Friday, October 31, 2014

A Work Related Injury


It had been a brutal Halloween for Drunk Dave. He'd hired on as a bar-back at The Pussy's Purr just two weeks prior, specifically to help with the holiday rush, and the soulless managers were making sure he earned every penny of his meager compensation. Many times as he was stocking the ice chests or cleaning the vile bathrooms, he had thought of throwing in the towel and joining in the debauchery with what little money he'd managed to save. In these moments of temptation, only two thoughts kept him going. The first was that he had to scare up enough scratch to rent some kind of room. (Even a bunk at The Faubourg Center would beat passing out at the Drop-In every day.) The second was that there weren't too many jobs you could get with the words “Drunk Dave” tattooed on your forehead.

His name wasn't even Dave. That was the guy who had tagged him as he lay passed out on a band-room floor somewhere in Key West. For years he had put up resistance, insisting on being known by his preferred moniker, Phlegm Wad, but eventually he gave in to the inevitable and accepted his fate. It was not entirely arbitrary, for he was often very drunk.

He had just gotten done mopping up some bum puke from the front entrance, and was taking a break to watch the bouncers toss a guy dressed in a duck costume, when one of the bartenders came up to him and said, “Hey, Drunk Dave, we need two more kegs of Oktoberfest.”

“Aww Christ, just let me breath for a second.”

“We need them immediately! You can breath in November.”

“Fucking automaton...”

“What?”

“Yes sir, I'm right on top of it.”

Dave ambled into the back and went over to the Oktoberfest kegs in the corner. He pulled one off the stack and ran it out to the line, then grabbed the empty and returned for the second keg. As he bent over to pick it up, he felt a strange sensation in his groin area. There was no pain, per se, but something out of the ordinary seemed to be taking place. It lasted only a moment, and Dave promptly went about the business of hooking the kegs to the line.

Finished with the task, and stepping out on Bourbon to have a cigarette, Dave was happy to see his friend Puke Face coming towards him down the street. He was covered in Mardi Gras beads, and wearing a green visor with plastic tits stuck on top. He had a huge frozen daiquiri that he'd picked up off the ground, and was talking shit to every girl who crossed his path. Dave laughed as he walked up and said, “What the fuck are you supposed to be?”

Puke Face clasped his hand and replied, “What, you can't tell? I'm a tourist. I come from Podunk, Iowa to get shit-faced drunk and scream for tits. Do you know where I can get a Huge Ass Beer and a penis nose mask?”

“Sure, just head south down Rampart and take a right on Iberville.”

“Dude, that's the projects.”

“That's where I send everyone who asks for directions.”

“Hahaha! I love you Drunk Dave. Hey man, why don't you ditch this bullshit job of yours and come get shwilly? It's fucking Halloween in New Orleans!”

“I fuckin' want to, but I've got to find a place to stay. I'm on thin ice at the Drop-In ever since I threw up in the washing machine. Besides, the cut off age is 23, and I'm 37. It's starting to get awkward. I can hardly get to sleep in the mornings.”

“Sleep is for the weak, Dick-Balls. Let's get fucked up and take out our agro aggression on some street performers.”

“No, man. I gotta get paid.”

“Alright then, Drunk Slave, I see how it is. I thought we could have a bonding experience, getting blindly loaded and wailing on clowns, but I guess living inside is more important to you. Have fun eating off plates and peeing in a toilet, you oogle motherfucker. You might as well go back and live with your parents.” Puke Face stumbled off down the street, leaving Drunk Dave to contemplate his inauspicious words. Was he really doing the right thing?

As soon as he stepped inside, the green-shirt was on top of him, “Where the hell were you? We need two kegs of Amber, now!”

“I have to go to the bathroom. I'll get them in a minute.”

“Hurry up!”

Dave went into the foul bathroom and locked himself in a stall. He pulled down his pants, sat on the toilet and, looking down, he saw that his testicles had swollen up to five times their normal size. He was speechless. Aghast. They were the size of a large grapefruit, and had roughly the same consistency. Never in his days had Dave experienced such stark terror. Not in the prison showers, not after having unprotected sex with gutter punks, not after smoking salvia divinorum on a Greyhound bus. He didn't know what was wrong with his balls, but he knew he had to get to a doctor immediately. Barely suppressing a sob, Dave pulled up his pants, buckled his belt loosely, and slowly walked back into the bar.

“What the fuck is wrong with you Dave? We need that Amber on the line!” henpecked the vacuous manager arbitrarily. A gaggle of drunken girls dressed as Charlie's Angels were on stage performing a karaoke version of “Play That Funky Music.” As they warbled out the ghastly tune, Dave felt like he was about to vomit. “Look dude, I have to got to the hospital.” he said.

“Say, you don't look so good, now that you mention it. Did you take some bad Molly or something?”

“No, man. It's my balls. They're all swollen up to, like, ten times their normal size. I've never seen anything like it.”

“Oh, that sounds like you have a hernia. Does it hurt?”

“No, it doesn't hurt at all. I almost can't believe it”

“That's surprising. You'd think your guts rupturing through a wall of muscle in your abdomen and spilling out into your scrotum would be painful.”

Just then the girls busted into the chorus of “Play That Funky Music,” and the room started spinning. Dave could take no more. He ran out onto Bourbon, blowing chunks of French Fry po-boy all over the sidewalk. From down the block, he could hear Puke Face laughing, “Thar she blows!”

------------------------------

The waiting room at Charity Hospital was packed elbow to elbow. Dave was working at The Pussy's Purr on a strictly under the table basis, and needless to say, they did not provide health insurance. They had been nice enough to call him a cab, however, which took only two hours to arrive in the festival traffic. He had wanted to call an ambulance, but the manager said a hernia wasn't an emergency situation, “You can live with one for years.” he assured him, “They're gonna be treating trauma patients all night long. You'll be lucky if they get to you. You should stay and finish your shift.”

“Are you kidding me? I can hardly walk.”

“Hey, it's all good bro. It is what it is.”

As Dave waited in line to sign in, he looked around at the other patients. They were all dressed in Halloween costumes, and each seemed to be suffering from a malady that was somehow ironically related to their attire. There was one guy dressed as a crab who had been scalded with boiling water, for example, and a women dressed as an oyster who'd been stabbed in the chest. It was a ludicrous spectacle. Dave despaired, as he felt certain it would indeed be a long time before he saw a doctor.

When he got to the head of the line, he signed his name on the list, and a triage nurse, looking tired and bitchy, asked him, “What's you're medical emergency?”

“Uhm, I think I have a hernia.”

Without changing her expression, the nurse handed him a clipboard with a form attached, and said, “Go ahead and sign this form and have a seat. We'll be with you as soon as pos...”

“Hey, did you say you were in with a hernia?” It was another nurse, this one much friendlier looking.

“Yes. It's the worst thing that's ever happened to me.”

“Oh, don't worry hon, we'll get you fixed up. Jacky, I'll take care of this one. Dr. Parsons said he wanted me to let him know next time we had a hernia come in. Trying to study up on them, I guess.”

“Suit yourself.” said the indifferent nurse, as she turned her attention to a man dressed as a conquistador who'd gotten his ass kicked by South American natives. (Who just happened to be in town for a convention.)

“Step right this way,” said the cheerful nurse, “We'll get you to your room and have you change into a gown. I'll let the doctor know you're here, and he should be with you shortly.”

She took him to a small cubical divided from it's neighbors by blue curtains. He took off his Exploited shirt, and his patched cargo pants, taking care not to jostle his afflicted gonads, and put on the paper thin hospital gown the nurse had given him. He sat down carefully, and waited for the doctor to arrive.

It wasn't long before he heard footsteps in the corridor. The doctor lingered outside the curtains for a moment checking the chart, then stepped inside. He was an older man with a shock of wavy white hair jutting outwards, and a pencil thin mustache that marked him as obvious eccentric, “Hi there Mr. Wherner, I'm Doctor Parsons. What's the reason for your visit today?”

“My name is Drunk Dave.”

“OK Drunk Dave, what brings you to the emergency room?”

“Well, Doc, it's kind of embarrassing, but there's something wrong with my testicles. They're all swollen up. I think it might be a hernia or something.”

“No need to be embarrassed, son, I'm a doctor. It sounds like you have a serious problem, but you came to the right place. Why don't you hop on up to the bed here and let me have a look at your groin. Nothing to worry about, now. I'm a professional.” The doctor had a rapid, staccato rhythm to his speech, much like newsreel reporters from the forties. Dave sat on the edge of the padded bed and lifted his flimsy gown to show the doctor his distended nut-sack.

“Oh yeah. Hmm, yeah, that's a hernia, all right. Looks like a nasty one too. I'm going to have to try and determine the extent of the damage to your muscle lining. It might hurt a little, so I'm going to give you a sedative to keep you relaxed during the procedure.”

“Now your talking!” said Dave, relieved to finally be getting some good news. The doctor took a syringe from the rolling medical cabinet in the corner, and pulled a small vile of liquid from his pocket. Dave thought it was strange that he didn't order the medicine through a nurse, as he'd seen done in all his previous ER visits, but he was not one to question the expertize of a doctor, particularly not one about to inject him with drugs.

The doctor drew a healthy looking dose into the syringe, and wrapped a large rubber band around Dave's arm. “Alright, you're going to feel a little stick.” said the doctor, jabbing the needle into his vein. As he depressed the plunger, he said, “ZOMDV ASCHA BASGIM BOLAPE BASAGIME NIIS ZOMDV BALLSACK GEMEGANZA ARP OIAD NANTA!”

“Whoa, what the fuck are you talking about dude? You're tripping the fuck out! Goddamn, this place is fucked up. I knew I should have gone to Touro.” He got up and went for his clothes, but it was too late. Dave crumpled to the floor, just barely managing to cradle his poor testicles in the fall. His consciousness faded, as Doctor Parsons loomed ominously above.

----------------------------------

For a long time, Dave was passed out on one of the padded leather couches at the Drop-In. He was planning in his mind how he would handle work that night; what strategies he would employ to cope with the petty political maneuverings of his bosses and co-workers. It was only the gradually arrived at realization that he was, in fact, strapped to a wooded board, that brought him back to reality.

And reality was looking grim, as Dave found himself in a dire predicament. He was in a different part of the hospital, a much larger room with unpainted cinder-block walls, and dusty old medical equipment strewn haphazardly about. As he regained his composure and took a closer look, he could see, intermixed with the archaic devices, a subtly intertwining network of barely visible wires that formed geometric shapes of astonishing complexity. The machines themselves were engraved with these exotic geometries, as well as some kind of foreign writing. Seen in this broader context, the arrangement of the machines was not chaotic at all, but instead seemed to adhere to a deranged logic beyond his comprehension.

The board he was attached to was suspended in the center of the room. He was completely naked, with leather straps buckled tightly around his wrists. He couldn't see down to his balls, no matter how hard he craned his neck, but he could feel them clamped into place with cold steel. “If only I had quit my job.” Dave thought, ruefully.

He called out wildly for help, screaming with utter desperation, but help was not forthcoming. Instead, he heard the doctor's voice from somewhere behind him, “Say now, quiet down there son, there's no point in making a ruckus. No one can hear you. Why, I doubt the hospital administrators are even aware this place exists.”

Dave kept yelling, “Oh Christ, you sick motherfucker! What the fuck is wrong with you? I'm going to stomp your fucking guts ou...AAAAaaaarrrrrrrgggggghhhh!!!” A jolt of electricity shot through his balls and radiated up through his entire body. It lasted for only a few seconds, but was blindingly painful, leaving him sweating and gasping for breath. “Keep it down, I said. How can I calibrate this machinery with you carrying on like that? I'll be with you in a second.”

There were some clanking sounds, accompanied by the occasional muffled curse, then the doctor walked into view, pushing a medical cabinet that had an assortment of scalpels and other implements arranged on top. “Oh, please just let me go.” begged Dave, hopelessly.

“No son, I'm afraid that isn't going to be possible. Now, this probably seems like a disturbing situation you're in right now, but I want you to understand that you're about to be part of something big. You should be excited to be involved.”

“I should be excited to be tortured by a lunatic?”

“No need to get nasty there, fella'. I assure you, I'm perfectly sane from a clinical perspective. I know you're in a stressful position, but you are about to take part in history.” said the doctor, as he picked up one of his more gruesome looking tools and started walking towards Dave. “There is a crossroads, Drunk Dave, where science intersects with magick, and the two coalesce to create something greater than the sum of the parts. You're strapped directly into the fulcrum of that intersection.” The doctor applied the bizarre contraption to Dave's long suffering balls, causing excruciating pain.

“Do you know what a homunculus is, Dave?”

“AAArrrrrggghhhhhhhh! Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhh!!! Christ Jesus, mercy!”

“A homunculus is a magickal being called to this Earth through esoteric means. It was thought by the ancient alchemists that one must be gestated in the womb of a dead horse, but there's actually a much quicker way of going about it. The key is in your balls, Dave. I've spent years researching the rituals and building my secret lab, but I've needed a subject to bring my studies to fruition. When you walked in here tonight, on the eve of Allhalowtide, I knew that I had finally found that subject. Life force energy flows freely through your balls Dave, and I will use them to summon the Anti-Christ and foster a new age of Babylon. Hahahahaha!”

As the doctor explained his plan, he was busy working on Dave's balls, inserting them with tubes and hooking them up to the wires and machineries that encircled the room. Every now and then, he would give Dave a jolt of electricity, causing him to yelp in agony. Finally, he finished with his tools and started flipping switches on the machines. “Ok, well, that takes care of the science angle.” said the doctor, as he once again walked out of sight. Dave writhed in torment, unable to form a coherent thought. He was on the verge of blacking out when Dr. Parsons stepped back into view, now bedecked in a flowing robe and a ceremonial head-dress. In his hand was an icepick with an elaborately carved handle made of bone.

“Now, I'm sorry to have to tell you this son, but I'm going to have to jab your balls with this ceremonial ice pick. I'm sure that probably seems gratuitous after all the tubes and electricity and whatnot, but it's actually a very important part of the ritual.” The doctor got down on his knees and chanted as he jabbed the ice pick multiple times into Dave's balls, “NIIS MADZILODARP DARILAPA BABYLON ADAGITA A SALAMAN OL EOL LAP ELAZA!”

He chanted with increasing intensity and resumed zapping Dave's balls with electricity. All around the room, the machines buzzed and whirred, and the wires seems to vibrate with energy. Through the chaos, and despite the chanting, Dave began to hear a gurgling sound, much like a small infant, coming from down in his nether regions. Dr. Parsons shouted, “Yes! YES! It's working. The age of Babylon is upon us! In mere moments you will be fully formed, and I will separate you from your human host. Then I will nurture you on the blood of my enemies until you grow strong, and together we will make all humanity our slaves.” From under his robe, the doctor pulled out a long knife.

Dave was in a state of full panic, straining at the leather straps with all his might. The doctor put the ice pick on the tray beside him and began cutting Dave's testicles, now a partially realized personification of evil, from his body. In spite of the pain, Dave was indignant. Host to the Anti-Christ though they may be, he still felt a lingering attachment to his genitals. Dave pulled at the straps wildly as he felt a great rage welling up inside him. With one last savage tug, he was able to yank his right hand free. The doctor was too preoccupied with the ritual to notice, and continued chanting. Dave reached down and grabbed the ceremonial ice pick lying on the tray, and with brutal conviction, plunged it down into Doctor Parsons' temple, killing him instantly. As he was lunging forward, however, his body twisted away from the board, tearing that remaining bit of skin by which the homunculus clung to his body. He heard his balls fall to the floor with a sickening plop.

Dave unbuckled his left hand and looked down at the homunculus. It pulsated on the floor making strange noises and spitting up blue liquid. It reminded him of Kuato from “Total Recall.” He picked up the knife from the doctor's hand and, steeling himself for bloodshed, he said, “I can't believe that crazy bastard. Now I have to stab myself in the balls.”

But as he stood there preparing to murder his own nut-sack, he found that he did not have the will to proceed. The homunculus was as helpless as a new-born child, and Dave felt a paternal instinct nagging at the back of his mind. To stab the creature would be almost like stabbing a part of himself. He dropped the knife, and picked up the homunculus from the ground, wrapping it in bandages, and stowing it in a green medical bag. “I guess I'm going to have to start nurturing you on the blood of my enemies, huh?” said Dave affectionately, as he tucked his cursed progeny into the sack. Then he got down on his knees and began stripping the doctor of his blood drenched robes, so he would have something to wear on his walk back to the Quarter. It was the best Halloween costume he'd ever had, and he felt like he'd earned it.

(If we are not already Facebook friends, I'd encourage you to send me a request at https://www.facebook.com/mad.mike.773 . I post lots of photos and short pieces over there, and it is by far the best way to keep up with what I'm doing.)

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A Narrow Escape


I'd found thirty dollars on the ground over the course of a couple days and decided to do some drinking. On the second night I was laying in my ditch in a semi-coherent stupor, when it occurred to me that I should take a stroll up to the hill to see if there were any fresh paintings and/or drugs on the ground that required my attention. It's so close to my camp that getting there was no problem despite my inebriated state, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the place entirely deserted.

Now, this was the second weekend of the Austin City Limits festival, so the absence of tourists could mean only one thing: that the police had been there recently and chased everyone away. This possibility intrigued me, for the wise scavenger knows that drugs tend to materialize on the ground in the wake of police activity, particularly in places where art lovers dwell. Nausea not withstanding, and heedless of the danger, I began staggering up the hill.

Upon reaching the zenith it was only a few short minutes before I found what I was looking for. Through the dark of night I saw a crumpled plastic baggie gleaming in the grass. Bending over to pick it up, the smell was so strong that I knew what I had found before even seeing it. Sure enough, it was a good two grams of dank nuggets, lying in wait of a new owner. At moments like this, I'll admit, I'm sometimes dumbfounded. How can I be so consistently lucky? I stood for several minutes staring at the bag, wondering what it all means. (Aliens)

So deep was my astonishment that I almost didn't notice another man, a big metal-head dude with long hair and a beard, climbing up the hill. He was carrying a bicycle, and didn't seem to be familiar with the terrain, ignoring the easy routs and blundering forth oafishly through rocks and shrubs. When he reached the level nearest the top, I said, “Hey man, if you're trying to get up here, there's a path behind that wall right there.”

“It's all good. I'll get up one way or another.” he said. Then, to my surprise, he reared back and flung his bicycle up to the top level next to where I was standing. He then jumped and grabbed hold of the ledge, and struggled for just a second before hoisting himself up. “Haha! Well, that's one way to do it.” I said.

I'm not usually all that social, but partly because I was drunk, and also because I was stoked about my score, I said, “That was pretty impressive, buddy. Hey, I just scored some killer weed. You feel like burning one?”

“Hell yeah.” he said. I could tell he was a smoker, if only because he was there. Who else would come to the hill at that hour of the night? “Do you have a paper?” I asked.

“No, I don't. And I lost my pipe earlier today.”

“It's no problem, I'll just make one out of a beer can.” I picked up one of the cans that lay scattered on the ground and poked holes in all the necessary places using a safety pin I keep affixed to my shirt for this very purpose. “There, that ought to work nicely. I'm Mad Mike, by the way.”

“Dangerous Dave.” he said, reaching out to shake hands.

We sat down on the ledge as I loaded a liberal dose of weed into the pipe, took a toke, and passed it to Dave, who I now realized was just as drunk as I. His conversation was rambling and hard to follow, and, rather than taking a hit and passing back the can, he sat it down beside him as he continued to talk. I can't recall exactly what he was saying, but I remember that I started to get annoyed with him and finally said, “Hey, why don't you hit that pipe?”

“Hey, why don't you just ask me for it instead of telling me what to do?” He reached over to grab the can, but his movements were uncoordinated, and he ended up swatting it off the ledge down to the bushes below.

“Jesus Christ,” I said wearily, “So much for that. Good work dude.”

“You got plenty of weed. Just go get the can and load another bowl.” he slurred, in a tone that veered way too close to command for my liking.

“Nah, I'm not feeling your vibes anyway. I'm out of here.” I said, getting up to leave. Even under the best circumstances I have little tolerance for the foolishness of strangers, less so when I've been drinking.

“Fuck that, you think you're just going to talk shit and walk away? You're not going anywhere.” He stood up, staggered drunkenly, and pulled out a long camping knife, opening it with an audible click. I've had guns pulled on me before, but this was my first knife. Though I did feel fear it was strangely distant, as though I was listening to it on the radio or something. I jumped back and said, “Whoa, chill out now, buddy. Just stay back.”

“You were trying to make me feel stupid, weren't you? With your tone of voice? Like I'm some kind of idiot because I dropped your weed.”

“No, not at all,” I said “I can tell you're a really smart guy. Just chill out man, no need to get violent.” As I was talking to him I walked slowly backwards, occasionally making like I was about to try and run passed him. Each time I did, he would move to block my path as he continued to advance forward with the knife. This was misdirection on my part, however, as my real plan was to make it to the far end of the park and jump down from the wall onto the path below. It's not obvious from the top of the hill that there's a path behind the wall, and I was betting that Dave was only aware of the one I'd told him about, back when we were friends. (The wall I'm referring to can be seen at the top of my cover photo on Facebook.)

“Oh, it's gonna get violent.” said Dave, obviously relishing what he perceived to be his control of the situation. I kept walking backwards towards the wall, apparently cornering myself. If that had been the case, would Dave really have stabbed me? It's hard to say. More likely he would have beaten me while using the knife for intimidation, a cowardly ploy.

He didn't get the chance, though, because as soon as I made it to the wall I jumped down to the concrete ledge below and then four feet down to the narrow, rocky path. I ran down the hill, and was safely at the bottom within seconds.

You may be wondering why he didn't just follow me down the hill and stab me at the bottom. The simple fact is that it was very dark, and the path down is treacherous and steep. Dave would have no trouble climbing down, but it would put him at a tactical disadvantage, as I could be hiding in the shadows below, waiting to bash his head in with a rock.

Which is exactly what I was doing. I lurked in the darkness at the base of the hill and made ready to brain him with a cantaloupe sized stone the moment he set foot into the light. I waited for maybe three minutes, though it seemed much longer. Suddenly, I had a psychedelic epiphany in which I realized that I didn't need to be doing what I was doing. I had options. There was no compelling reason to lurk in the dark, waiting to fight a knife wielding lunatic to the death, and all kinds of compelling reasons to avoid that scenario. Besides, who wants to be remembered as the guy who brought a rock to a knife fight?

I put down my weapon and walked out to the front of the hill, looking up towards the top. Dave was perched on his bike, peering down like the predator he is, “Hey, you're just gonna run away? What kind of pussy shit is that?”

“I don't have a knife. Throw away the knife and I'll whip your ass.”

“It takes balls to talk shit from fifty yards away.”

“It takes balls to pull a blade on an unarmed man? You're just another sick fuck on a power trip. I'm lucky I'm not a girl.”

Just then I heard sirens in the distance. I knew they probably weren't for us, but decided to improvise, “Hey, you hear that, asshole? They're on their way. Just keep talking shit for a few more minutes.”

I saw immediately that my ruse had worked. Dave was visibly panicked, and started riding towards the gate. (There are roads leading away at both the top, and the bottom of the hill.) “You called the police, you fucker? Why don't you just man up and fight me?”

“It's too late for that Dave. Just keep talking.”

Fearing the approach of predators even more dire than himself, Dave fled the scene, cursing me a last time as he rode out of sight. I waited for a few minutes to make sure he wasn't riding around to the base of the hill, then climbed up to retrieve my pipe. With the help of the flashlight app, I was even able to salvage a tiny nug of the weed that Dave had dropped. I went over to a hidden nook, loaded a bowl, and sat smoking for maybe an hour before finally walking home.

It had been an unsettling experience, and I was somewhat rattled. It was freaky how quick things had gotten out of hand. It's true that my reaction to Dave's mistake was not as sensitive as it could have been, but I would argue that he lost any claim to just grievance when he introduced a deadly weapon to the situation. If I had been in his position, feeling slighted by a stranger, I would voice my opinion, possibly in strident fashion, but would only resort to violence if I felt threatened. I can be a dick sometimes, but there are lines I don't cross. It's baffling to me that so many people do.

The story would have ended there, and I might not have bothered to tell it, but for an odd epilogue that occurred yesterday. I was making my morning rounds on the top level of the hill and, looking down, I happened to notice something orange underneath a bush. I reached in, and saw that it was the very same knife that Dave had pulled on me eight days earlier. Even as he was brandishing it at my head, I couldn't help but admire the quality. “I'm about to get stabbed with a really nice knife.” I thought. Dave must have truly believed the police were coming for him, and figured he'd better get rid of the evidence. He threw the knife under that bush, and there it sat unnoticed for some time, lying in wait of a new owner.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Snorting Cocaine From a Butcher Knife

I was on Decatur Street in front of the Cafe Du Monde Company Store, playing banjo and singing for drug money. It was a slow night, which always made me edgy, so I was singing one of my more confrontational songs, “If Jesus Were Here...”

If Jesus were here he would give me a dollar right now.
If Jesus were here he would give me a dollar right now.
He saved your soul for eternity / so you could give a dollar to me.
If Jesus were here he would give me a dollar right now.
So why don't you live up to your phony ideals / for just one time and see how it feels?
If Jesus were here he would give me a dollar right now.

There weren't enough tourists to build collective momentum, making it a fairly grueling prospect. A festival crowd has a way of communicating enthusiasm amongst itself, creating a kind of snowball effect. If everyone is in a good mood, it becomes contagious, spreading through the entire population like the rage virus. Conversely, if the general atmosphere is sedate and static, that is the mood that will prevail throughout the crowd. In this way a street performer is somewhat at the mercy of fate, though a wise one can read the signs and adjust his or her act accordingly. As for me, I felt my will to live slipping swiftly away, so I was happy to see my friend Phoenix coming around the corner, apparently in a very good mood.

Phoenix was a homeless crack addict. This would probably bother most people, but Phoenix was one of the happiest, most carefree crackheads I've ever known. He made his money hustling palm frond roses in Jackson Square, and had cuts and scratches all over his arms from climbing the trees that surround Armstrong Park every morning. He had the smooth delivery of a natural salesman, and always had plenty of cash on hand for crack, or whatever else he needed to buy. He never bathed, smoked weed constantly, and was always smiling. I was so impressed with his positive attitude that I wrote a song about him called, “The White Boy Who Loves Smoking Crack,” and even went to smoke with him in his crackhouse one time as a sort of “National Geographic” experience. Just like a haunted house, it was spooky but fun. 

“Hey Hippie Bum, what's up man? You milking these fuckers?” he said, calling me by my old street name.

“Nah, I've only made like fifteen bucks so far.”

“Goddamn dude, I don't see why the crowd doesn't treat you better. Here I have a grip full of bills and all I do is make roses out of palm fronds, and you're out here playing your ass off for peanuts. It doesn't seem right.”

“Well, in all fairness, a lot of the time I sing songs to purposely make them mad.”

“You should learn some Tom Petty or some 'House of the Rising Sun.' These drunk girls love that shit. You'll be rolling in hundos and shwilly poontang from Bumfuck, Arkansas in no time. Some of these hotel rooms are pretty sweet.”

“You've taken the tour, huh?”

“Nah, I actually prefer local girls. That way you can drink all the milk in their refrigerator after they pass out.”

“That's not going to win you any second dates.”

“Dude, when they wake up the next day, all sober, and they see a dirty crack addict standing there, I honestly feel sorry for them. There's not going to be any 'second dates,' whether I shanghai their milk or not.”

“Do you ever feel bad about yourself? Because you're a really bad person. I often wonder if bad people ever feel bad about themselves.”

“Only when the drugs run out. Speaking of which, you wanna burn a fat one?”

“Yeah, maybe that'll get me in touch with the zeitgeist.”

“Should we go up to the river?”

“Nah, I don't want to lose my spot. Fuck these people. What are they gonna do?”

Phoenix sat down on the stoop beside me and started rolling an enormous joint, thicker than a cigar and almost as long. I'm not sure how we got away with smoking these huge joints on such a busy sidewalk, but we did it all the time. Occasionally an old lady would give us a dirty look, or some teenagers would call out, “Something smells good!” but people mostly ignored us. I guess they figured we were part of the ambiance.

As we were smoking the bomber, a fog began to roll in off the river of a richness and density one seldom sees outside the Quarter in the balmy months before winter. The mist was all encompassing, and prevented us from seeing even across the street. Every now and then, some tourists would pierce the shroud and briefly pass through our enclosed little world, but they were few and far between.

Then, from out of the murky condensation, strode a tall, lanky man with shoulder length hair and a red Ramones T-shirt that didn't appear to have been changed in many days. He walked up to the stoop, sat down next to me, and said, by way of introduction, “Do you know to play Ramones? I am from Russia on vacation. My name is Nestor. Do you know to play “I Want to be Sedated?”

“Uhm...yeah...sure.”

“I will give you a dollar if you play Ramones for me on the banjo.”

I played “I Wanna be Sedated” for the guy, and “Beat on the Brat,” as he danced around cartoonishly in an exaggerated parody of how one is supposed to react to rock and roll. “Shit,” I thought, “at least he enjoys music.”

“That is excellent!” he said, as he threw a few dollars into my case, “I've never heard punk rock on the banjo before. Say, you guys seem alright. I think I can party with you. Do you know where to buy some cocaine?”

Phoenix and I both perked up and gave each other appraising looks in which we psychically agreed that Nestor almost certainly wasn't a cop. Without missing a beat, Phoenix was on the case, “It's funny you should mention that, because I actually do know where to buy some cocaine. As a matter of fact, I can get it in powder or rock form.”

“Powder. Only powder.”

“No problem chief, how much were you looking for?”

“What is the price of one gram?”

“A gram is fifty bucks.” said Phoenix.

Now, I knew, of course, that the going rate for a gram of shitty cocaine in the Quarter at that time was forty dollars on the barrelhead, so Phoenix was looking at a ten dollar profit on every gram he scored. Nestor pulled out his wallet and said, “I will take one gram for now. If it is good, I will get more. I will take care of you guys. We will hit the slopes.”

Phoenix took the money and said, “You can come with me if you want to. It doesn't matter to me.”

“I trust you. After all, why rip me off when I am buying more?”

“See, that's why I like Russians: you have this no bullshit attitude. And I know you fuckers totally won World War II.” said Phoenix.

“It's nice of you to recognize that.” Nestor replied.

And so Phoenix went off into the foggy night to score cocaine from whatever bar was hot that week, leaving me alone with Nestor from Russia. He looked at me with a wild eyed grin and said, “Do you know to play 'Sheena is Punk Rocker?'”

So it goes when dealing with a patron of the arts.

I only had to get through half of “Rocket to Russia” before Phoenix was back with the cocaine. “Was it easy to score?” asked Nestor.

“Easy? I'd say. There were three people slinging out of the same bathroom. If they had two stalls there would be six motherfuckers set up in there. I don't know, this gram looks pretty fat to me.” Everyone was in agreement that the gram looked fat. In a surprise move, Phoenix had opted not to pinch the Russian's bag, at least, not this first one. He'd told me before that he always pinched from the drugs he expedited as a matter of principal, but in this case he had shown admirable restraint in name of the greater good.

“Now we must try it, but I dislike doing key bumps,” said Nestor, “I want to do lines. Do either of you have a mirror or a CD case or something?”

“Yeah, my butcher knife will be perfect.” said Phoenix, unzipping his backpack and pulling out the large, square blade.

“Yes, that will do nicely.” said Nestor.

“I can't believe you carry that thing around with you.” I said.

“It's just in case someone invades my crackhouse in the middle of the night and I have to hack them up. I'll be all like, “What the fuck are you doing in my house motherfucker? Hack! Hack! Hack!” He pantomimed with the knife how he would hack up anyone who invaded his crackhouse.

“Why don't you leave it at your crackhouse then?”

“Because someone might need hackin' up while I'm out in the field.”

“Let me see that knife.” said Nestor.

After he'd doled out the lines, and we all snorted an enormous rail, the mood changed from serene to ecstatic. In the blanket of fog, and through the haze of our drugged out revelry, the night seemed to belong completely to us. If the police were present, they did not appear to be concerned with our activities. I was seized with a sense of joy and inner peace that I remember even to this day.

The Russian, on the other hand, turned out to be a “Weird Cocaine Dude,” or, a dude who exhibits weird behavior whenever he snorts cocaine. Grinding of teeth, the thousand yard stare, and semi-coherent jabbering are all hallmarks of the Weird Cocaine Dude. In addition, each individual Weird Cocaine Dude has a specific Insane Activity they like to engage in on top of the general weirdness homogeneous to them all. These activities can be bizarre and disturbing, like this one guy I knew who liked to dress up in ballerina costumes and take pictures of himself in seductive poses. (To his credit, he freely admits he's no fun to do cocaine with.) Nestor's obsessive focus happened to be drawing portraits. As soon as the coke started working on his system, he grabbed a cardboard box from the gutter, tore it into pieces, pulled a stick of charcoal from his pocket, and started sketching chaotic, angular portraits of women's faces. “This is my thing.” he explained.

In this way we sat for many hours: The Russian drawing his portraits, me playing every Ramones song I know, and Phoenix making periodic runs to the bar for more cocaine. It was ludicrous. The Russian clammed up after we started getting high, but he kept setting up rails for us on the knife, and throwing money into my banjo case. When he got too engrossed in his drawing, Phoenix and I argued over whose turn it was to remind him it was time to do another line, “I did it last time. Just ask him to set up a bump.”

“Shit, you're the one scoring it for him. You've got more pull.”

“No, that's why you should do it: So I don't have to do everything.”

“I'm playing him his god damned Ramones songs.”

“I can hear you talking. We will do another line in a few minutes.”

It was nearly four in the morning when our strange little party finally came to an abrupt end. As you would expect, the police were involved, though not directly. The streets were nearly dead, but through the fog we heard a car speeding down Decatur Street in our direction. We couldn't see it, but we could hear that it was going dangerously fast despite the limited visibility. As the car came into view, we all stood up, getting ready to bolt as it began swerving to the right, sideswiping three parked cars before jumping halfway up the curb, and skidding to a halt near the entrance of Jackson Square.

A guy jumped out of the passenger side door and ran off into the night. The driver jumped out too and yelled after him, “Don't leave me here you motherfucker!” He was extremely drunk, stumbling around oafishly and slurring his words. The three cars he had sideswiped were all badly dented and missing their driver's side mirrors. His car seemed to have been disabled by it's jump to the curb and looked like it had been pretty fucked up to begin with, as if this wasn't the first crash it had been in. The driver retrieved a pack of cigarettes from his glove compartment, and searched futilely through his pockets for a lighter. After several long moments he came stumbling over to us and asked, “Any a you guys gotta lighter?”

I gave him a light and said, “That was some pretty crazy driving there fella.”

“Yeah dude,” said Phoenix, “You hit three cars. Those people aren't going to be happy when they get back from Bourbon Street and have to talk to the police all fucked up.”

“Oh shit,” said the genius, “The police are going to be here any minute, aren't they? I'm totally fucked.”

“That's probably a good bet, buddy. And don't take this the wrong way, but we don't really need to be attracting any attention from the cops ourselves, if you get my drift.”

“Oh, OK. I feel you.” he stumbled off dejectedly to wait by his car and face his tragic destiny.

“Well, my friends, I think it is time for me to be going. I do not like the police.” said Nestor.

“Hey, right on bro, thank you so much for all the blow.” said Phoenix.

“Yeah man, and thanks for all that money you tipped me. I have enough to get stoned for two or three days now.”

“Think nothing of it. Thank you for scoring the cocaine, and thank you for playing the banjo. I love fucking Ramones!” he said, as he tossed the portraits he had been working on all night into the trash. Then he walked off to who knows where, still singing the chorus to “Blitzkrieg Bop” as he disappeared into the fog from whence he came. I felt we had done our parts to give him an authentic New Orleans experience.

Phoenix and I sat and waited for the police to arrive. They showed up after about a half hour, neither surprised nor amused by the situation. The guy was trying to claim that there had been someone else driving the car, but the police weren't buying it. It was good sport, if somewhat ominous.

“So what are you going to do now,” I asked, “The sun will be up soon.”

“I'm going to take all the money I made off of Nestor and buy crack with it. You should come along.”

“Nah, I've had enough stimulants for one night. It's turning me into a zombie. I think I might go over to Harrah's and play some slots to unwind before I go home.”

Phoenix laughed and said, “You're going to put your money in a slot machine? You must be smoking better crack than I ever sold.”














 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Beating of Patrick


Chicago is a drug dealer. He stands in front of the shelter from dawn until dusk every day selling sticks for two dollars, blunts for five. Of all the drug dealers at the shelter, he is the largest and most physically imposing. It is because of this, I believe, that he is also the most laid back. I have never seen Chicago behave aggressively towards anyone, or even raise his voice. Instead, he sits in the shade smoking enormous cigars of K2, his impassive expression never changing, as though set in stone.

His girlfriend Cat is the more vocal of the two. As Aaron was to Moses, or The Mouth of Sauron to Sauron, so Cat is to Chicago, “My husband has sticks for sale.”

(Me to Cat ) “What brand?”

(Cat to Chicago) “What brand?”

(Chicago to Cat, (almost inaudible)) “wtf...”

(Cat to me) “'What The Fuck?!?.'”

“OK, that's pretty good stuff. Will you give me three for five?”

“He wants to know if we'll do three for five.”

(Inaudible response)

“Yeah, OK.”

“Tell him, 'Thanks.'”

Cat has never struck me as a confrontational person, but her station as the harbinger of Chicago's will sometimes puts her at odds with the various riff raff that mill about the shelter. A drug dealer must be strong and unbending to survive in such an environment, with craven addicts always nipping at their heals, looking for some chink in the armor to exploit. A good street dealer is almost like a battleship commander: Honest and consistent, yet not given to misguided sentimentality, lest they lose the respect of their subordinates.

But you wouldn't have to be predisposed to conflict to develop animosity towards Patrick. A truly unusual character, Patrick is a challenge to describe. He is a constant presence around the shelter and, indeed, I have never seen him anywhere else. He's about my age, but gnarled and grizzled from years of hard living. He has red hair that juts out at discordant angles, and his glasses are held together with thick wads of electrical tape. His voice is effete, high pitched, nasal, and grating.

Patrick is an unrepentant beggar, and is amongst the lowest of the breed: those who prey upon their own kind. He spends much of his time sprawled out in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the shelter, bumming cigarettes from whoever should walk by. On the rare occasions that he is ambulatory, you will often find him directly in your face, pleading with you desperately for something you do not have.

Walking up to the corner the other day, lighting a hand-rolled cigarette, it was mere moments before he was on top of me, “Hey...hey, you don't want to share that do you? Please, please, please! I'll give you this food.” He held out a plate of macaroni and cheese that he'd obviously gotten from some Christian group, and had been saving uncovered in the sun. It was not appetizing.

“Nah, I don't really want to share this cigarette. I've grown attached to it.”

“Oh, it's a cigarette? I thought it was a stick.”

“No, sorry,” I said, and he stalked off sullenly down the street.

I turned my attention to finding drugs on the ground. I could tell by looking around that it would be an easy task, as it was obvious that a new shipment had recently come in. Drug dealers lined the entire block, each surrounded by his or her cadre of sycophants. Blunts being sparked all around, and a raucous, boozy atmosphere assured me that it would be only a short while before I found what I was looking for, and could get the fuck out of there.

I was rounding the corner at Neches when I heard Patrick's unmistakable whine ring out from above the crowd, “Get the fuck away from me, bitch. Get the fuck away from me. Get the fuck away from me, bitch.”

“Stop callin' me a bitch, goddammit!” it was Cat, as mad as I've ever seen her. Her face was beet-red, and she was advancing towards Patrick with malice in her eyes. I hadn't caught the beginning of the confrontation, but it wasn't hard to guess who had started it. “Give me back that fucking grape soda, you cocksucker.” she yelled, “I saw you take it out of my fucking cooler. You ain't slick.”

He retreated from her, saying, “Get away from me, bitch. Skank. Ho. Bitch-skank-ho! I bought this soda at the store.” He ran up the steps to the porch of the shelter and made as if to open the can.

“Don't you open that fucking soda.”

He opened the can and took a gulp, “I bought this soda at the store. I'm not afraid of your Frankenstein monster, you skinny little bitch.”

“You wouldn't be saying that if he was here. He's gonna stomp your ass when he gets back from court.” she said, walking away in disgust.

“Cunt.” said Patrick, unable to resist the urge to dig himself a deeper hole.

I wondered what he could be thinking. Was he secretly a martial arts expert? Chicago is slow to rile, sure, but anyone who saw him could easily imagine the damage he'd do if properly motivated. I guess Patrick was just living in the moment.

I didn't get to think about it long before another scuffle broke out, this one between a cold blooded stick pusher named Twig, and some metal dude with long hair who I didn't recognize. When I walked up to the scene, the stranger was loudly decrying Twig as a scoundrel and a liar, “I DIDN'T TOUCH THIS BITCH. I DIDN'T DO A FUCKING THING TO THIS BITCH. YOU THINK YOU RUN THIS BLOCK? YOU AREN'T THE MAYOR OF THIS BLOCK. YOU'RE JUST A NASTY, HATEFUL, DYKE BITCH.”

Twig sat silently and didn't respond in any way, yet manged to project greater menace than a man twice her size. I had seen her involved in these kinds of disagreements before, and have seen how they end. The simple fact is, Twig does run the block, and woe betide any who cross her.

A crowd began to form around the new guy, more than a few of them acolytes of Twig. Several members of the crowd were trying to reason with him and get him to move on, “Look man, why don't you just drop it and walk away. You made your point. Just get out of here and cool off for a little while.”

But he wouldn't let it go, “NO, FUCK THAT. YOU AREN'T KICKING ME OFF THIS BLOCK. I DIDN'T DO A THING TO THIS BITCH. YALL THINK YOU'RE SMART, BUT YOU'RE STUPID. YOU'RE ALL STUPID. I'M SMART, AND EVERYONE ELSE HERE IS STUPID!”

A few people laughed at this line, including me. It's true, we were no rocket scientists, but it was obvious to everyone present who was the stupidest of all. The guy began repeating “Dyke bitch!” at the top of his lungs, like a broken record, as Twig sat motionless.

After what must have been five minutes of yelling, the security guard finally showed up and somehow managed to talk the man down. I couldn't hear the conversation, but the guy stopped chanting and started walking with the guard to the corner. But after he felt like he'd handled the situation and walked away, the nut-job went right back over to Twig and started yelling, “YOU CAN'T KICK ME OFF THIS BLOCK. AND LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING ELSE...”

He went silent. I looked over to where he had been standing but couldn't see him anywhere. Walking up, I saw him leaned unconscious next to a tree with blood dripping out of his nose. No one was paying attention to him, least of all Twig. I overheard one of her toadies say, “I wonder if he has a wallet.” but she said, “No, don't touch him.”

After awhile, he came to. It took him a few minutes to shake off the cobwebs. He slowly stood up, looked down, and saw the blood on his shirt, “What the fuck happened to me?”

“You better get the fuck out of here before it happens again.” Twig said quietly.

This time, long-hair finally got the message and stumbled off down 7th St. He was still cursing and looking back, obviously wanting to continue the conflict, but his survival instincts got the better of him.

I headed down 7th myself, but in the opposite direction. I was carefully examining an area people often sit to roll joints, when I heard screams coming from the Salvation Army parking lot, half a block away.

“Help! Help! Security! Help!”

I went over to the fenced in lot, and saw Patrick in a state of total panic. He kept screaming for help, and running around frantically, trying to find some way out other than the front entrance. I was about to ask what he was so worked up about, when I saw Chi Town stalking through the gate with a look of grim determination on his face. Cat and her best friend Raven came up from behind him, flanking him on either side, like the familiars of a dark wizard.

It was such a perfect set up, like something out of a movie. Patrick tried to climb the fence, but only made it halfway before falling to the ground. A large crowd started to form, and all in attendance agreed that the situation was hilarious. The Nigerian went up to the fence, and said in an voice full of earnest reassurance, “Don't worry Patrick, I'll help you.” Everyone laughed and several others spoke up, “Yeah, I'll help you too Patrick.” “Yeah me too. We comin' to help you Patrick.”

Patrick started running behind rows of cars, and trying to zigzag his way to safety, but it was futile. The women had him cut off from the left and the right, as Chicago hung back in the center. They kept creeping forward, cutting off all his escape routs. Finally, he had no choice but to turn around and face his attackers. He menaced them lamely in some kind of half-ass fighting stance, saying, “Get back. Get back right now. SECURITY!”

They were on him. They knocked him down, kicked him a few times, and clawed at his head a bit, while Patrick screamed like a girl and begged for mercy. The crowd went wild. Then Chicago, who'd been acting as backup until that point, stepped forward and gave Patrick one token whack to the head. Just a bitch-slap really, intended to humiliate rather than inflict injury. He watched the girls wail on him for a few more seconds, then said, “That's enough.” They backed off, and started walking quickly towards the entrance. Patrick, seeing that his atonement was complete, got up and ran past Chi Town and his gang, cutting them a wide swath. “Who's a bitch now?” yelled Cat, as he ran down Red River, not stopping to pick up the clothes that fell from his backpack. All told, the actual beating took about ten seconds.

And life at the shelter goes on. Chicago and Cat continue to work their daily shift, and Patrick continues to lie in the sun, begging for cigarettes. Not from Cat, though. He now gives her plenty of space, and never seems to be around the soup kitchen when Chi is eating lunch. If you're going to survive on the streets for any length of time, it helps to know who not to fuck with. Sociopathic, drug dealing, behemoths, for example. Or their girlfriends.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Gnarly Nate, The Cricket Eating Crazy Man

Back when I was a street performer in New Orleans, I knew this kid named Nate who rode the rails and wandered in and out of town as the mood struck him. Nate was a heavy drinker. He panhandled obsessively and was always coming up with some new angle to try out on the tourists. Jokes for a quarter, dollar-for-three-quarters, human statue, human jukebox, shoe shines, and I'll bet I can tell you where you got them shoes; Nate knew them all. He wasn't stingy with his booze, and we hung out often.

One day, as I was sitting in front of Grandad's General Store playing the banjo, Nate walked up with a plastic bag in his hand and a big smile on his face. As he got closer, I saw that his bag appeared to be full of live insects, “Dude, you're gonna love my new act, Mike!”

“What the fuck is that? Have you been collecting cockroaches?”

“They're live crickets. I got them at the pet store for five dollars. You're supposed to feed them to your frogs or something. I'm going up to tourists and telling them I'll eat them for a dollar,” he said, and then waited with a sly grin as he anticipated my response.

“Hahahaha! Holy shit, dude. That is best idea you've ever had. I can't believe you're the only one who's thought of it.”

“Well, actually, I got it from an old homebum in Key West, but he did it with snails. He couldn't afford crickets.”

“Are they going down smooth?”

“No,” he admitted, “They're making me sick.”

“You made any money?”

“Not much. I got four dollars but it's kind of a hard sell.”

“Let me see your technique.”

He went into his shtick, and I saw his problem instantly. He stood at the end of the curb asking people in a subdued, conversational tone, “Hey, you want to see me eat a cricket for a dollar?” the same way you might ask someone for the time of day. He had come up with a great concept, no doubt of that. He just needed a more skillful raconteur to push it for him, “Hey Nate, I got an idea, man. Why don't you let me be your barker? I'll convince people to pay the money, and you can eat the crickets. We'll split the take 50/50.”

He was predictably reluctant at first, “Well, I don't know, that doesn't seem fair. I'm the one eating the crickets after all.”

“Look man, I'll play the banjo and get all up in people's faces. You know I can work this crowd. Let's just try it for an hour and see how we do.”

“Yeah, I guess you're right.” he said, pretending to relent.

“Alright! Let's go up to Sidney's and spend your cricket earnings on beer. We gotta be loose if we're gonna sell this routine.”

We got the beer and set up in front of the Central Grocery which was just closing up. The already disappointed tourists milling about were aghast to see us approaching, bedraggled beyond the understanding of civilized men, bag of crickets in tow. They swiftly disbursed and we set about developing our act.

It came easy. When your core idea is solid, the window dressing tends to fall into place. Within a few minutes I had a song ready to go, and Nate had been formally rechristened: “Gnarly Nate, The Cricket Eating Crazy Man / crickets taste great, just ask Gnarly Nate / Gnarly Nate, the cricket eating fool / he's got cricket pieces in his drool / Booze and crickets make him feel great / so give one dollar to Gnarly Nate.”

“That's perfect dude. I love it. I'm fuckin' 'Gnarly Nate,' yo!”

“Yeah, you know, maybe you should try to dance around a little bit.”

“Are you fucking kidding me? You want me to eat the crickets AND fucking dance around?”

“OK, OK. Jesus Christ, it was just an idea. Don't go primadonna on me just because you're a star now.”

So, Nate just stood there as I sang the song, and after awhile a small gaggle of tourists stopped to listen. I immediately jumped into the pitch, “Howdy there folks! Are you having a good time? Say, I'll tell you what: My friend here is an escaped mental patient, and we're trying to raise money to buy him some Thorazine. Without it he starts slurring his speech and running into walls. It's a gruesome and tragic spectacle.”

Showing that he had some theatrical instincts after all, Nate started babbling incoherently and trying to walk through the doors of the Central Grocery, which were chained shut. I continued, “Now, I know you folks are anxious to get shit-faced and buy some tit hats, but if you'll give us just a moment of your time, I promise we'll show you something truly amazing.”

“What are the crickets for?” (I knew we had them.)

“I'm glad you asked. Now, here in New Orleans there are lots of unusual things to see, but I'm going to tell you right now that my friend, Gnarly Nate, The Cricket Eating Crazy Man, is prepared to eat live crickets, presently, for your entertainment, for just one American dollar.”

“That guy will eat a cricket if we pay you a dollar?” said the guy, warming up to the idea.

“That's absolutely correct sir, and what's more, we are offering you an incredible deal. For five dollars he'll eat, not five, but ten crickets. You get two crickets for the price of one!”

Nate gave me a dark look but stayed in character. The tourons were yucking it up and busting out their cameras. It looked like Gnarly Nate was about to have to put his crickets where his mouth was.

The guy handed me the five and I put it in my pocket. He gave a depraved cackle and said, “So is he going to eat the crickets all at once?”

Nate writhed around and made sounds of obvious protest. Everyone laughed. I was relieved because that was the moment when things could have gotten complicated. It's much easier to do your act when you have an audience that's willing to play along. Also, I felt compassion for my friend who faced a grim destiny as it was. I knew which one of us was Tom Sawyer and which was Huck Finn. In the most conciliatory of tones, I said, “Sir, I can't, in good faith, allow my friend here to eat ten crickets all at once. Are we not, after all, civilized men? How about he eats them one or two at a time? That way you can each get a picture with him in the act.”

“That'll be fine.”

It was show time. I started playing the song again, and Nate started popping the crickets into his mouth two at a time. He chewed them up and held out his tongue so everyone could see and take pictures. The best part was when a woman stopped and said, “That's horrible!” and I said, “Oh, come on. They were just going to get eaten by frogs anyway.”

I'm not going to lie, it was kind of anti-climactic, but that's how it is with street performance. The unicycle isn't all that impressive unless you have a funny guy on top of it, or as in this case, a funny guy and a guy who eats insects for money.

After the macabre affair had finally concluded and the tourons had wandered off into the night, Nate took a swig of beer and spit it out into the gutter trying to flush away the detritus. I laughed unreservedly, “Holy shit dude. I can't believe you did it. How did they taste?”

“Not good.” he said ruefully, but he was laughing too. It had been a career high for both of us.

“Are you ready to eat ten more?”

“Actually, I don't really want to eat anymore crickets. Why don't we just go get a six pack from the A&P with that five dollars in your pocket?”

“What are you going to do with the rest of them? Save them till tomorrow and eat them dead?”

“Look man, I don't want to talk about it. Let's just let them go.”

He didn't have to twist my arm. We went to the neutral ground and let the rest of the crickets go in the bushes around the statue of Joan of Arc, then we walked and got a six of Cobra at the A&P and went to a stoop in Pirate's Alley.

“So what are you going to do for the rest of the night?” he asked.

“I'm going to go back to Grandad's General Store and play.”

“I don't know Mike, you seem kind of fucked up.”

“Well, if I get too wasted to play I'll just go back to Joan and find some of those crickets on the ground.”

Nate jumped off the stoop, ran to the edge of the church courtyard, and spewed forth a geyser of malt liquor and cricket corpses, making it nearly halfway to the base of Touchdown Jesus. Without missing a beat I jumped up and started playing, “...Booze and crickets make him feel great / So give one dollar to Gnarly Nate. ”


Saturday, April 19, 2014

Mad Mike Goes to Jail- Parts 1 - 5

Part 1 "Captured"---  It began with a gesture of kindness. A new friend of mine, impressed by my writing, had given me an elaborate gift: a bottle of rum, an eighth of excellent weed, a small baggie of clonazepam, a five dollar bill, and a bottle of pomegranate wine. My people know me. To receive such a lavish and thoughtful gift put me in excellent spirits, and as I headed towards the Austin Public Library that day, I felt that I must be the luckiest man on Earth. So positive was my mood, in fact, that my third eye opened, and I began to see aspects of the world with increased clarity.

In front of the library, I saw a man that I regarded as an enemy, a fellow dumpster diver named Spider, with whom I had developed bad blood. Resources on the street are limited, and competition for the best dumpsters can be fierce. On a number of occasions, I had argued and exchanged unkind words with Spider, and had begun to believe that I hated him. Now, in my enlightened state, I realized this hatred was foolish. It was not personal enmity that drove him to the same dumpsters as I, but a shared desire for freedom. This man who I had raged against was, in fact, much like me.

I walked up to him and said, "Hey look, man, you got a rolling paper?"

He was shocked that I was even talking to him. The few words we spoke to each other were invariably harsh. Before he could say anything I continued, "See, I just scored some killer weed, and I was thinking maybe we could burn a joint and, you know, bury the hatchet. Somehow things got real ugly between us and I feel like it's mostly my fault. I'm kind of a nutcase but I'm in a good mood today, and it just seems like all the negativity between us is pointless."

As I said all this I could see he was getting it. He looked relieved, frankly. He said, "Oh OK, then. I've got a few papers. You want to go to the park?"

We went over to Wooldridge Square Park, where Christopher sits, and spent several hours talking. I rolled up a couple of fat ones, and busted out the pomegranate wine, which was every bit as good as it sounds. Much as I suspected, Spider and I did have a lot in common, though I have never been in the military or stolen any cars.

We killed the wine and had started in on the rum when I remembered the bag of clonazepam in my pocket, "Hey man," I said, "you want some benzodiazepines?"

"Nah, I don't mess with pills."

"Suit yourself," I said as I washed down three of the pills with a swig of rum. It so happens that I had been eating benzodiazepines like candy for days with no ill effects, and for some reason it didn't occur to me that all the alcohol I had been drinking might alter the equation. The last thing I remember is Spider thanking me for all the drugs and booze, and hopping on his bike to go get cigarettes. I vaguely recall thinking I might as well head over to the library and jump online.

When I came to, I was laying on a bench in Travis County Jail. I had no recollection of being arrested, but there I was bathed in florescent light; surrounded by criminals, concrete, and police. When you get arrested in Austin, you are first taken to central booking to begin the long, painfully slow, transformation from a human being into an inmate. Like everything else in the modern world, this process has been perfected and streamlined for maximum efficiency, and every aspect of the procedure, even seemingly insignificant details, has been measured for specific effect.

Dismayed though I was at this circumstance, my first instinct was intense panic at the absence of my backpack, without which I feel thirty pounds lighter, and quite naked. Despite the pounding in my head, I peeled myself off the bench and walked up to the friendliest looking lady at the circular desk in the middle of the room, "Um, hi there. Say, I hate to disturb you, but I was wondering if I was booked in with a backpack and a computer?"

"Don't worry, hon, we got your computer in property," she said with apparent sympathy. Either I had guessed right, and she was the most human one there, or my generally disheveled state had brought out her mother instincts. I decided to hazard another question, "Oh, that's a relief. Have I been processed yet?"

"Yes sir, you're just waiting for transfer up to your cell. Go ahead and have a seat. It won't be too long."

I went and sat on one of the blue foam chairs in the waiting area. These foam chairs are used in the central booking unit of many jails. They look sort of like love seats people would have in their living rooms, and I believe their purpose is to familiarize the environment; to make it less alien and menacing, if only to keep people calm during the booking process.

As I sat down I noticed that, although I was still wearing my own shirt, I was now wearing a pair of jail issued striped pants. This led me to believe I had pissed myself at some point during the booking procedure. This amused me, though I knew it would be unpleasant to put those pants back on after they had been festering in a plastic bag in property for however long.

But at this point I was still way too fucked up to think seriously about my predicament. My immediate concern was getting up to my cell so I could curl up on my bunk, pull the coarse jail blanket over my head, and forget for as long as possible.

I drifted in and out of consciousness for an indeterminate period of time. There was a television on the wall with a sign under it saying, "Don't Ask To Change The Channel." They were playing a show in which a couple of rednecks went around the country wrestling pigs and exterminating muskrats. One of the rednecks was named "Hogman" if I remember correctly. Finally a Corrections Officer (CO) came in and called us one by one to be transferred to our cells upstairs.

Not our final cells mind you, those would come four days from now and sixteen miles away. But these solitary cells would be our homes for the next 24 hours as we went through the process of being mentally evaluated by the counselors, checked out by the nurses, and arraigned by the magistrate, who would formally read us our charges and set our bail. There is another purpose behind this initial confinement to solitary which is that the prisoners, immediately put into the harshest situation imaginable, will feel they are being liberated when they are finally sent to general population. Until then they are forbidden TV or reading material, are fed only boloney sandwiches, and are not allowed to shower or make phone calls. A dastardly tactic, I would almost admire the calculated psychology behind it if only the goal were not something so pernicious as to make people welcome dehumanizing captivity as though it were a reward to be grateful for.

After sleeping for several hours I was awakened by a counselor who's job it was to evaluate my mental health. They had me fill out a form asking me if I ever heard voices, had I ever been committed, was I on any psyche meds etc..? There was a fill in the blank question at the end of the form asking what I felt I needed most in the world besides getting out of jail. I wrote down, "friendship and love."

The counselor looked at my form and asked me, "How are you feeling today?"

"Pretty depressed, to be honest with you."

"That's understandable. Have you ever considered suicide?"

"Not for myself."

"Are you thinking of harming yourself, or someone else, at this moment?"

"Not at all."

"Ok, you can go back to your cell."

A few hours later I got to talk to the doctor who asked me about my medical history. I explained to him that I had high blood pressure,and would need my medicine if I was going to survive for any length of time. He arranged to have the pills delivered to me with the nurse every morning, thus insuring I would have to be in jail, waiting in a line. He couldn't let me keep them because, if another inmate stole them thinking they could get high on them, they would probably kill themselves, not to mention the havoc I could wreak if I decided to start poisoning people. In jail, security is the maximum directive.

After settling up with the doctor it was back to my cell for several more hours of baloney sandwiches and staring at the wall. I was eventually summoned along with twenty or so other guys to see the magistrate. We were brought into the courtroom and made to sit on a long bench. I was now sober enough to feel fear and trepidation. Although I doubted I'd committed any felonies, I figured I had at least three misdemeanor charges, and one, possession of marijuana, would be a second offense. And for all I knew I may well have been drinking from an open container, trespassing, blocking a public thoroughfare, disturbing the peace, behaving lewdly, or all of the above.

Having a last name that begins with "W," however, ensures that I always get to hear plenty of other cases before mine. The magistrate judge, as it turned out, was a pretty funny guy, and I found myself entertained by the proceeding despite the nervous tension. When he got to one old guy, an obvious drinker, he said, "Mr. Clemson, you have been charged with aggravated assault, your bond is set at thirty thousand dollars. Also, by order of the court, you are forbidden to come withing two hundred yards of Raymond Gutierrez. Do you understand?"

"Ahhh...Never met the guy."

"Do you remember an altercation that happened last Saturday? On Lavaca Street? Involving a baseball bat?"

"Oh, yeah."

"That guy. Stay away from him."

Everyone in the courtroom laughed. Laughter, in jail, is like oxygen.

When the judge finally got to me, he said, "You have been charged with possession of a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, and public intoxication. Your bond will be set at three thousand dollars. Do you need the court to appoint an attorney"

"Yes, sir."

"Alright, you'll go to court this Friday."

I had been arrested on Monday, and this proceeding took place on Tuesday. This meant that I would have to spend three more nights in jail before I found out how long I would be locked up. This was pure torture for me. Even under the best conditions I have a fretful mind, but to be imprisoned in the face of such uncertainty was agonizing. Possession of a controlled substance is a class "a" misdemeanor, which carries with it a maximum sentence of one year. I knew, of course, that I would not be given the maximum sentence, they simply don't have enough jails built yet, but under circumstances, it didn't seem unlikely that I would be sentenced to several months.

It was with black heart and burdened mind that I went through the final process that would rob me of my individuality. My shirt was taken and exchanged for stripes, my shoes were exchanged for plastic flip-flops, and my number was assigned: 1413844. (work on that for me, numerologists)



Part 2 "Confined"--- The next thing that happened was that I was marched to an elevator ("Face to the back!") and shuttled upward to a cell in a general population unit.

This pod would be my home for the next two nights, and as the door locked behind me and the guard told me my cell number, the reality fully sunk in. Up until then, I had been isolated, but now I had to contend with one of the most unpredictable aspects of the whole jail experience, which is: dealing with other inmates.

Don't get me wrong, most criminals are pretty decent fellows. A lot of them are hard working family men who simply made a wrong choice. But some of them are dangerous, and you have to be constantly on your guard. I've seen bloody fights break out over card games in which the stakes were nothing more than a couple of Ramen Soups. Captivity breeds aggression.

A "pod" is a locked unit consisting of a day room surrounded by two tiers of cells. As I walked in, several inmates sitting at the steel tables bolted in the middle of the room looked up from their game of cards, and nodded banal greetings. I inwardly breathed a sigh of relief. I had lucked into a pod with a low frequency.

I carried the bedding and toiletries the jail had supplied me with to my cell in the corner. After making my bed on the cement slab against the wall, and setting up my bathroom area, I went out into the day room to see what kind of company I was keeping.

Immediately upon entering, one of the prisoners, a skinny guy about my age, walked up to me, looked me in the eyes, extended his hand, and in a welcoming voice said, "Hi. My name is "John."

Now I knew I was in luck. Not only had I stumbled upon a harmonious pod, but also one which contained at least one smart inmate. If you ever go to jail, I recommend doing just what he did, and greet any unfamiliar inmate coming into your living space in exactly this way.(almost any) You can learn a lot from a guy by presenting him with the option of civility. I gave this gentlemen amongst the despondent a firm handshake and said, "Hey man. I'm Mike."

Over the next two nights I ate, slept, watched tv, read a book about Marlon Brando, and talked to John. A decent conversation is hard to find in jail, and I could tell he hadn't had one in a while. As for me, it had probably been even longer. In this town, the only class of people less worthy of respect than prisoners, are the homeless.

We talked about writing, "I'm kind of a writer too, actually. I was working on a story a few weeks ago. It's about how the conscious mind locks itself in, and sets up barriers for itself outside in the world. It starts with this being, like, writhing around on a platform in a cell, and a guy walks in, and when he interacts with this being, his conscious mind, which had been locked up in a cell of it's own, finally becomes free. I gotta tell you, you've been inspiring me with what you've been telling me. I'm might pick it up and start working on it again."

"Do it."

We talked about fucking up, "My old lady has put up with so much shit from me. We got a kid, and she's three months pregnant. Everything was going great until we got a bunch of money a few months ago. I started thinking, if I could flip it quick, we would be set. Then I started drinking. If I hadn't been drinking, everything would have been fine. We got into a fight, and she started trying to rip off my nut sack. I mean, literally, there was blood dripping down my legs. When the police showed up, I was so mad that all I wanted to do was get her in trouble. That's how I got caught. If I'd have played it cool with the cops, I wouldn't be here now."

But somehow, the subject always came back around to our cases. The other inmates would give me shit about having such petty charges, "Hahaha! You're sitting here shitting your pants over a controlled substance charge. Dude, they caught me with sixty six grams of heroin. Not point six six grams. Not six point six grams. Sixty six grams. Do you even know how much heroin that is?"

"Yes."

"Ok, then. My kids are going to be riding bikes by the time I see them again. You're looking at a hundred and eighty days. Maximum."

Another inmate spoke up, "I'd say more like sixty days. It's only a class "a," after all."

"Yeah, but he's got a class "b" with a prior," said the first. 

"Ah, that would change it then. I see your point."

It's the same in every jail I've been to: every inmate is in training for his law career. From the time you get booked, to the time they let you out, there's no subject more compelling than "The Case."

To break up the monotony and give us a chance to exercise, the jailers would let us onto the roof once a day for outside rec. There was, maybe, a hundred yard black top you could walk laps on, and a ping-pong table in the middle. Mostly, we just walked laps. I did get to play a game of ping-pong with one inmate who was just in from penitentiary. He had done four years, for what I never found out, and had been awaiting release when he was expedited at the last minute to Travis County on some old misdemeanor warrants. Rather than being upset about this, as you would imagine, the guy was stoked, because he had gotten a free ride home, and was also living in much nicer conditions than he had been in prison, "This place is Cadillac," he said as we chased the ping-pong ball all over the roof, "I got my little room set up. Got my pictures. I can see the TV from my bed. Don't even have to get up."

"What was it like in penitentiary?"

"It was like a city of pain, man."

Although the guy was nice enough in this environment, I knew he would be far more dangerous under other circumstances. He was a predator who was taking a break for a moment to consider the future. I didn't figure into his plans.

The craziest thing about the roof, though, was that I could see my favorite hill, the one I almost got arrested on in another story, out in the distance. You can't imagine how tormenting it was to see that grass, and imagine clearly in my mind what it would be like to walk on it, but not to be free to do so. Every prisoner has these little epiphanies of caged suffering from time to time, but few are able to stare out from confinement at a place they love, "Hey John, you see that hill with all the graffiti on it out there? That's kind of where I live."

"I love that place. Used to hang out there with my girl. You know, the hardest thing about this, for me, is seeing all you guys just coming in and having to wrap your heads around it. You see so many guys with a negative attitude. But it's not just that they have a negative attitude, they want to behave and interact in a negative way. I can't get over it. Like, why would you want to come into a place like this and interact in a negative way? It's a negative environment already. You should try to be positive and take it as easy as possible."
 
After spending two nights in this temporary housing unit, I was ordered, along with several other prisoners, to grab my meager belongings, bundle them into my blanket, and take the elevator back to the first floor, where I was to board a bus headed for the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) in Del Valle, Texas, sixteen miles, East. In jail, whatever bonds you form are, by implication, temporary. You live with the knowledge that you can be moved or transferred at any moment, and when you're told to go, you don't question it. The environment doesn't lend itself to sentimentality. But it is rare to find a decent conversation in jail, and even harder to find anyone you would call, "friend." I hope your time went easy, man. You remembered the name, right? 



Part 3  "Jail On A Bus"---  The most important thing to understand about jail, but the hardest to convey, is the unique flavor of despair that permeates every facet of your existence for the duration of your visit. I'd be surprised if J.K. Rowling has ever been locked up, but all that stuff about the Dementors sapping people's will to live is a dead on allegory for the phenomenon. This darkness is infused into every human interaction, sprays forth from every shower head, is cooked into every morsel of food, and radiates from the florescent lights that the jailers never turn off. In fact, they've even managed to get this feeling onto a bus, and transport it from one place to another.

Around fifty other guys and I were made to sit, once again, in the blue foam chairs of central booking while we waited to be summoned to the bus. After all the inmates had been gathered from various corners of the facility, we were lined up and patted down, then told to partner up to be shackled. I immediately did what I always do, and arranged to get handcuffed to oldest, frailest inmate in the bunch. There are many good reasons to do this. For one, old guys tend to be pretty quiet, at least compared to eighteen year old gang bangers. Less aggressive, too. Most importantly, in the event of a crash, it would be easy to pull his arm off and escape unhindered.

As luck would have it, I got paired up with Mr. Clemson, the old drunk guy I'd seen getting arraigned for hitting someone with a bat. Now he was practically comatose; barely ambulatory. Either he had quit his meds, or was finally back on them. "Hey buddy," I said.

"Ahh, I don't know what time it is."

"Oh? Do you mind if I take the window seat?"

"Aggghhh? Naggghhh."

I took that as a, "Yes."

We were taken in twos with our new soul mates to the hanger bay, and told to climb up the steps into the bus. This was made somewhat more difficult on account of being shackled to an old man, but I went slowly so he could keep up. Some other poor guys were getting dragged along with little consideration.

The jail bus looks like a school bus, only white, with tinted windows that allow the inmates to see out, but not for people to see in. The windows are barred with long, iron slats that would be impossible to squeeze through even if you did manage to gnaw off your partner's hand. At the front of the bus is a caged in compartment for the driver, who carries a pistol, and another guard who has a shotgun at the ready. They have to check these weapons in at the front office before entering any jail facility, and pick them up on the way out. Only special, SWAT-like police are allowed to carry guns in jail, and then only in case of a riot. The powers that be know from experience that any weapons allowed in a facility could find their way into the hands of an inmate.

Behind the drivers cage is another set of cages for inmates in red stripes; those who have committed violent or aggravated crimes. Inmates with less serious charges, such as myself were relegated grey stripes, and trustees, inmates who work around the jail, get green, the most desirable color of all.

Old man Clemson and I ended up with seats fairly close to the front of the bus, so I was able to hear the conversation of the one red striped inmate we had on this trip. When they got him in his cage, he looked back at everyone on the bus and saw someone he knew, "Hey, Antonio, you snitch motherfucker. You ratted me out, man. What the fuck?"

"I didn't say nothin'."

"The fuck you didn't. My brother said you was talking to the cops. Why am I in this fucking cage if you didn't say nothin'? Why aint you wearing red stripes?"

"I didn't snitch on no one."

"Yeah, whatever man. Stick to your bullshit. You better not fucking relax, I'll tell you that."

The guards at the front of the bus went about their business impassively. As long as we weren't drawing blood, they didn't give a shit what we said.

One thing I noticed as I looked around was that a disproportionate number of my fellow inmates had gang tattoos all over their necks, arms, and faces. Based on this, I would say, if you want to avoid jail, don't get spider webs or tear drops tattooed anywhere on your body. The police are on to that.

Once everyone was settled in, and the guards had checked out their weapons from the booking desk, they started up the bus and revved the engine. With a deep grinding noise the gigantic three hinged gate that separates the bus hanger from the outside world began to contract. The driver backed us out and, within moments, we were driving on the street; caged men with front row seats to a world we were no longer free to interact with.

For many of the inmates, those who had been locked up for awhile, this ride was an unreserved treat; a chance to look at the sun and feel the simulated freedom of driving down a road. For myself, and I'd wager some of the other new fish, this small pleasure was tinged with deep melancholy and regret for our foolish actions. As we drove by the Austin Public Library, just a few blocks from the jail, all I could think was, "If only I had gone home instead. If only I'd just passed out in my tent."

But such thoughts win you nothing after the fact. You can drive yourself mad contemplating the various what-ifs of a scenario gone awry. To beat yourself up over a mistake is often a mental substitute for honest self-evaluation. A person will believe they are performing an act of contrition when, in fact, they are simply avoiding the work it will take to ensure the same mistakes don't happen again.

Out the window, I saw the same streets I walk every day as clear as a picture, and just as intangible. I saw my favorite drug alleys pass by as if a whisper from another dimension. It was harsh. Meanwhile the other inmates couldn't get over the women, "Oh yeah, Shorty, bend down and pick up them groceries. Remember to lift with your knees, not with your back. That's good body mechanics. Oh yeah baby, pick up that other bag. You killin' me, Shorty, you killin' me."

When we drove by skid row, all the bums around the shelter waved at the passing bus even though they couldn't see us inside through the tinted glass. Everyone waving knew exactly what it was like to be on the other side of the glass. I remembered all the times I had waved at the bus as I was standing around the shelter, wondering when it would be my turn to roll.

Then it was through to the hipper part of 7th Street, east of I-35, with all the cafes and second hand clothing stores. I watched the well adjusted couples with perfect smiles eating light lunches and staring at their cell phones. They looked so happy and carefree in the afternoon sun. "Fuckin' bastards," I thought.

When we got to the freeway the scenery became less interesting, and the atmosphere on the bus became more boisterous. All around me the inmates began to talk about their cases, "My lawyer is a fucking bitch! Said he can't get those motherfuckers to come down from two."

"What, you got a public pretender?"

"No man, that's what I'm saying. I'm paying this motherfucker and he's saying the prosecutor is right, there's no way I can get off with less than two. Says I'm lucky to get that. I don't give a fuck. This don't bother me. I'll just use this place as my personal gym for two years and come out swoll'. Gotta' do the curls for the girls. Fuck man, I can't believe that bitch saying I'm lucky. I wasn't even in the car that night."

For sixteen miles I had to listen to this kind of talk as my cuff-mate drifted in and out of consciousness and occasionally spouted a non-sequitur, "He's over on his bunk, goddammit!"

"What?"

"Oh, nothin'"

As we rolled along, I wondered how much it must cost to shuttle inmates from all over Austin to this jail complex in Del Valle. Five hundred dollars a trip? I guarantee you, it's something ridiculous. Would it not make more sense to house misdemeanor defendants in Austin, where proximity to the courts would make for simpler and less costly transport? I knew the place I was being taken to was no Angola, but it was demoralizing to be brought so far from home to a correctional facility in another town.

Eventually, we arrived at the Travis County Correctional Complex, somewhat like a small city dedicated to mental torture. On the outside, no one refers to the place as the TCCC, but instead to the city in which it resides, "You better stop smoking that crack pipe. They gonna put your ass on the bus to Del Valle." (pronounced Dell Valley)

The complex, which was opened in 1977, consists of twelve inmate housing units, along with various administrative buildings. Our bus pulled up to the front office and, after a brief pause for the deputies to check in their guns, we went for a guided tour of the complex as we stopped at every housing unit, dropping off a few inmates at each along the way.

Some of the units are better than others, and inmates are assigned housing based on their security risk, as well as the severity of their charges. Our red striped inmate, for example, was taken from his cage and sent into building two, where he would be locked in his cell for twenty three hours a day. Can you imagine?

As he was leaving he called back to the guy who had ratted him out, "Don't start to relax over in number four, you punk. Don't drop your guard for a minute. The second you start watching some TV and eating your little cookies, Bap Bap Bap Bap! My people's gonna fuck you up."

"Come on," said the guard in an impatient tone, leading him down the steps, and into the unholy recesses of building two.

Each of the buildings has connected to it a small fenced in yard area surrounded by razor wire. Some of the rec. yards have basketball hoops, others have volleyball nets, but the razor wire around all the yards is festooned with the limp remains of the cloth covered, Nerf-like balls the jail supplies to the inmates. I imagined all the curses, and probably beatings, that must have resulted from all those ruined balls, now left to fade in the sun.

After going through the entire complex, and offloading most of the other inmates on the bus, we finally made it to the minimum security unit I would be housed in: building twelve. We were called by name, and told to exit the bus. We were marched, still shackled, down the steps, through the iron door, and into The Ministry of Love.



Part 4 "My Day in Court" --- We walked down the stairs into a small receiving room with a metal detector in the corner. A guard came down the line and unshackled us from our cuff buddies. I was happy to be independent of old man Clemson, an autonomous entity once again. He seemed indifferent. He even walked beside me for a few more paces before realizing the implications of our separation and falling into line.

We filed through the metal detector and out into a vast cement corridor, perhaps a thousand yards in length. We were told to put our bed rolls on the floor and to turn around and face the wall. The guards patted us down and rifled through the meager belongings stowed in our blankets. When we were told to turn back around, I saw that they'd taken the sheet I had brought with me from Austin and replaced it with a much shorter one.

I had no time to ponder the logic of this deprivation, as I was immediately instructed by a CO to go down the hall to Unit C-3, where I would be housed for the remainder of my incarceration. I began down the corridor with several other inmates who filtered out as we passed their units. Painted all along the wall in big red letters were warnings and threats, “Keep Hands Behind Back At All Times When Walking In The Hall!”, “If A CO Says, 'Wall,' Turn And Face The Wall Immediately!”, and “NO TALKING IN THE HALL!”

The stark poetry of fascism. I had to admit it was a nice touch.

After walking about five hundred yards down this creepy hallway, we came to Unit C, the sealed door to which opened immediately upon our arrival, as though by the control of some invisible, though all-seeing, entity. We then had to wait as the Floor Sargent working the control panel in the center of the room opened the doors to our specific pods. When the door to Pod 3 opened, I stepped inside my new home, full of expectation and wonder.

The pod I walked into was a large room, surrounded by two tiers of cells, with eight or nine steel tables bolted in the middle. At the far end there was a row of toilets next to three steel shower stalls. One of the toilets had a hand written sign above it that said “Pisser Only!” There were stairs leading up to the top tier of cells which had it's own toilets and showers. On the other end of the room was a row of phones, including several equipped with video monitors for “cam visits,” which a family member could arrange on the jail's website for fifteen dollars.

As I was taking in the strangeness of this concept, I saw something that seemed even more alien to the jail environment: a computerized touch screen kiosk. This, I would discover, is how inmates at Del Valle order their “commissary,” food and hygiene items that the jail allows them to buy at exorbitant prices. In all other jails I've been to, inmates ordered their commissary items by filling out a form with a pencil. Here they set up an account with a password and browsed the slick interface for deodorant and ramen soups. It was a bitter-sweet reminder that, although I was incarcerated, I was still living in the future.

There were two large, flat screen televisions on either side of the day room, one always tuned to a Spanish language channel, the other always to English. In order to hear the televisions you had to buy a small, transparent radio from the commissary (batteries not included) and tune it into a special jail frequency. Frankly, I preferred the silence, not that I could have bought a radio anyway. While those who sell drugs may get booked with money, those who merely possess drugs are likely to have spent it.

As a new arrival, I went over to check in with the Desk Sargent, a CO that sits in the unit twenty four hours a day, (in shifts, of course) addressing the inmate's needs, and keeping an eye on things. He is constantly being watched on cameras by the Floor Sargent, who is constantly being watched by the Building Supervisor. He reports to some other guy who oversees multiple buildings, and if a riot breaks out, he can call the SWAT police to roll in with the tear gas and rubber bullets. Mostly the Desk Sargent counts people and gives them aspirin. He spends a lot of time explaining that he doesn't know when you're going to court.

The CO on duty was a short guy with glasses, about ten years younger than I. He asked my name and number, and told me to go to Cell 1, right next to the toilets: a blessing and a curse.

It just so happened that I had arrived when the pod was on lock-down, though to call it that is a bit misleading, as none of the cells in Building 12 of the TCCC have bars or doors of any kind. They consist of cinder-block walls standing only four feet high, making it easy for the Desk Sargent to see what's going on, but also making it easy for inmates to pass things from one cell to another. There are four cots to a cell, each bolted to a corner, and a small area to walk around in between. Most of the time inmates are free to move about the day room, play cards, watch television, and exercise, but four times a day they are instructed to “Rack up!,” which is to say, go to their cells and be quiet. Arriving at lock-down meant that I would get to meet all of my cell mates at once.

As I've explained, this is a make-or-break moment. The ease or difficulty of your incarceration depends in large part on the quality of your cell-mates. I've spent jail time that was far more unpleasant than it had to be simply because I had the misfortune of being assigned asshole cellies. For me, this is perhaps the most brutal aspect of jail: being forced into close proximity with people I would otherwise avoid.

I was relieved to see that my situation appeared ideal: three subdued looking guys, all my age or older, and only one of them with gang tattoos. The two younger fellows were working on some kind of writing project together, and the older guy with the tats was sitting on his bunk, drawing a picture of a broken heart. The worst case scenario would have been to walk into a cell full of teenage gang bangers. You can't even generalize them, because some are perfectly decent fellows, but they are wild-cards at best. Older gang members have never given me any trouble, either because they no longer feel they have anything to prove, or because they're bored of the whole charade and just want to do their time in peace.

I walked in, nodding hello to everyone, and immediately started making my bed. As I was struggling with the bogus sheet the guards had stuck me with, the older guy laughed and said, “Those fucking pricks shorted you, huh?”

“Yeah man, what's up with that?”

“Who knows? They do shit at random. I gave up trying to figure it out years ago. What're you in for cellie?”

“Possession of a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, and public intoxication.”

“Let's see, that's an A, a B, and a C. You pretty much covered all the bases. It's a good thing you didn't get any further into the alphabet.”

“Yeah, I get pretty stupid when I'm drinking sometimes.”

“I got the same problem. That's why I'm in here right now. If only I could fucking go back in time.”

“It's too late now I guess. I like your drawing.”

“Oh, thanks. I'm going to mail it to my old lady. I call her my Fat Girl. It's a broken heart, and across the top I'm gonna write, 'I'm broken hearted without my Fat Girl.'”

“How long you been here?”

“Only two weeks in this cell. I was over in Building 9 for three months, but they moved me for some reason. I don't get out until July.”

“That's harsh.”

“Yeah, I miss my kids so much. I got a three year old and a six month old. He's going to be a one year old by the time I see him again.”

“Can't they come visit?”

“Well, not really. It's kind of complicated because my girl has a restraining order against me.”

I decided to turn the conversation back to my own case, “So what kind of time do you think I'm looking at?”

“Depends on what judge you get. Probably ninety days. A hundred and eighty at the most.” He said it like a hundred and eighty days in jail was inconsequential, a trivial amount of time. All throughout my incarceration, I met men who were far more accustomed to the idea of spending months behind bars than I ever hope to be. The conventional approach of the convict is to make as though no amount of time will faze him, which is a reasonable philosophy only after you've been sentenced. For me, any amount of jail time is like poison for the soul. Maybe I'm sensitive.

“I wonder when I'll go to court.”

“Probably tomorrow. If not tomorrow it'll be Monday for sure. Looks like it's almost chow time. I'm Victor, by the way.”

“Mike.” I shook hands with him and the other two guys, who as it turns out didn't speak English. One of them was from Mexico, and the other from Guatemala. Victor told me that the other Chicano gang members didn't like him because he refused to “blast” with them, meaning he wouldn't participate in gang activity. Instead he hung out with the Mexicans and South Americans, who had bad blood with the Chicano gangs. “Why do they dislike each other?” I asked him over our baloney sandwiches and canned pineapple chunks.

“Well, the Mexicans...except they're not all really Mexican. A lot of them came from Argentina, Guatemala, Columbia, and came through Mexico to cross the boarder. But anyway, the Mexicans don't like the Chicanos because they think we're all lazy and just want to sell drugs and rob people. They came here to work. And the Chicanos think the Mexicans are stupid chumps for not selling drugs and robbing people. So the South Americans stick together and the Chicanos stick together, and the Chicanos don't like me because I hang out with everybody. I'm not trying to be involved with all that stupid shit.”

“Say, that reminds me, I saw you had a tablet of writing paper in there. I'll trade you my blueberry muffin for a couple of pieces of paper and one of those pencil stubs.”

“Nah, you don't have to give me your muffin. I'll give you some paper.”

“That's great. I haven't been able to write since I've been in here.”

“You gonna write to your family?”

“No, I'm going to write down everything that's happened since I got arrested.”

After dinner I sat on my bunk and spent several hours writing the first part of this story. For the rest of my incarceration, I kept my notes near at hand trying to jot down every interesting thing I heard someone say. Whether it's drawing, playing chess, or betting on cards, you need to find something to occupy your mind, unless you really, really like television.

As I was trying to go to sleep that night, I was restless and pensive, unable to stop thinking about my impending court date. I kept running through my mind the possible outcomes, and imagining the coping mechanisms I would use to get through the worst case scenario. The numbers I kept hearing from other inmates were ninety and a hundred and eighty. I told myself, if I got the six months, I'd write constantly, from dawn until dusk, taking breaks only to eat and do push-ups. I would structure my days as rigidly as an army cadet, and achieve states of altered consciousness through fasting and meditation. And jail-house swill, if there was any available. By the time I dozed off, I had myself convinced that being locked up was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

After breakfast the next morning, I waited nervously for the 8 o'clock court call. I got to see two episodes of Rob Dyrdek's ghastly show “Ridiculousness,” before they finally called my name, along with several others, letting us know we should get ready to take the bus back to Austin for court.

Yes, that's correct, I spent just one night in Del Valle before boarding a bus straight back to the very same complex I had been housed at the day before. To make the logic even more perplexing, consider that, even if I were pronounced not guilty and released by the court, I would still have to ride the bus back to Del Valle, return to my cell, and await release from the TCCC after all my paperwork had been filed. Luckily, as a homeless inmate I would be eligible to receive a bus pass back to civilization upon my release. If I'd given the police a current address, I would've been forced to find my own ride back to Austin.

We tried to make ourselves look presentable and took seats at the tables nearest the door. At 8 o'clock a guard came in and told us to line up against the wall. After we got into place he said, “OK, go ahead and pat yourselves down.”

There was confused silence for a moment before he repeated, “I'm serious, go ahead and pat yourselves down.”

Everyone laughed, “If you say so.” We went through the motions of patting ourselves down and the guard, an absurdest comedian apparently, asked, “Are yall clean? Did you find any contraband?”

“No sir”

“Alright. No talking in the hall.”

This trip on the jail bus was somewhat more tense than the last, partly because everyone was nervous about court, and partly because I had failed to get shackled to an old man, but had instead wound up with a burned out hippie dude from California. As the driver went to get his gun from the front office, the kid looked at me and said, “Do you think he's got a nine millimeter or a .45?”

“I don't know.”

“I don't think he's man enough for the .45. I think he's got a nine millimeter to go with his nine millimeter hair. Do you prefer Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis?”

“The Super Nintendo is superior in many ways, but the Genesis is my personal favorite. It has mythic resonance.”

“I got busted for smoking sticks down by the creek. I need to hitchhike back to California. The churches feed up nice out there. You should move to Santa Cruz.”

“Nah, I wouldn't know what to do with all that peace and love.”

This might sound like pleasant enough conversation, but the guy kept zoning out and repeating the same things over and over again for the entire trip. It got old quick.

There was one guy on the bus who had just signed for eight years in penitentiary for some unknown charge, and was going to misdemeanor court to get some smaller charges incorporated into the time he was already serving. He was telling his story as loudly as possible to anyone who cared to listen, “OH MAN AM I HAPPY. THIS IS THE HAPPIEST DAY OF MY LIFE. YOU NEVER SEEN ANYONE SO HAPPY TO SIGN FOR EIGHT YEARS! AT FIRST THEY WERE TELLING ME TWENTY YEARS, AND MY LAWYER TOLD ME TO WAIT AND SEE IF WE COULD GET IT REDUCED. THEN THEY SAID TEN YEARS, AND MY LAWYER SAID I SHOULD TAKE IT. I SAID, 'FUCK NO, I AINT TAKIN' IT. I'M GONNA TALK TO THE JUDGE AND TRY TO REASON WITH THAT MOTHERFUCKER.' THEM DOUBLE DIGETS SCARED THE FUCK OUT OF ME. WHEN I GOT IN FRONT OF THE JUDGE, I SAID, 'YOUR HONOR, WHY DON'T YOU SHOW ME SOME MERCY AND REDUCE THE TIME. I'M A YOUNG MAN, ONLY TWENTY ONE YEARS OLD. I STILL GOT SOME LIFE IN ME YET. CUT ME A BREAK YOUR HONOR.' THE JUDGE SAID, 'WELL, YOU'RE A VERY WELL SPOKEN YOUNG MAN, AND I'M GOING TO TAKE THAT INTO CONSIDERATION.' AND HE TURNED AROUND AND DROPPED IT DOWN TO EIGHT! I SIGNED THAT PAPER LIKE A MOTHERFUCKER. FUCKIN' EIGHT YEARS AINT NOTHIN'. THIS DON'T EVEN BOTHER ME. I KNOW MY GIRL GONNA BE OUT THERE FUCKIN' OTHER GUYS, BUT THERE AINT NOTHIN' I CAN DO ABOUT THAT. AS LONG AS SHE BRING ME MY MONEY, I DON'T GIVE A FUCK WHAT SHE DO.”

The hippie guy looked at me and said, “I got busted for smoking sticks down by the creek. I need to hitchhike back to California. The churches feed up nice out there. You should move to Santa Cruz.”

Eventually we rolled back through downtown Austin and into the courthouse. We were taken off the bus, unshackled, and, after waiting in a holding cell for over an hour, we were taken into the courtroom and made to sit on a long bench in the front row. “Do not talk during court. Do not attempt to communicate with anyone in the courtroom other than your attorney. If you are caught trying to communicate with anyone, your court date will be reset. Good luck.”

The judge was already there, and the courtroom was bustling with activity. Dozens of lawyers were walking around from client to client trying to resolve as many cases as possible. I sat waiting for my court-appointed attorney to arrive, and tried not to look like I was communicating with anyone.

Looking around, I saw that one old guy had hit a snag. It turned out that the man, maybe seventy, was from Africa, and only spoke Swahili. He was in on a simple trespassing charge, but the court didn't have any interpreters on hand who could speak the language. As soon as they got the call saying the interpreter wouldn't be able to appear that day, they told the judge, who promptly reset the man's court date and sent him back to the holding cells to wait for the bus. The African tried to explain himself in Swahili, but to no avail.

Meanwhile, the guy looking at eight years was telling his attorney of his triumph over the system. The attorney laughed and said, “You're pretty smart with your legal skills there. Sometimes the clients know better than the lawyers!”

The inmate beamed with pride, and I thought, “Jesus Christ buddy, I have to ride home with this guy.”

Finally my lawyer arrived. He was a big man with glasses and, like many defense attorneys I've known, he had a bizarrely unique way of carrying himself. Defense attorneys are a tribe-like sect, and part of their code appears to be flamboyant dress, unusual speech mannerisms, and slightly outlandish facial hair. As I met this one, I was filled with anticipation and dread, for it was he who would ultimately tell me my fate.

“Hi there sir, I'm Ken Gestron, your court-appointed lawyer. I see you have a couple of possession charges. I haven't been in to see to the prosecutors yet, haven't even looked at the discovery on your case, so let me go in there and talk to them, and see if I can get up to speed. I'll be back in a few minutes and let you know what's happening.”

“OK Ken.”

This was a disappointment. In the past, my court appointed attorneys had always talked to the prosecutors before coming and talking to me. Whatever the prosecutor recommends, or can be bargained down to, is ninety nine times out of a hundred what the judge is going to sentence you with. I sat and waited. I noticed that the judge had a big nose.

After a very long ten minutes, Ken returned to give me the scoop, “OK, it says here that the police saw you sleeping in a public place, decided to check on you to make sure you were alright, and determined that you were intoxicated. In the subsequent search, they discovered the controlled substances. Does that pretty much jibe with your recollection of what happened?”

I didn't have any recollection of what happened, but in order to speed things along I said yes. “Well, I've convinced the prosecutors to quash the controlled substance charge. It can't be used to convict you. It can still be used for other purposes, but as far as this case is concerned, the charge is dead. On the possession of marijuana charge, I managed to talk her down to fifteen days. You're getting “state time,” which means you'll get two days of credit for every day you serve. You should be released on Monday. Does that sounds like a deal you would be interested in?”

“Yes! I'll take it. Thank you so much.” I said, reaching out to shake his hand for a second time. I almost got up and gave him a hug, but the court deputy was already giving me the eye. “Don't mention it,” he said, “When the judge calls your name, walk up in front of the bench and keep your hands behind your back. When he asks you what your plea is, tell him, 'No contest.' Do you understand?”

“I got it Ken. Thanks again.”

When the judge called my name, I walked up to the bench. He asked how I was doing and I said, “Reasonably well sir, and yourself?” My attorney gave me a panicked look that suggested improvisation was inadvisable, but the judge smiled and said, “Very well, thank you for asking. OK sir, you've been charged with possession of a controlled substance and possession of marijuana. It is my understanding that the state has agreed to quash the controlled substance charge. Did your lawyer explain the implications of that?”

I said yes, but he went over the implications anyway, in what seemed excessive detail. Basically, the charge is still on my record, but can never be used to get a conviction. Then he asked me how I was pleading on the marijuana charge. I said “No Contest” and he replied, “OK, the state has recommended a sentence of fifteen days. I'm going to take that recommendation and sentence you as such. Don't forget to go down to community court after you get out and take care of your public intoxication charge.”

“I will, sir.”

And that was it. My attorney told me to go through the door back towards the holding cells, and the guards locked me up to await transport back to the TCCC. I, and almost everyone else around me in the cell felt like a million bucks. It was smiles and nods of approval all around. It's always like that in the holding cell after misdemeanor court. Most of the inmates would be getting out that night.

As for me, I had three more nights to serve in Del Valle. Compared to the months I had mentally prepared for, that was quite an improvement. I have no way of knowing if what the defense attorney had arranged was remarkable or routine, but it goes to show that you should always take the predictions of other inmates with a grain of salt. And, of course, much depends on the agenda of the prosecutor, who I'm assuming had bigger fish to fry.

I only got to reflect on the situation for a minute before the door opened, “AWW YEAH, YOU KNOW WHAT MY LAWYER TOLD ME? SAID, 'YOU SMARTER THAN THE ATTORNEYS, SON.' SAID, 'YOU DID THE RIGHT THING TO WAIT.' YALL OUGHTA HIRE ME TO REPRESENT YALL IN YALL CASES. I'D DO A BETTER JOB THAN THESE BITCH ASS PUBLIC DEFENDERS, THAT'S FOR DAMN SURE. SAID, 'YOU SMARTER THAN A LAYWER.' SAID, 'YOU DID THE RIGHT THING.'”

But there was a weary undertone to his rhetoric that suggested he was merely going through the motions. On the bus ride back, he grew quiet and introspective, staring out the window at the passing scenery with a wistful look in his eyes. I could feel those eight years weighing on him. I wondered what kind of man he would be when he was released in 2021, and how many times he would have repeated the story of the attorney who told him he was smarter than a judge. He's in there telling it to someone right now, as I'm telling it to you.



Part 5 "Released" --- A typical day at the Travis County Correctional Complex begins at 4 AM, before the sun has risen, with the summons to breakfast. The ubiquitous fluorescent lights go from dim to bright, and the familiar call rings throughout the pod, “Chow time!” Inmates, many of whom have only just gone to sleep, rise groggily from their mats and mill about their cell doors waiting to be called out for their trays. Two inmates are selected at random to dispense the trays, and get second helpings for their trouble.

The bartering and trading begins even before the meals are uncovered. Inmates who have been in for any length of time are already quite familiar with the menu, and most have the daily schedule memorized. “I got a milk and a muffin for a scrambled egg.”

“I got a soup for a sausage patty.”

“I got two milks for sausage and eggs.”

“I got a muffin for a milk.”

“A muffin for a milk?! What kind of weak bullshit is that?”

“I gotta try.”

Though trading of food items is technically against jail policy, it is done openly at all hours of the day and night, whether the guards are paying attention or not. They look the other way, because the jail's miniature economy is amongst the only things these men have to keep them sane. A person takes comfort in knowing they have some means of bettering their situation through active participation and choice.

Before the inmates were allowed to have caffeinated coffee, I'm told breakfast could be a harrowing experience, and even still it was unwise to get in anyone's way. As Victor and I sat down at the table nearest the television, one of the gang members came up, and said, “This is our table.” as though even a child would know it. Victor said, quite amiably I thought, “Oh OK. Let's go grab another table, cellie.”

Though he was peaceable about it at the time, he told me later that he'd felt slighted, “That guy was trying to punk me. He's trying to say I'm not one of them because I don't play their reindeer games. I wanted to pop him in the fucking mouth. But I gotta stay out of trouble.”

Jail food is cheap and of poor quality. For breakfast one might get a scoop of eggs, a sausage patty, a scoop of oatmeal, a small carton of milk, and a muffin, which isn't really a muffin, but a muffin-like disk, often referred to as a “hockey puck.” The most consistent thing about the food is it's total lack of nutrition. After just a few days I was feeling weak and nauseous, with a general sense of malaise. Everyone was in agreement, however, that the eggs were delicious.

After breakfast, the vast majority of the prisoners go back to sleep. Usually only those with trustee duty will still be up in the day room waiting to be called out for work. It is assumed by many inmates that the early breakfast is just another arbitrary torture of the state, but in fact, it is simply so they can get as much work out of their slave labor force as possible. For the rest of the prisoners, night-time is only halfway over, as the florescent lights once again dim, and the snoring commences.

I did very little sleeping in the three days after I had been sentenced, usually spending the time between breakfast and wake-up call either writing down everything I heard, or reading my Marlon Brando book for the tenth time. It was a grim prospect, but as far as I could tell, it was the only non-fiction book in the Travis County jail system. Their are few things more depressing than sitting in jail and reading a John Grisham novel, a thing I'd been forced to do in the past. “Runaway Jury,” in the same jail, two years prior. It was harsh. I'd rather read the instructions to a board game I don't own. But it was better than nothing.

It was hard to concentrate though, because my Guatemalan cell-mate had the loudest snore of any human being I've ever encountered. It was supernatural. There was a lot of variety in timber and tone, sometimes achieving high F in a trumpet-like register, and other times reminiscent of the lower notes on a trombone. He was a one-man brass band playing the same song for hours on end. I sat in the dark and marveled at him in silent dismay, as I would an erupting volcano, or the winds of Patagonia.

At eight o'clock the lights would once again intensify, and the televisions would spring to life, signalling that it was OK to leave our cells and move about the day room. The more industrious inmates would head to the steel shower stalls, taking care not to look too closely at the poor fellows trying to take a dump in the semi-private commodes. Other inmates would go out to the yard to exercise or play ball.

The Travis County Correctional Complex is the only county jail I've ever been to, in which inmates have unrestricted access to the yard. An enclosed area of maybe two hundred square feet, walled in with cement, and covered with steel mesh; the only thing separating the day room from the yard is a metal door that remains unlocked at all hours of the day. The inmates are called in for lockdown or bad weather, but other than that, they are free to come and go as they like.

Activity is sparse in the mornings, and many inmates sleep until lunch. I love television, but only if I get to pick the channel. The jail televisions were always tuned to reality shows, low-brow comedies, ultimate fighting contests, or telenovelas. I would certainly have found myself impatient for lunch had my cell-mate Victor not always offered me a cup of coffee: the convict's drug of little choice. In the absence of all other stimulation, caffeine is a powerful force.

Lunch arrives at ten thirty, and this is when the cell block truly awakens for the day. Inmates line up as before and go through the rituals. Baloney and cheese was not uncommon, though sometimes you would luck out with meat-based gruel. To add to the variety of their diets, many prisoners devise cooking techniques of stunning inventiveness, unknown to professors of the finest culinary institutes. In other lock-ups I'd been to, ones where the inmates were less supervised, jail-house gourmands would call on all the resources at their disposal, using ingenuity and the power of science to bring their gastronomic creations to life. In Orleans Parish Prison, I once saw some guys start a fire in a sink with batteries and toilet paper, using aluminum foil to conduct the heat. They kept it burning with hand sanitizer as they roasted foil-wrapped hot-pockets they'd made out of mashed up bread, and filled with ground meatloaf. It came out piping hot, and looked fantastic.

Such advanced techniques are not possible at the TCCC, where prisoners are under 24 hour surveillance, so instead they turn to that most enduring staple of jail-house cuisine: the spread. A “spread” is a kind of Ramen Noodle-based casserole, made with whatever ingredients the inmates can gather from commissary and their three meals of the day. Velveeta cheese and summer sausages are both frequent additions, though exotic elements such as peanut butter are not unknown. The ingredients are put onto a sheet of plastic which is picked up from the sides and folded into a bag. It's then filled with just the right amount of the hottest water the inmates can acquire, and shaken vigorously about. Care is taken to make sure no water escapes during the process. When the mixture is done, the inmates spread the plastic back out onto a table, steam rising from the mountain of edible glop, and scoop it up into whatever bowls are at their disposal, often converted soda bottles. There are many interpretations of the spread throughout the country, and if one travels, they can become familiar with the various regional nuances. In Texas, for example, the glop is often spooned into tortillas.

As for me, I was very thankful that my cell mates insisted on including me in their communal spread every day, even though I had little to contribute.

After lunch the games begin. The tables are cleared off, and many inmates wrap the tops in bed sheets to provide a more comfortable playing surface. Cards are the mainstay, being cheap, easy to maintain, and usable in an infinite number of variations. Gambling games are not allowed, so spades and rummy take up the slack. The players taunt each other mercilessly, with more than one fight having broken out over a card laid down with a bit too much “Thwack!” I'll leave it to you to guess whether or not secret bets are made under the table despite the prohibition.

Myself, I'm a chess player, so on the first day I instinctively gravitated to one of the two games I saw striking up in the corner, and took my place around the table with the other kibitzers. I saw immediately that one man was dominating the action, a muscular black guy who had been in the military and went by the name of True. I came to find out in the following days that True was something of a mover and shaker around the pod, often directing well attended exercise regimens in the yard, and presiding over the bizarre prayer circles at night. He had been friendly and outgoing with me, and invited me to come sit and play a game any time, “I can see you watching. I know you want to play.” An obvious alpha male, the other inmates looked up to and respected True, but for the life of them, they could not trap his king.

After watching him play a few games, I knew that I could. On the second night, when the inmates convened to play, I walked up to the table where True was already sitting, and said, “You ready for that game?” Smelling fresh blood, he gave a predatory grin, and said, “Have a seat.”

The openings were simple and uneventful, some give and take, but neither of us making any obvious mistakes. He was a good player, but the weak competition he'd been dealing with had made him soft and complacent. He'd gotten into the habit of moving his queen out quite early, and then charging into his opponent's ranks when they had yet to detect the danger. I knew there was a good chance he would try to use this maneuver on me.

He soon began foreshadowing his intentions. Nearing mid-game he moved his queen to the center of the board, where she appeared to have a great deal of unrestricted mobility. I struggled to conceal my excitement as I moved a pawn onto a strategically significant, but unprotected square. I was casual about it, but inwardly I was begging him to take the bait. As predicted, on the very next move he darted his queen across the board and captured the undefended pawn, assuming I'd neglected to consider the implications of his recently mobilized queen. Believing he had me at a material disadvantage, and queen-deep within my territory besides, he allowed himself an exclamation of triumph, “Ha! Didn't see that coming, did you?”

I showed no emotion, just moved my knight out of the way. He examined the board, first with anticipation, then with concern, then with mounting dread. I could see the wheels turning in his head as he made the calculations, examining every possibility, but his fate had already been decided. On the next move, no matter what he did, he was losing his queen. He could conceivably still beat me without his most powerful piece, of course, but I'd seen how he'd relied on her and built his strategies around her. I knew he would be lost without her.

And he was, nine turns later. After a bloody battle of attrition that need not be recounted here, I used my own queen to crowd his king into a corner, systematically cutting off all his options before finally slipping my rook into place, and uttering my two favorite words in the English language, “Check mate.”

He groused a bit, making some noise about not being fully awake, but he shook hands and gave proper respect, “You really got me there. I didn't remember you moving that bishop over to the edge like that. You must play out in the world, huh?”

“Yeah, I play pretty often.” I told him, but in truth, he was my first human opponent in two and a half years. I'd spent all the time in between getting my ass handed to me by computers.

It was a moment of great triumph, but in jail, any victories are short lived. No matter what an inmate thinks he has going on in his life, when the guards call, “Lockdown!” he must drop whatever he's doing  and go immediately to his cell, where he must remain dormant until the guards say otherwise. The mood during lockdown is like nothing so much as a preschool at nap time. Though talking and moving about the cell is permitted, the COs will tolerate only so much noise before they bestow even harsher punishments, such as turning off the televisions.

One thing no movie or book could ever convey, is the amount of time an inmate sits blankly doing nothing. The soul crushing boredom is the main thing about the experience. In such situations, locked with hundreds of other men in a mind numbing stir, some guys become professional comedians just to stay alive. Spurned by the mania of isolation, I've seen average Joes become masters of the craft in a matter of days.

In our pod, the resident comedian was a big redneck from El Paso named Buford Dagget, who was in for beating his wife. He was in Cell 2, right next door to mine. On the first lockdown of my first day, I was laying down on my plastic bed, trying not to panic, when I heard his booming drawl from the other side of the four foot tall cement wall that separates the cells, “You know what really sucks about these cells? The ceilings aint even high enough for you to hang yourself. You know those motherfuckers did that on purpose. The best chance you got, is to go up on the second tier, tie a bed sheet around one of the railings, and jump off. Probably wouldn't break your neck. Just hang there floppin' around until the CO comes and cuts ya down. Maybe get an audio asphyxiation thing going and splooge on him.” That might not sound like professional quality stand-up, but Buford knew his audience. Suicide humor is big in jail.

Sometimes he would keep up a continuous monologue to no one in particular, and it was hard to tell if he was being serious or not, "They used to have a monkey at the farmer's market who would smoke cigarettes and beg for quarters. You could pay a dollar and get your picture taken with it. Cutest little bastard you ever saw. They eventually shot that monkey for some reason. Goddamn, I need some pussy juice and a straw!"

His prime objective in life was trading food. He was trying to pawn off the peanut butter and jelly tray he would be served for dinner on Sunday night, as early as Thursday afternoon, and probably much earlier than that, “I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for two soups and a honey bun.”

“Man, you aint never gonna get up off that peanut butter tray, Dagget.” taunted his cell-mate.

“I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for a spaghetti tray tomorrow.”

“You know you're gonna be eattin' that peanut butter tray. Aint no one gonna take it as a matter of principal.”

“I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for a Snickers.”

“I hope you getting' hungry for your peanut butter tray.”

“I got a peanut butter tray on Sunday for a milk tomorrow morning.”

“You better save your own milk to wash down that peanut butter tray, Dagget, you redneck-ass motherfucker.”

Such witty repartee goes a long way towards lightening the load of the incarcerated. I have been in very few, truly humorless, jails.

After lockdown on the afternoon of my last full day, I made an instant coffee and went out to the yard to watch a game of wallball: A variation of handball played with the soft, cloth covered balls that the jail provides. Wallball was by far the most popular game in the yard, beating it's closest competitor, basketball, by a wide margin. One of the players would serve the ball by hitting it at the wall with all his might, then the other would return the shot, and they would go back and forth until one of them scored a point, playing to seven. Points were awarded according to a complicated system that I never fully understood. If one player missed the ball, the other scored, but there were all kinds of arcane rules about what happened if the ball hit the water fountain or the search lights. One inmate acted as the referee, selecting who would play the winner, and yelling, “Ball up!” when it was time to serve. He settled any disputes regarding the score, but there didn't really seem to be any. Apparently I was the only one there without a refined knowledge of the game, and I suppose if I was a worse criminal, I would know now also.

I went over to the sidelines and sat down on my towel by some other spectators. A muscular and wiry Mexican named Diego was on a seemingly unbeatable winning streak, knocking out the competition like Mike Tyson in his prime. He didn't seem to be using too much strategy, he didn't need to. He hit the ball with such force that some of the guys were dodging out of the way rather than trying to return his shots. He wasn't being gracious in victory either, brushing aside the congratulations and handshakes of his vanquished foes with brazen disregard.

It seemed no one could touch him, until a stocky and weathered Guatemalan of maybe fifty five stood up from the sidelines and started taking off his florescent orange shirt. Murmurs of “Corazon” from around the yard. “Let's see if he can take on Corazon.”

The grizzled Guatemalan walked up to the playing field and reached out for a pre-game fist bump from Diego. Showing the older man a respect he had denied the other players, he touched gloves and tossed him the ball. The referee yelled, “Ball up!” and Corazon let it fly.

It was fascinating to see how his technique differed from Diego's. He could hit the ball every bit as hard, but rather than doing so every time, he used subtle strategy, taking advantage of the convoluted point system. He would bank shots off the corners in such a way that the ball would fall to the ground robbed of it's kinetic energy, putting Diego on his toes, and forcing him to dive for the rebounds. As he began scoring points, I could see the younger man getting frustrated. He was holding his own, but he started playing angry and making mistakes, which the grizzled old Guatemalan was a wizard of exploiting. Diego began yelling and cursing every time he lost a point, causing the referee to counsel him, “You can't win every time, bro.”

“I can try!” said the oblivious Diego.

When they were down to game point, Diego took the serve and gave it his traditional all-or-nothing approach. Corazon had to jump to catch it, returning with his own quick volley, trying to catch Diego off guard after the serve. They went back and forth, running and jumping for the ball as it ricocheted all around the courtyard. With Corazon on the ropes, it was looking like the younger man's ferocity might win out, but he eventually overestimated a shot, sending the ball on a wild trajectory towards an area that was out of bounds. The old man recognized it instantly, and moved deftly out of the way, as the ball fell limply onto the edge of the basketball court, cloth cover tearing away to reveal the foam rubber within.  

The yard went wild, applauding as though they were at an outdoor arena. It had been a world class display of athleticism and tactical oneupmanship. The proud young Mexican yelled, “Fuck!” taking off his rubber flip-flops and throwing them to the ground. “Fucking bullshit jail shoes.” he complained. It seemed he was ignominious is defeat as well as victory.

Corazon, on the other hand, had the luxury of a victor's grace. He ambled over to his bested competitor, holding out his hand for a shake. Despite his fury, Diego once again relented and gave the older man his due.

It was the most entertaining sporting event I've ever attended. I feel lucky to have been there.

When it started to get dark, the CO knocked on the tinted window that allows him to see everything going on in the yard, and motioned that it was time to come in. The inmates obeyed without argument and gathered their belongings. When the last one was inside, the magnetic lock buzzed shut, as it would stay until ten o'clock the next day...when I was no longer there.

As I was standing in the day room watching television and waiting for the second to last meal I would be served in Pod C, an older gentleman who I didn't recognize walked up to me and said, “Hey, how you doing? I'm Russel.”

“Hi there Russel, you just getting in today?”

“Yup. They got me for failure to ID. Now listen, the cop come up and asked me for my name, and I told him, “Jenkins.” But now, see, my name aint Jenkins...I'm Russel. I gave him a fake name.”

“I follow you so far.”

“He said, “Let me see your ID.” I said, “I aint got no ID.” So he called in the name and the birthday I gave him on that microphone, and they come back and said, “We aint got a record for Jenkins.” So, he said, “Stand against the wall and put your hands behind your back.” Now how are they gonna book me for failure to ID, when I aint even the guy I said I was? I aint even Jenkins!”

Before I could answer his question, he continued, “When I get to court, I'm gonna tell the judge to sequester the tapes from that microphone on the cop's shoulder, cause I know he didn't say no, “Russel.” They'll probably say they don't have 'em, lying motherfuckers.”

“What can I tell ya man, the system's fucked. These cops aren't after the real criminals. Hell, they're basically working for them. I don't know, good luck though. I hope the judge sequesters those tapes for you.”

“Thank you, I appreciate that.”

Dinner was peanut butter trays. “I got a peanut butter tray for two soups and a honey bun.”

“Man, shut the fuck up and eat your peanut butter tray, Dagget, you buck toothed, hillbilly mutant.”

I finished quickly and headed to my cell to lay down and read about Marlon Brando. (An actor who I, incidentally, have no interest in whatsoever.) The lights would be on for a couple more hours, and most of the pod would be awake in their cells until breakfast, but I was so wound up about my imminent return to the human world, that I wanted to go to bed as early as possible, even if I had no chance of getting to sleep. A child on Christmas Eve has nothing on an inmate about to be released.

Laying down on my plastic mat, I heard True calling for the nightly prayer circle to form up in the corner, “Prayer call! Prayer call!” He said it with a military cadence. The inmates would form a circle and take turns reading verses from the Bible. Then they would recount personal experiences they'd had with the holy spirit, finishing up with a communal recitation of The Lord's Prayer. After the meeting they would chant, “Much prayer, much power! Little Prayer, little power! Much prayer, much power! Little prayer, little power!” before going back over to the televisions to watch another episode of “Rob Dyrdek's Ridiculousness.” At least their ideology was easy to grasp.

I had to admit, jail seemed like the perfect place for Christianity. I'm sure I would have grown tired of their chanting after a few more nights, but as it was, it seemed like a phenomenon taking place in it's natural habitat.

Victor, on the other hand, was openly disgusted by the prayer circle, “That shit pisses me off, man. They're a bunch of fucking hypocrites. They're all about their prayers and their Bible, but they just use it to justify hating on gay people, or anyone they don't like. The rest of the day they treat everyone like shit, and they think they can say their prayers at night and make it OK.”

It was undeniable, the tattooed gang members who dominated the prayer circle were the most unfriendly group in the TCCC. They weren't openly hostile, but they kept to themselves and made a point of talking down to the other inmates, as if they were the only ones who knew how to properly do time. Of course, even a gang is comprised of individuals. There was one banger in there named Felix who was cool as hell. He had a superior attitude also, but had a subtly hilarious way of expressing it.

For example, there was this one inmate named Angelo who was doing a two year stint for aggravated battery. Angelo was a bit overweight, and like a lot of heavy guys who have some time to do, he'd vowed to use that time working out, and getting into shape. He spent all day running laps around the yard, doing crunches and jumping jacks, playing “Push,” a basketball game in which any inmate who lands a free-throw gets to make another inmate drop and give twenty push ups (forty for three pointers), and practicing leg lifts on the shower stalls. He did pull ups on the light fixtures in his cell, and used the full mop buckets as free weights. He ran up and down the stairs, shadow boxed, lived on a diet of plain oatmeal, and always attended True's afternoon exercise regimen, in which the men would run in place, jump up and down, scream affirmations at the top of their lungs, and beat themselves on the chests until they were on the verge of blacking out.

One day, as Angelo was in the yard doing squats, Felix quietly walked up to him, and in his low key way, said, “You're working out too hard.”

Angelo, in the full grip of his religious fervor, looked at Felix as though he was an alien being, “What?!”

“You're working out too hard.” said Felix, in the exact same tone of voice.

“What?!”

“You're working out too hard.”

“What?!”

“You're doing a good job.”

“Oh, thanks man.” said Angelo, returning to his personal wormhole.

Truth be told, it seemed like most guys at the TCCC shared Victor's philosophy of inclusiveness. If you're going to be locked up with hundreds of strangers for months, or years, it helps if you can get along easily with criminals of all different creeds and colors. Unfortunately, the gang mentality is to discourage such fraternization.

“Hey Victor, what are you drawing, dude?”

He laughed and held up his sketch pad to reveal a carefully detailed and shaded drawing of Sponge Bob Square Pants, “It's for my little daughter, Rachel. She loves anything Sponge Bob related. It's fucked up I gotta wait three more months to see her.”

“So, why can't she come and visit you? I know it's a pain in the ass, but surely your old lady could make it up here one of these days.”

"Ohhh well, see, that's the reason I'm in here. I tried to pull my old lady through a fence. You know, a metal fence with a gate and everything? Dislocated her shoulder. She has a restraining order against me that says we can't get within two hundred yards of each other.”

I'd never asked Victor what his charges were. I was surprised to hear that he'd committed such a brutal crime. In the few days I'd known him, he'd seemed rational and even tempered. I couldn't picture him trying to yank someone through a fence by their arm.

“I can't picture you trying to yank someone through a fence by their arm.” I said, “You seem so laid back.”

“Oh, I am hommie, until I been drinking. Then all bets are off. But this time, when I get out, I'm going to stay away from that shit. I love my Fat Girl too much.”

I heard so many stories in jail from guys who were intelligent, well spoken, perfectly decent company, who'd done horrible things when high on drugs and alcohol. I have no choice but to conclude from the evidence, that incarceration brings out the best in some men, for whom freedom means only the freedom to destroy themselves. Some of us couldn't wait to get out and go right back to it.

“I'm going to try and turn in, cellie. You're getting out tomorrow, huh?”

“Yep! Just one more meal to go.”

“You want a cup of coffee before I go to sleep? You know you aren't getting any.”

“Yeah, sure thing Victor. Thanks man.”

I handed him my Styrofoam cup and he poured me some coffee from a soda bottle, then he laid down and wrapped his towel around his head, disappearing into his own private universe.

I swigged down the coffee in one shot, then laid down, and stared at the ceiling until the lights went off for the night.

When they came back on again, I was so zombified from staring at the ceiling that I could barely look at my breakfast, so I gave the tray to Victor. It was fitting, as departing inmates often leave gifts with their comrades remaining inside. He thanked me and said, “Alright Mike, it was nice meeting you. I'm gonna go back to bed and try to get some more sleep.” It was just another day for him, after all. I wondered when his next cellie would arrive, and if he would be a total lunatic.

I still had four hours to kill until eight o'clock, when they called inmates for roll-out. I sat down on my bunk and read a copy of yesterday's newspaper. The wait was excruciating.

At seven minutes after eight, the CO called my name. My heart leaped. You can't imagine the joy unless you've experienced it yourself. In that split second, my world changed from black and white into full color, for I knew I was about to undergo the final rituals reversing the process that had turned me into an inmate, and restoring me to my human form.

I walked quickly up to the stone desk, where the CO said, “Go get your sheets, blankets, and extra clothing.” I ran and gathered the laundry as Victor slept, and the oblivious Guatemalan played his song. I brought them back to the CO, who said, “Put them in that hamper over there.”

I tossed them in.

“Go out the door when it buzzes open, and the Floor Sargent will tell you what to do.”

The door buzzed open, and I walked out to the where the Floor Sargent was sitting at his control panel. “Wait until the door opens, and walk down to the end of the hall.” he said.

When the door slid shut behind me, I found myself in The Hall of Fascist Poetry for the last time. I'd expected to be released with several other inmates, but it turned out the only other guy being freed that day was an older Hispanic fellow who was already sitting in a plastic chair at the end of the hall, a CO standing by indifferently. This meant that I had the evil catacombs all to myself, and was able to soak in and savor the rarefied air, knowing that I was now being allowed to escape it. 

When I got to the end of the hallway, the CO said, “Sit in the plastic chairs. A deputy will be here in a few minutes to take you to processing.”

I looked at the older guy as I sat down, and we gave each other a nod of shared understanding. We had survived. He was probably going home to be with his wife and family, and I was going home to get blindly loaded in my ditch. I was so happy for both of us. “How long were you in for, buddy?”

“NO TALKING IN THE HALL!” said the CO, without looking up.

“Oh, sorry.”

The deputies arrived shortly. For whatever reason, actual Travis County police officers handle the booking out procedure rather than Corrections Officers. They signed a few forms at the desk, made sure we knew our birthdays, and said “OK, lets go.”

“We don't need cuffs?” asked the older guy, obviously institutionalized.

“Nah, you're getting out. Come on.”

We got into a large police SUV, and drove around the complex from building to building, picking up the few prisoners being released that day; a half dozen in all. As you would expect, the mood was jovial. Most of the guys were young and had only been in for a matter of weeks, but they were nonetheless filled with excitement as they anticipated the food they would eat, and women the would have sex with, once free. Many had been there before, and traded notes on what conditions and amenities could be expected in the various buildings. “What was it like in 7?”

“It was alright. We were on lockdown a lot, but they got a decent weight room, and a volleyball court in the yard.”

The guy I'd been released from 12 with spoke up, “Man, 12 was a dungeon. You aint even got a yard. Just a concrete box.”

I thought back to the other jails I'd been in, like the septic miasma of Orleans Parish Prison, or the violent and unpredictable “gladiator tiers” of Harris County. The easy going and sterile environment of the TCCC was smooth sailing by comparison. “There are worse jails in the world.” I said, wistfully.

Meanwhile the cops were in the front seats bullshitting about video games, “Are you going to pre-order Halo 4?”

“I don't know, I haven't decided yet.”

“I pre-ordered it yesterday. It looks pretty sweet.”

“I'll probably get it when it comes out.”

I guess it was considered light duty for them. I found it interesting that these personifications of the fascist police state had such mundane concerns.

As we neared the main building where we would be processed, I saw a group of female prisoners out in their yard. They were sitting in a circle on the ground, and were participating in some kind of discussion group being presided over by a CO. It looked like they were having a very sane, and contemplative jail experience.

Upon reaching the main building at the front of the complex, we piled out of the SUV and followed the deputies into the room where we would be reassigned our identities. We were told to sit on a wooden bench while they went through a wall of plastic bins, looking for the ones that had our names and numbers taped to the sides. When they found one, they would call the guy up and have him sign for his property, then direct them to a small dressing room to change back into their street clothes. In my case, I would also receive my backpack, and discover if I'd lost anything important between the time I got fucked up, and the time I got arrested. So, I still had one last thing to be nervous about.

When they called me, I jumped up, signed the papers, and opened my bin, to find everything I owned wrapped in a heavy-duty plastic bag. I took it into the dressing room and tore into it, overjoyed to be reunited with my humble belongings. Everything was there, and intact. Even my pants, which I'd assumed I'd pissed in, seemed to be in good shape. I took off the orange jail uniform, tossed it into a basket in the corner, and put on the clothes I'd been wearing one week prior when I was captured. I put my computer into the large zipper compartment of my backpack, and stowed my various tools and electronic equipment into the smaller pockets. Much to my dismay, they had thrown away the massive collection of lighters I'd accumulated over time, but considering the circumstances, I felt I'd lucked out.

Stepping back out into the main room, I was beginning to feel like myself again. There was only one more hoop I had to jump through before being shown the door. I sat and waited for ten more minutes until a lady called me up to a glass window, and said, “You were booked with seventy five cents. Sign here to receive your money.”

“Thanks. Say, I happen to be an indigent inmate, and I was wondering if I could get a bus pass back to the city?”

“Yes, I can issue you a bus pass. Just a minute...here you go. This pass is good for twenty four hours from the time of issue. OK, that's it. Just go through that door and follow the fence to the double doors.”

“Alright, thanks.”

I walked out the door, followed the fence, stepped through the double doors, and found myself in the receiving room of the TCCC, where families sit and wait for their loved ones to be released. They all looked up with anticipation when I walked in, then looked down again in disappointment when they realized I wasn't the one they were waiting for. I saw to my right a set of glass doors leading to the outside world. I hurried trough, looked up at the sky, and yelled, “Whoo Hoo! I'm free!” A moment of pure elation, almost, but not quite, worth the ordeal that preceded it.

Several of the guys I'd been booked out with were standing by the bus stop that sits directly in the center of the complex. They laughed when they heard my celebratory shout and motioned me to come over. One of them had gotten a few cigarettes somehow, and was handing them out to whoever wanted one. That I accepted the cigarette he offered me is the only thing I regret about the entire experience, other than not going home after taking those pills. With the week-long head start, I could have quit smoking for good, but I guess if self control was my strong suit, I wouldn't have been there in the first place.

“How long were you in for?” the guy asked me.

“Seven days.”

“You lose your job?”

“No. I'm a writer. I'm going to write about being arrested.”

Everyone laughed, seeming to appreciate the irony. Then the bus arrived, and we climbed on just as hail began to fall from the sky, pelting us relentlessly all the way back to Austin.