A Night of Subverted Expectations

This is a sort of pop culture wrap-up for my Saturday (and again, my Saturday=your Sunday). I finished the book I was reading and my wife and I squeezed in three—count ’em, three—movies, and it turned out to be a mini James Gandolfini marathon. Aside from the movie Thirteen, starring Holly Hunter and a teenage Evan Rachel Wood (which was a good fly-on-the-wall look at a good girl’s turn toward the dark side, and is BOJ certified as recommended, but didn’t knock my socks off), the book and both Gandolfini movies subverted my expectations, for better or for worse. I’ll start with the ‘for worse.’

Unknown-2

Killing Them Softly had been on our DVR for quite awhile—if you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a sucker for gritty crime drama, noir, hitmen, etc. When you have a cast as strong as this one—Brad Pitt, James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, and Ray Liotta—I’m in.

It wasn’t a bad movie by any means, it just seemed to miss the mark a little bit. The plot is as follows: three men are responsible for knocking off an illegal gambling ring, knowing the head of said gambling ring (Liotta) will take the fall. Pitt’s character is brought in by an attorney to the mafia (Jenkins) to figure out what happened, who’s to blame, and who’s going to die. Gandolfini’s character is brought in to help carry out one of the hits.

What seemed like it should’ve been a pretty straightforward plot was unnecessarily messy and hard to follow, ending rather abruptly and leaving my wife and I with questions like, “What happened to ____?” and “Who the hell was _____, anyway?”

It was also a bit heavy-handed with political tie-ins—the movie takes place during the McCain-Obama campaign run, and ends on election night. At the very end it becomes more clear why the tie-ins are there, but it still could’ve been handled with a little more subtlety.

It felt at times like a Tarantino/Scorcese-light kind of movie: aiming high but falling short. If you’re into these kinds of movies like I am I would still give it a go. It’s well-shot (with some stomach-turning graphic violence handled nicely, in my opinion), and well-acted. James Gandolfini is awesome (if ultimately irrelevant to the plot) as the unhinged, unstable hit man brought in to help Pitt’s character. If you don’t typically like these kinds of movies, you probably won’t care much for it.

Unknown-4

Chuck Palahniuk seems to be what I’d call an “avocado” author: people tend to either love him or hate him. I can’t fully fall on the love side, but I like a lot of his work. I’d heard Rant was really good without really knowing much about the plot at all, so when I got the chance to check out the e-book from my library, I took it.

**(side note: did you all know you could recommend e-books to your local library for them to purchase using the Overdrive app? I don’t know about other cities, but the lovely folks at the Wichita Public Library have bought two books on my recommendation, and I think that’s downright awesome)

It starts as a character study of Buster “Rant” Casey, a backwoods country bumpkin who as a kid has an affinity for getting bitten by insects and vermin, picking his nose and sticking the boogers on his wall, and finding valuable coins.

We follow Rant to an early diploma from high school, where he moves to the city and the story takes a turn into sci-fi territory, as we learn society has been divided between the respected “Daytimers” and the lowly “Nighttimers”, with a strict curfew to keep the two groups from intermingling. Rant falls in with the Nighttimers and into a social circle known as Party Crashers—an organized sort of after-hours demolition derby that takes place on the city streets. To give much more away would ruin the book.

About 2/3 of the way through the book I was interested in the story, but starting to get a little bored. After reading the last third in one long stretch, I felt dizzy. The book goes from taking a turn here or there to spinning like a top until you don’t know up from down, left from right, or father from son.

The “hook” of Rant is in the way the story is told. The official title is Rant: An Oral History of Buster Casey, the key words being ‘an oral history.’ The book constantly changes perspective as different characters give their accounts of the events that unfolded in Rant’s life, sometimes outright contradicting each other. Kind of like a documentary or a special on TV, the way they jump from one talking head to the next. It’s used to great effect, but also made me wonder—

Where’s the line between originality and gimmickry? One of the complaints I hear about Palahniuk is that he’s a gimmick writer, with nearly every novel using some kind of cheesy narrative device to tell the story. There’s no denying he uses different techniques to tell his stories, and I can see the ‘gimmick label’ being applied. The thing is, is it only a gimmick if it doesn’t work?

Pygmy, Palahniuk’s widely hated 2009 novel told via the journal entries of a 13 year-old foreign exchange student/terrorist in badly broken English, is downright tough to read (I think I liked it more than most), and dismissed as a gimmick. Rant, on the other hand, is held in much higher regard, and the ‘oral history’ gimmick isn’t mentioned as much. I don’t necessarily think every book by an author has to have some kind of gimmick to tell its story (I sure hope not, because my storytelling thus far is pretty straight ahead), but wouldn’t the literary world be a boring place if there weren’t people like Palahniuk taking chances with their stories?

Unknown-3

The last subverted expectation was also the most pleasant surprise. I suppose it would come as no shock that I’m not the world’s biggest fan of “chick flicks,” but I try not to discount them altogether, because I know there are some good ones out there. I’ve confessed before my liking for my wife’s favorite chick flick, Return to Me, and last night found one I liked just as well, if not better, with Enough Said.

The film takes what on paper sounds like a fairly standard chick flick or rom com plot—masseuse meets a man and woman separately, begins dating the man and takes on the woman as a client/friend, only to find out they’re ex-husband and wife—and handles it fairly realistically, playing it straight for the most part, but with plenty of chuckles thrown in (and one moment involving a baseball in a drawer that had me laughing so hard I nearly fell out of my chair, thanks to Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s impeccable comedic timing and delivery).

All the characters in the movie felt like real people, not one dimensional and flat or caricatures like in a lot of movies (and books, for that matter), and the dialogue felt realistic and smart. There was also a subplot I liked with Dreyfus’s character subconsciously replacing her daughter, who was preparing to move off to college, with her daughter’s friend. None of the characters were perfect, none of them were total a-holes (although I must admit I didn’t care for Catherine Keener’s ex-wife famous poet character—I’m beginning to wonder if I just don’t like Catherine Keener), they were just fairly normal people with flaws like anybody else. It was well-written and wonderfully acted, and I was glad I watched it. I had expected to look up from Rant every so often to make sure I was following along with the movie, but found myself with my book (phone) in my lap, all my attention devoted to the movie.

 All in all a great night with my favorite person, and a good way to recharge the batteries for writing and some very likely overtime in the coming week.

Cue the COPS Theme Song: My Day with Wichita’s Finest

I never talked about my job much here on the blog, and that was generally for good reason: I didn’t like it. I had a steady, good-paying job, but I was absolutely miserable. I won’t go into it much, mostly because I still have friends there, but also because I worked for a large company that probably has an excellent legal team, and I don’t want any accusations of slander coming my way (half-joking). Suffice to say, it was time to find something else. So I did.

No, I'm not a cop now.

No, I’m not a cop now.

I recently started a job with my county’s Emergency Communications team. What’s that mean? For now, it means I take 911 calls. Eventually (as in, in the next few months), it’ll also mean dispatching Fire, EMS, and Police. That’s right—I’ll be sending first responders to active emergencies: building and house fires, car accidents, medical calls and crimes in progress. Me.

Would you trust this man with your life?

Yes, this is an old picture. No, it’s not a mug shot.

Holy shit.

It’s a little surreal. There are connections to law enforcement through my family and one of my friends, but I never thought I’d be involved with anything like this. I just finished training and start the job in earnest this week. So far, I love it. It’s unpredictable, crazy, and—believe it or not—fun. Then there’s the people I work with: with a few exceptions, they’re a little bit mental, loud, obnoxious, funny, and incredibly vulgar. Even though I’m a little quieter than they are (for now, anyway), believe me when I say I’m among my people.

Unknown-2

The final step in training before being thrown to the wolves was something I’ve been looking forward to for a long time: a 10-hour ride along with a police officer. I was going to go on a ride along with my deputy friend in California several years ago and it never happened before I moved to the Midwest. Then I inquired about doing it about a year ago, but I couldn’t make it work with my schedule. Now it’s finally happened. So how did my day with Wichita’s Finest go? Here’s how.

IMG_1223

10:45am: Show up fifteen minutes early as instructed, only to be made to wait until after the squad meeting at 11:00 was done (I had been told I may get to attend the squad meeting—bummer). Around 11:10 my officer—who for the purposes of this post I’m calling ‘Jones’—grabs me so we can head out. Jones is a young guy; I would come to find out he’s around 23-24 years old, married with two small kids, was in the military (and is still technically enlisted), and says he basically just woke up one day and decided to check out going into law enforcement. He’s been an officer around three years, all of it on Wichita’s West side.

We proceed to get in the car and sit for several minutes while he checks to make sure he has all his equipment, then gets signed into the onboard computer. It takes forever, for reasons I don’t fully understand. Finally, somewhere around 11:20-11:30 we leave the station and begin heading southward. I’m listening to the police radio and looking at his computer to see what calls are holding, and I can’t figure out where we’re going. Finally he tells me we’re going back to his house because he forgot something he needed.

12:00pm: Respond to a domestic violence (DV) call. Jones knows the address, has been out there before. Another unit beats us there and already has the situation under control because, in the words of the other officer, she is a “crime ninja.” Jones spends a few minutes or so chitchatting with her, both officers in their cars, with me uncomfortably between them in the passenger seat of Jones’s car. Awkward.

Despite not having anything to drink since 8:30, I’m already starting to have to pee.

12:10pm: Leaving the DV call, Jones spots a flatbed truck that’s been parked in the same spot for several days. He checks it out and sees a tag has been taken off of it, and begins trying to get info on the truck to see if it’s stolen. A string of phone calls follow, until we are finally told the Highway Patrol will come out to take a look at it, and tow it if necessary. We are instructed to sit tight. It takes almost an hour for them to show up, then we find out a neighbor just bought the truck for his business but hasn’t registered yet.

My notes from 1:06pm: ‘Bored. Gotta pee.’

1:15pm: We’re on our way to assist on another DV when we get the call that the officer is in trouble. Jones hits the lights and sirens and punches it. For about 7 seconds we’re in TV-cop mode, sliding around a corner and tearing down a residential street, until the officer we were rushing to assist cancels the trouble call. He was busy with the people onscene and couldn’t hear his radio (if an officer doesn’t respond to dispatch after a certain length of time, it’s automatically a trouble call). Jones laughs and tells me that’s probably the only time we’ll ‘run hot’ all day. He’s right.

On scene at the DV: A young couple fighting. It’s just like an episode of COPS: On one side is a girl crying, holding a baby; on the other side is a guy with no shirt or shoes yelling at the woman for calling the cops. I go with Jones to the guy. Sounds to me like they’ve had lots of problems in the past but this particular incident might just be a big overreaction.

The guy has scratches on him, which I thought would mean the girl was going to jail, but they don’t take anyone—the girl says she and the baby will go to a shelter for the night, so one officer takes her home to get her stuff while Jones puts the guy in the back of our car (the girl took the baby and left their house while they were arguing, with the guy following after her—we were a couple blocks from where they actually lived when we showed up) for a ride back. The guy is very concerned that she’s going to take his video game console and his new pack of cigarettes. After a long wait, she emerges from the house and leaves for the shelter. Our guy hops out and runs in the house to make sure his PS3 and cigarettes are safe.

To be fair, he was almost in tears at one point out of concern for his baby; I’m not trying to paint him as a complete ass, but the video game/cigarette thing had me and Jones chuckling.

I still really have to pee.

2:00pm: Finally pee at a convenience store. We’re on our way to a call when the officer from the previous DV calls for assistance. We meet back up with him, and he informs us that the girl decided she doesn’t want to stay in a shelter after all, and wants to go back home. We follow to make sure there is no drama when she is dropped off. Both officers are fed up with the whole scenario.

2:15pm: Sears calls to advise they’ve detained a juvenile shoplifter. Jones sighs and says he gets tired of these calls, but since his beat includes the mall, they always fall to him. I see why he doesn’t like them. They’re fairly boring; just a lot of paperwork to do, plus transport to jail/juvenile hall. For me, though, it was pretty interesting.

***NOTE TO ANYONE CONSIDERING SHOPLIFTING FROM SEARS: THEY ARE WIRED UP LIKE A GODDAMN CASINO. YOU WILL BE CAUGHT.***

We walk through this little door by the back of the store that 99% of people probably don’t know is there and enter this small, dimly lit office where I see this:

IMG_1225 IMG_1226

These pictures don’t really do it justice; it really is like the command center for a casino or something. I watch the lady who works there as she sees someone she thinks looks suspicious, then in the blink of an eye has four different camera angles of them and can zoom in close enough to tell if they have dandruff. It’s incredible.

Through that office is a tiny little interrogation room, and there sits a very scared 16 year old girl, her oblivious three year old sister, and two extremely pissed off parents. Jones tells them where they can pick up their daughter and approximately how long it will take for booking, mug shot, fingerprinting, and processing. Dad debates on whether or not he wants to pick her up that day or leave her in Juvie overnight.

The parents leave and Jones begins filling out his report. At one point Jones reassures the girl that although she will be leaving in handcuffs, Jones will not “parade her up and down the mall first,” despite her father’s urging. It takes a while before we finally finish up there and get her transported her to Juvie.

4:00pm: Call of a “rolling disturbance.” In this case, a carload of teenagers driving down the street shooting fireworks out of their car at passing motorists. Despite hearing the make and model get broadcast over the radio, I don’t see the car. Jones does, though, and swings around to try and catch up to them. Alas, traffic is heavy and they duck into one of the neighborhoods off the main street we’re on. We drive around for about 10 minutes but never see them again.

4:37pm: Called to the scene of a non-injury accident. Boring, boring, boring. Both drivers are pretty cool, no arguments, info exchanged and everybody goes on their way. Jones said accidents are his least favorite part of the job, because they are boring (most of the time), usually avoidable (if people would just get off their phones and pay attention to the road), and very time-consuming. He’s right.

5:42pm: Back at the station for Jones to drop off evidence (a DVD of the security camera footage from Sears). It’s about time for the next shift to start, and Jones is anxious for them to get out there and take some of the waiting calls because he’s starving. The note I made while at the station: “hungry thirsty tired.”

6:00pm: Called to a neighborhood looking for a suspicious character: a man going door to door trying to sell people “cable upgrades,” who, according to the caller, didn’t look legit, even though he was wearing an AT&T shirt. Drove around a few minutes, didn’t find him.

6:36pm: Called to an accident on the main highway in town to help with traffic control. On the way Jones stops at his favorite Mexican place for some nachos, since the accident would provide a little downtime for him.

7:03pm: After getting through the maze of gridlocked cars on the highway, helping divert traffic, and getting vehicle info to start the impound process, Jones finally gets a few spare minutes while tow trucks are hooking up the wrecked cars and scarfs down his nachos like an animal—not that I blame him. He gets frustrated by things that take a long time, but he can’t help but laugh as we watch one of the most incompetent tow truck drivers I’ve ever seen hook up one of the cars. It takes a lot longer than it should.

7:49pm: Called to the mall again for two different crimes. One is disregarded after we cruise the parking lot and don’t see the vehicle we’re looking for. The other: three teenage shoplifters. Jones: “Aaaarrrrrggghhhhh!” He said sometimes when shoplifters are caught, they have merchandise from several stores on them. If all those stores want to prosecute, the paperwork goes up exponentially. Luckily, that’s not the case here.

We go in another little hidden door, this time at JC Penneys, and enter another little office/interrogation room. This time we find three 14 year old girls, not looking as scared as they really should, in my opinion. They giggle a little, ask questions, etc., and I have to hand it to Jones: he is actually quite cool to them. He makes sure they understand that they are indeed in trouble, under arrest, and going to juvie, but he doesn’t really preach to them (just a little). Since the paperwork will take until close to the end of shift, Jones calls for someone else to transport the girls to Juvie—enter Officer Hardass.

Officer Hardass apparently worked a long time on the drug task force and is quite a bit more serious than Jones, to put it mildly. He comes into the office and starts getting  info from the girls to help speed things along.

Officer Hardass: “What’s your name?”

Shoplifter: “Veronica.” (not her real name)

OH: “Speak up.”

SL: “Veronica.”

OH: “What’s your middle name?”

SL: “Um, I don’t know it.”

OH: “You’re fourteen years old and don’t know your own middle name?”

SL: “No.” (giggles, looks up at OH and smiles)

OH: “Don’t smile at me, you just committed a crime.”

This goes on for several minutes. It’s hard for me not to laugh, as I find this conversation hilarious.

We finish up and get back to the station around 8:45, where Jones has to gas up his vehicle before parking it. He has paperwork still to do from the shoplifters, but says it can wait until the next day. I thank him heartily, shake his hand and head home. It was a great day.

General Thoughts (based solely on my one day with this one officer):

  • Cop cars are driven hard. The constant hard braking (and I do mean hard braking), sudden accelerating, quick u-turns, etc. was hard to get used to. I can’t imagine how the cars hold up as well as they do.
  • Cops are people, too. I know that sounds corny, but despite Jones being a self-described “grouch” who “doesn’t really like people,” he was actually really nice to me (which he technically didn’t have to be), and really respectful to everyone he came in contact with. At our DV with the arguing couple he eventually calmed the guy down by talking about video games with him. There was a real transparency with him that impressed me; he was the same guy out of the car dealing with the public that he was in the car with me, for the most part.
  • Cops are extremely dehydrated. Jones started the day with a can of Mountain Dew, then filled up a fountain drink at the convenience store that lasted him the rest of his shift—not a drop of water all day. I didn’t drink any water (or any other beverages) either, because I didn’t want to have to pee all day (irony). I went home and drank about a gallon of water and still felt dehydrated. And I wasn’t even wearing a vest and all that other stuff, or, you know, doing anything.
  • Teenagers suck.
  • Being able to pee whenever you want is a privilege I will never take for granted again.
  • Cops might be superhuman. I didn’t get any extra sleep the night before my ride along, but I wasn’t sleep deprived, either. By the time I got home from my ride along around 9 o’clock, I was exhausted. I drank a ton of water, ate something, and promptly started falling asleep in front of the TV by 10. And by cop standards, we had a slow day. I can’t fathom how they do it day in and day out, not to mention days when they get their adrenaline pumping like crazy.

All in all it was a great day, and if I get the chance to do it again I’ll certainly take it. And next time I’ll stop drinking fluids the night before.

Serial Killers and The Nature of Fear

In the winter of 1986, my family was in a bit of a transitional period. We were in the middle of a move from Riverside, California (just east of L.A.) to the desert about a half hour north. We had managed to sell our old house before our new house was finished being built, so for a few months we stayed with my Grandmother, who also lived in Riverside. There were a lot of things going through my twelve year old mind that winter: having to move away from my friends, trying to make new friends at a new school – the usual concerns any kid would have when they move. There was one thing in particular, though, that crept into my head every night during those months at my Grandma’s house, and kept me absolutely petrified.

Ramirez

Richard Ramirez, aka ‘The Night Stalker.’ Convicted of murdering 13 people.

Richard Ramirez was a brutal serial killer who terrorized the residents of the greater Los Angeles area for months in 1985. The majority of his crimes were break-ins or “home invasion” style crimes. In many cases, he killed his victims in their bedrooms, some while they were still asleep.

Since my parents and I were in an already occupied house, sleeping arrangements were a little different, especially for me. My parents got the spare bedroom, while I got to “camp out” in the formal living room. For the sake of practicality, my little air mattress was placed on the far side of the room – under the large picture window.

By that winter at my grandmother’s, Richard Ramirez had already been captured. That was of little consolation, though, as I lay nightly under the large picture window in the living room of a house that had already been burglarized once. Ramirez terrified me. Would tonight be the night he escaped custody and broke into my Grandma’s house? It may sound silly now, but to a scared twelve year old that was perfectly plausible.

By this time I had already begun a steady diet of horror books and film, and they were scary in their own right, but this was different. This was tangible – a real, deep down fear of something quite real that could (theoretically) actually happen. This wasn’t a burnt-faced boogeyman who haunted people’s dreams like Freddy Krueger, or a hockey mask-wearing slasher with a machete who killed campers like Jason Voorhees. This was a real person, who really did kill people with a machete, in real life. It was fear on a whole new level.

I still love horror stories and always will – the monsters, the zombies, the slashers, etc. But nothing ever seemed quite as scary after that winter sleeping under the window, wondering if I would be the Night Stalker’s next victim.

I bring all this up for a couple of reasons. Since that winter, I’ve always had an admittedly morbid fascination with serial killers. What could possibly be wrong with their brains to make them do the horrible things they do? Some acted out of pure impulse, while others were extremely careful and calculating. When I think of what could really scare someone, put the fear of god in them, that’s what I think of. Not monsters or demons or vampires, but another living, breathing human being who is perfectly capable of taking a life, and you never know who will be next. It could be anyone. It could be you.

That’s scary.

I just finished reading a relatively old book (1989), The Girl Next Door, by Jack Ketchum. The book tells the story of a teenage girl in 1950’s rural America who is abused, tortured, and eventually killed by the relatives she is sent to live with following the death of her parents. It’s a work of fiction, but the horrifying part is that it’s loosely based on a true story. Ketchum makes up the methods of torture and adds fictional characters for the sake of adding context and drama to the story, but it really happened. That’s what makes it truly scary.

One of the most unsettling and disturbing movies that doesn’t always get talked about is Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986). It’s loosely based on real-life serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. The unflinching depiction of violence, especially one scene in particular of a family being murdered and Henry and his partner Otis watching the videotaped recording of the killings over and over on their couch later, is downright chilling. That scares me more than any made up monster.

henry

It relates a bit to what Stephen King has said in some of his many interviews regarding the pressure he feels with his latest novel, Doctor Sleep, the sequel to The Shining. To paraphrase, he said that he understands that many of his fans were kids when they read The Shining, and it’s a lot easier to scare a kid than an adult. As I’m finishing up my latest rough draft, I find myself grappling with the same thing – is it going to scare people?

It’s a thriller/mystery/detective story about serial killers with a bit of a ‘meta’ edge to it. There is talk of serial killers past in the book, and my killers want nothing more than to instill fear in everyone in the city as they increase their body count. I think it’s a pretty damn scary concept; now I just have to revise and edit to try and make sure it scares people as bad as I was, lying under that window in January of 1986.

I want you to tell me what scares you. In a great bit of irony, as I let this story I’m finishing sit and “breathe” a bit, so to speak, I have another project to go back to – one that involves monsters and the supernatural. So I want to hear the scariest stories you know, real life or otherwise. Be they books, movies, creepy pasta (do any of you read that stuff?), urban legends, ghost stories you heard around the campfire…what makes you afraid to turn out the lights?