the greatest escape artist
About a year ago, I was at a diner in Huntington, VT, eating my biscuits and gravy at the counter, basically minding my own business. As I eavesdropped on the conversation at the booth behind me–the woman’s daughter wanted a tattoo; nothing too risque, just a butterfly at the small of her back; the woman would have none of it–the door opens and in walks an older, slightly bent over, white-haired, white-mustached man that I normally wouldn’t pay any attention to, except, I thought: What if that’s Whitey Bulger?
It wasn’t just that he had pulled up in a dark sedan, wore completely out-of-date sunglasses, and looked about 20 years younger than an 80-year-old mob boss should; there was something in his glance, the way he scanned the diner, taking everything in, before approaching the last empty counter seat, the one beside me (!). He sat down gracefully and exchanged the book he was carrying for a menu. I read the sideways title: Black Mass, and intuitively understood that this was part of his cover. What fugitive would walk around town with a book about himself? Right?
I had to talk to him.
Now, I’ve approached many strangers, most of them men, in bars or clubs, after enough drinks to not care whether or not they appreciate my conversation. When I’m sober, though, I find strangers that talk to you in broad daylight one of the most annoying plagues decent humans have to deal with. How best to approach this man, then? I can’t just blurt out that I’m his number one fan. Too risky; he might take me for an informant. It was better if I didn’t know anything. And I certainly couldn’t have read the book about him. I had to be Whitey-Bulger-dumb.
“Good book?” I asked, not daring to look at him.
“The book,” (I pointed), “it’s good?”
He sighed, and I focused on the mirror above the counter. Even his reflection was daunting. “It’s alright. For a crime novel. I’m more of a history man myself.”
OHMYGODITISHIM, I thought to myself. Jesus H. I wish I hadn’t eaten so much; grease, milk and butter turned over in my stomach. I stifled my urge to throw up. I’m. sitting. next. to. Whitey. Bulger. Must. Remain. Calm.
He’d gone back to his menu. He wasn’t interested in me.
“What’s it about?” I bugged him again.
He spit out the word like it was a piece of burnt bacon. Mental Note: Don’t talk about corruption. I guess I would hate corruption, too, if it was the thing that had led me to a life on the run.
His food arrived. We continued to eat in silence. Again, I wished I hadn’t eaten my breakfast so fast; it was one of my weaknesses. How was I going to sustain my purpose for taking up a seat in the world’s busiest, yet smallest diner?
“‘cuse me? Can I have some coffee?” The waitress gave me a look. Lesson learned: never refuse coffee the first time a diner waitress offers it. It’s almost as bad as telling a mob boss you don’t feel like forking over his 30% profits today. Except you don’t get murdered.
“You live around here?”
OMG, Whitey Bluger just tried to pick me up! “Nope. I’m from Boston.”
“You’re from Boston.”
“Yes…” Isn’t that what I’d just said? Was Whitey’s hearing going?
“And you’ve never read this book.”
It wasn’t presented as a question. But I knew it was something I had to answer for. I hadn’t counted on him being offended if I wasn’t a Whitey Bulger history major. Maybe I had played it too safe. “I’m not much into crime novels,” I lied. “I stick to early 20th century stuff…mostly classics. Written by women.”
“Kids today.” He swore under his breath. OMG, Whitey Bulger just swore at me! This day could not get any better!! “How’re you gonna learn about your country, when all you read is Goddamn crap written by Brits?” He’s mad at me! This is so exciting!!
“I mostly read for pleasure,” I said. “History’s pretty boring.”
He looked at me, set his fork down, carefully, and slowly covered my fingers with his own. I wondered if he would pull out his knife here, or once he’d wrangled me into his car. “History,” he turned his head and spat into his empty milk glass. “…is not boring.”
Now is probably a good time to tell you that I’m not just a Whitey Bulger fan, I’m a Whitey Bulger fanatic. It’s actually a mental disease (look it up!) and I’ve got it. The disease presents itself as different fantasies of meeting Whitey, being involved with him in some way, and then being hurt, or in some cases, killed by him. Like many mental illnesses, there’s no cure. But, sitting there, with Whitey Bulger right beside me, I felt as though I was actually healing. I’d discovered the cure, albeit risky and implausible for most sufferers: play out the fantasy. But survive.
I wanted to ask if he was going to kill me, but I also wanted to wait. This moment could only come once. I needed to learn more about his psyche, get deeper into the man behind the myth.
“Okay,” I said, wriggling my fingers out from underneath his. “Tell me something interesting, then. About history. American History.”
He picked up his coffee mug, but it was empty. I didn’t see the waitress anywhere; in fact, I couldn’t see anyone. I couldn’t hear bits of other people’s conversation or the clinking of forks on plates. I couldn’t smell the glorious mixture of syrup, coffee grounds and bleach that all diners emanate. I couldn’t even feel the thickness of the coffee mug handle I held in my fingers. I offered it to him. I knew I wouldn’t be able to taste it anyway. All of my senses were occupied with Whitey.
He drank what was left in my cup, in one tantalizing gulp. He set the mug down, leaned towards me, and spoke: “There’s only one word you need to know when it comes to America. It ain’t money; it ain’t family; it ain’t kindness; and it certainly ain’t Freedom. It’s escape. Everything we do is driven by the need to escape. It’s in our blood. From the moment those pilgrims stepped onto that rock, the moment they stepped on the boat, even…every American action, from then on out, has been some sort of escape.”
I had been silenced. The man was a philosophical genius. Had someone paid him just a little bit more attention in school, he probably would’ve been one of the great thinkers of our time. Instead, he was arrested, at the tender age of 14, for petty thievery. The first time he was singled out by anyone–and it was for something he’d done wrong.
Whitey pulled a $100 bill out of his back pocket and placed it on the counter. “I’m paying for both of ours,” he told the waitress, who’d suddenly appeared from the back. “Keep the change.”
He walked swiftly, with a purpose, but not hurriedly. And he didn’t look back.
I could’ve picked up the phone right then, and called in a tip to the FBI. I could’ve ran after him, begging for an autograph or some proof that he was who I thought he was. I could’ve shouted, “Whitey! Don’t leave me! I’m in love with you. I was lying when I said I didn’t know what the book was about!” I could’ve explained it all on the way to his hotel, where he could do with me whatever he wanted. Instead, I sat there, basking in the wake of his archived glory.
“More coffee, hon?” the waitress asked. Behind me, I heard some other mother and daughter fighting about some trivial piece of their live that no one would remember in a few years, let alone write a book about. The smell of the bleach on the counter was nauseating and the clanging of silverware was giving me a headache. Another felon from the long line of hungry customers-to-be sat down beside me, reading a paperback with the front cover torn off.
“No, thanks,” I told her, exchanging Whitey’s bill on the counter for a lesser denomination of my own. “I gotta run.”