The Adventures of Garbageman
Under the Gentle Thumb of the Authority Complex
My last year in school, I taught in a system-sponsored experimental undergrad program. It choked off its promises of freedom and participation and convinced me that if I wanted to work on re-creating education, inside-the-system wasn't the place to do it. 1 left school in 1966, hung out at the Experimental College at S.F. State for a few months, and then went East to visit campuses. In spring 1967 I came back, to play around in the Haight while I was waiting to go to jail for the FSM. The Supreme Court finally rejected our appeal, and I spent nine summer weeks in the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center.
Ah, young political prisoners! especially when they're trying to learn how to be writers! Who can resist a traditional experience, a rite of passage? Not me (though 1 drew the line at the whorehouse door). I marched into Santa Rita proudly -- and reality snuck up and overwhelmed me from behind.
Jail was a stunning experience, in the quietest of ways. Three years of turbulent action had left me weary, and I would not find another nine weeks of such calm detachment for years to come. Into that place, peaceful as a campus that had never known disruption (at that time and place, there were not yet significant stirrings of revolt from within against tbe penal system) I went to think about all our changes -- like, to write articles. I adapted, found my niche in the jail ecology, started writing -- and then found my attention turning inward, to observe my own behavior and what I was feeling, to ponder the details and startling ease of my co-optation into that cold context.
All my ten years of training as a super-student at the World's Greatest Multiversity had prepared me perfectly to be a model prisoner in the county jail! It was a tremendous flash, though it didn't come fully clear for a year. I mean, it's one thing to know stuff like this with your mind, and quite another to be forced to live it through in unmistakable theater.
Naturally, these notes from jail were smuggled out by the traditional trivial methods, and then mimeographed as a letter to my friends.
They locked us in mess hall again, to wait through a recount and a recount and a recount outside. Shadowboxing, the black kids singing. "Hey, sport, you're kinda crazy," said my new sidekick on the garbage crew. A Mexican kid with a sour expression, he pulled his toothbrush out and combed his moustache. You see it on most of them, that bent-over plastic handle hooked over their shirt pocket. Sideburns and beards are verboten, a moustache is all one can nurse. "Grows out all kinky if you don't keep after it," explained the kid who married a virgin. It really gave me a start, the first time I saw someone pull out their toothbrush and use it, casual as a comb through greaser hair.
"You're kinda crazy, sport," said my partner -- he does the kitchen head, I keep after the cans. "I know," I said, idly. "No ... you act kinda crazy most of the time." "Yeah, I know." "No, I really mean it, you do." "Man, I know," I said, "it's cool." "You like acid, dontcha," he stated. I cracked up and eyed him for a moment, doing that little widening motion so the pupil floats like a blue yolk in its innocent white. "Man, I was crazy before I took acid," I said, "but yeah, I do." He was the fourth one to tell me I liked acid; they all say that with the positive relief of a bird watcher hitting the right page in his manual. No one asks about grass. It's taken for granted: everyone here smokes shit on the outside (which adds to the notion that grass, at least, has no direction intrinsic in its properties and use; and that its middle-class connection with interpersonal openness, etc., is simply a product of where we are). But -- even though a number of the spades have tried acid and dug it, and some of us haven't -- LSD is taken as a kind of dividing line. We are the hippies. Even though we stalk around with books in our hands all the time, that's our identification: not college kids, nor "professor" (as it was when I used to dig ditches, that traditional tag), but hippies. No question about it. The other inmates are friendly, curious, josh us. There's a goodly amount of respect for us as a group: we have status, an identity. Hippies.
"They don't understand you guys," said the wiseacre kid who tools the mess hall truck around and jokes with the guards. "Whaddya mean?" I asked him. "Like, what went on between you'n the officer inside, it really put him uptight. He was about ready to roll you up and send you off to Greystone, thought you were some kinda fruit." We were sitting behind the mess hall, waiting for the count-clear siren. Earlier, I'd walked into the little glassed-off office in the kitchen, to get the duty officer to clear my work so I could go. Four of the mess crew were clustered around his desk. "Whaddaya want?" An antic impulse, I answered, "Love." "What?" "Love, man, and I'm happy. Also you might check out my work" He gave me a very odd look, and said to wait a bit; cleared me later without mentioning the incident, which I thought no more about till the kid brought it up.
He went on. "A lot of the officers, they don't like you guys. I mean, they're cops, you know, and you guys fought City Hall, and got away with it. Now with us, that's cool, we understand and dig you, know what I mean? But they feel you made the cops look foolish then, and a lot still have it in for you even if it was a couple years ago. They look for you to be troublemakers. And when you aren't, well, that bugs 'em too. You gotta be careful with them, they don't understand you."
But aside from not letting our books through, there's been remarkably little hard-timing. Partly this is because, almost to a man, we're easy with being here. (Today at lunch I remembered how bristling with hostility we'd been on our first visit, the night of the arrest, and we all had a good laugh at the contrast. "But," said Mario, "there were reasons then, you know, like getting dragged down stairs and all that.") But also it's because we've violated their expectations. We're open and friendly and curious. And we work hard; that counts for a lot. Garson, Lustig and Salaff are on Bakery crew, up at 4:00 in the morning; now Mario has joined them. At first the ex-service guy who runs the show was down on them, riding them. Now he treats them with open friendliness, so much so that it's getting to be a bit of a distraction. "He keeps trying to father me," says Mario. Word has leaked back from the Booking Office, Santa Rita's nerve center: he keeps talking about us. "Get me nine more like them, hell, I'll have this place so changed ... " There has been a bit of trouble: a couple of kids have wound up in the Hole for four days for refusing to work. But the work was painting Army barracks, the objection moral, rather than lazy. All in all, our stock is sound and rising. But still no books.
• • • •
Movie again. "Boy's Night Out," starring Kim Novak and her angora ass. The big attraction though is the women prisoners: herded into the balcony, they peeked at us behind the curtain: a chorus of enthusiastic catcalls, conducted by their waves. Our girls did most of the waving.
Tonight was incredible. On the left, three Scarsdale commuters and their bachelor fourth for bridge. He's tied to his mom; they, to American Suburban Wives and lives etched in the most vulgar terms. "What will the neighbors think if they see you fixing the garage door?" "They'd think we were trying to live within our income." "That's exactly what I'm trying to avoid." And, facing them, Kim Novak, post-grad researcher in sociology, doing her thesis on "Adolescent Sexual Fantasies in the Suburban Male." They meet her complete with Playboy dream apartment when they decide to pump for a joint mistress. She tapes them spilling their guts, plays Kinsey with the three shrewish wives, adroitly sidesteps fucking ("that's what a nice girl is trained to do best, Professor"), and winds up snagging the fourth after a plot sequence you can imagine. "Hey, she didn't mention money. There must be something wrong with her if she doesn't want money." In the middle of the film -- with the noise from the seats and loges crescendoing antiphonally in response to the suggestive dialogue -- they cut off the angora cleavage and wiggling stretch-pants to lecture the men on what gentlemen the other part of the compound had been the previous night, seeing the film. The air was electric.
"Rehabilitation" is the word. "It blows my mind," said Al, "the kind of flicks I go to see are The Pawnbroker, La Strada, like that ... " And here we all are, straight from Berkeley, having our noses rubbed in the middle classes' crude and deadly satires upon itself. Last Sunday night, when the girl learned her Texan was drawl veneer over Boston brass, her roommate sketched a plot for revenge, and held out the thigh-high blue-mist nightie. She reached for it as for a rifle. Annie Get Your Gun. I have seen that look in my lover's eye.
We sit around on the barracks porch at night, talking delicately about Vietnam with the eighteen-year-old Mexican kids who blow their bread customizing cars and want to marry virgins. And on that magic screen -- which has brought the refrigerator behind Missy Novak to stir aspirations and revolution in heathen lands -- flash these artful images of the constant damage we inflict upon ourselves and endure.
I have seen the scars of napalm or atomic war only in photographs; my political friends and past find in them the image of us as destroyer. But these are far away, a level of abstraction distant. Though all my conventional conscience cries out against this, I am more struck with pity and terror at the little I let myself see with different eyes of the scars on the selves I know. The napalm falls like occasional mad thunder, but our machines of self-violence are the most cunning, constant as hunger. The child in the bed is unwilling at first to believe his foot gone. I see only enough of how I am crippled to guess at how much I will not let myself see. "Movies" -- extensions of the eye and the imagination -- "are better than ever."
• • • •
Everyone's curious about Mario. "Which one he, where he, he you leader? Say man, point him out to me." Sitting around behind mess hall, waiting for the count siren to sound all-clear: a dozen of us, all but two black. They talk about Mohammed Ali, about the fighters he admires, about us. "Mario, he the leader of them hippies." "Shit, he had a million people following him, that dude. And why? Man, because he spoke freely what he thought, that's why."
• • • •
A bird flew into the garbage compound. Some wanted to kill it; three of us went in after it. One heaved a brush at it as it flew, missed. I climbed the mountain of boxed empty tins, retrieved it, jumped down. Outside someone took it gently from my hand. "Look here" -- to no one -- "here's how you hold it, see, so he free in your hand." Then chucked it into the sky, underhand and up. Away. The tension broke, and suddenly a tall black kid did a spot routine. "Ho, when he get home ... " The circle acted it out: the girl birds hanging around twittering, testing his muscles. "There they was, hundreds of ‘em, two of ‘em had me by the wings and one by the legs, oh, but I faked ‘em all out. Shit, they was all over me, man, they was gonna roast me . . . you got any idea what they smell like?" "Tell it, man, tell it . . ."
• • • •
Suppose the sun
were a ball of wax, a marble
to look through, your kneecap
detachable and comforting. What
would the officer say, trying to avoid
the slight smile on your lips?
He takes out his notebook, enters
your name with a tiny check
like the English teacher who waited to catch
you closing your eyes to hear: have
some respect, swallow that butterfly. You invented names
behind her back too, she took them away
with an extra assignment. Then
or therefore, who can guess why your nonchalant finger
pauses from writing 500 times
to trace the warmth that still lingers
like morning candy or egg
in the turn of your smile?
Rehabilitation? With a vengeance. This place is so middle-class I can't believe it. Dig: we get up at 6:15 every morning; our lights are out by 9:30, though we get till ten on Saturday, our big day. Make your bed, sweep up, keep your area clean. Or Else. I shave and shower every other day, and change clothes on the day in between. Three square meals a day perforce, nutritionally adequate and sometimes even good. (With respect to regularity, bulk and nutrition, I eat better than I do at home; Karen's mad at my spreading that about). We work five or seven days a week. No beards permitted, hair to be kept neatly trimmed. My mother would love it.
Me, I'm the Garbageman. Three times a day I keep after the mess in the mess hall, so to speak, cleaning and jerking 150-pound cans full of slop, again so to speak. "You gonna have some muscles when you get out of here, I bet, man." (The slop goes to the hog farm, where Jack is working.) "How long you in for?" asked the mess guard when I reported for assignment. "Ninety days." "What for?" "Sit-in." "Garbage." I don't know if he was for or against me: I dig the job. My hidden advantage, of course, is that I can't smell; but if I keep after the stuff, even that doesn't make much of a difference.
My day is chopped up by counts, meals at the odd hours of Messmen's schedule, and slinging garbage (which gives me two or three hours of welcome work). I am left with seven clear segments of an hour or two. Morning and afternoons I read or write; evenings now, volleyball, or an occasional game of chess or dominos. That's an idyllic picture, actually; unless I go off and hide to write, people are constantly falling on to me, and I into conversation with them -- or more often, listening and watching. I've begun mild calisthenics morning and evening (many of us and some few of the regulars go through some such counting ritual). All in all, there's much more usable freedom than I'd expected.
Taking a page from Cassius Clay, when he still used that name, I cultivate a somewhat antic air: careening down the tile corridors with an endlessly varied wail of "Gaaaaarbage,make way for de gaaaahbudge ... " like a London street-cry. And at other times, endlessly with a book and writing pad in my hand. "I'm conditioning the guards," I told the kid who asked why. If they think you slightly mad, you can get away with a lot.
• • • •
Many of us are looking on this imprisonment as our only possible live rehearsal for what draft-resistance might bring. A county jail isn't much like a federal prison, nor is a month or two like three to five years, but it's the best we can do. I have been cheered both because I adapt easily to the life and people here, and also because I've had no trouble launching and sustaining a mind-project: the essay I'm working on, about the generation gap. For the month before I came in, I was working my ass off on another manuscript: I expected to need an involuntary vacation. Instead, my desires to talk with people and to plug away on the essay are constantly fighting with each other.
Paradoxically, even as maintaining an independent mental and emotional life here is much more practical than I'd expected, the idea of spending a long time in jail becomes even less appealing. I'm not sure why. Weinberg points out that Santa Rita is more oppressive than the S.F. county jail, where he did time for Civil Rights, precisely because it's more humane, a model county jail (he likens it to the ideal socialist state). I dig what he means; it confuses me even more about doing federal time behind bars. S--, W--, a couple of others have already decided to split for Canada, though their stay here has had little impact on the decision. I have begun thinking about it, for the first time. Barely.
Visiting days are a mixed blessing, mail call also. "You have to be where you are to make it," points out Steve, "and news or touch of the outside pulls you back, between two worlds." There are other reminders, besides the papers, to keep our thoughts ambivalent. Last Sunday's flick was a WWII romance, set in Southeast Asia: jungle warfare, the whole bit. We have been well-conditioned: we cheered when Sinatra and his faithful handful of natives wiped out the Jap jungle airstrip with its planes near the end, in a sneak attack, and then penetrated the Chinese border and executed a couple of hundred captives taken there, in retaliation for their attack on the supply convoy that was supposed to support our boys. Back in the barracks, the papers describe Westmoreland's request for 140,000 more men. How many of us lay awake that night, trying to pick apart that snarl of feelings generated by the flick: exhilaration, regret, detachment, anger, and fear?
• • • •
Some word from the women's quarters filters in through the lawyers – mostly about Tina, who besides being the only one with a long sentence has a belly big as a watermelon. She went in cracking jokes about the kid getting a discount on his first sit-in sentence, for time already served. "She gets protein three times a day," said Alex to David and me, "and milk with every meal." We just sighed.
When Tina went in, the lady sergeant was shaking. Why? Rosemary and Patty had gone in a week earlier, and somehow word had sprouted that they were preparing a sit-down strike, to be triggered by Tina's arrival. She capitalized on the situation, if that's an acceptable word for a Communist, telling them coyly, in effect, treat us right and there'll be no trouble. Notwithstanding, they put her to work in the supply room, where she sees the new women as they come in. "We felt you'd be good at organizing things," the matron explained to her.
Tina gets an immense volume of mail. They let her have one letter a night, on weekdays. Yesterday her daily missive was an anonymous hate letter. She protested: that was going a bit too far. They let her trade it in on real words. Mario got a hate letter too, from New Jersey. But the censor returned it to the sender because it was written on both sides of the page, against prison rules.
Saslow has built a microscope -- an improvement on the Leeuwenhoek model, with a carefully formed drop of Karo syrup held in a thin pierced metal plate for its optics. A rock base, string, twig structure, glue, paper, pencil pulleys for focusing, tongue-depressor slide platforms, the chrome blade from a fingernail clippers as reflector. The prisoners have been very attentive and helpful, scrounging things he needs. They all agree on the one ground rule: no contraband material to be used in its construction. His first slide is onion-skin tissue, stained with beet juice to bring out cell walls and nucleii. I overheard some of them discussing it -- they use "telescope," "microscope," and "mangifying glass" indiscriminately, but no confusion results. "Mario showed him how," one said. "He smart, that dude, he the Leader."
• • • •
College kids in jail. We learn quickly the patient shuffle that the random cloddy shoes enforce, the perfect complement to the floppy prison blues we wear. "Too fast to be standing still," as the regulars say, or to be yelled at by the Man; slow enough not to raise a sweat in the skycovered roaster of Valley summer (105° yesterday). For those of us who have lived in dormitories, this en loco parentis scene is basically familiar, and -- save for the frequent recall-to-barracks-and-count, which I imagine the girls recognize -- is scarcely exaggerated. The food is better than at most college dorms. The barracks may look like Army, but the pace of our lives and the general atmosphere are much closer to the Academy.
At night, after lights-out, we visit other bunks and swap stories about backgrounds and travels, and (again like a dorm) talk a great deal about our past sexual exploits, in boastful detail, and how we wish we were getting some pussy, and what we'll do when we get it. Under the constant glare of the blue bulbs in the tall ceiling, the young spades in their corner chatter like jaybirds for hours, punctuating it with horseplay yelps. The studious long-timer sits on the john, where there's still a dim light, fighting a compound interest problem. The old drunk blows silent insomnia smoke, as Al and I crouch at the foot of Dennis' bunk listening to him tell of burglaries in Berkeley: a life of smashed windows, snatched TV sets and suits, and careening 3 A.M. chases down the quiet streets of the town we know so differently.
Still slightly sweaty from push-ups -- the silent spade across the way looked up from Richard Wright, said not to do them just before bed, didn't do no good -- we listen to the lanky kid from Tennessee dissect the lives and loves of the small California town where he was sent up for moonshining. Al knows the town and some of its people --yeah, I remember her: tall skinny girl well-hung, she was half Paiute Indian and half Scandinavia -- and is particularly tickled. "So there they was, going at it on the mountain, and him sitting down there with this fifty-power sniper scope, everyone in town come have a looksee. Whoo-eee!"
Vern, the gentle old alky who taught me to tap out the mop deftly in the morning, allowed as how if they legalized pot it would be the salvation of him and a lot of others. But Tennessee's never touched grass, "No, nor bennies nor H nor none of that stuff." We try to straighten him out on drug categories, tell him of hiking on acid at 11,000 feet and swimming on grass, balling on both; invite him to Berkeley. The door to the barracks slams open, an officer lurches through, waving his flashlight. "Bull session, huh?" We swallow our start of guilt and fear. He's only looking for someone to butcher a road-killed deer just brought in, and leaves for another barracks. The meat will grace Officers' Mess; we'll never see it.
• • • •
Bananas for lunch. The fragments will reappear tomorrow, encased in jello. Similarly, the beans will turn to soup: the principles of cooking here are few and predictable. They saunter out of the mess hall, sly pockets full of peels. "Mellow-yellow," they whisper, with a knowing wink, and later that afternoon: "Hey, hippie, what you guys know about how to fix these? There a special way or sumpin? " We are in demand for certain minor specialized functions. "Hey, what kind of complex you call it, when a guy keeps coming on like he knows everything?" Since we haven't been singled out for any special treatment -- good or bad -- by either guards or inmates, we are left to define our own identity as a group. We aren't overly clannish, though a few stick to their own devices, and with most the book or writing pad in hand has become a trade mark. Except among ourselves, we listen much more than we talk. But sometimes art or politics will flare in a tight knot for an hour on the street in front of the library, and some of our new friends or strangers will hang around the edges, curious to hear us at our own game.
• • • •
The dormitory atmosphere is partly due to the age distribution: a good half of the inmates are twenty-five or under. Many of the rest are old alkies, their numbers rise after the weekend -- you can tell them in mess-line Monday morn by their shaking hands. Most all are here for trivia: driving with a suspended license, dodging child support, burglary. A few for heavier things: slugging a cop, manslaughter. And so on: the county jail. "Shit, most of them are just kids, nothing serious," said the officer who confessed to having read Walden five times, after I complained to him that we were disappointed because we'd expected to be locked up with criminals.
There's very little sense of being among evil-doers here. The kids in the kitchen constantly mimic the "crank" (methedrine) rituals, going through the motions of tying up and shooting -- but with the same good humor with which we noisily inhale the last drag on a hand-rolled cigarette ("square"), holding the roach delicately between thumb and forefinger, and our breath by reflex. To have a candy bar and a pack disappear from my drawer came as a surprise. "Hide your stuff in your pillow," advised the queen trustee, "remember, you among thieves here."
It's hard to believe, as I lie here stripped to the waist on the beach of the volleyball court (five days in the Hole for stripping to shorts), remembering college. Sounds of argument drift from the open doors of the barracks. There are always arguments going; most discussions get there quickly, from any subject. But they seldom flare into open anger -- there's been only one fight in our first three weeks, plus a few punches quickly concealed at a flick. Al points out the high aggressive quotient, the many overlapping pecking orders: everything becomes a vehicle for proof, in this arena of constant enforced contact. Yet there's a strange lack of pressure: you are in the pecking order only if you choose to be. (None of us do.) To opt out is simple, and nobody bugs you to get back in. As in the Haight, there is much tolerance for deviant behavior. Nobody comes on -- or, rather, coming on is so clearly that, that it makes no difference.
Low-key and easy is the word. Almost everyone's out to do easy time. Those who aren't soon get on the guards' wrong side and wind up in Greystone, so overt hostility to the guards is almost completely absent.
Such action as takes place occurs as games, with the eternal humor of men-against-the-System. Two kids come furtive, zip! out of mess-hall with a twenty-pound tin of coffee under an army blanket. They post a guard at the door, split it up in the john to stash it, crush the can's carcass, hide it in the garbage. They boosted it on commission, for packs plus grass if any came through. (It is here, but pretty far under the surface.) Needles zip out of Mess Hall Clothing, to be embedded in toothbrush handles and wound with black thread, as tattooing devices. Born to Lose. Slippers disappear from Little Greystone, to be hidden under mattresses, worn at night, and turned up among protestations of innocence in occasional shakedowns. All things considered, the atmosphere is pretty familiar. As Mario points out, this place is no great shucks as a deterrent. If they'd let our women in on the weekend (as they do in Mexico and Russia), pass through our books, and make a decent cup of coffee now and then, I'd be nearly contented.
• • • •
Most of the people here are black; most who aren't are Mexican. Beyond this, discrimination is not active, though colors have a way of hanging together to chatter. The reading room, with its stock of tattered journals, has no black magazines like Ebony or Jet, nor any in Spanish. The library has a handful of books in Spanish and a double-handful of black books -- Malcolm X's autobiography being conspicuously absent -- balanced by a magnificent collection of mysteries, a fair one of science-fiction and westerns, a lot of old novels, and little else. (We are rediscovering the classics, Zola, Dostoievsky, Flaubert, mainly because these books are old and worn enough to have found their way here.)
• • • •
A week ago, a dozen of our thirty clustered to rap after every meal. Now more than four is unusual. One by one they are leaving; after this weekend, almost all the short-timers will be gone, and soon we'll be down to five, two of whom I don't so much dig. It'll be lonely. Partly for this reason, I've kept more to myself than I usually would, not wanting to build a dependence. Aside from talking with Mario -- we fall into instant intricate dialogue on any trivial or major detail -- I've spent time only with Steve and AI, neither of whom I knew before, both of whom I dig immensely. (Within a few months both will probably be out of the country to begin the long exile.) Today the mess officers offered me a new job, Leaderman of the mop crew. I blew their minds by refusing. They kept coming back to make sure I understood. "No, man, I'm comfortable at it," I told them -- not sure that they understood how one programs even days full of life into a mechanical pattern, so as to make time pass quickly and unnoticed, without disturbance.
• • • •
Behind mess hall, gathered, waiting for the all-clear, a scene. Dennis is jiving, and somehow this other kid brings in pimping, and they build a contrast. You got to have a hustle, says Dennis. Don't got one, the kid says, I can shoot a little pool, but got beat out of $20 last time I tried so can't really do that; but you really gotta work at a hustle like pimping. Big money in it, says Dennis. I pimp too, says the kid, for Ford, brings me $127 a week, she do; I drive to work and back with the heater on, don't have to get out in the rain and make them broads work. Same thing every day, says Dennis, today and tomorrow, you get home and go to bed, too tired to do anything; have a hustle, you work when you choose. Got a car but not one of them fine, fine Caddies, says the kid, and a little in the bank, about to get married, save up for a down payment on the house. A stoniness invades Dennis' face. The kid goes on, sure would like some of that money though, but I'm too strung out behind my woman to put her on the street. Get home too tired to do anything, repeats Dennis. Tha's right; this here's my vacation, two weeks, that 127 keep coming in; if I had the kinda money you make hustling I'd sure use it to bail out. "How much?" I asked. $59 or nine days he gave me, tickets, didn't have the money so here I am; I'd say to one of them broads, hey, go out and get me some money. I c'n dig it, Dennis keeps repeating, meaning I understand or you're right or I'm cool with what I'm doing or I'm hurting, depending on how you read the look in his voice.
And against this background the kid goes on. "Where I made my mistake, I learned to do something!" He's a welder, for Ford. "Got stuck in it, went in the Army, took two years at college, got an Associate of Arts degree in Criminology. Sure wish I had a hustle, still owe $33 on five suits that're almost wore out now. But when I want I can go down to the bank and say, give me some bread ... " "And they'll suck your blood," chime in Al and me, enthusiastically. We've been totally absorbed, providing a third voice about not digging work or the things money can buy; fill in the antiphony yourself. Abruptly Dennis gets up without a word, takes his milk box, moves it twenty feet away into the sun, sits down on it. The circle reforms, talk shifts to unfaithful lovers (wives). "I didn't know whether to cry or beat the shit out of the dude or beat the shit out of her." "So he asked him for $5." "Cheap." "Wait, you ain't heard what he did. He nailed the bill over thc doorway. Whenever anyone came over he'd take out his .38 and say: 'Honey, tell ‘em what that five dollars for.' And she knew he meant it, and she'd say, 'My husband caught me fucking with another man.''' They can't believe I feel the way I do about Karen seeing Denny while I'm in.
• • • •
Scarlatti this morning, over the barracks radio that shakes us from sleep each 6:15 a.m.. Like fresh water, that crystal streamflow of melody. I have forgotten what real water tastes like, I no longer notice the flat mineral-thick taste of the hydrant and bathroom streams. Only the coffee reminds me. Once a week I try a sip, recoil. And the Beatles and the Stones tonight, just before lights out. Real music: what a treat!
Usually the mornings are breakfast-club chatter and song, bright and false as yellow formica in an L.A. motel; and at evening either talk-back programs or cocktail music, denatured mush to drown us to sleep. All too loud, you never quite get used to it. Even when the radio's silent the speaker is still live, so that the Morse machine-gun of the mad telegraphist, frantically punching his key somewhere beyond the hills of Pleasanton, for the SAC, can catch your soul at any moment: unaware, floating free of your body.
For a time it was KJAZ -- good jazz twice a week, rock once, some rhythm and blues. The spades and everyone else dug it. Then mush. No explanation. Eventually they got up a petition: Can we have our music back? No -- the answer came down from the office -- because the petition was a demand, an attempt to pressure.
Well. Mood control, that's the secret to making it here. At first I was genuinely, perpetually cheerful, because I'd imagined a constant boot-camp attempt to grind us down that didn't materialize. So I made the mistake of relaxing, of letting my guard down. All of a sudden it looks like a jail with cops, and I feel somehow reassured, vigilant again. Like the food: initial hosannahs because it was edible; but now that the menu begins to repeat its weekly cycle for the fourth time, we realize that you don't need any teeth for it; that everything is full of pepper for a reason; that . . .
A chorus of groans goes up from the dark main room. The radio has just snapped off for the night, after the first bars of a good song. An inflexible rule: if the last song is slop it plays through to the end; good songs get cut in the middle. That's how this place is, no kidding. Seeing that I wasn't dismayed by the garbage detail, the mess officer started also putting me on the short line to serve in the mornings. Innocent, I asked why. "Standard practice." And suddenly I found myself promoted to the long line: an hour and a half sometimes serving food before I can eat. I got the message. Then, gratuitously or to make sure, he sent me to get my second haircut in three weeks, at the butcher-barber. I now have the shortest hair of any Anglo or Mex in the whole mess barracks. That was the guard who'd read Walden five times; I don't smile at him any more.
The blond, sallow one with the big ears and the hard voice did the pre-mail-call count last night. (Our main recreation's getting counted, at least six times a day.) He caught me with a book in my hand, Dennis with a paper, Fast Black slouching; pulled us outside; gave us what-for, with words that slapped like dominos. You will stand up straight, have nothing in your hands, five days in the Hole. I wanted to kill him. We blew it off inside, horseplay, yelling. Dennis slugged the wall, hurt his hand. Most of the guards just whiz through counting, but you can never tell when one will play ego-games like that, or get the bakery men up at 4 A.M. for the early shift by standing in the middle of the barracks and yelling their names until they dress (though their names and bunk numbers hang together on the wall by the door).
So mood control is the word. The cheap bit with the second haircut cost me two days of rage: my head was sheerly scrambled, I couldn't write a word, all those intricate lovely thoughts scattered like trout when the wind rises. I read science-fiction furiously, five books, a drug. (I remember when I was a kid, used to read that way for weeks; me and the Authority Complex have had a thing going for a long time.) Finally I pulled up to a real smile, thinking what a joke it was, to have let the Walden bit shape my expectations so deeply. The sallow-faced guard only cost me three hours; I'm learning. Mood control.
And you've got to make genuine changes. There's no burying anger, not here: it builds up and blows at any unforeseen stupid order, the place is full of them. Those who can't work the magic of transmutation on their emotions wind up in the Hole, almost to a man -- maybe that's why there's so few fights in the yard.
All yesterday the Beatles were singing, "All you need is love." I think maybe we also need less cops, no cops. I am not sure if it comes to the same thing. But people who enjoy having power over others are a stone drag, and the matter is worse when it is cloaked in a social sanction. They offered me Leaderman of the mop crew, the guards who still seem sympathetic, or at least not harassing, did. "No," I said, "I'm cool with being Garbageman" -- no one knows I can't smell -- "and besides, I don't like to be nobody's boss." Nor, but this silent, to have nobody boss over me. Benevolent or not. Not even the Beatles.
Reading this last rap, Mario is worried lest I give an unbalanced view of the guards. I don't mean to: the place is not actively vicious, just erratically petty. Yesterday I actually got some books, after three weeks trying. There's one compound officer who's overtly friendly to us -- and hides out most of the time, seems completely ineffectual in the officer pecking order. He has a good reputation with the inmates. Such is the fate of good guys here, his goodness is become an ego crutch in a losing battle: how lovely, how common, how sad. He felt guilty because I'd searched all over for him six days running, asked him each time to get an article from my box so I could revise it; took my name each time, forgot. So when I bumped into him with a note from the history teacher that okayed my getting books, he escorted me up to the front office, glaring around with a bluff protectiveness made safe by the note, and let me take out Kenniston's The Uncommitted, Friedenberg's Coming of Age in America, and Ulysses. "Ulysses," he mused, "I flunked that book once ... " His voice trailed off, lost a couple decades away. "Yeah, tough book," I responded glibly, "my chick's flippy about Joyce, been after me three years to read it, promised her I'd get through it while I was in. You know ... Gee, thanks a million for helping me get these," enthusiastically, scrammed. Not daring to meet his eyes, or ask through the excuse of literature what lies beneath his lonely and passionless decency.
The history etcetera teacher was most obliging when I showed him my book list, even though he didn't understand quite why I wanted them. He wrote me a note only the second time I saw him. "Hey, Mac," he called over to the accounting etcetera teacher, in his high piping voice, "how do you spell 'taking'? T-a-k-e-i-n-g or ... ?" Mac told him, while I stood respectfully by, and as he finished the note in his childish scrawl I looked down on his bald head, worn as the once-linen backing on the ancient texts, and thanked him very much and honestly; left him to his two occasional students; wandered toward the Front Office thinking of model jails. "It's a model jail," said the guard in the office, "known all over the state." "It's a model jail," said the old-timer in the mess hall, "why, at San Bruno you can get a steak out of Officers' Mess for a pack, and pussy now and then. And they don't hardly have no commissary."
Commissary here is run by an old codger named Dyke, who is subject to unpredictable fits of temper in which he imagines he hears talking in the line and closes it down for the day, those still on the outside being out of luck -- for he's an officer and can do what he wants to, right? A staunch free-enterpriser, he uses his store's privileged position to get merchandise discounts; there is endless speculation about into whose pockets the take goes. But he has his kind side. The twenty-seven-sheet tablet I'm writing on says 25¢ on its cover, but he lets the prisoners have it for 20¢ (and carries no larger size). All in all, it seems to be a much straighter operation than the one the old junkie doctor runs.
• • • •
Episode N: Garbageman Meets the Authority Complex
I was thinking about the haircut incident, which happened well over a week ago, while shoving garbage after dinner today. It was probably not malicious, I decided, but was meant as a sort of benign amusement. So my account of my reactions probably says a lot about my hair-trigger feelings about authority.
That being so, and me being in jail, I've decided there's a decided advantage to my college background, despite the way the high school dropouts in Officers' Mess tease me with their oranges and corned beef. For what is jail but a primitive form of the Authority Complex, cast in locks, alarums, and barbed wire? And what sort of problem does that present to a young man trained for nine years in the most Prestigious Multiversity in the land? Despite my touchiness about personal integrity, my dislike of stupid orders, and so on, I'm getting along just fine: doing easy time, an exemplary prisoner. My suntan will never pale from days spent in the Hole, and if they gave Extra-Good Time I'd get that too and be out of here the sooner. For if there's anything being in college teaches you, it's how to relate to authority -- even more than being black does, though the techniques are similar.
For here I am, the friendly Garbageman. With an antic smile and an off-key wail of "Gaaarbaage ... " (Establish a distinct but non-threatening identity.) My cleaned cans upside-down on the cart, so the imprisoned steam can puff! impressively as I upend them back in their places. (Pick a symbol of excellence in your subject; accentuate its display.) Clanging the cans with honest though unnecessary zeal, risking an occasional caution about too much noise when the officers are eating. (Be passionately dedicated to the pursuit of Truth, venture a daring hypothesis whose subtle flaw the instructor can point out.) Candidly confessing -- when nothing could be proved -- that the carbon paper found among the empty cans was mine, thrust there because I didn't know what else to do when someone I'd asked idly for a sheet brought me a sheaf, swiped from the Office. (Admit an evident mistake gracefully; show yourself open to instruction and able to profit by it.) Wheeling the cart down the hall like a madman, past others leaning indolently on their mops; cleaning up someone else's mess silently -- but in public -- every now and then. (Invite favorable comparison, but let others provide it.) Changing clothes at best every other day, and not trying too hard to kcep clean -- it goes with the role. (Be a bit of an eccentric -- you must be bright.) Hosing the whole garbage-room down on Mondays; asking innocently if this wasn't standard practice before. (Establish a minor but admirable innovation to better the System's procedures; undervalue it.) Catching the attention of the mess officer before leaving, each time, though I know his response will be a routine "Yes" which no one else bothers to get. (Let them know you care and are proud.)
I could go on, but fuck it. The truth of the matter is that I do hustle -- partly because I simply dig hustling and doing a good job, partly because being a political prisoner is or seems to be like what being a Jew and short was for my old man in situ thirty years ago. "You've got to be twice as good as anyone else to come out even," he reasoned or felt, and he may have been right, who knows? But over all this, as a surface gilding long since learned into instinct (Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, '63) is the complex of little actions, attitudes, and details that constitute my way of relating to -- "of handling" -- the Authority Complex. They are as involuntary as the deep anger, whose possible consequences they so nicely avert, even as they disguise and are fueled by that anger. I learned my lesson well, in a thorough school.
• • • •
Garbage from Above
Someone up there doesn't like us. The rules say ''business correspondence" may be of any length. So already late for a deadline, I mail out an article. Two weeks later Karen tells me, at our unreal weekly half-hour visit, that the magazine has called, mildly frantic: no manuscript. Despair, Righteous Anger, and the relieved delight of the persecuted mingle to keep me high all the next day, until at evening I'm summoned to the main office. I distribute the contraband carbon paper, paranoid copies of articles, and the segments of this not yet smuggled out (prison rules prohibit writing about the inside). Clean and curious, I trot down to the Office.
As I'd figured, that manuscript and the next one had been placed in my property box -- without notifying me, of course, which is against the rules, but so what? What prompts my being told now is a call from our lawyer. And so Sergeant Parker calls me in: to show me, stapled to the manuscripts, the note written that day by The Captain Himself, stating that nothing like this by me was allowed to be mailed out. Enjoying himself, Parker accuses me of having tried to smuggle the article out (!); tells me the Captain has His reasons, which are none of my business; and warns me that if I try to drop it or anything similar in the mailbox again, he will see that I get, not just time in the Hole, but an extra jail sentence to boot: Penal Code Section Blah-blah.
Well. I wander out stiff-faced and silent, not wanting to give him the pleasure, and back to mess hall in time to shove dinner garbage. Why, I ask my favorite officer, Santa Cop, is Sergeant Parker such a prick, such a . . . ? Sadist? he supplies. All he knows is that the Sergeant took his daughter out of Berkeley right after the "riots." I tell him the fate of the manuscript; he lays a steak sandwich on me and asks what I'm going to do. My lawyer's gung-ho to pry it out with a court order, I tell him; what do you think that would cost me? They'll put you in the Hole, he suggests, and you'll lose all your Good Time (i.e., the twenty days off my sentence which being a nice cog "earns" me). They can do that? They can do that.
It's nice to belong to a community with a unifying principle. "That's cold, man," says Frank, when I get back to barracks; and within an hour I'm offered six different routes out for the manuscript. This place is like a sieve, and all the holes open in sympathy. The guys whose stash of potato brew I arranged not to notice in its garbage incubation are delighted to do me a good turn, since, non-drinker that I am, I refused a cut of the lush. The whole incident could be set to a light opera score -- even one of the two guys I'm feuding with comes up to offer help. My paranoid carbons come in handy. The manuscript is on its way the next day, well in time for a new final deadline; and an insurance-and-insult copy follows a few days later.
The anticlimax is fitting. A week later, talking with Santa Cop about the incident, Mario and I realize that the bureaucracy may be defeatable with its own rules. For one of them states that anything in one's property box can be released to any visitor simply by filling out a Form. Sure enough, that very night I get both manuscripts released to Alex, who has dropped by to lawyer us. Parker will shit when he finds out.
• • • •
Count me to sleep, blue lights like four angels
guarding my bed in the doublebunk barracks
all night till the siren arrives to cry count,
recount, countdown the days, repeat after me
fiftyfour, fiftythree; remember your number,
the changes you see are your own, it endures,
they descend, like a line marching single file
to the barracks or chow, in orderly sequence
of domino peg or handball score
that mounts, rehearsing a circular menu
(too much pepper in your serve today),
collapses, returns in an endless lesson
to teach you not to step out of line
while you wait to be counted or count your waiting
by visiting Sundays at endless tables
as narrow as barracks and empty from touching.
Do you touch the pictures that promised touching
in letters you count at the compound gate
and compare before count comes, answer like serves
in a far competition whose rules are suspended
or made endless and simple, like the blind permutations
two and one, three and two, of the baseball game
that insists on instructing the sweating night,
three and one, two and you, while the blankets pulse
under watchful blue lights in imitation
of the touch you're surprised to forget so soon
like the proof of an absent geometry
that you counted on learning, never quite mastered,
recall, recount in the womb of the gym
where sweat remembers another motion
in your arch to push the numbered iron,
to atone with a ton on the calendar wall
in weights rising by fives, four sets of ten presses,
a month of Sundays, while sweat tickles down
like a missing touch or the blood that trickles
to earn you five days in a plastic bag
that they stamp with a number you won't remember
when you shape yourself into geometry
to be counted by fours before filing to chow
in the world of tin cup, big spoon, stamped platter
where you deal in packs for nothing that matters
and can find your own way back to the barracks
and an empty nap on your numberbunk
in the blue afternoon. Last of the seventh,
a letter sealed with the kiss of your number
flies like a bird to the volleyball court
where a nest of hands raised to answer or punish
marks time like worn clothing regathered on Thursdays
and endlessly circled in a game of losers
of no account and never quite clean.
Arc you losing your touch? By twos and by sevens
the dayballs swish through the hoop of your patience
with slight variations, leaving you nothing
but a mattress of numbers that bring no more ease
or relief than a pad of answered assignments
that no one will count, though you count your fragments
like insomnia hours, and learn to forget
what is missing, what was it? Numbernumb to the moon
which is sliced into diamonds by impassible windows
but escapes like the ghost of a recess ball,
you accept the lights and their integral blue,
the seven and four, the three, the two.
• • • •
Garbageman Reflects on the Emotions Appropriate to His Incarceration
Strolling through the litter of porkchop bones that graces the barracks yard on the rare morning after something decent and portable appears for dinner, a puzzle came clear to me. I phoned all over the country to get quotes for an article before I came here. It gave me a chance to hear some dear voices again and apologize for my absence and silence. But there was an awkward air about some of the conversations, which I only now understand.
One friend confessed shyly -- to my complete surprise, though I knew him for a long and ardent student and admirer of Gandhi and King -- that he envied me deeply and would take my place if he could: that he felt keenly as a lack in his own life never having gone to jail for his beliefs. Another friend was terribly agitated because no one was making a fuss over our finally going in, or seemed even to remember why. Somehow a proper response was absent: we, and what we meant, were unheralded, unsung. "Surely someone must say something publicly," he cried to me over the phone.
I was taken off-balance and touched by their real concern, and responded to both with the embarrassed careless callousness I so often face emotion with: toss it off, downplay it, trying badly to be gentle. My own closure is so familiar that I didn't realize till now that something else confused my response -- and what it was. One of these men is a college president; the other, usually one of the two most perceptive observers of my generation I know, was offered a presidency and refused it. I love them both; but neither can afford such romantic innocence about the contemporary young. For it is dangerous to lose track of which revolution you're watching -- especially if you'd like to help it -- or you'll find yourself responding inappropriately.
My grandfather, whose eyes were also blue, was a Bolshevik: prison and exile. And I too had certain time-honored feelings when my friends and unknown beloved peers were beaten and bail-less in Southern jails. But we are freedom trippers, not riders. And there is nothing romantic, nor inspiring, nor unduly grubby, about being this kind of a political prisoner. It is a dull and practical necessity, and should not be emulated or repeated. For FSM was a signal beacon which started much, both locally and nationally; but its message was sounded and heard, and 800 kids should never again need to choose arrest to spite an administration that doesn't deserve so much respect. The small price of our current jailing (and the $100,000 in fines) is not even a symbol, merely the tangible mark of a learning experience, a necessary experiment, to show that we should not put ourselves in the hands of the Authority Complex and its legal system, at least not in this way. We'll save our energies for ourselves. And so our own know better than to waste inappropriate or sloppy sentiment on us. Being here accrues no capital save the (considerable) writing I'm doing and insight. Grandfather or not, if I could buy out, I would.
The spades who are going to jail for the flaming cities are quite a different story, as it will be if -- no, when -- they try to frame Stokely and Rap Brown for that. And those brave kids who are choosing, quietly, calmly and without hope, four years in a federal pen rather than play the System's death-games or run out on what they know of their souls -- they are also a different story, partly because Vietnam and the spades are slices off the same overdue hunk of my grandfather's flesh. But the steadily growing pool of kids in jail across the country for grass and acid and "street-blocking" are political prisoners just as surely as we are -- I think of beautiful Michael Solomon with his black flame halo, busted in the Haight on a trumped-up charge, forty-five days, light compared to kids here doing six or nine months -- and, because they are movers in the same other revolution as we, as little deserve to be romanticized. Though this is not meant against feeling or action for the human cost involved in their imprisonment, which is considerable.
No, a new trip demands new guideposts; and jail simply is not our thing. Not that we too are not romantic -- though I think we will ultimately prove less so than our elders, because we are more willing to abandon our foothold on what we have known. But the voices on the telephone wished me well with the expectations of my own past, which will no longer serve. We cannot inherit the form of our symbols now: which leaves us nothing but trial and error to find or build them.
• • • •
Granted, I too had those nice warm feelings when we were busted, as much as did anyone; and the martyr's pride did not entirely evaporate in the disgusting tedium of that hot spring's trial. I have traded on it since, for which I somewhat dislike myself, and will again; and a residue accompanies me here, probably making jail a bit more bearable, spice in the stew of my feelings. But by far my main emotion on coming here was simple and sheer iritation: What a drag! I have better things to do with my time -- not only making love, but building what I went into Sproul Hall for and have pursued since, in forms that have changed with my understanding.
In 1960 no one could have suggested that America was beginning not one but two revolutions. Even after four years of thinking about their visible intersection, it took the FSM to begin to make me see this clearly. We lived in the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement (and an old politics) for a long time, and coming out from under it is hard -- especially when the place to which we are coming is in motion. The old visions, the familiar forms of martyrdom, are not enough to lead us on. But though I struggle uncertainly with their residue, I don't mean to put down the feelings I once had. They are simply inappropriate now. That is something I had to learn, for myself, by passing through them. My problem now, and ours, is this: to learn, by doing, what feelings and actions are appropriate to being observers and shapers of this other revolution, of which we have no choice but to be a part even as it out-distances our understanding of it.
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