Thursday, January 25, 2018

Roots Between the Stones (Part One of Two)

By Steve Bartholomew

Big Chuck plucked with great deliberation his final wooden tile and, placing it alongside the six others he‘d laid on the board, tacked the word "eulogize" onto the E of his opponent's previous play. Triple word plus a Scrabble. He adjusted meticulously the alignment of letters, the fine-threaded movements of his hands belying their coarseness and sheer size. His opponent laid with solemn affect one palm on the dictionary. Big Chuck shrugged his indifference toward the challenge bluff and stood slowly from the steel table, his hinges relucting at the business of articulating. without speaking he turned and walked toward the bathroom on the other side of the crowded dayroom. His equivalent of a mic drop. 

Staring at the white tiles above the urinal, he registered dimly the sibilant whir of the gear-driven actuator drawing open the dayroom slider. A figure in blue moving across the bathroom entrance at his periphery. Probably that gung ho bastard Hesselman, he thought, making an extra tier check between the hourly. Going after the big bust, maybe to interrupt another crappy tattoo. Taking a bite outta crime, that one.

He crossed the bathroom and stood facing a porcelain sink. Glancing at the grizzled mug in the dented mirror, he hit the hot water button and tapped out a dollop of hand soap. Nothing like scuffed up stainless to take off ten years and twenty pounds, ne mused, reaching for the paper towel hanging from a nearby dispenser.

From the dayroom came the clang of steel striking concrete. An enormous baritone note ripping the air like a thunderclap, reverberating through the box-shaped pod.

An expert machinist and fabricator, Big Chuck had worked intimately with metal for four decades. He knew maintenance hadn't entered the pod, and could assort this sound only as being in no way constructive. The dayroom din had gone silent save for one voice, proclaiming fury in a tongue unknown to him. A metallic tolling punctuated the shouting, timeless and wavering in intensity. The sound of a bell detonating bright as a brass hammer, then a knell ringing dull like a meat-filled gong. 

He peered around the dividing wall. A guard lay face down on the floor, his feet splayed out in Big Chuck's direction. One booted foot jerked and scatted, spastic. Plastered across the heel a cartoon ghost of bluish gum. A Somali prisoner stood over the guard, wielding overhead a gray metal disc. Big Chuck recognized it as a buttplate. Made from quarter inch mild steel, a buttplate derives its name from its function: a one foot diameter plate with a two inch rim, designed to support one human butt and usually attached to a cell desk. Must have been bad welds, Chuck thought.

The fallen guard began bleating and gibbering. Appeals divested of language and intoned to god and man alike.

Somalia screamed, "Allahu Akbar" and swung the buttplate down, striking the guard's head.

Every prisoner in the dayroom had abandoned their tablegames and conversations to line up against the far wall, adding as much distance as possible between themselves and the spectacle unfolding. A Rorschach halo of blood expanded darkly on the waxed concrete floor.

Big Chuck pointed at the guard. "Who is that?" He was asking anyone, so no one answered.

"Who. The Fuck. Is that," he demanded, making eye contact with his Scrabble opponent.

"It's Wally."

Walychtowski was one of a vanishing subset of guards who treated prisoners like humans, an outlook in defiance of his cohort. Known simply as Wally, he insisted on hiring for his work crew those prisoners deemed too risky by other staff. He believed anyone willing to work ought to be given the opportunity to prove, and support, themselves. In the entire compound Wally provided the lone means for an income to gang members and former knuckleheads with a history of violence. He treated prisoners with respect unless they elicited otherwise.

Big Chuck stepped out from the bathroom and lumbered toward the assailant, eyeing the steel bludgeon held aloft by one dark spindled arm. His knowledge of the Somali included a difficult personality and impossible name. Nor did he want to learn more. He brought up his blacksmith-like forearms to protect his head, a boxer's defensive stance. Long as he don't bounce that thing off my dome, Chuck thought, I can soak up a body shot from this scrawny maggot, easy. One, that's all he gets. Let me catch hold of that charcoal twig of an arm and he don‘t stand a fart's chance in a hurricane.

Big Chuck‘s moniker wasn‘t one he‘d have chosen himself, but he cou1dn't deny that it fit better than state issue shirts. He'd been a power lifter his entire adult life. Even now, a few months past his 60th birthday, his six foot three frame tipped the scales at 295 solid pounds, give or take a burrito. In prison, a 500 pound bench press is legendary. Chuck‘s had been well north of that until physics and biology had come collecting on his joints a few years back, making him lighten up his lifts. A little.

Steeling himself for impact, he advanced steadily. Watch the eyes, thay'll telegraph the swing. Obsidian shards burning, bulging like burial mounds, cast in shapes of murder. Chuck took another step, flanking his opponent. 5omalia‘s eyes cut side to side, revealing uncertainty as it fused with rage, an alloy of hesitation. Big Chuck tucked his chin and forged ahead inch by inch, his face giving nothing.

He gauged the tensile strength of Somalia's will, estimating the shear point. His focus tapered, indexing the way in. Hydraulic presence. Bear down without relent. Breath by breath. Be the anvil, tempered as a cold chisel. He moved within striking distance and opened his hands to grapple, wagering that he‘d quenched the other man‘s arc.

Somalia dropped the buttplate and ran to his cell, unlocked the door and went inside.

Chuck knelt in the crimson pool fanning out from beneath Wally. So much blood. Coppery reek coated the roof of his mouth. He'd done a nickel in Florida back in the late 70s and early 80s. when violence was commonplace and survival earned, not a given.
But he'd never seen up close such an emblem of gore. Wally's scalp was rent in places like oilcloth. Skullbones peeking through pinkish and waxy, smeared. Convex here and cleaved in there. A daubing of cranberry-like jelly. 

Wally's shallow exhales blew small bubbles in the blood at his nostrils. The quick of shock.

Chuck cradled the man‘s head, elevating his airway just above the growing pool. His clothes wicking the cooling blood against his skin. He uttered softly into Wally's torn ear what assurances he could muster. You're okay now. Help's on the way. They‘ll get you patched up in a jiffy. Just you hold on.

Muscles in Wally's extremities tremored and seized, nerve impulses shortcircuiting. They should have already been here, Chuck thought, other guards, the CERT team. He turned to look at the line of gawking spectators frozen along the wall.

"Get help!" he bellowad.

One prisoner broke rank, running to the pod slider, waving and pressing the call button there. 

When the CERT team stormed the dayroom, they found Big Chuck kneeling over the prone guard, covered in blood, the buttplate conspicuously nearby. Chuck holding the man's head in both hands. The CERT sergeant began barking for him to get on the
ground, hands behind his back.

"I will," he said quietly, "but somebody‘s got to hold him up. He'll drown." One of the CERT guards nodded and knelt beside Chuck, sliding gently his gloved hands into the blood, relieving the big man.

The brass quickly deduced the actual assailant. They had only to follow the trail of bloody footprints to the Somali's cell, than ask a few audience members what had happened. Big Chuck was allowed to clean up shortly and return to his cell and the entire prison went on lockdown.

Over the following days the unit slider would open several times per hour, the lock on Chuck's cell door popping simultaneously. Nearly every staff member on the compound stopped by to thank him personally for having saved Wally's life. From graveyard rookies to the superintendent, they wanted to shake Big Chuck's hand.

"I really just wanted to move past it," Chuck told me when recounting the story. "At first, I was nervous as a Chihuahua shitting peach seeds. Criminy, here‘s the warden standing in my cell wanting to shake my hand. And going on like he wants to give me a medal. Fuck oh dear. I mean, I got no idea how to act. And then comes lieutenants. Sergeants. Tower guards, I think even cooks. Hell, I never seen half of ‘em before. I really wasn’t digging the attention. But you know I can't exactly say that to them."

Some were stoic, military in their bearing. Others became emotional. Each was profoundly grateful to this gigantic lifer who had saved their coworker and friend. He obliged them each, listening patiently and acknowledging graciously their praise even though his convict nature screamed, Hell no, you don’t shake hands with The Man. Again and again he insisted he'd simply done the human thing, what anybody would have done. Over the years, he‘d learned how to deal with angry lieutenants, but not one with tears in his eyes. "The doctors are certain," the L.T. said, standing inside Chuck'a cell. "He couldn't have survived one more blow to the head. His injuries... Chuck, you saved the man’s life."

A week later an escort cadre arrived at Chuck's cellfront. They said please, but he knew they weren‘t actually asking that he accompany them. He’d been expecting them at some point. They did not bother with handcuffs, despite the hard lockdown still in effect.

Inside the interrogation room, a Port Angeles Police detective asked for his version of what had happened. Two officers from Investigation & Intelligence, the secret police of prison, sat at the table. The cameras in the pod had malfunctioned that day, they told him. Luckily, most cameras in modern prisons wear khaki and ID tags. I & I already knew the details of the event, many from Somalia himself. He had confessed immediately, proudly declaring that he had laid in wait to kill Hesselman, not simply to assault him. Hesselman was the type of guard who believes people are in prison for punishment, not as punishment. Opportunistic and antagonizing, he had targeted the Somali prisoner, harassing him with petty infractions and retaliatory cell searches. Somali’s window of tolerance could admit no more bullying. He spent days levering loose the buttplate. In the heat of vengeance he mistook Wally for Hesselman, confusing one middle-aged white guard for another.

Big Chuck told them he'd simply seen Wally in severe distress and helped him. His account did not include having seen Somali assault Wally, or his own intervention. But they knew Chuck's full role in the event from the pile of witness statements already submitted. When the detective asked him to detail his involvement he said his sole focus was on helping Wally. They asked if he'd be willing to testify.

"All due respect, Boss" he said, "I just did what I thought was right, in the moment. Anything after that is your business, not mine. I really don’t know anything else."

They escorted him back to his cell. A few days later another escort appeared at his celldoor.

The lieutenant greeted Chuck at the entrance to his office. Chuck declined the cup of coffee offered. The L.T. asked him to take a seat and picked up the phone, tapping a few buttons. He handed over the receiver and said, “It’s the Superintendent.”

The Supe thanked him again. Then his tone shifted from cordial to administrative. He asked if Big Chuck had received any threats directly, or heard of trouble brewing.

"No, Boss. Everybody in the pod pretty much says they would of done the same thing. Being that it was Wally and all."

"Well, I've received reliable information indicating that threats have been made. Offenders in other units of the facility are saying whoever protected an officer against another offender will quote, 'get his.'"

"All due respect, Boss, but these gotta be guys with no clue, you know, of the particulars. I mean, who it was, that it was Wally. Or me who helped him. Wally treats everybody decent, and the fellas respect him. And everybody knows me, Boss. I'm sure when they find out--"

"I hear what you're saying, Chuck. I do. And I'm sorry, I really hate to put you through this." 

"Any way I could send word over to the other units? A note or something? I'm sure they'd--"

"I just can't risk the possible ramifications. Not when your safety is at stake. I have to take this seriously." There was a pause, and Big Chuck became uncomfortably aware that the lieutenant, shift sergeant and four guards were watching him intently, scrutinizing his reaction. The Superintendent cleared his throat and continued. "Chuck, where do you want to go?"

He tried to weigh out his transfer options in the way we usually do, considering the known pros and cons of each joint. His mind was reeling beneath the sudden and tremendous weight of being at odds with mainline for the first time in his life. He shrank from the prospect of transferring under such questionable conditions. Circumstances that felt much like protective custody. "If I gotta go somewhere, can I go to Monroe, Boss? I been there before."

"You have my word I'll do everything in my power to get you there as quickly as possible. And for what it's worth, I'm sorry it had to go like this." 

"Ain't your fault, Boss. It is what it is."

The lieutenant stood. "I hate to have to cuff you, Chuck. It just don't feel right. But I can't walk you to seg without ‘em. Rules. I'm sorry." He left the cuffs loose around Chuck's wrists, linking two pairs in tandem to go easy on his broad shoulders.

He paced slowly back and forth across the cold floor of the solitary cell on the ad-seg tier of the Intensive Management Unit. Mentally preparing for the six day wait until the next chain would leave. He thought about how he would present the event to the fellas at Monroe. They would find out one way or another, this much he knew.

"I just never had the memory it must take to be a liar," he told me months later. "All I could do was tell what happened, and let it be what it is. I can't sleep or eat my tray, and you know if I ain't eatin’ it's serious. Can’t hardly sit down. My mind's jumpin around like a pachinko ball."

It's not as if Big Chuck could show up at a joint and go unnoticed. Having been in prison for much of his life, he knew prisoners at every joint in the state. And, he had designed and built much of the weight-lifting equipment at Monroe, years before. He knew he'd be sought out and welcomed back by most every convict of note. He also knew word of the event would travel to Monroe, if it hadn't already. The local news hadn't disclosed his name, but we have other vectors of information. If he chose not to be forthcoming upon his arrival, then when the story caught up to him the presumption would be that he was hiding something. He would have no choice but to pull up the top dogs pre-emptively, one at a time, and tell his side. He did not relish the prospect of recounting the event over and over. Six days of this pacing and mind racing, he thought, until I can just get it over with.

The following morning two transport guards appeared at the cell door, shackles in hand. They stuffed a pumpkin suit through the wicket and directed him to do the dance: fingers, hair and ears, mouth, lift and separate, turn bend and spread. He snugged his hulk into the pumpkin suit and shuffled after them, his ankles chained together. In the sally port an unmarked van where the chain bus staged up each Monday. Chuck hadn't ridden in a windowed vehicle in over 22 years. They pulled out of the prison and turned onto the two-lane road, his eyes straining to unwrinkle the evergreen woodland blurring past. They wound through miles of the Olympic National Rainforest between the prison and Forks, wilderness in which the Twilight vampires had romped and pouted with their foes. "It felt like we were in one of those road races," Chuck told me. "I figured we had to be doing at least a hundred, whipping through the curves. Then I manned up and peeked over his shoulder, and the needle said fifty." 

In Port Angeles, they pulled off the highway into a McDonald's parking lot. They stopped at the drive-through speaker and the guard in the passenger seat said, "Get whatever you want, Chuck. It's on the Supe."

"Sorry, Boss," Chuck said. "I'd love to, but my guts are already churning like a Maytag. What with this transfer and all. If I ate a Big Mac, I might not make it there. And you guys wouldn't think so highly of me no more."

"Man is born free, but he is everywhere in chains." - Jean-Jacquas Rousseau

My boss let slip that the prisoner who'd prevented the murder of a guard at Clallum Bay would be working with us in the Mech Shop. There are only six of us in maintenance, so we usually recruit additions to the crew ourselves. Since we work in what could amount to a shank factory, self-selection is in our individual interests. We would all bear culpability for the acts of one. But this was different. The boss told me this particular prisoner would be arriving the following day, and starting the Monday after. Typically, prisoners must spend at least six months in the institution, infraction-free, before even applying for the gate clearance needed to work in maintenance. The boss said the warden had made an exception and waived the waiting period. 

I knew Big Chuck by name, as a machinist and master metal fabricator. Everyone knows who built our weight deck. But the only way you'd find this out is from someone else. Big Chuck, I discovered upon meeting him, is a humble giant with an easy brand of humor and quiet manner. Slow to move or react but quick to share a funny observation or, if asked, his vast metalworking knowledge. Quicker still to share s story--some stories, that is.

Although I'd heard one abbreviated version of the event prior to meeting him, I decided not to place my own curiosity ahead of his comfort. I would rather hear his side organically, as our relationship evolved a space for it. Which it did, after a few weeks of working together. To the best of my recollection, I've remained faithful to his account.

Big Chuck's arrival stirred a mix of reactions. There were not many hugs. 

In this yard, each car within a given race has its own area: a sliver of territory carved out along the perimeter of the track. Two pieces of prime unreal estate are known as "rocks," -- low-slung concrete bleachers, each a favorite perch for small flocks of prisoners. Sureños on one, white convicts the other. Both groups are absurdly territorial about who is allowed to sit on "their" rock. The white rock squats across the track from the third baseline. 

Shortly after Big Chuck's arrival, the headline began circulating: He had protected a guard against another prisoner. I happened to be present during the ensuing discussion over whether he should be allowed on the rock. The early push of the discussion was toward declaring him persona non grata. Of those present, I alone had heard firsthand Big Chuck's side of the story. I felt obligated to speak.

In the pecking order, I am by no means at the top, nor do I have any aspirations to be. But I know the top guys, some well, some in passing. I have more important things on which to spend my limited bandwidth than prison politics. As a rule I create a space cushion between myself and big yard drama. But I've always carried myself in such a way that when I do weigh in, my thoughts are considered. Usually. But not this time.

I knew better than to advocate for Big Chuck outright. The general mood was one of hostility, condemnation based on philosophical abstraction rather than critical appraisal of the facts specific to the case. Some made reminiscent comparisons to bygone eras, waxing sentimental toward the climate of retributive violence rampant in years past. "If this had been fifteen years ago, he'd of been greenlit for sure," someone said, "Captain Save-a-pig."

"Really?" I said, "Because I feel like that was right around the time they brought a chainbus of rapists, child molesters and rats straight here from 5-wing. (Walla Walla’s  protective custody unit.) Most of those cats are still here, very un-greenlit. And the next year they took away tobacco, than porn, and nobody busted a grape. Not me, not you. The next year was personal clothes. Then assigned seating in the chowhall. If I remember right, the only ones willing to roll a raisin to a food fight were the woman in Purdy." 

"There's no way I'd defend s fucking pig. I ain't stopping nobody from getting their money on one."

I appealed to their self-interest. "Well, I was here before Ms. Biendl was murdered in the chapel six years ago. Whether you think the act was right or wrong, it ruined this joint. Ruined it. All these punk-ass rules, the one way movements, the constant codes, the two year limit on jobs--all of it because of the murder. I wouldn't let that happen again at a joint I was at."

"I'd take the lockdown and whatever rules they want to make up. There's a bunch of pigs here I'd love to see get their domes peeled pack."

I appealed to fairness. "But this guard wasn't one of them. He was one of the few we have left that treats us like people."

"Look, it comes down to this: you got them, and then there's us. Plain and simple. You side with one of them, you ain't one of us."

As a last ditch effort I invoked race. "I for one don't think I could stand around while some African Muslim goes jihad on a white person, cop or not. Tough to watch one of them beat a white man to death and not do something."

"Pigs aren’t white or black. They give up their race when they put on that uniform. Convicts do not side with pigs. Period. Fuck them, and fuck him for not knowing better." 

I would like to say I took a stand and zealously defended Big Chuck. Or that I demonstrated my disagreement with the mobocratic edict by visibly distancing myself. But I'm not that noble. If I'm going to commit social suicide, I'd rather it be for something I did myself. 

My standing is such that my dissent was noted and, although mostly disregarded, not held against me. I walk a line. Survival in prison involves more than simply not dying, which doesn't happen much anymore. Any prisoner who says they don't care about their reputation amongst their ingroup is probably a sour grapist. I work alongside Big Chuck. I have learned a great deal from him, arcana of metallurgy and fabricating that come only with decades of experience. And I enjoy his company. He's one of the few prisoners whose presence doesn't become wearisome to me after a few minutes. I always greet him in passing, but I don't walk the yard with him. That would be crossing the line.  

Only Big Chuck's own ingroup handed down a verdict for his actions. The Sureños hate the blacks so much they applauded him. The Norteños didn't object because the black was African. The Natives withheld comment, although some quietly reprehended Chuck’s conduct. The Crips and Bloods offered no response worth noting. (To my knowledge, they never do.) Individual Muslims have grumbled indirectly, issuing passive-aggressive and toothless fatwas. As a group, the Muslims denounced the attack, presumably because it negatively impacted their public relations without
strategic benefit.

To read part two click here

(Since the drafting of this piece, Big Chuck has petitioned for clemency. The board reached a unanimous decision at his hearing, commuting his sentence of life without the possibility of parole to probation. Nine months later the governor signed off on his release. Big Chuck is awaiting transfer to camp, from which he will transition out to the freeworld within 18 months.)

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272-0777

Thursday, January 18, 2018

A Tale of Two Prisons: Retribution Versus Rehabilitation & What America Can Learn from Germany

By Rosendo Rodriguez III
“The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” 
– Fyodor Dostoevsky, The House of the Dead
The difference between the prison system of Germany that of and America is as vast as the ocean separating them. Comparing the two nations’ spending on prisons; the mental, physical, and emotional effects of imprisonment u; the political ramifications of prosecuting criminals; conditions of confinement; and recidivism rates, only one conclusion is reached. One country has as its goal the social restoration of its most marginalized citizens through a comprehensive plan of rehabilitation, whereas the other is bent on simply punishing them – a brutal, retributive regime caging human beings for years, even decades, on end. To understand the difference, we must first examine the cultural history of Germany. Why German culture emphasizes human rights and the dignity of its imprisoned, and why the U.S. continues to dehumanize the millions it keeps behind bars.
“History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”
– Mark Twain 
Consider the following: A western democracy has just suffered a major economic downturn, and the loss of millions of jobs. It was ruled by a head of state unable to effect any meaningful laws. The main political parties within its legislative branch had become so fractious and extreme that it remained paralyzed by partisan gridlock. As a result, an extreme right-wing politician comes out of nowhere, denouncing the careerist, indecisive, and ineffectual politicians currently in office who were frozen in the traditional political framework. He vows to “drain the swamp” of the leftists enervating the strength of the country, weakening its core values. The extremist and his henchmen then campaign throughout the nation, promising to “make it great again” by creating millions of jobs in its rusted-out industrial belt. His propaganda machine labels liberal news outlets as the “lying press”. He then openly mocks the disabled, vows to register and ban an entire set of people of their civil rights based on their religious beliefs, threatens to withdraw from international treaties and organizations, and demands the deportation and/or imprisonment of millions of undocumented immigrants. 

Lastly, the extremist wants to corrupt the justice system for his own ends, so that the prosecutors under his control will pursue the most severe punishments available, thereby filling prisons and jails. If you assume I was referring to Donald Trump, you would be right. However, I am also referring to Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime. (I would be remiss if I did not point out that Hitler and the Nazis actually knew what the hell they were doing, unlike Trump and his cronies, and Hitler did not need the Russians to get into power. But I digress.)
“Successful wickedness hath obtained the name virtue...when it is for the getting of the kingdom.” 
– Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan
A fire broke out in the Reichstag, the German parliament building, on February 27-28, 1933. Shortly after, a mentally defective Dutch man by the name of Marinus van der Lubbe was arrested and found guilty of the crime. Utilizing this as a pretext to take advantage of a provision of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic, Hitler was allowed to declare a State of Emergency and, as a result, rule by decree. He was able to do this after the Nazis ran the narrative that the Reichstag fire was a terrorist act committed by the Communist Party in a concerted effort to seize power. 

By March 23, 1933, Hitler had in essence crippled parliament and shifted its legislative functions to his cabinet. He then arrested Communist Party members of parliament and threatened Catholic Party members with violence while at the same time, offered inducements to go along with his dictates. From that point on, Hitler's decrees-turned-laws gained the illusion of legitimacy and, because of that, hardly anyone ever protested whenever they were enacted. After consolidating power within the executive and legislative branches of the German government, Hitler rid the judiciary and the legal profession of any opposition, filling the void with his own staunch party members. Lastly, Hitler ensured that National Socialism would be rigidly adhered to by directing the police, prosecutors, judges, prison directors, and ultimately, concentration camp commandants, to imprison, then liquidate, all political “undesirables”. 

All of this was perpetrated in the name of “safety” and “security”, and culminated in the crime against humanity known as the Holocaust. But as darkness descended on the German nation, there was a precious few who both overtly and covertly resisted the Nazi Government, one of them being a famed writer and Christian theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
“The noose is drawn tighter and more painfully, reminding Jeremiah that he is a prisoner. He is a prisoner and has to follow. His path is prescribed...This path will lead right down into the deepest situation of human powerlessness. The follower becomes a laughingstock, scorned and taken for a fool, but a fool who is extremely dangerous to people's peace and comfort, so that he or she must be beaten, locked up, tortured, if not put to death right away. That is exactly what became of this man Jeremiah, because he could not get away from God.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon from London, England on January 21st, 1944.
As a young boy, Dietrich Bonhoeffer read a book, “The Heroes of Everyday”, which told stories of young men and women who, through bravery, selfless actions, and mindfulness of others, saved people’s lives. Oftentimes, the stories ended sadly. This book had an effect on young Bonhoeffer, and as an adult he felt a calling to become a member of the clergy. Troubled by the ever-increasing authoritarianism of the Nazis, he gave a famous sermon in London, England that would mark the beginning of his resistance. 

Bonhoeffer most identified with the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, who was not only very reluctant to serve God, but actually attempted to flee his calling. As Jeremiah and numerous other prophets of the Bible had done, Bonhoeffer began to see himself as God’s prisoner, one who would also come to be hurt, mocked, incarcerated, beaten, and, despite acceptance of loss, still claim victory. As prophecies are often wont to do, his would be fulfilled. When World War II broke out in Europe and millions of Jews, Gypsies, Poles, homosexuals, political opponents and prisoners-of-war were systematically killed in concentration camps, Bonhoeffer did what he could to fight against evils committed by the Nazis. His spying, subversion, assisting Jews, and participation in a plot to overthrow Hitler, would eventually lead to his arrest and imprisonment at Tegel Military Prison in Berlin, Germany.
“The blankets on the camp bed had such a foul smell that in spite of the cold it was impossible to use them. Next morning a piece of bread was thrown into my cell; I had to pick it up from the floor. The sound of the prison staff’s vile abuse of the prisoners who were held for investigation penetrated into my cell for the first time; since then I have heard it every day from morning to night...for the next twelve days the cell door was opened only for bringing food in and putting the bucket out. No one said a word to me. I was told nothing about the reason for my detention, or how long it would last.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a letter describing his arrival to Tegel Military Prison after his arrest by the Gestapo on April 5th, 1943.
Bonhoeffer would end up spending 18-months at Tegel, locked in a tiny cell, enduring extremes of heat and cold, subsisting on a meager diet and what his family could send him, with only a bucket to serve as a toilet. One cannot imagine the types of abuse he and his fellow prisoners endured, nor the dignity and humanity stripped by such confinement. I specifically mention Tegel Prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Nazi regime to juxtapose Tegel today, with its current prisoners, and the German Government’s humanitarian approach to reforming the incarcerated.
“Your gentleness shall force. More than your force move us to gentleness.” 
– William Shakespeare, As You Like It
To this day, Tegel Prison exists in Berlin; a collection of brick and stone that houses the most violent prisoners in its “Preventive Detention” program. These are men who prison authorities have ascertained cannot be released back into the free world yet, despite all efforts at rehabilitation. One might imagine Tegel to be a vermin-infested gulag offering nothing but despair. However, in reality, its immaculately clean grounds, pristine white walls, and abundance of plant life both inside and outside, bear a strong resemblance to a college campus. It includes a shop where bicycles are produced and repaired, a well-maintained music program, and a huge exercise gym housing weights, punching bags, and even a ping-pong table; Tegel's Preventive Detention program exists primarily to protect the public, not to punish. Prisoners have as much freedom as possible while keeping the public safe, thus ensuring the dignity of those within the walls.

Here in America, some might question – or even find outrageous – the way prisoners are treated in Germany. However, at the center of Berlin is The Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, a large mass of concrete slabs resembling coffins, which serves as a reminder for the premium placed on human life. Germany does not want to repeat past mistakes with its prisoners.

Located at the corner of Ebertstrasse and Hannah-Arendt-Strasse, each one of the 2,711 slabs is representative of 1,000 Jews that were murdered during the Holocaust. Set apart from the daily goings-on of Berliners, it was created by architect Peter Eisenmann, along with the assistance of sculptor, Richard Sierra, and it serves as a somber reminder of what a state-sponsored campaign of retribution is capable of. One might then travel over to Rosenstrasse, where you can see another sculpture, Block der Frauen, a Litfass column that honors a mass protest of the wives of the last Jews of Berlin who demonstrated against the arrests of their husbands by the Nazis in March 1943. Or, perhaps, if one was to travel northeast to Mitte, and look down on a sidewalk located in front of a kebab vendor, you may see a series of brass cubes amongst the cobblestones that read:

Geb. Kramer
JG. 1883
DEPORTIERT 29.11.1942

JG. 1877
DEPORTIERT 29.11.1942

JG. 1892

In English, these would read like obituaries: 
Here lived Elsa Guttentag, born Kramer. 
Year of birth: 1883. 
Deported: November 29, 1942. 
Murdered in Auschwitz. 

Here lived Kurt Guttentag. 
Year of birth: 1877. 
Deported: November 29, 1942. 
Murdered in Auschwitz. 

Here lived Erwin Buchwald. 
Year of birth: 1892. 
Deported: March 1, 1943. 
Murdered in Auschwitz.

These brass cubes are known as “Stolpersteine”, or “stumbling blocks”, and are but three of the more than 32,000 that artist Gunter Demnig had set as memorials in over 700 European cities. They force each passerby to look at each cube memorializing a person that was forcibly moved out of their residence by an authoritarian, right-wing government, deported, and then mass-murdered in an industrialized process. After looking up from the cubes, it slowly dawns on the observer that their surroundings are the same as those that the victims saw before they were murdered by the Nazi State.
“If you board the wrong train, it is no use running along the corridor in the opposite direction.”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer
According to the German Federal Ministry of Justice, approximately 33% of prisoners released in 2007 committed another crime within three years, and of them, about half were given a fine instead of prison time. Conversely, the U.S. National Institute of Justice reported that 76.6% of those released in 2007 committed another crime in the same time span. As of November 30, 2016, the German prison system housed 62,065 prisoners, an incarceration rate of 76 per 100,000 people. In the U.S. prison complex, there are over 2,300,000 people, a ratio of more than 600 per 100,000. Such disparities between the rates of both recidivism and incarceration beg the following question: Is the U.S. the most criminal society on Earth, or is something seriously wrong with its prison system? If the latter is true, then what is the U.S. doing wrong, and Germany right?

Winston Churchill famously observed that Americans can always be relied upon to do the right thing, once they have exhausted all the alternatives. After 200-plus years of slavery, a civil war had to be fought to end the brutal practice. But the desire to oppress other human beings remained, and ever since the American Civil War ended in 1865, legal forms of slavery continue, most notably in the form of the prison-industrial complex.

In many small towns across America, prisons are the only industry. If a prison is shutdown, the town is hit economically. So, politicians are loath to close prisons, and special interest groups lobby for long-term sentencing laws to ensure prisons are filled. In 1994, the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act (more commonly known as the “Crime Bill”) was passed, empowering states to create laws that would incarcerate more people. Greater restrictions on parole made it more difficult for prisoners to be released. The age of criminal responsibility was reduced – in some states, to as low as 13. Children could be tried and convicted as adults, creating the “school-to-prison-pipeline”. “Three Strikes” laws were passed, mandating life sentences for individuals who have three or more convictions. “Mandatory Minimum” laws came into being, binding the hands of judges when sentencing criminal defendants. Drug laws were generated, requiring those convicted to serve abnormally long sentences, often for charges non-violent in nature and resulting from very small amounts of drugs.

All of these factors encourage state prosecutors and judges to seek and hand down the most severe sentences possible. Prosecutors and judges at the state-level must run for office, and “tough on crime” campaigns are often the centerpieces of their elections. Prosecutors treat indictments as mere formalities, the popular joke being that they can “indict a ham sandwich”. State legislatures pass more and more overlapping criminal statutes, giving prosecutors the advantage decentralized decision-making and a wider range of possible charges. Prosecutors and judges tend to view decisions through the prism of political capital, rather than justice.

Federal judges and prosecutors are appointed and, as such, are largely insulated from backlash over unpopular rulings or decisions to pursue lower charges, or none at all. But, recently, the justice system took a moment of collective pause: Donald Trump nominated Jeffery Beauregard Sessions as Attorney General. 

Alabama, Sessions’s native state, will soon be home to the first national memorial to victims of lynching. During his confirmation hearings, Sessions repeatedly denied his racist past and links to the Ku Klux Klan. Perhaps this made his first act as U.S. Attorney General – the directive that federal prosecutors pursue the most severe punishment possible – emblematic of the Trump Administration's knee-jerk policy approach to problems it perceives (as societal. Attributing criminal behavior as a deficit of morals and character, rather than a temporary suspension of them, makes progress difficult here in America. In Germany, the focus is on the transformation of the individual upon entering the prison system.
“Death is hell and night is cold, if it is not transformed by our faith. But that is just what is so marvelous, that we can transform death.” 
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in a sermon from London, England in November 1933. 
Heidering Prison, on the outskirts of Berlin, houses approximately 650 men. The impression given is that of an art museum and school of higher learning hybrid. Prisoners hold a variety of jobs, learning trades, such as automotive manufacturing. They are required to place a portion of their pay in a savings account for their release. Prisoners may even wear personal clothes as a way to maintain self-identity and independence. Some are allowed to leave prison to visit loved ones. Those who cannot, due to their status, may instead visit in a special area complete with the comforts of home, such as a fold-out couch, a kitchen, etc. If a social worker at the prison authorizes an unsupervised visitation, conjugal visits may also take place. The underpinning ethos of the German prison system is: the less infantilism, the better.

According to the Berlin Ministry of Justice, the aim is to “enable prisoners to lead a life of social responsibility upon release”. When a person first enters the prison system, he or she is given an assessment by a psychologist that creates a rehabilitation plan specifically designed for them. Such personalized plans include educational classes, anger management and drug dependency counseling, vocational training, and a job detail. Those who abide by their plans earn more privileges.

Some Americans think the German system may be too lenient. However, from the German perspective, it is nonsensical to place a person in a cage for the rest of their life without trying to diagnose the cause of their crime, or to release them without treatment to make sure they do not come back. Where they to merely warehouse human beings, more prisons would have to be built: a great cost to the mental, emotional, and psychological health of the prisoners, and a burden upon taxpayers.

Granted, at the cost of 120 Euros (or US$135) a day per German prisoner, it is more than the $85 a day per prisoner amount spent in the U.S. But the extra expense is justified. German guards are trained in psychology and de-escalation techniques that concentrate on non-violent, non-aggressive approaches. Most prisoners come from violent backgrounds, and to meet violence with violence and threats of reprisal is not only counterproductive, but it is also dangerous. German therapists try to discover why the prisoner committed their crime, working together to prevent them from returning. Wardens and directors have backgrounds in psychology, so the goal of rehabilitation permeates from the top down. Because their jobs are protected by the Federal Constitutional Court, they cannot be fired if a released prisoner goes on to commit another crime.

In Germany, as in most of western Europe, judges and prosecutors are appointed (unlike America, where they are elected politicians). Therefore, they are insulated from societal emotion, public outcry, and the fear-mongering media outlets create. So, when considering whether a prisoner might reoffend, the conversation instead extends into the realm of human rights and dignity.
“If, at first, an idea does not sound absurd, then there is no hope for it.” 
– Albert Einstein
Despite comprising 5% of the world's total population, the U.S. houses 25% of the prisoners on earth; at a cost of over 80 billion dollars a year. Having a fraction of our prisoners at a fraction of the cost, Germany holds the key to prison reform. As with every key, it can open doors.

At Waldeck Prison, a maximum-security facility in Waren, a small resort town north of Berlin, prisoners have keys to their own cells. They are allowed to decorate with tables, bookshelves, telephones, and televisions. Complete with private bathrooms, cells resemble IKEA-furnished university dorms rooms. Twin-sized beds and ceramic toilets bear no resemblance to the steel toilets and bunks that are so common in U.S. prisons. Activities, such as soccer, yoga classes, painting, pottery, crocheting, gym programs, and numerous others, give inmates at Waldeck a chance to exercise their bodies and minds, providing productive and healthy ways to pass the time. Programs are designed to mirror life in the free world, within reason: a process Germans refer to as “Normalisierung” (i.e. Normalization). Punishment consists of being cut-off from society and loved ones, and is not to extend beyond that. Such freedoms and luxuries may be a hard-sell to state legislators here in Texas. However, if they were to acknowledge the low-rate of prisoners, recidivism, and reduction in overall cost with the German model of incarceration, then the $3,563,317,791 that Texas will spend on its prison system in 2018 could be trimmed down. Saving money better spent on schools, and drug and mental health rehabilitation programs –means to keep people from going to prison in the first place.
“The four stages of acceptance:
1. This is worthless nonsense.
2. This is interesting, but perverse.
3. This is true, but quite unimportant.
4. I always said so.”
– J.B.S. Haldane, The Truth About Death
Following the Great Recession of 2009, many local and state governments in the U.S. had to make drastic budget cuts. Here, in Texas, (where I am on death row at the Polunsky Unit in Livingston) a perfect storm of economic slowdowns, budget cuts, and a refusal to raise taxes by then-Republican Governor Rick Perry and his party allies, culminated in a $51 billion deficit. Education was not spared the ax: $5.4 billion was cut, eliminating over 10,000 teaching positions, and denying over 60,000 college students financial aid. Poorer school districts lost $800 more per student than wealthy ones, exacerbating the already dismal high school graduation rate (Texas ranks 47th out of the 50 U.S. states). This, in turn, sent more young men and women to prison. For the first time since World War II, Texas did not meet its promised funding obligations.

The Texas Department of Criminal Justice was not spared either, suffering deep cuts to its budget. Prison staff are overworked and underpaid, which, along with a high-turnover rate, and reductions in physical and mental health services, has led to an increase in guard-on-prisoner and prisoner-on-prisoner assaults, injuries and deaths stemming from neglect and incompetence, and continued over-crowding. With over 145,000 prisoners, Texas has one of the largest prison populations in the nation. Thousands are in solitary confinement, restricted to their cells 22- to 24-hours a day. Such confinement – including what we experience on death row – bans any type of interaction among prisoners, such as recreation periods, jobs, or eating together. 

Researchers have found this type of isolation – which can last for years, and even decades – can cause severe, negative effects on the mental health of inmates, exacerbating existing mental illness, and triggering it amongst those who were healthy. Access to mental health care in prison is laughably insufficient, consisting of infrequent visits by so-called “mental health” workers who, at best, ask few questions beyond “How are you?” Cells are 8-feet by 12-feet, containing a sink, toilet, and 30-inch bed all made of steel. The lack of movement in such a confined area can lead to a sedentary lifestyle, which causes obesity, high-blood pressure, depression, and a host of other maladies. 

Dozens of prisoners are kept in housing units that require three guards each, a serious waste of manpower and taxpayer money, as prisoners in general population often require one guard per housing unit. The psychological, physical, and economic costs of solitary confinement, on a large-scale, is enormous. Thankfully, headway is being made across political and social spectrums in the U.S.; creating strange bedfellows in the push to reduce prison populations, to create alternatives to incarceration, and to end the use of mandatory minimum sentencing.

In 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union, Koch Industries, Freedomworks, the Center for American Progress, and a consortium of politicians, policy wonks, and journalists all came together in their goal of prison reform to support the Coalition for Public Safety. This consensus includes not only liberals who view mass incarceration as the product of racism within the justice system and denounce the defunding of public assistance programs and services for the mentally ill, but also libertarians who view a massive prison system as a prime example of government control.

Evangelical groups concerned with penitence see excessive and cruel sentencing structures as barriers to redemption. The fiscally-conservative believe that keeping non-violent prisoners behind bars for decades is pointless, the throwing of good funding after bad. In a Venn diagram of these disparate political and social groups, their overlapping goals would be to reduce the number of prisoners in America, and to ensure that they never return.
“I know of no country where the conditions for affecting great changes in the settled order of things… are more favorable than here in the United States. 
– Frederick Douglass (freed slave and abolitionist), shortly before the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1857.
Whether for good or ill, massive social and political upheaval has always required war. During war, actors fight against nation-states, and the established hierarchy. The U.S. and its allies went to war with Germany twice in one century; and World War II saw allied forces fight the Nazi regime alongside the precious few German nationals engaged in subversion and sabotage – the struggle against the evil perpetrated during the Holocaust. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, spent 18-months as an inmate of Tegel Prison, before being transferred to a Gestapo prison. Four months later, he would be sent 200-miles south to Buchenwald, a concentration camp where 56,545 people were killed through forced labor, executions, and medical experiments. 

On April 3, 1945, as the Allied Powers closed in, Bonhoeffer was sent to Flossenburg Concentration Camp, where he was executed by hanging six days later. His body was burned in a pile of his fellow prisoners and resisters to the Nazi Government. Two weeks later, the Allies liberated Flossenburg; a week after that, Hitler committed suicide in a bunker beneath the Reichstag in Berlin. 

To this day, a marker stands in Flossenburg, memorializing Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his fellow conspirators. To this day, Germans strive to ensure that nothing that could be likened to the Holocaust happens again – whether to the millions of refugees seeking protection throughout Germany and her neighboring countries, or to the inmates within German prisons. Here, in America, we can affect great change within our broken prison system, but only if we learn lessons from history, and from our friends across the ocean. And only if we speak for those who cannot.
“It is high time we broke with our theologically-based restraint towards the
state's actions - which, after all, is only fear. “Speak out for those who
cannot speak.” Who in the Church today realizes that this is the very least
that the Bible requires of us?”
– Dietrich Bonhoeffer, speaking against the introduction of the “Nuremberg Laws” (which, among other things, empowered the Nazi Government to legally revoke the citizenship of German-Jews) in 1935.
Many of you reading this article have friends and/or family who are incarcerated, or, perhaps, you may have been in prison yourself. Other than writing to inmates or depositing money into a prisoner’s account, some of you might wonder what more can be done for your loved ones behind the walls: getting involved in the political process in order to affect change is a great way to start. Located below is a list of websites that can help you:

Believe it or not, politicians are responsive to their constituents, especially when it comes to the members of the legislative branches of the Federal and State Governments – as we have learned from both the Obama and Trump Administrations. During the former, when Democrats controlled the White House and Congress, The Tea Party developed a defensive model at the local-level. They attended political events, visited local politician offices, called representatives and inundated them with mail. The Tea Baggers knew that, while they could not set an agenda to formulate policy in their respective city halls, state capitol buildings, or on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., they sure as hell could react to it. Now, with the latter in the Oval Office, imitation has become the sincerest form of flattery, and grassroots resistance groups have denied Trump any major legislative victories. Remember, whether it is the President, or the Governor of your state, it is not their own punitive and retributive agendas they have formulated, rather it is Congress and the state legislatures who act as rubber stamps and are what those agendas depend on. The Indivisible Guide (which you can find on this website) is a Civics 101 primer that one can utilize to first become knowledgeable about, then vociferously participate in, politics at the grassroots level. Start prison reform locally; it is your civic responsibility to not only question your government, but to shout at and protest against it, if necessary.

If indeed hollering and shouting at your local politicians face-to-face is what you would like to do, this site researches and publishes a comprehensive list of public events where you can do just that. Originally a Google Document that was crowdsourced, it received such an overwhelming response that it had to have a site of its own.

The day following Trump taking office, the world witnessed an entire gender roar in protest – not just here in America, but in cities around the globe. Women from all over wore knitted, pink hats – “Pussyhats” – that served as a sign of resistance. Architect Jayna Zweiman and screenwriter Krista Suh are avid knitters in Los Angeles who had the idea of bringing together fellow hobbyists whose knitting circles could serve as Pussyhat production centers, as well as forums for plotting resistance against those who would infringe women’s rights. Zweiman and Suh had a two-fold strategy: First, assemble groups of people with the same goals – this affords the participants the ideal opportunity to create a community through activism; Second, knowing that not everyone could attend the Women’s Marches taking place, the Pussyhat has become a general symbol of solidarity instead. Property crimes and drug offences have resulted in the harshest punishments for women in prison, and women are the fastest-growing demographic in the American criminal justice system. You might wonder if you somehow missed a huge crime wave of women; you didn’t, but it was rather the unnecessarily long and brutal sentencing schemes that have led to this sobering and tragic statistic. Speak out for them by starting a Pussyhat-knitting circle of you own – call K.W.A. or Knittas Wit’ Attitudes or something similar – and don a hat.

There was a ray of light that shone through the darkness of November 8th, 2016 here in red-state Texas: Travis County, where Houston is located, saw every major political office that Republicans held suddenly go to the Democrats. This is indicative of many urban areas across the U.S.; large cities are the liberal, progressive islands of social activism and common sense amidst a sea of conservative close-mindedness that desires to turn back the clock on civil rights. Swing Left’s admirable goal is to bring together social activists in safe congressional districts who seek progressive change, and have them canvass in the nearest swing districts in order to flip control of House seats at both the Federal- and State-levels from red to blue. By combining resources, ideas, and time, prison reform activists can join forces to get representatives who will push for change elected. 

The disparity of funding and support for liberal, progressive state politicians between the (west and east) coasts and middle America is vast. Therefore, Adopt A State focuses on closing the gap. Concentrating on the most competitive and winnable state legislative races, this organization helps voters and activists pursue meaningful changes in their respective state prison departments by getting legislators who run on such platforms in red-state America elected. The coastal states of California, New York, and New Jersey have significantly reduced their prison populations (New York by 26%, New Jersey by 26%, and California by 23%). The reason for this is clear: these states made their systems less punitive, simultaneously requiring individual offenders who committed less-serious crimes to be accountable while they remained in the community. It is high time to turn such coastal progressivism inward to the heartland.

Started on January 20th, 2017 – the day Trump took office – Run For Something seeks to find and support millennials that are wanting to run for office. For those who are not familiar with the political arena, or are not part of the system, this organization can help provide access to training, speak with those in-the-know about politics, and even tries to assist with obtaining funding and staff. If you are not a millennial, Run For Office can help you locate local races to join, and with a joint-database of nearly 43,000 political offices to search through, along with a free online course on how to do so, Run For Something and Run For Office can get rehabilitative-minded progressives into positions where they can do the most good for criminal justice systems, as well as inmates and their family and friends, who are all affected by them. 

If you think that running on a progressive campaign is somehow impossible, then I ask you to consider the following people who did just that, and won:
  • A member of the Democratic Socialists of America (or D.S.A.), Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15 organizer, and Bernie Sanders delegate in 2016, khalid kamau (noting he lowercases the letters in his name in the Yoruba tradition of emphasizing the community over the individual) won a seat on the City Council of South Fulton in Georgia. He ran on a bold social-economic and social-justice platform. 
  • Christine Pellegrino, an elementary school teacher, union activist, and another Sanders delegate, won a special election for a state legislator seat in New York by taking 58% of the vote in a district that voted for Trump by a 23-point margin. 
  • In April, Tony Evers won a race for Superintendent of Public Instruction in the state of Wisconsin, and captured 70% of the vote that not only has Republican Scott Walker as Governor, but that also narrowly backed Trump in November. Evers called for more funding in schools, particularly for schools that serve Latinos, rural students, and African-Americans. 
  • Civil-rights attorney Lawrence Krasner was nominated for District Attorney by Philadelphia Democrats on May 16th, and is probably one of the most striking examples of how voters can, according to one newspaper columnist, be a part of “a revolution aimed at finally undoing a draconian justice regime that had turned the Cradle of Liberty into a death-penalty capital and the poster child for mass incarceration”. 
Remember, it is the city council that will ultimately decide where and when polling places will operate; it is the heads of the state education agencies that decide on where funds go to and on the subject matters upon which students will study; it is the district attorneys that have the disproportionately powerful decision-making processes of whether or not to harshly punish a criminal defendant, or to ensure that such a defendant receives the rehabilitation that they truly need.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not mention that support for this site – – is also crucial for helping to affect change within the U.S. prison system. The website’s volunteers work tirelessly on behalf of us prisoners, and they do so on their own time, and at their own financial expense. Minutes Before Six serves as a voice for those of us behind the walls, who would otherwise not have one. If you have enjoyed reading the informative, thought-provoking, and heartfelt posts hosted by the site, I implore you to donate by clicking here. (Please note: Minutes Before Six has recently been granted 501(c)(3) status, which means that your generous contributions are now tax-deductible!) Support prison reform by becoming politically active in whatever capacity you can, and support this website by spreading the word about Minutes Before Six through social media, and with your donations.

Rosendo Rodriguez III 999534
Polunsky Unit
3872 FM 350 South
Livingston, TX 77351
Rosendo's execution is schedule for March 27, 2018

Greetings, my name is Rosendo Rodrigues and I grew up in Wichita Falls, Texas. At 18, I studied political science and history at Texas Tech University and I served in the marine corps as an imperial storm trooper for the US Government.  I speak English and German.  I enjoy reading science fiction and playing Dungeons and Dragons and love finding hilarity wherever it may ensue.  I currently reside in a gated community on Death Row in Texas.  Schreib mir auf deutsch, oder, write mein English.

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Mercy For One Dog?

By Steve Bartholomew

For most of us, it's embarrassingly easy to get swept away by the granular drama of daily life, no matter how trifling our troubles might seem from the distance of another’s vantage. Too often, my thoughts are more cluttered with situational debris than I'd care to admit. Take, for example, the shell-backed creep who lives down the tier and insists on peeking into my cell as he shuffles past. Because he is a known rat, I must figure out a way to get my objection across firmly but without earning myself a stint in the hole for being threatening. This leaves me feeling vulnerable, indignant and powerless. Then there are the young prisoners, on the tier above mine, who insist on tightening their beatbox and freestyle rapping game past the noise boundary of 10:00 pm. I am frustrated and annoyed by this but must proceed cautiously because it could evolve into a racial issue. I am due to transition to a lower custody prison in a few months, and with each passing day, uncertainty looms larger on my horizon.

Free world problems, like first world problems, are only compelling up close. (From here, they appear enviable.) Perhaps your boss is a sexist jerk, but you need the job too badly to quit. This might leave you feeling vulnerable, indignant and powerless. Say your car dies, and the mechanic says it will be “two grand or thereabouts”. You are frustrated and annoyed and must proceed cautiously because it could evolve into a serious financial issue. Maybe your girlfriend tells you she’s a couple of weeks late, and with each passing day, uncertainty looms larger on your horizon. These are all stressors, to be sure. Even taken individually, each could be a potential sleep-thief.

Allow me to share with you a healthy dose of perspective. Neither you nor I can expect to be strapped down and put to death by bureaucrats, our veins methodically flooded with a toxic cocktail in front of a roomful of spectators. Neither you nor I will know the exact date and time of our own death months in advance so that we may bear that crushing weight in solitude, cursing time itself along the way. Neither you nor I will have to grapple with the knowledge of our own imminent mortality, despite the fact that we are young and healthy.

This is the reality presently facing Thomas Whitaker. 

As many of you already know, Minutes Before Six (MB6) was Thomas’s brainchild. He conceived of this project shortly after arriving on death row in Texas, ten years ago. Originally intended only as his personal blog, MB6 quickly attracted a growing readership hungry for the honest, firsthand, intellectual survey of death row that Thomas offered. As MB6’s expansion surpassed his expectations, Thomas felt compelled to open the site up to other imprisoned writers, such as myself, that we might have a platform, a voice in the conversation. Until Dina took over the administration of MB6 six years ago, Thomas managed the site from a solitary cell on death row, his communication with a small network of volunteers limited to snail mail and a few visits per month through glass.

Launching and maintaining MB6 was no small feat given the logistical hurdles alone: leasing server space and arranging technical support, finding someone to type and digitize handwritten pieces, building links, fielding comments, and so forth. And then there’s the writing. To date, Thomas has posted one hundred and fifty-four essays and stories on MB6. All of them were written while he was earning a Master’s Degree in solitary confinement. He remains, by far, the most prolific writer on MB6, and I would contend there is not another imprisoned writer anywhere who has contributed the sheer volume of literary thought that he has. The impact of his writing becomes particularly evident when you, the MB6 readers, respond to our requests for feedback. Many of you follow his writing devotedly, visiting MB6 for his work alone, or nearly so. To some of you, all other writers on MB6 are just filler, something to peruse while waiting for a new Whitaker essay or another chapter of No Mercy for Dogs. I can’t argue too hard with that. We writers also owe him a tremendous debt, one we’ll never be able to repay.

Thomas has been fighting his case for over a decade, seeking post-conviction relief throughout the entire court system. The appellate process is not unlike a demented elevator with no doors to open. You ascend slowly, glacially, from level to level, trundling yourself upward with each denial and appeal, only to find yourself back in the basement. With each ascension you feel the tug of gravity, which you might mistake for hope. Sometimes your gut tells you just before the floor drops; other times it catches you off balance. Thomas’s case was recently rejected by the second highest court in the land, the US Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit. Let me state this clearly: we are at the point where clemency is Thomas’s only hope of not being killed in the next few months. The Governor has already signed the Death Warrant setting Thomas Whitaker's execution date for February 22nd. In the State of Texas, a clemency process was instituted decades ago as an ostensible safety valve for an overburdened criminal justice system.

This is Thomas’s sole remaining chance to avoid death. The clemency process differs from trials and appeals in several important ways. In clemency proceedings, there is no retrying of the evidence, no arguing over technicalities. Rather, the matters presented are those on which the courts have not already ruled. In Thomas’s case, the petition being considered is simple and straightforward: to commute his sentence from death to life.

In Texas, a death row prisoner's petition for clemency is considered by the Board of Pardons and Paroles. As a rule, members do not meet in person to deliberate. Instead, they each render separately a decision based on their own individual criteria—their personal touchstones for deciding the fate of a human being which they need not disclose, so they do not. By relying on subjective and secret standards, such an opaque process presents an obvious barrier to success: any strategy is guesswork, no more and no less. In the words of U.S. District Judge Sam Sparks, regarding the arbitrariness of the Board's practices, "A flip of the coin would be more merciful than these votes." Now you know what Thomas is up against.

The petition is either granted or denied by a majority vote of the Board, which then informs the governor's irrevocable decision either to sign off on commutation or allow the execution to proceed. Make no mistake, petitioning for clemency is a long shot. The statistical probability of being granted clemency in Texas is not high. However, Thomas’s execution becomes a certainty if we do not try.

Thomas 's attorney is presently composing a petition that outlines the reasons the Board ought to commute his death sentence. He will not be making a legal argument but rather presenting Thomas as a living human entity to the Board Members, drawing on his personal life and accomplishments to humanize him instead of citing evidence and conclusions of law to try to acquit him. The Board Members will not recommend his petition unless they find a preponderance of clear and cogent reasons to spare his life. They may define their threshold of persuasion in amorphous terms, such as “exceptional circumstances”, which means literally whatever they choose to recognize it as. Clemency hearings are outside the procedural methodology of the courtroom. Rules of admissibility do not apply, and no one really knows what sways the Board because there is no clemency precedent from which one could make inductions.

Members of the general public may submit written information for the Board's consideration. Here is where we come in, you and I. It's one thing for Board members to have in front of them clerical evidence of Thomas 's accomplishments—copies of his degree, literary awards, and so forth. It's another matter entirely for them to read firsthand accounts of Thomas’s effect on free-world citizens. Mind you, no one is asking that Thomas Whitaker be released but rather that he simply be allowed to continue breathing.

The District Attorney will be the one and only advocate for the death of Thomas. Throughout his case, the State—and no one else—has maintained that justice can only be served by the loss of more life.

The Clemency Board will also consider public sentiment. The Board’s only way to gauge the wishes and attitudes of the community is through letters of support written by anyone whose life Thomas has impacted—people like you, for example, whose knowledge and perception of prison have been vastly enriched by this man. They need to hear from folks like yourself: intelligent, free people who have lived vicariously through Thomas’s stories, literate citizens who have trusted him for a decade as a patient and honest guide through the experience of death row. You, dear readers, are his community. You may be thinking that you wouldn’t know what to say. However, I can assure you that how you express yourself means less than the fact that you are willing to write at all.

To that end, I would present a few suggestions as possible starting points. One of the things I always ask of free people after we’ve conversed for a time is whether their preconceptions about prison have changed. I can’t imagine anyone reading the works of Thomas and not fundamentally altering his or her notions of what prison and prisoners are made of, how death row feels, or what the purpose of the death penalty even is—and what that means. Some of you have felt compelled to become involved with social justice after reading his work. Some of you have found here a much-needed comprehension of what your own incarcerated loved ones have endured in silence. Others have become able to view us not as the bogeyman in the cage but rather as human beings who are willing to unpack our own flaws and mistakes, our authentic selves, for you. Some of you have come here as surviving victims, intending to face down the surrogate objects of your fear or loathing, and have instead walked away with the clarity and closure born of understanding. Some of you have been entertained and educated by stories you could not possibly find anywhere else. These things are worth mentioning to the Board. It would be impossible to quantify the value of the work Thomas has tirelessly offered you, holding the fiercest light to the most obscured microcosm of human infliction and deprivation. But a support letter would go a long way towards representing what the experience of MB6 has meant to you.

After nearly 15 years in prison, my faith in humanity isn’t what it once was. But I believe wholeheartedly that you would be willing to take ten minutes out of your cluttered day to write a letter that will increase the likelihood of Thomas’s life being spared.

I have to believe that you, of all people, realize the import and worth of this particular life— the effect his writing has had on your understandings of this world and the human condition in general, his potential for a long and productive literary future. I refuse to entertain the notion of an apathetic reader or one too preoccupied to respond—not here, and for mercy’s sake, not now. Our window of time is too small to admit complacency, procrastination, or inaction.

I imagine that you, our readers, are aligned with the rest of the civilized world outside America in believing the idea of judicial killing is morally bankrupt. I have faith in your moral compass, so I will not preach, dear choir.

Our sensibilities about the ethical status of the death penalty arise from the same aversion to physical violence en masse we feel when considering war. Our state governments have executed one thousand, four hundred, and forty-eight men and women since the resurrection of the death penalty in 1977—a grim doctrine, one carrying the stench of fossilized worldviews derived from pre-civilized mythos. Such barbarism under color of law suffuses most of us with societal shame. We are dismayed by how future historians will speak of us, contemptuous of the fact that in the land of free Wi-Fi and the home of the Angry Birds, people are still being killed by state actors. But we are no more capable of properly thinking about the legally orchestrated killing of one thousand, four hundred, and forty-eight human beings than we are able to say what it feels like to witness three thousand people being crushed and burned alive. We all watched that happen on 9/11, but unless we personally knew someone in one of the World Trade Center towers, what we felt was an abstract sort of dread, something akin to disbelief. To acknowledge this emotional shortcoming is merely to recognize the limits of what the human mind can construct from sensory input. Because of this handicap, the practice of state-sanctioned killing is rarely mentioned in the news, let alone protested in our liberal colleges. And yet students at UC Berkley recently rioted, attacking their own library, destroying cars, smashing windows and lighting fires simply because a wingnut from the online alt-right publication was scheduled to speak. Evidently, what we find most shocking is a lousy guide to what is most evil. The great progressive frontier of California is so liberal that there is talk of secession over the election of Donald Trump—a movement wistfully named “Calexit”—but this same blue state recently voted to preserve the death penalty. The pitiful truth is that we might be incapable of feeling what we must in order to change our own world.

But we are able to meaningfully think about what it means for the State of Texas to snuff out the life of one man: a vibrant person whom we’ve come to know and esteem highly through his words. Thomas has invited his fellow prisoners onto his site so that we, through our writing, might stand alongside him. He has invited you and me, his fellow human beings, into his inner world so that we might try to think alongside him. I have to believe that we, his community, are capable of feeling what we must in order to change the outcome of the one hearing that could allow Thomas to keep on living, breathing, and writing for us. I can only believe that we are capable of mustering what it takes to extricate ourselves from our daily frittering long enough to act. It isn’t too often we are faced with the opportunity to help avert the death of someone who matters to us with our actions. This is our chance to do so.

When I contemplate the reality of Thomas’s sentence, how the State of Texas will decide the exact time of his last heartbeat, I feel no small amount of compassion for him as a fellow human being. I feel sadness at the thought of the senseless loss of such a prominent intellect, someone I have grown fond of, and a familiar voice who often says things the way I wish I would have. I feel outrage that the most prosperous and diverse nation on the planet could still be so shamefully backward. I have to admit some selfish interest in this, as well. If there is one thing we all know about Thomas Whitaker, it’s that he has more to accomplish, more to teach us, and much more to say. I, for one, really want to know what that is. Don’t you?

Please send letters in support of the Clemency Petition of Thomas Whitaker to:

Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles
Clemency Section
8610 Shoal Creek Boulevard
Austin, TX 78757
Phone:  512-406-5852
Fax: 512-467-0945

Note from Dina: Thanks to all of you for reading this and to those who have reached out to offer support.  Now is the time to step up and make your voice heard.  If you have any questions about writing a support letter for Thomas, email me at 
Action matters right now.  Please send your letter today!

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

Steve Bartholomew 978300
P.O. Box 7001
Monroe, WA 98272

Thursday, January 4, 2018

No Mercy for Dogs Chapter 22

By Thomas Bartlett Whitaker

To read Chapter 21 click here

Even before I went to prison, I knew what it felt like to be a prisoner. It's true that none of the floor to ceiling windows that artfully graced the south wall of studio apartment 4F had bars over them. Nobody tried to stop me at the door. There is a sense in which I could have just walked away. But in another sense, it's just as true that I had nowhere else to go. Some combination of my recent isolation in the mountains, Chespy's unapologetic violence, and the military atmosphere of the highways served to close down my vision; everything felt heavy and inescapable as I let myself into my new accommodations. Standing in the doorway, I had the overwhelming sensation of being hunted, like I could hear the horns and the baying of dogs somehow getting closer. The decor of the condo didn't help. I like the color gray; the living room in my last home was a study in gray scale. But this place - the entire building - seemed to have been decorated by a chromatic atheist. The lobby was draped in at least three shades of what might have been gray, rimulose travertine. The artfully stained and pitted concrete walls displayed what looked like imitation Rothkos, save that there wasn't the slightest hint of color, just eery, slightly out of focus geometries fading from black to white. Even the manager that handed me the key to 4F was wearing a light dove gray suit. I guess this is what passed for someone's modernist vision, but the actual vibe was more new-age bomb shelter meets stage IV melanoma. I couldn't avoid thinking that this was some mad interior designer's attempt to bash me upside the head with the affect heuristic.

The umbral scheme leaked into 4F, though there might have been some intrusions of color if there had been more furniture in the place. The living room looked more like a pantomime of a home than anything you'd care to live in, with only a single upholstered easy chair, a television  mounted on a wall, and some empty bookshelves. The attached kitchen had most of the usual accessories plus a small table. I looked inside both the dishwasher and the refrigerator. The smell of long-chain monomers wafted out of the latter, but not even the slightest ghostly aroma of meals long past. Still, none of the stuff looked brand new, just sort of lightly used, as if this was a place for short stays. The bedroom consisted of a steel bed and a black, Ethan Allen-ish looking chest of drawers. The closet was empty save for a few forlorn hangers. I was relieved to find a stacked washer/drier combo in a small washroom just off the kitchen. My clothes hadn't been washed save by hand in two months, and I was pretty sure that they were rancid enough to qualify as a personal defense system.

Whoever might have once stayed here, the place was completely devoid of any of the accouterments of modern life: there was no soap, food or cleaning supplies; no vacuum  cleaner or extra light bulbs for the overhead track lighting; no telephone or plates. Aside from the furniture, the only item of consequence I was able to locate was a thick envelope set in the exact center of the kitchen table. It had "Rudy" written on it in black ink, confirming, at least, that I was where someone wanted me to be. When I peeled it open I found 15,000 pesos, around 1,300 dollars US at the time. I sat staring at the money for a few minutes before my desire for a shower wrestled my conscience into submission. I took 3,000 pesos and left the building, looking for a deposito or a Famsa. It didn't take me long to find a generic equivalent of the latter, and I was able to pick up some food, detergent, paper plates and cups, sheets, and a variety of other necessities. The teller seemed to be very studiously averting her eyes from me as she rung up my purchases. I tried to tell myself it was because of my rough appearance, but I secretly wondered if maybe my contact with Chespy had somehow left a sort of stain on me that natives could recognize. I wanted to smile at her but I felt that somehow this would only make things worse.

My first hot shower in months evoked the kinds of sentiments Marvell wrote poetry about. I stayed under the steaming spray until my skin puckered, and then I stayed some more. I spent twenty minutes hacking my Old Testament beard down to a trim goatee, regretting all the while that I hadn't bought a machete along with the razors. I started my first of many loads of wash and then retired with a glass of jugo de toronja to the windows that looked down on the street. Evening fell, and when the glass finished turning into a mirror I went and turned the lights off.

This was clearly a fairly prosperous neighborhood. Very urban, it consisted mostly of residential buildings, but there were at least half a dozen storefronts scattered along each block, such that there was light but consistent foot traffic well into the night. Doormen occasionally walked out to open doors of taxis, people walked their dogs; it could have been any side street in any major city in the west, from this view. But it wasn't any other city, and the longer I observed, the more I noticed certain details that hinted at a city at conflict. The four story building directly across the street had an obviously recently constructed security gate that spanned the front of the property; the cement that anchored the immense steel posts was of a much lighter shade than that of the rest of the sidewalk. The adjacent structure to the west had aftermarket security coverings on all of the windows, even the oddly-shaped lancet ones on the third floor. A woman and her child walked quickly, hand in hand, the parent checking behind her every fifty feet or so. The violence was only just starting in Monterrey; some would actually look back on 2005 as a good year soon, though that information would have shocked everyone at the time, considering the already overflowing morgue. Outrage about a few murders per diem would slowly morph into a stunned sort of silence as the machine guns, grenades, and anti-tank rockets came out to play, in this war that precluded any opportunity for valor or meaningful sacrifice. I think that is what quietly irked so many, that the decent and strong couldn't ever figure out how to expend their energies on anything positive that pushed the balance back towards something approaching civilization. There can't be any heroes when evil melts into existence, shoots a dozen people in the back just to kill one target, and then effervesces back into the concrete. It felt like a war, but there was no localized battlefield, just a constant field of conflict that extended everywhere, at any hour. The people became prisoners of war who could not escape to greener pastures, because an empty field could be just as dangerous as a crowded marketplace. There is no possible voyage when war is universal - no exit.

And I was sliding my way slowly into participation. I didn't want this, but I didn't know how to separate myself from it, either. It seemed like this was always going to be my destiny, from the first moment I had been deposited on the Hammer's doorstep. It took me a very long time to fall asleep that night.

I woke early the next day and made some eggs, chorizo, and cheese tacos. Not knowing what else to do I turned on the television. Someone had already paid for a Sky package, so I flipped to the BBC and tried to catch up on how humanity had been faring in these early days of the Great Anthropocene Extinction Event. The war in Iraq sputtered on, though it was just starting to dawn on the neocons that no wayward and fortuitous Marine platoon in Basra was finally going to stumble upon a hidden WMD lab. Battered Humvees and smart-bombed houses assaulted me, a sort of malefic chorus that seemed to harmonize with the world outside my own windows. This depressed me more than silence so I moved the armchair to a point where I could watch the street. I was startled out of my reverie at just past 8:30am when I heard someone placing a key into the door. I had just enough time to stand up before the door swung open and a man crossed the threshold.

It took me half a second to place him, because on the past occasions when we'd spent time together he'd been wearing his norteno camouflage, not the simple three button black suit he sported now. He was carrying an assortment of plastic bags in each hand that he battled with as he removed the key from the door and kicked it closed. He shot me an immense smile when he saw me backlit by the window.

"Wolf," I nodded a greeting.

"," he responded curtly. "What are we calling you now?"

"Mexican ID or Canadian one?"

He smiled and crinkled his nose in response, as he hefted the bags up on the kitchen table. "We should just call you el Sinnombre. Never heard that used as an apodo before."

“The Nameless," I translated. "Sounds appropriately spooky." I watched as he removed a series of eggshell blue disposable plastic containers. A rich medley of aromas quickly rose to meet me, and despite having already eaten breakfast, my stomach perked up. Lobo noticed my interest.

"Question: when was the last time you broke your fast with anything besides
 breakfast tacos?"

"Ah,” I reflected. "I honestly have no idea. That's pretty much the option in Cerralvo. I ate breakfast about three hours ago. Want to guess what I made?"

He laughed. "Breakfast tacos."


"Mexico is getting to you."

"Viva la Republica, and so forth," I called out as I brought some paper plates from the kitchen.

"I love my family. Don't get me wrong. But I was born here in the city, and I find it easier to breath here, even with the smog so thick you can carve your initials in the air. I can't sleep well without the sound of angry taxis."

“Really? You seemed pretty comfortable at Gelo's little shindig," I said aloud, thinking back to the day when I witnessed the transfer of...something... from a souped up Chevy Nova to a truck, not to mention the day we spent together at the coyuntura.

"One has to, shall we say, put in an appearance from time to time. But the life here in the city is more appropriate to me. And here, we don't eat tacos for breakfast." He began to open the containers. The first two contained French style crepes with fresh strawberries and a small container of what looked to be maple syrup. The third was piled high with spinach, ham, mushroom, and cheese quiche, the fourth Belgian waffles. It went on from there, an enormous quantity of food for two people.

"I knew I liked you for some reason," I remarked as I dug into a quiche. It was one of the best things I'd eaten in a very long time. As I ate, I watched Lobo. I had known for some time that he was an attorney specializing in real estate transactions, and that his manners were more refined than the rest of the Hammer's crew. But now, seeing him in his element, I began to see what I was doing here.

"You know it was Chespy who dropped me off?" I asked offhandedly, casually scanning his facial topography.

His brows arched. "No...I did not," he admitted, and if he was lying, he was doing a fine job of it. "I was simply told that you would be here. That man.. ." He paused vacantly. "It would be better for all of us if you maintained some distance from him. He‘s not...stable."

"You say that as if I'd been given any choice. Surely you know I've been herded here like one of the mountain goats I so recently befriended."

"Goats? Really? Where the demonios did, I don't want to know," he said, waving a leaden hand. "Rudy, surely you know that you must find some occupation, if you are to stay here. We all must work. We all must find our place."

"I was working. Construction, delivering muebles. Surely Don Rogelio told you."

"Si, making what? 1000 pesos a week?"

"700," I smiled grimly.

"For how many hours?"

"Around 55 or 60."

"700 pesos," he repeated. "That's a dollar an hour, more or less. You understand that the people who make this in Cerralvo, they do not...look, the houses they own, their cars, most of the money the live on, this money does not come from their sueldos. Most of them get money from family in los Estados Unidos. Or they have family they send to Monterrey to work in the factories. Or they run contraband or do jobs for the narcos. Nobody who lives in even a small house and drives a beat-up old wreck of a car survives on what you are making. Nobody."

I nodded as if I already knew this, though I had not. It made sense, though. Even with the weekly pay, I had never stopped eating into my reserves. I flailed about mentally for some way of avoiding the truth of just how bad my position was. Finally, spent, I turned to Lobo and looked him in the eyes. "I don't want any of this. You may be right about everything, but that doesn't change anything. I don't want this life." He didn't say anything, so I continued "Look outside. Gelo's told me enough about the old days to know that things are changing. Even Chespy made a comment about the inmates taking over the asylum. Don't tell me that more than half of what you saw in Aldama didn't trouble you. I was there. I was watching you more than anything else."

He didn't respond for a time as he buttered a scone. Setting this down on his plate, he looked momentarily dejected. Pursing his lips, he removed his eyeglasses. "You are correct on...the state of things. Mira, you were never for the soda, I told Rogelio this and he said he agreed, that he had known for a very long time. You have seen some of his family. He has workers. But today...very few groups like ours work alone. There are just too many specialized skillsets and gear to do things in a vacuum. It used to be, all you needed was a truck and a little backbone, and you could make money. Now it's all...steganography and straw purchasers." He squinted at my surprised expression. "Don't ask, because I don't know. I was supposed to learn this first thing months ago and it's beyond me. I am not a programmer. Beyond this, you know Gelo's needs?"

His question seemed like a test, one that I wondered if I ought to fail intentionally. But you have to know the right answer to be effective at this, and I didn't have a clue. Finally, I took a stab in the dark. "His problem is money."

"Everyone's problem is money. Be more specific."

"I wondered for several months about Gelo's real estate fixation. Every time he drove me somewhere, he was pointing out another home he owned, another field, another business. He told me he had other places, both along the frontera and here in the city. I'm guessing this is one of them?" I asked, and finally el Lobo nodded. "He doesn't spend much on his clothes. He doesn't wear jewelry, and he won't allow his kin to wear any. Yet he built a church within walking distance of his house, to save his wife the effort of having to go to the big one downtown. When you told me what you did professionally, I figured out he has real limitations on how he can safely spend his money. You give him an umbrella to buy land. He feels safe with this. He's limited elsewhere."

"You touch on something," he acknowledged. "Though I think you underestimate his powers a little. He could spend money on clothes and...trinkets...if it pleased him. But when it comes to starting genuine businesses, he has always had to stay small. The...oh, the taquerias and tallers are not a problem. No one of consequence regulates this, especially in Nuevo Leon. Especially if the PRIistas stay in power. But others..." he paused, thinking over his words. "The day we first met, you left with him, after the business was done. Did he say anything about what was in the trailer?"

I thought back over the months. "Furniture. Some style from Michoacán, I think he said." Lobo seemed to be wanting more, so I continued. "He said that he had set up companies in the States to sell the legitimate cargo. Or that he had someone set them, someone he called the manosos." I could see that this somewhat surprised the man, I so settled back into my chair.

"Interesting," he said at last. "These people, these 'clever ones,' they are accountants, specialists. Lawyers," he took a faux bow. "We are people with professional skills, people that figured out we could make twenty times the money working for the cartels than for legitimate businesses. When we first tried to purchase a negocio to distribute some of our legal materials, it was a disaster. A disaster that was completely my fault. No, no," he pushed his plate away. "We all must know the limits of our abilities, and I didn't know what I was doing. I know my way about America. I went to study there for several years when NAFTA was being drafted. I was not born there like you or el Topo, and I will never be comfortable with your laws. I made mistakes that even a first year law student would have noticed. So we reached out to the people Gelo knew...upstairs. They sent me to a man, an attorney, in el DF. He was an American. I spent several weeks with him, and he taught me about many things, especially shell companies. You know this term?"

"Sort of. Like a business that's strictly legal. Like it's all on paper."

"Well...some are like this, yes. Not all. Generally they exist to be used for a variety of financial maneuvers. You keep them around so you can make fast decisions and still maintain some degrees of separation between you and what you are transacting. In any sane system they would be illegal, but of course only rich people know how to deploy them, and rich people make the laws. This American, he used his firm to staff thousands of Boards, all in shell companies based out of Delaware. He was very big on Delaware, couldn't stop talking about the favorable environment there. Panama as well. Cyprus. The Seychelles. Other places. But mostly Delaware. He charged his clients immense fees for this service. But he was a big fish, and we are small. Before the furniture, we shipped the product in petrochemical equipment. I found some favorable laws in Montana and Nevada, so that is where I based my own shells. Fortunately, I have not needed to start any since those initial few dozen, and I have not done this sort of work in many years. Those entities still function for our small needs." He folded his napkin and leaned back in his seat. "To do more, we would have needed someone local, someone who was comfortable in those environments, maybe even in a courtroom, someone that-"

"Someone like me," I interrupted.

"I don't know," he responded. "Truly, I do not know all of Gelo's plans. I think if things were more stable, then yes, something like that. Not for some years. You would first need to go to school, get the necessary certifications and licenses, have some work done to your face." I must have looked skeptical because he smirked. "You think Rogelio doesn't have the patience or the money to send you to university? Who else would do it? Can you imagine someone like Edelmiru going to class with a bunch of teenagers? Or el Mochaorejas walking into a government office in Nevada? Can you even imagine him in a suit and tie? Of course not. They would be a suspect in something before the door swung closed behind them. But you, you could do it. It is obvious that you come from some money. No," he insisted as I started to correct him. "It's not something that can be washed away. We who live in the shadows of a land comfortable with power and privilege are very sensitive to the presence of such. You still do not understand the effect this has on Mexicans, especially those graspers and social climbers that pepper the government here. They may stand foresquare and permanently for whatever anti-Americanism is favored by the public on occasion, but when Uncle shows up, they simper like the rest of your favored pets." 

"And you want me for this? Maybe I'd be an awful...plutocrat. That's what you want me for? To exude status? That can't be enough to get done the things you want completed."

"We don't know what you are useful for specifically, only that it is both too expensive and increasingly difficult to rely on the experts of more powerful men. Gelo thinks it is past time that we groom a few more of our own. Maybe it's to replace me when I retire. If I had to guess, it's the intercambios he wants, finally."

"The interc...the pawn shops?" I let slip before thinking about my words. I'd seen the places all over town, and used several of them to change dollars into pesos. They seemed to offer a variety of services, everything from banking to Western Union transfers, money orders, and plenty of space to pawn valuable items for short-term loans. Some of the nicer ones had a jewelry and tech section that rivaled department stores. Suddenly I saw their value. For some reason, I'd never thought much of them before. "Money laundering, of course. Tons of cash, gold, silver. Better than a strip club, I'd bet."

"Much better," he confirmed. "But highly regulated by both the thieves in el DF and locally by a guild. Gelo has been wanting in that game for years, but who does he have that could do that sort of work, besides me? And I'd never pass their screens anyway. Edgar? The only thing he can count is the women he wants to sleep with. Miriam could do it, but she's too young and the Senora would literally kill Gelo if he put his daughter in that part of the business. El Cachas? He'd terrify the clientele too bad, they wouldn't even come in the door. We think we know someone that could train you on how to clean the money, beyond what we already know. If this is in fact what Gelo wants for you. Ask him to tell you about the Puerto Rican. El Lotto, se llama," 

I stood up and walked to the windows, looking down on the street. I was sorely tempted by this offer. If I was going to make it down here, I needed a real profession. The more I saw of the world of the narcos, the less impressed I was. All of the violence, the glorification of the way of the psychopath - none of it called to me. But money laundering touched on a streak of fiscal libertarianism that ran deep. Everything in Mexico could be grabbed by using money or influence in a manner that was only a semiotic shade away from outright theft; why shouldn't I do the same, when the only victim would be the government, who was intending to rob the money anyways? There was an argument, I realized, that depriving them of funds might actually reduce the total net corruption, though I suspected that I was merely engaging in the sort of creative rationalizations that the Hammer wanted to pay me for. Still, it was almost a Robin Hood-esque offer, one that would keep me relatively safe and away from people like Chespy. There are some rather glaring holes in this logic, I know. But hindsight wisdom is the cheapest of complacencies, and I really didn't have any better options. 

I turned around to watch Lobo for a moment. My decision would have been easier if he'd looked more appropriately Mephistophelean; why these people refused to take to their villainous roles with old-fashioned Basil Rathbone hauteur annoyed me immensely. But he didn't look evil. I hadn't read Hannah Arendt by this point, so I didn't really know what to think about the fact that he looked more like your average weary, middle-grade professional than an active and central participant in a criminal enterprise. Except for his eyes, maybe. They knew things, and like so many people down here, he kept his eyes on you even when he laughed. I still wasn't sure why they called him Lobo. These nicknames generally had some connection to the person's identity, and I wondered what was so wolf-like about him. He was sort of lean in a way that could potentially be described as lupine if one were attempting to be poetic. His suit was decent but definitely not high-end, and despite his attempts at refinement, it was obvious to me that he had moved up in the world. How did I know this? It was inherent in the words he chose, the button collars and slightly scuffed shoes that had been resoled at least once, the atmosphere of beta he exuded from his pores. Would I have trusted him at first glance, if I walked into his office? Probably not. Neither would I have bought a used car from him. I began to see what he meant by presence.

"No guns? You promise me this?" I asked finally.

"I can promise nothing. I am patron of my office only. But I can promise that Gelo is never wasteful, and asking you to fill in for one of his soldiers would be stupid. I myself have never been involved in that sort of thing." 

I turned back to the window. There were basically three options here, I reflected. Accept, deny, or accept with the option to walk away if I didn't like what I saw. I suspected that none of the Hammer's crew would appreciate this latter option, which is why I didn't mention it even as I chose it. I turned finally and went to sit back down at the table. "When do I start?"

The next five weeks were satisfyingly boring. For the first few days, Lobo came by my building to pick me up in his white Jetta at just past 8am. I eventually started taking the subway to save him the detour. I spent the day with him at his practice, both as student and errand boy. I was surprised to see that he worked in a space that was little better than a cubicle. I suppose I initially believed that when he said he was an attorney, he meant that this was his main occupation and that he used it as cover for his other activities. That, I discovered rather quickly, was a rather large misapprehension on my part. El Lobo worked by referral only; his name was not in the phonebook, and he had no website. All his mail went to a PO Box at a Fed-Ex store – in Guadalajara, where it was redirected by a cousin. It's likely that you couldn't have found his office even if you had wanted to give him your business. The space he led me to on that first morning was the definition of nondescript, just another pile of metal and brick that sprouted like mushrooms along the conduit of the elevated train. The elevator only functioned intermittently, so we walked up the six flights through a stairwell that was sporadically lit. I don't know who occupied the rest of the building, for the most part. It wasn't the type of place where you met to chat at the water cooler. The ground floor consisted of a number of small stores and restaurants, one of which became my regular spot for the weeks that I was employed there. One corner of the second floor was some kind of medical screening company; I don't know exactly what they did, but there were signs plastered all over the place claiming that they accepted blood donations. The rest of the building must have consisted mostly of storage space, because there were far too few people in the stairwell for there to have been many offices. The halls were painted a drab taupe-ish color and had faded acoustic tiles running along the ceiling. The faint smell of ammonia pervaded the place. The carpet was worn down and showed the underlying concrete in patches. I guessed the building was at least thirty ill-maintained years old, though it was probably considered a shitty address even immediately after having been constructed.

There wasn't any sort of plaque or legend on Lobo‘s doorway; there wasn't even an internal office number in evidence. The door opened up on a shadowy space of perhaps 250 square feet, an oddly shaped room with one long rectangular section that gave way to a small window. There was a washroom in the back that smelled like an industrial dumping site, complete with a toilet, sink, shower, and shelves containing plastic trays and bottles of various chemicals. Every bit of furniture looked to be Watergate~era government issue, and was liberally dented and scratched in all of the usual places and ways. A few light brown filing cabinets stood in one corner, next to a large desk upon which sat a single economy-level Dell computer. The south corner was taken up by a large machine I couldn't identify, next to a slanted architect's desk. A fairly recent Xerox corporate color printer completed the ensemble. It was a very Hammerish space, I decided: functional, clean, not flashy, way closer to "ugly" than anyplace you'd rather pay attention to. Still, whatever notions I had about this office being in any way normal were dispelled almost immediately when Lobo turned to me immediately after letting us through the heavy steel door.

"There are not many rules I have, but you must observe this. Look," he walked to the wall, where in the half-gloom I saw what appeared to be a series of two light switches. "You must never touch these. Ever. The lights for the office are here," he said, walking towards the desk. Out of sight down near the edge of the shelves was another set of switches. He flipped these and the office lit up in a sickly yellow light. "Second thing: do not touch the computer, unless I tell you. If, for some reason you ever have to boot this up, you must switch the plugs from this surge protector to this one." I watched as he pointed from a brand new multi-outlet to a smaller, older one that was screwed into the desk down inside the chair well. I watched as he unplugged several cords from the first and inserted them into the second. He saw my apparent interest and pointed inside the desktop's case. "Magnets, built inside. Wired to the wall switch, and to this outlet as a backup. Activate either first and everything goes away. Very strong magnets, they tell me."

"You did this?" I asked, picking up the first surge protector to give it a better look. I couldn't tell it had been altered in any way.

"No, no. I'm not you say in English? Ludic? Is that right?"

"Luddite, I think."

"Yes, that. Not a word one uses very often in either language. I am not one of these, but this is beyond me. This was put together by Mickey Lunes, one of the technical people we pay the men upstairs for services. You don't know him yet, but you've seen some of his work. The Nova you saw the day we met was one of his."

"Mickey Lunes?" I asked, smiling.

"He name himself after some famous maker of smuggling boats and cars for the Columbians. Gelo met him once when he was in Florida in the bad old days, or so he says. I don't know the story, you can ask him, or ask Mickey himself. It's some kind of hero-worship; he has a copy of the man's federal indictment on his workshop's walls. It's framed," he snorted. "He does all our cars for us. Not all are so simple as the one you saw. Some of them, he puts an aluminum gas tank under the backseat, gets rid of the old one so he can extend the trunk down. He puts some kind of special shocks on the car to jack it up. You can put a half ton of whatever you want in the trunk and the car drives and looks normal."

We settled into a routine. Mostly I ran errands for him and watched how he completed certain forms. Like the men above him, Gelo sold Lobo's services to other small-time traffickers. Most of Lobo's work consisted of filing legitimate paperwork, sprinkled with small touches of forgery. He had stacks and stacks of blank paperwork from a dozen nations that he used when necessary, everything from blank vehicle titles to property deeds, legal resident cards, and all manner of IRS and Hacienda paperwork. The machine in the corner turned out to be a printing press. He only seldom used it, but he showed me how it operated.  Of perhaps more interest to me was the process by which he stripped information off of old titles using the various chemicals in the bathroom. The man was essentially a one-stop shop for aged-looking documents that could flesh out real estate transfers in order to make them seem genuine. These methods were only used as a last resort, he said; generally, all you needed to do to fake a transaction was a little clever accounting. But it helped to have the equipment, just in case the history needed to be fudged a little.

I won't deny it: the work was interesting. Lobo preferred to use physical methods, but was rapidly improving in the digital realm as well. I showed him how to use IRC channels to find tons of software that he might not want to pay full price on (or any price at all, technically), and we spent a lot of time exploring Photoshop. I can't help but wonder at the techniques he has developed since. I'm certain he's having a field day with digital currencies like Bitcoin. I think I could have legitimately apprenticed under him for some time. My moral qualms were present but minor. It was only money I was manipulating, not people. No one was getting hurt but some government leeches who were already flush with stolen cash.

It was not to be. I don't know if Gelo ever really grasped how the narco-world he understood had already frayed beyond repair. He was orderly. He maintained relationships, thought long-term, minimized as much as possible his profile. His goal was to die a wealthy man and to bequeath these riches to the family he cherished. The new generation cared nothing for these things. Alliances shifted, colleagues vanished. These men sneered at honor and family; they wanted only power, now, and the thrill of its acquisition. None of them gave a damn for a long and placid life, and none of them cared about any loyalties beyond those that gave them the most exciting orders. They were drunk on the broadening chaos. I don't think Gelo ever really got that. Everything he was trying to avoid, they were running towards. If I had known the level of his misunderstanding at the time, I wouldn't have trusted in his security or his calm assurances. I probably should have known better.

Lobo and I generally ended our days around 4pm. My existence in 4F was simple, and I needed few luxuries after my time in the mountains. I might run a few errands on the way home, and usually picked up dinner somewhere along the way. Lobo encouraged me to use a different route to and from the office each day, which required me to learn a large variety of alternate and back streets. That led me to an increasing appreciation for the neighborhood. It was a vibrant urban space, and the people were kind if increasingly guarded. I dressed casually -not like a narco- but I still noticed a few sidelong glances from time to time. There were plenty of Americans in Monterrey for legitimate business reasons, though, and I wasn't too concerned about a few odd looks. The two women that cleaned the apartment once a week were so shy that they insisted on coming when I was not going to be home. There was definitely a story there, but I didn't pry.

The Friday evening that ended my employment with Lobo and the entire Ramos family enterprise was a pleasant one. April was blooming beautifully and the weather was warming nicely. I stopped off at a Pollo Loco on my way from the train and was really only thinking about a shower and dinner as I approached my building. I was about to turn towards the door when I saw Chespy's gray Land Rover parked illegally on the sidewalk of the building across the street. I stopped in my tracks. When no one exited the vehicle I walked towards it until I could see that it was empty. I gave serious thought to just walking on by and spending the evening in the Macroplaza or at a movie, but I had the feeling that he wasn't going to just go away. I found him slouched in my easy chair, the television on, my copy of Celine's Journey to the End of the Night sitting open on his lap. He gave me a sour look as I closed the door behind me. "Honey, I'm home," I said, by way of greeting.

"Dude," he waved the book around once before tossing it to the floor. "No wonder you are such a boring fuck. I read half a page of this shit and already I want to slit my wrists."

I walked to the table and set my bags down. I raised my finger in imitation of him. "One, it cost me 7 pesos. Two, I need to practice a more formal dialect of Spanish. Three, it's all about a time and place where the whole fabric of ethics, rationality, and sanity has come tumbling down. Seems fitting, somehow." I opened up my container of chicken and went to the kitchen to pull a Topo Chico from the fridge. By the time I made it back to the table Chespy had appropriated one of my legs. I moved the container to the other side of the table and sat down. "Four, you don't get to criticize my jale when you broke into my place to begin with." I eyed the duffel bag laid haphazardly behind my easy chair, hoping to whatever god happened to be listening that he wasn't going to ask to stay over for the night.

"Like anyone would break into this dump. You realize this is the most depressing building in the history of the world? What's up with all of the gray?'

"Says the guy with the gray truck."

He laughed and stole more of my chicken. "You are in luck," he said between bites. "I have come to rescue you from this evil wasteland."

"Oh," I raised a brow, already preparing my excuses.

"Some of the boys are going to an andro, have a bit of a night out. We rented out the whole upstairs deck. It will be epic, we'll have some musica, food, drinks, the girls will love you. We'll tell the whores you are some rich American looking for a compliant trophy wife to take back north. You'll have to fight them off with a baseball bat."

"You know I'm working now," I said, wiping my mouth with a napkin. "Real work. I've been told to minimize my profile. The code of los manosos, or something.

"'Real work,' he says. Technical support. That's a step up, I admit. We need our accountants. But that's not real work, kid. Nobody holds a plaza with a desk."

"I doubt you hold it without one," I answered truthfully. I'd seen enough in the past weeks to understand how Capone was finally brought down by pencil pushers. You want the money, but you can't hide it without a lot of intelligent work being deployed first.

"Whatever. Doesn't matter. There's no risk to a party. It actually helps our...public be seen from time to time. Gelo thought it would be a good idea, to have you meet a few people. It will be fun. You know that word? F-U-N," he drew this last word out, as if he were talking to an idiot.

"The Hammer approved this?"

"I wouldn't be here otherwise. Seriously, go put on something that would be wildly inappropriate for a clerk." He saw me look at his bag. "Oh, I might have used your shower earlier. Funky showerhead, bro. Find a shirt that embodies the same vibe and we'll be good."

I left him watching the television, and took a shower. I spent the next twenty minutes trying to find an escape hatch to this whole mess. I figured that at worst, I could just slip away after a drink or two. I doubted he'd miss me. I still wasn't sure what his interest in me was, but I was certain it wasn't because he enjoyed my company. There was a plan here, and I needed to figure it out.

I didn't own any club attire. I'd left half of my clothes back in Cerralvo, but had saved a pair of Diesel jeans and an Emporio Armani button down shirt just in case I needed to look decent, so I removed these from their ziplock bags. I strapped the quick-release holster for my Halo onto my left forearm and then added a blue pinstripe suit jacket to the ensemble. I figured Chespy would feel this was falling short of the ideal, and I wasn't wrong.

"Dude," he moaned as he looked me over. He had changed clothes while I was in the shower, and swept his arm in an elaborate self-presentation gesture. He was draped in black from head to foot. Figures.

"This is Paul Smith," I murmured defensively, looking down at the jacket.

"It's a suit. I don't care if it's..." he pinched his nose theatrically, and for the first time I wondered if he was high. Lots of narcos used their own product, and he was acting...friendlier than he had on prior occasions. "Look, you liked the jacket I was wearing when I picked you up from the Great Nowhere? It's in the Rover. You can have it. Lose the nerdwear." 

I shrugged the jacket off and threw it over the back of the chair. True to form, Chespy immediately locked his eyes on the blade. "You won't need that," he said, reaching down to pick up his duffel bag. "I brought you these!" He unzipped the bag and removed some sort of shoulder strap with two matte black pistols dangling heavily in holsters.

"I'm...fine," I stammered, backing away.

"You will be seriously underdressed without these. I'm not kidding, that club is going to be like an armory tonight. Metal detectors ten blocks down the street will go off." 

"Chespy, no. I'm good without them."

He must have seen some heretofore undetected resolve in my eyes, because he dropped the guns back where they came from. "Fine, fine. I'll just leave them here, in case you ever need them. Robbers and such."

"You are the only home invader I know," I quipped, relaxing a little from the confrontation.

"Sure, sure. Except, how's that thing on your arm going to help you if-" His words barely had time to sink in before I saw him pivot towards me and lash out with his left arm. I spun into the blow, trying to catch it on my right shoulder before it could reach a full head of steam, and simultaneously jabbed out with my left fist, trying to punch through his throat. I missed badly, but the move surprised him and it gave me the time I needed to spin back and draw the Halo. The blade flicked out as I dropped into a low stance, moving towards the duffel bag so he couldn't get there first.

He nodded approvingly. "Okay, the accountant has practiced that. Good. First problem, though: that's the grip for a slicing weapon, and what you've got is primarily a piercing one. Gimme," he motioned with his right for me to hand it over. I wondered if I was handing him the weapon he would use to murder me, but Chespy laughed. "We've been over this, at the cabin, remember?" I did, and thought about how he'd just had two firearms within reach. If he'd wanted to kill me, he wouldn't have needed to ask for my blade.

"Watcha," he said as he handled the blade loosely. His grip was more forward than mine had been, looser, with his knuckles more in line with his target -me- than mine had been. "Second problem,” he listed, running his thumb along the flat edge of the knife. "This is sharp, but not sharp enough. It's got to be like a laser, man, just this devastating line of pure destruction. What's your instinctive action when someone does this?" He made a move to lunge at me, and I turned sideways to him, my hands out, eyes pinned to the blade in case I had to divert it. "No…okay, the nerd has studied a bit. But most people, they do this," he held his hands up in a sort of ugly blocking maneuver that looked more like the motion of a traffic warden than that of a fighter. "So your first move is usually something like this," he concluded with a vicious horizontal swipe with the blade. "You take the fucker's fingers off, or as many of them as you can. His hand can't grip now, so that side of his defenses are down. Yours might take a digit off right now, but you'll still leave him able to open his car door. You want it to be something you can shave with. A blade like this, you have to be tactical with it. Look, he moved forward and gripped my shoulder, and I felt his fingers dig into the muscle. "Right here? One thrust in, and your target won't be able to lift his arm up beyond his waist. Then here, and here." He went on for a few minutes, a macabre display of knowledge that left me a little nauseous. No one had ever showed me moves like this in any of the dojos I'd practiced in.

"Your left arm's not right. It's obvious the way you hold yourself. People will pick up on it. Stand like this," he showed me a stance, and I mimicked it. "Once the fun starts, you won't be able to hide it, but you only need a few seconds to end the fuck, so it won't matter. You sure you don't want the juguetes?"

"Very sure," I responded quickly.

"Motherfucking knife fighting tax man. ‘Cuts what you owe and the throats of those you give it to.’ That should be like on your card," he pretended to grumble. He was obviously enjoying himself. He handed me the blade back and turned, which is when I tried to punch him in the kidney. It wasn't a direct hit, but it was close enough. I can't really explain why I did this. It was like some need for annihilation was competing with my desire to show him that while I wasn't in his league, I still had teeth, over which was sprinkled a hefty dose of some childish response to him always bullying me around. The sort of thing you do when you are 25 and terrified. I tossed the knife away and pressed the attack. His hands blurred up and blocked me, and then he came on, using his extra 70 pounds to seize the initiative. I connected on one really good blow to his right cheek before he rained hits down on me, taking advantage of my weak left-side defense. A few years later, when I was attempting to survive the daily violence of a maximum security tank in the county jail, I showed a jujitsu practitioner some of the movements Chespy used on me. He claimed that they were a form of Krav Maga. Whatever it was, I'd practiced several arts over the years, and I'd never seen anything so brutal. He smashed his arrowed knuckles into my solar plexus and then leaned in, using my own momentum to throw me across the easy chair. I crashed down on my back, the chair landing on its side next to me.

"Little shit," Chespy laughed like a loon, sucking in huge quantities of air. I was pleased to see his teeth were red with blood.

"That better be yours," I groaned, taking stock of the various parts of my anatomy that were sending petitions for better overall management.

"I may just like you yet," he said, moving to offer me a hand. I tried to kick his knee, but just barely grazed his calf as he danced away, giggling. Whatever else you can say about him, the bastard was awfully fast for someone his size. "Unless I shoot you first. Come on, guedo. Las putas nos estan esperando! The blood will give us a mating advantage." 

I lifted myself off the floor gingerly. I bent over and collected my blade and slipped it back into the holster. Chespy eyed me warily. "You done, grasshopper? Don't make me force you to wax my car, Daniel-san style."

"Yeah, I'm done, peace," I said as he angled towards the door. He deflected my punch and threw me forward. My entire visual field became the flat plane of the door, then, a second later, the ceiling.

"Ow," I admitted, feeling my nose. My hand came away dripping red gore. His laughter was maniacal. He caught my raised hand and lifted me up. My head swam a little as we left the apartment. Chespy aimed me away from the elevator and towards the stairs. I took a few feigned aggressive steps after him and he skipped down an entire flight, whooping loudly. He waited until we were in the middle of the lobby before he launched a bloody gob of mucus out on the floor. The manager behind the desk must have made a disapproving face because Chespy screamed at him to keep his “maldita hole shut."

"You should thank me for bring some fucking color into this nightmare place!" I shot the manager an apologetic glance as we left the building. It wasn't until we were at Chespy's truck that I realized he'd left the pistols in my apartment. The psycho rooted around in his backseat before throwing me the leather jacket he'd been wearing the last time I'd seen him.

"Here. I'm kind of tired of it. It's yours." I looked at the label before putting it on: Tod's of London.

"You people," I grumbled as I eased into the passenger seat.

Chespy directed the Rover into San Pedro, and then up the side of one of the mountains. l had heard that this was the wealthiest municipality in the entire nation, and the colonias we passed through made me a believer. It took me awhile before I noticed that we had left behind the more commercial areas of the city some time ago, and even longer before I said something about this.

"Got to make a stop first," he responded vaguely.

"Of course you do," I griped, not at all surprised by the arrival of the other shoe finally dropping onto my head. His total unpredictability had kept him alive for a long time, something he shared with the Hammer. I should have paid better attention to both them, in retrospect.

"Chill. I've got to talk to someone. It's a party, too, one that's probably more your speed only you are definitely not invited. You just hang out with the others. I won't be but a few minutes. Don't worry about the goons. You can stab them up if they get frisky. They're so stupid not even alcohol can find their brains." I laughed a little at this line, and tucked it away for later.

"Am I going to be the only gavacho there?" I asked, trying to fill the silence and maybe fish out a few details about our destination.

"Maybe. Hard to say. I wasn't exactly invited either, not as a guest. But it doesn't matter. We got tons of gringos, Chinese triads, a couple of motherfucking Africans, for chrissake. Now those are some mean fuckers. From Ghana , ex-military. The shit they do over there makes us look like kids arguing over sand castles at the playground. And they aren't anywhere nearly as nuts as the German. Trust me, you got the right mindset, we don't see skin. One of the advantages of being color blind."

 "One of them? There are others?"

"Oh sure, I can solve one of them Rubik's cube thingies in about two seconds. Plus, I've always got an excuse for the traffic cops. Watch." Chespy gunned down on the accelerator and the Rover's engine screamed around a Mercedes sedan. He kept the pedal mashed to the floor as we flew towards the next traffic light. I said Chespy's name twice as we neared the intersection, finally clenching myself down into the seat as he blew through the very red light. I heard a horn blaring angrily behind us but the nut sitting next to me was cackling so loud it faded in comparison. He took one crazed look at me and I decided that he was definitely high.

The neighborhood gate we soon pulled up to could have stopped a tank. The group of blue-uniformed guards manning the security checkpoint had hard stares and harder weapons. Definitely not rent-a-cops. They spoke to Chespy for a moment and then one of them made a call. I watched the muscle. Each had a pistol in a holster slung midway down their thighs, and all but one wore the same type of body armor over their chests. Their eyes gave nothing away. I looked over and saw that Chespy seemed to have fostered an instantaneous hatred for the entire crew; he was grinding his teeth audibly. Some sort of alpha- dog thing, I reasoned. The guys were total pros, though, and were at least smart enough not to show any sign that might be misconstrued as hostile. Fortunately they let us through fairly quickly. Any longer, and I think Chespy might have gotten out of the Rover and challenged their practiced sangfroid. After going a few rounds with him, I wasn't sure who I would put my money on.

The neighborhood we entered consisted of only a dozen or so large lots of Sardanapalian extravagance. We wound our way up the mountain until we arrived at yet another immense gate, this one of some reddish stone I couldn't identify. Several more guards stood on the exterior side of this, though this crowd seemed to know Chespy. One of them spoke quickly into a radio and the gate slid open silently. The property on which the house sat must have been at least 8 or 10 acres, though it was hard to gauge because of the incline. The house was simply spectacular, a huge, multi-story Tuscan affair, complete with rust-red roof tiles and at least two fountains. It was a clear testament to both the panoply and the plenitude of power. I've read that during the 90's, more than 3.5 billion dollars US in drug profits were laundered through El Paso annually. It's hard to draw such numbers out of the realms of the abstract. That house made things very, very concrete for me. This wasn't money in the normal sense of the word. This was the ability to do anything. 

Chespy didn't pull up to the main house, but rather to a separate three- story structure on the right that was linked to a 9-car garage and the main complex by a long, covered walkway. Expensive cars lined the circular driveway, though in the area that Chespy parked most of the vehicles were SUVs. Security, I figured. Chespy led me into this secondary structure, which turned out to be the living quarters for the staff. A thick man with long hair tied into a pony tail frisked us in the foyer, and Chespy handed over a 1911 in a holster. Where the devil got it from I wasn't sure. I passed the man my knife without complaint.

"There's a nice game room upstairs, got some televisions and a pool table," Chespy mentioned as we moved up an elaborate metal and stone staircase. The "game room" was on the third floor, and was easily the size of a middle class home in the States. It had very British-looking wood paneling that was sort of at odds with the Italianate exterior, but was still very tasteful and obviously expensive. Seven goons sat on leather couches watching a soccer match on a massive flat screen. They eyed me carefully as Chespy introduced me. If they registered surprise at my presence, they didn't show it. One of them made a comment about how we needed to be more careful during our "makeout sessions," and the others laughed. Chespy made an exaggerated gesture of wiping some additional blood off of his teeth with a cocktail napkin and then swatted me on the back of the head.

"Hang out here. I'll be back in a bit," he started to turn but then stopped.

"I mean it, about staying here. I encourage disobedience in the ring. Not here. You scanning me?"

"Go," I said wearily, turning to read the titles on one of the bookshelves. I didn't really want to engage in conversation with the sicarios in the corner, so I continued my inspection of the room. There was an elaborate wood bar set-up situated halfway across the room along a wall, and I briefly considered making myself a drink to take the edge off. I changed my mind and instead wrapped some ice in a towel and held this on my right temple, which was still aching nicely. One of the men in front of the television grinned but I ignored him.

I spent a few minutes cataloguing the booze. It was all pretty top-end, and it was obvious that whoever owned this place employed a professional bartender or sommelier, because you just don't generally find such an awesome selection of Saint- Estephe and Listrac-Medoc sitting on the shelves of most people's wine racks. A particular bottle in the California section caught my eye and I pulled it out of its cradle for a better look. It was a 1997 Imposter McCoy, and the absurdity of finding a bottle with a waiting list for the waiting list tossed haphazardly amongst 200 other bottles in a guardhouse in Mexico finally pushed my weary brain into the numb zone. I left the bottle behind and walked out onto the long balcony that lined the game room.

The view was beyond priceless. Monterrey spread out before me, a few million lights twinkling beneath the dark teeth of the Sierra Madre Occidentals. For a brief moment, the entire tableau appeared to be in the process of being swallowed by an immense beast rising from the desert floor. No, I reflected, the monsters eating the city are all up here, right here in this very house. In a moment of crystal clarity so potent in made the pain in my jaw swell like a wave, I saw what it would be like to follow the path Chespy was so obviously trying to lay down for me, the years of protecting men for whom there were no moral considerations. A few years later, after I had been transformed from one type of prisoner to another, a friend pressed me to try my skeptical hand at poetry. More out of an attempt to placate her than out of any hope for aesthetic approval, I tried to summarize the myriad impressions I gathered whilst standing sentinel on that balcony, and what I thought it might be like to be a part of that world. In the resulting poem (see below), I called the city a rape victim. That was, in the final analysis, rather optimistic, I think. The city was already a corpse. It just didn't know it yet.

Chespy found me there a half hour later, and he ushered me back downstairs, where we collected our various armaments. I honestly don't recall much of the ride to the club. I think Chespy must have sensed my dark mood, though I suspect he figured I was simply cowed by the obvious wealth of his bosses; whatever he thought, he jacked up the radio and left me to my reflections. I've been told since that the Zetas often used a similar tactic to recruit soldiers. They take them out, display their economic might, give the men a taste of the good life. Chespy must have felt I required an extra dose, since I wasn't likely to be impressed by a mere middle-class presentation. It so, he miscalculated badly. I'd already seen through the illusion of money. Lobo's presentation had been far more intelligent. He‘d zeroed in on my admitted fascination with systems vulnerability: the cracks in the edifice of society, the small holes left behind for men of intelligence and craft to squeeze through. The mansion and the M-72 standing in the corner by the billiards cues didn't interest me in the slightest.

The club was just starting to jump when we pulled up to the valet. "Here," Chespy handed me a white envelope stuffed with dollars. "For drinks," he laughed at my expression. I thumbed through the notes quickly, counting at least a thousand dollars.

"You expecting me to buy a round for everyone?" I asked but he ignored me, opening the door to step outside. A long line of fit, young, primped up civilians lined up outside the club, the ubiquitous velvet ropes keeping the mass from surging forward. Chespy snorted at this and walked right up to the door. Several of the heavily muscled men near the hostess stand must have been cartel, because they greeted him warmly and the bouncers let us pass. To enter the club you had to move up a long staircase. Once inside the main cavern of the club, a series of three staircases led back down to the dance floor, which was already writhing with half-lit human forms. The DJ's perch was even with the entry level, so he and his entire entourage hovered about 18 feet over the crowd. Two suspended walkways hugged the walls and led to two separate VIP lounges. Another group of men parted to let us enter the one on the right.

There were maybe 50 or 60 men packed into a well-appointed lounge, complete with a bar of perhaps 12 feet that lined one section of the wall. Two bartenders and a barback dispensed a progressively extensive flow of booze, and from what I could see from my vantage, they were good at their trade. Obvious prostitutes reclined on couches and divans, and there wasn't a single female present that was dressed like a girlfriend or a significant other. Chespy was off like a shot, leaving me behind. I got a glass of scotch neat and found a table near the back corner. No one seemed to want to know who the gringo was, and I didn't mind this a bit.

Most of the men seemed of a type: confident, brash, lords of all they saw. Their attire was modern and expensive, and l got the impression that this was basically the coyuntura for the younger generation. The Hammer had his horse races and cockfighting, these guys had the prostitutes and the obvious white lines left haphazardly on tables and the bar. They enjoyed being princes, and had the armament to make anyone who felt otherwise vanish. I wasn't the only wallflower, though. Hidden behind their more boisterous amigos were 6 or 7 men that hung in the shadows, drank seldom, and remained watchful. I don't know if these were serious men forced to put in an appearance, or if the cartel always had some sober men at their gatherings beyond the gatekeepers. Maybe both was true. Strangely, several of these men nodded to me eventually, though we never said a word to each other. Even stranger, Chespy seemed to approve of my behavior, as he nodded to me twice. I figured he would reprimand me for being a buzzkill, but I didn't get any of that. He did send a few of the girls over to talk to me, but I told them to get lost.

After about 90 minutes of observing the ego parade my numbness started to fade a little. Tiny tendrils of fear began to reach their way into my consciousness, and almost instantly I was ready to leave. I knew Chespy would disapprove so I scanned the whores. There, on one of the couches, I saw a girl of maybe 20 who had the look of someone who was fast realizing that she had gotten herself into something she wasn't so sure about anymore. I put my jacket back on and walked right up to her. Leaning over, I whispered, "get up, we're leaving." She seemed a little surprised but I could see her analyze me quickly and just as quickly decide that I was probably a safer option than most of the gun-toting sociopaths that surrounded us. Chespy saw me leaving with the girl and gave me a goofy grin and two big thumbs up. I nodded back. It was the last time I saw him.

I followed the girl out on the street. She tried to talk to me twice but I ignored her. I waved a taxi down and opened the back door. She got in after hesitating and I leaned over and handed her the envelope Chespy had given me. "Don't come back," I commanded her. She looked from me to the envelope and back again before reaching out tentatively to place her fingers on it. "Look at me," I said sternly, still holding onto the cash. "Something bad is going to happen in there tonight. Do not go back." She crossed herself with her other hand and I let the money go. I slammed the door to the cab and walked away.

I went straight back to the apartment, where I packed everything. I spent an hour wiping down every surface in the entire apartment with bleach, before dumping the sheets and every last item that might bear my DNA into a trash bag. I still had roughly 30,000 pesos on me, money that Lobo had continually showered on me over the past few weeks. I placed 1000 in an envelope for the cleaning ladies and another 2,000 in my jacket pocket. The rest I hid in my pack. I walked the detritus of my life down the block and deposited it in a dumpster. I hopped the train, hoping to reach Cuahtemoc before the last bus departed for my destination. Unfortunately I had missed this by more than an hour. I left the station and walked outside. Even at 1:30am, there was a line of a dozen taxies, the drivers of which stood in small groups talking and smoking. I saw an older man sitting alone in the passenger seat of his car, his legs stretched out to rest on the concrete.

"You know Cerralvo?" I asked, approaching him.

He gave me a quick inspection. I'd had a long night and I think my glare was enough to convince him that I was one of those fares for whom the fewer questions or discourse the better. "Si," he finally answered. "Long drive."

I tossed the bundle of 2,000 pesos on his lap. His eyes bulged out when he saw that the notes were all 500s. "That should cover it. No chit-chat. You understand me?"

"Completely," he nodded, and you know what? I'm pretty sure he did.

I watched the sun rise from the back porch of la ranchita. Blackie wandered back home just past 7:00am. His head shot up when I called softly to him, and he nearly knocked me over in his enthusiasm. He sat with me under a mesquite, his thick tail helicoptering around the entire time. His presence seemed to begin to loosen some kind of psychic knot that had twisted itself around my spirit the last few months, and I marveled at how just a few hours of contact with Chespy had turned me into a cold and potentially violent man. I could see why men followed him. In past ages he would have been a commander bellowing out orders from the first ranks of the shield wall, the captain of a pirate vessel. He was a force of nature, he sucked you in. The only way to survive his undertow was to stay out of the water entirely.

The Hammer showed up an hour after his dog. He didn't notice me at first, and jumped a little when I said his name. For some reason, I'd never really noticed that he was getting older. His reputation had made a giant out of him, but on that morning I seemed to see through that to the real man for the first time. I was angry. I had arrived ready and prepared to tear his head off, but after the trials of mountain and city, he just looked like a tiny old man come to putter about with his horses so he could ignore the coming apocalypse for a few more hours. I felt sympathy for him. But I also needed for there to be zero confusion about what I was about to tell him. I stood up and stalked over to him.

I could see him evaluating me in a new light. Rather than trying to interrupt my chain of thought so as to gain a superior position, he gave me time to speak my bit. "You want to know what I did last night patron? I went to a party. Two parties, as a matter of fact. The second was in the VIP section of a club downtown. The first was at a very large, very expensive house on the side of a mountain in San Pedro. You know the house I'm talking about, patron? It has a large game room upstairs. Down the side of the house, there's an immense terrazzo fountain with goldfish in it. Children were there, dressed up in their finest little church outfits. They tried to poke the fish with sticks. There were lots of men with guns. Any of this ringing any bells, patron?" This last was clearly unnecessary, because the dark clouds that increasingly gathered behind his eyes was the all evidence I needed that he knew exactly what I was talking about. In an instant I knew without the tiniest shadow of a doubt that Chespy had lied to me: Rogelio had never approved of his visit at all. I was being recruited without his permission.

"Thees...thees...hijo de su puta madre! He no have the right to-"

"Wrong, patron" I spat back at him, once again trying load as much condescension as I could muster into his supposed title. “He can do whatever he wants because you can't stop him. That's all the 'right' he needs. You need to..." I paused, carefully considering my words. "You need to inform him - but only if he asks about my whereabouts - that I'm on some kind of special mission for you. Maybe I'm in the south learning some skills that I will need as your new money launderer. Whatever you tell him, make it stick, because I need some time away from all of you. Just...stay out of my way for now." I didn't ask if he understood, just turned my back on him and started to walk away. Blackie followed in my wake, tail still flapping about as if all was right with the world.

I look back on this and regret I did not show him more kindness. He had wanted to use me, yes, but he also protected me for a time when I didn't deserve the protection of anyone. He was my only real ally down there and he merited more consideration. But in that moment, as I walked across the desert towards my taller, I couldn't feel anything good or kind. I was enveloped and crushed by the weight of bad decisions and broken illusions. This fog would not lift for a very long time. Sometimes I wonder if it ever lifted completely at all.

To be continued…

Ashes Falling Like Snow

It never takes long
-and much less time than it used to-
for the disconnect to arrive
though I find it forever impossible
to later pinpoint
exactly when
my switchblade eyes flicked from
to papered-over windows,
my chronometer mind reduced
to vertebral clouds.
The here-and-now effectively
“not quite 12 pesos to the dollar”
as they say down here
though only a fool trusts
or even listens
to anything that they say.

Disengage, disengage;
the view helps.
Monterrey spreads out beneath me,
a rape victim in the truest
sense of the word,
bowing before this gilded porch,
this throne,
the hidden threat not so hidden.
Subtlety is not much appreciated
in this trafficker’s Emerald City
of thugs, sicarios, killers and worse;
all believers in the real Golden Rule:
he who has the most gold
makes the rules.
And me.
Can’t forget that salient little
detail, though I try mightily.

Hard to believe
-then again, not really-
that less than a kilometer
from this immoral high ground,
this temple to Grade Three thinking,
people live on less than a dollar a day.
I used to feel something for them
down below, once,
victims of this cruelest of juxtapositions.
That was before the best
parts of me
became imaginary
before anagnorisis became
too much to ask for,
before I made soul-attrition
an art-form.

Ah, well: mors certa, vita incerta,
my friends
or something;
none of the old justifications
seem to serve me anymore.

I turn around
from the dying to the dead.
Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?
An old question answered
-cynically, finally-
with the possession of a mirror.
Back to work, then.
My stethoscopic gaze covers
the dramatis personae of this
tragic farce, this lingering limbo
between hell and hell:
a study in polite anthropophagy
-they are, after all, here to
feed upon each other.

And also, of course, to display
their once upon a time
Mayan Princess wives
Now reduced through bitter competition
To sleazy Mexican Barbie dolls,
all equally bleached
and medicated
and silicone enhanced:
a Stepford wife
for the appropriate Latin weltan-schuung.
The glazed and distant shine
in their blue contact-covered eyes
reminds me somehow of light
thrown outward from a star
that’s been dead
for a billion years.
Nearby, their husband’s mistresses
take an opposing tact,
draped in the latest
GucciChanelDior sponsored
wet dream:
attempting class,
or their version of it.
Each side borrowing the imagined
traits of the other,
neither winning.

Five meters away,
a world apart,
their children laugh and play
traumatizing the goldfish in the fountain.
Relatively innocent
at least for now.
Living Christmas ornaments
shiny and covered with glitter
brittle and easily broken.
It’s never easy to watch
the halos slip to become garottes
as they follow Daddy’s memes
and his footsteps,
as the darkness outside becomes one
with the darkness inside.
A communicable cancer, maybe. No, more: the
commodification of a dope-fiend logos
always ready for the next
the next hired gun
the next hollow man.
It’s all ineradicable, or so they hope.
I gave up hoping a long time ago.

The Janus-men stand along the wall,
surrounded by those who worship
and protect them
most of the latter so stupid
alcohol couldn’t find their brains.
Men like Hollywood sets: facades
propped up with boards and wires,
killing time
before time kills them.
The inner circle, the root,
they never leave the back room,
not an existential crisis
among the lot of them.
Men for whom hate
is more complicated in the abstract.
All of them too crisp and ironed
to be real;
skin like polished wood
each occasionally seeing something oracular
in the glow of their Blackberries;
superiority axiomatic.
If there is something the dead
truly are holding back,
they know what it is.

I don’t know why I’m here
I once had my reasons, I think;
I tried to move from seeking
meaning to making meaning,
to see prosperity as a value
and not a condition.
Pure sophistry, a toxin
I drank as a tonic.
No more, no more.
I haven’t spent any real money
since the earlier days
of those earliest years,
now just going through the motions
playing referee, lifeguard
for these bad-trip Norman Rockwell paintings.
Beyond numb.
In Medea, the chorus asks
what further horror could match this?
Maybe I’m just looking to answer:
with violence as both rudder and river
with “straw purchasers”
and forged End-User Certificates,
with 30 pieces of lead instead of silver,
in becoming what we hide
in screams instead of phonemes
placebo gods, every last bit of it.

Sometimes, in those brief, blessed
moments of disconnect
I can see this entire milieu
– the obscene mansion,
the people who infest it,
even the jacaranda trees –
engulfed in flames:
this whole rotton circus freak show
evaporating in the auto-de-fe of
the Greater Good,
returning to earth finally as ashes
falling like snow,
myself included.
The thought makes me smile
for the first time in weeks.
An ugly grin for an ugly face
-like an open grave
I’ve been informed-
and I catch myself
dropping back into my null state;
After all, we wouldn’t want
to disturb the guests.

Perhaps, in my tale
I self-deceived
-a common theme
to a life lived poorly-
when I claimed to disbelieve
in hope
as an institution.
One desire do I hold
so deep
it only comes to the surface
in the moments before sleep,
hypnagogic imagery
all the freedom I allow myself:
if I could have changed,
taken another path in the forest,
lived a life
where I merely
read about people like me
in the papers:
if I could have been different
from what I have become:
because if I really had options
beyond that which nature programmed
beyond the call of the machine inside
then no evasions suffice
no justifications exist
no blame can be affixed
for what I have wrought.
And though I am a survivor
-no! a conqueror!-
of the most treacherous
urban jungle known to man.
I am nowhere near strong enough
empty enough
to bear the weight
of responsibility
for the hells I have created.

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

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