Bob Moore and Su Baccino

The People vs Leon Fitch

I like to think I’m providing a service to the community. I find materials no longer in use and take it where it will be useful again. Specifically, I go into abandoned buildings, homes or warehouses or what have you. I usually use a crowbar, sometimes I cut chain, in short, I’m entering uninvited and need to remain undiscovered. I carry a flashlight, a small saw, a hammer and a utility knife with a new blade, and that’s done the job for me. I’m thirty-two and I’ve never had what the establishment calls ‘regular employment’. After six years in the House of Corrections for armed robbery when I was nineteen, some tutelage from wiser thieves drew me to choose this nonviolent path of unarmed breaking and entering. I used to take computers, video games, generally electronics, but they go obsolete too fast. I’ve been specializing in recycling copper for the past couple years. It’s easier on my conscience– nobody is losing personal information or their home videos. I pull the wire out of the walls, and in older houses predating PVC, I get copper pipe.

On the night in question, I entered an empty house, 23 Aspirin Way (honest to God, real name – you can’t make this stuff up), on the south side of Holyoke, in a neighborhood of small houses. It’s not far from where I was raised. This particular neighborhood has suffered in the recent downturn and every odd house is empty. I’ve been working my way through them, methodically, looking for cars or fresh garbage, any sign a house is occupied, but trying not to miss anything.

As I said, I’m after the copper. You’ve probably read of the copper shortage. I don’t need to be neat, which helps as I’m usually in a hurry, and often it’s at night and it’s dark and, unfortunately, it gets messy. I did okay for myself. Until the night in question.

So I entered #23, a small house almost invisible from the main road, which made it especially enticing. I slipped the bolt with plastic and walked in like I owned the place. The beam of my flashlight found familiar ground; much of the finish work, the molding, the floor tiles, the ancient Formica counter, had been done by the amateur owner, so it all looked not quite right. When I see sloppy home carpentry I know not to expect anything nice, so I went through fast. I yanked drawers out and dumped them, and discovered a mostly empty roll of tape, a matchbook and a bottle opener. Up a narrow staircase, strictly one way, that creaked horribly, on the landing I saw colored light, which I followed into the front bedroom where it was shining in. Shining? Wrong word: pouring in. It was night, and there was a streetlight but it was four houses down. My first reaction was panic, as I’ve grown comfortable working in the dark. But I didn’t hear anything. After a minute my pulse calmed and I convinced myself it wasn’t important where the light was coming from; I took stock of what I’d found.

I took it for a classroom, a preschool room. There were simple wall hangings with symbols. Then I backed square into a pew; someone had actually dragged two wooden pews in and the first thought I had was: up those stairs? There was a makeshift altar, which is to say carpentered by the same unskilled hands I’d seen at work in the kitchen, and a small wooden cross hung on the wall behind it. It was very clean in there, cleaner than the rest of the house. In a corner I saw a coffee cup with an inch of lukewarm java. Hazelnut, I think.

So the place was empty that night, but not abandoned, and I knew I should start yanking copper and haul ass out of there. But I was drawn to the walls, which were alive with colors and shapes from that stained glass window. Reds and blues and greens and purples, and yellows, silhouettes of people, of animals, but pulsing with color, to my eye moving, like nothing I’d ever seen. There were no saints, nothing devotional, no crosses. I guess I’d call it free-form stained glass. I thought, how to take it? How to remove the glass, and do it quickly, without damaging it? And it wasn’t something I was going to sell, this I wanted to keep for myself.

I looked into the window again and it took me places. It took me back to church in Juvenile Hall, decades ago when I still had some choices, of being a law abider or no. Every Sunday we were dragged to that old chapel that had stained glass windows. It was about the only beautiful thing in my life then. I remembered my mother, who always looked yellow; she painted and preferred bright colors, and raised my sister and I in north Holyoke, and I remembered the awful bright red, white and blue of the folded flag they gave us at my father’s funeral, my father who’d been a citizen soldier in the middle of a desert where a Scud landed on him and other luckless souls. And I remembered red lipstick, Ashley Gallant, a pretty girl I fell for in high school, who didn’t know I existed. And I remember thinking once that I wanted to be an artist, like my mother.

That was all a long time ago, a hundred bad decisions ago, two prison sentences and several public defenders ago. That night, though, the full weight of those choices weighed on me. I felt tears on my face, and I sat in the pew and my knees were weak. Understand, I’m not usually in those places for long, certainly I never sit down. The window was showing me my life, and I had gone nowhere fast, and it held me in its power, relentlessly, until other colored lights, flashing blue lights, penetrated the house and I heard shoes pounding up those noisy steps and realized I was caught. The last shape I saw before they cuffed me was myself, with less hair, with a woman I sensed was my wife, but I’m not married. And I looked happy. I sensed I was satisfied. And I understood that the window was now showing me a possible future.

So, your honor, I don’t have much of a defense. I was there, where I didn’t belong. I’m grateful, given my record, for you knocking this one down to a misdemeanor – which it really was, ‘cause I didn’t even get the copper. As to the owners suggesting community service in lieu of any jail time, that’s cool too. I’m anxious to know what the future holds for me and I just want to know, if you could talk to the owner, maybe I can see that window again?