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Notes from the County Jail

Paradoxically, even as maintaining an independent mental and emotional life here is much more practical than I’d expected, the idea of spending a long time in jail becomes even less appealing. I’m not sure why. Weinberg points out that Santa Rita is oppressive precisely because it’s relatively humane, a model county jail (he likens it to the ideal socialist state). I dig what he means; it confuses me even more about doing federal time, behind bars. S—, W—, a couple of others have already decided to split for Canada; their stay here has had little impact on that decision. I have begun thinking about it seriously, for the first time. Barely.

Visiting days are a mixed blessing, mail call also. “You have to be where you are to make it,” points out Steve, “and news or touch of the outside pulls you back, between two worlds.” There are other reminders, besides the papers, to keep our thoughts ambivalent. Last Sunday’s flick was a World War II romance, set in S.E. Asia: jungle warfare, the whole bit. We have been well-conditioned: we cheered when Sinatra and his faithful handful of natives wiped out the Jap jungle airstrip with its planes near the end, in a sneak attack, and then penetrated the Chinese border and executed a couple of hundred captives taken there, in retaliation for their attack on the supply convoy that was supposed to support our boys. Back in the barracks, the papers describe Westmoreland’s request for 140,000 more men. How many of us lay awake that night, trying to pick apart that snarl of feelings generated by the flick: exhilaration, regret, detachment, anger, and fear?

* * *

Saslow has built a microscope: an improvement on the Leeuwenhoek model, with a carefully formed drop of Karo syrup held in a pierced thin metal plate for its optics. A rock, string, twigs, glue, paper, pencil pulleys for focusing, tongue-depressor slide platforms, the chrome blade from fingernail clippers as reflector, etc. The prisoners have been very attentive and helpful, scrounging things he needs. They all agree on the one ground rule: no constraband material to be used in its construction. His first slide is onion-skin tissue, stained with beet-juice to bring out cell walls and nuclei. I overheard some of them discussing it—they use “telescope,” “microscope” and magnifying-glass” indiscriminately, but no confusion results. “Mario showed him how,” said one, “he smart, that dude, he the leader.”

* * *

College kids in jail. We learn quickly the patient shuffle that the random cloddy shoes enforce, the perfect complement to the floppy prison blues we wear. “Too fast to be standing still,” as one inmate put it, or to be yelled at by The Man; slow enough not to raise a sweat in the sky-covered roaster of Valley summer. For those of us who have lived in dormitories, this in loco parentis scene is basically familar, and—save for the frequent recall-to-barracks-and-count, which I imagine the girls recognize—scarcely exaggerated. The food, in fact, is better than that at most college dorms. The barracks scene may look like Army; but the pace of our lives and the general atmosphere are much closer to the Academy.

AT NIGHT, after lights-out, we visit other bunks and swap stories about back-grounds and travels, and—again like a college dorm—talk a great deal about our past sexual exploits, in boastful detail, and how we wish we were getting some pussy, and what we’ll do when we get it. Under the constant glare of the blue bulbs in the tall ceiling, the young spades in their corner chatter like jaybirds for hours, punctuating it occasionally with horseplay yelps. The quiet longtimer from the end of the barracks sits on the john with the light on, fighting a compound interest problem. The old drunk blows silent insomnia smoke, as Al and I crouch at the foot of Dennis’s bunk listening to him tell of burglaries in Berkeley: a life of smashed windows, snatched TV sets and suits, and careening 3 A.M. chases down the quiet streets of the city we know so differently.

Still slightly sweaty from pushups—the silent spade across the way looked up from Richard Wright, said not to do them just before bed, didn’t do no good—we listen to the lanky kid from Tennessee dissect the lives and loves of the small California town where he was sent up for moonshining. Al, knowing the town and some of its citizens—yeah, I remember her, tall skinny girl well-hung, she was half Piyute Indian and half Scandinavian—is particularly tickled. “So there they was, going at it on the mountain, and him sitting down there with this fifty-power sniper scope, everyone in town come have a looksee. Whoo-ee!” Vern, the gentle old alky who taught me to tap out the mop deftly in the morning, allowed as how if they legalized pot it would be the salvation of him and a lot of others. But Tennessee’s never touched grass, “no, nor bennies nor H nor none of that stuff.” We try to straighten him out on drug catagories, tell him of hiking on acid at 11,000 feet and swimming on grass, balling on both; invite him to Berkeley. The door to the barracks slams open and an officer lurches through with flashlight waving—“Bull session. uh?” We swallow our start of guilt and fear. He’s looking for someone to butcher a deer just brought in, leaves for another barracks. This morning the carcass hangs behind the messhall, someone is at it. The meat will grace officer’s mess, we’ll never see it.

Bananas for lunch. Their fragments will reappear the next day, encased in jello as the beans turn to soup: the principles of cooking here are few and predictable. They saunter out of the messhall, sly pockets full of peels: “mellow-yellow” they whisper, with a knowing wink. Later that afternoon: “hey, hippie, what you guys know about how to fix these? there a special way or sumpin?” We are in demand for certain minor specialized functions: “hey, what kind of complex you call it when a guy keeps coming on like he knows everything?” Since we haven’t been singled out for any special kind of treatment—good or bad—by the guards (or inmates), we are left to define our own identity as a group. We aren’t overly clannish, though a few stick to their own devices and with most the book or writing-pad in hand has become a near trademark. Except among ourselves, we listen much more than we talk—though sometimes art or politics will flare in a tight knot for an hour on the street in front of the library, and some of our new friends or strangers will hang around the edges, curious to hear us at our own game.

The dormitory atmosphere of the place is partly due to the age-distribution: a good half of the inmates are twenty-five or under (many of the rest are old alkies: their numbers rise after the weekend, you can tell them in messline Monday morning by their shaking hands). Most of them are here for trivia: driving with a suspended license, dodging child support, burglary. A few for heavier things: manslaughter, slugging a cop, and so on: the county jail. “Shit, most of them are just kids, nothing serious,” said the officer who confessed to having read Walden five times, after I complained to him that we were disappointed because we’d expected to be locked up with criminals.

THERE IS very little sense of being among criminals here. The kids in the kitchen constantly mimic the “crank” (methedrine) rituals, going through the motions of tying up and shooting—but with exactly the same good humor with which we noisily inhale the last drag on a handrolled cigarette (“square”), holding the roach delicately between thumb and forefinger. To have a candybar and a pack disappear from my drawer came as a surprise. “Hide your stuff in your pillow,” advised the queen trusty, “remember, you among thieves here.”

It’s hard to believe, as I lie here stripped to the waist on the beach of the volleyball court (five days in the Hole for stripping to shorts), Sounds of argument drift from the open doors of the barracks. There are always arguments going—most discussions get there quickly, on any subject—but they seldom flare into real anger. Al points out the high aggressive quotient, the many overlapping pecking orders: everything becomes a vehicle for proof, in this arena of constant enforced contact. Yet strangely, there is no pressure: and much of that appearance is deceptive. You are in the pecking order only if you choose to be. (None of us does.) To opt out is simple, and nobody bugs you to get in. And so organized or permanent competition is totally absent. There is no barracks chess champ, no constant volleyball team, scant interest in the ping-pong table.

Low key and easy is the word. Almost everyone’s out to do easy time—those who aren’t soon get on the guards’ wrong side and wind up in Greystone. (But generally, hostility between guards and inmates is almost completely absent; and there has been only one fight that I know of in our first three weeks, plus a few punches quickly concealed after a flick.) Such action as takes place is lined with good humor, mostly: the eternal games of men-against-the-System. Two kids come furtive, zip! out of the messhall, with a twenty-pound tin of coffee under an army blanket. Guard at the barracks gate, they split it up in the john into paper bags to stash it, and crushed the cans carcass, hid it in the garbage. They boosted it on commission, so to speak: for packs (of cigarettes, the standard currency) plus grass if it came through. (There is grass here, but it’s pretty far under the surface.) Needles zip out of messhall clothing, to be embedded in toothbrush handles and wound with black thread, as a tattooing device. Slippers disappear from Little Greystone, to be hidden under mattresses, worn at night, and turned up among protestations of innocence in occasional shakedowns. All things considered, the atmosphere is pretty familiar. As Mario points out, this place is no great shucks as a deterrent. If they’d let our women in on the weekend—as they do in Mexico and Russia—pass through our books and make a decent cup of coffee now and then, I’d be nearly contented.

* * *

Most of the people here are black; and of the remainder, most are Mexican. There seems to be no active discrimination, though colors have a way of hanging together to chatter. The reading room, with its stock of tattered journals, has no black magazines like Ebony or Jet, nor any in Spanish; the library has a handful of books in Spanish and a double handful of black books—Malcolm X’s autobiography being conspicuously absent—balanced by a magnificent collection of mysteries, a fair one of science-fiction and westerns, a lot of old novels, and little else. (Our boys are rediscovering the classics—Zola, Dostoevsky, Flaubert—mainly because the books are old and worn enough to have found their way here.) As in the Haight-A., there is much tolerance for deviant behavior. Nobody comes on—or, rather, coming on is so clearly that, that it makes no difference.

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