Friday, August 28, 2009



Aquarius (January 20 - February 18)
Others will look to you for advice today because you have a pretty optimistic picture of what is ahead. It's not that you are in denial; it's just that you choose not to feed the old paradigm of living in fear. In the final analysis, your words will have the greatest impact now if you can keep your positive spin while presenting both sides of an issue.

The Palomino tent trailer is back in Glendale and as is typical, my family presented me with no tiara upon my completion of ten loads of laundry. It is hot and the air is filled with smoke from fires in the Angeles Forest. It is weird to fold quilts, and sweatshirts and jackets and if I’d known what I was returning to, I might have savored the cool Northern California air more than I did. The summer of ’09 is grinding to a halt. The economy was supposed to be much better by now but by most indicators, it is worse. Michael Jackson is dead and now Ted Kennedy too. Both did the legacy dance in the public eye and they are among the few who can be called, without hyperbole, American icons.

Despite my horoscope, for the last few days, facing my life and the world with optimism has been a challenge. I am weary of treading water and juggling bills at the office. An old friend and competitor suddenly closed the doors of his library and walked away. There are other friendly competitors I would chat up on the phone once in a while but I have stopped calling them because these conversations are too depressing.

The kids go back to school in a week and are alternatively gloopy and urgently trying to suck the last bit of fun from these sizzling smoldering days. Soon I will make lunches and drive in traffic for an hour each morning. Spuds will be attending the same charter school as his brother and I worry that while the administration is well intentioned, they are in over their heads, spread thin and making it up as they go along, to use three clichés right in a row. It is a mixed blessing that most of the teachers from last year are not returning. I hope that from among the enormous array of qualified secondary teachers who received layoff notices, the administration of our little charter school has chosen replacements wisely.

We spend three days in Mount Hermon with Bob and Chris and leave them with only a modicum of structural damage. Chris, after banishing all witnesses, backs the Palomino up a rocky dirt road with the expertise of a seasoned trucker. Faced with drastic cutbacks, running the largest adult education program in the country has been heart wrenching for Bob. He is as personally invested and gratified by his work as anyone I have ever known and every cancelled class and laid off teacher is a huge kick in the gut.

Himself receives his Fall schedule, and is relegated to late evening and early morning classes of remedial English. Despite promises otherwise, his request to attend two conferences he’s been invited to present scholarly papers at, has been denied. He writes an eloquent single page letter requesting the reconsideration of this decision. The letter is returned to him by the president of the university demanding it be resubmitted in bullet points, like a Letterman list of the top ten reasons you should spring for these conferences. .

A bill which encompasses some substantive humane reforms to California Corrections passed in the state senate but seems doomed in the house, due to law and order Republicans and wussy Democrats who are up for re-election and don’t think they can afford to be seen as soft on crime. The bill is being watered down in attempts to get some version of it approved. It is expected that important provisions for releasing elderly and terminally ill inmates to house arrest and the creation of an impartial, independent sentencing commission will be eliminated.

I have been reading a blog written by my former employee Jamie Madrid, called Swimming in the Sea that is My Family,, a sadly beautiful snippet of cyberspace. Jamie worked for me about a dozen years ago and she will correct me if my memories are a bit off, but I recall that during this time she became pregnant and planned a quickie marriage to her boyfriend, a Marine. This prompted me, with my usual sensitivity, to rename her Shotgun. They are still married and have three kids. He left the Marines nine years ago, I glean because Jamie wanted him home more. They live in a small town in Northern California and after both are laid off from their jobs, economic Armageddon leaves both of them unable to find steady employment.

Jamie states that Dustin is a proud soldier but I suspect that if their financial circumstances were better, he wouldn’t attempt to reenlist in the Marines. Despite his many years of service and experience, he is rejected because his daughter’s name is tattooed on his neck above the collar line. If I have my choice, neither of my children will tattoo his neck but this seems like a stupid assed reason to reject someone who is experienced, mature and willing to go. I will add, that given my druthers, my children would also not enlist in the Marines, so this has nothing to do with my dislike of conspicuous tattoos. The Marine’s loss is the Army’s gain. Dustin’s signed on the line and will leave for training in November. Jamie suspects she’ll end up in Germany on a base with the kids but really isn’t sure of their eventual destination. The only certainty is that she will endure long stretches without her partner. She is cleaning and throwing out and packing up and has enrolled her kids for home schooling. She writes with extraordinary equanimity about change, enormous and unknown. I am touched by Dustin’s desire to serve our country but he has already served well and it makes me sad that a combination of obscene fiscal malfeasance and our country’s commitment to so many wars, has forced young patriotic families to make choices like this. I know Jamie’s sweet open spirit will make it a wonderful adventure and I hope that God keeps them all safe.

Rover’s day centers on his 10 a.m. walk but it is so hot that he is eager to return to the office and flake out on the linoleum. It is trash day and redolent and a few woebegone people trudge up the streets with shopping carts rummaging through other people’s garbage for recyclables. A large group of Hispanic Jehovah’s Witnesses turn the corner. They are dressed business professional, the women in skirts and pantyhose and the men, hair slicked down, in suitcoats and ties. Many carry black umbrellas as protection from the scalding sun and most clutch copies of “The Watchtower” and “Awake!” in a plastic folder close to breast. Like the Mormons and millenarian Evangelical Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses endure blazing heat and chafing hosiery and doors slammed in their faces with rage and derision for their fervent belief that God wants them to. We call through the screen door politely that we are not interested when they timidly approach our own door having made the dogs go ballistic. Their object is to convert as many souls as possible, before inevitable Armageddon, to guarantee eternal life in the warm embrace of a loving deity. Perhaps the indignities and discomfort they suffer is worth it, to know with sureness, that there exists a God who will end the suffering of the righteous.

There is shriveled black man with snow white hair, wearing filthy clothing, strewn on the concrete in front of the Rite Aid. He is clutching a Cup ‘O Noodles. His body is heaving in what could be a seizure and from a distance he appears to be frothing at the mouth. I approach though and see that it is not effluvia but long strands of noodles hanging from his lips and he is not seizing because he continues to mutter the word “fuck” as he sprawls there shaking and flinging noodles. There are about 300,000 homeless people in Los Angeles and it is estimated that about 25% are mentally ill. Reagan era mental health reforms and cuts mean that homeless people in need of psychiatric intervention usually end up in the criminal justice system, which lacks the necessary resources for treatment. Inevitably, incarceration exacerbates mental illness. Customers walk around him and pretend not to see. The drugstore security guard stands within the air-conditioned threshold, occasionally glancing out at the gyrating noodle man. I force myself not to look away but take no more responsibility than asking the guard if the police have been called. He affirms that they have, but adds, with a shrug, “They never come.” If I believed in the second coming would it be easier to witness degradation like this in the now?

A variety of cinema verite prison shows accumulates on the DVR but often lately when I go to watch them, it turns out that MSNBC has reprogrammed a Michael Jackson interview. I catch bits and pieces of it over the last month and am intrigued/repulsed by the astounding ickiness of all things Michael Jackson. I watch also, though by choice, a documentary about Ted Kennedy who had an even larger than life family than Jackson and who also veered far off course a number of times. I think Jackson was a substantial musical talent but was more famous for acting out on the tragedy that was his childhood for all to see. Ted, for the enormous weight of being born Kennedy, and a number of public humiliations, never renounced his commitment to public service for the peace of battling his demons in private. My accomplishments will never be headline news, but at least my fuck ups won’t be either.

The office toddles along as the week winds down. An ex-employee brings us an angel food cake and a basket of berries and a current one, a big batch of tacos from one of the best trucks in East L.A. We sit together for lunch everyday and always manage by Friday to have eked out enough orders to keep the lights on.

The new school year is about to begin, It is impossible for our boys to attend a school as good as the ones Himself and I attended. Nevertheless, they live in a house full of books and sometimes, when we are having Shabbat dinner or are fast forwarding through commercials on the DVR, we talk with them about ideas and beliefs and while I do wish there were better learning institutions available to them, and for millions of other kids, their substance and curiosity is palpable and the universe is their classroom.

My beloved scholar is relegated to four sections of dumbbell English and a colleague proclaimed that this is a waste of his talents. Given that this is at an institution led by a man who is either unwilling or unable to read a brief letter and demands Cliff’s Notes, I am sure there will be huge classes full of drooling, barely literate, militant book haters. Yet, I know of no one more qualified to reach out to a kid branded dumbbell and light the first spark. Most of these students will never pick up Shakespeare or Joyce but if one or two are able to find a bit of pleasure in reading a story or feel the satisfaction of having written an effective, cogent paragraph, then my overeducated beloved’s talents will still be underutilized, but not wasted.

Bob, the other stellar educator in my life, is probably making Sophie’s choice many times each day as the cuts get deeper and deeper. A comforting ray of hope is a special program to get high school dropouts back into the educational system that he is coordinating. This is an enormous challenge and the conventional wisdom has yielded dismal results again and again. The missing quotient I think is empathy and as much as I admire Bob’s experience and professionalism and work ethic, I think that this is his greatest gift. I am excited about what he will make of this program and happy for all who will partake of it.

Legislation to overhaul our corrections system faces obstacles born of political cynicism and self interest. It does seem possible though that in the next few weeks the house might at least approve legislation to reinstate the policy of taking time off prison sentences for good behavior and participation and rehabilitative and educational programs and also a reworking of the ass backwards parole system. At present, a sensible reclassification of certain felony property crimes, like receiving stolen property, to misdemeanor status also remains part of the bill. Legislation to create an independent sentencing commission, which was politicked out of the current incarnation, might be proposed later in the year and perhaps this will also include provisions to release infirm and elderly prisoners from overcrowded, ill-equipped prisons to house arrest.

Jamie is scaling down and getting ready to mobilize a house of five. She discards remnants of childhood and family artifacts without mercy as she prepares for the journey. The rubbish bin grows fuller but the words roil and flow, God or no God, this is our legacy, righteous and optimistic.

Friday, August 21, 2009


A red truck is backing a pop up trailer into a campsite as I write this. Several folks are calling and waving their arms as attempts are made to position the trailer onto a campsite. Our own Palomino is backed very nicely into our driveway for us by a gentleman named Horace who has hauled hundreds of trailers. Horace resides now in Long Beach after, he reports having lived in a multitude of other places. He spots us attempting to detach the Palomino and roll it across the road unto our campsite. I am certain in the nanosecond when our eyes meet that he is witnessing the single most hilarious thing he has ever seen in his life. He registers my terror stricken face and musters a self discipline honed by a lifetime of driving big trucks cross country. He does not laugh at us. He gets grease all over his hands and we have no paper towels available and there are none in the bathroom. I offer him a Starbucks napkin I find in my car upon which I have blotted lipstick. A few hours later the Palomino, is erected, pretty much just by me, Himself and the kids and we are scarfing down a pretty good dinner. Horace passes by with his wife. They smile and Horace says warmly, “well it seems like you have adjusted to camping.” Himself reports back to me, with excitement, after having crossed the road to snoop, that the newly arrived popup trailer is real tricked out and seems to even have air conditioning.

We are sitting now before a fire thinking about making dinner. Spuds is at work on a crossword puzzle. The 16 year old naps in a tent that he and his brother have assembled themselves. Himself reads a selection from a heavy bag of books. I have to look on the laptop calender to determine the day and date. The Palomino is sort of a pain in the ass but it is very pleasant to sleep bundled under quilts behind a screen high in the middle of the cool forest. Critters skitter in the night and distribute the contents of our garbage over the site. Birds sing and squawk and the toilet flushes in the bathroom across the road.

The Palomino has a propane stove with three burners that don’t get very hot. It has no running water but there is a toy refrigerator and lots of cunning little storage spots. It is amazing what the small box that we hauled with trepidation and two bicycles mounted on the roof unfolds into. We have the clothing, food and equipment we thought we would need for a week in two ice chests, a plastic bin, one small tent, my car and the Palomino. Advanced yoga maneuvers are required to retrieve and replace items in the Palomino. Much time is spent looking for, buying, loaning and borrowing things. The campground bathrooms are quite clean and very close by but the toilet paper is not of premium grade and is difficult to remove from the roll. No soap is provided. A quite warm shower is a quarter and it is three quarters for a shower with hair washing for me and a single quarter for Himself. The kids, based on their appearance and aroma, seem to have used no quarters at all.

Much of camping revolves around things we do not have and walking around the campsite looking at popup trailers and coveting other people’s camping gear. There are dish washing sinks, ovens, all manner of shelves, and chairs that fold up into a rectangular handbag and open to be comfortable and armed and cupholdered. I am charmed by big sturdy looking stuff that folds up into unimaginably tiny reticules. I witness the inflation of a mattress thicker than the one I sleep on at home that comes with a pump that indicates it should be charged every three months, even if not in use. Camping is a lifetime commitment. Many of our fellow campers offer samples of pancakes and cinnamon rolls and tamale pie, and serve libations while we stroll the camp to ogle their gear. We walk around the campsite scribbling notes about what campsite we would like for next year. Factors, in addition to beauty, include proximity to bathrooms and campstore, and quality of showers.

I am escorted to an unmarked road off Hwy One towards Pfeiffer Beach to a wildly painted hippie house, an acutely observed film set, to purchase wood. The wood is arrayed in cartons in the front yard. The price and a Christian fish symbol are hand printed on each box. A sign requests that money for the wood be pushed under the kitchen door. The proprietor himself, a man called Noel, meets us though and he is jocular about the weather.

The store in the center of the park containing over two hundred campsites offers three electrical outlets for charging. I arrive with dead cellphone and depleted laptop to find a twelve year old suspiciously guarding the outlet while Ipods charge. The shop does not sell coffee and has a bare bones inventory of convenience foods at exorbitant prices. Pricey wi fi is available and there are tables between the laundry area and the store. Campers congregate here, washing, charging, accessing the Internet and patronizing the shop. There is amiable banter and sometimes someone plays the guitar. It is pleasant but not conducive to productive work. A special effects designer speaks via cellphone to his workshop back in Los Angeles about a photo he’s been Blackberried and instructs his assistant that the finger is lacking gore and that it needs to look more like it was hit with a sledge hammer. He recommends practice with cherry tomatoes.

My friend Diana is marooned in Massachusetts much of the summer while her father, in hospice, rallies or declines from day to day. The August camping trip to Big Sur is sacrosanct for many of the families since its inception. No one can agree on the exact first year but well corroborated facts substantiate at least 16. College students fly home to attend and now even college graduates take time off work to make the trek. We are but a few summers away from having grandchildren toddling about. Diana and her family arrive only to hear the news that her father has passed on and they return home immediately. It is impossible to wish at times like these. It is impossible not to. At least with the finality the weight of that is lifted.

Mimi Pond lost her pistol of a gal mom Janet recently. There was no protracted suffering and Mimi says that as she watched her mother die she thought about my mother. My mother is serene and blank when I visit usually but her caretakers report that she calls for me in the night and also for her long dead brother and my father from whom she has been divorced over 45 years and whose ashes I flung from the Space Needle. I think a lot about how she would have react if she knew what she’d be reduced to. I look at Mimi’s tribute to her mom, a stalwart book lover and library volunteer, see the perfection of it and wonder what sort of tribute I would pay to mine. All I can think of is rolling a grain of sand between my thumb and my forefinger.

Many of the families are very athletic and take all day hikes and kayak and other things that require wetsuits and other athletic apparatus that I cannot identify. I borrow Spud’s bike briefly and would borrow it again, even though it is scary to ride on the bumpy dirt path, but I am accused of messing up the seat. Otherwise I sit at the store online keeping tabs on the office, read old New Yorkers and nap and eat. I spend more time napping than strolling and have given up on ever getting my ass over to the yoga class. The kids run in packs to the gorge or hike or just hang out at the campsites with either good food or no adult supervision. The adults eat late dinners and chat and drink around the fire.

A group of moms assemble at a campfire and drink wine and make s’mores and I smoke a single cigarette. We recall our secret lives as teens and wonder what is really happening down on the girl’s campsite. One daughter has moved into a seedy part of Oakland. A son has purchased a motorcycle. There is constant terror. What’s left of my mother is worn away a bit more every time I see her but always when I leave after my weekly visit to run some errands, from which I promise to return to her very soon, she says, “Be careful.”

We have adjusted to camping and can even see ourselves with a little Palomino of our own. I write this now on our last day in Big Sur in the cool morning as the campground begins to come to life. There is the scent of fires and bacon and the toilets flush in more and more rapid succession. I have built a weak fire by myself and I sit in garden gnome pajamas and an ancient torn robe. Today we will give away our leftover food and fold up the Palomino. I hope someone will help us hitch it to the car. I spend weeks pouring over lists and planning our first camping expedition. We eat well. I do not hike or do yoga or kayak but I see people I’ve known for many years hair down. It takes weeks of preparation for this journey north. Breaking camp and loading up the Palomino is an involved project and camping, despite naps and magazines, is not the most restful vacation that we’ve had. I long for a long soak in the tub and the clean sheets on a bed that doesn’t require gymnastic skills to crawl into. I want to burn every garment in the boys’ duffle bag. Yet, it seems a certainty that the August Big Sur Camp out will be on our annual schedule for years to come.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Fool's Golden State

Fool’s Golden State

I see a dead cat while walking Rover. A live black one dashes in front of my car. I cut my hand practicing connecting a trailer hitch to my car. Portents of doom. The Murphys are going camping. I am inches away from buying a pack of cigarettes. Two years ago I camped, as a guest, at Big Sur for two nights at the annual Silverlake and adjacent extravaganza. I brought several very good pies from Cambria as leverage and took shameless advantage of my fellow campers. I did very little but eat their food. Plus, one of my sprats relieved himself indiscriminately close to the campsite and ruffled our hostess’s feathers. I took no interest in fire starting, tent erecting or campground dish washing routine and by making myself scarce in the face of these chores, I find myself now in a dilemma. I have run a business for so long that it is hard for me surrender control and faced with camping, I feel completely helpless. I hate to ask for assistance, particularly in this situation where it impinges on someone else’s vacation. Himself has had even less camping experience than I have and is not a man given to using tools or assembling things or backing up trailers or starting campfires and I worry about what efforts to survive in such a foreign environment will do to our marriage. I am afraid we will get so uptight that we will have a big fight in front of people. It concerns me that the “in front of people” aspect is more upsetting to me than the “big fight” part.

My previous Big Sur trip was the best of times (the beauty, the yoga, the good food) and the worst of times (the dirt, the three a.m. grope to the bathroom, the struggle to put on pants from inside a tent). I am in a state of great agitation at the planning of this adventure and wake up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat with visions of our friends’ pop up tent plummeting off a cliff. Himself makes references to Lucille Ball in the Long Long Trailer. I watch videos on You Tube: attaching a tent trailer to a hitch, backing up a tent trailer, setting up a tent trailer, until I am frenzied. I pour through camping books. All of the information I suck up just makes it seem more complicated and labor intensive. There is no cell phone service. I will have to traipse to the camp store and sit on a concrete bench several times a day to stay in touch with the office via Internet. Plus fires, meals, clean up and inevitably laundry.

I have three camping books from the library as well as Excel spreadsheets with my girlfriend’s list and also some camping lists I printed from the Internet. I go through all the lists item by item to compile my own, which when completed is very long. I want to be a good camper. I want to be self sufficient and not have to borrow or pester anyone. I feel enormous pressure to have everything perfect, and it feels like the relaxation I am desperate for seems contingent on that. I want to back the tent trailer easily into the campsite and assemble it as seamlessly as the lady in the sped up You.Tube video. I am vain and soft and daffy but I would love to wear a lumberjack shirt and wield an axe and assemble one of those campfires where a single match struck results in a perfect, ready for marshmallows blaze. I have expressed sorrow at my parents’ Jewish self hatred but I find myself lately coveting attributes I tend to associate with WASPS.

I am plotting the theft from a burger joint of little packets of ketchup to take camping while the Reception Center at the California Institution for men in Chino erupts into a riot and 250 inmates are injured. Experts warned in 2007 that the Chino conditions made for a “serious disturbance waiting to happen.” The facility is designed to house 3000 men but prior to the riot, housed 5900.

A panel of judges ruled that California must reduce our 150,000 inmate population by 42,000 over the next two years. This doesn’t sit well in a state that fought in the Supreme Court for the constitutional right to condemn a shoplifter to a 25 years to life sentence. Articles about the riot on the internet have comments from posters like, “These people are animals and should be treated as such,” and “Just pump in Sarin.” CCPOA, the California Correctional Peace Officer Association, one of the most powerful lobbying unions in the state, suggests that California limit medical services to inmates to the MediCal level. It also, recommends quite inexplicably, as a cost saver, the filling of 500 to 1000 vacancies for corrections officers. While purely self interested, the United Teacher’s of Los Angeles website at least gives lip service to quality education. The CCPOA site however makes no concessions at all and fails to address anything pertinent to rehabilitation or California’s shameful rate of recidivism, which is the worst in the country.

California Corrections faces a 1.2 billion dollar cutback and CCPOA is in a froth about this “slash and burn.” The Organization of California Police Chiefs however approves a plan to address the cutbacks that would ultimately lead to a more humane and less overcrowded corrections system. One cost saver would be the allocation of parole supervision. Currently parole officers are spread thin and there is a “one size fits all” protocol. A more sensible approach would be to customize the level of supervision based on an individual parolee’s likelihood of recidivism.

Also in the interest of not squandering corrections resources on convicts who pose no risk to society, the plan suggests the release of the sick, aged and terminally ill prisoners to house detention or care facilities. Likewise, non-violent mentally ill and drug addicted convicts would be placed in appropriate treatment. Since the enactment of Three Strikes, inmates have lost most of the incentive for sentence reduction and have little motivation to participate in rehabilitation programs. It is recommended that an independent sentencing commission be established to address issues like these and report to the legislature. I hope that this commission is indeed established and that its members are not swayed by self interested lobbying. I hope that this committee has the courage to really face how broken and cruel the current system is and to pose some humane and practical solutions

Bruce Lisker is released from Mule Creek State Prison, where one of my penpals is incarcerated. Lisker, like me, came from Sherman Oaks and at age seventeen, like me, took drugs and argued with his mom. When she was murdered he was accused and found guilty of the crime and has served 26 years, since he was 17 years old, in prison. I read a long piece about the Lisker case in the LA Times in 2005. Presuming it was well fact checked, it made a more than compelling case for Bruce’s innocence. It would seem logical that based on this evidence, which was withheld at his trial, his case would be reviewed and he would be released from prison immediately, but it dragged on through the courts for what must have been four more excruciating years for Lisker.

Himself has written about Jarvis Jay Masters who has been on Death Row at San Quentin since 1990 for the 1985 murder of guard. Masters has studied Buddhism in prison and is the author of several books. The evidence of his involvement in the murder is extremely specious. But, as in the Lisker case, the wheels grind slowly and Jarvis will have served twenty years on Death Row before his evidentiary hearing which, even though it seems clear that he most likely had little or nothing to do with the murder, isn’t scheduled until September of 2010.

I have mixed feelings about my children’s letter writing workshop. There are too few sessions and the literacy center dropped the ball on publicizing it and enrollment is disappointing. The workshop pairs kids with adult writers and they exchange letters as penpals for four weeks. The final session is a party where the kids get to meet the writers in person. Writing is hard for these kids but it seems they’re inspired by the letters that come just for them in the mail. The writers all note how wonderful it is to receive painstakingly written letters in a child’s hand. I am sad when the workshop ends because these kids have such a long way to go with written English that I don’t seem to have accomplished much. I tell them that they can continue writing their adult penpals but I doubt they will. I receive a note from one of the writers and she reports, that her penpal, Oscar, one of the kids who had the most difficulty imagining the most simple of sentences, has mailed her a letter. Oscar, without me standing over him, prodding and begging and wheedling, wrote a letter. Suddenly it is worth all of the energy and imagination I put into designing the class.

Our criminal justice system, like our corrections, is in a deplorable state and like corrections, not high on the priority list for an overhaul because, despite egregious examples, like Bruce Lisker, most people think that these systems exist only to punish bad guys. California has eliminated much of the health coverage we provided for poor children. Obama’s health plan may be doomed to fail because when it comes down to it, most citizens are already insured or eligible for Medicare and apparently really don’t give a shit about people who are not. People without school age children generally don’t care much about education.

The hitch is on the car. I’ve done the Costco run. I am tying up odds and ends at the office. I receive a letter from Alan, my penpal in Tehachapi. Since the Chino riots, all three of my inmate penpals report days of lockdown. Alan wishes me a good trip and says, “Just for me, the thought of the sight and smell of a campfire brings a tear to my eye because I love the outdoors so much.” I am still terrified about this camping thing but I love the thought of my kids running like filthy savages through the forest for a week without computers and cellphones and television. I am manacled to the office via Internet but lack of business forced a friend and main competitor to close suddenly this week, so I am thankful to have an office to be manacled to. As much as I fret now about being thrust into such a different milieu and the possibility of domestic distress, while my penpals endure stultifying lockdowns, there will be sunsets and waterfalls and, yes, campfires.

California is in shambles. I am the world’s biggest control freak but I cannot fix the educational system so that it turns out literate, better educated, self disciplined kids who stay out of jail. I cannot bust up the unions, which at one time protected workers from exploitation but now seem to have the state in a stranglehold. I cannot instill compassion in the smugly insured for those unable to afford medical treatment. I cannot make our justice system more just or our corrections system more corrective. And I probably will be unable to back up a trailer. But, powerless against the forces of nature and a trailer full of camping implements, I can take my little family out of the city for a few days and savor the time with them. We may have left important items off the camping list. We may squabble but in Big Sur, we can’t avoid the beauty that’s California and the reminder that it’s worth fixing.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Tehachapi Loop

The Tehachapi Loop

I sleep poorly the night before we drive to the California Correctional Institute to visit Alan, my penpal via the Jewish group Aleph. The kids are nervous but curious. They are also concerned about passing several hours talking with a stranger, a prisoner no less, without electronic entertainment or reading matter, or even a pencil to stave off boredom. I visited the women’s prison at Frontera over a decade ago but my memories of the visitor entry procedure are hazy and I presume the rules will be stricter at a men’s facility. I finally fall asleep only to wake up at 6:00 a.m., the time I’d planned to depart on the two hour journey.

I’ve read the visitor policy manual and also e-mailed back and forth with the wife of another prisoner who my penpal put me in touch with. We are advised to wear nothing containing any metal whatsoever so I don sports bra, blouse with plastic buttons and skirt with elastic waistband. Himself appears in public for the first time in his life in sweatpants. Spuds has lots of gym shorts but the 16 year old, having experienced a freakish growth spurt, reports at 6:10, after having advised me otherwise and with confidence, the night before, that he has nothing suitable to wear. I fling clothing around maniacally and find an old pair of sweats that don’t cover his ankles and assure him of the unlikelihood of meeting anyone he knows.

Originally Tehachapi was the site of a female facility, dedicated in 1933. It is referred to with a snarl in a number of films including The Maltese Falcon and Double Indemnity. It was deemed too dangerous after a 1952 earthquake weakened the foundation and its 400 inmates were transferred to Frontera. A new men’s prison was erected in 1954 and now the facility sprawls over 1650 acres. There was a big expansion in 1985 and medium and maximum security sections were added.

We drive through the cool summer morning from Los Angeles to Kern County through wind turbines and gentle hills, which explode with lupine and poppies in the spring. We pass through Mojave and a huge graveyard of airplanes, some obsolete, some from defunct airlines and others simply parked there cheaply while carriers wait for the economy to improve and travel to resume as normal. A train rumbles down a mountain toward the Tehachapi Loop, a helix, where the track passes over itself, designed to lessen the angle of the grade.

Breakfast is at an old apple warehouse that has been converted into a countrystyle restaurant of the sort that would be happily habituated by life size cabbage patch dolls. We are motley and the kids examine the clothing of the other diners to determine which folks are also prison bound. I rush them through an overpriced lackluster meal. Due to budget cuts, Friday visiting days have been eliminated. I worry about large crowds and being turned away from the institution, which, while designed to house 2700 men, now houses nearly 6000.

Purse, Blackberry, Ipods and even the remote for the car alarm are packed in a Trader Joe’s bag and concealed under the seat, just in case the guards and firepower in the tower directly overlooking our car proves lax or inadequate. We enter the visitor’s center with a ziploc full of quarters, our driver’s licenses, original copies of the boys’ birth certificates, our visitor approval letters and a single car key.
We fill out the visitor forms and a swine flu survey which asks if we have a fever or sore throat, which if I did, like most people who have driven many miles to the middle of nowhere, I would have lied about. In retrospect and grateful that we are all the picture of health, it would be shitheaded, no matter how many miles we’d driven, to enter a facility that is so densely overcrowded while posing any risk of contamination. Medical services available in California prisons have been to be found in violation of the 8th amendment against cruel and unusual punishment. I hope that anyone who is feverish or sore of throat stays home and writes a long letter.

All of the signs at the visitor center are handwritten in a childish scrawl on scraps of cardboard. There are collages of crudely cut fashion photos, illustrating what is o.k. to wear and what is verboten. I know about blue and denim garments, but I notice first thing that gray sweats, like the 16 year old is wearing are on the not o.k. chart. I actually remember this from reading twenty pages of visiting protocol but in the rush to get out the door after oversleeping, I focus only on denim and blue and metal.

We plan that if the 16 year old is rejected for sweatpants, Spuds and I will enter and Himself will take the 16 year old some eight miles back into the town to purchase appropriate attire and return. The room is crowded. We are later than we’d planned. My heart is pounding. Some women of girth are bemoaning the lack of sport’s bras available in plus sizes. One portly woman confesses to wearing a bathing suit under her clothing. Those less resourceful full bosomed visitors are taken to a private room to endure strip search by a female corrections officer.

Three inmates are marched through the visitor’s center carrying mesh bags with their belongings. Family members are waiting. Three men are released from prison, and despite knowing the enormous rate of recidivism, watching these men walk into the arms of weeping family members is one of the most beautiful things I think I will ever see. Plus I wonder what they had to eat.

I am called to the desk. I have filled out the entry form without including my maiden name which appears on my driver’s license run together with Murphy. This became such an unpronounceable unwieldy mouthful that I jettisoned it years ago. This puts me and the kids, who are on my entry pass, back at the end of a long line. Himself is called before we are and made to deposit his shoes, wedding ring and glasses in a wooden box. I know how poor his vision is and how helpless he feels without his glasses. I watch him stumble through the metal detector and realize that as much as I whine about his table manners, he puts up with a lot of shit being married to me.

Himself is passed into a waiting area, where we cannot see him, to wait for the bus to the visiting room. I am now panicked that if the gray sweats are rejected, we will have no way to communicate that to him. I see a number of visitors sent away for various garment infractions. Finally my name is called but it is only to make photocopies of the sprat’s birth certificates after which I am told that I must return the originals to the car. I start to send the 16 year old on this errand to get it completed more quickly and am admonished by the officer that neither minor can be unaccompanied even for a moment so all three of us return to the car with the birth certificates. Back at the window, our visitor approval forms are thrust back at us. “You can’t take these in.” ”I thought we HAD to have them.” He tries to get us to make another trip back to the car while Himself must be fretting about our whereabouts but finally I ascertain that now that we are in the approved visitor system we will have no further use for the physical forms to visit the prison and I allow the officer to shred them.

I remove my watch and earrings and glasses and we put them, with our shoes, into a wooden box and pass, uneventfully through the metal detector, gray sweats and all. Himself is relieved until our green entry pass goes missing. We miss another bus to the visiting area while the guards search for it. It is finally found, our i.d.s are checked and our hands are stamped and passed under an infrared light. We board an ancient school bus.

A woman in an abaya and head scarf and her preteen daughter in a pink shorts set get off at the Level Four visiting area. This is the highest security level. A fit grandmother type in matching cropped capris and a colorful t-shirt disembarks at the lower security Level I and seems almost haughty about it. The driver announces Level II and we hop off. We flash our driver’s licenses and visitor passes in front of a camera and a gate slides open and then we repeat the process at another gate. We present our passes and licenses to the guard at the locked barred door to the visiting room. After a few minutes we are called up and the metal door is unlocked. A sweet faced inmate/worker with a tear drop tattoo asks if we have picture ducats, but alas we failed to buy them at the visitor center and so our visit will not be documented by photo. He seems sorry for us and guides us to our assigned table, gallantly pulling out my chair.

The large room is filled with numbered tables with plastic bags of quarters and vending machine items in various stages of consumption. At each sits, with his visitors, an inmate in bright blue scrubs emblazoned “California Prisoner.” We wait while my penpal is summoned from the yard. We watch brisk commerce in Coke (only sugar free is available within the prison because the real thing is used to make liquor) and candy and shelf stable microwavable sandwiches.

The inmates are not allowed direct access to the vending machines, nor can they handle money. No physical contact with visitors, except for a hello and a goodbye kiss or handshake, is permitted either. An exception is that fathers may hold their children. There are kids being hugged and kissed and swung and piggybacked in a fierce effort to cram months and months of love into a brief visit.

Alan, my penpal arrives. He recognizes us immediately because I have sent him a number of photos. He sent me only one picture of himself, a visiting room photo with his wife from a number of years ago. In the photo he looks surprised and sad and weary and I detected a hardness that would probably naturally evolve after years of incarceration.

I would not have recognized the real man based on this photo. His face is soft and his eyes are clear and have light in them. He looks younger than he is, attractive and robust. I remember from my visits years ago to Frontera how intense and satisfying it is to sit around a table and do nothing but talk for four hours. I worry the kids will go postal but they sit enrapt, only rising occasionally to visit the vending machines. They nearly drop dead in shock when I tell them they can get whatever they want, but when in Rome…I am in a daze the first few minutes, trying to synthesize the real person with the old photo and a thick sheaf of handwritten letters. My children, so obviously the spawn of a Jewish mother, are disappointed that Alan refuses to order anything but a Coke with our huge bag of quarters.

Alan intuits what the children want to know and over the course of four hours, he meanders through his story unsparingly but with a number of digressions. I am naked without my purse and keep reaching around the back of my chair for it. I realize how reliant I am on breath mints, eye drops and lipstick. Here I am stripped of all my props/ritual objects and poured into a flimsy bra. Alan shows us his Jewish tattoos and tells us about hitchhiking by himself across the country when he was not much older than Spuds. We talk about our mother’s boyfriends and family money weirdness and we share strange secrets.

Tehachapi employs about 2000 people as custody or support staff. The guards sit congregated at the door of the visiting room, glowering and ushering visitors through the locked door to use the bathroom. Occasionally one rises, lumbers over and meditates at the vending machine before choosing something that inevitably contains the USDA recommended amount of salt, fat and sugar for a whole week. Apparently fitness requirements for corrections officers are not enforced like they are for police. Alan discreetly points out a three hundred pounder waddling to the machine for a bag of chips and whispers, “I really trust that he’s gonna protect me in a riot.” I ask an officer if I need to accompany Spuds to the bathroom and the response is about 100% more officious than necessary. I return to the table and whisper to Alan, “Some of the guards are dicks,” and he smiles and shrugs.

Twice during the visit a guard shouts out “bathroom break” and inmates line up and one by one are escorted to the bathroom. Due to the decrease in visiting hours, some visitors are kicked out early to make room for others. The machines are refilled with chips and soda and sandwiches and a long line forms. The kids note someone eating at an adjacent table a product called “Riblets.” There is little fresh produce served at the prison except elderly mushy apples. The occasional arrival of a shipment of Fujis is a big event. Efforts to have inmates garden on the vast acreage of the facility have failed because prisoners hide weapons in plots of vegetables.

Alan misses a lot of things but he admitted that in some weird way the prison milieu has allowed him to step outside and examine the movie frame by frame and question some of the things he’d believed unquestioningly. He’s completed two college degrees and vocational studies with flying colors. He has studied Judaism. He is a stalwart husband and father to a family who is also being punished for his actions, which of course exacerbates his own punishment. He says wistfully that he misses dogs and tells us how some inmates, desperate to love another living thing, have tamed wild squirrels as pets, despite the fact there is a genuine risk of bubonic plague in the area.

I lobbied last blog for blogging to count as serious writing. I print this blog and send it to Alan every week. He shares it with other inmates and says my writing comforts them and they are glad to know that someone on the outside is concerned about their welfare. I take this over The New Yorker or literary prizes or stellar reviews. With this, my blog lobbying is done and the time I’ve spent, ever since I could hold a pencil, struggling with words, has led to one of the most satisfying accomplishments of my life. Not that I’d turn up my nose at a MacArthur grant.

The time flies as quickly as any time I have ever known. We say so much and only reveal how much more there is to say. Our entry passes are returned to us. I want to keep on talking but an announcement is shouted that visiting time is over. A kiss. A handshake. A toddler pried from Daddy’s lap. The visitors line up on one side of the room to be herded to the bus. The inmates form a bright blue line against the opposite wall and begin to remove their shoes in preparation for the search that will precede their return to a world where everyone wears a uniform.

We pass our entry permits and i.d.s in front of the camera. The gate slides open. I wait in line for the bus with a woman who has driven all night from Sacramento for a brief visit. She clutches a photo of herself and her boyfriend posed against a naïve mural of Disney characters someone thought would make the visiting room more kid friendly. I am sad to have no photo but soon we will return to the hard plastic chairs, at least less intimidated by the entry process and savvy enough to pre-purchase photo ducats, to continue the conversation.

We pass our hand under the ultraviolet light and surrender our visitor passes. We return to the car and I have the sensation of having been punished and get a palpable sense of how the sea of uniforms and barked orders and institutional food could crush the strongest spirit. We are homeward bound, where if someone speaks to me like the guard in the visiting room did, I can respond with cutting pissiness. Beyond the airplane graveyard is the Space Shuttle landing strip. Some hurtle into the heavens. Some heal their own broken souls from within the depths of hell on earth. The indomitable human spirit.

Shabbat Shalom