19 July, 2008

Saturday Night, Riding the Red-Eye

The FM signal pops and hisses subtly, so I move the antenna and nudge the tuner a couple of times in each direction. Clunky headphones are an umbilical, link me to my Panasonic as I ready a blank cassette in deck two. The cell is dark, save for the forty-five watt lamp at the desk. I am awake enough, thanks to the ritual eight o'clock coffee — sufficiently caffeinated to ride the airwaves into the small hours. The familiar voice of a friend and some favorite music will be my companions along the way.

It may be difficult to recognize as a scenario from this post-millennial decade, not from twenty years earlier. Radio? Cassettes? But each and every Saturday night this is how it goes. The station, an independent, listener-supported outfit, has an eclectic schedule, offering programming as diverse and divergent as techno, Tejano, and talk. Nowhere on commercial terrestrial radio (not in this Midwestern market, at least) could I hear album tracks from Peter Murphy, Depeche Mode, New Order, nor anything at all, for that matter, by the Legendary Pink Dots, Cocteau Twins, or VNV Nation. My friend's show features mostly a mélange of that sort of retro, electro, New Wave, New Romantic, post-punk fare, as well as contemporary acts inspired by the same. She and I often joke about the "format-free format" of her if-I-like-it-I'll-play-it approach.

As scattershot as Sunshine’s playlists might seem, they’re often replete with the stuff of my life’s soundtrack. Many of the songs are bound up inextricably in the strands of my memory, and lead me every week on a tangled, tangential tour of the past as I follow each thread.

Learn to love me / Assemble the ways / Now, today, tomorrow / And always My father has just given me my first Smiths album, Louder Than Bombs. We are seated on the giant sofa in the living room, all ears. I study the album’s scant liner notes while Pops walks me through the band’s history, their monumental relevance, and the reasons they will never, ever get back together. Morrissey is crooning about a quiet revolution of shoplifters, Johnny Marr is jangling his guitar around. I am fourteen. In a few years, I will own every Morrissey CD available, and most of the Smiths’ studio output. Pops will become the biggest influence on my musical taste, and I will forever love him for that.

I feel so extraordinary / Something’s got a hold on me / I get this feeling I’m in motion / A certain sense of liberty My friend Jamie and I are driving her Barbie-pink Ford Taurus station wagon down Clayton Road, headed for our new apartment in University City, Saint Louis. The city, our adopted home now for nearly a full week, sprawls out in every direction, replete with exciting promise. Autumn air gusts through the car’s open windows, and I breathe so deeply that I almost choke. Life, since I moved away from my hometown, is suddenly no longer tinged with the sadness of tragedies endured — an electrifying contrast every time I walk into a new bookshop to peruse the shelves, every time I turn the corner of another unfamiliar city street, every time my cats come to welcome me in the doorway of our still-novel apartment. The car stereo suddenly surprises us with the ecstatic synth-pop of New Order’s “True Faith.” Smiling like idiots, Jamie and I sing along. We’ll never be twenty-one again.

We have a random on the west side / Personality malfunction / He says, “I can’t give you anything at all / Just a room with the perfume of you” My roommate and I are playing the Star Wars: Episode One edition of Monopoly on our dining room table. On the walls hang movie posters — Star Wars as well as David Lynch’s Eraserhead — and from the adjoining living room beats the track “We Have a Technical,” from our favorite Gary Numan album, Replicas. Even though I hate Monopoly, and let my roommate win almost every time, just to be done with our games quicker, my geeky proclivities prevent me from being truly miserable: we say “Croissant,’’ instead of “Coruscant,” because we think doing so is terribly droll (and might piss off George Lucas, who we suspect is sensitive about his legendary space opera). What we consider our mundane existence is, in fact, the stuff that memories are made of. In ten years’ time, playing stupid board games, drinking hard cider with a good friend, while electronic music squiggles and beeps delightfully in the background, will be something cherished more dearly than all the galactic credits in the Empire.

Now tune back to the moment. The final song of the hip-hop show is fading out. I shift in my seat and glace at the darkened world outside my window, anticipating what comes next.

A brief, nearly imperceptible instant of dead air, like an intake of breath.

Shh! The show is starting!

06 July, 2008

Those Were the Days... or Not

The inmates here, they miss how prison used to be, back when the reins were looser and a man could "do real time." The blind corners and open-front cells of the decrepit, turn-of-the-last-century institutions still have their hearts. It pains them that they can no longer revel in the unchecked anarchy of open yards, the permissiveness of bygone wardens, and on and on — a litany of reasons then was so much better than now. Via television, they vicariously relive the glory days of danger, with shows like Prison Break, and take heart in knowing there are other, rougher prisons elsewhere, such as San Quentin and Stateville, as evidenced by MSNBC's pride and joy, Lockup. Places like those, inmates and staff maintain a precarious stalemate, and it makes the career criminals here salivate.

Stories abound of life at "The Walls," the sprawling relic once dubbed Missouri State Penitentiary but now, thankfully, abandoned. Inmates who have been in the system long enough usually know the place all too well. Conditions were appalling. In the winter, toilets in the cells would ice over, at night; in the summer, pieces of the crumbling building itself were thrown through windows to catch a breeze. Except in the communal shower room, hot water was unavailable. Mice and cockroaches reigned.

But, to hear many of its erstwhile residents' nostalgic accounts, one might be tempted to believe none of these things mattered. For many, aquariums and console TVs in some cells, stray cats as adopted pets, endless drugs and hooch, and the insignificant threat of a single night in the Hole for fighting made an idyllic parallel to whatever gladiatorial existence they'd been living in the free world; prison was literally a home away from home.

"This ain't prison," comes the tired lament, "it's day care." Of course, they're right to note the differences. Prison reform, arguably begun in earnest (but undeniably first felt) in the early 1980s, introduced a completely different dynamic to how prisoners were dealt with and how the facilities were run. The most notable change was evident in the shift from active reform efforts, which have been proven time and time again to work, to human warehousing. Vocational training and self-help programs were too expensive, which meant they were expendable under new incarceration standards. This, combined with an inrush of nonviolent POWs from America's ill-fated, ill-conceived War on Drugs, brought varying degrees of success to the measures being employed to exact control over the once-uncontrollable inmate populations. The comparatively docile prisoners acted as a statistical buffer on the reformers' charts and tables, nicely watering down those violent statistics.

In the comparative calm, the ever-wakeful gears of the great bureaucratic machine continued to spin, however. Docility was not enough. Absolute order had yet to be imposed, so the focus shifted to a higher magnification. More than ever, uniformity has become the prime concern. All property is governed by strict limits, down to the number of rolls of toilet paper or bottles of vitamins a prisoner is allowed to keep on hand. Personal clothing may only be worn in certain places, at certain times a day, and is itself limited to a handful of articles. There even exists a multiple-page list that dictates explicitly what may be placed where, within one's cell, and in what condition it must be. Movement outside of the housing units is closely observed and regimented.

Micromanagement is the new way. Hardened convicts (labeled "offenders" in the modern industry jargon) have witnessed the end of an age. Unfortunately for them, and for the society to which many will eventually return, this new way is no better than the old.