Tuesday, September 1, 2009

A Tale of Five Jails - Polk County IAH (Part II)

September 1st, 2009

It is one of the more ridiculous qualities of the human experience that when it comes to the subject of time, what we want is always the exact opposite of what we get. When we wish that a wonderful night could stretch on forever, it passes in a breath; when we desire that the universe possesses a fast-forward button, it moves at the speed of government. The night before I was to start work in the kitchens, the Mexicans had the television, which wasn’t always a bad thing. Most telenovelas seem to operate under the very simple equation of: hot chicks – anything resembling adequate amounts of clothing + some very silly rich people behaving scandalously = mucho dinero! Seems a pretty effective formula, at least if you happen to be cursed with possessing a Y chromosome. Unfortunately, the novellas being offered that night seemed even more fatuous than the norm, and my attention kept wandering.

Big C and a rail-thin black man from Dallas named Boxcar Slim were involved in their nightly domino throwdown, which inevitably ended up almost coming to blows. For all of that, the descent towards the point of altercation was always pretty humorous, because both Big C and Boxcar were consummate, All-Star Shit-Talkers of the first order. The steady slapping of dominoes – the “bones” – on the metal table were completely drowned out by some of the most colorful, incredible, and insulting descriptions of nearly every quality of their opponents lives imaginable. Boxcar loved to shout little rhymes when he scored, like, “Gimme my money cuz I likes that honey!” Or, “Nick em, don’t cut em,” when he took five points (as in, nick = nickel = 5 cents = 5 points). When he engineered a particularly excellent run, his favorite seemed to revolve around his being a “Dominologist.” (“Fool! I told you, I gots a degree in Dominology! The professor is ON CALL!”) These explosions were usually shouted at the highest volume his cigarette-scarred throat could manage, complete with flying spittle, a rambling, hacking laugh, and his crafty little eyes flicking around the room like a switchblade.

Now, I am no slouch at “dem bones,” and I think it will probably not come as much of a surprise for anyone to learn that I can generally hold my own in an argument. But this type of back-and-forth was a new style of verbal combat for me, and my more…ah, subtle preferences were not much appreciated by Boxcar. He whipped me pretty good, both at the table and over the airwaves, at least until I figured out his tells and his style of play. After that, things got more even. Earlier that day, I was on a real run and the gods of Table Games were truly smiling on me. Box’s mouth was moving at a speed that could only be compared to that of light, and I was pretty much just concentrating on making him play the last deuce. As soon as he fell in the trap I went several round scoring money each time I played, getting more carried away each time, until I dominoed with twenty. By that point his jive-talking had become contagious, and I was shouting, too. “What did they say?! I think they say ’20, and gimme what’s in your hand, fool! ' You may be a dominologist, but I’m a f-ing mathematician!” Big C was yelling something about “white-boy this and that,” and Boxcar was looking disgustedly at his dominoes, as if his loss was somehow their fault, a betrayal of the worst sort. He looked at C and he said, “Sheeit. We done made us a monster.” I felt pretty proud. Which lasted for about five minutes, until my run ended and began kicking my derriere all over the table again. Some memories fade, over the long haul years of life. Some don’t.

I was in no mood for drama that night, though, my mind mostly wandering to the kitchens, and what it would be like to work there. I had not been allowed to work at Fort Bend or Limestone, and I had no idea of what to expect, I was distracted by the Philippino boy who lived in the bunk above mine. He had peeked over the front of his Bible, the first time I had seen him do so in over a week, so I sat down across from him and asked him what he was reading. We talked a little about the book of Psalms, one of his favorites. I liked hearing he had a favorite of something, because he was sort of a Goldilocks Man – everything was either too hot or too cold, in the figurative sense. He always seemed lost, as if he really, truly felt he was going to wake up at home at any moment. I had tried to engage him in conversation many times, because I know exactly what it feels like to feel alone in a crowded room, but he had some very active antibodies to human contact, or something. Fear will do that to you, and he was terrified of what the future held. The Bible seemed to be the one topic he would discuss with anyone, and I used this to bridge the gap into his past. He was very proud of his home islands, and lamented that “none of this would have happened” if his parents had not moved here a few years previously. I never knew what “this” was all about, but I knew he was looking at real time on a penitentiary farm, and someone like him had good reason to be afraid.

He bragged to me that Philippinos were very religious, and were even mentioned in the Bible. I blinked mentally at this, because, modesty aside, I know the Bible better than most ministers. Even if I did not, however, I also know geography, and was perfectly aware that none of the biblical figures he was reading about knew much of the world beyond a frighteningly small compass, and the Philippines were way outside of this. I tried not to convey my doubt, though, because I didn’t want to damage the fragile conversation that had sprung up from such rocky soil.

He must have detected some whiff of the miasma of my skepticism, however, because he quickly told me that if I looked in Acts I would see that Paul traveled to the Philippines and converted a vendor pf purple cloth. My mind reeled at the numerous and immense errors in this statement, because I knew that he was referring to Acts 16, which took place in Philippi, as in Philip II of Macedon, as in Greece. I could tell by his look, however, that this was important to him, and just said that I thought he was right. (As to what he felt about the book of Philippians, which was Paul’s favorite church, I never learned, I can only assume he also thought this to be written about his islands, as well. I suppose you could say, to borrow Paul’s words from this very book, that I was “not looking to (my) own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.”) I feel a lot of things for Goldilocks Man, even to this day. Sorrow. A touch of pity, although I think that pity is ultimately an ugly, vain emotion, for it inevitably places the pitier far above the recipient, and I am no higher that he on any barometer. Scorn, though, I never felt and will not. We humans have millions of mechanisms we build to bridge the gaps between the real and the ideal, and all manner of blinders to keep us from seeing the cold, harsh realities of human existence. I wonder if he still reads his Bible at night, and if he still seems so surprised at everything. I wonder if he still breathes.

Eventually the evening news came to a close – another day of religious idiots blowing each other up over a few hectares of supposedly “holy” land, more politicians sliming their ways into countless living rooms – and an officer popped on the intercom. In a gravelly, distant echo, she called five of us by name, telling us we had fifteen minutes to get ready for work. I put my t-shirt on and laced up my shoes, and noticed that both Big C and Boxcar had an empty mesh bag ready to take with them. When I asked what that was for, Box said “we was fiddin’ to get our grub on!” I must have looked confused, because C told me what it was common practice to let kitchen workers take a little leftover food back to the house as payment. As both of them had far more penal experience than I did, I engaged in a little mimicry.

Two of the Mexicans, Roberto and a really hilarious shaven-headed man called Oso, were also headed to the kitchens. Oso was a serious coffee addict, going through an entire bag in a day. Every twenty minutes or so, he would interrupt whatever he was doing to proclaim, “I think its time to get on that guadiche (pronounced ‘wad-ee-chey’) blast!” (“Guadiche” is a tex-mex prison term for coffee and “blast” is prison slang for engaging in an activity with full attention.) Oso spent most of his time drawing and designing tattoo art, and was quite skilled.

Our door was soon popped, and the five of us entered the mantrap separating our tank from the hallway, which was quickly opened up for us also. We met about twenty other county jail inmates from other tanks on the way down the hallway and I was excited to see a decent guy from FB named Ray. He was a drunk and had like a zillion ex-wives. (All of whom claimed to hate him, and yet all of whom managed to show up to visit him multiple times, often on the same date…which was always a spectacular event, to hear him tell it.) For all of that, he was an all right guy. His older son was in Iraq, and he was always showing us photos of him and bragging about his exploits. That made me smile and somehow very sad simultaneously, for some reason. When we lived together at FB, he was probably the biggest fan of my “words and puzzle of the day” thing, which I would tape on the day-room wall every morning. I guess this was my first attempt at raising the consciousness of the people around me a little, and it was kind of fun. It always consisted of one puzzle of the logical/mathematical sort, and one useful (if sometimes odd) vocabulary word to memorize. I know prisoners are supposed to be stupid and unwilling to learn, but the day I heard a group of gang-bangers arguing over a logic puzzle was the same day that I dropped that particular illusion from my portfolio. And the day that a crack-addicted fiend told an officer that his behavior was “ignominious” made me exceedingly proud. (And, yeah, for the record, I still get a smile when people write me to inform me that this site has required them to bookmark I always wanted this site to be an educational experience, though this is not quite what I had in mind. I’ll take it though.)

Ray had a habit of running his hands through his hair, as it checking to make sure it was still there. I guess it was a nervous twitch, or something. We caught up on current events as we walked the long hallway to the man-traps for the kitchens. It seems that his son’s unit had discovered that in certain Shia zones of Iraq, you could get married for an hour or two to a burka-clad whore, and then have all of the divorce papers waiting upon completion. (I would advise all Christians who just read that and tossed a few deprecatory thoughts eastwards towards Mecca, beware of your own hypocrisy: half of the splendid buildings of Rome – including St. Peters – would not have been raised had it not been for special indulgences of this exact species to the rich.) Ray seemed particularly pleased about this, being an ex-Vietnam vet.

You could smell the kitchens before you even got close: a curious mixture of cleansing materials and cooking greases soaked into tile floors. No two kitchens are alike, and yet they are all almost always the same. Mountains of gleaming stainless steel; clean, functional right angles abound; the feel of rubber mats on the floors to keep anyone from slipping whilst carrying anything sharp or scalding. I worked as a restaurant manager in the freeworld, so none of this was new to me, even if I had always been “front of the house.” A quick scan of the kitchen told me that someone had put this place together pretty well, probably owing to the fact that this facility was designed to meet the high standards set for federal inmates. No state prison kitchen would have been anywhere near this nice. To the far left was an office for the kitchen manager, a freeworld employee of the Aramark corporation. To the immediate right of the office was the main cooking station, a series of large griddles and immense steel vats for boiling water. Continuing to the right, were a series of baking ovens and additional griddles. Along the far right wall was a long serving table, the middle of which was designed to hold the large tray inserts of food. I assumed men would line up on both sides of the table and ladle food from the center on to trays, before passing the tray to the next man in line. Along the back wall were the storage rooms for the food ingredients and the cleaning bay.

The Aramark Man (whose name I forget, but who looked an awful lot like Andy Warhol, so we will just stick with Andy) seemed to be one of those eternally harried souls, forever chained to his wristwatch. He quickly assigned us stations, and passed out instructions on laminated placards. I was to be a baker, and my first duty of the day was to mix the batter for the breakfast biscuits. Not much of a challenge, but when you have been wasting away for the better part of a year, any small morsel of purpose can prove to be very sustaining. I think it was at that moment that I hit on another one of the subtle truths of this universe: we choose our joys and our sorrows long before we experience them.

And so, in an ersatz kitchen, I made ersatz biscuits under the direction of an ersatz Andy Warhol, and yet found a sliver of real life. Biscuits in the morning, cornbread for lunch and dinner…it was a start.

(Part III coming soon)

Additional, Hidden Note (in case anyone bothers to read this far down):

I listen to a lot of NPR and PBS on the radio. Great stations, full of good programs which stimulate that annoyingly deficient and flawed three-pound piece of protein which sits behind our eyes. Good programs, except for when they have to do those pesky fund-raising telethons. Nothing more frustrating than waiting for some verbose asshole to wax pathetic for a half hour, before they finally get to Nova or Charlie Rose or All Things Considered. (Cough.) I hate wordy jerks. (Cough.) I really never wanted to be “that guy,” but reality has once again shown his ugly visage, and so I am going to have to sit here on the street corner for a few minutes, hat in hand, and do my own version of the telethon.

I’ve mentioned my desire to finish my BA many times here in the past. Many hurdles I have had to overcome, but overcome them I have. I am now a student of Adams State in Colorado, double majoring in Sociology and Criminology. I chose Adams State for a number of reasons, not the least of which was the number 125, which is what an hour of class costs. Far cheaper than most schools, although Adams does share some classes with LSU, so I will get some of my material from them. Very few universities even offer correspondence courses which are not internet based anymore, sadly. And fewer want to have anything to do with prisoners. Go figure. As I was attempting to find the right combination for the padlock of education-while-in-Ad-Seg , I did manage to take and complete a paralegal course, the report card and diploma from which you can find HERE and HERE. I also signed up for an extension, or higher-level course, on criminal law and procedure from the same school. I am about halfway through that now. Hmm, I’ve made this longer than I intended. What I mean to say is: if you have ever enjoyed anything you have read on this site, please consider giving me a hand in paying for these classes. I am not too proud to say that even five bucks would help. Donations can be made through Paypal to my Education and Defense fund, found HERE. This fund is organized and controlled by my Dad, and whatever proceeds I get from this pathetic sales pitch will never come within a hundred miles of my hands, so whatever horrible things people seem to think convicts do with their money doesn’t really apply here. I feel very uncomfortable having to do this, to ask this of you, but I guess my desire to educate myself is stronger than my unease. Maybe I shouldn’t feel like a welfare case, because I firmly believe that the desire to learn is always a noble act, regardless of the circumstances, and we all know that this costs money. Anyways, that’s the deal. I wont harp on it. Thanks for your time, and any assistance on this matter.

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


Donna Michelle said...

Congrats on the finishin the paralegal course Thomas!! Amazing grade!!x

Sylvia said...

Thomas, U rock!!!! way to go on those grades....Im hopeful as many of us read this we can assist you in your education and defense funds..take care and hang in there

Silent Observer said...

Not really related to this particular entry but in response to the horrible botched execution attempt in Ohio yesterday, I thought other readers might be interested in reading this editorial from the Aurora in Colorado...
End Capital Punishment in America

Lisa said...

Fantastic T, What amazing results! But, I have to say that I'm not at all surprised by them. :) I'm so proud of you and ever prouder to call you my friend. xo