In Memorium to Helen Hill, Also Known As Chicken

Posted on January 7, 2007

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This morning I was riding my bike to a coffee shop to get some writing done; there were a couple of kind of heavy things on my mind and I didn’t know where to put them. As I biked, I passed by two guys trying to push an aged Westfalia van onto Market St. and I stopped to help. They explained that their objective was to to do a three point turn and back the van into a parking space across the street to avoid getting ticketed for streetsweeping Monday morning. One of them was older, and he was taking care of the steering. The younger one had a shaved head and was pushing from behind. They had odd, but familiar, accents. I looked at them incredulously, but got behind the van and began pushing anyway. As we turned the van this way and that, they began to speak to each other in their native language, which I recognized immediately as Hebrew. I had become quite familiar with the rhythm and timber of it from my interactions with Israeli soldiers at roadblocks, checkpoints and at border interrogations in my Palestine days. I asked the younger guy pushing with me at the back, if he was Israeli and he responded that he was, somewhat surprised that I could recognize the language so quickly.

By way of explanation, I responded that I was Palestinian. He asked me if I had ever been there. There was a hesitant look on his face when he spoke; he almost seemed guilty. I replied that I had been, somewhat warily because these conversations can get out control quite quickly. He asked me about where I had been and if it had been ‘bad’. I told him and added that it had not been bad when I first got there, but that it had been when I left and that it was even worse now. He didn’t respond, and I went back around to the front of the vehicle to ease it back into the parking space. It was a small, but remarkable moment. The entire endeavor had seemed like the worst idea, and if they had asked me, I would have advised them to not even try it, but the van eased into the space perfectly. I went back to my bike and pedaled away, and as I did the Israeli that I had been talking to yelled out, “Thanks.” and then “Don’t hate all Israelis.” I responded without thinking. Not all of them, I said. But I meant it; I had no reason to hate this person. In fact, I wanted to like him. Elsewhere on this page, you’ll find another post where I write about running into Israelis and Jews seemingly at random. I used to curse my weird luck at these kinds of interactions. I won’t lie; for years I harbored so much hatred against them that I would have put on a vest and done a bus myself if someone had only offered me a way. I don’t want to live my life like that anymore. Its not that the hate has gone away, but I know it better now for what it really is, and its not entirely about them and it really has little to do with politics.

Its taken a long time, but I know now that hate and anger limit you. The people I have admired most in my life have little time for either, and this brings me to the heavy things on my mind when I had this interaction. Two such people were Paul and Helen. I met them in New Orleans, where I lived in the early 90’s. They were friends of friends, but it was a small community and I ran into them regularly. Paul was a big advocate of DIY music and open mike and wrote his own songs, which were catchy, and weird and poppy at the same time. I still know all the words to a couple–“Floating in an Airplane” and “Nola”–and I was lucky enough to be asked to help perform one at Checkpoint Charlie’s, even though my paltry musical skills must have been obvious. Helen was perhaps the happiest, most excited person I have yet to meet in life. Her attitude was, in fact, so unbelievable, that in those days, I suspected it as a facade or an affectation. In time I recognized it as her true personality, and from what I have been told about the rest of her life, she was a truly blessed person–happy and forward looking, she really had nothing but love to share with the world. They both did. I remember a friend of mine once commenting, that it had been a good thing that they had found one another. It was a sarcastic comment, but they were indeed, made for each other. They called each other Chicken as a term of endearment, but I always used to think of her by that name, not as Helen, but Chicken.

I can’t remember if I left New Orleans before they did. I wasn’t the kind of person that could have stayed in their lives; they were both going to continue their educations. I was on another course. I already had a lot of anger and hate to work out, and while I spent the next few years making a mess of things, hurting people and myself, Paul became a doctor and Helen an independent filmmaker. Most of this I know from reading the news story from the Times Picayune about the violent crime that injured Paul and took Helen’s life. They returned to New Orleans. Helen became a sort of community film maker, encouraging others to enrich the world and their own lives by making beautiful little movies, and they had a son named Francis. Paul started a community clinic in the Treme’, one of New Orleans’ poorest neighborhoods. Like many residents of the city, they had lost almost everything during the flood, but they both felt–Helen especially–that it was important to come back and start over and to give something to the community there.

A close friend from my New Orleans days called me last night to tell me the news of Helen’s death. I was shocked by the sheer brutality of the murder; I could not believe that anyone could do that to someone like Helen and Paul. My friend and I commisserated about how difficult it is to understand tragedies like this or how to feel when the people involved were once integral to your life, but have since moved on and out of it. I had trouble sorting out my feelings, until my friend told me that a friend of there’s had set up a memorial website. I felt a knot in my throat and in a short moment, everything about it had become real–the crime, the death, the removal of Helen’s specialness and the unbelievable sadness and horror that Paul would have to endure.

Later, when I got home, I got an email from another friend who had lived in New Orleans with us, with a link to the New Orleans newspaper article detailing the crime. Helen had been shot in the neck and Paul had been shot three times. I haven’t been able to get the image of Helen’s murder out of my mind since. There is still no information on what happened but I imagine that the person who entered the home of Paul and Helen and destroyed their lives was filled with hate, no matter what his intentions were; a hate he felt justified, and indeed, one that might even have been justifiable by most human measure. And in that blind hatred and anger, he had deprived the world of one of the finest, loving people ever born. It could have been Paul instead of Helen, or both of them, and it could have just as well have been anyone I know phoning me to tell me that my mother, my sister, or that one of my close friends had died in the same way. It could have been someone like Helen but born Palestinian or Israeli, or African or European, Latino or Asian, and it could have happened in a ghetto, in a white flight community or in a militarized zone.

The only knowledge that I seem to have been able to gleen from this tragedy is that life is random and short, and that I, and so many of us, waste so much of it on negating actions that spring from baser emotions; fear and hatred. I don’t recall Paul or Helen suffering from either, and I think this is what allowed them to lead such beautiful lives that touched so many people in positive ways. And one other thing I know is that I am glad I had the opportunity to meet them and that the positive impact they had on the world was a thousand times greater than anything that I have ever accomplished. I’ll try to be more like them from now on, the world would be a better place if we all did.