The Glass House
Loud-ass motherfucker was sitting on the upper tier watching the game. It was on the Sports T.V. (the Black T.V.), which with the General Viewing (White) T.V. and the Spanish T.V. were bolted to the wall of what was originally designed as the common area but due to overcrowding and certain other circumstances had recently become my bedroom.
“That’s synchronized basketball!” he shouted. Again. “That’s synchronized basketball!” And again. “That’s synchronized basketball!” He took a drag on a freshly doctored Black n’ Mild (meticulously dis-assembled to remove a composite inner sleeve, then re-packed with the same molasses cured junk tobacco only recently swept off the floor of a Virginia warehouse). “That’s synchronized basketball!” he shouted again. It didn’t stop. The mantric phrase was repeated for what seemed an hour, as if he had just learned this rare polysyllabic word and was showing it off like a new toy. He was one of the more sullen and dumb ones.
Ninety-six men were crammed into space designed for sixty. The dorm, separated from the rest of G-unit by a two story wall of wire-reinforced windows was known both colloquially and officially as The Glass House. The rest of G-unit lived in three-man cells, which, emblematic of the entire overloaded infrastructure, were originally intended for one man each. But they had gone quickly to two man occupation and with the arrival of the new warden, three. The triple bunks were simply welded in a stack, like some monstrous set of adult Legos.
Officially it was a temporary measure. So they said. But then everything is temporary really, so it wasn’t quite an outright lie. It gave prison administrators a cushion of plausible deniability in case the International Red Cross came around to gently remind them that the law and general moral standards required X-amount of space per inmate. It was a “temporary measure,” only as permanent as the welded steel bunks.
It was all temporary. The men from B-unit had all been moved over to G-unit so an outside contractor could come in and install a whole new air conditioning setup over there. Biscayne unit was to be empty for six months. That’s what they called it, “Biscayne.” All the units had been given lyrical Florida themed names. “G” stood for Gator but it felt more like Gangster.
I had some good friends there though. Charles Kirksey had been in prison more than once, this last time for credit card fraud. A large, dark skinned brother from D.C., he had done a few stick-ups as a kid but caught a fed bit doing a credit card scam at Hechts. Big department store in Washington. Kirksey was in there buying suits and cologne and hundred dollar sunglasses on a hot Mastercard when they came and grabbed him and it was all over. He was just too big and too proud and too stubborn to play all that sucker shit like getting a job or whatever square folks do. Back in the slave days he would have worn a ball and chain. Might have been a big chief or a king in the mother land of antiquity. Despite this latter day criminal incarnation, Kirksey carried himself like he was somebody. He treated me with respect, seemed to like me. Maybe he recognized a kindred spirit; I think I’m somebody too.
Not everyone has that. There are those with no pride left. Some men will do anything to get over. On anyone. By any means. Even really stupid shit. We had food thieves, locker thieves, extortionists, you name it. All that and then they walk with a swagger, talking about how they will be respected. Then he pulls an onion out from up his ass and says, “Yours for three stamps.”
The guys around my spot were mostly okay. I knew them from B-unit so at least some alliances had been previously formed. I play to my strengths: writing, reading, drawing. I help dudes with school work, ghost-write love letters and poetry. I try to be useful and have a good time.
Ronnie Wilson had the bunk below me. He was kind of a mope but always said hello to me when I passed and I always said hello back to him in an effort to be friendly. He did this in a slow and studied fashion. “Hello Mister Graves,” he would say, standing by the door to the cellblock as I entered. He stood right there, checking everyone who passed off the sidewalk. He falls on the grass. A crowd gathers quickly and the unit cop comes up, grabs his radio out of the leather radio holster on his belt. “Inmate down!” he yells “Inmate down!”
We’re standing right next to the medical facility so the P.A. comes running out, keys jingling like they do when drama breaks out. Then they bring the golf cart to haul him away. Ronnie’s lying there staring up at the sunshiney sky. Not a freakin’ thing wrong with him except he wants a week off from work in the dish room. Who knows what the quacks made of it? We had a blacksmith and an undertaker posing as doctors. Hip to malingerers, they likely filed some malarky like, “Inmate Wilson appears to have had (sic) a, episode of seizure (sic). Origin unknown. Recommend detention in the Special Housing Unit for observaton.”
It’s not a new scam. They gave him the once-over-lightly with the stethoscope, checked his blood pressure and locked him up. Two weeks later he’s back in the Glass House like nothing happened.
“What happened, Ronnie?”
“Oh, I jess’ fell out, I guess.”
Somebody was always beefin’ in the Glass House. We fought over the microwave, fought over the showers, fought over the T.V.s. Eventually, my friend Gharles Kirksey got in a fight with the synchronized basketball dude. It happened over a cigarette. Like I said, Synchro was an asshole, a surly, prejudiced piece of shit. I guessed it was he who disrespected Kirksey, saying “Gimme’ a light,” and grabbing for Kirksey’s cigarette instead of something more genteel. “Excuse me, may I please . . . ”
They were always smoking and drinking in the Glass House. Smoking, drinking, fighting and talking shit. You think federal prison is cushy, clean and modern, but this felt more like a refugee camp. It was dark and dirty and crowded and loud. When I lay down to sleep at night, finally relieved of the constant assault from the huge stadium lights overhead, I would look up at the walkway of the upper tier right above me. Prisoners hung over the railing there, talking, smoking, peering down into the darkness. I looked at the toes of boots and sneakers, elbows and forearms hanging on the rail, the glowing tips of cigarettes, six feet above me.
And my gesture had spared us all the implications of a brutal “no” I had taken the high road. Or maybe I had simply caved in. I watched him methodically put the book in his locker; never saw him read it even once.
I had one good pair of Carolina Red Wings. In the beginning, they gave everyone two pairs, one for work and one for dress. Before the budget cuts started coming on strong, we all got good shoes. The Red Wings, being of high quality cowhide, took a fine shine and lasted quite a while. Later they changed brands to some ugly old man’s shoe. The “Right Shoe” they called it, a dowdy, ill-fitting piece with a moccasin sewn bead around the toe. They were hideous. Everyone tromped the heels down and wore them like slippers, saving the old Carolina Red Wings for visits, for church, or for sporting around on the weekends.
It had been a while since the switch though and I had one of the few pairs left. In jail, your shoes are the equivalent of your car in the real world. Footwear indicates a lot about a prisoner in terms of style and status. So I shined my old Carolina Red Wings with Kiwi polish that I bought from the commissary and now that I had a “white collar” job (in Education) I wore them to work with a pressed tan uniform. With a black webbed belt and shiny brass buckle it made you feel like you were in the army. Get up in the morning, go to work, and suddenly you’re more that just a piece of shit convict. I’m a soldier in some forgotten, exiled army, an officer and a gentleman.
Sitting on my assigned chair, in front of my assigned locker, I’m polishing my shoes, now and then glancing up at Pedro Escamoso on the television. It’s fairly quiet on a Saturday afternoon, with most of the Phillistines off at the weight pile, or walking the track in their little cliques. I’m polishing my shoes, which are taking a good gloss under the monster stadium lights and Ronald Wilson is watching me like a frog on a log. He’s reclined on his bunk, absolutely still, watching my work with his dark, unblinking eyes. “Them is some nice looking shoes you got, Mister Graves.”
It shouldn’t have surprised me to find them missing. I didn’t even notice until Monday. I got up in time for work, reached under the bunk for my prized polished brogues and they were gone. I said, “Damn, where’s my shoes?” and went off to work in sneakers. The whole dorm was suspect. I mean, these fuckers were always stealing something.
Anyway, I wanted to look sharp at work because that’s where the broads were. It may sound silly since they are officially out of reach. But they dress up too, coming in to work all dolled up like they’re going out on a date. Flirt-flirt-flirt; smile, smile, smile, smile; tease, tease, tease, tease. I was a goner.
Wednesday morning I shuffled back from breakfast to dress for work again and glancing under the bunk, there they were. Like some delinquent had taken my classic Chevy out for a three day joyride and then parked it carefully back in the garage. No scuffs or anything, the only conspicuous change was a weird looking cross pattern drawn onto the inner sole with a magic marker. Ironically, the thief had marked them, branded them if you will, to preclude further thievery. Like I said, the Carolina Red Wings were a hot item.
Ronald Wilson lay there on his lower bunk that night looking out into the room with his shiny, amphibian eyes. His face a blank tablet, I tested him, remarking that, “I got my shoes back.” He registered nothing. Ronald Wilson remained inscrutable, giving up only an obligatory nod as he turned the page of a two month old issue of Vibe.
The whole incident; however well-resolved, was cloaked in silence. It seemed a sleeping dragon no one wished to awake. I found Kirksey again and told him, “I found my shoes back under my bunk.”
He looked at me and said nothing. I wanted to thank him but the laconic response steered me away from any back slapping “way-to-go” expressions. “Well, I sure am glad to have my shoes back. I don’t know how it all worked out but I do appreciate it. Those are my favorite shoes.”
Kirksey affected an air of casual dismissal. “Well, maybe someone thinks you’re alright.”
That seemed to be the end of it. The prized icon lifted into the realm of stolen-dom and then mysteriously returned. An act of God.
Thursday night in front of my locker, I’m chatting aimlessly with my bunkmate, the mercurial Ronald Wilson. It was a conversation of platitudes. I liked him less and less.