Over breakfast our new celly apologized for his evening. He apparently already knew it was going to be like that, but was powerless to do anything about it. He assured us though that he would sleep through the day. I however was comfortable with my routine and was not interested in having my sleep pattern interrupted. Besides, my fears were of a more medical nature. This guy was in very bad shape. He was worse than Castro. I couldn’t help it, I bit, and asked him, “What exactly is the problem; you’re very ‘air hungry’ and frankly I’m scared for you.”
Shariff concurred, though his fear was more practical. He knew how the system worked. The thought of this man dying in our cell, and the horror of two inmates having to explain how and why, was more than he was willing to swallow.
“I have asbestosis” the older man told me. “You know what that means?” I nodded yes. He continued, “I worked on the docks, cleaning aircraft carriers for the Navy for 30 years. I knew I had asthma, but about a year ago they told me I had asbestosis too.”
“Wow,” I thought. “It’s no wonder his breathing is so labored. Not only does he have obstructive disease and can’t get air down into his lungs; he has interstitial disease and can’t get the oxygen into his bloodstream once it’s there. This is worse than I thought.”
He was a talker too and took this opportunity to tell us his life story: His name was Gerald, and Gerald was an old country boy from Texas. He was 62 years old and his plan at this point was to start a limousine company in San Francisco. He’d start with three cars and have all women drivers. Gerald fashioned himself a ladies’ man and indicated that he would “get some of his ladies to drive for him”. His goal was to buy a small house on 12 acres, east of the city. “When I caught this case,” he said, “I was selling barbecue at the carwash. This ol’ boy walks up on me and offers me some crack for a slab, so I take him up on it. And don’t you know the poooh-leeece are right across the street watching us.”
Shariff looked at me and winked. He didn’t say a word, just let Gerald continue talking. Shariff reads people very well and it was obvious he found Gerald amusing. I, on the other hand, just didn’t like him. He seemed so shiftless and dishonest. The trouble around him was palpable and for the first time since my arrival at Solano County, I felt like I was really in jail.
Gerald fit the mold classically of what you expected to find in a criminal. He was devoid of any rationality. Oh, he had his code, his philosophy, but it was a junk heap, a conflict of ideas and slogans that absolutely made no sense. And, the fact of the matter- if indeed I was honest with myself- was that I found him embarrassing. I hated seeing what I saw in him in a Black man. I was ashamed of him, and for him. He signified what I believed the un-empowered Black men of slavery must have been like. He was philosophically bankrupt and I was sure he had never heard of Kant, or Hegel, or William James.
Every interaction that he had with the nurses was an opportunity to call one of them a bitch or a whore. He cursed constantly in their presence for no reason whatsoever, and quoted scripture to Shariff and me in their absence. “I believe in the Lord, Jesus Christ,” he would say. I couldn’t help but wonder if the Lord, Jesus Christ, believed in him?
Ultimately though, it was neither me nor Shariff, who could tolerate him no longer; it was the guards. Gilligan arrived one afternoon two or three days later and simply moved him further down the hall. “You’re keeping everyone awake,” was his explanation. I guess Gerald’s constant coughing, moaning, and groaning was too much for them too. They simply moved him further away from the guard tower so they didn’t have to listen to him. In one regard, Shariff missed Gerald when he was gone, and frankly, so did I. He had served as entertainment and a void was left with his departure. Perhaps, in here, even the opportunity to complain about a colleague, no matter how difficult it is to live with him, is a welcome change to the monotony that is everyday.
The funny thing is that by the time he was ready to go, we had found him tolerable. He had even suggested that upon release, we stop by the carwash for barbecue.
Shariff found that hilarious. “As if that would ever happen” he said. It turns out that one of the conditions of parole was that you did not “hang” with known criminals. Shariff was more than sure he would never see Gerald again; he was resolved never to commit a parole violation, because he wasn’t coming back here.