Notes from the Underground 

John Martin killed himself in an Air Force recruiting office. The only things he left behind were the items in his tiny room.

To get inside John Martin's basement, you need to push aside the branches of an overgrown shrub, then walk down a set of steps that sag in the middle. Tear off the seal left behind by the Alameda County Sheriff's Office, cautiously open the door, and suck in the whiff of a dungeon: Cold air streams out, loaded with the stench of rotting food.

On the last day of June, John Martin walked into an Air Force recruiting office in San Leandro and fired three shots at a sergeant sitting at a computer. He missed. Then Martin put the gun to his own head. He nailed it.

Next to his bear-sized body, investigators found a note headlined "Want to know why?" To answer his own question, Martin had written the names of an Air Force captain and three boot camp drill sergeants whom he had failed to impress more than twenty years ago. Denigrating three of the officers with the epithets "spic," "nigger," and "cracker," he then wrote: "What goes around comes around." At the bottom of the page he decorated a swastika with the initials USAF. It was the final statement of a bitter man.

Officials believe he left no family. When the coroner's office gave up its search for a living relative last week, Martin's longtime landlord was left to pack up the contents of his tenant's one-room apartment. Martin had lived in the cramped basement for nearly eighteen years.

The landlord says Martin came upstairs only to use the bathroom or heat up a bowl of ramen noodles. Even though he typically passed his tenant in the hallway at least once a day, where he managed to gather tiny threads of information, the landlord can't recall them ever engaging in an in-depth conversation. Whenever attention would turn his way, Martin was shy to the point of hyperventilating, the landlord recalls. He never saw John Martin receive a piece of personal mail or send one out; never saw him with a friend, or even heard him speak of one. He never knew what Martin was doing down there.

Now, finally, he was about to find out.

Feeling around in the darkness for a light switch, visitors encounter a handful of stringy spiderwebs. Then the sole lightbulb shines from the far corner, revealing bare cement walls all around. Cobwebs hang from the corners of the low ceiling like tapestries, forcing visitors to duck. It's the size of a toolshed in here, and the ground is just as cold and dirty.

Then you notice the stacks of paper. The piles are neatly divided into white paper, newsprint, and shiny magazine pages. They vary in size from ankle- to waist-high. To save floor space, Martin had elevated his mattress the way that college students do in their dorms. Beneath his bed, he'd crammed cardboard boxes filled with still more papers.

The white stacks are photocopies of thousands of US patents. Many detail the inner workings of inventions that rely on water and electricity to create energy -- or so it appears. Notations and obsessive markings on the diagrams are incomprehensible to the engineering-challenged. One patent from the top of a pile is titled "Method and Device for Attenuating the Noise Radiated by Jets." Aside from joining the Air Force, Martin's only known ambition in life was to become a scientist.

The newspaper stacks are shorter. Martin kept select issues of the San Francisco Examiner throughout the 1990s. One front page, dated August 17, 1998, announces "Zero Hour for President," a reference to Bill Clinton's impeachment. The issue is turned to the jump page, as if Martin had followed the story to the inside of the paper, folded it in half, then quit reading. Also included are hundreds of clippings of women. Some are Reuters photos of South Asian women in traditional clothing and silky headdresses. Others are of All-American beauties: a long-haired blonde at Ocean Beach on the Fourth of July, a ponytailed soccer player dribbling for the net, a smiling brunette playing tug-o-war with her chocolate lab at Dolores Park.

The magazine pages have been pulled from men's magazines, mostly Playboy. On page after page, tanned bodies pose beneath the glow of amber lighting. Dig a little deeper into the pile, and the content escalates to blow jobs, intercourse, orgies, and money shots. At the very bottom, the wilting centerfold of Playmate Roberta Vasquez, November 1984.

Martin told his landlord that both of his parents died in a car crash when he was young. He was raised by his grandmother while he attended San Leandro High School. On the top of his only bookshelf, Martin kept a worn paperback copy of The Ayn Rand Lexicon: Objectivism from A to Z and two hardcovers, The Making of the Atomic Bomb and Chemistry of Powder and Explosives. Two live bullets -- each large enough for an assault weapon -- were neatly balanced on top of the explosives book.

The middle shelf displayed Martin's few other fascinations: The Armenian-English Dictionary, a bag of Scottish clan badges, a bumper sticker that reads "Have You Hugged a Scot Today?," and a ticket stub from the 1992 Scottish Games in Santa Rosa. On the bottom shelf, he kept a mound of old Playmate calendars, pamphlets on the Alameda County Fair, science periodicals, and a copy of his 1978 yearbook.

Martin was a sophomore that year. In his school photo, he was a pair of spectacles and a large smile with a sixteen-year-old pencil neck. To the right of him, the photo of a male classmate is blacked out in permanent marker. More than twenty other boys suffer the same fate. By contrast, the names of two dozen females are underlined in pencil. The underlined girls are the archetypes of high school beauty: trim, gleeful, and usually blonde.

Inside the covers, the signings are made out to "John" or "Johnny," and they offer praise for another school year completed (!) and share excitement for the coming summer break (!!). One student congratulates Martin on earning his pilot's license. Another comments on his badminton skills in gym class -- "You should join the team!" Still another encourages Martin to continue his stint with the drama club, and playfully warns him not to spend all his time reading Shakespeare.

"John," reads one farewell from "Mary" in bubbly cursive, "I'm glad I got to know you. You're really cute. Stay sweet."


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