conscientious OBJECTIONS

Oct 25 2013

Swimming with strangers

There’s this elderly couple—late 60s or early 70s would be my guess—that has been swimming at my gym for about as long as I can remember. When I first saw them, about a decade ago now, I thought they were brother and sister. But it turns out they’re one of those long-married couples that starts to look like each other after a certain number of years. Strange, the rewards that nature bestows upon loyal monogamists, right? Does this mean if I ever enter a long-term relationship with one of the models Carl’s Jr. tries to make us think eats Carl’s Jr., I’ll end up with 48-inch legs and a doll’s vacant expression? Sweet.

(By the way, shouldn’t it be “Carl Jr.’s”? Carl’s Jr. makes no sense. Unless they’re saying this Carl dude has franchised his son, in which case those greasy square patties might be more than just visually off-putting.)

Anyway, back to the couple: The wife is a discombobulated splasher who always manages to chop a chlorinated wave into my throat. It’s uncanny. This is probably why her husband hasn’t shared a lane with her once the past five years. The hubby, meanwhile, is a broad-skulled know-it-all in faded lycra Speedos, who thinks nothing of giving unsolicited swimming advice. Worse still, he’s usually right.

I do what I can to avoid swimming at the same time as them. Over the years, I’ve learned their schedule favors Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and between 8 and 10 a.m. on Sundays. So I avoid those times as best I can.

But today I was out of luck. I arrived at the pool just before 7 this morning to see the wife contorting herself through the natorium solo. No husband. She finished up and eased into the jacuzzi, where she explained to another regular that her husband recently underwent emergency cancer surgery and that’s why he was absent. The other regular—a muscled Filipino man who once told me my skin looked yellow and that I might have jaundice—contended that fattening the husband up would help him withstand his radiation treatments. Apparently it’s good to feed a cold—and cancer.

“He’s already pretty fat,” the wife replied.

I personally don’t consider the husband fat. Portly, maybe, but come on, he’s got to be at least 68. Can we spot the guy a few courtesy pounds?

Since I’ve seen this couple at the pool so often—and since the husband has kindly waved me over to steal his lane when the pool is otherwise crowded with terrible swimmers—these people have become stranger-acquaintances: I don’t know their names, but I’ve soaked up bits of their lives through a kind of proximity-based osmosis. I know the husband got a kidney from his twin brother about five years back. He showed me the scar six weeks after the surgery. Again, unsolicited. I’ve even seen his ancient mother swim laps at this very pool on occasion. Sometimes mother and son’s schedules overlap, and all three ease into the jacuzzi together afterward and rest in comfortable silence. And I know husband and wife share a kind of unspoken, unceremonious love. It’s there when, after the husband has finished swimming, he ducks into his wife’s lane and gently shoves her heels with the palm of his hand to help her go a little faster.

I know things about these people that I’ve never spoken more than six words to.

And so, before dunking into a lane and shoving off, I told the wife I wished her husband well and hoped to see him in the lane beside me soon enough. That last part was a lie, but a white one.

She started to say something about how that’s how we’d all know he was better—when he was back swimming—but her voice slid like rainwater down a car windshield. Her grief was inaudible over the jacuzzi gets, frothing a white geography of suds around her neck, but it was clear in her eyes, wet and pale like a shelter animal’s.

I issued a rote “there, there” and smiled queerly, feeling a little less like a stranger and reminding myself to avoid swimming on Fridays.

Apr 24 2013

Long bus ride to reform

Author’s note: A truncated version of this story appears in the April 25, 2013, issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

Re-sentenced three-striker Collins sets path for other Prop. 36 hopefuls

Aaron C. CollinsWith his freedom at stake, three-striker Aaron C. Collins decided to tell the judge an anecdote about brains in jars. But first he cried.

The 46-year-old Collins traveled a long way to this moment, seated before Sacramento Superior Court Judge Lawrence G. Brown in the wood-varnished Department 9 courthouse downtown, both literally and figuratively. Shackled and garbed in orange CDC duds, Collins rode a rickety bus all the way up from his current Lancaster penitentiary address and spent a night in solitary confinement in Folsom before his April 17 hearing.

Part of the first wave of three-strikers to be re-sentenced under Proposition 36, Collins was here to explain why he should get “time served” for the crime of possessing weed while in prison 18 years ago. When he tried to tell his story, it all became too much for the gregarious Collins, author of two self-published books and an aspiring radio personality.

“I said I wouldn’t lose it,” he reminded himself.

“Take your time,” Judge Brown offered. “This is a big day.”

And a long time coming.

In September 1995, Collins, a twice-convicted robber who stole to feed his crack habit, got caught with five bindles of marijuana while doing time in California State Prison, Sacramento, in Folsom. This was less than a year after voters—brought to an emotional froth by two high-profile murder cases involving criminals who fell through the cracks—overwhelmingly adopted the state’s harsh three-strikes sentencing law.

The 1993 kidnapping-murder of Polly Class and the fatal robbery of a Fresno State University student a year earlier galvanized a public that was tired of seeing people with serious criminal pasts allowed back on the streets to commit even worse offenses, said assistant chief deputy district attorney Steve Grippi.

“Those were the two sparks that lit the fire, but the fire was smoldering for a long time before,” Grippi said during a citizens academy seminar last week. He noted that such a lax legal environment wouldn’t exist today even without three strikes. But the initiative was already enacted, subsuming a more measured version written by legislators. The new law sentenced individuals to 25-year-to-life for any third felony conviction if their first two were serious. By definition, Collins qualified. It would take another two decades—and Collins’ own personal maturation in prison—for people to realize the unintended consequences of their votes.

Statewide, the sentencing law was applied more aggressively against black and brown drug offenders. Sacramento County’s share of black three-strikers is even higher than the state average.

Last November, voters approved Proposition 36, which modifies three strikes so that people convicted of lesser third felonies aren’t eligible for 25-year-to-life prison terms. It applies retroactively, meaning Collins and thousands more could petition to have their sentences reviewed. The county offices of the DA and public defender are reviewing 160 such cases to see who else qualifies for re-sentencing. Nearly 40 have been granted adjusted sentences.

It was in 1998—four years after the law was passed—that the local District Attorney’s Office realized how much discretion it had and started dismissing lesser strikes, Grippi said. Collins was one of a handful locally to fall into that gap, but that doesn’t mean he was an angel.

“I was a bad-ass inside. I mean, I was screwing up a lot. And I caught extra time just regularly from the administrative level,” the onetime problem inmate told SN&R.

Collins acted out, in part, because he had given hope. He didn’t think this day would ever come. And now he was having trouble telling his anecdote:

An old man walks into an antique shop to buy a 40th anniversary gift for his wife. On the counter are three glass jars containing a brain in each. One is labeled “white brain” and is priced at $10 million because, the shopkeeper explains, it was a white brain the built the first rocket. The second is labeled “Asian brain” and goes for $15 million. It was an Asian brain that created the fuel for the rocket, says the shopkeeper. The third is labeled “black brain” and has a $50 million asking price.

Why is that one so much more expensive, the old man wonders.

“Because this brain hasn’t been used yet,” Collins said, finishing his story. “For years I have allowed my brain not to be used.”

But at some point, at one of the seven penitentiaries he’s been in since 1990, Collins decided to change that. Collins, born to a heroin-addicted mother who died in 1987, kicked his own habit while inside. He also earned a couple of associate’s degrees and became a go-to paralegal for his fellow inmates. Then he wrote two books, one a memoir covering the crack addiction he picked up at age 16, the other a cookbook of sorts.

“What I did was, I have real recipes and I gave them a legal twist,” he said. “Like people would drink a margarita. I just named it ‘misdemeanor margarita.’ Like fruit salad, I gave it the title ‘felony fruit salad.’ ‘Lawyer’s latte,’ ‘premeditated mashed potatoes,’ ‘prosecutor’s pancakes’—I made catchy, creative names to go with the food.”

It was this 180-degree turn, which Collins started well before Prop. 36 was a glimmer in a Stanford reformist’s eye, that convinced Judge Brown to grant him time served for the remainder of his term.

“He is a changed man,” Brown concluded. “I hope you tell your story to any and all that will listen.”

That’s the plan, anyway. When asked what he wants to do with his hard-earned freedom, Collins cleared his throat and uncorked a booming voice he hopes to parlay into a radio-advice show.

“He has big ideals, and those all could happen,” added his attorney, assistant public defender Karen Flynn. “But it’s one step at a time.”

For believing in him, Collins gave the smiling judge a signed copy of his cookbook. Then, still shackled, he got up and marched down the hall for the bus that will take him to an altogether different future.

Apr 13 2013

Jarecki autopsies America’s zombie drug war

Author’s note: An abridged version of this interview appeared in the April 11, 2013, issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

Remember the war on drugs? Yeah, it’s still lumbering on like a reanimated corpse. It’s been more than 40 years since President Richard Nixon declared the pusherman Public Enemy No. 1. If you’re wondering how successful a campaign it’s been, that depends on your definition. Drug addiction has never been more entrenched, and there’s an entire generation of black America that’s lived under police occupation. It’s been a boon to tough-talking politicians and a commoditized criminal justice industry, but a resounding failure everywhere else.

Most people forget America is still fighting a war on drugs. Acclaimed filmmaker Eugene Jarecki (Reagan, Freakonomics) is here to remind you.

His trenchant new documentary, The House I Live In, autopsies our decades-spanning campaign and shows how far this cancer has spread.

“It was a misguided accident of history,” he told SN&R. “We learned this in Prohibition. We just decided to act like idiots and repeat history again.”

As part of a multi-state tour, Jarecki was expected to address state lawmakers at the Capitol on April 8. He wants them to embrace sentencing reforms that could unpack overcrowded prisons of nonviolent drug offenders. He says California took a step in that direction last fall, when voters embraced Proposition 36, which amended the state’s harsh Three Strikes law.

Senate Bill 260, introduced last month by Senator Loni Hancock, presents another leadership opportunity for the Golden State, the Peabody-winner for 2006’s Why We Fight said. SB 260 would allow judges to review cases in which juveniles were tried and sentenced as adults.

“I think California has an opportunity to lead the country out of the wilderness,” Jarecki said during a wide-ranging phone interview days before his Capitol appearance.

Jarecki held a screening of his new doc for lawmakers at The Crest Theatre following his appearance Monday. His movie aired on PBS that same night. Local audiences can get their first look at his film April 12 and 14 at The Crest. Visit thecrest.com for movie times and ticket information.

How long was this movie in the works?

EJ: The movie was in the works for much of my life. I was born into a household of Jewish people who immigrated to America from Europe. My father fled Hitler in 1939. My mother’s family fled Czarist Russia in the early part of the 20th century.

[Jarecki grew up during the 1970s after the height of the Civil Rights movement and saw the previous decade’s gains for black America suddenly stalling. “What was blocking that progress?” he wondered. The answer invariably came back: the war on drugs.]

But people would say that to me as if that was an answer in itself. As if black males were somehow inclined toward jail. It was magically occurring. Nobody was going the extra mile to tell me, “Well, why are they going to jail?” And the more I looked into the statistical pattern, there’s been an explosive rise in American incarceration and, specifically, black male incarceration since the early 1970s. And that coincided with the declaration of the war on drugs in 1971.

Do you consider what you do a form of reporting?

EJ: Yeah. Making documentaries today has a lot more in common with journalism from once upon a time. The mark of whether I’ve done a good job or not is whether I’ve asked the toughest questions—not only of others, but myself, my own impulses to see things one way or another. I try to be pretty exacting to get at—not the truth of the matter, because truth is such an elusive quantity—but you want to be involved in the pursuit of truth. Because along the way, you encounter unwelcome revelations and complicating things, and you try to bring it all together so that what people are getting from your work is the most informed discourse possible on a given subject. I want to elevate a subject that I think is [important], like the drug war, and I don’t want to just make a strident, one-sided pamphlet out of it. I want to get as close to the truth of the matter as I possibly can.

One thing that distinguishes me from many journalists [in] the state of modern journalism is I don’t have anyone, from an editorial standpoint, pressuring me with any kind of implication about the corporate interests or the entity for whom I’m doing work.

That’s a great downfall of contemporary America—the vulnerability of serious journalism to invasion by inappropriate [forces]. Now I have [such freedom] … largely because I don’t have a job. I’m not employed by anyone. I say that jokingly, but it has its strengths. During all those many, many months and years when I’m unemployed between projects, I’m trading that for the fact that when it then does come time to make a film, I cherish a tremendous amount of autonomy. And as a result, I can go places where a journalist might feel pressure not to go. At the same time, I’m standing on the shoulders of a lot of journalists that [inform] what I do.

I’m there because very hard-working journalists in the field have spent decades coming to those understandings engaging work that I benefit from.

Did the subjects you portray, especially within the criminal justice system, have an understanding of the kind of critical investigation you were doing?

EJ: Yes, and what distinguishes the film, I think, probably more than anything else is how many of the strongest critics of the drug war are insiders. They are judges, lawyers, cops, jailers, drug dealers, drug users. It’s a widely portrayed family of American victims. Because the jailer in many ways is as much a victim as the one who is jailed. Because at the end of the day, spending your life in a construct where what you do with your time is to incarcerate other people, well, try describing that to your kid. Try feeling proud about that when you get home. And look at the rates of everything from alcoholism to domestic challenges that so many in the field face, because it’s ugly work. Law enforcement officers in this country, corrections officials, are very often hard-working, well-meaning people caught in the grips of a system they did not design. And that system … is not designed to rehabilitate. It’s not designed to elevate people. It’s designed to punish. And in the case of drugs, drugs were and always have been and always will be a public health matter. It was a misguided accident of history… We learned this in Prohibition. We just decided to act like idiots and repeat history again.

How much of the war on drugs do you think is well-intentioned—even as a terrible policy—and how much do you think is just purely, cynically feeding the machine?

EJ: At the heart of the system, unfortunately, are economic and political imperatives that drive economic and political actors in the system to continue business as usual, despite the overwhelming evidence over decades that business as usual is destructive, counter-productive, has failed miserably and is simply shattering families, homes, communities, et cetera. The problem is that it ain’t broke to a wide range of people and so they don’t fix it; and they profit from it.

Whether it was born to be the destructive instrument that it’s become is another matter, and I would argue that it’s almost immaterial. It also requires conjecture about the motives of the past.

Nixon, who declared it, is notoriously someone who said many private things that were quite racist. Does that mean that he had a racist agenda in the launching of the drug war, which, decades on, has made clear has had such a huge impact on [black] America. Well that’s hard to say and unnecessary to conjecture. What we do know is that Nixon talks tough on crime at a time when he was actually quite smart on crime. He was spending two-thirds of his drug budget on treatment and only one-third on law enforcement. And so Nixon talked tough and, yet, as a policy maker, was quite progressive. He was a far cry from today.

Now why did he do that? He did that because he learned, maybe before others—and many have followed his model—that talking tough on crime wins votes. And that it’s a very good chemistry for getting elected and reelected to talk a lot of bravado about how tough you’re going to be on the evil-doers around you. You see that over and over. For example, we’ve known for decades that the system is disproportionately destructive to black Americans and then, for example, even though black people are only 14 percent of those who use crack—in other words, crack is a “light” drug—who would have ever known that from the way it’s been reported? So we’ve known for years—and people in power have known for years in Washington—that blacks are disproportionately and inappropriately hurt by the drug war using crack laws. Crack was historically punished a hundred times more severely than powder. Truly, a hundred times more severely. And if they’d known that, then why didn’t they fix it after decades of being told it was not working? That’s where you then have to say it seems as though if something so broken doesn’t get fixed, there’s a motivation for leaving it broken.

Nixon put out this bravado of being tough on crime, tough on drugs, but the policies were a little bit more nuanced than that. In some way, did it create this template for political success—that people in other states are [replicating]?

Oklahoma prison official Mike Carpenter says something along the same lines, that you can’t do anything that makes you look soft on crime and expect to keep office. Does that speak to something in us, the public? I’m wondering if the way we respond so strongly to tough-on-crime candidates, verbiage and laws, does that speak to something in us as a citizenry?

EJ: It seems to be that what Carpenter is sharing is an important new reflection on the way the drug war unfolds. There is a weariness that has emerged with tough-on-crime rhetoric. We’ve been fighting the drug war for 40 years. We spent a trillion dollars. We’ve made 45 million drug arrests. All of this has unfolded with the cheerleading of members of Congress and the Senate who have historically escalated the rhetoric repeatedly to always involve themselves in that time-proven trope that talking tough on crime gets you votes. What’s started to happen, though, is that now, you’ve started to see that less and less that’s working. Politicians are less inclined to talk tough about the drug war, because the drug war is a failure.

… What do we have to show for it? We have the world’s largest prison population. We also have the highest levels of drug demand. We have the most epidemic drug problem of any western nation, and generally the most draconian laws. That’s called failure.

We are the world’s leading jailer. Supposedly, we think of ourselves and cherish the image of ourselves as a leading beacon for democracy in our world, and we are the world’s leading jailer, both in concrete terms and [figurative] terms. More than totalitarian regimes. So how to square this? To give you an example, Britain has 41 people serving life without parole. America has 41,000. And we do not have reduced demand. So who, what politician wants to step forward and advocate the perpetuation of such a broken system? The answer is nobody.

But what you will find is a lot of silent, subtle acquiescence, where people say little about it, hoping no one will notice their participation in this predatory activity that is destroying communities in exchange basically for economic and political profit.

I guess my point was it didn’t used to be [unpopular with the public]. And I’m wondering to what degree the public was complicit in feeding this war on drugs.

EJ: Well, I think once upon a time addiction was less widespread. One of the things about fighting the drug war the way we’ve done it—jailing so many—we’ve allowed America’s drug problem to grow to epidemic proportions, which means that many more Americans have a relative who’s addicted. We have a wide range of addiction in this country that Americans of all shapes and sizes suffer from. And as a result, they have more understanding than ever before of the dynamics of addiction and how [inadequate] tough-on-crime responses are.

Once upon a time when they understood addiction less, it was easier to vilify the addict, the drug user, the petty drug dealer as Public Enemy No. 1. And it’s harder to do that now, because we understand more about each other as a society. The drug war has democratized to some degree. It remains dominantly destructive to black America, but it has in recent years seen growth among poor white, among Latinos and among women. And those demographic changes in the footprint of the drug war have brought with them more widespread understanding outside of just black communities of the destructive and dysfunctional nature of drug law.

So all of it is a new climate, and we saw on Election Day three major victories in the war against the drug war. We saw in Colorado and Washington the legalization of marijuana in those states, a shift to a correct posture where the government would tax and regulate drugs as we learned to do with alcohol. It’s a much more effective way of government playing a role in the controlling of those substances, profiting from them and improving public safety in the process. And we also saw in California that the three strikes law was modified by Prop. 36, where California voters overwhelmingly voted to reduce the severity of California’s three-strikes sentencing. A very important, historic moment for California—good for law enforcement, good for morality, good for human beings. And if people aren’t concerned with any of those three, it’ll save the state of California a hundred million dollars a year. These changes are upon us, and we’re seeing them happen more and more in states across the country, changing their laws to reduce the hysteria factor that drove them for so long. And I think that’s becoming infectious.

I wonder how much of this is cyclical. You’re right, the failure of drug policy laws has made it so we pretty much all know someone who’s been affected, if we ourselves haven’t been affected. I wonder if it’s going to be this ironic cycle where failure makes us compassionate and then once we push back these draconian laws and it works and there are fewer people who are addicted, then that success will make us less compassionate because we won’t know someone who’s affected by the drug war.

EJ: Well, I would love to see a day come where America embarks on a compassion-based system of treatment and mental health services so significant that we would see a serious reduction in our addiction problem as a nation, but I don’t see that as being around the corner because having a better approach to drug addiction as a public health matter would be part and parcel of establishing a robust and serious mental health system in this country. And not even Newtown has brought that conversation to its rightful place of significance in the public discourse. Look at it this way: If Newtown taught us nothing else, Newtown taught us above all the problems of a lacking mental health system in this country.

The drug laws are a sister problem because if you had a robust mental health system in this country, it would carry on its shoulders the obvious mental health issue that is drug addiction. And so you would kill both birds with one stone. To put that into nicer language, you would address those issues at the same time, which is you would be reducing the implosive violence that we see emerging because of lacking mental health care in this country. (I just saw today the prosecutor in Colorado looking to seek the [death] penalty against the Aurora shooter.) We have too many of these episodes not to understand them as a pattern of mental health decay in this country.

And that mental health system, if it was appropriately dealing with that would also be appropriately dealing with the extraordinary rates of drug abuse that we have in this country. Also, by the way, very often the two are linked. We find that those engaged in those kinds of episodes also engage in the abuse of over-the-counter substances and other things, and all of it should have been caught much quicker, much earlier than at the school door. You shouldn’t be arresting children at the school door for petty drug crimes and you shouldn’t be hoping to stop a serious, violent criminal at the school door, because they’re both poor planning. Correct planning would be establishing a mental health system, within which there’s a serious focus on both behavioral issues [and] drug addiction. You’ll have a system that is both safer and fairer. Instead, we find it profitable to carry on with a broken system that we have in place.

You’re speaking to the California Legislature next week. You mentioned Prop. 36. Are you hoping to contribute to some sort of momentum you see going here in California?

EJ: I think California has an opportunity to lead the country out of the wilderness of misguided sentencing and excessive severity in the punitive nature of our approach to drug addiction. I think California led the way with Prop. 36, toward sending a signal across the country that states could learn a lesson that they, too, can find a way to reduce the excesses in their sentencing laws and do so in a way that is both good for people, good for communities, good for law enforcement and saves the state some money.

At the same time, California has individual matters going on that are of great importance. SB 260 is coming up. And while it’s not my job to convince any legislator what they should do, legislators will be voting on 260 and 260 could also, if properly handled, have a very good impact on improving justice in California—making choices that are more humane, smarter law enforcement and, ultimately, smarter and better deployed criminal justice policy, but also will save the state a tremendous amount of money.

Because over-incarceration, excessive incarceration due to laws that are imprecisely written and implemented cost money and hurt lives. My goal coming to California is to talk broadly about the drug war, as an observer of it who spent a great deal traveling—I went to 25 states across this country when I was making the film, and now more than 40 in bringing the film out to audiences. And I’m learning a great deal about this sort of generalized dysfunction that knows no state boundaries in this country. And so, in talking to legislators in California who have already made great steps, my goal in many ways is to laud them for doing that and to continue to send a signal that California can lead the way into very improved criminal justice practices that can set a standard.

California is a state that, if you take a real hard look at it, you’d expect it to be more progressive than it is in its criminal justice system. Yes we did finally modify three strikes, but it took a few swings of the axe, and we only tend to do things here—as probably many other states do—when we have to. We were under a federal decree to draw down our overcrowded prisons. But until that point, we were building these super-pens and changing laws that would stuff them three bunks high because it suited us, and it suited the system. It seems like we only do things when our backs are against the wall, and in this case it was the potential federal receivership taking over our prisons. Have you followed AB 109 at all, the realignment bill that’s shifted a lot of the low-level offender population to county control?

EJ: I have. That one’s worrisome. That threatens to take an opportunity—i.e. the pressure on the California system to reduce its over-incarceration epidemic—and turn it into a new evil, which would be simply shifting inmates laterally to county and other facilities that are even less well prepared to handle such numbers. I fear that, and I would prefer to see solutions like Prop. 36 and SB 260 that simply say, as in any system, there is a waste factor.

So, for example, SB 260 calls for revisiting sentences of people who were incarcerated as juveniles. This is already something that is shocking to other nations in the western world. So now you’re revisiting the sentences of juveniles who were sentenced as adults, and you’re only revisiting, in many cases, where they’ve had good behavior… And these are people who are [incidental] to the crime. They’re not the primary protagonist or shooter or wrongdoer of the crime. So it’s a very easy category of people to say, Hey, if we’re going to reduce anywhere, let’s simply look at judges having the ability revisit such sentences and reconsider them after a decade of good behavior.

I mean, anyone who is a Christian, anyone who believes in the redeemability of human nature, anyone who believes in the capacity of any human to find purpose, self-correct, should cheer the decision to let the judge evaluate the performance record of people who were sentenced as juveniles, for crying out loud. To make that one of the first places you trim fat in terms of over-incarceration. Does that make sense to you?

It does. And that’s one of those things that goes back to an earlier California initiative as well, where we decided that we should be able to sentence 14-year-olds to life in prison for capital crimes. Again—hopefully SB 260 is a tonic to that—but it is in response to something that California voters did agree to some years back.

EJ: My calling in coming to California is to speak broadly about national criminal justice, my reflections about where we can improve on America’s system of criminal justice and where California can lead the way in that endeavor, to laud [policies] already in work in California. And look, whether California has its back against the wall or not, I’ve seen plenty of people with their backs against the wall do stupid things. So I don’t want to undermine good choices by California leadership by saying it’s only because they had against their backs against the wall. I would say it’s partly because they had their backs against the wall.

With realignment, it has great potential and, as you said, some potential problems to it. Right now there’s this shift and the state is giving all these counties money—the counties are saying it’s not enough money, but the state is giving all these counties money—and not really holding them to account for what they do with it. They can pretty much do what they want. And here in Sacramento, we’ve had some spotty results, where the money is going to more traditional jailing and probation supervision, and not the programs that were intended to draw down our 70 percent recidivism rate.

EJ: Right. You’ll see this in the unfolding of the movie as it goes along. My movie is ultimately, like a lot of the films I’ve made, it’s a movie about how systems—notwithstanding the wide range of intentions of all those who work in and around them—can go along because we in this country, broadly in my view… Look, they can go wrong because forces of corruption emerge and disfigure the proper conduct of affairs. But having said that, in this country in particular, we have watched over several decades the American people be taught to bow at the throne of corporatism.

So we have come to elevate in American life the notion that profit is to be pursued as the highest social ideal. This was a moral nation. And now we have, in my view, deeply lost our way in idolizing profit-seeking. We have industry after industry. We see profit put before people and principle. At the system of criminal justice we have in this country, this is simply the most brazen example of industry, so putting profit before people and principle that it’s literally feeding people into a machine so that politicians can profit politically and corporate actors can profit personally.

That’s only a sibling of what we separately have as a problem, which is a sibling to the fact that the banks … stole money from the American people…. It’s a sibling to polluters who can pollute with impunity. It’s a sibling of the fact that our health care system is an embarrassment. It’s a sibling to the fact that insurers mistreat their customers with impunity.

We have [examples] as far as the eye can see that corporate power has been [permitted] to have command over our public officials who make laws very serviceable to their benefactors at the expense of the public.

2 notes

Mar 20 2013

In search of a nation

Man who avenged father’s murder deported to Yemen, reawakened family feud

Author’s note: An edited, abridged version of this story appears in the March 21, 2013, issue of the Sacramento News & Review. For more on this story, read "Murder in the foothills" by Scott Thomas Anderson & Raheem F. Hosseini.

Dressed in a forest-green jumpsuit with his thinning black hair combed forward, Hafed Mohamed Thabet casts a relaxed gaze through the oily jailhouse window. In a few days, the 42-year-old convicted murderer will be deported to his fractious home country of Yemen—never to set foot back on American soil again—and he couldn’t be happier.

In 1993, Thabet emptied a second-hand revolver into the turned back of Ahmed Ali Alharsami at a country gas station in Amador County, 50-odd miles east of Sacramento. The broad daylight crime rocked the sleepy, wooded hamlet, but was a long time coming for Thabet, who watched Alharsami pump his father full of machine-gun lead when he was just a boy in the village of Aldakalah.

At the time he pulled the trigger, the 23-year-old Thabet knew little about the American justice system—hell, he didn’t even speak the language. He just knew the courts back home had sentenced this man to die and that it was his sacred duty—even 18 years after the fact—to mete out that justice.

Thabet got into his accomplice’s grungy van with the expectation of returning home. Instead, the squawk of a trolling CHP cruiser introduced the foreigner to U.S. Criminal Justice 101. Two decades later, the man through the looking glass has absorbed those lessons.

“I know, whatever I do, I will never make someone else a victim,” Thabet told SN&R during a visit on Sunday, March 10.

Thabet spent nearly 20 years in Mule Creek State Prison before winning a parole date this past September. It took four appearances before state parole commissioners to squeeze out that decision, and another five months to learn whether the governor would overturn it. Thabet discovered the answer to that question when he called his niece in Stockton one Saturday and heard traditional Yemeni wedding music blasting through the prison payphone.

“I asked him if he wanted an arranged marriage or was going to wait for true love,” giggled Sabah Algazali. Thabet’s initial response, she recalls, was one of skepticism: “He said, ‘Are you tripping?’”

“I thought someone was playing a trick on her,” Thabet explained.

Proof of Algazali’s news came when Thabet was transferred in early February. His home for the past month has been a small cell on the sixth floor of the Sacramento County Main Jail, where he’s floated in limbo with all the other immigration holds of indeterminate fate. But unlike those poor, huddled, arrested masses—Mexican and South American and at least one Australian—Thabet knew he was going back. He just wasn’t sure when.

The accommodations have been less than stellar.

Unlike that state prison in the bucolic foothills, this cramped tower of pods downtown offers no daylight or programming. Inmates can receive emails but not letters, and can send letters but not emails. Evening phone privileges are suspended and the night before the vents in Thabet’s cell poured cold air on him all night. Which is why he keeps hacking into a white handkerchief.

Six floors down, two officers jog toward a mysterious commotion beyond sight. To his left, an inmate in orange can no longer hold back the tears. On the other side of the glass, the man’s young daughter is finding strength enough for both her parents.

“I told her not to cry,” she said into the phone. “She cries, you cry.”

The man murmurs something behind the window. His daughter nods, sets down the receiver and puts her arms around her mom.

“That’s from him,” she said.

Thabet doesn’t notice the heart-rending domestic play to his left. His mind is on other matters. He knows this is a temporary way station, and what concerns he has exist somewhere betyond the high gray walls and steel bars.

Thabet’s pending release has reawakened tensions between two interconnected families. Algazali is the eldest daughter of Alharsami and Thabet’s older sister; she has tried to bring peace to both sides by advocating Thabet’s freedom and putting an end to the 40-year-old feud that has seen at least five casualties. But a separate unresolved killing after Alharsami fled the country could still play out in the local courts, on the dusty streets or both. Members of the Alharsami family have focused their upset on Algazali, who broke with cultural tradition by speaking out about the history between the two families.

The 40-year-old grandmother hopes to visit her sickly mother some time this summer, and speaks casually about the possibility she might not make it back.

“If this is what God wants, it’s already been set,” she told SN&R.

Thabet, meanwhile, worries after the niece who reached out to him during his darkest moment. He has other concerns, too. Thabet was 19 when he left home, and spent his entire adulthood in the California penal system. If the man who is neither American nor fully Yemeni can’t build a home in Yemen, he’s already thinking of where he might try next. Egypt, Syria—the nations he once considered are buried in their own revolutionary chaos.

“The old, historic buildings in Syria are mostly gone now,” Thabet reflected.

He doesn’t know if he has a home yet, but it won’t be long before Thabet finds out.

Early Tuesday morning last week, a couple of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents put Thabet on a plane bound for the Yemen capital of Sana’a. He touched down Wednesday night. When his mother—who fell from a three-story roof when she heard of her husband’s murder—set eyes on her long-gone son, she fainted. Thabet worried their reunion was too much for her.

“I didn’t think me seeing her would kill her out of happiness,” he told Algazali.

Once his mother regained consciousness, however, the Thabet family—finally intact—celebrated into the dawn, not wanting the moment to end.

1 note

Feb 26 2013

Into the Sacramento night

Author’s note: An edited, abridged version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 31, 2012, issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

Sacramento has taught Mark Jackson how to take a punch.

The veteran cab driver, currently with Yellow Cab Co. of Sacramento, the largest local outfit, has been hocking a leased taxi in one town or another for a cumulative span of a decade. He’s worked for 13 different cab companies in various cities—mostly San Francisco and mostly after midnight—and never came too close to danger.

But in the short eight months he’s been cabbing the late, late shift around Sacramento, Jackson has been slugged in the face three times.

Jackson is learning. This city plays rough.

That’s why I’m riding shotgun in Jackson’s nicotine-stained hack at all hours of an unholy Tuesday night. I want to see what makes the capital city tick when the sun recedes and the nightcrawlers come out to play. Before my own late shift is over, I will split tours with the dancers and drunks, cabbies and medics, scrappers and wanderers who prop up this city’s eventide economy and keep Sacramento company when she’s at her most lost and vulnerable.

And dangerous.

A week earlier, Jackson got called out to Land Park around 11 p.m., where “a big black guy” waited outside a church. Jackson was suspicious. The information from dispatch said this would be a residential address. The man’s request to be taken to Oak Park and then on to North Highlands gave the cabbie further pause.

It was outside a North Highlands apartment complex that a fellow Yellow Cab driver was lured and shot dead during a predawn robbery in October 2010. The three suspects in the case are currently being prosecuted in Sacramento Superior Court.

“You got money for the ride?” Jackson asked.

“I got a card,” the man replied.

“Well, how do I even know if that card’s gonna work?” Jackson challenged. “If you don’t have cash, I can’t take you.”

His fare grumbled that he was a regular customer.

“I don’t care,” Jackson said. “Please leave.”

Jackson pauses before sharing what came next:  “And then he smashed me in the face.” Jackson chuckles. “But then he got out of the cab.”

Jackson called the police, but was told he needed to come to the station to file a report. An officer wouldn’t go to his location. The punchy customer, meanwhile, lingered on the corner for an additional 15 minutes trying to arrange another taxi. Jackson shrugged and went searching for his next fare.

It was yet another moonlit lesson in Sacramento’s twilight personality: Like a shark in water, the night never stops moving.

Cab confessions

12:02-1:47 a.m. Wednesday, January 15

Our first pickup happens somewhere in midtown. A couple of tipsy girlfriends are celebrating a friend’s birthday at Townhouse, one of the few downtown spots with live music this time of week. After learning I’m a journalist, they joke that they should be on our next cover.

“We’re both 5-10, so we’re like models,” one says.

“But we’re not as skinny,” her friend clarifies.

After they slide out, Jackson grins. He likes interacting with drunk customers, he says. Hell, he likes interacting with everyone. Jackson is naturally inquisitive, peppering me with questions about my profession and long-term career goals. He boasts that he picked up a foreign diplomat the previous night, and says his cab is like a college attended by every kind of person imaginable.

But don’t some folks make trouble, I wonder.

“Not drunks. Like, ghetto people,” he replies.

There are no areas in the county Jackson refuses to take his cab. Even last week’s sucker-punch encounter hasn’t put him off Oak Park or North Highlands.

“I wouldn’t be worth my salt as a cab driver if I were to discriminate like that,” Jackson says, pausing. “But I try to avoid Wal-Mart. I hate Wal-Mart. That’s not to say all Wal-Mart people are bad. But most of them.”

Jackson’s next fare takes us to a house off 27th and Broadway, for a run-in with a minor celebrity. It’s 12:39 a.m., and Terry Robinson and his girlfriend Eliza are heading to Townhouse as well. The energetic Robinson spits out his resume in record time: backup dancer who toured with MC Hammer in 1991, was fired by Johnny Gill, closed out his professional dancing career with Tony Toni Tone, and now represents Bay Area rapper YC Lopez.

Eliza says she used to date the Deftones’ Chino Moreno. Both she and Robinson are Sacramento natives, but escaped for long stretches before reluctantly returning. Eliza doesn’t want to tell that particular story; she says it’s full of pain and heartbreak. Instead, she and Robinson talk about trying to take the local music scene to the next level.

“Sacramento has a lot of potential for that,” Eliza says. “I think people are tired of all these bands coming from cities like L.A. and New York.”

Jackson muses on the subject later, saying the lack of a robust live music scene translates into a citywide inferiority complex.

“I wish Sacramento had a better image of itself,” he says, cupping the point of a smoldering cigarette in his palm. “This is a major city. Where’s the music?”

Jackson is one of more than 90 taxi drivers working for Yellow Cab. But on this night at this time, he’s probably one of only 10 drivers combing the streets for fares, says company president Fred Pleines. While the company doesn’t tabulate how many customers it serves, Pleines estimates an average of 1,200 dispatched calls a day.

“Most of the drivers work daylight hours,” he says.

There’s a reason for that. It was a late summer night this past July that a cabbie waiting on a fare outside the downtown Amtrak station got a knife plunged into his chest several times by a stranger.

At 1 a.m., we’re parked in front of a home on 3rd Avenue. Jackson rings up the residence on his cell.

“Mark from Yellow Cab?” a female voice on the other end asks. She sounds surprised.

That’s nothing new, Jackson says. Folks move slower around these parts, he observes. Unlike the previous fares, Jackson has no idea where these folks are headed.

A woman slides into the back on the driver’s side. Behind me, standing on the curb, I feel a towering presence.

“You the guy…” the faceless customer starts to say. He turns to his girlfriend. “This cabbie’s hella racist.”

Something clicks in Jackson’s eyes. “Are you the guy who punched me in the face?” he asks.

“Hell yeah,” the man declares unapologetically.

“Then yeah, I’m not taking you.”

“No shit!”

The face-puncher backs away, but not before challenging Jackson to another round.

“No, come on,” his girlfriend says wearily, walking toward the house. Her boyfriend dutifully follows. Maybe they’ll try getting another cab.

Jackson doesn’t bother calling it in. Yellow Cab doesn’t have any kind of system for red-flagging problem customers. My cabbie merely shakes his head.

“I’m a racist,” he scoffs.

Suddenly Jackson’s computer is pinging with requests from east Sacramento, Freeport Boulevard and Roseville. Jackson wants to scoop up as many as he can. He drops me off near K and 10 streets, and I’m left to wonder whether he’ll survive the night.

Game night

11:47 p.m.-12:12 a.m. Saturday-Sunday, January 12-13

Some sports fools just can’t handle victory.

A few hours after the San Francisco 49ers outgunned the Green Bay Packers to the NFC championships, one red-shirted reveler in particular has let success—and too much beer—go to his head. This mountain of a bro is in a stupidly heated barroom argument with a Baltimore Ravens-backing buddy who saw his team win earlier.

“Don’t ever doubt me. Don’t ever doubt me,” the Ravens fan repeats, staring at one of the yellow walls inside Bulls on H Street.

“Say that to my face. Say it to my motherfucking face!” the ‘9ers fan hollers into his friend’s ear.

A rough shoulder-shove sends cooler heads in from both sides to quash the silliness. It takes a few of the home team’s stoutest fans to pull the aggressor, an ex-Marine fresh off two lengthy tours in Iraq, outside the bar. Later, the Ravens fan braves the cold to find his friend and make peace.

One war down, countless others to go.

It’s inching toward midnight on a face-numbingly frigid Saturday. My motley crew of associates wandered into this midtown saloon to keep the stag party galloping. Ostensibly, I’m tagging along to celebrate a buddy’s upcoming nuptials. But that hoariest of pre-marriage male rituals—punish the liver, muddy the soul, dog some chicks—has provided a golden opportunity to crack my latest assignment: Who is Sacramento when the moon comes up?

Much like the inebriated, mid-40s woman now struggling onto a mechanical bull, Sacramento at twilight is kind of funny, a little bit tragic and all kinds of random.

The woman—dressed scantily and caked in melting face-paint—wants her turn in the spotlight to be seductive, but the bull is having none of this. A tall, black cowboy in the corner twists some knobs and awakens the legless minotaur to grinding life. One violent pitch spills the woman’s breast out of its insufficient packaging; the next leaves her a crumpled heap on the canvas. The young men encircling the ring leer and titter.

Sacramento can be cruel like that.

As the laughed-at madam picks herself off the mat, Paul, the Ravens fan, tries to corral the bachelors toward the exit. It’s time to go. A squinty-eyed drunk hugging the bar perks up at the mention of our next destination.

“Where ya goin’?” he asks hopefully, looking to interrupt the chill of an invisible existence.

“Uhh, I don’t know,” Paul replies.

It’s a white lie. Turning back to his emptied beer mug, the old man resumes being ignored by an entire generation that considers him creepy.

But on this night, creepy is a relative term.

Mutiny on the bus

12:47-1:19 a.m. Sunday, January 13

The escape from Bulls is sudden.

The ex-Marine and his friends—a guy and two young ladies—have joined us on the noisy, rollicking bus. Cans of Coors Light spit foam as people scream their conversations over the driver’s belligerent iPod. Everything’s going smoothly until the women learn our next destination isn’t another bar, but a strip club in Rancho Cordova. The sober one, Brianna, noticeably tenses, suddenly aware she’s confined to a hurtling steel crate with 13 incoherent degenerates.

I’m trying to sop Red Bull off my sleeve when the bus suddenly lurches to a stop at some random off-ramp on Highway 50. People are yelling and I don’t know what’s going on. The best I can figure, our new friends have either asked to disembark or have been commanded to. Either way, the groom’s brother and the ex-Marine’s buddy are now yelling at each other as the latter’s friends bundle together on the shoulder of the highway. A few of us try to cool things down, but an ear-splitting country tune doesn’t help.

Paul slumps down in his seat, looking defeated. I sit beside him.

“I’m sorry,” he says, taking the blame for the chaos.

“Don’t apologize. That was bullshit,” I say. “Your friends were cool. They just didn’t want to go to a strip club.”

He nods sheepishly.

The driver pumps the decibels of a Kanye West track until my brain shakes. More light beers are popped. My left arm is sticky and reeks. I’m ready for bed. But the night is still young.

Lap stance

1:20-2:22 a.m. Sunday, January 13

It’s bizarre having a conversation with someone who’s sitting in your lap. I don’t know how Santa manages. Then again, this isn’t the North Pole.

Sure, there are poles aplenty inside the day-glo warehouse of the county’s most prestigious gentlemen’s club. But being the most prestigious strip club is like being the soberest alcoholic.

There are also plenty of those here at Gold Club Centerfolds, planted on an isolated commercial strip in Rancho Cordova. A surprising number of coed groupings scatter around two large stages, on which a couple of girls who look too young to vote dip and writhe. This place is like a female version of Logan’s Run: No one makes it past the ripe old age of 28. To keep up the mystique, each performer is drenched in colored lights; the audience is cloaked in anonymous darkness.

The business’ website tells its employees to smile and make eye contact, to make each mark (my term) feel like he’s the only guy in the room. It tells girls the minimum height for their heels should be three inches—“anything shorter and your gut will stick out and your legs will look like tree trunks.” Body fat, vulval grooming and educational pursuits are also helpfully covered.

Maybe this is why I’m struggling to formulate an initial question to the dancer in my lap.

I tell the girl whose name sounds like “Kahlúa” that I’m researching a story on Sacramento after hours. It sounds like a line. I offer to give her my card. This also sounds like a line. She’s been warned against customers who use their jobs to grift personal information. I’m just another perv in the perv parade.

At Centerfolds, Kahlúa and her fellow dancers have to fork over $60 a pop just for the right to work. Whatever they make on top of that is their take. This includes the wrinkled dollars tossed at them on stage, and the 20s they get for private dances. The previous weekend, Kahlúa made 40 bucks. This crappy economy is hell even on exotic dancers.

As we talk, the DJ announces two-for-one private dances that come with a free porn DVD. The bargain hunters in the crowd find ladies in comically raised platforms and stumble toward a scarlet curtain.

To make up for leaner times, some girls subsidize their incomes by performing illicit sextras, Kahlúa says nonchalantly. These deals complicate her job, in that some customers now expect her to make with the hanky panky if they name the right price. As a result, she instructs each customer exactly what they’re in for (and what they most certainly are not) before any business is transacted.

“It saves them the embarrassment,” she smiles.

A grease-pated lecher with a trembling mouth bellies up to a stage to ogle a young blonde. Marble eyeballs rattle in an oversized skull. This serial killer on a lunch break rises from his seat and cups a wad of bills over his face, crumbling them down his leathery neck and paunched stomach. He expects the blonde to lap this wilted treasure up like some animal. The gesture momentarily freezes her, but then she starts crawling toward him. I turn away, not wanting that image seared into my brain.

I want to go home, but settle for a bathroom break.

A squirrel-eyed restroom attendant makes crude small talk with every pisser who enters his station. At the moment, he’s deviated from that script and is engaging a middle-aged suburbanite on the nation’s gun culture.

“If the government wants to take away somebody’s guns, they should go after the crazy people,” the attendant natters. “Don’t take my guns away, right?”

“Right,” the gray-haired suburbanite affirms, accepting a paper towel square from his new pal.

Frankly, I don’t think either of these men should have guns, but there’s no way I’m having that conversation in a strip club men’s room at two in the goddamn morning.

I locate a seat close to the door and wait for my cab. I shoo away three dancers looking to recoup their $60-deposit. They’re persistent. When I tell one I have no money, she replies, “We take cards now.”

Jesus.

My left knee starts to ache, so I extend my leg onto the chair in front of me. A dancer who calls herself “Talia” saunters over.

“You also put your feet on your mother’s furniture?” she asks with a hiked eyebrow.

“No,” I say, “but I’m pretty sure my mother’s furniture doesn’t have come all over it.”

She eventually goes away. Alone at last.

Tinny dancer

11:49 p.m.-12:01 a.m. Wednesday, January 16

I’ve done away with the entourages, and found the only place on K Street with a pulse this late/early on a Tuesday night/Wednesday morning.

Inside Dive Bar, a mopey DJ works to approximate the vibe of a David Lynch film. I wander halfway down the popular nightspot’s narrow esophagus and seat myself at the plywood bar, a narrow stage propping up the elbows of several actors tonight. A single recess bulb finds each one like a theater spotlight.

A tipsy woman on the left confesses her feelings for an aloof married coworker to her bearded buddy. To the right, a squealing trio takes turns giving each other unsteady lap dances following a second round of Fireballs. I just can’t seem to dodge the strippers, it seems.

A black-tied bartender does laps beneath a notably empty aquarium. The mermaids have the night off.

The local economy slows to a crawl between the hours of midnight and 5 a.m. Once the bars and clubs empty out around 2 a.m., there are even fewer places generating sales tax revenue, says Elizabeth Studebaker, executive director of the Midtown Business Association.

“It’s really that hospitality piece and a very small percentage of that overall hospitality piece,” she notes.

Outside of a few all-night restaurants, the kind of business that gets transacted this late belongs to the underground economy.

Around 12:30 a.m., for instance, cops will stop a car at Havenside Drive and Riverside Boulevard in the south district. A parolee-at-large will jump out of the passenger seat and make a run for it, but officers will snatch him up and find drugs on both him and the driver. Just after 1 a.m., it’s reported prostitution activity that draws police to the 7800 block of College Town Drive. Officers will talk to a couple of folks and file a report, but no arrests will be made.

“When you go to sleep, when I go to sleep, there are a lot of people who aren’t asleep who want to commit crimes,” says Officer Doug Morse, a spokesman for the Sacramento Police Department. During the graveyard shift, the department is a stripped-down version of itself—gone for the day are the administrative support workers, problem-oriented policing officers and bicycle cops—which means one homicide could upend the whole night.

“All it takes is that one big case,” Morse observes.

I bury my drink and shamble outside into the cold. A street performer on 10th and K streets is slathered head-to-toe in silver paint. He looks like an LSD-fueled hallucination, so I tiptoe closer to make sure the whiskey wasn’t spiked. The tin-colored man dances with his reflection in a darkened storefront window. A small boom box (painted silver—he’s consistent) squawks a generic R&B song from the ‘80s.

“I’m here just about every night,” he says quietly, “but I’m not interested in being interviewed.”

He grudgingly accepts my business card, then goes back to making robot moves at the window. A crude container sits by his feet, showing few donations to his cause. A young guy headed for Dive Bar drops a buck, telling the dancer he’s from the Bay Area where street performers are more prolific. His donation is an act of solidarity.

When I roll by again in a couple hours, the silver man will still be there, dancing with himself.

B shift

2:01-2:58 a.m., Wednesday, January 15

Waiting for tragedy to trip up an unsuspecting stranger’s life is an awfully morbid way to wile away the graveyard shift. But that’s exactly what I’m doing at the Sacramento Fire Department’s Station 2, which houses one of the city’s busiest ambulance units, on I and 13th streets.

Station 2 averages more than 4,000 annual calls, representing nearly 6 percent of the 70,000 the department handles overall. During this night’s graveyard shift, the station will respond to three emergencies.

Battalion chief Scott Williams leads me through a cavernous garage into the first level of the station’s darkened living quarters, where banks of comfy recliners face a sweet entertainment center.

The chief just returned from one of those emergencies—a small garage fire in Northgate. It looks like it might have been caused by a couple of smoldering cigarettes. The woman who lives there lights her smokes with a toaster, Williams notes wryly.

Williams whispers so as not wake up the 10 men on duty upstairs. He and his crew are on the first night of a 48-hour shift that will end around 8 a.m. Thursday, at which time they’ll be relieved by the fresh-faced C crew.

“They call this your second family, but in reality this is your first family because you’re spending 48 hours together,” Williams observes.

His men cook, clean and socialize together. They razz each other with inside jokes and pitch money into communal funds for groceries, cable and coffee. For some guys, this schedule is hard on families and relationships. Williams likes it.

I slump into one of the recliners as the chief turns on the flatscreen and fiddles with the settings. The screen flickers awake to some bizarre survivalist program on the Discovery Channel. Williams is dog-tired and can’t stop yawning, but he dutifully keeps me company.

While these graveyard shifts are unpredictable, colder nights typically mean an influx of calls involving homeless people wanting to get off the streets and into a hospital waiting room for a few hours. Williams says the department is also getting more medical calls from young adults who don’t have health insurance.

“The bulk of our calls are medical and those can be anything,” he explains.

But sometimes there’s just something in the air. The day before the Newtown, Conn. massacre, Williams says his unit responded to nothing but 5150s, which is code for involuntary psychiatric holds.

The television screen snatches our attention. On an arid, cracked-earth plain, one of the show’s obnoxious hosts uses a machete to hack away at a maggot-invested bull and retches into his handkerchief. Despite all that Williams has seen during his two decades with the department, this is a bridge too far.

“That’s grossing me out. I’m a city boy!” he chuckles. “That makes me want to throw up.”

No matter how long you do this job, there’s always something you haven’t seen.

A piercing alarm startles us. For a second, I think aliens are invading, but the chief recognizes it as the notification for the ambulance crew. We hustle out to the garage where two bleary-eyed men in boxers yank rubbery trousers to their waists. We exchange quick nods and jump into their boxy, red ambulance.

Time to go to work.

‘One job’

2:59-4:32 a.m., Wednesday, January 15

I slide in the back of a shadowy ambulance rumbling toward old Sacramento. Rotating siren lights glitter through the hull, but there’s no wailing scream to accompany the light show. A black computer screen smudged with analogue text short-hands the point of this twilight dreary: a 38-year-old male respiratory call.

When we arrive, two fire engines wedge near an otherwise deserted stretch of old town, which looks like an abandoned movie set this time of night. A small man shivers on a bench. Beside him is his girlfriend; both are bundled in multiple layers, but their blue fingers and faces betray the toll of a relentlessly gelid night. Big men in baggy “Sacramento F.D.” coats gather over them like a cloud. The tallest one walks over to me.

This very couple called 9-1-1 earlier today, explains Captain Michael Walter. They arrived today by bus from Reno without much of a plan for what came next or the money to improvise. The man, Travis, was hoping to detox here for his alcoholism, but the cops wouldn’t take him in because he didn’t have three weeks worth of seizure meds. The captain jots something down on a clipboard.

“In 15 hours he managed to move one block and get drunk,” he observes.

There’s no judgment in Walter’s voice. This is the job.

My two paramedic escorts take over. The men work in dazed autopilot, but gently escort the sozzled, unsteady Travis onto a wheeled gurney before loading him onto their rig. Travis’ girlfriend stays planted on the planked walkway; she seems to know she’s not allowed on the ambulance. A whiteboard perched in the corner explains the deal in handwritten magic marker:

“NO GIRLFRIENDS ALLOWED TO RIDE

ONLY FAMILY!!!

Taxi – 20$

Taxi 2 – 1500$

Keeping the Downtown

Classy – Priceless”

The girlfriend will have to hoof the 28 icy blocks to Sutter General Hospital on her own.

In the ambo, Travis complains of back pain, gastrointestinal problems and body aches.

“I’ve been traveling a long time,” he slurs. “I’ve been drinking a lot, too.”

The younger paramedic, Eric Green, dutifully jots down the menu of symptoms, takes Travis’ blood pressure and radios Sutter’s emergency department to let them know we’re coming.

He looks half-asleep. I ask him whether he’s adjusted to his fitful schedule. Green smiles wanly.

“It’s exhausting,” he says.

Travis asks me something, but I can’t pierce his drippy mumble. Green gently shakes his head, giving me permission to not engage. The paramedic has a pale crop of blonde hair and a fair-skinned face. He’s young, and says he’s only been on the job nine months.

When we arrive at the hospital, Green and his partner Brian Davis wheel their package into the ER. A chipper intake nurse takes one look at Travis’ Denver Broncos snowcap.

“He can come in, but he has to take that beanie off,” he deadpans.

“They lost anyway,” Davis challenges.

“It’s the general principle,” the nurse jokes.

Within moments, Travis gets disappeared to a small white room and we’re back on the rig, rumbling home. Davis, strapping and good-humored, is a 12-year veteran. Some nights he feels more like a taxi hack than a licensed paramedic, shuttling drunks from bar stoops to hospital ERs.

“Sacramento doesn’t take care of itself,” he shrugs.

That seems to be the night’s consensus.

Davis just fails to beat a train crossing and grimaces. As the endless trail of compartments rumble by, Davis turns to his partner in sleep deprivation, now sitting shotgun.

“You’re counting the cars, right?”

“No. Why?” Green asks.

“Oh man, you’re not counting the cars? You’re supposed to count the cars and put it in your report.”

Green laughs.

“Man, you had one job!” Davis roars.

Both men, pushed to the point of giddy exhaustion, crack up at the inside joke.

“I had one job,” Green sighs.

Davis shakes his head: “Epic fail.”

Bird poop

4:33-4:49 a.m. Wednesday, January 15

When I mention the final stop on my random journey is a donut shop to take in that first batch getting made, the fellas start jonesing. This interruptive schedule has mucked with their sleep cycles and metabolisms, so they’re hungry all the time. We cruise by New Roma Bakery on E Street and see a baker toiling inside, but it’ll be another 90 minutes before the doors officially open. I hint they should use their status as emergency workers to gain entry.

“I think you’re SOL on that one,” Davis says good-naturedly.

Back at the silent station, Green and Davis drop trow and step out of their gear, leaving them on the garage floor in case they have to jump back in again. Green pauses before going upstairs. Even in his daze, he’s a good host.

“You know where the bathrooms are?” he asks.

“In the sink, right?” I crack.

Green’s too tired for my limp joke to register.

“No. Lemme show you,” he mumbles, following me into the station house and pointing out a door in the hallway.

After he retires, I wander around the empty quarters, listening to the ticking second hand of a wall clock. I scan an old newspaper on the dining table, then examine the cluttered locker room. The city is dead quiet, but I’m sure somewhere there’s some restless drama cracking its head through the Sacramento night. Standing in the dank, petrol-stained garage, I spot a sign hanging over a cluttered workbench. It’s another hand-written one.

“If you’re not having fun,” it reads, “then why are you here?”

I heed its words and slip out a side door. My footfalls trigger a flock of black birds to explode out of a nearby tree. I study the dry white blots spackling my car.

Even when you want it to, the Sacramento night doesn’t leave you alone.

Feb 05 2013

On the metaphorical effectiveness of L. Ron Hubbard’s racist diary

Scott to me (Feb. 1):

Have I ever mentioned how fascinating I find L. Ron Hubbard. I mean, he’s the biggest turd potentially that ever lived, but what a great fascinating person he was. What a giant, ridiculous con artist of the soul he was—what a conscience-less, sociopathic doofus, but what stories. Anyway, I just love this passage about him in wikipedia:

Scientology accounts present a different version of events, saying that Hubbard “made his way deep into Manchuria’s Western Hills and beyond — to break bread with Mongolian bandits, share campfires with Siberian shamans and befriend the last in the line of magicians from the court of Kublai Khan.”[34]

However, Hubbard did not record these events in his diary.[35] He remained unimpressed with China and the Chinese, writing: “A Chinaman can not live up to a thing, he always drags it down.” He characterized the sights of Beijing as “rubberneck stations” for tourists and described the palaces of the Forbidden City as “very trashy-looking” and “not worth mentioning.” He was impressed by the Great Wall of China near Beijing,[36] but concluded of the Chinese: “They smell of all the baths they didn’t take. The trouble with China is, there are too many chinks here.”[37]

I love the flattering picture Scientology presents, completely at odds with the flatulent diary musings of a spoiled and bigoted child. The world is so patently absurd.

taller than tom cruise by an inch,

scottology

Raheem to Scott (Feb. 1):

That line—“They smell of all the baths they didn’t take”—is a fussy construct that actually contradicts what Hubbard wants it to mean. He means to say the Chinese smell like they don’t take baths. But what his poorly assembled sentence actually says is that the Chinese smell like a ton of baths, presumably fresh-made ones with sudsy bath salts and all that. I also presume a bunch of baths put together don’t smell so bad. Even in his “Dear diary” days, dude couldn’t pen a simple insult. Doesn’t it make you wonder what Hubbard attempting a “Yo mama” joke would be like…

Hubbard: “Your mother is so ugly, both men and women would like to fornicate with her.”

Is it too simplistic to bet that all of Scientology is based on a handful of equally meaningless Hubbardian syllogisms that he extrapolated into pure, divine stupidity? I don’t care. I’m going with that. Hubbard would be proud.

thetan logic raheem

Scott to me (Feb. 1):

Far be it for me to defend Hubbard*, but “they smell of all the baths they didn’t take” actually means they are smelling of  the absence—it’s an implication that they smell of an action of absence but not a physical thing. Such as “Raheem smells of all the pussy he hasn’t had.” My point is it’s a poetic license where the stink is not of any physical object, but the implication of an action—or lack thereof.

I understand your point, and quibble with you not out of disagreeing that Hubbard is a rich** man’s Kim Jong Il***, but out of respect for the insult. In that, it’s creative and funny, and only seeks to reinforce Hubbard as a spoiled, bigoted nuisance—basically the Svengali version of the fat, evil kid in Caddyshack.

Really, it’s a good insult. Comparing someone to the lack of something.

Metaphorically speaking,

I am not like an apriscott

* I’ll leave that to the bloated Kirstie Alley.

** a VERY rich man’s

*** Or Kim Jong Un—who knew he could do a pretty good imitation of his old man?

Raheem to Scott (Feb. 1):

Even if it’s a lack of baths, that smells like…what? How can an absence smell? Let’s take your example: “Raheem smells of all the pussy he hasn’t had.” That’s actually a good insult in my analysis, because you’re saying I smell like a shit-ton of vaginas, which, let’s face it, probably don’t smell like honeysuckle petals in bloom. (Those actually smell like male semen. Or at least like my semen. It’s uncanny.)

Or, if we take your understanding of Hubbard’s insult, you’re saying I smell like an absence of vaginas, which is stupid, because an absence of vaginas smells like what, exactly? A movie house showing a one-night revival of the 1986 Sylvester Stallone movie Cobra?

Just because it’s poetic doesn’t mean it gets to be patently absurd and/or metaphorically impenetrable.

knight to bishop 2 raheem

Scott to me (Feb. 1):

You’re not using your imagination. We all know what an absence of baths smells like. To Hubbard, the answer is a “Chinaman.” You and I would likely say a “Phish show, New Jersey, 1994.”

(Why do I get the feeling this conversation is going to end up as a Conscientious Objection?)

We also know what a lack of pussy smells like. Desperation. Loneliness. The soiled bedsheets of a 14-year-old boy who decided to read comics instead of play sports.

It’s a metaphor. It requires you to use your imagination to make the leap in comparison. That’s what I like about it: we have to ask ourselves the question of what does a lack of bath smell like and fill in the blanks. In the context of Hubbard’s racist screed, he is able to actually invoke a wonderfully, stereotypical image of what a crowded Asian market could only look like to a spoiled, colonial twat who would one day become the most reprehensible spiritual con man of our age.

What’s great about the metaphor is it both reveals Hubbard’s literary skills by also revealing the smallness of his mind. It is, in essence, a racist joke dressed up in finery. Amos & Andy in tuxes. Stepinfetchit in Versace. Gallagher in a cumberbund.

Ah, L. Ron Hubbard. I read about 7 of the 10 books in his Mission Earth series in high school. I would say, when it comes to it, they are the worst books that have ever been written. They are a pox on the English language, a stinging, bleeding wart of literary pus. They are the Chlamydia of the lexicon, the genital warts of prosaic expression, the syphilis of sentences.

I wish I’d finished it.

applying cream to his crotch,

smb

Raheem to Scott (Feb. 1)

Maybe I’m too stuck viewing this through the prism of my overwhelming distaste for Hubbard (even his name sounds like a garrulous old man’s phlegm-clearing scoff), but as a metaphor it strikes me as solipsistic, circular logic. Highbrow armpit fart sounds, as it were. I think his metaphor smells like an absence of wit.

which is the title of my new fragrance raheem

Scott to me (Feb. 1):

Keep your friends close, Mr. Hosseini, but keep your enemies even closer.

Jan 24 2013

Who SHOULD direct the new Star Wars?

With news that J.J. Abrams is directing the next Star Wars flick (after initially saying he only had nerd eyes for Star Trek), my pal and I engaged in a bull session about who should take over the embattled sci-fi property. My friend Scott is an OG (original geek) who grew up on George Lucas’ pioneering space saga and loathed the prequel movies. (Like everyone else, I guess.) I never got into Star Wars. To me, it holds the same appeal as Family Guy. Sure, I can see HOW peeps could get into it, but it’s not for me. (The only one I remember seeing had Ewoks, which I thought were cute. Apparently REAL Star Wars fans hate the little beavers.) But I FEEL like I’ve seen each one, mostly through pop culture osmosis. It’s the same way I know every Nicholas Sparks book is EXACTLY THE SAME. Anyway, here are our thoughts:

Scott: abrams. star wars 7.

Scott: i hate life.

Sent at 2:34 PM on Thursday

Me: Is that confirmed? A couple weeks ago, Abrams said he was approached but said no because he’s loyal to the Trek franchise and wanted to see the new Star Wars films as a fan.

Scott: evidently changed whatever small little squishy thing he calls a mind

Me: I like Abrams. And he’s a much better choice than the other names I heard rumored: Matthew Vaughn and Zack Snyder.

Still, I feel like there’s a truer pick out there.

Scott: Yes, he’s better than Zack Snyder, Tim Story or Baz Luhrmann, but that’s like saying being cornholed by Brutus Beefcake is better than being immolated, iron maiden’d, or trapped in a mall theater with “Biodome” on repeat.

Me: Begging the question: Who would you have picked?

Scott: Nolan.

i’d have given him a gazillion dollars to do it

Me: He would make a non-Star Wars fan like me buy a ticket.

Anyone else? What about the old guard, the Spielbergs, Ridleys and Camerons that should have probably been brought in to direct the last trilogy?

Scott: hmmm

i dunno - prometheus made me doubt scott. Cameron has made two of the worst films ever in Avatar and Titanic, and Spielberg, well - he’s just a ghost of himself (see: crystal skull and all the cheeseball crap he makes)

Me: Spielberg is only as good as his scripts. Lincoln was great.

Scott: um

aronofsky?

Me: Aronofsky would be a bold choice.

Scott: guy ritchie?

Me: Tim Burton!

Scott: FUCK NO

ha ha

Depp is Darth Solo

Me: With a bunch of leather arm bands and tchotchkes.

Scott: helena bonham carter is The Wookie Queen

I would prefer Whedon. Seriously - I guess there’s just not a lot of great directors out there - are there?

How about Richard Donner?

Or Lawrence Kasdan.

Me: Sure. They’re not busy. I think I saw them both directing traffic here in Folsom.

Scott: Did you know the first director approached for Return of the Jedi was David Lynch?

Me: Wow. Return of the Dune.

It would be smart to pick a visionary director who also writes, so they can guide/rewrite whatever script they’re handed.

Which qualifies dudes like Nolan and Whedon (busy with the Avengers).

You know, I might have suggested Alfonso Cuaron.

Children of Men. He’s directing an upcoming sci-fi flick with George Clooney. Did the Prisoner of Azkaban, which is supposedly the best of the Potter films (I wouldn’t know).

And his indie Spanish road movie Y Tu Mama Tambien is one of my favorites.

Scott: Prisoner of Azkaban IS the best of the Potter films - but - it’s also the best potter book

What about guillermo del toro?

Better question, what about ME?

Me: I was thinking of del Toro. I could see that.

Peter Jackson is kind of an obvious choice. But what about District 9’s Neil Blomkamp?

Scott: Good movie.

Scott: In the end, Abrams is probably better than the hacks out there - but he ruined Star Trek with one poorly timed plot device, and took away the cerebrality of the show with…well, well directioned action fluff. but i like simon pegg as scotty

And, Lost is the worst television show since…since…the Magic Hour.

Me: You could put more of the blame for that plot device on the writers, I suppose. Though he is the final arbiter. Have you seen the preview for Star Trek Into Darkness?

Scott: yes

Me: I personally think it looks amazing, but I also love Benedict Cumberbatch.

Sent at 2:52 PM on Thursday

Me: Maybe not “amazing,” but “really good.”

Scott: Yeah, going out on a limb aren’t you, liking the new Sherlock? That’s like saying, Gosh, I sure do love ice cream.

Sherlock is the best show on tv these days - easily outdistancing Doctor Who.

Sent at 2:54 PM on Thursday

Me: Well, here’s where I think a lot of fanboys are lucky: Abrams was not a Star Trek fan when he took the reigns. His writers were huge Trek nerds; he had to develop an appreciation. But Abrams is an avowed Star Wars geeknatic, so his familiarity and respect for the source material is greater.

I suppose you can argue that’s potentially not such a good thing; Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns was TOO reverent of Donner’s original. But Abrams is a smart cat. I expect him to toe the line.

Scott: Well, we’ll all see.

Jan 03 2013

An honorable killing

Related by blood, enemies according to their culture, two Yemeni nationals struggle to escape a cycle of honor killings

Authors’ note: An edited, condensed version of this story first appeared in the Nov. 8, 2012 issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

Co-written by Scott Thomas Anderson

It was when he saw the girls’ eyes that Hafed Mohamed Thabet realized what he had become.

In the summer of 1993, a then-23-year-old Thabet strutted into a nondescript courtroom 40 miles east of Sacramento to iron out what had spiraled into a gross cultural misunderstanding. Bound by tribal law and propelled by circumstance, Thabet had killed the man who murdered his father and two others in a remote Yemen village two decades earlier.

Surely such retributive justice was permitted in a Christian nation like the United States, Thabet believed—a thought he maintained while stalking his prey cross-country to the foothills of Northern California, as he dispassionately recounted his deed to detectives, and right up until he stepped into that Jackson courthouse like someone with a speeding ticket and a legitimate excuse.

But then Thabet saw the eyes of his victim’s three daughters—sponged with a hurt he knew all too well. It was only then that Thabet realized he wasn’t the hero of his own tale.

“I saw these three little girls looking at me as I was a monster, just like I looked at their father,” he recalls. “I saw what I hated most.”

Days earlier, Thabet gunned down his father’s killer in broad daylight at a gas station in rural Amador County. The scene was a funhouse mirror version of the one that unraveled 19 years prior and 8,000 miles east, where the man named Ahmed Ali Alharsami sprayed bullets into Thabet’s family home over a marriage dispute.

Thabet set out to do what the courts back home permitted, what his culture ordered and what the legal system here apparently refused to do. He avenged his father’s murder and reclaimed honor for his ruined family. Thabet thought he got justice.

Instead, the Yemeni national sealed another bloody link in the chain of honor killings that creates martyrs out of victims and turns survivors into vigilantes.

All these years later—as his nation labors through fierce protests and a precarious revolution—the now 42-year-old Thabet sits before two parole commissioners, trying to articulate the cruel ironies that turned a grieving son into a convicted murderer.

This early September afternoon marks Thabet’s fourth appearance before the California Board of Parole Hearings. For the model prisoner, this room is where the state’s correctional system has proven how arbitrary its proxy court can be. It’s where American justice has blocked a Middle Eastern daughter’s attempts to export forgiveness and peace to a region that desperately needs both. More than that, though, this cramped room inside Mule Creek State Prison is a stage for one actor telling a tale he’s told countless times before.

Thabet has known for a while now that he is not the hero of this incredible tale. But he isn’t its only victim, either.

Slaughter in Yemen

Thabet grew up in Aldakalah, a small village in the Ibb province of western Yemen. Its valley of wells and cisterns is tucked under terraced hillsides that fade from lush teal in the fall to sun-scorched, jagged blisters in the warmer months. Thabet’s family was among the most prominent in the community by virtue of his father, Mohamed, being the village sheik.

In this far-flung settlement of narrow buildings and ancient-faced stone huts—nestled in a divided nation with a feeble, grafting government—Mohamed was mediator and judge to a handful of tribes that looked to him for wisdom. He was Solomon in an isolated valley town that was ever on its own. Respected as he was, though, there was one dispute he wouldn’t be able to calm.

A quiet existence unraveled when Thabet’s older sister, Mahlia, married Ahmed Alharsami, a hot-tempered young man who frequently made sojourns to the United States. As the union progressed, Mahlia revealed to her father that Alharsami was physically abusing her, beating her any time he flew into one of his signature fits of rage. By the time Hafed was four, his older sister had grown worried about Alharsami’s plans to take her with him to the U.S. Mahlia’s father agreed.

“No,” Mohamed told the family about the proposed move, “if he beats her in Yemen, then what will he do to her when she’s farther away from her dad?”

Mahlia moved back home. Her husband seethed. The episode tapped a venomous well inside a man who couldn’t abide refusal.

On Feb. 13, 1974, Alharsami confronted his father-in-law to demand Mahlia’s return. Again he was denied. Alharsami stalked away, but not before leveling an ominous threat at the sheik standing in his path.

The next afternoon, Mohamed sat inside the unfinished home he and a relative were building into the side of a hill. After a long morning toiling on the farm, the sheik sipped tea at a table in the far corner with his cousin and a 60-year-old friend. A few feet away, a 4-year-old Hafed lay on his stomach, playing with a homemade car he assembled from a tin can and shower shoes. Without a word, Alharsami appeared in the open doorway with his hands wrapped around the belly of an AK-47.

The next few seconds were a blur of shouting and the tin-driven drone of 33 smoking bullet shells raining on the floor. In the onslaught, a boy felt his father topple onto him, shielding him from the storm. It was the sheik’s final gift to his son.

Down the street, Hafed’s mother, Mooriah, was on a rooftop hanging laundry on a clothesline. When an approaching villager shouted out the senseless news, she fainted, plummeting three stories onto the dusty street below.

Despite absorbing more than 20 rounds to his chest and stomach, Hafed’s father didn’t die immediately. That happened eight agonizing hours later, as four men carried him along an unpaved road to a hospital hundreds of miles away. The other two victims, also fathers, perished as well. Hafed’s mother was confined to intensive care with severe back and shoulder injuries. Hafed and his siblings were rushed to a grandparent’s home as gunfights broke out across the village.

Machine guns clamored for their fallen king.

Matters of honor

In the tube-fluorescent confines of a motel bathroom in Jackson, a 23-year-old Hafed Thabet stared at himself in a wide, anonymous mirror. As manhood settled his features, Thabet was able to see more of the father whose gentle presence he scarcely recalled. But now that Thabet had cut his hair and shaved his mustache, the dead sheik no longer stared back.

After traveling 2,800 westward miles across the cracked plains of America, Thabet altered his appearance for one reason—so that the man he had come for would not realize, until it was too late, that his reckoning had arrived.

It was a long journey to that mirror: In 1974, a Yemeni court convicted Alharsami of triple homicide and sentenced him to death. The ruling, however, was made after the defendant escaped into the vast unknown of the United States. Meanwhile, Thabet’s mother was in and out of hospitals with debilitating back injuries from her fall off the rooftop. With little money coming in, what remained of the Thabet clan dribbled to the bottom of the village’s social and economic castes.

Haunted by residual echoes of gunfire and plagued by culturally driven ridicule, life without a father was particularly hard for Thabet. In a region where gunfire erupted in celebration as often as it did in anger, a jumpy Thabet found himself teased, bullied and left behind during festivals, weddings and other social gatherings.

So when an opportunity to leave home came, Thabet snatched it. In 1991, Thabet temporarily moved to America to earn money for his family back home. He first lived with an aunt and uncle in Watsonville, California, where he stocked store shelves. Unbeknownst to him, Thabet’s aunt harbored secret concerns that Alharsami, who lived just hours away, would discover that the child he failed to kill 18 years earlier was now in California. Thabet was never told Alharsami was near. Instead his aunt encouraged him to stay with his brother in New York.

It was while he was with his brother in New York stocking shelves that members of the insular Yemeni community alerted Thabet his father’s killer was a coast away, enjoying the spoils of a free man. Since at least 1982, relatives of the fallen sheik had petitioned the U.S. to extradite Alharsami back to Yemen, where he would have been put to death. But the government here never responded, leaving the sheik’s family one other option: In Yemen, the law afforded sons the right to mete out the capital punishments its courts could not. Thabet’s culture absolutely demanded it.

Back in Aldakalah, Thabet had witnessed firsthand what became of those who didn’t regain their families’ honor. One local man who elected not to avenge his father’s accidental killing was roundly ostracized and barred from taking a wife. If word reached home that Thabet failed to avenge his father’s murder, an already tortured existence would become unbearable.

Pressure mounted on Thabet to perform his sacred duty. The sheik’s cousins, especially, made their expectations known to the angry young man.

“It’s like the only thing they had was me,” Thabet says through the static whisper of a prison payphone. “I already hated the man for what he did to my father, and they nurtured that. I didn’t need a lot of encouragement, but I got a lot of it from them.”

As Thabet wavered, those around him continued with their machinations. In the coming weeks, he was provided a white, windowless Chevy van singed with orange and yellow stripes, a route to California and a recent photograph of his father’s murderer. A young Yemeni acquaintance named Tamin Hauter, who spent time with the Alharsami family some years earlier, was assigned as his driver.

Thabet met with an immigration attorney to extend his visa and see if there was any way to put off his grim decision. The answer came that he would be back in Yemen within months.

With time officially running out, Thabet bought a 9mm pistol and 38.-caliber revolver from an elderly man in his brother’s apartment complex.

The hunt

On the opposite coast, unaware of the forces conspiring against him, Alharsami was busy making new enemies. Whipped into an impulsive fury, the now-41-year-old Alharsami strode past the helpless eyes of a young clerk and down the narrow aisles of the general store he used to own, knocking down its goods and spitting on the floor he once mopped.

Alharsami had recently parted with this store in the remote hamlet of West Point in Calaveras County. Overcome by an acute case of seller’s remorse, Alharsami tried to buy back the business he sold to a local Yemeni family. When Rafik Sanad and his uncle rebuffed the offer, an unhinged Alharsami decided to make his counter offer in person.

The Sanads soon learned a lesson that Thabet’s father had discovered at the business end of an automatic rifle 20 years earlier: You don’t just say no to Ahmed Alharsami.

According to investigative documents, Rafik Sanad decided to administer his own lesson soon after.

One month before his death, Alharsami’s neighbors and his fourth wife, Salwa, observed a dark sedan pull up to his West Point home. An unidentified Hispanic male employed by the store exited the vehicle and met Alharsami at his door, telling him he could either leave town or end up dead.

According to Salwa, Rafik Sanad remained in the car, laughing.

Though he downplayed the incident to a concerned neighbor, an already paranoid and frequently armed Alharsami briefly took to wearing a bulletproof vest wherever he went.

In the aftermath of Alharsami’s death, Sanad would begrudgingly acknowledge to a sheriff’s detective a certain degree of “bad blood” between him and the victim. But the tight-lipped Sanad gave up little more and his threatening employee was never found. Back in New York, Thabet’s visa was now weeks from expiration. He and the 19-year-old Hauter shoved off on a grueling cross-country odyssey whose invisible tracks had already been laid.

By Saturday, May 15, 1993, Thabet and Hauter were stopping over in Reno, Nev. Two nights later they arrived at the bland, brick-cobbled motel in Jackson, California, and began making reconnaissance trips to West Point.

They were aided by a young Hispanic male they’d met in an empty schoolyard, whom Hauter would later identify only as “Miguel.” It’s uncertain whether he’s the same man who threatened Alharsami at his door. Miguel guided the amateur hunters directly to Alharsami’s home, pointing out an arterial road that sneaked directly up on its back.

Over the next 48 hours, they stalked their prey from a distance, often sitting for hours in the reeking van that was now overladen with empty cigarette packs and fast food wrappers. During a rendezvous at a grease-gutted diner at the bottom of the mountain, Miguel warned Thabet and Hauter that they were drawing unwanted attention in West Point, a tiny speck of a burg where residents take notice of loitering outsiders. He assured the pair that Alharsami made regular trips to the nearby town of Pine Grove, and directed them to a tidy commercial square where they could prepare their ambush.

One day later, on May 19, 1993, Thabet and Hauter picked up Alharsami’s trail outside a real estate office where Miguel told them to wait, but then lost him along a winding road that branched off the country highway. It had been hours since the duo returned to the small shopping center’s chipped parking lot, hoping for another opportunity.

That Wednesday afternoon, the two amateur hunters waited. Thabet was now only a few months older than Alharsami was in 1974 when he settled his own score. A photo of the man formed a crooked crease in Thabet’s pants pocket. As he passed the passenger-side mirror of their idling van, it wasn’t his face or his father’s that he noted. Lightning had struck. He saw Alharsami.

Eye for an eye

The setting was as foreign a landscape from Aldakalah as Hafed Thabet could imagine. The 23-year-old glanced at a tire store and then a clawed and battered tin shack with boards on its windows under a hillside swept in pines and incense cedars. Beyond stood a grimy metal Quonset hut operating as a tavern, its sign jutting up from the gravel lot, hoisting a dusty marquee peppered with white Christmas bulbs over a row of impoverished Fords and Chevys.

It was 4:35 p.m., May 19, 1993.

After three hours of waiting, Thabet watched Alharsami pull into the shopping center and stop at a tire store. Unbeknownst to Thabet, at the very moment he was readying his 38.-caliber, Alharsami was hurrying inside to ask owner Pat Carney about the fastest way to Reno. Alharsami’s wife later recalled her husband being strangely restless the night before, waking her with the unexpected announcement he was leaving on a business trip. That was all he told her. Now Alharsami was imploring Carney for the quickest route to the very city Thabet and Hauter had come from three nights earlier. Did the notoriously paranoid fugitive suspect danger?

Whatever purpose was driving Alharsami to head for Nevada, he did something his wife and daughters found unthinkable: He left his guns.

After exiting the tire store, Alharsami moved his vehicle to a gas pump 20 feet away.

Thabet watched Alharsami reposition his truck. The murdered sheik’s son had barely slept. All night he had been haunted by a dead father. Every time he needed guidance, every time he heard his mother weep, every time he caught his sister’s distant stare, every time he heard his cousins taunt, “You’re not a man, you haven’t even avenged your father’s death,” Thabet would quake with unsettled resentments.

Thabet concealed the pistol in his black leather jacket and stepped out of the van. He turned to Hauter. “Leave,” he commanded. “Leave and drive to Modesto. I’ll run toward the houses and escape there.”

Thabet made his way toward Alharsami. Instead of abandoning him, Hauter sped by in the van, accelerating through the Exxon’s service islands and halting at a barren lot west of the pumps. Hauter remained behind the wheel, adjusting his side mirror for a better view of what was to come.

Thabet kept walking. A tiny elementary school across the highway slid through his periphery. The air was warm. Cars milled in and out of a shopping center, idling under faded yellow business signs from the 1970s.

Inside the Exxon, Alharsami urged its owner, Richard King, to tell him the most direct route to Reno. He purchased fuel and went back out to the pumps. In his rush, Alharsami scarcely noticed a young Yemeni man gliding by his back shoulder, heading into the service station he just exited.

Thabet shuffled around inside a moment and then asked for a pack of cigarettes. Pushing his money across the counter to King, he looked through the window at the man who had consumed his thoughts for so long. Did he look like much? With his wavy hair on a balding scalp, his blue polyester shirt and cream-colored shorts, his mismatched belt and striped socks pulled up to his knees?

Alharsami convinced most people in these little mountain towns he was a kindly proprietor who could be seen working in his garden on the weekends, two small children and a German shepherd trailing closely at his heels. Those closest to the man, however, describe a paranoid figure who abused his daughters, intimidated his wives and cultivated multiple feuds within the Yemeni-American community. But Alharsami never forgot the sheik whose life he erased, nor would he have thought twice about taking out additional members of the Thabet clan if he suspected they were near.

“If my father knew [Thabet] was in the country, he would have made sure he was going to be killed by hiring a hitman,” Alharsami’s eldest daughter, Sabah Algazali, later told authorities.

On this particular day, however, a distracted Alharsami was caught off guard.

Thabet willed himself into the descending daylight. The sky lit the blanched red gas pumps as he looked around. An adolescent boy ate candy by the ice machine. A man at the farthest pump lowered soft drinks into the bed of a truck, his wife and child inside the cab. Thabet saw none of them.

Step by step, Thabet watched Alharsami fill his field of vision. The 38.-caliber floated into the air.

Years later, when Thabet was asked how long he’d been waiting for this moment, he would respond, “For all my life.”

Inside the Exxon, King was startled by the explosive crack of a gunshot. He froze. Four more shots followed in rapid succession. He went outside to find Alharsami lying on his side in a fetal position, dressed in a widening cloak of blood.

A gas nozzle dangled from his Toyota.

The miracle child

Inside the gray walls of a prison so far from their homeland, Sabah Algazali studied the face of the man she was raised to kill.

Alharsami’s eldest daughter waited a decade before summoning the courage to sit down with her father’s killer in 2003. She had seen Thabet once before, in a Jackson courtroom during a brief preliminary hearing in the days after her father’s death. Algazali knew that the defendant was her mother’s little brother and, thus, her uncle, but it was a name-only relation at the time.

“I had no feeling that he was my blood,” Algazali says of that first star-crossed encounter. “Our intention was to prosecute him and make sure he got life.”

As the old saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

Thabet swallowed a second-degree murder plea that brought with it a 15-years-to-life sentence. Alharsami’s ghost, meanwhile, clamored for the same violent retribution that befell him—a burden that pressed the slight, steady shoulders of a daughter bent on escaping her father’s unforgiving coda.

After growing up with her grandmother in the village of Dahkla, Sabah was summoned by her outlaw father to these shores in 1983. At the age of 10, Alharsami marched his daughter into a swell of sugar beat fields, shoved a gun into her small hands and taught her to direct its flashing muzzle. He told her to be on guard for his enemies, and to avenge him if one succeeded.

“If you ever see one come near me or anything, make sure you protect me and revenge me,” he instructed.

Impressionable Sabah agreed.

By the age of 13, Sabah was carrying her own loaded weapon wherever she went. Instead of attending school, Alharsami had her work the counter of his general store in West Point, selling milk and hard liquor across a cash register she barely cleared. On one occasion, Sabah watched her father violently pummel a customer for trying to pass a counterfeit hundred. She then helped tie the unconscious man up.

From her father’s own lips, Sabah learned of the murders he committed and the retribution he escaped. Alharsami told these stories like folktales, comparing himself to Rambo and demonizing Sabah’s mother in the process. For a long time, Sabah accepted the fiction.

Seven years later, however, everything changed. The 41-year-old Alharsami died beside his truck. His killer went to prison and life trundled on. Years passed, but Sabah couldn’t subdue her curiosity. It was fate that made her the bridge between two complicated killers.

So she launched her own investigation, journeying to the isolated valley town where a scorned husband authored his own death warrant with the rocking cadence of a spitting rifle. From initially reluctant townsfolk, she learned about how that act created a deep schism in the tribal community. Much of the Alharsami clan scattered in shame. The Thabet family never fully healed.

“Both families suffered,” Sabah tells SN&R. “I came back to open the wound.”

While there, Sabah also debunked a tall tale about an 8-month-old being hurled out of a three-story window by those loyal to the murdered sheik. The story went that the infant miraculously survived, was given a new name and smuggled into her grandmother’s care. That little girl was Sabah.

Algazali chuckles now at the fables she believed for so long. Finding out she wasn’t the victim of an attempted infanticide didn’t mean she couldn’t take a lesson from that particular fairy tale, however.

“If I was really a miracle child, I should do something positive,” she decided. “I want to be a hero by saving a life.”

The life she chose to save was her uncle’s.

When she finally came face to face with her dad’s executioner, in 2003, Algazali expected someone like the man who raised her: unrepentant and cold. Instead, looking at her stranger-kin, seated before her with hooded, downcast eyes, Algazali saw a lost soul, a fellow cultural orphan. In short, Sabah Algazali saw herself.

“I know more than anybody [the pressures Hafed felt] because my father always dreamed that I would be the one to revenge for him,” she recounts. “It could’ve been me in prison if I listened to my father.”

But Algazali, who escaped her father’s volatile home at the age of 16, represents the path not taken to a culture that pays blood for blood. She is the miracle child.

Alienable rights

It is Sept. 6, 2012, and a little past 1:30 p.m., according to the dragging hands of a wall clock. Inside one of Mule Creek State Prison’s nondescript offices—at the upper reaches of the widest wall that Thabet and his attorney will sit facing—are two identical windows, squished rectangles out of which one can glimpse a cerulean sky shredded by loops of barbed wire.

The image fits. Even the keyhole glimmers of a free world are skewered by the reminders of confinement.

Two long mahogany conference tables have been shoved together to accommodate the dozen or so people that will belly up to inquire, testify, listen and plead on behalf of inmate J-30663, resident of the upper bunk in housing unit 10-235. When the inmate finally enters, escorted by a bulldog-shaped C.O. with a sweet disposition, it’s with a discordant absence of fanfare.

Except for the giveaway prison-issue denims hanging baggily on his sloped frame, Hafed Thabet could be mistaken for anyone other than what he is: A killer. Years of confinement have packed on the stress pounds, scaled back a wavy, sable hairline, and flecked his speech with a subtle NorCal prison drawl. He wears an accountant’s spectacles over sad, inky eyes, and takes pills for acid reflux and cholesterol medication.

Thabet briefly scans the peopled room, politely acknowledges today’s commissioners, and casts a grateful look at his loyal niece.

In short order, the meat of the hearing has arrived.

“My partner and I have about two hours or so to get to know you,” presiding commissioner John Peck says lightly, “so let’s start at the beginning.”

Peck, considered a seasoned pro in the parole game, coaxes the inmate before him to unfurl his life story, confirming that this is the most important tale Thabet will ever tell. For every inmate who walks into this fusty room, a convincing narrative is the only commodity they have to trade. It’s something Thabet has learned through the course of three hearings and seven agonizing, self-scrutinizing years.

In 2005, his first time before this two-person board, commissioners rightly zeroed in on a wobbly retelling of the crime, in which an armed Thabet just happened upon his prey at an upcountry gas station on a summery Wednesday afternoon. In her denial, presiding commissioner Susan Fisher recommended the inmate review his past statements regarding the event. The panel also handed down half the length of a regular denial, giving Thabet hope for a more favorable decision in two short years.

But in 2007, Thabet encountered a board that relied on a dated evaluation by a prison psychologist they acknowledged was unfamiliar with “Islamic issues.” At one point, deputy commissioner Dennis Smith even asked the foreign-born inmate whether he would “be received as a hero” if he were sent back to Yemen. There’s no data on how many natural born killers get asked the same question.

But there again, Thabet played a role in his denial, obfuscating the circumstances that brought him to the petrol-stained plot where he buried a fugitive in bullets.

No, if there’s one date that accurately presents the unrehearsed stage play of American judgment, it’s Sept. 16, 2009, starting at 4:08 p.m. This is the hearing in which Thabet came clean right out the gate, acknowledging the degree to which he plotted Alharsami’s murder to presiding commissioner Hollis Gillingham and deputy Sue Facciola. This is the hearing in which Amador County’s twin legal authorities pointedly rescinded their opposition to Thabet’s release. This is the hearing in which members of the victim’s family, as they had during previous hearings, pleaded for Thabet’s release. This is the hearing in which updated and favorable psychological evaluations, glowing testimonies from an army of vocational instructors and self-help counselors, impeccable parole plans, and too many letters of support to be recorded all came to naught. This is the hearing in which justice was placed tantalizingly out of reach.

That’s not the biased view, by the way. That’s the assessment of someone who has every political reason to oppose Thabet’s release.

“He was denied parole for what I perceived to be the wrong reasons,” says Todd Riebe, elected district attorney of conservative Amador County. “His remorse wasn’t long enough? Remorse is remorse. That’s not even against the law.”

The panel issued Thabet a three-year denial, its longest yet. The basis for that decision became the subject of a petition for review that reached the state Supreme Court, where it was denied.

"They denied him because of his credibility, because he told the truth," Algazali recounts in disbelief.

At that parole hearing, Algazali stumbled to her feet during the middle of the presiding commissioner’s statement and knocked over a chair on her way to the bathroom, where she got sick. In between heaving groans, she cried and screamed. Her daughter, who’d read her own letter of support, was equally disgusted, telling Algazali she wished she never came.

"He told the truth and got punished for it," she seethed. "I guess you got to lie in order to live."

Now, three long years later, Thabet is once again accounting for a life gone wrong. Today’s parole board—Thabet’s fourth in seven years—listens closely as the inmate shares the gritty details of growing up fatherless in an ardently paternalistic society.

“I grew up in a society where you don’t express anger. You don’t express fear. And you can’t laugh too loud because people will think that you have forgotten that your father was murdered,” Thabet says from the very penitentiary where he learned English and picked up a trade.

This panel here before him—created by the state and appointed by favor-doling governors—will decide how good his story is. And Thabet—who has always listened to his God, his culture and his captors—will obey. As he always has.

A better world

Inside the reconvened conference room somewhere inside Mule Creek State Prison, both Thabet and Algazali are crying uncontrollably.

A short while ago—as she has at every hearing—Algazali offered an impassioned statement on behalf of an uncle she came to know only after he gunned down her father.

Related by blood, enemies according to their culture, the two expatriates grew close over the past decade. For Algazali’s younger sisters and two daughters, Thabet became an unlikely voice of female empowerment, encouraging them to pursue their education, fall in love outside their nationality, and break with their culture’s more restrictive traditions. He spurred them to make the choices he didn’t.

Algazali already has. Rejecting her father’s commands to exact blood for blood, Algazali instead became her uncle’s most tireless advocate, speaking at parole hearings, hiring attorneys and papering every elected official with multiple pleas for assistance, up to an including President Obama.

So far, few have listened.

After delivering a candid testimony about Alharsami’s physical abuses in 2005, the commissioners’ pat delivery of their denial made Algazali feel like the entire day was preordained. At the second hearing, Algazali focused less on her father’s sins and more on her hopes and dreams about bringing peace to a fractured family and its internecine culture. The results were the same. Those around her told Algazali to spare herself the heartache of these wonderland tribunals and stop going.

“You’re just putting fuel in my body,” she replied defiantly.

Rather than give up, the devout Muslim rededicated herself to a cause she says represents her misunderstood religion.

"Islam is about peace, forgiveness," she tells SN&R, both for Thabet and her father.

"I am paying his debt for God," she says about the complex Alharsami, a man whose sins she recognizes, yet still the father she loves. "And that’s Islam."

One of Algazali’s rare victories was convincing Riebe to pen a letter supporting Thabet’s parole. The DA did more than that. At today’s hearing, seated beside Algazali and her sister, he lightly scolds a parole system for botching its duty three years ago. And when it comes time to read his letter, he sets it down and speaks off the cuff instead, saying he should have been there in 2009 to make sure Thabet got his date. He tells the panel this is about more than one man’s freedom. It’s about “drawing a line in the sand.”

"Mr. Thabet and the victim’s family say, ‘No more. Enough is enough. We’re making a stand here to make a better world,’" Riebe testifies. "I think that the best thing that can come of this is that Mr. Thabet get that opportunity."

Thirty-eight years after his father’s murder, 19 years after Thabet shot down Alharsami and three years since his last parole rejection, the American justice system finally listens.

At 4:05 p.m. on September 6, 2012, the panel agrees to grant Thabet a parole date.

The decision is buried in boilerplate legalese and qualified “if’s”: The governor has until the New Year to make an improbable veto, and Thabet’s release would be immediately followed by ICE detention and likely deportation to Yemen. Thabet has months of anxious waiting ahead.

“I know it happened. People told me it happened. I believe it,” Thabet says from a prison payphone weeks later. “I’m afraid to even be hopeful.”

He has good reason. In recent weeks, he learned of two fellow inmates whose parole dates were overturned by the governor. His case is different, he acknowledges, but what if?

In the conference room where commissioner Peck has just handed down the panel’s decision, none of that yet matters. Uncle and niece lay their heads on the table and empty out the contents of their twinned suffering.

In their patient waiting for state reprieve—and in opposition to the prosaic tribal justice that brought them here—Thabet and Algazali achieved a truer accord. They met outside the rules of law and misappropriated religion, and enacted a pardon that no justice system—be it in the “progressive” West’s or “fanatical” Middle East’s—can counter. It’s the kind of justice that only they can decide to keep.

“I just think for Hafed, his final chapter isn’t written,” Riebe says hopefully. “I think he can make a difference.”

He may just get the chance.

Thabet, who dreams of one day opening an automotive repair shop in his native land, envisions spreading his niece’s message of forgiveness and love back home. But right now the boy from Yemen just wants to see his mother.

From inside the maternity ward of a Stockton hospital 10 days after the hearing, Algazali empathizes. Despite attempts to reconnect as an adult, this family saga left Algazali estranged from her own mom, Thabet’s sister. At this moment, though, Algazali can only count the blessings.

“I feel like a newborn person. I feel like I’m alive,” she effuses.

The 39-year-old should know from newborns. Her grandson Khalil just entered a world with infant peace in his family but stubborn, flaring conflict in his young grandmother’s homeland.

It’s a start.

Jan 01 2013

Plans and abominations

My stubborn enthusiasm for New Year’s Eve has nothing to do with the things that actually occur on New Year’s Eve.
Last year around this time I was stuck inside a gold, mirrored vault avoiding a very drunk woman’s clumsy advances and resenting the weather for stealing my New Year’s kiss with my then-betrothed.
I shared the midnight chorus with my own sober reflection and a glowing smartphone screen. Like a Pixies deep cut, 2012 shambled in on an slithery downbeat.
I don’t know why, but it felt oddly fitting for a year that brought me professional breakthroughs, romantic explorations and physical breakdowns. (Stupid old-man knee.)
In a few short hours, I’ll be at a small house party blanched of any grand expectations. Whether it’s a night of raucous happenings or limp sputtering, I’ll have a sincere smirk plastered on my face to greet the 2,013th anniversary of our decision to count forward. Yet another planetary clean slate. Yet another chance to do it better or, more probably, fuck it up in spectacular fashion. I’ll swing wildly with my wiffle ball bat either way.
I have no master plan, not for the year or this night.
Except that, at some point tonight, I would like some ice cream. Preferably mint chip.
Happy 2013.

Dec 17 2012

The kid who hated Santa

Author’s note: An abridged, edited version of this essay appeared in the Nov. 22, 2012 issue of the Sacramento News & Review.

As a kid, I thought Santa was kind of a prick.

Before all you Kris Kringle apologists start whipping 20-year-old peanut brittle at my head, ho-ho-hooold on and hear me out.

The legend of Santa Claus was created for parents, not their kids. Old man Claus is a whimsical delight for Mom and Dad. He’s their tool to extort obedience or saddle us with crap presents. (What the hell is an 8-year-old supposed to do with suspenders? Join the Junior Nation of Islam?) And he’s one of the few lies they’re actually encouraged to tell the kids. (Like fun you never smoked pot.)

But to a wide segment of shushed children, Saint Nick is a stone-cold bastard—leading us on, breaking promises and forever threatening us with coal. This portly mishmash of history and folklore isn’t beloved; he’s willfully misunderstood.

Santa Claus isn’t some mystical fat man who delights children and spoils them with gifts. He’s a holiday pimp, and not the kind that would appear in a Snoop Dogg—sorry, Lion—video. He’s more like the pimp that mad-dogs the working girls on Watt Avenue during unkind weekday nights: exacting the behavior he finds desirable, making promises he can’t keep and disappearing before the law (or one’s angry parents) show up.

I know I probably sound like a bitter ex, and maybe it’s because I am. As a kid, I thought Santa and I would be pals for life. But then he showed his true colors: Those red and white duds are hiding a big fat yellow belly.

Our relationship started out promisingly enough. In 1984, good old Saint Nick ambled into my Citrus Heights preschool with his cottony beard, apple-red cheeks and sack of goodies, and bribed my smitten heart. We bonded over the goofy winter hats our mothers made us wear, and he really seemed to get my passion for all things Spider-Man and Fonzie. He may have let other kids sit on his lap that day, but I knew our connection was real.

When I saw Santa a year later in Sunrise Mall, however, it was like he was a different person altogether. Literally. No longer playing small venues like my school, Father Christmas had blown up, drawing large crowds of mouth-breathing sycophants to his decadent stage. He sat like an emperor in a plush, high-backed throne under a towering pine that bristled against the risers. If Game of Thrones had been around back then, I would have run screaming.

Instead, I stood in line behind all these bandwagon poseurs—older kids, weird ones with snotty noses and distant stares, screaming infants and dead-eyed parents shoving their little throngs forward every few minutes or so. Like the pope with a full bladder, Santa gave each one a hasty, impersonal audience and then shoved them off with a cracked candy cane.

Despite the connection we formed a year earlier at my preschool, I was treated no different. I let this debauched frock star dump me on his bony thigh like a piece of meat and introduce me to disappointment. Gone were the bespectacled twinkle and rosy cheeks, replaced by muddy gray eyes and blown capillaries. I mechanically recited a couple items from my list, stared numbly at a flashing Nikon and left with complex feelings a 5-year-old couldn’t possibly articulate.

I looked at my mother. “I don’t think that was him,” I said.

Her soft palm clinched my hand. “Maybe it was one of his helpers,” she replied.

In 1988, my relationship with Santa reached its nadir. It was bad enough he was parceling out his few public appearances to creepy subordinates, but now Santa wasn’t even listening to a word I wrote. For four straight years, Santa botched my clearly written request—nay, plea—for a multipiece Voltron: Defender of the Universe action figure, gifting me instead with Transformers, Gobots and even crummier knockoffs. (Yes, there were worse toys than Gobots.)

My foreign-born, non-cartoon-watching parents tried to defend the absentee toy-lord, suggesting Santa didn’t know what the hell a Voltron was, but I wasn’t buying it. Guy runs a multinational toy manufacturing company staffed by magic elves, and he’s perplexed by an imported Japanese cartoon? Please.

Even worse was the year my father’s little white Toyota broke down for the last time. I wrote a passionate epistle describing my dad’s need for a new set of wheels. Nothing special. A car that could get Dad to and from work, and me to and from the Leatherby’s ice cream parlor down the way.

When that Christmas came and my dad pried open a small box containing a Hot Wheels toy car, I nearly lost my pre-adolescent shit. What a sarcastic asshole, I thought. First he can’t even get a simple Voltron order right, and now he’s dicking around with a boy’s Christmas wish for his father? Dude sure likes to play head games. Cookies and screwing with kids—that’s how Santa gets his jollies.

Despite how bad it got, I still believed Santa and I could get our long distance relationship back on track. We just needed some time together. More than I hungered for presents, I just wanted to catch a glimpse of my old friend, tell him thanks, and maybe give him a hug. But that can be tough when you’re best friends with someone who only pops in once a year when he thinks you’re asleep.

Every Christmas Eve, my parents presented the same deal: Us kids would have to stew in our rooms until the big man arrived. But the grownups would come get us as soon as he slipped down the chimney so we could at least say “hi.”

And every year, I agreed to those terms. I paced in front of the trundle double-bed waiting for Santa’s telltale jingle. (You’d think he’d wear quieter shoes.) And when it sounded, I threw open the door and sprinted down our narrow chute hallway to the adjoining living room only to discover that Santa had once again stood me up.

“Where is he?!” I demanded.

My dad went to the window and pointed to the night sky. “There he is! You can see his sleigh!”

A chorus of grownup voices joined in, all claiming to see Father Christmas pulled by eight flying reindeer. So why couldn’t I?

I squinted as hard as a little boy could, studying the moonlit horizon, picking out distant stars that imploded light years ago, and saw…nothing. My friend was gone. And all I had to show for it was a lousy Gobot.

Page 1 of 7