Things Like That Do Happen Here

Greg Palast

By Gregory Palast

A HANDFUL of Monday nights past, Kenneth Payne made up his mind that his close friend, Curtis Cook, had molested a neighbor’s 8-year-old daughter. Mr. Payne, fortified by the courage poured at a local bar, shot Mr. Cook dead with a single blast from a 12-gauge shotgun. Barely hours after the police wrapped the body and confiscated the shotgun, our local chorus began, “Things like this don’t happen here.” But it did happen here. And it was predictable.

“Here” is the North Fork, a 25-mile ribbon of pretty farm fields and antique clapboard houses running from East Riverhead through Southold Town, and including Shelter Island, where the killing took place. In October, folks from the metropolis crowd our roads to buy Halloween pumpkins and gawk at farmers in overalls. The North Fork has been lionized in books and magazines as the last remnant of rural New England heroically resisting the sprawl of New York urbanization. We are portrayed as a Norman Rockwell painting come to life. It’s an image we like. And we do not like anyone looking behind the canvas.

But evidence of a long build-up to April’s bloody crime is abundant. Our volunteer firefighters rarely have fires to put out, but they are quite busy responding to calls to protect a local woman from her violent husband, to yank a drunk driver from his wreck or, on occasion, to dissuade a suicide.

You will not read this in the tourist guidebooks.

Last year, one of the firefighters from the emergency medical team ran for Southold’s Town Council. At a civic meeting, he won big applause for the usual speech about “preserving our unique way of life.” Then he added, “And I think it’s time we addressed another matter publicly. I intend to make domestic abuse a key issue in this campaign.” The audience went dead, cold silent. A local newspaper, which had named him citizen of the year, withheld the expected endorsement and he lost big.

Live here long enough and you discover that at the heart of small-town life there is special form of communal cowardice. It’s called “being neighborly,” a coded phrase for enforced silence about our sins, failures and nasty secrets.

This small-town omerta enshrouds all acts, from child abuse to abuse of our countryside.

A recent book by one of our native sons depicts our North Fork farmers bravely fighting to hold on to their centuries-old homesteads against the greedy developers invading from the city. The author did not mention that these same farmers use all their political muscle to block even the most meager plans for preservation. They will not countenance any plan that might stand in the way of their selling off their properties to speculators. The strip-mall builders too are local boys. We need no assistance from outsiders to demolish our land and heritage.

It is getting harder and harder to maintain our Lake Wobegon facade. Three coffee-table photo books about the North Fork show farmers toiling on their tractors or selling bushel baskets of apples. The photographers must have been very agile indeed to have kept out of view the video stores and 7-Elevens that hem in and will soon devour our farms.

I don’t equate child abuse with farmland destruction. But both are dealt with the same polite and corrosive silence. Sadly, the cost of this silence is self-deception. We have become so enamored of the images we portray to the rest of the world, we ourselves begin to believe the pretty prevarications. Wounds, private and public, go untreated. Then, one day, a shotgun blast fractures the silence. Our tourism-minded burghers rush out to tell reporters, “Things like this don’t happen here.”

If only that were true.

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Gregory Palast writes the award-winning column, “Inside Corporate America” fortnightly in Britain’s Sunday newspaper, The Observer, part of the Guardian Media Group. For comments and request for reprint, contact us.