Saturday, October 14, 2006

There is an End...

I've mentioned before in this blog my friend Mark Evans, who everybody called "Atwood" after the downstate Illinois town he'd grown up in. Mark was murdered in June. He was the center, pretty much the ringleader of a group of people who coalesced at Eastern Illinois University around 1983. We all hung out at the Uptowner/Cellar tavern in downtown Charleston, Illinois. The lefties, artists, gay men and women, journalists, punk rockers, etc. all sort of found one another. My roommate Jim Reilly formed a punk/new wave band called "DUI" (my suggestion, "The Dust Bunnies" did not win) with some other guys, and the singer, as a joke, ran for class president under the aegis "The Silly Party" (borrowed, of course, from Monty Python), and unintentionally won. And of course, we all went wild for the next couple of years. The best and closest friendships of my life were formed then, including the guys in the picture with me.

In the weeks after Mark's death, we all started scanning and emailing old photos to one another. I had never seen this picture. It was taken one night in 1998. I was shocked to see how worn I looked (I'm the guy on the left). It made sense, though; I had, in the previous year, finished my teaching certification while in the midst of a vicious custody fight with an ex-girlfriend, who had tried to take sole custody of our son. And of course wife #1 had, in the midst of it, decided she didn't want to deal with it all, and asked for a divorce. It was, up to that point, the worst time in my life. At the time the picture was taken, I had signed divorce papers, had settled with the ex-girlfriend with a joint custody agreement (the money I spent fighting her would eventually bankrupt me) and was working at the Smokehouse while I looked for a teaching job. I was physically and emotionally exhausted at that point in my life.

Atwood, whom I always called Mark, unless I was talking to other people about him (there were people at our college who knew him only by his nickname) is the guy in the middle in the picture. It was at a joint birthday party for he and Dan, the guy on the right. I showed up late, after work. I had brought the gag gifts Mark and Dan were holding. I had gotten Mark, who was always complaining about not being able to meet women, Beavis and Butthead boxer shorts (purchased, of course, at Uncle Fun's, the greatest store in the world). I told him that chicks couldn't resist a guy in Beavis and Butthead boxer shorts. I'd gotten Dan the Spiro Agnew puppet he is delightedly holding in the picture.

In the days after Mark died, friends gathered at his house to help his family clear it out. His ex-girlfriend Stacy, whom he'd stayed friends with, and I were in his room clearing out his closets and dressers, putting stuff in bags to bring to Goodwill. It was already hard enough to be bagging clothes we'd seen our friend in for the last twenty-some years. When I came across the boxer shorts I'd given him, I nearly lost it. I nearly had to walk out of the room. The grief was staggering. Up until that point, having a woman I'd loved and lived with try to take my kid away from me was the worst thing to ever happen to me. At that moment, my friend's death moved into first place.

A week or so later, we all met at Mark's funeral, downstate. It was strange-- it was a beautiful June day and it was actually nice seeing a lot of the old crew from the Uptowner days. Tim Broderick had brought a collection of Mark's cartoons from the daily newspaper our school had. Atwood was a remarkably creative and talented artist and cartoonist. A lot of his cartoons were based on the antics of us, his friends, and we loved seeing ourselves portrayed five days a week. Seeing old friends and seeing these cartoons was simutaneously sad and healing.

As the time came to inter Mark's cremated remains, something really odd happened. The perfectly clear blue sky suddenly clouded up as we drove to the cemetary, and a huge thunderstorm erupted right above us. A bolt of lightning struck nearby. The rain died down enough for us to get out of our cars and put the wooden box with Mark's ashes into his grave. That was nearly my breaking point. I could not grasp how this vibrant, funny, intelligent, creative friend, whom I and so many others loved so dearly, was now a box of ashes being put in the ground. With that, I literally, physically went numb.

I got some comic relief when Dan, who'd shared an apartment with me and Atwood in Wrigleyville in the late eighties, leaned over and whispered that the rain was Atwood getting back at me for the night he'd been tripping and I kept talking like Bob Dylan to freak him out.

It was all I could do to drive back into town for the dinner. As we drove back, the sky cleared up; by the time we got back into town, the sky was crystal-clear again.

I had been asked to do a reading at the dinner. Dave Schmittgens, a member of that college group, who is now a high school English teacher, helped me pick out a quote to wrap the reading around-- John Donne's "For Whom the Bell Tolls" quote. I talked about the sorrow and the grief we were sharing, and how in the end, the sorrow was for ourselves-- that we were denied having our beautiful friend for the rest of our lives.

In digging out old photos, I came across pictures taken at my first apartment I had by myself in Chicago after I graduated, at a party I'd thrown in 1986. Mark had helped me move into that apartment, which was at Ashland and Berteau, then not too great a neighborhood. I did not have a car, and Mark offered to move me from the dump I was sharing with two roommates in Rogers Park to my new one. To thank him, I treated him to a night out at the Exit (the old one, in Old Town). They had a kaoroke machine there that night, the first one I'd ever seen. After a few drinks, Mark and I hatched a scheme; we got the dj to take our requests: we asked him to play "Wipeout" by the Surfaris and "Buck Hill" by the Replacements. Of course, the dj was oblivious to our joke: those are both instrumentals. We both had to work the next morning, and left before he played either one, but we really cracked ourselves up.

This picture was sent by Larry, who is the second guy from the right. The guys in the picture are me, Atwood, Larry and Curt. At the time the picture was taken, I was rooming with Larry. In fact, I roomed with the other two guys at some point as well. We were all a pretty tight little bunch, and still largely are. I lost track of Curt (whom I lived in a trailer with) but Atwood, Larry and I stayed tight.

I struggled with my grief all summer. My teaching job had ended-- I'd been dismissed after a two-year battle with a horrible administrator. Fortunately, I was on year-round pay, so I got a little buffer. I staggered through the summer, busying myself working my part-time restaurant job and working with Matt, another friend from Eastern, in dealing with the details of everything-- helping Mark's family take care of the house, getting together a reward fund, putting up posters and staying on the police to work on his case. I half-heartedly looked for a new job. My wife, I knew, was worried about me; I was always the guy taking care of everybody else, and here I was, totally unable to deal with this loss. I think she figured out that there wasn't much she or anybody else could do; I was going to have to find my own way out of it.

I talked to my twelve-year-old son, who had known Mark his whole life, about it. I told him that Atwood had been murdered. He was great-- he was understanding when I missed time with him to go to Mark's services, and talked to me about Mark and about my grief. I didn't tell my step-daughter, who is nine, that Mark was murdered-- I thought it would be a little much for her. I simply told her that Mark had died. In her youthful wisdom, I think she understood the best of anybody. Though she didn't know the details, she could sense I was struggling with a crushing sadness. As we ate breakfast together one Saturday morning, she told me that she thought she knew how I felt: like I had been punched REALLY hard in the stomach. I actually laughed out loud, and told her "You know, you are absolutely right." And she was. That gave me a moment of relief.

Everybody really stepped up to the plate. Mark's friend Aaron put up a tribute website. We all contributed pictures. Eric, Jim Reilly and Bill took it a step further and composed and recorded a startlingly beautiful song, For You, that immediately went on our ipods. Mark's parents loved the song, too.

We put together a candlelight vigil meant to keep awareness of the case. A few days before the vigil, I was out on my back porch sipping wine and looking over digital photos I'd taken on a recent trip to Seattle to visit Andreas, another friend from Eastern. I got a call from Matt: they had solved the case and arrested someone.

The details emerged over the next few days. As we had suspected, the son of a former tenant of Mark's was involved. He was the son of Sudanese refugees whom Mark had rented the other apartment in his building to. The kid had gotten involved, ironically, in a hispanic/white street gang; he and fellow gang members had burgalarized Mark's apartment. Mark eventually evicted the tenants, but on the night of June 3/4, four of the thugs, including the Sudanese kid, had shown up at his door with a gun, intending to rob him. He had no money in the house, and they tried to take him to an ATM. At some point, Mark tried to resist and escape, but was shot in the neck. They chased him down and caught him after he collapsed. As he lay in the street next to his house, they shot him three more times, probably killing him instantly.

The Sudanese kid was murdered a month later, on July 8. The cops think it was probably by his fellow robbers, who were afraid he'd "roll" on them. In August, WBEZ did a sympathetic piece on him. I shook with anger as I listened to it, knowing that this kid had led a crew of gang-bangers to rob and murder my friend. Where was the story on my beloved friend, this kid's victim?

That night, the night the case was solved, Matt and I talked for about an hour. I stayed up late into the night sipping scotch. Learning the details of Mark's death did not bring me peace. To the contrary-- the thought of how terrifying Mark's last 10 or 15 minutes of life must have been, getting abducted, getting pistol-whipped, led around at gunpoint and then murdered-- had left me shaken. I had to drink myself to sleep that night.

We went ahead and had the candlelight vigil, right by the spot near his house where Mark was murdered.

I finally began to get a handle on my grief one day late in August. I was putzing around the house with the television on in the background. Jim Jarmusch's "Broken Flowers" came on, and I started watching it. The ending is heartbreaking, and they had a wonderfully appropriate song at the end: "There is an End," by the Greenhornes, with Holly Golightly singing. I had to go right away to my laptop and track down the song. It immediately became a favorite.

There Is An End

Words disappear,
Words weren't so clear,
Only echos passing through the night.

The lines on my face,
Your fingers once traced,
Fading reflection of what was.

Thoughts re-arrange,
Familar now strange,
All my skin is drifting on the wind.

Spring brings the rain,
With winter comes pain,
Every season has an end.

I try to see through the disguise,
But the clouds were there,
Blocking out the sun (the sun).

Thoughts re-arrange,
Familar now strange,
All my skin is drifting on the wind.

Spring brings the rain,
With winter comes pain,
Every season has an end.

There's an end,
There's an end,
There's an end,
There's an end,
There's an end.

The song is about a love affair ending, but it helped me crack the code of my grief. Mark's murder, particularly the horrific way it happened, bothered me. But what I was really having trouble getting past was the reality that the friendship was over. A guy who I'd assumed I'd grow old with was gone. The friendship had ended, a friendship I'd enjoyed and depended on for decades. Realizing that this was the root of the problem helped me begin the process of healing.

In early September, I got a phone call from an old friend, whom I'd taught with at a West Side school my first year as a teacher. They needed a teacher at the charter school she worked at, and would I be interested? It was an "alternative" high school-- a high school to help young adults who'd dropped out of high school to finish their diplomas. I talked it over with my wife, and interviewed for the job, which they offered to me on the spot. I accepted.

The first couple of weeks were awful; the school had been slated to be closed, but was reopened at the last minute-- there was total disarray and chaos. Classes started. It was rough at first, but after a couple more weeks, things settled down.

One day we got a new kid. He stuck out like a sore thumb; he was the only white kid in the school. I found out shortly thereafter that he was a member of the gang that killed my friend. It was a small gang, so he almost certainly knew the guys who did it, and knew of the crime. I also found out that he was trying to get out of the gang.

I had planned to leave the teaching profession, and probably still will. But I've realized I need to do it for one more year.

There are a handful of "kids" (they're actually young adults, 17 to 21 years old) who I've taken under my wing, including the new guy. It's helped me deal with my loss-- to take the focus off of my feelings.

I came to realize how the kids had gotten to the point they had-- everybody and every thing had failed them. Their schools had failed them; their families had failed them; their churches, neighborhoods, even their street gangs had failed to bring them what they needed to find a way to function in life. I came to the sobering realization that I was it-- I was the last stop, the last chance to get them off the path they were on.

I take a few minutes every school day to talk to that handful of students, including the guy I've mentioned. Some of them, including that guy, don't even have class with me. I just keep hoping that just the realization that somebody does give a shit will help pull them through a rough day and help them figure out that they have value as human beings.

I don't know if I'll ever tell this kid about Mark. I have this fantasy that he'll find his way to a productive and happy life, and that some day years from now, I'll be walking down the street and run into him. He'll thank me for the talks and advice I gave him, for how it helped him find a better path. Maybe then I'll tell him what happened to my friend, and why it was so important to me to work with he and the others.

I don't know if I'll ever know if what I'm doing will actually help any of these kids in the long run, but for now it's what I have to do. It's the only way I've found that's helping me through my grief at the end of a splendid friendship.


Bubs said...


I think that is the single most impressive, saddest, best and most hopeful thing I've seen written in a long, long time.

Johnny Yen said...

Wow-- thanks. It's been rattling around in my head for a few weeks and finally came together this morning. It was very cathartic to write it.

Palette said...

Leave it to MD to sum up things. K had not told me the end to this story, now I feel weird today because someone unscrewed the eyepiece of our front door; now if you try to look out someone might squirt you with squid ink or battery acid. Without therapuetic day/alternative schools, there are some very lost souls without a road to travel. E is a testament to this. I think what you are doing at work is very good.

lulu said...

"I came to realize how the kids had gotten to the point they had-- everybody and every thing had failed them. Their schools had failed them; their families had failed them; their churches, neighborhoods, even their street gangs had failed to bring them what they needed to find a way to function in life. I came to the sobering realization that I was it-- I was the last stop, the last chance to get them off the path they were on."

This is why I teach, and why I will eventually have to leave teaching. "They" tell you not to get too emotionally involved with your students, but how can you not?

I am so sorry about your friend. He sounds like he was loved dearly by a lot of people. I am glad that writing this brought you some peace.

Aunt TA said...

I love reading your posts...just like working with you again! Keep them coming!

Johnny Yen said...

TA! I'm delighted to know you're reading my posts! I've missed you too.

Johnny Yen said...

Thanks, Lulu. It did give me some peace, putting it all together. I realize that he'd be pissed if I didn't move on in life.

You know, three years ago, I'd probably have argued that we must stay in the profession. Now, I'd have to say that if we're doing our jobs, we have to leave before we get consumed by it. We're no longer just teachers: we're counselors, psychiatrists, drill seargents, and even parents.

silentspring said...

I just found this post, many months after the fact. Mark Evans was a neighbor of sorts (I live two blocks away), and although I didn't know him, his murder haunted me. I grew up in rural Ohio, and moved to Chicago only a few years before you and your friend. I felt like it could easily have been me or my husband; we have both been menaced by gang members and drug dealers.

Having been raised in a loving home, in a nonviolent community, I can't begin to understand the kind of nihilism and rage I see in some of these young faces. I am very glad there are individuals like you who are trying to draw them away from gangs and toward better possibilities.

Johnny Yen said...

Thank you so much for thinking about him.

In dealing with his death, I keep thinking about Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird"-- reminding Scout that mockingbirds harmed no one, and were there to give everyone else enjoyment. That was Mark. I doubt the guy who did this has any notion of what a great guy's life he ended.

As a teacher and a parent, I see it as a failure of parenting. These kids have never been taught empathy, and it locks them in a cycle of violence as they hang around with people like themselves. Most of them have a violent end themselves.

I am leaving the teaching profession in a few weeks. I am satisfied thinking that I helped a few kids turn their lives around in my time as a teacher.