This won’t make much sense until you read the e-book. So go do that, and then come back here for the rest of the story.
Rumors, spread mostly by me, of my own demise have proved to be exaggerated. I’m still here. I’ve got my eye on a nice little plot in the cemetery. And while there are some people who might like to see me move into that little piece of real estate sooner rather than later, for now I am still the Chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Scotland.
Not that this resolution came easily. In the first few weeks after my Hester Prynne moment, someone called the regional health district office to lodge a complaint about the septic system at the house, which she deemed insufficient for the fifteen staff people that the group insisted, against all the evidence, were living there. A state police prowl car parked in front of the house set off a flurry of phone calls to the first selectman, wondering whether one of the residents had escaped. (The police had logged it in as an “administrative visit.”) Another email from me to Wendy, this one offering to discuss the re-definition of family, went unreturned. The Town Hall ladies were treating me with some mixture of pity and contempt. I let on to the first selectman’s administrative assistant, the woman whose financial practices I had questioned when she was first selectman, that this was beginning to really bother me. “Been there. Done that,” she said, and I thought I saw the satisfaction of revenge in her eyes.
A sympathetic woman emailed me a draft of the petition being circulated by the Truly Concerned Citizens of Scotland, as the group was now calling itself. “Inconsistencies in the dissemination of information from the only public official to have knowledge of the facility have caused extreme concern and panic within the community,” it said. I had “made [my] career working in the Mental Health field,” had written and published books, was “a licensed practicing psychotherapist and so, at the very least, there is the appearance of impropriety.” Not only that, but I had failed to uphold the mission of the zoning commission set forth in the introduction to the zoning regulations—to preserve property values, promote the general welfare, and “secure safety from fire, PANIC, and other disasters.” And so I should resign—and not just me, but two other commissioners, both of whom the TCC had found guilty of spotty attendance at meetings, and one of whom, because he had received approval for a subdivision, was guilty of conflict of interest.
The TCC canvassed at the dump. They went door-to-door. They set up shop on the grade school grounds, with the approval of the principal. (She may have been unaware that allowing the TCC to advocate on public property opened the door to any other political group—the Ku Klux Klan, say, or maybe NAMBLA—that wanted the same access, or she may just have been sympathetic, or perhaps just afraid to say no to a group of enraged moms. I was in any event not in a position to point this out.) The TCC planned to present the petition at the next regular zoning meeting, three weeks after the initial one. I heard they were making t-shirts for the occasion. I wondered if the silkscreen would feature a man in the stocks.
I found myself thinking about Richard Nixon, Chris Christie, Rod Blagojevich, and all the other once successful public figures who had been found guilty in the court of public opinion long before any judicial proceedings—and guilty not of their crimes, but of something more fundamental: of being scoundrels. I wondered about the anatomy of downfall, how much these collapses were due to the material evidence—the tapes and emails, the money stashed in freezers, the wide stances and stained dresses—and how much the result of being scoured to the bone by a narrative wind. I mean, show me a person whose integrity can withstand the assault of a storyteller armed with animus and the Internet, and I’ll show you a unicorn. And show me a person who can tolerate that treatment for very long, and I’ll show you a politician, or at least someone with a belly that burns hotter than mine.
Not that there wasn’t material evidence. I had not sounded the alarm, and of course I could have. I could have easily let the news slip at Town Hall or the post office and let gossip take its course; the resulting ugliness would at least not have been about my character. And I had presided over the redefinition of family; there was no question that I thought marriage and blood were inadequate criteria for determining who should be able to live together. You didn’t have to be a Rove or a Goebbels to weave these facts into a story about my wish to socially engineer Scotland, especially not now, when narrative studies have escaped the academy, spin doctoring has become a national pastime, and every man has been crowned a hermeneutical king. And you didn’t have to be a coward to decide you didn’t want to subject yourself any further to that treatment. I decided to resign.
But not quietly. Much as I am in favor of taking responsibility for my life, if for no other reason than the illusion it provides that fate is not really in charge, at some point being responsible means getting over yourself. Sometimes it means recognizing that other people are the problem. Sometimes, in other words, it means telling citizens, truly concerned or not, where the bear shits in the buckwheat.
That expression, by the way, is one of the best things I’ve learned from Russell Perry. I love its profanity and its alliteration and its strange juxtaposition of beast and grain. I’ll bet you will find yourself saying it at least once in the next week or so. But don’t squander it. It would be a shame to turn it into a cliché.
My opportunity to use it came at the first monthly meeting of the zoning board after our big night. It was held at the firehouse. About 80 people showed up, far fewer than the earlier meeting, but many more than usually attend. Some of them wore blue t-shirts that bore a crude map of Scotland over the words, “Truly Concerned Citizens of Scotland.” The women who had jeered me sat together. Wendy’s husband was with them. He never said a word.
Early in the meeting, I introduced a lawyer from the U.S. Attorney’s office. His name was David Nelson, and he had come all the way from New Haven to talk to us about the Americans with Disabilities Act. It wasn’t hard to persuade him to make the trek—he’d caught wind of the kerfuffle and was eager to head off any violations of civil rights, as well as to try to offer clarity and an outside perspective on the topic. With his Elliot Ness eyes and Jack Friday suit, Attorney Nelson looked every bit the part of a no-nonsense lawman—an impression his PowerPoint about the history of disability or his everyday stories about returning vets and service dogs in restaurants did little to soften.
Only a few slides in, the crowd rebelled. They didn’t want to listen to some government lawyer trying to drum up enthusiasm for sex offenders by talking about war heroes and handicap ramps. They wanted to talk about GPS chips and locked fences and bars on windows. They wanted to talk about the ruination of their town.
After a few citizens had gotten in their licks, Pete the farrier rose from his seat. “Welcome to Scotland,” he said, a touch of droll in his voice. He reassured the attorney that the town had nothing against disabled people. But criminals—well, that was a different matter. People understand the difference between disability and criminality, he said, a point picked up by subsequent speakers. The problem, as one of them put it, was that the residents of Reliance House were “hiding underneath the label of disability.” How was it possible that the town could not have a say about the criminals in its midst? Why didn’t they have to prove that they were really disabled before they could move into the house?
“The President and Congress made a decision,” he replied. “You can’t make people continually prove their disability. It’s the law,” and if you don’t like it, “you can write your congressman and tell him to change the law.”
“But we’re not discriminating against disability. We’re discriminating based on their being criminals,” the woman responded. Can’t a town limit how many criminals can live together? Can’t it require its criminals to place perimeter alarms on their houses? Can’t it lock the gates around their houses?
“You want to lock them up again?” he asked. He sounded incredulous.
“We just want the town to be safe.”
“If I understand you right, you’re saying that certain segments of the population should be subject to scrutiny in the form of microchipping and locked perimeters,” he responded, “even after they’ve done their time. By that logic, why not restrict everyone?”
“But if you have any experience at all with people in prison, you know that if you put a bunch of criminals together everyone knows what happens. They get ideas from each other, they…”
“Ma’am,” he said, “I am a Federal prosecutor. I understand what criminals are.”
After nearly an hour, Assistant US Attorney Nelson was still only on his third slide. He had not managed to persuade the crowd that the government was here to help, and they had not convinced him to order up those fences and microchips. I cut off his presentation, with apologies, on the grounds that we had other business to attend to, and opened the hearing on our definition of family. I steeled myself, but the argument never materialized. Our proposal to decide how many dogs constituted a kennel generated more controversy than our attempt to decide how many people made a family.
I doubted the Truly Concerned Citizens had finally accepted the fact that we weren’t trying to give back-door accommodation to criminals. More likely, I thought, they had noticed the contradiction between hating the government and asking it to enforce their notion of family. Or perhaps that they were keeping their powder dry for other matters, like their petition. And that was a battle in which I intended to take the first shot.
“Before we move on,” I said, “I have something to say.”
I’d been thinking about my speech for a week or so, in the obsessive way you think about what you would have said to someone who mistreated you or someone you love. In the car, in the shower, taking a walk, it asssembled itself. I never bothered writing it down but by the time of the meeting I knew just what I wanted to say. The speech was a real stemwinder, at least by modern standards—a good ten minutes or so of oratory. It had been a hard few weeks, I said. Some people’s expectations that the government would keep them safe had been sorely disappointed, and they suddenly found themselves living in fear. For my part, I’d seen relationships cultivated over three decades disrupted and destroyed. I’d felt the strain and so had my family. I’d withstood their withering four-hour attack—at a meeting, I reminded them, that I had convened for their benefit and at which no one had stood up for me—without lashing out at them. I’d done that, I said, because I thought that having someone to blame would be helpful. I wasn’t glad to have provided this service, but only in hopes that they would get it out of their system and move on.
But then, I told them, I heard about the petition, and that it wasn’t just me they were after, but two other commissioners, men who had collectively served for 45 years. “Where are you going to stop?” I asked. “At long last, have you left no sense of decency?” I wanted to say, but did not–although on the tape I can hear the words on the tip of my tongue.
“I would love the opportunity to defend myself,” I said. “I’d love the opportunity to hear how it’s a conflict of interest that I work in the mental health field and write books, and that I then went on to make no decision about Reliance House.” But I’m not going to do that.” I reminded them that conflict of interest is a serious charge, an accusation that carries legal weight. “Maybe you didn’t think this through,” I said, but the town would have to pay for my defense. “And that would be wrong”
And then to the point. “I didn’t sign on to the zoning board because I have some love for zoning. I’m a hippie-libertarian at heart. I signed on because I wanted to help out. That’s all. And if I can’t do that, if in fact I am hurting the town, if I’ve become a polarizing figure who is going to cost us money to defend against charges that are frankly ridiculous, then I am not going to do that. So I will resign as you have asked.”
All this was prepared. What wasn’t prepared, and what I was not prepared for, was the way my voice broke when I got to this part. I’d been too busy feeling relieved and vengeful to recognize how sorry I was to be doing this, and how little choice I felt I had. I just didn’t have whatever those downfalling politicians had that allowed them to persist until the last jury rendered the last verdict, and I realized just how disappointed I was in myself about this, how limited the satisfactions of passive aggression, how much I would miss presiding over this well-meaning if doomed attempt to negotiate the terms of living together, and the cavalcade of citizens marching through with their real estate wishes and dreams. And although I had come into the meeting fully prepared to quit, and at least partly relieved at the prospect, I suddenly found myself wavering, and then off message entirely.
“The only condition, the only way I can not do this, is if that petition disappears,” I said. “Either it goes away by the end of the day tomorrow, or I do.”
I probably should have stopped there, but really, how many bear-in-the-buckwheat moments does life offer you? So I threw in a few extras. I told them I commended what they had done, even if I didn’t commend them for how they treated me. And then I told them the story of Guy and me, including the part about apologizing to him—”because I was ashamed,” I said—and explained that this is how I got to be the chair of the zoning commission. “My point is, this is going to happen again,” I said. “It’s in the nature of the people in small towns to turn on one another, and it seems to be increasingly in the nature of our entire country. And the next time it does, please have some humanity. Don’t make the mistake I made with Guy. Remember that the person you are tearing to pieces is a human being who wants the same thing you do—a beautiful town in which to live.
“And that’s all I have to say.”
The room was silent. But then the first selectman stood to speak. He said that he didn’t want me to resign. He told me he thought I had done a good job as chair of the zoning board. So did a farmer. And a couple of members of the board. And our zoning agent. And even Russell Perry, who attends all our meetings but rarely speaks in public. He told a little story about how he’d been one of the first zoning board members, and how hard it had been to do the job. It would be a great loss to the town if I resigned, they all were saying. They didn’t exactly beg, but it was clear that something had shifted, at least enough for some people to risk being on my side and to let me know I mattered to them.
Which I have to admit was deeply gratifying, in exactly the way it would be in a movie, when, say, the Pale Rider finally sets things straight in the lawless town. Only I didn’t have to wear a leather coat or learn to ride a horse.
When Wendy said that she wasn’t sure she could get the petition turned back, that this wasn’t her decision to make, I was pretty sure that she could, and it was, and she would—and the next day she did. But I already knew the tide had turned. I knew it as soon as Pete strode back into the room. He’d missed my performance while having a smoke and a chat with a former first selectman, but he picked up where he’d left off. “I’ve been reading your minutes,” he said, “and I’m just disgusted. This is the analogy I’m going to use. You seem like the guys at the Moose Lodge. You agreed on this, you agreed on that, you agreed on who’s bringing the sauce for the spaghetti dinner, on who’s bringing the meatballs. Are we going to have meatballs or sausage?” Three weeks ago, or just a half hour ago, these would have been excellent laugh lines. But now he was greeted with silence, and an uncomfortable one at that. “Huh,” he said. “It sure feels different in here.”
After the meeting, people came over to me to shake my hand. Yankees to the last, they said very little, but it was there in the smiles, in the nods, in the way one woman–a woman who had been in the forefront of the attack–held onto my hand for just a moment longer than a handshake really takes. It was as if they were congratulating me, but mostly I think they were thanking me for finally defending myself. I had put out a fire that, much as it might once have warmed them, had gotten out of control. And for regaining some of my dignity. An individual’s dignity belongs to the community too, and to insist on it is not only to spare everyone the pain of cringing for someone else, but also to make everyone a little stronger.
So for now anyway, I’m still the Chairman of the Planning and Zoning Commission of the Town of Scotland, County of Windham, State of Connecticut. Some things are different. Wendy, leader of the Truly Concerned Citizens, is now the clerk of the zoning board; we had an opening and she was the only one to apply. I think she wants to keep an eye on us. So does Pete, who came with his wife came to our last meeting, presumably to make sure we weren’t just talking about spaghetti. The fire has not gone out completely. When a commissioner brought up the subject of regulating where sex offenders can live, the air was suddenly thick. But calm prevailed, and we moved on to the question of how many horses makes a commercial riding stable. The surface comity, the kind that is neither deep nor dangerous, had been restored.
Recently, the farmer I have Saturday breakfast told me he had had a conversation with the first selectman. They’d been talking about the way the fight over Reliance House was a battle between “old Scotland” and “new Scotland,” and how old Scotland had prevailed. I wasn’t so sure they were right about that, but even if they were, and even if I was gratified to be granted membership in the old-timers’ club, I was pretty certain that the victory, if that’s what it was, was only temporary. No matter what measures we take, no matter how concerned the citizens, time’s fingers will continue to claw away at the familiar. New houses will be built and new gravestones laid, new worries will chatter in our heads, new beliefs will take hold, and new people will move to town.