By Eduardo Ramirez
*This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the Pushcart Committee in 2014
*This story was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by the Pushcart Committee in 2014
There was a time when I didn‘t know what culture shock was. I wouldn't have been able to explain it even if I had been possessed by the ghost of Noah Webster. It's not that I was unfamiliar with different cultures; I was born to Puerto Rican parents who were fairly traditional--as far as Latino traditions go--in their approach to family life, I was raised in a predominantly Black neighborhood, and I attended schools with mostly white students. Sure, the differences were there: language, background, point of view--all influenced by their respective cultures. But the most important similarity, for me at least, was the idea that we were all rooted in the American working-class experience; an experience that was marked mostly by modest homes built on the wages of forty-hour work weeks, social circles that pitched in to improve our neighborly way of living, and a common dream of health and happiness.
It's not like life was ever perfect. The grind was always real, always present. I remember the grease-filled factories and the tiresome ride home in exhaust-fumed buses; the huddled masses in cramped seats, nodding off after a long day, heads swaying gently as the bus chugged along the boulevard and past the vacant lots that used to be residential housing. The city planners had figured that urban blight and its sin of broken windows had cut too deep; gentrification was ushered in to heal the wound: first, by buying homes under market value, then by razing entire city blocks and making way for upscale housing, strip malls, cafes, bistros and boutiques--none of which were locally owned. Long-time residents could no longer afford the increasing property taxes, and so mass-migration set in motion. There were town hall meetings; community members protested in earnest, but when the big money rolls in so too do the bulldozers and wrecking balls. But amid the physical change of row homes that stood for decades was the familial spirit of community living that had always touched my life. Nothing could have prepared me for the world-change from my nine-to-five public life to the twenty-four/seven lockdown of prison.
It was the first time I'd seen a prison wall. The county jail that held me for almost two years resembled the factories that I was used to: linoleum-tiled floors that were buffed and waxed regularly and pneumatic doors with Plexiglas windows. The make-up of the county lock-up had me thinking that the prisons of old were just boogeyman stories that aging, toothless jailbirds used to scare straight the hardheaded kids who thought they were too hip to ever end up in a cage. Hillside was different. The weathered, brown stones looked as if they'd been cut from ancient caves and stacked by the hands of Vikings; granite walls, checked every hundred-feet or so by turrets and manned by expressionless robots with long-barreled shotguns, rose into the sky and blocked out the sun with imposing authority The iron gate groaned as it lifted, echoing in my ears like
a ghostly howl, and gave us entrance into the mouth of a dungeon.
I was part of a group made up mostly of young men barely out of high school. We were hairless and firm, not yet broken by the long road of time, and too egotistical to realize that prison is used as an organized tool to change one's way of thinking. Some change for better, some for worse.
Welcome to hell! The ruddy-faced lieutenant said. Wild-eyed and tight-lipped, his jaw muscles clenched, making golf ball-sized knots right below his ears. He was short, but powerfully built like a pitbull, and he stalked before us in slow, even, and methodical steps. We stood in a row, naked, except for the haphazardly folded uniform that we held over our privates to protect some idea of modesty, while he delivered his orientation.
This is Hillside. This is the place where all other prisons send their trash, because this is the place where rules are learned. You will all learn the rules or suffer the penalties...
AND I DO MEAN SUFFER! In fact, you should expect to suffer. You should expect to suffer even if you manage to follow the rules. For those of you looking to make parole your first time up, you will be sorely disappointed; and for those of you with life, this is the place where you will die.
The squeaking of his highly polished boots could be heard as he turned to leave us on that ominous note. With trembling hands we dressed and picked up what belongings we had.
A make-shift processing station had been set up: a folding table, the boards of which time had warped and left chipped at the edges, and an old, schoolroom chair--straight-backed, that creaked under pressure--was positioned at the end of the long tier. The late-summer wind swirled and carried the stale scent of sweat and cheap tobacco smoke, and the high-pitched crackle of radios bounced off the drab, eggshell-white painted brick walls. We marched along in our wrinkled brown trouser- and-shirt to the whisper of older cons whose taunts served as entertainment in what was otherwise a laughless place. The processing of men into the hopeless halls of Hillside—which had the dubious honor of being nicknamed Killside~-was more for show than an actual procedure to track men into appropriate programs. Smokers were housed with non-smokers, security levels were mixed without regard to safety, everyone was enrolled in school--or in what served as an education department--and even guys who had been sober as a saint were scheduled for substance abuse therapy. Bodies were all that counted, statistics to keep State and Federal funding coming in to pay the bills.
The grayness of the housing unit seemed to clash with the floral-printed scrubs worn by the nurse furiously scribbling notes into a medical file. The more I watched her the closer
I came to realizing that Hillside was a stone and iron virus that infected the mind. Maybe it was the old lead-based paint, or asbestos in the lungs. Whatever the case, she interrogated the new-commits with a razor-like sharpness. She closed one folder and waived me over. As I sat in the wobbly, wooden chair, unnerved and uncomfortable from the shock of it all, I listened as she spoke without directly looking at me:
Institutional number? She asked with a quality that was more cyborg than human.
DN6284, I said, uncertain if I was correct.
She kept her chin tucked downward and spoke in a clipped monotone: I'm gonna list your family, medical, and mental health history. This will go by quicker if you only interrupt me if anything is incorrect. Got it?
Before I could say a word she proceeded to rattle off my life story:
HEIGHT/5 ' 8"
SIBLINGS/Sisters, Sharon and Anna Ramirez
EMERGENCY CONTACT IN THE EVENT OF DEATH OR GRAVE MEDICAL
CONDITION . . . ? `
The atmosphere of the place was still settling over me like a lead balloon so I hadn't noticed the break in her chatter.
Mr. Ramirez, who is your emergency contact?
Oh! My father is my emergency contact, I offered. She asked me for a phone number where he could be reached in the event of an emergency, but I balked at the thought of alarming my father if there ever was an emergency.
Can I get back to you on that? I asked.
Your life, she shot back without a hint of care. Having no need to discuss further the detail of what should happen to me if an emergency involving my death or grave medical condition should arise, she continued on with her battery of questions:
IN THE EVENT OF INCAPACITATION /DNR
No major surgeries, no history of asthma, no known heart conditions, no history of cancer, gonorrhea, chlamydia, syphilis,HIV/AIDS, moderate substance abuse: including, marijuana, PCP, alcohol-~
No alcohol, I interjected.
No alcohol, she repeated tersely before continuing her rapid-fire recitation:
Mixed-Personality Disorder, with Passive-Aggressive Features; no history of depression, no history of psychotic episodes or psych meds, no extensive history of violence--
Is there anything I missed? She asked dismissively.
I felt more naked at her interview than when I was in front of the stern-faced lieutenant. This woman who knew nothing of me other than an administrative report had drawn whatever conclusions she had and had asked me not to interrupt. I felt very defeated.
One more question, Mr. Ramirez: Race--white or Black?
Her question caught me off guard, as it had never occurred to me that I had to be one or the other. I couldn't ever remember attaching any real significance to race. I remembered the naïve way that I thought racism was a thing of the past; I would tell my friends that I looked forward to the day when we would live without categorization, when we would no longer be Black, White, Latino, Asian, man, woman, rich, poor, uptown, downtown, gay, straight .... We would be human beings being a family. However, the immediate reality suggested something altogether different.
My journey up to this point had been knocking down my idealistic beliefs in justice and the American way of opportunity being available to all. The sea of brown and black faces among which I was awash, the cresting waves of nihilism that beat on our psyche day after day, was awakening some genetically encoded feeling of inferiority. If left unchecked this pragmatism would drown any optimism left in me. I knew I was in hell, a place that would make every attempt to tear kindness apart; cruel and unapologetic. This place would reduce men to animals: predator and prey; it would make nightmares real, and cherished memories fade into doubt. Here prayers would go unanswered because here there is no God. But that is the aim of hell: to rob the string and hopeful of their strength and hope.
The ironic thing about hell is that it does present its denizens with a choice: give in to the hate and pity, or outwit the devil by fighting with all of your nerve and sinew until fighting becomes as reflexive as breathing. Of course, you can never let the devil know you're fighting, and, above all, you can never let him know you're winning.
All of these emotions ran through me in a split-second as I considered the nurse's question. I could be White and it wouldn't matter to anyone--I would still be a prisoner. Or I could be Black and quietly live with the confidence that I went against someone's plan.
Mr. Ramirez, what's it gonna be--White or Black?
Her impatience brought me back to the moment. With a flush coming over me I responded with the urgency of a self-imposed mute who has waited for the perfect moment to speak:
I let the word trail off my tongue as if it were the answer to an ageless riddle that I had just figured out. A soft smile pulled at the corners of my lips and I watched as her pen stumbled on the page. I saw the clouds of confusion darken her skies. I never was one to do as expected, and my defiance perplexed her just enough that I knew I had steered her into uncharted territory. Her expression said it all: How could this fair-skinned, straight-haired man not be white? She was the one putting a premium on her whiteness, not me. I valued stuffing her smugness back in her face.
It would be a few years before the D.O.C. would correct that bit of information, for census data or whatever. But on that day I was assigned to a dusty cell with a sweat-stained mattress, and I slept well. My introduction into hell had worn down every muscle in my body. But in the blackness of night a Black man slept, victorious-~if only in a small way~~and optimistic that winning was possible.
How does your seven line bio read?
I am a dream deferred
I am hope on hold
I am soon to come
I am in progress
I am an arrow pointing true
I am human
I am you, man
Edward Ramirez DN6284
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426