Greg Bottoms ~ The Dropout

2001-09-27-054024
1

Death by cop is a more com­mon form of attempt­ed sui­cide than I would have guessed before I became a crime reporter. Among the poor, the des­per­ate, the heart-crushed, the men­tal­ly ill, and the abject­ly lost it is up there with bridge jump­ing and, believe it or not, about a third as preva­lent as guns, pills, opi­ate over­dos­es, and car exhaust fumes, main­ly because these lat­ter reme­dies for our exis­ten­tial knot all require some cold, hard cash. Acting insane and life-threatening—hyped-up and crazed, prefer­ably at night, in the shad­ows, a stranger in a place you should not be—is often enough to lure a bul­let out of a policeman’s gun and into your heart, lung, guts, or head. And sta­tis­ti­cal­ly speak­ing, it of course also helps to be black.

 

2

Maybe you read about Jeremy Eastman, a trou­bled nine­teen-year-old from Portsmouth, Virginia, an upper-mid­dle-class white guy. But if you did he was prob­a­bly a bit play­er, a sec­ondary character—the dead guy (I know because I wrote some of the copy)—in the brief polit­i­cal storm that bat­tered this area a few years back hav­ing to do with police bru­tal­i­ty and when it is and isn’t appro­pri­ate to use dead­ly force. I’m now going to tell the sto­ry, as sim­ply as pos­si­ble, of what actu­al­ly hap­pened to Eastman. To the extent that is pos­si­ble.

It’s not that I lied in the news­pa­per clips. On the con­trary, every fact I chose to reveal was cor­rect and my words were arranged to say what hap­pened. I just left out, in my rush to print, in my rush in being rushed to print, some key infor­ma­tion. By the stan­dards I was meant to uphold as a news­pa­per­man, I got it all right; I just also got it all wrong.

 

3

Jeremy Eastman had been an hon­ors stu­dent study­ing Pure Mathematics at William & Mary. (Former English major that I am I have only a cur­so­ry notion of what that even is.) He dropped out after his third semes­ter because of what the school would only call “per­son­al rea­sons.” I got the feel­ing they asked him to leave, but no one ever offi­cial­ly said as much. At col­lege he drank heav­i­ly. He smoked pot every day. He had very high grades, near­ly a 4.0. And then one day at the begin­ning of the spring semes­ter of his sopho­more year he paint­ed his dorm room door cau­tion orange and used his face and hands to make “self imprints” in the wet paint. He did this, I was told by a stu­dent in that dorm who knew him, because he felt it would pro­tect him from fourth- and fifth-dimen­sion­al forces he was just dis­cov­er­ing in his pure math­e­mat­i­cal stud­ies.

Some kids lose it in col­lege. Not a news flash, I know, because we all assume that about half the coun­try that can afford it is pre­scribed some kind of psy­chi­atric med­ica­tion (full dis­clo­sure: I’ve tak­en 300 mgs of Buproprion XL every morn­ing with my cof­fee for sev­er­al years). And we all see the parade of mass shoot­ing after­maths on TV—what?—four, five, six times a year nowa­days. And I per­son­al­ly know because a) I went to col­lege, am part of the mass-shoot­er demo­graph­ic of white, mid­dle-ish-class males, and I felt, for a few years there, before some lifestyle changes and the meds, the faint tremors of depres­sion to the edge of some unknow­able abyss; and b) as a Ph.D. Lit stu­dent, before I dropped out, I taught four sec­tions of fresh­man com­po­si­tion a year for half a decade. I’d say, just ball-park­ing it, that, as I stood at the front of a class in my five-o’clock shad­ow and khakis and Ray Ban nerd spec­ta­cles, look­ing the part of an under­paid lec­tur­er, one or two out of ten of my stu­dents each semes­ter were hav­ing seri­ous adjustment/stress/mental health issues. Basically if you mix eigh­teen to twen­ty-two year olds (the most com­mon ages for men­tal ill­ness to man­i­fest itself), high expec­ta­tions, exter­nal and inter­nal pres­sure, dashed and dash­ing dreams, feel­ings that a lot of what they believed to be true—economics, pol­i­tics, his­to­ry, the con­struc­tion of mean­ing, gen­der roles, sex, social order, time, mem­o­ry, iden­ti­ty, basi­cal­ly any idea of real, unyield­ing “facts”—is quite pos­si­bly at least part­ly a sham or at any rate con­tex­tu­al, con­tin­gent, and up for debate, and then sim­mer all this in heavy alco­hol and nar­cotics abuse that ranges from genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied super-weed to grain alco­hol to the brain-scram­bling smok­ing of tox­ic bath salts and snort­ing crys­tal meth, you have a very unsta­ble sit­u­a­tion on your hands.

 

4

Eastman returned home after the door-paint­ing inci­dent. He sought coun­sel­ing. Or rather his fam­i­ly sought coun­sel­ing for him. He took a job at his father’s insur­ance com­pa­ny, but when he showed up for work in a suit and with­out shoes or socks that first week and told the sec­re­tary he was “ready for com­bat,” his par­ents decid­ed he need­ed more rest. Thus began a two-month peri­od in which he slept until noon, sat in his dark room on his com­put­er (doing what, nobody knows, but it was some kind of high-lev­el math­e­mat­ics), and going a week some­times with­out show­er­ing or eat­ing any­thing oth­er than dry cere­al and Fig Newtons. His hair grew long and wild. His beard grew out in patch­es, like a scorched, weed-choked lawn. He dropped out of the coun­sel­ing ses­sions after a cou­ple of weeks. (As usu­al, I only saw him when he was stretched out in the morgue on a steel table with gut­ters and a drain.)

 

5

Eastman began walk­ing around Portsmouth at some point, some­times bare­foot, spend­ing his days doing ten- and twelve-mile loops, often through poor, black sec­tions. He was stopped at least twice by police, who asked him what he was doing there or if he was lost. He was once picked up because of “errat­ic behav­ior” (I don’t know what, specifically)—probably step­ping on and off the side­walk, walk­ing direct­ly toward peo­ple and veer­ing away at the last second—and mum­bling to police when ques­tioned. His moth­er and father fetched him from the local precinct. No charges were filed.

 

6

He met a six­teen-year-old black run­away at a place called Rainbow Youth Services Center, which was essen­tial­ly a store­front with tables and chairs and a com­put­er and board games for street kids to hang out dur­ing the day. There were three coun­selors. There was a part-time nurse and med­ical treat­ment of minor issues onsite—dehydration, pan­ic, bruis­es and cuts—and a ride to the ER for major issues—rapes, knife wounds, psy­chosis, over­dos­es. There were sand­wich­es, donuts, and apple and orange juice every morn­ing until they were gone, which was usu­al­ly by noon. There was an attempt at drug and alco­hol coun­sel­ing, but none of the coun­selors had train­ing in this area. The place had been start­ed by a Lutheran Minister, a man who had died a few years ear­li­er of brain can­cer, but it stayed open and it received vary­ing lev­els of fund­ing from the state each year, depend­ing on whether Republicans (low­er fund­ing) or Democrats (slight­ly high­er fund­ing) were in the state house.

Jeremy brought the run­away home with him and they dis­ap­peared into his dark room in the far cor­ner of the third floor. It was a big house of five or six bed­rooms and four bath­rooms, he was a trou­bled guy, his par­ents were walk­ing on eggshells around him, and it was a week lat­er before Jeremy’s moth­er ran into the run­away, who was in her under­wear, in the hall. She screamed, assum­ing, rea­son­ably, that this black girl was an intrud­er. Jeremy came out of his dark room, under­wear only, a deflat­ing erec­tion push­ing against the Fruit-of-the-Loom’s front flap, and told his mom with an odd and beard­ed face that she, the run­away, lived here now. A year, two years before this, Mrs. Eastman would have exert­ed some seri­ous parental author­i­ty and become apoplec­tic over some­thing as out­landish as this—a black run­away in her Virginia gen­try brick colo­nial. But the world of that house had seri­ous­ly shift­ed with Jeremy’s men­tal state and sit­u­a­tion and the drop­ping out of col­lege and the Eastman’s want­ed to avoid any sort of cri­sis, which they sensed, con­scious­ly or not, was com­ing. Mrs. Eastman awk­ward­ly shook the runaway’s hand and said, “Uh, wel­come.” (People think their world is stur­dy, that noth­ing like this could come along and wreck its very essence, its com­fort­able mean­ings. But of course they’re wrong.) Jeremy said his new friend’s name was Lisa Bonet, refer­ring of course to the beau­ti­ful light-skinned black actress best known for her role as the old­est Huxtable on “The Cosby Show.” Jeremy and his friend, “Lisa,” laughed, but Mrs. Eastman didn’t know the show and was out­side of the joke. Her life had become a strange dream, and hav­ing her wild-haired, filthy-foot­ed son and a black, and not very clean, teenaged run­away, both in under­wear, post-inter­course, cack­ling con­spir­a­to­ri­al­ly in her upstairs hallway—the fine hard­wood floors, the land­scape and hunt­ing paintings—was just anoth­er episode in this night­mare of Jeremy’s men­tal state to get through.

 

7

A few months after Lisa Bonet moved in, Mr. and Mrs. Eastman came up with a plan to get rid of her, which would allow them, they hoped, to get Jeremy back into what they believed was much-need­ed ther­a­py. They would bribe her.

Now if this were Shakespeare, and not the rehashed tales of a con­va­lesc­ing ex-crime reporter, if this were lyri­cized art, iambi­cal­ly ren­dered, instead of often cru­el and dis­ap­point­ing life, Lisa Bonet would have reject­ed the mon­ey, held tight in the pow­ers of love, and she and Jeremy would spend the rest of this sto­ry doing what­ev­er was nec­es­sary to stay togeth­er until some love-caused tragedy, which would grow organ­i­cal­ly out of the dra­ma we are in here, befell them. This isn’t Shakespeare, though, or a tale of star-crossed lovers, and the real world of my report­ing days was quite nar­ra­tive­ly messy, filled with deus ex machi­na, as if some ill and con­fused and cru­el god liked to step into this lit­tle life of ours to smite the liv­ing with fuck-all, crap-shoot log­ic.  Working as a crime jour­nal­ist didn’t make me stop believ­ing in the idea of the pos­si­bil­i­ty of a God; it just made it very clear to me that God doesn’t indi­vid­u­al­ly care about us.

Lisa hung out with Jeremy for a place to stay and for plen­ti­ful mar­i­jua­na smok­ing. I didn’t know her at all. But she was a street kid. I’ve hung out with street kids, inter­viewed them or those who knew them, gath­ered oral his­to­ry, writ­ten about them, some­times because they’d just been killed or almost killed. And I can tell you that she was most like­ly an addict, and that she had prob­a­bly been raped at least once, and that at some point she may well have been raped by a fam­i­ly mem­ber or a friend of the fam­i­ly, and that that, the emo­tion scram­bling victim/predator sce­nario at home two or four or six years ago, is prob­a­bly what sent her out into the streets in the first place. She slept with Jeremy as part of the deal of stay­ing with him (sex as pay­ment), and she may have want­ed to do that, I don’t know, but as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Eastman offered her a grand in cash and a bus tick­et to Durham, NC, where there was also a decent-sized run­away pop­u­la­tion and some sup­port through reli­gious­ly run youth cen­ters, she grabbed the mon­ey and dis­ap­peared. The end.

 

8

Or the end of the rela­tion­ship, at least.

 

9

I’m not sure what hap­pened in the imme­di­ate after­math of Lisa Bonet’s tak­ing the cash and bus tick­et and leav­ing. But some­thing bad, and either vio­lent or threat­en­ing to be vio­lent. Because Jeremy was invol­un­tar­i­ly com­mit­ted to a hold­ing ward at Eastern State Mental Hospital.

Since dein­sti­tu­tion­al­iza­tion in the 1960s, it has become very hard to hold peo­ple in hos­pi­tals. There are plen­ty of peo­ple who get locked away who shouldn’t be. Many more, how­ev­er, need seri­ous help and can’t get it or refuse it and end up back on the streets. Sometimes they com­mit crimes. More often they are vic­tims. They could only hold Jeremy for thir­ty days. At the end of those thir­ty days, he went back home, no bet­ter at all and now angry at his par­ents.

 

10

This next part is tricky. Jeremy’s moth­er want­ed him to stay at home, errat­ic behav­ior or no. His father, the insur­ance mogul, did not want his hairy, foul-smelling, men­tal­ly-ill son in the house unless he would agree to take his med­ica­tions exact­ly as pre­scribed, which he wouldn’t do. Words, scream­ing, hurt feel­ings, and then Jeremy is out the door, at night, roam­ing the poor black neigh­bor­hoods of Portsmouth, not three miles from his family’s mini-man­sion in the rich, white part of town.

For some reason—and he was com­plete­ly off meds and very unstable—he began sprint­ing, bare­foot, along the streets and avenues, past food marts and cash check­ing places. Some groups of kids hang­ing out on cor­ners shout­ed encour­age­ment to him. Go, man! Yeah!

No black per­son would sprint along those streets unless they need­ed to. I report­ed on this place for years, so believe me when I tell you that a black twen­ty-year-old would not suit up and go for a run because he would be pulled over by a cop. He might be arrest­ed. He might be shot.

So there­fore a run­ning per­son in these neigh­bor­hoods was de fac­to a crim­i­nal. Or he wouldn’t be run­ning.

 

11

Jeremy was chased down by a squad car. Scared, he ran into a dark alley. Two cops, both young and white, pulled their guns and told him to come out with his arms raised. They flashed a light into the alley but didn’t see him. They wait­ed. Nothing. They yelled again for him to come out.

Then Jeremy writhed out from behind a wood crate and in an instant sprint­ed at the cops, growl­ing like a deranged bear. Both offi­cers shot him mul­ti­ple times. Twelve bul­lets in all, all direct hits to the chest, arms, shoul­ders, and abdomen. He was dead before he fell to the con­crete. When I saw him naked in the morgue, I couldn’t help but think that all those bul­let holes, cleaned up now, looked like small, per­fect cir­cles drawn onto his skin with a red Sharpie. That’s a strange thought, I know. But it’s the one I had.

 

12

Like I said, most of the cov­er­age after this cen­tered on the issue of police behav­ior and the use of dead­ly force. One of the cops quit a few months after the inci­dent. He was, I believe, destroyed by it. The oth­er is still on the force, but no longer patrols that area.

Much was made in the news­pa­pers of the facts that Jeremy was a William & Mary stu­dent, his father was a suc­cess­ful busi­ness man, his moth­er was head of a local chap­ter of the Junior League, and they were a fine and upstand­ing fam­i­ly from the rich part of town.

At the grand jury, the lawyers for the offi­cers paint­ed a por­trait of Jeremy as a deranged indi­vid­ual who want­ed the cops to kill him. They had records and writ­ten tes­ti­mo­ny about Jeremy’s life at the end of col­lege and after, which was odd and grim read­ing. The two cops were the vic­tims of a “sui­cide by police” sit­u­a­tion, and no charges were filed.

A lot of the death I cov­ered was like this: ridicu­lous, exis­ten­tial, faith-destroy­ing.

No one—except me to my edi­tor, in the pri­va­cy of his office—ever men­tioned the pos­si­bil­i­ty that Jeremy, deranged or not, would like­ly not have been gunned down had he not been in that poor, black neigh­bor­hood at night, where every local knew run­ning was an admis­sion of guilt. Not that a social obser­va­tion like that would have made any dif­fer­ence to any­thing at all.

~

Greg Bottoms is a writer of lit­er­ary non­fic­tion and fic­tion. He is the author of a mem­oir, Angelhead (2000), an Esquire Magazine “Book of the Year,” two books of essays about American out­sider artists, The Colorful Apocalypse (2007) and Spiritual American Trash (2013), and four prose col­lec­tions, Sentimental, Heartbroken Rednecks (2001), Fight Scenes (2008), Swallowing the Past (2011), and Pitiful Criminals (2014). His work has appeared in Agni, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, North American Review, Oxford American, Seattle Review, Shenandoah, Texas Review, Witness, and numer­ous oth­er lit­er­ary jour­nals and mag­a­zines. He teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at the University of Vermont, where he is a Professor of English.