TL;DR version: I dated a convicted murderer who showed no remorse. I wrote this piece in 2009.
My interest in the funeral service profession is largely technical, rather than historical. When delving into the funerals of famous people or people who died in strange ways, I am far more interested in how they were embalmed or what sort of unusual conditions presented in their deceased bodies than in what songs were played at the memorial mass or what sort of headstone their families chose. I actually find cemeteries and graves quite boring; I’d rather tour an old embalming room than a famous cemetery.
But, there is one grave I hope to visit one day, for the sole purpose of experiencing the phenomenon of Six Degrees of Separation. There is someone I never knew, someone who died when I was a small child, but to whom I am connected in a strange way.
One year, I was browsing the history section at Powell’s Books in Portland, looking for more to add to my growing collection. I picked out a few hardcovers, and then thumbed through some other books, including one about three Portlanders who had beaten an immigrant to death back in the late 1980s, and then left the store.
Three months later, at the gym, there was a man with whom I’d exchange glances and try to come up with an excuse for small talk, but in the end hope that he would start the conversation. Finally he did. We exchanged a few pleasantries about bench pressing and workout goals, and then he asked if I’d like to go out for coffee that weekend. He knew what I was about, and I knew what he was about, after each of us surreptitiously displayed our tattoos.
He told me he “got in trouble a while back.” Of course, I thought, thinking of my buddies who had been caught menacing or writing graffiti or maybe had even beaten someone up in what they claimed was self-defense and what their victims claimed was unprovoked.
So we went out for drinks the following weekend, and when I got home, I did what everyone does after a first date that went well: looked him up on Facebook so we could be friends. Only I didn’t find him on Facebook. I found him…everywhere else. I quickly learned what he meant by “got in trouble.”
It suddenly made sense why he had no Facebook page, and I knew I had to go back to Powell’s and buy another book. Just three months ago, I had no idea who would be in my social circle.
I read link after link about BK, and it was like a punch in the gut. This was not just teenage hooliganism. This was not “I got in trouble.” This was someone I needed to think about for a long time before deciding if I wanted to see him again.
I decided I did. I have a fascination for the hated, the vilified, the misunderstood, and that fascination will always get me in trouble. Unbeknownst to him, I had been reading the book, reading about him, highlighting anything that was of particular interest to me. For example, he used to use drugs, but now no longer did. Maybe it was the drugs that made him the way he was, and maybe now he was a completely different person.
But I was overly cautious. He never discussed his past with me and I didn’t ask. It all started to make sense now; I knew what and who people were talking about when they said that things hadn’t been the same in Portland ever since…and then got quiet whenever I was around, because I was new. But ever since I had established myself as “the girl who went out with BK” people acted differently around me. People in other states knew who I was now. I got calls from all sorts of strangers, wanting to pass messages to him. Finally one day he said, “I don’t know if your boys told you about me, but – ” I cut him off. “No, they didn’t,” I said. “But I know. I know who you are.” I guess I didn’t want to hear it from him. I wanted to believe it was all over and that he was making a change in his life, but had the sneaking feeling he wasn’t.
I had arranged to pick him up in his downtown Portland neighborhood one day, and parked my car to wait for him. I got out of the car and leaned against it so he’d see me. The street was empty, but then I saw him approaching from a block away. From a block in the opposite direction, someone…else was approaching. This could be bad. What if the guy came up to me? I stood there frozen with fear, hoping the man would go another direction or that BK would reach me first. Luckily, both happened. “You shouldn’t be standing out here in this neighborhood!” he said with a smile.
Fast forward five months. Medford Oregon, I’m with two “brothers,” and we’re bored on a Wednesday night. “Let’s go to the mall!” BR says. What he means is, let’s cause problems at the mall and get kicked out. When I’m with the guys, I will do things I normally would not do. Sure, why not. This could be fun. I put on my boots and white laces, and the flight jacket with all the pins and patches. TJ dressed exactly the same, only he wears red laces and his jacket has more patches. BR put on his boots and matching jacket, and stuck my 9mm in his waistband. We sure looked cool! Mall security would hate us! BR was going on and on about what he was going to say to them when they kicked us out.
I remembered talking to him about BK, saying I didn’t really agree with violence, and he said, “Well, the [immigrant] started it, so it doesn’t count.” Don’t talk like that. He’s dead. Show some respect. All things I cannot say to someone who outranks me in our organization.
BR seems overly excited at the prospect of the trouble we’re going to cause. We’re walking out the door, and I just keep hearing him repeat “the [immigrant] started it,” and I shout “Wait!!!”
The guys look at me. “Leave the gun home,” I say.
“What? You’re kidding! Why?!”
“Um…well, you know, you technically don’t have a concealed weapons permit and, uh, I’d hate to see you get in trouble.” I don’t want to see someone die.
“Then you carry it.”
“Uh, I can’t, because I don’t have the right holster. Come on, let’s just go!” I don’t trust you.
Thankfully, they drop the issue, and off to the mall we drive, blasting our most offensive music.
We walk slowly and deliberately around the mall. No one seems to notice us. That’s fine with me. I’ve had enough. We are in our 30s and 40s and we are hanging out in a mall seeing if anyone is offended yet. Why did I agree to go along with such a lame activity? Why do I always do really stupid things?
I am going along with the guys to fit in. I do what’s expected of me when I’m with them. And when I’m not with them, that’s when I pull out that book and read a little more, and I feel sick. I’m not just a reader. I am an active participant. This is now my life.
The author tells the story of the immigrant’s family member who is faced with the task of telling the rest of his family that he was killed by people who did not know him, for no reason. I was not there at the time; I was nine years old and living in Alaska, yet I know he did not “start it.” His co-workers described him as intelligent and caring. His father said he would miss the “sizzling Ethiopian dinners.” I don’t even know what Ethiopian food is, and I’ve finished the book.
I admit, for a short time I fed off the approval I got from people. There’s a picture of me in a downtown bar with a heavily tattooed arm around me, and the guy’s face is hidden so he doesn’t go back to jail for associating with extremists. “Whose arm is that?” people will ask me. They stare in disbelief when I tell them. One woman told me I “must be really hardcore.” No. I’m not. That’s not me. I just met him by chance and he seemed nice. But suddenly I wasn’t just that new girl anymore. I now had credibility in the organization. People listened to me.
I recently read an account of one of the women who dated another of the boys involved in this crime, and watched in horror from the car, knowing she could not stop what was happening. She now regrets her involvement and says the events still haunt her; that she cannot forget the immigrant’s name. Would this be me someday? Witnessing something terrible, wishing I could stop it, and forever haunted?
I know where this man is buried. I know the pathologist who conducted the autopsy because it was in the book; I have worked alongside him many a time. I could go to his grave, yet I have not. What would I do? What would be the point?
I’ve played it out in my mind a few times. I realize that in life, our paths never crossed, and if you had been alive today, they may have crossed in a very negative way. I know it does no good to feel sorry about something that happened decades ago, when the people who did this appear to show no remorse. Yet I am sorry. I am sorry that a good life was cut short for no reason at all, and that I have become a piece of the larger issue that caused this in the first place. I am sorry that I keep my true feelings about what happened to myself and go along with everyone else when they say this was a justified act. I’m sorry for who I’ve become. I’m sorry for what I am.