The best thing, of course, is to fake your own death, and then take off for parts unknown. That way, you’re never looking over your shoulder or waiting for the knock at the door or living in fear of a chance encounter with an officer of the law. You might find yourself in some remote Chinese village, however, like the Utah man charged with bilking investors of hundreds of thousands of dollars. (The man’s family claims to have the scammer’s ashes on the mantel, but law enforcement authorities think he is alive and well and lying low. See the Oct. 13 edition of The Salt Lake Tribune.)
If, for some reason you can’t fake your own death—after all, you have to come up with a surrogate corpse or put Fido’s ashes into an urn with your name on it—going on the lam is the second-best option. Nevertheless, you are bound to be caught eventually, as were a couple of notorious malefactors this summer who had somehow managed to elude the law for many a year.
Whitey Bulger, the Massachusetts mob boss (played by Jack Nicholson in The Departed) was nabbed after 16 years on the run, and George “Jorge” Wright, the murderer/hijacker, was taken into custody after 40 years on the lam.
Mr. Bulger, age 81, had been living quietly with his longtime girlfriend, 60, near the beach in Santa Monica. They blended in well enough with other semi-affluent retirees, sharing shopping secrets, hanging out on Third Street or strolling along the sands of the Pacific. The bald and bearded Bulger apparently did not entirely endear himself to his fellow pensioners, however. A neighbor said she thought there was something funny about the guy, mainly because he never offered to scratch the ears of her pet schnauzer, a sure sign for most people that someone is an erstwhile mob boss.
As it turns out, it was a stray cat that finally did Mr. Bulger in. His elderly girlfriend, thought to be a cat-lover, struck up a friendship with a former Miss Iceland, who went on to star in Noxzema commercials, but who had in recent times taken up the hobby of feeding abandoned felines. When the former Miss Iceland saw a picture on the evening news of the girlfriend of the mob boss, she called the cops and turned her in, despite the shared interest in stray cats.
The murderous mob boss no doubt wishes he had thrown the scrawny cat into a dumpster when he had a chance.
The second story of a man on the lam is equally compelling. In the early ’60s, George Wright, a member of a group calling itself the Black Liberation Army, was convicted of murdering a gas-station attendant. After eight years in prison, he escaped, disguised himself has a Catholic priest and hijacked an airplane to Algeria. He found his way to Portugal, got married and raised a couple of kids in the sleepy village of Almocageme. He called himself Jose Luis Jorge dos Santos and waved at his fellow villagers as he pedaled his bicycle to the bar where he worked as a bouncer (probably a very good one).
Signor dos Santos was betrayed by the fingerprint required for a national identity card. Otherwise he would still be smiling and waving from his bicycle. “Jorge, he was a very nice hombre.”
But both Jorge and Whitey were bad guys, as we know by now. But there is something in their life on the lam that appeals to the imagination. For one thing, there is the element of disguise, which has always been a staple of tales and stories. But what is it about disguise, fooling one’s fellows and pretending to be someone you’re not, that strikes the imagination?
Is it the desire to get out of one’s own skin and become, for the time being, another person? Is it the chance to start over? In “Poetry of Departures,” Philip Larkin says, “We all hate home/ And having to be there,” which produces in us the thrill when we hear that someone has “chucked up everything/ And just cleared out.” It is, as Larkin says, an “audacious and purifying move.”
But like life on the lam, such departures from self are doomed to failure. Starting over is not living forever. The self is surprisingly malleable, but always and stubbornly reasserts itself. The criminal, whether Whitey or Jorge, is caught, and the wayward self comes home to itself, finally in death.