(Pictured above, Norman Bates from the movie Psycho)
My best friend when I was a kid was a psychopath. I mean this in the literal sense, with all the meaning attached to the term by clinical psychiatry.
He had all the hallmarks of psychopathy and antisocial personality disorder: he was remorseless and detached, had an unreadable countenance and the ability to lie fluidly and convincingly, a disposition toward extreme risk taking, and a persistent anti-social orientation. He was a pyromaniac, a kleptomaniac and a vandal. I did not learn these terms until later in life, and every time I learned a new one I would think “wow, that sounds exactly like Dan.” He was never at a loss to sow destruction.
Every intention he had was bad. His only mission was trouble. This was not my motif; I was oppositional and defiant, but not malicious. And yet we had a lot in common and connected on a very personal level. I found him an exciting person to be around and he found in me a loyal friend who would keep his secrets. Psychopaths are real people too, after all. At the core, we both wanted to be free from the heavy hand of parental guidance and to do what we found exciting. We loved what all young rambunctious boys love: knives and fire. Together we developed quite a knack for acquiring these items.
Every day I received a dollar and a quarter to buy lunch at school. I found that if I asked each kid at the table for a bite of his lunch, I could eat enough to save my lunch money for personal use. I was too afraid to bring the money back into my house; my parents might find it and wonder where I got it. So each day I would bury my lunch money under a different rock in the field behind our house. When the weekend came I would dig up my six bucks and buy comic books, McDonald’s, but most importantly merchandise from the flea market.
Once a month his dad would take us to the flea market where we roamed freely. Without his supervision we would buy Chinese stars and throwing knives or lighters, or solicit older teenagers to buy us naked-lady playing cards – things we could easily conceal from his dad on the drive home. We kept our loot at his house since it was less likely to get confiscated.
But we probably didn’t need to hide much from his dad. His dad would make us match shooters by re configuring wooden clothes pins. They would shoot an ignited strike-anywhere match up to ten feet. His dad never discouraged us from playing with fire, and often showed us new tricks. He helped us make a Chinese lantern, which was just a folded up newspaper ignited on all four corners. The heat would fill the newspaper and lift it into the air. A big ball of fire float away in the cool, dry Albuquerque breeze. Not a safe hobby for the the arid red desert.
From the very day I met him, Dan pushed the limits of acceptable conduct. Early on he would do petty things like urinate onto traffic from the walkway over the freeway or snap large limbs off of fully-grown trees in the neighborhood. He would swipe mail out of mail boxes and stomp through flower beds. These things, in my opinion, fell within the boundaries of normal misbehaved youth. But his behavior escalated daily.
The first time Dan made me nervous, we walked from our houses down the ditch to the elementary school at the end of the street – the school we both attended. We used to go down there on weekends to play basketball. On this day, Dan came equipped with a pocket full of eggs that he had taken from his refrigerator. He wanted to throw them at windows around the school. This sounded like harmless fun to me; I was down for it.
But this proved not exciting enough for Dan. He decided it would be more fun to break the window and throw the eggs into the class rooms. To my discomfort, he selected a rock big enough to smash the window of our own classroom. I contested, but he had already made up his mind. Without any further thought he pitched the rock, shattering the glass. Unfazed, he walked calmly up to the hole and deliberately targeted the spots in the room that best displayed the eggs.
Watching him do this for the first time made me uncomfortable. It was a little much for me, and he was entirely too comfortable with it. But these were small potatoes – the fledgling actions of a person who would get much worse.
He quickly developed a habit of stealing. Once, by mistake, he walked out of a store while holding a pack of gum. Realizing it was that easy, he never purchased another item again. He would steal things from every place we went. If we went out to pizza, he’d steal the red pepper shaker to throw it in the street. If we went to the store he’d fill his pockets. He stole a fire extinguisher from our junior high to spray on the walk home. He stole a golf club from the pro shop at the driving range. If we were invited into a friend’s house, he would wander the house looking for valuables to take. If it wasn’t buckled down he’d take it.
One of his favorite pastimes was dodging in to open garages as we walked though the neighborhood. If it was open, he would enter. His neighbors across the street routinely left their garage door open. He’d do a quick scan from the street and bolt into their garage, staying for as long as he liked. He’d return with cassette tapes from their car and even food from their freezer. He almost always threw away or destroyed what he stole. He had no attachment to the item, only to the act of theft.
Dan also became a fearless graffiti vandal. Our traveling arsenal always included a pocket knife, a lighter, and a Magnum 44 permanent marker. He would graffiti his tag name on cars in parking lots, light poles at busy intersections, or the wall on the side of the mall; it didn’t matter how crowded the scene or how visible the target. It was almost as if he believed that no one could see him, or that if they could they couldn’t stop him. Either that or he wanted to get caught. I remember watching him graffiti the side of a parked police car.
He would vandalize something, stick around to see how serious it was, and then do greater damage if nothing came of the first incident. He would often return to the scene of the crime and do it greater violence.
But that’s not all. Dan’s favorite crime of all was arson. I witnessed Dan start numerous public fires. One of his favorite thrills was to steal gas from his dad’s lawnmower and make Molotov cocktails out of empty glass bottles. Twice a week or more he would pull a Molotov cocktail out of his backpack on the walk to school. We would light them and throw them in the ditch as we walked. On more than one occasion I watched him throw a Molotov cocktail into the street from under the bridge, once in front of a school bus.
In Albuquerque, tumbleweeds accumulate under overpasses and in parking lots. As we skated through the neighborhood, he would pull out his lighter and ignite the pile as we passed, often starting sizable fires. He would do this anywhere; the more high-profile the fire the more exciting it was to him. He’d light dry brush in medians of major streets. I’ve seen entire fields leveled by his love of fire.
One morning he related a story of sneaking out with another friend of ours and throwing a Molotov cocktail into a major street in front of a car. The driver pulled over and chased him up the ditch and into the neighborhood. He narrowly escaped capture. He was terrified – but that’s ultimately what he wanted. Really, he was exhilarated.
This was every-day stuff for Dan. You could not go anywhere with him without him getting into trouble.
I lost touch with Dan when we were sixteen and did not see him again until I was thirty two. When we saw each other as adults, I was pleased to learn that he had stayed out of prison. He regaled me with several horrifying stories: he and some friends bought weed from a well-known drug house. After smoking some of the weed, they felt that they had been ripped off. They returned to the house with pistols and robbed the dealer, taking all of his drugs and money. They made it off scot-free. He went home and had dinner with his family. Such was the life of Dan at the time.
Now he has kids and a job; he even dabbles in church, although his biggest complaint is that every there seems boring and wimpy. I wonder if his kids will ever know.
We’ll talk lots more about Dan.