Closed for the Holidays
The office is shut down due to lack of business for most of Christmas and New Year’s week and I have languished watching Office reruns on the couch with Spuds, baking and working endless jigsaw and crossword puzzles. I think I get it from my dad but whenever I am not at the office during what ordinarily would be business hours there is a bolus of tension in my gut combined with guilt and foreboding premonitions. When I return to the office, having pissed away time off, unable to shake my angst at being absent, it usually takes me about an hour to realize that my fears are exaggerated and then I berate myself for having wasted precious leisure time. I am aware of this pattern whenever the business is closed for holidays or I take a vacation but I promulgate the uneasiness about not working with insidious thoughts that maybe this time my fears will pan out as real.
Even on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah, because my dad was so contemptuous of my taking these days off, I have a twinge of guilt that I should be at the office. If I make a morning stop at the market on the way in, even if I am getting provisions for the office, I feel sheepish arriving after nine. Back from the days when business centered on films being shipped and returned, my father worked Monday through Saturday and shut the office only on the days that UPS closed shop, like Thanksgiving (BUT NOT THE FRIDAY AFTER) and Christmas. It is only on these holidays that I am completely comfortable not going into the office.
Guilt free I hit the road with Himself and Spuds hours before dawn on Christmas morning. I fumble half asleep with geeky sweats and sports bra and heavy coats. There is no traffic. My car thermometer registers 21° minutes before sunrise. The parking lot at the prison visitor’s center is crowded. Himself sees an Escalade and hisses “Drug money!” and I just let it ride, Spuds being of sufficient age to apply the “grain of salt” rule to most of what Dad says. We stow handbag and other usual appendages under blankets in the backseat and enter with our driver’s licenses, a single car key and rolls of quarters in a zip loc bag.
I have been self employed for so many years that I am unaccustomed to being subjected to authority. My natural impulse, when faced with what I perceive to be the flouting of power, is to snap into officious white lady, but in my self conscious attempts to rein this in I morph into an obsequious high pitched ninny. Not only am I tetchy with the authority thing, the prison visit ratchets this up because not only is one required to submit and acquiesce, it is to an authority that is predisposed to expect that you’re up to no good and the vibe is very much guilty until proven innocent.
We expect the entrance process for our second visit will be less crazy making but my heart starts to pound the second we are sucked into the grim room full of Christmas visitors. I have been reminded a number of times, because the dress code rules change so frequently, to just wear black, black and only black but scrambling to get ready I overlook verboten colors in outerwear and we are forced to return sweaters and jackets to the car. We are so nervous we have difficulty completing the forms and having screwed up I request a new one from an officer, apologizing way so profusely I’m surprised she didn’t slap me.
An ancient frail couple has trouble with the metal detector. The man and then the woman, sans shoes and glasses, teeter back and forth, eliciting the blaring buzz again and again. Himself is called to enter before us. He removes his shoes, wedding ring and glasses and stumbles through to wait to board the bus. Spuds and I are called twenty minutes later. I am fastidiously metal free yet the detector buzzes repeatedly. I can feel the eyes of the other impatient Christmas visitors burning into me more and more fiercely each time I pass through and the machine squawks that I’ve failed again.
They give up and Spuds and I are told wait in chairs in a passage way. We are summoned eventually into an office and I have to sign some consent forms. I am told that if I fail to pass successfully through a metal detector on subsequent visits I can be barred permanently from entering the prison again. Two female officers examine my ankles, the area apparently that triggered the detector. They pass the wand over my calves again and again and it remains silent. They say that sometimes the metal detector gives a false reading and that it may have to do with my size. This is curious because as far as American women go, I am of slightly below average weight. This is not to say that average size isn’t pretty friggin’ huge because we have become a nation of big fat pigs but regardless, you’d think the machine would be calibrated to conform with what statistics indicate is the norm.
We are passed through to the bus waiting area. Himself is not there and I do not like to think of him riding the bus by himself, bereft of dark blue sweater that looks black in dark. The old couple that experienced their own troubles with the metal detector hobble in and collapse onto the hard plastic chairs. The guard at the desk tells a string of deadpan jokes, like Santa leaving nothing but bags of coal for the likes of who you’re visiting but between the lines he thanks us for sacrificing this Christmas to prison. I laugh all out of proportion. I am the only one laughing until I poke Spuds and he dutifully summons the most forceful chortle he can manage, jacketless on a cold morning.
The bus wends around from Level 4 to our level 2 destination. A guard tower looms over two electric gates that separate the carriageway from the visiting room. Driver’s License and visiting permit are passed beneath a camera. The old couple wear thin coats. Fifteen minutes pass before the guard in the tower activates the gate. He calls through his microphone, “You come all the way from Utah” and the old man and woman nod and feebly wave.
We turn in our permit at the door of the visiting center. We see our penpal Alan, already seated at a table and engaged in conversation with Himself. We sit on a bench and wait to be called. The people across from me speak in Spanish about various Indian gambling resorts. An extended family of folks Himself says evoke Flannery O’Connor characters, worn inside out and back again, saunter in, passing to the guard a medical note indicating that Granny needs seating at a higher than regulation table.
We are finally admitted and led to join Alan and Himself at our assigned table. Next to us an ashen bald Cholo prays and reads the bible fervently with a sturdy older woman. Bibles,in English and Spanish and a selection of board games, including half a dozen unopened Scrabble sets are all that are provided for diversion. One family engages in a game of Monopoly the whole visit but my occasional glimpse registers sad faces and not much gameful mirth. The room fills up until most of the tables are taken. Visitors are permitted a single kiss and hug at the start and again at the end of a visit, an embrace even more big and sad a thing to witness on Christmas morning.
Across from us, is a diminutive young man, perhaps of Filipino or other Pacific Island descent. We remember him from our last visit because he is the only one of a group who did not fit on the departure bus as everyone has to be seated and no one can stand for the quarter mile ride to the exit. I feel bad for him as I watch him alone on the curb as we drive off. He is visiting a dissolute John Carradine sort with long stringy gray hair. He is the only inmate in the center wearing a prison issued denim jacket. I suspect some infirmity has rendered him particularly vulnerable to the cold and he is granted special medical permission to wear it. The pair, like on our last visit, sit silently together. The old couple from Utah, looking remarkably less fatigued, sit with a young man, perhaps a grandson. He is ruddy and robust and their conversation is continuous and animated and all three of them look as happy as can be.
The doors to an underloved grassy expanse are opened and many leave the room to walk around in a circle. The sun has come out and in a couple hours the day has gone from bitterly cold to pleasantly warm. Fathers wrestle and run with tiny girls in Christmas dresses and boys with slick backed hair. The coveted spot that fills immediately is a cement wall where couples sit side by side on the ground, and although a guard stares directly at them, it feels more intimate than sitting across a Formica table.
Most visitors don’t partake of bibles and board games and all that’s left to fill the time between those two fraught kisses is conversation and food from the vending machines. All three of my penpals reinforce to me how important food is to prison life and the machines offer items that are not part of the regular institutional diet. We manage to score yogurt, which Alan hasn’t eaten in thirteen years, and some melon and a chicken teriyaki meal for him. Spuds and I inhale a box of Mike ‘N Ikes, and Sunchips, barely sharing with Alan, while the abstemious Himself stares at the dwindling bag of quarters in disbelief. It has taken us nearly three months to schedule this four hour visit and Alan struggles between sporking down food better than he’s used to and availing himself of the rare opportunity to converse and commune. He is at a loss to decide whether to chew or to talk.
The drive to Tehachapi offers a somber beauty somehow befitting our final destination, a gray dystopia resting at the foot of imposing mountains where six thousand men fester in a space designed to hold 3000. Being physically inside a prison disturbingly transfigures the notion or metaphor of prison into a unspeakably hard and punishing real place. The two and half hours spent being evaluated for suitability to enter are so dehumanizing and jarring that before I can shake it off, the actual visit with Alan is close to over. It is not so much the the endurance of the entry process, as addled as this makes me, it is the knowing that when we return to the empty open road, our friend Alan faces many more years in this environment and the other two inmates I write to will face it until they die. I expect our second visit to be more chill but it is harder. Several additional months of Alan’s letters have given me more of a picture of life under constant and often mean spirited or mercurial authority and exactly what he goes through to insure that the decades he spends in prison are intellectually and spiritually productive.
Our visiting passes are returned to us. The inmates line up across the hall from us as we file out to board the bus. I wonder where the other visitors will have their Christmas dinners. I try to imagine how the inmates feel as they return to dorms and cells and a world of steel and uniforms. Does a four hour visit with friends from outside make an inmate ultimately feel more full or does the conclusion of the visiting time and return to the drudgery of prison life render him even more bereft and empty?
We return to L.A. in silence and make our way back home. We change into less embarrassing clothes and make our way to Chinatown. All of the restaurants are jammed and when our usual suspects have lines around the block we settle on a newer place. We wait nearly an hour and seeing how thinly spread the staff is I expect a mediocre meal. Maybe it gets to me that I can eat wherever and whatever I want, but the meal is sort of mindblowingly excellent. I savor every bite, hoping that at least savoring my own freedom nurtures my compassion for those less blessed. At the risk of slavering too much over spiritual writer Jay Michaelson, one of his recent columns in the Forward noted an imperative to afflict the comfortable and to comfort the afflicted. I will add how important it is to keep in mind how, despite work panic, how firmly ensconced I am in the comfortable category. Not taking my comfort for granted does nothing for friends locked away to molder but it would be disrespectful to their experiences not to keep my fears and fortunes in perspective.
I tread the treadmill watching a French film. My housekeeper of over thirty years, whose hours have been slashed but I haven’t the heart to let go entirely, is obese and her vision is failing. I wish I could buy her a little house in a pretty place with a yard and some chickens which I think would make her happy. Instead I am able to throw her a day of work and leftovers from meals I intentionally cook in large quantities. I push myself to three miles on the treadmill, squinting to read subtitles. She lumbers up the stairs with a huge bale of laundry. What must she think of me?
I am terrified of the tiny Filipino women who works long shifts caring for my mother. I visit only once a week and if there is something good on the old movie channel I can manage to stay about a half an hour. Once or twice a week I have to stop by and deliver prescriptions before work and she asks me if I want to come in and visit Mom and I , lying sort of, and claiming I need to get to work, do not cross the threshold. I dread this ten second interaction so much that I wake Spuds and bribe him with a restaurant breakfast. He delivers the medication to my mother’s caregiver. I stay in the car. What must she think of me?
I write to three different prisoners about once a week. I want them to know that I remember them but my letters just babble on about domestic trivia and maybe they seem weird or ridiculous and they write back having not much better to do or out of politeness. Probably though the housekeeper and the lady at the board and care and the prisoners have better things to think about than my mental heath or character.
I have always worried that I am not doing the right thing. My inbred reaction is to feel fraudulent and guilty that the first day of this new year will probably be spent on the eau de dog couch watching t.v. and working puzzles. Himself will sit with his laptop and write and surf and read to us his most interesting findings. The seventeen year old makes only brief pit stops but at least will proffer television recommendations. Spuds will loll with me under a blanket and snack and light incense when the dogs fart but soon he too will be gone more oft than home. There will be no gainful work nor comfort for the afflicted. But UPS is closed.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year.