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No Sense


I didn’t want to write about the triple homicide on my street this week. We writers sometimes jump too quickly to trying to make meaning and sort patterns out of the truly awful things that happen around us, and we run the risk of using that to move past the part where we acknowledge the horror and the grief faced by the friends and family of those involved.

The details of this case, at least as much as we know now, seem designed to keep us from putting this crime into our usual explanatory boxes for murder—robbery, fight, jealousy, gang, money, revenge. So far, the Times Union’s account of Javon Underdue’s confession describes a evening among friends, except that Underdue began thinking about everything wrong in his life, worked himself into a rage, and shot three people. This narrative feels wrong, partial (and it may well be). As meaning-making beings, it’s hard to face the idea that the barrier between “normal” and “murder” is so thin. There’s no weighty ballast of motive here to anchor our anxiety with.

It’s very hard to not want to put more meaning onto it, to create a rationale, a reason, and especially to identify something someone could have done to prevent it. And there may well be those things—gun control comes to my mind as a candidate. But sometimes that rush to find “a reason” can have unintended side effects.

It’s not just writers who do it. Everyone who hears about a crime like this jumps to slot it into what they know or believe about the demographics of the people involved, the neighborhood, and any other circumstances surrounding the event. In this case, particularly the neighborhood. Last week, some reporters were asking passersby how this made them feel on the street. Note that they didn’t ask if it made people feel uncomfortable around stoned, drunk, or depressed people—and nor should they have.

Not that they needed to ask to plant the idea that such a crime casts a pall for blocks and blocks. If this had been a on-the-street shooting, a bystander shot during a drug deal or something, they would have a point. A murder like this, committed by someone who knows the victim in an act of very personal violence, as awful as it is, is something that happens, rarely thank God, but reliably, everywhere, in every class, race, and neighborhood.

And yet, when something like this happens in Delmar, it is not blamed on Delmar. But when it happens in a city neighborhood, it is. Even when the police are being pretty clear that it doesn’t seem particularly related to the location and stressing that it was an isolated incident, the taint spreads as fast as rumor, with people using it as support for, or proof of, entirely unrelated concerns they have. One woman, for example, popped up on the neighborhood-watch list discussion of the murders to report, with no segue, that a co-worker had “horrible things to say” about a totally different section of Delaware Avenue. Another told the Daily Gazette she had put her house on the market, implying that this justified her decision.

And the landlord of the apartment where it happened, Matthew Ryan, though he can be forgiven for being shaken about having this happen in his building, declared to the Times Union that the area had “gone down” and claimed that having a police outreach office nearby (as in, in one of his buildings), as there used to be, would have prevented the murders, though he never explained how that would have worked.

Ironically, most of the buildings surrounding Ryan’s properties are actually in fairly good shape, some meticulously cared for. His four, however, are painted top-to-bottom in a uniform beige that makes that stretch of the block look like an institutional hallway and they have long been hung with oversized for-sale signs. It takes a lot of gall for him to complain about the neighborhood.

If I were following Ryan’s example, I might turn around and somehow try to blame him for fostering an environment where a crime like this could happen. But that would be untrue, and ludicrous. It wasn’t that kind of crime.

Unfortunately, the problem with statements like Ryan’s is that when they feed into existing uncertainties about city neighborhoods, they become self-fulfilling prophecies. People’s beliefs about “good” and “bad” neighborhoods can be as unpredictable, unfounded, and short-term as their beliefs about the stock market.

I think it would be a poor memorial to three people who tragically lost their lives to allow their loss to further affect the lives of their neighbors by casting aspersions about where they lived.

But it is also true that just as many rush too easily to complain about the neighborhood, I can be just as knee-jerk in my rush to defend it. I do think these issues are important, but I’m also aware that it’s just as true for me as for everyone else that it’s easier to be angry than sad, easier to critique jumped-to conclusions than to imagine myself standing in that courtroom or on that porch struggling with the pain of such loss and betrayal, easier to make some meaning, however tangential, than to sit with a reminder of how precarious life is.

That’s always hard to do. Perhaps I’ll go give it another try.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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