26 February, 2020


It was the time I staggered up the cracked and buckled sidewalk, having just drank too much Congress vodka and Coca-Cola in the backseat of a friend's VW, and strove to keep my steps straight until the police cruiser passed or turned the corner. It was a miracle that the three flights of steps to my apartment didn't involve a tumble, and doubly astonishing that I successfully found the toilet in which to experience my first glorious, life-altering purge.

Or it was the time I occupied a Formica-topped table at Sydney's, with a rotating cast of the diner's regulars, for seven straight hours, drinking cup after cup of brackish coffee and excusing myself every half hour to "powder my nose." The lights there might've seemed too bright, but I felt incandescent. At dawn I couldn't find a toilet fast enough.

Or it was the time someone's mother asked me, after I inadvertently broke her backyard fence and terrified the family dog, to take my cocaine and devil-may-care attitude out of her house. Her daughter, the girl throwing the party, wasn't pleased, either, and would've given me an earful at school the following Monday, had I not dropped out the summer before.

Or it was the time I was a drunk (not to mention very high) passenger in the woefully inadequate backseat of my friend Abraham's old Datsun, singing "Ninety-nine Bottles of Beer on the Wall" all the way through. In a British accent. While sitting upside-down.

Or it was the time I walked to work, in wrinkled chinos, from an acquaintance's apartment, the thick taste of the night before still at the back of my throat, then spent eight hours shilling Barbie dolls and remote-control cars to parents whose children's allowance exceeded my own income, even before you deducted for drugs.

Or it was the time I awoke fuzzy-headed on the floor of a bedroom belonging to a girl I didn't remember meeting, in a different city than the one in which the excitement of the night before began. Her pretty sister drove me home — a great personal inconvenience about which she didn't try to hide her vexation. I never saw either of them again.

Or it was the time Jason and Ash, humming in their respective intoxications, laughed in giddy falsettos at my tissue-plugged nostrils. They pointed out to me the blood-spattered carpet all the way to the bathroom. We resumed band practice once they caught their breath, forgetting my bloodstains on the basement floor, which had, by the next time we played together, darkened to resemble soy sauce, brown calligraphy ink, or oil leaked from a slowly dying machine.

Or it was the time I blacked out at an illegal warehouse party and came to on cold concrete, staring up into unfamiliar flashing multicolored faces — none of whom I recognized — and believed that my pathetic life was not my own.

What do these sad instances, and countless intoxicated others, add up to? How many years of ignorance before I reached this point! How much suffering! And while I might sometimes wish that those regrettable years had gone differently, that I had found a way to avoid so much more — and more enduring — agony, I always remind myself of their necessity. Without them, I couldn't have arrived at the mental peace I now know, free to live a life of deeper meaning, where the importance of certain things previously taken for granted has been rendered as clear and as bracing as cold water from a deep spring. That's well worth the streak of sad senselessness.

10 February, 2020

Where's the Time Go?

You think that because I'm locked up in prison I have all the time in the world? I don't. Time slips through my fingers just the same as yours does — yours and everyone else's out there — because I'm alive with purpose, because I color outside the lines, because even after eighteen years I refuse to become someone whose days pass in a gray blur of dominoes, TV, and masturbation between naps. I do things; I use my time.

Without exception, I'm up and dressed and drinking a glass of water before 6 AM. There's no sleeping through the morning count. Besides, I've got a whole day ahead of me.

But first, fifteen minutes of meditation. (I'll do another five hours from now, right before lunch.) It's a good way to begin.

Breakfast is served a little before 7, which gives me just enough time to eat and make it back to the house to shave and brush my teeth before work call. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday mornings are my workdays. I clean the offices of the housing unit next door. It's an acceptable job I took a year and eight months ago, solely to avoid the eight-hour-a-day time suck that is kitchen slavery. No other position I know of here can beat three hours a day, three days a week, even if all I do is sweep, mop, clean a bathroom, shred paper, and put away files.

On days I'm off, I do my morning hygiene routine after breakfast, then check my e-mail and write replies for about an hour before turning to writing whatever's most pressing at the moment. Right now I'm taking great pains to write a synopsis for my novel-in-stories. Sometimes it's an essay, a poem, or a passage for my next book. At other times it's a blog post. At still other times I jot #ByronSays tweets. I probably juggle these more often than is recommended for real productivity.

My reading occasionally takes on an importance and an urgency that most people wouldn't understand. The Missouri Department of Corrections restricts its prisoners from having more than six books in their possession at one time. If someone surprises me with a couple of titles from my Amazon wishlist I've got to either be under my limit or ready to part with two of the books I already have. I like to be prepared. I also like to keep my New Yorker subscription from piling up, so after lunch I'll often pick up a book or magazine and read for an hour or, if I can fit it in, two.

In addition to my normal reading, I took on even more when I signed up for the NEA's Big Read, which the Saint Louis University Prison Education Program is facilitating here — a series of discussions led by visiting academics, about the book we're reading as a community, Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea. It's kind of like I signed up for a one-book club. I am clearly a literary masochist.

On Tuesday and Friday mornings, as well as every other Wednesday afternoon, I hightail it to the gym, where I work out for an hour or so. I do bodyweight training and like to finish with twenty minutes on an elliptical. On days when we don't have gym access, I spend the recreation period working out in my cell, shuffling my "Electronic Exhilaration" playlist at a volume the neighbors might not like but don't complain about.

ERDCC has laundry facilities that wash and (usually) dry prisoners' mesh bags full of dirty clothes, but the stuff inevitably comes back wrinkled, dingy, and smelling slightly sour. I buy my own detergent and keep my whites nice and bright by hand-washing everything I wear. Laundry's an every-other-day chore (plus weekly sheet days) that takes upward of forty minutes. It's meditative in its own way. I make it official by listening to Buddhist lessons on CD.

The odd Wednesday afternoons not spent in the gym are squandered on canteen pickup. Afterward, I dance around my cellmate as we unbag our stuff and put it away. It can take a while.

Thursday mornings, I spend two generally peaceful hours in the chapel, attending Buddhist service. I look forward to our services, led by whichever of us volunteered earlier that month. Our discussions are almost always the best I have here all week.

"Jeopardy!" airs at 4:30 on weekday afternoons. There's another half hour. I don't watch much other TV, now that Legion and Mr. Robot are over. Fargo's returning soon, though....

Between all of this there are telephone calls to make. I keep a lot of good people close to me. Staying in touch is essential. The phone situation at ERDCC is trickier than it was at Crossroads, where honor dorms offered six phones for the seventy-two occupants of a wing. Here the phones-to-prisoners ratio is one third smaller — not great. I wait in line and use them when I can. Unlike the people I call, who can carry me from room to room or store to store as they see fit, I'm tethered to a box on a wall by a very short metal cord. If I could draw, clip my nails, or whatever other trivial shit I felt like doing while gabbing away, it'd be nice to move a little during that time.

I'm in bed before 10:30 most every night, often fighting to stay awake that long, wishing I had more free time — maybe another three hours a day. I'd use it for drawing. I don't draw nearly enough.

04 February, 2020

Bachelor Pad? More Like Trick Bag!

I should've known it'd be something like this. The single-occupancy cell rumor I was excited enough to blog about (see "A Room of One's Own," from December) is a rumor no more. Unfortunately, its transition from the realm of speculation proves yet again that the hype often falls far short of the reality when dreams come true.

Half the wing gathered around the man handing out applications. Everyone wanted a form, probably out of curiosity as much as out of intent. Prisoners, more so than most demographics, transform into hungry wolves when free stuff's on offer. Ever the wallflower, I held back until the pack disbursed back to their respective dens. The ERDCC administration clearly failed to anticipate how desirable human beings might find the prospect of solitude — the guy was completely out of forms by the time I showed up.

My neighbor happened to get one, though, and it was he who granted me a look at the criteria. Common sense and eighteen years' experience in the DOC gave me an inkling of what the qualifications would be. Seeing them with my own eyes was still a downer.

Going five years without a conduct violation and showing "good institutional adjustment" seem obvious enough. More unexpected was the requirement that one attend an ongoing self-help group or education program, or that one complete a class in the ERDCC Learning Center every three months. Sure, fine, I thought.

Then I read this: "If removed from Privileged Dorm Status, (Single Cell) must wait 12 months for Honor Status, no wait for Pre Honor Status." Grammatically and logistically, this sentence barely makes sense to me — and I live here. However, having conferred with my fellow prisoners on the subject, I now understand. A resident of a good-conduct wing usually won't get the boot for one conduct violation but is out on his ass after a second within a year. Comparatively, a single infraction is all it'll take to land a lucky bachelor back in general population.

The situation sounds great but would be a little like performing a tightrope act. There isn't a single cell here that doesn't contain something, however piddly and inconsequential, that a searching guard couldn't write its occupants up for — too many books, a photo hung with tape peeled off an envelope, or a borrowed magazine, maybe. You'd have to be extra, extra careful. There's an everyday risk, just being in prison, of getting caught up in the midst of a situation you previously had nothing to do with. I can see how living in a single-man cell could lead to heightened concern — even outright paranoia. General population, with its twenty-hour-a-day lockdowns, few recreation opportunities, and iffy options for socializing, totally sucks. That'd be a loooooong way to fall.

After further consideration, then, I take back what I said about my eagerness to live the single life. Jeff's a good cellmate. I'm fine, living where I do at the moment. However, I reserve the option to re-reconsider my choice at a later date, should circumstances, or the rules of the single-occupancy-cell incentive program, change.