Big Racism Everywhere: a haunting from late 1970s Shaker Heights

In February 1970, we moved from deep in the city of Chicago to Shaker Heights, Ohio, the Cleveland suburb legendary for wealth and beauty as well as the social experiment of integration. My brother and I participated in a “voluntary” bussing program to one of the “black” elementary schools in this midwest bastion of prosperity and progressive local politics. If the black-and-white photo my folks saved does not lie, our family was featured on national television to discuss our participation in racial integration. 


Fifty years later, in mid-March 2020, the dramatic miniseries Little Fires Everywhere dropped on Hulu, the same week Breonna Taylor was murdered by cops in her apartment in Louisville, Kentucky. The show takes place in Shaker in the 1990s; we left in 1982, for the Detroit suburb that reminded us most of Shaker. According to Wikipedia, Shaker Heights is 55% white and 37% African American, and the median income is $76,000.


My wife and I followed Little Fires faithfully, as each episode dropped and messed with my memories about Shaker, and truthfully, messed with my messed up liberal-radical nostalgia. My heart hurts for the hope that my family’s engagement in white anti-racism fed me as a child, just as I am longing for those fifth or sixth grade lunch parties where I got introduced to Funkadelic, Kraftwerk, and the Sugar Hill Gang. 


I am longing for those sleepovers with the junk food that was always absent at my house, for the appreciation of the NBA that is with me to this day. Being at the integrated school where most of my guy friends were black, this took me into homes and worlds and social spaces that I have honored and internalized ever since. But the spring and summer of 2020 destroyed a part of that inner nostalgic longing, and hope for genuine racial reconciliation seems as far away today as ever.


On the miniseries, Reese Witherspoon portrays well-to-do working mother Elena Richardson. In preparation for this essay, I tried to watch the show again. I could not finish even one episode. I am finding Elena so cringe-worthy and wrong; somehow Elena and the rest of us are unworthy of the evasive vulnerability of Kerry Washington’s Mia Warren and definitely not ready for the sincerity of Lexi Underwood’s Pearl Warren. The teenage characters in the show don’t understand the burden that being from Shaker will be on the rest of their lives. The world that murders Breonna Taylor the same week that this show drops does not fit our internal myth of Shaker either. The world of racial peace and justice we imagine that we were promised still eludes us. 


On one of many trips to Atlanta to see music, this time it was an Arcade Fire show back in 2017, I was struck crazy by a disturbing memory from 1978. I was only ten-years-old in 1978.


From Cleveland Plain Dealer Archives

The Plain Dealer described this setting as a "posh, picture book setting...where murder seems as foreign a concept as poverty."


I contacted a handful of friends from Shaker, not a single one remembered the incident that haunted me. My older brother did, my mother did not. Did it even happen? This was horrifying then, it is perhaps even more harrowing writing about it now, in light of current events, but I feel like now I must, because it has haunted me for  my entire life. 


Repeatedly freaked by the whole haunting, I finally paid real money to access the microfilm archives of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. To do such a sleuthy research jag, I was channeling my best Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford, portraying Bernstein and Woodward in All The President’s Men. Or perhaps I was channeling some of the real-crime mini-series shows that my sweetie has taught me to binge. 


By the spring of 1978, we had recently upgraded our home to a house with this ten-year-old’s dream: a circular staircase and an indoor pool. That was definitely the Shaker dream and scene of many pool parties for my awkwardly ten, then tween, and then teen self, until we departed for Detroit, the summer after 8th grade. In this home, I would look at my first Playboy and learn to love the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan. 


But back in May of 1978, I was only finishing 4th grade. That year I was writing postmodern novels longhand in my spiral notebooks; that is, when I wasn’t curating football and basketball and wiffle ball leagues with all my friends. Of course, I would not know the term postmodern until the mid 1990s as an English major at Wayne State, but these drafts always had elements of the avant garde, like a talking lobster, or collaged-in characters and themes from pop culture, whether Pippi Longstocking or Planet of the Apes. 


While I was supposed to take the bus home after school each day, on beautiful days, I would miss the afternoon ride on purpose and walk north instead, traipsing along in my Keds and Toughskins and lost in my mind for the glorious 8/10th of a mile on the Lee Road sidewalk. There were no cell phones then, and I doubt the school even knew about my frequent walks or called my Mom to let her know I wasn’t on the bus. This I consider one of the many glories of the pre-digital less-paranoid days, when children were not so closely supervised or tethered. This freedom can be seen in a movie like Stand By Me or a series like Stranger Things. And as those shows or this story will reveal, this did not mean we were any more safe. 


It was a perfect spring day I am sure. And in May, the conclusion of the academic year was so close we could taste it. We could sense in our bones, whatever summer would bring: laziness, beaches, baseball, and of course, rollercoaster rides at Cedar Point. Songs you might associate with those times include “Only The Good Die Young” by Billy Joel or “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees; I remain partial to the fact that I was just as likely to be listening to “The Robots” by Kraftwerk, which I even owned on vinyl. 



From Cleveland Plain Dealer Archives


By the end of the year, I would be dancing to “Le Freak” at Christmas, with my cousins from Philadelphia and Minneapolis. And only a year earlier, my music teacher at school had suggested “Brick House” (apparently, she was not thinking about the age-inappropriate lyrics), as a better track to teach me to follow the beat, than my brother’s metallic anthems by KISS. 


Yes, I was the white kid at Moreland, a predominantly black school, the white kid who had no sense of rhythm, so much that it was a topic at the parent-teacher conference. This would be too tacky to say, if it were not the truth. And there’s no home movie footage of nine-or-ten-year-old me getting down to “Brick House” in the family bungalow. Another of the untold blessings of coming from the 70s, from the faded, molding, in-storage photo albums of the pre-Facebook era. 


A block from my swimming-pool middle-school party pad, were a row of mansions, whose back patios opened up to Green Lake, known to a younger me as “The Duck Pond,” just west of the Country Club’s well-manicured fairways. I remember sitting there at the lake some afternoons with a 7th grade crush, just talking about feelings and music and books. Parallel to Lee Road was an alley that connected the lake’s Parkland Drive to South Woodland, the thoroughfare with the mansions, and the alley was known as a “Lover’s Lane.” 


The Plain Dealer described this setting as a “posh, picture book setting . . . where murder seems as foreign a concept as poverty.” From the outflow spillway from Green Lake, the water flowed under Lover’s Lane, and then under Lee Road to feed a creek, to feed another picturesque lake, surrounded by more Shaker mansions. At this location, on the long Thanksgiving weekend of 1977, a 13-year old white boy murdered a 15-year-old black boy, it is perhaps believed, at a party. And the victim’s body was stuffed into this gorge, spillway, manhole, what-have-you, between Green Lake and Lee Road.


And then again on my walk home that May 1978 afternoon, police cars and other emergency vehicles clogged Lee Road. Such a scenario startles us as adults. I cannot imagine how intense it was that day when I was ten, but that I still remember it at 53, that says a lot. 


A teenager had been missing for that many months. The county coroner “said the boy was identified from dental charts and the remains of clothing he had been wearing. . . . [T]he youth was shot in the right shoulder and the chest and . . . the chest wound was the cause of death.” 


The victim was Jerry Parchia. The names of the perpetrators were never shared in all the articles I could find. The Shaker police chief finally sought Parchia’s remains after following a tip, described as  “the most bizarre story you ever heard.” What is bizarre is that close to a majority of the middle school students of a certain set (we called it “junior high” in those days), all knew about the crime for all those intervening months. And they kept it quiet.  Did they keep it quiet or did they not even think to report it or worse, not care, or did they simply close ranks?


A Plain Dealer article two years later linked the crime to a chronic pot problem in the Shaker community. While that may be true, it does not distance the crime from the racism I know was there. The pot problem itself was linked to systemic and institutional racism, as well as the suburban alienation a local pediatrician described when she depicted teens as listless and addicted and without dreams or desires. A teenager told the doctor “that about 100 teen-agers had known where the body was for months, and that after pot parties at night, kids would go to the manhole and shine a flashlight down on the decomposing corpse.” That complicity cannot be written off as merely a pot problem. It needs to be addressed as a systemic race issue, where 100 (mostly? all?) white teenagers did not report the crime, for whatever reason. Would they have reported if the victim had been white?


About 100 teenagers had known where the body was for months and after pot parties at night, kids would go tho the manhole and shine a flashlight down on the decomposing corpse.


The murderer and his sibling accomplice lived in one of the mansions adjacent the lake. They were sent off to juvenile detention and probably drug/alcohol/mental health treatment. We probably knew their first and last names at the time, and I met their mother, because that house was on my paper route for about a year around 1980, and I am sure I believe that the house was haunted. It terrified me to deliver their morning Plain Dealer, and it terrified me to collect their unbelievably modest subscription fees on my occasional door-to-door ask. 


About teenage paper routes: it still amazes me that I was ever responsible enough to do all that math with someone else’s money, as if I were ever as responsible with numbers as I was then. I still fancied liking math then. It wasn’t a hustle but a job. The mythic first job in the mythic community of racial progress, where I was haunted by this most bizarre murder, that I always understood, without saying so, as a hate crime.


In the integrated, progressive utopia where I learned about the Commodores and Martin Luther King, two teenage white kids murdered a black kid and then shared peeks at his decomposing body as a party favor. For months on end. And the witnesses to these intoxicated corpse-showings kept their sick secret in confidence. My brother recalled that some of the stories that circulated later in the school were impolite jokes. Jerry Parchia’s last name was pronounced “Par-shay,” and my brother remembers kids referring to the remains at the “Parchia parfait.” 


I am not sure we can only blame the marijuana, the mental health issues, or maybe even the father or mother from whom I collected nominal fees for a morning paper home delivery, can we? Maybe the teenage murderer was a sociopath, but what of all the kids who saw the body and didn’t bother to tell parents or teachers or police? What about the other kids who heard the rumors from the kids who saw the body? They couldn’t all be stoned sociopaths, could they?


We can’t say this wouldn’t happen today. We can’t even say we are making progress away from a world like that. 


I remember when Sinead O’Connor sang, “England’s not the mythical land of Madame George and roses/

It’s the home of police who kill blacks boys on mopeds.” I remember when KRS-One begged “Stop The Violence,” when Public Enemy spit “Fight The Power,” when NWA rapped “Fuck Tha Police.” Now we chant: “I Can’t Breathe.” England is not a mythical land, and neither is America. Neither is Shaker Heights. 


And I also remember when an anti-BLM militia-motivated teenage killer named Kyle Rittenhouse got bailed out of the youth joint before his trial, and now, you can buy a “Free Kyle” t-shirt online from multiple vendors, in multiple sizes, and in multiple styles, all with an American flag theme. 


Today, in the winter that followed the summer of rebellions after the murder of George Floyd, some well-meaning white folks, not unlike those of us writing this ‘zine, are reading anti-racist books, taking anti-racist trainings, attending anti-racist Zoom discussions. But other white folks retain the Candace Owens rationalizations that they received this summer, all the whatabout-ism, all the changing-of-the-subject. Does it matter which group of white folks we are in, if the world (and its underlying conditions), if the world that murdered Ahmaud Arbury marches on? 


Two teenage white kids murdered a black kid and then shared peeks at his decomposing body as a party favor.


When Ordinary Space started, I wrote about the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont in light of white counterculture’s ongoing complicity in rock’s underlying racism. Today, I would like to say something profound about liberal progressive municipal experiments like Shaker Heights or about the critique of Shaker Heights found in the television adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere. Profundity escapes me. I don’t want or need to be correct or even to understand. I could barely muster the words already shared about the murder of Jerry Parchia, but all these narratives, musical, fictional, and historical, are connected. 


Whether we have participated in anti-racist trainings or not, simply saying we white folks “still have work to do” just seems so tepid, so many versions of too late. If beloved child of God is an identity worth honoring, if the Beloved Community inaugurated by Jesus, by prophetic voices Christian and otherwise, if that reign of justice and peace is worth pursuing, then perhaps white privilege and white supremacy are worth admitting and acknowledging, while at the same we wrestle with abandoning any essentialism of cultural righteousness, rooted in the same.  


America in every town and city and countryside is a horrible and hypocritical racist place haunted by generations of murderous white people whose disease still spreads; the true demon has yet to be exorcised from our geographical, ideological, theological, and ontological core. True repentance cannot come before the exorcism, not until we name what haunts us and wrestle with why we have been so far so incorrigibly inept to banish it. 

Andrew William Smith 


Comments