22 December, 2009


I hadn't even been in prison an entire week when this exchange took place. I was walking back to the cell, having just gotten off the telephone, when a muscular, heavily tattooed con with a dramatic keloid scar across his neck approached. "Hey man," he asked, "you call or write any females?" It's been more than seven years since the encounter, yet I remember it vividly as yesterday.

"Um, yeah," I managed, dumbfounded by the left-field nature of the question.

"Know any that wanna get to know a Saint Louis nigga?"

Speechless, exactly three befuddling issues arose at this point. First, I was waifish and lily-white and young — each quality on its own being a statistical strike against one's safety in this kind of place. A vision of this as a prelude to a bloody disfigurement (or worse) flashed momentarily through my head: Uh oh.

Second was the level of hubris that would allow this man to believe I would simply hand over contact information for any of my precious friends. What kind of an ass does that?

Third, and arguably most pertinent, was that my circle of intimates is made up predominantly of über-geeks, artists, and bohemian types who are about as far from identifying with, or understanding, the life of the typical con as you can imagine. They like indie films and art openings, or puns involving computer jargon, or dumpster-diving for home furnishings. Even if I did effect a connection, what would they talk about? Where would be found common ground? I was baffled.

"I don't know if they'd want me giving out their information to a stranger," I told him. As unvarnished truth goes, it should have been an inoffensive answer.

"Just 'cause I'm black — is that it? You racist or somethin'?"

As it turns out, handing out women's contacts to inmates you scarcely know is common practice around here. Rarely, if ever, are matters of shared interests or compatibility taken into account. It doesn't matter if Craig is an animal-rights activist and practicing warlock, and Rhonda is a Seventh Day Adventist who co-owns a factory farm — a connection would be made on the basis that Craig is a man (i.e., has a penis) and Rhonda is a woman (i.e., has a vagina), and that this ought to be enough for the two to hit it off famously. How naive of us to think otherwise!

I diffused the volatile stranger that afternoon, but it took supplying him with satisfactorily exhausting evidence against my assumed prejudice. (A third party, familiar with Kansas City schools, had to be called in to vouch for the fact I attended predominantly African-American ones, at the apex of this ridiculous exchange.) He also grudgingly accepted that none of the women in my life were commodities to be shared. Afterward, on the countless occasions others have come to me with the same question, I have been smart enough to employ the old middle-school DARE mantra and just say, "No."

30 November, 2009

Driving Lessons

I didn't get my driver's license until well after turning seventeen. In Europe, as in most of the rest of the world, this fact would have seemed far less freakish than it did in suburban Kansas, in the latter half of the 1990s. On balance, it wasn't so bad relying on rides and public transportation to get around. I had no problem calling friends for rides, or, from time to time, taking a cab or bus. I also felt no implacable need to flee my father's house; the stereotypical teenage yen to speed off, in a car, at 12:01 AM on the morning of their sixteenth birthday wasn't one with which I related.

When the time came, however, for me to stop being such a transportation cadger, it was my father who broke the news. We were at the breakfast table, eating silently, the aroma of fried eggs and Gruyère thick in the air. He set down his issue of Men's Health and, apropos of nothing I could discern, told me, "It's time for you to learn how to drive."

My reliance on him to get to work, though just a ten-minute drive, had worn his legendary patience somewhat thin, evidently. And of course, I'd been as oblivious as always. The sudden broaching of the topic went deeper, though. My father had seen a powder-blue 1967 Cadillac Fleetwood hearse for sale at the little service station down our street.

"I could help you put a really big stereo system in there," he offered, once the debate began. Noting my absent enthusiasm, he added, "You could fit a couch in there too!"

With this, I started suspecting a third motive: his wanting me out of the house on some kind of long-term basis. (Else, why mention the couch?)

"I'd never be able to go out to eat. The restaurant staff would always be asking me to park it somewhere out of sight, where the other customers wouldn't see it," I said.

"Small price to pay for the bragging rights. Just imagine how jealous your friends would be: Oh, I only drive a hearse! That'd be cool."

"You obviously have no idea how my friends think. Your concept of 'cool' is also something you ought to examine more closely, I think."

"Well, girls would at least dig it."

"Sure, the spooky ones with fangs — the ones who think their lives are, like, tragic. No thank you."

With that, my father returned to his magazine. The debate over the hearse seemed complete, the one over my learning to drive forgotten. Alas, I was only half right. Within the week, I found myself behind the wheel of his cherished little Honda CRX, lurching to stop after stop, abusing its transmission with my violently inexpert shifting of gears, palms slick with terror-induced sweat. He told me at one point that he could appreciate that I was nervous. For one, it meant I would be more cautious about what I was doing, thus minimizing the odds of our getting into an accident. Also, he got a kick out of watching me squirm.

His lessons were long and relentlessly thorough. Learning to drive a vehicle with a manual transmission was just the first of his draconian conditions. I also had to learn to drive a larger vehicle — in this case, one of his work vans. Then I had to practice while pulling a boat trailer. Then I had to back up a long distance with the same trailer. Then there were lessons in heavy rain. Then there were lessons in merging, in driver etiquette, in high-speed handling. More than once, he actually had me run a light-pole slalom course in a supermarket parking lot.

One morning after a nasty snowstorm, we were both still in our robes when he herded me out to the car. He wanted to teach me how to handle on ice. He drove us to a nearby shopping mall, then traded me seats and made me brake over and over on the slick asphalt, just so I would know how to properly regain control in a slide. My father didn't even try to hold onto anything when we slid, just sat with his arms resting calmly on his thighs, laughing his sadistic ass off.

I still can't believe how lucky I was to have such a great instructor. Who else would've made me learn to change gears with a steaming cup of coffee between my thighs? You might be surprised how often that skill has come in handy.

15 October, 2009


Each year, around this time, something is unloosed that causes everyone in my vicinity to lose his mind. That something is football, and we might as well have it out in the open right now: I don't care for it.

I don't hate the sport, mind you. Saying I hate football would be unfair — an overstatement on par with claiming I abhorred the existence of, let's say, monosodium glutamate. While it's true I'm no fan of MSG, and generally request the cooks not sprinkle my Chinese take-out moo goo gai pan with it, I won't die (not right away, at least) if they do. Recognizing this fact, I don't give a lot of thought to MSG unless I'm studying a menu bordered with the signs of the Chinese zodiac. So too with football; out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately, football is more difficult to avoid than a box of General Tso's chicken.

The season starts unexpectedly, usually when I am profoundly lost in a book or writing project. All at once, out of nowhere, the entire wing of inmates — all seventy-one of them, my cellmate included — erupts into a violent cheer that startles the hell out of me. My train of thought is derailed every time.

It so happens I have a neurological condition that meshes poorly with the sort of chaotic outbursts football elicits in the guys here. They reach a certain pitch and fervor, and I will feel in my teeth a sharp tingling, bordering on pain. Unpleasant. All it takes is that initial evening's exposure to pigskin-induced psychotics for me to invest in earplugs. Some say I look ridiculous, going around all day with OSHA-orange plugs jutting from the sides of my head, shouting, "Huh?" at everything. Feeling like I have just chomped down on a wad of aluminum foil every time the Kansas City Chiefs gain a few yards — that's no way to spend half the year. Injury to my already questionable image is preferable.

The Superbowl is especially trying, thanks to the frisson it invokes in others. There are, however, a couple of good things about it. One is that it marks the official cessation of my football-related discomfort for another eight or so months. The other is nachos.

Longstanding and widespread penitentiary tradition holds that, if one has any money, one must stock up on fixings from the canteen the week of the big game. Groups of inmates pool their resources, potluck-style, beginning late Sunday morning. They gradually assemble gargantuan spreads of tortilla chips with all kinds of artery-beplaquing toppings — most popularly, chili from a pouch, summer sausage, squeeze cheese, and ranch dressing. By nightfall these heaps of junk food have been wolfed down and are being drowsily digested.

What I have found is that, if you throw in a couple of dollars' worth of ingredients during the preparation phase, the die-hard fans are willing to overlook that you're not remotely interested in their sport of choice. Bring a few cans of soda to the table and they'll likely even forget about your bulky, fluorescent ear accessories. Go, local sports franchise!

20 September, 2009

In Memory of Monuments

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow,"  "Only a Fleeting Thing," "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]

The first to go was Otto's. I can remember precisely where I was standing and what I was doing when I got the news. Not that I'm some naive Pollyanna who thinks anything lasts forever — certainly not when it comes to restaurants — but I had a little investment in Otto's Malt Shop, emotionally speaking. My friends and I went there all the time, as much to soak up the airborne grease from the fryers as the 1950s ambiance of the service-station-turned-diner.

I couldn't understand why the news took so long to reach me. It took a hookah bar to open in the same location before anyone deigned to mention the death of Otto's. No one wrote a conciliatory note: Byron, I'm so sorry to have to tell you, but Otto's closed its doors for the last time yesterday. I know how much you liked it there. It's probably small comfort, but I promise to fix you a Ricky Ricardo when you get out, okay? No one.

The last part may be just as well; my favorite menu item there wasn't the Ricky Ricardo, it was the Graceland — banana slices and chunky peanut butter on a half-pound hamburger. Sour grapes, though, right?

Nichol's Lunch went next. Unlike Otto's, which had been a relative newcomer to Kansas City's assortment of dives, Nichol's had been around since the '20s. There was a copy of their very first menu framed and hung on the north wall. A cup of coffee there used to cost three cents. Alongside the menu were decades' worth of newspaper pieces proclaiming the restaurant the "Best Place to Eat at 2:00 AM," the patty melts a tasty bargain.

It never mattered that the decor was tacky and dated twenty years ago, that the kitchen probably violated a litany of health codes, or that the tall redhead waitress had an Adam's apple and five o'clock shadow. Nichol's was where patrons from any walk of life could agree on something. The cheap fried food brought us all together, in a way. Nowhere else comes to mind at which conservative sexagenarians would peaceably sit at booths adjacent to those of drag queens and drunken frat members. It was a beautiful thing.

At least when Nichol's went out of business, the closing made every channel of the local news. Reverent elegies were delivered, in short on-scene clips, by many of the same fixtures I used to see on my many late nights there. Those brown tiles and nicotine-stained ceilings will be missed.

Very recently, a random craving for a gigantic reuben sandwich caused me to mention the New York Deli to my mother. The New York Deli was Kansas City's renowned home of the eight-dollar reuben. More than twenty-four inches around, piled high with a good three inches of pastrami and kraut, and almost impossible to eat without the aid of a utensil of some kind, there was no wondering why their reuben, specifically, was on my mind. "Oh, Sweetie," Mum lamented, "they closed. Last month, I think."

We used to go there every week when I was little. Their bakery supplied some of the best bagels I can remember eating. I vividly remember my excitement as a little boy at glimpsing their bright orange awnings. The sight was a sure sign a sweet, baked something would soon be mine to savor. When I grew up and went to live on my own, I continued going there, for onion, poppy seed, blueberry, or egg bagels. And for that huge reuben.

My disappointment was evident, sounding almost like desperation. "Seriously?" I pleaded. "Them too?"

Honestly, it isn't that Otto's Malt Shop, Nichol's Lunch, or the New York Deli were heartbreaking in their respective extinctions. I didn't know their owners, and generally wasn't more than passing acquaintances with the staff at any of these places. Besides that, big burgers and bagels, sizable sandwiches and specialty sodas can always be found elsewhere; another diner or deli will always open up, sometimes right around the corner from the old. What is substantially more difficult is accepting that I am becoming a foreigner, against my will and bit by bit, to a neighborhood I once called home. At the same time, in a certain sense, I never even left.

07 September, 2009

The Miracle Mattress

It was like Christmas: I returned from a particularly interminable workday to discover that, in my absence from the cell, someone had not only remade my bed, they'd actually replaced it. A new mattress! What I'd left was an amorphous wafer of aging foam, covered in tan tarpaulin, but what I came back to was a spongy new slab, twice as thick as its predecessor. This sort of miracle ranks right up there with discovering an image of Jesus burnt into your French toast, or that elves have cobbled you a lovely new pair of shoes as you slept.

Mind you, in the twenty-two years before I was abducted by the state, I slept in a fair number of uncomfortable spots. Among them were train station platforms, classrooms, strangers' floors, and even — once — a parking garage. None of these, though, were long-term arrangements. None wreaked the chiropractic havoc I've known from my prison mattresses. Waking with a headache or pinched nerve from daring to sleep on your side is common, as is flopping around in the deep hours to find the sweet spot — a position that won't put your kneecaps to sleep.

My bed — my bed: the one I owned for three and a half years of serendipitous somnolence — was a king-size Serta. About it, one uncompensated reviewer declared, "The most comfortable bed I've ever slept on." "Soooo comfy!" exclaimed another. And certainly there was room aplenty. I'm no big sleeper; I don't sprawl, as a rule. The freedom to loll, or lie crossways sometimes, on a whim, and occupy different space is nevertheless a pleasurable thing. Plus, reclining with a good book, with my cats occupying their own regions of that pillow-topped plane — independent but proximal, like a pride in the African wilderness — was nice.

The downgrade to a heinously uncomfortable single was shocking. Compared to the other assorted travesties of my imprisonment, my sleeping accommodations are far from topping the list of the worst. This hasn't stopped me cursing with deep sincerity each of my 3,011 restless nights.

Of the 1,500 beds at Crossroads Correctional Center, my cellmate and I won the mattress lottery. Only fifty were delivered. I spied the difference immediately, and not just for my cellmate's valiant failure at putting my bedding back to the military crispness I fold and tuck into it. The new mattresses we few were issued dwarf the old ones. They're actually square-edged (no more shapeless lumpenness for me!) and lack those rips, holes, and burrs that sometimes worked their way through the sheet to poke me awake.

I wanted to jump up and down on it. Lacking that kind of headroom, however, I contented myself with hopping atop it. I did that stupid open-handed rub-and-push motion that people do in mattress showrooms the world over, and in those late-night mattress commercials. You know the ones. As if a good indicator of how well I'd sleep on it was how quickly it reformed after a gentle press! Under my weight, the sheets stretched loose of their tucks and receded, exposing the mattress's soft gray cover. To contend with the unexpected thickness, I realized I'd have to make my bed differently now. A trade-off, then, but an eminently fair one.

The rest of the day, I walked around thinking of bedtime. I was like a kid who couldn't wait to get home from school and play with his new remote-controlled car. Maybe it wasn't exactly like Christmas. Close enough, though. Really close. And around here, I'll take what I can get.

25 August, 2009

A Very Technical Boy

If you've seen the movie version, starring Keanu Reeves, forget it — you've been tainted. The 1981 short story "Johnny Mnemonic," by William Gibson, is pure cyberpunk flash far superior to the big-screen adaptation that followed more than a decade later. Amid neighborhoods under geodesic domes, high-tech implants aplenty, and even a talking cyborg dolphin, it's the tale of a turning point in the life of Johnny, a cybernetic data courier, whose head contains secret information that's got a Japanese organized crime syndicate hard on his tail. Every sentence is amped-up pulp noir, with heaping helpings of smart jargon and grit.

Remember, this was '81. It's all got the whiff of cheesiness and cliché because this sort of story's been told for almost thirty years. At the time, few had actually written anything resembling this yet. Gibson's was the talent that, if not birthed the genre, at least made it readable. He invented the term cyberspace; it's hardly overstating when I say his work is visionary.

The introduction I received to Gibson took the form of his first novel, Neuromancer. An über-geek friend of my father's loaned it to me when I was thirteen. The next book I read, though — the one I chose on my own, having barely let Neuromancer's back cover close — was Burning Chrome, the collection of Gibson shorts in which "Johnny Mnemonic" features.

If all this stuff didn't inspire me to lose countless teenage nights in front of a glowing monitor, it at least fed the beast that was my growing obsession. A few months into my teens, I was already irrevocably plugged into the world of PCs. An avid BBSer, my cobbled-together computer was a 33mHz 486 with a huge 500-megabyte SCSI hard drive and 32 screaming megs of RAM. My pass to the thrilling world of online message boards with color ANSI graphics was a 14.4 US Robotics I paid almost two hundred dollars for. Not having to wait those interminable seconds for a blocky dragon image, made up entirely of pound signs and ampersands, to scroll into view in the Terminal window — that was a totally worthwhile trade for that year's birthday money.

At the breakfast table, I'd pore over pages of the phonebook-sized Computer Shopper catalog while absent-mindedly spooning Shredded Wheat into my face. For me to miss the school bus because I'd been eyeing the latest selection of processors ("Whoa, Pentium!") was hardly uncommon. When my father asked what I wanted for my fifteenth birthday, I didn't hesitate to tell him about the sale on Sony Trinitron monitors at CompUSA. In the truest instance of ignorance being bliss, my mother got away with non-peripheral gifts only because she didn't know the first thing about computers. Otherwise, she would not have been spared that particular hell of hearing me discourse ad nauseam on clock speed and resolution, on our way to the grocery store or dentist's.

Gibson appealed to me because nothing could have captured my teenage brain more than the idea of a future in which people ubiquitously melded with computers. The advantages to that, the pure sensibility of it, seemed so obvious.

By the time I was living on my own, there could have been no doubt I'd become a full-fledged geek. My computer rendered and raytraced, edited video and sound and pictures, answered my telephone, stored my CDs as MP3s, screened movies, beat me at Quake II, ordered pizza, gobbled down my HTML, and stood in as my alarm clock, secretary, and TV. I'd have carried it around in my skull if only it'd been small enough.

In that first apartment of mine, if no friends were over, my station was at the keyboard, typically with a cat curled contentedly in my lap. Perpetual music pumped from my speaker towers — retro futurist synth-pop fare, like Kraftwerk or Gary Numan, that would have been called bleeding-edge if the term had existed twenty years prior.

Gary Numan. Yes, I'm especially keen on Gary Numan. Most associate the name with the early '80s song "Cars." A one-hit wonder. Writing him off this way could be justified if your only metrics for determining musical worth are commercial radio play and chart success. They aren't mine. I've cultivated a fandom for the man's music bordering on rabidity. True, he hit a mid-career low with bad albums like The Fury and Strange Charm but to these I turn a blind eye (as any good, true fan should).

My first listen to Gary Numan came at sixteen, in my best friend's basement. The album my friend put on was Replicas, the cold, complex 1979 epic. Numan's otherworldly integration of punk's edginess with full, smooth synthesizer drones, combined with his affectingly personal (if oddly so) sci-fi lyrics, were like nothing I'd ever heard. I quickly accumulated his albums, starting from his days with Tubeway Army, and making my way up through his discography to the contemporary stuff — 2000's Pure and the dark, anthemic 2006 release, Jagged. Despite the music's dour lyrical themes, it's music that somehow resonates, makes me feel really, really good. A friend once observed that a particular expression forms on my face whenever I'm listening to Numan's music: simple, beatific joy. I've seen a couple of photographs, snapped at exactly the right time, and am inclined to agree. The slight curling upward of the corners of my mouth could mean nothing else.

So here it is, practically eighteen years after that first encounter with William Gibson's visions, and fifteen after discovering the alienated android rock of Gary Numan. Since those memorable moments, my life has taken a drastic turn. The last time I so much as checked my e-mail was eight years ago. Still, the tech-addict in me is covetous as ever: I still fantasize about jacking my brain into the Net, about those pricy Zeiss Ikon eyes Gibson wrote about, before I even knew how to read, in "Burning Chrome." Seeing the spine of that book of the same name — in front of me again for the first time — on the prison library's new-book shelf, my reach-and-grab was automatic. It was as if my body had been craving it.

Back in my cell, I kicked my shoes from my feet with uncharacteristic carelessness, I let them land where they may, one on its side, as I climbed onto my bunk with the slim Burning Chrome in hand.

Could it have been more right that the CD in my portable player happened to be Gary Numan's atmospheric 1980 release, Telekon. I pressed play, and those five familiar, fat notes of "This Wreckage" teleported and time-shifted me. Once again, I was back in my leather high-back, tweaking lines of JavaScript, a tiny cat wound warm and Möbius-like by my knee. The first terse paragraphs of "Johnny Mnemonic," at the same time, phasing me into that perilous theoretical future I used to dream about nightly.

It sounds contradictory, this revisiting of a pasts imagined future. In a way, I suppose it is. I can't explain it any better. All I know is that slowly, oh so slowly, as I read to the tones of Moogs and synthesizers reverberating through my headspace, the mottled concrete walls of this cell diminished, eclipsed by the spreading of a once-familiar expression of singular joy across my face.

13 June, 2009

America's Most Wanted Changes Its Tune for Dale Helmig Story

The Fox Network's perennial ratings-grabber, America's Most Wanted, broke with long-standing tradition two weeks ago, airing an episode that laid bare the wrongful conviction of Missouri's Dale Helmig. Dale had been convicted of murdering his mother in the early '90s, but key evidence that would likely have cleared him was never presented to the jury.

Most Wanted has built a reputation on its hard line, pro-law-enforcement stance, so it was surprising to see its host, John Walsh, discuss Dale's case without the typical level of approbation for the system. Coming from him, remarks about the system's imperfections and Dale's innocence were downright shocking.

From what parallel universe did this new John Walsh sneak over, and what's he done with our John Walsh — the one we've come to rely upon for curt narration of all those melodramatic, soft-focus re-enactments?

I happen to know Dale. Not well, mind you, but we reside in the same housing unit, here at Crossroads Correctional Center, and say hello to each other in our frequent passings. When I got wind of Most Wanted's interview with Dale and forthcoming show about his case, I shook my head. My own experience with media attention (see "Shedding Light on Pitch Darkness," 18 August 2007) has been enough to make me wary. The sensational angles and out-and-out misrepresentations committed by so-called journalists seem to be closer to the rule than to the exception. "Be careful," I warned him, but the hourlong program that resulted was a breath of fresh air.

The fact is, as much as the public may hear about cases of innocent men and women in prison, the seemingly endless trickle of exonerations, there are as many as a hundred thousand wrongful convictions in the US (by some estimates) that no one hears about. We sit in our cramped cells and hold fast to the hope our latest motion or petition to the courts will be the one that finally sets us free. Meanwhile, story upon story about police and prosecutor misconduct makes the headlines, and nothing seems to change.

An 18 February article in the Kansas City Star describes former prosecutor (and recent candidate for Missouri governor) Kenny Hulshof's abysmal emerging record for "error," which includes his "too readily embellish[ing] arguments with his own opinions, or with facts outside the court record." This from a shining example of prosecutor-turned-politician? Just imagine what sorts of treachery is being implemented by those with less stellar reputations to uphold. Based on similar reports that have recently come to light, Hulshof is far from an isolated instance.

Then there's the 18 May issue of USA Today, which cites the case of a man convicted of rape in 1985, who appeared to be on his way to freedom when another man confessed to the crime. In 1999, however — four years after this new evidence was presented to the court, and nine years before DNA evidence would formally clear him — Tim Cole died in prison. What was he still doing there? Why does the system allow for this kind of grievous error (or, for that matter, subterfuge)? What does it say about our country, about ourselves, that we let it continue?

I applaud John Walsh and the producers at America's Most Wanted for the exposure they've given this important issue. I hope it helps Dale, whose case is about to go before the Supreme Court. One episode about one man, though, is not enough. It's my hope that Most Wanted continues to take a stance against this particular breed of injustice. Maybe others will follow suit, which will be good, because victims aren't only created by crime: too often they're created by the people entrusted to uphold the law, who are too eager to see that someone — anyone at — all pays the price.

25 May, 2009

Excerpt from a Random Conversation, Recently Had

"You know what I miss?" he asked.

"What's that?" I responded.

"Women. I miss women."


"Ah, come on! Tell me you don't think about them, like, all the time."

"I really don't. On the list of everything I miss most, I'd have to say my Number One is just general socialization."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean being with friends, meeting people, having meaningful exchanges — basic social stuff."


"Women, sex — I'm not sure if they even rank in my top five."

"Byron the monk, huh? Sorry, dude, I'm not buying it."

"You're not the first person to mention the monk thing. That's funny. It's true, though, I'd have to say food ranks much higher — probably my Number Two."

"Food's a biggie. How about driving? I miss driving. Hop in your Cadillac, hit the gas, and do it: go. Anywhere you want."

"Oh, absolutely. Maybe not in a Cadillac, necessarily, though. Give me a little sports import, something agile. Preferably in red."


"Well, I guess a Cadillac would be fine at this point; it'd get me away from this place."

"Four wheels and an engine's all you need."

"You can even keep the seat."

"Hell, two wheels, even."

"A bicycle? Sure thing. I'll happily pedal home."

"Ha! I'm with you there."

"Okay, so driving is probably my Number Four. I love it, but at this point I'll concede that I'd rather have the company of a beautiful young woman. So that's maybe Three. But Four is a really close Four, subject to move up a notch, depending on my mood that day."

"What do you think about baths? I'm partial to a nice bath now and again. Draw it up, light yourself a few scented candles, turn off the lights — yes, sir; that's the stuff."

"You know, I'd never have pegged you for the bath type. And scented candles? Seriously? Do you go for a shot of the bubbly in there, too?"

"Well, you know, if it's available. I've been known to take a bubble bath or two in my time."

"No shit?"

"No shit."

"You've offically blown my mind, sir. Congratulations."

"Happy to oblige. I miss my baths, though. Prison showers just don't get you clean — don't feel like they do, anyway. Get out on the streets and take yourself a shower, you'll be subject to feel ten times squeakier than you do, stepping out of one of them dingy stalls. A bath, even more so."

"Well, we can at least agree that bathing is an important issue."


"Yeah, well, I doubt if most people out there normally think of this kind of thing. It might be a newsflash to them, knowing prisoners are pining away over more accommodating bathing facilities."

"'Baths? Bicycles? What the hell are these dudes smoking?' They'd think we were fools."

"The thing is, would your list of everything you'd miss, if you'd compiled it before you came to prison — what, twelve years ago for you — would it match all the stuff you actually do miss?"

"I don't know. Probably not. I had some pretty fucked-up priorities back then."

"The hell you say."

"Yeah, well. What about you? Your list be the same then as it is now that you've seen all this?"

"I'm pretty pragmatic — have been ever since I was little, I think. I'd like to think I'd have called it down pretty accurately. Sex might've been a little closer to the top than it actually is, and food a little lower, but otherwise I think I had a decent grasp of what was important."

"Bet that's a small comfort now, though, huh?"

"No comfort at all, Zach. None at all."

05 May, 2009

Requiem for a Paper Bag Now Available

For anyone who has ever discovered value in a piece of trash, wondered about the author of a note they found fluttering down the street, or developed an inexplicable crush on the subject of a discarded photograph, the outstanding anthology Requiem for a Paper Bag is now available from fine booksellers everywhere.

Featuring the personal experiences of a diverse assortment of contributors (including Tom Robbins, Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Jonathan Lethem, Susan Orlean, Miranda July, Jim Carroll, Billy Bragg, Chuck D, Seth Rogen, and many others), these are stories to make you giggle, make you squirm, make you cry — stories, in other words, that are as distinct and as fascinating as their authors. It is not only because the collection includes my story "Trash Night" that I recommend it; Requiem for a Paper Bag really is a fine book you're bound to find worthwhile. Click here to pick up your copy today.

04 May, 2009

Theater of Sleep

I remember only being adrift in a roiling sea of mercury, under a sky like fresh-from-the-earth oil. My craft — a raft? a rowboat? a dinghy? — was thrown along atop listless blobby waves. My eyes strained to the edges of sight, desperate for any trace of solidity. Maybe it lasted a few seconds, maybe a minute or two. It could have been an hour.

This haunting scene remained with me throughout the day, the way a song might have, affecting me anew as I sat at my desk at work, walked to the library that afternoon, and as I folded laundry before bed. My dreams have become, for better or for worse, nightly furloughs from the purgatory of prison existence. They typically make impressions that last. Like this one did.

Somewhere, probably in a book on neurobiology, I read that we cannot smell or taste in dreams, but that sensations of touch are common. This means it is either memory's notorious unreliability or a case of mind-over-matter that I once experienced a series of recurring dreams of such vividness and resonance that I actually started to wonder about the legitimacy of theories about reality's subjectivity. My waking life paled in comparison to the striking experiences of sleep, under which I lived out an intricate set of wanderings in exotic locales — along the banks of the wide, murky Amazon, atop dusty elephants in deepest India — and was surrounded at all times by a traveling troupe of outcast untouchables who loved me with a fervor and devotion unparalleled. We sang and danced along together, on our sojourn to nowhere, never speaking but reveling in one an another's presence. I loved them all right back.

Every night, we languished in the heat of our surroundings, breathed the pungent breezes, and tasted the sticky heaviness of the air. Every morning was a return to unreality, the world paling in comparison to the lurid Technicolor of my wild places. The difference was that of the sweetness and delicate softness of the petals of a flower, contrasted against a shoddy painting of one. I grew concerned for my sanity as the dream world grew increasingly real-seeming, the real one more gauzy and eclipsed.

Over a year's gone by since. It continues to feel like a lived experience. Still I am able to consciously conjure the scenes of my verdant wildernesses, their smells of soil and distant fires. I recall these things with a level of precise recollection as keen as I have for places I have actually been, and there is no way for me to explain fully how this is. Lacking logical explanation, I've not spoken much about it. Friends who know me well enough understand why.

One quasi-spiritual, pseudo-transmigration aside, my dreams generally remain rooted in the realm of the banal. An oft-recurring theme has me walking the aisles of a market, selecting produce and eggs and such. Considering my affection for food and the process of shopping for it, this should hardly be surprising. I also adore the freedom of an open road, which renders equally obvious my repeated nighttime experience of driving a car down an inspiring stretch of interstate. Oftentimes I get to enjoy a fantastic evening in the company of friends. All of this without leaving my bed.

If dreams are a window to the unconscious mind, not merely a hodgepodge of fragments that are, as many neuroscientists believe, the byproduct of the brain's sorting and reorganizing itself, mine would reveal a deep attachment to mundane things — those whose absence is felt more as a persistent ache, like the broken bone of a limb too heavily relied on, than the stabbing agony of a stolen life considered in full.

15 April, 2009

US Postal Employees, Take Aim

The United States Postal Service announced several weeks ago that it will increase postage rates yet again this May. An additional two cents for first-class mail, plus who-knows-how-much more for larger items, irregularly shaped mailings, or anything exceeding that initial ounce — that's the increase. A hop over to USPS.gov might tell you, but, as I've not had Internet access since mid-2001, I can't. Somewhat ironically, it is my disconnected status that makes this information desirable,but, if I could point my browser anywhere, I wouldn't be in a position to care about the cost of postage.

What can I say about the Postal Service that hasn't been noted hundreds, perhaps thousands of times before? It is a creaky anachronism in so many respects, frequently more expensive and less reliable than its private sector competition. From my perspective, it owes its continued existence to catalog distributors, archaic bill-collection methods, Hallmark, the elderly, the incarcerated, coupon distributors, and the fact we are still unable to teleport our parcels of holiday cookies. Why would anyone else tolerate its slowness? Shuffling a letter someplace that takes only a few hours to reach by car should not take four days. That's just inexcusable. And yet the USPS continues to operate in this age of ones and zeroes.

The rate increase and the reported reconsideration of the economies of continued Saturday delivery have me wondering what a post-Postal Service America might look like. It's possible I lack some imagination, but aside from an absence of short pants traipsing through its neighborhoods six days a week, plus a slightly greater proliferation of UPS Stores, I believe the change would be modest. An uptick in e-mail volume would probably be noticed. Luddites, however, would probably continue their reliance on paper communiques, beginning right away with the inevitable salvo of angry letters to anyone and everyone of potential influence: Dear Mr. President..., Dear Senator So-and-So..., Dear Abby.... Coupon circulars would find other methods of distributing their clippy wares, and utility companies would ensure their customers were still conveniently billed every month.

The demise of the USPS may occur largely without mourning. Some neophytes, myself included, will even chuckle, ask a rhetorical, "What took so long?" and go back to not reading our newspapers.

19 March, 2009

To Do

•Learn how to play backgammon
•Buy a good telescope
•Discover a fitness regimen I don't despise
•Give Shakespeare another chance
•Log some hours in a darkroom
•Ride a motorcycle cross-country
•Master the accordion
•Try head cheese, tripe, chicken feet, and all the frightening bits
•Keep my own honeybees
•Take lessons in fire eating
•Create an animated short
•Donate to AIDS research
•Milk a cow, drink it warm
•Appear in a film
•See the aurora borealis
•Tend another bonsai
•Play in a National SCRABBLE Association-sponsored tournament
•Record an album (not accordion music)
•Spend a day people-watching in Tokyo's Shibuya District
•See my father's grave
•Switch to a car that runs on vegetable oil or biodiesel
•Participate in a meeting of a polar bear club
•Spend a few days, maybe a couple of weeks, at a Buddhist monastery
Write and publish a memoir [Note: as I wrote here, on 14 May 2011, the memoir is done — kind of] •SCUBA dive
•Invest in a truly high quality timepiece
•Shop for Soviet kitsch in Moscow, have my photo taken in Red Square dressed like Boris Badinov
•Knit something
•Tend an Ant Farm and a tank of Sea Monkeys
•Learn how to really sail
•Adopt a special-needs pet
•See a Coney Island side show
•Learn the alchemical secrets of working with chocolate
•Try out for Jeopardy!
•Take Mum somewhere really, really special
•Commit to eat at least 75% locally produced food
Appear on the radio (terrestrial or satellite; Internet radio doesn't count) [Note: this got scratched after my interview on KKFI, Kansas City's 90.1 FM. See my 1 May commentary for more.]
•Get that tattoo
•Have a pastrami on rye and a celery soda at Katz's, then walk it off in Central Park
•Build a Zen rock garden
•Spend the night in an igloo or ice hotel
•Have a pair of shoes made, buy a bespoke suit
•Rehab, build, or buy a zero-carbon-emissions home
•Revisit Oz
•Sponsor a disadvantaged child
•Become proficient with American Sign Language
•Make my own cheese
•Build a heartbreakingly enviable PC
•Bake a perfect soufflé
•Exceed 150mph in a car
•Plant and maintain a vegetable and herb garden
•Get caught in a blizzard in Iceland
•Volunteer for a scientific research study, either psychological or behavioral
•Eat the worm
•When that beloved artist or band won't cross the pond to perform, cross the pond to see that beloved artist or band perform
•Stand on a glacier
•Master at least two programming languages
•Celebrate Dia de los Muertos in Mexico
•Locate, buy, and play the hell out of a copy of Empire Builder
•Dine at a three-star, world class restaurant
•Drive a supercar exotic, even if it's got to be in circles around a tiny track, at an exorbtant hourly rate (and it probably will be)
•Swim in mountain streams of at least two more countries
•Learn how to butcher and dress small game (i.e., rabbit, fowl, poultry, et cetera)
•Make my own doughnuts
•Get lost in Berlin, and, maybe, give up on ever trying to leave....

05 March, 2009

To FOUND Magazine: Some Brief Words of Gratitude

A sizable thanks goes out to Davy Rothbart and the crew at FOUND Magazine for their continued active support of my cause. Featuring one of my finds in issue #6 was surprise enough without the generous ad for Free Byron Case in the back. It means a lot.

To everyone else: FOUND is available on the shelves, countertops, and racks of exceptional independent bookstores everywhere, as well as through the FOUND website. The latest issue offers up ninety-six pages of the terrific "lost, tossed, and forgotten treasures" dedicated readers have come to expect.

27 February, 2009

Builders of Empire, Guzzlers of Tea

House Rules
First, the requisite soundtrack b which to send a load of, say, bauxite into Duluth, Montana, was the compilation album Pure Disco, or any of its sequels (i.e., Pure Disco 2, Pure Disco 3, et cetera). Other music could be selected, but only by universal consensus and only after the disco hits had played through in their entirety.

Second, when upgrading to a Super Freight, the swiftest and highest load-bearing train available, one had to offer up his or her humility, in addition to the large financial cost, by singing the Super Freight song. The song could be sung in any style; however, the lyrics were mandatory:
I'm a Super Freight, Super Freight
I'm Super Freight-ing
The basic melody established in the Rick James hit "Super Freak" was to be adhered to.

Third, first-timers and other non-regulars had to play as brown (the machine screw) or green (the petrified SweeTart). No old hand would be asked to give up his official token after earning it through so many Saturday nights playing with that filthy old piece of candy. It just wasn't done.

Official Rules
The game in question was Empire Builder, a unique strategy board game, which involved building railway lines and transporting various commodities across turn-of-the-last-century North America. Crayons were used to draw track onto the board, each player in a different color, which could be rubbed away with a little elbow grease at game's end. Cards were drawn to determine what possible loads a train might pick up and drop off. Accidents such as bridge collapses and blizzards kept things interesting. The first player to amass half a million dollars and link rail to at least five major cities won.

Paul picked it up — well, I've no idea where he found the game, actually. Knowing Paul, it could have come from a garage sale as likely as it could a dumpster. There was a closetful of interesting games at Paul's house no one had ever heard of: Junta, Assassin!, and the truly anarchic RPG Call of Cthulu were some I remember. Many were the evenings whiled away with him and his roommate, our mutual friend Brahm, figuring out the rules of each. Beginning in the summer of 1998, to head over to Paul and Brahm's little white rented house, often with another friend or two in tow, was a weekend institution. Those poor newbies! They had only heard legends of the game and usually came to play without a clue they were in for an epic five to seven hours of gaming.

The board snapped together like a six-piece jigsaw puzzle of the contiguous US. Assemled, it covered most of the sparkly Formica surface of Paul's retro teal dining table. While someone attended to the board, someone else would ready the music. One of the house's residents would be in the kitchen putting on a kettle for tea, which was the de facto Official Drink of Train Game. ("Train Game" being what Brahm, in his infinite capacity for ludicrous nicknames, had dubbed it. It was so stupid, it stuck.) Your beverage choices were: English Breakfast, Earl Gray, oolong, or orange pekoe. They came out of a case of individually packaged teabags, like the kind you'd find at a cheap hotel's continental breakfast bar. You could have milk and sugar, but to ask for a glass of water, a cup of coffee, or anything else might've gotten you thrown out. Surprisingly, no one ever did.

Far greater selection was to be had in your drinking vessel selection. Paul had a prodigious collection of coffee mugs, having migrated to and fro across the nation for his transitory job in the local news industry. Like consolation prizes won for a career bereft of stability, there were mugs from tiny TV outfits, charity events, radio stations, hospitals, novelty shops, truck stops, and practically any promotional message for which one could conceive of using a mug. Paul cherished them and, accordingly, always got first pick.

Once everthing was set up, the rules (official and un-) explained to any virgins present, off we went, thundering our loads of coal and cattle into the wee hours of the morning, hopped up on Bigelow and prodded by relentless disco beats. For my part, I may have even been known to get caught up in the moment, and singing along to an ABBA tune here and there.

As the year progressed and the weather turned cold, the games and music migrated into the kitchen. Paul's house had a comically ineffective gravity furnace that cost the GDP of a Third World country to run, so he relied instead on space heaters in the bedrooms and, when company was over, the oven to warm the kitchen. He draped blankets over doorways to corral the heat, and propped open the oven door, creating a cozy space that bore the added benefit of being very close to the water for a fresh cup. Bathroom breaks became a bit of an ordeal, forced as you were by the tea to make the icy trek through the dining room and across the frigid hall over and over, until the game finally ended. But the unforgettable camaraderie of those ritual games of railroad rivalry was worth a few chilly trips to the loo.

01 February, 2009

Only a Fleeting Thing

[This post, as well as four others from The Pariah's Syntax, was selected by the editors of Meridian, a semi-annual literary journal from the University of Virginia, for publication in their twenty-seventh issue, in May 2011. The other posts to appear in that issue were "Halloween in the Hoosegow," "In Memory of Monuments," "On the Scarcity of Toilet Paper," and "Joe." But just because you can read them here doesn't mean that you shouldn't order a copy from Meridian's website, thereby supporting the kind of publication daring enough to print such writings as these.]
Stepping outside after a visit, I am unprepared for the burst of icy wind that welcomes me back from several hours in another world. My breath actually catches. The shock of cold is one thing, but as I round the wall of the visiting building the scene of a sinking blood orange sun is in its own way breathtaking. It's a lurid panorama: puffs of distant vermilion clouds traced in blues and grays, and, higher, the streaked plum-blacks of atmosphere. Space. But I cannot stop to provide the attention such a sunset sings for; my little trek is timed.

Past the lone guard tower I go, around the softball diamond, and up the walk to the housing unit, ugly and wide — the whole time leaning into the gusts, my ears stinging. From above comes a bubbling commotion that is a quavering line of eastward-listing geese. Just for an instant, but still so intensely that I feel it to the depths of me, I begrudge them the liberty of their wings.

07 January, 2009

The List: Reading Against the Odds in 2008

Another year of reading, this one not as avidly as I'd have preferred. My arbitrary target had been set at fifty books — a nice, appealing number. I came up ten titles shy. In my defense, distractions were abundant last year, beginning with a long period of intransigence marked by the coming and going of several cellmates, each requiring adjustments and compromise, distractions that interfered with my reading. Then there were the added impediments: work, writing, the sometimes herculean effort of maintaining something like a social life, the onus of legal matters, the tragedy of sleep — and the excuses continue, some of them legitimate.

I'd like to think that this list would have been longer but for the librarians' abiding habit of passing over a preponderance of my requests when they place orders. Given the year I've had, however, it's likely even Thomas Pynchon couldn't have helped matters.

Unlike my original reading list, this one lists the books in chronological order, beginning February 2008.

* * * * *

E.M. Forster, A Room with a View

Daniel Tammet, Born on a Blue Day

Jess Walter, The Zero

John Bice, A 21st Century Rationalist in Medieval America

Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Joel R. Primack & Nancy Ellen Abrams, The View from the Center of the Universe: Discovering Our Extraordinary Place in the Cosmos

Eric Lane & Michael Oreskes, The Genius of America: How the Constitution Saved Our Country and Why It Can Again

Michael Chabon, Gentlemen of the Road

Max Brooks, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War

Stephen Kuusisto, Eavesdropping: A Life by Ear

Neil Gaiman, Stardust

Chip Heath & Dan Heath, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive While Others Die

Daniel J. Levitin, This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession

Thomas Frank, What's the Matter with Kansas?

J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye

Michael Shermer, The Science of Good and Evil: Why People Cheat, Gossip, Share, and Follow the Golden Rule

Julian Paul Keenan with Gordon G. Gallup, Jr. & Dean Falk, The Face in the Mirror: How We Know Who We Are

Truman Capote, Summer Crossing

John Updike, Seek My Face

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood

John Steinbeck, Travels with Charley • The Winter of Our Discontent

Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities

Evelyn Waugh, The Complete Stories of Evelyn Waugh

Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books

Ken Wells, Meely LaBauve

John Steinbeck, The Pearl

Dan Chaon, You Remind Me of Me

Michael Benanav, Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold

Peter Adolphsen, Machine

Paul Auster, Travels in the Scriptorium

Gary Marcus, Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind

Marco Pierre White with Pierre Strauss, The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef

Armistead Maupin, The Night Listener

Diane Ackerman, The Zookeeper's Wife

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Children of Húrin

Ian McEwan, Atonement

Andrew Michaels, The Optimists

Wendy Steiner, Venus in Exile: The Rejection of Beauty in 20th-Century Art

Joseph Heller, Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man

Edward O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge