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News & Features » November 2015 » Ed Park’s Introduction to Buffalo Noir

Ed Park’s Introduction to Buffalo Noir

To celebrate the release of Buffalo Noir, the latest in Akashic’s Noir Series, we’re pleased to give you a look at coeditor Ed Park‘s own personal Buffalo noir with his introduction, “Ice-Cold Stories.”

BuffaloNoirIntroduction
Ice-Cold Stories

To this day I don’t know if it was a dream. I was a high school student in Buffalo, New York, when Van Halen’s 1986 album 5150 was released. A radio station called my house around seven in the evening, when I was groggy from a postdinner nap. They were calling because my parents’ phone number ended in 5150. It made perfect sense. I don’t recall what I said, only that the deejay seemed disappointed by my confused replies. When asked what my favorite radio station was, I answered honestly, mentioning the call letters of a competitor. After I hung up I had this feeling I’d been broadcast live on the air. I didn’t mention it to anyone at home, nor at school the next day. Maybe no one had heard me. Maybe it was all in my head.

*

Van Halen entitled their album 5150 after the California penal code tag for “criminally insane.” Curiously, my father was (and is) a psychiatrist. Though he did not specialize in forensics, by the time of the call (which, now, reads more dreamlike to me), he had already served as a psychiatric examiner for Buffalo’s most notorious criminal trial of the 1980s: the case of the .22 killer.

*

At nine thirty p.m. on September 22, 1980, Robert Oddo, seventeen, walks into the Tops supermarket on Genesee Street in Buffalo. He notices a “white male with a hooded sweatshirt” sitting outside, a shopping bag near his feet. A half hour later, a fourteen-year-old is shot three times in the head while waiting in a car for a friend. Oddo spots the man with the bag, fleeing on foot. The “dopey”-looking shooter has “wavy, light-brown hair” and “silver metal glasses.” The victim is black.

The shopping bag was used to catch the shell casings.

Over the next few days, three more African American men are killed in separate incidents, the first two in the Buffalo area and the last one in nearby Niagara Falls. A witness to the first murder, in the parking lot of a Cheektowaga Burger King, says she saw a man in his twenties, dressed in khaki, holding a crumpled grocery bag.

Recovered shell casings and bullet fragments indicate the same .22-caliber weapon. Witnesses describe the shooter as white.

*

The October 6 entry on the time line published in the Courier-Express notes that the chief of homicide “meets for five hours with an astrologist and a psychic in hopes they will lead him to the .22-caliber killer.”

A few days later, “the bodies of two black Buffalo-area cab drivers, their hearts cut out, are found.” Authorities believe the crimes are related to the earlier killings.

Through the rest of the year, there are mysterious stabbings of dark-skinned men in New York and again in Buffalo, also believed to be linked.

Fear and frustration grip the city. Demonstrations in front of city hall. Awards for any tips leading to arrest.

No answers.

A phantom killer, exacerbating racial tension.

In January of 1981, down in Fort Benning, Georgia, a white army private attempts to stab a black soldier. He’s thrown in the stockade.

His name is Joseph Christopher, and he is from Buffalo.

*

Noir, of course, is French for black. We’ve used it for over half a century to indicate atmosphere, a mix of mystery and grit, even a certain glamour applied to a tale of crime and violence. But is the term itself racist? One esteemed African American writer I contacted for this book, a writer I’d hoped would contribute, played naive when I asked if he would contribute. He wrote back, What do you mean by noir? Our discussion ended. But he made his point.

In this story, noir means noir. But it also means black. And for me—someone whose parents came to Buffalo from Seoul, Korea, in the late sixties—I’m interested in all the shades in between white and black.

*

Joseph Christopher is brought back to his hometown. After over half a year spent in the Erie County Holding Center, he waives the right to a lawyer, determined to represent himself. The photo in the Buffalo News shows a baby-faced young man in a dark jacket, delta of white at the neck. Ghost of a smile. His wavy hair is parted away from his forehead, and he has what appears to be a light mustache and nascent goatee. He looks like a mellow hippie. He looks like Tiny Tim. Then you see that the belt at the bottom of the frame is actually the chain binding his wrists close in front of him.

*

1981 goes by. One day my father and I are at a mall—Boulevard or Eastern Hills. The wide corridors are the closest thing to a public square. In those days there was a small TV screen embedded in a sort of stalk or column rising from the ground. Usually no one pays much attention, but on this afternoon, people are swarming around the stalk. We wedge in for a better view. Tumult on the screen. President Reagan has been shot.

*

Later, Joseph Christopher waives a jury trial, wanting the judge to decide his fate. One-on-one. My father is brought in as one of several psychiatric examiners to determine whether he is competent to stand trial. His assessment is that Christopher needs psychiatric treatment before this is possible.

*

From the Courier-Express:

Dr. Park said when he first saw Christopher in the Erie County Holding Center the defendant was lying on his cot in a cell with a white towel draped over his face. The witness said he was told Christopher spends much of his time this way.

Asked the significance of the towel over Christopher’s head, Dr. Park replied: “It has something to do with his wish to ward off external stimuli and concentrate more on his own thinking.”

The defense lawyer asked Dr. Park his thoughts on Christopher’s continuous smile, even at inappropriate times during psychiatric interviews.

“It is my opinion he was sensing triumph over the situation,” the witness responded, “knowing he has control over examinations by psychiatrists. He feels triumphant when he feels other people don’t understand him.”

Tom Toles, the Buffalo News cartoonist who would later win the Pulitzer Prize, drew a judge regarding a swarm of bickering psychiatrists with distaste. The caption read, If you ask me, you’re the crazy ones!

*

Be that as it may, I find the whole episode unsettling. Decades later, it continues to fascinate me. At the time my father was the director of the psychiatric consultation service at the Erie County Medical Center. Even then I could tell it consumed him. He thought about it all the time. On the evening news they showed a courtroom sketch of him testifying.

*

Christopher’s relationship with his father is fraught. Effeminate, soft-faced, he can’t seem to please his macho dad. Devastated after his father’s passing, Christopher mans up and joins the army, as if to prove himself.

That’s one way of looking at it. Who knows the truth?

Maybe his wish for the judge to determine his fate, rather than a jury, is a wish for approval. Who’s not man enough now? I joined the army. I’ve killed people.

*

From the Courier-Express:

The psychiatrist . . . testified that the defendant’s personality underwent a “marked change” after the recent death of his father.

Christopher became “very despondent,” said Dr. Park, visited his father’s grave almost daily, felt he wished to die himself, and began diassociating himself from close friends . . .

*

“Psychiatrist Says Paranoia Keeps Christopher Mum”

—headline, Buffalo News

*

Some interjections by Joseph Christopher:

“Is it peculiar to part your hair on one side or the other without giving a reason?”

“If I had sat in my cell and looked at the wall and said nothing, what analogy would you have made?”

“I don’t believe I refused to say why I didn’t eat in Georgia.”

“I’m not normal?”

*

At the time of the trial, my father was forty-five, exactly the age I am now. Isn’t it something, he wrote to me recently, when I asked him about the case, that we sometimes remember things vividly for such a long time?

When I was ten, who did I think I would be at forty-five?

This introduction is a time machine.

*

I associate the trial with Buffalo, with my childhood there. (I was ten.) After a long time, anything can seem like a dream. This one, I suppose, is a nightmare—it haunted me growing up. Fascinated me. My own private Buffalo noir. Did someone really call me that night in 1986? Was there really a courtroom sketch of my dad? At least I know the Toles cartoon is real—a copy of it hangs in my father’s study. In a cabinet, unseen for years, he kept a mound of clippings from the Buffalo News and the Courier-Express. The latter paper shuttered in 1982. We got the News, so my father must have been collecting the other paper the day it appeared.

Looking at them now, I’m as interested by the texture of the paper, the extraneous information, as with the case itself. A mention of Jack Kemp. An ad for Sibley’s. The winning lottery number for April 11, 1982, for crying out loud. (It was 168.)

My past is here. My past in Buffalo.

The yellowing newspapers, the fading black-and-white, is noir.

*

Years in the making, Buffalo Noir is finally ready. My coeditor Brigid Hughes and I reached out to people we knew and people we didn’t, expats and lifelong Buffalonians and current residents who came from somewhere else. People recommended other people. I’m knocked out by the range of modes and moods, the different neighborhoods portrayed and eras evoked. The talent on display here could power the First Niagara Center for a Stanley Cup run. (We can always hope, right?)

The book kicks off with Christina Milletti’s exploration of madness, set partly in that most noir-cum-Gothic structure, the Buffalo Psychiatric Center, its looming towers designed by H.H. Richardson in 1870. And then we go everywhere. John Wray and Brooke Costello offer up a wonderfully woolly anecdote featuring a cameo by one of the great weird products of the Queen City, Rick James. The legendary Joyce Carol Oates, who has fictionalized the area many times in her long and brilliant career, gives us Buffalo-as-Buffalo in an intense, squalled-out story. Lissa Marie Redmond, a for-real Buffalo detective, working the cold-case department, gives us an ice-cold story of lake-effect chills. Gary Earl Ross’s “Good Neighbors” unfolds with a dreadful, fablelike inevitability, there in the heart of Allentown—where its characters might encounter the enigmatic figure in the story by Dimitri Anastasopoulos.

Connie Porter, author of All-Bright Court, returns home with “Peace Bridge,” and S.J. Rozan recreates the city that she lived in when she studied architecture in Buffalo. Tom Fontana gives us the best kind of barstool rambling that’s all diverting enough—until things go south. Buffalo State professor Kim Chinquee, whose perfect short short stories I’ve been tracking in the journal NOON for years, closes things out with the haunting “Hand.”

And it gives me particular satisfaction that Lawrence Block, whose creations include the hard-boiled detective Matt Scudder and gentleman thief Bernie Rhodenbarr, here definitively makes his native city the setting for the escapades of one of his most diabolically entertaining creations: Ehrengraf, the well-dressed lawyer who never loses a case. (Better think twice about hiring him—you’ll know him from his impeccable necktie knot.)

This book is full of shadows and secrets—and everywhere around it seems to fall the snow that Buffalonians aren’t just used to but are defined by: beautiful, elemental, sometimes deadly.

*

On December 17, 1981, the Courier-Express runs the headline: “Christopher Ruled Unfit to Stand Trial.”

In the corner of A-1, the weather: “WINTRY. Flurries. Some snow this afternoon, tonight. High upper 20s, low teens.”

***

Ed ParkED PARK was born in Buffalo in 1970. He is the author of the novel Personal Days and has been a newspaper, magazine, and book editor. He lives in New York City, where he and his sons continue to root for the Sabres and Bills. He is the coeditor of Buffalo Noir.

Posted: Nov 17, 2015

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