As we slowly progressed home through the stop and go holiday weekend traffic, our son Finn grilled me with what seemed like a million questions about what it was like being locked up. He was pretty wound up and I tried to provide him honest answers about a world I hope he never entered while attempting to redirect the conversion at every opportunity. As an autistic child Finn could fixate on one issue and it was obvious this one was causing him a good deal of anxiety and stress. With every failed redirection attempt, Nikki would look into my eyes and we would silently share our concerns. This is an exercise that parents of Autistic children have to learn and it was taking all of the skills we had cultivated over the years to drive the conversation away from that dark subject.
We hit a ringer when he asked me what it would feel like to be home. I answered with one word “Christmas!!” His eyes lit up. Nikki flashed her beautiful smile and picked it up from there and the holidays were now our topic of conversation -- talk of presents, turkey and sparkling lights now filled the car. Before I knew it we had reached our destination -- my Grandfather’s old shoe repair shop on Ventura Avenue. The house I had lived in or around my entire life. Home.
Nikki hit the button and the electronic gate opened. The sound of the electric motor kicked in and steel wheels whined as they slowly and deliberately travelled the tract. What, at most times, had been an annoying sound was now music to my ears. I was home. As Nikki pulled into the driveway she hit the gate button a second time and the gate started its journey back to its closed position, it rattled and rolled then shut with a loud clang. Nikki handed me the key and said “welcome home” with a broad smile and a kiss. The entrance to our home was now the side service entrance to the shoe shop. I inserted the key in the oversize security door, pulled it open and stepped in. I breathed in deeply and looked around. My home -- a home I loved deeply and certainly not a conventional home by any means.
Ventura Avenue used to be the main road into the Ojai Valley and a thriving thoroughfare lined with neatly manicured storefronts -- reflections of the self made men who set up shop there and carved out a living with their hands. As the old timers passed the storefronts died too and the Avenue took on the hard worn look it wears now. My Grandfather’s shop was no different and I let the front of our house go so that it would blend in. They say “you can't judge a book by its cover” and that couldn’t apply more to our home. The unassuming run-down exterior gave no clue to the magnificent space we had created within.
I walked through the house from bottom to top, appreciating every detail. The front of the building, closest to the Avenue, was a fully equipped gym. The old cement floors had been replaced with tongue and groove hardwood and the entire west wall was covered with mirrors making a generous space feel even more massive. The gym was fully equipped -- with two treadmills, a chrome two station Universal weight station and an independent free weight station -- each piece of equipment perfectly placed with plenty of room for a martial arts and yoga classes.
Three steps up led into the massive lounge capped with a vaulted all cedar ceiling and grounded in a plush, heavy pile deep maroon carpet. You could lose your toes it was so deep. Along the North wall was a custom made black showcase that, along with the three remaining walls, displayed over sixty years of my personal history and artifacts. This really was a massive space with plenty of room for the two opposing big screen TVs and the collection of large sofas and plush chairs
At the far side of the room I entered the two story addition I had added to the original structure in 1995. Two steps down took me into a open sunken kitchen with heavy rustic beams supporting the upper floor. Off the dining room, to the left, my former office was now Finn’s room. To the right, my youngest daughter, Aubree’s room. A quick inspection found everything in order. I made the short trip up the stairway to our oversize bedroom. It resembled a New York loft and despite our California king bed and the funky sofa we had, there was plenty of room for a open office and a walk-in closet. As I peered out the French style door that opened to the upper sun deck, I remembered the stern warning to remain in the house. I didn't open the door but almost on cue, the phone rang. “Mr. Christie?”
“Speaking,” I replied.
“What part of staying in your domicile didn't you understand?” I recognized the voice on the other end of the phone as the pre-trial officer who had fitted my ankle bracelet. My immediate impulse was to defend myself and launch a verbal assault on this condensing young women but I held my tongue.
“I have not stepped out of my house since I entered it.” I replied curtly.
“Then we will need to make some adjustments.” She continued. “I would like you to start at the North wall and travel to the South wall, then do the same East to West. Once this is completed I want you go outside and walk the perimeter of your property, then return inside your home and stay there until further notice. Your assigned pretrial officer will contact you early next week. Under no circumstances, with the exception of a medical emergency can you leave your home.” and with that she ended the conversation.
Sobered from the momentary nostalgic buzz of being home and back to the reality of my house arrest, it was clear my moments were being closely monitored as I casually roamed about my house. It was a harsh reminder was no longer in charge of my time and space. I was home but I was still in custody -- stripped of my rights and my dignity. As I contemplated the situation a formidable consideration crossed my mind -- house arrest, around since the 1600s, was often used by authoritarian governments against political dissidents.
That night (and many afterward) I was unable to sleep and as I sat watching the minutes pass in the dim lights of my living room, I couldn't help wonder if this is where we were heading as a country. This country that I have served and will continue to serve to the best of my ability. In the stillness of the moment and after everything I had been through over the years it was certainly food for thought. But for now, I was home - just in time for the holidays.
Over the next four weeks I will be sharing a Holiday story I wrote as a gift to my family as I prepared to leave for a Texas prison in 2013. I can’t wait to share it with you and hope you will all enjoy it. It's a fiction story filled with personal experiences. Afterward, on December 27th, I will get back to telling my personal story.
All my best -- George