by Joe Shea
January 10, 2011
FROM NOBODY TO SOMEBODY
BRADENTON, Fla., Jan. 10, 2011 -- Jared Lee Loughner must have known he was a nobody.
He had been a decent sax player in the Marana High School band, had done okay in a garage band that went nowhere, and after beginning to smoke pot then dropped out of high school. Then he got busted for possession, tried therapy, was rejected by the military, got into Pima Community College and fell into the YouTube visionary thing, got tossed for a series of five confrontations with teachers and school officials, withdrew from school and was finally on his own when, suddenly, he became somebody: the guy who shot Rep. Gabrielle Giffords.
He also killed U.S. District Court chief judge for Arizona John McCarthy Roll and five other people, including a member of Rep. Giffords' staff and a 9-year old girl, Christina Taylor Green, and several senior citizens, all in their seventies. It was the Giffords shooting that made Loughner a somebody. But it was the total of 20 shot, six dead that won him entry into that undistinguished pantheon that includes Jeffrey Dahmer, Charles Manson, Richard Speck and a dozen others in the second tier of the assassin and serial-killer fraternity - the one headed by the loser triumvirate of John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray, Jr.
Have you ever wondered what it's like to be a 22-year-old nobody in Sierra Vista in the northern reaches of of Tucson, Ariz. - a high school and college dropout in the middle of a profound recession and a simmering pool of political and racial contention - "a Mecca for prejudice and bigotry," as the county sheriff called it?
I owe my 44-year career in journalism to people like Loughner. I was a high school dropout; then I was a university dropout; next I was a community college dropout. Finally, I was an unemployed multiple dropout living at a horror show of a cheap hotel in Greenwich Village, a place mostly populated by male prostitutes, transvestites and hookers. But then I got a break.
I answered an ad and moved in with a black gay man, a male nurse named Bonzell Jackson, who had a small but very nice apartment on the fourth floor at 19 Grove St. and another roommate, Corky, a young guy my age studying musical composition for the theater at NYU. The two of us were straight, and we all got along fine.
Then, in April of 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated by Ray and my nobodiness came to an end. I caught a cab and went up to Harlem the night he died and walked all over its streets to test the proposition that black people would kill any white man who walked through Harlem at night. I felt I owed it to King to put that lie to rest. When a cop stopped me and asked me what I was doing there, I told him I was writing for the Village Voice - it was the only plausible excuse I could think of. I knew a lot of Voice writers who drank down at the Lion's Head, just three blocks away from Grove St.
I made it through the night, and since bars close at 4 a.m. in New York, I made it down to 8th St, to Generation, where Janis Joplin (with Big Brother & the Holding Company) and B.B. King were playing to a near-empty room at 2 a.m. in the morning. I sat at the lip of the stage and Janis bent over and sang in my ear. B.B. King said he'd never done it on stage before but he wanted a drink, and asked me to grab him one from the bar. He played the greatest blues guitar I have ever heard that night.
But I remained a nobody until Tuesday at breakfast, when I was recounting to Bonzell and Corky what I'd done that night, and mentioned when that thing about the cop. "Why don't you write an article for the Voice?" they asked. I called up their office, asked when the deadline was, and saw I still had two hours to do it. I wrote it out in longhand and brought it to the office just before 1 p.m, and that was the end of it until Friday.
Ross Wetzsteon, an editor there, called me and asked what YWF - Youth Against War & Fascism - stood for. They were attracting crowds for pickpockets with fiery speeches in Washington Square on the Saturday after King's death. Ross told me that he'd picked my story out of 18 that came in, including ones from Jack Newfield, David Dellinger and a Congressman from Long Island. I became the most minor of celebrities after that, and got a free lunch with a young editor who wrote me from Scribner's, Eleanor Sullivan. And just as simply as Judge John Roll and little Cynthia Peterson died in Arizona Saturday morning, my life was changed forever.
If it is hope for a nobody, Jared Lee Loughner found it at the end of a Glock 19 semiautomatic pistol. Ahead of him lie years of notoriety, which is just like celebrity but the negative kind, long trials, noisy cellblocks, appeals and an electric chair. Is that worth not being a nobody?
Only Lee Loughner can answer that. The first time he is raped or stabbed or both in prison, or gets electroshock therapy in a mental asylum, he will probably wonder. He gave up a life that wasn't working for a life that will never work. He gave up the freedom of family and his few friends for the company of rapists, killers, armed robbers and child molesters - mean people, really, who can't wait to be mean to him.
If I had stayed in the nowhere land of nowhere man, writing essays and poetry for nobody, perhaps smoking pot until I graduated to something stronger and overdosed from it - as I once nearly did from alcohol, in high school - my life and death would have been attended by that clucking sound people make when they see something sad, the tears of the few who still loved me, and the cold welcome of the grave.
I promise you, though, for all of that, I would find that end God's blessing before I would let my eternal soul burn in the fires of Hell. Jared Lee Loughner might have been just hours away from doing something noble and heroic, even against his nature, even with his gun, because God put it in his path. But he gave up on himself Saturday morning, and that is all it takes; it is all in the choices that we make.