I think my higher karmic obligation to explore my relationship with “expectation” intervened. The fact that you modified “witty” with an adverb didn’t help either.
Wait, why are you in Portugal right now?
I’m working for Boom Festival (boomfestival.org) in Project Management and I’m booked as a speaker. You don’t still think one can support oneself writing, now do you?
July 14, 2012
All cultures have their own particular concept of “limbo,” purgatory, or some other form of antechamber to paradise. The word “limbo” itself comes from the Latin limbus, meaning an “edge or boundary.” Used as proper nouns, Limbus describes the edge of Hell, and Limbo is a place for the souls of unbaptized infants and patriarchs who died before the coming of Christ, to wait for Christ to be born and pardon them. Once pardoned, they are in effect “saved” and become de facto Christians, and are ﬁnally granted access to eternal paradise. But the Messiah doesn’t seem to come around very often, so they sit around like millions of undocumented immigrants, waiting for the next mass amnesty.
Purgatory, by comparison, is like the express line at the US-Mexican Border, the one for people with spotless backgrounds, or diplomatic cover.
The book jacket for Panther Baby reads: “Activist, Urban Guerilla, Drug Addict, Poet, Convict, Filmmaker, Professor, Youth Advocate, Oscar Nominee.” Is there any life experience you haven’t had?
I’m not a very good cook, except for breakfast, and that’s because the Black Panthers had a free breakfast program that I worked in. I should probably take a cooking course with Chef Ramsey.
What is the biggest misconception about the Black Panther Party?
That the Panthers were racist and hated white people. In fact, the Panthers believed in class struggle and created the slogan “All Power to the People,” which meant Black power to Black people, White power to White people, Brown power to Brown people, Red power to Red people, and Yellow power to Yellow people.
I went into the Panther office as a fifteen-year-old thinking they would give me a gun and send me out to kill a white guy. Instead they gave me a stack of books and told me to study and to report for duty the next morning serving breakfast to schoolchildren.
Why did you join the Panthers?
I joined the NAACP Youth Council when I was thirteen years old. I was fifteen when Dr. King was killed and was furious that a white racist killed our Prince of Peace. The Panthers were the most militant group around, so two of my older friends and I found the location of a Panther office and went there without knowing what the organization was really about.
I also grew up without a father and was seeking the path to manhood. The Panthers were brave, strong, and “super bad,” all qualities that appeal to young men searching for identity. Kids join gangs, sports teams, and the military for the same reason — the search for belonging and identity.
How did you become a writer?
I spent nine-and-a-half years in prison. When I first arrived at Leavenworth Federal Prison an old convict told me, “Young blood, you can serve this time, or you can let this time serve you.” His advice became my daily mantra. I earned two college degrees, started a theater company, and wrote volumes of plays, poetry and essays. When I was released from prison, I studied film, and received a fellowship to the Sundance Film Institute. That was the beginning of my career as a screenwriter and filmmaker. I also kept writing and directing plays.
Why did you write Panther Baby?
Partially because friends and family kept pushing me to write a memoir, but mainly because the teenagers whom I mentor through my youth program IMPACT, and teens and students whom I speak to when I travel around the country always ask the question: “What was it like?”
So I tried to tell a story through the curious eyes and passionate heart of a fifteen-year-old manchild trying to find his place in the world during the Civil Rights/Black Power era. It’s a story that I hope will resonate with all of us who have a dream and with all young people who are trying to make their way to the mountaintop.
*Listen to Jamal Joseph in conversation with TNB founding editor Brad Listi on the Other People with Brad Listi podcast.
“Happy Mother’s Day, Ladies”, Mrs. G’s voice rang out strong and southern in the cavernous prison unit, where two hundred women were waking up far away from their babies.
Her voice hit me hard in the chest and I thought of my brown haired boy. His second birthday a month away and there was nothing I could do to get back to him. This is an unimaginable kind of powerlessness. Even when it’s happening to you.
The Eighties, you may recall, were an era of flash and decadence. Now think 1984 — Ronald Reagan was president, Dallas and Dynasty were on TV, Michael Jackson and Madonna ruled the radio waves. It was all about pastels and lightning bolts, Aqua Net and Pac Man. I was fifteen, had big permed hair, and favored a pink and green polka dot sweatshirt dress, belted naturally, with white bejeweled cowboy boots. Country-western consumed my mom, who wore flowing plaid skirts with too much lace trim. Dad wasn’t immune to pop culture either. He began wearing pink and yellow blazers like Jack Nicholson in Prizzi’s Honor. Dad had a museum of cowboy boots — about twenty pairs ranging in color and animal hide, his favorites being crocodile and ostrich. He liked big gold rings and chains, and wore a gold bull, a Taurus, around his neck.
Behind the curtain of Dad’s eccentricity was a loving father. He’d grown up in the projects in Hoboken, New Jersey, one of nine children, mostly unattended by his mother, while his father had been committed to an insane asylum. He stole food from the Twinkie and Tootsie Roll Factories to survive and as a result, had no teeth of his own.
Family meant everything to Dad. Spending the holidays away from home was not an option. My parents enrolled us in private Catholic school, nuns and all, to ensure a good education. Dad went to church with Mom on Sundays, not because he was religious, but because he knew how much it meant to her.
He ran a tight ship at home, and there were severe consequences for busted behavior. Once when I was sixteen, I snuck out of the house wearing a leopard-print tank top and leather miniskirt. This was after my parents had told me “no daughter of theirs would ever wear such a thing.” I went to the night club 3-2-1 in Santa Monica, and drank and danced and smoked cigarettes.
The next morning, my dad approached me. “Did you wear that outfit after your mother and I told you not to?”
I loved him too much to lie. “Yes, I did.”
“And were you drinking and smoking, too?”
“Yes,” I said, in shock.
“Okay.” He walked away with disappointment in his eyes. It turned out Dad’s adult entertainment attorney had spotted me at the club. Just my luck. Two days later, Dad sold my car, my beloved Saab, and grounded me for six months. I was so ashamed that I’d let him down.
In contrast to my flashy yet Republican, pink-blazered father, was his business partner, Mac. Dad tried but could never hold a candle to all 6’7″ of Mac and his ostentatious lifestyle. My sister and I visited Mac once at his penthouse apartment in Inglewood, and met his beautiful Cockatoo -– large, white and friendly. “Go ahead, you can pet him,” he insisted, in his Barry White voice. He also had a separate ranch full of exotic animals and fancy cars. Mac had a python and was too cheap to buy the live animals for the snake’s meals, so he’d peruse the Recycler‘s classifieds pet section, looking for ads that read “Loving pet looking for good home.” Let’s just say that Mac’s python fully enjoyed several beloved pets, with a special taste for rabbits. Dad never let us visit, but I was told that going to Mac’s ranch was like walking onto the set of Miami Vice — you could almost hear Herbie Hancock’s “Rock It,” synthesizer and all.
After the penthouse visit, Dad put the word out that he wanted a parrot too. His Doberman puppy had died suddenly from a virus, and he was ready for another animal. Dad had a knack for filling the house with novelty items — carousel horse, English phone booth — all things he purchased on a whim. So one day Big Wally came to the Jet Strip, one of the strip clubs by LAX Airport that my dad owned. Big Wally had spent more time in prison than on the street, mostly for theft. One day, Wally approached Dad at The Jet and said, “Hey, I hear you like parrots.”
“Yeah, I do,” Dad responded.
“You wanna buy a parrot?” Wally opened up his coat in the dark bar and revealed a red and green Amazon, shaking and scared.
Dad panicked. He felt sorry for the bird and offered Big Wally a couple hundred bucks. Story has it, Wally got the parrot from a guy named Johnny Sanchez who owed him some money.
Dad brought the parrot home late that night, and in the morning we woke up and saw a beady-eyed, green-cheeked Amazon sitting in a black cage in our kitchen.
Mom was furious. “Who the hell do you think’s going to take care of it during the day?”
I wondered how long we’d have the bird. It was just a matter of time before Dad would move onto something new. The bird kept wolf whistling and saying “hello” to us. He seemed friendly, so I stuck my hand right in the cage and he pierced it sharply with his beak, drawing blood. He then screamed “ouch!” I had to shake him off me to release his grip, and my family laughed. My hand burned. The bird talked a lot and always said “Huey, gimme a whistle,” so we decided to call him Huey. We realized later that Huey was probably his previous owner’s name.
The vet confirmed that our Huey was indeed a boy and approximately fifteen years old, with a lifespan of fifty to seventy years. My mom hit the roof. During the Eighties, with the Miami Vice hype, exotic birds became popular and people spent lots of money buying them from breeders. What people failed to realize was that parrots had a lifespan almost comparable to a human’s.
Huey slowly became a part of our household and he quickly warmed up to me, as I was giving him lots of attention. I felt sorry for him and wondered what home he’d been in before ours. I discovered that birds find a mate for life and I apparently, quite by accident, had become Huey’s. I was lathered in unconditional bird love. He tolerated my sister because we looked so much alike, but as soon as I came into the room he’d bite her silly. Once, my mom leaned in to kiss Huey and in an instant he latched onto her lip, hanging, flapping his wings, while my mom screamed loud enough to be heard on the East Coast. My dad beat him off and Mom began to cry. Her lip was swollen for a week, and she needed stitches.
Huey said hello, goodbye, Huey gimme a whistle, and screamed CRACKER! when he was hungry. He loved laughing, and rocked back and forth on his perch as he did. If he didn’t get the attention he craved, he’d scream and open his wings. And while Huey couldn’t really fly, when he tried he looked like a green chicken flailing around. He liked to sing along, especially when you sang “Happy Birthday” to someone. So many friends received phone calls over the years with Huey and I wishing them a happy birthday. Huey sounded more like Ethel Merman than Ethel Merman.
He also loved food, all food, and always wanted what you were eating. He would get very excited when Mom started cooking — his eyes would dilate and he’d pace back and forth on his perch saying “cracker.” That darling bird loved pizza, popcorn, hot dogs, chicken bones, ice cream and peanuts. He also loved grapes that mom peeled for him. (Yes, she peeled grapes for the bird she never wanted.)
I was off to college at UC Santa Barbara and only saw Huey when I breezed in every few weeks, with my beaded hair, tie dye skirts, humming Grateful Dead tunes. I felt guilty; he wasn’t getting much attention anymore. Dad teased him a lot by putting him on the floor and chasing him around. Huey would scream and violently attack Dad’s shoes. I yelled at Dad but he just laughed and laughed. Mom drowned out Huey’s screeching fits with John Denver music.
At home, I’d spend as much time as I could with my feathered friend, making up for lost time. He loved grooming my eyelashes and eyebrows, and would sit in my lap and groom himself. Bird dander and feathers flew everywhere. I kind of missed that, I missed him, our routine and our camaraderie. He loved taking showers, and I’d perch him on the shower curtain rod. He would get all excited and wolf whistle at me in the shower. We were convinced he learned that in the strip club.
During college, Dad’s partner Mac was gunned down outside of his ranch, my dad being the investigators’ prime suspect. Shortly after, my parents’ house was raided by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office. Police tore the place apart, just like in the movies. Huey ended up surviving two house raids, unscathed.
I graduated from university in 1990. Afterward, I lived in Los Angeles and worked at Playboy Enterprises before moving to the Bay Area. I saw Huey several times a year. My parents were always threatening to send him to a bird rescue sanctuary. Taking care of him full-time demanded a lot of work and attention, kind of like a petulant five-year old. Taking him meant being chained down, and I was enjoying my freedom too much to assume the responsibility. I somehow convinced my parents that he’d get more attention if he stayed at home with them.
In October of 2000, I moved back home after my dad was arrested for Mac’s murder. I didn’t have much time for Huey as I spent most of it in court, jail, and at Dad’s strip clubs. Nonetheless, Huey was happy to see me more often than our long distance relationship had permitted.
After Dad’s eventual murder conviction, we sold my parents’ house and cleaned out all the stuff that they had accumulated over the years. I equated Dad’s life prison sentence to a death in the family, except that he could still call us collect once in a while. It was hard to get any real closure; the appeals process began immediately. Mom was getting rid of everything — the cars, boats, guns, toy train collection, and Huey. I called up all the credit card companies and closed out his accounts. They asked me why and I’d tell them the truth: sentenced to life in prison. Silence and awkwardness always followed.
I drove Huey up to his new home with me in Marin County, California, before eventually moving to New York City. My best friend, Anne, was a flight attendant, and we flew Huey and one of my cats first class. I carried Huey through security at SFO. He laughed the whole time and said “hello” to everyone. He sounded like an eager child. When we boarded the plane, the other first class passengers were not happy. The flight attendant, lucky for me, was also a bird owner, and kept bringing Huey snacks and water. Huey stayed quiet for the most part — until I got up to use the lavatory. I came out and the other passengers were glaring at me as if I were the mom who had the screaming baby onboard — in this case, a screaming bird. Huey settled back down until we landed, at which point he began laughing hysterically. Some passengers even laughed with him.
In New York, Huey and I quickly re-bonded; we were like roommates. When I woke up every morning, he always said “hello!” with a southern ladies’ drawl. He showered with me in the morning and followed me around the house, laughing and cleaning his beak on my toe nails. He loved toothpaste and had his own toothbrush. Whenever I left the house he screamed “goodbye!” and I heard him all the way down the stairwell, into the street, still saying it. My poor neighbors. I loved his attention and companionship, and I didn’t have to worry about him eating all my food or hogging the bathroom. Some nights we stayed home, eating popcorn and watching TV. We’d take long walks in Central Park, and he’d sit on my lap as I read and returned phone calls. He mostly just groomed himself and greeted passersby. He was a bit of a celebrity, the laughing parrot in Central Park, and was always getting his picture taken. He was like the son I never had.
He also became a quick favorite with my friends. At parties, my guy friends played with him all night, covered in parrot pecks, convinced they could win him over. Huey was never much of a man lover, though. He did, however, have a thing for blonds and flirted whenever any stopped in. He was very social and wanted to be in middle of everything. He even had his own Facebook page, Huey del Fuego, with over sixty friends.
One day last year, I realized Huey wasn’t acting himself and took him to the vet. He had several rounds of tests before the vet discovered a tumor. He had stopped talking and eating. The poor bird. I soon realized it was time to bring him to the vet one last time. This was St. Patrick’s Day, and I was taking my green parrot for his last walk along the park. The vet offered to do an emergency surgery to see if she could save him. She said it was a less than ten percent chance that she could, but my little bud was worth it. As I sat with him in the clinic, I could tell he knew what was happening. My eyes and face were blotchy and red from all the tears. My mouth tasted like salt. As I left Huey there, I heard him screaming “goodbye” with a sense of panic in his voice, all the way until I was outside on Columbus Avenue.
The next day I was at the airport, en route to Tunisia for a trip long-ago planned. Just as I entered the plane, my vet called me to say that Huey’s cancer had spread. He could not be saved. I was blubbering like a little girl and the Air France flight attendants quickly became aware of my unstable status. I made a mad dash to the lavatory to wash my face, and a male flight attendant asked in his finest French accent, “Excuse me mademoiselle, is everything okay?” I proceeded to tell him through my sobbing breaths about my dead parrot. He had a look of deep sorrow on his face as he rested his hand softly on my shoulder, “May I please ask you which parent this was?”
“Not my parent, my PARROT!” I shrieked. The flight attendant backed away slowly, in silence.
I told Dad about Huey dying; somehow I felt responsible. He became sentimental, recounting the story of how he got Huey from Big Wally. “You gave that bird a damn good life,” he assured me.
Huey dying was not only the end of a unique, twenty-six year companionship; it was the end of an era. He was the last remaining possession from my dad’s crazy and outlandish existence. I had now lost both the main men in my life. Huey embodied the lifestyle I experienced with my dad — through his garish colors, his loud wolf whistling, his flirty behavior, his peeled grapes. Gone were Dad’s fleet of exotic cars and boats; our backyard that resembled a tribute to Disney’s Thunder Mountain ride; the family trips to Vegas and Hawaii; strip club Christmas parties; Dad’s managers doubling as my personal chauffeur at the airport; my endless supply of lap dance passes. Before I moved to New York, I owned four cars. Now I was riding the subway, with extra hand sanitizer, to my corporate job. I’d spent the last ten family Christmases in prison, most recently with Phil Spector and some very nice sex offenders. Dad’s wardrobe now consists solely of double denim and flimsy white tennis shoes.
I took Huey’s birdseed and donated it to his vet clinic. His vet told me they had a baby parrot named Rocky looking for a home. “Just think about it,” she said. “You already have the cage.” Trying to cheer me up. I ran it by my therapist, who quickly and forcefully suggested that I take my energy and focus it on finding a man.
My once rowdy apartment was now silent. There was no hello, no cracker, no Ethel Merman, no peanut tossing or celery crunching. All the things that drove me crazy about that bird — the noise, the mess, the neediness — I really missed. “He was just a bird,” friends would say. No consolation.
I finally threw away Huey’s toothbrush and donated his cage. I could still see his seed in the floor cracks and pieces of the kitchen cabinet he chewed off.
In the fall, I moved downtown; it was much easier finding an apartment. I didn’t have to answer the million dollar broker question: “How loud does your bird chirp?” I could socialize without the need to rush home and let Huey out of his cage, and I could easily travel without having to find a bird sitter or worry about him being lonely and locked up. Most of all, it was now safe to invite a guy over knowing Huey wasn’t going to attack or suddenly fly into the room landing on the bed, saying, “Hello!”
I now eat popcorn in front of the TV with my lazy cats. Sometimes I still make enough popcorn for two, out of habit. I gaze at Huey’s ashes sitting in a box with some feathers on my bookshelf, and wonder if I’ll ever find someone, feather-free, who will love me as much as that bird did.
Then my dad calls — collect, of course.
The little girl is five.
She has fine blond hair
in two narrow braids.
She is delicate and
in her flimsy sundress.
that light up
when she walks.
She is petting my dog.
I love your dog,
She is so soft.
I do too,
Her tail is so pretty,
on this kind of tail
stabbed my brother,
That must have
I was happy!
You were happy
that your sister
She used a steak knife,
My sister is so smart.
She hid it in
under the mattress.
she stabbed him
over and over,
He screamed like a baby,
momma heard him
she came in
she called the police.
can’t hurt us
My brother is in
my sister is so
We have to go to
then he will go to
Jail and prison
are not the same,
Prison is better
keep him away
a long time,
What do you do
I don’t know,
the lady here
is going to tell me
She said not to
because my sister is brave
will be okay.
can’t hurt us
I love your dog,
She is so soft.
It’s visiting day, and somewhere my son, Aidan, who just turned two, is getting ready. They drove twelve hours to get here and my mom said they were staying at the La Quinta in Bryan, but that means nothing to me. Confined to the walled eighteen acres of this prison, I am completely ignorant of the size or layout of the city I live in.
Going to visit Mommy they’ll be saying and in my mind I see him raise his arms so my grandmother can pull his shirt over his head, his thick hair standing up from sleep. I imagine the strain of keeping him still to redress him, tie his shoes. It’s seven forty-five.
My stomach is twisted up in bittersweet knots while I pull on my khakis, tie my own steel toed shoes, tuck and button and make certain I’m visiting-room-regulation-ready. I look at my watch. It’s seven fifty-two. Five minutes later I check my watch again. It’s still seven fifty-two. Time is moving slower than usual. It feel like I’ve been preserved. Embalmed.
I sit on the tight, tucked edge of my bunk, I’m longing to see him and wracked with the anxiety of how, after six months, I might go about being a mother for half a day. I have to focus to hold my body still while gale force winds arc up over my heart, through my throat and crash like waves into my belly. It’s seven fifty-nine.
“Attention! Attention in the Unit! Inmate 15894-045, you have a visitor.” The sound comes crashing in and though I expected it, I am startled and so is my roommate, Boobs, who turns onto her side and adjusts her earplugs, causing the metal bunk bed to shift and hit the cinderblock wall with a thud. The springs beneath her plastic mattress let out a shrill and painful squeal. A voice across the building screams at the intercom, “Shut the fuck up!” another in response to the first voice, “Naw! You shut up!” and “For real! I’m sleeping here!” The fact that addicts are so naturally adept at self-destruction makes the shouting, the general din of this place, reeks of overkill.
“Attention in the UNIT! Inmate 15894-045, report to the visiting room ASAP!”
Another blast through the sleeping unit stirs another chain reaction of groans, shifts and protests. A few room lights switch on as I gather my courage and head for the door. He is here. He is waiting to see me.
Dark pavement recedes under my steps, it plods away under the swollen sky as I walk the length of the compound towards the visiting room with its little playground, board games, vending machines and tears. The humid morning steams and softens the wrinkles in my clothes; heavy doors loom large. What lies beyond them, looms even larger. In a couple of minutes I’ll be with him. I’ll be able to hold him. The empty ache of separation has made him seem like a dream. A sweet, but fleeting, dream.
I watch my hand reach out and grip the solid door handle and pull it towards me, I smell the acrid years of microwaved ham sandwiches and pizza rolls and hear hinges whine my arrival. The officer looks up, and, even though she knew I was coming, she’s clearly annoyed to see me. “It’s about time,” she says. “Do the Dance.”
The dance is legs wide, arms to either side like wings while she pats me down. Later I will strip naked in the bathroom, and I will be searched more intimately, but, right now, I don’t care about violation or my lack of civil rights. There is no periphery, there is only the point. My son, all legs and black hair a-blur. He is here and he is running.
When his thunderclap of a body collides with my own, the impact takes my breath. He clings, face buried in my collar where he will stay for thirty full minutes. I wrap my arms around his heartbeat, his warm weight, and I know he is real.
“We were first in line,” my mom says.
“Im glad,” I reply.
“We miss you,” says my Grandma.
“Thanks for coming,” I say.
No one really knows what to talk about. There’s no language for this, no points of common ground. My grandmother holds her purse close, a silver cross hangs around her neck. I consider telling her how I’ve learned to say the Hail Mary in Spanish, but reconsider when words fail me. It’s superfluous information. Like I’m talking about making ashtrays at summer camp. My mother just stares, her head cocked. She comes up close and starts petting Aidan’s hair.
“Are you glad to see Momma?” she asks this rhetorical question an octave too high, and a head too close to my ear. She keeps staring, keeps drinking us in, shaking her head and smiling a smile that threatens to melt into tears, threatens to spill over, to fill the room and leave no space for anyone else to feel anything. I turn away. I want this moment to be mine. I don’t want anything to interrupt me and my arms and this boy growing sweaty in the curve of my neck.
“Let’s find a table,” I suggest.
We sit near the indoor play area, next to the vending machines and I close my eyes for a minute. I want to cry, am desperate to cry, but don’t.
“See that man over there in the cowboy boots, Meg?” Grandma says, nodding toward the exit door. “He was next to us in line. He visits that blond lady there.” She nods again in the same direction. “He told us her story, it’s so sad. She’s innocent, got framed.” Now the head nodding gets rhythmic, matches the tsktsk of her lips while she contemplates the injustice of this place. It’s weird to hear my Grandma say “framed.”
While I appreciate her ability to believe, her desire to see it all as so unfair because I’m here I’m socially inept and out of practice making small talk. I don’t want to be the center of attention, don’t want to have nothing to say, don’t feel like I have the fortitude to explain the inexplicable. My answer comes out sharper, more sarcastic than I mean it to.
“Yeah, right. Her and everyone else here. I wonder how much he puts in her commisary account every month.”
My grandma’s face falls. She looks tired, sad and stricken. I wish at that moment that I was a gentler, more patient human being. I don’t know how to right what I’ve said because It’s true, about the woman using her cowboy, but who cares, I just feel so out of words, so incapeable of talking right now. I inhale the smell of his hair. I want to contain it. To keep it in my lungs, to float with it up and up and up until we both dissapear into the wide Texas sky outside of this room, away from everyone and everything awkward and all the things said and unsaid.
I get it, I’m here, It’s what happened. I sleep with regret, I practice faith, surrender, I do my best to make it all worth something, accept it, be grateful, blah, blah…but, Goddamnit, I think. This is my baby and I want to go home.
Home. The word dissolves, transforms as I think it. It becomes abstract, loses meaning, wrings out the weight of what’s lost and washes it in wretched isolation. My tears spill onto Aidan’s salty hair, onto his uncharacteristic stillness, his tiny high-top shoes. He squeezes in tighter, our hearts pound together. Louder, like the volume in the room as families continue to navigate security procedures and wait in turn for their particular inmate.
Our story, The Story, repeats itself. Children cling, mothers weep and we all become participants in the same heartache, playing our very best games of everything-is-alright, wishing we were anywere but here. I look around and it feels like I’m standing between mirrors, witness to the infinite reflection and mine is in every khaki uniform in the room. I feel the lines of separation become blurred and my raft of isolation is temporarily beached. The desolate city fills with people, and the flames subside.
As the day wears on, my Grandmother, my Mother and I, we talk more freely, even laugh while we become weary trying to wrestle with the minutes, knowing it will be months before we see each other again. I push Aidan in the swing, buy him strawberry Pop Tarts from the vending machine. I rock him in a chair while he naps, whispering, “Soon, little man, I’ll be back with you soon.”
March 07, 2011
I am freaking right out.
The news is coming at me from so many directions, I can hardly absorb any of it. It’s like drinking water from a fire hose. As soon as one story runs, three more update, clarify, and supplement it.
And no, the subject is very likely not who you think it is.
It’s Christina Aguilera.
You see, she had too much to drink.
Becca, my girlfriend’s roommate, sprung it on me the day before I was going to drive back home to Texas.
I’ll pay your gas if you drive me to Alabama, she blurted out while me and her roommate got in some last minute canoodling.
My girlfriend knew what Becca was up to and she promptly filled in the blanks. Going to Alabama meant going to the state prison, to death row. How could I say no? When I asked her if she drove stick shift, Becca offered me the straightest face I’d ever see her make. Yes, she said emphatically, I can. Her bags were already packed. I knew a little about her Alabama death row pen pal, but the knowledge was stowed behind too many bottles of the Shiner Bock I’d been living off of back in Austin.
Becca found him in the back of some liberal-minded magazine, the part where they used to feature personal ads. A sense of commitment to the downtrodden and abused made her answer. But something else had sprouted. Bryan, the inmate, wrote wildly entertaining stories, then backed them up with wildly passionate odes, and so, his letters zoomed into Becca’s heart. It began to thump the familiar cadence of love whenever a letter from her prison baby arrived.
Austin was a different kind of Texas than I had previously gotten to know. It had a metropolitan sway, a verifiable scene to get caught up in. At night I parked the truck off of Sixth Street, mapped out my location so when I drunkenly readied for home, I’d be able to drive myself there. Ridiculously dangerous, and immature, but true.
Even still, loneliness, an increased alcohol intake and a new to me pickup collaborated, and like that, my first cross country road trip came to life. I needed the experience. So I drove the twenty-three hours to see the girl, through a snowstorm mostly, amped up on road coffee and white crosses. Before leaving, I’d even secured a few days off from the busboy job a friend of the family gave me.
Real experience had eluded me since I’d finished a get-your-shit-together summer working on my godfather’s ranch five years before. Now, Becca, offered it up in spades.
We split the next morning, after hugging my girlfriend goodbye, and chugging the home made fresh ground coffee, we tucked our bags behind the bench seat of the blue pickup, and hopped in. I’d stacked a bunch of wooden packaging pallets in the back, to keep the rear end heavy enough to travel through the storm. They banged around until we got to the highway.
Becca and I were pals before I ever met my girlfriend. Some days we’d sit on the bench outside of the gourmet goods store, and talk in strange accents. She was fun in ways I never dreamed of, completely unselfconscious in a sea of awkward puerility. And yet she also retained a total awareness of self. She studied dance. She listened to advanced classical music and silly Midwestern punk bands with the same concentration. Naturally I was drawn to her. Those very qualities were what made me say yes to the proposition in the first place. That, and her offer to pay for gas.
Once we hit the highway, the two of us kept talking, and the tapes I’d set aside for our trip never did make it to the deck.
We flicked our cigarettes out of the windows. We spilled Mountain Dew on each other, and laughed out loud until we couldn’t laugh anymore. Suddenly, we had driven eight hours. She said she’d take over once it got dark. In retrospect, neither of us had really clocked the trip, and I suspect she said that hoping I’d just keep going until we got to Alabama, because it turns out, Becca couldn’t drive stick shift at all. After gassing up I switched to the passenger seat. Becca grabbed the stick shift like she’d probably seen her Dad do. She never let on that she didn’t know how. But when she completely ignored the clutch, and the truck popped forward, and stalled out immediately, like a teenage boy in the hold of his first bedroom visitor, it was pretty obvious.
My Dad had refused to teach us to drive, correctly predicting my brother and I would make the bizarre requirement to learn on stick. Dad had long since given up on stick shift vehicles preferring the blissful ease of automatic transmission. An old classmate of his, down on his luck after years of boozing, turned out to be my driving teacher, and Dad would laugh at the prospect him teaching me. The blind leading the blind, he said. Becca exacted that driving instructor’s revenge upon me.
We were somewhere in Tennessee. Night was approaching. The gas station doubled as a truck stop, with the trucks parking at the north end and a long parking lot that angled downward, to the south.After about an hour of facing the truck downward, getting Becca back behind the wheel,delivering a rudimentary course in the five gear locations of the shift box, we were on our way. My stubbornness was showing. I wanted to watch the country go by. I’d never been to Alabama. And soon we would move deep into repressed poverty of the state. Thankfully, the State Prison of Alabama in Atmore wasn’t our first stop.
Becca arranged for accommodations, and gave me directions. I pictured a Motel 6, a Travelodge, a Best Western in the near future. Becca arranged something else.
I took over driving, knowing Becca’s concept of the gear ratios would splinter soon as we entered stop and go traffic. We were on the other side of the tracks, literally, having crossed an unmarked trestle as the neighborhood became a shambled mess of shanties and too small plots of grass.
I don’t think that Atmore had any neighborhoods that looked and felt and breathed with the warmth of a different, economically more structured South, but if it did, we did not see them. Beccabooked us a room through the inmate network. Here it is, she said, looking out the window at what looked to me like a shack to store old lawnmowers, a little bigger, but by not much.
Our host was named Amanda, or Brenda, or Linda. She was as big around as she was tall, freckled, strangely delicate, and kind. Her house was two bedrooms, a kitchen and a living room. And everything on that street seemed like it had lived there since long before I’d been born. Paint chipped off of each house. Rusted cars sat on wood and cinder blocks in each yard, and the grass grew weedy and high.
Our host showed us to our room, and having been through the ritual enough times already, let us be.
I have never slept in a bed that drooped on springs as creaky as that before or since. Each time one of us squirmed the other let out a quick laugh, but we clung to our sides of the mattresses like our lives depended on it. Before we finally fell to sleep Becca whispered the particulars of Bryan’s case. They each were on the last of their appeals, she said quietly. Then she announced that Bryan was innocent. As she said it her head came up so she could see into my eyes, the springs barking like over active hound dogs underneath of us. Her eyes burned fiercely, having told too many other over privileged snot noses the story of her death row inmate. I read the fury of her eyes, and quickly stifled that same reaction. Yeah, right he’s innocent, I thought to myself. But I also noticed she did not mention Ed’s innocence, immediately understanding her stance on that situation. Ed and Bryan had befriended a white girl, who may or not have been a prostitute. They got loaded, hung out for a little bit, but when the girl got mouthy, Ed took her for a walk, and when he came back alone, Bryan let it go.
A week later, the two transient men were picked up for the woman’s murder. Neither had money for an attorney. At the end of the trial, both received guilty verdicts. Bryan was unwilling to rat out his best friend. Ed was unwilling to cop to a crime where there was no material evidence. The lack of material evidence, however, made much less difference than the color of their skin, versus that of the dead woman’s.
Good night, Becca said, exhausted from the drive, from the information she just outlined.
The Atmore prison had towers. The towers had gunmen. When I parked the truck in the lot, the gunmen watched us, their weapons ready. I kissed Becca goodbye and started to make my escape. She tugged my wrist. You can’t go, she said, you have to come in and visit with Ed so he can get out of his cell.
It was an irritating favor to ask at the last minute, but I couldn’t deny the urgency splashed across her face. I looked back at the closest tower guard, sunglasses hiding sharpshooter eyes. Do it for the experience, I told myself.
Death row inmates don’t get to have regular visitor hours with the rest of the crew. They spend most of their time in their cells. Their prison community consists solely of other death row inmates.
In Alabama, the inmates wore white. As we made our way to the visitor’s area- a large glass wall encased room that resembled a public school cafeteria – the inmates appeared from behind a sliding steel door. Under the harsh purple neon light, their uniform lack of pallor from having little to do with sunlight was grotesque. Bryan and Ed were black. The vampiric lighting didn’t give them that ghoulish glow.
Becca grabbed a corner table, and we crowded around it. When you meet killers it’s unnerving how natural they are. How regular. How absolutely normal and likable they seem. A few years later a drinking pal of mine, a man I sometimes turned to for advice, revealed he was, for all intents and purposes, a murderer on the lam. We were sitting at the bar when he became a little wistful and announced he hadn’t been back to Florida to see his family for many years. Why, I kept asking- two drinks, three drinks later. By the fourth round, he could contain himself no more, and shrugged. I killed a guy, he said. He looked at me the same way Becca had the night before. I knew it was true.
Bryan was affable, and I quickly found the same charm Becca swooned over. He regaled us with tales of what each inmate was in for. See that one, he said pointing to a guy who looked like a car salesman, or a chaplain. He killed his wife for the insurance money. That kid, he said pointing to a stringy teenager pockmarked by acne with a black shock of hair, he killed his ex girlfriend, strangled her in her sleep.
Ed was opposite of Bryan. Reserved, quiet. A do-er not a thinker. Lost in naivete ( or the knowledge that I could get out of there) I asked Ed was what he did for fun. He played along, and talked about basketball. He could shoot hoops an hour a day, followed the NBA religiously.
I hated basketball. But I didn’t tell that to Ed. Instead, I asked him about his teams, mentioned I came from Maryland, and we talked about Len Bias, the Celtics and Michael Jordan. I’d gone to a sports camp as a teenager at UNC, and I told Ed about Michael Jordan visiting his alma mater after being drafted by the Bulls. He didn’t exactly light up the way Bryan and Becca did at sight of each other, but the story made him easier to be around. He told me what his day to day life was like, and I, in turn, told him about bussing tables for assholes, and spending afternoons in bookstores dreaming of something better.
Yeah, he said, I know what you mean, man. I dream of something better every night.
Becca and Bryan’s ministrations could have disgusted me. And after a few hours, I’d run out of things to talk with Ed about, and I knew I was going to leave. They knew it, too. But they still went through a few more hand jives underneath the table.
Becca got up and hugged me. Have a safe trip, she said. I was stunned. I assumed she would leave with me. No, she was staying to the end of visitation, and was going to spend the night, and come back the next day, too.
Ed shook my hand. A guard led him away. Bryan spoke up then.
Ed can only hang out when he gets a visitor. No visitor- it’s back to his cell.
He was trying to guilt me into staying, but it didn’t work. I wanted out of there. Another guard escorted me to the gate, and then I was walking on the pavement of the lot staring at the armed tower guard staring back at me. In the truck I grabbed a warm beer and guzzled it.
Then I was out driving down highway 65, past Negro Lake, past Satsuma, Saraland, and Mobile, where I picked up the I-10 and headed west to Texas, where I still felt I belonged, where dining tables waited for me to bus them.
Eventually, I found out the truth. There’s no escape from death row. I was subject to my own demonic possession, in regards to drugs and crime and jail stays. Summer of 2000, I cleaned up. A year or so later, as the chemical fog lifted, I remembered that drive to Alabama, to death row. After a couple of months learning how to explore the internet, I discovered what happened to the two men who shared their lives with me for four hours one lonesome spring day in 1992.
After that last appeal was exhausted, Ed was executed in 1996. Bryan three years later. Every time I think about them, now, I realize, had they been white, they’d likely both still be alive. In prison probably, but alive.
I saw Becca again right after moving out to Los Angeles about seven years ago. We watched a movie projected on the side of a cemetery mausoleum, oddly enough. When I asked her about that trip she brushed it off, immediately changing the subject. I had only brought it up in order to thank her for giving me an indelible experience. Maybe a cemetery doubling as a movie theater was the wrong spot.
I have long harbored the notion, no doubt foolishly, that incarceration wouldn’t be all that particularly bad. To the contrary. It would give me time to catch up on my reading. In this fanciful scenario I place myself in a minimum security facility. Anything other than that and the advantages quickly disappear. It was in prison that Genet discovered Proust. Edmund White relates that Genet once arrived late to the weekly prison book exchange and was resigned to the picked-over shelves. Proust had been summarily rejected by all the other prisoners. He took the book, read the opening: “For a long time I would go to bed early.” then shut it, savoring it. “Now I’m tranquil,” he said to himself. “I know I’m going to go from marvel to marvel.” That is how it seems to me prison would be: tranquil and full of good reads. Marvel to marvel. Indeed, self-proclaimed Prison Writer, Kenneth Hartman notes, “In my six by ten foot cell, the locker bolted to the concrete wall is loaded down with books. Big, fat hard-bound reference titles, philosophy, and writing mechanics books. I can’t conceive of a life absent the comfortable solidity of a book held in my hands.”
I swat at a mosquito flying near my ear and feel it hit my palm. It flies off toward the window and joins the black throng of mosquitoes there. The window is nearly a third covered with a vibrating mass of hungry little bloodsuckers. Far more mosquitoes than I’ve ever seen in one place, breeding in standing puddles of brown water outside the building. It smells like a burst sewage drain, and every so often there’s a gurgling noise and bubbles surface through the thick grass. Texas is still hot in September and it might reach a hundred today. The heat serves this vile stink to us on a dripping tray of humid air.
Almost everyone has her shirt pulled up over her nose.
This is where we inmates line up to eat.
“Hey Roommate! You gonna eat your wings?” Peaches shouts past the women between us in line, her face surfacing from the folds of her shirt only long enough to get my attention.
Wings. The main course of today’s menu. Through a process called “Bastard Brokering,” large institutions, like this prison, are able to purchase lesser quality food for a cheap price. Apparently, if a factory turns out a load of chicken wings, seasoned and packaged, for say, TGI Fridays, and for whatever reason they’re rejected, they hit the bastard market. A glut of something on the market means cheap prices for the government, means wings are for lunch today.
“No,” I say to Peaches, “I want eggs so I can’t get them for you.”
Everyone knows you can’t have two proteins. But they ask anyway. You know, The Hunger. It trumps reason.
Sara, who’s my life raft, my best friend here, stays close as the line edges toward the door, closer to the window where through the mosquitoes we can see women at tables that have already gotten their trays.
“What’s in the bowl?” I ask Sara. “Can you tell?”
“Looks like cous cous,” Sara says. We do this wishful thinking joke.
“Yeah, probably has roasted garlic and fresh herbs,” I say and we laugh as the slow moving line continues its snake towards the steam tables.
In front of us, a group starts loudly comparing shoe sizes.
“I got the smallest feet,” says Renee, a very young Mexican woman, can’t be much older than eighteen, her long dark hair a mass of curling iron ringlets, her eyebrows tweezed bare and replaced with a thin lines.
“Yeah, that’s why you my lil shawty,” says JoJo, the tall black woman next to her. JoJo has been down for more than ten years and is infamous on compound. She makes a nonchalant effort to press her body close to Renee without drawing officer attention, though the closest C.O., Officer Partyhair, loves JoJo and is known for being right in the middle of inmate drama.
Partyhair is an albino black woman with just a few strands of this light-reddish hair that she combs straight up and shellacs to her head, on the very crown she pins a large fake hair-bun thing. All loopy like one of those stick-on gift bows.
“I got some big feet,” says JoJo, lifting her chin kind of up and sideways while she winks. “An d’you know what that means, Mami.”
Renee blushes, looks down at Jo-Jo’s feet, and nods as if she agrees that Jo-Jo might actually be packing.
“What was it like in the unit when that whole thing went down with Jo-Jo and Sylvia?” Sara whispers, referring to the recent fight between Jo-Jo and her ex longtime girlfriend. Apparently Sylvia found out about Renee and she sneaked into Jo-Jo’s room and shredded the afghan she’d crocheted for Jo-Jo. It was black with a huge playboy logo. This is a big deal. Crocheting a blanket for someone is serious.
Actually, crocheting is kinda serious.
Everyone does it. Probably because it’s an effective consumer of hours. I make bookmarks. Tediously crafted with a tiny hook and thread, each one takes exactly a half hour. I timed it. I need to know exactly how much time each one represents. They are tangible increments of this experience. I was sentenced to seventeen thousand, five hundred and twenty crocheted bookmarks.
“There were pieces of yarn everywhere,” I tell Sara, “It was fucking crazy, she threw it down from the second floor into the common area. Jo-Jo had to clean it all up and I think they put Sylvia in seg.”
Lesbian drama is about as interesting as it gets around here. I mean, as far as cliché prison experience goes. This is a camp. The lowest security style of the Federal Institutions. Not much fighting here, no shanks, no riots. The only way to get your ass kicked is to mess with somebody’s girlfriend.
Nothing gets a women riled up like love.
I see there are are fresh tomatoes on the cold table and make my way over while Sara is contemplating peanut butter. I am thrilled to find fresh food and start to pile them high next to my two white eggs when the unmistakable accent of Lieutenant Quejano shouting behind me halts my tomato piling.
“HEY, INMATE! YOU TUCK IN YOUR SHIRT THERE! SHOW SOME RESPECT!”
I freeze and become conscious of only the fold of my shirt between my waistband and the skin of my waist. Only once I determine beyond doubt that my shirt is intact do I dare to turn, ever so slowly, as if I am not really looking towards the vocal tirade but maybe just checking the soup over here. I don’t want any soup, but I can now see who’s scrambling to tuck her shirt in. One handed. Tray in the other. It’s Facelift.
Facelift came from New Orleans, but hasn’t said why she’s here. I suspect she is in her mid fifties, although she might have another decade in mind. Her hair is unnaturally dark, and her face is pulled so tight towards the tiny scars above her ears that her eyes have permanently narrowed, her cheekbones stick out and her lips are just two thin straight lines that strain to open when she talks. Today they are painted red. I’ve only had a couple of short conversations with her, but she managed to bring up her lack of having a facelift both times.
“My family has really great genes. Good hair, good skin, no wrinkles…” and once, even less subtly, “I’ll bet you think you’re older than me.”
Strange, the things we try so hard to hide become the most glaring, the most obvious things about us.
I attempt to return to my tomatoes, but am again interrupted.
“ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE, INMATE? WHY ARE YOU EYEBALLING MY PACKAGE?” Quejano shouts at another woman, a woman called Princess, who turns pink then a traumatic shade of red.
She’s short, probably five foot three, but she still has several inches on the extremely diminutive Quejano. Looking at his “package” would be both a physical and emotional stretch for any of us.
“ A cockroach…” she starts.
“WHAT?? ARE YOU CALLING ME COCKROACH?”
“No, sir. A cockroach. I saw a cockroach behind you, sir.”
“YOU DIDN’T SEE NOTHING THERE. THERE ARE NO COCKROACHES HERE. YOU GO!” His straight arm raises and his miniature hand shoos her toward the door she was only trying to get out of anyway.
Even after a year here, it’s a struggle for my brain to process this shit, I still try to make it make sense, complete the picture with logic, like those emails you can read even though there aren’t any vowels in the words. But it doesn’t work here. There is way more missing than just vowel sounds.
I realize now that I’m foolishly standing, mouth agape, looking right in Quejano’s direction. I’m no longer even trying to look at the soup having been so completely aghast at the fact that he actually just saideyeballing my package.
Just as he’s a second away from eyeballing me, I whip my body around as if I had been in motion this whole time and turn my head to find Sara, who is sitting and waving like mad for me to join her at the table.
“What the hell was that all about?” she comments more than questions. “That guy is fucking insane.”
“I know, right? It would be weird to run into him on the Outside.”
“He probably lives alone in some tiny basement apartment, never throws away his newspapers and puts together model warplanes when he’s off.”
“Yeah, I bet he looks at clown porn,” I add. “And jerks off in his uniform.”
“Oh yeah, definitely that,” Sara says, “he definitely does that…and we’re beside ourselves laughing as four women slide into the table next to us and hold up their hands, palms out to pray.
“Oh, Lord Jesus, Master Lord Jesus,” one begins.
Sara and I look at each other with artificially straightened up faces that threaten to crack up into total hysterics. The newly saved like to pray loud, like to be seen praying. It’s the other side of the social spectrum here, the opposite of the dating scene. But not so different, there’s still the latching on, the need for completion.
“We thank you oh, Lord Jesus, Master Jesus, for this bounty…” she continues at top volume. The others nod their heads and emit moans of concilliation.
Here’s how Sara and I give thanks: By laughing instead of crying and by pretending that we are eating Al Fresco in SoHo instead of here in this revolting cafeteria.
Sara acts like she is going to flag down Partyhair to bring us a couple of macchiatos. We start howling again at the thought of even saying “macchiato” to Partyhair. She would probably think we were calling her a derogatory name and we would end up in seg.
We diligently wait until Quejano is gone before we try and leave. Just incase. We scrape our plates and stack our trays not far from where Jojo and Renee are sitting, Partyhair perched on the edge of their table whispering conspiratorially like she’d rather be an inmate. “I always thought you could do better than that Sylvia,” we overhear. So does Facelift who looks up from where she sits, alone in a far corner, spooning soup through red lips that barely open.
Me and Sara pull our shirt collars up over our noses before we push open the door to brave the mosquitos and the rest of the day.
Note: All names have been changed.
Trainer Howard explains that never, under any circumstances, are we to hug an inmate. Shaking hands is also against the rules. He recommends bumping knuckles, and asks one of the trainees to stand up. They demonstrate fist-bumps several times, to be sure that we grasp the concept.
We’re to keep hand sanitizer in our cars and apply it before and after each class—to fight off hepatitis and other contagious diseases that abound in the facilities. We’re not to discuss sensitive issues with the inmates—like suicide or Hawaiian sovereignty. If we enter the prison with a cigarette or a dollar bill, we might face felony charges. We’re not to allow physical contact between inmates during class (apparently, sex acts in larger classes have been an issue). We’re to have no contact with friends or families of inmates. In the event of a riot or hostage situation, we’re to remain calm.
When my roommate, Oatmeal wakes up and climbs down from the top bunk, I am shaken into a squeaking morning alacrity. The lights have been turned on in the common area, and I reach under my pillow for my watch and make squinty eyes at it. Seven. I am meeting Sara at Indoor Rec for yoga in half an hour.
Morning unit activity is a discord of its own relentless style. The restroom now echoes running showers, hairdryers, and “How you gonna leave water all over the sink like that? Your momma ain’t here. You in prison!”
What? We are where? In prison? For a minute there I forgot that I didn’t actually forget where I am. For a minute there, I forgot that it was not at all possible to forget where I am. No, I didn’t. I didn’t forget. How could I? God, I am so fucking sick of hearing inmates telling other inmates You in prison! I mean really. I know. Everyone knows.
More room lights flicker on and lockers clank open and slam shut, combination locks, twist tictictic open then ticlunk shut and spin to hit the steel. Slam. Beds are being made, grey blankets tight and tucked. Over not under the pillow or else. Even if you don’t have to go to work you have to get dressed, full uniform, bed made. A few khaki bodies are already curled on top of tip top tight bunks
“Attention in the unit. Morning pill line is now open.” The loudspeaker cuts through the clatter like the operatic solo in a torturous underworld tragedy. Several hurry toward the door and out to Medical for their meds in a cup with a sip of water and then tongue out and up and ahhhhh and yes I swallowed it, even though there will still be contraband Seroquel for sale later on. The speaker continues its calls for Inmate So and So to report here and another to report to another place and lots of action ASAP. Always ASAP. Not, A.S.A.P. Never the acronym. Always the word. ASAP. In all caps because it is always shouted, and just a little louder than the rest of the shouted announcement. “Report to the Lieutenant’s Office! ASAP!”
Microwaves heat margarine-smeared honeybuns and instant oatmeal packets. The robot sigh of the hot water dispenser is steam out, shift gears, water in, steam out, sigh. A motley crew of attitudes line up to add water to plastic mugs ready with Folgers Instant, chocolate or tea. I am in that line with my own red and white mug, a cheap plastic abomination that looks like something I would get for an extra dollar at the gas station to save in the long run on Big Gulps. My disdain is painful, but thirty-two ounces of caffeine is the perennial start to my day and porcelain with a powdery matte finish is not an option.
I brew my Bigelow Tea variety pack, like I like to eat Skittles, in a very specific order. Earl Grey first, English Breakfast next, Constant Comment third. I trade the Peppermint with the woman across the catwalk who cuts my hair. She loves the peppermint and hates Earl Gray. We do these deals. We go room to room to do these deals. “Hey, know anyone who wants to make a trade?” Nothing goes to waste here. There is always someone who has nothing. I am down to my third to last Constant Comment this morning and make a mental note to make a list when I get back upstairs to my room, with my hot tea, which is exactly two teabags and two heaping spoonfuls of nonfat dry milk with one packet of Splenda. Stirred eleven times to the right, and eleven times to the left, and an estimated fifteen calories, which I will also write down in my little notebook that I carry around for keeping track of eating. And to make lists. Like what I need to add to my commissary sheet, new vocabulary words, workouts, Things To Do while I am here as well as Things To Do when I get out. Movies to rent, books to read, music to acquire, parenting ideas…things I read about in magazines, stuff. I have a lot of lists. My notebook is one of my lifelines.
I repeat “teabags” in my mind as I stir right and then left and walk back up the stairs that lead to the catwalk that leads to my room, trying very hard to not make eye contact. And I don’t. It’s a little game I play with myself to see if I can get there and back with no interaction. Friendliness invites invasion and I am cautious about these things. I make it to my room where Oatmeal is now gone, Boobs is probably in the shower and Peaches has made her bed and gone back to sleep in full uniform on top of it.
Weekdays here are called Programming Hours. Programming Hours, of course, refer to the time that the “programs” that have been instituted to “rehabilitate” are active. And by “rehabilitate” I mean, project a façade that such things as rehabilitation happen here, contrary to recidivism statistics. However innocuous the aphorism may sound, it still sits very Orwellian with me. If you met anyone who has been here for ten or more years, you would totally understand what I mean. It is little challenge to spot-on tell if someone has been down a long time by their obsessions with, most predominately but not limited to, floor wax and ironing.
The phenomenon of prison style dictates ironing deep creases in shirts, pants, pajamas, sometimes even sheets and towels. One of many ritual attempts to bring a sense of order to this bizarre world. Survival Tactics. Creasing becomes art. Becomes couture. Becomes culture. Love is boiled down to the ability to muscle polyester into a stiff, knife-edge pleat. Women risk The Hole by stealing sugar for homemade fabric starch. Irons and ironing boards turn dark and sticky with years of caramelized starching. Iron clothes. Iron will. Iron shackles, fetters, chains and handcuffs.
The Long Timers, the repeat offenders and the mindless followers who actually aspire to a mastery of prison culture, approach a tidy floor shine with equal compulsion, often buying floor wax off the contraband market, hiding it in Downy Fabric Softener bottles and seeing to it with a kind of reverence for the sacred, that a coat or two goes on each week. On the floor, and sometimes, for good measure, on the window sills, chair and wooden desk. Waxing. Ironing. Programming.
As much as I loathe this new language, and am righteous in my suspicion of its ineffectual nature, I use it whenever I can, in facetious fashion. For example, “Should I write this letter during or after programming hours?” and “This weekend has felt far too long. Sure will be nice to get back to programming hours.” Semantics aside, it does keep everyone busy. Like a workday. These “programs” make the time seem structured and keep everyone moving. We even get paid for our “jobs”. Starting salary is twelve cents per hour.
I have to insist that words like “jobs” and “programs” and “rehabilitation” really do require all of these quotation marks. When I use these words in this context, they are a weak facsimile of their intended meaning and no confusion is intended between them and the scads of signs around the compound that use these poor little marks, not to emaciate the meaning of words, but to “emphasize!” them.
Officer Maestas: “Unit Manager.”
Phone calls “15 minutes.”
Be “Quiet” in “Study” Areas.
I really “hate” it here.
I work for the education/recreation department grading tests for college level classes, teaching yoga, and occasionally before “Regional” comes to visit, I clean someone’s office. Filing, hole punching, and inserting things into three ring binders so that when said “officials” arrive, they can easily see whether or not the facades of the “programs” are still in place. The three-ring binders are the proof. Programs are determined successful by the proper alphabetizing of documentation in a three-ring binder. A three ring binder in a three ring… circus.
Mostly, my job consists of sitting in the library, writing letters, reading magazines, and making lists. And since the yoga classes that I teach are in the evening, I am not required to be “on duty” until after lunch, which means I have the morning hours free to go to Indoor Rec with Sara and practice yoga. It took me seven months to work into this job. I paid my dues mowing grass, shoveling dirt, and washing garbage cans. After two raises, I make forty nine cents per hour and am one pay grade away from maxed out. One grade from the equivalent of being in the highest tax bracket on compound. The coveted Grade One pay grade is seventy nine cents per hour. My paycheck almost, but not quite, pays for my phone time each month. I rely heavily on the generosity of friends and family for shampoo, notebooks and tea. Asking for money is not easy. I am fortunate to have enough.
Because of yoga, getting dressed in the morning, like many simple acts here, is more complicated than it should be. I read recently that rehabilitation is achieved despite of, not because of our prison system. I couldn’t agree more.
See, in order to get the door unlocked so we can get into Indoor Rec where we will have access to yoga videos, we have to actually go inside the Education building, find the officer, and let him know we are ready. The problematic factor is that to enter the Education building during programming hours you have to be in uniform. Khaki button-up shirt, khaki elastic-waisted pants, black shoes. But to practice yoga, obviously, we want to wear sweats. We are not allowed to change clothes in public spaces and the only bathroom is in the Education building (where we are not to be out of uniform). Restrooms in the indoor rec building are forbidden. Too much privacy.
The fact that we go through this every morning would make anyone with a sense of efficacy think of radical ideas like: How about someone meet us out there with a key, or how about just have the building unlocked every morning at 7:30? But there are rules, systems, and a variety of people who interpret them.
You get the picture.
Or you are completely lost, in which case, you are really getting the feel of this place.
So I pull on my thinnest pair of commissary gray shorts and thinnest tee shirt, and over that, my baggiest khaki shirt and pants. Once I get into the room I can peel off my top layer and voila I’m in my grays with no real breaking of laws. Sara and I have decided to take turns doing the honors. Today is me.
I pass Ms. Maestas: “Unit Manager’s” office and push open the heavy glass door to the fall morning, still warm, still humid. The enormous Texas sky is cream and silver and silk and, for me, an infusion of life. It’s omnipresent and continually reminds me that there is still beauty, that my little boy and I are connected somehow by the ephemeral brushstrokes of this wide Texas sky. I want to inhale it. I want to fit this whole sky inside my lungs.
I want to go home.
I was sitting on the front steps reading, within ear but not eyeshot of the driveway, when I heard my mother talking to a woman with a slightly-crude voice. I thought it might be the woman who lives next door. I’ve never met her, but I know her husband, Al. He regularly drinks Natural Light beer with his shirt off in the middle of the day, so it’s fair to assume he’s married to a woman with a slightly-crude voice.
The woman asked if she was at 85 Joalco Road.My mother confirmed this, and then the woman explained she was here to administer an interview on behalf of the United States Public Health Service, that my brother, whom she referred to as “the 21 year old male,” had been randomly selected for the study and stood to earn $30 should he participate. She wanted to know when the 21-year old male would be home, because she had quotas to meet with regard to particular demographics.
“Too bad you couldn’t pick my other son. He’s a 28 year old male and he’s home right now,” said my mother.
When she said this, I decided not to stand up and have a look at the woman with the slightly crude voice, even though I very much wanted to. It occurred to me that the interviewer and I could help each other out, seeing as she has quotas to meet and I’m broke, unemployed and living with my parents.
But being broke and unemployed at your parents’ house isn’t all that bad. You get to do things like walkaround in a bathrobe outside at 10 a.m. bird watching and drinking coffee.
That is what I’m doing when a navy blue Jeep Cherokee pulls into the driveway. A woman gets out, smiles, and says, “You must be the 21 year old male.I spoke with your mom the other day.”
She doesn’t look the way I imagined her to, which was short, older and graying. Rather, she is tallish, oldish, dyed too-auburn.
“Yeah, she told me about you. You’re in luck. You caught me on my day off,” I say, opening the gate to let her in. “What a morning.”
It’s about 70 degrees. The birds are giving their morning recital. Early daylight spills over the top of early-spring-green leaves. Bands of clouds drift lazily overhead on the slightest of breezes.
We decide to work outside at the picnic table. I quickly go inside and pour myself a fresh cup of coffee then take a seat across from the stranger.
“Where do you live?” I ask her.
“Middleton,” she answers.
“I’m not sure where that is exactly. Near Concord?”
“Not really. It’s next to Farmington.”
Farmington is a very sleazy town, so Middleton is probably at least a little bit sleazy by association. I wouldn’t say this woman is sleazy, but there is a hint of sleaze. The voice…the dye job…the pack of Virginia Slims menthol extra long 120s…
“Do you work for the census department?” I ask.
“No, I work for a company subcontracted by the government,” she says and hands me a brochure.
The cover says: National Survey on Drug Use and Health: Answering your important questions. I open it up and read the first page:
What is the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH)?
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) is the Federal Government’s primary source of national data on the use of alcohol, tobacco and illicit substances. The survey also contains questions on health, illegal behaviors, and other topics associated with substance use. The study was initiated in 1971 and currently is conducted on an annual basis. This year approximately 70,000 individuals, 12 years and older, will be randomly selected and asked to voluntarily participate.
The woman finishes setting up a computer and some papers and explains that the interview will take about an hour, the bulk of which will be completed anonymously on a laptop and afterwards, she’ll ask me a few questions.
She then asks me my date of birth.I take a long sip of coffee, hurrying to calculate the year my brother was born.
“You stated your birthday as October 3, 1987, making you a 22 year old male.Is this correct?”
She has to say this according to protocol, but obviously it’s not correct because I am a 21 year old male.I fix my mistake, hastily adding the excuse that I suffer from dyslexia.
“I’m just awful with numbers.” I say.
She gives a half-laugh, half-sympathetic sigh and at this point I highly suspect she knows that I don’t have dyslexia…that I am not, in fact, a 21 year old male, but rather, the 28 year old male my mother mentioned.
“OK,” she says. “Ready to begin?”
And so, on a perfect Wednesday morning, outside at the picnic table, in the presence of a complete stranger, using a slate grey laptop, I anonymously reveal my entire history of personal drug use.
I thought I’d tried most things.I was wrong.There’s a book I have to look through and answer things like list all of the drugs from Box A you have tried in:
A.the last 3 months
B.the last 6 months
C.The last year
D.At any point
The boxes are divided by drug category, such as opiates, hallucinogens, amphetamines, sedatives, etc, all with an accompanying photo and ID number.Every drug imaginable is listed.There are a lot that I’ve done.But also many I’ve not done…or even heard of.
I take mental notes of the drugs I’d like to try.It’s like the feature on iTunes when you’re searching for a band and they show you what Other Listeners Bought.Well, I love amphetamines, so I’ll probably like lisdexamfetamine as well…and all the other drugs in Box C for that matter.
It all reminds me of the D.A.R.E . (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) program, which most Americans over the age of 27 probably were forced to take part in.Like D.A.R.E., this survey is opening my eyes to all sorts of wonderful substances.
I recall the first day of D.A.R.E. distinctly.The entire 5th grade gathered in the library and a police officer came in with a display board containing illustrations of all these different drugs and explained how they had horrible side-effects and we should never even consider trying them.The cop told the story of a man who, in a PCP rage, took 18 rounds from police officers before going down.
As a 5th grade boy, I figured if I could get my hands on this PCP stuff…well, I could rule the neighborhood.Nobody would fuck with me.
The D.A.R.E. curriculum consisted largely of role-playing where, in a typical scenario, one student played the drug dealer and another an abstaining youth who employed the proper version of “Just Say No” to reject the dealer’s advances.
Not once in my adult life has a drug dealer materialized out of thin air and tried to push their goods on me like in D.A.R.E.There were plenty of times I wish they would have, but to no avail.The closest I’ve gotten is in tourist hot spots where drug dealers whisper, “marijuana, cocaine, ecstasy” as you pass by.As an 18 year old in London, I tried to buy weed from one of these guys and ended up with oregano.Since then, I’ve learned you don’t buy shit from drug dealers on the street in an unfamiliar area.You go to a university area and ask around at bars.
Back in the 5th grade, I even starred in the D.A.R.E. play, which was the culmination of the ten week program. I can’t recall much about the production, except that I had a lead role.The character I played, due to some unholy cocktail of substances, collapsed.My line was “Help, I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.” (That’s right-Steve Urkel style.)
Between then and now I’ve done a lot of drugs and never once have I fallen and been unable to get up. Quite the opposite: When I get up, I don’t want to fall down.
Drug Abuse Resistance Education was started by members of the Los Angeles Police in 1983.Today, 36 million children around the world and 26 million in the U.S. participate.
Over the years, a number of studies have been conducted to ascertain the efficacy of D.A.R.E.Some particularly interesting findings include a 1992 Indiana University study that found students who completed D.A.R.E. used hallucinogenic drugs at a higher rate than students who didn’t enroll in the program.In 1998, Dr. Dennis Rosenbaum reported D.A.R.E. graduates were more likely than non-graduates to use alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs.Also in 1998, Psychologist Dr. William Colson claimed that exposing young students to drugs encouraged and nurtured drug use.He wrote: “…as they get a little older, students become very curious about these drugs they’ve learned about from police officers.”
In 2001, the Surgeon General of the United States placed D.A.R.E. in the category: “Does Not Work.”The Association for Psychological Sciences (APS) put D.A.R.E. on a list of treatments that can potentially harm clients in 2007.
D.A.R.E. reflects the U.S. drug control policy of zero-tolerance.It was adopted as part of the control strategy of the U.S. government’s War on Drugs.Last year, Gil Kerlikowske, Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, stated the Obama administration would not use the term “War on Drugs,” claiming it to be counter-productive.
After 40 years, $1 trillion dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost, it seems the War on Drugs is counter-productive not only in name.Comments by Mr. Kerlikowske suggest as much.
“In the grand scheme, it has not been successful” he told the Associated Press recently.“Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.”
This month, President Obama made a pledge to “reduce drug use and the great damage it causes” through a revamped policy that treats drug use as a public health issue, focusing on prevention and treatment.Despite his promise, the president has increased spending on drug prohibition through law enforcement, which accounts for $10 billion of his $15.5 billion drug-control budget, a record in total dollars and as a percentage of the drug-control budget.Obama’s drug-fighting budget is 31 times what Richard Nixon’s was (including inflation adjustment) after he signed the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act in 1971, which effectively began the War on Drugs.
The Associated Press has tracked how taxpayer money has been spent to combat drug use over the past 40 years.Here’s what we’ve been billed for:
And I thought I’d spent a lot of money on drugs and had nothing to show for it.
When I’m done with the computer the interviewer asks me a few questions about my employment, insurance, household income, etc., and then we’re done.I sign an interview payment receipt and the woman counts out 3 crisp 10s and lays them in my hand.My time as a 21 year old male is officially over.
I walk the interviewer to the gate and wish her well.
“What an interesting job you have…traveling to people’s homes, setting your own hours.” I say.
“Yes, I enjoy it.” she says.“I get to meet many interesting people.The only thing is that if I ever run into somebody in town or at the grocery store or something, I don’t know their name.”
“Well, if I ever see you, just call me 21 year old male.” I say
It’s now around 11 o’clock, giving me five hours before my mother comes home.I should probably go fill out some job applications.But it’s an awfully nice day.And I’ve got a lot on my mind.
Had I taken D.A.R.E. more seriously and never used drugs, would I be a broke, unemployed 28 year old male living at home?
If the War on Drugs has failed, then who is the victor?Drugs?Drug dealers? Drug users?
What, precisely, is implicit in the reality that America has 5% of the world’s population but uses 50% of its illegal drugs…and has 25% of its prisoners?
Is Middleton a sleazy town?
Such matters deserve a deeper consideration.
But I’m all out of weed.I have no car.And unlike in D.A.R.E., drug dealers don’t just materialize while you’re walking down the street.Especially not on Joalco Road in Strafford, New Hampshire.
Besides, while drug use rates haven’t changed much after 40 years and $1 trillion spent, the prices have.I’ll be lucky to get a few joints from $30 of today’s hydroponic shit.As a generation of D.A.R.E. – mockers know: Drugs Are Really Expensive.
But there are other options.
I hear Al whistling from his porch.His shirt is off.There’s a koozy on the railing.
“Yo Al, I’m comin’ over buddy.You owe me from last time.”