Simon Kinsella spent his first wide-eyed week in California at Jason Hasley's San Francisco apartment. A casual friend from back home in Cincinnati, Jason was happy to put up Simon and his girlfriend while they hunted for an apartment near UC Berkeley. It was August 2002, and the 27-year-old who'd just collected his first degree would soon start journalism grad school. In two years he expected to be settled into a crappy Manhattan walk-up, cleverly working the folks at The New Yorker until they realized how foolish they'd be not to run his stories. It didn't cross his mind that two years later he might land at Jason's again, amid considerably less hopeful circumstances.
Simon's first class at Cal, and mine, was a notoriously strenuous one called J-200, Reporting the News. Professor Neil Henry outlined an itinerary designed to school us in the criminal justice system: We'd ride shotgun with cops, witness court in session, visit San Quentin, and tour a county morgue. But our first assignment was to profile a classmate. The catch was that we couldn't speak to the person directly, only to people who knew him or her. I got Simon. He gave me a firm handshake, scrawled "Anna Stewart" and a phone number on a piece of paper, and flashed me a mischievous grin.
Anna and Simon had been inseparable since meeting six months earlier at a Cincinnati dance club. Simon, who at five foot ten stood a few inches taller than she, was an edgy, buzzing sort of handsome. He had a sharp jaw, a strong nose, bright brown eyes, and an Adam's apple that jutted out as if he were still sixteen. In his uniform of dark jeans or corduroys, untucked button-down shirts that hugged his compact frame, and scuffed black oxfords, he had the urban hipster look down pat. Anna, 21, was bright, stylish, and, as Simon often told her, pretty enough to think seriously about modeling. She could be a total drama queen and knew just how to piss Simon off, but the times they lay awake laughing all night made up for it.
Simon was the son of working-class Irish immigrants, the oldest of five. He was a self-taught guitar player who'd spend hours learning a five-second lick. He was a lady charmer who never gave an insincere compliment, a captivating storyteller, an avid drinker, and a terrible driver whose license had been revoked. He didn't back down from an argument, and often invoked one just to get a rise. His personality was exemplified by an anecdote from a friend I interviewed for my profile: In elementary school, a teacher had occasionally strapped Simon to his chair with a belt just to get him to sit still.
So I wasn't altogether surprised when I got word, two months later, that he was in jail.
Simon's 28th birthday had fallen on a Wednesday, but he and Anna agreed to celebrate it on Friday night. However, her regular babysitting gig ran hours late, and when she finally stepped through the doorway he'd just finished a bottle of Jack Daniel's. He became irate, whacking a painting off the wall. She told him to get out. He refused. When she picked up the phone to call the cops, he snatched it from her and hurled it across the room. Then he threw it again to make sure it was broken. Anna slipped into the bedroom and dialed 911 on her cell phone.
"He shoved me, but he didn't hurt me," Anna said four days later when I called to find out why he'd missed school. "I was scared and I overreacted, but they won't drop the charges."
Simon's bail was $10,000, and it would cost a grand to get him out. Anna said there was no way he'd disappoint his parents by calling them, and she doubted they could afford it even if he did. I mulled it over on the long drive to Santa Rita Jail, well aware that it would be insane to lay down cash I didn't have for a classmate I hardly knew. Once I arrived, I learned that Simon couldn't have visitors, but would be arraigned the next day in Oakland and then released. Professor Henry, who'd taken an instant shine to Simon, met me outside the courtroom the same one we'd all visited for his class a couple weeks earlier.
Simon was released that night with walking directions to Dublin BART, a ticket with a few bucks on it, and a firm admonition to stay away from Anna. He headed straight for the journalism school, where he scarfed down some food left over from a reception and slept on the beat-up couch in the student lounge.
"I feel like such a fool," he told me the next day during a long talk in the rose garden north of campus. His version of events was similar to Anna's. "I was a jerk, but I didn't touch her," he said, twisting his hands together in his lap. "Look at me I could hardly squash an insect." I believed him.
He spun his five days in jail as a positive experience. He'd learned to conquer boredom. His cellmates' lives were riveting. Everyone had respected his status as a journalist and grad student. "I could write hundreds of pages on it," he said. In the following weeks, he did.
The police report, which I glimpsed last month for the first time, unearthed no shocking details. I was surprised to read about a hole in the bedroom wall where he had reportedly thrown a television during a heated argument a few weeks prior. And there was a final remark: "Anna expressed a reluctance to press charges, and with youthful optimism stated her belief that the two would either work things out or part company forever."
They soon did the latter. Simon slept on the floor of a school friend's empty apartment before moving into a room in North Oakland. One of his new roommates was a drug peddler who specialized in Ecstasy. Ironically, I eventually learned, it was one of the few drugs Simon didn't like.
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