Friday, September 7, 2012

What's In A Name?

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

The topic of debate for this morning's regularly scheduled shouting match between my neighbors on either side of me appears to be about chili. That anyone would actually carve out a 30-minute chunk of their daily schedule to quarrel about the various differences between "chili with beans" and "chili without beans" seems pretty silly. Unfortunately, the spat is even stupider than you realize because this is not a conversation about gastronomical preferences, but rather about prison nicknames.

You see, Marcus Druery has an execution date next Wednesday, August lst (Ed note: Druery was given a stay of execution to examine the tact that he is bat-shit crazy). His nickname is Chili With Beans, for reasons that are not exactly clear to anyone, especially to Druery himself. The kerfuffle centers around which "Chili" actually corresponds to the legal name of Druery; this is a real problem, because there happens to be five variations of the nickname on Death Row: Chili with Beans, Chili without Beans, Mexican Chili, Chili Red, and the somewhat flavorless Regular Chili. I have thought about weighing in and supplying the necessary information, but I have come to understand that there is always going to be some feud that makes me the meat between their two halves of bread, and they would simply change topics to something probably far more annoying. In any case, A) I‘m pretty sure that my own arguments would look just as senseless to most of you, and B) they actually inspired me to put pencil to paper, so I guess I should be appreciative for the motivation. I'll take my muses any way I can get them, even if they are two fat guys prone to body odor and running their faces all day long.

I have heard this exact same discussion many times in many formats; if I had a penny for every time I have heard someone say: "Well, what else does he go by?" I would have the money to revive Johnnie Cochran from the dead to represent me on my appeals.
Just the other day I listened to two men in separate dayrooms discussing some rumor that they had heard about someone, not realizing that the person they were fitting out for a snitch jacket had changed his name and they were actually slandering a friend. (I so wish I could have been there when they finally figured all of this out.) It is hard not to be a little amused by the sheer chaos produced from the usage of aliases in the penal world. At first I did find all of this a bit unnerving because I do not come from a place where this is common practice. I think the whole concept of renaming oneself was one of the more potent elements of the culture shock I experienced when they finally let me out of seg into the general population environment in the county jail. My first two neighbors were named Slayer and Shamrock, in lieu of William and Corey. Take one of those out for a test drive, why don't you? “Well, you see, Slayer, the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law is going to force bond traders at non-fixed income desks to trade derivatives in open exchanges..." See? Doesn't work. How do you ask someone called Killa-J to play chess? One hesitates even to take such things seriously, even when you know that a person‘s name is all they have in prison and therefore very, very important.

The whole mess would be simpler it everyone could agree on having just one byname, but they never do. The general rule is that one isn't supposed to give oneself a tag, that they should be created by one`s peers (though, of course, people do self- label all of the time). Since prison requires one to have different (and sometimes competing) loyalties, this means that one might participate in two or three or seventeen different cliques, each of which is going to go about the process of creating alternate nicknames (and disparate identities, but that is a more complicated discussion). It is an annoying process, because if a group is able to determine that a certain sobriquet is distasteful to you, you can be virtually assured that they will use this to the exclusion of all others. Very few people wouldn't leap at a chance to alter their prison tags, were they to be given the chance.

Ideally, one's alias should say something vital about you, your character, or your way of looking at the world. "Representing" one's birthplace seems to be a popular choice for this, as we have a New York, two Cuba’s, a Virginia, a Texarkana, two D-Towns and a Turk.

Neighborhoods also make a strong showing, with two South Parks, three Ghettos, a Green Park, an Acres Homes, and a Sunnyside, who, I was disappointed to learn, is named for a Ward in Houston and not because he has a cheery disposition. I have also known many deviations of the "country" theme, though the only two currently on Death Row are Big and Little Country.

Aside from the five Chili’s I mentioned previously, other food names are fairly common: we had a Peanut, and currently are still in possession of a Pork Stew, two Nachos, and a T-Bone. Given the sissification of American society, I keep expecting to come across a Cous-Cous or a Soy Milk at some point; I probably will, if I live long enough.

The world of music makes a strong showing, with two Dre’s, a Bob Dylan, a Tool, a Lynyrd Skynard, a Tone, a Song, and a Phil Collins (this last was definitely not complimentary). In a case of life imitating art, both Tone (Ronnie Neal, 6.12.2010) and Song (Selwyn Davis, 7.20.2012 committed suicide.) Record labels are also present, with a Swisher House, two Trills, one Def Jam, and probably about a dozen more that I am not nearly cool or "street" enough to know about. We had a Bob Marley, too, in county jail, which pretty much tells you what he was locked up for.

We have about fifty Little-Something’s (Little Will, Little Tex, Little Jack, Little Mo, etc, etc…) and even more Big-Something’s: Big Tai, Big 50, Big Will, Big A, Big Lou, Big Flo, Big Cat, Big Rob, Big White, Big Art, and Biggie Big. Given the male preoccupation with size, this is probably easily understandable, but sometimes the whole business can get a little silly: Little Tex, for instance, weighs significantly less than I do, yet wears an 8X jumpsuit. There seems to be a sort of competition amongst some subsets of the population to one-up each other on this front, meaning that the Necessities Officer is having to put in special orders for 10X everything, and I get snickered at when I request a lX. I mean, if we were going base jumping, I guess I could see the point in wearing an extra 40 yards of canvas on my back, but until then, I think I'll stick to the size that doesn't make me look like a walking roll of carpet, thanks.

Speaking of contradictory appellations, I've known a Cashman and a Big Money that were flat broke, and a Po' Flo who was rich as Croesus. We had a Chaparo who was easily 6'2", and a Tall Boy who barely topped 5 feet. At IAH I knew a Skinny that made all of the Big-Whatever’s look like elementary school children by comparison; the behemoth was so immense that he had to turn sideways to fit through his cell door. We currently have a Speedy on Death Row, who was in the back of a transport van, which flipped killing the two officers and crippling everyone in the back. Since he "caused" the accident by existing and needing to be transported, some of the officers here regularly take away his wheelchair and force him to use a walker to go everywhere, inch by painful inch. The process is obviously very time-consuming, thus the name.

I've been plastered with my share of tags, too. My friend Prieto calls me Snake Doctor, after some character on a TV show who he claims my behavior and mannerisms to be a dead match for. Likewise, my friend Jeff calls me Colonel Travis, after the guy killed at the Alamo, with who, according to Jeff at least, I share some behavioral resemblance. The Mexicans usually call me Tomas, Guedo, or, somewhat more humorously, el Mexicano Contrahecho, or the Counterfeit Mexican. Smoke calls me the Prof, after I explained something-or-other to him years ago. I like this title but I think it is too pretentious and way too honorable for me, so I don't really respond to it. In the county jail, certain inmates starting mimicking the local news by calling me Mastermind, which I hated and never responded to. The same goes for Frankenstein, which a few neighbors in 2008 gifted me with due to the extensive collection of scars I possess. I pretended to hate the title because I was vain, but the truth is it hit a little too close to home, as I have often felt as if I were pieced together from spare parts that nobody else had any use for. The former Gang Intelligence Officer used to call me Cipher, because I would leave the Shakedown Team coded messages, which were half-hidden away in various portions of my legal chest. The whole point of this was to give them something to get excited about. Boy, did that ever work: upon the discovery of one of these, the team would tear off the pod, prize in hand. Naturally, this meant that they were no longer in my house, which was the proper place for them in the first place. A few days later (after the DPS or the Texas Rangers or the FBI had decoded the ciphertext), I would get an I-60 from the GI with a translation, which was invariably some random page from a book, encoded with a just simple Playfair or Vigenere cipher, and a handwritten comment thanking me for wasting six hours of his time. You would think that they would have learned by now not to take such little gifts seriously, but, to this day, they still waste the time decoding them. I think that they secretly enjoy having something to do beyond worrying about which gang-bangers are feeling frisky that day. Then, of course, there is Bart. Even though everyone close to me has called me by my real first name for the better part of a decade, I still have my haters and trolls who insist on using my childhood name. For the record, the quickest way to get dismissed from my attention is to call me Bart. It's like a key-function to instantly move your missive to the trash folder. Fair warning, yes? I know why you use it, though. It is all about the concept of change, something you cannot stand to imagine in the people you hate. It's cool; I get it. I don‘t like it, but I have always understood you better, I think, than you understand me.

There was actually another man here who was a fan of speaking in code, only he was completely bonkers (as opposed to me, who am only half nuts). His name was, depending on which of his personalities was in control, either Varnak the Destroyer, Moses, or Tim. He never answered any question in a normal way, though you could, with some effort, get the gist of what he was trying to say. His Tim persona was incredibly paranoid, especially in regards to the officers, who he (rightly) claimed wanted to kill him. He would always let you know when the officers were up to something, even if this meant waking you up. Instead of saying, "Hey, the officers are coming," he would say: "Chauncy Honeycut and Nordic Bob are in the cupboard eating lumberjack pie, while seven dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet." What do you say to that? Especially considering that it took him so long to warn you about whatever was coming that he seldom finished before whatever it was had already passed us by. Nordic Bob was a frequent character in his commentary, and I think he had to have been a person from his real life. I can't be certain of this, because, despite a long history of mental illness and an
IQ of 68, they executed him in 2008.

Many of the nicknames back here need no explanation: Big Ugly, 911 (who was a total disaster zone), Preacher Man, Custer, Capone, Kilo, Hillbilly, Romeo, Loki, Rainbow, Bruce Leroy, and Half-Deck. Some are more confusing: Hut-Hut, Uncle Ippy. 5 Dollar
Bill, and King Moto. I once knew a Light Man in the county jail, who totally flipped out after they turned the cell lights out at night. After two nights of this, he attacked the officer he felt was responsible, so they beat him up and carried him off to the Padded Isolation Cells. That was the last time any of us heard of Light Man. Bruce Leroy lived two cells down from me at Limestone. He spent most of his day kicking and punching his mattress, and threatening to put his "Converses in yo' face." He answered "Sho nuff" to nearly every question, at least until they upped his meds and he simply drooled his way down to Isolation. I have since learned that he was ripping off some movie from the 80s, which saddened me because he was really very unique. That a good quarter of the people I have known in the last seven years have been in various states of mental breakdown probably says a lot about who I am now. If you aren't careful, it says something about you, too, but that is really another article altogether.

"Cuate" got his name because he made the mistake of complaining about the size of his hemorroid in graphic detail while in the dayroom. Since nobody could remember the exact name of the mutant in the original Total Recall movie that had half-deve1oped-yet- still-alive twin popping out of his stomach, it was decided by the majority that it was something like "Cuate" and the name stuck. To this day, if you ask Cuate how they are hanging, he will go into a description of the state of his nether regions in such detail that pretty much guarantees every officer in the vicinity is going to swiftly find some reason to leave. Which was, of course, the entire point.

In any prison setting, you are going to have about a gazillion "Woody" spin-offs. In our case, we have a Mexican Woody, a Soft Woody, an Old School Woody, and a Regular Woody. We also have a Knotty, but I think that has more to do with the fact that he is a little crazy than anything else. A "Wood" is prison slang for a certain type of stand-up white guy, and derives from the term "peckerwood," though I've never felt the interest needed to investigate the etiology of the term beyond the obvious. The first time someone called me Thomas-Wood, I thought I was going to have to fight the guy. It was a good thing that my friend explained the term to me, because the other dude was huge and probably would have left a Thomas-shaped smear on the concrete had it come to actual fisticuffery.

Mental status is a common source for tags, with Death Row housing two Lunatics, three Psychos, one Sociopath, and one Crazy-Ass Mike. Lamentably, I've yet to come across any Well-Adjustedos or maybe a Happy Being Normal, but one can hope.

There are also a plethora of Rock derivatives: H-Rock, T- Rock, J-Rock, and the somewhat hyphen-deprived Rock. I've always wondered if the latter feels somewhat inadequate in the company of his fellow namesakes, but I've never asked. Somehow my humor seldom translates well to any medium outside of my head.

By far, though, the largest category of prison names belongs to the world of nature. In my time, I have known three Bucks (Little, Big, and Brother), one Buffalo, a K-9, a Possum, a Cujo, a Short Dog, one Ram, one Gato, a Bird, a Bird Man, a Worm, a Skeeter, a Gator, one Sloth Man (which may have had more to do with his personal cleaning habits than his likeness to the slow- moving tropical mammal prone to smiling), one Viper, one Cobra, a Rabbit, a Lizard, a Kangaroo, a Sapo (Spanish for toad, and, in what one assumes was a totally unintended coincidence, a "snitch") one Turtle, two Trees, and two Bears (three if you count Oso, Spanish for bear; four if you count Yogi).

I may have played a very minor role in the naming of one of the Bears. About 18 months ago, Bear lived below me, right in front of the dayroom. We didn't know each other very well, and seldom spoke beyond polite greetings. One morning while I was running laps in the dayroom, he called my name.

"Hey Thomas!" I stopped running and got as close to his cell as the bars would allow me, so that I could hear him clearly.

"What's up, X?"

"You be knowin’ something bout animals?"

His question surprised me, so I had to think for a few seconds before responding:

", not really. I'm kind of a city-boy, X."

"How about bears, you know something bout bears?"

I could feel some sort of joke in the air - most certainly one aimed at me - but I couldn't see where he was going with this.

"Bears? No, not really" I didn't think that he would care that both Baylor and Adams State - the two colleges I had attended- used bears as mascots. I once had a black bear pass within feet of me when I was camping in the Ozarks, but that didn't seem applicable to the conversation, either.

"So, is they skin thin or somethin?"

What had started out as a little confusion was now quickly building up into a full-speed hurricane of me being totally fricking lost. It was at this point that X's neighbor came to the door, and began staring out the thin crack in the frame, scorn written all over his face.

"Um...their skin? No... I would guess that their skin isn't particularly thin, no. I mean, they have to stay warm, right? Thin skin would seem like a poor adaptation to me. Why do you ask?"

He paused tor a moment, before dropping his voice a bit.

"It's cuz they got these commercials on the radio, ‘bout these new bear skin condoms, and I be trying to figure out how come they got to kill them bears."

My eyes narrowed instinctively as l searched tor the punch line.

Bear skin condoms? What the t-...bear? No, he means "bare" skin...

It was at this point that his neighbor chimed in.

"You fuckin' MO-ron! That's bare skin, as in, yo Mama shoulda whipped yo bare ass for being so goddamned stupid!"

I started laughing uncontrollably, and had to sit down at the table. Through my tears l could see X - soon to be Bear- figure the linguistic puzzle out tor himself.

"Oh. Shit. Sheeeeeit."

It stuck, and stuck hard. I couldn't pass by one row without smiling for about six months. It was at that point that Bear got a date, and roughly four months later he was dead. Bear had another name, one I've never told anyone else: 84. He was the 84th inmate executed during my time on Death Row. This is a remarkable number, especially considering I've only been here 5.3 years, and during that time we had a temporary ban on executions during the Baze v Rees business. I am just a few shy of 100 executions now, and will certainly pass that number before the end of 2012. I'm well over 100, if you count the suicides and the denial-of-healthcare "natural causes" deaths. I take a lot of grief for various personal failings in the comments section of this site, but l wonder how normal any of you would be, it you had witnessed the unnatural deaths of more than 100 people? Something to think about, I guess, while you gather your stones.


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