A Bottom Feeder?

 

 

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When Joel first told me about Sue's vanishing, I laughed. Sue had played

so many manipulative parts in college, I was struck more with the

question as to which one she had selected this time.

 

Over the years since my initial dealings with Sue I'd come to understand

some of what the Sue Merchant (Walsh) experience was all about, a bundle

of psychological role-playing games that allowed her tap other people's

emotional and financial resources. I knew her best in her role as "the

alcoholic", the most classic of the manipulative techniques. But she had

encompassed other roles, shifting between them depending upon the

subject of her attack, and when uncovered in her twisted little deeds,

she would drop out of sight for a while, seeking the refuge of some new

protector who had not as yet caught onto her game-playing.

 

Joel, in his unpublished manuscript on Sue's vanishing claimed Sue at

school tended to be "in a state of perpetual crisis," and that she

appeared to be doing a good deal of drugs.

 

"A number of her friends also confirm her uses of speed, and feel she

may have been using barbiturates, Quaaludes, and the legally available

alcohol in the pub," Joel wrote, failing to note that Sue claimed to

take these drugs, told people she took these drugs, but few people

actually ever saw her taking them.

 

"She would come to a party, gulp down a drink, then get another one and

walk around it all night, pretending she was so inebriated," one school

mate said looking back at that time.

 

Joel also wrote that some of Sue's school mates felt she had mental help

problems.

 

"She herself claimed she was suffering from a manic-depressive

disorder," Joel wrote, "now called bi-polar disorder, and claimed to go

into fugue states, where everything appeared foggy and detach. She

claimed she was taking lithium as treatment."

 

But early on, before Joel had done any of his interviewing, and hinted

on the telephone that we might make big money off Sue's vanishing, he

had already made up his mind that Sue was dead, taking Ridgeway's word

as gospel -- perhaps believing the Village Voice might consider him to

write Sue's story.

 

But Joel during that first phone call was still too distant from the

Susan Walsh Story, saying only that she had mumbled things about

mobsters, CIA or stalkers as if this was something new, some sign of her

growing despair and Xanax use, something that proved to him conclusively

that Sue had fallen off the edge for the last time. He had known so

little of Sue had college, he could not have known at the time how

little new there was in any of these revelations, that Sue's talk of

mobsters, stalkers and the CIA were part of her usual story-telling,

madness, perhaps, but easily the myth by which she lived her life,

making other people take sympathy upon her for the danger these things

put her in.

 

It was all part of one huge psycho drama Sue played out as her life,

something many of us thought she had overcome with rehab, something she

had left behind after her aborted sex thing at Show World, after her

dint as a scab for the Paterson News, after her arrest in Haledon for

assaulting a cop, after the birth of baby David, a child she unceasingly

said she loved, yet seemed almost desperate to be rid of.

 

Of course, I was being unfair -- an issue Sue's father would later raise

when calling me a bottom-sucker because I began to probe too closely

into Sue's ongoing mythology. At the center of this was Sue's insistence

that her son meant more to her than any other living human being. As

proof of this, Sue dragged her child everywhere, even onto dates. People

would remark about her great public affection for the child, and at the

time of her disappearance, this would be the sole determining factor to

explain why she would not have taken off on her own, or attempted

suicide. Again and again, people would repeat the exact same phrases, as

if a mantra, something Sue had helped them rehearse.

 

But I knew how easily people got sucked into Sue's stories, how well she

managed to manipulate the unwary into lending her aid, or advice or even

opportunities. I knew how difficult it was for someone in the middle of

one of Sue's plots to scramble out of the complex web-work for a truly

objective perspective.

 

Perhaps Sue had actually stumbled upon someone dangerous this time,

someone capable of doing harm to her the way she'd claimed countless

times in college. After all, Sue had the unerring knack for stirring up

trouble, a well-practiced craft in college that certainly did not go

unattended after graduation. Perhaps she had stirred up trouble with the

wrong people, making friends with real mobsters, who -- in hearing her

fictional rhetoric about being in danger -- grew uncomfortable with how

much this resembled themselves. Sue's diaries were full of fabrications,

exorbitantly fictional tales conveyed as if real, using real names,

often set in real locations. Maybe Sue had also stumbled upon truly

depraved men during her numerous journeys into the underworld, men who

decided to fulfill her desire for stalkers. Either category could have

easily caused her death.

 

Tales of Sue's involvement with the Village Voice had circulated through

our crowd. We knew she had done some investigative reporting on the

influence of the Russian Mafia in New Jersey and New York. A combined

Ridgeway-Walsh bi-line had appeared in the Voice in 1994, one of the

motivating factors behind the publication of the book "Redlight" to

which Sue also contributed. Sue also lived in an area of New Jersey

which was renown for its prostitution and drug market, sections of

Bloomfield, Nutley and Belleville long rumored as the retirement village

of aging middle-Mafia figures. Escort services abounded there. So did

strip clubs. Even the internet advertise houses of prostitution within

easy access of Garden State Parkway exit 148.

 

Indeed, Sue had made friends with many of the local power brokers, both

in Nutley and in the surrounding towns. One such character was Ray

Zachmann, a slick, egotistic, greasy character who lived in Wayne, less

than a half mile from where Sue lived when attending college. He owned a

go-go bar in Passaic, owned a liquor store in Clifton, had a percentage

of several high class pick up joints in Manhattan, and had a hand in

numerous deals, from female body building to horse racing.

 

Sue had also made contacts among the Nutley elite. She and her son,

David, had actually done a column in the local weekly newspaper, whose

publisher had an inside track into town hall, through a brother who sat

in various important positions over the years. Sue had dated cops and

politicians as well as local hoodlums, so that a delayed police reaction

didn't surprise me. Someone in the department clearly needed time to

figure out who would get hurt by Sue's sudden vanishing, and needed to

check things out with higher-ups before initiating an investigation that

would likely bring to light disreputable activities among Nutley's most

prominent citizens.

 

In many ways, Sue's moving to Nutley had brought here around full

circle, depositing her in a world much like the one in which she was

raised, full of the same middle-class values and the same middle class

hypocrisy she had come to despise. Of course, she found herself in the

poorer, blue-collar corner of a town seeking to alter its image to one

more conducive to an age of upperly mobile white collar workers. Yet, as

was always the case with Sue, she found the heart of that town, the

powerful men who made things happen there, the town's newspaper

publisher or the police commissioner, where she could -- as she had so

many times before -- benefit for their connections. In the mix, however,

had Sue managed to offend someone of real power, and perhaps her

psychological game-playing had finally found some real conspiracy which

she'd never counted upon finding, real mobsters, real prostitution, real

situations against which her illusions of alcoholism and drug addiction

paled in comparison. What if -- as in a classic Graham Greene novel --

the myths she made up to obtain people's sympathy and awe suddenly began

to come true around her, with real mobsters asking about the stories she

fed her diaries, and the real Russian Mafia questioning her tinkering in

their attempt to take over Northern New Jersey's sex tradeshe was

raised, full of the same middle-class values and the same middle class

hypocrisy she had come to despise. Of course, she found herself in th

 

Had someone actually tried to squelch the story before Sue's vanishing

hit the front page of the Daily News? Was someone trying to make sure

the local press painted her as a nut, a character whose stories were

clearly the product of an ill mind, someone so slutty, so in a haze, no

charge against a local official could be taken seriously?

 

For that reason -- and perhaps a little guilt at not previously trying

to help Sue -- I decided to take a look.

 

I knew the road to Sue's house well, having traveled along it daily for

nearly four straight years, always early in the morning as I made my way

to the Bloomfield Dunkin to bake. I still make the trip, though now only

on Sunday when even Bellevelle's mighty social life eases into the

artificial morality of church services and Sunday papers, when the

town's go-go bars open their doors only after dusk. Once crossed the

tracks, Nutley loses its distinctive flavor, turning blue collar again

as the shops and auto repair places boarder Washington along both sides,

and instead of $250,000 houses with large estates and higher taxes,

three-storied urban style apartment buildings face in, as shabby and sad

as sections of Newark or Jersey City, the mask of wealth stripped down

to the town's undisguised blue collar personality. In many ways, Sue's

living here was a bigger mystery than her disappearance, part of the

perpetual contradiction that painted every aspect of Sue's life,

defining her multiple personality with opposites. For years she'd sought

to escape places like this, singing the praises of the East Village and

its perpetual sense of "cool", only to settle back like a frighten child

after being rejected by this era's beat generation.

 

Nothing here could be called remotely exotic. This world bred what my

generation called "Teenyboppers", those weekend hipsters that made their

pilgrimage to Manhattan once a week, combed their hair long or dyed it

purple, dressed in bellbottom jeans or shinny leather, put beads around

their necks or artificial fangs in their mouth, and called themselves

"hip". Out of towns like these, part time punsters created a new role

playing game, adopting an alternative life they could disregard at will,

wearing their hip gear after working ours, washing the temporary dye

from their hair at night with shampoo. Out of towns like this, thousands

of wannabe hippies and punks and Goths fled for places like Haight

Ashburry of St. Marks, fists filled with dollars as if such places were

merely alternative style malls, where they could buy heavy metal records

or fantasy sex as easily as purchasing gloves in malls like Willowbrook.

 

In college, Sue had played the quintessential East Village groupie,

strutting around campus wearing black tank top and sandals, spewing the

usual East Village rap as was related to her via TV and movies. I had

seen many of her kind before, some grooving up to me when I was in high

school. Many of these fled their homes only to discover themselves the

victims of whatever current movement possessed the hip spots of the

planets, whether it be the heroin philosophy of San Francisco circa:

1969, the porno film fantasy of Los Angeles during my time there, or the

Gothic Vampire bullshit circa: 1996. I heard tales of Sue's invasion of

the East Village. But her return here, her settling down in a town like

Nutley signified a failed campaign, just one more middle class loser who

couldn't hack it in the big time, lacking the talent, fortitude or out

right cruelty in that dog-eat-dog world of the ultimate "cool." And

seeing all this as I drove the street toward the brick three-storied

building where she lived, I was struck by the desperation she once

expressed when seeking to escape her mother's house, that fury of

adolescence frustrated by a woman who five husbands couldn't satisfy and

40 years of psychotherapy couldn't cure. I couldn't help but think how

badly Sue must have felt, waking up one morning to realize how little

she'd obtained -- despite all her manipulations, despite her remarkable

talent at social games, despite all her contact with pspewing the usual

East Village rap as was related to

 

Even the building she lived in had an unhealthy air, one of those

brick-faced World War era structures with tiny awnings over each of its

two doors and a string of mail boxes indicating three residences, names

scotch-taped to each box as if a temporary arrangement. Later, Mark

Walsh, Sue's estranged husband, would rip Sue's name off the middle box

and replace it with his own, seeking to end his wild wife's notoriety

with this simple act. He was a musician and house painter, living in the

shadow of other people's greatness and failure. Mark's brother Joe Walsh

had emerged as a superstar in the 1970s with the rock band, The Eagles,

only to go bankrupt in the 1980s, and later, in the 1990s, to further

denigrate himself by appearing on such TV sitcoms as "The Drew Carey

Show."

 

I pulled my car to the curb and shut off the engine, the metal clicking

as the engine cooled, though the temperature outside made blisters in

the asphalt so that my sneakers stuck a little to the street as I

climbed out.

 

Sue's building stood apart, isolated from other buildings of its kind

and size by a used car dealership on one side, and fenced in yard on the

other, as if neither Nutley nor Belleville was willing to claim it.

Paved driveways ran up along either side. Several cars were parked on

the shadowy northside.. A pickup truck with a camper cap sat at the

mouth of the other. A few curtains fluttered out from the open windows

on the second floor. The other windows, around the bottom, were shut

tight.

 

I half expected to find some window stickers urging support for the

local Policeman's Benevolent Association or the National Rifleman's

Association, typical markers of the local population, though I had hoped

to find some outward sign of Sue's continual artistic interest, a music

poster or even one of those silly flags that have become so popular in

New Jersey, one with a pen and quill upon it, signifying her love of

writing.

 

If Sue had lived here for six years as Joel and others claimed, then she

must have felt like a prisoner again, the way she said she'd felt during

my occasional visits to her mother's apartment in Wayne, where the

chains of middle class existence pinned to daily routines, cooking and

laundry, washing the windows and floors.

 

Some of this -- I later learned -- did not come to pass. Sue proved less

the typical middle class mother and more the classic go-go dancer. While

she fought local officials tooth and nail to have her son admitted to

special classes at the school, she could claim more familiarity with the

pizza delivery van than the inside of the local supermarket. Yet even

with that said, her advant garde inner self must have paced back and

forth inside this middle class prison the way the tigers did in the old

Central Park Zoo, this space too confining for the wild soul she had,

some aspect of madness cogo-go dancer. While she fought local officials

tooth and nail to have her son admitted to special classes at the

school, she could claim more familiarity with the pizza delivery van

than the inside of the local supermarket. Yet even with that said, her

advant garde inner self must have paced back and for

 

But just what that connection was, I could not read off the face of the

building, or gain from a cursory study of the neighborhood. But without

even getting out of the car, I could feel the tension in the air around

the building, the sense of quiet that she could not have tolerated if

she was inside. Slowly, I made my way to the building to find out what

exactly was going on.

 

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Joe Walsh's Brother

 

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