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Notes from the County Jail

On December 2, 1964, 800 Berkeley students were arrested in the big sit-in that climaxed the Free Speech Movement. Two and a half years later, the Supreme Court refused to review our case. So a number of us went to the county jail, for having (successfully) fought the university’s attempt to prohibit our advocacy on campus of actions—like burning draft cards or trying to shut down the Induction Centers or signing complicity statements or smoking pot or being black, though at the time we were thinking more of Civil Rights sit-ins—which might prove to be illegal.

These notes were written, then, during last year’s summer vacation, nine weeks in the Santa Rita Rehabilitation Center. They were written to my friends, who know their longer original form as “The Adventures of Garbageman Under the Gentle Thumb of the Authority Complex.” I wish I were certain of their relevance to the many more who are going in soon, and for far longer.

They locked us in messhall 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 mustache. You see it on most of them, that bent-over plastic handle hooked over their shirt pocket. Sideburns and beards are verboten, a mustache is all you 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 his 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 it 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. But—even though a number of the spades have tried acid and dig 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, or “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 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 messhall truck around and jokes with the guards. “Whaddaya mean?” I asked him. “Like, what went on between you’n the officer inside, it really put him up tight. 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 messhall, 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 could check 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 of 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 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, because 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 Saslow are on Bakery crew, up at 4:00 in the morning; now Mario has joined them. At first the ex-service guy who runs that 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.

* * *

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 talked about Mohammed Ali, about the fighters he admires, then about us. “Mario, he the leader of them hippies.” “Shit, he had like a million people following him, that dude. And why? Man, because he spoke freely what he thought, that why….”

A BIRD FLEW into the garbage compound. Some wanted to kill it; three of us went in. One heaved a brush 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 you 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 them, 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….”

* * *

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 10 on Saturdays (that’s 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 messhall, so to speak, cleaning and jerking 150-lb. 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 messguard when I reported. “90 days.” “What for?” “Sit-in.” “Garbage!” I still 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 criss-crossed by counts, meals at the odd hours of Messmen’s Schedule, and having to sling garbage after each regular meal (which runs me two to three hours a day of welcome work). I am left with seven clear segments of one to two hours. Mornings and afternoons I read or write; evenings now, volleyball, or an occasional game of chess or dominoes. That’s an idyllic picture, actually; unless I go off and hide to write, people are constantly falling on to me, and I into conversations with them—or, more often, listening and watching. I’ve begun mild calisthenics morning and evening (many of us, and a few of the regulars, go through some such counting ritual). All in all, there’s much more 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 gaaahbudge…,” 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’re 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 country jail isn’t much like a federal prison, nor is a month or two like three to five years, but that’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 at all in 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 to finish 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 each other.

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