From the poem series Highway 99

Once a path down from

long mountains, cold black rivers

Down from granite ribs and

thin-soiled beds scoured by snow

and migrations of ice and elk

A route for exchange of flint and

shell and fur

Then the westward roll

of emigrants struck the trail north

settling alongside in foggy valleys

observed from dim places

Those seeking gold turned south

and shunned Oregon, took horse and wagon

into the great valley

and met crazed men fleeing ships

abandoned in the mud of Yerba Buena

 

The sickness swept valley and hill

and ran gurgling in dark ravines

Dug and gouged, ripped open

mountain guts, seams where once

the planet was stitched together

spilled out its offal on the ground

trickling poison into groaning rivers

And the Dawn People watched and

shook their heads and some

fell back to the mountains

there to fade

while others fell into the hands

of cold-eyed men

And those who were seized by this

fever bent muscle and spine under

the iron wheel, chewed  ore to

golden splinters

No one remembered his own name

or the names of his people

or the place from which his people came

All bound together in forgetting tribe

All forged together in digging nation

poured in from every land, enslaved and enslaving

severed tree and root, broken hills, shattered peaks

trampling the old route once marked

only by the tread of silent feet

rutting the road that runs from north to south

burrowing that track deep in the soil

Broken gash full of mud and stones and bones and teeth

 

This artery drew soil and spewed blood

Those in its path were subdued and those who

followed the rivers to the valley grew rich

or they worked for those who grew rich

Farms sprang up like white frost in the morning

Carved the yielding belly of earth

which gave endlessly of itself

Then the towns came, leaping from the minds

of men who disliked the night and the twilight

and the rustling of claw and wing and bare foot

under trees beyond the edge of sight

And the towns grew brighter

and sucked from rushing rivers

and the waters were pent up

Canyon and meadow drowned

Trees girdled, reached up with bare black fingers

and the night sky closed its stars

 

Out beyond the glare of things

Some people watched

The last of the First People

They stood a while

speaking quietly among themselves

One of them drew in the rich brown dirt

with a piece of stick

Then with one accord they stood

They picked up a few things

They turned without gesture

and walked out of the world

Excerpt from A Fast and Beautiful Life

A Fast and beautiful life is a recently-completed non-fiction book, based on my 30-plus years in the investigative field. Here is a sample chapter

 

Chapter Four

I’m From the Government and I’m here to Help

 

 

In over thirty years of doing adult protective services investigations, I have been asked for my state ID badge about four times. That’s it.

Here’s how it goes:

  1. I show up at a door, unannounced.
  2. I tell them I’m from Adult Protective Services.
  3. I ask to come in.
  4. They let me.

Then I take all their stuff. No. But really. They let me in. Of the four people who asked me for my ID, one was a mentally ill woman on heavy doses of antipsychotics. Two were perps. I can’t remember who the fourth one was, but he or she was probably a perp, also. They tend to be more careful, plus, consider this: showing up at someone’s house and telling them you are from the gummint is something they might think up and they’re on the alert for that stuff. Beats working.

And what if they should ask for my ID? I have three of them, all with my picture on them. They sit gathering dust and grime in my state-issued black field folder. One ID was done at the state Department of Motor Vehicles. One was made in-house, using a digital camera and a color printer. One is my door pass. They all look official, gold-embossed here and there, with a state seal and stuff like that. Want one? Sixty dollar printer and a “clear rigid plastic vertical badge holder, pack of fifty, $25.00.” You’re in. Too lazy to make one yourself? Hundreds of on-line companies will do it for you.

Then, when you are asked every 8.25 years for that ID, you have, like, fifty of them. You can be either from the state government, a Fed, a meter reader, an NGO representative, or pick the beneficial organization of your choice. You can be from the Program for Senior Protection, the Office of Joy, the Division of Actuarial Accountability, the Census Bureau, Homeland Security, the Department of Redundancy Department, the Overseas Inland Organization for Crippled Pagan Veteran Orphans.

Where I live, if it’s guns and God, you are in. On a slow day at the office I doodled a mockup of a card, with the Savior toting an assault rifle. I named him GI Jesus. His motto was, “Kill ‘em all, let Dad sort ‘em out.” You’re only limited by your imagination.

But the absolute best way to get in that door, should your victim prove wary or stubborn, is to utter this phrase: “Hi. I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Say it with a smile and a firm handshake. By the time they’re done laughing, you’re on the couch, photo album open, life story pouring out.

I’ll be candid. I’m a perp. More precisely, if I were a perp, I’d be a good one, one of the best. I’d be rich, and not contemplating a bleak retirement, with an inadequate pension (buy this book, in the name of all that is holy, please buy it); I’d be in the Perp Hall of Fame.

Because I think like one. I act like one. I got them greasy perp moves down. I smile that winning smile. I laugh at weak jokes. I am amazed at their grandchildren’s SAT scores. When asked to guess, I underestimate their age and am shocked—shocked—to discover they are 87 years old. I flirt. I flatter. I am genuinely interested in their Bingo strategies. I care.

I do. I do care. Not about Bingo, or their son-in-law’s sales figures (fucking perp). I care about that person I am conning. In that moment, on that couch, they are the most important person in the world to me. I nod my head. I look them in the eye. I coax, cajole, laugh with those who laugh, weep with those who mourn.

When all else fails, I use my kill-shot.

“You know, Mrs. Kresge, I don’t work for the government.”

“You don’t?” (Moment of trepidation. Instant of fear, millisecond of who did I just let in my house and why is he sitting on my couch.)

“Nope. I don’t work for the state. The state pays my salary. Right now, the person I’m working for is you.”

“It is?”

“Yes. You are my boss. I am your employee. Tell me what you want.”

“Oh!” Flood of relief. Release of oxytocin. Forging of human bonds which even death will not sunder. They are mine, and I am theirs. Hook sunk. Game over. The old one-two. Works every time.

The best part about this con is that it is not a con. It’s true, the genuine article. At that moment, that man or woman beside me on the couch is the most important person in the world to me. They are my task, my charge, my mission. Because they have been exploited, or neglected, or abused. They are failing to thrive. They are at risk. They often have no one to bail them out or, more commonly, their support system is unaware of the straits into which the victim has sailed.

The chances are I am their chance, maybe their last best or only chance, to get their shit straight and I’m not going to allow them to stop me.

That’s right. I won’t let the victim not let me help them. Because while it is true that some victims want and ask for help, in my experience most are reluctant to receive it, especially if that help comes from the gummint. That reluctance increases with the age of the victim, and doubles down in rural, conservative areas such as the one where I work. The perp comes later. Job #1 is to win over the victim, and that I do, with great consistency, because I act like I give a shit, because in fact I do give a shit.

My task is to con the victim into not being a victim. An anti-con, if you will. But the methods and mindset are close. Too damned close for comfort.

Sometimes I scare myself.

 

The theme of fraud runs throughout this book. Those ridiculous agency and organization names I listed above are not greatly-exaggerated parodies of the genuine false article. (See what a hall of mirrors it is you’ve stumbled into? Only in Perpland can there be authentic counterfeits. Relax. Adjust. There are new rules now and others are in control here. It’s going to be all right.) Sometimes that fraud comes in the mail. Sometimes it’s a phone call. Most commonly it comes from someone near and dear to the victim. But every act of perpetration is a lie. A distortion. a bending of things, just enough, to confuse, bewilder and dominate the victim. Whether it’s a lotto scam, a letter from a Nigerian prince (there are no Nigerian princes), a heartwrenching email, a promise of undying love or a vow to provide good and faithful care for life, it matters not at all: every perp is a liar and every act of abuse and exploitation is a brutal, soulless breach of trust.

In the Land of the Lie, the first person the victim learns to mistrust is himself. His senses. Her instincts. Her own sanity. The fact that so many victims have some form of diminished capacity exacerbates the problem. They are the proverbial fish in the barrel. But even if he is of sound mind, the victim can be pummeled into submission and broken down by the many tools in the perpetrator’s toolkit, all of which are displayed in this book. Handy gadgets already listed–flattery, cajolery, gas-lighting, flirtation, etc.—are all essential. But the top of the tray, the Swiss army knife of perpetration is doubt.

Doubt. Doubt your friends. Doubt your family members (the good ones). Doubt valid helping professions such as doctors, police, adult protective services. Doubt your lawyer, your preacher, your realtor, your dog. Don’t trust any of them.

Finally, doubt yourself. Your own eyes, ears—your nose most especially, disregard that stench—your sense of up or down. Dismasted, rudderless and adrift, you are taken in tow by the only person willing, so often, to devote seemingly endless time to you: that filthy suck who wants your money.

And so you become, day by day, hour by hour, word by disorienting word, the perp’s main ally. You defend him. You make excuses for her. You stand in the way of all who will harm them or bring them to justice, and in so doing you create the biggest obstacle to helping you: You.

As Walt Kelly wrote in the great comic strip, Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

It is no small wonder, then, that when I knock on your door my first and foremost mission is to overwhelm you. To get around you. To overcome you. My job is to make you my ally, to become a partner in your own protection. It’s a tough, often unfair process. I try every tool in my own toolbox to dismantle the devices and booby-traps implanted by the perp in its quest to degrade you, terrorize you, milk you for the goodies, because in order to help you I have to finagle a way for you to be willing to help yourself. It’s a brutal battle and I don’t fight fair.

 

A final word on this devious subject: when I tell people I’m from the government and I’m here to help, it’s understood that this is a joke. That’s why I say it, because the perp’s (and therefore an anti-perp’s) first job is to yuk ‘em up, get them laughing, loose and relaxed. It makes the job so much easier. Failing humor, a lesser tool is terror, and it’s a harmful one, the forceps, the howitzer, the wrecking ball of protective services, to be only used at great need. It also seldom works. Old folks didn’t get old by being sissies. The disabled and the infirm already know more terror than you can possibly conjure. This population is tough. In some ways what accounts for their existence against the odds of time, misfortune disease and poor living also makes them that much harder to help. A victim can be a dogged foe when wracked by a pitiless disease of doubt and fear.

So a bit of a laugh at my expense, and especially at the expense of my employer, is a marvelous tonic. The legendary movie director Billy Wilder said, “If you’re going to tell people the truth, be funny, or they’ll kill you.”  Damn, that’s true. What’s also true is that, by the time I have gained the trust of the victim and we begin a strategy for self-help and we’re on the couch cooking up our counter-assault, I really am working for the victim, and no one else. It is imperative that the victim understands that we, and whomever we trust enough to bring onboard, are a team. It’s us against the world, and that means the gummint, too.

Governments don’t help people. Governments screw people over and take their stuff. Governments make stupid laws, randomly enforced, designed to make faceless bureaucrats wet their desk chairs and Wall Street parasites wriggle with ecstasy. Governments are only as good as we make them and we only need them because people are naturally selfish, stupid and predatory and in fact it’s a damned miracle we have anything like good governance at all, and we seldom actually do, although somehow it seems almost good enough. So there is a God, because humans are too often venal and shortsighted to think beyond their next meal or sexual adventure to do something like build a decent civil order. Even when we do create something like a sensible rule of law it is at best exquisitely imperfect, and inclined to hit everything with the blunt end of the shovel.

Really. Have any of those great white edifices in DC ever done a stroke of work? Of course not.

So of course it is not the government that helps anyone. It’s you. It’s me. If we choose to do it, and if we are able. And the people we are trying to help understand that more acutely than anyone. In the end, when we stand together on the burning barricades of that person’s life, smashing perps, sounding the call for allies, redeeming with blood sweat and tears the victims’  stolen dignity, treasure and hope, they need to know that we will go through hell, high water and the state legislature if need be to regain what is rightfully theirs.

So screw the gummint, the bosses, the bureaucracy, the desk monkeys and that poor old mule they rode in on.

It’s you and me against the world, Ma.

Wordsmithing

I am a wordsmith. The word, the craft of syntax, the rhythm of lines, assonance and alliteration, the power of paragraphs, image, the taste of language as it rolls off the tongue…

Word.