The Psycho Whisperer

“No. Hell no! This is bullshit! You can’t do this. You have to let me go. You can’t just deny me. It’s my right! Hey. Hey! Are you listening to me? You’re denying me my right. You know that? Hey! Do you hear me? Hey! Get back here and let me out!”

Irate

I was livid. I couldn’t believe it. I smacked my palm against the security glass until the slapping began to hurt. I banged with my fist which produced a more dull and manageable pain. I continued to yell for the officer to come back, but it was all to no avail. He was, however, required to perform his routine count. Within thirty minutes the officer returned.

Round Two

There was more yelling on my part and pounding on the glass. I had a dim and distant understanding that I was behaving like a lunatic, but it was more like I was detached and watching some stranger lose his composure. There was nothing to be done, no solution that I could see. I was being denied my rights and no amount of rational discussion was going to change that truth. To be fair, at this point, I was well beyond the capacity for any reasoned or measured discourse. Further screaming and assaulting the large window that separated me from the officer had no effect other than causing him to let slip a little smirk as he exited. I therefore adopted a more aggressive tactic.

Not Calculation

I was frustrated and angry. I believed there was an idiotic logic to my actions. It was something that I had witnessed before: Behave politely and respectfully and you’re ignored—act like a wild animal and the powers that be have to pay attention. I’d like to say that I was being very calculating and precise, that it was all an act, but that’s simply not true. The truth is that I had completely lost it.

Unhinged

I gripped the bars of the cellblock door and shook them, making them clatter an enormous racket. I tried kicking the door, but it didn’t produce as sustained, loud or satisfying a sound. Also, it hurt my foot. Instead I resumed rattling the door on its track. I was vaguely aware that my fellow inmates were watching while withdrawing from me with looks of worry and bewilderment. I didn’t care. Rather than rein it in I began to scream.

Enraged guttural gusts of hot air exploded from my throat. They were wordless, primal sounds born from feelings of helplessness, hatred and rage. I hollered until it felt like I’d been swallowing mouthfuls of sand. I made the steel door sing its terrible lullaby until my shoulders burned from the exertion and my arms felt like twin twizzlers. In the frenzied insanity of the instant I would have sworn that my tantrum lasted a full ten minutes. My criminal compatriots later assured me that it wasn’t even half that—it was, however, long enough for the individuals in charge at the County Jail to send in the expert.

The Psycho Whisperer

I’d seen Officer Brett employ his unique skillset before, but never for an instant had I ever imagined that he would have cause to use it against me. Nevertheless, in this instance, I was the psycho. Officer Brett opened the door to the cellblock and stepped in leaving only steel bars between us, including the barred door that I’d been shaking. His mere appearance was enough for me to fall silent and still. The echo of the metal thrumming hummed in the sudden quiet. Officer Brett just looked at me as I gasped for air after having worked myself into an exhausted furor. He looked me in the eyes and nodded his head twice before speaking in a sober, confidential tone. “This isn’t you.”

Convicted

The calm assurance with which he spoke convicted me to my core. A breath hitched and caught in my chest as an abhorrent cesspool of pent up emotions fought to release themselves. When I spoke there was a whining keen in my voice that I despised but was helpless to hide or control.

“It’s not fair, Brett. You know it’s not fair. First they move me to separate me from Stape so I can’t help him with his case. Now I can’t even be in the same room with him? I can’t even go to church?” My outraged incredulity was tempered by my petulant tone so that it lost some of its potential efficiency and still just sounded like I was a child pitching a fit because I didn’t get my way. I had largely regained my breath, if not my composure, and I leaned in close to speak my piece. Officer Brett mimicked my body language so that I was speaking through the bars to him with only a couple of inches between us. My voice became an insistent whisper.

“You know, Brett, you know this is wrong. Not only illegal, this is just wrong. You know. Brett, you know that Stape is innocent. You know that the police killed his wife and now these state attorneys and public defenders are helping to cover it up. You know this. Now they figured out that we’ve been helping each other and they’ve made sure that we’re kept apart. This whole thing is wrong.”

It was Officer Brett’s turn to be convicted. He dropped his gaze, unable to look me in the eyes anymore. He executed an elaborate shrug and sighed out a lengthy exhalation. He shook his head back and forth, his mouth opening and closing in what I took to be soundless assent. Silence spun out between us for several long moments. There was nothing more to say on the subject.

Cold Calculation

When Officer Brett finally looked at me again he only had one question. “Are you done then?”

I coughed a humorless laugh. “Yeah, sure, I’m done.”

“Good. Good.” He nodded. “Once the church service is over you can speak to the pastor one on one.” Officer Brett turned to leave, but paused a bit before turning back. “And with Mr. Stape, I have to believe it will work itself out. I have to believe that.”

I blew wind through my lips in a scornful scoff. It was perhaps unfair of me, and Officer Brett was certainly in an untenable situation, but his equivocation rang hollow to me.

Afterthought

I never really got to see or interact with my friend Stape again even though we remained in the County Jail together for nearly another year. He was eventually convicted to eighty-five years in prison for a murder that I don’t believe he committed.

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King Pong

Tipping the scales past three hundred pounds, with much of it settling in an unsightly mass around my midsection, I was far from the picture of athletic prowess. With a dome that was kept gleaming by a razor’s removal of any stubble once a week, and my skin unnaturally pale from nearly a year without the sun’s warm kiss, I resembled a bloated and deranged Casper the Friendly Ghost more than anything else. My appearance made all challengers think they could defeat me with ease. They were mistaken.

pingpong2Sole Recreation
The county jail that was my defacto home for over three years had what they termed MP. Multi Purpose room. It was approximately twenty feet by forty feet, although that may be a bit generous. Its multiple purposes included library, law library, TV room, recreation area, holding pen for prisoners directly before or after a court appearance, chapel, school classroom, attorney visiting room, clergy visiting room, and temporary holding area for particularly violent or troublesome inmates. Each cell block of the jail was afforded one hour per day in MP as our sole recreation.

Oasis
In the center of the room, looking entirely out of place because of the sense of normalcy and joy that it engendered in everyone who saw it, was the device which would be responsible for my only exercise for the better part of a year. The green top was marred by scratches and scars, and parts of it were cobbled together with strips of cloth torn from a bedsheet, but amidst the harsh stresses of imprisonment it was a glorious vision of escapism and fun. The ping pong table became an oasis of sorts, and one hour with it was never enough.

Reality Check
Of course I had played ping pong on numerous occasions prior to my incarceration, and I thought that I was pretty good. Better than average. When I first stepped to the table, paddle in hand, I was a cocky loudmouth bragging about my abilities. I had both overestimated my talents and underestimated my opponent, Pates.

Grizzled, gray-haired, mid-40’s, he seemed ancient to my naive 22-year old eyes. Pates trounced me handily, without mercy, and called the next victim to the table. I felt demoralized, emasculated, but my own private pity party only lasted as long as two pong matches before it was my turn again. I craved vindication. It turned out that Pates had in fact been taking it easy on me after all. The second match I didn’t score a single point. He skunked me.

pingpongLearning Curve
Pates and I battled every day with few exceptions, and while I did get better, he still defeated me without much difficulty. It was a steep learning curve, but I was learning, improving. After several months of me challenging the King of the Table, and getting multiple victories under my belt, I was finally worthy for him and our matches became epic in scope. It wasn’t enough just to win anymore, but we were working out trick shots and putting spins on the ball to make it drop or swerve in mid-air both to impress and confound one another. As a byproduct of our competitive encounters, or perhaps as a natural extension of such, Pates and I became good friends.

New King in Town
Once Pates left the county jail (he was convicted of a crime that I believe he was genuinely innocent of and sentenced to around 85 years in prison) I was crowned the reigning King of Ping Pong. My new title made me a target for all inmates who thought they were pretty good. I repelled each opponent, some more easily than others, and my crown was never in jeopardy. Due to a lack of worthy challengers, I eventually adopted a semi-retired status and was only coaxed into defending my title and proving my prodigious pong skills every once in a great while.

Blast From the Past
It was a decade removed from my time spent in county, and my period as pong royalty was but a distant memory, when my name was called out by a stranger as I walked on the yard. I turned to face him, and he acted as if he knew me. Turns out he did know me—as King of the Table.

kingHe described my appearance at the time (in the intervening years, I had lost over one hundred pounds, grown my hair a little longish, and actually spent some days in the sun) and spoke of my amazing ping pong abilities. He talked about different guys who we’d been locked up with and some of the officers who had been in the county jail. He even knew some details of my case because mine was a particularly brutal crime that the smallish county was unaccustomed to and this made me somewhat notorious. Despite all of this information, which served as proof that this stranger had, in fact, served time in county jail with me, I had no idea who he was. It was a surreal sensation, but when I sent a query into the database of my brain, the search engine came back with “No results found.” Due to the sheer volume of his fairly intimate knowledge, I had to conclude that my memories of him had merely been lost to time. I’d known hundreds of men while in county, some maybe only for a day or two, and surely I couldn’t be expected to remember every one.

Lasting Legacy
My new/old friend told me that he only played ping pong against me twice, and both times I defeated him easily. He said he wasn’t very good, but enjoyed watching me battle others because the matches were always so thrilling. He also informed me that my name and tales of my astounding talents were spoken of long after I’d left, and always told with the requisite awe.

Gone, but not forgotten.

King Pong—long may I reign.

Cribbage Madness

Seeing my buddy raving like a lunatic and watching him get handcuffed and hauled away was a shocking and brusque introduction to the hard realities of prison.

Common Ground
Phil was tall and skinny as a sapling. He grew up on the harsh streets of the inner city and had been a gangbanger most of his still-young life. He’d worked his way up and out of the worst of the squalor and made a name and place for himself selling drugs, so he could relocate himself and his family to a better environment. Our backgrounds gave us little in common, but we each were facing significant prison terms as we sat in the county jail and fought our respective cases. This provided a kinship between us since the vast majority of guys were looking at maybe a few years in the Department of Corrections, if not merely some county time or even probation. Phil and I were both staring down the same barrel of inevitable and lengthy prison time, just waiting for the trigger to be pulled.

gamesDistractions
The county jail that housed us provided zero time outside for recreation. There was a large room with a TV, law library, library, and ping pong table which we took advantage of for the one hour a day we were allowed, but other than that we were confined to our small cell block, which held nine men in total. Very small. Not much to occupy one’s time. Sergeant Patty was very kind and accommodating so for a brief period she allowed guys to have their family send in board games, provided they were still sealed in the original packaging. Risk, Monopoly, Clue, Stratego, Life, Trivial Pursuit; we suddenly had an abundance of ways in which to spend our time.

In a shockingly short amount of time, the games broke, pieces were lost, or the games simply became stale and boring. Many of them were also confiscated on shakedowns as it turned out that Sergeant Patty had severely overstepped her authority in letting the games into the facility. All of my reminiscing and memories of childhood that the games stirred within me also put me in mind of a card game, which I had spent countless hours playing in my pre-felon days. There was a scoreboard, but I could make that myself so I wouldn’t have to have it sent in only to have it confiscated. The notion of playing some cribbage thrilled me.

Cribbage
I took a flat cardboard box, which once held generic Ritz crackers, and drew up a board with sections that had twenty dots in each. Five dots were to move the players’ pegs forward, and I made enough for four players at a time. I made three hundred dots apiece—one thousand, two-hundred total. I didn’t find out until much later that a standard cribbage board is either 61 or 121 peg moves. For pegs to keep the score, I cut Q-tips in half with nail clippers, colored two pieces black with a marker, then wrapped the fluffy heads in bits of Scotch tape I’d scrounged from pieces of mail. (All inmate mail is opened before being delivered to the prisoner, but is often resealed with Scotch tape or a staple to ensure nothing is lost in transit.) Once I meticulously poked holes at each of the 1200 dots with a sharpened pencil, I had a workable Cribbage board and a deck of cards I’d bought from commissary. All I needed was an opponent or two.

cribbage 2False Starts
No one knew hot to play Cribbage. No one had even heard of the game before. While I found that to be both impossible and exasperating, it was the simple sad truth. I was able to get a few guys to at least give it a try—always only one at a time—but none of them seemed to care for it very much. To be fair and honest, my explanation of the rules was often convoluted and confusing. I couldn’t really remember how to play at first, and relayed what little I could recall, but as we played I was endlessly amending the rules as they came back to me more and more. I’m sure it was an incredible inconvenience at the least, and probably more likely characterized as an enormous pain in the ass. It wasn’t until Phil came along that I found someone who could appreciate the game.

Perfect Pastime
By the time Phil was placed on the cell block, I had worked out all the kinks, and had all the rules properly figured. He took to it with enthusiasm and would often come asking and harassing me to play, which was a nice change from me having to beg someone just to give it a try. There were even numerous times when I was tired of playing, but Phil was relentless in his desire to continue. It made the days pass by in a blink. We played innumerable games, from early morning to late in the evening, which served to take our minds off of our respective cases, and in so doing alleviated much of the anxiety that accompanies waiting for our unknown dire futures to unfold. Unfortunately, those futures had to arrive at some point, and we ended up taking the ride from county jail to a Department of Corrections processing facility together. At least I would know somebody.

Processing
I had always known Phil to be level-headed to the point where he appeared to be the epitome of cool—nothing got him riled. He seemed to take everything in stride. He had already been to the joint once before, and had given me the basics of what to expect when we first got to prison. Processing is an agonizingly slow and seemingly endless ordeal that begins with a strip search and shower. From there, an inmate’s picture is taken, as well as fingerprints and blood. Teeth are x-rayed, questions of all kinds are asked by half a dozen different people. There is a line of men stretching to infinity waiting to move forward to the next station before we can be put in a holding area to eat something. It’s tedious and aggravating to say the least.

I was glad Phil was right there with me, and remained so for much of the day. When we had gotten separated, it was only for brief periods before reuniting at the next point in the long processing journey. It had made things somewhat bearable, having a confederate of sorts, a touchstone to sanity in a place that I quickly discerned was incredibly insane. He seemed to accept it all with patience. At least at first.

Losing It
As the day progressed, I’d noticed that Phil had become a bit more nervous and manic. He’d begun talking incessantly about Cribbage and how I was his Cribbage buddy. At first it was sort of funny, but before long Phil stopped talking to the others around us and he stopped talking directly to me as well. It became painfully clear that he was rambling aloud to himself about Cribbage and hoping he and I could be cellmates. He would rant on in a tangent complaining about all the waiting and cramped conditions, then loudly let it be known that no one had better try to attack him.

After we were fed, he complained about the food. I didn’t know what to make of Phil devolving into an unpredictable mess. I tried calming him, getting him to sit next to me when I could and talk about Cribbage or anything else that would keep him focused. I concocted a daydream of us being placed together in a cell and making another Cribbage board so we could once more spend hours playing. This tactic would work for brief periods, but then Phil would be on his feet again, pacing and raving.

cribbageFreak Out
Once processing was complete, there were four huge caged holding pens with maybe a couple hundred people in each. We were given a bologna sandwich, a small bag of potato chips, a packet of two sugar cookies, and an eight-ounce carton of skim milk. It had been nearly eight hours since we’d arrived, and Phil had only gotten worse as the day progressed. When all the food had been eaten and the garbage collected, a lieutenant instructed that when we heard our name called, we were to come forward and stand along a wall that he indicated.

Names began to be called until the entire length of the one-hundred foot wall was filled. They were then all escorted to a cell block located somewhere in the labyrinthine interior of the massive complex. Halfway through the third group, Phil’s name was called. He hesitated a few moments, jittering in his seat, before bounding up and striding toward his fate without a glance back or a goodbye of any kind. He was mumbling as he left, and I could hear it grow louder as he got closer to the line of men. When Phil was placed against the wall, my vantage point was about forty yards away, so I couldn’t precisely hear everything that was being said, but “Cribbage” was a recurring motif.

All the names were called for that group and I remained in my bullpen. Phil began to get louder and was gesticulating wildly, leaning aggressively towards the person in line behind him. He had attracted the attention of the nearest lieutenant who calmly strolled over with two C/Os flanking him on either side for a total of five security staff members. Phil spun toward them when the lieutenant called out to him. As soon as Phil took a step out of line and moved toward the group of men, he was spun right back around, handcuffed, and hauled away in such a quick and proficient manner that my mind struggled to process the notion that my buddy was gone.

In Retrospect
I still have trouble reconciling the loud, raving, nonsense-spewing person I last saw with the Phil I had known and spent so many hours playing Cribbage and bonding with. A few guys that I’ve shared this incident with have even postulated that perhaps it was all an act or ploy in order to be adjudged mentally ill and thereby reap whatever benefits there might be had from that. I don’t particularly believe that theory, but have no other way to explain Phil’s behavior other than to say that prison can be more difficult for some people than others.

It was surely hard watching my buddy behave in that erratic manner and then be taken away, but it set the tone for more hard times to come.