The Senior in Me

by Richard Cline, in The New Yorker

One of the many perks of aging is the license to waffle. Having reached my near dotage without a moment of wavering on the subject of crime and punishment, I find myself in a sudden state of confusion, experiencing judgments I hadn’t expected.

Here’s the thing. I live next door to a sex offender. I would feel terrible about disclosing that information to you, except that I found out on the internet. Googling googled my apartment building, I hopes of finding names of my building’s management team, I found instead, right there in the #1 placement at the top of the page, in bold blue letters, the apartment number that is right next to mine, with the name of the tenant, his photo and a list of his transgressions. I was appalled and, I have remained appalled; but, to my surprise, the reason for my astonishment has suddenly shifted.

I abhor the way our penal system treats offenders. A person unlucky enough to be caught with a baggie filled with marijuana can wind up in jail with a brutal bigot who has kicked a teenager to death because the teen was wearing pink panties. There is often no distinction made between violent crimes and victimless crimes, and jail time is jail time across the board. Of course, we all know how this plays out. Prisoners are brutalized by fellow prisoners and/or they learn the hard-core ropes from the seasoned criminals. Either way, it’s a costly, horrific system that puts money in corporate pockets and rewards only those who know how to milk it effectively.

With sex crimes, the absurdities are exacerbated by terrible inconsistencies. In many states, a man who dangles himself over the East River to urinate can get the same sentence as a man who forces his affections on an unwilling recipient. A rapist who succeeds in forcible entry is sometimes considered no more heinous than a college football game streaker. Many states have various ways of consigning sex offenders, who have done their prison time, to a lifetime of punishment, casting them into the periphery of society, offering little to no hope of ever returning to the fold of human intercourse.

Russell Banks’ gripping novel Lost Memory of Skin examines the life of a very young outcast, still a virgin but paying for having been caught in a sting operation and convicted for having solicited sex with the decoy posing as an underage girl. I used to find all this terribly confusing and troubling.
Sure, I agree that there are those who are without potential to rehabilitate. I know people who work with sex offenders in one of the twenty states in the union where released sex offenders face mandatory civil commitment, incarceration in a sequestered community, and I know how necessary the measure can be. Yet I have remained dubious about the fairness of so cruel and unusually-extended a public chastisement.

Until that day when I went online and made the discovery about my neighbor.

He’s an affable enough young man, who occasionally gets on my nerves because of his penchant for playing his heavy-bass music loudly enough to cause our mutual wall to reverberate. Married to a young woman I have known since I moved in, he has supplanted her two female roommates and her perpetually changing array of boyfriends. I have no reason to distrust him,and yet . . . .

His crime was “non-consensual sex with a 13-year-old girl.” Is there any other kind of sex with so young a child than non-consensual? In any case, he was convicted and served a sentence here in the city. Upon release from prison, he was listed on the Official NYS Sex Offender Registry, where he will remain until such time as the State decides he can be removed. The choice whether to remove him will be based on a number of factors, including but not necessarily limited to his age at first offense, his record before this conviction, the statement of the victim and the relative brutality of the forced intercourse, his demeanor and behavior after release, his adherence to the stipulations of his parole.

And to my surprise, I find myself wishing he would be kept forever on that list, that he would be sent away somewhere far away from me.

Not for myself. I have granddaughters. How can I trust that a man who would rape a 13-year-old child would ever be a safe neighbor? It’s irrational fear, at least. No one, least of all a child, would be left alone in my apartment or would be coming and going unescorted. But what about when they reach their teens? Can I honestly hope to tether them to my side when they reach the age where exploring NY without parental interference might be one of the reaons they come to visit?

Okay, I’m getting way ahead of myself. But my point is that I’m waffling. All this fear from someone who has fervently believed that all transgressions are forgivable, all perpetrators are redeemable, someone who now admits that there could be times when no contrition, no penance could possibly be enough.

It’s a nasty bit of reactionary thinking, and I hate to own it, but I do. I have a license to waffle, the plight and a perk of growing old.

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