Friday, July 27, 2007

Leaving Sugar Land

July 27th, 2007 - 2:20 AM

I've been looking at my typewriter the last few days as if it were going to sprout teeth and lunge at me. I don't think I ever appreciated what a burden writers have to their craft. Whether the truth of their work is sci-fi, fantasy, or historical drama, they have to nail it exactly right, the way it sounds in their heads, or else it's all trash. Old Army saying: the maximum effective range of an excuse is zero meters. So, despite myself, here I am. Take that, demon typewriter. Though I didn't keep a copy of what I wrote last time, I have been thinking about it. Trying to figure out if I am somehow enlightened or wiser. I guess epiphanies take time. Either that, or I am being dense. I guess what surprises me most about the last installment was how full of holes it was, as if I decided somewhere along the line that listing events in sequential order had become passe. I will attempt to fill in some of those gaping omissions. How does one arrive on Death Row? A difficult question, and one that I am not even going to attempt in a single sitting. Metaphysically, psychologically, or spiritually - I am not ready to answer those yet. Or, rather, I have the sinking suspension that even if I did manage to come up with some answers that satisfied, tomorrow my opinion would have changed drastically. What was I thinking? So I will put those aspects on hold and concentrate on the more factual and practical aspects of the question. Ahh, pragmatism. You fit me like a warm blanket.

I was fully expecting to end up back in administrative segregation after the verdict was handed down. I spent my first six months in seg after my arrest in Mexico. Its not called "the hole" for nothing. No T.V., no radio, no rec, nothing but a bed and shower, and if you are lucky, the chaplain will bring the book cart around every few weeks so you can at least pretend you are not going completely insane. Needless to say, after a year in general population, I was not enthused with the prospect of returning to 2sep10. To my surprise, they neither moved me nor harassed me in any way, save for the normal jailhouse strip searches, shakedowns, etc. This could have been an extremely dangerous situation for Fort Bend County - I had just been given the death sentence and here I was amidst 23 other light felony and misdemeanor inmates. Had I really been the person that the State claimed, I could have very easily hurt or killed someone. I mean, you can only kill me once, right? What's to stop me, besides my own morality? After 18 months in the jail, however, all the guards and the administration knew what the District Attorney knew - I wasn't a threat to anyone, besides myself. Of course, trials have very little to do with Justice anymore, and everything to do with winning. And so, here I am.

Everyone expected me to be shipped off to TDC rather quickly. In Harris County they do it the same day as the verdict. Catching chain, as it is referred to in the vernacular, generally takes a few weeks for normal convicts, but, being Hannibal Lector, I packed my things immediately, expecting to be gone in the morning. I gave away most of my food and various items that I had collected over the past year and a half: my Mensa puzzle books, my extra heavy sleeping mat, my contraband fingernail clippers, etc. Little did I know that I was to wait three weeks for my chain to come. Amazingly, no one got stabbed or eaten. Incredible.

On Friday morning, March 23rd at around 3:30 AM, I was awoken by a single guard and told to "pack my shit." I did so with a heavy heart. I hated Fort Bend, but it had been my home for awhile, and I had actually made a few friends during my stay. These friends have since vanished, their expected and promised letters never arrived. I think part of my sadness upon leaving FBCJ was that I already knew this was going to happen. Ten moves. Always ten moves ahead.

I didn't know what to expect. Normally, TDC picks up soon-to-be cons in bluebird busses. You've seen these, no doubt, trucking down the highway: white, lots of bars and sad looking faces. My chain turned out to be a single Fort Bend police car. After a few hours of waiting in the holding tanks, a sergeant and a deputy fixed leg, waist and wrist chains snugly upon me for the trip. This I had gotten used to. What I wasn't prepared for was the large, heavy black box they affixed to my left forearm with a neoprene jacket. This was a "bansee," an 80,000 volt taser, activated by a remote control fixed to the belt of the sergeant. I just hoped she didn't bump the steering wheel with it while we were on the road. As I was shuffled off through the holding area, most everyone stopped and stared. A few of the trustees, whom I had know for a time, nodded. One, a Sindicato ese named Vasquez, put his right fist over his heart. I nodded to him, my face a map of the tundra. Six months earlier, Vasquez and two of his familia were under orders to give me a "heart check" when I was moved into 4D. They braced me on the second tier, testing me. I guess I passed, since i didn't get stabbed. It's all in the eyes with these cats - you look hard or you look down. Failing to look hard can lead to some pretty nasty effects. There are far worse things than having your ass handed to you in a fight. I've seen it, tried to stop it, gotten beat down. I'm not sure where God is during those times. I have endeavored to live as I think He wants me to these past three years, but sometimes turning the other cheek means turning both sets, and there are some things I will simply not allow. Period.

The drive out of Sugar Land was painful. I barely recognized anything. It had all changed so much. And yet... I had so many memories of all this. I looked down from the freeway as we passed the entrance to the neighborhood where I grew up. Somehow it looked diminished, but I am not sure why. The whole drive was like some sort of morbid slide show. My whole life passed before my eyes, literally. As we approached the Galleria area, I turned to the east, toward the Bellaire Triangle. To Her. I wonder if she felt me as I passed. I knew that I would never be close to Her again. I remember feeling like a giant plug had been pulled, and the whole universe was spinning down into an immense drain. I still feel that way when I think of Her. So I try not to. It doesn't work.

We passed through downtown, where I had held my last job. I thought of all the people we passed. A good chunk of them had probably tuned in to some portion of the news coverage about me the last few weeks. All those millions of people, and not a single one of them has any idea of who I really am. My own fault, of course. After all the cameras, I am ready to be forgotten. I think then that I already knew what it was to come to the Row. It's a feeling that has built and grown over the last four months. To come here, it embodies the essence of being forgotten. You are lucky if you can hang on to five people from your old life. I consider myself lucky. I still have my father, one set of grandparents, two cousins who write me sometimes. My homeboy Ben, whom I met in Jail, keeps me connected to the real world. (I think prison is the only place in America where a white boy can say the word homeboy and not sound like a complete moron.) I can't help but think about all those friends I had in the free world, and about how much a letter would mean. And about how some people who had been writing just stopped, without any explanation. And then your letters start coming back with "Return to Sender", and you realize that the sound of a breaking heart sounds just like a door slamming shut. The truth is, though, I wasn't a very good friend myself, and I don't fault them for hanging me out to dry. The world is a wheel, I guess.

Normally, cons hit one of the transit units first, like Holliday or Garza East/West. I kind of figured that I would be skipping this part of the process and I was correct. They took me directly to the Byrd Unit in Huntsville, where I was processed, and went through Diagnostics. It took us a while to gain entrance to the Unit. Our vehicle was thoroughly scanned, our papers confirmed. We passed through several gated areas, finally arriving in the Diagnostic area. A lieutenant greeted me with, "Godamn, Whitaker, you are even uglier in person than you are on TV." I bit back the vast commentary that came to mind, and simply stared through him. I was led to a large caged area, where I was stripped, searched, shaved, and questioned. I was given my first TDC Johnny sack, an experience that I could have done without. A Johnny sack consists of one meat sandwich, and one much lamented peanut butter sandwich of rather dubious origin. If peanuts could grow in the La Brea tarpits, they might taste like TDC peanut butter. I was eventually given an offender jumper, all white, and led to an office area for my photo ID, and for another battery of questions. I was greeted by a guard pushing me into the wall, leering. "Look here, hot shot, you answer them questions, and I don't want any lip, hear?" I nodded through him,focusing on the middle distance somewhere between this world and the next. I knew he wanted me to reply with, "yes, bossman", or some other such nonsense, so I kept my mouth shut. He frowned, and it was not an improvement. His face looked like cottage cheese and he was... ah circumferentially challenged, lets say. He looked vaguely like what you would get if you tried to splice human DNA with that of an English bulldog. It was obvious that humor of any kind did not survive the genetic crossover. I chistened him Sturm. I would later meet Drang. Arthur Miller once said that an era can be truly said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted. Somewhere between Johnny number one and the thousand-question tango, several eras ended for me. Thomas Bartlett Whitaker somehow morphed into 999522. You would think that such a transition would be heralded by thunder and lightning, or at least some creepy organ music. The truth is, when you care very little for yourself, being reduced to nothing is barely noticeable. It's very subtle, one minute you are a person, the next, a rare and detestable animal awaiting a toe tag.

Eventually, a transport group from the Polunsky Unit showed up to take me to the Row. I wasn't the only triple-9 inmate in the van. Charles Smith, aka Shadow, was on is way back to Polunsky from his weekly dialysis treatments. He had been on the Row for 18 years. He's dead now. They killed him on May 16th, if memory serves. It's hard to remember all the dates sometimes. Texas kills more inmates than he rest of the country combined, so they all sort of blur together. Sometimes its one a week. The last week in August, they are killing three. In prison lingo, this is called "getting fu**ed off." It's pretty inevitable, given the way the Texas CCA and 5th Circuit rubber stamp the Appeals process. I have been searching for a term to adequately describe the draconian appeals process here in the Lone Star State. (Barring obscenities, of course). I think the chess description "Zugzwang" fits best: A situation where all possible moves are to a players disadvantage. But it is what it is - we all die. It's just life, you shouldn't get too attached to it. I sort of look at it all like this: either I'm going home, or I am going Home. I just hope that I first figure out how to pay off the principle on my guilt, rather than all these damn interest payments.

They are killing me.

© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Welcome to Polunsky

Day 1 - Tuesday - July 24th 2007 - 3:34 AM

I should have started writing months ago. Everyday I thought about it. It's not as if I am strapped for time. Time is the only thing I have in abundance, besides regret, maybe. Most days I spend at least a few hours staring at the clock, watching the second hand get a firmer grip around my neck. I tell myself that I simply haven't been able to put the last six months into focus yet, and that when I do, the floodgates deep inside me will crash open and the words will come rushing out. Sometimes I even believe that.

Today I don't.

I know what the truth is; those few moments of every week where I dare to view myself in the mirror of introspection are enough. I haven't begun this because I am terrified of what I am going to find. I have discovered so much about myself in the last two years I am almost ready to give up. Now that I have at least some small amount of perspective, I am afraid that there isn't anyone left to listen or to care. Which is my own fault, of course. My father seems to think that someone might actually be interested in my perspective about this whole mess that is my life, and I don't know what to say to him. I have never known what to say to anyone. I had my extensive banks of pre-recorded answers, but when it came to truly saying what I thought about anything, I didn't have a clue. Now I do. If it doesn't make much sense, or is nearly unintelligible, I guess those are pretty acute descriptions of Thomas Whitaker. So, this is for you Dad. The masks are off. Thanks for not leaving me behind. Those of you who knew me as Bart, sorry. Bart is dead. Good riddance.

I never much liked the son-of-a-bitch anyways.

I don't remember much of the first afternoon after my arrival at the Polunsky Unit. There were strip searches, questions, more questions. The long walk down the central hallway which divides the six pods housing nearly 400 condemned men. The long slow walk through c-pod, all eyes on the new guy. I don't know what I expected. Maybe lots of bars, and big burly tattoo-covered forearms connected to scarred, meaty palms. Shanks, cigarettes, etc. What I found was silence. Silence, broken at last by the sound of my door to 12CC-42 slowly sliding shut behind me. I had been hearing metal doors slam shut behind me for over 18 months in the county jail, but this door sounded different, almost silky-smooth. I had never been able to escape the thought that the echos of those doors had become an allegory for my life. My cell door, though, that noise resonated deeper within me. If a person could still hear the sound of their own coffin being closed over them, that's what it would sound like. I remember clearly standing at the door, taking in for the first time my new 6 by 10 foot home, the cage that would become my retirement home where I would spend my golden years, to continue the metaphor.

I am twenty-seven years old.

I remember hesitating to take a step into my cell, as if moving inside would be acknowledging the horrible truth, and therefore somehow make it all real. The haze that had been hovering inside my head since before the trial was omnipresent. The headaches, oh the headaches, they felt like some massive screws at the center of the world were constantly grinding down, twisting, twisting, twisting down into the bedrock. I finally moved to my bed, and sat down. Four steps, I remember thinking. It took four steps. I felt myself go flat, that's the only way I can describe it. To my shame, I let myself fall into that place I hate more than any other - that deep, safe place, where I am untouchable. My constant and only friend since my youth, my constant enemy that strips me down to nothing and leaves me there. You probably know the place; we all have one. If you don't I hope and pray you never need to find it. It's that basement where I dumped all my emotional garbage for years, that repository for all the excessively jagged edges that I could never compute my way through. I used to tell myself that the hole would never fill up; the well would never run dry. I think maybe I always knew the truth: emotional gravity works the opposite of it's Newtonian cousin. Shit falls UPWARD. It never stays down. I knew all that my first day here, which was March 23rd as the world counts time. I knew all that, and yet I still chose to fall into myself. I remember thinking that for someone who had spent the majority of his life living inside the confines of his own head, 6 x 10 maybe wasn't too much of a spatial contraction. It was the last time I journeyed to the zero. Lately, I have been feeling the weight again, and I guess that is one of the reasons I picked up this pen tonight. My father believes that rehashing the past can be a catharsis. Maybe he is right, though at the outset I have to admit I am pretty sure this is only going to make me hate myself more. I have gotten pretty good at chess since I've been locked up. I play about ten moves ahead of the game. My traitor brain is telling me that ten moves ahead from now, I am going to regret this. To quote one of the great thinkers of our time, Homer Simpson, "shut up, brain, or I am going to stick you with a q tip." The thing about memory is, when all the good stuff is laced with poison, it's all a minefield. We'll see.

The idea of putting something so personal in so public a forum is pretty terrifying. I was always an extremely private person. I hope, to the few of you that are taking notes, how much I would have to have changed to even think about doing this. I also decided to do this unedited. One version, no rewrites, no last minute changes. It gets written, then it gets mailed. The perfectionist in me rebels at the thought. It knows how crappy I write, how poorly I am able to express myself. It seems like somewhere between my brain and my mouth and hands everything gets all jumbled up, twisted. Like J. Alfred Prufrock, I am reduced to saying, "that's not it. That's not it at all."

Even now, that's not it. At all.

That first afternoon, after the guards had all departed with their air of smug satisfaction, and after I had taken a full few minutes to insure that no little "presents" had been left for me catch a case behind, I lay down on my bunk. As mattresses went, this one isn't too bad. I've slept on worse. Like when I was camping, and slept on river pebbles, say. I turned my back to the door. I watched the light trickle in through my three inch window, watched it creep and trickle along my walls. It made pictures there, faces and names I couldn't bring myself to say aloud. All I could mouth was: I'm so sorry. So sorry. Even numb from the effects of my safety hole, I felt a tear, then another, run down my right cheek. I, the supposed bad-ass sociopath that had no redeeming qualities, was crying. I guess I should be pleased that my emotional maturity has continued to evolve even in this darkest of places. I should be pleased, but what I remember thinking was: Too late, ass hole. Too late.

© Copyright 2007 by Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
All rights reserved.