Hollywood Crime Myths: The Million-Dollar Score

The Money Shot, by Jamie Beverly July 9, 2006. Details of use here.

In 2010 Doug MacRay and a team of five took $3.5 million in cash during a Fenway Park robbery. By contrast, in 1995 Neil McCauley and a crew of three took down a Los Angeles bank and $12.2 million in cash. In 1988 Hans Gruber and a team of 12 (TWELVE!) lifted $620 million in bearer bonds from the Nakatomi Corp. But in 1977 Luke Skywalker and three squadrons of stub fighters flew through a hail of aircraft and surface cannons to destroy the Death Star.

(This piece was originally posted on author Victoria M. Patton’s blog. I remain grateful for her generosity and support.)

What do these four things have in common? They are all works of particularly well-written fiction. Which of the four is different from the others? Well, lets just say it is FAR more likely for a farm boy with no formal combat-flight training to destroy the ultimate power in the galaxy than for the accumulation of cash in one place depicted in the other three. 

In 1863 a Malden Massachusetts night-auditor was shot and the heister got away with $5000, ($155,000, in 2020 dollars) in what is considered the first recorded bank robbery in America. Fast-forward 140-odd years and a 2006 report by U.S. News cited that the typical take from a bank robbery is just over $4000. The available cash on hand continues to trend down. 

It’s a little different outside the world of bank security. Jimmy Burke and Lucchese crime family soldiers took $5.8mm ($23mm today) in the 1978 Lufthansa Heist. Allan Pace and a team of five took $18mm, ($31mm today) in the 1997 Dunbar Armored Robbery. Both were the largest robberies of their time. Both were outliers, resulting in global changes to industry security. 

Armed robberies reached their zenith in the 1970s and 80s as thousands of men, (trained in high-risk-small-team tactics) transitioned from the war in Vietnam to the high-unemployment and cyclical recessions of civilian life. Cash-on-hand policies became an important part of security and loss prevention. By the time William Guess, (Polo Shirt Bandit) robbed his first bank in 1985, the take was only $1000. Carl Gugasian, the most prolific bankrobber in U.S. history, only netted $2mm in his 30-year career.

Back at the fiction section, there are folks who get it right. The late-great Donald Westlake populated his world with degenerates who pulled scores for brown-paper bags (opposed to duffle bags) of cash. Elmore Leonard also ducked the retire-to-the-islands-score trope. Most of his baddies fought tooth-and-nail for what would be a middle-class salary in the straight world. In Michael Mann’s masterwork Thief, Frank’s paydays are delivered in manila envelopes.

Bottomline, the amounts don’t matter as much as the reasons why. Westlake and Leonard’s baddies have no other options. Degenerates of one stripe or another, they cannot function in the straight world. The same could be said of Guess and Gugasian who were addicts–mostly to adrenaline. Edward Green, who committed the first bank robbery in 1863 was the Malden Massachusetts Post Master. He was also heavily in debt.

The reasons why are the “but for the grace of God (and allergies to police, handcuffs, and group showers) go the best of us” drama.  

In Memoriam Tommy #Caturday

Tommy in healthier days.

The first time I saw Tommy he was ditty-bopping down the block–on the sidewalk, as if he had a place to be and business to tend to. His tail was in the air, (meaning healthy, confident, and otherwise happy). That could’ve been a life-long descriptive: happy.

Weeks or months later, I heard a cat raising hell in the middle of the night. When I turned on my porch light I saw Tommy cowering under my barbecue pit. A larger, MEAN male cat circled Tommy, menacing him. I ran the older cat out of the yard. Just as quickly, Tommy was at my side, happy to be petted.

We quickly realized that he showed up at night to eat the food I put out for the feral cats that lived in a junkyard behind our subdivision. Tommy was not feral. He LOVED to be petted, he loved the kids at the daycare house down the block and he loved the youngest daughter at that house. That was his house and she was his person.

Years later we would find out that the family at the house would bring him in–but he wouldn’t stay long. Anxious after food and petting, he couldn’t wait to get back outside. By this point we had made a decision after picking up one-too-many dead kittens out of the street. We trapped every feral and stray to have them neutered. We feared for Tommy’s sensitive disposition after being neutered–only to have him get in the trap twice more for the meat.

After seeing him dig in the trash (what were his people thinking?) and worried animal control would be called we started feeding him morning and night. Tommy waited at our back door at 5AM and 5PM. Tommy became Rolex Tommy, always on time. He also stopped digging in the trash.

By then his person was working full time and the family referred to him as the “neighborhood cat.” We brought him inside during Hurricane Harvey but he bounced off the walls, literally. While he was far from aggressive, we still couldn’t bring him inside with our three rescues, he was too insecure and hissed at everything including my house shoes.

Still he turned up at five and five every day. When my Missus started working from home, he would sit in her office window and visit. At Christmas we hung sleigh bells on our door and Tommy quickly associated the bells with my Missus and would follow her to the mailbox or to discuss things with the neighbors and then follow her back to the house. She became his person and he loved to be petted. Even if petting meant a dose of flea/tick/heart worm medication, even if it meant de-mange treatment or cut/scratch treatment.

Then there was the day he didn’t show up. That day turned into three. My Missus resorted to ringing the holiday bells. On day four she saw Tommy dragging himself across the street.

At his healthiest, Tommy weighed eight pounds. By the time he came to us he was maybe five.

He ignored the meat he loved, ignored the treats he demanded, and only sipped a bit of water before going to lay in the bushes.

Tommy also suffered with a thick discharge from his eyes and nose.

While I scooped Tommy up and took him to the vet, my Missus went to his former people. “Oh, he’s not really our cat,” they said. “He used to play with our daughter but she doesn’t live here anymore,” they said. “Do whatever you think is best,” they said. The “don’t bother us with details,” was implied.

The good news was a respiratory infection, easily treated with antibiotics and an appetite stimulant. The bad news was Feline Immunodeficiency Virus, (FIV). Just like the human equivalent FIV attacks the immune system, there is no cure, and it is fatal. An inside-only cat can live 10-12 years with FIV. An outside cat has a significantly lower life-expectancy. Tommy was six or seven years old.

Yes, he slept with a Pooh Bear. Don’t judge.

We brought him home. We medicated him for a week. His appetite returned and with it his playfulness. At first it was just a matter of saving his life while keeping the inside gang safe. He lived in my wife’s office. He lived for her YouTube television-show reviews.

Tommy on desk duty.

He was less impressed with my attempts to read to him but he LOVED stealing my book mark and running with it. He ate ravenously and looked to be putting on weight. We were working on a plan to make him an inside-only cat.

Then on day eight Tommy stopped eating. His gait became shaky. He resumed hiding under my Missus’ desk because he was too weak to climb onto the cat tree. Even with the antibiotics, he spiked a fever. Even with the appetite stimulant he only sipped at water–no kibble, no meat, no treats.

I took him back to the vet on day eleven. Big, compassionate, and country as catfish sandwiches, the vet assured me that there is no wrong decision when it comes euthanasia. You know it’s time when the animal stops living.

Tommy had stopped eating, stopped playing, and above all else, he stopped seeking attention. His breathing was labored, his body obviously pained him. His discomfort was palpable.

His little bones shifted in my hands as I held him for the series of injections through the IV. He went to sleep with his head in my hand. I felt his heart stop. I rubbed his little pink toe beans as he eased away.

Accents, Dialects, and How (not) To Do it

Okie Camp Shack, Weedpatch, California, by Carol M. Highsmith, created between 1980 and 2006. Details and information for use here.

There is beauty, poetry even, in an accent. Chistopher Waltz’ Austrian lilt, Lupita Nyong ’o’s intercontinental elocution, or even the late-great Dennis Farina’s Chicago brogue—truly, accents are lyrical on the stage and on the screen. In print, however, accent marks and dialect-indicative spellings are a pain in the posterior for the reader and can provoke editors to chainsaw killings. 

(This piece originally appeared on author Victoria M. Patton’s excellent blog. I remain grateful for her kindness and support.)

What kinda accent? Brooklyn or guttural? Bill Mauldin, Up Front

Anyone who’s read Twain, the Bronte sisters, and/or Dickens knows that the use of accents have a longstanding, if dubious history. However, all-too often, the accent reads archaic at best and exploitive at worst, e.g. Winston Groom’s Forrest Gump.

The young’uns call it country, the Yankees call it dumb, Tom Petty, Southern Accents

Is an accent “local color,” or offensive? The balance is between intent and reception. When I submitted my Louisiana-Creole-accented hoodlum to my first crit-group, I was surprised by the response. My dialogue met with praise… from the six white writers. The sole writer of color as well as the crit-group leader, (a recent immigrant from Ireland) remained coolly silent. I gutted all accent and dialect from my work that night.

As important as intent and reception is, the salient question is what does an accent mean now? Willie Nelson is from Abbott, (a farming community about 25 miles north of Waco) and he sounds like Texas. Jennifer Garner is from Houston, (4th largest city in the nation). She sounds like Texas, too. Neither sounds like the Texas in television and the movies.

The UK comprises 12 regions, including Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, speaking (mostly) one language and yet the diversity of accents is legendary. By contrast, Nigeria is nearly four-times the area and three-times the population with four lingual families and over 500 distinctive languages. A thesaurus can provide synonyms for accent and dialect but can’t tell you which Nigerian accent is in play.  Needless to say when I read that he/she spoke with an “African accent,” I get punchy.

So how do you do it? 

Thomas Harris trusts the reader to decide what Louisianan, Will Graham and West Virginian, Clarice Starling sounds like. But Hannibal Lecter is the ultimate example of “tell” efficiently moving the story forward where “show” would only encumber the reader. Born in Lithuania, relocated to France in adolescence, and settling in Baltimore as a young adult,, Doctor Lecter’s accent is mentioned but never defined.  

However, if you must “show,” remember the axiom: less is more. Legendary southerner, William Faulkner is sparse with his accents—like a word or three for every 1000 words. More recently, (but just as legendary) northerner, Robert B. Parker has a character mimic Lieutenant Martin Quirk’s Boston burr and we read him that way forevermore. Neither author relies on Franken-spellings or grammar mutilations. Elegant prose beat pyrotechnics any day.

Sing Your Song

Wes Montgomery, November 19, 1966, Billboard Magazine. Details of use here.

In 1968, the world lost a musical genius named Wes Montgomery. Even if you don’t know Jazz—or his masterpiece, Bumpin’ on Sunset—you know Wes’ music from easy-listening radio. A consummate artist and seminal jazzman, Wes blazed a path across the post-Bebop landscape when the genre norm was saxophone, trumpet, vibraphone, anything but guitar.

(This article was originally posted on author, Victoria M. Patton’s blog. I remain eternally grateful for her friendship and support.)

Yet even if you know the music, you may not know Wes Montgomery. He hit his stride as the Jazz form was in decline and guitars were associated more with little English boys sporting ugly haircuts. Wes’ best known recordings, (in this country) were covers of Lennon and McCartney’s Day In the Life, Daniel Flores’ Tequila, and  The Association’s syrupy-sweet Wendy. 

Wes sold out 1000 seat halls in Europe. In the states he played nightclubs and worked Indiana factories during the day.

“What does this have to do with writing?” you ask. 

In the wake of the latest pitmad I’m reminded, again, that what many of us write isn’t in fashion, (currently). This isn’t a humble-brag screed or a down-nose at what anyone else is doing. Quite the opposite, I want you (and me), to write what our hearts desire to read. 

Like most of you, I write genre. And, like many of you, I’ve repeatedly polished up my little ditties and put them out there only to be met with silence from agents, publishers, and panels. 

I wanted to be a Beatle. But I couldn’t because I’m Ozzy Osborne.  –Himself

The temptation to write sparkly vampires, or plucky-post-apocalyptic Mary Sues, or Mr. Darcy stand-ins who fiddle around with kink can be strong. Especially when it seems that’s all the agents (et al) want. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

When I started writing, after years of reading Ludlum, (multiple best seller) my first attempt was a spy story. I think I made it 25K words before I lost interest. But I also read a lot of Ed McBain and Thomas Harris, (similar sales record) so I tried a police procedural. I made, maybe, 12K words. A decade of reading Robert B. Parker, (NYT darling) inspired me to try my hand at a PI. If I made it to 2500 words on my gumshoe I’d be shocked.  

Sure, I read Donald Westlake, (and his alternate nom de plum Richard Stark) as well as Elmore Leonard and George Higgins. But I had to hunt for many of those books. George Higgins was out of print for years as were many of the Richard Stark novels—and both authors’ work were adapted (with varying degrees of success) to movies.  The other guys got read and praised. Who doesn’t want their writing to be read? 

For a long time, I wrote nothing except term papers and essays. By the time I finished school, I was burnt on writing. English classes, or more precisely, literary dissection, snobbery, and bias killed my confidence.

I read other people’s stories, watched people’s stories on the screen, and listened to other people’s stories in song. Then my Missus took me to my first-ever book signing with the great Walter Mosley. 

Whatever you read, whatever you write, remember, it’s supposed to be fun. –Walter Mosley

There were probably 100 people packed in a room intended for maybe 20. I don’t even remember what the question was but he looked out—right at me and said. “Whatever you read, whatever you write, remember, it’s supposed to be fun.” It all clicked.

After studying details of real CIA “intrigues” in Africa, South America, and points east I found little “fun” in writing spies. McBain/Harris’ po-po didn’t reconcile with my family history—we’re from that side of town where cops are often as bad, if not worse than the criminals. I once met famed Houston PI Clyde Wilson. It took me two days to get the smell of bullshit out of my nose.  

So, yeah, Ludlum, Harris, and Parker are authors I enjoyed reading. But as perfectly fine as their stories are, they’re not my stories. I write crime with Louisiana accents, big New Mexico vistas, and Texas savagery. My guys seldom “get” the girl. Far from damsels in distress or villainous vixens, my dames are head-knockers, showstoppers, and bosses. Walter Mosley—speaking of finding his voice against higher obstacles than I’ll ever face—sparked that epiphany. 

I started writing the night I got home from that author signing and it took me less than 6mos to finish a 60K word crime novel featuring a codeine-addicted car thief. I’ve spent something-something years since then learning how to write the story I committed to paper. In that time, I’ve had some near misses with representation and publication. Every year there is the temptation to attempt another kind of story—space opera, sword-and-sandal epic, drag-queen gunfighters—personally interesting or not. Then I hear a Wes Montgomery tune.

In the decades since his death, Wes Montgomery’s original recordings have enjoyed a renaissance. His work has been covered by everyone from Earl Klugh to Pat Metheny. I can only wonder at the music we might’ve had if Wes hadn’t yielded to label pressure to record pop tunes. As writers we spend years finding and developing our voice to write our stories. We must be uncompromising in our vision. 

Tell your stories. Write with the voice that resonates with you. Otherwise, why write it at all? 

#Caturday Rolex Tommy

Rolex Tommy, 2017 from the McClellan Family Collection

This is Tommy. Tommy is not our cat. Like so many other abandoned and/or feral cats, he chose our backyard for some reason. Mostly, I’m sure, because we have neither dogs nor kids.

One night I heard a cat raising hell and turned on my patio light to see Tommy under my barbecue pit, with a larger male stalking him. I ran the old male off and Tommy beep-beeped right out. We fed him as we feed so many other cats.

You may remember, 2008 was a bad year. The economy tanked. People lost jobs. People walked away from houses. Pets were a low priority. I’ll spare you the harder, meaner things I’ve read. But we went from one or two far-ranging feral cats to near-colony status. Tommy popped up there somewhere.

He wasn’t a feral. Social, affectionate, and afraid of the mice that turned up in my herb garden, he had been someone’s pet. We considered taking him in but within days we heard that he was a neighbor’s cat. An outside cat.

Instead of taking him in, we continued to feed him two meals a day and Tommy became Rolex Tommy–always on time. We quietly got him neutered. We began a routine to deflea/delouse him twice a year. We sequestered him in our office during Hurricanes Harvey and Laura.

Last week he went missing for four days. When he did turn up, he was emaciated and too weak to eat. A trip to vet confirmed that he is FIV positive. Much like Human Immunodeficiency Virus, FIV weakens the immune system and is incurable. It is spread by bites and grooming from infected cats. Tommy most like contracted it from the cat that stalked him relentlessly and then suddenly disappeared.

Cats with FIV can lead almost normal lives–if they’re inside exclusively, with good food, clean water, and without the stress of living outside. Tommy has been in my office for 16 hours. Even with medication to stimulate his appetite, he’s not eating. He sips at the water but isn’t urinating or defecating. If he doesn’t improve by Monday, I will put him down rather than see him suffer through organ failure.

I’ve been doing this kind of thing for over ten years and I’ve spent several thousand dollars cleaning up after irresponsible “owners.” I’ve put down three cats and Tommy looks likely to be number four. My wife and I have lost count of the dead kittens we’ve picked up out of the street after they’re hit by cars. I don’t do this because I’m a “heck of a guy.” I was an irresponsible pet owner and the memory of it, regardless of excuses, haunts me.

If you take nothing else form this rant, please, please, please take this to heart: an animal is a multi-year responsibility–cats average 12-15 years but can live to 20 years. Cats are not wild animals. They have been domesticated for 4000 years. When you put a cat outside, they do not magically “take care of themselves.”

They get injured in fights with other cats and with actual wild animals and are often killed by dogs. Abandoned cats get sick. Abandoned cats eat carrion off the roadside and spoiled food out of the garbage which leads to high incidences of gum disease. One of our rehabilitated feral cats lost all but four of her teeth.

In closing: have your pets spayed/neutered. Don’t shop, adopt. Don’t do either unless you’re committed to caring for the animal for life.

Could Teach the Devil Tricks… James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger #TBT

U.S. Marshals Service Mug Shot of Whitey Bulger, c. 2011. Details of use here.

Born September 3, 1929, James Joseph “Whitey” Bulger was a career criminal, FBI informant, and convicted murderer who rose to prominence in the 1970s and ’80s. Bulger informed on rivals he could not kill. Patriarca Crime Family lieutenants and soldiers, (from Boston’s Italian Mob) were frequent targets. He served time in state and federal penitentiaries, including a stint in the infamous Alcatraz.

Through the Winter Hill Gang, Whitey ultimately controlled much of South Boston by 1982. His reign of terror, including 19 known murders, ended in 1994 when a joint task force of Boston PD, DEA, and Massachusetts State Police found that Bulger, the informant had corrupted his federal handler, John Connolly, receiving far more information than he had given. With a final tip form his Connolly, Whitey eluded capture and lived as a fugitive for the next 17 years.

Bulger was beaten to death at U.S. Penitentiary, Hazelton in 2018. He was 89 years old. Though he purportedly only targeted criminals and associates, Bulger’s death brought relief to victims’ families who still lived in fear of Bulger’s reach and notorious capacity for grudges.

Wanna Get Away?

1965 Oldsmobile 98 at Gibeau Orange Julep, by Bull-Doser. Details of use, here.

So, you’ve planned the perfect score, heist, or Amazon delivery-route for your crew to takedown and now you need a burnout buggy. But what do you choose? How do you choose? Do you go with powerful? Performance? Understated? Armor-plated?

(This article originally appeared on writer Victoria M. Patton’s excellent blog. I remain eternally grateful for her friendship and support.)

“Well, pumpkins, it comes down to that age-old decision: style… or… substance?” Patrick Swayze, (RIP) To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar.

Ferrari or Bugatti? Well, neither, really. 

Exotic cars, like most sexy entities, are notoriously temperamental. Less commonly known is that they’re notoriously cramped. So, unless your crew is one-and-a-half Tom Cruises, no model of supercar works. At the opposite-end of the spectrum, a minivan—space, fuel efficiency, and cup-holders aside—will never do, either. I don’t care what you saw in The Town, you can walk faster than those buckets roll.

As the man said, “Porsche, there is no substitution.” Okay, the man who said that was Tom Cruise. But Porsche is reliable, has a sedan and two SUVs; all with powerful engines and race-track-ready suspensions. Now how would you like to pay?

Maybe you’re bold enough to rent, like the legendary Polo Shirt Bandit, (local hero, yo). He used cash and/or stolen credit cards to rent late-model vehicles with strong engines and sketchy tracking. Or, maybe, you’re lucky enough to have a cousin named “Cootie” with a chop shop/illicit cargo business. Cootie will sell you any type of get-gone wagons, cheap. Like 40 to 50 percent off of Bluebook. 

What? Don’t side-eye me like that, I have a cousin.

But even with family discount, you’re still looking at dropping serious dollars for a late-model car. If your cousin doesn’t rip you off. If the cops don’t make your stolen car two blocks from the chop shop. All just to ditch it at the first opportunity.

No, there’s a reason that traditionalists from Bonnie and Clyde to the Lufthansa heisters stole their own cars: certainty. If you know how to boost a car, you can choose (almost) any make/model/color you need or want. Which brings us back to what to choose for your bad men/nasty women? 

Capone favored Cadillac, as did Mafiosi for decades after. They appreciated the powerful engines, solid chassis, and cabs that could take a beating. Cadillac became especially popular after developing a 16-cylinder engine, when prevailing wisdom equated more cylinders with more power. For contrast, most cop cars of the day had 4-or-6-cylinder engines. But I hear you. “Some black-and-white movie villain liked GMs but what about current events?”

Station wagons ~yawn~ amirite? 

Thomas Harris tapped FBI research when he wrote his narco-gang using a Buick Estate Wagon to blaze through a DEA shootout. According to the feds, gangs prefer the wagons for powerful engines, rear windows that roll all the way down, (drive-by shootings) and the number of ways to get in/out quickly. Larry Phillips and Emil Matasareanu chose a station wagon for their ill-fated North Hollywood bank score. Don’t get me started on the prevalence of Impalas among SERIOUS baddies like cop-turned-bank-robber David Mack. So, you might ask, does GM have a monopoly?

“Nothin’ will outrun my V8 Ford.” Chuck Berry, father of Rock ’n’ Roll, heister.

Ford Motor Company has a mad-bad-and-dangerous-to-know rep going back to the Roaring Twenties. Bugs Moran, (Capone’s arch nemesis) preferred stalwart Lincolns, as did Murder Incorporated—especially after the gearheads figured out that an 8-or-12-cylinder engine provides just as much high-end horsepower without the weight, timing, and cooling issues of a V-16. 

How esteemed were the blue-oval mobiles? Clyde Barrow wrote a fan letter, (on display at the Ford Motor Company Museum) praising the V8 Ford and its ability to outrun anything the cops had. A further testament of Ford’s virtue as a get-away car (and Barrow’s skill behind the wheel) is the fact that Frank Hammer’s ambush hinged on a ruse to get Barrow out of his Ford. 

Writers took notice and  Ford’s legend permeates pop-culture, from Steve McQueen’s Mustang GT in Bullitt to Clarice Starling’s Roush in Hannibal. It’s part of the criminal pedigree carried over to Neil McCauley’s get-away Lincoln in Heat and then full circle with the Driver’s Mustang GT in Drive.    

Ultimately, Fords and GM’s are the default among villains for simple reasons: availability, accessibility, and utility. People with Porsches and Ferraris tend to park them behind gates, in garages, or in valet-controlled lots. They also tend to install LoJack, which is just no fun at all. Or, you know, so I’ve been told. Folks who own Fords and Chevys park them at shopping malls, movie theaters, and suburban driveways. They tend to install scented air fresheners and rely on factory alarms. 

As for accessibility, well, neither Ford nor GM has changed their ignition designs in well over 30 years. A thief can boost either—and defeat the alarm—with a screwdriver and rudimentary knowledge of fuses. Again, so I’ve been told. 

Know your cars, the baddies do. John Dillinger wouldn’t touch an Equinox or MKZ with someone else’ ten-foot pole. But I bet he’d boost a BMW M5 or a Subaru Impreza in the turn of a screwdriver. So, obviously it can be style AND substance. If you want your villain doing the do in Bill Harrah’s Jerrari, have at it—as long as it meets: need, availability, and accessibility, (good luck). 

Just remember the most important burnout-buggy axiom: nobody does heavy business in a Prius.  

#Caturday: Sneaky

Sneaky D.K. McClellan Posing for the Camara

Sneaky came into our lives in 2006. The neighbors adopted him and his brother and then “realized” the wife was allergic. The put the then six-month-old kittens outside because “cats can take care of themselves.”

When we took him in Sneaky, (he snuck into the house and is forever ending up where he’s NOT supposed to be) had a raging infection and was septic. He was in such bad shape the vet took him home to monitor his antibiotic IV overnight. Obviously, he pulled through.

The vet’s doing alright as well, (mostly because he had the good sense to stop flirting with my wife).

The moral of the story, (aside from not flirting with my Missus if you want to live and do well) is two-fold. First, adopt, don’t shop. Thousands of cats are euthanized each year. Second, don’t adopt or shop if you’re not willing to make the commitment. Cats don’t magically “take care of themselves” when dumped/abandoned/thrown out. They get sick. They get injured. They live in constant fear and hunger.

Sneaky is the star of our show and the heart of our home. The other two cats absolutely ADORE him and he absolutely tolerates them. Even as I type this, the big cuddle monster is curled up next to my Missus, who he thinks is his Momma.

You can be the difference in a cat’s life. I promise a cat can change your life.

Ode to Hurricanes Past–a Sorta/Kinda #TBT

Now, kids, this is what happens when you catch a 6’X4′ piece of plywood with your foot.

Hurricane Laura was barreling down on the Texas/Louisiana Gulfcoast with a 30-hour ETA. So, me and the neighbors were buttoning up houses. Yes, I live 40 miles from the coast. Storms lose strength the minute they hit land. We had nothing to fear.

But we also lost family in New Orleans to Katrina. We sat in traffic for 28 hours to get to Dallas while “fleeing” Rita–the same damn year. That drive is normally about four hours.

If the plywood helps my Missus sleep, I’ll board up the house. If evacuating eases my Missus’ worry, I’ll schlep to fothermucking Dallas. A bruised up foot is minor business.

As it turned out, Laura hit right at the Texas/Louisiana line–bypassing Houston/Galveston by several hundred miles–shellacking Lake Jackson. I sincerely wish folks there a speedy recovery and safe family, all around.

Meanwhile, this happened while I was wearing heavy leather Timberland boots. Good thing I wasn’t wearing my Vans.

The 7% Trope: Writing Drugs

Day 35 of 365 – A Private Stash by Jesse! S? source details and license info here. This piece was originally published on Victoria M. Patton’s excellent blog.

Illicit-drug use in literature dates back well over 100 years. And for good reason. Like any other foible, substance use/abuse lends gravitas to a character. 

Of course every drug aficionado, from Tommy Chong to your cousin Tim, will tell you that Sherlock Holmes used cocaine. Truly, Doyle’s detective used cocaine as well as morphine, alcohol, and tobacco. Probably had a serious ‘Nilla Wafer habit, too but we don’t judge. Motivation is the meat of the matter and most authors aim for the underlying drama rather than gratuitous sensationalism. Most authors.

How-NOT-to

Richard Stark’s Parker returns from left-for-dead betrayal to find his woman, Lynn with a debilitating heroin habit. After her introduction, Stark writes Lynn out with a convenient overdose because even in a crime novel featuring a murderous heister, the times, (published in 1962) required a didactic down-nose at addicts. 

Popular fiction of the 20th Century rendered drug users as double-crossing junkies or tragic kids just trying to fit in. Ellis’ Less Than Zero (published in 1985) these clichés like an ABC-After-School roadmap. Other clichés included spoiled playboys and the virulent, “drugs turned ‘em into monsters,” sub-trope, e.g. Thomas Harris’ meth-addled drug lord, Evelda Drumgo. Dirty needles tied in her hair to infect others with HIV/AIDs is both exploitive and ridiculous. Hannibal was published in 1999. 

Who’s done it well, then?

John Sanford applies years of experience as a Twin Cities beat reporter to his detailed depictions of drug use in his Lucas Davenport series. Davenport is the do-right (mostly) hero-detective. However, Del Capslock, is the bad-hygiene-real-undercover cop who steals this show, telling a new guy that his “big, HMO teeth” is gonna get him killed. Capslock is also Davenport’s amphetamine source.

Iain Levison’s How to Rob an Armored Car is helmed by three stoners, Mitch, Doug, and Kevin. An assistant manager for a big-box store, a line cook at a fast-casual restaurant, and a dog walker, these three could be our ne’er-do-well cousins who took the great recession on the chin. Their drug and alcohol use is nothing more than self-medication for what seemed to be generational depression.

Where to start? 

There is a wealth of clinical literature about addiction. I cannot recommend Dr. Gabor Maté’s In The Realm of Hungry Ghosts highly enough. Maté has treated addiction for over 20 years. His prose are insightful, artful, and above all, compassionate.

Mostly, though, your first step should be to assess your intent. Furthering your story, telling the truth, and depicting the addict as a human being instead of a cardboard-cutout, (not necessarily in that order) are worthy goals in writing addiction. The best writers understand the base-most motivations for drug use: pain and necessity.

Sanford’s detectives use amphetamines to chase the badmen and stave-off overwhelming emotions. His psychopath-pathologist uses drugs to function among people—gauging whether the effects of PCP (stiff and wooden) or cocaine (aloof bordering obnoxious) will best help him play the grieving husband at his murdered wife’s funeral. 

However, temperament is an equal partner with need in determining the method. Sherlock Holmes primarily uses cocaine to treat his depression. Of course, Holmes is a man of action and a genius in motion. Mitch, Doug, and Kevin—less men of action than victims of illness they don’t have the tools to process or even discuss—land closer to most addicts. 

Seek clinical sources.

Once you’ve identified your character motivations, temperament, and drug of choice you’d do well to understand the drug effects. Cocaine and amphetamines are stimulates. Heroin and barbiturates are sedatives. Mescaline/peyote (mushrooms) and LSD are hallucinogens/psychotropics. But there are always unintended/side effects just as there are bullshit stories about main effects.

Vincent Vega spends more time chasing a toilet than Marsellus’ briefcase in Pulp Fiction. Nowhere near as romantic as Tarantino’s languid shots of Vincent shooting up, the repeated scenes of him on the toilet, on the way to the toilet, and ultimate exit from the toilet represent the hard truth: opioids cause constipation. Or runaway diarrhea. It’s a crapshoot.

I once heard about a guy who…

Anecdotes are prone to hyperbole and often lead to cliché. A popular “story” from my childhood was of the crazed PCP (phencyclidine, a hallucination-inducing anesthetic) addict who “took six rounds from a .357 magnum and kept coming.” I heard the same story in four different cities and saw it depicted in Sharky’s Machine. 

Paul McCartney met singer/songwriter Harry Nilssen at a party. Nilssen offered McCartney PCP, (then used exclusively in veterinary medicine). McCartney asked if it was fun. Nilssen replied, “no” and McCartney declined. No gunplay involved.

Our primary responsibility is to tell a story…

Cocaine, PCP, heroin, and crystal methamphetamine all fell out of fashion, like double-knit safari suits, because the consequences are often devastating. However, just like poor fashion choices, they cycle back through every generation or so. Focus on the pain at the root of the addiction, what’s available to your protag. Chose a key detail and depict the use/effects honestly—and make sure it supports your story without becoming a carny act. 

A light touch is necessary. Ultimately, the difference between a trope and a cliché is application. The trope fuels your story. The cliché just wastes your readers’ time.