Works by JoeAnn Hart
Other Essays have appeared in American Gardener, People, Plants & Places, Romantic Homes, Rural New England (regular columnist from 1996-2000), Small Farmer, Greenprints, The Realities of Breastfeeding (anthology), edited by Amy Benson Brown.
Journalism: Regular contributor to the Boston Globe Magazine since 2001. Other articles have appeared in Orion Magazine, the Globe food section, Art Throb, and Relish magazine.
A Friend Remembers, The Stamford Advocate, July 23, 2006 by JoeAnn Hart
In July 1976, after a day of waitressing -- the default career of college dropouts like myself -- I collapsed in the passenger seat of the yellow Volkswagen bug. My boyfriend, Joe Louis, tossed The Advocate at me. Murder victim identified. "It's Margo," he said as we drove off.
The words "bow and arrow" and "dental records" did not register, and since there was no photo of Margo Olson to make it real, my mind filled in the space where she should have been. I saw her as I did the first time we met. She was standing at a door in her apartment, her soft face shadowed by a mass of peachy hair, holding open a curtain and peering out. Our eyes locked as if caught by a passing reflection. It was not so much looks we had in common, as the look. We were white women living with black men, and we exchanged the tired glance that acknowledged the presence of racism and isolation in our lives, then we looked away. She backed up into her darkened room and let the curtain fall. In the months I knew her, our relationship never grew much beyond that.
"Who could have done this?" I asked. Joe didn't answer, but I didn't hear that silence then. If my first thought was of Margo's boyfriend, Howie Carter, I ignored it because no one I knew would commit murder. Not that I liked Howie. His silver jewelry and open polyester shirts were objectionable, but calling me "pretty pink thing" was unforgivable. Joe, an unemployed graduate of Columbia University, called him Zowie the street doctor and kept him at arm's length. They once shared a house and a history of dealing pot, but Joe wanted no truck with hard drugs.
We drove to Court Street in Stamford. I thought we were going to Howie and Margo's apartment, but Joe swept past their door and on to Carol Sullivan's down the hall. Carol, a white woman in her 30s, had known Howie and Joe for years, though I never knew in what context. I heard her screaming before Joe opened the door.
"Howie killed her, Joe." Carol was curled up in the corner of a room made dark by heavy curtains, pulling at her black hair. "He's going to kill me, too."
Joe spoke quietly to her while I sat at the kitchen table nearby and lit a cigarette. It was horrible, Margo dying like that, but I thought Carol was being overly dramatic. Howie kill Margo? Or Carol? Never. Margo had simply, somehow, gotten herself into a dangerous situation, one that oddly enough involved archery. But looking back, it's not Carol who was behaving inappropriately, but me. I don't know who that person was who so calmly lit up a smoke and wondered what all the commotion was about. I must have been wrapped very tightly in the self-protective blanket of youth; I was 19.
It was night by the time Carol calmed down, and then Joe and I drove to our apartment across town. When I switched on the lights, Howie rolled off the sofa and stood up. "They think I did it," he said, staring at Joe. His eyes were unblinking and terrified. At the time, seeing him in my living room confirmed my belief in his innocence. There he was. I knew him, and I did not know killers. I said some comforting words about Margo, then went to bed. Howie and Joe stayed up to talk, and Howie was gone in the morning.
In two brief follow-ups, The Advocate reported that friends -- myself and Joe included -- were being questioned, along with an unnamed "boyfriend about whom she had complained of assault." Apparently, Margo had contacted the police on several occasions, but I didn't know that then, nor that she'd left Howie in late June. The last word on Margo's death simply stated that it was "still a mystery," then the curtain falls. She was forgotten, a passing casualty of violent times.
Weeks later, in September, Joe and I went to the Marriott. On the way to the restaurant on the top floor, the elevator stopped and Howie walked in, wearing a denim jumpsuit. He and Joe looked at each other, then Howie pushed a button and said something about wanting to go down, not up. He got off at the next floor.
"He was packing heat," said Joe, gazing up at the flashing numbers. "He just bought a gun from the guy who sells them from a room here." Joe used to say a lot of crazy things to get a rise out of me. If I responded at all, I just said, "Huh."
The next day, on the front page of the newspaper, Howie lay dying of gunshot wounds resulting from the armed robbery of a liquor store. Joe and his friends put on their shades and remained drunk for days. The word on the street was that the police wanted to pin Margo's death on Howie but didn't have the evidence, so they killed him instead; the price a black man linked with a dead white woman must pay; a plant had tipped him off that the liquor store was an easy hit and told him where to buy the gun.
As for the black police officer who suffered injuries in the shootout, it was assumed he'd been set up to pull the trigger to fend off racial repercussions.
Paranoia, I thought; there was always so much suspicion among young black men. But years later, I found out that soon after Howie died, The Advocate published a series on police corruption, leading to drug and gambling charges on the force, and exposing ties to organized crime. Maybe Joe's friends weren't so paranoid after all -- except it was the police who were at risk of being pinned. If Howie had drug connections on the force, he might take everyone down with him if arrested.
The police wouldn't have been the only ones hesitant to put Howie on trial. Stamford was courting New York City corporations and painting itself as a refuge from urban decay. A white woman with an arrow through her heart and a black drug-dealing ex-boyfriend under suspicion would not entice Pitney Bowes to move on in. Aside from the obvious bearing it would have on Stamford's reputation, the city was a tinderbox of racial tension, and such a trial would tear apart the already rotting strands of the social fabric.
Joe and I moved to Westport that fall, and although we remained together for another year, we never mentioned Howie or Margo again. The subject was riddled with danger. And now that I would like to talk -- my memories stirred by my daughters reaching the age I was then -- Joe can't, having recently died of alcoholism. But if he were alive, maybe we could push open a curtain and let in some light. We could talk about whether Howie was never arrested because he was so clearly innocent or because he clearly wasn't -- and in either case, we could question whether the forces of corruption, racism and civic duty had combined to sweep him and Margo out of public view. Why not? The opportunity for closure that can result from a trial has been denied, which leaves only memory and conjecture to fill in all the empty space where they both used to be.