A Day in the Life
The first words I heard this morning were the first words of many of my mornings: “Last call for chow. Last call for chow.”
The words jerked me out of a dream about my wife. I can’t remember if it was a good or bad dream because it was so overwhelmingly bad to wake up into this room, this early (5:30am, or 0530 hours as they call it here), that the aftereffect was that of a bad dream. Or rather, good dreams cannot coexist with this world and are blasted out of memory as soon as they are finished, gone to that other world where such dreams approximate reality. I blinked, waiting for this hyperbolic, absurd world in which I woke up to resolve itself into reality. The fleshy, profoundly populated world of my dreams, fantasy or nightmare is the obverse of this world, too empty to constitute a nightmare. This prison dorm is densely populated, but the people are like obstacles on an obstacle course. There is little humanity. There is as little room to exercise your humanity as there is to exercise your body.
My body aches, feeling the effects of another night grappling with the empty space where my wife should be, on the paper-thin mattress sliding around on the hard steel. No springs. A pillow made out of some strange plastic that stabs your face if you turn it wrong or turn yourself wrong. I flop out of bed, fumble through my locker combination, pull out my plastic fork and knife, close the door, lock it and pull on my brown boots. I slept in my jeans and T-shirt, so one minute after waking, I’m off to wait for the gate to open. I like this part of prison: no commute, no need to cook, no need to worry about your clothes. I like the free home-run pies, too. On the outside, I wouldn’t allow myself something so unhealthy, but here, it’s the only dessert, so I indulge. Yum.
Aside from when I am attempting to write, (aside from right now), this is the time of day inmates seem most like animals to me. Their faces are lifeless, and they make no effort to alert their faces to life. They hate the morning. They hate it so bad they won’t even acknowledge you with a grunt if you say something to them. There’s Baines, wearing the same blue shirt as Viking. They would never wear the same shirt on the streets. Every limb looks like it is out of place. The arms knows it’s supposed to be patting his son’s head as he leaves for school, the feet know they’re supposed to be moving in and out the kitchen efficiently, not standing here in line. The head knows it should be head of the family, not carrying a plastic coffee cup in procession with other removed heads of families. The chest practically squirms in that blue shirt.
I like to stare at things and exercise my facial muscles, to try and make peace with the enemy, morning. I stare at my jeans and shoes. I like the fact that I wear the same jeans and shoes every single day. My wife, on the other hand, misses the cooking and self-decoration disallowed in her prison. Cosmetics, it seems, bring out more than the face when you’re in the pen. But when I get up in the morning, I am not burdened with decisions such as what pants to wear, what cologne bespeaks my essence or intentions for today, what to eat. I am also supposed to not be burdened by the decision of how to act in any given situation. I was given explicit and implicit training when I arrived, from my supposed allies, on everything from whose beds I’m allowed to sit on (Whites) to who my wife is allowed to sleep with (Whites) to who I am supposed to love (my homeboys—i.e., those from my county).
The training, alas, is ineffectual, as Jomo, Black, approaches me, White, and bumps fists with me in greeting, black on white.
“What’s up wit you, Tony?”
“Mornin’. Taking care of your soul this morning?”
We had been reading Thomas Moore’s Care of the Soul together throughout the week. This was of course proscribed by prison politics, so we had to do it in the back room of the gym where I worked as clerk, always keeping one eye on the door in case someone walked in.
“Always trying, Tony, always trying.”
Jermaine is the biggest man in the dorm, and he holds a lot of weight with the rest of his people. His father was a Black Panther, and he is named after some Jomo Kenyatta, founding father of postcolonial Kenya. He is also the smartest, most compassionate man I’ve met in prison, and I’ll be damned if I’ll let the prison politics keep me from one of the only people in there who can keep me feeling human. Fortunately for the structural integrity of my face, his powerful status keeps most of the Whites off my back. But I am still walking a thin line, hanging out with him as much as I do.
When pressed to explain the reasoning behind this aversion to Blacks, the Whites, after getting over the initial shock of being asked to explain something in a place where status quo has attained scientific law, pretended it was about the ostensible inferior hygiene, manners, music, etc. of the ‘bugs’. I think it’s just jealousy cuz the Blacks are just a little less imprisoned than us—they laugh louder, move freer, almost copyrighted the word ‘soul’, and are now taking over the popular music via rap. In fact, with the loud talking, physicality, greater embodiedness and predilection for familial/communal sharing, Blacks in prison seem closer to the Italian way I was used to than the Whites.
The gates finally open, and we all push forward like livestock, shoulder to shoulder. You can see the self-disgust in everyone’s faces at their own brattish impatience, but no one is waiting. Breakfast is yellow matter masquerading as eggs. The potatoes and grapefruit are good, though. I sit with a bunch of random Wood who assume the inmate eating position: hunched over, elbows out eating faster than you would think possible. The impression is that of a hyena.
“The potatoes are good.” I say.
“They’re all right,” says a Wood. This is the highest compliment available in prison, where it seems to be too uncool—or perhaps it leaves you in danger of awakening your conveniently dormant emotions—to admit you like anything.
About five minutes before they will open the door to let us back into our dorm, most inmates are up and waiting in line. They shuffle their feet, make the safest sound—bored sighs—shift and twitch and mutter and glance about. Impatience and a lack of focus are the hallmark traits of drug users, and prison has got to be the worst possible place for an impatient, unfocused person. But it’s not just the drug users. Americans in general look like longtime speed freaks compared to the rest of the world. Inmates, with their frustrated impatience, are just exacerbated Americans.
“You know when you got that ADD thing, meth makes you calm down and concentrate better,” Baines says to me in line.
“Maybe cable companies in America should hand out free speed then when you buy a multi-channel package,” I reply.
When I get back to the dorm I jump back up on my bed. Ah, the only place I have all to myself—the in-between-the-sheets. I retreat into my fort and fall asleep.
* * *
Two hours later. I check my watch. 9:10 am. All I want to do is fall back asleep, but that is always the easiest option, at all hours, in here, and it leads to depression. So I once again roll off my bunk, land on the mat floor, and open the locker that contains all my possessions. Two by four—that is the number of cubic meters of personal property we are allowed to have. I rummage through the toiletries, books and sent-in sweats until I find my jar of Folger’s coffee. This month, it is a precious commodity for the well-to-do (i.e. anyone who has someone who sends them packages from the outside) since we’ve been on lockdown for three weeks and can’t go to canteen. Actually, it’s just the Whites and Northern Mexicans on lockdown, as they got into a brawl on the yard over a softball game. I try to be as discreet as possible in shoveling a spoonful of my drug of choice into my brown plastic mug, but once the vultures see my sipping, it’s feeding time. A Wood I haven’t even exchanged three words with ambles up to me within a couple of seconds. He is short, stocky and waddles, elbows frozen at about six inches from his torso. His head is shaved bald and sports a tattoo of flames. He is not ‘sleeved-up’ with tattoos like the old gangsters, but he does have the requisite swastika on his breast. His face is viciously dumb. Not all of the inmates are dumb, not even the majority of them, but it seems like everyone with a swastika is slack-jawed and cross-eyed.
“Yo wood, let me get a shot of coffee.”
The calculations must be quick in here. Never seem like you’re unsure. In a split second, I calculate that it is worth the possibility of others he talks to hitting me up for a shot, because this one is dangerous and is best appeased with an offering. Best if I act as if it’s because there’s something I like about him, since the reason most of them are this far gone is they’ve heard a total of two or three compliments their whole lives. I grimace in mock exasperation.
“Shit, I’m almost dry, but you never asked before, and I’ve heard good things about you, so just this once.”
Flameboy just grunts, eyes scanning the dorm. Their eyes never lock unless they’re going to fight. Like dogs. I measure out a small shot.
“Come on, bro, hook me up,” he smiles. I imagine the edges of the smile could slice through skin.
I shake my head as I drop another spoonful of the precious brown crystals in his mug. “You’re gonna bleed me dry.”
“Good lookin’, Wood.” He grunts again and waddles off, his sentry’s head swiveling around.
I have about an hour until work, so I walk as casually as possible across the dirty mat floor to the little schoolboy’s desk set in front of the chain link fence that separates the TV area from the bunk area. I pass rows and rows of bunks, the massive fans hung from overhead humming heavily. Next to the TV area inmates play pinochle and dominoes at stainless steel picnic tables. I sit down and try to read Blaise Pascal. I only get through a couple of pages, as first Eyes (named for his big round orbs) sits down on my desktop to insult me profanely (his only way of expressing affection), and then Bones comes over to ask about my wife. Bones is a Vietnam vet who had spent a year in a POW camp. His cane-hunched body looks like it was left out in the rain and sun for a couple years before somebody remembered it again. He was quite simply a good man, and it is quite simply devastating to see a good man locked up, first by the enemy, then by his own country.
Work time. Being savvy with computers, a rare enough skill here, I have managed to procure the choice job of disciplinary clerk, meaning I get the back room of the gym to myself, except for the occasional Correctional Officer checking up on me. What a gift of grace it is—solitude! My first day, I danced for fifteen minutes straight. It’s not quite liberating, because I have to keep my eyes riveted on the door knob, fearing a chink in my precarious social status in the event of an inmate or C/O walking in on me with my soul exposed. Still, it is something. I usually speed through the disciplinary forms so I can get to my own writing. “On April 12, 2001, Inmate Sanders, R-56743, was caught smoking near the bathroom area of Z-Dorm.” Because it was the second time he was caught and because he displayed an ‘inappropriate attitude’ to the C/O, the reviewing Sergeant has recommended 90-days loss of privileges and a CDC-115.
I used to correct the lieutenants’ reports, but not only would they not suffer being corrected by an inmate, but their world was so insular—as all immoral worlds posing as moral world order must be—that they were actually convinced their erroneous grammar was correct English, since C/O’s had been writing things like ‘Myself and Captain Johnson’, and ‘I exited’ and ‘At this time I saw inmate Johnson…” for years on end in this isolated world of theirs. This time however, I have no extra time because I have a stack of one hundred or so investigations of possible ‘involvement in riot’ 115s. I pull the first one off the stack, suppress the rote sigh and instead sing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma, just because it would make me laugh if it was a scene in a story or movie. That’s often how I maintain my sense of agency in this assembly line of moments—I picture what a director would excise from a prison movie, not being convincing enough, and do it. Just before my shift ends, I walk to the wall opposite the door and mutter:
“I wanna fuck black women I could care less if someone calls me Punk Fighting is wrong You should report rapists and drunk drivers to the police I like basketball not baseball I hope all skinheads go to a concentration camp hey wanna hear me bust out a rap?”
Then I walk to door, open it, give a nod to a cabal of people who would slit my throat if they heard that last litany and head towards my bunk.
Another successful trip down the gauntlet, bunks 190-210. I see the Pascal in my right hand, the makeshift wedding ring on my left ring finger, and the sight of my familiar face in the convex mirror carried through a scene no one who knows me could have imagined me entering. I’m starting to feel my rhythm, feel the surrealist’s giggle come on, I’m starting
To get sick. Fast. Dave and his homeboys from Modesto, the worst ‘car’ here, just beckoned me into Tony’s bunk behind the hanging sheet. I thought they were finally going to invite me into their semi-good graces, having hated me for months ever since Tony tried to start a fight with me and I begged it off.
No such luck. Instead, Dave informs me he took my CD player from my locker and needs it badly to pay off a drug debt or he’ll be killed.
“You took my CD player?! Give it right the fuck back, brother, you know that’s against the rules.”
Dave is sweating, rubbing his palms, eyes rolling around between me and his clan and back. “No, no it ain’t like that, man. That’s why I’m telling you outright. I’m fucking dead man, I need your help.”
“Why didn’t you just ask me, man?” I measure out my words, watching them like a mom watching her kid on the playground with strangers. “I don’t want to see you get hurt. You’re a good guy.” These are lies, words pouring out instinctually to stall for time while I try to get my body under control. My body—this is the worst feeling I’ve ever had. I’ve only had it a couple times before I came here—its predecessors were such things as getting caught by your 3rd Grade teacher skipping class, or by your friend’s mother after stealing one of his trading cards. But this upper-graduate version is a new physical phenomenon of the post-arrest era. It’s as if fear were injected intravenously, immediately pumped throughout the whole body. The fear first shoves the stomach upward, launching pins and needles down your limbs, the very bottom back of your skull or top of your spine, the pivot of your head, flushes, expands, wants to lift off into the sky but is trapped there under your cranium.
These fear spikes wouldn’t be so bad, as compact as they are, by themselves. Thus when Lefty leans in and sneers “You wanna make it about Modesto?!” or when Tony, silent the whole time, narrows his eyes at me. I could overcome it; the problem is that what is happening to my body is the fight or fight reflex. But my mind will neither allow my body to fight or to flee, and thus it is left to float off towards my bunk undischarged of the ominous moment on the bed. They know perfectly well my position, these Woods from Modesto. They know that if I fight, my points will be lowered, and I’ll never make it out to the Minimum Security Facility, which I see as the only hope for my permanent mental health and my art. They also know there is nowhere to run. Every night I will go to bed in the same room as them and every morning wake up within their range. If I am moved to another unit, they will send a lackey. They know that now that someone has stolen from me, I am required to fight them or else be shanked by my ‘people’ for being a punk. They know most likely I won’t fight them, or if I did, they’d go to the hole and be safe from their drug debt for now. I am trapped. They are quite clever. I left them telling them I’d think about it.
It is just like the moment I peered through the peephole of Ana’s and my apartment at the cop who came to end the first part of my life; everything around me looks different. The profane din of voices and fans is muffled and distant like sounds inside a seashell … a seashell auguring a tidal wave. It is so bad, I can’t believe in it for more than a couple seconds at a time, and I feel the vertigo of spinning in and out of reality. Resting against my bunk to quell the dizziness and fuzziness, I stare at Geechee leaning droopily against Ken’s locker, laughing. He is here, he fades, he’s here, he fades. He’s a good guy, but totally untouched by my drama. None can help me or even understand me. I blink and look around. Same features, angles, lighting in the room (or is it dimmer?). But every couple of seconds the image of Tony returns, glaring askance in the dark of that bunk, shoulders impassive boulders.
The rest of the day is that way. For a minute or two I am back in the Melville novel, then Lefty’s Macbethian face-dagger blots out the whale completely. The whale is insignificant. It is just a book. For a moment I am back in the Plan, reading Ana’s last letter, in which Ana and I continue to attempt to master a graceful dance between the moderately happy and sad moments of life. But this moment and what it might lead to (permanent disability, injury, death, post-traumatic stress for life, the loss of all my letters and writings when they raid my locker after I am taken away) exists outside of that Plan. It is the sun moving rapidly towards the earth, about to burn all cities and ideas in its inexorable, massive heat. The letter is just a piece of paper.
It’s 10pm. Lights out. I fall asleep on my side, watching the room vigilantly until I fall hard into sleep.
* * *
I wake up in the dim light. It’s never fully dark, of course, in here. Too many illuminated exit signs, lamps above designed to curb stealthy illicit behavior. I sit up in bed, listening to the fans, feeling the lightheaded liquidhorror rush. This is not so rare at night. Throughout the day, I am able to get into my books and writings, a good movie, a noble philosophy. Yesterday: reading Melville, working out, and acting in accordance with the calculus of safety, diplomacy and survival, sipping coffee and catching the midday news. You start to think like Dylan: it’s life and life only, and you laugh. But sometimes in the middle of the night, when my defense mechanisms have fallen asleep on their watch, I wake up and want to vomit. Sometimes it just slams you like the needle in the vein, like the cold edgy steel of handcuffs slapped onto your well-lotioned skin, and this is how it hits you:
It’s happening to me now, as I catch sight of Tony gliding past my bunk. I shove my head in my pillow, muffling a scream. NOT RIGHT! NOT RIGHT NOT RIGHT NOT RIGHT the complete absence of safety! It’s not a platonic critique of justice or an indignant personal sense of injustice, just a clutching cramping feeling: NOT RIGHT NOT RIGHT NOT RIGHT.
When things like this happen, I feel frustrated and angry at the world not because of its injury to me, but because it reminds me of how very many are subjected to unjust authority worldwide every single day. I feel the Dylan line like a stinger in my soul: “the misused, abused, confused, strung-out ones and worse/and for every hung-out person, in the whole wide universe/we gazed about up the chimes of freedom flashing.”
It’s too bad the NOT RIGHT won’t work in politics, because it is the purest argument against this prison industrial complex: not right not right not right. Humans shouldn’t have to feel this way every day, not at the hands of their government.
But the government is not coming to my aid so Ana does. I pull out my notebook and pen from under my mattress and turn my back to the hundreds of slumbering men, squint to see in the dull light emitting from the bathrooms.
I cannot write. I sit up again and watch the dim room, the shadowplays on the walls of the handful of silent televisions. Normally I like it up here, this oddly peaceful surreal sight of two hundred grown men all sleeping in one room, a couple huddled in corners or gliding through the aisles. I survey the vast expanse of sprawled adult male forms, some trying to recall their estranged content back home, others trying to forget it. To these aims they utilize TVs, makeshift whittling knives, playing cards (I remember that guy in County jail, who just got 25 to life, just counting cards all day), magazines, homemade hotplate cookers, shoe polish (Sammy polished his shoes for two hours, twice a week), sewing needles, a pen pointed towards someone back home who almost never wrote back. It’s like nothing I’d ever seen. The only similar experience I can recall was a fictional experience—Conrad’s description of the grove where the enslaved natives crawl off to die in Heart of Darkness. All these men, robust, physically functioning, needing and feeling men, herded into this gymnasium and left to die. They are dying, that’s for sure; something was dying in them. In my first year, I’d already seen the compassion and humanity in a couple young kids die. Tim from Bakersfield is twice as big, sports a lightning bolt SS tattoo, changed his name to Shady and glances away when I walk by. I remember when he showed me a picture of his mom when he first got here, in unwieldy sunglasses, her arm around her son’s waist, overlooking the Grand Canyon. I wonder if he’s afraid to let her see him now. See his eyes.
I’ve seen hope die in a couple of them. The most common death was the death of dignity. In the good men, the ones who were tormented by their wife and kids being left alone out there, the shame and the frustration of not being able to help them was too much for them. Sometimes they figure out what they were doing wrong out there, where they were selfish. It’s a moment of tremulous, muted joy. They want to rush to the phone to tell their wives. But the guards who have closed down the phone for the day don’t believe them, tell them they’re worthless and will always come back to prison. Some of their wives have given up, are already in the arms of another, moaning against hands that hold other hands, not pens and paper. Or sometimes they can’t get through—the phone company cut off the phone for lack of funds, or we’re on lockdown and can’t call for weeks. These ones sit on their racks with their TVs on, but they’re not really watching, they’re just using the frame of the television like a lifebuoy. They want to bite through the steel bed frame. More than most, I think they can relate to Oedipus who wants to stab his own eyes out of existence. You can’t leave when it feels this bad. In the fullest sense of the word ‘can’t,’ you can’t leave. Not in the way one struggling to get by ‘can’t’ quit their job or an abused wife ‘can’t’ leave her abuser. No, those can’ts are lower-cased compared to this capital case. No law—physical, legal, social—will allow me to be with Ana tonight. Leadbelly from my earphones is singing “I ain’t got no home.” I wish I could get the others to listen to this, or to Bruce Springsteen, so they know there is somebody writing about them.
The only thing I can do is let Ana know there is somebody writing about her.
Can you hear the music from the Phish show at the Gorge when we were on bail? Do you remember that the array of sounds is so much vaster than this? Try to go there. Ride my love if you’re stuck, because it goes everywhere, from this grey level of hell that Dante forgot to include (o help me estranged muse to wrangle my hell into Italian rima like my master), out into that wide open gorge tucking the sun into bed, with a breeze that can never make it over these parapets … through the skein of majorchord music rays setting with the sun and down the coast to your pen, slipping between the flabby legs of your sneering Cell Block Sergeant into your cell. My love can live on barbed wire and steel. It’s in hibernation and can live on Ramen Noodles and Mystery Meat for now. Close your eyes. Find the music. It didn’t lie. It just takes a divine mind to listen to that music and to these tomb sounds at the same time. The divine mind of the divine name that can’t be spoken: YHWH. The fools translated it as LORD, but you know as well as I, it’s LOVE.
Today death and failure came out to play with me again. I’ll tell you about it later. I have the terrorstomach again. Do not worry, though, here is a Psalm, with LOVE properly substituted for the LORD, since we have no lords but love:
LOVE is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear?
LOVE is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?...
One thing I asked of LOVE, that will I seek after:
to live in the house of LOVE all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of LOVE,
and to inquire in her temple
We are locked up but never out. I love you dearly and crystal clearly,