Cell eleven was a mess. It had been vacated so that the nine guys sleeping in the day room had access to a toilet. Needless to say, because they didn’t have to sleep in here, or clean it, they trashed it. The first order of business was to clean and disinfect it, which I did personally because my neurotic conscience wouldn’t trust anybody else to do it.
I also got a new bunky, a short, round, grey-bearded white guy, who was more than willing to let me do all the cleaning. He claimed he hadn’t slept in two days and that the “plastic beds” they used in the day room “weren’t worth a shit.” I was, like I said, glad to oblige because he didn’t strike me as a guy who paid attention to detail. He was about 5’6” 175 lbs with a large beer belly, rusted skin, and a gravelly voice which betrayed the many years of booze and cigarettes. Nonetheless, he was very agile in making it to the top bunk. He clearly had done it before.
I hadn’t had time to get his name yet – those things happen slowly in here – but I must admit I was particularly proud of our suite when I finished.
My new bunky chose to stay in and sleep during the morning unlock – a common theme amongst the older inhabitants. I for one couldn’t wait to get a shower. Psychologically, I wanted a new start. I felt dirty after cleaning the cell.
The first few days with a new bunky are awkward. You want to establish a friendly relationship without actually doing anything friends would do, especially sharing information. He seemed accommodating enough; he had spent a number of tours in jail and prison, but unfortunately it was painfully obvious we had nothing in common. He did however have two things in common with my former bunky: a complete set of false teeth and snoring.
The one notable difference, though, was the amount of anger in him. During the jockeying stage, that period of the first day or two when you get a new bunky and try to figure out if it’s safe to sleep in a closed space with him, he attempted to use humor to disarm me, but unfortunately our humor was drastically different. We did agree that the female guard in the tower who made most of the daily announcements had the most annoying voice, and then… then I made a huge mistake: I asked him if he was married.
A simple yes or no would have been sufficient, but he tore into a tirade of swearing and degradation of women that gave me a headache – it appears that this was where a part of the anger came from. He said he had “gotten rid of her” – and I did not ask. In here, that doesn’t necessarily mean divorce. When someone in here says says “I got rid of her” it usually means they killed her.
I allowed him to finish and quickly changed the conversation to the afternoon unlock. He was going to participate in that, but was quick to point out that he spends it quietly sitting off alone. The younger guys create too much stress for him and although I knew exactly what he was talking about – the younger guys are louder and engage in more horseplay and drama – he was quick to acknowledge that he just wanted to “do his time with the least amount of hassle.” Good for him, and he didn’t have to listen to himself sleep. That was surely going to be a hassle for me.
The “unlock” was particularly interesting for me because I got to witness something I had expected to see, but hadn’t. Remember in “The Shawshank Redemption” when Andy Dufrane (Tim Robbins) first arrived at the prison and the other inmates, the veterans, were taking bets on who would be the first to break down? Well first of all, the inmates at Solano County aren’t allowed to smoke so cigarettes don’t function as currency. (We used envelopes and candy bars.) I had yet to see anybody in here actually grasp the reality of their predicament and break down. As I said before, most of the young guys see “time” as a part of what they do, and take it in stride – at least those involved in the drug trade. But they are looking at tours of three to five to ten years.
Our clean-cut, quiet, young white kid, the one the guy in here on a murder rap is afraid of, is looking at 89 years. He’s panicking and has just about exhausted his store of ideas about what to do. The thought of spending 89 years in here will get your attention. Worse yet, what he had decided to do – or maybe it’s more accurate to say “what he did but didn’t think about- was call his mom. In his frustration, he began to break down and cry. I actually could hear him sobbing but was unsure of where exactly, it was coming from. At first I thought it was the TV, and then, there he was: squatting against the wall, his head plastered to the phone, his eyes red and puffy, his nose running and nothing but screams for his mother “to help” him coming from his mouth.
I went to his bunky first. “Look,” I said, “your boy is decompensating over there, and you know as well as I do that if you don’t get him to stop, they’re going to eat him alive in here.” I didn’t even want to think about him trying to survive in the pen. He’d be a little girl or dead within a week.
His bunky just shrugged, but his point was well made: “What do you expect me to do for him?” he asked. “Everybody in here is on their own. I can’t do anything for him.”
The scary part was that it was true, and at least for now he got a reprieve because one of the bible thumpers, the religious cats, was the first to get to him.
They hugged – he hung up the phone – and the guy began to reassure him that God would get him through this. That he, “needed to trust in the Lord and things would work out”. Sound advice, don’t get me wrong, but I’m not sure the Lord is in San Quentin. And 89 years is a long long time.
The “unlock” ended with a lot of subdued smiles. It was not so much the ridicule of this young man, as it was relief that it was not you. There were times when I thought it could have been my former bunky because he had started to do the math. The time doesn’t mean much on a day to day basis. You simply set up a routine within the guidelines that work for you and you live it. But if you get to a point of where you’re saying I’m twenty-three and I’ll be 62 when I get out, it’s over. You might as well be dead, because your time for living just got taken away.
Ben Franklin was right, “Do not squander time, for time is the thing that life is made of.”
There are light moments in here too. The ability of the human spirit to adapt to its surroundings and flourish is amazing. The NBA playoffs are in full swing and it’s good to see my colleagues smile and joke with each other about their favorite teams. Most of my colleagues are from around here, so their favorite team is the Sacramento Kings, which already says a lot about Solano County – the Kings stink. But the distraction helps, in your imagination and the flow of the game you can forget where you are. You forget the food is bad, the surroundings are dangerous, and that the people you care the most about aren’t really in the next room.
Right about now, Noel and I, that is Dr. Noel Tenenbaum, would be on the phone giving our “expert” opinions and discussing our predictions for tonight’s game. Wynn would be suggesting we watch it at his house, and Bill and N”Gai and I would be pushing for Nic’s Martini Bar in Beverly Hills. In fact, my imagination already has me there, and I’m smiling. I’ll see them soon and in the meantime I get to share these insights from the inside with you.