People tell us who they are. Over and over again, the people we encounter throughout our lives tell us who they are, what they believe in, when they will deliberately interface with people under various circumstances, and how they will interact with the world around them. Whether or not we choose to believe them in quite another story. Observe the details; listen to the words they say and those they do not say; don’t make excuses for the behavior of others and demand of yourself the habit of truthfulness at all times as you tell the world who you are.
It was a suburb of Miami called Miami Shores. The single-family homes had been built during the 1950s and were maintained with the “pride of ownership” in the mind of each resident. You would see small tracts of six or eight houses here and there, interspersed with custom-built houses on larger lots. The air was clean, the neighbors friendly, and every family believed they were living in the safest neighborhood in southern Florida. That was the perception at least, and it would stand if and until another zeitgeist took its place. We knew how lucky we were to be here. We also knew that with such good fortune came an equal amount of responsibility.
Ours was a house typical for the area, with one exception: It was terraced, meaning that from the front it appeared as though you were entering a one-story home, whereas the truth was that when you exited to the outside from the kitchen you would find yourself on the second floor patio that overlooked the street below. It was awesome.
My mother and I had been homeless just six months earlier. That was back in Los Angeles, where I was born and believed I’d live for my entire life. My mother said it would be easier in Miami. Lower cost of living, fewer people, and bus lines that took you anywhere without having to pay for a transfer because it was smaller geographically. I had no say in the matter and had boarded the train at Union Station in downtown Los Angeles with a paper sack filled with cookies and crayons in one hand and my favorite stuffed animal in the other.
When we changed to a different train two days later in El Paso, Texas I overheard my mother telling one of the workers to throw away the dirty stuffed dog. When it was missing after our belongings were transferred to our new compartment, I didn’t say a word. But I never trusted her again after that day and that continued until she died almost fifty years later.
Not even a block away from our new digs lived a man named Alan Shaw. An actor on a locally filmed television series, he shared the small house on East Dixie Highway, just below N.E. 87th Street with his elderly mother. I first became aware of them as I rode my British racing green Stingray bicycle up and down the street one day after school. Alan had wheeled Gertrude down the walkway so she could watch the traffic going by. She was wrapped carefully in a pink blanket and wearing a matching knitted cap. I slowed down a little and then came to a full stop on the sidewalk to say hello to her.
On that day she only nodded back at me, but I took that as her way of saying hello and getting to know me. Alan was pruning the rose bushes that ran along the side of their property and did not acknowledge me. I figured that he was busy and did not take it to mean anything more. I made a mental note of the house number so I could make sure to include this stop on my daily rides.
Soon after this chance encounter I saw Alan Shaw on television. It was a local morning show and he was being interviewed about his role on the television series. I told my mother that I had seen him and his mother while riding my bike one day and we both moved closer to the television set to hear what was being said.
Mr. Shaw discussed his humble beginnings in northern Florida, how he had dreamed of being able to take care of his mother after his father died, and how fortunate he was to be doing work he loved in a location that seemed like paradise. He ended by saying something that gave me a chill up and down my spine at the time.
“With the childhood I had, no one would have been surprised if I’d turned out to be the serial killer next door.”
My mother didn’t comment and I was still processing what he’d said when she asked me to turn off the TV and put our dinner on the table.
When junior high began in the fall, my mom said I could ride my bike to school when the weather permitted. Miami is known for lots of rain and sudden downpours, followed by humid and sunny conditions, with the air smelling so fresh you’d think you were out in the countryside. Riding the bike gave me the opportunity to explore my new surroundings. When I recognized someone from school I’d wave hello. And no matter what, I made sure to drive past the Shaw place.
As Halloween grew closer, I made friends with kids on my block so we could trick-or-treat together on this most important holiday. I don’t remember what I dressed up as that year, but I did make sure to tell my new friends which houses we shouldn’t miss that evening. My newest friend Julian was making notes and I watched as he added it to the list. The kids who’d lived in the neighborhood for years knew which houses gave full size candy bars and which ones gave a homemade treat in a plastic bag. I was excited about this new adventure and went to bed early the night before.
“I think that’s a leg in the trash can.”
It wasn’t quite dark and people were still driving down the street on their way home from work. We were on our bikes so we could scope out the neighborhood before changing into our costumes. The little kids would be on the streets within a few minutes; the older ones would wait until it was completely dark to make sure we could travel in small packs, without being recognized, at least not easily.
With Tory’s announcement, we all skidded to a stop and gave our full attention to the beat up trash can ahead. It was rusty and listed to the left. The lid sat askew and something was definitely protruding from it, but it didn’t look like a leg to me. I stayed put and deferred to the boys to check it out.
Billy put down his kickstand and got off his bike to make the official inspection. He was tall and lean, with long dark bangs that covered one eye. I thought he was cute, but didn’t have the guts to say this out loud, even jokingly. He lifted the lid by its handle and carefully set it down on the ground. Then he smiled and lifted whatever it was straight up, holding it high so we could see it more clearly.
“I think it’s someone’s girlfriend.”
We moved in closer to see what it was. The object in question was a plastic inflatable doll who had seen better days. Most of the air had been let out of it and you could see the distorted face that looked longingly into the distance. The lips were bright red and the blond hair was sparse and made from something that seemed to be a combination of yellow yarn and straw.
We all laughed and Billy shoved the plastic doll back into the trash can, placing the lid on top and using it to push the contents down further. Then we were on our way. Julian took the lead now as we crossed Biscayne Boulevard to explore the neighborhoods just west of ours.
Ninety minutes later we had reconvened in front of my house. We’d all had dinner at our respective houses and changed into our Halloween costumes. I decided against the Raggedy Ann costume I’d worn to school for the party two days earlier, in favor of an old sheet, white with tiny pink and blue flowers that my mother had helped to turn into something more fitting for a 12 year old. The eye slits were too small, so she tore them wider and gave me a stretchy belt to make it fit better. I took a look in the full length mirror in the hallway and silently told myself I looked pretty cool. 1967 was turning out to be “my” year and I was ready for whatever came my way.
The night surpassed all of our expectations. We went to every house on our list, adding more after comparing notes with kids we knew and eliminating a couple giving out homemade treats in plastic bags. At some point Billy and I got separated from our group. He stopped me on the sidewalk when no one was passing by, taking me by the hand and kissing me on the lips. “I like you” was all he said and my eyes told him I felt the same.
When we came to the Shaw house, the lights were on but no one came to the door. We thought we heard the sound of someone struggling near the back of the house, but more people came up to where we were standing and the sounds faded into the background. Finally, Alan Shaw appeared on the side of the house that led to their garage and he gave out small Nestle Crunch bars and thanked us for coming. I teased Billy and Julian for receiving two each instead of one, but they dismissed my comment at once. We all just felt lucky to be having this experience together, without a torrential downpour arriving until well after midnight when we were all safely back at home in our beds.
The next day at school I was going through the small bag of candy I had handpicked out of my pillowcase I’d used the night before. The small Nestle Crunch bars were covered with something bright red, and for a moment I imagined that it was blood. It might have been someone’s makeup from the night before, or something else altogether. I wiped it off the wrapper, tore it open, and enjoyed the chocolate as it melted in my mouth.
That afternoon David and his mother came over for a visit. Natalie and my mom were best friends and in my mind and limited experience they seemed to be as close as sisters would be. I would find out a few years later that David and I shared the same father. He looked like his mother and I looked like our long absent father, so there was never any thought of us being related at that time. We had become best friends, even though he was four years younger.
Natalie and David had followed us to Miami from Los Angeles at my mother’s urging. She had been correct in her assumption that all aspects of life would be easier here. They settled into an apartment off Collins Avenue in Miami Beach. It was fun to walk or ride my bike across the Causeway or take a bus to their place and spend the day exploring the neighborhood and discovering more about this part of the country.
When David disappeared, I wasn’t the only one who jumped to what we thought was a logical conclusion. There were questions, then accusations, and finally an investigation. But it wasn’t until 1986 that a posthumous conviction was made as a result of a conclusive DNA match. Alan Shaw had taken his life several years earlier, and his mother had contacted local authorities to share her stories of what had transpired over the decades they had lived together in the small house in Miami Shores.
People tell us who they are, as if they need to lay out clues to their actions like a breadcrumb trail. Listen intently and become an astute observer, if you want to know a person’s character in depth. Whether up close or at a distance, the innermost thoughts, beliefs, and values were typically right in front of us all the time.
“Begin at the end; end at the beginning.” ~ J. Michael Straczynski
I’m Connie Ragen Green, living “my year” every year and helping others to do the same. Come along with me, if you will and together we will uncover the mysteries of the universe and discover the secrets to living the life we long for and deserve.