Driving along Main Street in Plympton, you pass the old Colonial homes, the Village Café in the mini strip mall, the filling station at the intersection with Route 80, the church, and Town Hall, which also houses the police department and sits next to the fire department. And that's pretty much it. After a mile or two, you're right back into the trees and open pasture. There are other roads in Plympton, of course, but they're not quite so busy as Main Street. They exist, it seems, only to connect the scores of small horse farms and cranberry bogs. It's quiet and slow here in this South Shore community of 2,637. The locals, who proudly refer to themselves as “swamp Yankees,” like it that way.
Patricia Pina came roaring into town in 1994 with her BMW and her big ideas. She'd been bouncing around Boston and the South Shore and had something of a vague past. She was a single black woman in a town the census says is almost 97 percent white and the map says is a good 30 miles from just about anywhere. And at 6 feet tall with broad, masculine features, Pina couldn't seem to convince anyone that she was, in fact, a woman. She insisted her appearance was the result of a hermaphroditic condition corrected during childhood surgery. Around town it was generally assumed that she was actually a man who'd had a sex change. Behind her back, she was known as the “shim,” or the “he-she,” or even just “it.”
It wasn't long, to hear Pina tell it, before that derision became official Plympton policy. The town didn't want a black hermaphrodite around, she says — never mind one who also wanted to bring in migrant workers and put them up in trailers on the horse farm she owns — so it tried to drive her out of business. But no one's going to push her out. Not this time, not like in the past, when she'd just turn away from the stares and the giggles. And certainly not when she's sure she's right and the town is wrong. “Believe me,” she all but yells, “I've tried to negotiate with these fuck-ups. The negotiation they want is me to get out of town. There's no negotiating with some people.” Now Pina is suing just about everyone in Plympton town government, accusing many of violating her civil rights.
Residents say Pina's the one who caused the problems. They say she had no concern for the law or her neighbors, yet when things went bad, she portrayed herself as a victim.
It's hard to know exactly what is right and what is wrong when it comes to Patricia Pina and Plympton, because somewhere beneath this little town's humdrum New England quaintness — the lush stretches of pasture, the worn, century-old headstones, the leaves cartwheeling in gusts — it gets pretty weird here. And we're not just talking about the sort of small-town infidelities, hypocrisies, and mendacities familiar to anyone who's ever opened an Updike novel (although if you believe the rumors, those are all happening here, too). No, this is genuine head-shaking strangeness. But it's of the water-torture variety — the first few drops you barely notice. They begin to build, then to pound, and, eventually, to stagger. A spat between neighbors. A series of lawsuits. A bankruptcy. drip-drip. Complaints to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. A federal civil-rights investigation. drip-drip. Reports of forgery. Horses dying. Whispers of sexual deviance. drip-drip.
Pina's problems began about a year after she bought her farm on Parsonage Road. She had previously leased a small farm from her friend Suzzane Sakr, then bought the 36-acre property where she lives now. Not long after moving in, she discovered flooding in her basement and barn, which she says was caused by a dam in the river that borders her farm. The dam was operated by her neighbors across the road. So Pina sued them. Things in town have never been the same, she says. “They're old family. Their family had some sort of pull.” When I ask her whether, from a strictly political standpoint, the lawsuit was the best way to introduce herself to her neighbors, Pina gets a little hot. She hadn't picked a fight, she says; she was simply standing up for her rights. “Now I have control of the river, and that really pissed a lot of people off. And after that, it's just been more and more of a smear campaign: 'What can we do to it, to drive it out of town?'”
Pina says rumors spread that she was a sex offender, which pretty much finished off her riding-lessons business. Worse, she contends, the town started doing whatever it could to impede her other business plans, including attempts — some that may violate state law — to restrict how she uses her land, even though, she says, other farm owners in Plympton seem to face no such restrictions. In an affidavit filed with the court, she claims a town employee used a racial slur while speaking to her, an accusation the town's lawyer disputes. Pina became something of a regular at Town Hall, ranting about the injustices. “Do they call this America?” she says. “If they tell me I can't cut down the barbed-wire fence that's cutting my horses to pieces, am I supposed to leave the barbed wire there? So who's antagonizing who? Who the fuck are they, or who is anybody to come into my life and tell me I can't do something on my own land?”
In time, Pina would take her case to civil-rights investigators in Washington, DC, then to federal court in Boston. If you look around a bit, though, you'll find other recent arrivals who say that after clashing with locals, they've also been improperly barred from using their land the way they want. Which sort of makes you wonder: Is Pina really the victim she portrays?
In her perpetual huff, Pina is forever threatening to display anatomical proof of her womanhood. (More than once, she says, town residents have sneeringly demanded similar proof of her manhood.) Pina's few friends in town wonder whether she might have had an easier go of it had she possessed a sweeter disposition, if she were slower to explosions of anger, if she didn't see bias and hatred behind every decision that goes against her.
“There are some people in town that do get freaky-deaky about the sexual crap,” Sakr says, “but I honestly believe if she were more honest and stuck to her business practice — she gets too caught up in this stuff. Sometimes you just have to move on.”
Sakr says her friendship with Pina dissolved while Pina was leasing her property. She says Pina quit paying rent and accused her of racial bias. The case ended up in housing court. “She pulls this race crap constantly,” Sakr says. “It drives me crazy.” Pina insists Sakr pulled out of an agreement to sell her the farm and never returned her deposit, a claim Sakr denies.
Pina is certainly no stranger to the legal system. Besides the suits she has filed against town officials and others, she has been charged with forging a document to assign herself ownership of a horse that allegedly belonged to a client. Pina says the client refused to pay boarding fees, so she filed a lien on the horse. The matter is still in the courts. In addition, Pina has been sued by her business partner, Brian Conefrey, who rescued her from bankruptcy court in exchange for 49 percent of the farm. He claims Pina has repeatedly failed to make her half of the mortgage payments. Pina says she stopped paying because Conefrey wanted checks sent to him rather than the mortgage holder.
There's also the matter of Pina's care for her horses. Many in town accuse her of neglect. Three of her animals died in 2003 and five more last year. The animal rescue people seized Pina's 30 remaining horses and all of her sheep, saying they were malnourished. Pina insists the illnesses could have been the result of a virus, quite possibly West Nile or eastern equine encephalitis. Those are caused by mosquitoes, which she says breed in the water that remains backed up on her farm.
Pina doesn't reveal much about herself. In two meetings and many phone conversations, I've never heard her say a single word that didn't pertain to her battle with the town. No mention of the weather or the news of the day. It's during a drive through the back roads of Plympton that she finally begins to open up. When we get back to her farm, she hops out of her pickup and nods toward the house. “Come on,” she says. “I've got something you can chew on. I'll show you what you want to see.” I laugh nervously and hear myself say that I don't want to see that at all. She laughs and leads the way in.
As we pass through the dark kitchen, dogs growl from inside kennels stacked in a corner. Clutter covers the floor of what might have been the dining room. Pina runs upstairs for whatever it is she's talking about. In the living room, an old entertainment center sags against a wall. The room is filled with horse industry trade magazines and photographs of horses — and dozens of law books.
Tall and lithe, Pina comes bounding down the stairs in her blue jeans, cowboy boots that rise just above her ankles, and a red bandanna over her hair. She carries two photo albums. Dropping to her knees, she places the albums on the couch. “Okay, you want to see my life,” she says. “Here's my life.” Inside are certificates commemorating her baptism, her confirmation, her graduation from UMass Boston, from Suffolk University. There are also dozens of photos. “Some of these are just candid shots,” she says, flipping through the pages. There are photographs of her in bathing suits, which she says are from her days as a model. Others depict her lying on the ground, nearly naked, wrapped in a snake. “I was very well known in strip joints with my 30-foot boa constrictor,” she says, then points casually at another picture. “There's me playing tennis.”
She keeps flipping through the pages, passing a photo of herself squatting entirely in the nude, then one of her dressed in a purple figure-skating outfit. She says she grew up on the Cape and became interested in farm life while living with a family that bred horses. She moved quite a bit as a child because her parents were uncomfortable with her gender condition. She lived with her grandmother for a while, then other places. “I was just shuttled around. I used to call it the Bermuda Triangle. I was never anywhere long enough for people to get too personal.” As a young adult, she became addicted to alcohol and drugs. “I couldn't deal with the stuff that people would say to me. Then I got tough. I just don't put up with it anymore.”
It makes me think of a story she told back in the truck about her and her doubles partner on the UMass tennis team. Someone had complained anonymously that Pina wasn't truly a female and shouldn't be competing against women. “Lauren and I would do things like intimidate the girls from other colleges, like incredibly intimidate them,” she told me. “Whenever girls would hit lobs at us, we would spike them and hit them with the ball. The second a girl would hit a lob up in the air, it would piss us off, and we'd just start really pounding them hard.”
However she may have contributed to her travails, Pina does appear to have valid complaints against Plympton. There seem to be separate rules for her projects and for those of others, and Pina says the disparity has cost her dearly, both emotionally and financially.
One example of the town's partiality, she says, was when she decided to expand her business under a federal program through which she would provide room and board to workers from Latin American countries in exchange for routine farm work. She bought mobile homes for the program but was told by the town's building inspector that she couldn't put them on her farm. She went ahead and brought them in anyway. The move was not, to say the least, well received. At a meeting of the zoning board of appeals, Pina's neighbors presented a petition signed by 226 residents demanding that the town enforce its prohibition on mobile homes. The neighbors called Pina's trailers “neither socially nor economically desirable.”
According to the Enterprise, a local newspaper, a representative of the state Department of Agriculture told town officials that farms larger than five acres, such as Pina's, are exempt from local zoning ordinances. The town, however, continued to insist that Pina could not use the trailers. Officials also refused to let her build an indoor riding arena and barn. In a letter she filed with the court, Pina claims the building inspector crumpled up her permit application in front of her and threw it in the trash. The inspector told selectmen that based on state law, the project could not be approved until Pina got rid of the mobile homes. One board eventually approved the riding arena, but another kept saying no because of wetlands concerns, even though the state Department of Environmental Protection said the proposed structure would not sit on wetlands.
In February 2004, Selectman Richard Springer said the town may have erred in denying Pina's application for the barn, according to the Enterprise. It was later revealed that the building inspector, Fred Svenson, had never been licensed, and Plympton was forced to hire a new building inspector.
Incensed by the delays, Pina eventually filed a complaint with HUD, charging that the town didn't approve the trailers because it didn't want nonwhites moving in. She also contacted the U.S. Department of Justice. In addition, she has filed two suits against the town and its various officials — one in state court saying she's entitled to the mobile homes, the other in federal court claiming discrimination. “The law says I can fuckin' have the mobile homes,” she says in a very loud voice. “The law says this is agricultural fuckin' land. Why can't I farm it? What's the reason? They leave it out because the only thing they can't talk about is race and sex, because those two things are illegal and they'd get fried on them. They know it.”
I tried several times to contact members of the board of selectmen and other town officials to get their version of the story but was referred to Boston attorney Leonard Kesten. He insists Plympton's decisions have nothing to do with Pina as an individual. “First it was race,” he says. “Now she's injected gender into it. It's grossly unfair.” He says Pina is simply not allowed to have the mobile homes on her property as future housing for proposed employees of the farm. “She's just wrong on the law,” Kesten says. “You can't just declare that because you're going to have workers in the future, you can put in trailers.” Regarding the proposed barn, Kesten says Pina has refused to follow the proper application procedure. “We have been trying to explain to Ms. Pina what she should do, and she won't,” he says. Kesten's associate, Deborah Ecker, claims that the selectman, Springer, was misquoted in the newspaper, that he never said the town should have approved the barn project. Kesten says Springer was talking only about the wetlands issue. Springer did not return my calls.
Walter Brady is a white guy, and he thinks he's getting screwed by Plympton, too. Brady moved to town a few years ago from Somerville, where he owned a construction business for 30 years. He says Plympton officials have gone out of their way to stall property improvements he wants to make on his 6.5-acre farm. “It's like the Twilight Zone here,” he says. “They're hoping to break me, to drive me out of business.”
Sakr, who is also white and moved to town in 1991, says “there's a little network and they don't like outsiders. This whole thing is just intertwined. It's a pretty sick town.” Sakr says the town stifled her small farming business, and she claims a police officer sexually harassed her. Police Chief Matthew Clancy says there was no sexual harassment.
Sakr says Pina has lost sight of what's important. “Things have been extremely tight for her financially, and I told her she needed to sell some of those horses,” she says. “She told me, 'Absolutely no way.' Initially, I think, she had a very good plan. But when she should have downsized the herd to keep the rest of it, she didn't.”
Pina scoffs when I tell her other people have had the same problems she has, regardless of their race or gender. She says her lawsuits have forced Plympton officials to come down harder on everyone else; otherwise, she says, they'd appear biased.
The town's the one that's at fault, she says again, and she's the victim. It's the town. And it's her.