It is commonplace for people in Spain to regard America as an extremely violent country, within whose frontiers dwells an ultra-violent society. It’s hardly any wonder why. Dozens of bullet-riddling movies overtake screens in every corner of the Iberian Peninsula and their often fast-paced action makes them fill up theaters at a dizzying pace. Popular series featuring forensic investigators who take on some of the creepiest residents the country has had the misfortunes to live with, or FBI agents who frantically try to track down a psychopathic serial killer before the next victim falls, well, victim, top the ratings in many Spanish households. And hardly a week goes by without some bit of news about some looney who has vented his bent frustration out on a lot of people who certainly had other things in mind for that day than receiving a bullet in the chest. Indeed, it was in a quiet Connecticut community, most generally are, just 25 miles west of where my father lay, that one of the most grisly shootings of them all took place, when a young man named Adam Lanza entered an elementary school and starting firing away. First-graders took the brunt of the assault. 20 in all. And seven adults. The incredible thing about it was that he carried out the massacre in just about five minutes, and then, as is characteristic of these individuals, shot himself before he could get caught. He also shot his mother. First.
We were also about a stone’s throw from the place where one of the most gruesome murders in recent memory took place. Back in 2009, a petite Yale medical graduate student named Annie Le, on the verge of getting married, disappeared. She had vanished in a medical research building in nearby Amistad Street. Amistad means friendship in Spanish.
Annie Le was found. On her wedding day, for boot. Her lifeless body had been stuffed in a wall of a laboratory, in a place called a wire chase. The killer turned out to be a colleague who had an interest in the orient and all things oriental. Friends and family had nothing but nice words to say about him, and they were at a loss for how to explain why he behaved that way. I don’t know. To my surprise this never made it to Forensic Files, though I thought it was a very worthy case and deserving of an episode, and I planned on writing them to make the suggestion.
So, yes, I could see why some Spaniards would come to the conclusion that buying a ticket to the United States is about as insensible as a pig booking a tourist trip to Iowa. And yet many are astonished by how seemingly peaceful and nonthreatening the country could actually be. The awed at how lackadaisical people are about doing things like locking a door to their house or car. Michael Moore makes it sound like those things only happen in Canada, but that’s not really true. There are plenty of regions in this country where the last things you think of doing as you walk out the door is locking up. In Spain, theft is a national obsession, often unsubstantiated. They lock everything possible at all times, but life is really quite tranquil. Burglaries do occur, I’ll grant you that, but not as often as they’d like to imagine.
What the Forensic Files teaches us, however, is that when things go wrong in the United States, they can turn awfully ugly. All it takes is a wrong move at the wrong time. Being there when you shouldn’t. Going up instead of going down. Heading back instead of moving forward. Turning left instead of right. Just as we did when we pulled out of the hospital driveway and veered in the wrong direction. In our dismay at not knowing what to do about our father, my sister became hesitant about which way I should steer the car, providing me with a healthy package of contradictory indications, and I became briefly flustered. In a last minute panic, I swung to the right, feeling if anything I wouldn’t have to dodge any oncoming traffic if I had done the exact opposite. In some cities in America, that can be a fatal decision. And New Haven, despite the beautiful environs of Yale University, can be one of those cities, I can assure you that. In fact, according to crime statistics in 2011 for the 212 U.S. cities with a population of between 100,000 and 250,000, New Haven ranked:
#3 in violent crimes
#20 in murders
#2 in robberies
#51 in forcible rape
#7 in aggravated assault
#38 in property crime
#52 in burglary
#44 in larceny
#32 in motor vehicle theft
In short, in the top 25% in all categories and, in some cases, in the top 1%, besting in some criminal heavyweights of the likes of Flint, Michigan, Richmond, California or Paterson New Jersey. If nothing else, I had chosen the wrong place to go wayward, and my sister was the first to inform me of this in an unquestionably vehement manner: she shouted at me.
A lot of it had to do with nerves; but because we were three defenseless white people in a wobbly Ford Escort which was about to break down any second, though that certainly played a factor, but more because we had spent the previous 72 hours containing myriad emotions over a hopeless situation which we somehow wished had hope, not the least of which was fear…of everything. And of anything. Of doing the right thing. Of not knowing fully what that was, let alone when or how.
So, I joined in the chorus and hollered back. In wasn’t always characteristic of me, I have greater faults in other areas of my life, but I have to admit that the more I yelled, the better it felt, and before you knew it, we had a full-fledged screaming match raging within the confines of the vehicle. Even mom, an 87-year-old woman with a dying husband and a 15-year-year-old replaced heart valve which, in an earlier life, once belonged to a pig, got into the act if only to end the madness. We came to a stoplight but ranted on without end. Traffic lights are often the worst place to have to halt your car. Even the steel and sturdy glass seem like no match for the menace outside. There is no such thing as feeling safe as you sense dozens of curious eyes spying you from their porches and windows, and you find yourself praying in a low voice, “Please, turn green. Please, turn green,” and are prepared to violate any traffic code law if it means avoiding being violated.
I couldn’t honestly tell you if we were being watched, because our melee was such that I no longer gave a fuck where we were. In fact, if I had to put my money on it, I would say that anyone paying attention to the incident erupting inside the Ford with ill intent would have quietly said to themselves, “There ain’t no way in hell I’m going after them.” My mom probably would have karate-chopped any would-be delinquent on the bridge of the nose without a second thought.
The family seizure eventually subsided as I turned around and got us back in the right direction. Another brother was waiting for us at the apartment with more Eli’s pizza. I grabbed a slice or two and then collapsed on the couch, hoping to watch some of the Mets game. They had lost three in a row to Pittsburgh and needed to turn it around. But they had the night off and I dozed off to the boundless universe of cable TV. Sanford and Son, World War II documentaries and Spanish soap operas awaited me in slumberland.