’s like, and, even more importantly, it showed me the fundamental fact that all the differences between us are just minor details in the grand scheme of life and we are all human, all much more similar than we are different.
It didn’t take long before I stopped seeing those differences on anything more than a very superficial level, because I got to know my fellow students as people and not as categories. Some of them I liked, some of them I disliked. A few of them, I loved, and still do to this day. One of them remains among the most important people in my life. People. Not categories or colors or religions. People.
That’s why I wonder if the loud racists, the ones screaming on Twitter and pumping their fists in a zombie-like Trump victory dance and chanting about building walls and threatening people who don’t look just like them and acting like obnoxious assholes, have ever actually spent any time around the people they want to pass judgment on. Because it doesn’t take very long, unless you’re determined to keep the categorization at the forefront of your mind, to stop seeing the details and just see the people.
I think back to those days now (twenty-one years after graduation) and the memories are about personalities and words and actions, not about the trivial details of categories. The fact that M celebrated Ramadan and not Christmas was not a concern. I was more concerned about what he could do for the school’s baseball team. I didn’t care what language my friends spoke at home or when they talked to their other friends, as long as they spoke to me in English, because otherwise I would have had no idea what they were saying. When I got sick on the senior class trip, did I care that my roommate in the hotel was black? Of course not, because I was too busy being grateful that he wanted to make sure I was all right and that he helped me clean up after I vomited on the bed. I think of K, and in my memories I don’t consider the detail of her being Filipino-American, but I do recall how she moved to the area that last year of high school and very quickly accepted me for who I was and, since we had the same class schedule, we walked to each class together and were very good, comfortable friends.
And I think of S and my gratitude for her friendship knows no limit and I’m filled with joy at the fact that after a very regrettable separation of nearly two decades (that’s a story for another time), we are friends again and that feels so, so right, and I never want her to go away again, and her ethnicity does not factor into that set of emotions in the least.
All of us from that time were thrown into that place, that JFKHS because of where and when we happened to exist, and we were all human beings and the little, stupid, specific details of our lives (those things that others might see as big important categories) mattered very, very little in the long run.
As I just finished saying, I now consider having gone to school where I did to have been a positive experience in some ways, but I don’t mean to imply that no racism and no negativity existed between the various people in that place. A high school is, after all, a microcosm of society and conflict exists everywhere.
Yes, there were ethnic conflicts, and they sometimes erupted into violence, and they often involved gangs made up of this ethnicity or that fighting others. The Dominicans having a problem with the Colombians or other such stuff that the rest of us kept out of.
But I don’t recall much open racial bitterness among those who weren’t members of one of those gangs. Sure, there was an occasional racially-based insult thrown around, but not as often as one might expect there to be in such a melting pot of people. I suppose those who weren’t used to being around those of other racial or ethnic or religious backgrounds might have been surprised by the cultural differences at first, but that seemed to fade away as they settled into the routine of the place.
However, there was one incident that I’m going to talk about here and now.
This is a story almost nobody knows. I haven’t talked about it much over the years. I would rather keep it to myself, but I feel it’s important to the reason I’m writing this whole blog post to try to describe how the incident made me feel then and how it makes me feel now, two decades later.
Earlier, I said that I have rarely known what it’s like to be the target of racially-motivated negativity. If you wondered why I said, “rarely” instead of “never,” this is the part where I explain.
It was either sophomore or junior year of high school. I think it was junior year, but I’m not certain after all this time. I was in the locker room changing back to my regular clothes after gym class. I was alone at a bench between two banks of lockers, minding my own business, putting my sweatpants into my bag and a fastening the belt of my regular pants when I became aware of someone standing nearby. I turned and saw three boys watching me. I didn’t know them, and I’m sure they weren’t in my grade. They were probably seniors, a year or two older than me. They were black.
They stepped closer. The way they moved toward me scared me. I zipped my bag shut as quickly as I could. I just wanted to get out of there as all my instincts screamed danger.
I didn’t cause any trouble in high school. I was a quiet, shy kid and kept to myself except when talking with teachers or with my few close friends, some of whom I mentioned in the previous section of this essay. I did nothing to instigate this incident. I went to gym class, which I hated, participated the best I could for a clumsy person, and was just getting dressed to go to my next class.
But they came closer, and one of them shouted the words, “White motherfucker,” and they were on me.
Fists slammed into my ribs, my back, my sides, my stomach. I was shoved up against the lockers and hit a few more times. Three against one, fast, furious, brutal. I had no chance to defend myself, no chance to flee. I managed to step away from the lockers so I was no longer pinned in place. And I stepped into the open space between the lockers and the bench and one of them hit me one last time, hard. I fell. I hit the floor hard and my glasses scraped across my face as they flew off, opening a gash on my forehead and the bridge of my nose.
My attackers ran. They laughed as they went. I stayed on the floor for a minute and tried to figure out what had just happened.
The shock subsided enough for me to pick myself up. I found my glasses and they were intact. I went into the bathroom, used toilet paper to slow the bleeding.
I walked to the nurse’s office, asked for some band-aids, and patched myself up.
And I lied to the nurse about what had happened. I made up a story about walking into a barbell in the weight room.
The lie was to protect myself, because the school had a policy that anybody involved in a fight would be suspended no matter who started it, and I didn’t want that on my record and I didn’t want any more trouble. I just wanted it to be over.
I hate being involved in violence. Even if I’m on the winning end of the fight (which I was in the only other fight I’d ever been in, a silly afterschool bout in the seventh grade), it makes me guilty and sick.
I didn’t tell my parents what had happened. I didn’t want them to worry about me.
I didn’t tell my friends at school. I didn’t want them to think less of me for having lost a fight, although I later realized I didn’t lose a fight, but was ambushed and beaten, which is an entirely different thing.
I’ve told that story once or twice in the years since, but I’ve mostly kept it to myself.
For the next few days, I looked for those guys in the hallways, but I was never sure who they were. There were 2,000 students in the school and I couldn’t know all of them. And it all happened so fast, and maybe hitting my head on that locker room floor made it all a bit blurry afterwards.
I soon felt normal again. I wasn’t afraid to go to school after the incident. It was the same place, the same mixture of good and bad, and I just happened to be the victim of one of the bad things that day.
For a while, I was angry. I’m still a little angry when I think about it now, because I was innocent and I became the target of someone else’s anger because I just happened to be there at that moment.
Based on what one of them said before they hit me, my race was the reason they did what they did. A coworker I told the story to responded to it with some racial slurs about black people. He seemed to think I should be angry at everybody who looks like those three unidentified attackers. That’s ludicrous. There were 2,000 students in the place. Forty percent were black. Some of that forty percent were my friends. Most of them, I didn’t know personally. Three of them hurt me. Three out of two-thousand. That’s not enough to influence my opinion of anyone beyond those three, never mind an entire race.
So, yes, I knew, for those few painful, frightening moments, what it was like to have a racial remark shouted at me and to be hit and hit and hit again and be left bleeding on a cold, hard floor. And that was among the most terrifying moments of my life and I would never wish that on anyone.
I had that small sample, and I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have to live with that fear all the time. And now that fear, the sense that these things can and do happen to people because of their skin color or their religion or their sexuality has been inflated by the results of the recent election. It doesn’t matter if the president-elect meant to inspire some of his supporters to be emboldened to express their hateful views and act according to those views. It doesn’t matter one damn bit if he meant to do that. It happened and it’s horrifying.
It had been a long time since I’d thought of that locker room attack. But that memory has been replaying in my mind a lot since the election and the disturbing events that have followed it. I didn’t want to revisit that piece of my past, but it’s in rotation now and I had to write about it here.
It seems the chances of a person being attacked because of race may have increased in recent times, instead of decreasing, which is what should be happening as the world learns from past mistakes, but maybe we’ve taken a step backwards. Nobody should have to fear being the subject of violence because of the color of their skin, whether black, white, or anything else. I don’t want anybody, anywhere, to have to feel what I felt in that locker room.
Those Silly Little Details, Magnified
From my reply to a friend’s Facebook post two days after the election:
There's something going on these past few days that I find so disturbing that it almost brings me to tears, and that is the fact that I'm suddenly (out of concern) thinking of the people I care about in terms of categories, because I'm worried about them now and scared what those categories will cause other people to say or do to them.
And I never think about them that way; it's not the way my mind normally operates. But my best friend is a woman who grew up in Brazil, and I rarely think about her ethnicity or accent, and now I worry she'll be the target of "wall" comments.
And my oldest friend--who I wouldn't have made it through high school without and who was, when I was an awkward teenage outcast, one of the few people I really felt understood me--wears a hijab, which I don't even notice or think about normally, but now I'm terrified she'll have to put up with bullshit and abuse because of that piece of clothing.
And I worry about the several dozen new relatives-in-law I'll soon have because of my brother's imminent marriage to a black woman, and I worry that there are now people walking around who will feel emboldened to say what they may have only thought before recent developments and give them grief for having an interracial relationship.
And I'm worried about my Jewish friends having to hear anti-Semitic stuff being yelled because some of these Trump fans seem to be basking in the Hitler comparisons instead of doing what anybody with any sense of history should have been doing, which of course is running into that voting booth and choosing Hillary Clinton.
This is the 21st century and suddenly I'm thinking of my friends in terms of race and religion and nation of origin and sexuality in addition to who they are in personality, because I'm suddenly worried that those details of their lives will make them potential targets for the assholes who think it's acceptable behavior to judge a human being based on skin color or head-wear or what they do in the privacy of their bedrooms.
And I'm not supposed to be thinking about them in this way, but now I am, because I'm worried. I should not have to be sitting here feeling like I should call these people and tell them that I'm here if they need me because of any problems that arise because of what's happened this week. This is so, so, so wrong. And I really want this feeling to go away.
And now, fourteen days after the election:
The president-elect still hasn’t formally or forcefully renounced those committing hateful acts or speaking hateful words in his name, except for a few brief statements during two interviews saying, “They should stop it,” and then, “I disavow them.” Instead, he’s spent more time whining on social media about the way a group of actors at a play his running mate attended addressed the vice-president-elect (in what looked to most of us as a respectful request for the man to not violate their rights when he assumes office). And he’s complaining about the way he’s been portrayed by an actor on Saturday Night Live, as if he’s the only politician ever to be made fun of on a comedy show (it comes with being a public figure!). Meanwhile, white supremacists are making Nazi salutes and chanting “Hail Trump!” and he hasn’t put much effort at all into denouncing that, and he’s appointing cabinet members with vile records of racism and other absolutely disgusting points of view.
And I had lunch the other day with my old friend, the one who wears the scarf, and she’s terrified that her children, her Muslim children who were born in the United States and raised in the United States and had for a mother one of the best people I’ve ever known and have been good kids and have been pretty lucky in life so far, may soon have to face real, brutal discrimination and harassment for the first time in their lives, here, in America, where we should be long past things like that happening.
Yes, nasty things like that have always happened, and, unfortunately, they probably always will, but now it seems as if we’ve gone backwards a few steps and those in power, or soon to be coming into power, are some of those who would applaud and encourage those backward steps.
I’m being forced to think of people I care about in terms of categories, and I don’t like it one bit, but I’m worried, and my mind keeps going back to that photo album of Great-Grandma’s.
On Religion and Respect
I don’t like religion. I have no use for it in my life, at least as far as practicing it goes. My mind is the type that requires evidence in order to believe in something, and I see no evidence presented in any of the world’s religions, so I cannot subscribe to any of them.
I do find religion interesting, though. How could I not, as it’s had such an impact on human behavior and history. As an artist, I find its symbolism fascinating. And I’m aware that it plays a part in the lives of many, many people.
Religion is as much a target for hate and discrimination as race is, and that’s at the forefront of the news in these post-election weeks, with Anti-Semitic vandalism showing up more prominently, and Anti-Muslim rhetoric increasing. And it’s upsetting and it’s horrifying and human beings should not be subject to this.
Religion is a little different than race or ethnicity as far as how it should be judged, because religion, unlike those other things, is not a detail that nature or geography bestows on a human being. Rather, it is a form of behavior, and that behavior can have positive or negative consequences for the believer’s fellow human beings. Good has been done in the name of religion, and so has evil. That evil is unfortunate and anyone performing such acts should have to pay a price for their misdeeds.
But it is extremely wrong to judge all the followers of a religion by the deeds of the percentage who commit acts of terrorism or violence or whatever the case may be. And it is obscenely wrong to assume that a person is your enemy or deserves to be feared or hated or slandered or assaulted or killed because of no data other than their religion.
As an American, I respect the right of any human being to follow the religion of their choice, provided, of course, that they do not use it as an excuse to inflict harm on anyone else.
Based on what I’ve seen in life, there are such different degrees of a person’s involvement with religion (any religion), that to judge them based solely on that is ludicrous. Some people follow a religion only out of tradition because they had it handed down to them by their parents and it has little bearing on their day to day life. Others belief deeply and sincerely but keep it to themselves or share it only with those who practice or worship with them. Some talk about it often and openly but either don’t try to convince others of its validity or, at worst, do try to convert others but in a harmless, mostly just annoying way. I have no issue with most of those people, no matter which religion they follow in any of those mostly harmless ways (and I just avoid the annoying ones in that last group).
So, what does that leave? It leaves the extremists, the ones who, for whatever reason, decide to use that religion as an excuse to inflict pain on their fellow human beings. That’s reprehensible, but it should never be assumed that a person is one of those monsters simply because he or she subscribes to the same religion as those guilty parties (we’re talking about large religions here, those with thousands or millions of followers, not the little cults and other exceptions like, for example, the followers of Charles Manson, who had their own sort of bizarre religion going on. With little groups like that, I’d say it’s perfectly fine to judge them all as dangerous).
This, in theory, is where the problem starts. It seems that sometimes the followers of one religion can’t see past the fact that not all followers of another religion are extremists or fanatics. Let’s take, for example, the largest religion in the United States, which is Christianity (we’ll disregard, at the moment, the many subdivisions of Christianity and just treat it as one large religion). How offended or insulted would a Christian be if someone assumed every Christian acted or thought like those that make up the infamous Westboro Baptist Church (an absolutely monstrous organization based on hate), or the Ku Klux Klan? But, take a Christian who, like many people, can’t see a person of a different religion as anything but a piece of the religion (thus ignoring everything else about that person or not bothering to learn anything else about that person before passing judgment) and he may act as if every Muslim must be of the same mindset as a member of Al-Qaeda or ISIS.
Religion, for the vast majority of human beings is, I think, a detail of who they are, not the essential core of who they are. Whether Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, or whatever, we all have more in common than we have differences. It’s just that tendency some of us have of seeing a person of a religion other than ours as the religion and not as a human being who happens to practice it, that keeps us from realizing that.
Stop and think about that for a minute. I’m not talking about fanatics and extremists. There are some of those, yes, but to assume all people of a religion (unless it’s your religion) have that fanatic or extremist inside them, makes you the one with the problem, not them.
In all probability, that Muslim woman in the supermarket, the one you imagine in your mind looking at you and thinking you’re an “infidel” and wanting to blow you up, is thinking nothing of the sort. She’s shopping. She’s buying food to feed her family, just like you are. But she’s dressed differently than you think she should be and it makes you uncomfortable because you can’t see a person who’s not just like you as anything but a symbol of something that scares you because you don’t understand it (maybe because you’ve never bothered to try, maybe because you just don’t have any experience at being around people who aren’t just like you, and maybe because you’re just too damn stubborn to give people a chance).
People are not caricatures. It’s more complex than that. Religion is not the defining characteristic of most people. But it’s also simpler than that, because religion, in most cases, is a detail, not an identity. What is the identity, then? It’s humanity, and we have most of that in common with each other, more in common than different, regardless of which tradition or faith or lack thereof we believe in.
The moment you assume an individual is an extremist or fanatic based solely on the fact that they belong to a different religion than you do, it is YOU who have become the extremist.
I don’t care one bit what anybody does in the bedroom unless I’m in there with them.
The fact that Mike Pence has spent so much of his career worrying about that issue is disturbing.
The Big Question
If you’re one of those people who judges or hates or discriminates against those who are slightly different than you are in terms of race or religion or sexuality or ethnicity and you treat them as less than human because of those details, rather than look at all the things you have in common with them, which is everything except those details, I want an answer to this question:
What are you so afraid of?
Do you even know? Or are you acting out of habit, out of tradition, out of selfishness because you fear change and you fear interaction with what you don’t understand, or out of being too lazy to attempt to see the reality that we are all human despite the silly little details that we turn into such a big deal?
To those of you who can’t look past the little details, to those of you who think it’s wise to chant about walls being built and try to force your religion or your opinion of what’s right or wrong sexually on people who aren’t bothering you in any way, shape, or form, and to those of you who let those little details and differences override your ability to see human beings instead of caricatures and threats, do you know what you really are? You’re a bunch of cowards!
Look at these people and try to see past all the details. See the human beings. Talk to them. You don’t know what will happen, but you’ll probably learn something, and you might even make connections that will change your life in positive ways.
The alternative is misery, if not for you then for someone else who has every bit as much a right to live, to succeed, to enjoy the freedoms that are part of what a properly functioning America is supposed to be.
That alternative is an ugly thing, and we’re seeing a bit more of that ugly thing lately.
Is that what you want? To live in a racist world, a segregated world, a divided world? That would mean a world where an infinite number of potential connections, friendships, discoveries, and loves were prevented before they even had a possibility of happening. A world of fear and racism and xenophobia is a world of lost opportunities. America deserves better than that. Every human being deserves better than that.