Wednesday, February 11, 2009

All My Engines (Or, The Day I Learned to Love the TDCJ Group-Mind)

February 11th, 2009

I have recently become a nomad. After nearly two years in the comfortable confines of C-Pod, the angry gods of my tribe have decided, In Their Infinite Wisdom, that it was past time for me to gather my teepees and wigwams and move along. Random moves are not abnormal ariond here, but the scope of this one was somewhat surprising. You have heard the old adage about government spending, yes? The one which states: “Why build one, when you can have two for three times the price?” “Why move one inmate, when you can move THE ENTIRE BLOODY FARM” seems to be the basis of the current ideology. So, we enter into the great 12-Building diaspora of ’09. After three short moves, I am now a resident of A-Pod, 71 cell to be precise, which is a few hundred feet north of my old cell. New neighbors, new view of the same boring dayrooms. A-Pod is a bit irregular, in all truthfulness. B section is empty currently, reserved for Richard the Oft-Maligned (Tabler), as soon as he returns from the mental hospital. Being deprived of all human contact has broken him. His second suicide attempt failed, much to the dismay of the majority of inmates and guards. They keep “accidentally” leaving him razor blades, so I can only assume that an immediate shuffling off this mortal coil, -a sudden buying of farms and kicking of buckets - is the desired result from up on high. Sometimes…I just…hate this goddamned country.

DeathWatch is in A section, which is depressing as hell, though at least it gives me an opportunity to offer what meager attempts at assistance I can muster for the soon to be departed. 71 cell is in F section, so I look out across the picket straight into DeathWatch. Sometimes, late at night, I stand at my door and just stare out that way. All the lights seem to be on, and I wonder what it must feel like to try to compress the remaining totality of a life into a few days, a few hours. There is a Hispanic man in 14 cell – I don’t know his name; how can it be possible that there are still men I do not know? – who is a night owl, also. There are times when our pacing brings us to the door simultaneously, and our eyes lock, and, with a certainty, I know we are both thinking the same thing, in mirror form: I am glad I am over in F section; I wish I were over in F section. My friend K-9 (Kenneth Morris) is over there now, in 12 cell. If the name sounds familiar, he is featured in the Artist Section on this site.

I’ve always had a crazy amount of respect for these jailhouse Picassos. I have yet to meet anyone who came to prison with any artistic experience, so they are all self-taught. Most learn to draw out of necessity; it’s their hustle. Texas, lone amongst the rest of the states in this nation, does not pay its inmates for the work they do. If you ever drive past a Texas prison and see a field crew or chain-gang, recognize that they have not earned one penny for their backbreaking labor. (Why is this important, you ask? Think about the positive lessons these men are learning from an environment where they gain no economic knowledge other than the art of the hustle…can’t think of one? Is it any wonder these men can’t hold a job when they get out?) None of this matters for those of us in ad-seg, as we have no right to work. Seems stupid, because, modesty aside, I could pay for my stay here if you put me to work in one of the prison factories. No doubts, there. I was allowed to work in the kitchen at one of the SuperMax detention facilities I stayed in whilst awaiting trial. I was hired as a baker, and was running the kitchen within three weeks, the ODR (officer dining room) in four. I work my ass off, basically. Death Row does not have a work program, which has been “temporarily suspended” since 2000. Anyways, my point being, if you don’t have some outside support, you have no toothpaste, no clothes, no hot-pot, nothing. You wither away and die, unless you have the good fortune to live next door to a Christian, or a quasi Christian-Buddhist-Humanist (hahaha…I’m such a fucking mess!) For sure, art becomes a way to make some commissary, in the underground marketplace. “Flags” (first class stamps) are the currency, and the prices are dependent on a variety of factors, mostly centered on the availability of items currently on the pod. Most cons have a hustle; indeed, it is, in my estimation, impossible to survive without one. Some of us have several. I guess this site is a hustle of mine though that was not my original intent. Necessity, as they say, is a bitch. I suppose that I will one day get over feeling like a sorry welfare case. Maybe.

I have some pretty steady hands, and some small degree of nerdish knowledge, so I quickly set up shop as a typewriter and radio repairman after my arrival here. As soon as I figured out how to modify my radio to receive TV audio, I started selling this fix, also. Three good, decent, God-fearing radios went screaming and smoking into the next world (72 virgin microwaves for all of the devout), but their deaths taught me everything I needed to know about how electricity flows through the circuit board. About a year ago, I built my first speaker. You can see some photos of one of these below which I recently built and mailed out to my father. I have been through several major design changes over the past twelve months. Materials wise, you need the following: some illustration boards (2-0ack + $3.85), which are 20 by 15 inches (most of the artwork on this site is drawn on these); some transistor wire (no comment); glue (no comment); a headphone jack from an old set of headphones (price variable); a magnet from an old set of headphones (small magnets are worth a few flags, large ones from the telephones in the visitation room are worth far more), and paper for the cone. Most of those ingredients are contraband, so obviously the speaker itself is illegal. The paper is about the only item which they won’t take from you, and I have experimented with many different weights, finally settling on a certain type of heavy crossword puzzle paper, which combats the heavy Houston humidity quite well. I used to make the speaker boxes much larger, but I’ve discovered that if I build them to fit in the snug space between the wall and the bunk, the sound bounces around under the bed before coming back out the cone, amplifying it many times. Effectively, I’ve made the whole cell a component of the system, which means my compact speakers have twice the volume and many times the bass as anyone else’s. A trivial accomplishment, to be sure, but I’m pretty proud of the thing. Certainly, it’s no Curtas calculator, which was designed by Curt Herzstark in the Buchenwald concentration camps, but he had a whole factory to work with.

Despite all of these little projects, I still find myself bored a lot of the time. I toyed with the idea of learning to draw, but it was a humbling discovery to realize that some Neanderthal with a rock and a piece of charcoal scraping the stone wall of a cave in France possessed more artistic talent than I do. If the rarefied and eclectic world of stick-man art ever goes mainstream, maybe I can sell something, though I’m not holding my breath. It certainly made me appreciate the guys around me more. The only art supplies we are allowed to purchase are cheapo colored pencils, regular #2 pencils, black pens, and drawing boards. That’s it. So, for some of these pieces to turn out so well, is truly amazing. A few guys paint, which appealed to me more than drawing, so I started teaching myself the process of breaking up the colored pencils for the graphite and then liquefying them with hot water. I have experimented with adding various liquids, such as baby oil, with varying degrees of success, and some not so varying degrees of failure. I’ve always thought it sort of neat how paint was fabricated in the days of yore, with all of the lapis lazuli blues, malachite greens, saffron yellows, and the white lead carbonate (PbCO3). The manufacture of paint is – of course – contraband. Naturally, I enjoyed the process.

The next problem facing me was how to make a brush. The only option available to me was to cut off some of my hair, and stuff the ends into the casing of an old, used up pen. Not really a big deal, as my hair seems to be doing a pretty good job of falling out on its own, which is immensely disturbing to me, but there isn’t a bloody thing I can do about it, besides try not to look in the mirror. Ha! Less hair on my head, more coming out of my nose. Alas! Who would have thought I would actually get old? That wasn't supposed to happen to me. The next thing you know, I’m going to be complaining about these damned kids with all of their rock and/or roll and their new-fangled ways. Actually, I’ve seen what life in prison does to a man, and I wonder if I would be strong enough to hold back the tides of destruction that wash over you here on a daily basis. I would hope so, but none of us are as strong or as good as we think we are. Ever.

Doing something with the pigments and the brush is where we encounter the train wreck of the problem. I wasn’t sure what subject I should launch into, which seems like it might have been something one would normally think about prior to making the paint, but I tend to do things ass-backwards most of the time. My options were somewhat limited, but I eventually settled on a photograph of a bust of Emperor Hadrian my friend sent me from the British Museum. It seemed fairly simple; black and white, clean lines, no annoying trees or bridges to vex me. All in all, I was attempting to mitigate the potential suckiness of my first artistic abortion.

“Attempting” being the key word. I think I painted the image seven times in total, each time covering over the previous layer, each revision getting slightly better (or worse). I’m really not displeased with it, to be honest with you. It’s not in the same league with the rest of the guys, but I don’t think it is awful. You can see the piece, which I am calling V1.0 here. (Before you laugh at me, remember: I’ve got software tracking your IP addresses. Insert evil laughter.) Ten bucks worth of colored pencils and some hair, not so bad an expense for a few days of entertainment. Time sleeps when the muses wake, it would seem. I think I’m going to keep at it, as soon as they bother to buy some more pencils in the commissary.


Not sure what my next project might be, but I am open to suggestions, providing they don’t require me to actually produce something that resembles the original in any way. Abstract art would be good, because then I can always go: “Well, yeah, his shoulder looks like a horse…that was intentional. Yes. Intentional.”

I guess the main draw for me to DR art is that we are supposed to be bereft of all humanity, of soul. If producing something like Prietos “Jesus” – which is so real in person that it looks as if you could brush his beard – is not an intensely human act, I do not know what is. There is something very tragic to me at the thought that in less than a month, K-9’s tigers will cease to prowl the tree tops. What do you become when all of the truths you can see are weary, hardened arteries leading to the dead heart of a sick society? I’ll let you know when I get there.

“Nor aught availed him now
to have build in heaven high towers
Nor did he escape
By all his engines
But was headlong sent
With his industrious crew
to build in hell.”

Milton, “Paradise Lost”

Added note: February 20, 2009

A small victory to report: I have been granted another surgery to repair my busted arm. This should happen within the next few weeks. It seems that my annoyance factor finally was maximized, and they realized me and my lawsuitish ways were not going anywhere. They plan to take some bone out of my femur to jam into my humerus, so…yeah, I’m pretty much expecting to come back with my thigh attached to my shoulder and my arm connected to my butt. At least then I will be able to kick myself in the head for agreeing to submit myself to the tender ministrations of Igor Inc. for a second time.

As you can imagine, all of the constant moving has upset (read: destroyed) any semblance of normal mail delivery. Going to the hospital is only going to exacerbate the situation. I am currently caught up on everything, but if you do not hear from me for a while, it might be safe to assume that Bubba and Billie Jean jacked your letter.

Wish me luck!

© Copyright 2009 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

1 comment:

ladylaura said...

bart,keep writing for me.. you are a very sweet person..tell dad i pray for him everynight..good luck in the hospital..laura,picayune,ms.