Fragments From an Imagined Apocalypse The McCloskeys’ last stand at the gate of Fort Whiteness.

Illustration by Tim Foley

You have control over the money, but we have control over how you are going to be seen in history.

—Percy Green, prominent St. Louis activist

 

 

 

 

 

“I can’t breathe, officer. You’re going to kill me, man. Come on, man. Oh, oh. I cannot breathe. I cannot breathe. Ah! They’ll kill me. They’ll kill me. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. Oh! Ah! Ah! Please. Please. Please.” (George Floyd)

 

• • •

 

“Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Do not become bitter or hostile. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. We will find a way to make a way out of no way.” (John Lewis, d. July 17, 2020)

 

• • •

 

The people were finding their way, from “the city’s tony Central West End commercial district,” to the Mayor’s house, to protest that she had read aloud, for the globe to hear, the names and addresses of people who wrote to ask her to close the Workhouse and defund the police.

The police in the city led the nation in shooting residents. The movement that filled the streets of the nation, after George Floyd died under a policeman’s knee, started in this city, in 2014, after a policeman shot and killed a teenager named Michael Brown.

The people walked through a gate into a neighborhood in the middle of the city. They were part of a group called “Expect Us.”

They were expected, in the neighborhood, to stay out.

 

• • •

 

“[T]he city is divided by gates such as the one on Portland Place. The best estimate is that 285 of the city’s streets are closed off, the means varying from ornamental wrought iron gates to the more common rows of giant concrete balls, called bollards … tools of policing and surveillance, designed to regulate … the patterned separations of the segregated by dividing its space into small neighborhoods in which outsiders would feel unwelcome [and] ‘under constant observation.’

“The original gated neighborhoods of St. Louis were laid out and populated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Portland Place in 1888. Their first inhabitants were the merchants and industrialists of St. Louis who were riding a wave of imperial economic expansion. …

“W. E. B. Du Bois referred to this era of U.S. history as ‘the dictatorship of property,’ and it is the historical context with which we must begin if we are to understand the gate on Portland Place. It is a marker of imperial, racial, and class conflict: a defensible space cut out from the space of the city, where the plunder of empire and capital could be redefined as private property and civilization. A sanctuary for whiteness and for privilege.” (Walter Johnson)

 

• • •

 

The man in the pink polo was Mark. Mark was married to Patty, who wore prison stripes and culottes. They owned the first house inside the gate off Kingshighway. They were on the “east patio trying to barbecue dinner” and saw “a mob of at least 100 smash[ing] through the historic wrought iron gates.” Later it became 300, 400, 500.

A minister leading the people said the gate was open. Video showed the gate undamaged as the first members, including someone in a motorized wheelchair, passed through peacefully and quietly. There were children in the group. It was a summer day.

Mark and Patty got their guns out before the people even got close.

“They were absolutely furious to see us,” one of the people said. “They had no reason to fear, leadership was actively moving people away from them, they were just incensed to see people dare to be on their private street. There were no weapons in evidence that I saw other than theirs. Mark came out very quickly and pointed his rifle at protesters. Maybe four people saw that and ran to the sidewalk from the street, hands in the air yelling ‘don’t shoot!’ but never reached the grass. This all took place before they called cops.”

 

• • •

 

“I personally attended the protests in the Central West End on June 28 when Mark and Patricia McCloskey left their residence and used loaded guns to threaten those seeking justice. Not one protestor set foot on their property or said or did anything that would have given them the impression that we wanted to harm them.” (Rasheen Aldridge, State House Representative, Missouri’s 78th District, and 5th Ward Committeeman, City of St. Louis)

 

• • •

 

“I thought that within seconds we’d be overrun, they’d be in the house, they’d be setting fires, they’d be killing us,” Mark McCloskey told the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr. at a virtual Trump campaign event.

 

• • •

 

“The peaceful protesters were not the subject of scorn or disdain by the McCloskeys. To the contrary, they were expecting and supportive of the message of the protesters,” Mark and Patty’s lawyer said.

 

• • •

 

Mark and Patty are personal-injury lawyers. They felt injured, personally, many times over the years. They had sued neighbors near another property they owned. And sued two separate tenants. And a former employer. And Mark’s sister. And his own father. And his father’s caretaker. And “a man who sold them a Maserati.” And a dog breeder. And the Central West End Association.

They filed at least two suits against Portland Place trustees and appealed one to the Missouri Supreme Court.

Mark ordered trustees trying to repair a wall to get out. He apparently did not own the wall. He destroyed beehives of the adjoining Jewish Central Reform Congregation that were outside his wall and threatened legal action, ruining the children’s school activity to gather honey and apples. The rabbi said the children cried.

Mark and Patty once held a neighbor “at gun point,” who they said was on their property.

“They’ve always been part of the problem, never part of the solution,” a former Portland Place trustee said.

In fact, they had filed a lawsuit to get their house.

 

• • •

 

Calling a five-level mansion of almost 19,000 square feet a house is like calling the Pacific a body of water. It was built for a scion of the king of beer, a family ominously named the Fausts. They sent “a little army” of architects to Florence and Rome for two years to take their ideas from others’ palazzos. “A village of Italian stonemasons … lived in a tent city in the side yard” during the house’s construction. The Fausts moved in in 1912.

New money bought as well as old, but they liked a house with materials and fixtures that could be named. Carthage marble. Carrera marble. Caen limestone. Portuguese tile. “Six 14-foot-tall Brescia Violetta marble columns.” Chandeliers with Tiffany shades. Hardware by Guerin, lights by Caldwell. Plumbing by Mott. A ceiling mural by Ferdinand Wagner the Younger, on a ceiling hand-carved by Bembé in Mainz. An Aeolian house organ, like the one in the Cartier house, with 38-foot Vox Humana pipes that filled entire rooms. “[A] perfect copy of the lambada di Galileo in the Pisa Cathedral” (from the foundry that made the fixtures in the White House). Copies of rooms from the Palazzo Pitti, and Michelangelo’s Laurentian Library in Florence, and the 14th century Palazzo Davanzati, and Rome’s Cathedral of San Pietro in Vincoli.

There was a 45-foot rotunda dome, a marble double-staircase, a bronze balustrade. Columns and pilasters decorated in scagliola. “Confetti boxes” hidden in the ceiling, a ballroom with a “flawless plain of glossy teak joined by small, carved pieces of ebony.”

Mark and Patty, who bought it in 1988, had an eye for beauty too. They told a style reporter they loved the 28-foot murals by “a guy named Thomas … apparently he was famous.” They paid to restore French silk damask tapestries, paid to fill the house with replacement furniture, such as “a rare 1560 stipo a bambocci carved wooden cabinet made in Genoa.” A joyful burden.

“And then there’s the matter of the original stove,” Patty said. “There’s a place in California that will restore it.”

“But we haven’t found anyone willing to carry it out of the basement!” Mark said.

“They need to get a crane down there,” Patty said and sighed, “but they can’t quite figure out how to do that. Some things are just … difficult.”

 

• • •

 

“George Sand said that people could be classified according to whether they aspired to live in a cottage or in a palace.” (Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, tr. Maria Jolas)

 

• • •

 

“As we shall see, a home is much more than a shelter; it is a world in which a person can create a material environment that embodies what he or she considers significant. In this sense the home becomes the most powerful sign of the self of the inhabitant who dwells within.”

(Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Eugene Rochberg-Halton, The Meaning of Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self)

 

• • •

 

One of the pieces Mark and Patty wanted seen was a “Louis XIII homme-debout (‘standing man’) armoire, so named because, during the Reign of Terror, a gentleman could hide inside one,” the reporter said.

A listing online for a similar piece said the man in the wardrobe would have been a Royalist. Perhaps it meant “of the nobility of high society who strongly supported Roman Catholicism as the state and only legal religion of France, the Bourbon monarchy, traditional hierarchy between classes[,] and census suffrage against popular will and the interests of the bourgeoisie and their liberal and democratic tendencies.”

 

• • •

 

“Every poet of furniture—even if he be a poet in a garret, and therefore has no furniture—knows that the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep. A wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space that is not open to just anybody. […] If we give objects the friendship they should have, we do not open a wardrobe without a slight start. Beneath its russet wood, a wardrobe is a very white almond. To open it, is to experience an event of whiteness. […] These complex pieces that a craftsman creates are very evident witnesses of the need for secrecy.” (Bachelard)

 

• • •

 

“Status symbols … express a very general aspect of their owners—their power to control others. They are in some ways a summary of all the salient characteristics of the self, a global measure of the owner’s standing in the community. It should be remembered, however, that status itself is a symbol, standing for generalized power but not necessarily translatable into it. People who look up to those who have high status might at any time refuse to be controlled and on occasion might actively revolt against the hierarchy, destroying its symbols.

(Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton)

 

• • •

 

When Mark looked up from their plein-air repast, he thought the “revolution … an attempt to inflict terror,” had come to Portland Place. “That’s the definition of terror, is to use force and violence to terrorize a population,” he said.

“I mean, my east patio is 40 feet from Portland Place Drive, and these people were right up in my face. [I was] Scared to death.  […] It was about as bad as it can get.

“I really thought it was storming the Bastille, that [we’d] be dead and the house would be burned and there was nothing we could do about it. It was a huge and frightening crowd. And they broke in the gate and were coming at us. […]

“The only thing that stopped the crowd from approaching the house was when I had that rifle and I was holding it. It was the only thing that stemmed the tide. I can’t blame my wife for being terrified and for doing what she could to protect what she thought was her life, it was it was, you know, a horrible, horrible event.”

Patty was wild-eyed and screaming, barefoot like Mark, her pistol aimed at those taking a shortcut through the neighborhood.

“My wife doesn’t know anything about guns,” Mark admitted, “but she knows about being scared.”

 

• • •

 

The sans-culottes of the internet mocked Mark and Patty for their house, their clothes, their bare feet, the quality of her pistol, the way he held his AR (any white-hot shells ejected from its port would brand his nipples); how he, lacking muzzle discipline, pointed his muzzle at his own wife, and she, with no gun safety discipline at all, curled her finger around the trigger and aimed at people, as if she were Dorothy Provine in The Bonnie Parker Story.

They got “the royal meme treatment,” a vicious satire by the powerless that turned Patty into the Hamburglar, Mark into the Joker, both of them into snarling Chihuahuas. They became “Ken and Karen,” visual shorthand for aggressive “wypipo.” They were “US Gravy SEALs” and “cul de sac commandos.” They were on a wartime rescue mission: “Saving Private Property.” They were photoshopped with the shit-eating drag queen Divine, holding a pistol, from Pink Flamingos.

“We came here to live, laugh, and love, and buddy, we’re out of all three,” one caption read.

“My life has been ruined,” Mark told CNN two days later. He talked to all the media.

“I wish this hadn’t happened, but I didn’t ask for it,” he told local news.

It was hard not to think that their investments, including in weapons they evidently had no training for, had earned their dividend.

 

• • •

 

“In almost every culture, objects are chosen to represent the power of the bearer. More than any other trait, the potential energy of the person, his or her power to affect others, is the one that is symbolically expressed. [S]ymbols can be both ‘models of’ and ‘models for’ reality. In the first sense, they reflect what is; in the second, they foreshadow what could be; and thus they become a vital force in determining cultural evolution.” (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton)

 

• • •

 

“I’ve lived in the City of St. Louis for 32 years. We were, you know, urban pioneers back when we bought on Portland Place in 1988. And we have done everything for 32 years to improve the neighborhood [unintelligible] and to keep this historic neighborhood going. And it’s very frustrating to see it … it’s a revolution going on.” (Mark McCloskey)

 

• • •

 

Mike, a retired professor and former St. Louis resident, told me:

“I think the frontier mentality, as propped up by Hollywood, is a part of that armed homeowner stance. And I think it was there in the mentality of those who moved to the [Central West End of St. Louis] in the early days of gentrification; it was there in the Forest Park Southeast neighborhood when [my wife] bought a house there.

“It’s kind of ironic: to the protesters, this neighborhood was the center of wealth and power, they had to go through that gate to get to the mayor; but the people living there imagined themselves on the frontier, surrounded by hostile natives, making the land theirs and making it bloom … Add to that their relationship to the law and the survivalist fantasy: the law is theirs, it serves them. All around it’s breaking down, though: anarchy, chaos, but with their guns they speak for the law.”

 

• • •

 

“Though we tend to think of the apocalypse as negative,” a researcher told Salon, “the idea may counterintuitively be attractive to some. In a world in which life feels uncertain and often unfair, in which people struggle to find a sense of personal purpose, the idea of an apocalyptic ending, though terrifying, can also feel meaningful. […]

“Some are attracted to these ideas because they would be tested and could find their true purpose, maybe even emerge as heroes or people of importance in a new world.”

 

• • •

 

“[W]hen those people came through the gate, that mob, I didn’t take the time to see their birth certificates,” Mark told CNN.

 

• • •

 

“[I]n the case of an American Negro, born in that glittering republic, [i]t comes as a great shock to discover that Gary Cooper killing off the Indians—when you were rooting for Gary Cooper—that the Indians were you. It comes as a great shock to discover that the country which is your birthplace and to which you owe your life and your identity, has not, in its whole system of reality, evolved any place for you.” (James Baldwin)

 

• • •

 

Inside Portland Place was the house made of stone, the building material of kings. Inside the house, the castle, the fortress, were Mark and Patty, heroes of an imagined apocalypse, soft centers in a crunchy shell. Looking out of their own skins.

But an apocalypse portended the need for being stripped-down, lean, not weighted with things on display, which had to be defended, like monuments. In a place that size, how to look out every window? What if someone spray-painted something rude on the house’s skin, as they did in that other Portland, and a cleaning company had to be paid to power-wash it away?

 

• • •

 

“[P]eople know, consciously or unconsciously, how fragile and insignificant they ultimately are. Thus one also must find ways to establish links between one’s self and the far more vast purposes in the environment: other persons, groups, or the great patterns of cosmos. […]

“The danger of focusing attention exclusively on a goal of physical consumption—or materialism—is that one does not attend enough to the cultivation of the self, to the relationship with others, or to the broader purposes that affect life.” (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton)

 

• • •

 

Where does the person end? At the walls, riddled with doors and windows? In the yard, with its delicate flowers? On the sidewalk that leads into the world? At the iron gate? At the public road, named for Louis IX? Outside the grocery store in Minneapolis?

Privilege is the ability to expand the disappointingly thin skin—by stones, guns, rhetoric, lawsuits, badges—to reduce the dominion of others.’

 

• • •

 

“My house is diaphanous, but it is not of glass. It is more of the nature of vapor. Its walls contract and expand as I desire. At times, I draw them close about me like protective armor … But at others, I let the walls of my house blossom out in their own space, which is infinitely extensible.” (Georges Spyridaki, qtd. in Bachelard)

 

• • •

 

“Like some strange race of cultural gastropods, people build homes out of their own essence, shells to shelter their personality. But, then, these symbolic projections react on their creators, in turn shaping the selves they are. The envelope thus constructed is not just a metaphor. [T]he home is a goal or intention that becomes realized through the attention the inhabitants give to it. […]

“These objects, then, act as storage batteries of psychic energy, trophies of their owner’s importance. By attending to them, or having others attend, the owner feels recharged. He gets information about his own accomplishments through these symbols and is reminded that his psychic energy has not been wasted: ‘I can look back over the years and see what I’ve worked for.’ (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton)

 

• • •

 

“I was literally afraid that within seconds they would surmount the wall, come into the house, kill us, burn the house down and everything that I had worked for and struggled for for the last 32 years.” (Mark McCloskey)

 

• • •

 

“In one short sentence, Victor Hugo associates the images and beings of the function of inhabiting. For Quasimodo, he says, the cathedral had been successively ‘egg, nest, house, country and universe.’ ‘One might almost say that he had espoused its form from the way a snail does the form of it shell. It was his home, his hole, his envelope … He adhered to it, as it were, like a turtle to its carapace. This rugged cathedral was his armor.’ All of these images were needed to tell how an unfortunate creature assumed the contorted forms of his numerous hiding places in the corners of this complex structure.” (Bachelard)

 

• • •

 

Mark and Patty’s lawyer was Albert Watkins, their former neighbor. He himself had sued the Portland Place Association (and lost). He described himself on his professional page:

“Self-centered, egotistical, and a self-proclaimed expert in all matters, Watkins is unabashed about bringing to the public eye the irreconcilable nature of a position taken by an adversary in a case.”

Watkins told the media that Mark and Patty, “as melanin-deficient human beings, are completely respectful of the message Black Lives Matter needs to get out, especially to whites.”

He said their having a black client, in a case against the police, “proves their commitment to protecting the civil rights of individuals ‘victimized at the hands of law enforcement.’”

Mark explained to the media that he owned an abolition broadside, which he hung on his office wall.

 

• • •

 

“The battle for the value of life is fought in the arena of meaning. Advances on the material front are skirmishes that tend to distract us from the one issue that counts. How to create and cultivate meaning that is in harmony with the ultimate goals of humanity, the living, the dead, the unborn, is the challenge for those who have the welfare of humanity at heart.” (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton)

 

• • •

 

How often people jump out of their skins, scared out of their skins. How many long to abandon society as it is and start over, somewhere truly safe—apocalypse bunker, old missile silo, salt cavern, New Zealand, Mars—with their extreme-survival prepper kits, bugout bags, water-purifying drinking straws, gold hoards, pop guns and plenty of ammo. It seems so much easier than making something from the mess we have made.

 

• • •

 

“People of high status control others’ attention, thus their own goals can exert more influence than that of average people.” (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton)

 

• • •

 

“When you look at St. Louis, where two people, they came out. They were going to be beat up badly if they were lucky. If they were lucky. They were going be beat up badly and the house was going to be totally ransacked and probably burned down like they tried to burn down churches. And these people were standing there, never used it and they were legal, the weapons, and now I understand somebody local, they want to prosecute these people. It’s a disgrace.” (President Donald Trump)

 

• • •

 

“Without a doubt, [I will pardon Mark and Patty],” the Governor, a former sheriff and military policeman, said. “I’ll do everything within the Constitution of the State of Missouri to protect law-abiding citizens and those people are exactly that. […] If you had a mob coming towards you, whether they tore down a gate or not, when they come on your property, they don’t have a right to do that in an aggressive manner. People have a right to protect their selves, their families, their property. That’s the Castle Doctrine in the State of Missouri.”

 

• • •

 

“It is usually taken for granted that underneath the persona or mask that we present to the world, there is a ‘real me,’ apart from others and private. This commonsense assumption is held especially by Americans who believe in ‘rugged individualism.’ Yet … it is literally a view opposed to common sense. Common sense after all is a belief that our experience tells us would be shared in common, by the community. The personal self develops through internalizing the social environment. [T]he idea that the ‘real me’ is in some sense independent of other people reflects the overemphasis on individualism in modern life, an overemphasis that would ultimately result quite literally in idiocy. The ancient Greeks actually saw the emphasis on one’s own (idion) to be a deprivation, a cutting off of the self from the community, which is absolutely essential to its health and vigor.” (Csikszentmihalyi and Rochberg-Halton)

 

• • •

 

A dear old friend warned me recently not to be on the wrong side of all this. He said Mark and Patty had mobs with Molotov cocktails up in their yard. He and other men I have known most of my life, models of toughness, ability, and common sense, are riddled with fear. They have all bought guns and talk together about using them when the time comes. They mean some confrontation outside a fast-food place, showdown at high noon.

The imagined apocalypse spends as well as a real one.

I told my elder son it was as painful to see them—and here I guess I meant the nation—contorting themselves into oddly-shaped boxes they had made, as it would be to watch my father die a second time.

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