I suppose gawking out of morbid curiosity is a universal trait. In America they call it rubbernecking. In England crowds used to gather at public hangings or burnings at the stake, to see the condemned in extremis, and how they conducted themselves. For lesser crimes, we had the pillory and the stocks, restraining an offender for hours to suffer public humiliation and have things thrown at them. All these have been long abolished. Human suffering has no end but is seldom a public spectacle in civilized countries. When it does happen, some passers-by may feel an impulse to help, others avert their eyes.
Another restored post
Previously published on Friday December 2nd, 2016
There’s a particular spot in town where I’ve seen a few distressing incidents. I don’t why they happen there, at the entrance to a large supermarket. Usually it’s some altercation, even a clan feud with vicious words and gestures that might detonate a fight at any moment. Sometimes there’s bitterness and tears between a man and a woman. One fears physical violence, catches a taste of their pain while they pace back and forth in anguished rage, almost blocking people’s path, oblivious. There is nothing to be done but pass hastily.
On this occasion it was just inside the doors: a mass of struggling limbs on the floor, loud cursing and bellowing. I was curious and could have have found a ringside spot, if I didn’t consider it infra dig.—(“beneath one’s dignity; unbecoming one’s position”). So I did the next best thing and talked to a man further away who was watching attentively. He told me they’d caught a shop-lifter. So then I saw it was three uniformed employees trying to restrain a man who’d almost reached the exit doors, using their own weight to stop him getting up. Odd, I thought, but maybe that’s how it has to be done. They’ll be waiting for the police to arrive, he added helpfully. As was he, as was I. In the meantime I went to buy the milk I’d gone for. When I came back, the man was sitting up on the floor, docile and silent. A member of staff stood behind him, with a hand lightly resting on each shoulder. Security staff hovered nearby. Perhaps if I stood near the lift doors, pretending to wait for someone, I might catch sight of his face.
And so I did. He was a young man with a small goatee, slight of build, not quite filling his clothes. I thought he had rather a pleasant face, alert, foxy. After all that thrashing and bellowing he was perfectly calm, looking around idly like a patient in a waiting room, as if to pass the time. For a moment our eyes met. His seemed curious, not hostile or abashed. In his position I’d have been overwhelmed with shame. It wasn’t right to stare, so I moved away to the side, looking back into the store. Seconds later, he was surrounded by police officers. One was seven foot tall. One was female. Again I didn’t want to gawp, merely keep up with events, so I missed the moment where the young man renewed his bellowing and thrashing. It took three trained officers a while to get him pinned motionless, quite an achievement for a brave fellow—or a cornered rat, take your pick. They got him face down, hands behind his back, a tricky process, done with skill not violence. I wanted to see the handcuffs put on. But they waited till he was completely still, then one murmured in his ear. All I caught was “You’re under arrest, and anything you say . . . ” Then the handcuffs. More delays and consultations before they got him up and marched him gently to the rear customer entrance and their squad cars.
I followed at a discreet distance, found a vantage-point by a pillar of the multi-storey car park, near a young man in a hoodie watching the scene. I thought he would like to know what was going on, that a shoplifter had been held in a violent struggle: all for stealing a cabbage. I’d seen it clutched in the man’s hand, and when the police took him out, one of them was carrying this plastic bag with some green vegetable in it. He laughed when I mentioned the cabbage, kept his gaze on the scene. “Actually I know him,” he said. So I asked “Is he all right? In the head, I mean?” “Oh yes,” he said. “And now they’ll be putting him straight back in jail.”
As if on cue, the prisoner looked across and saw us, attempted to wave to his friend, remembered the handcuffs, jerked his head instead and shouted some greeting.
This was the end of my witnessing. Next day Karleen sent me to Tony the barber, it being now two or three weeks since she suggested a trim. He asked if I was keeping busy, I said, “Oh yes, the devil finds work for idle hands to do,” which got him talking about his metalwork teacher at school. You can feed him any line, he’ll pick it up and run with some tale or other. It’s never the same story, always new material. I’ve only to mention the Isle of Wight, for example, or walking. He keeps a caravan on the Island, and still does half-marathons for charity. One topic leads to another. So I told him about the incident and its puzzling aspects. Why would three staff struggle dangerously with someone who’d merely failed to pay for a cabbage? Why did he suddenly quieten down, looking totally unconcerned till the police showed up, and then kick up a fresh storm, giving them no option but to arrest him? And then there was the matter of his friend, outside, who seemed to take it all for granted.
We solved the mystery there and then. This was a man with his own sense of style, a code of honour even. Let no one call him a petty thief: that would be quite infra dig. The cabbage was naught but a stage prop in a show he’d choreographed and directed, taking the starring role. It went as planned. He was the put-upon hero, who got his own way in the end. And if he didn’t?
“He’d go to the next supermarket, try again,” said Tony.
“Yes, for all we know he’d done it several times, but why?”
“It’s probably the cold weather,” he said. “We all have tomorrow to think of. Any sane man has to look at what options he’s got, and choose the least worst.”
I’ve reported truly what I witnessed. The rest is speculation. Who can know another’s life, look into their heart and judge?
Bryan said… So you’re saying that he wanted to get arrested? Just for the shelter? Or was he … mmm … engineering a justification for his spite towards society, I guess we could say? Or both?
Vincent said… I surmised that having recently come out of jail, he felt safer inside. We talked about similar cases in my Death Row post. Engineering a justification for his spite towards society? I’d guess he couldn’t afford such a luxury. Chronic losers are so inured, so used to losing, they merely shrug. And I’m guessing that those who court jail sentence, purposely or carelessly, can’t remember anything better. Long-established winners, on the other hand, cannot bear to lose ground, that’s when they try to dress up spitefulness as virtue. Just guessing. While not knowing.
Cindy said… You guess right. Over the last 30 years I have heard every inmate life story in the book. The majority of which begin at birth with the crime of having been born poor and treated like trash by their communities. Their entire lives hopelessly wasted over one crime committed when they were practically children and barely adults. They really “can’t remember anything better” and those are the ones who most appreciate how the prison system protects them and treats them with dignity and respect. Someone close to me got to visit the cell of an inmate who’d been in several of the Ferguson riots, and saw what an incredibly beautiful castle he’d carved from soap. The work and detail in it was astounding. When he told the inmate how talented he was he teared up and said nobody had ever told him that before. I guess my point is that nobody is born knowing how to burn down an entire city. You never know what somebody else has been through or is going through. There is so much talent and goodness in this world among the ignored and forgotten.