When Arson Shocked My Town
When my son, our firstborn, was a few weeks old, and I was a porridge of hormones, I remember gazing out our car window on Mass Ave in Boston, the busy intersection near the old Tower Records and the Berklee School of Music. My husband was driving, and maybe the revelation that hit me then was because I hadn’t really looked out of car windows for weeks, or at least registered what I was seeing, since my world had crystallized and attenuated to the back seat where I sat with my little boy, sturdy and Charlie-Brown-bald, in his rear-facing car seat, with a blanket even then he kicked off in fury. Mostly I scanned his face. This, as my mind shuttled between blank exhaustion, anxiety at my inexperience, and trying to translate New Baby. Was that an eye rub? So he was sleepy? A bored cry or a hungry cry? Could he suck on my pinky a few minutes before we have to pull over? Look at those eyes. I wonder what color—then dark as shale, alarmingly candid—they’ll turn.
Anyway, he must’ve fallen asleep and I dimly remembered there was something else beyond the window and I looked up. It was shocking. So much life on the streets! They teemed with students with scruffy hair and guitar cases on their backs. Businessmen. Shoppers. Moms with strollers. Tourists. Homeless vets with cardboard signs. And it hit me: Every single person I see was once a baby. Every single one had a mother. This bedrock universality, this fact that I was now a mother of a child, like all these people who’d been children and had mothers who’d likely stared down at them, too, anxious and trying to read their faces too—I started weeping quietly and didn’t stop for blocks.
I realize this sounds ridiculously obvious: as a preschooler once told my friend Susan, in amazement, “My birthday is the same day I was born!” But when you become a parent, certain faded truths seem fresh—we are all connected, yes!—whether their freshness is chemically arranged by hormones or not. This feeling is, as Van Morrison sings, really, really, really, real. Because somehow you re-enlist in the human race, your heart is permanently changed, and all I can say is that it’s beautiful and also unbearable.
This car window moment, the unbearableness of it, came back to me last week—no polite segue here, I’m afraid—when the news broke that they’d arrested a local young man for setting the run of fires that shocked my town of Northampton, Massachusetts to its core on December 27. (We moved out here in 2000). Arson stories don’t always make the national press, but this one did, largely because of where it took place. The incongruity of it, undoubtedly. Northampton, population 30,000, is a groovy sort of small city, a lesser Portland, Oregon, or Cambridge, Mass., or Madison, Wisconsin, part of what’s known as the five-college area, full of well-educated people, decent restaurants, potters and therapists, a thriving gay community, venues where Shawn Colvin and Rufus Wainwright have played. People come to Paradise City (yes, that’s actually the nickname) for the strong community, the natural beauty, the easy lifestyle. “Shake it and it snows,” as Tracy Kidder wrote in Hometown, comparing the place to a tidy scene in a snow globe.
If you saw the story in the New York Times, Washington Post, and the wire services, you know the basic details. But just to recap: starting around 2:00 in the morning, in a cold rain, 15 fires—houses and cars—were set in the city’s Ward 3 neighborhood within a 75-minute period. On youtube, you can listen to the dispatcher—admirably, remarkably, steady—field all these new reports of flames breaking out, they just keep coming, it’s absurd, and redirecting the local fire trucks and then calling in more engines from a dozen other towns to fill in.
Several families lost their homes and two people died: Paul Yeskie, 81, and his son Paul Yeskie, Jr., 39, a high functioning autistic man who was a sander at the Florence Casket Company. Paul Sr. had told his wife to get out of the house; he’d see to their son. The two men succumbed to smoke asphyxiation, trying to escape through a window.
The Yeskies are an old Northampton family, who can remember when Woolworth’s was on Main Street, and historic condo complexes were still grammar schools, and this was more of a farm town than Paradise City. Paul Sr. was known for his garden, and the fact that he gave much of the surplus vegetables to local charities and nursing homes. Paul Jr. had a routine: dinner at homey Roberto’s Restaurant three nights a week, always served by the same waitress. He went to polka events on the weekends. He loved Cracker Jacks; 117 package wrappers adorn his work area. He’d labored hard to make a life for himself. The piece about him in the local paper, the Daily Hampshire Gazette, will break your heart. (That’s Paul Yeskie Jr. in the above photo in middle school, and below as an adult.)
Tony Baye, 25, the man arrested for starting the fires, is also from an old family here. The Bayes had a potato farm down by the Connecticut River many years ago. Paul Sr.’s brother picked the crop there in his youth. Debra Baye, Tony’s mother, works in the property office at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. He was attending Holyoke Community College, and worked as a line cook at a sleek downtown restaurant called Sierra Grille. (The photo below is Baye cooking, taken from his Facebook page. The one at the top of this post is taken at his arraignment.)
Police found Tony Baye driving in the neighborhood around 3:25 a.m. that night, soaking wet, and smelling of alcohol. His alibi—he claimed to be visiting a girlfriend—would turn out to be false. Earlier that evening, he’d been at a Northampton high school reunion event at the Deuce (the World War II Club). His friends are shocked at his arrest; Tony’s a gregarious guy, they said, not a loner, didn’t seem upset. But people in Ward 3 wonder if he set other unsolved arsons from years before; Baye lived in the neighborhood and, chillingly, even joined the Friends of Northampton Arson Victims Facebook page.
Only 1 in 10 arson case is solved, according to officials who worked on the case. So it’s some excellent police work that located the suspect. That said, of course Baye hasn’t been tried, as we must all keep reminding ourselves. But the evidence has been piling up.
At this stage, we don’t know Baye’s motivations; speculation abounds on the Friends of Northampton Arson Victims Facebook page and in the local paper. Fire-starters can be trying to compensate for childhood abuse, but no one’s coming forward to say this is the case with him. Rumors were flying before Baye was arrested. The neighborhood is right near the I-91 exit; maybe some gang members from grittier places like Springfield or Holyoke came up and set the fires (initiation rites, people said) then slipped back on the highway.
But no. As the Gazette‘s headline said: “A City’s Dread: Malice By One of Its Own?” Bob Flaherty, the excellent reporter who wrote this piece on Baye and the shock over his arrest, coached Baye in Little League. Old-timers knew his family; some forty years ago, I hear, some of the extended Baye family had been killed in a car crash on the way to Boston and, again I hear, the family had never been the same. Tony Baye was a Northampton High grad, class of ’03. A bunch of former students of my husband, who is a high school tutor, are/were friends on Baye’s Facebook page. It all hits close to home.
Last week, I was in immersion mode, reading everything I could about Baye, the Yeskies, the fires, the community, the benefits planned for the victims, the investigation. At this point, I should say that I live on the western edge of town and the fires took place on the eastern edge. This is significant; my family could pretend to distance, to a lesser circle of fear, to a separation of sorts. My friends in Ward 3, though, weren’t sleeping. Every porch light blazed.
It felt creepy, but I went onto the wall on Baye’s Facebook page—which had counted more than 400 friends before the arrest, and steadily inched down in number as they unfriended him, in part to avoid reporters trolling for sources—and looked for clues. I’d quote directly, but his page has now been taken down. Mostly, it was banal: “I aced my accounting quiz,” “I hope the Broncos win,” that kind of thing. But of course, in light of what’s happened, you re-examine typical twentysomething bits of angst like this, written on December 11: “I don’t understand why life has to be so cruel.”
Neither do I. I suppose since this is a post under the page name of Parenting Ethics, it comes down to the fact that empathy is the core of ethics. Because how can we teach our children the right thing, the nuances of their actions and their affect on others, unless they try to comprehend the hearts and minds of those others? Google “empathy and ethics” and you can click to a 1994 academic paper by one Kathleen M. Haney, a professor at the University of Houston. She writes: “Empathy functions to deliver the lived worlds of others, private worlds no longer.”
Lived worlds of others, yes. That makes sense to me. Private worlds no longer, though, no. Because I can’t breach Baye’s privacy and know what failure of empathy may have motivated him to set those fires. And I can’t know what it’s like to be Elaine Yeskie, mourning the senseless death of her husband and son. I can’t know what it’s like to be Peter and Debra Baye, stunned at what their son has brought down on himself and his neighbors.
I guess in the end, we all have our own way of identifying with everyone affected by this tragedy. For me, it’s the window I saw through differently when I became a parent. And now, after a decade of parenting, when news like this hits? Well, I suppose I understand less, but I feel more.
Photos from Daily Hampshire Gazette
Photo from Baye’s Facebook page
Photo from Daily Hampshire Gazette
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