San Francisco Chronicle, Tuesday, 15 March, 1955:
“17-Year-Old Shoots Self on Telegraph Hill, Dies.”
Stephen Gordon, 17-year-old Lincoln High School junior, was shot and fatally wounded early yesterday on Telegraph Hill, and police recorded the death as a suicide.
Homicide inspectors had investigated because of several puzzling circumstances—among them the fact that no one could explain why the youth had gone to Telegraph Hill.
A newsboy found him, unconscious, his .22 caliber rifle by his side, lying on a board walk in front of 231-A Greenwich Street. He was hurried to Mission Emergency Hospital by ambulance shortly after 6 a.m., and died there at 1:26 p.m.
Only a few hours before he was found dying, Gordon had said a cheery good night to his attractive girl friend, Charlene Harrington, 18, at her home at 80 Douglas Street.
Her home is miles from Telegraph Hill, and so is Gordon’s home, 2471 28th Avenue, where he lived with his mother and stepfather, Mr. and Mrs. Otto Voight.
Beneath Gordon’s body was a scrap of paper bearing the name Harrington and a telephone number, and it was this that led inspectors Ralph McDonald and George Asdrubal to the story of Gordon’s last date.
And when they visited other friends of the youth, whose names Miss Harrington recalled, they found evidence he had been suffering from mental depression for some time.
“His friends told us he’d been all mixed up,” Inspector McDonald said.
“They said he used the word ‘futile’ quite often,” the inspector added. “Said he told them it all seemed futile, and that in this world he didn’t have a place. He studied world affairs and world problems, we found, and he evidently worried a lot—just carried the whole weight of the world on his shoulders.”
Police who checked the Voigt residence also learned that Gordon had cleaned out his room completely on Saturday, burning many of his pictures and papers in the backyard incinerator, as though he were planning to leave and not return.
Miss Harrington, still shaken by her nerve-wracking visit to the hospital operating room to identify Gordon, said she had known of no suicide plan—nor of any reason for one.
She had known Gordon for years, she reported, but he had been dating her only in recent weeks. She had invited him to dinner Sunday evening, but he took her to dinner instead, at The Shadows Restaurant, 1349 Montgomery Street. Then they saw the play “The Crucible,” a grim story of witchcraft trials, and returned to the Harrington home to listen to records.
Gordon left at 12:30 a.m., Miss Harrington said—apparently as cheery as ever.
“We just can’t understand it,” said his mother as she and her husband were waiting anxiously in the hospital lobby hours after the shooting.
Gordon’s employer, Gordon L. Flinn, who operates an orthodontic laboratory at 240 Stockton Street, was equally puzzled. Gordon had worked part time at the laboratory for eight months, Flinn said, “and always seemed normal—rather happy, in fact. And the last thing he said Saturday was ‘See you Monday’.”
Gordon’s record at Lincoln High School was good and his behavior normal, principal Joseph B. Hill reported. Gordon was especially interested in art, and had taken a correspondence course in art outside of school hours.
The principal described him as “a very good boy,” and said he knew of no suicide motive.
The gun Gordon used, police said, was his own rifle; and a neighbor saw him carrying a package approximately the size of the rifle from his home Sunday afternoon.
San Francisco Examiner, Tuesday, 15 March, 1955:
“S.F. Boy Artist Kills Self on Telegraph Hill”
A teenage artist fatally wounded himself yesterday morning at a point on Telegraph Hill where he frequently went to sketch.
Although the youth had frequently scoffed at suicide in the past, police said the wound was self inflicted.
Steven Gordon, 17, was found face down with a .22 bullet between the eyes on a wooden walkway opposite 237 Greenwich Street.
He was still alive when found at 6 a.m. by a newspaper delivery boy, and somehow stayed alive in Mission Emergency Hospital until 1:19 p.m.
There was a .22 caliber rifle beside him. He was known to have had such a gun at his home, 2471 28th Avenue.
A scrap of paper under the dying boy’s body led to the identification of the Lincoln High School junior. It bore the telephone number of Charlene Harrington, 17, a former schoolmate and Post Street shop salesgirl living at 80 Douglas Street.
She told police they had been going out together occasionally, although “there was nothing serious.” Sunday night, she reported, they had dinner at a Telegraph Hill restaurant, attended an amateur stage show in the upper Market Street district and talked for a while at her home before he left at 12:30 a.m.
She said he was in good spirits at the time. Two weeks ago, she recalled, they had an academic discussion about suicide in which he asserted he could see no reason for self-destruction for anyone who “has sensibilities.”
His mother, Mrs. Ramona Voigt, and his stepfather, Otto, also could give no reason for a suicide. But some of the boy’s schoolfellows said he had spoken of self-destruction and was “mixed up.”
Police learned that the boy had carefully cleaned out his room at home of most of his personal possessions and had burned them—including most of his sketches.
He was an apprentice technician in a dental laboratory, but according to Miss Harrington, his real interest was art.
Funeral services will be held at 9:45 a.m. tomorrow at the Julius S. Godeau Mortuary, 41 Van Ness Avenue.
Interment will follow in Golden Gate National cemetery, as the youth was a minor child of a war veteran.
In my seventh period Art History class, the last class of the day that Monday afternoon in March, Mrs. Conklin [not her real name] was telling us about Les Fauves, the “Wild Beasts,” a group of rebellious French painters who worked in the early years of the 20th century. Their name had been given to them, scornfully, dismissively, by some of the mainstream painters and critics of the time, who insisted that their painting lacked all discipline and control. Mrs. Conklin told us that the membership of the group was fluid and amorphous— painters dropping in and out depending on their personal lives and travels—but it notably included Henri Matisse, André Derain, Maurice Vlaminck, and Raoul Dufy. Nobody (outside the rarified world of hardcore scholars of Art History) now remembers the names of the mainstream painters and critics who dismissed them all as “wild beasts.”
On my own I never would have signed up for Art History, but I’d declared Art as my major, so I was required to take it. (Students at Lincoln High, in those days, had to declare a major.) I actually ended up liking the class—or at least not minding it. The course marched us past the major movements and periods of (Western) art as if we were on a bus tour—from pre-historic cave paintings and fertility images, through classical Greek and Roman sculpture, Byzantine and medieval murals and saints, the embarrassments of the Renaissance (which seemed to make Mrs. Conklin ill-at-ease and self-conscious—all those naked bodies! All that extravagance!), the Dutch “genre” painters, Van Gogh and the premonitions of Modernism, up to—on that Monday afternoon—Les Fauves, the “Wild Beasts. Waiting in the wings, in the weeks ahead of us that spring semester, was the full flowering of Post-Impressionism—Cubism, Futurism, Picasso, Duchamp’s “Ready-Mades” (including his infamous urinal), and the beginnings of Abstract Expressionism—the “drip-and-drool” painters—the total overturning of the old order.
I liked Les Fauves, and used their French name, rather than “Wild Beasts” whenever I talked about them with my friends. It made me feel closer to them to talk about them in their own language. Often I would use air quotes around the French name, to indicate how much I distanced myself from the mainstream critics who’d given it to them, a name I both scoffed at and agreed with at the same time. I liked their wildness and their energy, their willingness to use “distortion” to express their powerful emotions, their refusal to be enslaved by strictures like perspective and rules about color, their refusal to think of themselves as inert cameras, obliged simply to make the best “likeness” they could of the world in front of them. I liked Vlaminck’s tortured landscapes with their impossible colors, and also Dufy’s simplified, jovial, almost cartoon-like scenes.
One of the most important Fauvist pictures for me at this time was Derain’s 1905 portrait of Matisse, in which the older Matisse— bearded, his face and hands, his smock, all smeared with paint, his hair and beard uncut and uncombed. Matisse glares out of the painting, glaring directly at the viewer, moving forward as if ready to step directly out of his jumbled studio, right through the frame, through the picture plane, right into the world of the viewer.
I wouldn’t have been able to put it into these words at that time, but it’s clear to me now that what absorbed me into that painting then was just this image of Matisse as the figure of The Artist, mediating between those two worlds, the world of art and the world of the viewer. Me. I longed to be part of the world that artist was striding out of, to be that figure, mediating between those two worlds.
In the summer of the previous year I’d read Irving Stone’s novelized biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life, and I’d been utterly taken over by Stone’s romanticized portrayal of Van Gogh’s madness. In his lethal commitment to art, to his own vision of art—even if that vision led to madness—Van Gogh possessed me then. He was a saint to me, and his death a kind of martyrdom. I remember reading the book non-stop, on benches and on buses and in my summer session classes (I had to make up my failed classes some-how, if I was to have any hope of graduating with the rest of my classmates), reading frenziedly, as if the pages might burst into flame before I’d finished them. As I got toward the end of the book, the last hundred pages or so, I remember trying to slow my reading down: I’d been dwelling in Van Gogh’s mad world for weeks now, and I didn’t want that dwelling to end, as I knew it would when I finished the last page. I didn’t want to be turned out of that world.
It wasn’t lost on me, even then, at age seventeen, that there was a rich irony in the fact that we were studying these Fauves, these wild men, in a room that was as ordered and disciplined as a military formation. The class began officially at 2:05 and ended officially at 3:10, both the initiation and the termination of the class announced by the prolonged clanging of electric bells. Throughout the entire seventh period we sat in perfectly ordered rows, the desks in paired columns, marching two-by-two, each student partnered and placed in a pre-assigned slot. This arrangement made taking the roll easier, Mrs. Conklin told us when I asked. The seating chart would also make it possible, she insisted, for her to identify by name the students who made comments or asked questions. She maintained this, even though, as a rule, the class included almost no student participation or discussion or give-and-take of ideas. Mostly, Mrs. Conklin showed us slides, commenting on them as she went. Often she had a student at the back of the room run the slide projector while she stood at the front of the room, transcribing analyses and interpretations from her notebook to an outline she wrote on the board. Our job was to transcribe her transcriptions from the blackboard to our own notebooks. Periodically we would turn our notebooks in to her, and she would grade them, based on their accuracy and completeness. We were free to add our own comments and questions to these transcriptions, but Mrs. Conklin almost never responded to our reactions, questions, disagreements or requests for further information.
I’m afraid I’m making Mrs. Conklin sound like a jerk, and I don’t mean to. I liked her. She was an impressively well-informed young woman, fairly new to teaching and so a little unsure of herself. Her uncertainty, coupled with her evident passion for art, made her very appealing to me. I was fairly certain that she’d only recently completed her graduate degree in Art History, and that this was at most her second or third year on the job. She was a pleasant, friendly woman, and she often allowed me to make up late work without penalty. I came to class pretty much every day, and got straight A’s on all the quizzes and in-class exams, but I almost never did any of the homework, and so ended up with C’s in both halves of the two-semester course.
The desk assigned to me was right in the front row, directly in the line of sight from her desk. At first I thought this might have been random. She maintained throughout that year that she had made all the seating assignments randomly. But I came to suspect that she’d probably spoken with some of my previous teachers, and she’d probably ended up taking their suggestion that she should seat me where she’d be able to keep an eye on me rather than let me choose a seat in the back row, where I’d collude with the other back-row kids and mouth off and disrupt the class.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t mind the seating assignment, partly because the desk next to me was assigned to Nancy H, a blonde who managed to be very attractive in spite of being a little overweight. “Pleasingly plump,” these girls were called in those days. Of course I ended up developing a crush on her, and even though nothing romantic ever developed between us, we stayed good friends. She was a warm, generous girl with an easy laugh and a tendency to mother the boys around her. She always asked me, for instance, if I didn’t want to take off my jacket, since the room was almost always a little overheated. Wouldn’t I be more comfortable with my jacket off?
I always said no. I wore a green nylon “Bomber” style jacket then, and I kept it on all the time, indoors and out, because I wasn’t able to take baths or showers as often as I knew I should—certainly not every day—and I was anxious that I might be giving off “B. O.” or “Body Odor.” “B. O.” was a huge issue in the culture of the mid-nineteen-fifties. I remember a series of TV ads for some deodorant that warned, “Even your best friend might not tell you” that you were giving off “B. O.,” and so offending the people around you and getting yourself labeled as something less than civilized. I couldn’t take baths or showers regularly during this stretch of time, so I was sure that noxious gasses were emanating constantly from my filthy, unwashed body. The green bomber jacket was my effort to contain the miasma rising invisibly from my torso. Maybe it worked, but I could never be sure: even my best friends wouldn’t tell me.
The Art History classroom had a very high ceiling, and the windows that took up all of the western wall of the room reached almost all the way up to this ceiling, giving the room a sense of airy spaciousness, a space that was bathed in light. On that Monday afternoon I was leaning back in my desk, listening to Mrs. Conklin as she compared the color palette of Dufy to that of an earlier painter, taken by some as a precursor of Les Fauves, Paul Gaugin.
This was all very familiar. These lectures had been going on for more than a semester now, and I relaxed into the familiar cadences of Mrs. Conklin’s voice as if I were relaxing in a warm bath, luxuriating in the afternoon light that poured in through those tall windows. In the desk next to me Nancy leaned forward, taking notes.
Then the classroom door opened and a boy strode through it—from the dim hallway outside that led to other classrooms, to the library and the cafeteria. And to the principal’s office. The boy strode into the still, ordered, sunlit rectangular space of Mrs. Conklin’s lecture on the differences between the color palettes of Gaugin and Dufy. This boy had come to remind me that the world of the hallway was different from the world of the classroom. As opposed to the airy, bright, neat orderliness of the classroom, the hall outside was a world of dimness, a world filled, during the short “passing periods” between classes, with a kind of Brownian motion of students in transit from one classroom to another. The hallway was a world full of voices raised above the hubbub of competing conversations and clanging bells and locker doors being banged open and shut as crowds of kids thronged past. Now, interrupting Mrs. Conklin’s lecture, the boy strode forward into the classroom, holding a small, square piece of paper, which he was already beginning to raise and offer to her. Mrs. Conklin stopped talking and watched him approach her, focused, it seemed to me, on the piece of paper.
I recognized this boy, even though I’d never learned his name. I knew him from “Detention,” hours spent silently in the Detention Hall, doing homework, or reading, after 3:10, after the end of the school day, after the other kids, the ones who weren’t being penalized this way, had gone home. I’d spent hours in Detention Hall with this boy and miscellaneous other kids, almost all of us boys—penalized for tardiness, or for cutting class or for “cutting up” during class. I couldn’t begin to count up the hours I’d spent in Detention with this boy, or with other boys who might as well have been him. I saw him in Detention Hall so often that I began to get the impression that the offenses we committed had somehow been synchronized—that we both always got into trouble at exactly the same time, and got sent to Detention at the same time. As he’d come through the door and I’d recognized him, the boy became a figure of me, I thought, and I wondered what could have happened that was important enough to interrupt Mrs. Conklin’s class. I’d done this kind of messenger-boy duty often enough myself. It was part of the school’s penal code. When you did this duty, you spent most of your time sitting on a bench just outside the main office, waiting for a message to deliver. “Riding the pine,” this was called. Sitting there, we were all on display: everybody who passed saw that we were working off detention time. When you did get a message to deliver it was always a relief: it broke the boredom of waiting. It was a relief too from the stress of being on display on that bench as one of the “boys who always got into trouble”. On your way to deliver the message you could of course always step out a door, out onto the sidewalk, and have a smoke. I always took advantage of this opportunity, even though my craving for a smoke really wasn’t that intense. It was something else forbidden, something else associated with grown-ups. When you walked into the classroom to deliver the note, you got a glimpse of some of your friends, and somehow—with a look or a guarded gesture—you could confirm your solidarity.
The boy with the message had now crossed the space between the door and Mrs. Conklin’s desk. Now he had finished raising his hand. He offered her the note. He looked at me, and we exchanged a perfunctory nod. Mrs. Conklin studied the note for a moment in silence. Still leaning back in my desk I looked at the back of Nancy’s blonde head. Her sweater was taut across her back and her shoulders as she continued to lean forward, writing in her notebook. I could almost count the vertebrae as they made their sinuous way up between her shoulder blades. At age seventeen I was very conscious of the meaty, physical quality of bodies, especially girls’.
Mrs. Conklin looked at me.
Discretely, she crossed the distance between the blackboard, where she’d been writing, and my desk in the front row. “Ronald,” she said to me in a voice she was trying to make into a whisper but which ended up sounding like an “aside,” as if we were actors in a play and the other students were the audience. “Ronald, you’re wanted in Mr. Hill’s office.”
“Oh, Oh! Busted!” some anonymous voice called out from the back row.
I looked at the clock, and began to gather my books and papers. Whatever this was about, it wasn’t going to be over before the end of class. It was already ten minutes to three. As I closed up my books and gathered my papers Nancy looked up, saying, “I’ll show you my notes tomorrow.”
“Thanks,” I said.
I walked toward the door, where the boy with the message had already retreated. As soon as we were out in the hall I asked him,“Any idea what this is all about?”
“Hey,” he said, hardly looking at me as we walked side-by-side down the dim, broad hallways lined with lockers, quiet now. “You know the drill, same as me. I just deliver the message. I don’t got a fucking clue what this is about.”
As we walked down the echoing hallways and around several corners to Mr. Hill’s office, I tried to recall what I’d done recently that might cause me to be called in this way. I was being called in at the end of the day, so whatever it was, it was something major. Otherwise they’d have let it wait till tomorrow morning. I could remember a couple of classes I’d cut, but that kind of thing would have been handled routinely in Home Room tomorrow, not by a summons like this.
Then it began to occur to me that this might not be about something I had done, but rather some trouble one or more of my friends had gotten into. One of them, maybe some of them, had done something major, and now I was being called in to identify them or to vouch for their alibi. I began to call to mind all the places I’d been the last several days, and what time I’d been there and who I’d been with, just to able to keep my own story straight. If these guys were trying to use me for an alibi without cluing me in beforehand, they’d cooked their own goose. I couldn’t help them.
What might they have done? What kind of trouble might they have gotten themselves into? They might have been drinking. They might have brought some liquor to school. Cigarettes and smoking were always a problem, but nothing involving cigarettes would have provoked a summons to Mr. Hill’s office at the end of seventh period. Drinking would have been more serious, but it still would have been handled routinely. A couple of months ago two of my friends had stolen a car. They asked me if I wanted to go in on the deal. Their plan was to steal a car, change its plates, and then drive it around indefinitely: it would be their car. If I’d gone along with them it would have been partly “my” car too. A time-share deal. I told them no. They stole a car, and drove it to a deserted, heavily wooded area of Golden Gate Park, where they took its plates off, replacing them with plates they’d stolen from some other car a week or so before. They were halfway through the plate-swapping operation when they were jumped by the SFPD.
That was a felony, and a little higher than usual in the range of felonies my friends had committed. But they couldn’t be calling me in for something like that now: Grand Theft Auto would be a police matter, not something that would get me called in to Mr. Hill’s office. I tried to prepare myself for the worst, mostly by trying to leave my mind blank, and by putting on my “game face,” expressionless, ready to tell the principal nothing. He would have to show his cards first.
But part of what perplexed me and made me start to feel edgy and jumpy with anxiety was the fact that the note had called me in—not to “the office,” or even “the principal’s office”—but specifically to “Mr. Hill’s office.” The school’s main office was a large, well-lit room with windows that looked out onto the main corridor. Walking toward it now I could see the half-dozen or so women working inside—typing, talking on the phone, filing, or talking with students at the front counter. When you got called to “the office,” or even “the principal’s office,” it meant you had to deal with one of these women. Mr. Hill’s private office, though, occupied a large corner within that office, a separate chamber with its own windows that looked out onto the main office.
As I walked down the wide hallway with my silent guide I could see through the outer windows, where all the women were doing their various tasks. I could see through those outer windows, and through the windows that closed off Mr. Hill’s inner sanctum. He was sitting at his desk, formal and upright, engaged in what I could tell, even from this distance, was serious conversation with two men in dark suits, both of whom were standing. At one glance I knew they were plain-clothes detectives.
Just as my guide and I got to the main door he turned away, toward the bench beside it, where a couple of other detention boys were riding the pine.
“Cops?” I asked him.
He shrugged his shoulders and made a face that said, “Don’t ask me.”
This was hardly the first time I’d been called to a principal’s office and been confronted there by the police. One previous time, when I was in the eighth grade at Mission Dolores, where all the teachers were Sisters of Mercy, a couple of buddies and I decided it would be a great idea to take bets on the horses at the local tracks—Tanforan, Bay Meadows, Golden Gate Fields. We took bets of a quarter or a dollar or two—lunch money amounts, really. We promised to pay the same odds the track payed, and in the first few weeks we cleared eight-ten-fifteen dollars a day. Not much, after it was split three ways, but it kept us in cigarettes and snacks and an occasional splurge movie. Besides, it wasn’t so much the money that really excited us but the special status that being bookies gave us among the other kids. We were the inner circle, we were in demand, celebrated, dispensers of “free” money, keepers of arcane knowledge about odds, betting options, track conditions, and the names of the horses, which were charged with the magic of something far-off and glamorous. We were also possessed and thrilled at doing something really bad, being bookies, something only grown-ups did.
Then, one day, a sixth-grader hit a long shot: he’d put two dollars on a thirty-five-to-one shot and won. Of course we couldn’t pay, so we just gave him his two dollars back, along with a veiled threat about what would happen to him if he squealed. He went straight to the nuns, who immediately called in the cops.
When I got to the principal’s office that day in the eighth grade, when I was thirteen years old, I wasn’t sure which of my many sins I’d be ordered to confess to her, but the bookmaking was pretty high on the list. I walked in. There was Mother Superior, in her black robe and head dress, sitting at one end of a long library table, in conversation with a burly man in a dark suit, who stood at the far end of it. I took one look at him and immediately thought, “Oh my god! He’s a cop!” I felt a kind of panic: this wasn’t just a matter of school discipline any more, but something that required the strong arm of the law. How could Mother Superior make our lunch-money bets into a matter of crime? We hadn’t killed anybody or stolen anything. We weren’t grown-up criminals, we were eighth graders.
Coldly, almost ignoring me, she said to the cop, “Officer ___________ ...” [She mentioned his name, but I can’t recall what it was].
“Detective ___________,” he corrected her, and motioned dismissively at me.
“Sit down,” he ordered me. He stayed on his feet, and this increased the size differential between us. I was sure that this was the effect he wanted. I had to crane my neck to look up into his face, and I pretty quickly gave it up, keeping my eyes instead on the table in front of me.
“I understand there’s been some horseplay around here.” He seemed very pleased with his little play on words.
I decided that the safest course would be to play dumb, to admit as little as possible for as long as I could hold out. “You mean, like ‘horsing around’?” I asked.
He leaned down, his knuckles on the table, hulking over me. “No,” he snorted as if he’d just bitch-slapped me. His impatience washed over me like the smell of his sweat. “I don’t mean ‘horsing around’! You-Know-Exactly-What-I-Mean!” Each word was intended, I knew, to have the force of another slap. I was amazed, even at age thirteen, at how much he sounded and looked and acted exactly like every movie cop I’d ever seen. Even without the beard he reminded me of Bluto, the bad guy in the “Popeye” cartoons.
But he was no cartoon, and he was scaring the hell out of me. I was afraid that, any second now, he would lose whatever control he still had over his temper, and actually begin pummeling me. This was part of the movie-cops image in my mind, cops as guys who knew about ways to beat people up that wouldn’t even leave any scars or bruises.
For a few moments I thought—for sure he’d never hit me in front of Mother Superior: she could be called in as a witness. Then I remembered that Mother Superior—all of the nuns—had never for a moment hesitated to hit me, or any other student, when we got out of line. If we talked in class or sassed one of the teachers, the nuns called us up to the front of the room and ordered us to hold out our palms. Then, in front of the whole class, they took a wooden ruler and whacked us five or ten times on our hands. Some of the sisters seemed genuinely conflicted about this kind of punishment, but others, I would have sworn, even at the time, seemed to get some kind of enjoyment or excitement out of whacking the boys this way, seeing the boy’s face crumple as he tried to hold back his tears, and then the tears themselves spurting out of his almost-closed eyes.
At one point my friends and I conspired together to defy the nuns. We didn’t sit down and write out an oath, or swear to anything in blood, but out on the yard one day after one of us had been whacked like this, we all agreed we’d show them. When we were ordered to come to the front of the class to be “brought under the rule of law,” as the nuns phrased it, we all agreed that we’d look the nuns in the eye. We’d freely hold out our hands to be struck with their rulers, but we wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of crying out in pain. We would look the nuns in the eye as they whacked us, and we wouldn’t flinch. They could scourge our hands as much as they liked, whatever satisfaction or enjoyment it gave them, but they could never break our spirit. We were very pleased with our new-found roles as defiant rebels.
To my astonishment the nuns were visibly baffled and upset by what we did.
After a number of us had gotten our five or ten whacks without crying out or even flinching, the nuns backed away from corporal punishment, and resorted to talking us into compliance with the rules.
Then the hardliners—Mother Superior was the leader of these—moved in and took over. Some boy spoke out in class, just a routine sort of pop-off, the kind of thing we were all—teachers and students alike—accustomed to living with. Mother Superior ordered him to come to the front of the class and take his “whacks.” Of course he was one of my buddies. He swaggered up to Mother Superior’s desk and offered the palms of his hands, supremely confident he could take whatever the nun could dish out.
I’ll never forget the steel-eyed coldness of Mother Superior, the Sister of Mercy, when she told the boy standing in front of her and smirking while he held up his palms to be punished—“Turn your hands over.”
Now she was smirking. This was the new regime: from now on, she was announcing, we were going to be whacked, not on our palms but on our knuckles. Mother Superior was triumphant, and when the boy began to blubber and shriek she taunted him, sneering, “I thought you were supposed to be one of the tough guys! You were supposed to be able to ‘take it’!”
The cop hulking over me now in the Mother Superior’s office was scaring me a lot more than any nun who’d ever whacked my knuckles with a ruler, and I knew I couldn’t appeal to Mother Superior for protection.
But as terrorized as I was, there was still a corner of my mind that kept whispering to me that if this guy really intended to arrest me for book-making, as an adult, he’d have done it by now, without any of these theatrical questions about ‘horseplay’. In fact, his whole purpose in being there was to evoke terror in me, to “scare me straight” in part by putting his power on display. All I would have to do, this corner of my mind kept whispering to me, was to play my usual role of being scared and contrite, and this Bluto-cop would leave, and my buddies and I could all go on the same way as before. Except we wouldn’t tempt fate by taking any more bets on the horses.
I was wrong.
Mother Superior sacked us all—both of my buddies and me. We were all expelled. This was only the last of what she described to my mother as a long list of “last straws,” ultimate chances she’d given me that I’d spurned and even scoffed at. God knows she had been patient with me, and merciful, but this was how I repaid her efforts to help me. I had worn out her patience.
I transferred to Everett, a public junior high school about two blocks up the street and around the corner.
But that Monday afternoon in March, as I paused at the front desk of the main office, looking at the cops in Mr. Hill’s office, I was struck by how differently these cops were behaving, compared to that Bluto-cop who’d terrorized me in Mother Superior’s office four years before. That guy had been all swagger and bluster, all forward-leaning aggression, whereas the two plain-clothes detectives talking to Mr. Hill appeared to me to be trying to take up as little room as possible in his office. They ducked their heads as they talked, leaving their hands in their pockets or across their chests. If there were one word I would use to describe their behavior and the way they presented themselves it would be reverent. They weren’t bowing and scraping, yet there was something reserved and respectful and serious emanating from them that filled me with a vague dread. It was if they’d been called in to take part in some ceremony that involved handling something holy and dangerous. This intuition convinced me that I was being called in to answer questions about something way beyond car-theft or bookmaking, something way “serious”. This looked grave.
As I came up to the front counter one of the middle-aged women who ran the office was standing just behind it, looking at me kindly. She smiled an uncertain smile and said, “Mr. Hill will see you now.” She recognized me, of course, as one of the boys who spent a lot of time sitting on the bench outside, Riding the Pine. She unlocked a little gate in the front counter and waved me toward the inner office.
Mr. Hill motioned me to one of the chairs that faced his desk and spoke to me in a voice I could only describe as “shaken.” He said to me, almost as if he were distracted, “Ronald, please have a seat. This is Inspector McDonald and Inspector Asdrubal, from the San Francisco Police Department. They have some questions they want to ask you.”
I looked at Mr. Hill. I looked at the two men in suits. Knowing their names did not change my image of them in any way: they were still two plain-clothes cops. In the principal’s office. With me. I tried to maintain my “game face”. Mr. Hill nodded to the men. Now they were in charge.
One of them took out a notebook, and the other moved out from the corner where he’d been standing and stood directly in front of me. Then, instead of barking out questions, the way I’d expected him to, he sat down in the other chair that faced the desk. This put him some three feet away from me, and at eye-level. In a very restrained voice, really a kind voice, he said to me, “You know, Ronald, we need to get some information that you may be in a position to give us. You’re not a suspect, or anything like that, but you might be able to help us. Would you be willing to help us, Ronald?”
I kept my game face on. This guy was obviously the “Nice Cop.” If I got smart-alecky or tight-lipped with him, they’d bring in the “Tough Cop”. I waited to see what this was all about. “Sure,” I said.
“Ronald, you know a boy, a student here, named Stephen Gordon? He’s a friend of yours, is that correct?”
My game face fell apart.
Steve Gordon? He was absolutely the last person I could think of who would get into trouble. Steve had been a friend, one of my closest friends, for years. Going all the way back to eighth grade, at Everett, where we’d met in Miss Andresen’s Art class. I’d never heard of Steve getting into trouble: I’d never seen him in detention or riding the pine. He was a serious, good student who always got his assignments in on time. As far as I knew he’d never even been busted for tardiness. He was also very mature and handsome, and on top of that he was a hugely talented artist. It was a staggering shock, it was confusing, to hear his name mentioned like this in Mr. Hill’s office. By a police inspector.
Hesitantly, I told the man, “Ye-ess.” It came out sounding more like a question than an answer.
“Ronald,” the man said. He reached out his hand and put it on the arm rest of my chair: he wasn’t touching me, but he looked like he was trying to establish some kind of bond between his chair and mine. “Do you know of any reason why Stephen would want to try to take his own life?”
I could feel my jaw dropping open. I could see my right hand coming up to cover my mouth. I could feel my lips suddenly going cold. I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. I pushed back in my chair, as if increasing the distance between this man and myself would make his question go away. I was suddenly having trouble breathing.
I wanted to say “No!” Not “No, I don’t know of any reason,” but “No, none of this is true, none of this is happening.”
The plain-clothes detective who was sitting next to me wasn’t listening to what I wanted. He went on: “Some time late last night or early this morning Stephen Gordon walked up to Telegraph Hill. He was found early this morning, barely alive. He’d sustained a single gunshot wound to the head. His own rifle was lying next to him. Do you know of any reason why he would have walked up to Telegraph Hill? He doesn’t live anywhere near there ...”
As I sat there, with my hand still over my mouth, trying to start my breathing going again, the door opened, and the same woman who had waved me through the front counter a few minutes ago slipped into the room, looking more solemn than anyone I’d ever seen. She slid up to Mr. Hill’s desk and bent down to whisper something in his ear. He nodded, closing his eyes for a moment, and then whispered, “Thank you, Noreen.” He waited for her to leave, and then, squaring his shoulders, he announced, looking the whole time at the blotter on his desk, in a voice that obviously had cost him some effort to control, “Stephen Gordon passed away at 1:26 this afternoon.”
I didn’t start to cry. I couldn’t. I couldn’t do anything. I sat and looked at Mr. Hill, who went on looking at the blotter on his desk. Through the window I could see into the outer office, where one woman was standing, peering into an open file-cabinet drawer, her fingers diligently walking along the tabs of the file folders. Another secretary was just getting up from her desk and going across to the front counter, where a girl had just come up to ask her a question.
It was very difficult then, even as it is now, more than fifty years later, to know and to tell what I was feeling and thinking—so many thoughts and feelings were careening around in my brain and in my chest and colliding with each other, each one demanding that I invest all of my attention and care exclusively on it, all at the same time. I was bewildered, I was shocked into a kind of semi-consciousness, I was in utter disbelief, confusion and denial. I wanted to ask the man everything at once—all the what and how and why. At the same time I didn’t want him to say another word about it, since the more he told me, the more I knew about Steve “taking his own life,” the harder it would be to deny that any of it had ever happened.
And then, in the midst of this chaotic explosion of feelings and thoughts in my brain and in my chest, I became aware of one thought, one realization, that began to assert itself and to take over the others. It was a thought that articulated itself in unison with a feeling that at first I couldn’t recognize. Gradually, the feeling came into a kind of focus, even though the thought that came with it had to stand aside for a while to wait for me to be able to recognize it and name it. As the feeling began to come clear I tried to deny it: it was resentment. I realized I was resenting Steve’s “taking his own life.” Not only had he taken himself away, he’d done it without saying a word to me. He had taken this enormous step without including me, even in a suggestion of it. He’d excluded me. It felt like being rejected. We had been so close, how could he have closed me out of his world this way?
This feeling of resentment washed over me with all the other feelings. And then the thought crystalized itself into words that I heard in my head, as my hand stayed over my open mouth, silent. The words were “Oh my god! He meant it all along. All this time he’d actually been serious about it.”