The Colfax Crew
Tim Boland was awarded Second Place in Memoir in the 2015 Prison Writing Contest.
The van’s windows are unsmoked, leaving us naked to the strange looks that come as we rumble through the streets of Minneapolis. Nobody knows exactly who we are or what we do, or more importantly, what we’ve done. There is no scarlet letter on the van’s white paint marking us as pariahs. But the passersby, ignorant of our plight, suspect something is off by a degree. Instinct whispers that seven grown men don’t roll around town in a stretched-out Ford Super Duty cargo wagon for no good reason. Our origin, they think, traces back to one institution or another. We could be mental patients, they think, poor sonsofbitches out for a therapist-approved joyride. We could be a wheelchair basketball team, they think, poor sonsofbitches out for a crosstown scrimmage. We could be full-grown delinquents, they think, poor sonsofbitches out for a day on the labor gang.
And it’s a bingo on the latter. We are inmates at the minimum-security camp at the Lino Lakes state prison. All seven of us have jumped through enough hoops, dodged enough heat, done enough time, eaten enough shit, acted like convict saints—whatever you want to call it—to the point of being deemed compliant and non-dangerous enough to leave the prison camp for ten hours a day, four days a week, and work on a construction crew.
There was a time when I was dangerous to pretty much everyone and everything within a hundred-mile radius. I was loose-cannon-druggie-maniac-dangerous, which if you don’t already know, is one of the worst kinds. I got involved in some bad business back in the summer of 2008, and ended up catching an 11-year sentence for manslaughter. I was initially charged with murder and looking at a lot more time, and 11 years might have been 22 or 33 or some astronomical stretch I can’t even comprehend. But after fighting the charges in a county jail for almost two years and fighting a media circus that followed the case and fighting prosecutorial cunning and jailhouse informants and endless delays and motions and hearings and all kinds of craziness, the final number came out at 132 months.
I’m also serving a concurrent 94-month sentence for drug possession. I picked up that charge, which was pending when I picked up the murder charge, after being arrested in 2007 in a hotel parking lot with a quarter pound of cocaine. I wasn’t at the hotel selling drugs; I had been living there for roughly the previous month because I was homeless after being evicted from my own house by a wife who was tired of living with a junkie, and tired of all the other little pieces of baggage I carried.
I could spend the next thousand years explaining how I ended up in a prison cell. I could give you the Hollywood version of sex, drugs, and rock & roll. Or I could give you the bullshit-free version of how addiction slowly became a part of my life and then, as time wore on, gained and gained and gained momentum and then blew up into this brutal unstoppable inferno that eventually consumed me.
But some things have no explanation. And there’s really nothing to explain anyway. I am a convicted killer. I am a convicted drug dealer. There’s no sexy way to say it. There’s no way to sprinkle magic dust over the truth to make it disappear. No matter how much time passes between then and now, I’m a madman on paper. That ink will never dry.
* * * * *
The people in charge call us Crew Seven, as in the seventh of eight crews that are based at the prison camp. But we call ourselves the Colfax Crew. It sounds more original and less institutional than plain old Crew Seven. And we didn’t just pull the name Colfax out of our ass either. It comes from the house we are building on Colfax Avenue in North Minneapolis.
Colfax Avenue is a bike ride from downtown, in a neighborhood well past its prime, and enveloped by a decay I can’t quite name. The modest dwellings along Colfax were originally built for the blue collars, back in the middle of the century when a family only needed a one-car garage. But times have obviously changed, and so has the clientele. Every fourth house has fallen into disrepair. Burglar bars cover windows. “WELCOME” signs that hung on the front doors of yesteryear have been replaced with “BEWARE OF DOG.”
The other night, a fatal shooting took place a few blocks from the spot where we park our van every day. I saw it on the TV news. A grim-voiced reporter was backlit by red police cherries and standing beside a strip of yellow crime scene tape. When we pulled up to the house tile next morning, nothing seemed out of place. Two squirrels were raising hell under a giant maple tree, church bells were gonging in the distance, children were waiting on the corner for the school bus. There was no residue of death in the air, and the neighborhood seemed indifferent to the gunfire that had claimed a man’s life only hours before.
* * * * *
I arrived at the minimum-security camp a few months ago from the medium-security prison across the street, where I had spent the previous three years. And before that I was at a high-security prison where there was a lot of violence, gangs, politics, and basically just a lot of chaos. Many inmates at high-security prisons are doing big time—20, 30, 40 years—or life. These are the men who made headlines. Whatever they had to lose is long gone, and as you might assume, living in their close proximity can be treacherous. Days of calm are chased by moments of storm. Moments of storm are chased by days of calm. Around and around and around. The cycle of hostility never ends. Everywhere you look, out in the open or off in the shadows, someone is getting brutalized, abused, and beaten down in ways that barely seem human. Some of them have it coming, of course. But some of them don’t, and they just happen to land on the wrong side of fate. That’s how the Big House rolls. I did my first year and a half in a penitentiary, head down, eyes open and mouth shut, and thankfully made it through without a major incident.
Medium-security prisons feel like diluted versions of high-security prisons. There’s still a lot of turmoil and darkness, but the tunnel has a light at the end. Every inmate in a Minnesota medium joint is less than ten years till release, leaving a noticeable absence of the volatility generated by hundreds of men with doomed futures being housed under the same roof. Medium-security prisons are often called correctional facilities. That label, I suppose, has a kinder, gentler connotation than penitentiary, and is also a general reference to the vocational and treatment programs available to “correct” inmates of their criminal ways.
At correctional facilities, inmates can choose to participate in vocational programs such as welding, painting, cabinetry, and so forth. Treatment, however, is a different animal. The Department of Corrections makes that choice for you, and if you decline or quit or get kicked out of treatment, a month is added to the end of your sentence and the rest of your time is made as difficult as possible. A vast majority of inmates came to prison with substance-abuse issues, myself included, and in many cases those issues played a direct role in the commission of their crimes, myself also included. Within a week of my arrival at prison, I was given an assessment by some unidentified woman wearing khakis and an embroidered polo shirt and mandated to complete drug treatment. The program I ended up being enrolled in lasted 18 months, which I figured was about 15 months too long. Graduating from treatment felt like early parole.
Minimum camp is the Promised Land of the prison system. For guys who have stayed out of trouble and completed their mandated treatment programs and met certain other criteria, it’s the preferred destination to finish a sentence in relative comfort before going home. There are flowerbeds and free weights and toaster ovens and a few other jazzy little perks that can’t be found at any of the other penal facilities in Minnesota. And there are no razor wire fences surrounding the minimum camp—no gun towers, no guard dogs, nothing of that ilk. Technically it’s still prison, and there are occasional reminders in the form of petty rules and random strip searches and crappy food. But it isn’t prison. The place feels more like a low-end rest home for the mildly dysfunctional, if that makes any sense.
Once at minimum camp though, it’s not all grab-ass and Ping Pong. Inmates are required to work. Minimum camp is designed for inmates, or offenders as the correctional chiefs call us, to make the transition from prison back into free society, and a crucial part of that is being able to hold down employment. If you don’t want to work at minimum camp, they ship you right back inside the razor wire.
* * * * *
I’ve worked desk jobs my entire incarceration: tutor, education clerk, photographer, and prison newspaper editor. I was an English major in college and after that my work history entailed cooking in a few restaurants, copy editing at a newspaper in the Florida Keys, and doing some freelance writing for obscure publications nobody’s ever heard of. So this work crew is something totally outside the wheelhouse, mainly because I have zero talent in any area of construction. The tool belt and hard hat and neon-yellow vest I wear on the jobsite create the illusion of someone who’s vaguely capable of construction. But every time I swing a hammer, there’s a good chance of something getting ruined and/or someone getting hurt. So I don’t try to act like Bob Fucking Vila.
I am a Cleanup Specialist. I’ve found that the other guys on the crew avoid cleanup detail like the Mexican pasta salad that comes on our dinner tray every other Friday night. They would rather run the power saws and impact wrenches and things that go boom . . . bang . . . ggghhhzzzeeeong! than bend over and pick up scraps or push a broom. There’s no glory in the stoop labor. Which is fine with me. I’m not here for glory.
In fact, I’ve spent this particular cold windblown April morning getting my ass kicked by the weather and a caulk gun, which if you’re not familiar, is a bastard little apparatus that should never have been invented. My assignment, in general terms, was to fire a clean stream of Vulkem 116 Polyurethane Sealant into the joints where the siding meets the trim and then again where the trim meets the windows, so as to seal off the house from the elements. A straightforward task, I thought. But no. This Vulkem is some serious product, and therefore impossible for a frozen-fingered amateur to bargain with, as I’ve found out in grand style. There is more goddamned white gunk on my clothes than on the goddamned house.
Mornings are always rough business on the crew. Even the good ones are shit. Wake-up is at 5:00am, breakfast is at 5:30, and every last square inch of communal real estate in the Sibley Housing Unit is buzzing like a beehive at 5:45. Each morning, I do a finely choreographed dance just to avoid the stampede. It’s that or get trampled or lose my mind.
I try to prep the night before, laying out clothes and pre-scooping instant coffee and creamer and so forth. I want to do as little thinking as possible at sunrise, not just because I’m worthless in the morning but because, chances are, I’m coming off maybe five hours of sleep. Between the concrete beds and cardboard pillows and me being a light sleeper and the graveyard cop doing drive-bys every few minutes with a flashlight beam in the face, I have yet, after six years, to get a decent night’s rest in prison. And if all of that wasn’t enough, I’ve got a high-maintenance geezer-insomniac-pain-in-the-ass cellie who hacks and coughs and tumbles his way through the midnight hours and takes me right along for the ride. He’s finishing up a long stretch for murder. Double murder, actually. I don’t know the details of his case, nor is it my business to ask. I just know he can’t so much help being high-maintenance. The old buzzard has been living in a cage for 30 years and is basically just wrecked from doing so much time. I try not to hold it against him, the pain-in-the-ass thing, because he’s a pretty decent guy during office hours.
We’re out the door by six sharp and on the road before the official commencement of rush hour. Sometimes we’ll stop and fill up the tank with a hundred bucks worth of unleaded, but most days we’re on the jobsite with the generator firing on all cylinders by 6:35. This, if you ask me, is far too early to be doing anything, let alone fooling around with goddamned gas-powered machinery.
Things do turn a corner though, and the whole operation starts to reach a cruising altitude around nine. The morning’s rough edges wear off, the mindless talk shows are finally over and the boom box starts cranking out some good old fist-pumping, head-banging construction music.
* * * * *
The work is not glamorous, nor is the pay. My wage is a dollar an hour, and the state takes half of that to put toward my court-ordered restitution, of which the tab currently stands somewhere just south of twelve grand. After deductions, I take home twenty dollars a week, barely enough to buy the essentials. But I don’t do it for the money. A dollar an hour is more of an insult than a wage. The Colfax Crew, for me, has little to do with dollars or construction and a lot to do with things that are not only meaningful and personal, but sacred, transcendent, on fire with the same forces that made the stars. I get paid in currencies that don’t show up on the paycheck.
I get paid in freedom. How do you put a numerical value on the feeling of being unshackled to the reality imposed on me by circumstance and the Department of Corrections? You don’t. How do you monetize fresh air and the ability to shed layers of accumulated poison from years of living in vile and unnatural environments? You can’t. Think about it. You put a mouse in a cage for several years and subject it to all sorts of stresses and strip it naked and make it piss in a cup for the sake of security and deprive it of sex and privacy and dignity and then cram a bunch of other mice into the cage that are subjected to the same myriad stresses and deprivations and so forth and then you subject them all to each other. Do that to a mouse and see if it comes out of that cage unmarked by the experience. It’s just like the warden tells Cool Hand Luke: “You gotta get your mind right, boy.” Well, that’s what I do. I get my mind right. Every day I’m out with the Colfax Crew, I feel a little more like a man and less like a mouse.
I get paid in trust. Only a few years ago, inside the penitentiary walls, it would have been inconceivable to be trusted with a pair of plastic kindergarten scissors, let alone with an air gun that could shoot a sixteen-penny nail right through your skull. And beyond the deadly equipment, we are trusted to remain on the jobsite and not go AWOL. There is no physical barrier stopping us from becoming fugitives, but we know there would be extreme hell to pay if we did. The guillotine would fall on the whole crew, the whole camp, not just the asshole who took the liberty. And I’ll speak for myself: I lost most, if not all, of my credibility well before I got to prison. I mean, I’m still ten different shades of train wreck, but at the same time, I’ve made it a point to rebuild a certain level of trust with others as well as myself. After coming this far, it’s a priceless feeling being trusted again.
I get paid in perspective. For so long I’ve failed to grasp the nearsightedness caused by long-term confinement. From the inside of a prison cell, the world becomes small and the view narrow and distorted. As a result, I had gotten used to operating on the automatic, unconscious belief that somehow my problems registered on the scale of importance. Being out in a living, breathing landscape enlarges the view by multitudes, and not just what I see but what I think and how I perceive. In the first five minutes of my first day out with the crew, it became clear that my biggest crisis is of the world’s least concern.
And I’ve changed my mind about forever. It wasn’t long ago I had no concept of linear time. It was just this great big elastic expanse with no beginning or end. Call it a shallow, moronic infatuation with what’s happening and what’s possible right in the very moment. But having spent a good part of my thirties in a cage and having soldiered through a marathon of pain and loss and disgrace and endless hours of quiet introspection and having felt the unmistakable burn of being slowly expunged from relevance, I realize that time is a finite quantity. And now, six years older, a little grayer, a little wiser, a little less prone to irrational impulse, I think, Jesus, I’m not a kid anymore. I’d better make use of the time I’ve got left.
* * * * *
At noon the crew gathers in the van for lunch. War stories and trash talk and extravagant sexual comments are exchanged with gusto over cheese sandwiches (nobody eats the bologna). As much fun as that may sound, I usually take my lunch before or after the rest of the crew. It’s not meant to be anti-social. With the exception of one impossible-to-like individual who firmly believes he’s World’s Toughest Gangster Pimp and World’s Foremost Construction Expert wrapped into the same package, the guys on the crew are pleasant enough company. I just prefer to go Zen mode and have lunch by myself. There’s something meditative about eating a cheese sandwich alone and in silence.
Toward the end of the afternoon downslope, when we get back in the van, everyone is dog-tired from the day’s campaign. Some of the guys doze off by the time we get on the highway. But not me. I want to look out the window and take in the day’s waning freedom. I want to revisit all the things I left behind. I want to be acutely aware of my past. To acknowledge it. To own it.
Every day, we pass by the baseball field at the University of Minnesota, and I see my ghost circa 1997, hotshot freshman shortstop, rounding the bases after hitting a belt-high fastball over the centerfield fence, sure as hell of my place in the universe. We pass by the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market, and I see my ghost circa 2002, strolling down the aisles with my wife, picking out fresh tomatoes and asparagus, enjoying being young and in love, oblivious to the truths that would lie ahead. We pass by the DoubleTree Hotel, and I see my ghost circa 2007, strung out on coke, sitting in the back seat of a squad car, watching the cops dig through my Chevy Malibu, knowing what they would find, thinking my days were over when they found it.
It’s a strange sensation, and tough on the heart, rolling along the same roads I’ve traveled a billion times and seeing haunted reminders of my former life, seeing its trajectory rising, rising, rising . . . and then at some unmapped point, hitting something cold and dark and hard and freefalling into blackness.
The toughest part of the job though, other than operating that goddamned caulk gun, is coming back to the prison at the end of the day. When the van pulls back onto the prison grounds, I feel a surge of depressive reality course through my veins. Then the undertow of gravity. After a bloody battle in the trenches, when a man is covered in dirt and sawdust and paint and his ears ring from getting blasted with mega decibels all day and his fingers ache from frostbite’s aftermath and his back is sore from humping shingles up a 20-foot ladder, he feels like he should retire to his own abode and lay his head down on his own pillow.
But, as in all situations in the grand scheme, my situation is transient. I’ve got less than a year before this chapter of madness is over and I’m released back into the same world I inflicted my demons upon. Sometimes I stare at my wall calendar, not the part with a half-naked Scarlett Johansson staring back at me, but the part with the grid of months and weeks and days. It comes as a relief knowing this will be the last prison calendar I will ever own. It comes as a relief knowing I’ve already scraped the bottom and plunged about as low as a human being can plunge. It comes as a relief knowing there is no fear that tomorrow will bring the worst because yesterday already brought it.
It comes as a relief knowing that life goes on no matter what the hell you do.