Albert & Me
Danner Darcleight was awarded Third Place in Memoir in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
Albert & Me
It is late, the cell block is quiet, and two cells over from me, an old man named Albert gives voice to a noir-ish inner monologue, opening windows on his madhouse of a mind. This is not the first time I’ve heard him do it, yet it’s still unsettling. During my 13 years behind the wall I’ve lived near demented screamers who pierce one’s inner world like a sharp needle, but Albert is a mumbler, and easy enough, I guess, to ignore. Yet I’m easily distracted, and have a penchant for weirdness.
The content draws me in, delivered as if he were a private eye in a film from the 1940s, and though I only get snippets, what I catch is sometimes worth keeping. Like, just now, he intoned: ” . . . in a fuck-ing boneyard. . . . standing at her grave . . . with two dollars in my pocket . . . two crumpled dollars . . . where’m I gonna get flowers? . . . That’s the thing they don’t tell you: [inaudible].” Is he crying?
Technically, I’ve known Albert for three years, from when he showed up in the orientation group I’m paid twenty-five cents an hour to facilitate. Every other week I try to help acclimate new arrivals to the harsh environs of Prison F. That’s me: field support. Counselor, concierge, consigliere. These groups of 10 to 20 newjacks usually range from the fresh-faced 18-year-old doing 4 to 8 for a couple of drug sales (his first experience with the criminal justice system), to the middle-aged frequent flier, life-of-crimer, back for his third (or fifth or eighth) stay in the steel-bar hotel. Though, we also get men over 60—a few every month—who are either doing a few (hard) years or they’ve been given lights out numbers and are to die in prison. They tend to fall into a few categories: There’s the old-timer with mussed, white hair, jaundiced skin, and a mottled, bulbous red nose, doing two to six for his inability to stop driving drunk; a meek, scared old man who vibes “child porn found on my computer”; the one who got a little aggro with a convenience store clerk—when the responding officers discovered he’d done time thirty years ago, they brought him in rather than driving him home; pops who went berserk and shot his wife with a trusty hunting rifle. And there are those who have grown comfortable in an institutional setting, and pull some born-to-lose stickup that earns them bed space in a retirement community where the orderlies carry nightsticks.
That was how Albert presented during the one-on-one I try to have with each man: He said he’d done 25 years and had been given another 25. He was in his early sixties then (I glimpsed his ID card), but looked older, and the 25-to-life was a death sentence. If this job has taught me anything worth being called wisdom, it’s the same lesson that was learned by the doctor in Camus’s The Plague: Ending suffering isn’t always an option, but one can at least bring compassion to those who suffer.
Though he walked slightly hunched over, with an awkward, jerky gait, Albert was tall and solidly built; bald with light gray hair around the sides extending to lamb chop sideburns, bushy eyebrows, and a good mustache; a chin that looked like it could take a punch or two—combined with the facial hair, this gave him the look of an early-19th-century beat cop as imagined in a steampunk graphic novel. Some shitty jail tats: BIG ALBERT and blurry words on one forearm; a dagger on the other (meaning he stabbed someone? Wanted to give the impression of having stabbed someone?); L-O-V-E written across the fingers of his left hand.
He was favoring his right ear, so I sat on that side and leaned in, asking how I could help. As if to illustrate how powerless I am to address the group’s immediate concerns, Albert offhanded, “I’ve got cancer.”
I winced slightly, imagining the years ahead of him, the ravages of chemo. So, as to his dying behind the wall, the only questions were When? and How painful?
His eyes were icy blue. Nice, actually, like shallow ocean water in the color-enhanced ad for a resort. Albert fixed me in his gaze, one eyebrow cocked. This was slightly unnerving at first, but I came to realize Albert communicates in non sequiturs punctuated by that piercing look, while stroking the downturn of his mustache. Pointing to his ear, he said, “They took my hearing aids.” Who “they” were was beside the point—guards at the county jail, a prison reception center, or the intake room here—there’s no lost and found. If something is confiscated, we can pay the postage to have it sent home, but when it’s unofficially confiscated (“taxed”), the guard colludes with a sheisty inmate to sell it onto the black market. However, there’s no aftermarket for hearing aids—his were destroyed for sport.
As luck would have it, Mr. L—, a smart, compassionate administrator, had walked into the room, as he sometimes does, to schmooze with my boss—a counselor called Ms. D—and keep his finger on the pulse of the inmate population. I explained Albert’s plight to Mr. L—, who took down his info, and said he’d get in touch with the medical department. (He did, and six months later, a smiling Albert passed me in the hallway, pointing to his new hearing aids.)
On the third day of orientation, when only two men showed up, Ms. D said we should wrap up the week early, and sent us back to our cells on a hall pass. Tramping down the stairwell, I was behind Albert when he tripped, and fell face-first down the remaining few steps, spilling onto the concrete landing with a sickening thud. He moaned in pain. The young black kid also with us—who had spent the previous two days in group trying to portray what a hard case he was—looked at me, eyes wide.
“Help me pick him up,” I told the kid. “Get under his shoulder.” We hefted Albert’s bulk and sat him on the bottom-most step. Thankfully, a guard heard all this, so when he appeared around the corner, the kid and I didn’t have to persuade him that we didn’t push Albert down the steps. The guard got on his walkie and called in a medical emergency. Kneeling at Albert’s feet, I gingerly lifted his pant leg and saw an obvious fracture above his boot. He was lucky: If not for tightly-laced boots, his ankle could’ve suffered a more complicated break. Silently, Albert stared straight ahead, likely in shock. There was blood on my hand, so I did an inspection of him, which uncovered a run-of-the-mill cut on his elbow, the result of the fall. I sat next to him, held his wrist and felt a normal, if slightly elevated pulse, then spoke into his ear, telling him they were bringing a stretcher. Jangling keys converged on us, walkies crackling (in a previous life, I would’ve been one of the techs wheeling in the stretcher, a walkie squawking on my hip). The guard who was with us from the beginning corrected his coworkers who joked that we pushed the old man down the stairs. Perhaps forgetting my place, when a sergeant arrived and took charge of the scene, I volunteered that Albert was hard of hearing and appeared to have fractured his leg above the ankle.
He looked at me, then quickly turned away and hissed, “No shit.”
A guard walked me to the hospital where I was allowed the use of an exam room with a sink. As I washed off Albert’s blood with strong soap, I heard them carry him past, en route to the x-ray room. Though I wanted to stick around to see how he was, I knew if I asked I’d have my motives questioned before being curtly dismissed, so I returned to my cell.
Allow me to pause before we go any further, and go on record: If you’re looking for Tuesdays with Morrie, go to the source, or perhaps Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. This isn’t a tale of redemption, and Albert doesn’t teach me the true meaning of Christmas.
Like most inquisitive casts of mind with their perseverative interests, I make the mistake that others share my curiosity. I set out to learn about Albert, the enigma who lives six feet away from me, solely because I’m curious. The thing is, I failed, and it’s best to let you know that now, so you can cut your losses, should you choose, around the thousand-word mark. This little endeavor taught me that the accrual of personal details doesn’t necessarily a person make; and, some surfaces won’t reveal what lies beneath, no matter how vigorously they’re scratched.
Even though our paths first crossed three years ago, during the orientation group, after his spill on the steps my contact with Albert dwindled to the occasional nod in passing. That changed a few months ago, when I returned from work one afternoon and saw Albert moving into the cell two past mine.
Moving in is usually a complex process as one cleans away the smell and grime of the previous occupant, maneuvers around duffel bags of property, and sets up shop. Popping my head in, I waved to let him know he was amongst friends. I was happy to see that he had a TV to occupy his time (and that I wouldn’t have to arrange the purchase of one for him on the black market). Not having much stuff, Albert was already settled in, sitting on an unmade bed, sucking down the final roach-like remnants of a hand-rolled cigarette. A betting man would say that he had done little to no cleaning of the previous occupant’s funk. Viking.
Albert said, “Finally made it here.”
I gave a thumbs up, and scrammed to my cell, because a guard was approaching, taking his noon count.
“Here” is honor block, a place where the clientele have shown the ability to stay out of trouble (or stay under the radar when they do their dirt); it self-selects for guys who tend to be quieter, more mature, and less prone to violence. We get a few more privileges than the hoi polloi, but for me the real draw is not having to go to the big recreation yard, which is completely paved over, a parking lot mobbed with cutthroats and nogoodniks politicking, selling and consuming drugs, and looking for marks to get got. I imagined—incorrectly—that Albert would also appreciate not having to go out to the big yard, preferring, as I do, the smaller, quieter honor block rec area.
Over lunch, after I told Albert about the different procedures for rec, he said he was thinking of signing out of honor block, and going back to population. I’ve heard that tune before. Guy gets uprooted from his friends and routine—even if it’s for better digs that he requested months earlier—and feels buyer’s remorse. That fades as the realization sets in that there is slightly easier time to be done here.
In the rec area that evening, while in a phone booth trying to reach the missus, I watched Albert bumble about, his head cocked in the manner of an intrigued canine. It was just a matter of time before he buttonholed me. Later, as I sat, per my usual, reading on the repurposed auditorium seats, Albert sat down next to me, smelling musty, and of cigarettes. I put away my New Yorker, and ran down some of the basic procedures: when the “go-back” is called, who to see about getting assigned a locker, where the shower room is, which guards to avoid.
“Could really use a cigarette,” he said.
“Sorry, man, I don’t smoke.”
And cue the uncomfortable silence. There was nothing more I could think to tell him, he didn’t have any questions or seem to be bubbling over with conversation, and so I toyed with the idea of returning to my reading, but felt it would be a dick move.
I was grateful when meds were called at seven, and he got up to trek to the hospital. By the time he returned, I had managed to connect with my wife. From the phone booth I watched a flock of overtly-religious Christians make a show of giving Albert a bowl of food (the first and last of their alms). They stood watching him eat for a bit, and I thought for their next act they might wash his feet.
Perhaps they would have if he hadn’t availed himself of a shower. When he came back, Albert didn’t look better or rejuvenated, just old and wet, and as he dried the water from his ears with the small, shitty towel provided by the state, I vowed to buy him a large, plush one from the commissary.
After I got off the phone, one of the proselytizers asked me to speak to Albert about shower etiquette. Time was, the only people not naked in the prison’s communal shower were Muslims (religious proscription) and the openly gay or transgendered—never give it away, I guess, makes you look cheap. Now, I’m not sorry to say, we wear boxers when showering next to others.
Ha! I chuckled. As my counterparty yammered, I imagined how scandalized and weirded out the 10 or so men must have been when Albert, oblivious, dropped trou, and luxuriated under the hot shower, ass sagging something fierce, scrotum down to his knees.
I knew why I was being asked to intervene—Albert was sitting near me earlier, plus I’m the quiet reader whom people go to with their questions or issues, as if there were a sign above my head advertising therapy for five cents. But every so often I put my foot down, and refuse to play fixer. “Look,” I said, “you obviously saw all this go down. You say something.”
There was probably more than homophobia behind the beefing about a flagrantly naked Albert. Narcissism runs wild in here, and guys spend beau coup time hitting the weights, drinking protein shakes, shredding up their abs for the mirror, and—let’s be honest—each other. So, a naked old man’s ruined body probably fills them with primal fear: There but for x amount of years go I.
The Old Fart. That well-worn phrase comes to mind several times every evening, when Albert unleashes baritone blasts of flatulence in quick succession, like a novelty closing-whistle at a factory that manufactures whoopee cushions. It’s not the type of thing one asks—even someone like me—but I’m curious to know whether that punctuation is an attempt at modesty (limiting the ripping boom), or his savoring and curating a soundscape of farts. There are some that roar to life with shaking, like an ogre awakened. These are big farts, meaty, worthy of note—Spanish-speaking neighbors inevitably exchange amused commentary, using pedo (fart) and cañón (cannon), which I’ve combined into el cañón del pedo. The fusillade seems to coincide with his return from the hospital—either the meds make him gassy or the walk upstairs jostles something loose.
Alas, Albert’s condition is no laughing matter. Hearing aids in each ear; seizures; cancer. He suffers debilitating flare-ups of arthritis during which his back locks up, causing him to walk practically at a 90-degree angle to the floor. These episodes get him admitted to the prison’s hospital for a few nights, and are the reason Albert has a “flats order,” meaning medical has communicated to security the need for him to be housed on the first floor, not the fourth, as he is currently. The institutional indifference of an unheeded flats order combined with the lackadaisical medical treatment make Albert’s situation sadly typical for all those growing old in prison. Thanks to the eons of time handed out in the 1980s, ’90s, and aughts, the number of men over 60 behind the wall will continue to rise—thus, the so-called graying of America’s prison population—as will the cost of housing them, from the average $30,000 a year to 60 or 100-thou. They will suffer the insults of growing old in a cold, uncaring environment, victimized by the system and their peers because they often lack living relatives to advocate for them, and their natural defenses are weakened.
Much of one’s safety depends on hearing threats before they approach, picking up aural cues from the environment: a guard’s jangling keys (so you don’t get caught smoking in your cell, or jerking off, both punishable offenses); volatile peers you need to avoid; the heated exchanges that alert one to the possibility of violent goings on; the squeaking sneakers of a fight in progress; a guard’s order to put your hands on the wall for a random frisk. Also important: the PA that announces when we’re about to be let out for chow or rec; the constant human buzz in the block that signals normalcy and brings mundane but useful information, like which guard is working where, what’s being served in the mess hall, or a new change of rules that states we can only wear our winter coat outside from October to April. When you’re locked in a cell, with a view of five feet in either direction, that steady stream of aural information comprises the knowledge base for that day.
One morning years ago, I watched an old, paranoid man stab a neighbor in the face with a pen because he thought he heard the guy plotting on him all night. The one who got bloodied was indeed up late talking low to a neighbor, but it was because he was distraught, having learned over the phone of his sister’s passing.
Scenes like that make me truly feel for Albert, who recently lost one of his hearing aids, and must often feel adrift in here, sitting alone in his own quiet prison, cut off from the larger, noisier one. Always a step behind, perpetually out of the loop. Though, at the same time, there’s a slight envy at the ability—by voluntarily taking out a hearing aid—to draw inward and seal off from the seething madness of the prison, the petty harangues of its inhabitants. I must remind myself to be wary of this voice of retreat because the right path lies neither in complete solitude, as I sometimes pine for, nor in constant contact with my peers, which is often the case now, but someplace in the middle, where I get the nourishing social contact, while not trying to be too much to too many, and losing myself in the process.
There’s also work to be done on my passive-aggressive impulse to shut someone out, making them a nonentity in my mind when I get annoyed. Albert drives me to distraction by shaking “clips” (the local term of art for discarded cigarette butts) in an empty can of tobacco, which sounds like pennies being shaken in a coffee can—does it make me doglike if I can’t stand it? I had to know why he does this; my neighbor, John, who is a somewhat younger version of Albert, told me Albert shakes the clips to loosen the tar-resonated tobacco, so he can combine and re-roll them into a cigarette.
That recycled cig smells like the remnants of a bonfire the morning after a beach party, after people inevitably peed on the dying embers. As if the resonated tobacco wasn’t harsh enough, he rolls with “green thunder,” the green, waxy toilet paper wrapper, which, having used a couple times in county, I know is harsher than rolling paper. In between bouts of racking coughs, Albert will toss—unannounced—a small plastic bag to my neighbor, John. But it never reaches. It sits on the walkway, silently asking for help, until I use my broom to move it along, past my cell and onto John, who fills the bag with instant coffee or tobacco, and throws it back to Albert.
Early on, that was all my exclusionary voice needed to think, Have nothing to do with these fleabags, the old man in particular is a bottomless pit of need. As I sat half lotus in the grass outside the honor rec area one afternoon, I looked on as Albert maneuvered around the blacktop, stooping down to pick clips off the ground. I was embarrassed for him, subsisting on what was discarded, as if he were a wino who appeared as a block party died down and began methodically drinking dead soldiers. Does he notice the odd looks? Would he care?
The general population rec yard is scoured daily for clips by an unofficial cleaning crew of men like Albert. Because, by some unspoken rule, this is not done in honor block, Albert has a monopoly on the territory, and does quite well for himself. Even prison has its haves and have-nots. Albert definitely has not, so I belatedly came to reproach myself for my squeamish elitism.
While Albert would like to work, the administrators won’t allow it because his seizures make him a liability in any work area—in their calculating eyes, he’s a lawsuit waiting to happen. He’s in school, studying for his GED even though he said he took some college decades ago in another state’s prison. His mornings are spent in a classroom, for which he is paid 17 cents an hour, or roughly $5 every 2 weeks. Because of court fees, 20 percent is withheld, leaving Albert with $4 to spend at his fortnightly trip to the commissary. As a comparison, my job earns me $15 every 2 weeks—my court surcharges have long since been paid off, so I see the total 15—which is supplemented by the largesse of my brother. Unlike Albert, my commissary decisions aren’t either/or.
$3.25 buys a pouch of roll-your-own tobacco, yielding roughly 30 cigs. It would be easy and self-congratulatory to say that I quit smoking, and so should Albert. But I acknowledge a gray-area tolerance, and know how hard it is to quit; negating the health risks, and putting on my behavioral economist hat, I’m apt to think that, for Albert, smoking is a cost-effective way to deal with hunger pains, and will provide more pleasure for his meager dollars than the several candy bars or cookies he could afford otherwise.
$1.50 for a three-ounce bag of off-brand instant coffee. With my temperate caffeine habit of three cups per day, one bag almost lasts the fourteen days until my next commissary buy. Anyone who shells out five bucks for a single morning’s caffeine fix will naturally think a buck-fifty for fourteen days’ worth of twitch is a hell of a deal, a bargain at thrice the price, but remember that someone like Albert has four dollars to work with.
Maybe he gets a pouch of tobacco ($3.25) and a stamp ($0.46); or two bags of coffee (totaling $3.00) and a pack of vanilla cookies ($0.99). Whichever option he chooses, he’ll have to pick butts off the ground. And forget about the toiletries that I use: soap, shampoo, conditioner, deodorant, moisturizer. Albert relies on the one bar of soap provided us every two weeks—it’s utilitarian and mildly caustic. Same holds for the toothpaste and toothbrush.
Albert goes to every meal in the mess hall or he goes hungry, but there are meals so gross and submarginal, or palatable yet insubstantial, that Albert certainly goes to bed hungry some nights. Acknowledging all this, I amplify my self-reproach, recalling that, for a time, I’d only give him things by going to his cell, just because I didn’t want him to grow accustomed to stopping at mine like a stray cat.
Because such maneuvers, even two cells away, attracted undue attention from the guards—by moving in the opposite direction of those exiting their cells—I learned that I don’t mind Albert stopping at my cell, and it’s nice to treat him with a bag of coffee one day, a jar of peanut butter the next (remembering my grandfather, who bought food for the homeless rather than dropping a fin at their feet, I draw the line at providing tobacco). Yes, sometimes Albert looks expectantly when I have nothing to give—as my human-engineering savant of a wife would say, intermittent reinforcement is a most powerful tool of behavior modification. But more often, we acknowledge each other, and he shoots me a wink and a pointed finger, like a proper old gent.
In a more free environment, our friends and acquaintances are those who partake of similar activities (sports, bar scene, book club, etc.); our peer group tends to be not much older, or younger, than ourselves. One of the rare nice things about prison is that it allows you intimate access to peers of vastly differently generational cohorts, a more heterogeneous mixture to your contact list. My close friend Whit, now in Prison N, is 20 years older than me (as are several of my close friends here); Doc, before his passing, was 30 years older; when I was in my late twenties, I spent quality time with Marty, a septuagenarian—he turned me on to Granta and The New York Review of Books; I taught him to appreciate The Simpsons. You can usually find some common ground and things to talk about.
When I sit next to Albert at chow, he will look up from his tray halfway through the meal, and, apropos of nothing, lodge a complaint. He’s thinking about signing out of honor block. The goddamn doctor’s giving him the runaround. They had him lying on the blacktop for two hours, stretched out like Superman, because tear gas was fired into the yard to break up a melee. I cut him more slack than I would a younger peer who airs grievances at every opportunity, filling the air with negativity. But the conversation with Albert never goes deeper than those surface complaints.
I can speak to almost anyone, bouncing around, homing in on a topic suitable to share in. Albert’s hearing loss makes that hard, though. In those moments, when, for a change, I’m at a loss for words, I realize that part of what facilitates conversation is the construct we create of the other’s past life and their current inner world. It’s almost as if, with Albert, I mirror those on the autism spectrum who often lack theory of mind, the necessary ability to infer what the other is thinking or feeling. I’m looking and I want to learn, but I get nothing—for me, Albert is a man who walks in the snow without leaving footprints.
Many of my peers are the opposite: They overshare. Using distortions, exaggerations, lies, and psychological reparations, they unpack their creation myths, telling no story in which they’re not the hero. The smart money, however, plays it close to the vest. It’s easier than worrying that something will somehow be used against you (in county I told a guy where I went to college—he took that one truth, added some lies about me confessing, then tried to cut a deal with the DA). More often, though, you don’t talk about the past because it’s a sacred space, revisited with care when you’re alone, savored, pondered. Someone’s convenient recollection of his past is practically meaningless in terms of painting what kind of person you’re dealing with at present. Do enough time and your past becomes a different world altogether.
Because it’s bad form to ask too many direct questions, I haven’t brought Albert into sharper focus. My 25-to-life is for murder, what’s his for? He did time in the Midwest—what for? He once mentioned a “partner” who works as a security guard, and sends Albert a few shekels a couple of times a year—what’s their relationship? Was Albert ever married? Does he have kids? Did anyone make much of a fuss when he was sentenced? What’s his inner world like? He doesn’t seem to want friends—or do I misread? Just what in the fuck was going through his mind when he decided that he would be well-served by having “BIG ALBERT” tattooed on his forearm? What are his likes and dislikes? I know he dislikes being teargassed; the four slices of bread given each meal—he likes to eat them with the two pats of margarine we’re provided. See? I’ve got next to nothing.
I’m left to create his past. The early years: Was there a moment of greatness? A game-winning home run? As ugly as it sounds, Albert doesn’t strike me as having an exceptional backstory (I’ve met plenty of men older than he, who, even if they were reserved or standoffish, you could tell they harbored interesting stories and hard-won lessons).
I see him doing physically demanding work, something on a warehouse dock or in a logging camp. Isolated, the guy at the end of a bar—a dark dive—happy so long as he’s got a cold beer and a shot of whiskey; pack of smokes, a view of the TV so he can watch the game. The regulars leave him be, word is he’s spent much of his life in the big house. One night, his partner takes the adjoining barstool, and tells Albert about a score. The caper they pull is what lands Albert in here doing 25-to-life. The end.
This character I’ve created is as cliché as he is flat—any junior editor would send me back to my desk with some heavy notes for rewrite. Perhaps the best I can do is resort to the stratagem of the self-involved, and note the stark differences between us. I have a relatively comfy, well-appointed cell, I have my health (mostly), a loving wife, friends and family who nurture me, a good job, things going on. Albert doesn’t. What we have in common is that we’re both outcasts, felons, fuckups.
I’ve been given some insight into the health issues he deals with. Roughly four years ago, a mysterious gastrointestinal condition befell me, triggering allergy-type sensitivities to milk, whey, cheese, chocolate, vinegar, onions, garlic, spicy food, potatoes, tomatoes, eggplants, and a cornucopia more. Doctors, meds, labs, endoscopes—nothing’s helped, and I have no answers. This has made me less quick to tune out the commercials served up by Big Pharma, while making me more aware that the soft machine breaks down; it’s the lowest common denominator of human existence.
Such thoughts were swirling the other night, when I couldn’t fall asleep. I got up and did some yoga in the dark, but stopped for a moment when I saw Albert’s bright cell reflected in a cell block window 10 feet away. He was sitting on his bed, hunched over, watching TV and smoking a clip that he had to light repeatedly, as if he were toking a joint. I felt my jaw slacken and eyes go glassy as I stared at him, and found myself thinking about Hemingway’s short story, “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
It’s one of the few things I remember reading in college, and I’ve read it countless times since, inexplicably drawn to the story, feeling a psychological connection. In the story, an old, deaf man sits in a clean, well-lit café late at night drinking brandy. It’s narrated in close third person, favoring “one waiter.” The “younger waiter,” in a hurry to get home to his wife, forces the old man to leave. The other one says good night to his coworker, but, filled with an existential angst, delays going home, knowing he won’t fall asleep until daylight. It’s “probably only insomnia,” he says to himself. “Many must have.”
Like many, I’ve been the hurried, younger waiter, not fully present. But it was always the older waiter—haunted, kept awake by thoughts of nothingness, of nada y pues nada—with whom I most identified. As I looked upon Albert, I was hit with a simple understanding that felt rather like an epiphany. One day I will be Albert, the old man, asking for another brandy, while the young waiters of the world hurry me along and wish that I’d have the courtesy to just go home and die.
There was a recent conversation between us, so bizarre that, just partaking of it, I felt like Hunter S. Thompson in Las Vegas, drinking his rum punch and huffing ether in the bar at Circus Circus. And now, gathering my thoughts, I’m struck by the similarity to recounting one’s dreams for an analyst.
It began, per his usual, with a lament. He took the seat next to me. “Hello,” I said.
The cocked-head stare. “I’m thinkin’ a signin’ outta honor block.” There was something in his tone that said this was about more than a light haul of cigarette butts that evening.
“Talk to me, what’s up?”
Someone had relayed a message that there was trouble at home. The message was sent from his nephew in another block via someone who locked near us, but there was no follow up, no clarification, and so he wanted to get together with the nephew, which he couldn’t do because he was in honor block.
My interest was piqued. Was this an actual blood relation of Albert’s, or just the ersatz label one gives to a friend to denote a closer bond than mere friendship? I donned my amateur reporter’s hat, and went fishing: “This is your brother’s kid, right?”
“Ah, so he’s in contact with her, and you . . . ”
“I call, but she won’t pick up. It’s drivin’ me crazy. My sister’s the only one I got. If that lousy husband of hers did anything, I’ll put him through a fuckin’ wall. I picked him up by the throat once, my nephew just stared.”
“The husband, is that your nephew’s father?”
“No. He’s just some guy who married my sister.”
The details were coming so fast, but each triggered more questions. Does his sister feel the same for Albert as he does for her? Were they ever close? What’s she like?
Albert asked if I knew how he could get into a double bunk cell with his nephew (same six-by-nine cage, but with a metal bunk bed). I told him they might not be allowed to double bunk because of the age difference. Surprise: They were double bunked together two years ago, but got split up after a month because “someone” dropped a note to the block sergeant saying they had a fight. Albert had been admitted to the hospital overnight after an unrelated seizure; when he returned to the cell, his nephew was gone, and a sergeant told Albert that he’d be moving into a single cell that afternoon, on account of “reports” that the two were fighting. This despite Albert’s protests that they weren’t fighting, and that he’d just like to be double bunked with his nephew.
I said, “So one of the neighbors dropped a slip because you two were fighting?”
“That’s the thing,” he said, “no one heard.”
“You guys have a little scuffle?”
Dig it: Albert was watching a baseball game, and his nephew wanted to change the channel to watch American Idol. Suddenly, I knew that the young, sunburned schmuck who makes inappropriate faces at Albert across the mess hall is his 30-something nephew. When Albert wouldn’t let him change the channel, the kid swung for Albert’s face (Albert said he dodged it, but considering the close quarters, and his reflexes, I silently called bullshit). Somewhat restrained, Albert put his 200-plus pounds behind a punch that “blasted” the kid’s chest, sending him back against the rear wall, where he took a seat on the toilet to catch his breath, while Albert finished watching the game. If I were double bunked with the kid, even if I weren’t watching anything on TV, I might’ve punched him on general principle—fuck American Idol.
“So,” I said, “it’s safe to assume your nephew is the one who dropped dime, right?” Albert smiled sheepishly.
“Yeah, so even if you sign out of honor block, there’s no way they’ll allow you to sign into a double bunk with your nephew, not after they had to split up the two of you.” Perhaps there was another way. I thought for a few as Albert stared someplace else. “What religion are you?”
“None,” Albert said.
(Reader, do you now see the folly of my playing amateur journalist? And yet.)
“None? That’s what you told the classification people when you went through reception?”
“Yup,” he said.
“How about your nephew?”
“He goes to Protestant services.”
Perfect. “I know the Protestant chaplain’s inmate clerk—I’ll get you added to the call-out, and you can see your nephew a couple nights a week. Sound good?”
Albert was happy then, so I told him it’d take about a month for the change-of-religion paperwork to get processed—a bureaucratic laying on of stamps and signatures that would transform Albert from “none” to Protestant—then he’d be on the call-out. And on the seventh day, I rested.
For the moment, he felt like there was a resolution, so Albert switched gears, and said, “I watched Godzilla today.”
I’d heard it playing on several televisions that afternoon, the delightfully ominous soundtrack reverberating throughout the block. Bahhh, bah-bah-bah-bahmmm. As a boy, I’d seen the original Godzilla movies, but never from start to finish (I was more into mecha anime, like Robotech and Voltron); what Albert described sounded like one of the newer, subpar remakes. No matter, I thought, I can hold my own in more than a few subgenres of nerdery.
And that’s how it came to pass that amid a noisy scrum of peers in the rec area, Albert and I parsed the finer points of Godzilla’s oeuvre. Albert certainly led this conversation, often recounting a battle in blow-by-blow detail while he telegraphed strikes with either arm. He identified with this big creature who was created by forces beyond his control and just wanted to be left alone. There might have been a tear in Albert’s crystalline blue eye as he described Destroyer putting his sharp beak through the chest of Godzilla fils, killing him.
“Wasn’t Godzilla’s kid called Gadzuki?” I said.
Smiling now, he pointed at me and nodded vigorously. Gadzuki, he said, was no match for Destroyer. But Godzilla got his revenge in the final showdown, when he “fuckin’ wrecked that Destroyer.”
Having belatedly matured and cultivated a sense of personhood, I’ve gained a charitable impulse, something engaged in with mindfulness, not simply the conditioned response of dropping coins into a homeless person’s cup. The shame is that prison disincentivizes charitable behavior.
If a guard sees me give something to a peer, he’ll assume I stole it, and am in the process of selling the item. Giving something to a peer is actually a rule violation—“unauthorized exchange”—and it can earn you a misbehavior report. And were I to walk by a cell whose inhabitant asks me to pass a bowl of food to the guy five cells away—when a guard sees me do it, I’ll likely be “burned,” not let out of my cell for, say, dinner that night. Poetic justice, the guard will think. The fact is, guards infer the absolute worst about our motivations; they’re not always wrong, but they’re seldom right.
But it’s not just the possibility of punishment that dissuades one from being charitable—there’s something darker at work. Even when you’re on guard against it, this place hardens you in ways that aren’t always pretty. The flip side of resilience can be a callousness to the suffering of your peers, an egotistic pride that thinks, I’ve learned to adapt, so should everyone else. Note to self: control for that.
When I first started giving things to Albert—peanut butter, coffee, stamps, bread, toilet paper wrapper—he would say, “I don’t know when I’m gonna to be able to pay you back.” Finally, I had to make clear, once and for all, that these weren’t loans. We were standing together in the rec area, and as I began speaking, I was distracted by the memories, throughout the years, of men—accomplished tooters of their own horn—who’d bloviate, preferably when others were around, how they “give from the heart” and they’re “not the type of person who expects anything in return,” but they invariably do.
“Look,” I said to Albert, “don’t make anything of it. When I can give you something, I will. Don’t sweat it.” But my tone was all wrong, it came off hostile—perhaps because I was practically screaming to make myself heard above the din—and Albert looked a tad confused. “Don’t sweat it,” I repeated, then gripped his shoulder, hoping that would speak for me.
One result of my work as the facilitator of a therapeutic program—not to mention my easygoing nature as I play the Hervé Villechaize of this fucking dive—is brushing up against a lot of people each day. I want to be a person to them, as much as I want them to be a person to me. Because if I’m not, that’s when the floor drops away, and I’m in that bad dream I can’t wake up from.
What does Albert think of me? I think he likes me, and considers me helpful. If he’s the least bit curious, it doesn’t show (perhaps curiosity is the luxury of those with enough to eat). Maybe he’s as intrigued by me as much as I am by him. Once, he commented that he sees me at night, “makin’ that typewriter go crazy”; another time, he said, “Readin’ again?” It would be hubristic to assume that he hasn’t devoted any mental energy to making sense of me, or pondering the dynamic of our relationship.
Just yesterday, he returned from chow carrying a bowl of apples that someone must have given to him. “Wanna apple?” he said, as he stopped in front of my cell, and held one in his hand for me.
I had a few grotesque thoughts within a second’s fraction: That is a shitty, old apple, I can actually see its wrinkles, and I’d prefer one of the half-dozen newer-looking Fuji apples in the bowl; Albert, hunched over, proffering an apple bears uncanny resemblance to the witch in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Regardless, I took the apple and thanked him.
This made Albert happy. He smiled, nodded once, then went on his way. Even if I didn’t eat the apple, Albert was allowed the feeling of doing something nice for his peer, which is a gift in its own right. Neil Young’s “Old Man” played in my head. It was one of those moments that rob you of your youth and vanity, leaving something better in their place.