Column: The Black, White and Gray World of Buddy Nickerson By SUSAN PARKER

Tuesday August 02, 2005

It’s hard to believe that summer is more than half way over but the signs are everywhere: winter clothes on display in department stores, back to school ads in the newspaper. I’m just getting acclimated to the warm, sunny weather here in the East Bay when it’s once again time to return for classes at chilly, fog-shrouded San Francisco State. 

But registering for courses and figuring out how to dress for the climate on campus have turned out to be the most difficult aspects of getting an M.F.A at SFSU. It’s often impossible to predict the weather conditions on the other side of the bay, or to find space in the classes one needs in order to graduate. 

I’m entering the fifth semester of a three-year program and I’m waitlisted for a required workshop. But at least I get to take another seminar with Michelle Carter, an energetic, award-winning playwright and fiction writer who knows how to teach one hell of a course. I’m enrolled in her upcoming Cross Genre class. Last spring I took her Writing in the Public Context workshop and learned a great deal about craft, but more importantly, I was encouraged to go places I hadn’t been before and to look deeply into worlds I knew nothing about. Michelle took my fellow classmates and me to the brink of truth and reality. For 15 weeks we were forced to question fact and fiction. What is real and what is not real? What is perceived and therefore real? It was stimulating, challenging, and sometimes disturbing. 

One place Michelle took us was to the California Federal Prison System. We didn’t physically go there, but a “lifer” came to our classroom in the person of Buddy Nickerson, a man exonerated in March 2003 after spending 18 years of a life-without-parole sentence for double murder. To prepare for Buddy’s visit we read several plays: The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen, Our Country’s Good by Timberlake Wertenbaker, Frozen by Bryony Lavery, and I Am My Own Wife by Doug Wright. These dramas examine truth and reality, fact and fiction in unique, multi-layered ways. 

Buddy, who has a penchant for motorcycles, tattoos, and profanity, is a complex, guru-like individual with a checkered past and a hard-earned attitude. Articulate, opinionated, surly, crude, and yet likable in his honesty and bluntness, it was impossible to imagine the nightmare he endured sitting in a tiny cell day after day, year after year, serving time for crimes he didn’t commit. For almost two decades he was forced to live as someone he was not, a murderer. He told us about the trumped-up charges that convinced a jury he was guilty; about the surreal world of prison, where the rules on the inside are nothing like the rules on the outside, where reality and truth are stretched and altered, a hazy, gray existence that is, at the same time, black and white, raging with fury, frustration, and resentment. 

He told us about returning home to Foster City, where his family and friends waited for him; where, absolved from crimes he did not commit, he still can’t find a job. 

I’ve had over three months to think about Buddy’s visit and the lessons he taught us, and yet I haven’t come to terms with the magnitude of the injustice and pain he endures, or the terrible fact that innocent people wind up in places they shouldn’t be, such as inside jail cells, on hospital gurneys, within wheelchairs, war zones, and coffins. 

Maybe stories like Buddy’s aren’t meant to be digested and understood. Maybe they just need to be told over and over, to remind us that life isn’t fair, that individuals and juries can make horrible mistakes, that accidents happen, that we live in a world that is gray and cloudy, and that when the sun shines in the East Bay, it doesn’t necessarily shine elsewhere.