21 May, 2018

Moving Day

An inauspicious start to your day is being awakened, at 4:38 AM, by a voice calling your name from outside your door, saying, "Pack up all your property; you're transferring this morning."

Cue instantaneous alertness. Cue dry mouth. Cue unmitigated fatalism.

They gave me fifteen minutes. The goon squad was on its way into the housing unit, camouflaged and equipped with big-ass cans of Mace, ready to show some force to the residents of Crossroads Correctional Center in the wake of the riot, the six-hour pandemonium that had erupted two days before. My cellmate and I had anticipated shock-and-awe reciprocation, as well as a purging of the prison population. We hadn't expected long-time residents of the honor dorm to be among those outsted, though. Life, someone famous once said, is what happens when you're busy making other plans.

I wished Doyle, my cellmate of the past three years, luck in the looming shakedown. "Write and let me know where you land," he said by way of goodbye.

It was a curious amalgamation of expressions that watched my escort walk me down the transfer processing hallway. Some of the prisoners occupying the benches wore handcuffs, shackles, and excited grins, pleased as anything to be leaving, never mind to where, because the consensus (particularly among the rioters) was that Crossroads blows. Others sank against the wall, grim and taciturn. I joined neither group, instead sitting tall, unsmiling, mute to any but official questions, steeling myself for the inevitable.

At the last available moment before my turn came for cuffs, I had the presence of mind to request a restroom break. No matter what part of the state I was being shipped to, the bus ride was going to be considerable. Our departure time alone, after boarding the Gray Goose, dragged on till sunrise. When breakfast arrived in brown bags, I held off drinking the little carton of milk. A few unthinking souls used theirs as chasers for their danishes. In short order, if they didn't need a toilet soon thereafter, most of them ejected their breakfasts onto the floor of the bus. The windows proved to be bolted shut, so the sugary smell of regurgitated pastry had to be endured.

I was indifferent to the passing hours, for the most part. My last trip beyond the boundary of Crossroads took place in wintertime; this ride's scenery was lush, verdant, alive, and accompanied by a nausea of indeterminate provenance: nerves, or my seat's location near the back, could've been to blame. At least I didn't puke. Instead, I exercised a bit of mindfulness, practiced being in the moment.

This is Middle America, I thought, as fields and truck dealerships passed my view. Paying attention to this held much of my worry at bay. Nothing could be gained by obsessing over what this relocation would do to those I love — those effects would be felt, and dealt with, in their course.

There went a tumbledown double-wide. There went a church sign proclaiming, GOD IS PRO-LIFE AND SO ARE WE!. There went a murder-red barn. There went a farm store called Dickey Bob, a kiddie slide into an algae pond, the last video rental store in the country, a stick man beside his little house, wearing cutoff jeans and a black stetson. These things did me good to see.

Bladders throughout the bus expanded to the limits of tolerance. Transfer buses, however, pay no heed to posted speed limits and stop for no man. So several prisoners contorted themselves, handcuffed left hand over right, to piss into their emptied milk cartons. The guard riding shotgun kindly passed a clear plastic trash bag through the grate at the front of the bus, which, when half-pint relief proved unsatisfying, became an improvised Porta-Potty. I let my pee-shy seatmate huddle with the bag in my spot next to the window, hoping that the road immediately ahead was free of dips or potholes.

Before all was said and done, I got a whirlwind tour of Missouri prisons — Algoa, Jefferson City, Potosi — that included an hour-long layover in a nine-by-thirteen holding cell with twenty-three other ex-Crossroaders. It was far more than I wanted out of my Tuesday. The terminus came twelve hours after it began, when the bus pulled through the gate of Eastern Reception, Diagnostic & Correctional Center — colloquially known by its milieu, the old mining town of Bonne Terre. My first thought: It looks like Crossroads, only bigger.

The staff at Bonne Terre had a quandary on their hands but made room and provisions for us, their last-minute arrivals, that kind of impressed me. It's too soon yet to claim that day-to-day conditions are in every way superior to the place that just evicted me. (For sure, Crossroads will be a place of misery for several months to come, owing to numerous factors.) But all appearances imply that they represent a considerable improvement.

As for my relationships, being on the opposite side of the state from my mother and several friends means drastically fewer visits. Losing my honor dorm status (even if my record does fast-track me back to it) means a period of seriously limited phone contact. Being a fresh face means lacking the connections that ease the impositions of prison life. I'm starting over — with the edge provided by nearly seventeen years' experience, it's true, but starting over just the same.

Making the best of a bad situation is what I've been striving to do since my sentencing. This latest turn is only different in type. So: lemonade, anyone?

04 May, 2018


"Anywhere I lay my head, boys," sang Tom Waits, "I'm gonna call my home." Mine is not the easy sentimentality of the vagabond, however, and I'm hardly cavalier with language. What I consider home is a sanctuary, a space consecrated and made my own. It's the difference between an outhouse and a castle: one is rough-hewn and invites only the briefest of visits, the other is regal and endures. How could anyone conflate the two?

And yet, all the time I hear references to one's cell as "home." This was especially prevalent during the years that I worked in Crossroads' kitchen, around what were generally short-timers. Kids on the serving line, talking about their evening plans, let garbage like this fall out of their mouths: "I'm gonna go home and get me a shower and watch me some Empire tonight, boy!" The guys in gray weren't the only ones guilty of this slip; guards did it, too. On the rare occasions when the kitchen had a surplus of workers, "Who wants to go home?" was the question put to us. My hand always went up, but not for the reason they thought.

My cell can't be home. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States protects one's home and property against unwarranted searches and seizures, while the little concrete box in which I live is subjected to frequent turnings upside-down by uniformed goons. As if that weren't reminder enough that this is no proper home, I'm also required to share it with a stranger. (That Doyle and I get along and have simpatico routines is irrelevant.) The bed and bedding I'm allowed are terrible, the lighting sucks, I can't adjust the temperature, and the lares and penates, those treasures that make a house a home, are altogether banned. I don't even get to paint the walls a different shade of gray.

My home no longer exists. Its only remnants have been kept safe in my mother's keeping since my abduction by the state. Material goods being low on my list of concerns, I've asked her to divest herself of, or use, what she could. Someone might as well appreciate them. What's now left are several boxes of clothing, a few decorative tchotchkes, and several hundred CDs. Whatever home I'm able to build once this purgatory's past will have to be made from scratch.

If that sounds especially sad, consider that every move a person makes in a lifetime involves exactly this. The same stuff may follow from domicile to domicile, but it's not the stuff that matters. You could say that it's the arrangement of that stuff, the investment of care into establishing what comfort one desires, and the life lived around that stuff that constitutes home. My eventual freedom would include the freedom to create home on a completely featureless foundation — an exciting prospect, not one to be melancholy about.

Meanwhile, I continue referring to my cell as exactly that, the same as I reject the labels "inmate" and, worse yet, "offender" on the grounds that I'm unjustly being held captive, a prisoner. Euphemisms won't make me any less uncomfortable. Then again, why would I want to get cozy and settle in here?

03 May, 2018

This Novel Won't Write Itself

Those who asked after the progress of my novel, in the years since I wrote the accidental first piece of it, were usually told that I'd finish it sometime between next month and the inevitable heat death of the universe. I would not be pressured. Ever capricious, the Muse visits episodically.

Being beholden to the Muse's comings and goings is a terrible way to write. Some days I'd manage to bang out pages of content and feel as though I finally had some momentum going. Then months would pass while I futzed around with nonsense. Research made a handy excuse: "I can't write that part until after reading the Koran" and "I'm stuck here until someone sends me that information about injectable testosterone" were both effective stalls. Most often, though, my available time to write got arrogated by personal correspondence.

The realization struck me hard, about a month ago, that I was never going to be a novelist at this rate. Something had to change, and only I could change it.

Finding time is one matter, but when a thing's important enough you make time for it. True to form, I buckled down and made ready. I blocked off weekdays, from 8 AM to 2 PM, as dedicated writing time. I made a sign to hang on my door, which reads, WRITING — DO NOT DISTURB. I decided in advance that my only allowable deviations from routine would be for institutional appointments, unavoidable phone calls, and, once a week, an hour of morning recreation.

I mailed out a final batch of letters. I told my friends that I was embarking on a long trip in my one-man craft, during which time I'd be, as though on a long sea voyage, largely incommunicado. The responses that I got back were encouraging. "See you on the other side" and "May the wind be always at your back" were my favorites.

The novel, I'm pleased to report, is coming along well. I don't find it unreasonable to think that I'll have a polished manuscript ready by year's end. (I'm already ahead of the loose schedule I set myself.) The trick is not taking my eyes off the horizon.