25 November, 2012

The Ways Justice Fails

They come for you when you’re sleeping, bursting into your inner sanctum and surrounding your bed with their black presence. They paralyze you first with terror, then with bonds of steel, and ferry you away to an inquisition where they work their every scheme to break you.

Or they come for you in the settling dusk of a long day, as you depart cheerfully from dinner with an old friend. They set upon you in the restaurant parking lot, forcing the flesh of your cheek into grit and coagulated motor oil. You cry out in alarm, involuntarily, but it only enhances the spectacle for passersby.

Or they do not come for you at all but bring you, instead, to them. An unexpected stop. License and registration, please. In a few moments, another car. Pistols in your face. Shouting. You have the right to remain silent. Your spouse in the car, frantic to know what’s going on. Anything you say can be used against you. Everything recedes through the rear window — everything bathed in red and blue light — as the cruiser pulls away, toward uncertainty.

Either you know or you don’t know. Whichever, they do not believe you. Even though it’s the advice of everyone you’ve ever heard discuss the matter, your asking for a lawyer only invites suspicion. Your not asking for one lets them corral you into statements that will later be misconstrued. Later comes slowly.

Once they have you, even if only by a shirttail, the gears of the system, turning punishingly slow, pull you further in, bit by bit, like a wood chipper the size of a courtroom. You will lose dear things: money, time, reputation. This is an inevitability. You will learn that guilt and innocence play small parts in this theater of strategy and social standing. How much justice are you able to afford?

The sleepless nights, the interminable days of jailhouse existence. You shake; though, it is not cold. Your lawyer, when you have occasion to see each other, seems concerned. Still, you wonder how much of that is merely professional courtesy. Is your innocence believed by this person entrusted with your life? Oh, but how could it not be, since you’ve only been truthful? Then again… (and again, and again, and again).

Everything is uncertain, and this makes you feel like you’re clinging to a pendulum, swinging back and forth ad nauseam, and moving unmistakably in a third direction: down. You try to remain strong, resolute in the face of more opposition than you have ever known.

The trial. He didn’t cry, the jurors say. Or, He cried too much. Cold as ice or emotionally exaggerated. Either way, you’re sunk. The jury sees what it’s told to, facts being immaterial when there are gut feelings at play.

So it’s guilty even when it’s not, and you’re led out in shackles as some cry and others stoke the fires of their anger with the sight of you abased in chains. Inside, your own fire gutters. How did this happen? you think, as well as the opposite: This can’t be happening! But it did and is, and there is nothing to be done about that now.

In prison you box yourself in to survive. A piece of yourself hidden away, safe, you become an automaton that performs its tasks because tasks are what it does. You downplay hope for fear of failure (hope not being hope until all grounds for hope are gone), but it’s irrepressible and so still there as appeals go out and denials come in. Each time the courts deny you, you look ahead to next time, like a runner crashing through hurdles, failing but determined. You write brave letters full of bromides like, Better luck next time; justice must prevail!

You watch loved ones age. Some fall away. You wonder where the time has gone. You’re a leaking hourglass, weeping dry nothing. It would be easier if you had a crime to regret committing.

When will it end? you wonder. When it ends.

19 November, 2012

A Movable Feast

We call it a “food visit,” but that term is too unrefined, too underwhelming, too boring to describe an event so rare and exciting as a prisoner’s chance to have brought in, from the world beyond, a full meal of real food. Food visits here are an incentive for good behavior, a privilege bestowed only on those of us who remain free of conduct violations for six months. If we mind our Ps and Qs, we’re allowed to schedule two food visits a year. And while some like to expend both of theirs in a single weekend of gluttony, perhaps to accommodate out-of-towners who bring their jailbird acquaintance a grab-bag of barbecue or a bunch of Big Macs, I prefer to space mine out — one in the spring, the other around my birthday, in the fall. It’s the end of November now; guess what’s just around the corner.

Certain of my previous posts expose me as a foodie. I make no bones about my love of eating, and, for being such a slender thing, I can really pack away the grub. In my prior life I ate out at least every other day, cooked frequent meals with friends, delighted in market hopping and grocery shopping, and explored edibles the way BASE jumpers explore tall structures. I considered myself a budding epicure, a gourmand-in-training, a gastronomy wannabe whose idea of a good time involved putting good things in my mouth and chewing them up. Getting full was just a pleasant side-effect. Well, finding good things in prison, edible or otherwise, is hard, so the twice-annual food visits I earn are not only precious for being palate-pleasing, they also allow me a taste of that deep happiness I used to get all the time from communal meals with special people. What I’m saying is that food visits are a big deal.

Mum always brings too much, and I always show my gratitude for her efforts by eating until I can’t. In years past, when the number of allowed visitors was higher, my group of feasters made the event into a spectacle, crowding as many as six chairs around a coffee table stacked high with containers of sumptuous edibles, talking and laughing, our faces flushed with the delight we all felt. Photographs taken of us in the visiting room show us all with expansive smiles, not caring that the space around us is part of a maximum-security penitentiary. I’m not implying that we were the most joyful people in the room, but if pleasure was a contest we’d at least have won some kind of award.

As to the menus, I’ve been treated to all sorts, familiar and strange, over the years: styles from cheap Chinese take-out to Mediterranean delights, meats from skewered lamb to roasted Ecuadorian cui, treats from chocolate-coated marzipan to Indian soan papdi. Just because I’m imprisoned, eating year-round crap, doesn’t mean I must crave the old standbys; comfort food has its place, but sometimes I only want something that’s vibrant with taste, no matter how unusual.

This year, I was very lucky. The prison administration approved me for a food visit on my birthday, the day after Thanksgiving. Four hours with my mother and two dear friends, around a table covered in Mum’s home-cooked German favorites, plus what’s sure to be a mouthwatering Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte (a rich Black Forest cake, my very favorite dessert) from a fine Kansas City bakery — what a special birthday it’s going to be. I’m actually excited about turning thirty-four. My stomach is, anyway. Can you hear it rumbling expectantly from there?

11 November, 2012

The Brains Challenge

Unusual as our being out in the middle of the afternoon may have been, several aspects of our togetherness on that particular day were quite typical for Brahm, Kelly, Carol, and me. Perhaps most obvious to an outsider would be that all four of us entered the diner wearing head-to-toe black, but this was irrelevant, save for in its scene-setting value to a lazy writer (who does not now need to provide you, his reader, the ages and various descriptive particulars of his friend, girlfriend, girlfriend’s friend, nor himself, since you will have taken this shorthand, perhaps rightly so, to mean that these were the sort of kids sometimes seen in public spaces, like ink spots on a nice shirt, where “normal” citizens give them a wide berth while simultaneously pretending to ignore them, as if averting their eyes might keep them from catching whatever sickness causes the kids to mutilate their deathly pale skin with all those silver piercings). The diner was just a diner, as diners all looked, thirty years after their last renovation. Of course, there’s no extraordinary relevance in telling you these things; what I think was extraordinary was how a sort of third-rate local tradition was born at our faux-woodgrain Formica table mere minutes after our dark foursome was seated.

It happened something like this. Inveterate cheapskate that he was, my friend Brahm perused the diner menu not from left to right, like most people in the Western world, but from right to left — price then description. Whether or not he did this every time we went out to eat, I can’t be sure, but he always had his eyes open for a bargain. He was still scanning for agreeably low figures on the menu when the waitress came to take our orders. After Kelly and Carol had placed theirs, he said, “I mean, I’m hungry, just not three-dollars-and-forty-cents-for-three-pieces-of-fried-chicken hungry, you know?”

Carol, installed beside him in our booth, rolled her eyes — often the only part of her that moved. She laughed with Kelly, my girlfriend, however, because Brahm’s pathological unwillingness to part with money frequently took strenuous efforts that never stopped being comical. Our waitress was less amused, almost certainly wishing we’d wandered instead into a Denny’s, or at least into a different server’s section. She nevertheless stood by, armored with the thick skin formed from decades of table-waiting in shabby establishments, her ballpoint pen hovering steadily above the pad, while the long-haired tightwad made up his mind.

In an effort to prod Brahm along, Kelly floated a couple of suggestions. “What about an omelet?” she tried. “That’s only two eighty-five.”

Brahm pursed his lips. “I’m not really in an omelet mood, though.”

“Pancakes, maybe?”

“Hmm,” he mused. “Yeah, except they probably use a premade batter mix, so their markup is huge. Besides, I’ve got Aunt Jemima at home.”

Brahm and I knew the patterns of this diner’s brown-and-orange tile work and drop-ceiling stains by heart, yet until that moment, somehow, one item on its menu had escaped our notice. Spotting it was a revelation. Wide-eyed, I looked up at my friend and said, “What about brains and scrambled eggs?”

The waitress leaned in, causing an intensifying of the odors of stale cigarette smoke and onion rings in my airspace. “That’s not really on there, is it?” she asked, as though I was the sort to just make up menu selections, as though I’d further delay, for the sake of a jokey hypothetical, the placement of my order. I pointed her to “Eggs and Such” on the laminated sheet. She said, “Well, I’ll be damned!”

Brahm responded, “I’ve never eaten brains before.” Grinning, he was visibly intrigued. “But if I won’t pay three forty for the fried chicken, which I’m sure I’ll like, then I’m certainly not gonna gamble three thirty on brains, which I’m pretty sure I won’t.”

Carol elbowed him. “Oh, come on, be adventurous! Look, they come with toast and hash browns.”

Turning down a novel meal ran as counter to Brahm’s values as did expending personal funds. Kelly made his choice easier by producing a few folded bills from her purse and asking, “Okay, so how about if I’m buying?”

“Buying me brains and eggs?”

“Yeah, sure. Except you have to eat the whole thing,” Kelly said. “Otherwise you’ve got to cover it yourself.” This reminded me of the time, in a different, far nicer restaurant, Kelly offered five dollars to the young women at a neighboring table to stop giggling so obnoxiously — a confrontation that evolved into a near-brawl between myself and the women’s angry boyfriends in the parking lot. Fortunately, Kelly’s pet cruelties could also be funny.

“What about a drink?” Brahm asked. Haggling now, she had him on the ropes.

“No drink.”


“You’re already getting hash browns and toast.”

“Yeah, but what if brains turn out to be, like, completely unpalatable?”

Kelly reached over me for the condiments. The bottles and shakers in the wire caddy rattled to a stop directly in front of him. She fingered each container in turn: “Salt, pepper, mustard, ketchup, A-1, syrup — that ought to be enough to get you through.”

The order was placed. If the anticipation of seeing this mystery meal came close to killing us, the smell of it traveling across the diner came even closer. A light stink, like warm pond water, wafted over our table before the waitress was halfway from the kitchen. Then the plate of brains and scrambled eggs was set down, and Brahm said, flatly, “I was hoping somebody had ordered fish sticks or something.”

The waitress set our table’s other, better-smelling plates before us; though, it was the brains and eggs that held our collective attention. Chunky and gelatinous, with an oily sheen, they steamed like the remnants of a disintegrator-blasted alien in a cheap sci-fi film. The waitress, departing, said, “Enjoy.” She laughed. No food-service employee should ever laugh that way on the job — it does not instill comfort.

Poking and prodding the pale yellow-gray mess before him, Brahm sniffed, then hefted a forkful to his mouth. He made a spasmodic shrugging motion and put the back of his hand against his lips. He chewed with his eyes squeezed shut. “Oh man,” he finally managed to moan. “This is awful.”

We each sampled a tiny bite; we each gagged and spat into a paper napkin. It was agreed that Brahm faced a challenge.

Spectators turn out by the thousands to watch people eat competitively — hot dogs, watermelon, pie, anything — and in the coming years I would see the debut of TV shows like Fear Factor, on which contestants ingest bugs, blood, and bull penises for a chance at a cash prize. But we four teenagers were mostly oblivious to food’s potential as vicarious entertainment until Brahm gave us an epic dinner show. Gagging, gasping, blinking back tears, taking frequent breaks to drown the squishy mass of befouled eggs with sluices of steak sauce, picking out fragments of skull, then tucking back in with soldierly resolve, he put on such a performance that a bystander would have been forgiven for thinking there was far more at stake than three dollars and some change.

The fork clattered noisily as he dropped it on his plate, a kind of victory gesture, and belched. His face immediately twisted. “Ugh, it tastes even worse coming up.”

“I can’t believe you finished it,” said Carol, long since having forked up the last of her French fries and retouched her blood-red lipstick.

“It was like eating mushrooms and cartilage… marinated in fish sauce.”

Belying her usual poise, Carol’s hands flailed, as though to shoo away the sensory memory of her sample. “God,” she said, “that’s so gross.”

Brahm belched again. “Hey, you asked.”

“Braiiiiiins!” I groaned, zombielike, but no one else laughed at how it sounded just like Brahm’s burp. Perhaps mockery was in bad taste, considering how my friend was suffering.

With the matter of indigestion relief foremost on Brahm’s mind, and with a change of venue on everyone else’s, we paid our bill to the smirking waitress at the register and left.

The interesting thing about rituals is always their origins. All the best ones develop naturally, gradually, as the events that inspire them marinate in people’s minds, like so much cartilage and mushrooms in fish sauce, over a period of days, weeks, or months, until someone gets the bright idea to stage a re-enactment and recapture the spirit of the earlier events. In the case of the brains and scrambled eggs, the catalyst was a night visit to some friends’ house, regaling them with a vivid retelling of Brahm’s heroic overcoming, when naive young Robert took a long drag from his cigarette, scratched his four-day stubble, tipped back his fedora, and said, “I think I could do it; I think I could eat the brains.”

Within the half hour, Robert, his two housemates, and Brahm packed themselves into my car and we sped off, diner-bound. To cheers and claps, Robert retched his way through the plateful of gray matter — beef or pork, no one knew — and unfertilized chicken ova. A good time was had by all. Except, of course, by Robert. But even he attained a state of joy the next week, when he witnessed one of his housemates attempt and fail to complete the Brains Challenge (as it had come to be called), as well as the week after that, when Tara, Brahm’s ex-girlfriend, chewed her way through the disgusting dish like a veritable garbage disposal before chugging a full glass of ice water, cubes and all, offering as her only comment on the experience an understated “Ick.”

The Brains Challenge became an institution. Rules were established. Someone thought to print and frame certificates that read, This Is to Certify That _______________ Successfully Completed the Brains Challenge at Nichol’s Lunch, on _______________,1999, in the Esteemed Presence of the Previously Challenged Witnesses _______________ and _______________. Take Pity. Many of those challenged, myself included, failed to clean their plates, but none ever demanded a rematch. Pride is only worth so much.

An occasion arose, more than a year after Brahm was fooled into thinking he was getting a free lunch, on which it occurred to me that someone enjoyed the diner’s brains and scrambled eggs, or else why would they be on the menu? I happened to make this observation aloud in the presence of Mike, a mutual friend of Brahm’s and mine, while the three of us were whiling away another evening at the coffeehouse. To this, Mike responded, “Oh, brains and eggs aren’t bad. I’ve eaten them lots of times.”

We doubted. (Who wouldn’t, honestly, after eating that phlegmy mush?) However, we did wonder: might the diner’s brains and eggs be representative of all brains and eggs, instead of being the aberrance we believed them to be? We challenged Mike then and there. His acceptance of the Brains Challenge, to be taken on the following night, would prove to us that the brains in question were empirically worse than just about any other foodstuff, thereby validating our bravery and endurance.

The next evening, Mike and his girlfriend joined Brahm and I in a booth, squeaking across the vinyl bench cushion too casually, in my opinion, for the momentous adversity about to be met. The orders arrived. Mike’s girlfriend scarcely watched as he took up a fork and ate of the infamous entrée, chewing without effort, swallowing without histrionics, biting a corner off one triangle of toasted wheat bread, sipping his water, and obliterating our tough-guy pride with three little words: “Not too bad.”

02 November, 2012

Possessions, Prison Policy, and Grief

For over a decade I’ve been living out of a box — the gray metal footlocker that’s followed me for twelve years. Its limited space must hold everything I own (TV set, radio, and fan excluded), according to the policy of the Department of Corrections. Living under such restriction has forced me to weigh the importance of every card, every photograph, every meager scrap of paper I keep, because it’s the little things that are most apt to accumulate, quietly, into big things. I’ve been diligent, so my property has never exceeded my storage capacity. Whoever writes Departmental policy would be pleased by my compliance.

Never one for hoarding, I have always preferred to keep material possessions in my life to a relative minimum. What I do own, I keep organized. My childhood playroom was a neat space lined with crates and spruce shelves. My father’s space, the garage, was the opposite. A practical pack rat of the venerable, age-old This will come in handy someday!” school of thought, I can’t say it was from him that I learned what not to do, since it was, if anything, by the example of my German mother, whose memories of her formative years seem to involve an inordinate amount of polishing, that my inner neat-freak was encouraged. Any influence my father had on my aversion to accumulating stuff would have been posthumous, after his death, when I was eighteen and forced to make a salvage operation of his house — the home in which I grew up — and that damned garage.

In short, the things I have around must have real value, real importance to me on a practical or emotional level. I set the bar high. Here, in prison, I set the bar even higher. For me to keep something around, it must have passed the test. Some of what I keep is therefore precious.

Attachments beget sorrow, say the Buddhists. To divest oneself of material things is to take a step toward enlightenment. Unless they mean “enlightenment” in terms of a lightening of my life’s carefully selected cargo, then the last thing I felt when I lost everything and was locked away in a prison cell was enlightened. It must sound petty to you, but I still miss my pocket watch and my satiny brushed-stainless flatware. I don’t habitually complain about how much I miss the stuff of my former life, though, because I know that the absence of ticking in my pocket and the heft of those utensils in my hands are just symptoms of the larger problem, the perpetual state of loss that I’m finding prison life to be — perhaps no more so than life anywhere else, but certainly easier to dwell on than in other circumstances.

Obviously, though I live abstemiously, I’m no Buddhist. When we were teenagers, it was this sort of morbid stewing that led my friend Anna to title me Byron the Blackheart. Not that she had room to talk. Her favorite poem was that one by Stephen Crane, probably best known (though, I have no idea why) as the author of The Red Badge of Courage, “A man said to the universe.” You know the one:
A man said to the universe:
“Sir, I exist!”
“However,” replied the universe
“The fact has not created in me
“A sense of obligation.”
After struggling with a vicious depression for far longer than even our decade of friendship, Anna killed herself in the summer of 2008. The batch of letters and cards I kept, written in her minuscule cursive handwriting that was almost illegible in its perfection, took on talismanic power, as if the sheaf of papers were imbued with some essence of her. I imagined I could smell her in the creases of the cards, on the surface of the pages, which were nearly as white as her skin had been.

Anna’s correspondence, hidden safe inside a folder inside a ribbon-tied portfolio inside a sturdy footlocker for four years and four months after she told the universe she’d had enough, was precious. But the Buddhists are right about attachments. Having held tight to those mementos of my friend, I invited the sorrow of additional loss, almost like losing her all over again. Whoever writes Departmental policy would be pleased by my compliance.

New property limits were posted a few days ago, for all prisoners to read. No more than twenty-five personal letters, it says. As if I had not already lost enough. I took a few deep breaths and tried to ignore the crumbling of more pieces away from what she jokingly called my black heart. I read her words one last time, then I tore them to bits. I poured this sad confetti into the thirty-gallon Rubbermaid trash can by the door of the wing, the pale sprinkles cascading over an empty bag of microwave popcorn and some candy wrappers. When I returned the empty portfolio to its place in my methodically organized footlocker, I barely noticed how much space I’d cleared up.