Thursday, May 14, 2009


It changes you to work with criminals for a living.

Other people don't get it.

There are a lot of stupid things I do because of traumatic things I've seen. It might seem crazy to you, if you watched my little routine, but if you'd seen what I've seen, it would make perfect sense.

For instance, one of my clients, a female gang member, her little baby cousin was kidnapped out of an open window, raped and murdered, and left dead beside a canal. She was just a baby, only 2 years old, named Rosie. The case was never solved. And I had a daughter who was close to the same age. Working with that family, and my client, spending hours dealing with their agony and pain, and then going home to my fucked me up, a little bit.

I don't let ANYONE in my house sleep with the windows open. It's been 12 years now. I just can't. I don't do it, I don't let my kids do it, even when the weather is perfect. I suck it up and pay the higher air conditioning bill.

I think that's what ostensibly "normal" people don't understand. When you have seen the unthinkable, lived with it, gotten your head around changes you.

"Normal" people don't want to think that the unthinkable could happen. They go home from work, eat dinner, watch a little American Idol, and go to bed at 10 p.m., thinking they will be safe. They have no idea what happens on the other side of town at 2 a.m.

There's a whole different world out there that normal people, if they are lucky, never see. Normal people keep from going crazy like me through use of the thin illusion of safety. They assume that dangerous horrible things will never touch them at the grocery story, or the shopping mall, or the movie theater.

And I've seen the bodies of two kids who shot each other to death at a grocery store on a Sunday afternoon, and worked with their grieving families. They exchanged 30 rounds. Any one of those rounds could have hit an old lady, or a little kid, or someone's mom or dad.

Life is so fucking random.

The reality is that bad shit happens all the time to all kinds of people with no rhyme or reason, the worst things you can even imagine, that stuff really happens. You sleep at night by telling yourself it never could. You glance at the newspaper stories and quickly forget them because that could never be you, oh never be you. And if it does happen, the stuff of nightmares that you cram back into your tired brain at 6 a.m. when the alarm goes off, there is nothing you can do to protect yourself. It happens way too fast.

There are kids in your community who would shoot you for hubcaps or kill your kid for a pair of shoes, and not spend a moment on regret.

The world is a dangerous place. Most people in America don't realize how dangerous it really is.

The kids I've worked with were always carrying guns. They had hair-trigger tempers. They could do the worst imaginable thing in the next second. Working with them changed me, forever.

I can't go to the mall, or the movie theater, or the grocery store without watching my surroundings and paying attention to what is going on.

I see groups of kids congregating at the local mall, they look like gang members, and I'm hustling my kids out of there. Other people aren't even paying attention.

But, I've seen innocent bystanders get shot in the mall. or, in front of the movie theater. Or in front of a traffic light.

I probably dealt with (easily) 100+ gang homicides in my years in the department, plus others that have involved former clients since that time. You see that stuff for years, and it changes how you think.

I don't sit with my back to the door in restaurants. I'll always take the booth that faces the entrance if I can.

I know, for example, that the safest place in or around a car, if shooting starts, is behind the engine block, down close to the ground, where a bullet can't pass through the metal, and you are unlikely to get hit by a ricochet.

I learned never to sit in front of a window in my clients' homes, but to choose a seat behind a bookcase or an exterior wall.

I learned never to drive a fancy car or wear much jewelry, you don't want to give anyone a reason to rob you.

I learned to watch, always watch, everyone in my vicinity. I stare at people's tattoos, looking for gang/prison symbols. I look at their clothes, watching for gang paraphernalia.

I don't park in parking lots at hotels these days, I only valet. I don't like the idea of walking around in a dark and lonely parking lot, may just well as slap a sticker on your face that says, "Rape me, please."

My personal warning level is always at orange. People would probably call me paranoid if they really knew the thoughts inside my head. I call my ongoing hyper-alert form of paranoia a close relationship with reality.

As my former boss always used to say, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean people aren't out to get you."


A Free Man said...

Kurt Cobain said that too.

This is really disturbing stuff, Trouble. I tend to be an optimist, to trust in the inherent goodness of people. I don't know how to incorporate your experience into that worldview. Maybe I'm naive, but I have to trust in the inherent goodness of people. You, by definition, can't predict a random event, so I'm going to carry on in my naivite.

Anonymous said...

Oddly enough, I still think that people are basically good, even gang members. I just know that the worst possible thing can happen, that it's totally possible.

But if I didn't believe in goodness, in the infinite human capacity for goodness, then I couldn't have worked with this population.

A Free Man said...

Fair point. This was a great post, got me thinking about big concepts. Thanks.

Gypsy said...

I carry on with my naivite, too. My dude, on the other hand, does not. Maybe those who know balance those of us who don't?

Trouble said...

I think it's entirely possible that this is the case. I love the fact that James is so sunny all the time (and I'm not particularly not-sunny, it's just that I have a tendency to think about worst-case scenarios and work from that point).

People in the Sun said...

When I started working in jail, interviewing inmates as part of the intake process and then reading police reports and going to courts, I was told by an old-timer, "This job will change you." Which made me curious.

I think the biggest change is about my view toward crime. I never had a gun to my face, never saw a body, never been hit or anything, so for me criminals were Cool Hand Lukes who ran away from the ignorant police.

And then I read reports about kids who smash a guy with a baseball bat to get his cellphone (as part of gang initiation) a block away from my house. A woman holding her infant in the air in the middle if the road, threatening to throw him down if she's chased. A horrible rape of a grandmother a few blocks away.

It changes you. Crime is not just something that happens to other people.

I don't think there's a reason to feel bad about being cautious and suspiscioius. But that doesn't mean you can't live your life. I grew up in Israel, where being cautious while living your life is what people do all the time. Good luck.

Trouble said...

People: Exactly.

Arizaphale said...

Sounds like a wise way to live given your line of work. One of the good things about living in Australia is the gun laws. Although it pays to be cautious and not take stupid risks, at least we don't have every second kid carrying a gun. I read about a child being taken through a bedroom window years ago and when I moved in and fitted the alarm system on my house, I asked for a window alarm on my daughters room. My partner at the time laughed at me but I got it anyway.

gilliankirby said...

I don't begin to understand what your life is like, but I understand why you approach life the way you do.

I approach it differently. I could spend my whole life worried about when I might be killed, but I don't. I just live my life. I don't go out of my way to put myself in danger, but nor do I constantly look over my shoulder at who might be planning to kill me.

I'm happy to go through life assuming nothing will happen to me :) If it does, I'll deal with it then.


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