In praise of rebel weirdos

The Scotsman and The New Zealand Dominion, November 14 1988

Robert T Morris Jnr – or RTM as he is generally known – struck a special chord here last week when the computer virus which he had developed in his study at Cornell University raced through the Defence Department and out into the rest of the country paralysing more than 6,000 computers as it passed.

After the first few days of official outrage and indignation, a new emotion took over, expressed, for example, by a computer specialist at Harvard University who compared RTM’s activity to Mathias Rust’s success in landing a light plane in the middle of Moscow last year and added: “It’s as if Mathias Rust had not just flown into Red Square, but built himself a stealth bomber by hand and then done it.”

There was more here than mere admiration for the technical expertise behind the creation of the virus. For even as high-powered experts from the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the Department of Defence, the Department of Energy, the Air Force Office of Security Investigations, and the US Army met in Washington to review the incident and its implications, RTM was becoming the object of popular affection.

The somewhat po-faced provost of Cornell, Robert Barker, put his finger on it when he complained that his newly famous graduate student was being treated as ‘a folk hero’. And so he was.

American heroes are supposed to fit a well-established pattern – upright lives, solid families, daring deeds, and clean hands on healthy bodies. They are astronauts and presidents, John Wayne and Oliver North. So why should this skinny wretch, this electronic hooligan be celebrated by, among others, the New York Times, who judged him not only a national headache but also ‘a national treasure’?

On closer examination, it turns out that RTM is not the first of these unlikely folk heroes to emerge by getting into trouble with the law. There is, for example, James Clark, better known as The Pay Phone Bandit.

Some time in 1980, Clark, then aged 39, a die-maker from Ohio, did something which sounds rather mundane but which was eventually to earn him the status of a legend: he discovered a way of picking the supposedly unpickable lock on the compartment which holds the money in American phone boxes. He then set off on an eight-year odyssey during which he became the world’s greatest pay phone thief and collected more than $500,000 in small change – at an average annual income of $70,000.

Phone company detectives tracked him across the country, following the tell-tale scratch marks around pay phone locks that were his signature. At times, they were only 24 hours behind him but all they were left with was scraps of memories from those who had seen him – a baseball cap, a pony tail, cowboy clothes and gold rimmed glasses. In many states, he was listed among the ten most wanted men. An artist’s impression of his face appeared on thousands of ‘wanted’ posters.

The FBI joined the hunt. Their scientists established that every single modern pay phone lock that had ever been picked in the United States was the work of James Clark. He had developed a lock-picking tool of his own which no-one else ever duplicated. Phone company detectives conceded that they had to respect him: he was well organised and clever, they said, and very careful. Clark cheekily took the phone company’s name as well as its money by using James Bell as an alias. The phone detectives offered a $25,000 reward for his arrest.

By the time the Pay Phone Bandit was finally caught in a boarding house in Los Angeles this summer, he was known across the nation and his exploits were recycled in popular newspapers who habitually compared him to Robin Hood, even though there was never any evidence that he had ever given the poor so much as a handful of the two or three million coins he had collected on his travels.

If you compare the Pay Phone Bandit to RTM, you can see that they become folk heroes for very much the same reasons: the technical cleverness which underlies their exploits and which inspires admiration; their ability to run rings round the authorities, which inspires envy; and the sheer weirdness of their characters which seems to be most important of all because it breaks through the stifling conformity of American society. As if crime had become a last refuge for eccentricity.

Studs Terkel, the feisty Chicago writer and one of the few American intellectuals who still believes in dissent, has been warning recently that the USA will be destroyed not by nuclear weapons but by deliquesence – a relentless dribbling away of the national character. “The overall detritus of banality will overwhelm us,” he predicts. These eccentric criminals are like a natural antidote; they become legends because legends embody a society’s yearnings and fantasies – just like Matthias Rust or Robin Hood.

Once you start to look, these new heroes turn out to be there in some numbers.

There is an extraordinary character down in Puerto Rico, which is part of the United States, called Tono Bicicleta – Tony Bicycle. He has exactly the same folk hero status as RTM and the Pay Phone Bandit. Indeed, the awarding of a nick name is another part of the creation of these heroes. But Tony Bicycle is a particularly striking case because his criminal activity ought to make him highly unpopular.

His trick is to hide out in the mountains and then come swooping down into villages on a bicycle to carry off local women whom he then takes back to his hideout as his lovers, willing or not. He has also been convicted of murdering his own wife. Abduction, rape and murder should have made him an object of loathing. The fact that he is only 5′ 2″ and is usually sighted peddling frantically on a rusting two-wheeler could even have made him an object of ridicule. Instead of which, he is an object of romance and story-telling.

The reasons are the same. He is very clever: men sit around in bars in Puerto Rico shaking their heads at his audacity and his skill on a bike. Although he was jailed in 1981 for killing his wife, he escaped and has since run rings round the local police even though they have had helicopters circling the mountains in search of him. And he is definitely weird.

Another new legend of the same type, who is lurking just beyond the long arm of the law somewhere in North America, is The Elephant Man who has become a folk hero for the animal rights movement. His real name is Arlan Seidon and he comes from New Jersey where he spent 40 years as an animal trainer before deciding in 1981 that he would retire. This meant he had to sell two elephants he had been working with.

However, some six months after he had sold them, he decided that they were being cruelly mistreated by their new owner, so he stole them back and went on the run. Or as he put it in a telephone interview with a New York Times reporter from an undisclosed location: “I took the them out of their box. I said: `We’re going for a ride, girls. I don’t know how it’s going to be, or where we’re going’. And I drove off and I ain’t been back.”

Exactly how he has succeeded in hiding two fully grown pachiderms is all part of the legend. Like more conventional heroes, he is modest. “It’s the simplest thing in the world. They’ve been kept out of sight of the general public or so well-displayed, no one would suspect. I’ve even had police officers give me a ride hitch hiking.”

But the weirdest new hero of all must be Hilton Lashawn Williams, aged 28. Superficially, his crime is simple and commonplace: he bounces cheques, cons money out of people and disappears leaving unpaid bills behind him. What makes Williams special, and what has earned him his folk hero status, is that this burly young black man with the size ten feet and the pock-marked face did all this by posing as a well-known rhythm and blues singer, who happens to be a woman.

In his guise as Shirley Murdock, Williams strutted round the United States in a long dress and stilletto heels, signing autographs, doling out copies of the real Shirley Murdock’s latest album, singing her songs in night clubs, making guest appearances on radio stations, mixing with real celebrities and all the while accepting free gifts and endless credit from shops, banks, hotels and others who were only too pleased to do business with such a charming celebrity.

Williams has the same combination of attractions as the other new heroes: he is clever, he beats the system and he is thoroughly eccentric. When he was eventually caught, earlier this year, the American media came to pay their respects to him in Huntsville Jail in Texas. He, too, dealt modestly with his new heroic status, explaining that it had all started as a joke when he was watching TV with a friend and Shirley came on and the friend said; “Hey, she looks kinda like you.” Then it had just grown on him.

However, the Texas court which tried Williams on a sample charge of bouncing a $250 cheque abstained from popular feelings of warmth and envy towards him and jailed him for ten years. The Pay Phone Bandit is in custody awaiting trial. Tony Bicycle and the Elephant Man are still on the run and at Cornell University last week, RTM hired an attorney as the FBI began a full-blooded inquiry into his exploits. These are hard times for heroes.