Meg B. in San Quentin Village

Down The Street from the Death House

The last time I had to look for a place to live, I looked outside of Marin County, where I've lived for 30 years. I moved to Marin from Chicago in 1973, when everyone was moving here, when it was a different place than it is now. There were no yuppies then, no BMWs, no Starbucks or upscale malls, and no "bliss ninnies" flipping you off from their SUVs on their way to Spirit Rock to hear a talk about inner peace and enlightenment. Some of them will risk death on the freeway by cutting you off in the hopes of shaving ten seconds off their arrival time to hear Swami somebody talk about detaching from material things.

I wanted out of here, but it was during the dot-com boom, and every place for rent in San Francisco or the East Bay had a line of Eddie Bauer'ed nouveau riche young people on cell phones or Blackberries (that used to be a fruit, right?) with thousands more cash in their pockets to put down on a place than I had. I then saw an ad for a two-bedroom apartment in San Quentin Village, a town I'd always wanted to live in but never saw anything available for rent or sale, and I went for it. I'd driven by here a million times over my time in Marin, on 580 east going to Berkeley or Oakland over the Richmond--San Rafael Bridge.

From the onramp after Sir Francis Drake Boulevard past the Larkspur Ferry, you can see the monolithic prison and the short street of old houses, mostly built before the 1906 earthquake. I'd always wanted to live someplace that seemed in a time warp of aged beauty. The presence of the prison never bothered me. Much.

At least, not until I moved here.

I moved to San Quentin Village six months before I experienced what it's like to live down the street from the only Death Row in the state of California, where they were to execute Donald Beardslee, a brain-damaged man who committed a murder 25 years ago. Justice is not swift here. My neighbor, Michelle, the chair of the San Quentin Village Association, told me what to expect. "You'll hear singing, mostly from the nuns who are here to protest every execution. They're from Dominican University, the convent there. Then, after it's over, you'll hear more singing as people march slowly back to their cars. They'll be holding candles. If you sleep in the back of the house, you won't hear anything."

I discover that some of my neighbors rent their parking spaces to major media outlets for thousands of dollars. At first, this offended me -- how could anyone want to make money from this heinous event? Especially the people who live here who have plenty of money.

I've since changed my mind. The residents of San Quentin Village didn't turn these events into a media circus; the press did.

The day of each execution brings swarms of cops to the neighborhood: CHP, local sheriff, San Rafael PD, and the department of corrections. They bustle about, telling you to move your car even if it's parked in your own space or in your driveway. The first time a CHP officer told me to move my vehicle, he said, "There's going to be a big crowd here tonight, and you don't want your car to be vandalized!" I told him thanks for his concern, but all the streets are blocked off for miles around, there's no other place to park even if I were concerned about vandalism, which I'm not, having survived the violence of nuns in parochial school many years before this, thank you very much. I do remember how easily provoked nuns can be, and I reconsider for a second or two.

I called KPFA Radio and told them they can park in my space, since they are "listener sponsored" and don't have the big bucks the other media outlets do and can't pay a king's ransom for a parking space for their van. I let them have the space gratis. Besides, I didn't pay my last pledge to them, and maybe this will make up for it. KPFA will interview and air anti-death-penalty views, unlike the spectacle-monger stringers who interview the two guys among hundreds who hold up signs that say "Remember the Victims."

The State does not make it easy to protest this state-sponsored murder. They do it late on weeknights, usually in the middle of winter, when it's cold, the bitter winds blowing off the bay. They eliminate parking for miles around. They close the public bathrooms outside the gates, but in a concession to the permits obtained by the groups, they install Port-a-Pottys. That's so anyone with enough machismo or desperation can pull down their pants and hope the stream hits the black hole -- one must aim blindly in the pitch dark.

The most recent execution was that of Clarence Ray Allen, a man who ordered the shooting deaths of several people to prevent them from testifying in his robbery trial. He was Native-American.

Native-Americans came in throngs to protest his killing, and I suspect this execution means different things to different people here to protest. Native-Americans know better than anyone what kind of playing field America is -- "level" is not a word that applies.

They beat their drums loudly, and I wonder what the neighbors think about the noise.

I hope it bothers them. I hope it chills everyone to the bone for miles.

I hope these drums can be heard all over the world.


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