Wednesday, August 03, 2016

In the Midst of Monsters

 Growing up in New Jersey in the 60’s & 70’s was idyllic. The town was small, underdeveloped and full of Irish Catholics. Dirt roads were common, small farms dotted the town, and people took care of each other. Except when my brothers snuck into the farmer’s field to steal pumpkins; then a butt full of rock salt fired from a long barreled shotgun took care of them. Mom always said they deserved it and they shouldn’t be bothering the farmer anyway.
In our town, everyone went to the same church, had the same middle class type of job and we knew all the neighbors. Mothers stayed home and fathers went to work. Most families had three or more kids. My family consisted of two older brothers and myself. We were a small family for this space in time. The families to each side of our 4 bedroom house had 5 kids, across the street were 6 kids and next to them a family with 4 kids.
In the summer we left our shoes under the bed and didn’t wear them again till September. We played in the woods behind the school without care, built forts in our yards, and caught tadpoles and turtles down by the creek.  Wading in the clear water, sandy mud sucking at our feet, we’d gather the little creatures and bring them home in jars. We’d sack out on the bank of the creek and breathe in the damp, rich smells of vegetation and wild flowers as we talked of who got the biggest turtle and who had him last year. Kids would paint their initials on the turtle shells so when another summer rolled around the next kid who caught that turtle would know who had him last year.
Our family was originally from Jersey City and most of our relatives still lived up and around the city. During the summer we’d take frequent trips back up to visit my father’s loud, Irish clan. They were boisterous, funny and most of the grown ups had lilting Irish accents that I’d do my best to imitate. The family was big and the cousins many. Every visit, with so many kids of all ages, seemed like a party. I loved the visits to the city and I loved my cousins.
Life was good and the evening news was something only grown ups watched. Nothing bad ever touched our lives. We had friends and freedom to roam the neighborhood. Every mother watched out for you and everyone was safely home each night when the streetlights came on.
High school brought a different set of dynamics but still life went on without much drama or pain. Our biggest problem was what teacher you had, where to sit in the lunchroom, and figuring out who liked who. The years flew by and graduation came. We got jobs and life was good until 1978.
I came home from work to find my father home way too early from his job in Jersey City. He looked drawn and gray. My mother had tears in her eyes. His eyes held a vacant look I’d never seen before. It chilled me.
            “Sit down,” he said gesturing toward the kitchen table. “I have bad news.”
            “What?” I asked taking a seat beside my mother. She took my hand and laced her fingers through mine. Instinctively, I held on tight as my heart started to pound.
            Dad explained my cousin, Bonnie, had been murdered. Dragged out of her car on a street in New York City that morning while on her way to work. She was pulled into a vacant building and, here’s where my father’s voice broke, raped and murdered. All I could think to say was, “no”.
            The lead story on the evening news that night was all about Bonnie Bush, a nurse, who had been brutally murdered. My mother turned off the T.V., but I could hear my father watching the news in their bedroom. They wouldn’t discuss the details, no one spoke. Our family was shell shocked.
            The next day I went to the little deli my boyfriend’s parents owned and pulled all the New York papers off the shelf. Bonnie’s murder was on every page. Gruesome details of the abduction, rape, murder, and how the killer set her body on fire when he was done. My sweet cousin was screaming when a stranger dragged her out of her car on a busy New York street.  People walked on by. One man ran around the corner and stopped a police car, telling them what he had seen and the cops did nothing. Everyone saw, no one stepped up. I read every detail in every paper and cried until I had no tears left.  After that I checked the papers every day.  Details they wouldn’t talk about at home came to me from the Daily News and New York Post.
At home we moved through the days in a haze. Doing what had to done on a daily basis and very little else. It was as if our brains had disengaged and we were operating on auto pilot. The funeral was a blur of pain. The coffin was closed, her body too destroyed to be seen. Instead they put pictures on the coffin and altar. There were photos of Bonnie when she was a baby, little girl, and all through the years. In the center of it all was an 8 by 10 of Bonnie in her nurse’s cap with a big smile on her face. She smiled down on all of us as we said the prayers that would lay her to rest. Bonnie had just graduated nursing school, got her dream job, and her own apartment and within minutes on a New York City street it was over.
            After the service we went back to my Aunt and Uncle’s home. We sat, we ate, and we cried. It was hard to be there, in the house where Bonnie grew up with her six sisters. Photos of the Bonnie and the family smiled at us from all corners of the house. Vacation pictures, candid shots of parties, and school photos seemed to be everywhere. They were pictures of happy days filled with love and they made me weep for all that was lost. Through the rest of the day I kept my head down or  my eyes locked on the person I was talking to, I couldn’t risk seeing the photos and starting to cry. We were all uncomfortable, trying to make small talk in this once happy home, now crowded with pain. I wanted to stay and hold them tight, I wanted to run away and pretend none of it was real.
The man was caught, tried and sentenced to 66 years. He’ll be 96 years old when or if he gets out.  He wasn’t hard to catch. He had been freed in 1977 after serving 14 years for killing another woman. Six months earlier he had been brought up on charges of rape and plea bargained his way out of it.   
            After the funeral, months passed, life became somewhat normal, if not more subdued. Fear set in, deep inside, and the safe, secure feeling that had always surrounded me faded. A smoldering fear, not the run for your life kind. There was nothing I could see to run from and yet no longer felt safe anywhere.  New York City was just across the bay, so close. Bonnie was abducted in broad daylight on a street full of people. If it could happen there, in that setting, it could happen anywhere. I signed up for Karate lessons, read every book I could find on crime and safety and worried constantly.
            Maybe if childhood had not been so idyllic, maybe if I paid more attention to the evening news or studied the newspapers I might have realized there were monsters among us. Instead I had a long time coming to terms with this fear. I lock my doors out of habit, often double checking the locks, and make a conscious effort to be aware of my surroundings.
            A few months ago, at a store in Florida, a cashier complained loudly how insulted he was that he could hear women locked their car doors when he walked by. I wanted to tell him that was a good thing. Not because of who he was or what he looked like, but because his sisters and mother and wife should also be locking their car doors. You never know who will cross your path. You never know their history, insanity or their plan. His sisters, mother and friends should always be super vigilant. If Bonnie had been more so, if she had just locked her car doors that day, she might be alive. If monsters didn’t exist and life was really as safe as I once believed, she might still be alive.

I wanted to tell the cashier all this, but I just walked on by, went out to my car, and locked the doors.  


Charles Gramlich said...

Far too much of what we call humanity does not deserve the air it breathes.

Aimlesswriter said...

So True Charles.