Shorty and the Milk Man

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This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.

Since he always went by his street name, Shorty, I can’t for the life of me recall his actual name, even though he was my cellie for nearly half a year. This isn’t uncommon, especially since I only heard his government name a handful of times when the C/O called it out before passing mail under the steel door of our cell. My cellie didn’t get much mail.

Shorty and I got along just fine and talked easily, if only occasionally. He had recently learned how to make prison pizza, so he wanted to practice his new skill all the time. He gave me a prison slideshow of his many pictures, proudly showing off his aunts, uncles, mother, nieces, nephews, and his many cousins. Shorty was a Latino and a gangbanger—but please erase all the negative stereotypes coursing through the wrinkles of your brain. I always knew him to be a relatively quiet, respectful, calm, and pleasant guy. My personal experience with him made it even more of a shock when I saw him punch a C/O in the face.

It all happened so fast, as is often the case with fights in prison. Some seemingly insignificant incident or perceived slight can be all it takes to push a person over the edge. The problem is that, as a rule, guys keep their emotional life buried as deep as they can manage, so it’s often impossible to tell that someone is on the edge until he goes careening over his psychological precipice by lashing out violently. In Shorty’s case, whatever underlying, complex issues he was wrestling with, the inciting act came when he didn’t get his full glass of milk.

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photo by SOMMAI
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When the inmate pouring milk emptied the two pitchers he was carrying, Shorty only got a splash, barely enough to cover the bottom of the plastic cup. The Milk Man assured my cellie he’d be back, but after refilling the pitchers from the milk reservoir, he took his fresh supplies to a different table and began filling cups there. My cellie stood up in the chow hall (which is something you just don’t do) and walked over to The Milk Man and grabbed his shoulder from behind (another thing you just don’t do, unless you’re looking for a fight). He got his cup filled with milk and returned to his table, but had barely sat down before The Milk Man was standing over him

I was a few feet away, facing my cellie with a clear view of it all. Shorty got his nickname not only from his young age, but because at five and a half feet, he wasn’t exactly tall. When he stood to face The Milk Man, he was face to chest with him and dwarfed by The Milk Man’s swole chest and arms. A few words were exchanged that I couldn’t hear, and then my cellie stole on him—punched him right in the face. The milk pitchers splashed into the air, but The Milk Man seemed practically unfazed by the cheap shot and started pummeling his huge fists against Shorty’s face and head. He was so focused on hitting my cellie, and I was so focused on their fighting, that neither one of us saw the tray coming.

As Shorty and The Milk Man exchanged blows, Shorty’s buddy, The Tall Guy, who was skinny and muscular, took it upon himself to step in with his assistance. My tunnel vision didn’t let me see it coming, but I saw it happen—like seeing an actor suddenly stepping into the frame of a film to unexpectedly alter the movie forever. Shorty and The Milk Man were in profile to me when the tray smacked against the side of The Milk Man’s head. The tray shattered into three or four plastic chunks. Splashes of sauce and bits of spaghetti noodles flew in my direction, but this didn’t slow down any of the assailants.

My cellie and The Milk Man kept whaling on each other, while The Tall Guy who had come to Shorty’s aid joined in the assault. The Milk Man managed to retreat until he had maneuvered around a table which forced both his opponents to be squarely in front of him. He stood toe to toe with them—taking brutal blows, but delivering just as many.

This was not some well-rehearsed and choreographed fight in some karate movie, and none of these guys had any kind of training. From the moment the milk pitchers fell to the ground, it was a relentless onslaught of violence with whirlwind punches, so fast they were little more than a blur. Faces changed color and spouted blood as if by some sick kind of magic. Seeing this level of violence up close and personal—not even five feet away—is so unnerving that it makes the stomach squirm. It’s a strange mix of fear and excitement, fueled by a sudden torrent of adrenaline raging through the bloodstream. There’s an immediacy and undeniable reality to it that no 3D technology could ever hope to duplicate—and even if it could be captured and replicated, only the most amoral, sadistic, and twisted people could endure the show, let alone want to see it. There’s no way to dress it up or romanticize it. These were three animals trying to inflict as much damage as possible.

C/Os descended on the scene, coming from behind on my cellie and his confederate, who reacted instinctually given the heightened circumstances—they assaulted the officers and sent them to the ground with arms flailing uselessly. The Tall Guy collapsed his lanky frame on the C/Os and beat them as they tried to stand up again, while Shorty returned to face The Milk Man solo. They exchanged only a few more blows because the chow hall was being flooded by C/Os and white shirts all running in response to the alarm that had gone out over the radios after some officer had pushed his panic button. When Shorty turned in response to all the yells from the oncoming officers, it provided The Milk Man the opportunity he needed.

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Exhibiting liquid speed, his arm shot out and wrapped around Shorty’s neck so that his python bicep covered Shorty’s windpipe and pulled him into a choke-hold. As soon as he had his hold firmly in place, The Milk Man collapsed onto his ass, as if his legs no longer had the strength to hold him up, and I suspect that was precisely the case. Shorty feebly tried hammering his fists against The Milk Man’s tree-trunk thighs, but each pathetic punch was weaker than the last, and the usual tanned complexion of his face was taking on an undeniably red shade as he was denied oxygen. I was only dimly aware that The Tall Guy had been subdued and cuffed up, since my attention was consumed by The Milk Man. He was looking right at me.

I was seated at my table, and just three feet away, my cellie was being choked. I did not know The Milk Man, had only ever mumbled a polite, “Thank you,” as he had filled my glass over the previous month or so. Now he was undeniably looking me in the eyes, as he not so gently walked my cellie along the path to unconsciousness. For a frightening moment, everything else in existence fell away, and it was just The Milk Man and I locked in unexpected wordless communication.

The Milk Man’s chest was heaving as he tried to catch his breath after all that exertion. His eyes bulged wildly at me, and I could see the rage burning within him. When his forearm flexed into what I was sure would be the final move to send Shorty into blackness, I shook my head without intending to. It was a simple, sad maneuver—left to right once—but my eyes begged him to let Shorty go.

A profound exhaustion and resignation seemed to droop his features, then The Milk Man relaxed his grip and pushed Shorty to the ground. Half a dozen C/Os and three loos came running in—all of them screaming for him to lie down, that it was over. After a final glance at me, he lay prostrate and allowed himself to be cuffed easily and led away.

My cellie, having recaptured his breath, somehow still had some fight in him. It took four C/Os to wrestle his limbs into submission and a white shirt positioning a can of pepper spray an inch from his eye with the threat, “Stop or I’ll do it,” before Shorty was cuffed up and hauled onto his feet. His face had a thin film of blood from various wounds and abrasions, and his left eye was already swelling and quickly on its way to being swollen shut. Like a madman, he let out a few wild whoops and cries of joyful exuberance, like he had just enjoyed a thrilling roller coaster ride rather than having had his face rearranged.

This, Shorty’s final act as he was dragged away, was nearly as unsettling as all the violence I’d just seen. It made something abundantly clear: this deranged person had been lurking in the cell with me the entire time, and I’d had no idea.

Shorty and The Tall Guy both received a year across the board for hitting a C/O and were shipped to a Seg joint. The Milk Man wasn’t shipped and only got thirty days in Seg because he only hit another inmate. I had to pack Shorty’s possessions, and a C/O came and removed them from my cell. I never saw Shorty again. A dozen hours later, when the cell was empty except for me and my belongings, I was still shaken by the incident.
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An Indelible Impression

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When I first met Mark, he wasn’t particularly impressive. He didn’t make a strong or indelible impression on me. He was like a lot of white guys in their late thirties and early forties who I’d come across: prematurely aged and showing signs that years of all different kinds of abuse—physical, mental, drug—had taken their toll. All this was evident in little more than a glance.

A few bits of thatch clung to the edge of his skull, but the top of his head held a sheen that spoke to years of baldness. His skin was pockmarked where sores had once taken root, and his general complexion was sallow, with red splotches. The yellow hue staining his few remaining teeth made his smile an unpleasant sight. At five foot five, 225 pounds, with thick thighs and a flabby, floppy gut, he appeared to be the epitome of the term “squat.” It was easy to dismiss him after one look as just another guy, not worth my time or energy.

He first registered on my radar because I kept catching him looking at me as I worked out on the yard. It wasn’t so obvious as to be creepy, but enough that I quickly picked up on it. I’d staked out a spot in a corner where I wouldn’t be disturbed, and it was there I performed a series of calisthenics and cardio exercises that my guy Burke and I had culled from memory, P90X infomercials, and Men’s Fitness magazines. Burke had been moved to another house, but I kept at it by myself.

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After a week of surreptitious stalking, Mark finally worked up the nerve to speak to me. He waited until the tail end of yard, after I had finished my regimen. Even though I could tell he’d wanted to talk, I was curious but fairly clueless as to what the topic or purpose of it would be. After an exchange of names and prison pleasantries, he got right down to it.

“Do you think I could start working out with you?” His speech was hesitant, and he kind of stammered his way through it. He seemed extremely nervous, but I couldn’t figure out why. I also couldn’t fathom why he’d want to work out with me. While it’s true that, compared to Mark, I was practically an Adonis, I didn’t consider my physique anything to write home about. Mark went on to explain that he would be going home in six months, so he wanted to lose weight and get in shape. He saw I was out there every gym and yard getting money, and said he was in need of direction and motivation. He hoped I would provide both.

This was a situation I’d seen countless times and was another symptom of short-timer’s disease: Guys willfully neglect their health and bodies for months or years; but once they’re short, they expect to cram all the hard work and hit the streets looking like they’d been carved from granite. I despised the entire concept. On top of that, I wasn’t looking for and didn’t want a new workout partner. Burke and I had been buddies and ended up working out together as a natural extension of our friendship. I told Mark that I’d be out there every time, doing my thing, and if he wanted to show up, I’d put him through the paces. He grinned, nodded vigorously, and thanked me before walking off. I didn’t believe he’d ever actually show up for a workout.

The next time we had yard, he was there in my little workout corner, ready to go. And I was true to my word. Since I’d been doing my routine for a while, it came a little easier to me, but I didn’t let up one bit. I pushed and pushed until Mark couldn’t take it anymore—he had to stumble away and cling to the fence for dear life as he puked his paltry prison breakfast onto the concrete. When a person isn’t used to heavy workouts, this isn’t unheard of. I once scarfed an egg salad sandwich and barfed it up after doing dozens of squats and deadlifts (and FYI, egg salad has got to be one of the worst possible foods to taste as it comes up for an encore performance). Once Mark was done with his regurgitation, he wandered off on unsteady legs. I admit to taking a small, sick, twisted satisfaction in knowing that I’d made him vomit and quit. I was sure I’d never see him again for another session.

So when Mark returned at the next yard with a determined look on his face, I was impressed. Having once weighed 315 pounds, I knew how tough losing weight could be and how huge a toll on one’s self-esteem that struggle can take. Mark was clearly serious. I took pity on him, and brought him under my wing. That second time I slowed down, gave him more rests between exercises, and dragged him along with me to the end of the routine. He looked like he was about to fall out, but I congratulated him on getting through the whole thing and encouraged him to come back. Between huge gasping gulps of air, Mark managed to assure me that he would, in fact, be back next time.

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True to his word, he returned the next day. Again and again, for weeks, it was the two of us in the corner of the yard, getting it in. What was initially impossible for him became gradually easier until he was able to get through our hour-long workout with minimal rest. Then Mark recruited another overweight individual who wanted to change his sedentary habits. I instructed him on proper technique and encouraged them both while getting in my own workout.

Shortly after that, a couple of short-timers approached me and asked how much I was charging to run my workout. I thought they were joking, but they were serious. Apparently they thought I was doing it as some kind of hustle. I told them that I didn’t charge anything, and if they wanted to show up next time they were more than welcome. Within a month and a half of my first workout with Mark, I had five or six guys every single yard standing before me with expectant and excited expressions on their faces, eager for another workout, all looking to me for direction. Without setting out to, I had become some kind of prison Billy Blanks.

It was a daunting task, having all these people depending on me to keep them going. But before long it was they who motivated me. On days when I didn’t feel like doing anything, it was the knowledge that they were counting on my guidance that made me get up and go.

From start to finish, Mark worked out with me for almost four months. He hung in there to the end every time and seemed to gradually become less round. Most of the other guys came and went, showing up only when they felt like it, but Mark never missed a yard. He would usually track me down in the chow line to double check that I would definitely be working out on yard. Our final time together was unremarkable from the rest. We pushed through the pain and were utterly exhausted at the end.

Our post-workout ritual was simple and had developed naturally. We bumped fists, exchanged comments of “good job” and “good money” before I clapped him on the back in an appropriately macho fashion and told him he was doing well and to keep at it. Then Mark walked away.
The next time I saw him he was mostly blue.

It was two days later. A little after seven in the morning, the C/O came around for the scheduled morning count. Suddenly there was a flurry of noise and activity: radios beeped and crackled, C/Os and white shirts rushed in from the front of the wing, past my cell door and off to my right, where I couldn’t see them. I had lost my eyeball in a recent shakedown and hadn’t yet fashioned another, so all I could do was stand with my body against the door and my face pressed to the perforated steel plate that acted as my window. In that awkward position, I looked and listened.

Photo by Arvind Balaraman / Freedigitalphotos.net
Photo by Arvind Balaraman / Freedigitalphotos.net

Two lieutenants hustled Mark’s cellie out with his hands cuffed and his head hanging low. He looked bleary-eyed, but suitably baffled and forlorn. A handful of other C/Os and loos milled about aimlessly, looking shaken and saying little. Within ten minutes, another commotion arose as a doctor and four nurses rushed past with a wheeled stretcher clattering in their midst. Less than two minutes ticked slowly by while muffled voices and muted grunts of exertion were the only stimuli I could discern.

The stretcher blazed noisily back past me with the nurses providing locomotion and the doctor performing perfunctory chest compressions that were obviously pointless. My eyes were wide and unblinking as I strained to pull in every fragment of information I could. Mark’s eyes were wide, unblinking, lifeless. I glimpsed them along with his pale, blue-tinged skin and stiff features. He was 42 years old with 63 days left on his sentence. Heart attack.

There was an investigation, and Mark’s cellie was cleared of any wrongdoing and let out of Seg. Questions were raised about whether there had been any significant changes in Mark’s eating or exercise habits in the previous few months. I was never pulled in by Internal Affairs or asked anything directly. A couple of my guys did have to go to IA, but they were convicts, soldiers, and they revealed nothing. I couldn’t help but think that I was responsible, that maybe his over-the-hill heart had been too stressed by our workouts. It was certainly not murder, but it was something. I stopped exercising for a while after that. Even now, years later, I still can’t quite shake the image of his vacant eyes staring up at nothing.
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The Dirtbag

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When I say that my cellie Ray was a shameless, filthy, unrepentant dirtbag, rest assured that I’m telling the truth.

When you live in a tiny cell, everything is compounded, made exponentially more aggravating or disgusting thanks to the simple fact that two grown men are essentially inhabiting a closet with a toilet. I don’t expect much from my cellies; as long as they’re respectful and clean (meaning both good hygiene and relatively tidy), I can get along easily. Ray was a good enough guy; we met on common ground with some movies and TV shows. At times we could carry on an intelligent conversation—a true rarity in prison. What made Ray so rough to live with, though, was his utter lack of awareness of his deplorable hygiene.

Being a fairly plump guy, Ray would sweat more than the average person. His natural odor was a heady musk that would probably attract a moose in search of a mate if Ray were to ever head into the wrong stretch of northern territory. He washed himself thrice a week as shower facilities were made available to us, but on the days in between, Ray wasn’t a big fan of the bird bath. He would come in, fresh from lumbering his way up and down the basketball court, and jump his sweat-slicked, naked-from-the-waist-up body onto his top bunk. The sheet that covered his mat quickly developed a yellow stain.

Besides not-so-slowly turning his sheets dingy with sweat, Ray also had an alarmingly abundant supply of sores, scabs, and burst pimples all over his body. Lying in his rack, topless, as was his wont, provided nasty red accents to the dirty yellow that was already coloring the canvas of his sheet. The longer he persisted in not putting his sheets in the laundry, the more varying hues of dried blood appeared with browns and maroons adding themselves to the tapestry of filth.

photo by "africa"  www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by “africa”
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When Ray wasn’t lounging partially nude, he was dressed in long pants, a thermal long-sleeved top and a sweatshirt—going from one extreme to the other, as if he was afflicted by alternating flashes of hot and cold. He would live, sweat, bleed, and sleep in these clothes, which held in his incredibly aromatic funk. That B.O. seeped into the sheets and mat and, it seemed, into the very walls of the cell. The fact that Ray was spectacularly flatulent only added more noxious fumes to the mix. Remarkably, I became largely immune to it, except when I would walk back into the cell after being gone for a while and be assaulted by the odor anew. As a young adult, I’d once had a pair of dwarf hamsters whose cage I rarely ever cleaned to refill it with fresh bedding. That same damp, musty, pungent, fecal fragrance is what Ray created, and it’s what filled every cubic inch of the cell.

People came to the cell to check in or talk to me, and they were immediately chased away by the foulness emanating from within. I tried gentle nudging and encouraging in an effort to convince Ray to alter his habits of wearing the same clothes for days without changing and never washing his sheets, but nothing I tried ever yielded positive results. In the seven months we lived together, Ray only washed his bedding once, and that was only because the C/O made him do it.

On that occasion, the officer handing out mail had to key open our door to pass through a particularly thick envelope that wouldn’t slide under the door. As soon as he swung the door open, his nose scrunched up in revulsion. The resulting look on his face made him look like he’d just swallowed a mouthful of something truly grotty. He met my gaze, and I just shrugged and rolled my eyes upward to where Ray lay in his bunk above me. The C/O surveyed Ray in all his bare-chested, bloody, filthy glory and was struck momentarily dumb. His mouth worked up and down as if words were meant to be spilling out, but for a long time nothing came. Finally he looked back and forth between Ray and me a few times before motioning to Ray and saying, “Step out here for a minute and talk to me.”

I wasn’t privy to their conversation, but a grip of minutes later, Ray came back in, grumbling and cursing under his breath as he stripped his mat. The C/O closed our cell door with the parting words, “I’ll be back in a bit for them, and I’ll see if I can’t find some bleach.” Ray wasn’t happy, I was hopeful, and it was a nice thought by the C/O. It didn’t help.

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http://www.jackson-pollock.org

The laundered bedding came back with spots and blotches of dried blood intermingling with the yellow-brown sweat streaks to culminate in what could pass for a lost Jackson Pollock work. Beyond that, the stench was too terrible in its amazing power to be dispelled by something as simple as laundry soap and bleach. It had seeped into the pores of the concrete. Nothing short of burning the place to the ground would ever be able to exorcise Ray’s odor from the premises. It was a lost cause, and despite some outside input from the C/O, Ray remained a filthy dirtbag until the day he went home. I was blessed with a reprieve from the wretched filth after seven months when I had a court writ and was temporarily shipped to another joint. Wherever Ray resides in the world right now, I imagine it greatly resembles a pigsty. After all, being a hardcore, unapologetic dirtbag is a tough habit to kick.

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The Power of Taylor Swift

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Nah man, forget that. You on some bullshit.”

Whatchu say?”

You heard me.”

Man, I ain’t with all this woofing, so why don’t you do something?”

You don’t want none of this.”

Yeah, sounds good. Just step to me, and we’ll see who’s the vic.”

I ain’t no vic!”

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The machismo was palpable in the room’s claustrophobic atmosphere. The potential for violence felt like a change in barometric pressure before a tornado touches down—the air becomes electric with dread and impending destruction. Devon and YoYo were both just twenty, scrawny, with the immature and uneducated mindsets of much younger men. This mentality was bred by the poverty and hardships of life in a big city. It was so common in the lives of the men around me that it was practically stamped on their features. To me it was a shame, all this ignorance and untapped potential, but many wore it like a badge of honor.

Membership in a street gang has great appeal for guys like these, most of whom were born into a broken home, had no father or father figure to speak of, were exposed to violence and drugs at a young age, and regularly partook in narcotics by age 13. A lot of men have told me that when they were shorties in their hood, their only choices were to join a gang or be killed. I’ve met hundreds of young men whose lives exactly mirrored this sad set of circumstances. With little or no formal education, their experiences are limited to their minuscule worldview—almost none of them have ever been outside the massive metropolitan area into which they were born. Many have barely stepped foot beyond the few city blocks of territory directly controlled by their gang.

Instead, one’s reputation for being hard becomes a premium, and anything that might threaten that perception must necessarily be met with severe opposition. The vast majority of these inner-city gangbangers are African Americans raised on rap music filled with lyrics endorsing drugs, violence, misogyny, and the objectification of women. Devon and YoYo were no exception—or so I thought. Based on my years of experience in the microcosm of prison, I was sure I was about to see yet another fight. Never in a million years could I have guessed what happened next.

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Their initial exchange had been a verbal barrage machine-gunned back and forth without a breath or pause between threats, all of it escalating in menace and volume until climaxing in “I ain’t no vic!” It was screamed and seemed to reverberate through the immediate area, sending out shockwaves of certainty that a flurry of fists was about to fly. Devon was the guy who screamed. YoYo bit his bottom lip and twisted his features into some kind of counterfeit approximation of a mean mug, to telegraph that he was serious about fighting. His next statement pushed itself out through that malicious sneer.

You know what? I knew you were trouble. Right when you walked in, I knew it.” It came out with a kind of finality, as if this would be the last word before the talking was done and the fighting would begin. Instead, Devon’s expression morphed from anger to one of utter befuddlement.

What did you just say?” Devon asked, the query sounding like an accusation.

I said I don’t like you, goofy ma,” YoYo quipped back.

No, no, that’s not what you said.”

What the hell are you talking about?”

You said you knew I was trouble.”

Yeah,” YoYo agreed. “So? What?” He was completely confused as to the significance of this exchange.

Devon’s seriously dour visage split into a smile, and a laugh escaped his throat. YoYo’s face pinched itself even tighter and his fingers curled into fists. Before he could respond to the slight he believed Devon’s laughter to be, Devon began to sing. “I knew you were trouble when you walked in…”

Now it was YoYo’s turn to be confused, but it didn’t last long. The look on his face transformed from angry to bewildered to one of recognition before a joyous grin erupted, followed by a yelp of excitement. All of this happened within seconds. Then YoYo joined in the chorus.

“‘So shame on me now. Flew me to places I’d never been’ Hell no! You know Taylor Swift?” YoYo asked with a certain degree of skepticism and restrained exuberance.

Man, I love her. She’s the shit!” Devon exclaimed, grinning from ear to ear.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/94347223@N07/8588016225/ Jana Zills
http://www.flickr.com/photos/94347223@N07/8588016225/
Jana Zills

I stood there, disbelief plastered on my face. These two hardcore gangbangers from the mean streets of the inner city, who just moments before were about to trade punches, were now exchanging laughter and lyrics with one another. It was an improvised a cappella showdown, with one of them singing out a lyric, only to have the other complete it before they both began giggling together followed by a quick discussion of the merits of the particular song before the next new lyric was thrown out.

Our song is a slammin’ screen door…” YoYo began.

“…sneakin’ out late, tappin’ on your window…” Devon continued. Devon sang out, “Marry me, Juliet, you’ll never have to be alone, I love you and that’s all I really know…”

“…I talked to your dad, go pick out a white dress, it’s a love story, baby just say ‘yes,’” YoYo finished easily.

This shared love of all things Taylor Swift lasted through more than a dozen songs. Not a single lyric was fumbled or misspoken as far as I could tell. There was something not only surreal, but eerie about these two hardened criminals espousing not only the merits of her music, but discussing her as a vibrant young woman and wonderful role model rather than discoursing at length about her sex appeal. Not that objectifying her would be a good thing, but it would be closer to the usual discussions in prison.

It all ended amiably with hugs, laughs, and fist bumps as YoYo defended “Back to December” as his favorite Taylor song. Devon stood his ground, citing “You Belong with Me” as his favorite. I was left flabbergasted by the scene. I also felt guilty for having adhered to such an outdated and offensive stereotype—one that says a young black man who has known mostly violence and hardship in his life can’t be swayed by the sheer spunkiness, positivity, and power of Taylor Swift and her music. Shame on me.

Brady’s Birdcage Tale

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My buddy Brady had both done time in The Birdcage, so when the topic came up, we began swapping stories in a strange and twisted competition to see who had witnessed the most disturbing thing during his tenure in the infamously violent maximum security cell house. Eventually I had to concede victory to him. When Brady first recounted his story to me, his eyes took on a glassy, far-off look and his skin paled noticeably, as if he was reliving what he’d seen. Brady’s tale was especially frightening to him because it happened the first week he was in prison. It set the tone for his bit, as it was the first of many horrific experiences that let him know that prison could be a terrifying place.

photo by renjith krishnan www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by renjith krishnan
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He had been lying on his bunk, staring at the wall and bored out of his mind, and was ready to drift into a doze for the third time that morning. Days seem interminable in The Birdcage, so when it happened, it was a welcome change—something to focus on and talk about with his cellie. There was a commotion on the deck that was louder than the usual constant drone of talking and yelling. The noise quickly rippled and amplified throughout the spacious enclosure, and both Brady and his cellie looked out onto the gallery to see what it was all about. The show was only just starting.

A lieutenant and several C/Os had rushed to a cell, and the loo was already cuffing up one inmate through the chuck hole. Once the door was opened and the offender walked out, Brady saw that the guy was huge—a hulking gorilla standing in only his boxers, his heaving chest and rippled muscles accentuating his back and arms. If the guy hadn’t been allowing the authority figures to lead him away, it was unlikely they could have contained or controlled him on their own. His proportions were monstrous. As they led him off, he had something to announce to his cellie, who was still sequestered in the cell, and to the entire Birdcage. It sounded like bragging, taunting, and threatening all in one.

Yeah, that’s right, I’ma get me a new cellie! After running up in that one, I wore his ass out!”

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Being new to prison, Brady was not entirely familiar with the slang, but was pretty sure he understood what this meant. Once the first inmate was gone, two C/Os were left behind to contend with the remaining inmate. One C/O looked sick, like he was on the verge of vomiting, and the other’s face was a picture of fear and disgust.

The second inmate finally appeared in the cell doorway. He was a pudgy white kid, and his baby face was obviously streaked with tears and snot. He moved very gingerly—each breath seemed to hurt, let alone each step. His shirt was torn at the neck and hung down, exposing one nipple, which appeared far more embarrassing than it had to. The guy was trying feebly to hold his ripped clothing up to cover his nudity. The nauseous C/O instructed him to let it go, and the shirt flapped open to expose him again. The C/O managed to look guilty himself as he handcuffed the pudgy guy, but he manacled the cuffs in front of him rather than the customary, regulation method of cuffing an inmate’s hands behind his back. The same C/O placed a helping hand on the inmate’s shoulder and assisted him as he painfully shuffled forward in only his boxers and damaged t-shirt. The yelling from inmates filled the expanse of The Birdcage with a cacophony of callous insanity, and the victim was slowly escorted out.

The other C/O had disappeared inside the cell, but remained there only briefly before emerging with a dark gray woolen blanket. He draped it over the inmate’s shoulders before grasping the inmate’s other shoulder and helping him along. Before the blanket was put into place, Brady saw a dark and substantial splotch of blood on the back of the inmate’s boxers, and everything that he’d seen and heard up to that point suddenly crystallized into a disgustingly real and frightening portrait of prison life. The strong often take from the weak, and it’s not only commissary items that are being taken.

Despite the dreary, intense boredom that The Birdcage breeds, Brady said that he and his cellie returned to their positions of repose on their respective bunks. They never once discussed the incident.

Gordie’s Devolution

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When Gordie told me he was “gonna beat Kent’s ass,” I took it to be little more than bravado and blowing off steam. I empathized—understood completely his ire and outrage—so I let him vent. Never did I think that the meek and mild kid who had been my cellie over a year before would resort to the type of epic violence he was describing. A year in prison can change a man immensely.

After Gordie went to Seg for horseplay and I lost him as my cellie, I kept track of him as best I could. He fell in with an older crowd, guys who had been in prison longer than Gordie had been on the planet, and they schooled him in the nuances of doing time and practicing what they felt was appropriate racial enmity towards those with skin color of a decidedly darker shade. Since I only saw Gordie in passing every once in a great while and could only occasionally send a message through a third party, I no longer had much sway or influence over him. When he was moved back to my cell house and wing, I was happy to see him, but taken somewhat aback by his revamped persona.

His once open and easy-to-smile face held a perpetual scowl, and a cloud that hung over him kept most people at bay. He seemed interminably angry. I’d known him to be upset, to throw an occasional tantrum or have a bitch fit to complain about whatever was bothering him. This new element of his personality was entirely removed from that type of fleeting emotion; this was closer to a deeply felt and abiding rage.

Gordie had once confided in me that, due to his largely rural and sheltered upbringing, he had never actually seen a black person in real life, only on TV. As he was processed through the intake joint, he had been surrounded by hundreds of men of color, mostly from the inner city, spouting slang and profanity in their own patois. This was quite a culture shock for young Gordie. The vehement and vitriolic racist rhetoric Gordie had picked up in the year since he’d been my cellie was a shock for me. Hate speech peppered with racial slurs twisted his lips in a sneer of scorn; I had trouble believing that Gordie’s words reflected his true feelings. The racism was a perfect conduit for his newly cultivated rage, but as I saw it, the root of Gordie’s problem was his temper.

photo by Victor Habbick www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by Victor Habbick
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

When Kent got caught getting tattooed in his cell, he was sent to Seg. He blamed Gordie for it, claiming that Gordie snitched on him. The “logic” employed in Kent’s argument for Gordie’s guilt was that Gordie, being a porter, had a freedom of movement on the deck that others didn’t, so Gordie was one of the only people who knew what was going on in Kent’s cell. While the notion of Gordie snitching is certainly a possibility, Kent was also a complete jackstick who went around showing off his fresh tats to EVERYONE. It’s more likely that someone else dimed on Kent and his cellie, but Kent believed it was Gordie. It wasn’t long before word got around that Kent was shooting his mouth off in Seg, telling everyone that Gordie was a snitching little bitch and that when he got out of Seg he was going to beat the breaks off Gordie. When Gordie heard about all the character defamation that Kent was aiming in his direction, he was livid.

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Gordie went absolutely berserk; he ranted and raved about how badly he would assault and injure Kent if he ever got his hands on him. I fully understood his indignation and desire to seek retribution upon the person who was so grievously lying about him. Furthermore, prison “logic” dictated that if Gordie were to just let it slide and allow Kent to get away with his supposedly false claims, it would mean that Kent had more than likely been telling the truth. During his lengthy rant, Gordie drew upon his recently adopted ideals of white racial superiority and purity, impugning Kent’s character and worth because—even though he was a white guy—his mannerisms, behavior, speech patterns, and use of slang, as well as his musical preferences, all closely resembled those of the average black inmate. Gordie proclaimed that it would be his duty and honor to hurt Kent, who he deemed to be a disgrace to his race. The entire discourse was so far removed from the Gordie that I had first met, the Gordie I thought I knew seemed to be long gone.

When Kent got out of Seg, he came right back to the same cell house. (Although, to be accurate, he never quite made it to the house.) Since he had gone to Seg for tattooing, there was no official reason on record for Gordie and Kent to be kept separated. Through a window at the back of the deck, Gordie spied Kent coming. Gordie had been loitering on the deck, having completed his few assigned tasks as a porter, and was waiting for the bubble officer to announce that the chow line was on the walk. This announcement was expected at any moment. Gordie hurried to the front of the deck, to the door that opened to an entryway, which in turn led to the walk right outside the building. When Gordie neared the door, the announcement echoed through the gallery as if it had been timed to the nanosecond. “Chow line walking!” Just like the parting of the Red Sea for the children of Israel, Gordie’s path was made clear as both doors were electronically buzzed open, and he was allowed passage without an instant of scrutiny. After all, to all appearances he was just a hungry inmate heading to lunch.

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http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Gordie was a slim, thin-limbed guy who stood about five-foot-nine and probably weighed between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and sixty-five pounds. Not exactly intimidating. Kent, on the other hand, had a physique that had clearly been shaped by weights and an advantage over Gordie of a couple inches and thirty pounds. It looked like it would be a lopsided bout, and not in Gordie’s favor.

Gordie walked straight up to Kent and punched him square in the nose with more force than I would’ve thought him capable. They were outside, in a corridor of sorts that was twenty feet long and five feet wide and bordered by fences on either side. This configuration was designed to corral inmates, but as Kent slammed into the fence, it also left him with no avenue of escape. Gordie didn’t say a single word as he hit him twice more in the face. Kent’s knees buckled and he slumped forward—flopping to the ground like he’d become unarticulated and was little more than a slack sack of flesh and bone.

Gordie appeared to have come unhinged as he descended upon Kent without pause, arms like pistons and fists like ball-peen hammers finding all of Kent’s soft spots. It was such a sudden and overwhelming beatdown as to be practically incomprehensible—the senses rejected it as impossible. Kent didn’t put up a fight. He didn’t even raise his hands as a defense. While Kent lay there, Gordie kept hitting him. He was a man possessed—nothing like the Gordie I’d once known.

Officers finally converged to pull Gordie off of his victim, and he was escorted to Seg immediately. Kent needed a stretcher to be escorted anywhere. Gordie was shipped out to another joint without delay, and I have no idea where he ended up. I also don’t know what kind of disciplinary actions were taken against him for his violent assault. What I do know is that I wish I didn’t retain the image of Gordie so thoroughly dismantling a man. I prefer to remember him as he was when we first met and were cellies for six months. I’m not sure that particular version of Gordie exists anymore, and I fear that it probably never will again.

Poor Gordie

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// The angry, wet sound of his violent regurgitation still reverberates through the finite space of my mind the same way it bounced around the confined space of our cell.

===

His hair was short and so blond it looked like nothing more than peach fuzz above an oval face. His softened features made him look closer to age twelve or thirteen rather than the nineteen going on twenty that he was. Not a single hair would grow on his chubby baby face. Gordie was in no way impressive or formidable.

At the time, he’d only been down about four months and was still more or less fresh off the bus, so I did what I could to show him the ropes. He’d already had some rotten cellies who had bullied him, and his lengthy sentence meant he would spend nearly as much time behind prison walls as he had spent outside the womb. I felt sorry for him and protective of him, which only made my dilemma that much more troubling.

photo by David Castillo Dominici www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo by David Castillo Dominici
http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

The incident happened one morning after breakfast. Our trays usually arrived around 4:00 a.m. every morning through the chuck holebreakfast in bed. Gordie had only been in the cell a couple of weeks. During that time, he had mostly just slept and quietly watched some television. We had yet to build the rapport and camaraderie we would eventually enjoy.

My days began with the chuck hole slamming open for breakfast, acting as my alarm clock. Then I was up for the day, trying to scribble my legacy on yellow legal pads. Gordie’s routine to that point had been to finally rouse for the day sometime around noon (though he’d be back down for an afternoon nap around three). For breakfast, Gordie had been in the habit of barely raising his head off the mat to ask me what was on the tray, and then saying I could have it before rolling back to face the wall and slip back into slumber. On the morning in question, I instantly knew something was off because Gordie declared, “I don’t want it,” before the trays had even been delivered. Then he lay there on his back staring at the ceiling, wide awake.

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I ate dutifully, unceremoniously—an automatic act, a reflex. Trays enter full and exit empty: mission accomplished. Food was fuel and nothing more. But on this day, Gordie kept poking his head over the edge of his bunk to peer down and spy on me. It was unnatural, unnerving, and disturbing. I didn’t think I would have to tell him not to do it any more, that it’s not cool–because I figured that not doing it was only common sense. However, if prison has taught me anything, it’s that “common sense” to some is absolutely foreign to others. I opened my mouth, prepared to ask him if something was wrong and instruct him not to hang his head over my food tray and watch me eat. But Gordie spoke before I could.

Are you done eating?”

This caught me off guard. There was a curt anxiousness to his tone, and it took a moment of pause for my brain to kick out words.

Yeah. Yeah, I’m done.” As if to prove my point, I shoveled the last bit of slimy scrambled eggs into my mouth, snapped the lids back on the Lunchables, and placed them back on the chuck hole for retrieval by the breakfast porter. Even as I was doing that, Gordie was cautiously stepping his way down to the bar at the end of the bed that served as a ladder. He was clearly taking great pains to move gingerly but as swiftly as possible. I was confused, but only for a moment. After he grabbed his bedsheet and pulled it down after him, I thought I knew what was happening and couldn’t help but smirk in the early morning darkness.

Just because a person is locked behind a steel door with another man, the basic biological need to eliminate waste doesn’t disappear. As the popular children’s book so succinctly put it: everybody poops. The proper protocol is to stretch one’s bedsheet across the cell to act as a privacy curtain. Technically this is illegal, as it obstructs the officer’s view of the entire cell, but only the biggest of Robocop C/Os actually write a ticket for it. Most of them understand that we’re just trying to cover our shame—a human instinct born moments after Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the serpent, thereby damning us all.

miami beach 411When I saw Gordie drag his bedsheet down and begin to affix it to the foot rail at the end of the bed, I grinned at the thought of him squirming in his bunk and squeezing his cheeks as he held the urge to defecate in order to let me eat breakfast in peace. It was both a funny and a touching notion—that he would endure discomfort just so I wouldn’t have to eat a crappy breakfast. But I was wrong. Gordie did not have to go number two.

Ordinarily, once the sheet is in place, only an inmate’s feet are visible—sometimes not even that. Instead, Gordie’s legs shot out below the sheet towards where I sat on my bottom bunk as he dropped down to his knees in front of the steel toilet, like a devout worshiper before his altar. But the sounds I heard next were not prayers of any kind that I was familiar with. Instead there was a sudden, unexpected, assault on my ears that seemed like the cries of a small but determined animal in a brutal struggle with something slick and slippery—an unearthly entity. Hoarse retches were followed by the inevitable wet splashes as whatever he’d eaten that hadn’t agreed with him made its encore appearance in the toilet bowl.

I steeled my stomach against any notions it might have harbored of showing sympathy or symmetry in regurgitation. I reached for the knob that controlled the window to let in some air, but I was too late to prevent the sour stench from making my eyes water and my throat tighten involuntarily in its own reflexive retch. The rank aroma permeated every available cubic inch of air. The open window let in a freezing winter blast, but provided no relief. Unfazed, Gordie continued spilling the contents of his guts into the toilet, making sad, lonely noises in between expulsions like some pathetic, wounded creature.

Once I overcame my initial shock and revulsion, I searched back in my history for some mental construct or protocol as to how to act in a situation like this. The last vomiting person I’d been in close proximity to was my wife. I had held her hair back to keep it from getting befouled by the puke, rubbed her back in slow, soothing circles, and cooed quiet, loving phrases meant to calm and comfort her pained groans and mumbled moans. Now, though I felt sympathy for his plight and even protective of young Gordie as some type of surrogate little brother, I was fairly certain that a similar reaction on my part might be perceived as odd. Instead, I did what I thought was the next best thing.

Are you okay?” I asked. Possibly the dumbest and most idiotic, pointless query in the history of questions. Gordie’s only response was more throat-tearing, gagging grunts followed by heavy splashes and whimpers of recovery before the next round of regurgitation. I quieted myself and let him be sick in peace.

I thought again about my wife and how I had babied and cared for her when she was sick. I thought of my mother, the person from whom I had learned all my caregiving techniques. She had soothed all my childhood illnesses and cleaned up all my boyhood vomit. Gordie was not my wife, and I was not his mother, but no one who is legitimately ill should have to clean up his own mess. The idea did not thrill me one bit, but once he seemed to be done, I did what I perceived was the right thing to do in the strange curve ball of a circumstance that life had pitched me.

photo courtesy of www.freedigitalphotos.net
photo courtesy of http://www.freedigitalphotos.net

Are you alright, Gordie?” (Again with the stupid questions.) “You need any help? Anything I can do?” While I was fully prepared to assist, I was also secretly, desperately hoping I would not have to face any puke up close and personal that day. After a long pause, during which only a few sniffles from Gordie could be heard, he finally answered.

No. I got it.”

Blessed relief flooded me, but my better nature reacted before I could squelch it. “Are you sure?” I asked. No! I was off the hook! Why would I volunteer again? But I was fretting over nothing. Whether it was out of pride or shame or some other notion, Gordie refused my assistance.

The pungent citrus smell of the laundry detergent available on commissary filled the cell. It supplanted the puke smell as Gordie dutifully took a soapy rag to clean the steel of the toilet and sink, then the concrete wall and floor that had likely suffered collateral damage during his violent vomiting. I remained silent throughout, as did Gordie, who then wordlessly crawled into bed and lay motionless for a dozen hours.

My sympathy for my cellie was deep and genuine, but that did him no good. In fact, it seemed he couldn’t catch a break, not even from me, and I could only conceive one notion to sum up the whole screwy situation. Poor Gordie.

This excerpt is from Candy and Blood, available on Amazon.com now.