Pages

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

No Mercy For Dogs Part 12

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

Part 11 can be read here

The Sunday after my unintended visit to the Dark Chapel, this country bumpkin came down from el monte and went to market. I had intended to spend Saturday night making a list of the items that I needed to pick up, but the Hammer showed up shortly after 9:30pm with one of his whores. The girl couldn't have been any older than I was and seemed to be thrilled to be there, looking at everything as if she had just arrived at Disney World. When I came out of my darkened stall she shrieked a little, and then whispered something to Gelo, which caused them both to begin laughing uproariously. I stared at Ramos for a moment, waiting to see if he was going to mention the time that I had spent with his mistress and son, but he said nothing. Instead, I whistled for Blackie, who quickly fell into his normal position at my right side and followed me out of the gate. I took some commiseration from the fact that while he could evict me at will from my residence, I had effectively stolen his dog. Neener, neener, thug.

My run was shorter that evening than the one before, and Papa Ramos had not left by the time I returned. Instead of tempting fate, Blackie and I picked out a spot on a nearby elevation, which overlooked the ranch. The beast plopped down next to me and dumped his immense head in my lap, and I couldn't help but notice that he had been particularly loyal that evening. I'm sure the reason was the bones that I had brought him the night before. He had startled me awake shortly before dawn when he returned home and discovered the meaty mess piled up in his bowl; the rumble in his throat sounded oddly like the trucks on the highway downshifting He had spent the better part of the day pulverizing the pile into dust, which was a good thing because the pregnant cat had finally delivered her kittens, and I didn't know what the nut job in my lap would do if he saw them. I reasoned that this couldn't have been her first litter, and that if she had had problems with Blackie and her progeny in the past, she would have gone somewhere other than two stalls down from where he lived to give birth. Nature may be red in tooth and claw, but it isn’t stupid. Besides, I had no idea what to do with four newborn kittens, aside from putting more milk in a bowl for the mother and tossing a taco or two her way. She would have to deal with the monster herself.

Around 11pm Mr. Ramos's truck fired up and pulled out of the ranch, but the evening was so nice I didn't return home. This was a good thing because half an hour later Edgar’s brown Toyota truck pulled into the ranch, and he and some girl stumbled into the same cabin his father had just vacated. I sighed and settled back against the stone. For the first time, I gave some serious thought to changing my residence. And why not? I had made no deals or treaties with the Hammer, especially not ones that involved me living in their damned bordello. As far as I was concerned, I was living on his altruism, and beyond my appreciation I owed him nothing. I was confident that I was now capable of speaking the language well enough to arrange room and board. I decided that I would bring this up with Staci at some point, to see if she had any advice.

Maybe it was all of the pseudo-love in the air, but I found my hands removing the thin leather cord I wore around my neck. Shortly before crossing the border, I had removed the plain silver ring that I had worn-on my right hand for the better part of the last six years, and strung it through the cord. Unable to part with it and unworthy to wear it, this seemed to be the only option available. Sometimes I would take it out and run my fingers around its edge, but I never put it on, my last piece of Her.

She had been the first and only person I had ever met who had really noticed me, who saw through my attempts at deflection and distraction, and had made me feel like there was something beyond disappointment to be found in the sphere of human relationships
We were oil and water, but we kept finding each other in the dark, time after time after time. That had meant something. Not enough in the end, and not for the first time I wondered how I had allowed myself to fall so far, to lose so much control. I felt like a man just awaking from a long sleep, only to realize that the nightmare was very much real. Thinking about Her made my temples hurt, and I quickly put the cord back around my neck and tucked the ring under my shirt.

Once, when we had driven down to New Orleans for the weekend, She dragged me to a fortuneteller in the French Quarter, and begged me to suspend my disbelief for a few minutes. The gypsy looked at me sadly and said, “You shall come to know love.” Walking away, She put on her fake-pouty face and poked my ribs. “Why don't you know that already, you?” I smiled, pulling her close, and gave my usual speech about the credible idiots that believed in that sort of thing. It didn't occur to me until that night looking down at the ranch that what the old woman might have actually said was: “You shall come to no love.” All prophecies are self-fulfilling ones, but some of us are easier to peg.

Somewhere in the midst of these thoughts I fell asleep. When I awoke, Edgar's truck had gone, so I stretched and began to descend from the butte. A few seconds later I heard the crunch of tires on gravel, and Blackie and I froze. The Hammer's white Chevy truck soon came back into sight and I realized that it must have been this noise that had stirred me. I watched him drive through the gate and pull up beneath the mesquite tree near the well. He was obviously not trying to hide, so I continued down the hill and hopped the fence several hundred feet from the gate.

I found Ramos puttering about in the back pasture, probably imagining another one of his projects that he would never start. I came to within 30 feet of him and stopped, waiting for him to notice me. He eventually turned around, but didn't see me until he nearly bumped into my chest. He instantly shouted and jumped back in a manner I couldn't help but feel pleased about.

"Pinche puta madre! Me diste un susto de padre y Senor mio!

I smiled, enjoying immensely the reversal of our normal state of affairs. He had all of the power in our relationship, but if he believed that I could melt away into the shadows like some sort of ghost, fine.

"You have yourself a good time tonight, Gelo?"
"Ah, si. La culera esa, she ees always fun. She think you cute, if you want to..."

The ring burned against my chest, and I cut him off. “You came back to see if I wanted some company? Ah, see, I knew you cared.” I could see his teeth flash in the moonlight, and not for the first time thanked the stars that he seemed to enjoy a smart tongue. “What makes you think I can't get my own girl? Or that I haven't already?” As soon as I said it, I regretted it. I couldn't see him clearly, but he definitely wasn't smiling anymore, and the tension in the air jumped up a few notches.

“Yes, I know you go to spend the time with Pedro,” he grunted a moment later. “Just remember bien who built the nest, pajarito me entiendes?”

I said nothing, having already allowed my stupid mouth to run wild once. He came to my side and gently put his hand on my arm, angling me back towards the ranch. "It weel be good for the two of you to spend the time together. I am...old."

"Your little tart didn't seem to mind."

He snickered at this. "She would say I was Hercules reborn eef I pay her enough. No, Pedro...he ees special. Special mostly because I keep my deestance from heem, let hees mother make heem into something I would only do daño to. You know he want to be un architecto? What can I teech heem about thees? I only know how to destroy theengs."

Gelo was like that sometimes. You got comfortable fitting him into one box or another, and then this other side came swinging in at high velocity and knocked all of your preconceptions to the ground. He clearly realized that a father could be tonic or toxin to his progeny, and chose the path that he believed best for his son. It was a hard truth, and one that clearly cost him more than I had appreciated. It's a terrible thing to be the enemy of the things you love. It would he so much simpler, I recall thinking, if evil was just evil, free from variations and shades of gray. And 2 plus 2 being equal to five is not without its comforts, as well.

I couldn't think of anything to say in response, so I simply mumbled that Pedro was, in fact, a good kid.

"Leesten, Rudy...een two week, I want you to be ready to take a treep with me. I have no asked you to do notheeng seence you come here, but it ees time for you to show me I no make a meestake in breeng you here."

"Gelo, why did you allow me to come? Why would you take that risk?"

"What reesk? Look around you, Rudy. There ees no reesk. Thees place, she ees mine, ves? Rudy - the reel Rudy, I meen- he tell me you heestory, and I know this…"

"Wait, what history?"

I got the impression from his silence that the way I had asked that question had unnerved him, with all of its obvious intonations of there not being any history to speak of.

"He say you do the work for hees peeple in Houston."

That son of a bitch… I felt a moment of sheer panic, not wanting to let this man know that he had been sold counterfeit goods, quite possibly the only thing keeping me safe. I realized half a second later that the real Rudy would have known this would come out, and was...what? Counting on his father to clean up his lie? I considered getting up from the table and running, but how far could I really get? In the end, the only way forward seemed to be the truth, or at least one version of it. Maybe I could turn this, though…

"How much did you pay your son for me? He wanted something from you. He had to, or he wouldn't have brought me here."

He began walking towards one of the picnic tables arrayed under the mesquite trees and sat down. "He...no work for me. He work for heemself, mostly. But he ees always wanting merca or connection from me. I agree to geeve heem the tables for the
Reynosa and McAllen crossing for two week. You know what these ees?" Seeing me shake my head, he went on. "Thees tables, they leest the name of the corrupt officer that work the crosseeng, and geeve you the codes and times they work. Ees a free pass for two week, so he no have to pay no one out hees pocket."

I took a deep breath. "Gelo, you got lied to. Cancel the deal, if it isn't too late. I don't know what you meant by me having done "work" in Houston, but whatever that means, I didn't do it. I...fucked up very badly, and the law is surely going to be looking for me, but I'm not going to be of any use to you." He took this news in silence, a stillness that quietly expanded to fill the grotto. I knew that he couldn't see me any better than I could see him, but the unanimous, anonymous night suddenly felt somehow less...secure that it ever had.

"My son, thees hijo de la chingada...he no work for my people because he ees a liar, and a user tambien. I would no have believe heem on thees day except...you...you have thees look, like you see into my head. You geeve the Smiley a terrible feeling, and I theenk, most gringos is panochudos, but the crazy ones, they ees really useful .... "

I couldn't help it. Just like I did on the first day we met, I started laughing. It didn't seem possible for things to get this screwed up without very careful planning and foresight, but here we were. I had never been certain that he had believed my tough-guy routine, but apparently I had given a better performance than even I had realized. Still chuckling. I sat down at the table across from him. I had learned a very long time ago that it was wise never to correct the mistakes that others make about you, but something about this man-some sense of him being that rarest of oxymorons, the honest crook - made me speak the truth.

In decisions like this, sometimes the coin never lands; it just stays up in the air, spinning forever.

"Mr. Hammer, that wasn't confidence you were seeing. That was terror. That was me about to crack into a million pieces. That is all I am at this point: tiny little shards held together with pieces of duct tape. If you want me gone from here, I can disappear in a day. You won't even know I was here."

This time the silence stretched out even longer. Finally, he seemed to sigh. "No, no, you stay for now. I steel want you to come weeth us when we go to Aldama. Thees look you have...you breeng it weeth yon. Even the Mata Amigos, he believe you ees a leetle off en the head. Eef you can fool heem, you can fool the rest of them."

"Who was that name you said?"

"The man you know as Chespy. Hees nickname for the last few year is el Mata Amigos, the friend-killer."

"I don't suppose I need to hear another one of your long-but-untold stories to figure that one out."

"No…you just be ready to leeve here at 6 in the morning two Saturday from now."

"Gelo…if it is ok to tell me this, who do you work for? I'm trying to get a clearer picture of what I'm supposed to do here."

He threw his hands up in the air, and answered with more anger than I had expected. "Carajo, sometime I do no even know thees. For the moment, we of the old ways steel work for ourselves. Under Cardenas Guillen, we pay the tax and we do what we pleese.
But he is in hees cell now in la Palma, organizing hees stupeed huge festival he call 'Children's Day' to try to wash hees name cleen. And before he get caught, he let the aneemals out of they cages."

I didn't know what he was talking about at the time, but he was referring to the internal dispute within the Gulf Cartel that would see Los Zetas eventually unchained, an event that would cost tens of thousands of Mexicans their lives over the next few years. The fact that he had admitted his relative powerlessness so quickly after telling me that he felt no risk in harboring me seemed to deflate him in that way that internalized contradictions always seem to. After thanking me for continuing to work on the walls of the ranch's various buildings, he quickly departed. It was the first time that I began to suspect that the Hammer felt far less secure in his position than he had originally let on.

The next day I awoke at dawn, and took the horses out to the pasture. We were all chummy now, me and the herd, since I had brought them the carrots the night before.
By 8 o'clock I was on my way into town, my satchel slung over my shoulder and resting on my back. I didn't know what I would be able to find at the market, but I had a long mental list and I hoped to be able to scratch at least a few items off of it. Having never experienced a mercado before, I didn't realize that I could find…well, everything.

They used to call such marketplaces "black" or "gray markets,” places whose economic impact was obscure or even intentionally stealthy. Economists stopped using such terminology when they finally figured out that more than 10 trillion dollars in goods are sold annually in such places - the second largest economy on the planet, behind the United States, if you combine them all globally. Roughly half of the world's workers are employed in sealth marketplaces, a figure which has only grown during the global recession, and which is projected to reach 2/3 by 2020. The new term for the gray market is "l'economie de la debrouillardise," a French term using the word for someone who is self-reliant or ingenious. System D economies are the purest form of capitalism: unfettered, unregulated, untaxed; the only barometer of success being whether an item sells or not. If you want it, they will find it. If you don't, the item disappears off the shelves far quicker than any corporate business model could manage. This is the DIY economy, and it delivers for more people in more ways than any legal economy ever could.

The Placita had always struck me as being a trifle seedy, a world of beer and short skirts and unnecessary machismo, a place of almost-hopes becoming almost true. When I stepped around the corner of Don Michel's grotesque hacienda, however, the square had become virtually unrecognizable.

The first thing one sees is the tarps, huge expanses of red and green and yellow and, by far the most common color, blue. Some of these were immense, stretched out from poles to streetlights to trucks to wires, covering all four streets that bordered the Placita and much of its interior. The largest of these, I was to discover, all bore the stamp of FEMA, and I found this immensely amusing for some reason. The overall effect of stepping into the market was that of walking into a rainbow, the sun's rays now filtered through every color you can imagine.

Everywhere you looked were trucks: big ones, little ones, ones which had undergone so much custom conversion work that they were more stores with wheels than proper vehicles. I saw at least 15 decomissioned military troop carriers, now converted into grills, clothing stores, bars, and music shops. The ingenuity of the engineering was impressive, with all manner of panels flipping down to reveal shelves or televisions or, on one occasion, a series of birdcages filled with macaus and parrots. Everywhere you looked, advertisements assaulted you: here one’s for TelMex and the Loteria Nacional, there government propaganda shouting "Con Mexico Adelante!" There were travel agencies and signs for Pollo Loco, and, far more than anything else, beer, beer, beer. So many different things tried to arrest your attention that you could come to feel a bit dizzy at times.

It would be impossible to say how much business was done here on any given Sunday, but at least 15 or 20 thousand people would filter through the market during the course of the day - nearly everyone in town plus all of the people visiting for the weekend. Hundreds of thousands of dollars had to have been spent. I realized with a shock that I had never seen a single clothing store in this city of more than 10 thousand normal residents - and this was why. The market was a mall on wheels. I had yet to visit the mercados in Monterrey, several of which are easily hundreds of times larger than the one that comes to Cerralvo (one of which takes up more than 20 city blocks), so the whole thing seemed exciting and mysterious. For reasons that I have only recently come to understand, the only crowds I am ever comfortable in are the ones made up of people who are unknown to me. Despite the swell of humanity, in the marketplace one can come to feel completely alone, lost in a grinning orgasm of capitalism and greed, always moving, never arriving. One feels that one could stop in the midst of everyone and begin screaming at the top of one's lungs and no one would even notice.

Many of the products were obvious attempts to pour old wine into new bottles, everything from gently used clothing items to electronics. Even vehicles were available, with photos of cars and vans and trucks held securely in placards taped to long boards. That many of these products were probably stolen north of the border didn't seem to trouble anyone. And why should they? Such things were problems for the gringos to deal with. The police in Cerralvo - who were present - seemed far more interested in the girls than in establishing the provenance of the goods on sale. Many of the products were brand new, though, and I began to understand that corporations were clearly aware of the economic potential of such places, and were selling directly to these entrepreneurs. Telcel seemed to have recognized the value of Street vendors more than anyone else, because everywhere you looked you could see massive Telcel beach umbrellas, under which were sold pre-paid phone cards, regular monthly cell contracts not existing in la Republica at this time. .

After sizing the place up for a moment. I dove right in, the smells of a hundred different foods wrapping themselves around me. Within an hour or two I had found several slightly used pairs of work pants, a straight razor and whetstone, a new pack of gray Hanes t-shirts, a Gerber multi-tool, and a collapsible slim-jim, just in case things didn't go well here in Cerralvo and I had to skedaddle. For a time I stopped in one of the many music stores, which offered thousands of titles - all of which were pirated. Life-sized cutouts of Alejandro Fernandez and Julieta Venegas watched over me as I flipped through the stacks. I had a first-generation iPod back at the ranch, but I hadn't touched it in weeks since I had no way of recharging it. Neither did I have any way to load anything new on it, so I reluctantly left the $l.50 CD’s behind. It‘s hard to walk away from the world of music when you haven't had any contact with it in a month.

The only bicycles I saw were those made for children, but I was eventually directed to a man named Jesus who agreed to pick me up something in Monterrey for the next weekend. We haggled a bit over the price (oh, the joy of being able to communicate) but I eventually gave him 25 dollars as a down payment, on the expectation that he would try to find something in the 100 dollar range. He seemed a decent guy, and I didn't see him skipping out on me for a lousy 25 bucks, when he made 100 times that every weekend here in town.

Perhaps my most important discovery of the day was a small bookstore. I picked up a biography of Alexander the Great for about a dollar, and a few travel books on northeastern Mexico, hoping to reduce my ignorance a little about my new homeland.
As I flipped through the titles, I noticed that the shelves on the other side of the tent were far more popular, with 4 or 5 young men talking excitedly over a series of what appeared to be comic books. Never having been a fan of comics, I ignored them at first.
Only when I was leaving with my purchases did I pay any attention to what they youngsters had been so engrossed in. I was not aware of it at the time, but the cartels were heavily engaged in the process of using mass culture to inject their value system into the mainstream. Narcocorridos – narrative ballads - transmitted the legends of men like Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman Loera, and many other infamous sicarios. One, which I still recall to this day is sung by the BuKnas de Culiacan, and is a tribute to Manuel Torres Felix:

Con cuernos de chivo              (With an AK-47)
y basura en la nuca                  (fucked up on drugs)
volando cabezas al que            (blowing heads off those)
se atraviesa.                             (that cross us.)
Somos sanguinarios locos,      (We are bloodthirsty crazies,)
bien ondeados.                        (very high.)
Nos gusta matar                      (We like to kill,)
pa dar levantotes.                    (to kidnap.)
Somos los mejores,                 (We are the best,)
siempre en caravana.               (always travelling by caravan.)

Eventually, "El Movimiento Alterado" would expand beyond songs to incorporate a very identifiable manner of dressing, and the movement would sweep into the mainstream. The comics before me were one small portion of this attempt to topple the state, the heroes all being narcotraficantes and killers. The initial narco-comics were banned by the state, claiming that they might "fatally injure the proper moral development of Mexico's youth." Coming from a government whose only major priority seems to be stealing tax revenues from the populace, one wonders if this is in fact the right party to intervene in these matters. In any case, the cartels bought their own presses, and sold the comics in the marketplace by the thousands, demonstrating that Mexico's youth were quite keen on the idea of fatally injuring their own proper moral development. Legends were thus formed, as well as an entire subculture.

In military circles, such tactics are known as "force multipliers" and it has always puzzled me that those most responsible for the War On Drugs have not yet figured out that they are not battling a substance or an organization, but rather an entire culture. One trip to any market in Mexico would show them that money is not the primary reason the vast majority of peddlers get into the business. The real reason is that life has no meaning for the youth of Mexico. Minus any chance at living a life beyond that of their parents, minus any ideology that promotes humanitarianism or the common good, many gravitate to anything that at least gives them a sense of purpose, camaraderie, and excitement. The cost of drugs on the street has little to do with the quality or availability of the product, but rather reflects the risk of selling in the first place. The narcos aren't so much selling drugs, but - like insurance carriers - they are trading in risk. Until someone gives a serious look at supplying the young with a real reason to treat life seriously, many of Mexico's youth are going to be attracted to the way of the gun.

For some reason, looking at page after page of bodies lying in pools of blood and decapitated bodies hanging from overpasses made me very tired. I purchased a bottle of water at one of the makeshift restaurants and leaned against the counter for a moment, gathering my thoughts. I really wanted to head back to the ranch, but Staci had been very specific about me going by Don Antonio Baranda Perez's barbershop on Sunday morning. For a few hours, I had allowed myself to be seduced by the marketplace, but my position here was always at risk and it was going to take far more than a slim-jim and some pliers to keep me safe.

It didn't take me long to locate the shop. A small place, it had its metal door propped open by a small block of wood. I never go into a building unless I know the way out again, so I spent a few minutes looking everything over. It was a totally unremarkable sort of place, which made me somehow trust it less. As it turns out, my radar was hitting on something true after all.


Low on options, I shouldered my bag and walked across the street into what I would soon come to understand was the largest den of Vipers in the entire town.

To be continued….



Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Nothing Would Do As Well*


By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

*This story won first prize in the essay category of the 2014 Annual PEN Prison Writing Contest

The first time I met Mad Dog, he nearly shot me with a hepatitis C-infected blowgun dart.

In just a few short years, the man had become legendary on Texas' death row. There weren't many officers working the deep-end of 12-Building that he hadn't attempted to harpoon, burn, cut, or toss feces on. He was something of a cross between British soccer hooligan and MacGyver: toss him a few pieces of random rubbish and in twenty minutes he'd be launching the penal equivalent of a Hellfire missile at whatever lawman happened to be unfortunate enough to be passing by. Every few weeks those of us on Level 1 would hear the whisper-stream kick into high gear over one of his hijinks, the officers themselves often the messenger pigeons. It didn't take a keen observer to notice how the men in gray walked softly around the rest of us after this happened, or the way they absentmindedly fingered their batons and gas-sprayers in an attempt to maintain the illusory shield of authority that has always been the true badge of prison guards since time immemorial.

For no other reason than because it suits the hang-em-high ethos of state (read: Republican) politicians, we the condemned live out the remainder of our days in solitary confinement. We live, eat, shower, and recreate alone, and barring some nearly miraculous misfiring of the well-greased machinery of death, the only human contact we will ever feel is that of the handcuffs being secured behind our backs. Inmates without major disciplinary violations are referred to as "Level 1 Offenders;" those with certain infractions are known colloquially as "Twos" or "Threes." The distinction is for the most part one without a difference, as, intentionally or not, the prison authorities have removed virtually all of the normal perks of good behavior in recent years. For reasons that aren't exactly clear even to the Classification Committee, if a Level 3 Offender manages to make it ninety days without an additional breach of the rules, he is returned to a Level 1 pod. For people like Mad Dog, the only reason to behave for a time is to be able to come up to Level 1 for a few breaths of fresh air and a trip or two to the commissary, before recommencing the war. Needless to say, men like Mad Dog are not much loved by those of us with highly developed antibodies against drama. When the rumor mill began disgorging the news that he was going to be moving down the hall one Tuesday morning, I sent a few prayer-analogs out to whatever gods might be listening to keep him the hell off of D-Pod. True to form, the universe listened to me with patience and concern, and then deposited Mad Dog in the empty cell directly to my left. And people wonder why I don't bother with organized religion.

For several days, we saw neither hide nor hair of the man. Almost immediately after our trip to the commissary, I began to note the distinctive odor of hooch emanating from his cell, but the officers appeared not to begrudge the man a few bottles of old habits - or, at least, they weren't going to go to battle with him over the matter. After awhile he began going to the dayroom, and it was there that I got my first good look at him. His tats were about what you would expect from a skinhead, with all of the usual homages to Grade 3 thinking and broad-spectrum hatred. He pretty much ignored everyone, his disdain for calm inmates obvious. His eyes - when he actually deigned to look at you - were hard autobiographies, witnesses to horrors one preferred not to think about. After a brief survey, I didn't pay much attention to him. Moral nihilist, psychopath, sociopath, DSM IV code 301.7- whatever you choose to label such people, there is little point in joining them in conversation, in my experience. You might as well parley with a wolf; in fact, that is pretty much how you have to deal with these types, by baring your teeth and letting them know that they might be the Alpha in the equation, but it is going to be costly for them to find out for certain.

Twice a week we are allowed two hours in a cage outdoors, where you can - if you are lucky - get a few rays of sunshine. The day he nearly shot me was just such a day for my section, and I was so focused on the promise of the crisp December morning that I failed to notice that he had asked a special favor of the officers to put him instead in one of the dayrooms immediately adjacent to the crash gate. I am usually not so careless, but I suppose, like everyone else, I had been lulled into a false sense of security by his apparent lack of kinetic energy. It wasn't until I was within twenty feet of him that I noticed that he was wearing his work boots instead of his tennis shoes, and by then it was far too late to do anything but freeze and think small thoughts.

He actually smiled as he brought the homemade blowgun up to his lips, waiting for the two escort officers on either side of me to notice their peril before unloading. His first dart zinged past me on my left, thwacking that guard in the neck. He instantly cursed and let go of my arm, rolling away in an attempt to use the stairs as a shield. The screw on my right was a newbie, and he merely stood there for a moment, gaping at this sudden and violent departure of his normal routine. He figured out the game plan as soon as a dart drove into his shoulder, and he ran screaming towards the corner of the section, stupidly boxing himself in. I merely closed my eyes and turned my face away from the dayroom. I had been in these situations before, and I had learned that ducking and dodging were only going to increase my chances of taking a hit meant for someone else. Such projectiles were not terribly accurate, and since I didn't think he had any reason to take aim at me, there wasn't much for it but to give Mad Dog at least one immobile zone to remove from whatever targeting algorithm his warped brain was running.

After about thirty seconds and what sounded like several more direct hits, I peeked my eyes open and surveyed the damage. Mad Dog was standing there triumphant, looking like Moses coming down from the mountaintop with the new law. He was mocking the officers, letting them know that they could thank Captain B- for their shiny new infections, since he had recently taken Mad Dog's radio. That was the worst of it, I think: that so much evil could have been unbottled over the appropriation of a twenty-dollar Chinese knock-off clock radio, which wasn’t even contraband.

It didn't take long for a dense thunderhead of officers to converge, the institutional instinct for something-must-be-donery kicking into high gear. Lacking any other apparent options, the mob quickly began spraying Mad Dog with CS/CN gas pepper spray. It didn't faze him, but then, it seldom affects anyone but the guards. The ventilation system on the Row has been broken since the days when parachute pants were all the rage, so when anyone gets gassed, we all get gassed. This is unfortunate for the first ten or fifteen experiences, but eventually you build up an immunity to the stuff. Instead of gagging like most of the officers, Mad Dog merely tossed the blowgun at one of the officers' heads and began to pace in the dayroom.

I was quickly pushed up against a wall and ordered to stay put. One didn't need to be Tiresias to see where this was going; the way he had so casually tossed his weapon away after everyone had arrived was enough to convince me that I ought to be moving along. I quietly whispered to the two officers standing behind me that maybe it would be best for the "safety and security of the institution" if they moved me outside. After a brief conference with a Sergeant holding a handkerchief over his mouth, this was agreed upon. Before I passed the crash gate and lost sight of Mad Dog, I took one last glance backward. His face was radiant, like all of the pain of a lifetime had been washed away: the bodhisattva of prison terrorists.

From my position on the yard, I could see only the back rows of officers as they surveyed the situation. Gas masks were being handed out, so that the majority of them could at least find something else to do besides gasp and wretch all over themselves Within a few minutes the Extraction Team showed up, covered in plastic body armor and shields, marching in cadence. None of them seemed to realize that a nice, fat crowd might have been exactly what Mad Dog desired.

They figured it out, though, after he dove under the table and produced the second blowgun that had been taped under a seat. I saw a Captain and a Sergeant stumble backwards, little red blossoms unfolding on their chests. As the mass exodus from the section commenced, Mad Dog began spraying the backs of the departing with bottles of liquefied feces. The Extraction Team got their share of this foul concoction as well, before they rushed the dayroom and clubbed him to the ground. With an incredible display of efficiency, the team quickly had him shackled and cuffed, and were lugging him off the pod by his limbs within thirty seconds. He was fighting them all the while, a Hegelian abstraction run amok in the real world: the indefatigable and uncaring essence of his era personified.

After his departure, the screws paraded about, smug looks on their faces. These would fade, I knew, in short order, after the accounting of the matter had finally been tallied and had a chance to sink in. Not that anyone asked, but if I had bothered to add my two cents' worth to a trillion bazillion pounds of dead weight hurtling through space, I would have declared the match for Mad Dog, whatever the final outcome. I didn't see the maniac again for several years, and, to be honest, he was not present in my day-to-day thoughts. I am seldom comfortable with the generally accepted explanations for why anyone does anything. In fact, I have been informed by several (usually annoyed) friends that I can be a touch neurotic about digging down for the hidden motivations behind the world of behavior. Occasionally, I would take my memories of that day down from the attic and dust them off. Having never traded a single word with Mad Dog, this was a purely academic exercise, an attempt to evade boredom for a few minutes. I wasn't content with concluding that he was simply mad as a meat axe, but lacking any real data, I had few other options but to dismiss him as virtually everyone else in his life had already done. Back in the attic he went, a man forgotten.

Three years later, I again found myself living on the same pod as Mad Dog. Having grown frustrated with his ability to burn tiny holes in the Plexiglas security shields affixed to the steel doors of F-Pod, the administration emptied out an entire section of other inmates on A-Pod, and tossed him into a cell that had been sealed as tight as Pharaoh’s sarcophagus. Thinking that they had finally solved the riddle of Mad Dog, they left him there to rot. Considering the pious nature of Southerners in general and Texans in particular, one would think that maxims regarding the devil and idle hands might have made an appearance in someone's mind as this was being done, but apparently the bureaucratic imperative to follow orders at any cost has grown so sturdy in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice that it is now trumping even common sense. I have no way of knowing how many shanks or projectiles Mad Dog was able to conjure up while he had a section all to himself, but I do know that he somehow managed to get a handful of pens, five writing tablets, and some carbon paper. In the end, I think this proved to be far more disastrous for the system, though I do not believe Mad Dog ever saw things in this way.

Considering the Shakedown Team was hitting his cell every two hours, I have no idea how he was able to keep these items. I suppose that these officers must have assumed that he had gotten permission for them from someone up the chain of command – how else would he have gotten them, after all? Instead of resorting to fisticuffs every time they came to harass him, he somehow managed to bottle up his feelings and attempted to pour them out on paper in the form of grievances and letters to the Prison Board. I would later learn that he went through periods like this every few years, where he would fire off a rapid succession of grievances before retreating into the familiar territory of violence. This time around, he gave the method about three months of his time before he began to feel he was tilting at windmills. Just before he stopped, he petitioned the law library for copies of his entire grievance file. These he organized by type of complaint, and then bound everything up and sent them to a very different sort of audience.

This time, he sent them to me.

During the intervening years between our first and second contact, I had taken on the reputation as something of a "writ writer," Texas prison slang for a jailhouse lawyer. This was an entirely unsought and undeserved honor, because in reality I knew (and know) next to nothing about the law, and in general think that the entire concept of stare decisis is a bloody stupid and lazy way to go about the issue of solving problems or searching for objective truth. As is so often the case, my newfound title and the respect that came with it were the result of other people’s poor discernment.

I arrived on death row with a titanium intramedullary rod inserted into my upper arm; an attempt to hold together pieces of bone had survived a rather disastrous encounter with a 9mm hollow-point slug. It ran the entire length of the humerus, and connected to the elbow and the shoulder with screws. While doing some sets of chin-ups on the yard, this rod snapped and took the rest of the bone with it. Despite the fact that some of these shards of bone were protruding against the skin at right angles to where the humerus is generally thought to belong, it took me a month to see a doctor and arrange for an X-ray to be taken. It then took an additional month for these results to be sent to John Sealy hospital in Galveston, Texas to be analyzed and then returned to the unit. During this roughly two-month stretch, I was not given so much as an aspirin for the pain.

The unit doctor at the time was a ruthless octogenarian quack named Dr. P-, though perhaps using that adjective isn't fair because his incompetence had nothing to do with his age. Though it seems to most free-worlders to be an oxymoron, "hostile indifference" is actually a real emotional complex, alive and well in penitentiaries all over the South. Dr. P- was the resident expert at this skill, which I suppose was about the only matter in which this could be said. He had only three diagnoses: tendinitis, gout, or deception. I have no way of knowing how much misery and death his willful bludgeoning of the Hippocratic oath accumulated over his long career; I only know that when he told me that I had no acute injury in my arm besides a minor "touch" of tendinitis, it took me several seconds to process his statement and its implications. I was given a stern lecture about my attempts to deceive him for the purposes of getting high on pain medications and sent back to my cell. Beyond the fact that Texas prisons do not hand out opioids for any reason, something was clearly rotten in Denmark.

Having no other options, I filed a formal grievance. In Texas, the grievance process consists of two steps for inmates, and three for officers. The first, known technically as an "I-127," must be filed within fifteen days of the alleged incident, thus limiting the statute of limitations on what are really some very serious human rights violations down to an obscenely short window. At this phase, the matter is supposed to be investigated and eventually ruled on by one of the unit wardens. This process - according to the Offender Orientation Handbook that I received upon my arrival to the TDCJ, at any rate - ought to take no more than forty days to resolve. In reality, it can often take three or four months, thanks to a bewildering array of extension options that appear to have been crafted ex nihilo by the unit staff. Having never even heard of anyone who had actually won a single grievance, I went to great efforts to include the names of several guards and nurses who had seen my arm and felt confident that the bone was broken. To my knowledge, none of these individuals were ever contacted by anyone. I stressed that this was an emergency grievance, and that I was living in a state of constant pain and badly in need of some assistance.

Two months later, my grievance was returned with a one-line response: Your arm was X-rayed and no acute injury was detected and so no further action was warranted.

I am not generally considered by those who know me to have a buoyant personality. In fact, at the age of 32, I seem to have already become something of a grumpy old man. I am fully aware that cynicism is not an attractive trait in a friend or comrade, and I wage a very dirty war within myself on a daily basis in an attempt to find some sense of cautious optimism in my fellow man. The problem is, in my world, “cynical" is almost always a perfect synonym for "clairvoyant." I was therefore not terribly flabbergasted by the cavalier dismissal of what was clearly a medical emergency. The same night I received the response to my Step 1 grievance, I filed a Step 2, or "I-128". These appeals are sent to the Central Grievance Office in Huntsville, Texas, home to the TDCJ administration, about a gazillion prisons, the death house, some cows, and nothing else. This process is to take thirty-five days, but, again, the system has given itself numerous extension opportunities. I have, as it happens, never met anyone who has ever won a Step 2 grievance, either.

Expecting my Step 2 to also be denied in rote fashion, driven by pain, I began the laborious process of learning to utilize 42 U.S.C. § 1983. I would love to pretend that some heretofore unsuspected and undetected potential for genius welled up within me and propelled me to victory in the federal courts. The truth is, when I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for my medical file, they actually gave it to me. Amazingly, all of it. Including the X-ray results, which clearly showed a broken arm. (Ironically, I actually did have a touch of tendinitis in my elbow, proving that even a stopped clock is right twice a day.) It took a year and a half, but I received the two operations needed to fix my broken arm. Dr. P- lost his job, and eventually the fallout from this event caused his assistant to quit as well, a double blessing. Score two for the little guy.

As the news of these events spread through the Row, other cons began sending me copies of their grievances pertaining to medical issues. I tried to help them as best I could, eventually filing § 1983 suits over denial of care for a man with COPD, and another with complications from diabetes. Those suits are still taking flak from the state, but have not been shot down yet. Hope springs eternal.

I have no idea how Mad Dog learned of any of this, alone as he was in his modern oubliette. Neither do I have any idea how he managed to A) bend the corner of his solid steel door away from the concrete wall; B) fashion a fishing line, considering they were not giving him sheets or any clothing save for a paper gown; C) shoot said line across 20 feet of run, under the security door into C-Section; and D) send me nearly 300 pages of handwritten notes plus copies of the more than 150 grievances he had written during his three years on death row. I hesitate to use the word miraculous to describe this feat, as that word has connotations that are somewhat abhorrent to a secularist like myself, but I really cannot think of any other term that is appropriate. The man was a wizard.

Reading through his litany of complaints was shocking on a number of levels. For starters, Mad Dog wrote in a nearly perfect Copperplate script, each letter graceful and efficient. In a world so rife with chaos, grime, and all the charm of a nuclear fallout shelter, looking upon anything with even the slightest hint of beauty is a rare occurrence. I can't really explain the feeling I got from simply looking over his letters; perhaps it is just one of those events that a clumsy wordsmith like myself is destined to forever fail at when attempting a description. All I can say is, if you lived in my world, you would understand. I had not expected this from a man who seemed to live by the motto of  "in violence, veritas." Before I had even finished the first page, I had already begun to ponder the question of whether actions or words were judged by reputations, or the reverse.

Secondly, these were not the typical complaints one finds from prisoners. Generally, grievances are filled with almost nonsensical ramblings about the poor quality of the food or the radio reception. Most of Mad Dog's initial grievances dealt with a series of medical issues, namely that when he was arrested, the police broke both of his knees. While he was awaiting trial in the county jail, he slipped on some water that had been left out by the mopping crew and injured his back. He was given medical braces for both knees and his back, and was allowed to wear these to trial. Upon his arrival at the Polunsky Unit, these had been taken from him, meaning that he had been unable even to walk to his cell. They refused to listen to him, and dragged him down to F-Pod on his first day, by his arms no less. Under current regulations, not even an Ace bandage is allowed for death row inmates, and several of his initial grievances detailed the fact that the unit doctor was denying him even minor drugs like ibuprofen and acetaminophen; instead he was told that he could purchase said items on the commissary. Much as I did, Mad Dog arrived on the Row penniless, so such advice was less than worthless to him – and the unit was undoubtedly aware of this. Mad Dog had gone out of his way to state each issue clearly in his grievances, politely even; he even tossed in some relevant case law from time to time. The guidelines for the grievance process specifically ask that inmates not do this - a convenient request, considering that the 5th Circuit has tossed out about a million conditions lawsuits for having failed to exhaust the administrative grievance process specifically because the inmate did not "fully clarify" his exact complaint. He seemed to understand that an Eighth Amendment claim has both an objective and a subjective component, that medical negligence was not sufficient in and of itself, and that the standard he needed to shoot for was set in Farmer v Brennan. I found copies of letters that he had sent to officials at the University of Texas Medical Branch, as well as to TDCJ big wigs in Huntsville. His collection of letters to the head warden of the Polunsky Unit was particularly detailed, as was the fact that he had never received a single response from anyone. One of these letters to the warden was particularly chilling. In it, Mad Dog once again explained that he was in serious pain and getting worse, and that he did not feel that anyone was listening to him. He ended the letter saying: "I have followed the rules you gave me when I got here. Yet you still will not respect that. What do I have to do to be heard around this camp? Do I need to share my pain with you?" Later, when he sent me his inch-thick disciplinary file, I found out that his first officer assault had occurred exactly fifteen days after this letter was sent.

Most remarkable to me, however, were the grievances regarding what he construed to be violations of his First Amendment Rights to practice his religion. He had filed more than forty of these, and the claims were so bizarre that at first I suspected that they were total fabrications. Until, that is, I read the accompanying documentation. Mad Dog, it turns out, was a legitimate Wiccan Priest in the world, and I found a series of letters between him and the unit chaplain, in which the latter explained the process for ordering the approved accoutrements of his faith from free world vendors. All of these letters were polite in nature. I also located several receipts from vendors licensed by the
TDCJ to sell religious products; these receipts totaled nearly seven hundred dollars, and each item had been approved in writing by the chaplain, the warden, and the representative of the group of Wiccans that were paying for the order. When the items arrived at the unit, however, the mailroom confiscated them, deeming them to be a security risk.

This action was followed by a flurry of letters and grievances from Mad Dog, and I found several increasingly confused letters from the chaplain explaining that he had tried to obtain the items, but the mail room chief was a staunch evangelical and thought the Wiccan faith to be Satanic. By the time the warden stepped in, the items had been destroyed. After this, nearly all of Mad Dog's correspondence to and from his connections in the outside world stopped altogether. When he tried to send mail to his attorney about this, these letters also managed to disappear. I would be hard pressed to think of any issues more pointless to argue about than gods or the supernatural, but even I was ready to grab a pitchfork and march with the rest of the sans-culottes on the Palace by the time I had finished reading this sorry account. There were so many obvious violations of the First Amendment's Establishment and Free Enterprise clauses, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (which was signed by President Clinton to protect the religious rights of those in prison), and it’s predecessor (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act), that I hardly knew where to begin doing my research. It probably doesn't need to be mentioned by this point, but Mad Dog stabbed an officer the week after his final order of religious materials was destroyed. The grievance officers investigating these cases had clearly gone out of their way to deny him relief; one almost sensed a sort of sheepish regret or pity in their tone at times, as if even they felt bad about having to do their job. As in the Dark Ages of Christian scholasticism, these men and women were reasoning (if such it can be charitably called) with syllogisms that proved each other. Oftentimes, they would pick a single sentence out of an allegation, dispute it, and therefore conclude that the matter had been dealt with in its entirety. This was a common tactic statewide, I was to learn.

I am not a mind reader. I have no idea what ideologies were in control of the politicians who drafted the Prison Litigation Reform Act (PLRA) or the grievance procedures in the TDCJ. Perhaps they really were kindly old gents attempting legislation from a position of best intentions. In my humble estimation, the real problem is not the wording of this statute or that regulation, though if I had my way much of these portions of the law would be scrapped in their entirety. Instead, the real issue here is how laws are applied and what oversight exists to monitor this. In some more enlightened jurisdictions, perhaps the law is the law, but in Texas prisons the law is whatever the prison says it is. They are allowed to take this view because the judiciary in the Yee-haw Republic is conservative to the core, and they all get re-elected to their comfortable benches by campaigning on a platform of being ultra-tough on crime. Few of them have seen a prison conditions suit that they liked; the days of Ruiz and Federal Judge William Wayne Justice are dead. Few citizens of any political persuasion would be comfortable with a government agency policing itself, but that is precisely the situation in Texas prisons. The grievance process should use independent investigators, or at least have a few roaming inspectors tasked to keep an eye on everyone. Instead, these positions are filled from the general pool of whoever is currently in charge of maintaining the Code Of Silence, with all of the results one would expect from such a state of affairs. In the only major survey of which
I am currently aware, the State Auditors Office sent surveys to several thousand TDCJ inmates in 2004. Over 85% of them responded that the grievance process was completely and totally useless. Whatever this process was intended to be, by this point its only aim appears to be to pay the necessary lip service to the notion of Due Process required by federal law. I probably understood less than two percent of what Wittgenstein ever wrote, but as I delved into Mad Dog's grievances and reflected upon the grievance system designed to address them, I couldn't help but agree with the philosopher that a nothing would do as well as a something about which nothing can be said.

It took me several months to dissect Mad Dog's issues. We who live in administrative segregation have no direct access to the law library. Instead, we must send request forms to the library for specific materials, even though this seemingly straightforward process is complicated by the fact that we are not allowed the actual materials, only copies of a very limited amount. It might take a week or two to read a single chapter in a large book, therefore. In addition, the clerks seem to take a great deal of pleasure in sending me cases I had never even heard of, let alone requested.

A picture eventually started forming, nonetheless, about the type of massive class action suit that would be required to cover all of Mad Dog's varied claims, and I was increasingly of the opinion that I was nowhere near capable enough to bring it to fruition. I reached out to some of the more knowledgeable men on the Row, hoping that their aggregated wisdom would be of some use. While I didn't end up getting much instruction, I did end up receiving a stunning amount of grievances. This started as a trickle, but quickly evolved into a torrent, amounting in the end to more than 1,000 individual complaints. I am fluent in Spanish, and this number only continued to grow when I reached out to the guys who spoke no English; turns out, they had been filing legitimate discrimination suits for years, without having had any luck.

Getting all of this information was hellishly difficult.  To pass a single sheet of paper from one inmate to another, one must deal not only with the steel doors and the roving officer teams, but also the multi-million dollar camera system that was installed in 2010. To use the vernacular, it ain't no simple thing. Transferring a thousand grievances from hundreds of sources on five different pods was a nearly Herculean task, and I am still amazed that I only managed to catch one disciplinary case during the process.

It wasn't pretty, but Whitaker v Bell was filed in the Eastern District of Texas on April the 20th, 2012. It was filed pro se, as I couldn't find a single attorney willing to take even the tiniest look at it. The principle defendants are the members of the Prison Board, the director of TDCJ's Institutional Division, the head of UTMB, and our idiot Governor. It has about the same chances of prevailing as said Governor does of becoming a Socialist on the same day that he marries his secret long time lover, Karl Rove. Long before the suit was formally filed, Mad Dog had given up on the project, impatient with my lack of forward progress. I felt saddened by this, but by this point the suit had grown to be about something far larger than him or I. This thing gave me a new perspective, and helped me to understand things written by men like George Orwell and Victor Serge that I had long admired but seldom felt any real connection with. The suit gave me something to believe in and fight for, and I found within it a form of stoicism that kept me strong during all of the subsequent shakedowns and loss of mail. One does not go about Messin' With Texas in this fashion and expect for one's sailing to be smooth, after all. Aetatis 32, I finally discovered what it felt like to be a Revolutionary. I am tempted at times to shout things like "c'est interdit d'interdire" but I don't, because my neighbors already think I am weird enough without adding kindling to the bonfire.

The first time I realized what I was feeling in this regard I began to understand Mad Dog's less-than-civil disobedience. I hadn't really had a chance during all of the preparation to give my full attention to the true human cost of a grievance system that exists in name only. There is no way to know what sort of offender he might have become had his voice been heard early on. Maybe he was always destined to be a troublemaker, but I do not believe so. Prison is not the Ritz-Carlton, and while I cannot say for certain, I believe that Mad Dog knew this. His expectations were not out of the norm, and certainly not outside of stated policy. His volte face was in response to institutional indifference, and eventually he came to feel that the only appropriate response to a reign of terror was a rain of darts. It was the creature he had become that stalked my thoughts, a thing that need never have been. Looking back on the day that he almost shot me, I see now the mutual comfort Mad Dog and the officers gave to each other. For his part, Mad Dog had come to see pain as an antidote to death and impotence, the path out of the wilderness. The hatred he received from the screws was better than nothing, and in any case there was often a touch of respect and maybe even admiration from some of them, heady stuff indeed. For their part, the officers were able to participate in the ages-old myth of the monster lurking just outside of the campfire's light, the almost-terror almost true, which made their tyranny acceptable. In the midst of monthly executions and cruelty beyond the conception of normal people, even prison guards need their justifications and mental salves. The Minotaur would have been lost without his labyrinth.

I've only been able to speak to Mad Dog on a few occasions, and only then for a brief few moments. Just before I filed in federal court, I found myself in a booth next to him in the visitation room. He had given up on using paperwork, and claimed he didn't really care about what happened in the courts. He was on Level 3 again, this time for having attempted to use paint thinner to incinerate another inmate. Exasperated, I locked eyes on him and asked him why he did these things. He paused for a moment, finally bringing his eyes up to mine.

"There seemed a certainty in degradation."

I recognized the quote as belonging to TE Lawrence, but I didn't call him on it. His eyes were keyholes into places that I would never - could never - go. Some stars you see in the sky died millions of years ago. Maybe people are like that too, though I'd like to believe that anyone can come back from the cold and be a better human being. I am certain that the prosecutors and the wardens and the public will shout until they are blue in the face that Mad Dog was a dead thing long before he arrived on the Row, but I know better. He had been a man when he arrived - a broken one, perhaps, badly in need of growth and redemption, but a man nonetheless. He had come to see himself as something less than human, a ghost wandering the halls, unheeded and miserable. What men believe to be real is real in its consequences, and in his role as a monster he finally found an audience willing to notice him. I don't know who bears the brunt of the responsibility for what he became; I suppose there is enough blame to go around. I only know that he didn't need to become this...thing. For a time he tried to be human in an environment designed to kill one's humanity, to use the processes designed by the system to prevent violence. The process failed, and the result was apparent to all.

I had turned away from him in the legal booth, my mind drawing a blank on what to say to him that might bring him back from the nothing. People like him seldom pay me any attention in prison, so I suppose that I thought he had turned his attention to something else. When I looked back his way he was still staring at me, and we simply stood like that for a moment. When he eventually spoke, his voice was little more than a whisper.

"Why do you think I am like this?"

It didn't really sound like a question; there was no regret, or sorrow, or genuine tinge of curiosity. I didn't think he expected a complex answer in any case, as I'm pretty sure we both knew that a team of neuroscientists and psychologists could work on Mad Dog for a decade and still not have all of the answers. Instead, I removed a sheet of paper from my legal folder and wrote one quatrain from a poem by WH Auden:

I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return.

He received this carefully and spent a moment looking it over. For the tiniest fraction of a second his face relaxed and his eyes softened and he seemed to shrink into himself as he breathed in. Then it was over, and he turned away from me, a dismissal if I ever saw one. He crumpled up my note angrily and tossed it away onto the floor. It was the last time we ever spoke.

 
Thomas Whitaker 999522
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351