For years, I’ve even had a plausible beginning, ready to hand:
“You may tear down Pittsburgh but save the jail!”, or words to that effect. Frank Lloyd Wright would have bit his tongue had he seen that jail from the Inside.
And I know where I’d go from there. But somehow the plausible was never enough, failing to provide— whatever it would take to get me to write about my months in the Federal Wing of the Allegheny County Jail. As this is an event dated 34 years in the past, there can be no talk of the time necessary for healing (long gone), for—a longer stretch—mature reflection (still waiting), nor for—a life sentence?—locating its place in history (forever beyond me). Of course, fond Uncle Indolence bulks large, dressed in the resplendent excuse that the business of my life has, naturally enough, kept me from zeroing in on what each day buries deeper and deeper in the ol’ irretrievable.
But it won’t wash. The doings of those 90 days are clearer to me than the content of this morning’s breakfast. And Uncle and I were never close, I give myself that. What?, then—.
* * *
Maybe this? As an undergrad, reading books for the one-time Commie lit star Granville Hicks, I read somewhere in Norman Mailer that self-publicist’s claim that he’d gone to World War Two in order to write about it. This was mutatis mutandis close enough to my stated willingness to resist the draft—that I felt a stringent need to deny its applicability. I wasn’t preparing to go to prison as a writer, then cough up some species of Bildungsroman!
And yet—have I really needed 34 years’ silence to prove this denial? Oh maybe. I recall a profound wince shared by the painter Tim Hall and me, losing our “revolutionary” marbles in mid-1971, when a book blurb by jailed Panther Huey P. Newton (losing his?) declared his as yet unmartyred colleague George Jackson “the greatest writer of us all”. Surely, these men were more than mere writers!; surely, even Hall and I were. (Turning it about, what writer would make public such an ungainly phrase?) And with his use of “us”, Huey had even included himself in his imagery, in the identity he hung on George! The Panthers: the hardest-hitting American radical organization since the Wobblies—awash in Mailer-ism?? —And why would any of this have mattered, over time? Oh, because of the natural momentum that builds when principles are tested in youth: give a boy a wince and he’ll take a while.
But I don’t disdain a loftier possibility—. Asked in the late 60s about his recent work (as in: has there been any, at all?), Allen Ginsburg told an interviewer that today’s poetry might just be lived rather than written. And I may well feel, in some deep close place, that my best living tribute to the consciousness that (with my consort’s love) allowed me to brave imprisonment lies in letting my 90 days remain an oral saga, a gaggle of oft-told tales, none too tall. How does this respect what happened and why it did? Only by contrast: I find when I figure in my own written work, I am absolutely not to be trusted. Free to choose words, polish dialogue, establish perspective, characterize opposition, delete the inconvenient; in a phrase: given time—I will pile lie on lie. Whereas when I speak, it’s more likely for memory to dictate, moment communicating with moment. My jail stories, after all, don’t come unbidden: more often than not, they are essayed to support or to ridicule an idea under discussion, to illustrate a matter at hand. As when, in late 1984, a Microscopic Septet gig got axed at the 11th hour and the Dissatisfied Seven sat around a kitchen table in Amsterdam, talking about, somehow, impersonation. I feared the chat was soon to veer into mystic frivolity about the Doppelgaenger, so I trotted out a prison tale. Actually I had two to choose from, both dealing with life-actorship—a form of what Modern cops called “bunko” (from buncombe?).
Perhaps if I tell here the lesser tale, the one the bored Micros didn’t hear, it will assuage whatever guilt I feel at spilling the beans in print. (Besides, the greater is being saved to impress a beautiful woman, later tonight.) And, who knows?, a good telling may get me over that old Mailer business. And, yes, I’ll strive to tell it straight.
Steve Jeffcoat—pride of Columbus, Ohio—was one of only three Caucasians in our cellblock—or, to use the in-house lingo, our “Range”. This grouping comprised 26 cells; the Ranges were stacked up in a vast horseshoe pattern. My Range lay in the building’s Federal Wing, literally (i.e., structurally) suspended above the rest of the Prison, the hard boys rising to the top. We collectively were murderers and armed robbers, in the main; although a former mayor of Youngstown, nabbed on a tax charge, washed up there (see below), as did a one-time roommate of Bill Evans (crime never confessed or not to me). Just below us, on Range 22, sat and slept and paced the other inhabitants of the Wing. Killers all, these men were deemed too slaughter-struck to be allowed contact even with each other, let alone with the general Prison population. We in the soi disant Security Range (#23) were permitted an hour in the Prison Yard, at 11 and again at 2; at other times during the day, we could roam up and down our corridor, visit each other. Those in the Murderers’ Range were escorted by an armed detail on Monday mornings to take their weekly showers, but otherwise remained locked in their 8 1/2 -by-11 cells. These prisoners were invisible to me throughout my stay. At times at night an odd keening floated up from below.
* * *
That Jeffcoat saw in me his William Wilson (think: Poe not Mookie) ought to have become clear right away. I was an inexperienced, unripe version of himself or—because I was in reality a year older than he— an earlier model, rejected by the artist before it was brought fully to form. Beyond the fact that Myopia (my muse) would declare us dead-ringers, there was some active justice in Jeffcoat’s perspective: there was an element of projected self-image in our relations. Yes, in common with every quasi-commie I knew (save three: the woman I’d just wed; my drummer of choice, an Army brat; and the Bayou Maoist I bowed to), I’d been reared in Suburbia and was in flight from the fact: attitudinally, sartorially, every which way. (One’s tonsure doesn’t count: it was starting to catch on; five years later, even among cops!) And although, in terms of assumed identities, I never embraced The Outlaw (preferring The Worker), there was undeniable romance in the notion that my draft stand had booted me out of the Burb for life. (American law protecting erstwhile neighbors against the likes of me?: as gratifying as it was unlikely.) But Steve Jeffcoat grew up in a literal crime family: he had no need to escape from anything imaginary. How literal? Year of Our Lord 1970 presented Dad under indictment for jury tampering; one brother up the river for grand theft auto (a charge Steve saw as trumped up, “considering it was one of our own stolen cars he stole,” whatever that meant); a sister “in the life”; and two other underworldly brothers, currently at large if only by the grace of guile!
“And your Mother?” I asked, tossing a sop to Cerberus. We sat together on the metal rim of his cell’s fold- out canvas wall-bed.
“Well she cooks, doesn’t she? And restocks the larder?: my Mom’s an ace booster,” i.e., shoplifter. Pride made Steve pause. “Also, she acts as a consultant—for, you know, Social Services ladies who want to work a fiddle on expenses and like that. And she throws cold water on Dad’s grander schemes, keeps him within the realm of the likely. My Dad loves an elegant plan, Forrester: his undoing.”
—Whereas Steve saw himself as the soul of practicality. Yet much of his early advice was certainly pertinent and immediately helpful—.
“I don’t know what you think about the Coloreds, my friend,” he said, pronouncing it “kellereds”, “but don’t think it in here! The Bruthas on this Range outnumber us 23 to three. It wouldn’t serve to remind ’em, would not fucking serve.”
“Who’s the other White guy?”
“Case in point,” Steve said with satisfaction. “Calls hisself Apache. Sold laudanum to two 15-year-olds, girls!, cheerleaders!, and they croaked. Cops raid his crib and find Nazi flags ‘n’ shit. He was using a Nazi flag as a bedsheet, Forrester; they snatch him, he’s all rolled up in it, zonked out silly, of course. Cops probably consider takin’ him to the Station that way, naked under the Nazi flag. —But they settle fer rattlin’ his bones a bit.”
“Younger cops? They might have even sympathized with his—”
“That’s way off the point,” Steve broke in. “Which is: someone like you might call someone like Apache a racial ideologue; and he may be. But in here, he’s the most neighborly fellow you ever saw; watch him in the Yard: there’s not an idea in that drug-addled brain of his that doesn’t relate to getting along. Mr. Manners, that’s Apache. Mindless Manners, Esquire.”
To give my reader a physical description of Steve Jeffcoat, I need only consult memory’s mirror of myself in those days. Which process prompts me to say that mirrors themselves were denied prisoners in the Allegheny hoosegow. During my entire 90 days, I gazed not once upon myself. Some become disciplined while others have the muh’fuh’ thrust upon ’em. (I can still shave by touch when I have to, as I found out during 2003’s brief blackout.) And if I’m to behold my own face from late 1970, I must take care not to call up Tim Hall’s version in oils. Dating from a round year earlier, it resembles a masculine nun steeled to the acceptance of her vows (“No doubts, Mother.”). My brighter elder brother denounced it as an exercise in “Marxist heroism”; as a philosopher, Jim Forrester recognized a “determined” expression; although as a card-carrying member of the Silent Generation, he couldn’t see that his younger brother and friends had no need to borrow their ideas; fools of our own making we were.
—I know other minds differ from mine in this regard, but: I am absolutely incapable of imagining my life as other than it has been and is (i.e., as my memory convenes it). Perhaps it would be daunting if my emotional love of surprise and my intellectual embrace of coincidence were proven to be naught but extravagant illustrations of this disability; or perhaps not. Regardless, I don’t doubt the character in Hall’s portrait would have found prison a far more grim experience than I did. But again this is idle: a month after Hall crafted his stern visage, I fell in love—and became instantly (there is sworn testimony to this effect) a better person. I’d still go to jail, but with the belief of another and in another suffusing my own. (In fact, in your typical real-life caricature of a romantic plot device, my beloved actually saw a photograph of Hall’s portrait a week before she met its subject. Somehow, that photo remains; the painting itself disappeared within a year.)
Even so, Hall’s picture sticks in the mind when I summon up the time. Maybe the recollective process is manned by slackers, bureaucratized neurons who’ll always accept the coffee break offered by a discrete image (a “still photograph”) and go only grumbling back to work at digging out the emotional point of coincidence between two times, productive of real memory.
So I mistrust Hall’s Forrester as a retrievable datum, a still life. But it’s also a poor visual guide to Steve Jeffcoat, whose face displayed a mind in constant, unreadable calculation. In uncanny real life, he and I shared a crooked smile. But Hall’s unsmiling Forrester is all purpose while Steve kept his purposes veiled.
* * *
Oh well, any staid period-rendering of either Steve or me (Peter Hurd’s second ugliest?) would have the sitter scrawny and whey-faced with a scraggly mustache and lank, dark-brown hair, parted at random. I’d arrived at jail prepared to be shorn, met Jeffcoat straightaway, and asked him in some puzzlement how he’d contrived to remain a long-hair.
“Just don’t work,” he answered. “When they ask you if you want to take a job—you know, as a means of killing Time—, tell ’em no. This part of the Joint has been deemed ‘inadequate for long-term residency’,” source uncited: “no one’s supposed to be here more’n 30 days. Because of that, somehow, they can’t force you to accept a job, not if you’re Federal. But you’ve got to be punished anyhow, marked someway as non- cooperative. So some nearsighted fool, years ago, came up with the notion that unless you work, you don’t ‘qualify’ for a haircut. As if walking around with a full head might embarrass you in front of the other inmates or make you look like some sucker’s punk! You believe that shit?! So vacant!”
“Punk?” I asked, thinking hard-boiled child or d.a.’d teen (1970 not belonging to the 70s).
“You are backward,” Steve countered, delighted. “Slammer as a second language? —A ‘punk’, Inside, is someone open to homosexual activities—usually on the receiving end. It often carries with it the notion of a master/slave relationship.”
I must have shuddered; and it wasn’t lost on Steve.
“Don’t worry, Forrester,” he said, equably. “If you’re not bent that way, you needn’t get into that nonsense–
-so long as you remain vigilant and are willing to practice the prisoner’s first principle.” “Which is?”
“Instant and brutal retaliation for any attack on yer physical person.” Steve had been resting his feet on the small wooden stool that was each Security cell’s one movable piece of furniture; he grabbed it now by one of its legs and drew it back over his head. Then he relaxed, having no need to mime a bashing to get his point across. “If someone fucks with you—physically—, then you have to lay for him. Everyone will understand, even the screws—although they might make you do a few days in The Hole.”
“And if you don’t retaliate?”
“Then everyone will understand that, too. —Don’t get me wrong, Forrester. I’m not violent by nature or predilection. And speech in the Joint is as free as you’ll find it anywhere. Free of consequences, I mean. Shrug off all verbal insults, no matter how vile. No one—or no one but a psychopath—wants unjustified violence at such close quarters. Especially among the professionals in our Range, like me, there is an honest loathing of the cascade effect that Prison violence invites.”
Phew! All this proved accurate. The inmates along my Range were, by and large, career criminals, passing a month in Allegheny before either gaining release or being shipped to a spot where hard-time would begin. These men accepted the periodic stint in durance vile as a natural aspect of their chosen path. Most were stoic, inward, and quiet.
As I was to learn in the Yard, the general population of the Prison chewed over two basic topics ad insomnia. The first was the series of self-exculpatory accidents, the run of ill luck, the courageous high risk/high gain challenge, or the damnable treachery—that might explain how the speaker landed in jail: his “beef”—at once, a set of facts and a complaint. The second was an ironic corollary to the first: derisively uttered instances of the unimprisoned placing self-imposed restrictions on their lives, the idiots! Along with this came special scorn for prison guards: They put themselves in jail on purpose, 40 hours a week, fer chrissake!
But the men of my cellblock had naught to do with either topic. One’s life explained his beef. And as to any irony meant either to rally ego through expression of superiority or to obscure the special quality of being in prison—both would be considered unself-aware insults to discipline, the development of which becomes a simple matter of life and death. And this development’s first real step is acceptance of the prison experience as real. The man who wants to keep his head together can’t start denying where he is or how he got there.
* * *
I learned this slowly. In the first weeks, I mistook my cellblock for the Prison as a whole. Why weren’t these men curious about me?, I wondered. In reality, I was enough of an odd duck that they were curious, some of them; but they knew the virtue of suppressing the feeling. I didn’t know how lucky I was!: in the twisted hierarchy of Prison life, we Federals were what a stoned Marxist would analyze as Labor Aristocracy. We got more respectful treatment, not only from the other men but from the guards, because we were the baddest motherfuckers or must be. Unwilling to talk about ourselves, we were inevitably talked about by the others.
For most of these others, the Yard was about cigarettes, gossip, and self-justification. For some, it was also an authentically dangerous place on a daily basis; yet I was never cracked on in the Yard, nor given a hidden smack, nor even seriously threatened—all because of the misassumption that I, as Federal, must be a villain on a high level. Unknowns talked to me in the Yard but always with circumspection; no one, ever, asked me about my beef, not in the Yard.
* * *
Predictably, Steve Jeffcoat was less than voluble on the topic of his own beef. I knew it concerned a failed bank job; another of my new mates had told me that as we stood in line for our breakfast of cornflakes and coffee (with powdered milk in both), adding “and it wasn’t no fault of his, neither.” Larry, I’d learn, was a small-time thief who’d earned his Federal status through an accretion of what he termed “felony misdemeanors”. He had registered that I was taking penitentiary instruction from Steve; his comment was meant to indicate approval of the process. Not that I grasped this. (Larry had brought cheer to my first timorous session in the Yard when he recognized my whistled tune as Monk’s “Worry Later”. I’d had less luck the day before—I was in an orientation cell called the Bullpen with 15 other new prisoners; I essayed the selfsame tune only to have an irritated addict scream in my face, “Stop breathing on me!!”). Telling me about Steve’s beef was intended to obviate my questioning Steve on the matter; it had the opposite effect—.
“The bank job: what went wrong?” I asked Steve as soon as our colloquy resumed.
“Miscommunication with an untested wheelman,” Steve said tightly. “Square business, as the Brothers say.”
Thronging possibilities petitioned my attention; but I beat ’em back and tried to mirror my teacher’s terseness: “He faded on you?, left you inside? What happened to him?”
“The situation was dealt with,” end of sentence, topic, lesson, and session. Square business.
We had our next talk in the Yard, slouched against a wall, wincing at the random thuggery that passed for Prison basketball. Guards watched too: studies in assumed indifference but ready to intervene if the mayhem jumped beyond the one-on-one. Jeffcoat took a hand-rolled cigarette out of the pocket of his rough cotton red ‘n’ white checked long-sleeve, wordlessly presented it to a guard for lighting, and passed it on to me. I passed it back.
“Umm—. That won’t do, Forrester.”
“But I don’t smoke.”
Steve Jeffcoat had a marvelous lip twitch meant specifically to designate the absolute irrelevance of what he has just heard. He used it now.
“In any Joint,” he said with mock-patience or its opposite, “tobacco is currency. That and maybe playing cards. Oh well yes and dope. But there you’re talking big bills, big obligations. Cigarettes?: tokens of everyday kindness.” His face was sober as his eyes scanned me. “When offered, accepted—without fucking demur.”
“Even when lit?” I insisted.
Jeffcoat smiled lopsidedly. “Here’s a technique for dealing with that.” He pinched the home-grown down below the burn line and nipped off the tip; then tamped the ‘baccy back into the stick, moistened the paper at its new end, and handed the result to me. “Yours,” he said. “Best when given away soon.”
(Teach was right to tell me this. I knew so little about cigarettes, as a young man, that when a friend I saw only once a year presented me with a pack of special-issue bluegrass-blend Babe Ruths, I left the smokes in a drawer so we could enjoy one together the next time he visited!)
* * *
As a master of social graces within a literally closed system, Jeffcoat might be expected to hold wider political views. But he claimed not. He seemed to conflate politics with patronage—at all levels of government—and patronage was boring, a mere matter of greed facilitated:
“To my mind,” he said, “it’s all one big Protection Racket. Legit, naturally, but the same general structure. You pay to be left alone. —Ever see that Marx Brothers movie where Groucho tells a cop, ‘Hey you big bully: stop picking on that little bully!’, meaning Chico? —Man, I used to pride myself on having no politics, whatever, until I heard talk—just the last couple, three years—about being ‘opposed to the State’. I heard that ‘n’ it made me think a minute. ‘I’m opposed to the State,’ I reckoned, ‘always have been.’ The State wants my ass in the Joint. —And it’s likely that people like my Dad ‘n’ me operate most freely in the absence of strong, centralized authority, if you know what I mean.”
“Lest corruption die of malnutrition,” I sneered.
“No no, the Feds are corrupt too,” Steve said. “But with them, it ain’t the usual matter of identifying a taste and catering to it. No, like my Dad puts it: ‘The Feds is never satisfied with less than a controlling interest,’ you dig?”
This seemed to be my cue to speak from the revolutionary consciousness of my pre-Jail intimates, a thought-nexus that denied eventual legitimacy to any economy founded on exchange value; that indeed saw in all value a duplicitous second meaning, shrouding the real; that identified all prejudice as a hedge against the inevitability of one’s own death; that held war a form of human fetish, the grand-scale objectification of one group by another, a denial of its common humanity in service of an untroubled slaughter; that sought to undo the perceived immalleability of Time, that dared take on Time’s arrow itself! To express this wilderness, I’d need to draw on the private language spoken by Tim Hall and his lover Andrea, my wife Mary, me, and a few others we knew (that Maoist Cajun, a lawyer named George, a physicist named Jim, and a professional Black Person named Bill)—when high.
And indeed I started to ramble about the quest for freedom as the human process most deeply coincidental with the noble loss of self experienced in lovemaking. “When the World seems made of greed,” I postulated, “we have to ask: where do we look for communal clues? It’s comforting that in the most natural act—”
Steve cut me off with a lateral arm sweep, three o’clock to nine, surmounted by the pained lip twitch. He was not about to allow anyone to “organize” him. Then he surprised me: “An army of lovers, you mean,” he said, then pitched an even sharper curve, “like the Weathermen?”
What? To me, the Weather folk were kids my age trying to talk themselves into a willingness to hurt people. An odd series of events in the summer of 1969 had landed an entire Weather battalion (with a few sub-commanders) in the vacated house of an elderly Pittsburgh commie. It was predominately female. One of its activities was a frenzied assessment of the local Left. I infuriated them; going willingly to prison was so incredibly selfish! (“Smash individualism!” was a potted apothegm they got from Progressive Labor, the Maoist group who’d infiltrated SDS, forcing the schism that birthed the Weatherman.) My social background was as suburban as theirs (although many of them, I was later to learn, came from deeper older money); this was significant because they only trusted that which they were not. They were into Third World revolution abetted by the likes of them or, more precisely, by they themselves. Some of their number wrote off the White working class as a whole, reckoning it would never give up its “White skin privilege”. Others had a fantasy about young White hoodlums becoming politicized after being forced to concede the Street-toughness of the Weatherers. Had Steve run into members of this “populist” faction? They’d staged inane events—like carrying a commie flag onto a beer-drinking beach in order to provoke fistfights. Or, in their Pittsburgh tenure, traipsing bare-breasted through a White working-class high school, shouting “Jail break!!”; that the students stayed put probably strengthened the hand of the sneakier, more honestly-elitist faction, later disastrously to bomb selves and others. But either faction an “army of lovers”? How?
Steve clocked my incredulity and provided some welcome background. “So you’ve met these people too,” he guessed. “Yeah, they had a cell in Columbus, hardcore was dropouts from OSU, but they had, like, discussion leaders from bigger cities, New York, Chicago. I checked ’em out because, like I said, I already knew I was an enemy of the State and I knew they could talk-the-talk at least: they’d already announced it to this reporter from the DISpatch, dumb bunnies!!; might as well be wearing iron-on target decals!”
“Yeah, having meetings was what the Weathermen liked to do best. They’d have a meeting at the drop of yer beanie. You’d be, like, talking to one of their guys or coming on to a chick, then someone else joins in, and—BOOM!—before you know it, you’re in another meeting! Oh, well, I only saw that happen the once. It shut me up, though; I just watched ’em. The way they ‘relate’ is so odd, Forrester; you hip to it? The guy who’s talking always starts out saying something against himself—whether he means it is another story—or maybe something teensy, right?, some excusable error; but this somehow gives him a huntin’ license to go after somebody else in the group, get real nasty.”
“Yeah,” I said, “they call that—”
“So they kept this up quite a while and, like I say, I kept quiet. Then it hit me: they’re all just into themselves! They think the way to raise an army ‘n’ train it is by getting inside each other’s heads. Like lovers, dig it?”
Sweethearts on parade? “So you didn’t hang around, I take it.”
“Hell, no!” Steve said and stepped away, returning with another lit cigarette. “But I kept my eye on ’em,” he resumed, wearing a saturnine expression. “From a distance, like. —Yeah, we waited forever for them boys ‘n’ girls to come on with the come-on, do something radical.”
My turn to wince. By “radical”, Jeffcoat meant: violent, in furtherance of a political objective. That was clear the second he said it; and I was to hear other prisoners use “radical” in the same way. It diminished me: I liked the term, with its connotation of analysis of roots, of rooted stands, of grass-roots action; even after I started calling myself revolutionary, I was happily radical.
So I fell silent. And into my silence, just before edging off to smoke in solitude, Steve Jeffcoat launched some fine, auto-deflating flattery: “About what you were starting to tell me: pretty soon, I want you to hip me to what part necessity plays in the way you see things. You get that across and I’ll know better whether I want to hear any of that other horseshit, okay? Necessity.”
Before the reader hears any more about what I got from Jeffcoat, I’d stop to speculate about what he got from me or thought he did. I think he found in me a freer mind than his; by which I mean: freer of calculation. I know he marvelled that I could give myself to an idea without needing to locate an advantage. Not that he envied me this ability. But Jeffcoat populated his world with enemies; his brains were ever in the service of keeping his edge. So I believe he took some comfort in the observation of an intelligence which, at times, served only itself. I trusted myself enough to improvise verbally (“You think out loud!”) and he liked this. “You’re not a hippie, Forrester,” he once proclaimed in approval. By which he meant, interestingly: not one who’d willingly blind himself to life’s woes. (I’m certain an older Steve had no difficulty charting the social segue from his pain-challenged late-60s hippie to the “positive-thinking” yuppie who emerged in the 80s and has proved the hardier of the two, alas.)
Another gift was altogether less noble, both in donation and in reception: I believe Steve admired my skill at self-justifying and other forms of rationalization at which I was, by 23, already a past master. So if my mind could accept horrors while remaining able to take vacations from advantage, it was never above a little egoist home-improvement: projected self-image never lay long unattended. Steve did envy me that, although I’m sure he understood its danger—to a man of action?, do I mean that?
* * *
In our very first confab, Steve had learned that I’d drawn 90 days; or, more officially, 36 months, three to be passed Inside (pending docile behavior) and the rest on Parole at a job approved by the Court. After he informed me that Federal prisoners were enjoined (saved?) from overstaying a month at Allegheny, Steve and I anticipated daily the order that would move me to Lewisburg (where I’d meet Jimmy Hoffa? My Dad had; well, not in Lewisburg) or to Allenwood, the minimum-security Joint my mates ridiculed as a “country club”.
This anticipation held for the longest while, even in the face of the contradictory treatment given cases along our Range. Yes, people were moved in and out with regularity, the usual stay from 2 1/2 to 3 weeks. (Bill Evans’ erstwhile roomie was gone the day after I met him!) Yet, in the most blatant exception memory retains, a sombre elegant murderer named Washington had been kept in Allegheny’s Federal Wing for at least a year; some said, awaiting trial. Although I doubted that, it was hard to gainsay because no one who talked about Washington had been Inside long enough to remember the particulars of the case when it was fresh; and Washington, for his part, devoutly refused to discuss his beef. Nor much else; and he spoke in a Milesian whisper. Yet one listened: he was suave, bright, and disciplined; both the second man chosen in all prison basketball games (the first was fat and vicious and stayed camped under the sole basket) and our chess champ. Nor did he work, not at a Prison job. “Oh, he’s bitter,” Jeffcoat told me when I’d asked how Washington put in his hours. “But it don’t stop him from thinking. Thinks all day, Washington. And he don’t let nobody in his cell.”
Washington was a high-profile prisoner but I assumed his penitentiary situation had jack-shit to do with mine, so I continued to expect transfer. My first weeks—poring over my daily letters, wearing what I imagined to be a poker-face, adapting only in small ways to Prison life, listening to Steve but withholding myself from most other contact—appear to me now as a neurotic, superficial engagement with the local experience, ruled by the assumption that I’d soon be elsewhere.
In that nervous (i.e., clock-conscious) state of mind, I was discovered with a Commissary-issue crayon one morning, crossing the days of my sentence off the wall of my cell, after the manner of fictional prisoners everywhere. Steve shook his head crossly. “Trying to get your Time to go Eternal?” he asked.
“Meaning what?” snapped soi disant Temporal Theorist Joel D. Forrester.
“Meaning that the shortest stretch—a weekend, say—becomes fucking interminable, if you let yourself get caught up in passing time: watching it lapse, recording it, all that.”
“Got some alternative?”
He nodded. “Oh yeah: getting into where you are. Where and when. Oh, I know yer final day in Allegheny is beckoning to you from the future—. Turn yer back on her!! You do that, Forrester, and one day—on a whim, like—you’ll glance over yer shoulder and be shocked to see that great chunks of time have passed of their own accord. It’s funny—.”
“What is?”, still a little touchy.
“Just that it’s the one thing that professional villains and the screws agree on. You’ll hear our tame warden call it ‘making Time serve you‘, which is horseshit, of course: we’re all dying, all the time, every living being. —Although some are clearly dying to die, right? Anyway, every pro knows yer Time disappears quicker to the extent you can take your mind off it. And I do not mean getting into fantasy; that’s just as bad as counting the days; in fact, it’s just a cover for the other.”
Steve paused—to think about that? Then: “Forrester, you’ve heard of ‘indeterminate sentences’? Well, trust me, they’re the best kind! That’s funny too: the indeterminate sentence is supposed to be the m.o. of a country that ain’t yet comfy with the rule of law. But we villains love ’em. How can you dwell on the end when you don’t know when it’ll fall? Somewhat like ell-eye-eff-ee that way, dig it? And that’s undoubtedly what makes it easier to treat being in Jail as a form of living. Oh, undoubtedly.” ( I.e., the Joint is out of Time, as Hamlet mangled.)
I looked at Steve. I had the odd impression that if he was speaking for himself, he was also speaking about himself. Talking to himself? How much of his puny one-score-and-two had been spent behind bars?, I wondered. But never asked.
* * *
Nearly three years on, serving out the last days of my Parole in gentle San Francisco, I heard an angry internal echo of Steve’s monologue on Time. I’d just come from not answering the phones at my bogus Parole-job with the Berkeley Creators Association; my pal, the activist Rob Shulman, took me on campus to hear David Harris, a published draft resister (“Goliath”, Harpercollins 1970) who was at the time mated to Richard Farina’s ox-eyed sister-in-law. Harris spoke as public people did back then, in a rambling rap that made its points by circling through anecdotes. I was outraged when it arose that his purpose in addressing us lay in getting signatures for a petition calling for the abolition of the indeterminate sentence!
Had Harris been so into himself, when jailed, that he failed to pick up on Jeffcoat’s telling point? Had no one had the compassion to tell him?
Here was Harris, fellow resister, standing there and saying the direct opposite of what I’d absorbed and believed!
“When someone asks me about ‘prison reform’,” he’d said, “I yell: ‘Tear down the jails!! Pay attention to jails only after you’ve re-formed the economic system that puts people in ’em!'”
So far so good—.
“But there’s just something so cruel about putting a person Inside and not telling him when he’s getting out-
–that getting rid of that is the one reform I can get behind!”
He did have it backwards! Why then couldn’t I talk? Why did I feel paralyzed by doubt? For something definitely cowed me. I’m to this day not certain what tied my tongue (life-long friends can recall no parallel instance, believe me). It may have been that late-blooming Prison events (see below) had queered Jeffcoat’s big idea for me. But it may also have been the look on Steve’s face when he’d run the idea to me in the first place—a look, for all I know, I may have imitated when rehearsing it for later listeners. I only know the look was not mine but another’s. (It’s hard to speak out, speak truth, when it isn’t your truth?) It was the look of a brave man speaking for himself, putting the best face on a horror. Time ignored, time disdained, is also time lost; and Steve knew it.
If he was never willing to discuss in detail the bank robbery that undid him, nor even to retail the more successful heists his Father had planned and his family carried out, it seemed to delight Steve to speak about what he felt while actually on a job. It may have been the first time he’d done so; it may have seemed exotic.
“Well, it’s undeniably thrilling,” he said with a studied absence of enthusiasm. “And it’s dramatic: it’s a performance and all eyes are on you, your every word heard. Because of that, it’s crucial to hold on to yer own perspective.”
“Whose might you adopt?”
“That of yer audience, of course. Knowing you’re in a drama, the temptation is to see yourself in one. Actually to look for mirrors or, failing that—and there ain’t many mirrors in most banks, notice?—, to let yourself feel—assembled by the fear you read in their faces, yer victims’.”
“Why do any of that?”
“To hype the kick you already feel and—and to prove you’re really there. I talked about it with my Dad one time; he admitted that the whole thing has a tendency to seem unreal, as it unfolds, and time slows to a crawl. ‘Find your proof in procedure,’ is what he told me; ‘find it in concentration on the interplay between the plan and the actual circs.’ —But then he would say that, wouldn’t he?”
(I could never figure where Steve got his vocabulary; “circs” I worked out; but “assembled” off a line gig in a factory or from an “assembly” as in elementary school?)
* * *
Later, but in a similar vein, Steve offered his (his Dad’s?) gospel of violence as counter-productive. “On a caper? The less violence the better,” he said, in response to a question long forgotten.
“You surprise me!”
“Do I? It’s not a moral stand, Forrester,” he mocked, “although it is a ‘principle’ right enough, a first thing first. You see, what violence does—oh, inevitably!—is to diminish sensitivity to human life; it breaks the strongest bond between you and the humans around you: do that and you get careless, man, the caper turns into a pinball game—you’re reduced to responding to stimulii. Those of us intent on getting away with what we do wouldn’t dream of having our wings clipped that way.”
“Your freedom of perception?”
“More like: my feel for the reality of the situation. Lost without it! Lost—. So we terrorize, yes, but— ‘Suffer violence to remain a creature of necessity’—that’s Dad in his Biblical mode, when a coupla sheets to the wind—. Anyway, I’m talking about the attitude of yer efficient bank robber.”
* * *
Steve saw me scribbling notes one day—still early in my term—and sardonic curiosity overcame him. He took the page out of my hand with the words “I sincerely hope this is pornographic.” He scanned the whole, then read out one sentence. “‘All projection—even if principled—is self-justifying.'” He repeated this several times, ever softer; then let the paper flutter from his hand down onto my cot.
“You mean: it makes you feel good to see a little of your own self out there? Like someone in your gang starts imitating you, your way of speaking, your clothes?”
JF: “Yeah, maybe—”
SJ: “Because I’m not into that kinda shit, like, at all! I want the guys in my gang to be, like, individuals.”
Advice from Steve met a practical test, one morning in my third week on the Security Range. He’d told me, “Don’t ever let a screw get personal with you, Joel. If he wants to talk, make it public right away. Most especially, no private conversation in your crib. Let that happen and even your mates on the Range, even people who know you—even me!—, will think you’ve turned snitch.”
“Seems unlikely,” I said. But it happened.
We were being herded back onto the Range after our a.m. hour in the Yard. I headed straight for my cell; mail-call would have come while we were outside and Security’s trusty would have tossed any new letters through the bars onto my cot. As mentioned in passing, each cell measured 8 1/2-by-11 feet. This parody of your standard letter size comprised three unpainted brick walls (prematurely chic) and an exposed front: theater’s fourth wall with a barred metal door. All cell doors were electrically unlocked the moment we arrived onto the Range, so it didn’t disturb me to notice mine standing open. But when I got just outside 23- F, I was horrified to see—asquat my stool, waiting for me—a big blond prison guard: mid-20s, pressed uniform, his face a mask of shit-eating “sociability”. (When I put a term inside quotes, it’s usually, as here, to indicate that its reality depends on belief I do not share, belief emanating often from the object itself.) A big meaty hand widened the door-opening: a gesture of welcome.
I remained in the doorway, heard myself bellowing, “You searchin’ my crib for contraband?”
The young guard looked stricken. “Naw, Forrester, nothing like that. Come in.”
“You tossin’ it for some other fucking reason?” I outright screamed. “If not, OUT! Out right now!!”
This had effect. I heard the sound of 15 prisoners shutting themselves in, fearing an uncoolable rumble. And at my side, every bit as immediately, stood Jeffcoat, Larry, Washington, and albeit unwillingly our pseudo-official intermediary, Security’s trusty.
The guard stood up and it was to the trusty that he appealed, not to me. “I’ve been on mail detail the last three nights,” he said softly. “Forrester here has been to college—as I have. He handles the language like a prof. And he gets some amazing letters! The people he knows!, the girls! —I just wanted a word with him, let him know we’re not all shit-for-brains in here, that’s all.”
No one answered.
I turned my back and stepped further into the barred corridor. Barely audibly, the trusty asked: “Unofficial visit?”
The guard mumbled his assent.
Silence held a moment more. Then the trusty (with bowed head?, I wondered, but didn’t turn round) half- squeaked: “Reckon you better go, then.” And he did!
The others drifted back to their cells. Steve hung around long enough to say, “There’s hope for you yet, Forrester. A modicum of hope.”
But I was too upset to bask in this moment of praise, too upset and working too hard at not showing it.
* * *
Despite Steve’s afternoon assurance that I had got through a potentially crippling situation with surprising aplomb, the event had a dangerous consequence: among the other Security Rangers, my cover was well and finally blown. These my mates already knew I got at least three letters a day, every day, which was itself unheard of. All mail, incoming and outgoing, had to pass the Mail Censor; but the idea of a censor poring over one’s letters, charmed, and presenting himself for polite conversation: this was apparently without precedent—and too suspicious to pass unremarked. Curiosity was about to trump prudence, trounce ‘er!
My reckoning came exactly 24 hours after the event. Once again, we were ushered back onto the Range after morning Yard. But this time a general cluster formed outside my cell. A laggard on this day, I clocked my reception party from 20 feet off; strode toward it, all phony sang froid.
It proved a total turn-out: even dim Apache, who strove not to be associated with a fellow Caucasian, even Ernie, a murderer who slept all day (narcoleptic?, amnestic?, guilt-free?, innocent?). And somehow more horrible than confronting these villains in the mass was the daunting presence of one man among ’em—.
This malcreant was a rhino-hided bruiser named Shepp. A week later when he left us to face a high (and eventually a Higher?) court, I tried in hindsight’s false security to call back his features; probably giddy with relief at his removal, all I came up with was Ham Fisher’s Humphrey Pennyworth, if Black and malign. Shepp was huge. His eyes were tiny, deepset, and streaked with unhealthy yellow. He came on like an unreclaimed Sonny Liston, radiating menace. He’d killed three times. “And not for gain,” Steve had said: “that’s the word on Shepp. Nope; fistfights that got out of hand.” Three different times? Generally, one stayed out of his way; I’d never seen him in conversation with anyone, never even standing near another prisoner. Yet here he was, prominent in the crowd that awaited my approach; within it, yet looming beyond it: Shepp was his own crowd.
I probably couldn’t overstress the pandemoniac noise level that was the norm at Allegheny Prison. Yet Washington’s husky whisper, as he stepped forward to greet me, was so distinct —that I might have been crouched over the hi-fi in my adolescent bedroom in the suburbs at mid-Winter, listening to the space in a Monk solo.
“It’s time,” he began, “for you to tell us what you’re about.” (Maybe it’s easier to listen when everybody is listening at the same time?)
I said nothing.
* * *
Washington continued (in retrospect, a vast kindness):
“I’m hip you’re a draft dodger. But there’s got to be more to it, right? Because most of us don’t be doin’ the Army neither—but we don’t be arrested for it, not for that. Also: yesterday there was a screw taking an unofficial visit to our Range. That’s square business. Now, it wasn’t your fault—.” Here Washington paused to take in his rapt audience, as if to make certain the point registered? “But it needs to be explained, man.
Otherwise, we’re left with the fact that a screw thinks you’re special. What way you so special? —Lastly: how come you get so much mail?, Forrester, I’m jealous!”
Jeffcoat was later to comment, in some wonder, that Washington’s peroration constituted by far the longest spate of words anyone had heard escape that worthy’s lips, he whose sweetest words left a bitter aftertaste. All I knew was that the blessed killer had succeeded in framing my answer for me, had taken a chaos of violent suspicion and reduced it to three questions; had lead me like an attorney his testifying client, like a quarterback his downfield receiver. Unamuno said: speak to a multitude as if to one man. I did; his name was Washington.
“You’re looking to know why I’m here? I’m here because I have to be. It’s true enough the Government doesn’t go around arresting every man who refuses to believe the people of Vietnam to be his enemies.
They’d better not try!: if this war goes on another couple years, Government’ll have a hard time finding any men willing to fight it. And those that do may end up pointing their guns elsewhere. But that’s—”
“Whoa!!”, I heard and a sanctified “Well!” “Voices down,” Washington commanded.
“That’s tomorrow,” I resumed, dialling down my gain as ordered. “This is today, and the knuckleheads who run this war are still riding high; they have yet to hear the voice of the People, telling ’em: it ain’t worth it. Whatever their purpose in prosecuting this war on Vietnam, it’s not worth the life of one more American. Leave out the Army’s higher echelons, the men who never see battle; we all know the Americans who actually die in action are disproportionately Black, Black in proportions that might soon look like those on the Security Range.”
“What do you care about Blacks, Forrester?” asked Anonymous Scorn personified.
“I don’t!” I answered. “But I know this: if Black men rise up, saying they refuse to die for a Government that promises them no work outside the Military; that makes ’em endure a second-class education, preparing ’em for nothing but the Street; that disrespects their manhood, throwing their brightest and bravest into jail; tempting their women into harlotry and their children into heroin—”
“Tell it!” urged one voice.
“I could sure use some heroin,” another, to agreement.
“If, as I say, Black men rise up—and they stand alone—if you stand alone—, you’ll be massacred. If this Government doesn’t hesitate to slaughter hundreds of thousands of Asians, what makes you imagine they might treat you-all any better or any different, once it comes down to Us against Them? So that’s why I’m here, or one reason: I want you to know, those among you who are interested in change, that you have allies. And, believe me, that’s what you need: allies to make that “Us” a little less lonely, a little more mighty.”
“You sure you know where you are, Forrester?”, a cold nagging voice.
“One way to look at that?: I’m among murderers,” provoking a few nods. “Some who killed in hot blood, some in cold. And let me talk to both groups for a minute. All right, people kill for many different reasons. But it’s always your reason, isn’t it? Even when it’s basically for bread, you’re the one who chooses to do it.”
“So?”, same voice.
“So,” speaking to him now (against him), “you willing to give up that choice? You willing to let this Government tell you whom to kill? Willing to give up the only thing you really got?, the only choice that’s really yours?”
“Right about that,” some new voice, every degree as cold.
“Or am I missing something? Is there some other reward? Or bounty? Is the U.S. Army suddenly offering more than chump change?”
This won general laughter, rough and raw, and a willed anticipation of more to come.
“You a voice in the Wilderness!”
“I’m Joel Forrester. And I’m not unique; I’m not even ‘special’. But the screws don’t know that, do they?; they never met up with the likes of me before. That’s why that guard was in here yesterday. I’m a puzzle to them—now. But pretty soon, they’re going to be sick to death of people like me.” Two-beat pause. “—So the answers to Washington’s other questions?: they’re easy! It’s true enough that the Government increasingly doesn’t give a fuck about the draft dodger who’s only looking out for himself. But the ones who think the way I do?: they can expect to end up in the Joint! And how come I get so much mail?
Because people all over the world know I’m in here, on the Security Range—in here with you. And these people: they stand with me. They stand with you!”
A tumult went up which Washington immediately sought to stifle with a policeman’s palm. “Best chill,” he ordered softly. “We don’t want no more visitors.”
* * *
Indeed, it had been the quietest rally I’d ever attended as well as the most jubilant: rapture as sonic bondage? Certainly, my softest stump speech. And what was I running for—save my skin?, save my skin?, save my skin?
As the men drifted off to their cells, I stayed in my doorway, quietly (as a hoped) exulting. Washington had left without further word; but hadn’t he said enough? Two hitherto unknowns stopped by simply to thank me, one offering the revolutionary handshake (bent elbows lower than the clinch) I’d already learned not to fumble. A straggler eyed my eyes in passing, as if to gain evidence: for-real or not; cool with me!
Could it be?; yes!: fear had fled me. In one miracle of a moment, I felt no need to be on my guard. For the first admitted time, this jail stint seemed—possible.
I heard myself exhale.
Jeffcoat didn’t tarry, nor Larry, nor any of the others I’d had some small pass with. I needed ’em not. And soon I was alone. But not quite.
Some misperception is so binary! I’d thought I was by myself because I was facing up-Range, watching cells G through Z claim their occupants. I turned now to my left and found myself face-to-face—with Shepp. He’d gone nowhere.
He wasn’t smiling; or, if that chop-licking grin qualifies, the term has an infinite plasticity to it. And there was no evading his liverish gaze: he was there to see me.
“So—Forrester,” he said, adagio. “I heard you.”
‘Of course you fucking heard me,’ I said hurriedly to myself, frightened silly. ‘You were standing right next to me,’ totally misunderstanding a Black man’s expression of approval. (Would it have frightened me more had I got it?) I nodded silently.
“Yeah—and you one stone faggot all right!” (—I was later, much later, to write a bop tune based on the rhythm of that sentence.)
‘I-yi-yi!!!’ I screamed inside myself, mouthing lines (Reecky Reecardo?), even in extremity. ‘God of my Grandma: Exist just this once, to free me from this Behemoth!!’
Several aeons lapsed.
“No,” I eventually managed, in a voice unknown to the user. “I’m not a faggot.”
Shepp looked at me in a way my terror couldn’t read, then shrugged a massive shrug and lumbered off.
I plummeted 20 feet, my heart thudding against my shoes; I felt the grossness of my corporeal form but without permission to inhabit it: untenanted by a personified Fear, Who’d assumed sole possession. In shabby reality, I’d withdrawn into my cell, had rolled the door to, had yanked down my canvas wall-bed and sat on it, head in hands.
My next moments were nameless; save for time asleep, it is the one sequence in my 90 jailed days about which I can tell you nothing. I don’t remember—.
* * *
Again, “in reality” (never less real), it was probably only minutes before Steve Jeffcoat showed up and started rattling my barred door; “Hey, Forrester, I come in?”
I waved a weak hand. Two jerks later, I felt Steve standing before my sorry self; my gaze caught only the toes of this heavy Prison work-shoes.
“Now that’s funny! Thought I’d find you doin’ a little dance with yerself, I’d get in on the joy. Instead, you look half-seas-over. That the way it is with you orators, afterwards?, all spent and touchy with it?”
“No,” I said and shook my noggin, still not looking up.
“I—.” I trusted Steve, didn’t I? I had to. “After things broke up and y’all went back, Shepp hung around.” “Shepp! I’m amazed,” and sounded it.
“He said I was a ‘stone faggot’, Steve,” waggling weak little digital quotation marks.
“Well, congratulations, Forrester!” Jeffcoat said broadly, actually clicking his heels. “That there’s a fuckin’ coup, a palpable hit!”
“Forget it,” I groused, adding to my burgeoning store of misunderstanding.
“Yeah, touchy,” Steve affirmed; then kicked my ankle in mock-clumsiness, as if newly awakened. “Oh, I see: it’s the word that gave you the willies! Well, get over it, Forrester!! That’s just what the Bruthas call all of us: faggots. As to why?, you can tease that out for yourself. But, believe you me, the application of the term is fucking general; they don’t differentiate. What I meant by a coup, you dig?: Shepp was honoring you with the word him ‘n’ his would use amongst themselves, is all. Use for us, I mean.”
“If you say so.”
“And ‘stone’ means: that and more-so, right?, you’ve heard that. So Shepp’s nominating you a White person of substance. Which is a step up, Forrester; their ordinary tendency is to view the individual Caucasian as some kind of ghost.”
“I don’t know, Steve,” but unslouched e’er so slightly, raised my eyes to his.
“What? You think Shepp was coming on to you?”; Steve stared at me, pop-eyed. “Forrester: your capacity for self-flattery is fucking boundless!! Now, I may be wrong, of course, but I imagine Shepp to be every bit as dead inside as them he’s done; vibe I always got—and I reckon I’m a bit better attuned.”
“I’m not sure.”
“Look: he di’n’t push you into your cell or otherwise make a claim on you?”
“Well, there you are then. —I perch on yer unused stool a sec?”, master of etiquette. “Now I will say this: there may have been some sexual content woven into that speech, into that stem-winder of yours—the thought did cross my mind. No, let me finish. But if so, it was intelligently diversified—scattershot—and, of course, shrouded in manliness.”
“Prob’ly ’cause I’m trying to think out loud like you do ‘n’ I’m not down with it yet!” Steve paused, then got to what my Cajun Maoist guru would call the “nut-cuttin'”: “Forrester, I don’t think you appreciate what you’ve pulled off here.”
“Help me see it, Steve.”
“I will. Bluntly put, that speech was far-‘n’-away the best job of sucking up to the Brothers that I’ve ever witnessed! How much of that did you really mean? No, don’t answer; it don’t matter a rat’s pecker. What matters is: that five-minute oh-ration just bought you three years’ protection!! I really got to hand it to you! Protection, Forrester. Not to mention the respect that’s gonna come your way, like in the Yard; all the cigarettes—.”
“Three years?”, I wailed.
“Be able to trade them cigarettes for what you do want,” Steve said, ignoring me; then he giggled. “Whatever that is.”
I stood up. “Three years, Steve?”, swimming to the surface.
Steve stood too. “Yeah, well, I figure: you even half as radical as that speech make you out to be, there is just no way you capable of staying on yer good behavior, get out early. Nope.”
He smiled his crooked smile. Mine lit too, at last. “Well, actually, Steve—”
“See, rather than that, I prefer to imagine,” he interrupted, “that I’m in the presence of a truly remarkable bullshit artist, is all,” and left.
This was a friend!
Of course, it was much as Steve had said it would be; three days’ time found me considering how to share my cigarette largesse and, I admit, how large a stash of same I should keep around for their exchange- value. As foretold, my reputation and I had a little honeymoon in the Yard; or, better said, my self-image and I. Because, although my rep had clearly received an upgrade, I had/have no real notion of what it was/is. Perhaps I had merely passed from an unknown to one acceptably unknown. Who knows? But I was soon cocky enough that I could walk up to Shepp in the Yard, four mornings later, while he stood alone as usual watching ants crawl up a wall.
“Excuse me, man.”
“Meant to ask you: you related to that other Shepp, Archie?, the sax player?”
“Know who you mean. Naw; I’m out of South Philly.” And, with that, brought his attention so forcibly upon the ants (or the wall), that I felt called to pull a quick fade.
—I considered this encounter a brilliant success (choosing utterly to ignore its mystery: wasn’t Archie Shepp himself from Philadelphia?). The final objection to my new comfort level had been shouted down and—immediately!—I found myself idealizing the men around me. Even the creeps and crudes, I tortuously reasoned, must have had their sorry fates thrust upon ’em. Had I read Meister Eckhardt, back then, I could have bolstered this self-protective fantasy by imagining that I was after seeing each man in his own life (which he puts in grander language) while speaking from the core of my own. Soon enough it would come to grief, circumstances would sweep all my little icons off the mental mantelpiece (real through belief), smash them against the hard concrete floor of my cell (real beyond belief); but for the moment?: ego au go go!
* * *
It would be cruel even to my sublime phoniness to speak of the ensuing weeks as a parade of sunny days. Yet, it must have been the message sent my confidantes on the outside. I recall an exasperated letter from Nancy Roe, she who’d taught me poetry at school and had given me, on the stand as a character witness, a lifetime of praise to live up to. “Is it possible,” she wrote, “that you have found a way to be ebullient in captivity?”
Oh, maybe. I’d assimilated Steve’s thinking: I was where I was. I not only made the best of things, I bettered everything. I flattered reality, I buttered it up. Or burnished it as something admittedly gimcrack and dubious but one’s own. That’s it: I thought I actually had a handle on things.
And so I shall traipse breezily through these tarted-up days; knowing that, no matter what I write—, as an autobiographer of self-delusion I’ll come nowhere near the standard set by Ernst (“Putzi”) Hanfstaengl, Hitler’s piano player, he who out-Kinbotes Kinbote!
* * *
The new mateyness my speech permitted with some, although hardly all, of the Security Rangers soon found form as I set about asking for and recording inmate dreams. The impetus for this odd practice flowed from a dream of mine own—.
I woke up in a dream prison, meant to correspond to Allegheny but with the unquestioned substitution of thick but clear glass for the stone wall facing my corridor. And beyond that huge window lay the ocean; and rising out of the horizon was a massive mushroom cloud, red and malignant, Ridley Walker’s One Big One. Clearly, the world would end and momentarily.
My immediate impulse?: ‘Let me get with the others, maybe we can dig this together!’
I even initiated movement, felt myself jerk in a way meant to take me off the bed and out of my cell—.
Well, the intent may have been social but the immediate consequence of that spasm was to send my molecules flying every which way. The disintegration of matter was at hand and I soon felt myself distributed throughout the universe.
* * *
I told Jeffcoat my dream in the Yard; he countered with one of his own, regrettably lost to memory. Larry, who seemed to glory in my new prestige, joined us for a smoke. I got a dream off him.
And so I was duly launched. Let Doctor Joy interview his Viennese burgher-queens!; I was collecting the dreams of the incarcerated underclass!!
At this remove, I remember only one. But you’d remember it too. In fact, after having heard this one dream, my ardor for the project cooled, to put it temperately.
I had been utterly into the whole thing, although I remember having assumed something of a blasé air. Sex, explicit and masked, I’d audited in overplus; and was surfeited with violence, both free-standing and linked to revenge. But neither of these figured in Ernie’s dream—.
* * *
As mentioned, Ernie slept all day. It was not required of us Federals that we attend the Yard, so Ernie was free basically to doze from meal to meal. The guards’ call to line up that preceded each dining (we picked up our food and ate in our cells, Allegheny lacking Hollywood’s classic Prison Cafeteria) was accompanied, on our Range, by a nightstick tattoo on the bars of Ernie’s crib, necessary to rouse him.
It was well that Ernie’s cell lay some ten distant from mine. Weekly shower was likewise optional and Ernie was never known to take one. It was required however that we dine thrice daily. This doubtless satisfied deeply-held humanitarian requirements with roots in English common law. It also gave the screws ample and regular opportunity to toss one’s crib, searching for contraband. (“And to keep you off-balance,” Steve had explained. “Look for the notebook where you know you didn’t leave it, the toothbrush on yer pillow.”)
So it was, anyway, that I nosed Ernie’s approach before he appeared outside 23-F. I had skipped afternoon Yard myself. An officially-sanctioned Lawyer’s Visit was scheduled two hours hence and this meant I had to scribble maniacally to finish whatever it was I was working on (see below). Ernie’s pong put paid to all that. I set down my pen; lay on my bed, nose awriggle. And then: the man hisself.
“Hey Foster!” he rumbled. “Lemme in. I got a dream.”
Jive echoes of the Ur-innocent March on Washington? I bade him enter.
His gross figure using most of the doorway, he did so. I was suddenly grateful for the open-air quality lent by the barred front-wall. I slid my notepad under my blanket: paranoia warned that guards weren’t the only locals interested in “writers”. I leaned my back against the wall and propped feet on my stool. Fortunately for self and bed, Ernie took the hint and remained standing. “Let’s have it,” I said.
“Same every time,” the murderer murmured—then stopped.
“Well?” I prompted and set about to watch as your standard-issue creep-along cretin made to gather his wits, a ponderous process.
“See, that didn’t come out right, Foster,” the huge dude explained. ‘See’? “I mean: I got the same dream every time I sleep. And—you might of noticed: I mostly sleep.”
“That’s how I do Time.”
“So I wake up, Foster: that’s the first thing,” Ernie began. “I’m not Inside, cuz I’m in a real bed ‘n’ wearin’ p.j.s: it’s enough to make me cry sometime, but fuck that, right? So I change into my work clothes, then hit the can ‘n’ take a whiz—which is slow-goin’ if I happen to have a soft-on, dig? Then I grab some change offa the table ‘n’ catch the bus to work, look out the windows on the way. My work-gig’s at Sturdy Auto Parts: mostly sorting; yeah: hours of sorting—.”
“Your mind ever wander while you’re doing that?”
“Whaddya mean, Foster?”
“There’s lifting too, you know; you know? It’s not all sorting.”
“The other guys: some of ’em talk, like, to pass the time; like, bitch about the work or the weather. I keep my head down, Foster. We get a half-an-hour for lunch and m-a-y-b-e I shoot the shit a little then. I don’ want none of them muhfuhs finding out I’m actually in Prison, right? You wouldn’t!”
“Ten-minute coffee-break at 2; I hit the can again, make my bladder gladder. And it’s then, Foster, while I’m holding my johnson, that—sometimes!—the scene fades ‘n’ I’m back here. But by now I knows just what to do: I git real angry!” Ernie dilated his chest; I shrank into the wall. “And, BANG!“, Ernie exhaled and clapped his big man’s hands: “I’m back in the factory toilet. That a groove or what, man?!?”
“What do you get mad at?” I ventured.
“Being here, Azzhole!!! —Sorry,” he added immediately. “I di’n’t mean you, Foster.”
“So I work until the bell,” calm again. “Then I take the bus back home. But I get off one stop early so’s I can hit the Hy-Mart ‘n’ pick up a six-pack and a teevee dinner. And that’s important, man: that’s a wake-up, right there, the whachamacallit: the variety. Cuz I buys all kinds, different days, Foster: beef ravioli, chicken parm, chicken a la king, even chop suey, man!”
“I don’t get it, Ernie.”
“Cuz I di’n’t get there yet, did I? —What I’m drivin’ at: no matter what kinds of teevee dinner I get, I get home ‘n’ heat it up, it always tastes exactly the same. ‘Oh yeah!’ I remind myself, ‘I’m just doin’ a dream here!'”
“So when you realize that, what does it lead to?”
“Oh, I dunno. Downing the brews, I guess. Yeah, that comes next.”
“Then?”, lassitude conceiving tension by way of parthenogenesis.
“Then—sometime I do a little tidying up ‘n’ that; there’s a broom—one time, I sorta danced with the broom-
–. Or just walk back ‘n’ forth in the living room. Remember to remember to put my change on the table for next morning. But every evening winds up the same way—.”
Ernie paused again, which I found little short of intolerable. “Yes? How??”
“Oh, just watchin’ television, that’s all. Just watchin’ the ol’ boob. —But that’s another wake-up for me, you dig?”
“Same kind of thing?”
“Yeah, only the other way around: no variety. Dig: Two guys are talking. I don’t fucking understand a word; I mean: it’s English but it’s fuckin’ over my head. So fuck that!, right? But when I lean over to change the channel, Foster, and it’s the same two guys on every network, then I remember it’s a dream. So I sit back and watch, pretend I understand ’em, you know: like, to contribute.”
“And you feel good again?”
“Yeah; like—useful. Now this here is the nutty part, Foster!”
“What happens next. Or doesn’t happen. See, there’s always a moment—always!—when I, like, admit to myself that I don’t know what they’re talking about, these two guys; that I’m only fucking pretending to like it!!” Ernie’s boom-boom voice had risen again; I edged along the wall. “That, in fact, they’re boring the piss outa me, the two guys! —Now lissen!: I admit that—that I’m bored, right?—and it sort of turns me off, like it’s me on the television. I’m turned off—and the next thing I know I’m awake, for real, y’know?, y’know? You know: back here. —That’s it, Foster. Every day, every night. —Sometimes I even think: how do I get from my teevee chair into bed? I must do that—yeah, and put on my p.j.s—while I’m awake, nawm sane? Like, when we’re eating? Whatta you think??”
“Do you ever try to do things differently? Change your pattern?”
“Yeah—I used to,” Ernie said and glanced away, looking oddly guilty. “But I cut that out a while back. See, Foster, if you change things too much, the, the, the—outlines go wavy—and there’s ‘snow’, like on the tube.”
“And things ain’t solid no more,” voice up ‘n’ booming, “like: you can put your hand through ’em! And that’s fucked up, right? Man can’t live like that!!: can’t touch nuthin’ too hard, hafta pick up your feet allatime??”
“Ernie,” I said, desperate to break the flow, “have you ever talked about this before?”
“Naw—. I mean: yeah, I talked to myself about it, lots!” Brightening, Ernie executed what looked like an involuntary rond de jambe (very much a terre). “Like, sometimes—when we’re eating dinner?—I pretend that I’m the two guys on the tube, that they’re talking about me, that’s what they’ve been doing, all along!! Somebody else is the one who don’t get it!”
He stepped to the door, stopped and turned; some species of pride lit his heavy face. “But now I don’t hafta do that no more, right?”
“Why not, Ernie?”
“Cuz now, Foster, you ‘n’ me: we’re the two guys!”
Allegheny had a piano but it was reserved for Sunday church services, during which it would often lie idle. I’d eye it—with emotions too knotted to undo at this remove—when I lost the thread of the sermon or wanted to. There was an eight-man rotating pastorate; and although one joker told Biblical tales after the manner of Lord Buckley (likely more model than mimic) and another predictably let the cadences roll, most were Caucasian, pious, and dull. (What am I tripping on? Oh right: Herb Ellis calling Monk’s playing “contrived, ugly, and dumb”.)
It didn’t matter. Come Sunday, the Rotunda at the bottom of our horseshoe was always jampacked with jailbirds: anyone in the right mind would seize ‘most any chance to hop off the rota of Range-and-Yard; and any prisoner with a stool was admitted.
23 had a full complement of stools: 26-for-26: yet another way of acknowledging our grubby superiority! The non-Federal cellblocks, each with as many inmates as Security or Murder, were afforded 18 stools apiece. This naturally (i.e., diabolically), produced constant strife until a pecking order got established within the Range. (“They like to see us at each other’s throats,” I’d snarled when Steve hipped me to the ploy; he fluttered an anile hand, as if unwitted by my violent words.) A stool brought modularity: one propped his feet on it while balanced on the cot rim; one wrote letters on its hard surface; put his food tray upon it; planted his rear on it, for the humble sake of a different perspective. As forcibly illustrated in Steve’s introductory lecture, the stool was a weapon. It was real yet movable; and, briefly, one’s own. (In my drug-hobbled book on Nixon, the one sober passage deals with the prison stool; when pleading with publishers, the poet Ira Brukner always pointed to those paragraphs.) And, again, a stool provided entrée to the Rotunda on Sunday mornings. Thus did a chance to catch Habit napping make stoolies of us all.
One Sunday stands out, shows how desperate we were to be there (in both senses). The service was conducted by four guys from the Gideon Bible Society, they who’d plant a little guilt in every hotel room. I didn’t like their attitude: working-class folk playing missionary to the lumpen. They exuded rectitude; it was clear they felt our primary sin was self-indulgence (or, to flip-flop, what a Stalinist might criticize as “spontaneity”). Self-evidently, we cons didn’t feel enough principled pressure in the lower reaches of the digestive system. Studies in sullenness, we sat in the milky light usual to gatherings in the Rotunda. (We were seldom to be trusted with darkness.)
Hymnals were taken from a large cardboard box and distributed among the stooled.
“At the conclusion of the service, Men,” the head Gideon stipulated, “file towards the rear to re-deposit your hymn book. The box will be waiting. Now turn to page 73, ‘This IS my Father’s World’.”
The box will be waiting?
The Gids provided their own piano player, lucky sucker! No digestive laxness to this dude: his posteriors barely grazed the piano bench. He struck up a foursquare intro while we paged through to 73. I knew the hymn in question, had shout/sung it in my church’s canticle choir when a noisy pre-teen. I was delighted to meet again that orb of mystery “the music of the spheres” (“What does it mean, Mr. Metcalf?” my little shrill self had demanded of the choirmaster.), and I belted out the words when we got there. And the evening the morning of the first verse.
Second verses can be tricky. Five years out of stir, I would talk the minister of Washington Square Church into programming “From Greenland’s Icy Mountains”, just because Ives quoted the tune so often. But as the congregation (commies, queers, the elderly, artsies, the unwashed, the unprepossessing and the unselfpossessed) entered the second verse, everyone froze on the words “Take up the White Man’s burden!”
The second verse to “Dad’s World” was less malignant, even featuring an enchanting moment of homonymbic confusion: “His Hand the Wonders wrought”. Inmate voices started fading all around me, but I and others struggled gamely to the end of the verse.
The third, however, was another matter entirely. The words seemed a jumble; had the lyricist thrown up his hands? I dropped out. A few stalwarts kept the tune going for a while, slurring the lyrics or skipping them outright. Then these too dropped out too—
—leaving the four Gideons and their pianist the only voices in the huge room. Sanctimoniously, they finished the third verse, drew breath, and sanctimoniously launched themselves upon the fourth.
They finished up in a collective near-bellow: the Church Militant beset on all sides by the scourge of silence. Self-satisfied, they ceased. All-men.
Then the head Gid stepped forward and said, quite frostily, “We in the Gideons believe in singing all four verses of every hymn. It’s the only way to get—the whole message.”
I was seated rather far back, in an area lightly shadowed. I hadn’t even regarded the little man at my immediate right, who cupped his hands now and cried out:
“If’n you don’ get the ‘whole message’ somewhere’n the first four seconds, you ain’ gone git it—at all!”
It brought down the house!! Truth and laughter! And, for me, the communion of the saints.
* * *
One way to ensure one’s letter getting stopped cold by the Mail Censor, then returned to the writer for revision?: refer directly to living conditions or actual events at Allegheny Prison! We couldn’t write about where we were without an immediate echo. This was an unwritten rule; among the written was the limit of one-a-week to visits from family or friends; whereas, one might have unlimited ten-minute briefings from lawyers or clergy. And while amusing Uncle Doofus or one’s honey was stuck outside only-nearly- transparent glass (pebbled, metal-veined), talking into a telephone!, your hapless brief or Burroughs’ “randy old priest” got to join you around some species of conference table. True, under the intermittently watchful eye of one bored screw. And, of course, no touching; but, ordinarily, who’d want to?
Here, happily, a written rule conspired with elements of my life-case to undo the power of the unwritten. Had I been normal—incidentally, not a bad title for this monograph?—, I’d have taken advantage—.
As mentioned, one of my Pittsburgh reefer-buddies was a lawyer named George. In court, I’d gone with stolid Tom Kerr of the ACLU; but George was a good guy to dream big with (even conceding that predictable moment in the pot party when he’d go into his bedroom and bring out the NLF flag). George would come to our jail sessions toting a yellow legal pad, the exact duplicate of the sort I’d buy from the Prison Commissary. He’d always leave the first page unwritten-upon; as would I. (I cannot for the life of me remember how and when we worked all this out!) George would prate loudly in legal gibberish; I’d answer in kind, picking up on some key (meaningless) word: “A writ ab housatonic? That’ll never be processed!” George would violate his pad’s virginity. I’d pretend to do the same—pretend, because every line of every page save my first was already occupied—.
“The Court may well see fit to process it this way,” George might remark and shove his new-marked pad across the table for me to see. This gambit could raise a praetorian eyebrow, so I’d take pains to regard George’s scrawl and pass his pad quickly back to him, my own (as if beneath regard) an ostentatious arm’s- length from the action.
Then I’m seized by virtual inspiration. “But isn’t there a precedent?” I ask. “Hockaby versus, versus—?”
“Right!! ‘Hockaby versus State of New Jersey, l958’.” George makes a note. “We can definitely tie that in. –
–Where did you read about it?”
“Tulane Law Review, March of ’62. I’ve noted the reference.”
I pass my pad to George who diddles on his. “Of course, there are other precedents,” he says. I look quizzical. George passes me his pad. Or mine. Diddle, diddle.
This is probably enough to outwit the guard, but we’ll throw in several gratuitous passes, just to better the odds.
My ego whispers (or did) that what I’m smuggling out is important. But, after all, all getting caught would mean for me was a week in solitary confinement: The Hole, in Allegheny and elsewhere. At absolute worst, it would extend my 90 days a taste. But for stalwart George? He’d not only get cuffed on the spot, but would undoubtedly lose his shingle. And for what? In a typically Joel-ist political move, I had assaulted the very purpose of all this brave subterfuge by resolutely refusing to write about my current circumstances.
Oh, I pored over my legal pad, but filling it with high idiocy, much of which would find its way into “The LIFE of Richard Nixon”, and with nary a word about my life in Allegheny (save for those sentences on the centrality of the Prison stool). Oh, had we been found out, it would’ve still been considered contraband- smuggling—but, alas, more for the form of its transmission than for content. Unless, of course, they’d had the unlikely foresight to bribe a stoned exegete into getting to the bottom of it. But such was my ego at this juncture of the jail trip, that it sufficed for me to pretend that in writing about, for example, the “functionally-obvious” or the “plane of common unity” or “a dialectics of participation with the environment”, I was describing life Inside.
Scant years later, George’s mind would ripen and rot, owing to a stubborn unwillingness to hold himself “above” his canny, heartless clients. But I will always remember him for his foolish, foolish bravery.
—One laughable pendant. During one of our pass-overs, I was able to interest George in the case of Apache. He duly gave the drug-murderer ten minutes of his life, never mentioning the matter to me. But one day Apache came back onto the Range full of beans. “Fucking George!” he was heard wildly to mumble. “Fucking George!” And Steve Jeffcoat, who was somehow as much Apache’s confidant as my own, was later to confide to me that ten minutes with George was enough to convert Apache from a camouflaged Nazi to “a dude lookin’ to groove on the Chairman, slather on the May-o!”
“Maybe Apache thinks it’s a better fit, Steve. Won’t need to hide so much.”
“He ‘thinks’? Apache ‘thinks’?!?”
(And there will be those who wave the white flag to oppose the white flag.)
I had conceived a solidarity with my cellblock that was too knowing to risk a life beyond my conception of it. But there came one chill December morning when the men of Allegheny’s Security Range became one, all right. And in the saddest, straightest way: we were united in fear—.
Sometime during the night, one resident was subtracted and another added. That wasn’t unusual; in fact, I was used to sleeping through the process. But this particular new one soon made himself known to all,
simply as a voice. How? No, not through volume nor through intensity. No, this fellow had a soft enough signal; we woke to it one-by-one, all save Ernie probably. When among us, anyway, this new one limited his speech to the five interrogatives, spoken singly but stretched to the point of pointlessness, caressing his hearers’ ears. What great intake of breath he’d require to make that “who” last a full 20 ticks! Or was he the mad anti-anti-musician who taught Roland Kirk to play and breathe at once? Mad he certainly was and, as he spoke his droned questions through the night, it became impossible (for me, anyway) to summon anything like the belief (in the limited sense of “assurance”) necessary either for sleep or for full waking life. He questioned everything and we listened to him: he was the only game in town. —To give the Behaviorists their due, they are right about all the wrong things; without ever questioning the violent, shady connections of Habit Itself, they point out that the hardest habits to break are those intermittently reinforced. And that’s how it was that at least 23 case-hardened thugs and one o’er-curious curiosity found themselves listening for hours to a repeated set of drawn-out words. One knew a question was coming but knew not which one, nor the pitch, nor the duration. One knew there would be a space between sounds, a silence (music’s prerequisite), but never how long. (And this wasn’t music.) If there were any pattern I never cottoned on to it. This guy was sending—and the reinforcement (a fucking posse!) waren’t nuthin’ if not intermittent!
He kept it up, if quietly, as he shuffled with his sleepless mates, lined up for cornflakes ‘n’ coffee, come morning proper. The reader will recall that we had to bring our mess back to our cells; well, everyone just had to catch a glimpse of this guy and it wasn’t really tough to track the sound—to an anonymous wisp of a Black man who seemed, in emitting his eldritch repertoire, barely to open his mouth! Wow!
When he got up to the kitchenards (“Why?”), Wispy received his spoon, cup, and bowl—implements to be pushed outside the cell at breakfast’s end, there to be collected by the trusty. It was when Wispy declined the content of his breakfast (“How?”) that ripples of fear began to spread through those around him—even to the rear of the line, where I stood with Steve among those only positioned to imagine what our questioner was up to. (Not that I would fail to get a fleshed-out account: Security spoke of little else for days!)
As the line doubled back and my mates from the farthest reaches of the alphabet began to inch carefully past me and mine—full coffee cup in one hand, full bowl in the other, spoon in the shirt pocket (or, among those in singlets, sticking out of the waistband like a failed rapier)—, I got to see for myself. Wispy had no balancing act to perform—one over-sized hand obscured the empty bowl while the other outright hid the empty cup. Really big hands. The spoon lay in his mouth, business end out, an arrangement which hindered his “What?” not at all. One clear sight of this, just in front of me, easily trumped my vague imaginings. I started to spill coffee—then remembered that I hadn’t been served yet: the men immediately in line with Wispy were all spilling. Coffee everywhere underfoot.
When I got my provender back to 23-F, I just stared at it a while, not yet willing to indulge. I wasn’t alone. Next day, Steve quizzed me: “You eat your mess, yesterday morning?” “With misgivings,” I answered. But I’m jumping the gun here; it’s not yet tomorrow, is it? No—.
A time-typical Western Pennsylvania snowfall meant no morning Yard. Ordinarily, the more sociable Security guys would pass the time visiting each other or lounging in the corridor. But on this day, no one ventured out of his cell. No one but Wispy, silent now, who had (I suppose/hope) filled that empty cup with water from his cell’s spigot and walked—silently, gravely—up and down the Range, sprinkling water on the bars of each cell, gravely and silently baptizing every man. A crippling panic settled in among us. I remember thinking: ‘He’s coming. He’s here now. He’s gone. He’s coming back.’
The trusty, prompted to collect our utensils, instead took his own cup and raked the bars on the corridor door. Screws appeared in overplus; Wispy was taken away. Where? To join the invisible murderers, our downstairs neighbors? I doubted it; the Prison couldn’t risk having that hornets’ nest stirred up! For Wispy was not simply a murderer. He was, in some way, of death itself.
That afternoon (no, it’s still not tomorrow), in the newly-shoveled Yard, Security kept itself to itself, jabbering and chattering about the inevitable. I tried to get Washington’s take. He shook his head, closed his eyes, said nothing. ‘And this man is our bravest,’ I thought.
But in the dinner line, five hours on, when I asked Ernie what he made of our Visitation, he claimed not even to have noticed! It would figure. Ernie was, oh without doubt, our very Black local version of Alice’s Red King, he whose sleep is disturbed only at the peril of everyone’s existence.
(And it turns out only to have been tomorrow in retrospect.)
Perhaps our demented baptism was a wholly proper transition or slide into the more normal neuroses attendant on the Natal Days, that sacred time-slot when if ever, every good American reckons, the grace of Hope will descend on him. There’s blame-placing aplenty when it doesn’t, of course. And the Republican wet-dream of “the family” is believed with no greater fervor than among men who are separated from theirs. Do all ideals prosper only in impossibility?
But my idealization of my mates had reached such a pitch that, although I could not share their sentimental expectation of the Holidays, nor the hovering sadness, I saw these as evidence of the “humanity” all about me. Oh, what a patronizing motherfucker I could be!; can be.
Even Steve was not uninfluenced. How else to explain (asks faux-disingenuous Joel) the sheet of paper slipped me just before evening lock-down, three days prior to Sonny’s birthday? Lights-out fell an hour hence and latterly I’d been passing this time ploughing through Graves’ “White Goddess” (sent by Wade Hancock—poet, chimney sweep, angry bus driver), which the Prison Mail Censor had grudgingly allowed me to have, although not before making me sit for 20 minutes while he laboriously thumbed through it, glancing up but once: “I’m looking for the sex.”
But on this night, I only had eyes for Steve’s one-page ode to his own uncertainty. It came with its own set of instructions, like a tech manual, a recipe, or directions for assembly. Indeed, any of these might be more likely to engage Steve-the-reader than the arse poetica. I was instructed: “Read. Consider. Crumble up and throw away in tomorrow’s breakfast line. NEVER mention to me. Ever.” —Odd that I can remember this, word-for-word, while the poem remains largely forgot.
What was it? Well, a string of boasts in the spirit of Young Lochinvar (“He’d swum the Esk River / Where ford there was none”), none of which I recall, each rough-footed quatrain ending with the lament “but cannot face things as they are”. (Hence, closer to the Temps’ “Can’t Get Next to You”?)
I did as I was bidden.
Amazing Grace!, to bend a tough like Steve! I filed it under: the maudlin character of American Christmas and the resentment it sows among those who feel cheated out of it. Steve, at least, had the discipline to blame himself for the way he felt—if not the kindness to resist “sharing” (or so I reckoned at the time; I was soon to take a different view of this intimacy; and, later still, a third view). But among those less disciplined—.
Our warden had arranged three Holiday treats. In a remarkable p.r. coup, he’d brought in the cast of the hippie musical “HAIR”—its road show, that is—for a heavily-expurgated, street-clothes matinee, the day before Xmas. It hardly mattered that these fetching twitchers kept their clothes on. Groans arose from all over the audience. The performers were on a slapped-up stage with all the local lights trained on them; for a change, we prisoners got to sit in deep shadow. Some men masturbated openly.
That night, guards came round between lock-down and lights-out, and gave each prisoner a plastic cup of Coca Cola and a nickel bag of Lay’s Potato Chips.
On Xmas morning, those with stools were invited back to the Rotunda, this time to watch some old Castle shorts featuring the Zale-Graziano fights. We sat in the milky light we were long accustomed to and peered at the light-loosened outlines thrown onto the screen. A sullen frustration settled over the room.
At the films’ conclusion, our warden wished us a Merry Christmas and suggested we pass the balance of the Holiday “in reflection”.
The next few days saw Security go about its business, if with clenched teeth; but there were rapes and beatings throughout the rest of the Prison. Fear counseled me to stay out of the Yard and I heeded.
And with the New Year came the first seismic shock to my reading of the situation: Steve Jeffcoat made to call in his markers—.
“If they’re gonna transfer you, Forrester, it’s gonna happen soon,” Steve predicted, his first words of 1971, uttered as he hopped onto my stool, brushing aside his usual etiquette. I was busy shaving blind with the safest of safety razors. “They put their calendar in charge of things.”
My answer was honest: “Well, I would hope that doesn’t happen, Steve.” Indeed, I’d neatly suppressed the possibility, of late; I had a comforting little “scene” I’d not have “blown”.
“Yeah, well I for one would hope it fucking does!” he answered with some edge.
“How’s that?” I asked, all ears and wary.
“I’ve been in touch with my Family,” he began. “My Dad says: ‘Just say the word, Stevie.'”
“Not with you,” towelling away stray bubbles of Barbesol.
“Look, Forrester: it may have escaped your notice, but we look a lot alike.”
“To one who doesn’t know either of us.”
“So—the Federal screws who come to pick you up don’t know you. Nor, with any luck, would they know
me: I’ve never done Federal time before. —And, with your help, I might not have to do any now! “Steve: why don’t you just ‘come on with the come-on’?”, aping a favored phrase of his.
“No, you’re right,” meaning our friendship had no room for power games, neither sweet bullshit nor aggro. “Here’s the lay: once you get your date and time, if and only if I’ve got 24 hours to contact and position my Family, we might-could be able to pull off a switch.”
“You for me?”, thinking of Bud’s manic “Tea For Two” and also wondering if I’d tell Steve that his “if and only if” was a condition in logic (abbreviated “iff”).
“Yes and me for you. —What’re you thinking about, Forrester? —Wait!. hear me out before you land on yea or nay,” holding up his version of Washington’s copper’s palm.
How nice that my mind was still my own! Or was Steve so confident that I’d go along that he had absolutely no need to assert dominance?, could pretend to respect resistance? Would he now put words in my mouth?
“You’ll say: ‘How can we possibly pull it off?'” he said, horribly on cue. “And the answer, of course, is that it’s likely we can’t,” appealing to the realist in me we both knew didn’t exist.
“More detail,” I demanded, cold and angry; within: excited and appalled.
“Sure; sure, Joel.”
* * *
But although I’ll summarize it here, Steve didn’t feed me the entire Plan at once. Rather, he let it build up in increments over the next six days, six of my all-time longest! He’d approach me in the Yard and speak of some additional precaution, some bright way of dealing with an unexpected turn, some message from without (weather reports, armament). He’d enter my cell and stand silently, all calculation, seeming to take my emotional temperature; then ripple the silence with some startling new fact: Security’s trusty had been long since bought; there was duct tape in the Kitchen and would be available on the Day; ditto the twine, the mucilage, and the all-important X-acto knife. Or he’d simply repeat his mantra: “Remember, Forrester–
-the risk is mine.” The rest of our daily conversation dried up to nothing.
Here it was, then. The transfer trip would take place at mid-morning, so we’d both beg off Yard (not unusual for either of us). Steve showed me how the plastic identity band could be cised off my ankle, then rejoined about his with an invisible drop of mucilage. Garbed in the grey Mao-shirt he’d long coveted, he’d be rousted from his/my cell, fed coffee in the Bullpen, and processed out. Two Federal guards would drive him, via the Pennsylvania Turnpike, either to Lewisburg or to Allenwood; in either case, the guards would stop for a bite ‘n’ a piss at the Breezewood Interchange, pulling into a Howard Johnson’s there. This was procedure and, I was told, it never varied. Steve’s family would lie in wait in the HoJo’s parking lot. They’d know just when the car would arrive; know the seating arrangement: guard/driver alone in front; a second guard in back, handcuffed to the prisoner, cuffs to which the guards themselves didn’t possess the key. The family knew to come in numbers and with silenced guns; and with a clamp clipper to sever Steve from the guard. They knew the best moments of attack: a series in descending order of efficacy, of which the optimum was the post-prandial moment just before re-entry into the car. “They’ll surround us, hide us,” Steve said of an “us” in which I didn’t figure. “Two guys, two guns, on each guard, high ‘n’ low. Surprise is key: can’t have ’em reaching for their own heaters. And both of them’ll be outfitted with panic buttons. — You’d think my Dad’s first play would be to liberate me, but it ain’t; it’s to strip them guards of their panic buttons—before one gets pushed and, all of a sudden, there’s Law everywhere!”
Steve grinned. “This next bit shows my Dad’s touch: one of his boys pretends to be a hostage, just an ordinary guy who stopped at HoJo’s; how he ran afoul of my Dad is never explained, but someone’s holding a gun on him too, and Dad makes certain the guards see it, dig?” Then, to placate me?, “The guards won’t even be roughed up, or needn’t be. They cooperate—and they’re trained to, in a Hostage Situation—, they’ll be hogtied, tape on the mouth, in the backseat of their own vehicle, covered with a blanket, to retard their discovery.”
That last bit sounded uncomfortably familiar. Well, it should: it also described how I was to be found. Trussed up in twine I’d be, tied to the toilet so I couldn’t move much. In Steve’s cell, of course, but missing my ankle i.d. (Steve got to be me, in this scenario; I got to be No-man, e’er-so-briefly; but where’s fucking Polyphemous when you can actually use him?) There’s duct tape on my treacherous mouth as well. And, like the feckless Federals, I’ve a blanket over me.
“I might just have to bloody your nose,” Steve related with what looked like genuine pity. “Make it appear like you, like, showed fight. But breathing won’t be a problem. And it’s in a good cause.”
“They ‘discover’ you, they won’t know it isn’t me. No, their first thought’ll be: ‘So—Jeffcoat has hisself an enemy somewhere!'”
“‘Bottom, thou art translated!'” “Come again?”
“Forrester,” clenched, “I know you’re into making little asides to the Unseen Audience. But can it for once and concentrate on this!!”
* * *
Ah, the 1950s!, I.F. Stone’s “haunted” decade; The Tube as the great post-war teaching tool (Okay, there’s our Cyclops!). In grand retrospect, one idlog principle my kidhood saw played out in story after story was winningly simple in its brute improbability: the odd notion that money doesn’t matter, not to Americans, not ultimately. In the funny papers, it didn’t matter to the cross-class friendship of Steve Roper, who wore ascots and edited “PROOF” magazine,and Mike Nomad, who called everyone Joker and had a flat-top with long hair on the sides. Teevee’s “Mickey Mouse Club” offered a parallel narrative-construct entitled “Spin and Marty”. Prig Marty’s accompanied to summer camp by his faux-Brit male nanny; prole Spin has to be taught the social graces (by Buddy Ebsen!); but love trumps class in the end. The selfsame point was made during the decade’s extended decline (1960-64) by “Route 66”. One assumes the Corvette actually belongs to Tod, the tall blond Wasp. The grittier, more “authentic” (don’t you love to see that word in quotes?) dialogue and genre-tude are given his working-class buddy, the Greco-Balkan Buzz (a jazz buff!). Buzz is accoutered as—and may well be named for—the motorcycle jacket who challenged James Dean to that fatal game of chicken in Nick Ray’s overwrought wide-screen period fear-jerker.
Yes, but now comes—as every jailhouse writ begins—a new show, a program irresistably of the l960s, spinning that proper gander all widdershins! First of all, it ain’t representative, as theatre were born t’be, opportunities fer audience-identification abounding!; nope, this here still-born show takes place in Life Herselves—it ain’t untimely ripped! So there’s no “studio audience”, no “folks at home”. Call it “Rebel Without Applause“, for it hath no bottom.
I’m stuck with being Tod—but he’s a Tod who tries to copy Buzz. I wanted all the phony working-class authenticity I could write for myself: action as well as dialogue. Marty, aping Spin, “forgets” how to dance, hopes it won’t matter to the budding Annette. If I donned the black leather jacket, would I win Miss Woodlark? But there are no women in prison, so postures and impostures exist for their own sake.
No, there’s just me and Steve in this show; our latest episode: “The Betrayal”.
* * *
Don’t that sound grand? It was how I felt, though. Or one of the ways. How long had Steve calculated his play? Was it a case of suckerdom at first sight? Yes, I was among other things angry.
As mentioned, we came to speak of nothing but the Plan. And anytime Steve spoke, I listened: uncommitted, deeply intrigued, willing myself unwilling (and its opposite). I didn’t say I would; I didn’t say I wouldn’t. But listened.
Sometimes Steve spoke not to develop the scenario, nor to offer pertinent news, but to rally my enthusiasm. Three instances of this phenomenon wish to be remarked.
The first and weakest was an appeal to my dignity. “Hold your head up, Forrester. It’s coming.” The redeeming moment. —I felt like an S & H Green Stamp.
He’d also appeal to the well-known fatidic cast I lent my thinking. “This thing we’re into: it’s the point, man. Why else would we both be here at the same time? —And if it isn’t the point, we’ll make it the point. Which is often your point, right? I mean: I didn’t come up with that!”
And once, incredibly, Steve spoke to his own soul and to mine: “It’s amazing, Joel! We can’t escape our selves, you and I, even as we switch places. I’m only doing what’s necessary for me. Whereas you—will be making this great, free gesture!” Accepting an existential challenge, he would have said, had he been me. (Predictably, my set had its own version of that adjective’s meaning.)
But had he been me, he’d need no philosophical underpinning whatsoever. As teevee’s old Col. Morton boasted of his chicken potpies: “There’s no soggy undercrust!”
Through all this, I fought to remember the calculated betrayal that ridiculed a wonderful friendship.
But how could I say no? Or yes?
I fought to stay angry.
Ever try it?
* * *
All that week I was on tenterhooks and out of sorts. At moments, I’d get excited in an almost prurient way at the adventure just ’round the corner. Then I’d remember that this would be happening to me, not to some fictional stand-in or projection. And I’d get the willies or I’d say aloud, “But this is absurd! It’s not as if I’m actually going through with it!”, my mantra.
—But if I didn’t or wouldn’t, how then to live out my remaining weeks with Steve as my next-cell neighbor?, to live with his disappointment? And if he weren’t disappointed in me, if he’d never really expected me to come through, wouldn’t that be even harder to take?
Then I’d flash on Steve’s poem as a function of his calculation: how to refuse a man who’s trusted me with a glimpse behind the mask?, trusted me with his doubts? Oh it meant something to me, all right—but he’d counted on that! And so my mood turned angry again. He counted on it: why, that’s the same thing that turns Sam Spade against Bridgid O’Shaugnessy in “The Maltese Falcon”! —And at that unlikely epiphany, standing alone in the Yard, I chuckled.
“You amused at something?” Who was this? Before me stood a blotchy-faced youth in a Kitchen-helper’s uniform. “You’re Forrester, right?”
“You have the advantage of me.” ”
The fuck’s that s’posed to mean?”
Yes, who was I?; not Bogie—William Powell? I shook my head out of the movies, into the moment. ”
I mean: I don’t know your name, that’s all.”
“Friend of Steve’s. Name’s Pat,” not overwhelmingly friendly, I registered. “Steve reckoned you ought to meet someone who could, like, underline the fact that he means what he says. —Now don’t turn color! He di’n’t tell me what you cooked up between yiz. He just thought it would help you to believe him if you met someone who can, like, vouch for him. He don’t fuck around, Steve. That’s it,” shrugged and sauntered off, duty done.
Meant to reassure?, to threaten? My cycle of emotions rotated even more swiftly, its weighted center ever- shifting.
And then, out of nowhere, the second hammer-blow!
It happened on a Tuesday at the tailend of that horrible week, days passed largely in my own dire/giddy imagination. Undoubtedly, people had gathered about the newcomer in morning Yard, but I wouldn’t have noticed, my head up my ass. But in the open-corridor hour after lunch, even Preoccupation Himself (one of the lesser Titans) would find it hard to ignore the hubbub taking place just up the alphabet from me.
I leaned out for a look and saw a long, ragged, quiet (pensive?) queue of my fellow Security Rangers, trailing up from 23-K. Nearly a full complement! I turned, by habit, to Steve for an explanation—but his cell was empty. I stepped further into the corridor and spotted my friend and nemesis in the middle of the line, tucking in his shirt, tucking in his fucking shirt!
Then Larry, my friendly small-time burglar, brushed past me. Turning back, he caught my quizzical look. Burbling with enthusiasm, Larry laid it on me: “It’s about Mario, man! Bulls brang him in while the rest of us was in the Shower, joined us in the Yard; what a surprise! He’s a big man in one of the Families, Jo’. Me, I got stuck on the shitter or I’d’ve been first in line, believe me!”
I did: Larry hurtled up the corridor and assumed his position as the last man in line, animated and out-of- breath. I stared.
This Mario was a high-echelon Mafioso and men I had idealized were lined up outside his cell: looking for work. Work, for when they got out. Some of ’em actually primped as they stood. Others summoned or rehearsed murmuringly the words they’d use to impress The Guy. Several tried out confident smiles or bore hard-boy expressions, alternate forms of projected menace? A few opted for a (less believable) bland imperturbability. One looked mournful. These were faces I’d never seen along the Security Range!
Who wasn’t there? Well, Ernie. But, no, Washington wasn’t on line either—.
—Then I thought with a sharp shock, ‘Washington’s never getting out.’ Which would certainly explain the bitterness about the man. But in my new bitterness, I then thought: ‘Or he’d be on line as well.’
More detail came my way in the afternoon Yard. My mates were all atingle with this New Presence among us. Until recently, Mario had served as mayor of Youngstown, Ohio. (When debating the Commie boss Gus Hall in a college forum, three years before, I learned that Hall had helped lead an important steel strike in Youngstown; but now—or always?—it was a notorious Syndicate hub, a Midwest Mafia redoubt.) The Feds had dropped a tax rap on Mario—it probably bought his Family YEARS of unOfficial indifference to local racketeering—and, like a good soldier, he’d take the fall with quiet contempt and quietly, contemptuously, do his time. He told stories. He knew everybody that mattered. He made quiet, reliable promises.
I detested him. And he me, that was soon quite clear. He didn’t take a Prison job either, so we were both always around. We shunned each other something bubonic. We didn’t have to semaphore our cultural distinctions: I wore my Mao-shirt and jeans; he was the only Allegheny resident who sported a daily suit and tie. I was a proud longhair; Mario’s do was a careful, pomaded pompadour. I presented a diversion to the men around me; Mario offered the future. And, all-too-predictably, he was very patriotic. All in favor of the corruption of American society from within (as long as his own kids didn’t get hooked on drugs), he stood second to none in his condemnation of our country’s Official enemies: the Other Side in Vietnam, for one, and any Americans who refused to recognize the authority of the State.
Or so I imagined him and imagined him imagining me. (Know thyself: and if you can’t pull that off, know somebody else!) But there was no denying that Mario’s arrival brought a frost to my relations with the rest of Security. Many of the other men picked up on this bountiful provider’s attitude toward the commie draft- coward. Suddenly, in the Yard and along the Range, I was greeted with something like second-hand scorn.
Which was impossible not to reciprocate.
* * *
All right. But there are some situations in life up against which even the strongest ill will hasn’t a chance! “Love laughs at locksmiths,” as Buster Keaton dubiously quoted the famously inarticulate Houdini as saying—.
Security had its weekly showers just before morning Yard on Tuesdays. Shower was optional and presented a true approach/avoidance conflict. The water was always cold; the soap was so corrosive that I presume its true purpose was the killing of all plant and animal life dwelling on the dermal surface; one stood on line buck-nekkid for up to 20 minutes, close-crowded with men having at least a week’s stink on ’em, each waiting for (Warhol’s the parodist here) his one uncomfortable minute in the water-jet spotlight. A literal minute it was too, a towel handed you only upon exiting the stall; and no early exits. But the Joint’s a dirty place; who wouldn’t put up with a little ignominy when the alternative would render him too funky for human company? (Well, Ernie.)
So it fell out that a week to the day after Mario’s arrival, he and I found ourselves closer than life is to death; clothes-less; uncomfortable, and anticipating a greater discomfort some ten minutes away. I felt like a snail who’d lost his shell. (Can snails shiver?) Other guys in the line were talking—. What the hell! Was it incumbent upon a radical to be stand-offish?
My father, a newspaperman, had sent me a sub to a weekly news-roundup published by The Times. I thought now about a recent story on the National page, hardly given more than two paragraphs actually—.
“Mario,” I said to the bulky snail behind me.
He answered with a noncommittal grunt, easily interpreted as no answer at all. But I pressed on. “I see where there’s a Uniform strike in Youngstown. Fire and police.”
Again the grunt. Then a few dismissive sentences that somehow struck me as a quasi-verbal continuation of the grunt: “That ain’t nothin’. Happened during my watch too. Happens—every three, four years. Never lasts more’n a week. Nothin’.”
I hadn’t turned to face him during this peroration, but had the distinct impression that he, having finished, had turned away from me, that we were now back-to-back, bears in a zoo.
‘All right then, Mister Oh-so-Mafioso,’ I thought, ‘to hell with you. Let Heaven witness that when I was a mere garden slug, I didn’t get uppity with it.’ And fell into a smug mental silence.
Into which depths, I heard my patronymic whispered. I swiveled with all deliberate speed.
“Forrester,” Mario repeated in his rumbling sepulchral timbre. We were eye-to-eye for the first time. He’d turned too? “You’re supposed to be a brain: that’s what the guys tell me; I wouldn’t know.”
“Well, I just remembered something, something you might find interesting,” an ugly sly look organizing his thug features. “Yeah, something you might want to think about—: any time there’s a police strike—in a burg like Youngstown?—the crime rate always goes way down. Way down. Now—why do you think that would be true?”
“Next!!”, an orderly thrusting a cake of the soap into my paw and fairly shoving me into the shower.
I thought about it while under the cold water. Thought about it, towelling off; and in my cell, after. And all that day.
I’m still thinking about it.
A mind in pursuit of weirdness will always find it. My potted concept of adumbration involves an event nestled securely in the future sending back coded signals to the present. Even if it be only—to drag sanity onto the witness stand—an imaginary event. Weirdly, it was the absence of this process that I felt now. For 16 miserable exhilarating days, I’d lived in antsy anticipation of my imminent transfer. But all at once— with each passing hour, it seemed—the feeling abated. The event was loosing/losing its hold on me. I had only two more weeks to serve. Surely, I’d not be transferred at this late date. And, if not, all that neurotic indecision around Steve’s plan had been pointless, hadn’t it?
Treachery spawns by spontaneous generation. It was Steve who’d had me prepare myself for this non-event, I grumbled; and if wrong about that, maybe he was wrong about much else as well, maybe even about Time. This was the same Steve Jeffcoat I’d seen tucking in his shirt, so as to be more presentable to the egregious Mario. Witnessing him and all the rest of them all-lined-up was a vision both somber and sobering. But seeing my mates plain had also shaken me wider awake? Yes, maybe Steve was wrong about Time; there was a future event which ought quite properly to be informing my present pass: my release from Prison, just two weeks hence. Life felt grim but real. Perhaps I was finally, belatedly, doing Time.
Perhaps also Steve had himself concluded that I was, after all, destined to stay put. And without his scheme to talk about, we didn’t talk at all. That suited me down to the ground.
* * *
No, I shan’t begin every paragraph in this chapter with a copy-book maxim. Instead, I’d ask the reader to recall the circs that comprised a non-clergy/non-advocate visit: communication through telephones on either side of veined, near-translucent glass; both parties in chairs. Oh, and a third party, invisible but very much in the picture: the guard who listened in, eavesdropping, making the electronic rounds of simultaneous confabs. —Little in my life has been more frustrating than the moments my honey and I passed under those conditions. She visited once; and never after, by mutual agreement.
But with my father and me, it was a different story altogether!! Was it ever! We’d been at war for years, could never talk long without flaring into passionate anger, identical in our asinine stubbornness. He loved me and I him but we hated what each represented to the other (all of which was tediously characteristic of the resentment-ridden late 60s, forming a dynamic productive both of energy and of wasted energy). Yet somehow in our jailhouse talks, we found our true metier. Maybe it was owing to the cloudy glass softening our features for us. And, on another level, maybe the sudden absence of punishment from our dialogue fostered a new closeness. Because, when we’d fought, the threat of punishment was always in the air: “You’ll get yours!” But now—I was clearly being punished for the way I thought; and my father, for his part, was being punished for it too, was getting his. But that was just where the best part of him rose up gracefully: his sense of fair play. He didn’t believe in piling on, in rubbing it in; he wouldn’t scold his children when they already felt bad about something; he always took my Little League team out for ice cream when we lost. So if my jailing caused Bill Forrester pain, he wasn’t going to parade it in front of me. Of course, I can only speculate on what made it easier for him to talk with me. But I know I was always happy to see him.
I don’t remember what we were talking about, that cold mid-January day. Possibly as weighty a matter as the fate of the Pittsburgh Rens, our local hoops franchise. (That’s short for Renaissances, my unbelieving
reader.) But, all at once, a guard’s voice commandeered the conversation: “Forrester! Twentythree F! Return at once to your cell and pack your stuff. Then report to the trusty. You’re moving.”
“What’s this??” my father asked, thrown by the conference-call effect. His face, doubly unclear, said: How was what-just-happened allowed to happen? (The late-Modern morality play: not for nothing does Suffering often appear—in drag?—as Permission.)
I couldn’t answer. (Here it was, after all! Jesus—.) I shook my head, shrugged my shoulders—could he register my fear?—, rose from the chair, turned, and walked stiffly up the metal steps. Up past the locked-in murderers. (Steve’s Plan: was it back in force? But he’d needed a day’s notice to get the word to his Family-
–and it seemed I was being moved now!) Up to my home for the last 76 days. (What do I say to Steve? Despite everything, I can’t not tell him. Have to give him his chance to talk me back into it?)
And so I arrived at the Security Range. I hadn’t dawdled, I give myself that; I walked steadily toward my unknowable future, although my mind raced ahead of me. —But I was given no opportunity to act on my parenthetical bravery and fear: the trusty was waiting for me at the Security gate with the dumbfounding news that I was moving, all right, but only to another Range!
Yikes! I packed and left without a word to anyone. Ever have the rug yanked out from under you?; but I had no time for circumspection, nor to be polite to sweet Auntie Climax. To say I was apprehensive puts it mildly. What now? I’ll never know what was in the warden’s mind, why he ordered the transfer. My only pass with him (forming the basis of an anecdote told Terry Gross on “Fresh Air”) had concerned his refusal to allow me to play the Prison piano “which is reserved for Sunday church services, Forrester. If I allowed you to use it, I’d have to make it available to all the residents”, a liberal/democratic riff. (“And can’t you picture it, Terry?: the whole Prison population lined up, each villain burning to take his delirious minutes at the sacred keys!!”)
As with Security, it turned out that my new cellblock also had a name, albeit unofficial; the prisoners called it the Danger Range. Its membership differed every day, as it played host to men fresh from being snatched from the street or beaten (or otherwise processed) in the station house. Its danger lay in the snarling anger so many of them felt. Many were not, in fact, criminals at all, not self-identified the way Security Rangers were. There were plenty who had merely given way to emotional excess. Unskilled others who’d fallen to temptation just the once and had got nailed for it. A few were more literally blameless and all the angrier for it. I even met a Danger Ranger who said his family had collected and given him $2,600 in exchange for his willingness to serve five months in the stead of “a more important guy”, a cousin he vaguely resembled. (Which is odd, even if a fantasy; but I must admit he seemed reputably unclear on the details of the crime he’d confessed to.) And one man—. But I cannot tell his story, not here. His is the one for which all these words form the alternative. And if you’d prompt me, reader, later on down the road, couch your entreaty thus: a second tale of mistaken i.d., s.v.p., of interpersonation, this one starring a man named James Brown and set on the Danger Range. There’ll be no confusion then. For you’ve already heard what the Microscopic Septet missed; they who were once my world: turnabout’s fair play.
* * *
This was one prickly time and no mistake; I witnessed fights and near-fights each and every day. I attended every Yard, morning and afternoon, regardless of the weather or my own emotional temperature: I was safer there than in my new cellblock! I tried, with little success, to keep myself to myself.
The Bullpen, the transitional holding station, did not operate at night. The first time I heard a cursing, groaning prisoner brought directly onto the Danger Range in the small hours, I felt a damp chill I couldn’t lose for hours. Part of this had to do with flashing back to my first night in Security. (Was I caught in a repetitive loop?) Then, as now, I was awakened by police sirens. My first reaction, that first night in Prison, had been blind panic: ‘They’re coming to get me!!’ There then ensued an ironic relaxation: ‘Oh—that’s right, they already have me.’ From that moment on, while in Security, the sirens couldn’t wake me. In Danger, too, after the first few nocturnal ructions, I found I could sleep through the night. Truly, one can become inured to all manner of horror.
Many things happened, oh yes, between my transfer and my release. But I’d not tell tales from those days or none that would carry me from my chosen focus in these pages. Suffice it to say: it was an intermittently frightening time that kept me ever on my toes; and I got through it without it getting to me. When the Jeffcoat switcheroo recurred to mind, I summarily dismissed it as only his fantasy, after all.
Some of my old mates from Security would come over to chin during Yard. I fancy I was somewhat distant. Washington paid a valedictory visit, although I don’t recall what passed between us. Mario’s recent absence (he got shipped out) seemed to permit rapprochement with the likes of, for example, Apache.
Right? But Steve Jeffcoat and I were ghosts to each other. Brought close, as circs in the Yard would achieve from time to time, we’d nod acknowledgment—rather as if, I mused, we were high school rivals for the same position on the team, the same role in the play, the same sweetie. Once, I saw him loafing with Pat, the Kitchen boy, who glared at me as if to say: “Here’s the dickless wonder that scuttled Steve’s big Plan.”
Often, I felt myself a jerk surrounded by jerks.
It was an encounter with Larry that melted my heart a bit, reminded me of the basic pathos of the men around me, helped me summon to the surface something beyond (or in addition to) the constant wariness with which I met these last days in jail. Yes, and if you’d search out an internal clue to my long inability to write about my brief stretch, perhaps the final hiding place would be this selfsame interview—.
“Hey, Jo’, you’re fixin’ to leave us, am I right?”
“A few more days, Larry. A week. My people found me a job approved by the Feds. So if I don’t fuck up: a week. I’ve got a couple years of Time to do, but it’ll be Outside, insh’Allah.”
“We talk about you over in Security, y’know. What’re you doin’ amongst them junkies ‘n’ car-jackers anyway?”
Sigh. “I don’t get it either, man. Beats me all to Hell.”
“So you just keepin’ yer eyes on the prize.”
“In a nutshell.”
“Wish I could make me think like that: ‘The day-after-the-day-after-the-day-after—then I’m out!‘”, quoting an inner mockingbird or demon.
What he said made sad/funny nonsense/sense. But then Larry started shaking his head from side to side, a gesture expressive both of negation and of incredulity. I let it go on for half a chorus, then felt I had to cut in: this was behavior (and that’s a noun I’m loath to use) more proper to the nuthouse. “What is it, man?”
He stopped. “Oh—. I just can’t stop thinking about the promise I made to myself. And how I broke it. —‘N’ I mean: how I broke it!”
“What had you promised?, if you don’t mind saying.”
“Jesus, Joel, ain’t no big secret!: what everybody promises hisself, everybody in the Joint.”
“Which is: I’m never coming back. Never. No matter what. My last time Inside was hard time, jack, and I
“Sounds reasonable, Larry.” I said. I wanted never to come back, for example. “So what happened?”
The little thief looked so downright miserable that I didn’t press him, couldn’t. We stood in uncomfortable silence. I looked around the Yard—and fell under the odd illusion that our scene, our silence, was replicated over and over in the small combos and soloists standing there under the grey Western Pennsylvania skies. I found myself wishing only that this sad/sweet character somehow keep his head from shaking again.
Instead, his eyes slid off to one side and he said, “Yeah, okay, I’ll tell you—. It was a house burglary in Sewickley, a late Sunday afternoon, shadows. Worked it as an independent: Hill District dude hipped me to it—people away all weekend—‘n’ I paid him off. So that was cool,” in other words, only one other person knew about the set-up and his silence was bought.
Larry added detail—a protected approach through a wooded area behind the house, no immediate neighbors to hear or suspect, an easily disabled security system, no dog. —There was more I don’t remember, but it all went toward the same point: this was a crime featuring a sublime unlikelihood of getting caught.
“But something somehow went south?”
“I’m telling you. —I gathered all the shit, quickly too. Nothing trace-able, nothing I couldn’t get easily fenced; nothing bulky, slow down my getaway. And I’m not greedy, Joel!”
Oddly touching? “So?”
Larry’s turn to sigh. “So—they had this rec room. I’d clocked it when I was casing. And things had gone so well, so—see-it/do-it, that I thought: why not sample some of them fine spirits I saw downstairs?”
“So you did.”
“Yeah, I opened up what looked good, like Scotch from fucking Scotland ‘n’ that. And I sat down—there was a real comfy couch there. And a big tube, color tube! Turned that sucker on and started to drink. And, and—.”
Larry screwed his eyes shut, laid out for four bars, then croaked: “You know what happened, man. I fucking conked out. Family come home late that night, find me there still asleep, telephone the local bulls. —Here I am.” Larry opened his eyes, grabbed my forearm with what felt like a claw or talon, stared at me with glittering, bloodshot eyes. “Joel,” he mustered at last, “what the fuck am I doing here??!?”
* * *
As if I’d know. But I have thought long and intently about it. And I find I don’t agree with the doubtlessly sympathetic souls who explain the outrageous American recidivism rate (I’ve seen figures ranging from 79% to 94%) by pointing out that the released prisoner returns to the same hopeless environment that engendered his last fall from grace with the law. Oh, that’s a given, don’t get me wrong. But you’d think it would not be enough, in itself, to compel a man of will and intelligence to transgress against a decision both emotionally sworn and highly rational. And it wouldn’t. And Larry wasn’t wanting, upstairs. What of his will, though? What happens to the will of people behind bars?, that they so often return, even—as in Larry’s case—seemingly against their will?
I asked the question of myself, based on my admittedly brief brush with the experience. Brief it was; but I’ve saved one of Steve Jeffcoat’s pithiest phrases for just this moment (this objection?): “Doesn’t matter how long you’re in the Joint, years or a couple days, the same things happen. The sameness of it is the same.”
I’d translate that in the most frightening terms: jail Time is a distilled essence of habit.
The challenge of freedom is always finding the will to change. When I think of Jesus’ parable of the sower, I always personalize it by construing the weeds that choke off the life of the sprouting seeds as habits that don’t permit change. “Getting and spending,” etc. And that’s speaking only of the quotidian, the daily daily.
But imagine an experience during which none of this enters in. A situation in which one need only let his own sameness relax into the greater sameness all about him. How addicting!, never to feel the necessity of change, never to suffer for it, to sacrifice for it.
In ordinary living, the pursuit of freedom is always social and coincidental: no one’s destiny—his weird—is only his own.
But take that away and you are left with the factors of human subsistence: shelter, food, relative calm, nightly oblivion. And prison has answers for all of these.
Living without freedom has its own challenges, of course. It is the true home of identity politics, where the concept was meant to thrive. The proximate cause of nearly all Prison violence is “disrespect” to one’s identity. Who is transformed (or indulged) into What. The horrid results may even be interesting: when personalities dry up, you’re left with a bunch of characters. But these are the trials and triumphs of the terminally addicted; lifers all, whether in the Joint or on the way back. Humans habituated to habit itself.
When Larry asked me his question, that late day in the Yard, I found myself thinking about the moment I’d discovered that guard in my Security cell. Why that?, I remember wondering. Now, I believe I know. In chasing the guard away, in refusing to put myself in his shoes, I was acting out more than an hommage to Steve’s dictates. I was fueled by the Yard’s scorn for any being who purposely puts himself in jail. The basis of this scorn was now manifest to me: it was felt by men not only unable to leave where they were at
the moment but who found themselves, on some level, being drained of their ability to resist coming back Inside, drained of their will. The scorn of the men in the Yard was, first and foremost, for themselves.
* * *
(So I’ve an unhappy, obvious principal-reason for letting 34 years lapse before writing about Allegheny: I’d little desire to go back to jail, even in my head. Yet it has maintained its pull—or I’d have spat in its face, long before. And if I’ve not felt that pull as helplessly as the men I knew Inside, the lifetime losers, would I yet distinguish myself from them, hold myself above them? No; no time Outside—no temporizing—could ever stretch me that far. And if that’s the case, it forces me to ask: have I been the warden of my own experience?, its trusty?, its screw? And it begs the deeper question: have I been impersonating myself all these years?, somehow authentically parenthetical?)
* * *
I worried the main point—in an early, Inside, proto-prophetic version—as I lay in my crib that night, petitioning sleep. I let it speak to my new hard attitude and to the betrayal that leant justice to this pose.
Think, Joel. Habit has been around a lot longer than human choice, I reminded myself. And as Prison is only a special case—if a pure case—of the addiction to Habit, who am I to feel betrayed when what seemed tender and free was eventually put to use!? Use is Habit’s calling card, its stride, its handmaiden, even its glory (Just try to maintain piano technique without practicing!; or is the analogy too dated?). Be generous, Joel: you’re on the way out, whole, intact, or largely so; while Steve Jeffcoat’s moment-based defiance of Time has an inescapable, ineluctable treachery written into it: it is not only doing Time that Steve defies, no, but with it the very existence of an Outside world. You cannot know what you don’t believe. (Also: I was leaving while Steve stayed in, with no word of any change of status; would his stay in Allegheny approach the Washingtonian?)
“But cannot face things as they are”, Steve’s self-portrait’s refrain, after all. Unless he was actually sketching his Range-mate—with me his hypocrite reader. Brother!
Be generous, Joel. When tomorrow finds you in the Yard, let the cold winter sun melt the frost off your heart, just a bit. Be generous. Melt.
About that Mao-shirt. It was pearl grey, high-necked, all cotton, wore dirt nobly. Its manufacture sprang from a brief period during which the People’s Republic exported simple well-made goods, as if to counter the Western assumption of Asian gimcrackery.
My final day in the Yard, my final day in Allegheny County Jail, saw me in that shirt (as had many another day, of course). I was saying goodbye to a few old friends and a few new (including James Brown; do pester me about him, won’t you?), when Steve Jeffcoat ambled over and more or less elbowed his way up to me.
“Guess this is it for you, Forrester,” he offered with no question mark.
“Looks that way, Steve,” I answered.
“Right, well, there’s something I wanted to say.” He looked around with some mock-menace at my instant retinue, an 11- or 12-strong cluster—of which maybe half were friends and the rest purpose-challenged sorts who’d gravitate to anything that seemed to be “happening”. “The rest of you: beat it!, for a minute, okay?”
There were grumbles and one nut muttered “Fuckin’ fucker,” a charming nonce-phrase; but all backed away, leaving us by ourselves.
Just then, the end of Yard was signalled and Security was supposed always to be the first Range to line up. But Steve didn’t budge.
“Forrester,” he began, “I just wanted you to know I’ve come to a conclusion about you.”
“I mean: I do think you’re a phony.” “Yes?”
“But somehow you’re—a real phony.”
I unbuttoned my Mao-shirt—one-time working component of our impending identity- switch—, slipped it off, and handed it to him, collar first.
A guard bellowed, “Security, line up!!!”
Steve smiled, put on the put-on. “Yeah,” he said. “A real phony.”