Knowing When to Quit a Story

Hopefully that is not the end to my story, but I do think it’s a great place to end that story. It’s time to package it in manuscript form and see if we have a reasonable book here. There were so many things that I got to share that I was never allowed to say and I am appreciative of that. I do want to thank those of you who offerred content and editorial suggestions; they were invaluable.

On a personal note I’m thinking of calling this book “Breakfast for My Mother”. I think that encompasses the setting and at the same time gives a tremendous amount of insight in to whom the author is speaking. We’ll see. I’ll keep you posted.

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But tonight’s death, sleep that is, was slow in coming. I tossed and turned, fighting to find comfort not so much for my body but for my mind. I have unfortunately, been adequately socialized to the routine at Solano County. Since I could not sleep no longer, I lay awake in the darkness listening to the sounds of the building, waiting for the familiar buzz of the door to the day room unlocking, a noise that signaled the arrival of the medication nurse. I lay still listening to the sounds of the morning. I did not want my excitement to disturb Niko. He had indeed been a pleasure to bunk with. I could hear the nurse and the guard chatting as they ascended the stairs to the second tier. Then it began, the serial slamming of the hermetically sealed doors: swoosh, blam they screamed as they closed, one cell door after the next, their solid closure serving as a fitting end.

I was waiting at the door when Officer Powell peeked through. That too had become custom. It was the last attempt on my part to retain some control, and while it certainly was a small jesture it served to remind me that I won’t always be able to control my surroundings, but I can control how I respond to them.

Breakfast, on what was to be my last morning at Solano County, consisted of a peanut butter squeeze, corn bread, a muffin, milk, and jelly. True to form, before I, or anyone else, was finished, the power to the cells was cut and we were left in darkness. I waited for my eyes to adjust, and then washed my apple and peeled an orange I had saved from the day before. I sat and ate them in the black cell thinking “I’ll not have to do this again”. I’ll not have to finish breakfast in the dark because some asshole has control of the switch.

I could hear the “pat-slide-shuffle” of the slippers on one of the inmates pacing restlessly in the day room. I looked out my window. It was the serial rapist. He walked as far as the wall would allow him and then turned and walked back. He still looked a bit crazy and bobbled and weaved with nervous energy periodically licking his lips to apply moisture. “It must be the drugs,” I thought.

I returned to my bunk to escape the morning cold. When I was done with the fruit, I lay quietly listening to the sounds of the building some more. I had hoped for a few more hours of sleep but that was not to be. It was 0538 and I was too excited.

I was desperately trying to suppress my elation about the prospects of leaving Solano County, its just that…well…nothing happens here until it happens, and I didn’t want to get careless, or set up for disappointment. I also didn’t want the guards to to use that elation as an excuse for dragging their feet. I had learned to minimize the highs and the lows in here. I lay in the dark until 0645.

Niko and I had turned the stool bolted to the floor in the cell into a Stairmaster – so much for those who argue they can’t make it to the gym. It actaually turned out to be quite an aerobic workout. I did it for 22 minutes, and then slowly began to discard the things lying around the cell that I wouldn’t be taking with me: a pair of dilapidated shoes, old wash cloths, mail stored at the bottom of my blue plastic bin labeled 2H-11A, and bars of used soap.

At 0730, Officer Smith flashed his flashlight through our window on his morning rounds. It was fitting that Smith be the floor officer on the day I was to leave. He hated being here more than I did. Like In more ways than me, he was actually the prisoner being held here. He nodded “hello” and informed me that I would be checking out once he finished rounds. Oddly, I found him warm and genuine. In a few moments I would no longer be an inmate. I geuss for Smith that meant he no longer needed to rlate to me as an animal.

A few moments later, he called me to the floor desk via the intercom system. “Adams, it’s time to go.” And then there was the familiar click and grind of the door opening. Niko and I shook hands and that was all that was necessary. I knew unlike most of these fellows, I would one day see my friend on the outside. You purposely don’t form too many bonds in here, but occasionally it happens. It is the nature of things.

I carried my bed-roll and meager belongings across the day room floor to the dayroom door. My colleagues were all at their windows cheering. They were happy for me, and a part of me was sad to be leaving them behind. Some of them were funny; some of them crazy; a few of them were psychotic; and all of them were characters. I will miss them and think of them often. I owe them for the lessons they taught me about life. I owe them for the memories.

The door buzzed open and I stepped through to the foyer in front of the floor officer’s desk. Smith, with a twinkle in his eye and a sense of joy in his demeanor, placed my belongings in a large brown paper bag and stapled it shut. He asked me for the last time to stand next to the wall, and placed a chain around my waist and cuffed my hands to my side.  He handed me two bags, one contained papers and the other contained a few books: the Cleveland Clinic Review of Internal Medicine, Schwartz review of Surgical Principals, and a few odds and ends.

A petite, plump, older female guard then escorted me through the maze that was the second floor, down one flight to registration, and put me in a holding cell. It seemed like I had sat here in this same place only yesterday. It was as if time stood still and all of this was just adream. A few minutes later a sergeant came over and had me sign a release for my property: a black suit, dress shirt, underwear, and one shoe.

I quickly changed clothes. My shirt was wrinkled and my suit was too big. I didn’t really care. I wore the canvas shoes I had purchased from the commissary and carried my one dress shoe along with my bags. I returned my prison stripes to the guards and was escorted to the door in a room at the back of the building. The guard looked at me and I looked at him. Neither of us said anything.

He motioned toward the door and I pushed it open.

The day was beautiful. The sun was bright, it was warm, and as I stepped out into the fresh air, the guard said simply, “Good luck…To get any money left on your books make three quick rights.” He closed the door. That was it.

I just stood there for a minute just soaking in the sun, took a very deep breath, and began walking toward the front of the building dragging my two bags and holding up my pants with my free hand. At first my legs were unsteady, but as I continued to walk I felt stronger. I hadn’t been able to just walk for quite a while.

After three quick rights, I walked to the doors at the front of the building, looked through the glass and there was my mother. She was reading the paper and I watched her for a few seconds. I was very lucky to have her in my life.

I didn’t go in the building. There was no need to. When I opened the door, she looked up and I waited for her at the entrance. We hugged quietly and turned to walk to the car. I left Solano County that morning. No fanfare. No drama. No ceremony.

My release, though, wasn’t the end; it was only the beginning. There were so many things yet to be done. I thought of the words of William Ernest Henley:

“…Beyond this place of wrath and tears,

Looms but the horror of the shade.

And yet the menace of the years,

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate.

I am the captain of my soul.”

I looked forward to rebuilding my life, but most importantly, I looked forward to making breakfast for my mother.

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The sad case in here is the rapist’s ex-celly, a young man who was discharged from the service after having spent time in Iraq. He is suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and has simply been unable to find his way. The word around the campfire is that he doesn’t even know why he is here. Niko tells me, having been in G mod, that he didn’t even know the serial rapist was his celly; sounds to me like this guy needs to be in Walter Reed, not Solano County. Perhaps that is theconsequence of budget cuts. That’s just sad, a traumatized vet injail rather than a hospital.

I had planned to go to the “yard” this morning during “unlock”, but again Office Weary is the bearer of bad knews. He informed me that unfortunately, we don’t have access to it. That makes five times in the last six weeks. Ms. Jones, in classification, was admonishing me on the importance of eating and exercising “at my age in order to prevent muscle wasting.” I wonder if she knows they’re the ones preventing the access to the gym.

Snoopy seemed particularly crazy this morning. My fear was that he had been drinking Pruno. He was bouncing off the walls; he was clearly a lot more animated than usual. I still don’t know how they accomplish making alcohol in their cells without the guards knowing. I guess people will find a way to do whatever it is they choose to do.

Incidentally, the “voice” is back on the intercom. The high-pitched shrill that is Officer Finnegan, the one who always says more than is necessary and always as condescendingly as she can muster. She must be back from vacation or witches’ school. Today she informed us four times that “the floor officer, personally, required that everyone have socks on”. She said it four times, not so much that we would have that information, but, more importantly, so that she could hear herself talk. It was Officer Weary’s fetish, which over time had become the rule. As I said before, the rules change according to the whims of the guards.

A lot of guys come out of the shower in their plastic/rubber slippers. They allow their feet to dry before putting their socks back on, or they wait until they are back in the cell. It is a minor point but has become a point of contention for Weary. It is just one more way to harass us over nothing. Who puts on socks and then steps back into wet shoes? And one pair of slippers was all you had. Finnegan simply delighted in adding one more layer of insult. I suspect her of atrocities because of the things she says when she thinks no one is listening. On Thursday, Oct. 1, at 12:10 p.m. she came on the intercom. H mod is overcrowded and we have six people sleeping on cots in the day room. The cots are 12 inches off the floor but inmates in the day room are expected and harassed by the guards to stay on them all day, at all times. Try sitting all day 12 inches off the floor. Finnegan says, “Mr. Pena, Mr. Pena, who lives on the floor; get ready, you’re going to court soon.”

Mr. Pena doesn’t live on the floor. Mr. Pena is a human being being victimized by being forced to stay on the floor in an overcrowed jail. Mr. Pena is not convicted of a crime (except probably being broke in the worst depression of our time and not being able to afford bail). That’s why he’s going to court; he has been convicted of no crime. Until a court convicts him of a crime, Mr. Pena is innocent. Why must he also suffer the degradation from a civil servant?

Simply informing Mr. Pena that he was going to be transported to court and needed to be ready was all that was required. I think Mr. Pena knew he was living on the floor, and now so does everyone else.

And just to make sure I wasn’t being overly critical, she did it again. At 12:40 p.m. on Oct. 1, 2009, one hour later, she repeated the insult: “Mr. Pena, Mr. Pena, who lives on the floor, let’s go. It’s time to go to court.”

I do feel at times that I have been too harsh on the guards. But the ease with which some of them dispense their whimsical, perverted rules is abominable. Their supervisors tolerate it because all fish stink from the head. And while I and my colleagues may be none better, I relish in the realization that it is they who after all have the choice. We are only responding to their lead. They have all the power and they choose to be assholes.

I have spent the greater part of the day in reducing my meager belongings into something I can carry in anticipation of my release tomorrow morning. I awarded Niko pens, paper, and nonperishables. I’ll get Snoopy the toiletries.

As best as possible I have avoided any contact with the guards, and frankly, I do not harbor any special distaste for any of them, I just want to leave them behind. There attitudes and behaviors are best catergorized for what they are and forgotten. No one should carry that type of memory, or better yet acid, with them.

I seriously doubt that Solano County will serve as a shining or defining moment in my life, but I did learn a number of things about living, and about myself, that I will take with me as I leave to rebuild or rather re-create my life.

With the addition of some new fish, there are now seven guys sleeping on the floor in H mod. Seven more than the mod is designed to accommodate. I look at them and I shake my head sadly. I realize that part of me may never leave here. That I will not only take with me what I’ve learned, but that I must also acknowledge that I leave behind a part of me. I feel some compassion toward my colleagues, and I wish better things for them all. I smile at the camaraderie: the passing of hot water under a door clandestinely hidden in a tortilla bag in order to make a hot cup of coffee.

KC had pulled me aside during “unlock”.  He asked that we keep in touch and gave me his home address and number on a torn piece of paper. “It was a pleasure to meet you,” he said.

“I wish it could have been under better circumstances,” I thought. But in reality the circumstances are better any time you can make a friend, and in here, one desperately needs friends.

“We’ll keep in touch,” I assured him. “I have your address.” I hope that’s true, though I know a lot of these people will fade with time as this experience gets further behind me. Life is like that and perhaps that’s the way it should be. “What is life?” the poet Seneca said, “except a preparation for death.”

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