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Thursday, September 29, 2011

Pharma Bliss

by Michael Wayne Hunter

Awaking, my eyes red, tearing from pepper spray, I pulled myself slowly from my sleep rack. Stumbling to the stainless steel sink, I flooded my face with water, trying to wash away some of the chemical sting. Mirror reflected my swollen features and a half empty cell. My cellie had been locked inside the hole last night.

Yesterday, our housing unit clerk had dropped by the door and said, "Jack, your move's in. Going down after Count.

"What move? I wondered.

Silence reigned for awhile, filling the cell, suffocating atmosphere surrounded us. Finally, Jack said slowly in a semi-apologetic voice, "My homeboy, Biker Tony, is kidnapping me." In a rush, he added, "I'll refuse the move and stay if you want."

"Get out."

With no head's up, I hadn't recruited a new cellie and would be stuck with whatever unrepentant felon Orientation cut loose.

As Jack carried his belongings from the cell, Fearless Phil flew over and begged to move in. I had done time with Fearless at Salinas, so there was a familiarity but nothing more. Still, I had no one else in mind, so I nodded, got at the housing unit clerk and gave him a jar of Folgers Classic Roast to make it happen.

Unpacking, Fearless started ranting about Dirt Bag, his former cellie. Seemed that Fearless had given Dirt Bag a dozen Ramen soups for a tab of Seroquel, anti-psychotic medication, but he hadn't delivered.

"Stupid ass Dirt Bag let the nurse check his mouth and caught him cheeking."
"Can't imagine how anyone would think someone nicknamed Dirt Bag would burn you."
"Shut up, Mike."
"Shut me the fuck up, Fearless. I'm only going to tell you once. The cell is the sanctuary. Leave all the madness outside."
"He owes me a tab."
"Seroquel doesn't even get you high. Just knocks you out for hours."
"I like it."
"I'd like to live with Rene, but I'm stuck with your sorry ass. Reality bites, Fearless."
"Not going to let him burn me."
"Here's your soups," I pulled a dozen from my shelf and tossed them on his bunk. "Now just chill."

In the chow hall at dinner, Fearless shouted threats at Dirt Bag sitting a few rows of tables away.

"Stop telling!" I got at Fearless semi-tough.
"Not telling, jus' handling bizness."
"The cops can hear you so it’s telling."

Fearless ate in a sullen silence, our table was released and just as we cleared the exit Dirt Bag came out of nowhere and busted Fearless' nose.

Alarm. Guards swarmed, drenching Dirt Bag and Fearless with pepper spray, coating them orange. Fearless and Dirt Bag proned out for handcuffs, but not before the overspray found my eyes.

On the ground, frantically blinking, I heard Fearless mutter, "Ain't over."

Glancing over, I saw Fearless nose geysering blood, mixing with orange spray in nightmarish abstract expressionism. Stop telling, I thought angrily, trying not to rub my burning eyes.

"I'll be back, Mike," Fearless added, drawing guards' attention to me.
Not Fearless, Brainless.
"You." A guard pointed at me. "Hands behind your back."
Handcuffed, I was marched and locked inside a cage.

An hour, two and then three dragged by before the sergeant reviewed the video from the yard cameras and cleared me. Unlocked, I went home, packed Fearless' belongings after taking back my soups. Fearless was ticketed for the hole.

Now, the morning after, I wondered what loser I'd cell with next. Fearless surely wasn't worth the jar of coffee I'd spent to move his Seroquel craving ass inside the house.

At early chow release for Education, I met up with Stone Cold, another prisoner I'd done time with at Salinas.

"I coulda told you Fearless was no good," he said as we headed towards the dining hall.
"Thanks but you’re late with that News flash."
"Jack wants to move back in."
"What? Why? He just moved out."
"Last night Biker Tony cooked up a tab of morphine and spiked a vein. Oh, yeah, he stole a jar of Folgers off Jack's shelf to pay for the high. Jack's freaking."
"Jack's always freaking." I shrugged. "His last cellie was always trying to touch his butt, so Jack literally begged me to move in and then bailed with no notice."
"Take him back. Why not? Don't got no one else in mind."
"Nope. Don't like bad manners, Jack can stay where he's at."

After breakfast, we grabbed bag lunches and Stone Cold went to class while I stopped at the medical clinic to pick up a thirty day supply of cholesterol medication. The pill line stretches a long ways, prisoners who receive controlled medication, psych or pain meds, have to take their pills under direct observation of medical staff. The nurses wage a losing battle trying to prevent felons from palming or cheeking Pharma Bliss, any tab that delivers a high.

"Got a guy who gives me three Neurotins a day for forty-five dollars canteen a month," a prisoner in line in front of me said to another. "I never feel any pain. Just float."

Forty-five dollars a month, I did the math, is over five hundred a year. The education clerks make twenty-seven dollars a month, hell the Captain's clerk makes fifty-six, some guy is making almost that much just by selling his medication.

"Man, wish I could get a deal like that!" the other prisoner responded. "I pay a dollar a pill."

That's more than a thousand a year, my mind half-blew. More than any pay number on the yard and no deductions for court ordered fines.

Alarm. We all sat down, and the guards jacked the prisoner at the medication window against the wall. Yanking a dental partial from his mouth, a morphine tab was stuck to it by a glob of peanut butter.

"Damn!" someone said. "Morphine pills go for ten dollars. There goes a helluva pay number."

Not even waiting for the alarm to clear, unstable, volatile pill heads all around me were talking deals, selling, trading medication. No way to eliminate the meds, I reflected, insanity and violence are part of the gangster lifestyle. Psych meds are prescribed for the craziness, pain pills for the felons that have been shot, stabbed, hurt due to reckless lives.

Why don't they just give everyone whatever pills they want? I wondered. That would kill the pill trade and calm everyone down.

Alarm over. We stood up, and the line started again. Eventually, I picked up my Lipitor and went to school.

Taking a math assignment off Mr. Yaz's desk, I took my usual seat. Stone Cold ruled our table. Do your work or go away. Stone's sons, teenagers, had sent some harsh letters, angry he'd fallen twice for running Meth labs. Lately, his boys had been acting out, not listening to their mother and cutting school. Stone had never graduated from anything except maximum security prison, so now he was grimly determined to master enough algebra and geometry to pass the G.E.D. He thought a diploma might give him a bit of moral equity with his sons when he paroled next year. Rounding out the table was Speck, a Kentucky hillbilly, who talked real dumb but wasn't even a little bit, and Lucky, a Sacramento gangbanger. I'd met Lucky's mom in the visiting room, and she had thanked me for helping him study. Although I do help him some, mostly I tutored Stone and Speck worked with Lucky.

Still tired, irritable from Fearless drama, I was showing Stone how to calculate the volume of different geometric forms, but Speck kept interrupting, hitting me with math questions about material he had easily handled in days past.

"Just wait, Speck," I cut him off and tried to get back in the flow with Stone.
"I don't get it, Mike, I need to know how..."
"What are you? Stupid today?!" I snapped.
Eyes flashing, Speck kicked his chair back and walked.
"What's his problem?" I muttered grumpily.
"He's spinning on Wellbies," Lucky clued me.
I went after him. "Hey, Speck, I'm sorry I..."
Harshly, Speck said, "We're s'pose to be friends."
"Thought you were clowning, and I m not in the mood. Didn’t know you been snorting pills."
"Not on pills," Speck denied.
"Hell, Speck," Stone Cold joined us, "still got some of the powder stuck to your nose."
Running his fingers over his nostrils, Speck saw white residue and silently nodded.
We went back to the table. "Mike's so damn innocent," Lucky said lightly, "he don't know a damn thing about getting ill."
"I was drunk for three years straight at San Quentin," I laid out some truth.
"No way."
"Had batches of wine going everyday. Bought caps of weed, papers of coke and speed. Never did heroin. Stuff scares me."
"What happened?"
"Long story."
"Go ahead and tell it," Stone rasped, but tell it short.  Math is waiting."

"In '91, some guy on the yard put hands on me, and I put the smash down. Cracked him in the head, drove him into the ground and stomped him out before the gun officer snapped and racked his rifle on me. The guy was concussed and bleeding when he crawled to the sallyport."

"That's right," Stone said with approval.

"Broke my right hand on his skull, so I had a quick stop at medical, but no doctor was on duty so all I got was an aspirin and an Ace bandage. The cell they planted me in the hole had a crazy guy living there before me. He had blown the power, so the cell was pretty dark. The inside of the cell was eerie, the walls were moving, kind of waving really."

"What?"
"Yeah. The nut had smeared shit on the walls, all kinds of insects were crawling all over it."
"That's way, way out."
"Guess he'd been flooding, so the cops had shutoff the water. The toilet had stuff growing out of it. Anyway, I just sat on a filthy mattress in the dark in that sewer of a cell feeling my hand swell, thinking about how I got there. I blamed the guy I'd hit, I was planning in detail how I was going to rain some pain on his sorry ass."

"When someone puts hands on you," Stone stated, "got to put them down."

"That's what I thought for the first few hours. But early in the morning when the pain in my hand hit ten on the ten scale, I started thinking about all my interactions with that guy. All the missed opportunities, all the times I talked with him and coulda cooled things out but didn't. I'd been arrogant, stupid, the chemicals had dumbed me down. That's when I had a moment of clarity, an epiphany, that's the moment I stopped chasing Pharma Bliss."

"And now you're perfect," Speck said sarcastically, still a bit butt hurt with me.
"It's not about perfection," I was more abrupt than I meant to be, weary from last night, "it's about doing better. When I got off mind altering substances, my life slowly improved. Rene came into my life, and she makes me happier than any drug."
"Sure," Stone said impatient to start studying, "you and Rene will be together 'til one of you dies and then the other will die right after. Eternity together. But right here, right now, we need to do math."

All four of us together worked through the exercises. Breaking for lunch, we came back for individual computer instructions in the afternoon. Calling me up to his desk, Mr. Yaz asked, "Are you taking the G.E.D. this time?"
"I've only been in class a few weeks, I thought I'd wait until the next cycle."
"That's not for six more months."
"I'm a lifer, so there's no hurry. I get visits, so the weekends and holidays off in Education fits my schedule."
"A new class is starting up in the empty classroom next door. The teacher needs two Teacher's Aides. The positions pay eighteen cents an hour and you would still have weekends and holidays off. Interested?"
"Thought I had to have my G.E.D. to be assigned a job."
"You'll pass."
Thinking it over for a second, I said, "I'll give it a shot."
"I'll put your name in for an interview."
"Thanks, Mr. Yaz."
My table called me a traitor, thought I was abandoning them.
"I might not get the job."
"You'll get it," Stone said glumly.
"If I do get it, I'll be right next door. Get a pass, I'll tutor you over there."
They still weren't happy with me.
Chilling in my cell, fading early, my door popped open and Officer Gonzales appeared escorting a prisoner carrying a television set. The convict was in his mid-twenties, five foot seven or eight, lean, head shaven, sporting a droopy Pancho Villa mustache.
Glancing at me, the prisoner muttered to Gonzales, "I want to cell with my own race."
Startled, studying the cell move form, Gonzales asked, "What race are you?"
"Raza."
"But your name’s Samson."
"Raza," Samson repeated firmly.
"Uh, it's late, I have to house you before Count. Just move in and we'll figure this out tomorrow."
Samson stood like a rock, face impassive, didn't seem like he was going to reply or move. Ever. It was kind of awesome.
"Gonzo," I spoke up. "We got your word you will move him with a Hispanic tomorrow?"
"You do."
"If you half-step, everytime I see you I'll be calling you a liar. It's going to get ugly, it's going to be all bad."
"Got my word."
Samson moved in and started to set up his TV, but I was asleep before he finished, and he was still asleep when I left at Education release the next morning to meet up with Stone for breakfast.

On the yard outside of Education, Joey Mac, reeking of solvent, approached Stone Cold.
"Huffing?" Stone questioned.
Nodding, Joey Mac pulled a wash cloth from his back pocket, buried his nose and inhaled.
"Just being close to you is making me light headed," I complained and edged away. "Where did you get that stuff?"
"Got a job in the laundry. Dry cleaning chemicals kick my butt," Joey Mac answered in a half-dazed voice.
"You got to go before the Education Officer gets here," Stone said sternly.
"Got some whiskey for Speck," Joey Mac pulled an eight ounce plastic bottle from his pants. "Burned it last night."
Snatching the bottle from Joey Mac's hands, Stone told him to go before the cops snap to him.
"Just pour it out," I advised Stone.
"It's ten dollars," Stone replied. "Have to deliver it, but Speck has to go home. Tell Mr. Yaz he's sick."
Speck showed, cradled the bottle and went home to get ill.

Mid-morning, Mr. Yaz sent me to be interviewed. As I walked in, I heard Mrs. Lopez, the Vice-Principal, say about the last interviewee, "He'd be good, but we can't hire a first-termer for this position. The class won't respect him."
"I'm a first-termer."
"Twenty-two years in custody, eighteen of them on Death Row is a long first term," she answered. "I don't think the students will terrorize you."
"This's Miss Mills," Mrs. Lopez introduced a sunny, pretty woman.
"I've already hired a clerk to take care of the student files," Miss Mills said, "but I need a tutor."
"I can tutor."
"Yes, Mr. Yaz said you would be good. I need to know if you have any problem tutoring non-white students."
Shrugging. "I'll tutor anyone who wants to learn."
Interview over, I went back to class but didn't know if I had the job.

Officer Cope, the Education Officer, let me takeoff early at shift change, so I could get at Gonzo about Samson's cell move. Falling by my cell first to see if Samson had found a place he wanted to go, I saw that he had completely unpacked, scrubbed the cell, and had even woven and put up new clotheslines. Still a prison cell but a quantum leap better.

"Hey, Mike," Samson swung down from the top bunk like a gymnast. "Saw two of my homies at dayroom, Flaco and Chato. Those two knuckleheads said you lived half your life on Death Row and I couldn't find a better cellie. Mind if I just hang here?"

Chato and Flaco were a couple of characters, two of the biggest winemakers on the yard. But they had always been respectful to me and I kinda liked them.
"No alcohol in the house," I warned.
"Don't drink. Call me Happy."
Happy and I walked to dinner with Chato and Flaco, but our table had only three open seats so Happy bounced to the next one.
"Happy's father is a legend in our barrio," Chato clued me. "The feds caught up to him a few years back and he's doing all day in a super max."
"Samson is Mexican? How does that work?"
"Happy's Dad's half-Portugese, half-Mexican, but his Mom’s all Raza.
Her whole family is in the life. When we were kids, Happy maybe ten or eleven years old, his uncles used to load up his backpack with guns and dope and send him on the city bus to make deliveries. The cops don’t trip on a kid wearing a smiley face backpack."

After dinner, I kicked it with Happy as he built shelves with cardboard and glue he'd conjured from somewhere and attached them to the wall over the sink for our razors and toothbrushes.

"You got the job," Mr. Yaz said the next morning. "You're next door from now on."

Another prisoner and Officer Cope were in the hallway. "Hunter," Officer Cope said, "you and Tracy will always go in the classroom before the students. You will always wait until the classroom is clear of students before you leave, and then the two of you will leave together. Neither of you is to ever be alone with Miss Mills. If one of you steps out when no students are present, the other one will step out as well. Clear?"

Nodding, we entered the classroom and Miss Mills said the students would be reporting the next day. Tracy placed his desk adjacent to Miss Mills' desk and started putting together student files while chatting away with Miss Mills like old friends. Tasked with putting together lessons that conformed to the curriculum, an easy chore since I'd been studying them the past weeks, I thought about the meaning behind Officer Cope's words and setup my desk and computer as faraway from Miss Mills as possible.

After lunch, Tracy showed me how to maintain the student files. Seemed pretty easy especially since he told me that due to California's budget woes no one ever audited.

Leaving school with Stone, we spun a few laps on the yard before taking it home. "That’s my new cellie," I pointed to Happy, one of the few non-blacks on the basketball court. Six inches shorter than anyone else, he was a beast. Drilling three pointers from way outside when they finally came out to guard him he'd blow by and lay it in the hoop.

"He's not white," Stone objected.
"Part, but mostly Mexican. Northern structure."
"Watch yourself," Stone Cold advised.
In the morning before class, Miss Mills spoke to me. "Two of our students have exceptionally high test scores, I want you to spend an hour a day with them."
Studying their student files, I said slowly, "One's Mexican, the other one is white."
"I thought that wasn't a problem with you?" she said sweetly.
"Not with me, but maybe with them. Will they work together?"
"I'll talk to them," Miss Mills said confidently. "I imagine this's a lot different for you than Death Row. Everything okay with you?"

After living in the more than one hundred year old dungeons of San Quentin, escorted everywhere in chains by two guards, venturing off to a desk and computer to work for Miss Mills was an entirely different existence. But life really isn't all that bad on Death Row, as long as you can accept that every so often they're going to kill one of your friends and perhaps one day you as well. But I knew I couldn't explain any of that to Miss Mills, it's not that she was unintelligent it was just beyond the universe she lived within.

"Thank you. I'm fine," I answered.

When the class came and started their assignments, Miss Mills called Lopez and Adams to her desk. She simply smiled and told them they had a special opportunity and sent them to me. I found that Miss Mills used niceness as a weapon, she'd fix her eyes on someone, talk to them as if what she was asking was as natural as the sun rising in the East. Eventually, the most hard core gangster would cave and bend to her will. I started working with Lopez and Adams, they found the things they had in common: music, sports, tattoos were more important than their different races. They were smart and they were easy to tutor.

Tracy started hanging back when it was time for break or lunch.
"We're s'pose to go," I'd tell him.
"No, it's okay," he'd answer and stay.
"Where's Tracy?" Officer Cope would ask me.
"You know where he is," I'd answer without stopping and then would go hang with Stone.

After work I was jumping in the shower when a three-on-three brawl, three whites on three Mexicans, broke out in the dayroom, a dispute over who was next on the phone. All six went to the hole.

With the three white guys gone, no whites celled within four doors of me. When I stepped out to dinner, no one spoke to me, no one was meeting my eyes. Now wary, I kept my head on a swivel, looking for trouble.

"What's wrong?" Happy wondered.
"What do you think is wrong?" I mumbled.
Snapping to the tension, Happy immediately called Flaco and Chato over and told them to stay with me. Walking to every cell around us, he told the convicts if anything happened to me he'd put steel in them.
"Everyone likes Death Row Mike," Happy reported back, "they just thought you might be tripping about your homies going to the hole."
"Not my homies, bunch of losers wrecking over a damn phone. Guess what? No phones in the hole."

Over the next day or two, everyone in the cells around us came by to chat. Nothing substantial was said, just I'm okay -- you're okay. Tension bled away.

Tracy met me in front of Education one morning, he looked like he was going to cry. The Security Squad had gaffled him to an interview, he was under investigation for overfamilarity with staff and been unassigned from the Teacher's Aide position.

"Dumb ass," Stone stated his opinion.
I went to see Officer Cope. "Should I go into class alone?"
"Go ahead this once," he replied, "but keep it professional."
I nodded, hoping he didn't know about the home baked chocolate chip cookies that magically appeared in my desk from time to time.
"We need a new clerk," Miss Mills said brightly, she seemed totally unaffected by Tracy's departure.
"How about Lopez? He's doing really good work."
"He doesn't have his G.E.D."
"I don't either according to my prison file, but we'll both have it soon. Look, Miss Mills, I know you don't think this way, but our class has nineteen Hispanic students and they'd like to have a clerk they feel comfortable to get at if they have a problem."
"They can talk to me."
"Yes, and they like you. But if I were you I’d hire Lopez."

A little while later, Miss Mills called Lopez to her desk, offered him the job and he accepted.
"Are you moving to Tracy's desk?" Lopez asked me.
"No, it's all yours. I'm staying right here."
"I don't want to be investigated like Tracy."
"Don't hang in the classroom alone with Miss Mills, and you'll be fine
After going through the student files with Lopez, I went to lunch.
"Don't know if it's true," Stone Cold said seriously, "but the word is Speck's dead."
"What?"
"Heard he took a handful of pills last night, overdosed and died. Wasn’t in school today."
"Let’s get at a Program clerk, they should know what's up."
"The cops aren't s'pose to know about it yet, guess he's just lying on his bunk under the blankets."

Sitting on a bench eating lunch, felons kept coming by to tell us about Speck. Wasn't sure if it was true. If you don't hear a rumor by noon, start one, is the convict code.

Finishing lunch, we spun laps in the bright sunshine, it's about a quarter mile all around and takes five minutes. Happy was on the roundball court as usual, just wearing people out.

"Watch your cellie," Stone warned.
"Why? He's been a great cellie, clean, respectful, he's got my back."
"The vato locos idolize him, he's got to have something going on."
"You're trippin'. We're not in Salinas anymore, this's weak ass Pleasant Valley. It's all good."

Alarm. We all got down. Guards went into Speck's housing unit. A half hour went by and they didn't bring the yard back up. Eventually, we were simply ordered to get off the ground and go home.

We were cell fed dinner, and then the prisoners on the Men's Advisory Council hit cell doors to let us know Speck had taken more than seventy pills and died. Speck had left a suicide note, among other things he wrote who he had bought the pills from and how much he had paid for them.

We were locked down for a few days for the investigation, more than a few pill sellers were gaffled to the hole. Medical staff started crushing the pills and floating them in water to prevent the palming and cheeking.
Sure were a whole lot of angry felons when the psych and pain medication market went away.

"With that stuff gone, street drug prices will go sky high," Happy murmured, but I didn't really get what he was talking about.

On a Saturday morning, I was getting ready to visit Rene when Happy said off-handedly, "Flaco and Chato have visits too. Don't let the homies bother you and your girl. Tell them I said for them to stay away from you."
"Sure."
Waiting to be searched before my visit, I passed on Happy's message and expected them to laugh. But they just nodded in a serious way.
When I can see, touch, breathe Rene, it's like a bubble envelops us. I'm really unaware of everything around us.
Exiting from my visit at three and stepping onto the yard, Stone Cold asked me about Flaco and Chato being escorted by the Security Squad from Visiting to the hole.

"1 missed it," I confessed.
"Program clerks told me they're on the way to contraband watch, guess the cops think they're full of drug balloons."
"I'll go tell Happy."
"Squad took Happy too."

When I got back, my cell was half empty again. Slumping on my bunk, I waited for whatever came next.

-THE END-



© Copyright 2011 by Michael Wayne Hunter and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker. All rights reserved

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