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.
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.
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.
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.