Creative Commons License
Super Friends by Whitney Holwadel Smith is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
Based on a work at whit-superfriends.blogspot.com. Super Friends: February 2009

Thursday, February 26, 2009

I'm Taking my Tonka Truck and Going Home

I've known Brad for over two years, three months of that spent in the same cell together at least 23 hours a day. In that time I've come to consider him a good friend. But things in the cell finally reached a point where if one of didn't move there was a good chance we wouldn't be friends anymore. So I moved. Of course it was over something ultimately petty and childish, and more than a little my own fault. You see, two days ago lunch was served much later than usual. This delay and our rumbling bellies built up a vastly heightened level of anticipation for the meal and its inevitable deliciousness. At around two o'clock we were convinced the tardiness was the result of our filet mignon being cooked medium instead of medium-rare, and we were excited. And hungry. When the trays finally arrived we sat down in our respective dining areas and removed the lids in an anticipatory flourish.

Rather than the gastronomic delicacy we had been expecting, our trays were instead filled with an indefinable slop. The Washington, D.C. inmates who run the kitchen's a.m. cook shift apparently made a gravy-like soup out of flour and water with just a pinch of chicken bouillon base added for color. A few slices of boiled potatoes rose out of the soup like white-rock mesas, a smooth contrast to the jagged peaks of chicken pieces which had apparently been scraped from the floor of the local Kentucky Fried Chicken franchise's dumpster. There was also a serving of beans and rice as a "side-dish" or whatever.

Chanting my little stress-relieving adage, "Three-two-one, one-two-three / There's nothing the matter with me," I took a deep breath and set to work on my beans and rice. Out of the corner of my eye I observed Brad in a rigid state, grotesquely scowling at the tray in his hands.

"What's up, buddy?" I asked him.

"Man, this is crazy," he said.

"No argument here."

"I wouldn't feed my dog this garbage," he said. There was a bitterness in his voice, an anguish almost.

"Yeah, I know what you mean. The beans aren't awful, though. Here's some salt 'cus they're just a little bland."

"I oughta just sling this crap all over the door."

I paused. The idea of using our cell as some sort of chicken-stew shooting gallery is utterly ridiculous. The statement was an expression of his frustration, not a literal desire. Still, out of all the things I could have said, the statement I chose was:

"You don't have a hair on your ass if you don't."

Why oh why did I say that? This is like the prison version of the triple dog dare. To heed it at all is just as childish as when a 10-year old heeds it, but challenging someone with it isn't any more mature, and I had just challenged Brad to sling his tray.

He leveled his glance at me and said, "What, you don't think I'll do it?"

I looked at him square in the eyes. I had challenged him and now he was challenging me back, in a way. What I should have and meant to say was "Yeah, I know you'll do it." But what I actually said was "You're soft if you don't."

***WHAM***, a big brown tray flies across the cell, bouncing off the door. Beans and potatoes and yellowish paste are everywhere. For a while we both try to pretend nothing happened. Brad sat calmly on his bed while I sprinkled more salt on my beans. A few minutes go by in silence, just both of us watching little pieces of chicken stream down the door and walls, trying not to notice the upturned tray which had ricocheted back to the floor between us.

Eventually Brad said, "I'm not cleaning it up."

He had probably realized that even though he hadn't backed down from my challenge, he still looked a little foolish. This declaration was only to save face by giving me a mock challenge in return. I was just as guilty as he was in this stupid incident and should have just backed down by saying I'd clean the mess and Brad would have surely insisted after all that he would clean it up. What I should have and meant to say was "Whatever, dude, I'll get it," but what I actually said was, "I'll bet you clean it up before I do."

Not long afterwards a guard came to collect the trays. By this time I had climbed back in bed and was reading my book, so Brad picked up the tray from the floor and, stepping around piles of rice and puddles of soup, handed it along with the other one to the cop, then returned to his own bunk. Neither of us spoke or in any way acknowledged the slowly drying food. Minutes passed, then hours. Dinner eventually arrived and the meal passed in awkward silence. By the time dinner trays were picked up the tension was so thick in the cell it could be cut with a knife. Brad had pissed me off, WTF was he thinking? Who throws their food? As much as Brad had made me angry, I was just as angry with myself. I'd had several opportunities to be the mature one and prevent the whole situation yet felt compelled to provoke it instead. What was worse was the fact that the longer we simmered together in our frustrations, the angrier and more resolved to "win the challenge" I became.

At some point in the late evening the nurse arrived to give me some pills. Tiptoeing around the now rock-hard, rotting food, I realized that enough was enough. We seemed to bring the immature obstinance out of each other, which was leading us down a road neither of us wanted to go down. The food everywhere was driving me crazy so I began to scrub the mess and decided the next day I would leave the cell.

At recreation the following morning it was discovered that an acquaintance of mine from general population ("the yard") was in the hole now and had an open bunk, so the move was immediately orchestrated. Everything in my new digs seems to be working out perfectly so far. All my things are organized again and I'm getting settled in to learning the idiosyncrasies of the guy I'll be spending up to 24-hours a day with. The only thing is, my new cellmate has asked me not to write about him at all, not even with an alias. I will respect his wishes, but only because I gave my word not to. Well, also a little bit because he's pretty big and could probably beat me up. So everything's cool, just a few changes in living conditions. Good celly and good spirits, what more could I ask for?
Well....


Friday, February 20, 2009

Waxing Philosophical

Jules Renard wrote: "Failure is not the only punishment for laziness. There is also the success of others."

Yet Kierkegaard claims that "Far from idleness being the root of all evil, it is rather the only true good."

Well, while those two figure out whether they're coming or going, Whitney Smith says: "These guards better get off their fat butts at least long enough to pass the mail out if they don't want me to go ape-shit on one of them."


Thursday, February 19, 2009

Fleshy Gordon

When it comes to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the name of the game is efficiency. Earlier today I heard a commotion down towards the front of the floor, or range, I'm on and observed that it was the food trays being passed out by no less than six guards. Each of the hole's six ranges is a straight corridor with twenty-four cells, twelve going down each side, two men per cell. The feeding process, usually a one or two-man operation, involves unlocking a flap on the cell door, slinging a container of whatever slop is being served inside the resulting opening, then relocking the flap. Repeat 23 times. Obviously the requirements for a federal prison guard are not unlike those for entry into the Army's Delta Force. Brad and I are in the last cell on the left, so as the sextet of correctional officers begin the distribution process, I say to Brad: "Man, they got six of 'em out there. The over/under on when they make it here is 7 minutes. Bet ten stamps." Brad takes the under. Sucker. The time was 12:14.

At 12:46 two trays of baked chicken came sliding through the door. What one person should have taken fifteen minutes to do took six government employees over thirty. When a person understands that this is the B.O.P efficiency at its finest, the fact that the warden claims pauper when it comes to things like single-ply toilet paper suddenly isn't a shocker. Abandoning the plate of chicken which was so undercooked it was still clucking, I set to work in determining the financial impact of the cops' ineptitude in this situation. Here's the math: At a conservative estimate of $17 an hour, feeding 48 inmates of a population of 1500 cost $50. Not the food, just making sure they got the food. If the process was performed with the same faster-than-a-speeding bullet rapidity on the other ranges, then feeding the entire hole their lunch cost well over $300.

What's my point with all that number crunching and whining? To be honest, I just feel like bitching to someone and Brad's taking a nap. But more than that, despite the fact that we don't pay taxes, we inmates do have a stake in the issue of wasted funding. All of my clothes and bedsheets are washed by hand in the cell's sink with soap purchased myself from the prison commissary, although I've been unable to get a clean blanket for more than a month because "there's no money for detergent." Every night when I cover up with the same dingy blanket I think about the gross ineptitude and inefficiency of the vastly overpaid babysitters passing as prison guards and tears come to my eyes. Most of these guards aren't bad people. Maybe a little thick in the waist and thin in the head, but they aren't pulling us out of our cells for random beatings or anything. I'd just hope that it's not too much to ask that, with an unemployment rate last reported at well over 7%, our prison administration would hire guards who can at least spell treadmill even if they don't know how to use one.


Monday, February 16, 2009

Vernon God Little

One of the most entertaining novels I've ever read, second only to Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, is Vernon God Little, by Australian-born DBC Pierre, the pseudonym used by Peter Warren Finlay. If you're looking for profound, check out Vanity Fair. If something epic is to your tastes, this book cannot be juxtaposed in any way with Moby Dick. But for a truly fun read with a strong social message, this is the one. Vernon God Little is a brutally honest, sometimes grotesque and thoroughly hilarious glimpse into the dungeon which can be small-town middle America. The book's narrator, 15-year old Vernon Little, is a social loner in rural Texas where he fails to in any way relate or connect with not only his school fears but also his own family, especially his imbalanced single mother. Vernon's only friend is another quiet loner. At least until the friend carries out a Columbine-style massacre, committing suicide afterwards. The resulting press coverage launches the previously unknown town into national headlines which everyone from the mayor to Vernon's own mother hopes will propel them out of their lives dominated by fast-food, reality television and celebrity gossip into a world of fame and wealth which they were all obviously meant for. Through their desperation, poor, innocent Vernon becomes charged with murder as an accomplice to his friend's horrific crimes.

Hmm, for having described the book as hilarious, what I've just written won't exactly have Judd Apatow screaming for the movie rights. But while the plot itself doesn't exactly inspire mirth, Vernon's reactions to his predicament and the startling observations he makes about the world around him are nothing short of pricelessly funny. Finlay could not have created a more situationally appropriate teenage boy than Vernon.

In the final chapter of Vernon God Little, Finlay makes a bold prediction about the future of the American penal system. To say any more would be to give away the book's ending, but the theory is so plausible despite being completely ridiculous that how it hasn't come to fruition already is a complete mystery.

Hopefully this book will be enjoyed by all those who choose to read it. Although unabashedly vulgar at times, this is satire at its best through and through. And here's a snippet to whet your appetite:

"Uh huh. Let me explain that my job is to uncover the truth. Before you think that's a hard thing to do, I'll remind you that, stuss-tistically, only two major forces govern life in this world. Can you name the two forces underlying all life in this world."

"Uh -- wealth and poverty?"

"Not wealth and poverty."

"Good and evil?"

"No -- Cause and effect. And before we start I want you to name the two categories of people that inhabit our world. Can you name the two proven categories of people?"

"Causers and effecters?"

"No. Citizens -- and liars. Are you with me Mister Little. Are you here?"



Special Delivery

The United States Postal Service is bleeding money like the sacrificial goat in a satanic ritual. From what I've been reading in USA Today, our Postmaster reports record-setting losses for the 2008 fiscal year totaling in the billions of dollars. Billions! Yes, we're talking about the organization with an army of men and women prancing through the streets in their too-tight navy shorts and their oh-so-cool European satchels. Just where exactly is the $8.40 I'm spending on every book of 20 stamps going? Yeah, yeah - salaries, pensions, health insurance, vehicle maintenance, gas ... Gas! I had almost forgotten to take into consideration the fact that last year's record losses for our little letter carriers coincide with the record gains in gas/oil industry profits as regular unleaded gas was going for about four bucks a pop last year. I'll admit that maybe the post office's bitching is legitimate and perhaps it's more than governmental ineptitude which is blowing our country's postal wad. So what do we do?

According to the articles I've been reading in the newspaper, there are three options which are being considered to ensure that the U.S.P.S. weathers its current financial storm. One possibility is to put together some sort of federal bailout, a lump-sum payment/loan from Team Obama which would keep the delivery trucks' tanks filled and ensure that the stockpile of silly shorts never runs short. Considering the stunning efficiency and effectiveness with which the Fannie and Freddie bailouts were performed, it's no wonder that this option seems to be spoken about only as lip service. The second option suggested was to significantly increase the price of a stamp. Normally, the price of a stamp can only rise at the rate of inflation except in emergency conditions when the post office can ask Congress to approve a rate hike as high as necessary. Postal spokespersons have already stated that when they seek approval for a rate increase which would take effect in May, they would not ask for anything more than the $.01 or $.02 boost which would keep rates in pace with inflation, forgoing any "emergency" increases. The only other reasonable course of action officials can come up with is to cut an entire day of mail delivery, reducing the postal schedule from a six-days a week operation to an only five-days a week affair. This sounds to be the most seriously considered option at the moment and in my own admittedly uninformed opinion, this does seem the most ideal of the three choices for rescuing our mail services.

But can't we come up with an option number four? While for a lot of people the daily mail is nothing but a load of bills and snailspam, mail-call for me is just about the only thing I've got to look forward to each day. The rush from mail-call is not unlike putting a big bet down on a roulette table, watching the guard make his way to your cell like a ball circling the wheel, sorting the stack of letters and magazines in his hand while the inmates watch and wonder if today's going to be the day they'll hit. Sometimes you lose and the cop just keeps on strolling past your room and sometimes you hit big and a thick stack of envelopes come sliding under the door. Win, lose, or draw, there's always the thrill of the game, so eliminating a sixth of the mail delivery is like eliminating a sixth of my happiness. I'll bet those selfish pricks didn't even take my opinion into consideration when coming up with this crackpot scheme of theirs. Jerks. Childish rants aside, I'm certain that there has got to be a better, even more cost-effective way of saving our already generously paid postal workers' asses without stripping Whitney of a sixth of his reason for getting up in the morning.

To come up with such an idea we must look for inspiration everywhere. Especially outside of America, where men and women brave the rain, sleet and snow to ensure that fellow citizens have their letters and magazines and anthrax in a timely manner, just as we do. And, like us, the boon of e-mail's instantaneous transmissions and ease of online bill-paying has been a near-mortal bane to postal services across the globe. The whole world is feeling the postal pinch, so what have the world's other nations been doing to counteract the technological scourge of e-mail? This online villain which is slowly but surely digging a grave for the almighty stamp. While Europe is without a doubt the first place to look for money-saving strategies, we should not focus too hard on the French. This clever nation has already devised a deceptively ingenious method of trimming expenditures through having constant national strikes by government employees. Many American state governments have picked up on the idea and instituted four-day work weeks for state workers, but some of these workers are fighting the change tooth and nail. The French government has realized that by pissing their employee unions off they can not only get them to reduce their hours, but also to actually initiate the reductions themselves. While this tactic is indeed genius, it's important to keep our goal in mind - to keep work loads at their current level, if not actually increasing them. What about the Deutschlanders; the Scots; the Swedes? Is India having any major issues with postal cash flow? If not, why not; what's your secret? I, for one, am willing to seek good advice from wherever I can find it, whatever it takes to preserve the six days of mail delivery which I cherish so much.

Until this international feedback arrives (Really! Leave your comments!) though, we can also be considering every possibility already available to us Americans. Although the U.S.P.S. is a Federal institution, it is designed to run at a modest profit. This fact makes it, by definition, a business. Why is it that the Postmaster General seems to have forgotten one of the cardinal rules of business: Sex sells. I mean, who really looks forward to dealing with the dry, old traditional post office? This isn't the Fifties, these days Playboy is considered so tame that by now issues are probably sold in check-out lines at Toys R Us. The globe is in recession, so now is not the time to be afraid of showing a little skin. First and foremost, where's the Jenna Jameson stamp? I'm not suggesting having a still-shot from Naughty Nympho Gangbang 4 right beside the "42 cents USA" text. But a tastefully raunchy photo of this emaciated porn mogulette is certain to boost business among men in the 8-80 age bracket. Also, with the restaurant industry in turmoil, there's got to be hundreds of out-of-work Hooters girls who would be more than thrilled with government pay and benefits. How about ditching the tacky shorts and knit shirts for two-piece bikinis? Watch the resulting explosion in packages having the same return address as the shipping address and requiring a signature upon delivery. Do not mistake the preceding suggestions as being made in the spirit of exploiting women. They're intended to exploit men and their Pavlovian reactions to anything with curves. And what's wrong with giving the ladies a little glimpse at some man-meat as well? I've developed a pretty nice body over the past couple of years so, if it were for the good of my country's mail services, I wouldn't hesitate to hit some of Florida's retirement communities to delivery mail wearing nothing but my fuzzy blue cowboy hat, zebra print bikini underwear and a pair of comfortable shoes. Enduring the gawks of a few old ladies is the smallest sacrifice a man can make for his country and its desperately ailing postal network.

If half-naked employees is too extreme even in this 21st century, that's fine. But as much of the rest of the country is scrambling for part-time jobs (if they can even find them) to supplement income, it should not be unreasonable to expect the U.S.P.S. to do the same. Almost every person in this country has a Federal employee on their property once a day. While that government representative is there, what if someone needs a gallon of milk and a loaf of bread from a store down the road? For a fee, how about being able to have a few groceries delivered with one's mail - two birds with one stone. Or if it's your friend Jenny's birthday, how about sending her a singing telegram with her next issue of Elle via the U.S.P.S. For a fee.

These are just a couple of the possibilities which come to mind. Whether or not these particular strategies are put in place is not important, but we do need to keep in mind that desperate times call for desperate measures. As a country, it is vital that we think outside the box. If this means putting Chippendales on delivery routes while carrying speakers blasting Right Said Fred's mega-hit "I'm Too Sexy" or if my mail suddenly comes with a song and dance on my birthday, great. I just hope that we can come together as a nation to do what needs to be done so Smitty From The City can enjoy as many days of mail roulette as possible.



Wednesday, February 11, 2009

The Bacon Blues


"How old is Smurf?"

"Say that again, I had my earphones on."


"Smurf, how old is he?"

"Let me get this straight - I'm in The Zone, writing a fiv
e-page essay on how Emily Dickinson's shut-in ass can't tell a train from a horse, and you decide to ask me about Smurf?"

"Yep."

"OK, but before I answer that question, here's a question for you: What the hell is wrong with you?"

"You don't have to be a jerk; either answer the question or don't. You don't even know, do you?"

"Of course I know how old Smurf is. Late sixties somewhere. He may be seventy by now."

"Huh. I was just down here thinking about Smurf's gang, that's why I asked."

"Oh yea, that's right. I had forgotten about his little cre
w."

"What were they called again, FAG?"

"Boy, if he ever found out you said that he'd put a hit out on you. He called his group FOGG, remember? The Fuckin' Old Guys Gang."

"Yeah, that's it. And he even had that wild hand signal that was a mix between a claw and a dead fish."

"I had forgotten about that too. You know, at first I used to think he was just joking around about FOGG like I do with the Superfriends. But then I was telling him about how he needed to start paying me dues every week because Superfriends was older and larger than FOGG, which made his organization a subsidiary of my own if he wanted
FOGG to be active in Terre Haute. Smurf's reaction was priceless, I'll never forget it: He narrowed those beady little eyes, gave me that half-chuckle, half-sigh of his and said to me 'I'll slap fire out of your ass if you ever suggest something like that again. FOGG pays dues to no one.' And he was dead serious!"

"Ha ha! What did you do?"


"What could I do? It's Smurf. I tried not to laugh when I apologized and offered him an extra bag of bacon from the butcher shop the next day. As soon as he heard that he was all toothless grins again and mumbling 'Yeah yeah yeah.'"

"Poppa Smurf does love his bacon."


"He did. At a borderline obsession level really. Everyone I've talked to who's been doing time with Smurf for years has told me that for as long as they've known him Smurf ate bacon like it was his last meal on earth. Remember that awful bacon we'd been getting until about a year ago, the stuff with a green stripe down every piece? Smurf loved that stuff more than anything in the world. He would have attacked his own mother for just a scrap. I'
d bring out a couple of sandwich bags full of the stuff and deliver it to him at lunch twice a week. Before he'd walk out of the chow hall, he'd break down the two fat bags into six smaller bags and stuff them down his socks and in his shoes and down his pants like it was bags of heroin he was smuggling back to the cellblock. The love affair between him and bacon had been like that for decades, I guess. Then that good, real bacon came in for a few months. As soon as Smurf tasted that new stuff it was like somebody flipped a switch off inside him. After that Smurf never touched bacon again. The smell nauseated him and the appearance revolted him. Whenever bacon was served he'd stay in his cell and eat Ramen soups."

"That's crazy, I didn't know that."

"Not too many people did except me and Tiny and we only knew because he wouldn't take any more from us. Honestly, I think Smurf somehow got it into his head that, by the person ordering good bacon, he was being patronized. Like he'd be
en gorging himself for so many years on sub-standard swine that to be given some real stuff was a cruel joke; throwing a dog a bone. So Smurf got offended. That's just conjecture, though. Smurf's kinda weird."

"After being locked up for 40 years I'd say anybody would be weird."

"Yeah, forty years. Can you believe that? When I look at 40 years as 40 years the number seems bad enough. But when I individualize each year in my mind and count them off - one, two, three, four, ten, twenty, thirty-five, forty - the amount of time becomes an entirely different animal. I mean, think about how every one of those years had four seasons, twelve months and 365 days, from year one to year forty. That's a whole lot of days waking up to concrete and razor wire just for robbing banks."

"The Feds are messed up. You were already in the hole when he left, weren't you?"

Yes. And I was mad about it too. I heard there was a big celebration for him."

"Except for Tiny, you talked to him more than anybo
dy. How did he feel about going home? Was he excited?"

"Man, Smurf was on serious Shawshank Redemption mode. And he wasn't shy about the fact either. If you ever asked him he'd tell you in a heartbeat that he was scared to death. Once I was over in his cell at the old man's unit to drop some cigarettes off when we got on the topic of his wife and kids and grandkids and what it would be like to
see them again. It was horrible, Smurf started to cry. I thought he was sobbing because he missed them and reassured him that he'd be out there with them soon enough. Messed me up when he said that it wasn't the fact that he missed his family that hurt, but the fact that he didn't miss them. That's deep. Guess you can't miss people you don't even know. Those were a seriously unsettling ten-minutes right there, having to watch a man who's spent 40 years of his life in high-security prisons and escaped from two of them have tears dripping from his face because he's scared to go home."

...

...

"How much time do you have left again, Smitty?"

"Assuming I win my trial, about three more years."

"Yeah? That's not too bad."

"No, it isn't."

"If I don't win this appeal, I've got 17 years to go."

"You'll win."

...

...

"When I first got here I thought Smurf was a predator."

"What!?"

"I know that's crazy, but that's the vibe I got from him
at first."

"Ha, no, I mean what the hell is a 'predator'?"

"You know, I'm a young guy with a smooth face and never been to prison before. People always told me the stories about how I shouldn't take gifts from people and how if anyone leaves a candy bar on my pillow not to eat it because there's always a price to pay."

"So Smurf put a candy bar on your pillow?"

"No, smartass, he didn't leave a candy bar on my pillow. Look, when I first got here Smurf was still working in the barber shop..."


"OK."

"And I'm up in the barber shop getting a haircut just a couple days after getting off the bus. I was still trying to figure out how things work and who's who when this weird old man who's cutting my hair starts talking about wishing he had some Viagra and
LSD. I didn't even know his name. I just sit there and listen to him while he gives me a horrible haircut. When he's finally done he takes out some lotion or tonic or whatever and starts rubbing it into his hands."

"Ha ha! I see where you're going with this."

"Laugh if you want to, Smitty, but I was seriously thinkin
g Smurf was trying to put some kind of move down on me when he starts running his hands through my hair and massaging my head."

"Everybody knows Smurf's a horrible barber. The head rubs are the best part of his haircuts, and if it wasn't for them the little bugger would have been out of business."

"I know that now, but back then the only thing I know is that in a high-security prison there was some creepy old man with 8 1/2 fingers massaging my scalp, sighing all the time he did."

"Now that you mention it, I wasn't sure what to make of Smurf at first either. He does that weirdo stuff on purpose. The first time he cut my hair he was talking about how when he goes home he's going to become a stripper and that his stage name was going to be Buck Naked. Then he starts getting hyped up by talking about his plans and all of a sudden jumps out from behind the chair and starts gyrating his hips. Then he took off his shirt and spins it around his head 'woo-hooing' while I'm sitting in the chair asking myself 'W.T.F. is going on?' When it came time for the head rub and I see Smurf in the mirror with his little pink tongue sticking out between his teeth and hear him whispering 'Yeah yeah yeah" I really start to wonder if this guy is joking or just crazy."

"That's Smurf."

"That's Smurf."


"I wonder what he's doing now."

"Who knows. Tiny supposedly got a letter from him about six months ago, although it didn't say much. Smurf's still on probation so he's still paranoid about violating his probation by communicating with felons."


"You would be too."

"No doubt. Hey, Brad."

"What?"


"For that pack of M&Ms I gave you last night, why don't you come over here and let me massage your head, fish."

"Yeah, sure, smartass. Hey, what you need to do is have a good talk with your Samurai dude, because he's flashing his dick to me again and it's start
ing to piss me off."



Back row, l-r: "Smurf," "Tiny," "John the Prison Bitch," "Punching Bag"
Front: "Some really cool guy," "Rock"
(click to enlarge)


Monday, February 9, 2009

Ninja Turtles

Prison sucks. Look, I'm really not the type of guy to sit around feeling sorry for myself, but at the moment prison is turning out to be a little more than I signed up for. Earlier today a set of cellmates (two of the white-power guys who are convinced of Obama's Al-Quaida loyalty after his inauguration stumble [yes, I stand by my claim that Obama is accountable - he knew the words of the oath, regardless of what Rickshaw Roberts said. Say them how you know they're supposed to be, Mr. Harvard!]) had a little bit too much to drink and wanted to have a little fun. Which in most cases is only reasonable, except that here in Terre Haute some people's idea of having fun is attempting to break out of their cell and take over the hole. What these two planned on doing once they controlled the building had they been able to overtake all 50 guards working in the prison at the time, is anybody's guess. Even they probably didn't know. After all, they were just drunk and wanting to have a little fun.

The institution's usual response in situations like this is to call in a special response team of highly-trained guards the inmates affectionately refer to as the Ninja Turtles, due to the bulky riot gear they wear. The Ninja Turtles have several tools at their disposal such as electric shields, tasers, guns which fire (usually) non-lethal ammunition, and pepper gas bombs. After the Ninja Turtles arrived several hours ago, their first tactic was to shoot the duo with hockey puck-size projectiles from their kinda non-lethal guns. While the wounds will undoubtedly have the pair whimpering tomorrow, in their current state of drunken half-rage, half-mirth they allowed the pucks to bounce off their bodies like whiffle balls. Sensing that the guns weren't having the intended effect, the Turtle squad fiendishly switched to pepper gas. The bastards. There's better air circulation in the space station than there is in this building, so when the gas goes off, Brad and I are just as exposed as the two drunk knuckleheads who were giggling as the gas-induced tears and snot dripped from their faces.

The past few hours have been hellish. A stinging, clinging, biting cloud of pepper vapor filled our cell like an old man's fart. Wet towels wrapped around our faces, my roomie and I have been choking and gasping for unadulterated oxygen which has only just now become available.

Within 15 minutes after the bomb going off, the pair were in the handcuffs and shackles, which they'll remain in until they sober up and then are returned to their cell containing nothing but a bed to sleep on. For everyone else it's back to business as usual except for trying not to breathe in real deep. Just another day in the life. Oh, here comes dinner.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

That Boy's a Dancin' Fool

There must have been something in the water back home over the holidays, an elixir which gave my city's population an uncontrollable compulsion to reconnect with somebody. Because during the past month I've gotten letters from a slew of people who I haven't seen or heard from in years: Aunts, cousins, friends, enemies. Don't get me wrong, the letters are both wonderful and appreciated. It's just that so many arriving in such rapid succession seems bizarre. Suspicious, even. Are these people in some sort of confederation against me!? No, I'm just kidding, the letters are awesome. A new one arrived just today from a dark-haired friend of mine I'll call Jade and has instantly become one of my favorite letters of the winter. In her letter Jade briefly touched on some important events in her life since we last saw each other, all of which were pleasing to hear about. Then, midway through, she wrote:

"What I remember about you more than anything else is how alive existence seemed around you. Whatever we did together was charged with the energy of your personality, like you electrified the world. Almost all of my favorite memories of those days are the trips we took in my Explorer or drinking "Mudslides" at Awakenings [a local coffee shop I used to frequent, and a Mudslide is an espresso/mocha/chocolate blended iced drink thingy served there]. I've still never laughed harder than the time you were kicked out of the Shell station bathroom [reference to a catastrophic hair-bleaching incident when, to prevent some severe chemical burns on my scalp, I was forced to bathe fully clothed in a public fountain]. I miss you, Whit."
For those who didn't know me in those late 90's/early 00's days, when I wasn't brightening the world with my electric personality or capturing the affections of petite brunettes with my brand of roguish seduction, most of my days were spent rescuing kittens stuck in trees and helping old ladies cross busy intersections. No, Brad, my chest has always stuck out this far. And you're wrong about me acting like a haughty asshole since reading that letter.

In truth, to read my personality being described as anything like energized is surprising. Although this could conceivably be true, I was 15 and 16 when I spent the bulk of my time with Jade. These were "post-drop out" years, years when my inexhaustible leisure time was dominated by activities like frying in the über-euphoric embrace of the drug Ecstasy, not exactly an activity conducive to electrifying the world around me. It was actually the pursuit of this drug which created the bond between Jade and myself. You see, those years were the peak of the techno/rave scene in the Midwest. Every weekend hoards of boys and girls filled with their small-town ennui would don ridiculously baggy clothes and neon jewelry and scuttle like so many rainbow cockroaches to random condemned warehouses or open, grassy fields where they consumed ungodly amounts of narcotics under the hippy-ish pretense of "becoming one with the music" that blasted out of a dozen massive speakers with such booming bass that light waves were bent from the force of the sound. "Becoming one with the music" too long at too close a distance can sometimes lead to becoming one with the poop running down one's leg as it seeps from one's mercilessly jarred bowels.

Traveling to these raves together was a perfect match for both of us, because what we could offer each other in regards to this activity was precisely what we respectively needed. I had information on where the best raves were and how to get in, as well as drug connections; she had a driver's license and a car. She had a great car, too - an almost-new Ford Explorer, the definitive American gas-guzzling behemoth, given to her by her "successful" parents as a sixteenth birthday present. Riding in a car Jade was driving was always a little unsettling. I mean this in the nicest way possible, but my friend apparently took driver's ed at "Carl's Discount Bumper-Car Academy" and the fact that she was able to pass the examination required to become the legal operator of a motor vehicle indicates a serious flaw in the State of Ohio's testing standards. Although the safety of a Ford Explorer's passengers is never seriously in question except in the rare instance of playing a game of chicken with a Sherman tank, riding in Jade's Explorer always carried with it the distinct possibility of becoming party to a vehicular homicide after Jade rolls over a Honda and its occupants as if they were no more than speed bump as she checks her mascara.

Her driving aside, Jade was a wonderful friend and we did have quite a few laughs together. Not too many in the raves we attended, though, so why those memories stick out to her is a mystery. It was around this time when my apprenticeship for becoming a selfish prick had just begun. My dancing probably had a lot to do with that fact. If anything about me could have been described as "electric," it would have certainly been my dancing. This was a small passion of mine back then. Except, while I certainly displayed vigor and unselfconscious enthusiasm every time I hit the floor, my particular style could only be described as comedically horrible. The visual juggernaut which were my dance moves is impossible to properly explain in words. But I'll say at least that my repertoire consisted mainly of a series of coordinated leg movements, skipping kicks, jerky arm thrusts, flamboyant spins and body rotations which varied depending on the direction my hat was facing. Maybe I was actually so bad I was good, because I always received compliments which didn't seem to be at all patronizing or sarcastic. Or perhaps a side-effect of MDMA is the inability to read sarcasm.

While my dance floor convulsing alone would be enough to make any person wish they could say "Yeah, I'm with him," our raving adventures hardly seem to me to be exceptionally fond memories. The sometimes eight-hour drives to venues were always filled with a sort of giddy excitement which made everything vibrate, but the raves themselves now seem shallow, adulterated and somewhat meaningless because they all orbited around the drool-inducing effects of a drug. A few smiles and a couple of laughs come to mind, but I mostly see those experiences as an assemblance of teenage make-out sessions, dilated pupils and hearing damage. Whatever spark I may have had during those days must have been from caffeine, because some of my fondest memories from that period, as Jade said, were of sipping House Blend in our polished coffee shop and just generally being a nuisance. It's strange what seems significant almost decade later.

Man, the last month has been a tsunami of remembrance in my head with all of the blasts from the past via U.S.P.S. The last month has been a great month for mail period. Fairly often a feeling of disconnectedness overtakes me after being deprived of things like visits and phone calls for so long. To everyone who's taken the time to write me a letter or post a comment or even just think an encouraging thought about me: Thank you so much! Because of you I feel connected again and remember what to strive for; what to look forward to.


Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The House of Sleep

To all those who were concerned: My shoulder is now as good as new and I'd like to thank everyone for their well-wishes. Despite the enormous amount of excruciating pain immediately following, the actual damage must have been minor, because after taking two Advil before bed, I awoke the next morning feeling wholly refreshed and pain-free. Either the incident wasn't anywhere near as serious as it felt, or Advil is some kind of miracle drug. Not that a miracle isn't an unreasonable thing to expect from a pill that costs $6 for a bottle of 20. At that price I should be able to eat a few and regenerate a few limbs.

Anybody need a good book to read? Nina the Fabulous Internet Sleuth sent Jonathan Coe's novel The House of Sleep to me earlier this month and I am now the newest of Coe's writing disciples. This man can weave a plot like a set of 10,000-thread-count sheets. Nominally a love story, this could probably be better described as an obsession story.

The book's chapters alternate between the lives of the four central characters while living in a rundown cliff-side manor which was being used as a boarding house for the university they all attended in the mid-eighties and then fast-forwards about a decade later when they reflect on how circumstances, events and decisions during their school years influence each other's lives in their thirties.

Sarah is a peculiar girl; a narcoleptic who often mistakes her dreams for actual events. Sarah's psyche is severely damaged by Gregory, her equally odd ex-boyfriend who has an unnatural fascination with sleeping habits. Terry's passion for cinema drives him to several extremes, while Terry's friend Robert has some serious identity issues.

The House is a truly excellent book, the kind that sucked me in and held me in a death grip until the last page. Mildly disturbing and extremely funny, there isn't anyone I wouldn't recommend this book to.

Butcher Shop Blues

A few hours ago I finished a letter to Tiny (see post titled "The Superfriends" and photo) letting him know about some of the changes here in Terre Haute since his transfer. I told him about how C. has managed to make enemies of nearly half the population; about how Jamie and Wes now run a Terre Haute gambling empire; about how Brad sends word that Tiny should quit sucking down candy bars like they're half-price Jello shots (I used to cell with Tiny and he does do this). In Tiny's last letter to me he inquired as to the status of the butcher shop in the prison kitchen where we both worked together until I was fired. While, as the name implies, the two inmates employed there do handle and prepare all of the meat used in meals, contrary to the images "butcher shop" evokes in most people, there were no 100-pound slabs of beef hanging in a back cooler. Nor did we do things like case sausages or carve pork bellies. Our job consisted mostly of duties like slicing loaves of bologna or thawing and panning frozen chicken quarters to be baked. Not a whole lot of turkey carving going on, or steak tenderizing. Still, a position in the butcher shop is highly coveted among inmates not only because of some extra privileges which come with the job but also because massive meat-smuggling operations can be orchestrated either for personal consumption or black-market financial gain. My letter to Tiny contained only one sentence regarding the butcher shop: "The blacks have the butcher shop now." Meaning two black prisoners now held the positions. When proofreading the letter I thought to myself, man, that sounds kinda racist. I could have just as easily written "The 'Gangster Disciples' have the shop" or "Skee-Lo and Cockeye took our spot over." The fact that my default statement was to generalize using "the blacks" with all the connotations really disturbed me and had me contemplating my values. Am I becoming racist?

If I am becoming so, my upbringing certainly has nothing to do with the fact. Those who know me already know about how I grew up: the son of an ex-professor father and a now-retired financial consultant mother in a neighborhood about ten minutes from downtown Cincinnati. Although the fact that we lived in a suburb implies all-white at least in practice if not in definition, to say that my parents encouraged beliefs of racial equality is like saying the Pope encourages people to be Catholics. So sheltered was I from the venom of racist beliefs that, even outside my home, the first time I heard an even jokingly derogatory statement was when I was first incarcerated at 17. It was then that I realized intolerance and bigotry in America is in fact alive and well, not something that was cleared up after the civil rights era like a bad herpes outbreak.

Nothing could have prepared me for the encompassing racism inherent in the high-security federal prison system though. Literally everything here is designated by race before then being separated by gang, group and individual; black televisions; Hispanic televisions; white televisions; white cells; black cells; Hispanic cells; native American cells; and so on and so forth. Competition among the races for job positions in places like the kitchen or recreation center is fierce, because it will be the winning race's people who are able to reap the benefits of having a brotha of color in that job. Cultural celebrations are vastly different among the races, like the Cinco de Mayo for the Hispanics, gang-leader Larry Hoover's birthday for the blacks and (oh joy!) Adolf Hitler's b-day on April 20th for the whites. This latter celebration is sponsored by whichever white-power gang is dominant at the time, and attendees can usually win prizes by playing games like horseshoes; winning an essay contest; placing in the goose-stepping competition; or, in the spirit of "pin the tail on the donkey," being the quickest to "pin the moustache on Adolf." I'm joking about those last two.

For those who could care less about Larry Hoover and are repulsed by Hitler, there's no escape. Being open-minded in prison is not unlike being gay in the military: Don't ask, don't tell. Attendance to the 4/20 festivities isn't compulsory or anything, but deciding to sit at one of the Native tables during lunch one day would earn me a little more than a dirty look from the chief. An example of open-mindedness gone wrong was when the boys of the Aryan Resistance Militia (ARM) decided they would allow a half-Mexican gentleman to prospect for their little group. That's a pretty big step forward, right? It was until their General found out what had happened and made sure that each offending member understood they'd made a mistake. Mexican Mike was the identity-confused individual who caused all of the trouble. Poor Mexican Mike, he got it worst of all when the General's orders arrived.

As ridiculous as this prison mentality is, any light of hope for change is dim. My own aversion to racism is not by any means singular among my peers, although our views, if they were ever voiced, would be met with ten times the amount of derision and rejection than our tiny minority could muster. Although I at one point contemplated ways of promoting tolerance, that fire inside me has cooled. Sometimes ideas still come to me. At the moment I'm reading a fantastic book by Robert B. Cialdini titled Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. As a substratum to a larger point he was making, Cialdini briefly touches on the disaster of well-intentioned school desegregation when coupled with our country's current educational systems and strategies. He writes:

"First of all, the school setting is no melting pot where children interact as readily with members of the other ethnic groups as they do with their own. Years after formal school integration there is little social integration. The students clot together ethnically, separating themselves for the most part from other groups. Second, even if there were much more interethnic interaction, research shows that becoming familiar with something through repeated contact does not necessarily cause a greater liking. In fact, continued exposure to a person or object under unpleasant conditions such as frustration, conflict or competition leads to less liking. And the typical American classroom fosters precisely these unpleasant conditions."


Frustration.. conflict.. competition.. These three undeniable conditions of a prison environment, coupled with my theory that most people's social development ceases right around the time they join their first high school clique, makes the case for high-security federal prison being remarkably similar to a post-integration classroom. Just with a lot more heroin and knives.

Is there an answer to the dilemma according to Cialdini? Is re-segregation the solution? No, there is hope for true racial unity, he claims. He posits that this can be achieved through "cooperative learning" techniques. By reexamining some three-decades old research by social scientist Muzafer Sherif, who studied intergroup conflict among boys in different summer camp cabins, the secret is apparently to create situations where competition among divided groups hurts both parties and cooperation earns rewards. This method has, according to Cialdini, been shown to be effective in mixed-race classrooms, and I'm hopeful that it would be so in prisons. But how the hell can someone create a situation in which cooperation among all groups earns rewards? I just read the Cialdini text a few days ago, so my noodle is still contemplating the possibilities. My only plan so far has been to send Brad out to general population (i.e. outside the hole) where he will scream that Hitler and Larry Hoover are bitches while using a Hispanic phone and mocking a native war dance. My theory is that as every major race rushes in to beat the hell out of him, they'll all need to cooperate so that everyone gets the reward of a few good kicks. Ingenious, right? Brad doesn't seem too enthusiastic, but that will change when I tell him that he's being selfish and needs to think of the greater good, not just himself.

The whole cooperation/competition issue aside, a few hours of introspection have led me to realize that I am not racist after all; not even close. The practice of segregation and racial division is just so much a part of the world around me, with segregated showers and telephones, delivering news to Big Fat Delicious about the status of what was once our butcher shop led me to objectively report what would have the most meaning and clarity to my friend: The blacks have the shop. Race, gender, religion, sexual orientation - none of these qualities matter. The only thing Whitney Smith discriminates against is stupidity. Which means that I hate just about everyone around me equally.