The Crow returns
In the southeast quadrant of Austin, residential blocks are bisected by alleyways. The alleys are lined by garages and sheds in the backyards of houses that face away to the avenues where there are curbs and sidewalks and canopies of trees. Snowplows have scuffed the alleys which are only infrequently repaired and their asphalt surfaces are buckled and scabbed with fractures. The garages lining the alley lanes are small and their doors are usually open in all weather to dark interiors crowded with discarded furniture, old power-tools, outboard motors and malevolent-looking snow blowers. The backyards between the garages are small, sometimes indifferently fenced with crumbling lathe or boards; in other places, particularly where there are savage and rambunctious dogs, the tattered lawns behind the houses are more efficiently fenced with wire and metal posts. Basketball backboards hang overhead like full moons and there are odd bundles and bouquets of wire and cable dangling from soffits or suspended under satellite dishes, trees clotted with squirrel nests, curious excavations in the grass and half-finished treehouses built for children who are now married and living in Minneapolis with children of their own, skeletal swing sets standing over ruined sandboxes and big plastic garbage bins surrounded by heaps of fallen twigs and brush cut with chainsaws to be piled against garage walls for pick-up that never occurs. In some places, there is evidence of obsessive pursuits: dismantled classic cars with fins and chrome grill like a shark’s grin, buckets used to grow tiny saplings, greenhouses wrapped in tattered plastic that hisses and wiggles in the wind, rock gardens, cement monuments encrusted with strangely colorful gravel like half-made tombstones, little fountains recycling the same yellowish water over and over again, a bubbling noise in the ragged shrubs, fiber-glass boats and canoes propped on sawhorses under clotheslines. The alleyways are mostly regular, a grid inserted within and inside the grid of streets, but there are odd exceptions, hard to remember deviations from the pattern – a sudden turn in an alley that is otherwise straight for ten blocks, or a dead-end where a ring of shabby garages encircles a claustrophobic cul-de-sac under a big, filthy-looking tree shedding branches and acorns and all sorts of other debris into the place where the narrow lane simply comes to an end...
A few days ago, I was walking my dog along an alley four blocks from my house, a place that I have traversed hundreds of times. The sun was setting and I saw a glint of light overhead, beyond the garages and backyard fences that I was passing. In the very center of the block, landlocked and isolated from the surrounding streets, a large building soared upward. The building had stained-glass windows and was two stories high with a sort of cloister-walk or arcade around its perimeter. At first, I imagined the structure to be a church of some sort or a hermitage – its arches looked vaguely gothic and the high curving windows locked in lead frames were pointed. How was it that I had never noticed this building before? And what was it doing in the very center of the residential properties, surrounded by them on all sides, apparently inaccessible by sidewalk or street? I was vexed with a sense of worry about the structure. Were there other outstanding monuments among the alleys that I had missed?
A week ago, I ventured down the snowy alley in the twilight. Ahead of me, I heard cans rattling together. The dog paused and looked down the lane to where a man was probing a garbage can with a pointed stick. The man had a long white beard and his head and throat were bare despite the cold weather – it was a few degrees below zero and everything was locked in ice and frost. The man didn’t look up at me as I passed and I knew enough to be circumspect about calling out to him. He was large and his back massive in the shabby coat that fell from his broad shoulders down as far the middle of his calves, a kind of Michaelangelesque- giant, and I saw that the man’s hair was a grey tangle, the wreckage of dreadlocks that were in disarray, unknotting themselves, spreading in alluvial fans over his bull-neck and upper back. It was the Crow, back from the penitentiary where he had been sent, perhaps, eighteen months ago, and he was rummaging, as was often his custom, in the garbage for aluminum cans to salvage. As I passed him, I suppose, he fixed me with his eye, his gaze like that of the Ancient Mariner, but I was careful to turn away from him and not be transfixed.
Loren "Crow" B– is a man in his sixties. He was briefly famous in the late nineteen-eighties when he was accused of placing bombs that destroyed the homes of two local Judges. The Crow, a well-known eccentric in my town, was tried for the bombings in Federal District Court in St. Paul and acquitted, although he was convicted of making terroristic threats to the County Attorney and various officers and directors of the Hormel Foods corporation and other local authorities including the chief of police, professors at the Community College, and the Federal Judge who presided over the bombing case herself, Judge Diana Murphy. Crow was sentenced to several years in Federal Prison but from his cell he launched a thousand more poison pen letters, threatening all sorts of people with all kinds of picturesque havoc, and this led the additional charges, and more court proceedings, and, ultimately, he spent more than ten years behind bars. A few years after the millenium, the Crow came back to town, older, but, apparently, not wiser. A fan of girl’s basketball, he attended games at the Austin High School gymnasium, much to the consternation of the parents of the female high school athletes that he admired. Ultimately, the Crow conceived an affection for one of the girl basketball players and tried to give her a bicycle as a gift. He accompanied the gift with protestations of love and affection and said that he hoped that the teenage girl would consider marrying him. A restraining order was sought and issued, but, of course, the Crow disobeyed that order and so was arrested and tried again, this time for violating a court order, that is, for contempt of court, and he was sentenced to prison once more – this time for four or five years. Everyone predicted that Crow would die in custody because, of course, his habit was to protest his imprisonment by writing hair-raising letters implying that if he were not promptly released someone’s house just might blow up or that some local gendarme or probation officer might be found bleeding in a gutter with his testicles removed, the same sort of threats that had cost the Crow more than ten years of his life a half-decade earlier.
Perhaps, the Crow had been forced to swallow medication that hampered his letter-writing skills, or, maybe, with onset of his dotage, he grasped that there was no point in continuing his crusade from his tiny prison cell if the screeds that he penned-there would merely earn him more hard-time, something, certainly, had happened, some change of heart had been navigated for here he was, standing in the alley, released from prison, big as life – yes, there he was indisputably present, a few yards from my dog who was straining her leash, Loren "Crow" B--- , picking through the rubbish to salvage cans that he could sell for a few cents apiece, a couple of pheasant feathers entangled in his hair, his face red and wind-burned, glowing slighting in the twilight, some bones dangling from his throat.
Now there are many things that I could tell you about the Crow. I am fascinated by him and once drove to Chicago to spend a long, exhausting day reading the transcripts of his trial in Federal Court. I have read the testimony that Crow gave at the climax of that trial when he faced-down the prosecutor and declared his innocence and I have studied Judge Diana Murphy’s remarks when she sentenced him and her oblique praise for the Crow as a man of implacable principles, a First Amendment purist, she declared, and "a most unusual man." I could write a book about the Crow and have a notebook full of handwritten notes about his trial and I knew both judges whose houses were shattered by midnight explosions, knew them well enough to have discussed their reactions to the Crow’s acquittal on the bombing threats with each of them. I have a hundred pages of notes, trial documents, the decision of the Trial Judge as printed in the Federal Reporter and, indeed, I have sometimes delivered speeches on the famous trial, a case of terrorism in our own hometown, an hour-long talk that I gave to the Freemasons in their Masonic Lodge, edited to 45 minutes for the Lions Club at the cafeteria of the Senior Citizen Center where they meet weekly. I could write four-hundred pages on this subject but this is neither the time nor the place.
But I will remark on the fact that one afternoon, during the few years between Crow’s imprisonments, I saw him wandering down the alleyway, carrying a burlap sack (he was supposed to have used a burlap sack to transport the bombs to the houses that were blasted apart), shuffling over the fractured asphalt and leaning a little on a staff that he used to stab and sort the garbage that he was collecting. It was a sunny day and I felt generous and my garage was full of pop cans that I had salvaged and kept there in big black plastic bags, crumpled aluminum cans that attracted wasps and bees, the sugary fluid oozing out of them to the delight of the ants as well, who trekked in and out of my garage to harvest the dextrose and glucose from the fluid spilled out in the bags and making the floor of my garage sticky. I called out to Crow: "Loren," I said. "I have some cans here if you want them." He grimaced and showed me his teeth flashing in his great white and prophetic beard – "Why would I want those cans?" I said: "I thought you salvaged them for money." "Oh no," the Crow said, his eyes glinting for an instant as if with a spark of anger: "I’m picking up the cans that people have left in alleyway. I don’t like to see litter on the landscape. So I’m policing the alleyway." "Oh, I see," I said. Crow shrugged and continued down the alley and I heard the freight in his burlap bag clinking a little as he walked.
And I will remark that in the weeks before Crow appeared in the alleyways near my house, I saw vast clouds of crows, the feathered, flying kind, black against the grey sky, playing over the alleys. The crows shrieked and cackled and more and more of them were recruited to participate in something that looked like sport to my eyes, an aerial game of Quidditch, the birds whirling in vortices over a huge pyramidal evergreen tree, swooping and darting, unimaginably swift, spiraling up into the cold winter heavens like plumes of black smoke.
And I will remark that when I hike the alleys after dark with my dog on the leash, the motion detectors flip on spotlights mounted on garage fascia on to illumine the gloomy alley. The light flares around me in a way that is faintly glamorous and, then, as I walk farther along my transit of the alley, the light switches off and all is darkness again. And I will remark that only the other day, I saw a narrow driveway penetrating into the center of the block, a driveway separate and apart from the alley that I was walking and at the end of the driveway I could see that the landowner had built behind his house a tall, cathedral-shaped garage with pointed arches and windows with stained glass and, of course, this caused me to wonder why the man’s garage was so much nicer and more ornate than his house. I couldn’t answer that question. There are puzzles all around us.