48 Hours in the County Jail
Kent H. Dixon
Grand Tour: The Journal of Travel Literature, Spring, 1997.
The men’s shower is around here somewhere, so’s the busy Intake Center, and so’s you, buck naked, wrists vaguely folded across your privates, as someone hands you a bar of soap. He points the way. The shower stall is room-size, with a toilet smack-dab, no partitions, bars across the entire front where a bathroom wall should be. On the way in you spot a coiled hose hanging from a wall faucet and wonder if they’re going to use it on you—flitting images of Selma.
‘Warsh good,” says the deputy, who is a large man. Aren’t they all. Four of them are brothers, including a set of twins, which doesn’t help orient you one bit. Neither does the sudden cloud of disinfectant powder as you step out. Instinctively protecting your eyes, hand flying up, you notice a slight jerk of his hand, toward the billy stick on his belt.
Your prison garb, sturdy cotton blue pajamas like surgical scrubs, actually fit! And you get to keep your underwear; these are comforts to be sure. But something more than the ink from your fingerprinting has rubbed off in that shower: you feel younger, not in a particularly good way. No face of yours—serious, pissed, curious, wise—will make a lick of difference on the pod. You have, after all, hung up your freedom.
The “pod” includes the dozen single-occupant cells plus the common living area they open onto, where the inmates eat, play gin and euchre, trade smokes and mostly lie around all day sleeping. They are actually locked out of their own cells 16 hours a day and not without calculation: they have some society thus, and too, sexual activity and potential violence are inhibited. You wouldn’t want them drifting in and out of their open cells the day long and you certainly wouldn’t want to provide them the option of slamming those massive cell doors—decapitate someone in one wang chunk. Furthermore, this is a jail, a warehouse of sorts, a legal purgatory where you wait and wait, with some of its penitents actually innocent, or will come to be adjudged so. Some. So you corral them all together on the pods, the killers with the deadbeats, batterers with embezzlers, dope boys and drunks and coppers of pleas, with some attention to confining the violent offenders to the top floor. Some.
I felt decadent, a little obscene when I think about it. I would be out in two days, whereas the rest of them spend three months on average, and then move on to prison, most of them for years.
First impressions of the pod:
Certainly looks lived-in. Defunct playing cards strewn about the concrete floor, painted a battleship gray, like my basement. The men look discarded, too, encamped on their mattresses in every corner of this dayroom. Like coming upon a stretch of homeless— oops, wrong turn.
A flooring of faux brick (quarter-inch vinyl) defines the dining area, consisting of 12 anchored stools around two steel tables that jut out from a glass wall. Remaining walls are concrete block, rendered an eerie and uneven pallid yellow—from decades of cigarette smoke, I’m guessing, though this jail is only a decade old.
Twelve cells to a pod. Cups and cigarette packs and shampoo bottles and such line the lintel above each steel door—off the floor so’s not underfoot. Can use the elbow hinge to one’s door as a shelf, too. So one doesn’t have to get up.
The inmates are logy like the big cats in a zoo. In fact, the signature mood here must be along the lines of a massive collective depression, quite like a zoo.
When I told a friend I was going into the jail for a couple of days as an inmate, my identity known only to the Sheriff, she obligingly asked why.
Why, to do a story, of course.
That wasn’t the story she wanted to hear. “It’s the story in front of that,” she said. “I want to know why Kent wants to go to jail.” I couldn’t really answer her.
When I’d proposed the idea to the Sheriff, he’d merely studied my face, then nodding slowly said, “I’d be interested in the pressures on the pod.”
He meant the pressures on his deputies as well as the inmates, when nobody’s watching but the players. So, besides your typical reporter’s affinity for the lower depths, some part of my agenda, I had to admit, was espionage. Sheriff’s stooge.
But if Emerson had appeared at my jail cell to ask, as he did of Thoreau, “What are you doing in there, Henry?” I would have to have told him I really wasn’t absolutely quite sure. Thoreau, protesting taxes at the time, replied: “What are you doing out there, Waldo?”
There are five floors to this jail. On the top three of them, a dozen pods and some odd isolation cells, plus the drunk tank down at Book-In, make for a 179-inmate capacity, which can be and not infrequently is, exceeded, leaving one or two men to sleep in the outer pod at night when the rest are locked down. This almost happened to me. Saved by a last minute cancellation—the guy was hospitalized instead.
Such arrangements can extend capacity to 200 or more, but that also tends to be when the bad stuff happens. The Sheriff will spring people at Christmas, it’s said, just to reduce the pressures of over-crowding. On the morning of my second day, we got a thirteenth man on our pod. He was so drunk he didn’t even get his mattress unrolled. Just lay in a heap on the concrete floor beside my garbage can, passed out and drooling. And relieving himself—I was in a position to know. You’d think the garbage can would suffice for one’s rookie’s space, but I got Stinky, too. He and the can flanked the way out, and in, like defunct sentinels.
The entrance amounts to a small steel-encased hallway, like some sort of decompression chamber with windows. You’re shuffling along in your blue pajamas and shower thongs, hemmed in between two big-bellied men, and they hand you your jail issue of toilet articles and bedding and usher you in. Lock the door behind you and pop open the one in front. This may seem excessive, but “mentals” have been known to rush the doors, and 12 inmates really could make short work of the one or occasionally two deputies posted out there.
When I arrive, I was supposed to deposit my shit in my cell and drag my mattress out into the common pod, but I got it mixed up and came out empty-handed, preparing my face to met the faces and pulling my cell door closed behind me—oh, oh, I could see by a couple of those faces I was doing something wrong. Too late: Slam! Electronic bolts shoot home with such a pow you’d think target practice had moved to inside the door.
There was a slight stir; some of them were muttering—I couldn’t follow—one guy started to bang on the glass wall and yell for a guard—all this fuss because I’d locked myself out of my cell without my mattress? I’d need it, they felt—only around ten a.m., a long day ahead.
And then some other guy said, “Aw, fuck ‘em,” meaning the guards. “Gimme your book.” And someone tossed him a paperback. He tossed it back and asked for a hardcover. One sailed across the pod to him, and he came over and knelt down before my cell door and in about ten seconds, with one glance back over his shoulder, he popped the lock. With the cover of a hardback book!
My door swung open. We entered my cell. He pointed at my mattress and said I might want my case and pillow. All I heard was case and thought he was asking me what I was in for, ‘Sowa’dij’ya catch a case f’uh?’ I was spared the foolishness of telling him because suddenly there were two or three others in my cell and more at the door, admiring the previous occupant’s artwork, METALLICA, penciled in 20-inch prickly letters on the cement block wall (against regulation). There was also ANTHRAX, another heavy metal group I guess—scattered bars of Sting or the Stones is about as with it as I get.
I got my mattress and got out of there, and they followed, but the half dozen of us must have spent a couple of minutes in my cell with the door open, with more huddled at the threshold, when all doors were supposedly bolted shut electronically and the one or two guards per pod should have noticed something, either directly through their glass wall or electronically via the monitors. But no one saw us. In other words, there was no security in this jail whatsoever. Anyone (or five or ten) could muscle anyone into a cell, close the door, bully, rape or murder him, make it look like a suicide even, leave him there, close the door behind and he wouldn’t be discovered till next morning when he’d be missed at breakfast, provided the head count was accurate. Really, anything could happen.
I sat there awhile on my mattress thinking of bailing out. Cry foul, call the Sheriff. This had not been among the conditions of our contract. But I figured I’d never get another chance, and didn’t this unanticipated risk, this frankly gaping hole in the chain mail of the thousand overlapping security details that should have made this jail one of the safest around, didn’t this nasty little trade secret kept even from the Sheriff, sort of neutralize my inauthenticity? Somehow, this was what I’d come for. Anything could happen and as it turned out, I would discover that night that someone had indeed liberated my toothpaste during my brief Open House.
The Commissary cart came around. Happened so fast and me so clueless, I didn’t get nuthin. My lintel is bare. But you got to love these 1960s prices:
shampoo $1.25 Chapstick $ .30
cards $1.35 Lifesavers $ .25
pen $ .25 coffee $ .20
pad $1.20 reg. cigarettes $1.40
envelope $ .25 generic cigs $1.10
toothbrush $ .50 toothpaste (sm.) $ .75
More about the pod. For blueprint, imagine a 60-foot rectangle with cells open on three of its sides, the solid glass wall making up the fourth. You on the inside have to look through the two-inch thick glass to watch the 24-inch TV mounted outside the pod, its controls also outside. You have to alert a guard to get the channel changed, provided you can get your eleven other podmates to agree on which channel. If there’s enough argument, the guards get pissed and shut the set off. Pressures on the pod.
The worst pressure, or a close second to the boredom, or a distant third to the dislocation of time—no wristwatch and no accessible windows equals no sense of time, especially of time passing—besides these, the most pressing discomfort is the noise.
My notes on the sensory environment:
Zounds! The din—echoing hallways, slamming steel doors, men shouting point blank into other men’s ears to be heard—this mainly against the TV blasting thru the PA system. You can feel its vibrations bend the hairs on your arms, pelt your eyeballs. When they shut if off for some reason—to order us to line up for a head count, or call someone out to see their Public Defender, whatever—you jerk forward an inch into the sudden silence.
Yet even as the decimeter needle of your inner ear is surely slamming in the red, you’ll see one or two of the lads making signs to the deputy to crank it up louder. I asked a fellow inmate how this could be. He hefted an imaginary object to his shoulder, snuggled his ear up and shouted, “Boom boxes! The fuckers’re all deaf!”
Add to this the trembling hum of the generator, which has just kicked on to drive the AC, which is kept colder than you would imagine is healthy, maybe 65, and with the boredom factor feels like 50, the theory around here being we’re refrigerated on purpose: cuts down on things, makes you sleepy.
Occasionally, during a lull in the PA system, and from a long way off, a basement somewhere I guess, one can hear the dull pow pow of deputies on the firing range, practicing.
Besides the incredibly battered garbage can, the only other furniture in the pod is the two steel tables jutting out from the glass wall, for meals or cards, their steel stools the one place to sit when not curled up on one’s mattress pad on the floor by your door. Each table seats six men, three stools flanking a side, everything bolted down. Besides that door, there are no moving parts on a pod, or for that matter in a cell, save the button you push to flush your toilet (no lid, no seat), or the other button to get cold water into your stainless steel sink. If you can hold that button in for a challenging minute, you get hot. If you can get away with a plastic juice straw, you mash the tip and jam it into the button setting and lo—hot running water, after a minute. So you can shave, or make tea, instant coffee, or cocoa.
But juice straws are contraband; they count them almost as carefully as they do the razor blades. If there aren’t 12, it’s cause for a shake down: everyone is put in his cell, then one by one each man is taken out while his cell is turned upside down. A sniffing dog, sometimes.
For little plastic juice straws make fearsome weapons. Need only remove the staple from a magazine, straighten it, mount it in a juice straw welding its seat fast with a match, you got yourself a neat little shiv—palmable, stab someone in the eye with it a lot quicker than they can parry.
What else. A toothbrush ground to a point—stabbed into a neck, fairly lethal. Hence the ones they issue tend toward the short kiddie variety, some with cartoon character handles. I got a Droopy Dog.
Another use of staples: you’ll see them looped through the occasional ear lobe, to keep the hole open, since one is relieved of all jewelry at Booking. An inch of straw from the pod’s broom can also suffice. The effect is arresting.
At the glass wall end of each table, opening onto the table’s surface, is a slot maybe 14 inches wide and three high or so—the food chute, through which the food trays come and go. The pint milk cartons have to be laid on their sides to fit through. Forbidden messages pass through here too, the Trustee hastily delivering the scuttlebutt from other floors, or personal messages, as he builds a backlog of favors.
5:00 p.m. Besides the PA speakers blasting at the level of small craft warnings, there’s visual noise to boot—the mess of cards, newspaper pages as if blown about a back alley (who in his right mind would pick up?), and the National Enquirer pages, their eyesore titles, that you can’t not read, eventually.
7:30 p.m. The intro to Baywatch was great: girls swimming butterfly in slow motion, long underwater takes of their undulant dolphin kicks. What was that music? The quiet that came into us.
11:30 p.m. Just before lockdown, as if strategically (tapes kept on file?), the late news switches to an execution and the following crime story. Everyone lapses inward. Something to sleep on.
My cell is about 12 feet long, six feet wide, with the toilet stool and the sink obtruding into that monk’s space. The bunk appears recessed. My mirror is of stainless steel, pretty dim, over the sink. There’s an observation window in my door: I can look out into the pod—I do, watching the clean-up crew—or the shift officer can look in on me after we’re all locked down. Am I dead or alive, jerking off, shooting up?
I pass some time pitching my balled-up socks at this diminutive window. Neighbor bangs on my wall. I switch to a silent wad of toilet paper. Later I can hear him munching chips, but I let it go.
I stand on my hands. I do sit-ups. I stand on my desk to stare out the slit of an upper window at whatever comes into view three floors below. A parking lot. The deputies coming on duty look pressed and perky; them that’s going off drag like they’ve been up all night. Have they? What time is it? I snooze, I add to my notes:
My stainless steel toilet bowl gonna get to know. It is insistent, a presence, more on the order of a self-satisfied bedpan that a toilet. Stainless is a misrepresentation besides. Mine is mottled, crusty, with drip stains. Praise be for dapped things, I guess.
I’m too itchy with incarceration to read; so I experience cell time. My eye’s got nothing to do but light on ye old crapper, with previous occupant’s shit stains. It just thrusts its chest out from the bottom third of the sink stand, be-riboned with use. The cement floor around its base is rumpled and dimply; they must have mixed in a little cellulite when it was wet, remind the men of their women’s thighs.
The bowl (haven’t sat on it yet) most any time now shall acquire a name.
On the outer pod there’s also a daytime toilet, of steel, off in a corner tucked into a snug arrangement with a laundry sink type urinal and the pod’s one shower. It’s very public, I’m not about to use it, the parting advice of another friend, “Well, Kent, when you take a shower, try not to drop the soap,” echoing in my head and jigging with another quip I’d heard often enough when I’d worked as a writing coach with the crack felons: ‘Happy as a punk on his way to prison’—“punk” being street for homosexual.
If so homo-sodomo-phobic, why then, one could ask along with my friend, was I there? The short answer is I’d been teaching writing in one of the jail’s drug rehab programs—couple of dozen men on Tuesday, a dozen women on Thursdays. I’d gotten to know these people, gotten attached to some, still correspond with a few four years later. We’d collaborated—my writing up their stories into one voice—on an article together, a tour of a generic crack house. Curious thing: though they liked the article, they wouldn’t have anything to do with its authorship. Two reasons: some wanted to get as far away as they could from that hellacious life; others, quite frankly, didn’t want to jeopardize their cred with the Dopeman, should he ever read it.
After a year of their confessions and catharses, and schlepping in a ton of fruit and doughnuts, and training some of my students to carry on without me as part of their community service requirement for our college, I’d phased myself out. Two percent is considered a good rehab rate for crack addicts. That gets to you, along with their stories, some amusing enough—the woman who jumped into the backseat of the unmarked sheriffmobile to pitch a sell [cf “Three by Marty” in OPEN]; the man that held up a bank with his finger, and in the tension of the moment brought it out of his coat. And some you’d as soon not hear: the man who confessed to selling his daughter, age 11, for a nickel rock. When someone in group asked him if he’d do it again, he just sat there staring, unable to cry.
The scores of prisoners I’d known would have moved on by the time I’d move in. I’d picked up enough of the jargon, knew the ropes, routines, the color-coded arm bands (red for felony, blue for misdemeanor, orange for trustee), but none of the faces would recognize mine; so figuring on incognito, I proposed my story idea to the Sheriff, and he, interested in the pressures on the pod, bit.
We signed some legal things, set a date, and in I went. My crime—I wanted a red felony band on my wrist because I’d noticed in group the blue misdemeanants were considered pussies—was DUI on the Air Force Base. Our Governor had recently made drunk driving on federal land a felony. In my telling of it, I’d imbibed a little too much and accidentally rammed a General’s Cadillac, right in front of the Officer’s Club. General was drunker than I and took a swing at me; I doubled him over with a smart four finger salute into his fat gut. The assault charge was dropped, however, since—how did the story go?—oh yeah, since I had a witness, fortunately another civilian, willing to testify against the brass. In short, I was just drunk and misbehaving in Uncle Sam’s driveway, and why shouldn’t I be? My wife had just left me for my boss. I was some sort of computer guy, albeit recently unemployed, and we’d just bought a house when I caught them at it, in it, my new waterbed, the indignity of it—hell, everything was fucked. I figured that was enough to soak up the questions, but one guy stumped me with where was the house. I grabbed a street and number out of my panic bag, and another guy says, I know that house. The red one next to…etc., but I still had my wits at that point—smelled a trap. Red? I said. Number 716? If you count the bricks maybe. It might be 721, hell, I’ve only slept in it twice (at this point working on what to say if they asked me if that was before or after my boss shtupped my wife).
On this count, of being exposed, I’d prepared assiduously. I’d been curling and pressing my son’s weights for two months, doing 50 push-ups routinely, 100 on a bet, and gotten my old speed bag up to nearly two minutes. Quick hands (I tell myself). I practiced inhaling before a mirror, I didn’t shave for two days before, or wash my hair Greasy and grubby, ready for Freddy.
Here’s the goings down at 5:30 am, Wednesday morning. The bolts on the cell doors slam open electronically—louder than your average gun. The delicious, healing quiet of last night, after the TV was off, is still there this morning, but no one notices.
Too sleepy. So out I go, determined to keep track today, so help me; bring a few sheets of paper and my Prisoner Handbook. Ask about the schedule.
“You studying up for the quiz?”
“No, man, I just don’t like not knowing what’s next, you know?”
“It’s pretty much the same.”
We concur. I’m first to sit at the table (make sure I get a seat), and commence reading my manual.
Breakfast—that’s now; 11:30 a.m. is lunch; 4:30 p.m. dinner—that’s then. I’ll mark the sun today by the TV shows—except we seem beleaguered by reruns.
My one buddy, Big Bob, shuffles up and sits across from me.
“Good morning, Bob,” I say.
“Just morning, no good,” he says, groggy.
I didn’t sleep so good myself. My mattress kept me awake. Not something you sink into. Horse hair or something, some industrial excelsior. It crackles when you turn on it, right in the ear, louder than neck bones. And the blankets are too short to tuck under—either your feet go uncovered or your chest.
We all just sit there, most heads bowed. Fifteen minutes or so, listening to the echoes coming closer. Then it’s here, milk carton, two sticky doughnuts each, coffee, apple juice.
“Ever cure this stuff,” I ask Bob.
“You know, the juice. Let it set up, ferment. Make cider. Hard cider?”
The guy with the comb in the back of his hair—I was pleased when he sat next to me—neither he nor his buddy even acknowledged me yesterday—speaks:
“You ask a lot of questions, don’t he?” Comb says. “I think you be po-lice.”
“Yeah, right,” scoff I. “And you be d’judge.”
There was a chuckle or two, and I guess I held my own, but he sure shut me down. I think I stopped asking questions right about 5:46 a.m. of my second day. And that was one I knew the answer to: they do. Add sugar, let the juice sit three or four days, enjoy a rancid little night-cap of a Saturday night.
I actually wrote a will. Let all my Lifesavers to Big Bob, who was hooked on chocolate but would settle for anything sweet. He was immense, with a huge voice so you could understand him over the PA system, and it was he who taught me most of what I learned. Most friendly, that is, until the morning Comb called me a cop, after which Bob pretty much ignored me. Or, that might have been simply because I couldn’t hold up my end swapping baseball stories.
To Mohammed—a beautiful black kid, totally lost—to him I left my lawyer’s number and a promise I’d call the man about doing some pro bono. A deputy had served this lad his indictment while we were talking. Possession, but less than a gram—a jail sentence as opposed to prison. I watched his face fall to another level of lost, at what I thought sounded like the good news. But in a federal pen he’d have opportunities—jobs, school, exercise, politics, gangs, drugs, sex, religion. Blue skies above and law libraries within. In jail, for his “county offense,” he would just do time, or rather, the other way round.
We had a big time dope dealer, Master Slick I called him. He never did speak to me and spent most of his time on the pod’s only phone, conducting business I presume. Thirty minute limit per phone call, but I never got to use it, thanks to him.
This pay phone was around a corner of sorts, so the deputies couldn’t quite see it from inside their glass unless they got way off to the other side, which they were too lazy to do, and you were supposed to come out from behind that corner when there was a head count anyway. But Slick-meister never did. Twice, not once but twice in two days, I watched the deputies miscount us, stopping at 12 on Stinky, or cell-less thirteenth podmate, while around the far corner Mast Slick remained bent over one of his interminable calls. This uncounted thirteenth then—any one of us—could have been hanging by our pajama string in our locked cell.
I wonder now if this adds up to a pressure on the pod?
So there were Bob and Slick and Mohammed and the two other blacks, Comb and his buddy, and tall blond Chris, framed by his bad lot friends, arraignment postponed, in limbo, and then an assortment of down-trodden that I more or less dismissed, my loss doubtless. Drunks, scumbags, losers and meanies. Born under the planet Mars. Sickly complexions, bad teeth, jitters. As the Receiving-Screen form asks of the Booking officer:
DOES INMATE SHOW SIGNS OF ALCOHOL/DRUG WITHDRAWAL SYMPTOMS?
[X] YES [ ] NO
IS THE SKIN IN GOOD CONDITION AND FREE OF VERMIN?
[ ] YES [X] NO
One middle-aged murderer, in transit somewhere, hadn’t seen the outside in 30 years. Good. He was an evil cracker just to look at, even before I learned his case. More than one murder outside, and a third suspected in prison. What was he doing on the third floor anyway?
DOES INMATE’S BEHAVIOR SUGGEST THE RISK OF ASSAULT TO STAFF OR
By far the best character-with-a-story I immediately dubbed Sam, because he looked exactly like—I mean they must have spent four hours in make-up every day before he appeared at breakfast—Yosemite Sam. Yar n’ol two-fisted, pistol whackin’, whisker bushin’ Yosemite Sam. For a split second I thought it was a rubber mask and was readying myself for the collective guffaw at my reaction. Now get this: “What’s his name?” I asked Big Bob. “The bushy redhead.”
“That’s Sam,” he said.
“He remind you of anyone? That guy in the comic books?”
I am stared at. Finally he just says, “Yeah, maybe.”
But I’m telling you, Bugs could not look more like Bugs, or Daffy Daffy. Sam was cock-eyed, too, fleshy metaphor for that brace of wall-eyed six-shooters of his. He was partial to my Luck Strikes, too; so parceling them out, I got to hear his story, and to my great surprise, and middling shame, he got to hear mine.
Ya wouldn’t know it to look at him in the folds of Looney Tunes, but Yosemite Sam’s got a secret life. He don’ read nor write but he’s been a traveling minstrel, picks a little banjo, pumps a little organ. The mad eyes twinkle; tobacco strands astray in his lugubrious moustache from his roll-yer-own cigs—his hands shake. He gives me a giggle but also that feeling of irreality, say, when you catch a movie star down from the screen.
“How many kids you got?” I ask him.
“Thirty!? Holy shit, how many times you been married?”
“Thurdy,” he laughs. “Naa.. H’ain’t. But I spots ‘em. Always them ones with them sleevess blouse on, they got that slouch says, ‘Samuel Kissler, I needs taking care of.’”
Sam and I are off in his corner. Another guy’s snoring, from under his blanket. I’m intent on a sketch I’m doing of two slippered feet, bare ankles, opposingly sharing the edge of a stool, so I wave Sam on without looking up, as if coaxing him to blow his smoke into my ear.
“You seen ‘em. In the bars, the volable ones. I go up at ‘em, puts my arm around an’ says, ‘Honey, how’d you like to have a satisfactory income for the next 18 years?’ ‘Bout half of ‘em wants hear more. I got lotsa pitches, an’ I got lots childens—shee-it, some of ‘em grown off the dole by now I figure.”
“You mean welfare?”
He did, indeed, mean welfare. He talked these women into letting him impregnate them, so they could AFDC it for the next 18 years, and food stamps, heating allowance, the whole schemer. He said. It sort of took my breath away, the idea of it, whether true or no, these 18- and 20-year-old girls—you could see them brown-shouldered in their sleeveless blouses, with this slew-eyed, tooth-staggered, bully-breathed sleazy varmint closing in. And then his seed, sucking on my taxes.
Did I spit in his lazy eye? Did I walk away?
I lit my last Lucky and handed it to him.
“You ever see any of ‘em?” I asked. “The kids.”
“A couple,” he said. He warn’ much of a homebody. But less I judge him harshly, he wanted me to know he’d saved a lot of those girls from drugs. “Either kep’em off or got em off. Crank, some of ‘em, too.”
“Crack?” “Crank! S’like crack but it cranks you up most day long. Can’t do that shit and grow babies, I tells ‘em. I can be pretty firm. They’d could’a done worse for der daddies. So you never heard of no crank?”
I guessed I had. But the noise in the pod . . . But he pressed. From the bikers in Philly, crank (methamphetamine) made its way around the country, into the heart of the heartland. But what would I know of that? “You prob’think Mary Jane’s some cat house madam. You her lawyer or what?” he brays.
I was a computer guy and I knew my mary jane, I assured him. I was of age in the ’60s. In my day . . . Well, I embellished a little, drawing from war stories of friends and acquaintance, and in no time we’d switched over to acid, a ’60s rite of passage we shared. He told me about flying his Chevy pickup over a cornfield, catching the rear wheels on a ridge and knowing it was real because while spinning there, overlooking the town, he was able to lean out the window and lick up the city lights like granules of spilled sugar, leaving dark swaths on the horizon.
My turn. I took a leak once—I mean, left to my own devices by my fellow trippers on a farm near Iowa City, I forged my way outside to take a leak under a sky that was squirting an oily yellowish gelatin. I just figured the moon had burst; let the authorities deal with it. But then off to my right I noticed a very large beetle, teen feet long if an inch, about waist high—the sheen on its carapace, the munching mandibles. I froze. I watched its antennae feel out the breeze.
Inner dialogue went something like: Well, you know you’re tripping, really anything could happen, though this is most unusual—but why assume the worst, why be frightened?
It stopped chewing and its antennae shifted around to point. At me. Intent. It was too short for a cow, in bug’s clothing. What the hell—I went up to it, wishing I had an apple and wondering if it fancied the late fescue and perennial ryegrass. Thinking about keeping my thumb flush, I went up to befriend it.
But the bug was my friend’s Porsche; some prairie grass its antennae, morning breeze and lysergic acid had done the rest.
Sam came back with dumber: going 60 on his bike down a dirt road, no lights. I told him about the time a handful of us tried to take over a whorehouse. He told me about Pentecostal meetings where he and his friends would fake the shakes. We went on and on, like gin rummy, picking up that card, laying down another. My bad, his worse. My worst: planned to kill a man, a random man, as an adventure. An apex, though not the climax, of a seriously delinquent youth.
At that, my friends, it comes to me now, is why I was in jail. A stage of my development that I’d somehow missed—prison. My jail visit was a virtual expiation, like when I fast on August 6th and/or 9th, or dream of wrestling a jeroboam of water down into the hold of a slave ship; or march, march any trail of tears—Jews, Indians, POW’s, Selma, Birmingham. It feeds my sense of justice, which appears well buttressed by guilt. A romantic and grandiose guilt, for A-bombs and racist America. For pigging out on the world—mere extensions of mea culpa for my wild oats? One could miss that, one’s measly guilt assuming collective proportion as one dodges and spins through his daily life making amends where he can, where a releaser pops up, atoning for you and you and you and you, and me. I’m sorry, but what are you doing out there, Waldo? What are any of us doing not risking justice?
It nibbles at and impels me. But that all this should stem from stolen cars and a hotshot attempt to depose a couple of pimps, or from an ungrounded adolescent’s modeling on Nathan Leopold rather than Clarence Darrow as I’d been bid. Well, alas.
But it gets worse. With what do I presume to minister to the wretched of this earth? I draw on my childhood stock—my parents. My mother the party girl, in her eighties now and still looking for a good time, and not much else. These are my roots.
Miami Beach, where I grew up, where they were married in the late 1930s, was conceived as a tourist haven—“the billion dollar sandbar.” And the Seventh Fleet was stationed there during the war—that was a long party, and no one that could afford it, was willing to give up those good times after 1945, and in the 1950s, thanks to the war effort, most everyone could afford it.
I would lie in my bed kept awake by the parties out on the lawn, under the lanterns that hung like moons, listening to the hilarity drift down to the dock on the canal, where I could hear the whoops and splashing of skinny dipping. Men in white officer’s uniforms, with serious grass stains. Women in only their wet underwear, seeking my bathroom. Waves of laughter, like swells through my window; tinkling of ice cubes when the waves subside. I could follow the chime of my mother’s laugh the length of the yard, as she moved through her party, being its life. These were Gatsbyan Twenties parties in the 1940s. The police called to quell them eventually got drunk with the rest. The newspapers writing them up made them meaningful, as in, this is what we were meant for, this is how you do it, recreation on Olympus, folks. This is a talent. It takes generations to make this kind of a party.
And so, on my last night in jail, afraid to be a reporter any more, too disgusted to make any more one-on-one efforts, bored to a point of physical suffering, I threw a party.
I had $22 in my property envelope. Against that, I filled out a commissary slip for six bags of Fritos, 12 rolls of Lifesavers (five colored, seven white), a box of Kool-Aid packets, two packs of Luckies, and a deck of cards.
Little by little, starting around nine o’clock, the guests arrived. One guy donated his blanket—an ersatz grey felt cover for the steel table top. I started as Bank, doled out equal chips to four or five of us and had them buy Lifesavers—one whole Frito chip for white Wintergreens and Spearmints, two for yellow (lemon and butterscotch), three for red, green, and orange. The TV kept blaring, but they began to talk, table jokes. Mohammed had to be taught poker. “No, no. One pair beats two pair—unless you’re a bitch, kid.” Ho, ho. No point to three of a kind: you only got two hands.
“Anybody got a joint?”
“Fuck…lucky to get chewing gum in here. Here, blam some of this” (the Kool-Aid).
“It happens. ‘Member that motha’ p on five…”
I asked what motha’. Well, she got slammed for something. 30 days, couldn’t stand it, called her daughter to get busted and smuggle in a little grass.
Body cavities apparently. There’s no doctor, so they can’t check body cavities. Many jokes about smoking that particular ounce of dope ensued, pro and con.
“Quit eating my fuck’n money, Tully!” From a window in Tully’s corner, you could look down at the women entering the music club across the street. A good titty shot would empty the table. We’d yell and pound the window and occasionally someone would look up and see us.
Waves. Cheers. Then back to seven-card stud or night baseball, and some really weird ones, including euchre for a couple of rounds, which I simply couldn’t learn.
So I mingled, facilitated. Good host. I wished for tissue paper around a comb and a couple of spoons, but that didn’t happen, and why push it. Man, they were laughing. You never see that, not even in the co-operative space of the writing group, not this kind of laughter, that springs you for a few, lets you sniff a little time that isn’t jail time. I know it was special because on weeknights lockdown is at 11:30 p.m. This Wednesday night, the guards let us stay out in the pod till after one. My last night, doing my time, working off my bad boy youth and my rich kid roots, and not able to tell the difference: I came to jail for both guilts.
My last day, I think. Back in my cell now writing. 6:00 a.m. I sat next to Comb at breakfast, to rub him wrong. I’ve regressed in two days, recognize my old smart-ass kid impulses—if things get dull, stir the pot. Must have always been the writer in me: agitez doucement, then sit back to watch it roil, with luck maybe even spew over. Gonzo kid.
Anyway, it rubbed him. As the coffees came down the line this morning, he took mine. I took it back. He said something and put his hand on it to retake it and I held the bottom. “You got three there,” I said. He started whining he gets Mohammed’s and John’s and Tully’s—they don’t drink it, he’s claimed theirs.
Sez me, “That’s right. You get theirs, this one’s mine.” Another was coming so he grabbed it, thank God. Did I win? Everyone was watching, the other table attentive, too. I think I did, but I’m not out of here yet. And Comb was one of the three held over in the outer pad last night after we were locked down, for clean-up (the party mess!). With the right book, he could pay me a visit. Isn’t his side-kick on clean-up detail, too?
Still, he ought to know better than to separate a cuckolded computer guy from his coffee. When I bag-and-baggage out of here—when? Noon? Did we even set a time? I’ll leave Comb my sox; they smell like Easter egg dye.
8:00 a.m. We’re still locked down in our cells after breakfast when the announcement comes over the PA: “Prisoner number 2584, Dixon…Bag-and-baggage at nine a.m.”
45 minutes later, I’m more than ready. I’ve washed and polished Gerard Manly (finally named him). One’s own urine, diluted about 10:1, makes a fine caustic, plus a dab of shampoo. My sink shines like new, too. Held back a little on the crapper, but the stain’s gone.
My podmates were still locked down when they popped open my door. I left the things with a note on the table: the comb’s for Comb, the cards for Mohammed; the phone chit I never got to use, for Slick. Lifesavers and Fritos, Big Bob. I knocked on Sam’s observation window—he appeared—I held up my last pack of Luckies and placed it on his lintel. Big bushy smile, Yosemite Sam, looking naked without his hat. Looking repulsive like a once night stand you inadvertently slept late with.
On the sidewalk just outside the jail, I ran into a student who used to do the Thursday women in the writing group with me. Black, from Detroit—they loved her. She bossed them as never I could. I have a video of her teaching an Etheridge Knight poem—it’s like Sunday School.
“ Dix!” she said. She’d almost walked by me. “You look terrible!”
Probably just the beard, greasy hair. “I just spent two days in the jail,” I said. “On the pod. Do a story.”
Some exclamation, like Ooo-ee, then patting my arm: “Dix, you such a wanna be.”
Well, I was a wuz now, wasn’t I?