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Notes from the County Jail

The history etcetera teacher was most obliging when I showed him the book list, even though he didn’t understand quite why I wanted them; wrote me a note only the second time I saw him. “Hey, Mac,” he called over to the accounting etcetera teacher, in his high, piping voice, “how do you spell ‘taking’? T-a-k-e-i-n-g or…?” Mac told him, while I stood respectfully by, and as he finished the note in his childish scrawl I looked down on his bald head, worn as the once-linen backing on the ancient texts, and thanked him very much and honestly; left him to his two occasional students, wandered toward the front office thinking of model jails. “It’s a model jail,” said the guard in the office, “known all over the state.” “It’s a model jail,” said the old-timer in the Mess-Hall, “why, at San Bruno you can get a steak out of the officers’ mess for a pack, and pussy now and then. And they don’t hardly have no commissary.”

COMMISSARY HERE is run by an old codger named Dyke, who is subject to unpredictable fits of temper in which he imagines he hears talking in the line and closes it down for the day; those outside are out of luck, for he’s an officer and can do what he wants to, right? He also arbitrarily decides what and how much may be bought each day. Not surprisingly, the regulars here speculate endlessly and cynically about where the commissary take goes. But he has his kind side. The twenty-seven-sheet tablet I’m writing on says 25 cents on its cover, but he lets the prisoners have it for 20 cents. All in all, it seems to be a much straighter operation than the one the old junkie doctor runs.

* * *

I was thinking about the haircut incident, which happened well over a week ago, while hustling garbage after dinner today. It was probably not malicious, but gratuitious, I decided: meant as a sort of benign amusement. And so my account of my reactions probably says a lot about my hairtrigger feelings about authority, pun intended.

That being so, and me being in jail, I’ve decided there’s a definite advantage to my college background, despite the way the high-school dropouts in the officers’ mess tease me, with their oranges and corned beef. For what is jail but a primitive form of the Authority Complex, cast in locks, alarms, and barbed wire? And what sort of problem does that present to a young man trained for nine years in the most Prestigious Multiversity in the land? Despite my touchiness about personal integrity, my dislike of stupid orders, and so on, I get along just fine: doing easy time, an exemplary prisoner: my suntan will never pale from days spent in the Hole, and if they gave Extra-Good Time I’d get that too and be out of here the sooner. For if there’s anything being in college teaches you, it’s how to relate to authority: even more than being black does, though the techniques are similar.

For here I am, the friendly Garbageman. With an antic smile and an off-key wail of “Gaaarbaaage….” like a London street-cry. (Establish a distinct but non-threatening identity.) My cleaned cans upside-down on the cart, so the imprisoned steam can puff! impressively as I upend them back in their places. (Pick a symbol of excellence in your subject; accentuate it.) Clanging the cans with great zeal, even risking an occasional caution about too much noise when the officers are eating. (Be passionately dedicated to the pursuit of Truth; venture a daringly unorthodox hypothesis whose subtle flaw the instructor can point out.) Candidly confessing—when nothing could be proved—that the carbon paper found among the empty cans was mine, hastily thrust there after someone I’d asked idly for a sheet brought me a sheaf, swiped from the office. (Admit an evident mistake gracefully; show yourself open to instruction and able to profit by it.) Wheeling the cart like a madman past others leaning indolently on their mops; cleaning up someone else’s mess silently and for free—but in public—once in a while. (Invite favorable comparison, but let others provide it.) Changing clothes at best every other day, and not trying too hard to keep clean—it goes with the role. (Be a bit of an eccentric—you must be bright.) Hosing the whole garbage-room down on Mondays; asking innocently if this wasn’t standard practice before. (Establish a minor but admirable innovation in the System’s procedures; undervalue it.)

I could go on, but fuck it. The truth of the matter is that I do hustle—partly because I simply dig hustling and doing a good job, partly because being a political prisoner is or seems to be like what being a Jew and short was for my old man in situ thirty years ago: “You’ve got to be twice as good as anyone else to come out even,” he reasoned or felt, and he may have been right, who knows? But over all this, as a surface gilding long since learned into instinct (Woodrow Wilson Fellowship, ‘63), is the complex of little actions, attitudes, and details that constitute my way of relating to—of “handling”—the Authority Complex. They are as involuntary as the deep anger, whose possible consequences they so nicely avert, even as they disguise and are fueled by that anger. I learned my lesson well, in a thorough school.

* * *

Strolling through the litter of porkchop bones that graces the barracks yard—which is always decorated on the rare morning-after something decent and portable appears for dinner—a puzzle came clear to me. Before I came here I phoned all over the country to get quotes for an article I was writing. This gave me a chance to hear some dear voices again and apologize for my absence and silence. But there was an awkward air about some of the conversations, which I only now understand.

One friend confessed shyly—to my complete surprise, though I knew him for a long and ardent student and admirer of Gandhi and King—that he envied me deeply and would take my place if he could: that he felt keenly, as a lack in his own life, never having gone to jail for his beliefs. Another friend was terribly agitated because no one was making a fuss over our finally going in, or seemed even to remember why. Somehow a proper response was absent: we, and what we meant, were unheralded, unsung. “Surely someone must say something publicly,” he cried to me over the phone.

I was taken off-balance and touched by their real concern, and responded to both with the embarrassed careless callousness I so often face emotion with: toss it off, downplay it, trying badly to be gentle. And my own closure is so familiar that I didn’t realize till now that something else confused my response—and what it was. One of these men is a college president; the other—generally one of the two most perceptive observers of my generation I know—was offered a presidency and refused it. I love them both; but neither can afford such romantic innocence about the contemporary young. For it is dangerous to lose track of which revolution you’re watching—especially if you’d like to help it—or you’ll find yourself responding inappropriately.

My grandfather, whose eyes were also blue, was a Bolshevik: prison and exile. I too had certain time-honored feelings when my friends and unknown beloved peers were beaten and bailless in Southern jails. But we are freedom trippers, not riders. And there is nothing romantic, nor inspiring, nor unduly grubby, about being this kind of political prisoner. It is a dull and practical necessity, and will not be emulated or repeated. For FSM was a signal beacon which started much, both locally and nationally; but its message was sounded and heard, and there’s no need to do certain parts of it again. Eight hundred kids should never again need to choose arrest to spite a college administration that doesn’t deserve so much respect. The small price of our current jailing (and the $100,000 in fines) is not even a symbol: merely the tangible mark of a learning experience, a necessary experiment. And so our own kids know better than to waste inappropriate or sloppy sentiment on us. Though FSM and our jailings are in some senses inseparable, their warm feelings about the one and their indifferent practicality about the nuisance of the other are the best indication that the connection is only operational. Being here accrues me no capital save the (considerable) writing I’m doing and some insight. Grandfather or not, if I could buy out, I would.

GRANTED, I had those nice warm feelings too when we were busted, as much as anyone did; and the martyr’s pride did not entirely evaporate in the disgusting tedium of that hot spring’s trial. I have traded on it since, for which I somewhat dislike myself, and will again; and a residue accompanies me here, probably making jail a bit more bearable, spice in the stew of my feelings. But by far my main emotion is simple and sheer irritation: What a drag! I’ve better things to do with my time—not only making love, but building what I was arrested for and have pursued since, in forms which have changed with my understanding. For FSM, in retrospect, was the first clear signal that America was involved in not one but two revolutions; and the rapid events since have brought the newer one out from under the shadow of the Civil Rights Movement and an old politics. Our problem now, and mine, is to learn, by doing, what feelings and actions are proper to being observers and shapers of this other revolution, of which we have no choice but to be a part even as it outdistances our understanding of it. The emotions of the older one, which include familiar forms of martyrdom, give us no clue. But, though I struggle uncertainly with their residue, I don’t mean to put then down: they are simply inappropriate.

For us, that is. The spades who are going to jail for the flaming cities are quite a different story, as it will be if—no, when—they try to frame Stokely and Rap Brown for that. And those brave kids who are choosing, quietly calmly and without hope, four years in a federal pen rather than play the System’s death-games or run out on what they know of their souls—they are also a different story, partly because Vietnam and the spades are slices off the same overdue hunk of my grandfather’s flesh. But the steadily growing pool of kids in jail across the country for grass and acid and “street-blocking” are political prisoners just as surely as we are—I think of beautiful Michael Solomon with his black flame halo, busted in the Haight on a trumped-up charge: forty-five days in San Bruno, off light compared to the kids here doing six or nine months—and, because they are movers in the same other revolution as we are, as little deserve to be romanticized. (Though that is not meant to inveigh against feeling or action for the human cost involved in their imprisonment, which is considerable.)

No, a new trip demands new guideposts; and jail simply is not our thing. Not that we too are not romantic—though I think we will ultimately prove less so than our elders, because we are more willing to abandon our foothold on what we have known. But the voices on the telephone wished me well with the expectations of my own past, which will no longer serve. We cannot inherit even the form of our symbols now; which leaves us nothing but trial-and-error to find or build them.

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