It’s been a few weeks since my last First-Date Friday essay, and several weeks since I last discussed my 15-month litany of online dates. (If you’re thinking those dates are going to culminate in me finding romantic bliss, you are confusing my life with a Meg Ryan movie.) Next on the list, from March 2015, is The Bank Robber. Technically, we never had a first date, but I really, really wanted to!
I met The Bank Robber on Tinder. Of course, I didn’t know he was a bank robber at the time. Though, to be fair, he hadn’t robbed a bank in years. On his profile, he cited music and “crafting” among his hobbies, which in his case meant making art out of found objects. Very cool! He described himself as a punk, and he meant it, in an old-school, 1980s UK sort of way. (One parent was Irish, the other English, and despite being a US citizen, he spent a lot of time in the UK as a child.) He had a full sleeve of tattoos on each arm, and more across his torso, he wore a thick leather belt fastened high on his waist to hold up baggy trousers, and his boots looked like they were made for kicking shit. He was older–my age, mid-40s–but still handsome, though the years seem to have wearied him. From his photos, it was apparent that he slicked his hair up in a dashing yet irreverent pompadour on special occasions. It wasn’t until I did some sleuthing that I figured out, one of those special occasions was his release from federal prison.
I learned about his criminal past pretty quickly, not because he told me but because I think he was bad at the Internet. He went to prison in his late 20s, effectively missing much of the digital revolution. He had only been out a few months when we both swiped right, and he seemed not to understand the basics of protecting one’s privacy online. Or perhaps he just didn’t care. He asked if we could exchange email addresses and I agreed, answering at length his query about the type of music I liked. I was listening obsessively to the Pogue’s “Broad Majestic Shannon” at the time, and my interest in Celtic punk seemed to resonate with him. He wrote me back right away, revealing his full name in the automated signature. As a professional researcher, I couldn’t help myself: I googled him.
My search quickly went from bad to worse. The first hit that popped up was a website of prison inmates seeking pen pals. The second hit was a website that posted letters from people in prison. And the third was a guest post on a blog dedicated to reporting about life on the inside. There were photos, including his mugshot, that demonstrated unimpeachably that it was him. And then there was his Facebook.
I clicked on the Facebook link to discover that his profile was wide open–timeline, photos, friend list, everything was public. He had very few Facebook friends, because he had only been released from prison a few months prior. I guess 15 years up river tends to limit one’s social circle. But he did have a girlfriend! She was/is an adorable, tattooed, rockabilly massage therapist 8 years his junior. She wore cute-girl nerd glasses and seemed to have a bunch of elderly pets. It was clear from his Facebook page (and hers; yes, I am a stalker!) that they met while he was in prison. They were living together as a couple since his release from a halfway house, and they had purchased an adorable pirate-themed shower curtain right around the time we met on Tinder. What a prince!
Of the two revelations–that he had recently been released from federal prison after serving time for bank robbery, and that he had a live-in girlfriend–only the second was a deal breaker for me. Even so, I didn’t know definitively what the deal was. I decided to continue the correspondence. And, ok, I really wanted to meet him so I could ask him about prison!
I read everything by and about him that I could find online. I really am a professional researcher, so I have very good skills in that regard. And he was quite prolific, even writing–by hand–a newsletter from prison that included original articles, cartoons, opinion pieces by fellow inmates, and descriptions of prison daily life. He published several issues by mailing them to someone on the outside who would post them online. The newsletters were fascinating to me–a glimpse at another world, about which I know nothing. As a professional humanities scholar in possession of an amazing trove of texts, I immediately started drafting a conference proposal in my head. But as a lonely, single woman interested in meeting someone who could hold my interest, I was also drawn to him emotionally. His writings suggested a smart, kind, funny man who had endured serious trauma. Indeed, one issue of the newsletter was drafted from a hospital bed. According to the essay he wrote, he drew the ire of the prison’s skinheads for refusing to choose sides in a racially divisive conflict. They beat him unconscious, and he was hospitalized for three months.
I liked his politics, and his commitment to social justice came through in many places. But I was troubled by how The Bank Robber discussed his crimes. He admitted to robbing banks, and he framed the robberies as politically motivated attacks on the government and the nation’s exploitative banking system. Perhaps that really was his motivation at the time, and he was not just robbing banks as an easy means of supporting himself. But it does seem like a convenient, ex post facto way of justifying behavior that was incomprehensibly cruel–not to the banks, but to the people inside them.
He used a gun. And in that moment when he pointed his gun at the teller, the world froze. That person, and anyone who was aware the crime was taking place, instantly realized that they were powerless over this angry young man who was threatening their very lives for a sack of cash. Confronting the random brutality of the universe–“Why my bank? Why my shift? Why my window?”–and realizing in a heart-stopping instant that all of the control we exert over our lives–the makeup we apply to accentuate our features, the choices we make to save and spend, the ability to drive our cars where and when we want to, the laws that we endow with meaning so that the universe might be rendered orderly… it is all illusion. Confronting that fact changes people. And it changes them forever.
It requires callous indifference to other people’s feelings, to threaten violence like that. And I suspect it requires a conscious refusal to take responsibility for terrorizing actual people, in order to frame it–even long after the fact–as a benign assault on institutions. There is no way those tendencies do not leech into his relationships. Even so, curiosity and my irritating propensity for optimism got the better of my revulsion. Perhaps he did feel genuine remorse, I wondered, but he found it too painful to express publicly. I continued to write to him.
I concede, I am drawn to broken men. They are interesting, and I find their jagged edges sexy as hell. I admire broken people in general, because (to quote Hemingway), they tend to be “strong at the broken places.” Then again, if you’ve ever glued pottery back together, you know that Hemingway is full of shit. Structures tend to be weak at the broken places, and they tend to break there again and again. As a broken person myself, I know. Strength doesn’t reside in the broken places; it resides in the mending process, and the ability to do so over and over.
I never got to find out whether The Bank Robber was broken or strong, defeated or resilient, empathetic or sociopathic, or some combination of all of these. He stopped writing back right after I disclosed what I do for a living. He is a fry cook at a local diner, and I am a university professor. It wouldn’t have bothered me, but it might have bothered him. Or perhaps I was just too square, too bourgeois, too–well, really I have no idea why he stopped writing to me. At the time, it stung, and I framed his rejection as evidence that even the lowest members of society don’t want me. “Barrel bottom, scraped,” I sulked on Facebook.
But that was a low blow, rooted in my own hurt feelings. I am no better or worse than anyone, incarcerated, paroled, or free. And in a world rife with exploitation and suffering, I suspect we are all criminals in some way or other.
I still look The Bank Robber up online from time-to-time. After breaking up with his girl–Gee, I wonder why!–they appear to have reconciled. I am happy for them. He remains fascinating to me, and she seems like a genuinely good soul and someone I would like. I hope they are at peace. I hope, if he does recognize the horror of what he did years ago, that he finds the strength to forgive himself, and that he can channel his regret into service for others. I want to believe that people can change, that forgiveness is possible, that life works out for everyone in the end.
Maybe that’s what Shane MacGowan was talking about, as he recalled those golden days on the banks of the broad, majestic River Shannon.
Take my hand, and dry your tears babe
Take my hand, forget your fears babe
There’s no pain, there’s no more sorrow
They’re all gone, gone in the years babe
We are all part of the same search–for love, forgiveness, and redemption. And we are all just doing time, trying to figure it out.