After the terroist bombing that took his older brother's life in June 1978, Larry Fishman returned to California, feeling adrift and even more uncertain about his future. Richard's sudden death in Israel had made Larry intensely aware of life, and underscored, he told friends, the contradictions he felt between his desire for success and his aversion to the idea of "selling out" and compromising his high principles. h
Last November, after 2 1/2 years of buffeting between idealistic opposites, he came back to his parents' Silver Spring home hoping to get $100 to see "the best psychiatrist in the country." Instead, he became the central figure in another violent death in the family. His father, Judge Frederick Fishman, was shot to death; Larry, charged with murder, has been a fugitive ever since.
Larry had always held altruistic hopes for social and economic justice in the world, but to his California friends it seemed that these were being steadily undermined by feelings that the system would never change. He graduated from the University of California law school at Berkeley in 1977, but his interest in his chosen profession was eroding, too; twice he failed to pass the California bar exam.
What did attract his attention was the subculture of punk rock clubs and musicians that thrived in the San Francisco bay area. It was in this domain of visceral music and wild dancing, a domain resonant with lawless, antisocial overtones, that Larry at last seemed to find a stage on which he was able to give release to emotions he had never expressed anywhere else. The punk rock scene was an alternative to the mainstream realm of careers and corporations and selfish people trying to get ahead. And in the punk world, acting crazy was a legitimate way of venting disgust for those same careerists and their middle-class conventions.
It was a world his parents knew almost nothing of. Larry would take off for San Francisco, driving two hours from his bungalow in the coastal mountains to a club in the North Beach section of the city called The bamboo-trimmed Mabuhai, an old Philippino supper club, was one of the centers of the San Francisco punk scene.
Up until the time he left the west coast, the band he followed most zealously was a five-member group called The Mutants. The Mutants had been students at the San Francisco Art Institute before they had gotten together in 1977 and formed one of the city's more notable punk bands. They played college frat houses, clubs, even mental hospitals. The night The Mutants opened at the Mabuhai most of the tables were destroyed.
At shows the band was struck by Larry's very incongruity. "He was pretty hard to ignore," said Susan White, a singer who performs under the name Sue Mutant. "He didn't have green hair. He was dressed so totally normal in his yellow shetland sweater and pants with cuffs. Like prep school on vacation."
Having edged his way to the front of the low platform stage, Larry would stand stock still and stare at The Mutants, the only fan in the crowd not writing manically to the music. His scrutiny was so intense it began to make the band uncomfortable.
"The first time I met Larry he stood right in front of me and just stared at me," recalled Fritz Fox, a 38-year-old Mutant singer and songwriter. "I took the base of the microphone and pushed him away. Instead of dampening his spirit it seemed to make him come back more.
"One time at a frat party in Berkeley he started trying to hit us," Fritz Fox said. "Other people would try to grab you but he would hit at you. Finally I said, 'Goddamn it, cut it out.' When he didn't I jumped off the stage, tackled him, placed my hands on his neck, rolled him on his back and cracked his head on the floor. I started pummeling him as hard as I could and bouncing his head on the floor. It was incredible. He seemed to like it. He had a sense of humor about it."
Larry inspired some of Fox's lyrics, including a verse from the song "Watch Out For the Furniture," which he envisioned as a warning against society's invisible influence: "You walk across the street/You feel the electric heat/And the neon burns your eyes/-Don't apologize."
Larry seemed divided between lashing out at the band and protecting it from the mayhem at the Mabuhai. "During a performance, it was as if he were performing with us, as our man off stage," Fritz Fox said. But after Larry had sprinted into several band members, the band installed a couple of bodyguards to keep him clear. They dubbed him "The Psycho." Oddly, he seemed to suffer the abuse with equanimity. He hung around, and kept up his effort to persuade The Mutants to join him for a drink or dinner.
The first encounter Sally Webster remembers with Larry was when he came up to her and said, "My brother's dead, my brother's dead.'" This was a litany he recited time and again. "It wasn't like he was real upset," Sally Webster said. "He just kept talking about it."
"He ranted at us," said Sue White. "He kept saying, 'You're writing songs about my brother, you're writing songs about my brother,' which wasn't true."
The Mutants did not know Larry had a law degree until he wrote them a letter on the back of a copy of his diploma. Later he brought the certificate to Mutant Headquarters, an enormous one-room flat near the East Bay Terminal. The letter was the first of a half dozen. They began in a crabbed hand that expanded into writing two inches tall. They were filled with quotes from books, and though words were crossed out, thoughts broken off, the author's intelligence as well as his distress were apparent.
The letters, addressed to The Mutants in general, spoke alternately of Larry's love and hate for them. Because they acted the wildest, Larry identified with Fritz Fox and Sally Webster, who dressed like a little kid on stage. He called them Crazy Fritz and Crazy Sally. He had a crush on tawny-haired Sue White, the prettiest Mutant in the band. At one show, Larry sneaked up behind a man who looked like Sue's boyfriend and broke a beer bottle over his head. Fists flew, Larry went down, and was dragged out of the Mabuhai. The manager banned him, but he slipped back in anyway soon afterwards.
In his longest letter to the band, Larry described a time he summoned the nerve to visit Sue, only to find she wasn't home, and then the letter jumped into "my sovereign head and bursting heart" and his struggle with the ricky world.
Larry wrote: "Sally I'm sorry I screamed at you. I overcame the nevers, minuses, no's, stasis to win 1 or 2 hours going up Sue's stairs -- then she wasn't there . . . Please be my friend, I'm like you [Sally] and Puker [Fritz] only more unsure I'll win thru. Tricky words. My brother died. It's hard to keep a balance with everything falling. If you accept me I can, I'm all right, just tricky when I lose my footing, falling. . . ."
The last time Fritz saw Larry they went out after a show to get dinner at a restaurant called Clown Alley. "It was after a particularly chaotic night at a club called the Old Waldorf," Fritz Fox said. "Larry had been hanging around in the dressing room. Some friends of mine were yelling 'Hey Psycho' and it pissed Larry off. He said, 'Shut up.'
"He gave my girlfriend and me a ride in his big black Plymouth. The dinner was anticlimactic. Larry was disgusted by the food and it sort of disgusted me, too, now that I think about it.The whole conversation seemed like we were practicing to communicate. The whole evening seemed like that, like we were right on the verge of the Big Talk. He told me he had a law degree and he told me about his mother and father. He said his father was a pretty important guy, and I got the feeling his father was wealthy and drove around in a big enormous car. Not many of my friends talk about their fathers. Just the fact that Larry was unusual.
"I sort of liked Larry. It may be ironic now, but he seemed really innocent, and totally honest. Some people are phony when you're with them. You have to cut through the Facade. Larry was different. He wanted to get to the crux of things. Even though it was harder'n hell to get into a conversation with him and he was difficult to deal with, I liked him. He was himself." The Unicorn on Spruce Street
By the fall of 1979 Larry left the west coast for good. He had made several trips to the east in the meantime, and on one of the, in May, he passed the Pennsylvania bar exam. The achievement filled his parents and friends, such as his former roommate Bob Nicholson, with pride.
Larry had decided to settle in Philadelphia. He was hunting for jobs in law and mental health and it seemed he was at last ready to go to work, and that the irresolution that had marked his life in California was behind him.
In truth his confusion had intensified. He had departed California plagued by suspicions that a punk rock cult, inspired by The Mutants, was trying to take over his mind. He even suspected the motives of people guilty of nothing more than that they hailed from California.
In December he met Nancy Lindeman, a writer and graduate student in her late 20s who for a while helped allay some of his fears. They were introduced at a legal seminar in New York, and their friendship, a platonic one, blossomed. Larry went so far as to propose that Nancy be his partner in a law firm he wanted to open that would specialize in mental health cases.
"He wanted to work for a prestigious firm," Lindeman remembered. "On the other hand he wanted to take the cases a big firm wouldn't take. He indicated a desire to make a lot of money but thought it was terrible to change your principles. He never discussed his father, but he was the person Larry would go to when he needed money, and it freaked him out. More than anything else Larry was interested in liberty. He would say, "There is no such thing as the least restrictive alternative. There is only liberty.'
"Larry had a fantastic imagination. He had been afraid The Mutants would prevent him from passing the bar. He thought they were constructing plots that would keep him from becoming a lawyer. He would talk to me and I would think I was reading something out of Dostoevski or Kafka. To me he is Kafka."
It was Kafka's "The Trial," a disturbing meditation on law, guilt and authority as experienced by a protagonist named Joseph K., that Larry saw as one of the texts of his own life. Kafka was an author who came from a middle-class, Jewish family and who was tormented by his father.
"'The Trial' was a key thing in Larry's life," Nancy Lindeman said. "I even used to call him Joseph K. It was my way of saying 'I understand what you're going through.'"
In December 1979, Larry wrote to Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas Judge Murray C. Goldman who had posted an advertisement for a parttime law clerk on a bulletin board at the University of Pennsylvania law school. Larry was interested in the position, and grasped the job market enough to know that two years of watching soap operas and pestering punk rock bands would not recommend him very well. The judge wanted a temporary law clerk to do some writing. Larry told him he had been working on a novel, and, after an interview, Goldman gave him a job, the first substantial job Larry had ever had.
Larry started in January 1980. As his first assignment, Goldman recalls, he wrote an article on prison reform that ran under the judge's name on the op-ed page of the March 18, 1980 issue of the Philadelphia Bulletin. The points of the carefully argued piece, a world apart from his overwrought letters to The Mutants, included such observations as "The suburban family which installs a burglar alarm suffers a direct economic cost -- and the more serious cost of psychic disequilibrium -- caused by fear of crime."
At the judge's office a block from Philadelphia's ornate city hall, Larry kept to himself. He spent many hours ensconced in law libraries. He came and went without so much as a good morning or a good night to the secretaries in the office, and on the rare occasion he did speak, he mixed up their names. During the six months they were associated Judge Goldman did not know Larry's father was a judge.
"You could see he was a troubled kid," he remembers. "If you talked to him he would look away and his face would flush."
In the spring Larry's interest in his job waned. A secretary remembers him spending two hours on the phone looking for a store that sold black jeans. He wrote another column for the judge, and then Goldman asked him to draft an opinion. When four weeks passed and Larry had done nothing, the disappointed judge let Larry go.
In June Larry took a room for $75 a month in a student house on Spruce Street. Two other students had also moved in for the summer. Larry spent long days out back sitting in shorts and reading in a small garden under an ivy-draped wall. No one ever came to visit him.
He watched soap operas, ate endless pots of macaroni spiced with hot sauce, and talked on the phone, scribbling in a yellow notebook as he spoke. He spoke frequently to Nancy Linderman and his old friend from California Bob Nicholson. His parents would call once a week and Larry would speak with his mother, and sometimes with his father, telling them of his frustration looking for meaningful work, his dread of interviews. "I said, Larry, try to be courteous to people. Try to say 'good morning' when you walk into an office,'" Mrs. Fishman remembers.
At the end of July Larry severed his ties with Nancy Linderman. In its very triviality, the matter that estranged them is a measure of both Larry's temper and his mounting sense of desperation. He required proof of allegiance much higher than even a person extraordinarily devoted to him could provide. He had doubted Nancy on some question, and in a letter she regrets she replied, "If you don't believe people in my situation maybe you should take a job on Wall Street." Larry couldn't take a joke like that, nor see any reason to forgive such a sentiment. That was the end of it.
"He wouldn't accept my apologies," Nancy Linderman said. "The remark indicated I was on the side of his parents and it really set him off. I said I was sorry three times. I got a letter back that was very sarcastic. I was stunned. I had felt there was something there between us. I'm a lot like him, a loner, isolated, I don't like small talk. He was exactly the same way. I found him fascinating.When I think of images of Larry one of the ones I get is a unicorn, a rare nonexistent being. I know he had a lot of guilt. I know he felt inside he was evil. I just thought he was being hard on himself. I just thought it was his imagination."