Things I Learned in Prison. Part 3.
Bob made a chart once of the random wheels which sort of resembled a car chassis with a number of axles. Attached were wheels which spun, or were encumbered, independently of each other. I don’t remember the exact categories ascribed to the different pairs of wheels but each represented a different human need. I struggle sometimes to keep the wheels of love and intimacy and faith in the numinous spinning with sufficient momentum to balance others temporarily wobbly or permanently seized.
No matter how brutal my verbal abuse of the spawn is, we always seem to run about five minutes slow each morning. The turn from our hill onto the main artery Figueroa is treacherous with heavy, but not heavy enough for gridlock laws to pertain, traffic in both directions. From Fig we get on the Pasadena Freeway, through the Arroyo Seco, the quintessential Southern California paseo but narrow and with the insane death onramps. I tell the 17 year old, who has little motivation to practice his driving anyway, that he’s not to drive on this freeway which perhaps he has misinterpreted to mean that I don’t want him to drive at all. Sometimes, channeling my mother at her most inauthentic, I press my palms into a pleading position and open my eyes wide like Betty Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? so the school gatekeeper holds off on locking the entrance, and waves the tardy boys through. I remember feeling that my mother was a star and alternately being embarrassed by her. My kids picked up long ago on my hyper self consciousness and my ineffectual attempts at charm that betray my falseness.
Condemned until the 17 year old’s licensure to schlep kids far afield during rush hour, I rely on taped novels to keep me calm. Now I have 19 cds full o’ Moby Dick, one of the many great novels I have never gotten around to. It starts out with a big bang and I am entranced and actually look forward to being in the car to listen. About a third of the way through though there come some very detailed digressions pertinent to all things whale. I get that Melville’s excruciatingly detailed erudition about the remarkable beast supposedly enhances the drama and ratchets up the leviathan’s formidability as an opponent. Maybe it’s a chick thing but parts of Moby Dick are very boring.
My lack of engagement with cetacean minutiae encourages a wandering mind and several mornings I find myself overwhelmed by fears about the future and afraid that all the random wheels have lost momentum and a screeching jarring halt seems inevitable. I fantasize about magic wands and lotto jackpots. I make karma lists, not unlike the main character on My Name Is Earl who is as earnest to make right his place in the universe as he is incompetent to accomplish this. I pray but then I stop myself from praying because my prayers are selfish and self centered. Bereft of prayer, the weight of my own little circumstances foments despair. The shame of sinking into despair deepens my despair.
I lunch with a friend, also in her fifties and we lament about how shocking it is to be less well off now than we were in our thirties and maybe it’s ironic or karmic or just plain fucked up that we are also less well off than our parents were at our age. I grew up in much better financial circumstances and had more education than either of my folks. It is probably not a sign of emotional maturity to compare my circumstances to those of my parents, although while I am wallowing here anyway, I note too that I’ve got it better in many ways. I have done justice to their sacrifices even though I am still a condescending bitch who holds that their grasp of life’s essentials was shallow. Still, I would really like to win the lottery.
We head out hours before dawn for our third trip to the prison in Tehachapi. We have worked into a routine, leaving our ziplock bag of quarters, commuter mugs, snacks for the trip and black apparel, including abominable sports bra, all laid out the night before. We eat at a roadside joint with the great hash browns. There is less snow than when we were here on Christmas. The visiting center is slightly less crowded. My warmest coat was rejected last visit for being too close in color to the guard’s uniforms. I bring my second warmest coat which was on sale and is a hideous turquoise thing with enough green that I think it won’t be rejected as “too blue” but just in case I bring my third warmest jacket, a black one which, even though it was purchased for 60% off, is a pretty grave fashion error. I am desperate not to screw up this time but I mess up the entry forms. The coat is too blue and I know not to argue and go to the car and switch to the black one in which Himself says I resemble the Michelin man. It is now officially designated “the prison jacket” so at least it has a purpose and I feel less like a moron for buying the thing.
I return wearing the black jacket and the guard calls me to the desk. I remove my glasses, earrings, wedding ring and shoes, and place them with my driver’s license, single car key, and $50.00 in quarters in a wooden box. I believe each individual visitor is permitted to bring in $40.00 either in quarters or single dollar bills. The money is inspected. Rolls of quarters must be opened and wrapping materials destroyed. If any other coins besides quarters are in evidence, the visitor is instructed to return them to the car. There is a specific list of baby items which may be carried in a clear container and visitors may bring in prescription medication accompanied by a physician’s letter. The guards in the visiting area will provide tampons and sanitary napkins. During two of my visits, all of the guards in the visiting area are male. Plus, all of them are cops. The visitors represent a number of different cultures, some maybe not so predisposed to “Hey officer, I need a tampon.”
If I were wearing any clothing with pockets, I would be asked to turn them all out. My coat-- seams, pockets, sleeves--is examined carefully. I was asked once if I had anything in my mouth but not this visit. I make it through the ultra sensitive Tehachapi detector uneventfully. I am issued a green visitor pass and handed the wood box with my possessions. I replace my coat, shoes and jewelry. I present my driver’s license and visitor pass to a guard who enters the information. My hand is stamped with ultraviolet ink and I am instructed to join Himself and wait for the ancient school bus. Some families who have been visiting prisoners at Level 4 return. These visits have to be scheduled in advance, are only an hour in duration and take place through a glass partition via telephone. Some prisoner’s families may live less than an hour away but most will have to journey at least several hours for this brief non-contact visit.
After stops at levels four and one we are dropped at level two. We hold our visitor card and driver’s license in front of a camera and a guard in a tower above us triggers the gate to creak slowly open. We enter a cage, maybe 20’ by 20.’ The gate slowly closes and when it raps shut, another gate slowly begins to move and we are on the pathway to the visitor center. We present our drivers license and visitor’s cards to the guard behind a barred iron door. We wait on a vinyl couch until we are called back to the door. The officer unlocks it. We enter and are led to a numbered table in a large visiting room to wait for Alan to arrive. We are told which seat the inmate is to occupy. The tables are the height of coffee tables, I assume to discourage the passing of contraband, and far too low to eat at comfortably. Three or four guards sit laconically at the door. One works a crossword puzzle. Another, maybe after a rough Saturday night, has trouble staying awake. Alan arrives in de rigueur blue scrubs and state issued work boots. It is his forty-fifth birthday and I believe the first time in nearly twenty years that he has had visitors to mark the occasion. He has spent many birthdays in a cell or a dorm and we are happy that we can spend a few hours with him in the visiting room with Coke and candy bars instead of cake and candles.
The kids have rehearsal so it is just the two of us which means I am relegated to operate the vending machines. Prisoners are not allowed to handle money and there is a painted line on the floor surrounding the machines that they are not allowed to cross. They huddle in a small square and call out their selections to visitors. Inmates are cut off from so many of life’s pleasures that food is a huge deal which not surprisingly, is particularly resonant with me. The last visit there were some salads but they were all sold out by the time I got to the machine. We were able however to purchase for Alan the first yogurt he’d had in many years but even though our assigned table gives me superior access to the machines there is no yogurt or salad for sale. I choose quickly and pick up a beef enchilada meal which I microwave. Midway during the visit some guys with carts come in to restock the machines. I am shooed into the inmate box but I ask about the salads and am told that fresh dishes are only stocked on Saturdays so we know now, that given the importance of food, that this is the preferable day.
We are much more relaxed with Alan this third visit. It feels less weird. A few of the families play one of the board games, which along with bibles and food machines are the only source of entertainment except for human contact for a four hour visit. Today there is also a stack of catalogs from a mail order supplier of prison commissary. Inmates, using their own funds, either via persons outside or prison wages, may order from an approved vendor a package weighing no more than 30 lbs., less 30 oz. for packing material, every quarter. Descriptions include the price and equally important, weight of each item. Alan says that there is a cottage industry of inmates who charge other inmates for completing these order forms. I would need to outsource the ordering process myself because item weights are precise to a tenth of an ounce. The categories are non perishable food items, personal items, white tennis shoes, clothing and underclothing and electrical devices. Unless there is a lockdown, inmates can also use their own funds to purchase food and personal items from the on site commissary about once a week.
Electrical devices are ordered separate of the quarterly shipment. I do not know how often inmates can order appliances; I just know that they are strictly limited to three. All of these devices are specially manufactured. The machinery is clad in transparent plastic. Summers are extremely hot and the dorms and cells are not air conditioned so most inmates, who have the resources to purchase one, keep a fan. The hot pot is also a popular choice. It’s essentially a crockpot but also has a plastic strainer so it can be used to boil water and heat prepackaged prepared foods. 7” TVs in the price range of $200.00 are available, as are CD players, but I believe a maximum number of 20 CDs are permitted. There are also typewriters for sale and I presume that a manual model would not be counted as an appliance. Inmates have no access to the Internet and any computer access at all is on an extremely limited basis, mainly in classrooms. Alan is fulfilling his life long dream to learn the guitar and he must decide whether to give up fan, hotpot or television to make room for an electric one.
The catalog sports a big muscle car on the cover and nearly lurid racecar photos appear throughout. Alan notes that the car motif is sort of a cruel reminder to inmates of the things they miss but at least none of vehicles is graced by a scantily clad model. In the back of the book there are about twenty pages bearing pink borders. This is the woman’s section. Whereas men can only order underwear and sweat clothes the woman’s clothing section offers a peach or pink t-shirt, a pair of jeans, a very nunnish nightie and four of the ugliest bras I have ever seen. There are several different sorts of makeup, a few items of jewelry, sunglasses, and because apparently the men make pruno with it and the women don’t, hard candy and drink mixes that contain sugar.
Our time with Alan has now, after three visits, taken on the familiar feeling of hanging out. Visiting him has become part of our routine and there’s less a sense of urgency. We meander through the catalog, scrutinizing the food section. There are a number of ethnic selections and we discuss the potential of prison cuisine. It is comforting that the ingredients available via commissary, even in the absence of fresh items and the limitations of cooking in a cell, make for some fairly interesting culinary possibilities. I lap up any details of even the tiniest comforts that prison sanctions. I am eager to hear if he thinks current court orders to reduce the prison population might shorten the six years he has left to serve. He thinks not. I ask if in the course of his job he travels to other parts of the prison. He doesn’t. I ask if he will be transferred eventually to the less restrictive Level 1. Never, due to the violent nature of his crime. I ask about the last time he left the prison.. He was driven in a van to Bakersfield for medical tests several years ago. Bittersweet.
While I bristle, Alan is remarkably accepting of his circumstances. He was chill and making the best of it even before things improved recently as upon completing a heating and air conditioning repair certificate he is given employment on the prison maintenance crew. He is also elected to the position of dorm liaison which, although a big pain in the butt requiring much patience with men who historically don’t have the best coping skills, is a conferral of respect rare in the life of an inmate.
It is creepy how fast four hours pass. The guard returns our green permits. Inmate workers begin to sweep the floor. It is time to go. Inmates line up in front of one door and visitors in front of the other. The guard at the door checks our identification and we are led outside. It is raining. No umbrellas or head coverings non-religious in purpose are permitted. We hold our i.d. in front of the camera and wait to pass through gate, into cage, and through the other gate to the bus stop. The rain increases as we wait, only partially protected by a narrow overhang, among wives and mothers and children for the bus to arrive.
I crank up the Volvo’s heater and we stop at a ragtag farmer’s market in Tehachapi. I buy some vegetables. It rains hard until we pass though Mohave where it lets up and rainbows grace the mountains. Moby Dick drones on. Suddenly I am so extraordinarily tired that I have to pull over. Himself takes the wheel. The car glides down the highway. I fall into a deep sleep and don’t wake up until we arrive home. The kids are sprawled on the couch watching t.v. I cook the Tehachapi vegetables for dinner. We curl up on the couch under a blanket and watch the Wire in the dark. There in the warm stillness, back from prison, I hear the hum of the random wheels.