The light and the darkness of a troubled life
What gives light to an image? The light in an image is given by the bright areas that you perceive and that remain in your mind and memory, sometimes augmented in their effect by the shadows, unless the shadows are very dark, disturbing, and prevalent. I want to believe in the positive side of my fellow human beings. I saw and still remember the light in Troy’s troubled life—and wish that the darkness could still be lifted. What else would I have felt or done if he had really been one of my brothers?
I met Troy when I did some volunteer work in the low-income section of a formerly industrial and now impoverished city of America. It could have been in any such part of a city anywhere in the world. I met Troy in the black section of town, where many women had been abandoned by their husbands and raised a number of children as single mothers on welfare, but it could have been in a white part of a declining mining town in Appalachia, or anywhere else in the world. Several houses were abandoned and boarded up. Most houses looked in disrepair. Once in a while, a family was able to pull itself courageously together, stay together, keep their house in good shape, and raise decent children with a bright future.
Most outstanding in that neighborhood was a house on a side street. It was just a simple two-story row house next to a vacant and abandoned lot. The house was covered with gray stucco. A few steps led up to the entrance, and a narrow window was on each side. But remarkable about the house was that it featured a row of very beautiful flower pots in full bloom lined up on either side of the entrance steps.
“Who lives there?” I inquired of people passing by.
“Oh, that’s just Troy—a little disturbed. You know what I mean!”
No, I did not know what was meant. Upon further inquiry, I only learned that Troy was an elderly black man, without a job, who occasionally cleaned the street to the right and left of his house, helped anybody who needed a hand and lived on welfare on account of a mental problem or some mental weakness.
One day, I stopped in front of Troy’s house as I was driving by with my wife. Troy stood in front of all his flowers. He was an elderly man, tall and rather thin, with graying, short-cropped hair, and a dark-black complexion.
I rolled down my window and said, “Wonderful, your flowers there!”
Troy’s eyes lit up. He immediately grabbed one of the flower pots and walked over. He presented the flowers to my wife, with a radiant, warm smile that showed his white teeth, saying “Please share in my joy of flowers.”
Winter passed, and the next spring arrived. When I drove through that area again, I noticed something on the formerly vacant and totally abandoned lot right close to Troy’s house. Somebody had established a small patch of nicely arranged stones in its middle. In the center, a small white statue of the Virgin Mary stood on an artful wooden frame, with an American flag on each side. As soon as I could, I visited Troy to inquire.
Yes, it was he who had arranged that display. He had found an old article about the appearance of the Madonna of Fatima and had been so touched by this appearance many years ago in Portugal that he felt like building a memorial for that Madonna on that empty lot next to his house. Was he hoping for her blessings for this blighted part of the world? The rough youngsters of the neighborhood took to disturbing the display at night. So Troy had to take not only the flags but also the statue of the Madonna into his house every evening and put them up again the next morning.
A few days later, I happened to drive by a nursery and saw that geraniums were for sale. I bought more than a dozen red, pink, and white ones and brought them to Troy, who accepted them joyfully with his radiant and warm smile and, this time, with an embrace. He would happily use the flowers to further decorate that memorial.
We had become friends. I stopped many times at Troy’s house. He usually rushed out to greet me most cordially with his big smile, occasionally even with an embrace. We then talked for a while before I had to move on to pursue my assigned tasks in town. In his simple way of life, Troy reminded me of the Sermon on the Mount—blessed are the meek, blessed are those who are simple of mind, blessed are those with a clean heart—or of Jesus’s praise of the children.
In the course of these meetings, Troy told me about his life.
Troy was born in poverty sixty-six years earlier as the son of a black farm laborer in Louisiana. Troy must have had a good father, one who later took him along as a small boy to Newark, New Jersey, where his father had found better work. The new boss, a wealthy white landowner, must have been a good man, too. He invited little Troy to play with his children. Even more, he scratched their children’s and Troy’s hands just a little and had them touch each other—as in the stories of old—and declared them “blood brothers.”
Troy did not take to school very well. Instead, he became an excellent and intelligent farm worker. He was promoted to supervisor of the Hispanic migrant workers who showed up for a few months every year at harvest time.
Later, a lawyer friend of Troy’s boss noticed Troy’s intelligence and offered him a job in his office, mainly carrying documents to or from the courthouse and to or from other lawyers. The lawyer also taught Troy the fundamentals of contract and trial work. Troy later told me that he participated in many trials and that his party always won.
I was also led to believe that Troy joined a local black chapter of the Masons or a similar men’s association, which held their meetings in an upstairs room above a local bar. When I went to look for it, the designated building with its bar was in disrepair and appeared to be abandoned. One day, though, I noticed some well-dressed elderly black men walk in through a back door leading to the upper floor. Did the Masons still meet there?
One day, Troy continued by telling me—with a very serious, almost scared face that I had never seen on him before—how he once woke up and “heard the silence of death” all around him. What a remarkable expression! He told me that he was so scared that he stayed home all day. In the evening, as he became hungry, he finally went out to get some food. This took him past that bar below the Mason’s meeting place.
Had he possibly wanted to stop in at the bar? For the moment, he told me, he had stayed on the other side of the street. He had been in that bar some time back and an especially rough drinker had given him a bad time for his fancy dress and sophisticated way of speaking. When he left the bar in disgust that day, the ruffian had followed him, and, in the middle of the street, had beaten him up badly. The other bar customers had just looked on without helping him or calling for help. Later, a friend of Troy’s had slipped a pistol into Troy’s coat pocket, meant to serve as defense in case of future life-threatening trouble—or so Troy told me.
This evening now, as Troy was passing the bar, that same ruffian just happened to emerge from its door. Seeing Troy passing by on the other side of the street, he ran over, shouting, “This time I will really get you!”
Troy continued by telling me that he became so scared that he instinctively reached for the gun in his pocket. A single shot was fired. The bullet killed the ruffian instantly.
This time, the other bar customers reacted differently, immediately calling the police. Troy ended up in jail for ten years, so he reported to me.
After his release many years ago, he lived quietly in his house with his flowers, a model citizen and good neighbor, as it appeared to me. Yet, he was kept at a distance by his neighbors.
Only once did I see Troy get angry, all of a sudden, when some visitor had interrupted him for a second time while he was talking to me. During that moment, Troy became a different man. His face distorted in bitterness, and sharp words came out of his mouth, but just for a moment. Then he became calm again and was his own friendly self.
I have sometimes noted this phenomenon of sudden rage in meek people. You better beware. They have to know how to defend themselves when cornered in an often cruel world. But, in the long run, their momentary rage may actually hurt them.
A few months after I heard Troy’s life story, a murder occurred in that same vicinity. The corpse was found in the abandoned bar under the Mason’s former meeting place. To my dismay, I learned that Troy had been picked up by the police.
Through very unlikely circumstances, I happened to meet the lawyer who had helped Troy on earlier occasions. I learned a different story. I began to feel like I was reading one of those Scott Fitzgerald stories that start in happy, harmonious settings and then fall apart, chapter by chapter, until they end in darkness.
I learned that the first shadow had fallen on Troy’s life in his younger years, when he worked as the supervisor of migrant workers. Troy had developed a hot temper at that time. There was a nasty incident in which Troy hurt a farm laborer. But a lawyer friend pulled Troy out of that one.
A few other incidents of hot temper must have occurred along the way. But then, there was the report of an incident with a group of men standing in front of a bar. A shot was fired and another man was killed. Troy was accused of having fired that shot. But his lawyer was able to convince the jury that there was no unequivocal proof that it was actually Troy who had fired that shot, and he went free once more.
Next, it was rumored that Troy worked for a while as a police informer in his part of town. There was a scandal involving improper payments by the police to the informers in return for kickbacks. Troy became implicated and ended up with a multiyear prison sentence—if my information is correct—because the story sounds different, depending on who is telling it.
After his release from prison, Troy returned to his wife and two sons. Yes, it turned out that Troy had been living for a few years with a woman in a common law marriage. One of the sons was from his wife’s earlier partner; the second may have been his own, or so Troy believed.
One evening, when sitting on their porch, Troy told me, he and his wife had observed a break-in down the street. They reported it to the police and that fact was reported in the local newspaper. Shortly thereafter, when Troy was out for a moment to have a drink at a bar, a car pulled up to his house, driven by the same men who had done the break-in, so Troy reported. At that time, Troy’s wife was standing at the fence of their house. The men drove their car into Troy’s wife, pressing her hard against the fence. They left before any witnesses could appear. Troy’s wife died shortly thereafter in the hospital, but not without having declared Troy not guilty in this accident. The police investigation brought no further evidence, and Troy was not accused—nor were the drivers of the car.
Ten years later, when the murder just recently occurred in the area where Troy lived, some way or other, Troy’s name appeared in the papers. To everybody’s surprise, his older son—or rather his stepson—long departed from home, showed up once more. He brought new accusations against Troy, accusing him of murdering his mother ten years earlier. He claimed that when Troy came back from time in prison, he accused his wife of infidelity during his absence. One day, in a fit of renewed rage, he was accused of having beaten his wife to death while his stepson, a very young boy at that time, watched from the top of the stairs. Other people also stepped forward to testify against Troy.
That was the reason why Troy had been arrested; there is no statute of limitations for murder.
Until then, I had only known Troy as a model citizen in that neighborhood and as a cordial human being with a ready smile. We had become friends. How could I drop him based on an accusation that could prove to be wrong? Should he not be considered innocent until proven guilty?
It took me some time to locate Troy in one of the state prisons called the “workhouse.” It took me even more time to have him put me on his visitor’s list. This is a protective measure, keeping the inmates safe from undesirable visitors.
Finally, I drove out to the workhouse, which was a few miles up the river, where rows of steep wooded hills extend on each side. I remember distinctly how, by coincidence—as in a spooky story—it was a cloudy, dark day of fall, and a group of black birds, vultures or crows, circled overhead. Up on the hill, the low buildings of the workhouse stood, surrounded by high chain-link fences topped with razor wire.
I had to go through several fences, sign in, and wait with the other visitors—only about twenty or thirty of them—why not more for the hundreds of prisoners? Most of the visitors were black, some Hispanic, but only a few working-class white. What is wrong with our society that causes this imbalance? Where is the guilt, with the prisoners or with the system?
Some of the visitors were older—parents of the inmates? Some were middle-age—the spouses? Some females were in their late teens or early twenties—sweethearts? And there were some children being dragged along.
After about half an hour, we were allowed in, walking past a spacious gym—working out and bodybuilding is a big pastime of inmates—and, five or six of the visitors at a time were lined up on stools in front of as many windows. On the other side of each window was another stool in another room. After a while, the inmates were guided into the room on the other side of the windows by guards, recognizing their respective visitors with joy or indifference. The sound of the conversation had to pass through narrow slits below the windows. It became very loud as everybody tried to communicate with his partner. We all bent down to the sound slits, and so did the inmates. In this curved position, just seeing the back of the partner on the other side, we passed a long time. What can you really talk about in such a situation?
Troy, still with his smile, yet some sadness in his expression, reiterated his innocence. He declared as false the testimonies of his stepson and the other witnesses. His stepson had been involved in some drug dealings, and the other witnesses had their own criminal cases pending. He indicated that he would send me some documents to prove it.
I visited Troy regularly for several months. By all I could learn, I was the only visitor to ever come to talk and listen to him. Then he was transferred to the state’s central high-security prison. Again, it took some time to get on Troy’s visitor list. Again, a certain trip by car to the prison, but then a bigger parking lot, a much bigger building, high walls instead of fences, more thorough sign-in and inspection procedures by the numerous, very correct guards. Then a first entry, but only into a very narrow courtyard surrounded by thirty-foot-high dark-gray concrete walls and a watch tower, and then through a tall, steel gate and some fences to a large building.
Inside that central building was a large gym-like, brightly lit hall with many chairs and some tables; there was even a children’s section with some plastic toys. After a while, the inmates filed in. We were about a hundred visitors, and about seventy inmates came—most (but not all) convicted for repeat drug-related crimes—so I was told—worthy to be locked away to protect society. Why were there not more visitors for the three thousand inmates in that prison?
I observed one elderly father as he visited with his rough-looking and not very responsive son every time I was there. One woman told me that she had been coming every Saturday for many years to see a family member. But how about all the other inmates? And did anyone ever think of the sacrifice and suffering of the visitors?
Pairs and family groups were quickly united and set in separate areas. We had hours to talk—almost too long, it seemed to me.
On one wall was an exhibit of paintings created by the inmates. They were absolutely astounding. Of course there was a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. and there were paintings of some beautiful young maidens. But there were also many paintings of wonderful flowers and dreamlike scenery in some distant country of freedom, some representing Africa.
On the other side of that hall was an enclosure where you could get sandwiches and soft drinks from dispensing machines. I walked to the water fountain. A middle-aged Puerto Rican fetched me a cup and offered it with a smile. After my second visit, he and I began to talk. At age twenty, he had a bar fight, and his adversary died in the fight. Since he had once muttered “one day I will kill that guy,” it counted as premeditated murder. He was sentenced to thirty years.
Twenty long years had passed. In ten years, at age fifty, he hoped to be set free. He was very calm and friendly in his communication, almost serene. He wrote some poetry, and he wanted to write a book about human emotions. Since only one inmate can have the same visitor on his visitors list, I could not come to see him, being Troy’s visitor and feeling obliged to use the limited time of each visit with him. Therefore, the Puerto Rican and I began to exchange letters. I tried to give my Puerto Rican acquaintance—friend?—some encouragement and advice for using his time in prison in preparation for the real world and for writing the book about human emotions, and I sent him the collection of my own short stories.
The Puerto Rican answered with poetry and a report of the unbelievably confused situation of the family he was born into and grew up in. Everybody always drifted into crime and violence as a way of life. Should you be grateful if born into a decent family? He was just longing for peace and light and human harmony. I advised him to try to remove himself and stay away from that kind of environment. It would only lead him back to where he came from and put a final end to a free life. But how could he possibly follow this advice, not knowing any other world and not having any human anchors in any different environment? If he was not strong and did not find help, I predicted that loneliness and need would drive him back to his people and into more trouble.
Meanwhile, I had received all the documents from Troy relating to his trial ten years earlier about the murder of his wife. The documents did not look good for him, convincingly detailing, as they did, the accusations against him. But Troy’s account was so different. Which side could you believe? Were the documents those false testimonies, or was Troy’s vision of reality disturbed? “You know what I mean,” the neighbors had said about him.
We spent every one of the many visits with him in prison over a year’s time discussing his innocence and his attempt to have all judgments against him reversed in appeal.
Troy was treated well in prison. As the oldest inmate, he was allowed to use the library every day for his legal research. He was even allowed to start a small flower patch in one of the courtyards. I asked him whether he would not possibly be better off staying in prison, where he would be well taken care off, rather than living alone on welfare in that rough part of town.
“No,” he said. He wanted the truth to come out, as a matter of principle and justice, and he wanted to walk out into the world with his head held up.
How could I not believe in Troy, the one I saw in front of me and talked to?
As time went by, I could not converse with Troy about anything but legal maneuvering—which rendered the visits increasingly less humanely valuable. Troy was understandably obsessed with his case and full of confidence that he would be released within a very short time.
I talked to friends about the case. Most of them were afraid that Troy would actually be free again—and possibly also that the Puerto Rican would be free. They told me that the typical pattern of such situations would be that Troy and the Puerto Rican would show up at my doorstep, asking for help and, not finding help anywhere else, expecting to be taken in by us. Worst of all, they might bring their buddies along or tell them of our home, attracting them there as well.
One night, rather late, I received a phone call. A rather strange voice addressed me with my full name, asking for support and referring to the Puerto Rican in jail. Had he not indicated that his brother was also in jail and the other siblings were in trouble with the law? Were they now coming after me?
Hearing this, our sons insisted that I cut off the prison contacts in order to protect Eva, their mother. My lawyer friend supported their view and indicated that Troy would, most likely, be set free before long.
I most sincerely hope that Troy will be found innocent. I wish that I could drive by Troy’s house again, to stop and see his radiant face and wonderful smile, admire his beautiful flowers, and have a friendly chat with him. I wish that I could see my Puerto Rican friend set free, too, particularly if he could remove himself from his old environment, as I so strongly recommended to him. He could pursue his technical trade, possibly with a newfound wife, and write poetry on the side. I would like to drive with both of them to the seashore or to the mountains and breathe the fresh air in freedom. I would like to see them each build a fulfilled life, before it would be too late. Life is unique and so short.
If only the temper of both of them, Troy and the Puerto Rican, would keep them out of trouble and darkness, that neither they nor any innocent victims would get hurt any longer. How much damage is done by rage in the world? Will there ever be a dependable medical or psychological cure for bad temper, ire, and rage? Would it have helped if they had had better friends early in life?
What can we do? Restrain ourselves before lecturing others or before becoming their models for better or worse. Should we be better friends to our fellow human travelers through life, close or distant, before they or we, ourselves, get into trouble?
The courts rejected Troy’s appeal.