Not A Seizure

I felt helpless, terrified.

My heart bashed in my chest and clambered into my throat, making it difficult to breathe and a terrible chore to think. Processing what I was seeing was an impossibility as my brain had leapt into panic mode and rendered me woefully ineffectual. The five other men standing over the supine body were all screaming obscenities and oaths of disbelief so they were each one just as useless as me. But at least they could speak and gesticulate in response. I could only stare in horror at Rigger as he lay on the floor, convulsing. His eyes had rolled back to the whites and a milky discharge frothed from between his lips. A slim red line trickled from his right nostril. I knew he had a history of seizures. I thought I was watching him die.

Rigger

Rigger liked to tell people that he was a biker or an Aryan. Sometimes both. He was neither. I’ve known both. He was simply a poser, a wannabe. I suppose he thought those particular fabrications gave him clout or a measure of fear/respect from guys who didn’t know any better. Whatever you may think of the specific ideas, values, or moral cores of the two groups that Rigger claimed to be a member of, at least they have certain standards and code of conduct. Rigger was just an idiot, a bigot, and a racist. That’s not to say that these character traits made him somehow deserving of his medical emergency. Although it did turn out that he brought it upon himself. Literally.

Normal

I wasn’t even supposed to be there—it wasn’t my cell. Being in someone else’s cell is a big no-no. Unauthorized movement is a major infraction of the rules. I was just in there talking to a buddy of mine. It was a six man cell. Three of the cellies were playing cards across a makeshift table formed by a property box on top of a garbage can. The fifth of Rigger’s cellies was lounging on his top bunk watching TV. Just another normal day in prison.

Mutiny

Rigger walked out of the small bathroom I the corner of the cell, clearly moving on unsteady legs. Three steps took him far too long, as if he were wading through hip deep oatmeal. His body was working in opposition to the ambulatory impulses his brain was sending out. A monumental mutiny appeared to occur in the briefest of moments as his musculature fought against the messages received. A last desperate act of clutching at the bunkbed frame was futile in keeping Rigger upright, and instead only succeeded in twirling him so that he collapsed flatly onto his back with a solid clunk of his head against the finished concrete floor. Everything in the cell stopped. He was out cold, eyes wide open, motionless for a slow three count. Then his body really began to rebel.

Seizure-ish

Rigger’s body seemed to have been electrified as it shivered and shook. A moaning grunt preceded the gurgle of foaming expectorant from his mouth at which point his pupils and irises disappeared from sight. I didn’t know what to do, and everyone else present seemed to be content to just cuss and yell. Finally, Crockett took control of the situation.

Cover-up

Crockett was a nice enough guy, but I’d always thought of him as little more than a loudmouth buffoon. He had often proved me right on that account, but on this occasion he turned out to be the only one of us who was both level-headed and pragmatic. Crockett began barking orders and pointing fingers at the person to whom he was directing them.

“Go to the bathroom, see if he left anything out in there; clean that shit up. Put the cards away. Push the box back under the bunk—anybody asks we were all in our bunks watching TV when he just fell out. Go get the CO, tell him your cellie is having a seizure, nothing more. You need to get the hell out of here—you were never here, you didn’t see anything.” This last directive was for my benefit, and I heeded its wisdom with extreme haste.

Reliable Ruse

Rigger was unconscious and nonresponsive when the medical professionals arrived on the scene. With his documented history of seizures they didn’t doubt the tale that Crockett told. The rest of the cellies nodded dutifully along. Rigger was strapped to a flat board and hauled away.

Experimentation

There are a nearly infinite number and type of prescription drugs handed out in prison. Synthetic opiate painkillers, psychotropic mood stabilizers to bring a person up or keep a person down, and muscle relaxants. If you need them, you need them. If you don’t, they get you high. It is a complete fallacy, the prevailing “wisdom” behind prison walls. I’ve known some addicts who knew the names, effects, and side-effects of so many pills I’d never even heard of that I’d wager they could give any pharmacist a run for their money. Rigger was one of these, and he loved to experiment with different pill combinations to see what kind of altered state he could manufacture. I knew nothing of Rigger’s proclivities until after this incident.

Overdose

My buddy who lived in the cell with Rigger filled me in on all the pharmaceutical shenanigans that Rigger had been indulging in. Rigger had even convinced and paid a maintenance man to put a small shelf in the bathroom under the auspice of needing a place to put toothbrush, tooth paste and other various accoutrements required for carrying out ones morning cleaning ritual. In truth Rigger wanted a surface where he could crush his pills more easily, and from where he could snort lines of those crushed pills.

Incorrigible   

Two days later Rigger returned from his stint being under observation in the infirmary. Same cell, same bunk, same activities. When I saw him I welcomed him back, told him I was glad he was recovered from his “seizure”. He appeared confused at first, but then he cracked a sloppy, silly grin and laughed a “thanks” at me before wandering off mumbling the word “seizure” again and again, chuckling to himself.

He was as high as a kite on some kind of concoction.

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Stevie

“If he tries to do anything just holler and I’ll come running. Okay? Now, what you’ll have to do is get ahold of him from behind. Around the neck. Just get both arms around him like a bear-hug and squeeze that neck and hold onto him for dear life. I’ll run in and crack him in the face. It’ll probably take three or four good hits so you’ll have to hold him tight.”

This was the direction which I received from Will, my good friend and spiritual mentor. There had been no preamble or explanation on his part, he simply walked into my cell, squatted on my toilet, and began talking. My cellie Stevie, who was the subject of Will’s instructional speech, was sitting ten feet away in the dayroom giggling at the Saturday morning cartoons like he was a little kid. It was annoying and unnerving, but Will advising violence was even more disturbing to me. I wondered what Will was seeing that eluded me.

Oblivious

I had been locked up in the county jail for just over four months, which seems like nothing after all these years, but at the time it felt entirely interminable. I hadn’t yet witnessed or been subjected to much of the depravity and violence which would eventually become commonplace to me. Perhaps not so much innocent, but more oblivious. Naïve, even. My only initial impression of Stevie was that he was a very big guy.

Stevie

Stevie had come to the county jail directly from federal prison after having served seven years for bank robbery. Due to some idiotic legal and jurisdictional overlap he had to serve six months more in state prison. This meant he was only passing through the county jail. A transport van was usually sent out every Friday morning to shuttle offenders who had been sentenced to the department of corrections. That’s all Stevie was waiting on.

Stevie was ginormous. He was nearly four-feet across at the shoulders and literally had to turn sideways in order to walk through the narrow entrance to our cell. His chest and shoulders heaved outward from his frame, which tapered to a slim waist in the classic body builder’s V-shape. At five-foot-ten he was more than three inches shorter than me, but his incredible physical stature was such that he seemed to tower over me. I had never before in my life seen a person with such huge dimensions outside of an action movie star.

Boundaries

Since Stevie had just completed a seven year stint in prison, he brought with him his own peculiar sets of quirks. Due to the happenstance that we were cellies he felt that he was entitled to my food and assorted belongings. I am generally generous, so I did share with him, but he had expectations that were unreasonable. He also had no real sense of boundaries.

I’d often awakened to witness his phallus uncomfortably close as he urinated in the toilet, or I’d find him sitting on said toilet bare-chested with his pants around his ankles doing his business. The accepted protocol that had been established during my brief tenure in the county jail was that, since I was on the bottom bunk and the toilet was less than two feet away from my head, the person on the top bunk would drape a blanket to form a curtain barrier while defecating, and turn his back to me while peeing. Ideally an individual would wait to defecate once the cell doors were open so their cellie could leave the danger zone, but Stevie observed none of these small courtesies.

He wanted to chat my ear off long into the night and early in the morning. He mostly behaved as if we were longtime best buddies rather than two strangers who had been thrust together by whatever fate or circumstance. I merely figured that Stevie wasn’t in full possession of all his marbles. It wasn’t clear to me whether that was a condition which had developed during his incarceration or if that’s just how he’d always been. There was a certain childlike simplicity to him. A simplemindedness, like a big dumb kid. Harmless, I thought.

Unbeliever

Stevie had been my cellie for three days when Will laid out our plan of attack/defense. He assured me that I didn’t know how close to danger I was. He said he knew guys like Stevie and how their mind worked. Will and Stevie were both black—I am not. I thought perhaps it was a cultural thing, but that didn’t quite make sense to me either. Will referred to Stevie as an animal, a beast. He warned/assured me that, given enough time, Stevie would attack me. The results of this would be a physical beating, or possible a sexual assault. Probably both.

At this point I did begin to wonder if perhaps Stevie’s inabilities to practice proper toilet protocol were subtle ways in which he attempted to get me accustomed to his nudity so he could eventually introduce a more interactive element. However, as far as Stevie beating me, I didn’t believe Will. I couldn’t believe him. I hadn’t seen any sort of violent tendencies from Stevie. I’d seen him get miffed or frustrated when he couldn’t find any cartoons on TV to watch, but he hadn’t flown into a rage. Not yet.

I Believe

Friday morning came and Stevie was in his usual spot, sitting atop the one table in the dayroom, guffawing with abandon at the cartoons he had found to watch. There was an electronic buzz as the door to the cellblock opened, a guard stuck his head in and spoke.

“Jones, you going to the joint today. You ready?” Jones had taken a plea deal earlier in the week and had accepted his fate of a few years in DOC. He was up, showered, packed. His mat and bedding was rolled up and ready to carry out. No one looks forward to prison, but Jones was anxious to get the process underway.

“Yep, I’m ready. Let’s go.” The guard nodded and left. He reappeared in the walkway which separated our block from the one next to us. It was in this alley where all the controls for the door mechanisms were located. A security glass wall separated it from the block. There was a barred cage about four feet square that separated the cellblock from the entry door. For an inmate to leave the cellblock there is section of bars which slides to the side by electronic control, and protocol dictates that this must be closed before the outer door can be open. Jones stood with his possessions in front of the gate waiting for it to open for him.

It took Stevie a few minutes longer than it probably should’ve, but eventually he figured out that he wasn’t going to be moving on to the next stop in his journey. He wasn’t happy about this.

No Help

Stevie scooted off the table and stood face to face with the guard, mere inches and a layer of bulletproof glass between them. “Officer, what about me?” His query was ignored completely. The guard stared past him, looked through him. He appeared dazed, bored or sleepy. “I’m supposed to go too.” Still nothing. Jones was secured within the sally-port area, and the officer began to leave. Stevie matched his retreat on our side of the glass. “Hey, officer! Can I talk to you? Hey, officer.” The door to the cellblock opened and Jones scurried out. Stevie had exhausted his meager amount of patience.

Unhinged

“You fuckin’ bitch!! I’ll beat your ass!” Stevie pounded on the glass partition right next to the sally-port gate as he bellowed. The impact seemed to shudder the entire block and a fissure appeared in the glass, running from where his fist made contact up to the corner of the pane. The officer was suddenly wide awake and terrified. He slammed the door in a hasty retreat. “Fuck this, I ain’t staying here. I’m going to beat the shit out of somebody.” His eyes scanned quickly across the five other occupants of the cellblock.

I was sitting on my bunk in my cell. Will superstitiously stepped from his cell with a cup of coffee in his hand and stood just outside my cell. Not exactly blocking the door, but strategically place for whatever eventuality. Stevie gripped the bars of the sliding door, his forearms like puffed up bulldogs, and began to shake it so that it rattled loudly in its tracks. The pod vibrated and the sound clattered around the tiny space with deafening volume. Stevie continued to yank on the cage door while screaming and swearing in an irate rage. I have no doubt that Stevie could’ve dislodged the door from its moorings, but thankfully a sergeant showed up to quell his rabid behavior. The Sarge was wise and careful enough to keep his distance so Stevie couldn’t reach through the bars and grab him.

Negotiation

Stevie managed to tame his tone as he spoke. “Look, I’m just here from the federal joint. I’m supposed to be going to DOC. I’m not staying here. I already been here a week this past Wednesday.”

“I know you came here from the feds,” the Sarge replied, trying to placate his ward. “But we have other guys who are going to DOC and only room for six in our van.”

“I’m going today.” This was a directive from Stevie, not a request.

“Well, I don’t . . .”

“I’m fuckin’ going!!” Stevie screamed as he snatched at the gate and shook it. The Sarge’s eyes bulged with surprise, fright. He involuntarily retreated until he was backed into the doorframe. It took a quick moment for him to compose himself and stand taller as if to regain a sense of control or authority.

“Uh . . . let me just . . .” Then the sergeant was gone.

Replaced

Stevie paced back and forth in front of the cage, sporadically shaking the bars or smacking them with the flat of his hand. He was cursing and mumbling an insane incantation, appearing every bit the animal that Will had swiftly perceived him to be. It was a long and frightening five minutes before the Sarge entered the alleyway again and informed Stevie that he was going so he should grab his belongings. Stevie hustled in and wrapped his mat and bedding up, tucked it under one arm and was gone without a word of goodbye or good luck. A few minutes later Jones returned with all his belongings and a look of defeat. Stevie had taken his spot on the transfer van. Jones returned to his cell without a word and laid down. His prison timeline would be delayed for at least another week.

Survival

With Stevie gone I didn’t miss him. I did, however, learn from the experience and grew a bit more closed off and wary of new cellies. I learned to identify signs of potential psychotic and violent men. I learned to survive.

Next Year

Junior had been locked up for twenty-three years. He began serving his time at age sixteen. Prison was what he knew, much more than the real world beyond these gates and walls.

Good Guy

Junior was a hospice volunteer, which meant that he sat with and cared for terminal patients in the healthcare unit. I had been in the cell with him for six months, during which time I witnessed him deal with the death of several of his patients. Some of them he was afforded special permission to sit beside through the night and provide comfort in their final moments. Within these six months Junior’s father also died. Through it all he exhibited more grit and grace than I imagine I could’ve managed were our rolls reversed. Whatever crimes led to his incarceration, I observed him to be a good guy.

Party!

New Year’s Eve was fast approaching and Junior was declaring, insisting, that the six of us who shared the large cell would all stay up and ring in the New Year with a raucous party fueled by food, caffeine and sugar. Lots of the latter two especially. Junior had a radio so we could blast music and really turn it into a wild all-nighter never to be forgotten.

Unenthused

I’d been incarcerated for nearly a decade at this point and had never once stayed up to ring in the New Year with any kind of celebration. Didn’t much see the point? In the grand scheme of things it was just another day in prison. I valued my sleep. I’m an early riser, usually up between four and four-thirty every morning with rare exceptions or deviations. Making it to midnight and beyond seemed an impossibility, and it wasn’t a plan or prospect I was too enthused about. However, this would be my first New Year in a communal living arrangement—six man cell instead of a two man—so, as much as I didn’t like it, I had to come to terms with the fact that I’d have to alter my habits to accommodate my cohabitants.

Stubborn

Since this was something I wasn’t happy about, and I’m stubborn, I kept telling my cellies there was no way I was staying up that late. I also told them they better be quiet when I got to sleep. It was a jocular back and forth between them and myself, but deep down I was fully, completely serious. Junior was the driving force behind everyone’s sudden desire to stay up. He met each of my protests with his big grin and easygoing assuredness. I couldn’t fathom why exactly Junior wanted to be awake for midnight because he was usually waking up the same time as me. It was a puzzle which would eventually reveal itself.

All Is Quiet

New Year’s Eve.

Our big plans for cooking a large meal for all of us to share together was stymied by commissary shopping being so delayed that we didn’t get to go before the holidays. We were all animated enough until around nine o’clock when the conversation grew more muted and restrained. Without the aid of caffeine we were all fading fast.

By the time the ball dropped in New York City we languished in the middle of the country waiting for our time zone to catch up. A sleepy silence settled over the cell which was only punctuated by an occasional comment about one of the interchangeable pop-singers performing in Time Square. Yawns were seen and heard all around the room. I was battling sleep with the vigor of a barbarian. Junior was laying on his side, watching TV, his heavy lids drooping on numerous occasions. He was the ringleader of this ill-conceived, silly slumber party, and if I was awake he had to be too.

Exhausted

“Junior!” I yelled. “Junior!!” His eyes flew open and he shot up sideways onto his elbow, making some garbled inarticulate noises posing as words.

“Wake up, man. This is your party, no going to sleep now.”

Junior grinned sleepily, sheepishly, and sat up on the edge of his bunk. We all had a laugh at his expense, but good-natured, not mean-spirited. He was clearly just as exhausted and ready for sleep as the rest of us, so I asked him pointblank just what the big deal was, and why he wanted to stay up and ring in the New Year.

The Reason

Junior smiled once again, looking around the cell at the four other expectant faces all wondering the same thing that I was, and wanting an answer. He shrugged before indulging in a full-bodied yawn and stretch. He looked a bit embarrassed as he searched for a way to explain himself. Finally with another shrug, he told us.

“As soon as this year clicks over to the next I can finally, officially say that I go home next year.” Junior’s shoulders raised lazily to his ears as if in apology for a lame excuse. I don’t believe any of us felt his reason was a bad one. On some level we each understood. The remaining twenty minutes of the year were spent in an amiable silence with everyone staring at their respective televisions.

Next Year

At the appropriate time subdued cheers and Happy New Years were passed all around. Within three minutes the idiot boxes were all dark and everyone was tucked in for sleep. From where I lay on my bunk I could see Junior was on his back, head propped atop his pillow, blanket pulled up to his chin, eyes closed.

“Hey, Junior,” I called. In the orange glow of the security light shining in the window I saw one eyelid peel back to acknowledge that he heard me.

“When you go home?” The second eye shuttered open and his face split into a grin filled with the greatest degree of satisfaction I’d seen in my middle-aged life. When he answered me his voice was warm and joyful, excited and content.

“Next year.”

Coda

This past New Year’s Eve I reenacted this same scene. I didn’t make a big fuss or deal out of it, didn’t involve my cellies. I did, however, break from my established routine so that I could stand at the threshold and mark the turning of 2017 into 2018. I did this because now it is my turn. I can finally voice Junior’s same sentiments.

I go home next year.

All Just People

 

I had broken the rules, been a bad boy. At least the officer said that I had. Usually a simple accusation is enough to prove guilt. Another reminder of just who is in charge behind these prison walls. It would not be a particularly merry Christmas for me. Or, so I thought.

Feeling Unfestive

Christmas in prison, like everywhere else in the civilized world, is a markedly festive time. Also like many places, food is heavily entwined with the festivities. Commissary added holiday themed treats for a limited time while turkey and stuffing manages to be smuggled back from the chow hall by intrepid kitchen workers who sell it for a reasonable price. I’d be unable to partake in any of these goodies. No commissary for me. No gym either. No phone privileges. A blue Christmas.

A Raw Deal

My buddies all expressed shock and disbelief at my predicament. Many of them had known me for close to five years and had never before seen me in such serious trouble. They not only knew my character, but were also well acquainted with the demeanor and reputation of the CO who had accused me of wrongdoing. I got the raw end of the deal, but there was nothing to be done. I just had to go without and endure the month of deprivations. By the end of which time the limited supply of scrumptious seasonal items would be long gone.

No one likes a complainer. I resolved to keep my mouth shut and stoically accept the conditions of my inappropriate punishment. When the rest of the guys in my building shopped I received my own shock which left me in a state of disbelief.

The Kindness of Criminals

One of my closest pals gave me a bag of coffee to see me through the month, and four large bags of mixed nuts—my absolute favorite, and only available around Christmas. He also included some sweets, cheesy rice and ramen noodles in the care package. All told it was over twenty-five dollars of merchandise. He’s locked up for criminal sexual assault. One murderer gave me a limited time only bag of Christmas sugar cookies. Another murderer gave me a bag of nacho cheese flavored corn chips. A murderer, who ran a store out of his box, fronted me some food and sweets with the understanding that I need not pay the taxes on them, only replace the items I’d borrowed.

An arsonist made sure I had plenty of ramen noodles, as well as providing envelopes so I could send out my mail. On Christmas Day one of the cooks in the chow hall who had been convicted for dealing crack cocaine, gifted me with a generous amount of turkey. Another kitchen worker who I had known for several years, and whose crime was retail theft and aggravated battery, knew how much I loved the cornmeal stuffing, and he smuggled a big bag of it in for me. His only stipulation was that I enjoy it.

One of my cellies, a convicted child molester, cooked meals several times and shared a portion of each one with me. Whenever he opened the packaging on one of the Christmas items from commissary, he would unfailingly let me taste some of it with him. Usually there are perhaps four or five holiday items, but this particular year the powers that be decided to spoil us, and there were a dozen different delicacies available for purchase. Thanks to the kindness of criminals I got to sample them all.

Just People

Other men helped me as well, all of whom have labels like drug-dealer, thief, murderer, rapist. Addict, violent, depraved, despicable, worthless. I have experienced firsthand the selfless kindness and sacrificial generosity of these so-called dregs of society. By and large I’ve found them to be just people who made some terrible decisions along the way. Whatever else they had done in their lives it is because of these outcasts and criminals that I did indeed manage to have a very merry Christmas.

 

 

Prison Justice

 

Fortuitous

My cellie went to seg, and I couldn’t have been happier. He was loud, lazy, obnoxious, messy, and he stank of sour body odor. Rarely a day passed that didn’t find me biting my tongue and swallowing my ire over his constantly grating behavior and personality. Oftentimes I longed to take all of my aggression and frustration out on his sneering face. His leaving also meant that, after nearly two years of banishment to the top bunk, I was finally going to be back on the bottom bunk where I felt that I truly belonged, and where life was so much better.

Anxiety

This was Friday evening and my elation lasted through the weekend as the bunk that I had vacated remained empty. Monday afternoon sent a tremor of anxious fear through my core when I found out that Luigi would be moving into the cell within the next few hours. Luigi was coming out of seg which is never a good sign. In fact he had lived in the building prior to his stint in seg. The last time I had seen Luigi he’d been beating another man with his fists.

Off Guard

It happened as I stood in line outside the chow hall after having eaten. The day was frigid and just past noon. The grass was covered in a thick carpet of snow that had fallen a few days previous—the walk had never been shoveled clear, so it was a slick layer of snow and ice stomped down by the feet of hundreds of inmates. I was standing with my shoulders hunched against the arctic winds, swaying from foot to foot to further combat the cold, and beginning to feel numbness my poorly protected legs. Luigi pushed his wiry frame past me in line, but I thought nothing of it. He did, however, catch my attention when he sped up and tackled a guy standing ten feet in front of me.

No Mercy

Luigi caught him entirely unaware and he went down hard face first into the largely untouched patch of snow next to the sidewalk. When he struggled to roll over onto his back in order to defend himself, Luigi backed off just enough to let him perform the maneuver, but this wasn’t done out of mercy or some noble sense of fairness. It put him right where Luigi wanted him.

Slaughter

Luigi straddled the chest of his supine opponent and set to pummeling him about the head and chest. It was a slaughter. The guy on his back managed to raise his arms in meagre defense, but it didn’t help him much. Luigi delivered an unending cascade of fists that connected solidly with flesh eighty percent of the time.  When Luigi’s assault was unsuccessful it deflected off a defensive limb and punched the snowy ground on either side of his victim’s head.

Unfaltering

Luigi was an unfaltering machine. Left, right, left, right. Again and again and again. Snow flew skyward with each misplaced mortar blast of Luigi’s fists. It took far too long for one of the ten security staff members in the immediate vicinity to intervene and pull Luigi off. By the end Luigi had been striking a defenseless man who was only barely clinging to consciousness.

Legitimate Concern

I’ve with and among violent men for years and have largely learned how to move through their ranks unscathed. Knowing that Luigi would be joining my six-man cell had me appropriately fearful because I had heard through the prison grapevine what the inciting spark was which led to the fight outside the chow hall.

Apparently, in the earlier morning hours the day of the fight, Luigi had argued with his soon to be enemy. Voices were raised, threats were made, but tempered simmered for a while before boiling over in the snow. The argument had been over the use of the bathroom. Or perhaps it could be better phrased as what Luigi perceived to be the other man’s over use of the bathroom. With sixteen men all trying to use one toilet and sink for their morning eliminations and ablutions it was inevitable for people to get in each other’s way. Luigi severely beat a man for getting in his way. If that was how he operated, then I was flat-out screwed.

Incontinent

My six-man cell shared a bathroom with an adjacent three-man cell. Nine men, one toilet. Much better than sixteen men, but it could still be a challenge. My deepest reservations were rooted in the fact that I had serious bladder control issues. I was notorious for it amongst my cellies. For years all of my various cellies who came and went noticed and commented on it. To compound this, I’m also an early riser, and at the time I had a job which meant I had to be ready to leave first thing in the morning. All of this conspired to put me in the bathroom multiple times throughout the three or four hours from the time I wake until the time I left for work. I had visions of Luigi berating and beating me while my weak bladder wept its pathetic contents into my boxer shorts. I braced myself for the arrival of this bully as best I could, and cut back my fluid intake as an added precaution.

Prison Justice

Very quickly I found Luigi a fun, funny, good-natured guy. Hearing his account of what led to his snow-fight led me to concede that I could certainly understand how he was pushed to the breaking point. According to Luigi, he had been denied access to the bathroom for well over an hour as he repeatedly knocked on the door. The men on the other side ignored him and let each other take their own turns. This was a situation that had been persisting for weeks. When Luigi later tried to speak rationally to them about mutual respect and consideration, they ridiculed, insulted, and belittled him. The man upon whom Luigi would eventually heap all of his ire went too far as to call into question Luigi’s manhood and then threaten him with bodily harm. Luigi ended up beating him to the punch. Both literally and figuratively. A straightforward circumstance of prison justice. Archaic and skewed it may be, but there’s also a sideways logic and symmetry to it. For every action there is an opposite, not necessarily equal, reaction.

Faulty First Impression

Luigi and I never had any issues over bathroom usage. We cellied together for years and became good friends. It turned out that my first impression of him had been formed upon seeing him at one of his worst, lowest moments of self-control. I’m thankful that in all the time that I lived with and knew Luigi I never again had to witness that other side of him.

 

Dental Debacle

 

After weeks of unrelenting pain, so insistent that I had long since begun to believe that I would never again be free from it, and stubborn refusals on the part of the dentist to fill the offending cavity, I finally relented. I opted to have it removed.

Caretaker

The old man had a gruff demeanor and looked like he could’ve just stepped out of a seedy western film where he pulled double duty as both barber and dentist. Being as gaunt and pale as he was made undertaker a legitimate third vocational possibility. His clothes were shabby and stained. He wore round frame-less spectacles with thick lenses, which gave him a perpetually bug-eyed appearance. Covering his face and neck was a thick scruff of sharp grizzled stubble that looked less like a conscious grooming decision and more like apathy. My prison dentist inspired zero confidence.

Calm

After one final last ditch effort on my part to curry some favor in the form of salvaging my tooth, only to be outright and rudely denied, I opened wide and waited to be stabbed in the face half a dozen times. Enduring this assault was necessary so that I could settle in to enjoy the delicious warm oblivion of the numbing agent which had (blessedly) been delivered liberally. The dentist and his assistant disappeared and left me to my pharmaceutically manufactured calm.

Concern

Not being any kind of expert, but having already survived the act of extraction thrice, I felt fairly certain that the would-be butchers had returned too swiftly. My numbness was complete, so this wasn’t a notion rooted in reality. I just really didn’t want to have to go through this assault on my mouth again. Also, whether it should be chalked up to fear, superstition or premonition; I had a bad feeling about this one.

Challenge

I assumed the position and accepted all manner of latexed digits and stainless steel instruments into my body. “Open wide,” he said. These words still drive terror through my core, but open I did.

Lower left back molar. That’s one of the big ones. Whenever there’s a cartoon depiction of a large square tooth with the prongs on the bottom it’s one of these molars. Those prongs are called roots, and they delve deep. Into the gum and jawbone. They don’t come out without a fight.

Caveat

I caught a glimpse of the dentist’s overdeveloped forearm muscle as he guided the pliers in, and enjoyed an all too brief (and sadly premature) bit of hope filled relief that he could handle the task before him. “Well, let’s see if we can get this one out in one piece.” This was the first I was hearing about any potential of it breaking apart. It instilled little trust in his abilities. And, as a note of professional criticism; why on earth would he even say anything like that? Especially at this, my most vulnerable and impressionable, moment. Any and all positive impulses fled from me.

 Complication

Having prepped the offending tooth with various pokes and pricks, the dentist latched onto it with his tool and went to work. At first it was grim business as usual. The tugging was tentative but persistent, then quickly grew more aggressive. His technique was to wrench and yank my head back and forth. As hard as I tried to hold steady it was an effort in futility. Not only did the pain make it an impossibility, the dentist’s massive forearm was supremely superior to my puny neck and jaw muscles. The right hinge of my jaw was in agony from being pulled in an unnatural lateral direction. I groaned involuntarily on numerous occasions and was completely ignored every time.

All of his side to side ministrations appeared to be of no aid whatsoever, but to distract me from my dental pain by providing an entirely separate and distinct type of anguish. The handle of his pliers was grinding my lip against my teeth, pinching it again and again until I had a fat, bloody lip. Then he kept doing it.

After an untimed and seemingly eternal interval, the dentist suddenly stopped all his efforts and backed a few steps away from me. This departure from his task was so abrupt as if he was recoiling from electric shock or threat of poisonous snake. Anxiously I waited for some explanation, and after several too long moments of me searching for some sign of the dentist, who hid just outside my peripheral range, he spoke: “I got a cramp. Just give me a minute.” His tone was brusque and matter-of-fact as if this was completely normal. I lay there, flabbergasted, listening to my healthcare provider making wincing and grunting noises as he flexed his hand open and close while massaging his mighty forearm. I wondered what would come next.

Cracked

I can’t to whether he was simply tired and trying too hard, or if he was fed up and rushing to get it done, or if the tooth was just stubborn and difficult of an extraction. Whatever the case, when he resumed hurting me it was with a renewed zeal and grip that he commenced yanking. Within a minute and a half the unnatural amplified sound of my tooth cracking echoed through my skull followed by the crunch of the same tooth splintering into an unknown number of shards. The dentist’s reaction accessed the situation well.

“Sonofa . . . BITCH!” His unexpected exclamation of frustration and barely contained rage was somewhat more disturbing than the sound of my tooth disintegrating in its socket. Having once before survived a broken tooth I wasn’t so ridiculously terrified like I had been the first time. I was fearful, but mostly more exasperated and disappointed that I would have to endure another tedious removal.

Callous

My dentist said nothing to me. Occasionally he barked at his assistant, frequently he cursed viciously under his breath. But not a word to me, his concerned patient. It was difficult for me to calculate time while constantly trying not to gag on an unknowable number of foreign objects crammed into my mouth and throat. Tears sprouted from their ducts unbidden, dried on my cheeks, then were refreshed. The sounds of pieces of my tooth hitting the metal tray was continuous, nearly metronomic. Just when I though I couldn’t take it anymore I heard his pliers clatter into the tray.

“Well, that’s the best you’re going to get today. I tried to get it all, but it’s a real mess in there. I may have missed some slivers or pieces, but they’ll work themselves out. You should be fine. Clean him up.” That last was an instruction for his assistant, then he walked away.

Collections

For the first week post-dental surgery I was paranoid that the dentist had left half the tooth in my jaw. Twice during that time I spat out bits of and chunks of tooth while brushing. There was a definite hard bulge beneath the gum that I could manipulate and feel move. It cause a constant dull ache. Over the next month a few more loose pieces came out until finally that last painful sliver slithered its way to the surface and relinquished its hold without much difficulty. It was half the size of a dime with the shape and sharpness of a stone arrowhead.

Field Trip to the Birdcage

 

“Damn! You look good, girl!”

“Yeah, but shake that ass!”

“C’mon up here, baby. I got somethin’ for ya!”

The misogynistic exclamations came out in frantic staccato bursts, one on top of another from all directions. Many of them included much more lewd and graphic descriptions of just how exactly how the individual intended to abuse one of the young students. Before long it devolved into yelps, hoots, and nonsensical sounds to create a cacophony of pseudo sexual excitement. I was disturbed, perplexed, and fascinated.

Just Another Day

There isn’t much to do in the Birdcage. I was staying there on a temporary court writ, so I had none of my property with me. No books, no TV. The only ways to pass the waking hours were to read whatever scraps of books or magazines that had been left behind by a previous occupant, or to talk to one’s cellie. The latter option usually got old very quickly. For me there tended to be a lot of napping and wandering aimlessly through my own mind. It was during one of my semiconscious daydream dozes that I was interrupted by the sudden eruption of voices. Desperate for any kind of distraction or entertainment, I pressed my face to the perforated steel door and gawked along with everyone else.

Field Trip

Forty feet below me a group of children was being led by a lieutenant and sergeant with a couple of adult civilian chaperones bringing up the rear. When I say “children”, I mean just that—ranging in approximate age from twelve to sixteen years of age. Rather than being in school they had been brought to prison for a more hands on education.

 Effective

As far as a scared straight program goes, I believe that this was fairly effective. The Birdcage is an enormous circular structure consisting of four tiers housing hundreds of men. The sheer size of is terrifying, and made even more so by the knowledge that it is holding the encaged rage and frustration of violent criminals; men with the potentiality to erupt without notice or preamble.

I had been incarcerated in several different facilities, for nearly four years, but it wasn’t until I set foot in the Birdcage that I had a wholly visceral and fully frightening sense that I was in PRISON. This experience for me had only been a few days previous, so I could very easily imagine the degree of bewilderment and physical terror that these kids must have been feeling. My fellow inmates weren’t quite so sympathetic or understanding.

Beasts

There appeared to be some silent contract negotiated in which, unbeknownst to me, the men in cages agreed to behave like the penned wild animals that the public at large assumes us all to be. The decibel level in the place tripled. Threats of rape, sodomy, murder were hurled by faceless men, many of whom had siblings, children, or even grandchildren the same age as these visitors. Howls and monosyllabic angry grunts filled the confined space with a crescendo that rattled through my body and felt like mass insanity. No matter what the circumstances or intent, I couldn’t fathom why anyone would agree to voluntarily there son or daughter to such savagery.

Deepest Fear  

Once the field trip had been hurried away the volume gradually decreased and returned to its usual eardrum thumping level. Everyone seemed to settle into various discussions revolving around the visiting schoolchildren. It was easily the most interesting thing to happen in months. I retreated into myself and wondered what kind of monsters I was surrounded by. And I worried that I might become one.