He hung up without saying good-bye. I didn’t fault him for that, either. We had been talking for several minutes. That’s a long time when you’re trying not to cry.
Richard Carlson was the kind of man who preferred to grieve silently. Yet that didn’t make his agony any less real than those who beat their chests and tear their clothing. As a culture, we tend to underestimate how deeply and completely people suffer from a tragedy of this proportion. Family and friends will surround us with a cocoon of love and support. They bring us food, they do our errands, they relieve us of our responsibilities. All they ask in return is that we weep loud and long and hard and when we no longer have any tears left to shed, that we return to normal. If we don’t give them a public display of grief, they wonder what’s wrong. Didn’t we care? If we don’t return quickly to normal, they become impatient. It’s a problem of perspective. Unless you’ve had prior experience you don’t know about acting like a robot, about going through the motions, about washing a dish ten times without realizing it. You don’t understand crying jags. You don’t understand unfocused anger. You don’t understand dependency.
Right now, Richard Carlson was hanging on by his fingernails to the prospect of revenge. Who knew, he might get it. Only it wouldn’t change anything. Instead, you change. You invent a new personality, adopt new values. Think about the person involved in a car crash who must now spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. It’s the same with victims of extreme violence. To survive, you stop being the person you were and become someone else. That’s the long term. In the short term you grab hold of whatever you can, even the myth of sweet revenge, and hang on.
The busiest intersection in Minnesota is probably Hennepin Avenue at Lake Street, the heart of Uptown, a yuppified district in Minneapolis near Lake Calhoun where you can find designer ice cream, Oriental food for white people, bars with plenty of vegetation growing in them, overpriced arts and crafts, foreign movies, a pretty good comedy club, an overrated rib joint, and plenty of MTV wannabees, young men in fifty-dollar jeans torn at the knees and young women in black lace, the kind of women who carry toothbrushes in their purses.
This was where Chopper told me to meet him, in a fast food joint overlooking Hennepin.
I knew Chopper when he was Thaddeus Coleman and worked Selby and Western, an area of St. Paul that used to be rich with prostitution until patrons became bored with it, as they do with any trendy hot spot, and moved elsewhere. Coleman would put a girl on the street, wait for a john, then rob him, waving a blade at the john or making like he had a gun. That lasted until the pimps calmly explained to him why his behavior was bad for their business. He has two scars on his shoulder as reminders of the conversation.
Afterward, he moved to Fuller and Farrington and sold laundry soap to the suburban kids, soap and Alka Seltzer tablets crushed to resemble rock cocaine. I busted him for that. Representing and selling a substance as a drug—whether it is or not—is a felony. Only the judge dismissed the charge. He took one look at the complaint and announced from the bench, “Boys, we haven’t got time for this, not when there are assholes out their selling truckloads of the real thing.”
“Nothing personal,” Coleman told me when he waltzed out of the courtroom.
I didn’t take it personally, but someone else did. Two days later I scooped Coleman off the pavement of a parking lot at Dale and University. A person or persons unknown had put two slugs into his back. I saved his life that night, although the damage to his spine put him in a wheelchair. He refused to ID his assailants. “It musta been an accident,” he insisted. “Everyone gives me love.”
You have to hand it to him, though. Coleman was one tough SOB. Six weeks after the shooting, he wheeled himself out of the hospital in a stolen chair. Couple days later we discovered the bodies of three Red Dragons under the swings at a park near the St. Paul Vo-Tech. They had each been shot numerous times. We never did learn who killed them, but the ME reported that most of the bullet wounds had an upward trajectory, as if whoever fired the shots was sitting down.
Later, Chopper moved his various enterprises across the river into Minneapolis. He was Chopper now because of the chair, which he wheeled about with the reckless abandon of a dirt bike racer.
I found him inside. He was sitting in front of the stainless steel counter wearing a battle-dress uniform and arguing with an older man who was wearing a paper hat and telling Chopper to either order something or wheel his sorry ass out of there. Chopper accused him of violating the Americans with Disabilities Act as I tossed a crumpled twenty on the counter.
“I’ll have a Cherry Coke,” I said.
Chopper scooped up the bill with an immaculate hand—some people are nuts about shined shoes, with Chopper it’s his fingernails.