Monday, December 21, 2009

John Mendelssohn's Prison Diary - Part 1

Prison wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d been led to fear. The COs (correctional officers, you see — guards) were generally no surlier than the college wrestlers who pat you down before you enter concerts, or the guy at Home Depot who grumblingly helps you find the right part to repair your toilet. Occasionally, some of them would even bring in banana bread their wives had baked, or fresh tomatoes or zucchini from their gardens.

The warden could be pretty moody — it was widely rumored that he wasn’t only bisexual and bipedal, but also bipolar — but at his best he was the nicest fellow you could ever hope to meet, and a heck of a backgammon player. The more incorrigible among us might deny it, but I think we all looked forward to being invited to dine at his table.

In our culture, getting old and creased and receding-hairlined is generally a pretty rotten idea. Young women who at one point might have scrawled their phone numbers backwards on their side windows in lipstick when you pulled up beside them at traffic signals look right through you, and prospective employers do double-takes when you hobble in for a job interview. But a hint of decrepitude for a new prison inmate works well, as it significantly reduces the number of fellow inmates who want to rape you.

The mixers that the various inmate cliques host the first Friday night of every month to welcome the recently sentenced are very much like those at which college fraternities assess prospective new members at the beginning of the school year. Crips Behind Bars offered a delicious soul food buffet, and the best music; rather than the profanity-laden hip hop one might have expected, it was heavy on Motown and Stax classics, with even some Nat King Cole thrown in. The Latino mixer offered the most beautiful transvestite dance partners — if my favorite of them, “Pilar”, and Salma Hayek had entered a party from opposite ends of a room, no one would have noticed that Salma Hayek had arrived — and some zesty salsa sounds, as well as the inevitable Christina Aguilera and Ricky Martin hits.

In comparison to the former two, the Aryan Brotherhood mixer was dullsville, and, because of the courts’ disproportionate incarceration of persons of color, by far the most sparsely attended. The music, by a British skinhead group whose name I didn’t catch and Guns N' Roses, was pretty nearly unlistenable. Moreover, Ralph, the big toothless, tattooed motorcycle outlaw type who asked me to dance, insisted on leading, and had frightful body odor, and made mincemeat of my toes. Worse, at song’s end, he noted that our slow-dancing together meant that I would henceforth be responsible for doing his laundry and procuring methamphetamine for him. I pointed out that I’m married, and bade him a crisp good night, only to discover that the exit was blocked by a trio of even more prolifically pockmarked, tattooed, and menacing lowlifes.

In spite of his lack of formal education, Ralph turned out to be very much a man of ideas, which, in terms of my conviction for possession of stolen intellectual property, was certainly felicitous. We have spent many a pleasant evening together, I with my head on his incongruously hairless, if tattoo-laden chest, discussing the work of Alfred Adler, Bertrand Russell, and even Kierkegaard, while our fellow inmates, in their own cells, bray shrilly at the moon, though it's visible only from N-Wing.

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