The James River flows through Richmond, Virginia, like human time. Turbulent above, where the fresh Appalachian water breaks white across the rocky shoals of the fall line, it rushes purposefully past the old Confederate stronghold only to stall and forget itself and slacken to tidal meanders below. Life is contention, and violent homicide has troubled the passage of the river since aboriginal days. It pushed up from Jamestown in 1607 with English adventurers hunting for gold, darkened the bloody ground of civil war, spills through the drug-divided city today and always aggrieves with private murder. If murder is madness, why does its run reach so far? Why has violent death undone so many?
In Jamestown days homicide rates in the West were already declining. Contending human beings had murdered one another in medieval Europe at rates comparable to those in the most murderous American cities today. Urban and rural patterns reversed in that ungoverned age: Medieval cities were safer than the violent peasant countryside. In the seventeenth century new monopolies of state began sequestering violence in police forces and armies. A civilizing process displaced murderous disputes from the street to the courtroom; homicides declined dramatically to historic lows early in the twentieth century before the modern urban rise after the Second World War.
When Lonnie Athens remembers the river running through Richmond, he remembers the Manchester Cafe, his grandfather Lombros Zaharias's diner for mill hands, set on a narrow triangle of land wedged among paper mills and cigarette factories in southside Richmond, at the end of the Mayo Bridge. Athens's mother christened him with his grandfather's name, transliterating Lombros into Lonnie to shield him from the ridicule the rednecks heaped on Greeks in Richmond. More than anyone else Pop Zaharias steadied Athens's turbulent childhood.
The Manchester Cafe was an Edward Hopper scene. The mill hands called it a slop joint: big plate glass windows, separate entrances for whites and colored and divided service inside; marble countertops where burly tattooed men in undershirts leaned on their elbows drinking buttermilk; dark booths stained with sweat; a chalkboard listing the tabs that Pop let regulars run up between paychecks; a menu of hotcakes, hamburgers, salt herring, Pop's legendary bean soup, black coffee, orange Tru-Ade, apple wine and Richbrau beer; cigarettes and chewing tobacco for sale at the register; Hank Williams's "Lovesick Blues" or Woody Guthrie's "Philadelphia Lawyer" on the Wurlitzer jukebox; coal smoke from the mills billowing past like cloud shadows and Pop's flowers and fig trees taking refuge in the garden behind. "There was always plenty of good plain food to eat," Athens remembers, "colorful scenes to watch, humorous stories to hear and no blows to fear." No lack of colorful scenes at home either, but their auras signaled storms of family violence.
Violence might have come from that violence. Instead, partly because Pop knew how to keep the peace at the Manchester Cafe, Athens would eventually earn a doctorate in criminology at the University of California at Berkeley. A compact, handsome man with an explosive laugh, coiled and intensely focused, he would talk his way into prisons past hostile guards to interview convicted rapists and murderers, alone and unprotected, sometimes at the risk of his life. Searching the heinous narratives for the tracks of the beast, he would find the rude, brutal, informal and probably universal program that creates dangerous violent criminals.
He would discover for the first time definitively what generations of his colleagues in psychiatry, psychology, sociology and criminology had glimpsed piecemeal but failed to comprehend: the malevolent logic of violent acts. He would publish two brilliant, original books. And then he would spend twenty years beating his head against the brick wall of professional resistance to his hard truths -- truths that might inform strategies of prevention and guide the criminal justice system to identify and sequester violent recidivists.
Pop's sheltered daughter Irene married wild Petros Athens, who called himself Pete the Greek. Pete strolled into the Manchester Cafe in his army uniform one day near the end of the Second World War, ordered a beer and asked to talk to Mr. Zaharias. When Pop came over, Pete switched to Greek and told him he'd met his daughter at a church picnic. The young soldier was due for discharge soon; Irene thought her father might hire him. Bridling at the impropriety, Pop warned Pete not to speak to Irene again unless her mother was on hand to chaperone. He didn't need help in the café, but he believed in Greek helping Greek, so he agreed to try out Pete at the front counter.
Pete combed his thick, coal-black hair straight back on his large head. He was broad-shouldered and barrel-chested, with hard biceps and powerful forearms, but he was short in the leg. Pop thought he looked like Jim Londos, the "Golden Greek," the professional heavyweight wrestling champion of the world. Pete thought so too. Londos was one of Pete's heroes. The other was Rocky Marciano.
Pete married Irene and joined the family, but he didn't last long as Pop's front counterman, slinging hamburgers under the Dr Pepper clock. The mill hands called Greeks "flat-footed guineas" and ridiculed the sound of their language: Quack-quack-quack, quack-quack. "You weren't black," Athens explains, "and you weren't white. You were just some type of strange foreigner caught between two groups and marginalized." Pop shrugged it off as the price of doing business. He had started out in the 1920s with a pushcart selling doughnuts and coffee and expanded to a shack, and now he owned his own restaurant and a nice house on Byrd Park and had money in the bank.
Pete had a different program. Pete had a bold demeanor: Bring it on if you want, and if you don't, fine. He had grown up in Pennsylvania, where his father had been a brickyard worker and a professional wrestler -- a brutal, hard-core, hand-to-mouth peasant from Sparta. Pete's mother had died in her son's arms, decapitated in a car accident. When the mill hands hassled Pete at the Manchester Cafe, he took off his apron, debouched from behind the counter and beat them senseless. "He threw one guy through the plate glass window," Athens says. "Unfortunately another guy he almost killed was the foreman at Standard Paper Company, and they boycotted my grandfather's café. So my grandfather told Pete, 'We're not here to beat up people, we're here to make money. I've had enough of this crap about Greek pride. If you have money you have pride. You don't have pride if you don't have any damn money. What the hell are you doing? You want to be a wrestler, become a professional wrestler.' So he let him go." Pete found a job at the Lucky Strike factory.
Lonnie's older brother, Rico, was born in 1945. Lonnie came along in 1949. There were sisters born before and after Lonnie and a baby brother later, but the two older boys and their mother carried the burden of Pete's domination. "Man, woman or child," Athens remembers Pete lecturing them, "it's up to you. I didn't tell you to disrespect me. You told your fucking self to do that. If you're big enough to disrespect your father, you're big enough to get what you get." He knew what he was talking about. Pete's father's hands had been callused from the brickyard, and when he had hit Pete he'd busted his lips. Pete told Lonnie they had almost starved to death the year his father had smashed another laborer in the head with a two-by-four and the brickyard had laid him off. Pete left home when his father took after him with a hot poker and almost killed him. He shined shoes at a hotel before he joined the army and shipped down to Richmond. He was big on respect.
Pete worked for Reynolds Metal after Lucky Strike let him go. "I'm a hardworking SOB" -- Athens transcribes one of his father's monologues -- "and I deserve some respect for it. I work a regular job, but I make my livelihood by working on the side too. I'm a natural hustler. I know how to talk to people. I was born with the gift of gab. I can sell anybody. I can go out there anytime and make myself some extra money. I don't need any college degrees or union cards to do it, either. I don't need to wait for payday every week to get my money. I can make it on any day of the week. Talk is cheap. Money is what talks in this world, and my mind is always on how to make a buck."
Early in the Eisenhower era, when Lonnie was three or four, Pete bought a diner from a brother-in-law in Washington, D.C. The Red Star Lunch became Pete's Snack Bar, thirteen stools and a counter, fish cakes, hot dogs, hash smokes, french fries, pies, icebergs, two big coffee percolators, breakfast all day. The growing Athens family moved to the second floor over the diner. Pete had been a drummer in high school; he made extra money in Washington after hours playing drums at the Friendly Tavern.
He kept an unlicensed gun in a holster nailed up under the counter near the cash register, figuring a robber would order him to open the register and then Pete would grab the gun and blaze away. The neighborhood was transitional -- Athens thinks that's why his uncle sold the place to Pete -- and becoming threatening. Two black men came in one day and ordered three dozen hot dogs with everything on them. Lonnie was there helping out. "We had little pieces of paper already cut, and we'd get the hot dogs from the steamer and put the stuff on and wrap them, wrap them, wrap them." They loaded a box with the hot dogs and put the drinks in: Rock Creek Colas. The order came to twenty-five dollars.
Instead of paying, one of the men grabbed the box. Pete demanded his money. "They said, 'We ain't payin' you anythin'. This is the cost of doin' business here on H Street,' and they started toward the door. My father pulled out the pistol, shot over their heads and said, 'The first SOB goes through that door, he's going to be eating some lead with his hot dogs.' " Pete held his gun on them while Lonnie called the police. Declining to press charges, Pete had the police collect fifty dollars from the two hustlers.
Pete was no less violent at home. "He'd grab my brother and me by the hair and smash our heads together, bloody our faces," Athens says. "I'd hide under the bed. He'd pick up the bed, and I'd hold onto the springs so he couldn't get me. He was a barbarian, a peasant from a Greek peasant family, an extreme patriarch." Pete believed that the man is always right. He would fight anybody, Athens remembers. "He'd say, 'I don't care who you are or who you think you are, you could be a doctor, you could be a lawyer, you could be anything, but if you mess with Pete the Greek, I'll knock your fucking ass on that floor, and you may not be able to get back up again.' " Athens respected his determination. "He didn't go off every day. I don't want to give the wrong impression. But when he went off, he went off."
He went off one evening when Lonnie, four or five years old, was arguing with his mother about taking a bath. She wanted to wash his hair. He resisted, and she complained to his father. Pete came roaring in, grabbed Lonnie, picked him up and shoved his head down the toilet. "Flushed it two or three times. I thought I was going to die. I thought he was going to kill me in that toilet. It was humiliating. The water kept going over me, and I just felt filthy. I was frightened to death."
Pete put Rico in the hospital. Rico learned from Pete. When Lonnie was a baby Rico had attacked Lonnie in his crib with a hammer and smashed his baby bottle. More than once he'd tried to smother his little brother with a pillow. This time they were fighting, and Rico pushed Lonnie down the stairs. He wasn't hurt, but it knocked the wind out of him. At supper Pete asked Lonnie how he had fallen down the damn stairs, and Lonnie told him Rico had knocked him down. Irene rushed to Rico's defense, which made Pete all the madder. He picked up a plate and broke it over Rico's head. Rico had to be hospitalized for stitches and a concussion.
The streets of Washington were violent as well. Lonnie did not escape being victimized. He describes an early incident in one of his books:
"While I was walking home from elementary school, three teenage boys began calling me "short legs" and taunting me relentlessly about my small stature. After I thought they had walked a safe distance away from me, I made the mistake of yelling back at them. They suddenly began running after me. I cut across a vacant lot in a vain attempt to escape them. Once in the lot, they began throwing rocks and bottles at me as I ran. I was able to avoid getting hit until I tripped on an empty tin can. Just as I got back on my feet, one of the boys ran up to me and bashed me in the head with a brick. As I wobbled backward and put my hands to my head, I saw stars, black splotches, and blood pouring all over my hands and down my shirt. Then I got dizzy and collapsed. I woke up in the hospital, thanks to the kind intervention of a woman who had seen me lying on the ground."
Another time in Washington, Irene left Lonnie in Rico's care while she checked into the hospital to deliver a new baby. Rico had trouble at school. He used the occasion of his mother's absence to load his air rifle with BBs and go looking for revenge; he positioned himself outside his school and shot out windows and shot at kids leaving the building. He had dragged Lonnie along with him. The principal threw both of them out of school. They ran away and holed up in a shack in the woods for three or four days, surviving on food they shoplifted from a nearby Safeway. The police were looking for them. Their adventure ended when someone came up behind them at the Safeway and grabbed them by the back of the neck. They thought it was the manager, but it was Pete. He busted their heads together.
Living with violence, a child as bright as Lonnie could hardly avoid studying it. Hypervigilance is in any case one price children pay for childhood abuse. Athens traces the beginning of his interest in criminology to the summers he loved when Irene sent him from Washington to vacation with his grandparents in Richmond. The Zahariases lived in the Greek neighborhood on the edge of Byrd Park, an urban forest west of downtown Richmond that descends southward to the James River shoals. Their front porch looked across to the fountain in the northern reach of the park and the boat lake beyond. One summer a child molester was working the park, kidnapping children. The FBI, which has jurisdiction in kidnappings, decided it needed a decoy, and the agent in charge chose Lonnie. He sent him to the lake to walk around, cautioning him to stay by himself, away from other people. With men stationed to intercept anyone who tried to drag the boy off, the agent watched with binoculars from the Zahariases's porch. Lonnie, seven or eight years old, enjoyed his decoy work. "I'd go there every day," he says. "I wasn't scared. After awhile it got boring, and I started hoping that whoever it was would grab me." The molester never turned up. But Lonnie was intrigued.
Back in Washington after his summer adventure, Lonnie was playing the pinball machine at Pete's Snack Bar one day when mayhem ensued. A man walked in to challenge Pete. Pete had kicked him out before and told him to stay away. They had words. "Pete said, 'I told you not to come back in here. Get out.' The guy said, 'Fuck you, motherfucker, I don't have to get out of here.' " The man brandished an empty bottle, Pete drew his pistol, the man threw the bottle and Pete started shooting.
The bottle missed. Bullets flew. "Contrary to popular opinion," Athens observes, "when you're really excited it's hard to shoot straight." But Lonnie was almost in the line of fire. The confined explosions beat against his head: Bam! Bam! Bam! "I could hear the bullets hitting the plaster wall beside me. I crouched down and held my ears." He was so terrified he wet his pants. Running toward the door, the man took a bullet under his arm on the right side. The shooting was ruled self-defense, but Pete was convicted of illegal possession of a firearm and had to pay a fine.
Between gun battles and the changing neighborhood, Pete's Snack Bar was failing. Pete had the soul of a carny, florid with wanderlust and get-rich-quick schemes. When Athens saw Federico Fellini's film La Strada, years later in college, he couldn't believe how much Anthony Quinn's circus strongman and Giulietta Masina's blond, diminutive, long-suffering mistress reminded him of his father and mother; mentally he retitled the movie Pete and Irene on the Road in Italy. In the summer of 1959 Pete sold his snack bar at a loss and prepared to take his family on the road to Florida. "The famous trip south," Athens calls it, laughing now at the lunacy of it. "The big dream, south to Florida for gold and the fountain of youth. We bought this damned station wagon and loaded up everything. Pete buys a big, extra-size cooler, puts ice in it, bologna and cheese, milk in there for my sister Connie and the baby, Billy. We made the trip in July, no air-conditioning in the damned station wagon so we were burning up, going around Florida all summer looking for a new place, looking for a beachhead."
They lived in the station wagon, slept in the station wagon, lined up outside gas station rest rooms to use the toilet and to wash. For driving-around money Pete would organize a tent and a table at roadside, and they'd sell trinkets and souvenirs, Lonnie and Rico flagging down cars. They lived like dogs. Pete at least was happy. According to Athens, that was how his father wanted to live. " 'No bills,' he'd crow. 'No fucking bills. No water bill, no heat bill, no electricity, no fucking mortgage.' " They ate bologna and peanut butter every day. Pete tried to get a job as a chef in Boca Raton. Then he got a job running a small gas station. It was his big plan: "This is how we can make it. We don't have to pay any rent, we can live out of the car. Park the car in the back. Make Rico the pump boy." Lonnie and his mother set up the table with souvenirs, hung up a sign. They rang a little bell to get people's attention while Rico was pumping gas.
Going unwashed, eating bad food and hustling to survive was exhausting and humiliating, and finally Irene had enough. "I don't know what happened," Athens says. "He smacked her around for complaining, smacked us all. But school was coming, and she put on the pressure. 'We can't keep living like this. We've got to have a home for these kids. They've got to go to school. You're crazy. This isn't working.' So he relented. North to Richmond. So this was the famous idiotic trip to Florida."
Much later Athens would write scornfully of academic criminologists who present themselves as experts on criminal violence without ever having had personal experience of such violence or contact with violent criminals. Their usual rebuttal to his challenge, he noted, was that "one need not actually have heart trouble or some other terrible disease to discover a cure for it." That was true, he agreed, "but [one] must at least see, touch, smell and examine actual diseased hearts if he ever hopes to know anything about them." Athens had certainly seen, touched, smelled and examined more than enough violence in his tumultuous childhood to know what he was talking about.
Settled in Richmond once again, Pete found a job at the Standard Paper Company racking up cardboard, and rented a marginal house in the north end. Factory wages didn't put enough food on the table. Pop came around regularly to visit the kids and slip Irene some money. When he saw how badly they were living, he intervened, telling Pete, "You're not going to feed all these kids like that. You should get a restaurant. Find a place and I'll set you up." Pete found a place downtown called King Joe's Restaurant. It seemed to be a sweet deal, but in fact the neighborhood was once again transitional. Lonnie designed the sign, a majestic crown with "King Joe's" spelled out in glowing neon tubing. He worked there after school, rinsing beer glasses in blue water, filling beer boxes.
At King Joe's one day, lounging in a booth and looking out the big front window, Lonnie witnessed stark horror. An empty street. Afternoon light. A woman runs into view, panic on her face. A man appears, chasing her with a knife. She dodges into a doorway, scrambles to open a glass storm door, wedges herself in full view behind it pulling it against her by the handle, screaming for someone to let her in. The man smashes the storm door glass, gashes his arm, the wound spurts bright red in the afternoon light, the man raises the knife high, ignoring the blood gushing from his arm, and stabs and stabs the woman through the shattered door frame as Lonnie watches, petrified. Blood everywhere -- the man's blood, the woman's blood. She slumps and collapses. A beat, then the man swivels around, looks across at Lonnie, bolts across the street, bursts into King Joe's bleeding and brandishing his knife, shrieking, demanding that Pete tourniquet his arm. Lonnie's eyes are wide watching as he trembles in the booth by the window.
Pete jumped to it; he'd been a medic in the army. He tied off the man's arm, and the man ran out. The police and an ambulance arrived on the scene while Lonnie frantically explained to his father what the man had done to the woman who was dying in the doorway outside. All these years later, telling me the story, Athens still shudders when he remembers what he saw.
King Joe's was another bust, another big dream that wasn't working. One day when Lonnie was there two black men came in. One of them was agitated. Abruptly he pulled a gun and put it to Pete's head. Pete was midway along the counter and couldn't reach his pistol holstered beside the cash register down at the end. The gunman started reciting all the reasons he hated white people. "You motherfuckers done us wrong. Why shouldn't I kill your goddamn ass? Blow your fucking brains out all over you. You been fucking us over for years. You made us slaves, you bred us like animals, I'll blow your motherfucking brains out." While he ranted he clicked the trigger at Pete. It made Pete's hands tremble and he started to sweat. Lonnie was terrified.
Pete needed his gift of gab that day. He said, "Man, I don't know what you're talking about. I'm not from around here. I'm Greek, man, we got nothing to do with that. We weren't even in this country back then. My people came over after the First World War. We haven't done anything to you black people. I'm just trying to run a business here and support my family." And then, thankfully, the second man took his side. "Put that gun away, brother. Don't kill this man. He ain't done nothing to us. Let him go. Drop it." Finally the gunman put his weapon away, and they left. Pete closed up for the day to recover.
They moved to a cramped three-bedroom brick house on the other side of Byrd Park from Irene's parents, across from University Stadium on Maplewood Avenue, another transitional neighborhood. A big, muscular redneck named McCahill, with a Ku Klux Klan tattoo, in his late twenties, lived next door on one side; an older redneck named Seal on the other. The Athenses still spoke Greek at home; Irene called her children to meals in Greek. The neighbors registered the exception and picked at it: Quack-quack-quack, quack-quack. "What're you talking about," Seal would taunt Lonnie. "Quack-quacking over there all the fucking time, talking that quack-quack shit? Let these fucking people in, and the next thing is, they draw niggers." McCahill would agree: "These motherfuckers didn't even fight in the fucking war. We didn't fight World War Two to have these motherfuckers come live in our fucking neighborhood. They didn't even fight on our fucking side. I don't know what the fuck these motherfuckers are. Some kind of Moslems or Muslims? What are you? Are you a fucking Muslim or a fucking Moslem? Don't tell me you're a goddamned Christian. I know goddamned well you ain't no Christian." Lonnie would say, "Greek Orthodox," and McCahill would sneer, "They ain't no fucking Christians. Some fucking type of Jew or Moslem." One thing led to another. Rico took offense. By then he was sixteen but small for his age, like Lonnie. He told Seal, "Fuck you, I'll kick your goddamned ass." Seal pulled a gun and fired a couple of shots at him. He missed Rico, who retreated to the house. Then all-out war started.
Three neighbor women knocked on the door one day. When Irene answered, they grabbed her by the blouse, spit on her, smacked her and tried to drag her outside. Rico happened to be home. He pulled his mother into the hall and chased the women off. "This was an upwardly mobile neighborhood for rednecks," Athens says. "They'd just crossed the transition zone. They thought they finally had their place in the sun. That's why they were hostile. They were xenophobic, full of hate. If you get around xenophobic people, it's dangerous. They want to prove they're tough, and they try to get you. I felt like we were being lynched there."
The Athenses' neighbors -- McCahill on one side, Seal on the other -- built low cinder-block walls capped with brick at the front of their yards to express their aspirations. Pete couldn't afford a full-scale wall. He laid a row of bricks and hooked them into his neighbors' creations. When McCahill discovered the encroachment, he knocked off Pete's bricks. Lonnie knew there would be trouble. It worried him that McCahill was a lot bigger than Pete and had fifteen years on him -- Pete was in his forties by then. Pete came home and silently repaired the damage, hooking his wall back into McCahill's. McCahill saw what he was doing and came out. "I'm not going to put up with this shit," he told Pete. "I'll just call
the police to settle this." Pete menaced him. "We don't need any fucking police to settle this. I'll settle this with you right now." McCahill backed down.
Extending the war zone from the family to the neighborhood overwhelmed Lonnie. Pete ridiculed him, calling him a "goddamned runt." "I used to cry all the time," Athens recalls. "I was getting it at school, getting it from the rednecks in the neighborhood, getting it at home. And one day I just couldn't walk. I wasn't faking it. I guess it was a hysterical reaction. I just froze. I told my family I couldn't walk, and I crawled to the bathroom. Pete didn't like to spend money on doctors. I used to go to doctors by myself when I needed medical attention. I'd go down the boulevard and look for the right specialty, go in and give them a false name and address, 'Lonnie Jones' and some big address over on Monument Avenue. I never had any trouble. Some of them must have known." He was brazen enough to ask for samples when the doctors wrote prescriptions.
His hysterical paralysis persisted. Pete tried mustard plasters, to no effect. Lonnie stopped going to school because he couldn't walk. When Pete had to carry his son around, he conceded the virtue of doctors. Lonnie told a parade of specialists that he had a pain in his back. The doctors told Pete, "We don't know, he just can't walk. Something's wrong with him we can't detect; his bones seem to be all right; it must be nerve damage." After about three months of consultations, the doctors recommended placing Lonnie in a state home for crippled children located near Byrd Park. "They took me to look it over," Athens says. "I was just a kid, and here were all these crippled kids. I'll be honest with you, it looked like Frankenstein to me. It scared me out of my wits. So they took me back home and decided to try one more doctor." The doctor examined him and whispered something to Pete. Pete gave Lonnie a look, carried him to the car, threw him into the backseat and drove home. When they got there Pete turned around and said, "You better get up and walk out of this car or I'll put my foot so far up your ass you'll wish the fuck you couldn't walk." Lonnie was cured. "That was the miracle cure. I got up and walked into the house."
When not even paralysis could protect him, Lonnie understood that he had to protect himself. Tired of being pushed around, he resolved to try belligerence.
Excerpted from Why They Kill by Richard Rhodes. Copyright © 2000 by Richard Rhodes. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.