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Notes from the County Jail

A week ago, a dozen of our thirty clustered rapping after every meal. Now more than four in a knot is unusual. One by one they are leaving; after this weekend, almost all of the short-timers will be gone, and a week later we’ll be down to five, two of whom I dislike. It’ll be a bit lonely. Partly for this reason, I’ve kept more to myself than I usually would, not wanting to build a dependence. Aside from talking with Mario—we fall into instant intricate dialogue on any trivial or major detail—I’ve spent time only with S—and W—, neither of whom I knew before and both of whom I dig immensely. (Within a few months both will probably be out of the country to begin the long exile.) Today the mess officers offered me a new job, leaderman of the mop crew. I blew their minds by refusing—they kept coming back out to make sure I understood. “No, man, I’m comfortable at it,” I told them—not sure that they understood how one programs even days full of life into a mechanical pattern, so as to make the time pass quickly and unnoticed, without disturbance.

* * *

Behind messhall, gathered waiting for the all-clear, a gem of a scene. Dennis is jiving, and somehow this other kid brings in pimping, and they build a contrast. You got to have a hustle, says Dennis. Don’t got one, the kid says; can shoot a little pool, but got beat out of $20 last time I tried so can’t really do that; but you really gotta work at a hustle like pimping. Big money in it, says Dennis. I pimp too, says the kid, for Ford. It bring me $127 a week, she do; I drive to work and back with the heater on, don’t have to get out in the rain and make them broads work. Same thing every day, says Dennis, today and tomorrow, you get home and go to bed, too tired to do anything: you hustle, you c’n work when you choose. Got a car but not one of them fine, fine Caddies, says the kid, and a little in the bank, about to get married, save up for a down payment on a house. A stoniness invades Dennis’s face; the kid goes on, sure would like some of that money, though, but I’m too strung out behind my woman to put her on the street. Get home too tired to do anything, repeats Dennis. That’s right; this here’s my vacation, two weeks, that 127 keep coming in; if I had the kinda money you make hustling I’d sure use it to bail out. How much? I asked. $59 or 9 days he gave me, tickets, didn’t have the money so here I am; I’d say to one of them broads, hey, go out and get me the money. I c’n dig it, Dennis keeps repeating, meaning I understand or you’re right or I’m cool with what I’m doing or I’m hurting, depending on how you read the look in his voice; and against this background the kid goes on. “Where I made my mistake, I learned to do something”—he’s a welder for Ford—“got stuck in it, went in the army, took two years at school, got an Associate of Arts degree in Criminology; sure wish I had a hustle, still owe $300 on 5 suits that’ve almost wore out now; but when I want I can go down to the bank and say, ‘give me some bread….”’ “And they’ll suck your blood,” chime in Al and me, enthusiastically. We’ve been listening with total absorption, providing a running third voice about not digging work or the things money can buy; fill in the antiphony yourself. Abruptly, at some point—precisely when doesn’t matter—Dennis gets up without a word, takes his milk box, moves it twenty feet away into the sun, sits down on it. The circle reforms, talk shifts to unfaithful lovers (wives). “I didn’t know whether to cry or beat the shit out of the dude or beat the shit out of her.” “So she asked him for five dollars.” “Cheap.” “Wait, you ain’t heard what he did. He nailed the bill over the doorway. Whenever anyone came over he’d take out his .38 and say: ‘Honey, tell’em what that five dollars for.’ And she knew he meant it, and she’d say, ‘my husband caught me fucking with another man.”’

* * *

Scarlatti this morning, over the barracks radio that shakes us from sleep each 6:15. Like fresh water, that crystal streamflow of melody. I have forgotten what real water tastes like, I no longer notice the flat mineral-thick taste of the hydrant and bathroom streams. Only the coffee reminds me. Once a week I try a sip, recoil. And the Beatles and Stones tonight, just before lights-out. Real music: what a treat!

Usually the mornings are breakfast-club chatter and song, bright and false as yellow formica in an LA motel; and at evening either a talk-back program or cocktail-music, denatured mush to drown us to sleep. All too loud, you never quite get used to it. And even when the radio’s silent the speaker is still live, so that the morse machinegun of the mad telegraphist, frantically punching his key somewhere beyond the hills in Pleasanton (we presume), can catch your soul at any moment: unaware, floating free of your body.

For a time it was KJAZ—good jazz—twice a week, rock once, some rhythm and blues. The spades and everyone else dug it. Then mush. No explanation. Eventually they got up a petition: can we have our music back? No—the answer came down from the Olympia of the Detail Office—because the petition was a demand, an attempt to pressure.

Well, Mood control, that’s the secret to making it here. At first I was genuinely, perpetually cheerful, because I’d imagined a constant boot-camp attempt to grind us down that didn’t materialize. So I made the mistake of relaxing, of letting my guard down—and all of a sudden it looks like a jail with cops, and I feel somehow reassured, vigilant again. Like the food: initial hosannahs because it was edible; but now that the menu begins to repeat its weekly cycle for the fourth time, we realize that you don’t need teeth for any of it, that everything is full of pepper for a reason; that….

A chorus of groans goes up from outside, in the dark main room. The radio has just snapped off for the night, after the first bars of a good song. An inflexible rule: if the last song is slop, it plays through to the end; good songs get cut in the middle. That’s how this place is, no kidding. Seeing that I wasn’t dismayed by the garbage detail, the mess officer started also putting me on the short line to serve in the mornings. Innocent, I asked why. “Standard practice.” And suddenly I found myself promoted to long line: an hour and a half sometimes serving food, before I can eat. I got the message. Then, gratuitously or to make sure, he sent me to get my second haircut in three weeks, at the butcher-barber’s. I now have the shortest hair of any Anglo or Mex in the whole Mess Barracks. That was the guard who’d read Walden five times; I don’t smile at him any more.

THE BLONDE, sallow one with the big ears and the hard voice did the pre-mail call count last night. (Our main recreation is getting counted, at least six times a day.) He caught me with a book in my hand, Dennis with a paper, Fast Black slouching; pulled us outside; gave us what-for, with words that slapped like dominoes. You will stand up straight, having nothing in your hands, five days in the Hole. Our faces were rock. I wanted to kill him. Literally. We blew it off inside, horseplay, yelling. Dennis slugged the wall. Most of the guards just whiz through, counting; but you can never tell who’ll play ego-games like that, or who will get the two bakery men up at 4 A.M. for the early shift by standing in the middle of the barracks and yelling their names until they dress (though their names and bunk numbers hang together on the wall by the door).

So mood control is the word. The cheap bit with the second haircut cost me two days of rage; my head was sheerly scrambled, I couldn’t write a word, all those intricate lovely thoughts scattered like trout when the wind rises. I read science-fiction furiously, five books, a drug. Finally I pulled up to a real smile, by thinking what a joke it was to have let the Walden bit shape my expectations so deeply. The sallow-faced guard only cost me three hours; I’m learning. Mood control.

And you’ve got to make genuine changes. There’s no burying anger, not here: it builds up and blows at any unforeseen order—and the place, oddly enough, is full of orders, many with no point. The kids who can’t work the magic of transmutation on their emotions wind up in the Hole, almost to a man.

All yesterday the Beatles were singing, “All you need is love.” I think maybe we also need fewer cops, no cops…I am not sure if it comes to the same thing. But people who enjoy having power over others are a stone drag; and the matter is worse when it is cloaked in a social sanction. They offered me leaderman of the mop-crew, the guards who still seem sympathetic did. No, I said, I’m cool with being garbageman—no one knows I can’t smell—“and besides, I don’t like to be nobody’s boss.” Nor, but this silent, to have nobody boss over me. Benevolent or not. Not even the Beatles.

* * *

Reading this last rap, Mario is worried lest I give an unbalanced view of the guards. I don’t mean to: the place is not vicious, just erratically petty. Yesterday I actually got some books, after three weeks trying. There’s one compound officer who’s overtly friendly to us—and hides out most of the time, seems completely ineffectual in the officer pecking-order. He has a good reputation with the inmates; such is the fate of good guys here, his goodness has become an ego-crutch in a losing battle: how lovely, how common, how sad. He felt guilty because I’d searched all over for him for six days running, asked him each time to get a paper from my box so I could revise it; took my name each time, forgot. So when I bumped into him with a note from the history teacher okaying my getting books, he escorted me up to the front office, glaring around with a bluff protectiveness made safe by the note, and let me take out Keniston’s The Uncommitted, Friedenberg’s Coming of Age in America, and Ulysses. “Ulysses,” he mused, “I flunked that book once….” His voice trailed off. “Tough book,” I responded glibly, “my chick’s flippy about it, been after me three years to read it, promised her I’d get through it while I was in. You know… Gee, thanksamillion for helping me to get these,” enthusiastically, scrammed. Not daring to meet his eyes or ask through the excuse of literature what lies beneath his lonely and passionless decency.

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