A family recipe, a childhood memory, a Depression-era handout
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December 11, 2019
My brother John and Zachary, my youngest son, are waiting to pick me up outside the gate, and they look worried. I’ve just served eighteen years for robbing banks with a toy gun to support an ambitious drug habit. Feeling like a refugee, I have five big green trash bags filled with my unpublished writings and two similar bags bursting with magazines and journals containing my published work, all of it on a wobbly cart I was given to empty out my cell. True to form, the guards refuse to let me take the cart twenty yards into the parking lot to my son’s car, and I cannot physically carry all seven bags out of the damn prison. Mere seconds from freedom, I’m stymied. The guards don’t care and won’t help — and casually threaten to lock me back up if I don’t get moving. Surely they can’t, but only the witless test prison guards. Unable to part with my works-in-progress, I dump two heavy bags of my published oeuvre in the trash, saving only a tattered Oxford Thesaurus, too precious to abandon. It’s discouraging, and yet it does not matter. I just want the hell out.
We drive down from San Luis Obispo (a lovely town scarred by the prison) to LA, where we drop my brother off. Then it’s south to San Diego. My son takes me to Nordstrom Rack and buys me some nice pants, a shirt, and a pair of Nikes. As we leave the store, I throw my prison shoes into the closest trash can. Zachary suggests this is a metaphor, but if so, it’s lost on me. They don’t like metaphors in prison, and I can’t break free of mental reflexes I developed in there.
Zak lives with his in-laws, who are eager not to see me, so I am going to stay with near strangers: Paul and Marcia Broadway. They became my pen pals after reading about my prison adventures in various magazines (including this one). We’ve traded letters for a few years, and upon hearing of my imminent release, they offered me a bedroom in their home for several months while I get acclimated. I have a supportive extended family in San Diego, but due to past transgressions on my part, living with any of them would be stressful for us all.
The Broadways’ home is in South Park, a beautiful chunk of suburbia with nearby nature trails, lush canyons, and trees everywhere. They greet me warmly, show me and my trash bags full of writings to a lovely bedroom, and begin cooking an extravagant meal (as they will nearly every night I am here), complete with sauces, wine, and accoutrements. We have dinner, and I plead exhaustion, retreat to my fancy new room, and collapse onto the incredibly soft bed. After a dreamless yet fatiguing sleep, I wake at dawn feeling like an intruder in the Broadways’ house.
The sensation persists everywhere I go. Out in the world, constant furtive glares seem to dog me. When I go shopping — an activity I used to enjoy more than the average male — I quickly get frustrated by the abundance of choice and leave. When I tentatively seek out friends and family, many are frosty toward me. The friendly ones behave as if I’ve just left a mental institution, pummeling me with a steady diet of happy talk — as if something is bound to go wrong. I’m sick of being defined by the prison experience and long to be a normal human being with a past that doesn’t need to be discussed. I also get the sense that some in my family would prefer I behave more like a whipped dog. I begin avoiding people in general.
The penitentiary was bursting with uncharacteristic goodwill and advice in the months before it released me back into the wild. Seminars and counselors taught me how to navigate the welfare state and act appropriately in society. (Though I am somewhat civilized, many of the others seriously needed those social-behavior classes.) My fellow inmates put together and passed around a list of financial resources available to every ex-convict — thousands of dollars from a dozen sources, including Social Security and the parole department. Once I’m free, I find that almost none of it is true. The resources for ex-convicts are scanty. Many who leave prison are soon sleeping on the sidewalk. Yes, there are legitimate halfway houses (with long waiting lists), where ex-cons pay to share a room with two or three or four other ex-cons and presumably ex-addicts. For me, personally, the punishment of prison wasn’t the loss of free movement; I have a rich inner life that’s hard to suppress. My real punishment was being forced to cohabitate with antisocial, angry, or mentally ill men, 95 percent of whom had personalities defined by insults and moronic macho bullshit. Sure, a few were boon companions — good musicians and chess players and charming lunatics. Nonetheless I have had my fill of sharing a room with another man and will never do so again. I spent an extra month in my single prison cell rather than live in a halfway house for six months.
During my first week free, the parole department holds a meeting for a hundred or so ex-cons and twenty representatives from rehabs, financial institutions, job-training institutes, the cops(!), homeless shelters, and religious organizations. The room is crowded, and the men are impatient. Since this meeting is mandatory, it feels like prison, and we are resentful. Nonetheless, before I leave, I hook up with a credit union — most banks are wary of me due to my past habit of robbing them. The next day I see my parole agent, a social worker, and an overworked state psychiatrist, who is too busy trying to spot would-be murderers and arsonists to care about my problems and dispenses with me in two minutes. It would be nice to have a regular psychiatrist. I believe I have a type of post-traumatic stress disorder. Various advisers and parole authorities all agree that I am damaged, but none can offer much help. The state can’t afford it, and neither can I.
Realizing that my survival is at stake, I plunge into the vast machine of state welfare. Having miraculously survived for sixty-six years, I will receive a monthly Social Security check ($924) and food stamps, for which I am grateful, though it is nowhere near enough to live on. Luckily, thanks to music and sales skills, I am good at surviving. Most ex-convicts have no skills and no one. For someone with bad credit and a long criminal record, who lives under a bridge, a nine-hundred-dollar check is an invitation to obliterate yourself with drugs, alcohol, or regrettable sex — temporary reprieves that inexorably lead to homelessness. The monthly stipend is an idiot cycle tolerated by what is supposed to be the greatest country in the world.
Thankfully the Broadways have volunteered to support, feed, and take care of me — and have introduced me to the institution of “Taco Friday” in the bargain. They refuse to accept rent from me, which allows me to save money. I imagine it will take two or three months to pull myself together, get a job, and find a place to live.
In reality it’s a three-month series of skirmishes with far-flung bureaucracies just to get my birth certificate and then a California ID. If not for Paul and Marcia’s good hearts and soft suburban bedroom, I would be sleeping in a downtown gutter — or some such sad arrangement.
During my state-sponsored retreat I wrote two memoirs that didn’t sell and four novels I never attempted to sell. I did sell countless poems, stories, and short articles to dozens of barely solvent literary organizations in eight different countries. An odd Canadian sci-fi magazine even published excerpts of my memoir as science fiction. While incarcerated, I won a PEN award and The Iowa Review’s Tim McGinnis Award. In the months before my release from prison, rather than throw away three typed hard copies of my first novel, The Narcotic Field Theory, I mailed them to small publishing houses. On my second day of freedom two publishers made offers on it. I signed with Vinal Publishing, which is willing to publish my other three novels, too. But the small advance of $1,500 will not support me as I edit and revise the manuscripts. I need a regular job, which requires an ID, as does every other transaction in life.
After confusing trips to DMVs in three different counties, I finally obtain my California ID and get my other unruly ducks in a row. I line up an interesting day job with the U.S. Census and book a few weekly gigs playing blues, country, and swamp funk at small bars and coffeehouses. Life seems to be moving in a positive direction. Then, with science-fiction-movie swiftness, COVID hits, and the entire state is shut down and the population masked. The census is evidently called off, all gigs are canceled, and the city calls for varying degrees of quarantine. I haven’t trusted the government since I was ten, so I am not sure what to believe, but Republicans are for an immediate reopening, and if Republicans are for something, I’m against it.
While locked up, I ate breakfast and dinner with three to four hundred rowdy inmates every day and became acquainted with thousands more through my job at the prison library. Now that I’m free, being alone is a pleasure. In January, before the pandemic, I begged off attending a big family gathering; the endless parade of concern and well-wishers would have driven me to drink. I don’t want to talk to anyone about prison. I have banished it from my mind. I’ve explained this stance to many, but the next time I see them, it’s still the same damn questions. Three or four times a week I play music in Balboa Park and talk to people who know nothing of me or my troubles. That’s enough socializing. I make decent money busking as a one-man blues band, doing songs by Cole Porter, Howlin’ Wolf, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, the Cure, and other artists unknown to most millennials, who tip me nonetheless. I am saving up for first and last month’s rent on my own domicile.
Though pandemic life is odd, it’s not as bad as prison. I can go and do and be as I please. To get out of the Broadways’ hair and be by myself, I take long bus rides and walks both day and night. Though I appreciate the absence of institutional bullshit, the much-vaunted feeling of freedom has yet to fully manifest in me. Occasional bouts of quiet weeping are brought on by movies, music, or my grandkids. Strangely I enjoy these little cries. I didn’t allow myself to cry in prison. My emotions are raw and always ready to erupt, and it goads my writing, which comes out easily, often in huge, satisfying drafts. Writer’s block is a myth or an excuse made by those whose hearts and emotions are cloistered.
With my emotions so readily at hand, liable to grab my heart at any moment, everything around me is open to new scrutiny. Strolling around South and North Park late at night, I notice a few things peculiarly suburban. First is the infestation of Christmas lights. The holiday is almost five months past, and these folks are grimly holding on. What would Jesus do? I imagine him, still mad about the crucifixion, tearing the lights down in a frenzy and cursing Santa as a false saint.
Deep into the night I see small bands of feral teenagers roaming the streets — probably climbed out their bedroom windows to meet their friends, even though COVID could kill their parents. I avoid letting them see me. Then I notice the teenagers eating cookies. It’s hard to be afraid of someone eating a cookie. I also spot the occasional husband who snuck out of the house to smoke a joint or a cigarette. Sometimes the midnight tokers are hidden in the lavish suburban foliage, detectable only by the twinkling light of their embers.
So far I have saved up about $2,500 while tending the delusion that money will solve everything. I knew it was going to be hard to find a room to rent. My credit history, criminal record, and general demeanor all conspire to make me look like an exceptionally bad risk; but I figure to wage a strong campaign using new (to me) digital technology. Immediately my nest egg is eaten into by expensive background checks: prospective landlords want to charge me forty dollars to look into my past misdeeds. I try to guide them online to my published stories, wherein I confess to nearly everything. Who needs a background check?
Everybody does, apparently. In my first twenty meetings with wary landlords, all are discomfited by my inglorious past. I am the sort of person for whom the background check was invented. As one building owner refused my application, he said, “At least you’re not a murderer or a rapist.” It really is sort of a consolation.
I wage my room-hunting campaign on bus and trolley and by walking serious miles. After ten days of rejection I go downtown to a notorious boarding house that advertises itself as a clean artists’ community. The spacious lobby, with its ornate thirty-foot ceilings, projects prosperity. (One always tries to hope.) Then the man at the front desk takes me up to see a room. As we go farther into the bowels of the joint, prospects grow darker. The room is like the tiny, tattered quarters of a ghost ship — far worse than my last prison cell. The walls are a filthy gray color, and the communal toilet at the end of the hall stinks of mold. Shaken, I realize that most of the people coming out of prison end up homeless or in a place like this, and that if I don’t turn things around, I’ll be here with them.
When it comes to technology, I am like a time traveler from the year 1999. I know nothing of smartphones or the cursed Instagram and Twitter. But getting repeatedly lost downtown convinced me to accept the phone my son offered. The thing absolutely has a mind of its own. I was doing so-so with such gadgets when I had access to my kids and family as technical advisers. Now everyone is hunkered down in quarantine, leaving me to my own digital devices. I proceed to screw everything up with one Internet-related fiasco after another, as if I was trained to do it. I typed “Sex Pistols” into Google, and a predatory porn-site virus saw its chance to wreak viral havoc on my computer and make me look the fool in front of my son. I also accidentally signed up for Megadeth’s fan club. (I only like one damn song.)
The other day I managed to hurt a Lyft driver’s feelings. I tried to convince him that Skynet — the evil robot computer network from the Terminator franchise — is behind Lyft’s nefarious price algorithms. In return the driver reported me — to Skynet, I assume. Then I lost two weeks’ worth of writing somewhere in the cyberverse. Next I got a pair of Bluetooth earbuds. (Why blue? Why tooth?) I felt accomplished, until one fell out of my ear and I accidentally flushed it down the toilet. Let this be a warning to other time travelers and old lonely idiots.
I have finally moved out of the Broadways’ guest room and into my new digs at the Peachtree Inn, in the really down part of downtown. Living alone, no matter how low-rent the place, is essential to my well-being. I feel lucky to have found this room, which was in truth my last chance. I like to think of the Peachtree Inn as the Chelsea Hotel West — a place where artists, musicians, writers, and borderline characters go to survive and create.
After a few restful months downtown, even with the demonstrations and near riots, small strands of tension in my psyche begin to unwind. Here in the city, however, the social fabric is so frayed, it is ready to unravel. A surly army of desperate homeless folks have taken over an ever-shifting ten- to twenty-block area centered on the old and sadly abandoned main library. One can find the sick and hungry camped out in groups of five to twenty not just outside the library but all over downtown, especially by the post office. (Just follow the stench of urine.) Someone is giving homeless people lawn chairs, canvas tents, and bicycles, which lend the encampments a foreboding look of permanence.
Between the thousands living on the street and the 1,500 or so squatting in the Convention Center and the hundreds stuck in overwhelmed shelters, there is a burgeoning revolutionary army in San Diego. State and federal authorities have abandoned them to their evidently impossible situation. If you don’t think the pandemic is creating an angry army of the disenfranchised, come down here around one in the morning and take it all in. There is heartbreak on every corner, especially among the shell-shocked newly homeless, all of their possessions strewn about them. At eleven at night I saw a well-dressed man with two little girls, maybe six and seven, sitting on a stack of suitcases, the father crying, the girls comforting him. Just blocks away, parked in the harbor, is an enormous aircraft carrier festooned with billion-dollar planes: a mothballed tourist attraction. A few thousand people could probably live on it. We spend trillions on weapons and leave decent human beings homeless and crying.
Thanks to the standard prison diet of beans, white bread, rice, potatoes, more beans, and potatoes mixed with beans, I weighed 220 pounds as I left the state’s uncaring embrace. After indulging in various pleasures denied to me for the last two decades (cheesecake, steak, Chinese food, and chocolate in all its forms), I soon went on a diet. I specifically wanted to lose thirty pounds. Fifteen left willingly during the March and April Carb Wars, but even with all the walking — enough to circle the earth — the remaining fifteen pounds have hunkered down like a cornered bank robber, saying, If I die, we’re all gonna die. In direct opposition to a lifetime of debauchery, I am going to win this particular battle with fat. For the last few weeks I have been eating only almonds, avocados, pickles, onions, strawberries, and lean turkey with a dash of garlic and lemon. Yet my body remains uncooperative. It occurs to me to simply stop eating. The contestants on Naked and Afraid just lie around, and they all lose weight. Maybe if I eat only a lizard a week . . .
Melancholy grips me for hours each day. I don’t think it’s depression, because I still write, play and listen to music, and go out on various errands. I’ve diagnosed myself as sad. Of course, a real psychiatrist might disagree, but the state informs me that it can’t provide one. I find myself watching stand-up comics on Netflix or YouTube each morning: laughter has a palliative effect. Performing as an itinerant musician also temporarily cures the blues. But, just like in prison, being alone at night is stark and ruthless.
There are bright moments, such as when I connect on Facebook with grandkids in Wisconsin who were born while I was behind bars. My grandkids here in San Diego are also a pleasure, though COVID has temporarily taken them away from me. Writing itself is pleasurable, but selling my work is a chore that makes me feel simultaneously like a predator and a beggar. The idea that my novel is to be published still doesn’t feel true, even though I have contracts and money. The book’s release date has been pushed back from June to November to January. Prior to the pandemic Vinal had booked flights and hotel rooms for book fairs. All have canceled (except Florida!). Anytime I need food or something else, I simply go out busking.
While I was in prison, the idea of solitary confinement never bothered me; I found it was restful. Now that the entire state is in solitary, it’s depressing. I can go wherever I want; I just can’t think of anywhere to go. The weight of loneliness is tiresome. The people who loved and cared for me most have passed on, and the living have gone without me for so long that they’ve apparently grown accustomed to my absence. As the novelty of my alleged freedom wears off, family members have gone back to their lives, which mostly don’t include me. My sons helped me immeasurably: Between the phone Zachary gave me and the computer my older son, Lowell, bought me, I am kept distracted and sane with movies and music and cultural nonsense. Zak put me on his family’s Netflix and Spotify plans. While walking and busing around town, I listen to music constantly, and it soothes me more than I can say.
Now that I live alone, maybe it’s time to see if romance is still a possibility for me. After the state was so kind as to release me, I had planned not to pursue any romantic impulses for at least a year. Finding love isn’t likely at sixty-six, not without a lot of work. I resort to a singles website. Online dating is like a war between spies who are constitutionally unable to tell the truth and out to trick everyone, including themselves. Old people such as myself shouldn’t be allowed on these sites. I imagine seniors dropping dead as a consequence of emotional confusion, carpal tunnel syndrome, and lack of sleep.
I once managed sales for a video dating service in the eighties and know well how much time and money can be spent pursuing companionship. In the current digital climate every singles site is filled with catfishers, sex bots, gigolos, and strange young girls with large-breast problems (worldwide!), all targeting lonely people with disposable incomes. I got catfished myself (no money lost, just emotion and time) by what could have been a computer program or a con artist living in Poland. The entity used a fifty-year-old supermodel’s picture as a profile, then proceeded to daily tell me how handsome I was while weaving a long tale of being an art dealer in various world capitals. On day ten my correspondent was suddenly stuck in Budapest, having left “her” purse in Paris, and in need of a four-hundred-dollar “loan” until the next day. I accused whoever was on the other end of being a bot, and it texted back, “Why aren’t you taking this seriously?”
Through numerous trials and countless errors, I learned that if you bring up the subject of time travel, the sex bots, unfamiliar with the concept, get confused and reveal themselves to be computer programs and not pretty women in Irvine who are attracted to my poverty and sporadic senility. Most real women, meanwhile, want nothing to do with me once I’ve revealed my past. To make things easier for them, I tell them to come to Balboa Park when I’ll be playing music, and if I appear palatable, they can introduce themselves. None do, and I resign myself to spending Thanksgiving alone, eating Chinese food and binge-watching Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Then one night, when I am busking, a fragrant apparition named Francine appears out of the darkness. Curvy and graceful, she is a little bit sexier than I am prepared to deal with, but she makes me feel comfortable, even after twenty years with no female company. Francine is warm and funny and has an endearing gap between her front teeth. As we are talking and laughing, she touches my hand, and I feel faint. Her scent causes assorted glands and suppressed longing in my body to quietly rebel. Pheromones are involved, I imagine, but to me she smells like God, if God were a supernaturally erotic being who somehow found me attractive.
Francine and I find a wrought-iron table near one of Balboa Park’s gorgeous fountains, which are lit up at night. Like a scene from a rom-com, we’re holding hands, talking about mostly nothing. I’ll have no recollection of our conversations tomorrow, because the memories are erased by a sudden and powerful kiss. Soon we are kissing more passionately than common sense might recommend, and making a scene. After my long fall from grace and many lonely years in prison, that such a woman would passionately kiss me in the middle of the park is life-affirming and righteous. I am not so foolish as to fall in love quickly, but I am bonding hard with Francine at the moment. She is the sort of earth mother who oozes sweetness and love, and I radiate a need for exactly that. My spirit lightens. Love, as usual, is the answer to most problems. For the first time since I’ve been out, a spark of freedom reveals itself. The world is a little warmer.
Saint James Harris Wood
After the collective dark night of the soul we all endured this past winter, your March 2021 issue was like a spring rain. The issue’s themes of love and incarceration simultaneously broke my heart and filled me with hope. I was delighted to learn that my favorite inmate-contributor, whom I’ve followed on your pages for years, Saint James Harris Wood, has finally found not only freedom but a darling companion [“I Still Don’t Feel Free”]; that Doug Crandell, whom I adore even more after having spent time with him during one of your writing retreats, is still submitting gritty prose about finding intimacy in the unlikeliest of places [“The Union Waltz”]; and that mailboxes have feelings, too [Readers Write on “Mail”].
With politics such as they are, and the pandemic on top of it, I’ve struggled to keep turning your pages. Sometimes it all seems too heavy. But this issue reminds me why I keep subscribing: life can be hard, but it is still breathtakingly beautiful.