Thursday, January 29, 2015

Consider the Lobster

This is being written on a Thursday. Tomorrow, my usual writing day, I will be driving to the Bay Area to visit the Ai Wei Wei exhibit at Alcatraz. This is not my first trip to Alcatraz but it is my third prison museum visit in the last couple months. I learn that there is another in Angola, Louisiana which is now added to the list. My writing time is shortened as I prepare for a day off work and also because I am busy photocopying a writ of habeus corpus for one of the inmate pen-pals I was assigned by a Jewish agency. I am down to two prisoners now. George died last year in San Diego. It took me about a month and a call to the prison ombudsman's office in Sacramento to verify this. Then my cards and letters began to trickle back stamped “Inactive.”

Today's project is on behalf of Jim, incarcerated in the same San Diego facility where George expired. Jim is my least favorite of the three. There isn't much one can do on behalf of an inmate but he often requests stamps and magazine subscriptions and isn't all that appreciative when I oblige. I guess Miss Manners isn't in residence in the Donavan Correctional Facility. Writing to Jim is a commitment I took on and really has nothing to do with whether I like him or not or my own feelings. There is nothing to be gained in getting a man sentenced to die in prison to send thank-you notes.

Jim won't win any congeniality awards but despite the huge improvements purported to have been made in the California Corrections medical services, Jim is being fucked over. He is 58 and suffers from mycenia gravis as well as a number of other health problems, including cataracts. He is confined to a wheelchair. During the eight years that I've written to him I can see that his penmanship suffers more and more as his vision declines. The writ I xerox for him is about 125 pages. It is full of medical notes, including numerous recommendations from the prison optometrist that he receive cataract surgery. Three times he has been sent, shackled, in a prison van, from San Diego to Riverside for the procedure and three times he arrives and is told that the paperwork isn't in order and he is returned to San Diego. I have issues with Jim's veracity but the medical records certainly support this. He also says that on one trip the guard drove through Burger King and sucked down a burger in front of him but there is nothing in the writ to verify this.

The 125 page attempt to force the cataract surgery is mailed in duplicate to San Diego County court and another copy is mailed to the warden. Since most of our work at the office is digital, we have a rinky dink copying machine and it takes me most of the day to copy and collate. I expect no thanks but I do hope the guy gets the surgery before he goes completely and irreparably blind.

Spuds has returned to Bard. The night before he leaves we meet Joe College and Girlfriend-in-law in Rowland Heights (sort of mid-way between L.A. and Redlands) for a big Chinese feed. Our temple membership has lapsed and for the first time I can remember we don't attend services for the High Holy Days. In many ways Spuds' Israel Birthright experience backfired as the Palestinian situation certainly conflicts with the Jewish tenants of social justice.   Even my penpal thing has devolved away from Jewishness. The penpal program is under the aegis of a sweet elderly couple in New Zealand and as it is such a tiny project, they function autonomously from the larger Aleph organization. The umbrella entity has refused to provide religious literature or ritual items to my inmates because they are unable to prove their “Jewishness.” Specious Judaism is indeed endemic in the prison community because there is a myth that Kosher food is superior to the regular offerings. This is a big fallacy as the kosher provisions are all shelf stable, brown and chewy. Anyway, it bugs me that Alelph makes prisoners jump through hoops in order to receive a Torah or yarmulke.

For the most part, the Jewish chaplaincy in the prison system is a joke too. Most of the rabbis are Lubavitcher and won't travel to conduct sabbath or high holiday services. They earn about 70k a year and from the reports I've heard, are seldom at the prisons and when they are, their only purpose is to interrogate prisoners who claim to be Jewish in order to quality for kosher meals. As so much of the satisfaction of living a Jewish life is gleaned from community it seems rather pointless to encourage inmates to strive for it.

So, the only remnant in the formerly quite Jewish household of Casamurphy is that we light shabbat candles, albeit hurriedly, and we don't eat pork or shellfish. I have abstained for so long that I don't even question my rationale. We wait for an hour and a half at the joint in Rowland Heights. We order and the waiter is mystified that we don't ask for lobster, which is what the place is famous for. I glance at Girlfriend-in-law and she looks sad. “Do you want lobster?” I ask. She perks up and the boys, never having tried it, excitedly agree. Spuds, I believe has never eaten any form of shellfish. I'm pretty sure that Joe College has indulged in shrimp and am certain that he is a regular imbiber of pork. Once while he is helping at the office, two pizzas are delivered, a vegetarian and a pepperoni. Joe College grabs a slice of the pepperoni and I raise my eyebrows. “I'll take it off,” he promises. He peels the pepperoni slices off and creates a neat stack which he pops into his mouth.

Tiny Girlfriend-in-law is actually a very impressive eater but when the enormous lobster arrives at the table I know that it beyond her realm of possibility and my kids dig in. I even taste a piece myself for old time's sake. It's good but, even though my long abstinence is no longer really grounded in anything, I feel so weird eating it. Himself doesn't touch the flesh but picks at the onion garnish. The kids gnaw and struggle to wrest the meat from the shells. We ask for several more supplies of napkins as grease and juice drip down their faces.

I am questioning things I never thought I'd question. Growing up only a generation removed from the Holocaust and meeting people in the neighborhood with concentration camp tattoos there was an implicit mandate to BE Jewish and replenish the Six Million. Without going all Christopher Hitchens, it is clear now that this sense of religious superiority and entitlement is perhaps the greatest force of evil in the world.  The fervor to BE Jewish, or Christian or Muslim or whatever, at the exclusion of all else,  foments a lot of very bad things. Given how we've drifted, it is likely that my children will not have Jewish partners and any grandchildren I have will be raised only very nominally Jewish, if at all. This thought would probably have bothered me when the kids were born but now it doesn't matter much to me what they eat or how they pray. Maybe succumbing to my own disillusionment has done them a disservice. In many ways, the secular world is harder to navigate. There are no strictures about what to eat or what to believe. My hope is for a world that evolves to a place where people don't have to BE anything but good. But I still don't think I'll eat lobster.

Illustration-Charles Collins "Lobster on a Delft Dish"  


John L. Murphy / "FionnchĂș" said...

Among the intermarried, which are now over 70% of at least "liberal" Jews, about 1/3 raise their children Jewish, and among those, a very small number marry Jewish partners. So, it looks as if the Orthodox will soon win the numbers game outside Israel. It looks as if everyone else must be reconciled to this diminution. Unless they find hot hookups via Birthright that lead to a ketubah. Shabbat shalom. xxx me

Rosemary said...

So thought provoking Layne, one of your best essays ever.