By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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When I was twenty-four years old, it looked to me as if America were coming down. It was 1979, and there was runaway inflation, long lines for gasoline, a nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. Men were curling their hair and wearing high-heeled shoes, and the Soviets were still poised to bomb us off the map. So I fled to the remote Caribbean island of St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands. I chose St. John because my ne’er-do-well childhood friend Cliff had moved there the year before, on the lam from creditors and the law, and he’d invited me to join him. I did not have any address for him other than general delivery and had heard nothing from him in months, but it was a small island, only eight or nine miles long, with just a few thousand inhabitants, and he was a giant with a giant red mustache, so I didn’t think he would be hard to find.
My plan upon arriving, once I’d found Cliff, was to become as independent of machines and technology as possible. I wanted to fish from the sea and collect coconuts and mangoes from the trees, to live in a hut and sleep on a hammock slung between two palms. I longed to return to the peace and naked simplicity of my noble-savage ancestors.
I flew for an entire day, each airplane smaller than its predecessor, and finally stepped off the ferry (St. John had no airport) into a Misty Green Eden, more paradisiacal in aspect than I’d dreamed. Since I had only $212 and did not want to squander any of it on a hotel room, I hoped to find Cliff before nightfall. To my consternation no one had heard of my tall, muscular outlaw friend, which made me suspect, with a puckering in my bowels, that he might no longer be there. The hotel rates were beyond my means (the Rockefeller resort rented cabanas for two hundred a night), and an apartment — if you were lucky enough to land one — rented for four hundred a month minimum, not including deposit. Being not quite up to sleeping in the bush or on the beach yet, I searched desperately for a place to stay amid moneyed tourists, squawking tropical birds, periodic downpours, and impending darkness. Finally, with the help of a friendly cabdriver, I found a ten-dollar-a-night room far off the beaten track with a view of chickens and goats.
For four days, trusting blindly that Cliff was still on the island, I nursed my shrinking bankroll by eating dollar johnnycakes and overpriced carrots and spongy apples from a stand that received its shipment of fruits and vegetables weekly. I drank warm cans of Old Milwaukee, smoked like a drug addict, talked to the goats and chickens, and wandered fretfully about, peeking now and again up the main road that disappeared into a hole in the jungle. The middle two-thirds of the island was a national park, on the other side of which, I knew, was my Wilderness Dream. But I did not yet have the guts to walk alone into that hole, with all its heaving frenzy of nature. I needed a guide. I had to find Cliff. So I strolled around Cruz Bay — the safe, cultivated part of the island — hiked its volcanic shores, and explored its shops and bars and nooks, asking everywhere about the giant, redheaded American.
No one had heard of him.
By the fifth day, riddled with angst and already having suffered several major asthma attacks, I was down to $141. My Robinson Crusoe reveries collapsed, and I resolved to try the next island over: St. Thomas. It was a crowded, crime-ridden tourist trap, but at least I could find a job there, cheaper living arrangements, and maybe Cliff or some clue to his whereabouts. I was much better equipped for an urban jungle, and if I landed a cooking position, I could eventually save enough money to revive my back-to-nature plan.
As I was waiting for the ferry, I stumbled upon Cliff talking on a pay phone, trying to order an oil pump for his moss-eaten junk heap of a Toyota Corolla, which would start only after you’d pushed it for a mile. Bearded, longhaired, and thinner than I’d ever seen him, he hugged me and whirled me through the air. The feeling was mutual. He explained that he lived on the East End with the “red legs” — i.e., the white people who had no money — and he rarely got into town. He introduced me to his girlfriend, Rain, a glum Bostonian in her early thirties who regarded me as if I might’ve been sent by the Internal Revenue Service.
Cliff and Rain were broke, so I bought a few bottles of good Scotch at the duty-free shop (four bucks for a fifth of Johnnie Walker Red). Then we filled the Toyota’s tank at four dollars a gallon (five times the price of gasoline in the States) and plunged smoking and wobbling into that thrilling, forbidden tunnel of dense vegetation streaked with varicolored birds and the occasional mad dash of a mongoose or wild pig.
It was a twelve-mile trip on steep, winding roads to the East End, where only a few hundred people lived. Dwellings appeared now and again, many in disrepair, but mostly it was one deserted beach after another, horseshoe crabs scuttling about in soupy blue lagoons with coconut palms growing in the water. Cliff passed a gorgeous, lava-rock cove and then hung a right up a gravel driveway and parked in the shade of a grove of papaya trees. Before us was a rustic bungalow with torn screens and a colossal beehive like a great, slumping tumor above its door.
Passing limbo-fashion under the spinning cloud of honeybees, I entered Cliff’s rat-infested hovel, where vines invaded the windows and mammoth cockroaches lurked on every wall, waving their feelers at me in greeting. A central table was piled with old newspapers, ashtrays, coffee mugs, and the detritus of an uninterrupted year of heavy drinking. There was a sink and a propane range and a small, empty refrigerator. Electricity, I would come to learn, was unreliable. To the left was a curtained cement stall containing a shower and a toilet positioned so close together that, if you chose, you could use them simultaneously. Water came from a cistern that collected rain and incubated mosquitoes and dysentery. The only hot water was that which you boiled on the stove.
Cliff showed me to the spare bedroom, with its own set of roaches, ripped screen door, and attendant swarm of honeybees. Rain ignored me and made a cup of tea. For dinner Cliff produced a loaf of “day-old” bread from a tin, sawed off three slabs, and set down a jar of orange marmalade. Glasses of Scotch were poured, and the year of heavy drinking resumed.
That close to the equator the sun went down every evening around six, and the bedlam of the jungle began. Profoundly inebriated and dreaming of lepers, I was devoured by mosquitoes every night. Both Cliff and Rain worked intermittently, Cliff for a salvager and Rain at the bakery (the source of our “day-old”) in Cruz Bay. The landlady came to the door on my second day there, and I was able to relieve her irritation by paying the rent, a mere sixty dollars a month. I also bought a week’s worth of groceries and a used oil pump from St. Thomas for the Toyota. That was the end of my grubstake. Still unprepared to undertake my mission of self-reliance and Concord with Nature, I hired on as a full-time breakfast cook at Caneel Bay Plantation, the Rockefeller resort with the two-hundred-a-night cabanas.
Cliff gave me a ride to and from work every day, a rattling, convulsive half-hour commute that began with us push-starting his Toyota with its bad steering box. When the car finally broke down (cracked block), I was forced to find other means of getting to my job. Rising at four every morning, I would have a breakfast of stale bread and marmalade and tea with Scotch and a cold shower with the roaches before walking up to the main road and sticking out my thumb. When hitchhiking failed, I’d catch a ride in the school bus, always sitting in the back, as the driver instructed. When my shift was up at three, the school bus would already be gone, so I would sit on the wall where the other East Enders gathered for rides. I sometimes sat there for hours, the sun going down. Often I was the last one left. After I was refused a ride by a man who was loading passengers into the bed of his pickup truck (“Yeah, we going to the East End, but we ain’t taking you”), I began to walk home every day, stubborn and proud, freshly sharpened cook’s knife at my side. I hiked twelve miles over the verdant volcano, racing against the setting sun. Once, I’d made the mistake of being out after dark in the teeming, screaming, ink-black forest, and it had been one of the most terrifying nights of my life.
On my days off I washed my clothes and my cook’s uniform in the cove by hand. Nothing ever quite dried. If we could get to Cruz Bay, we shopped for supplies. I fished, either with hook and line or with Cliff’s spear gun, but I was not proficient. Sometimes I would collect whelks, edible sea snails that attached themselves to the rocks along the cove and, once boiled with potatoes, onions, and tomatoes (if you happened to have potatoes, onions, and tomatoes), made a passable mussel-like stew. Getting enough fish or whelks to feed three might take an entire day. We ate a lot of stale bread, papayas (unripe they taste much like potatoes), and orange marmalade.
I wasn’t on St. John for three weeks before I was being pursued by a bare-breasted island lunatic named Charlie, who carried a machete and vowed to kill me because I was white, though he never threatened to kill the giant Cliff. Charlie hated the white man for ruining Paradise with his hotels and sandaled tourists and drinks with little umbrellas in them. He would follow me home from work. I think I was a curiosity to him: an American who actually traveled on foot. But that didn’t stop him from waving his machete at me.
To further complicate my chances for survival, Rain started flirting with me, laughing at all my jokes and staring sultrily in my direction. Late at night, after we were deep in our cups, she would drift out of the bedroom topless. Cliff got so upset at this that he threatened to smash my face in. I promised him I would find my own place as soon as I had the money, but as soon as I had the money, I bought a plane ticket back to the U.S. instead.
I had always hated Florida, and Miami was by far my least favorite city in the state, but in Miami I kissed the ground. Then I bought a Trailways bus ticket for San Diego, California, where my parents lived. The trip would take seven days. After purchasing the one-way ticket, a pack of cigarettes, and my first cheeseburger in four months, I had seven dollars to my name.
Continental Trailways (which would merge with Greyhound a few years later) stopped at every picnic bench, phone booth, and outhouse, and for any wayward soul who happened to be waving alongside the road. It took a whole day just to get through Florida, but I didn’t mind. At least I was no longer hunted, haunted, hated, threatened, attacked by insects, teased by a woman I could not have, and embroiled in a Sisyphean dawn-to-dusk cycle of work and commute in a nightmare-with-a-view I had made the mistake of calling Paradise.
As we crawled across the South, I felt giddy going into air-conditioned stores with shiny floors and seeing fresh bread and produce at reasonable prices, newspapers that had been printed that day, bricks of cheese and packages of shelled pecans, refrigerated beer and mini pizzas and juicy, plump sausages, even if I couldn’t afford any of them. Just west of Mobile, Alabama, I was able to get a shower at a truck stop, where I marveled at the hot water, the absence of roaches on the walls, and how ravaged and skinny I looked in the mirror.
I talked and talked to anyone who would listen, recounting my recent adventures in Paradise. An open, voluble, and idealistic young man on the threshold of self-discovery, I advised my fellow travelers that Paradise was a place existing only in the mind, and you couldn’t just abandon the result of tens of thousands of years of collaborative invention, live in the wilderness by yourself, and expect to amount to anything. Above all, I told my listeners, America was a great country. Most Americans didn’t understand how good they had it: water pressure, movie houses, eighty-cents-per-gallon gasoline, a job you didn’t have to hike through a jungle to get to, sober medical care (I had cut my thumb open at the Rock Resort and been stitched up by a drunk doctor), peaches and popcorn and pounds of pink shrimp in the grocery stores, and buses on which you could sit wherever you liked.
As we were passing through San Antonio, Texas, a lovely woman with blue eyes and springy blond hair boarded the bus. She was about my age and wore ankle-strap pumps, a powder-blue pantsuit with flared legs, and a silk scarf around her neck. I knew from experience that the only Trailways passengers who dressed like this were Europeans. The bus was nearly full, and she was forced to sit next to me. I helped her with her bag and insisted that she take the window seat.
Her name was Theresa, she said, and she was from Austria. Her English was so good that she corrected my grammar and derided my overuse of such words as delicious and beautiful. In high school I had taken two years of German, but all I recollected were a few rudimentary phrases and how to count to ten, so I made no attempt to score points there. (Why hadn’t I paid more attention in class?)
Theresa was large and luscious, and I liked her accent and the way she wrinkled her nose when she laughed. It was refreshing, after three days of sitting next to narcotized hooligans with their big baloney sandwiches, to have such refined and sweet-smelling company. I admitted I wasn’t quite sure where Austria was on the map, but she was pleased that I remembered it had once been a great empire.
Theresa had been riding the bus on and off for nearly two weeks, and she was not having a good trip. America, she told me, was “not like in the pictures.” The stops were crowded and dirty, the passengers were crazy and rude, the food in the depots was terrible, and there was little to see along the highways but billboards, chain restaurants, and car accidents. I explained that Trailways served only the poorest, most desperate travelers, that nine out of ten terminals were in the bad part of town, and that the roads most traveled usually had the least to offer. In other words, taking the bus was not the best way to see the country. Unfortunately there wasn’t much she could do to remedy her situation: she was on a tight budget and had already committed to a nonrefundable, nontransferable four-week pass.
Even the celebrated sights she’d most looked forward to had been a disappointment. Someone had tried to steal her purse in New York City. She’d gotten lost in Washington, DC, and the bus had left without her. In New Orleans, through her hotel window, she had listened to revelers vomiting all night, and “that Alamo,” she said in her crisp Austrian accent, “is so small it looks like a mud hut.”
“Davy Crockett must have gotten claustrophobia in there,” I said, having seen the Alamo a few years back and been similarly let down, not only by its smallness but by the profusion of gimcrackery that surrounded it.
You could open the windows on buses in those days, and the cabin was filled with the roar of traffic, the whine of tires, and the sound of travelers listening to their AM radios and dropping their liquor bottles on the floor, but I heard none of it, being hypnotized by Theresa’s voice and face. I knew she was not impressed by me. I was a disheveled, wormy island rat who hadn’t eaten anything in three days but two bags of peanuts and a chocolate-chip granola bar. She asked if I was “Chewish,” though she was quick to add that there was nothing wrong with being Jewish. Having been born into no official faith, I prayed nevertheless that, once she got to know me, she would come to like me the way Rain had.
Theresa seemed to believe she was in some sort of holiday-travel movie in which her running commentary on the many faults of America and Americans would have no repercussions. To ensure her safety, I got off at all the stops with her and watched with a sort of double lust as she ate her egg-salad sandwiches and Salisbury steaks with instant mashed potatoes and Kitchen Bouquet brown gravy.
“Why don’t you eat?” she asked me at one stop.
“No money,” I said.
“You are choking me.”
I wasn’t joking, though technically I still had two dollars to spend on whatever my heart desired.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “I’m just grateful to be back in America.”
“How can you be grateful about siss?” she said, indicating the entire country with a disdainful sweep of her arm that started at the Empire State Building and ended at her tray of exorbitantly priced steam-table food. “You have no culture.”
I’d heard other bus-riding Europeans make the same accusation. You couldn’t blame them. They had come to experience Elvis, Marilyn, cowboys and Indians, Tex-Mex, Thelonious Monk, and the ’57 Chevy, and found instead Stuckey’s pecan divinities and some homeless guy wandering up with his hand out to ask for a buck.
This wasn’t the real America, I told Theresa. I invited her to come to San Diego with me. I’d show her around.
She took a nibble from her tray and waved off my invitation. She had planned to see a Navajo Indian reservation, but after the Alamo she figured it would probably turn out to be just another oversized gift shop. Missing her home and family, she thought she might cut the trip short, see Las Vegas and Hollywood, and then fly back to Austria.
I warned her about Las Vegas and Hollywood, both freak magnets with high crime rates — especially Las Vegas, a town that boasted openly of its vice. I had myself been vicious there on occasion.
She waved me off again as if I were just one more nutty, babbling, boorish American.
When we parted in Phoenix, Arizona, I gave Theresa my parents’ phone number and address and said she was welcome anytime in San Diego. I told her again to be on her guard in Las Vegas and Hollywood. I would’ve offered to go with her if I’d had any money. We shook hands, and I watched her walk away, certain I would never see her again.
In my twenties I traveled recklessly and often. The point was adventure, seasoning, testing my mettle, and impressing my friends. One day I would write about it all, so the bolder and more impetuous the trip, the better. When I went bust, I returned to my parents’ house for a spell to lick my wounds and rustle up a stake for the next escapade.
It was always good coming home, but it was especially sweet this time because of my newfound admiration for hot-water heaters, chlorination, ice cubes, little tissues to dab your orifices, a roof that didn’t leak, screens that kept out the bugs, and a car that started whenever you turned the key. When the bus finally pulled into the depot in La Mesa, California, three miles from my old neighborhood, I felt as if a year had passed since I’d boarded it in Miami. I was grubby and starving, and my pants were sliding off my hips. It was evening as I strolled to the house where I’d grown up, and I relished the trees and the sky and the barbecue-and-car-exhaust scent of the suburbs.
I found my parents sitting at their dining-room table. They had no idea I was coming and leapt from their chairs, more relieved to see me than usual, since all my talk about America toppling into the abyss and my escaping to a grass hut on a white-sand beach had seemed to them from the beginning like a disaster.
As always, I told them I would get a job and be out in a month, and, as always, they told me to stay as long as I liked. I took a hot shower, ate the better part of a roasted chicken, drank several of my father’s delicious cold beers, and watched a ballgame with him on cable television. (They’d had televisions in St. John, just no signal.) In the morning, when I woke up to the heavenly aroma of brewing coffee and frying bacon, I wasn’t sure how long I’d slept.
Two days later I was surprised to get a phone call from Theresa, who was at the bus station in downtown San Diego. Could I come and pick her up? Of course, I said, excited and dizzy that she had changed her mind. I shaved, put on a nice shirt, combed my hair, and jumped into the car. I couldn’t wait for her to parse my sentences or scold me for being an uncultured American. We would go to La Jolla, where I would show her the barking harbor seals and the bar where Raymond Chandler used to drink.
I found Theresa sitting in the terminal with her head down, suitcases at her feet, hair hanging in her face. The depot was empty save for a man pushing a dust mop, two urchins playing a pinball machine, and an elderly black woman with her purse in her lap who looked as if someone had forgotten to pick her up.
“Theresa?” I said.
She didn’t lift her head.
“What happened?” I asked.
Trembling, she explained that she had been raped in Las Vegas. A man had forced his way into her hotel room. There was nothing she could do. “You were right,” she said, staring at the floor. “I should have listened to you.”
I asked if she’d notified the police. No, she said. She didn’t want anyone to know. She raised her head and met my gaze, a look of ruin in her eyes. “Please don’t tell anyone. I am so ashamed.”
She agreed to stay with my parents for a few days. I carried her suitcases to the car, and she stared listlessly out the window as I drove. Most everyone will tell you that San Diego is a beautiful city, but Theresa didn’t seem to notice.
I was constantly bringing home stragglers I’d befriended on my journeys, and my mother would always take them in, even when she probably shouldn’t have. I think the moment she saw Theresa, though, she understood that this was not the usual miscreant, and also that something was wrong.
We led Theresa to the back bedroom, my sister’s old room, and told her she could stay as long as she liked. I still wanted to show her my city, its beaches and mountains and deserts, its beer halls and museums and world-famous zoo. I wanted to walk with her under Crystal Pier and through the halls of the Hotel del Coronado and take her out to eat at Bali Hai and Anthony’s Fish Grotto, but she didn’t want to go anywhere. She stayed in her room or sat on the couch looking at a magazine or watching television with my father. When I said good night to her at her bedroom door, I felt more like a personal attendant in a mental hospital than any kind of friend.
Every time I saw Theresa’s lost and confused face, I condemned myself for not warning her more forcefully about Las Vegas. In Phoenix I should have wired my parents for money and gone north with her. She was a guest in my country, after all, one who traveled ingenuously about in a blue pantsuit and ankle-strap pumps, correcting the grammar of jackals and wolves.
But likely she would have refused my offer to be her chaperone anyway. Theresa and I would never be together. I knew this. In Austria I doubt we would’ve been friends. I was an immature and volatile gambler, addicted to quitting and hellbent for art. She was a staid, conservative, sometimes imperious woman, not quick to adapt or change her positions or beliefs. She had ended up in San Diego with me solely through one cruel act of violence.
For those of us deceived and abused by the illusion of Paradise, my parents’ house was an ideal place to convalesce, especially in that cool back room with the dark curtains, the twin beds, and the complete works of Mark Twain. My altruistic mother was a good cook and an excellent host. My father was a jovial and generous man who rarely missed an episode of Jeopardy! and liked his white wine after five. In the evenings they enjoyed board games and televised sports. And they left you alone.
In San Diego Theresa tasted her first seviche and played her first game of Scrabble in English. I showed her how to spin a steel mixing bowl on the tip of her finger. I played for her what I thought was the most important American music of the day: Tom Petty, Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Bruce Springsteen, Talking Heads. We never again discussed what had happened to her, except once, when she looked at me with a puzzled frown and repeated, “There was nothing I could do.”
After four days Theresa decided to fly back home. I had gotten a job as a prep cook at the Catamaran Hotel in Pacific Beach and would start on Monday. She wanted to see Los Angeles before she left, so I drove her up to LAX. I thought how strange it was that in a period of a few weeks she had learned to despise America, whereas I had learned to love it, thanks to my trip into a hole in the jungle. Los Angeles is not much to look at from a car window, but the drive up Interstate 5 borders the ocean a fair part of the way, and I hoped Theresa would enjoy the scenery. Many palm trees had been planted along the coast, as if to reassure the dreamers they had come to the right place.
I was just about to let my subscription expire. I’d decided to conserve paper and save money by reading the last four years’ worth of Suns over again, one per month. Then your June 2013 issue arrived, and the first piece I read was Poe Ballantine’s essay “The Tyranny of Paradise.” It really stabbed my heart. The rest of that issue, from Leath Tonino’s interview with John Elder [“The Undiscovered Country”] to Readers Write, spoke to me as only The Sun can — with a rare depth. I walked the renewal card to the mailbox and flipped the flag up.
I look forward to the next twelve issues.