1) Prologue To My Memoir <——-The full story starts here in a previous post
Most seventeen-year-olds are Juniors or Seniors in high school, primarily concerned with winning the affections of that pretty girl in math class, maybe even offering to carry her books because they remember a tale, most likely narrated by their grandfathers, about the time-honored methods of expressing one’s interest in the fairer sex. But I, during an era that should have been consumed by researches of college campuses, visions of wild dorm parties so close to fruition that the mere thought would quicken my chest with anticipation, was instead on the darkest ride of my life, being transported to prison – adult prison.
I didn’t have to perform a visual survey to know I was the youngest on board. The snippets of chatter I strained to overhear apprised me of this unfortunate fact. One guy said he was “fuckin’ glad” to be going to prison because “it’s sweet compared to the county jail.”
Another guy said, “Just to make sure nobody fucks with you, you gotta make an example of the first bitch who tries you, bust his head wide open.”
A third voice gave an account of his arrest. “This bitch gave me three crack-rocks to hold because some nigga was tryin’ to steal’em, so I put’em in my pocket…” In short, he was arrested for the rocks after he was “illegally searched.” A few passengers chuckled at the conclusion of his story. I smirked, then straightened my back and stretched my neck to get a glimpse of the storyteller, a tall guy with sunken features who moved his head a lot when he spoke.
Those barely intelligible mutterings, rich with expletives and slang terms, were, to me, a sort of handbook, a guide to surviving prison that I could store in my mind to be revisited when circumstance necessitates such action. And although it was the banter of society’s forgotten men, it was helpful because those ridiculous stories, opinions and musings were spurned by the horrible experience of having taken the trip before. I was surrounded by people who had amassed extensive collections of Frequent Felon Miles. We bounced our way forward in a squeaky rendition of a bus that reeked of sweat and urine. Worse yet, the sweltering Florida heat intensified the sickening odor. Some convicts pinched their noses while others breathed into the crooks of their arms to avoid the stench. I opted for another technique, holding my breath for long periods, then exhaling slowly, repeating this for most of the ride. We were just prolonging the inevitable. The smell would weave its way through every fiber of the jailhouse fabric we wore so shamefully.
Upon arriving at our destination we were shuffled off the bus, the ‘Blue-Bird’ to the prison population, and lined up beside it. Four correctional officers were ready for our arrival. They eyed us carefully and suspiciously but, strangely, none seemed to detect the foul fragrance of the Blue Bird’s rotting innards.
“You’re in my house now,” yelled one officer, an orange-headed guy with a comical twang and one tobacco-puffed cheek.
I darted my eyes left, right, to the other inmates lined up on either side of me, gauging their reactions, but there was nothing, not an audible breath to be heard, no twitch of a muscle to be seen. I took my cue from the others and gave the welcome party my undivided attention.
“You are now property of the state. You eat when we tell you. You sleep when we tell you. You wake up when we tell you. You shower, shave, and shit when we tell you. Is that understood?”
Property? Like my Super Nintendo back home? My Yankee baseball cap? A possession? Like Puerto Rico? Up to that moment I’d never felt that I had no vote in my life, that I belonged to someone or something else.
“Is that understood,” he yelled.
“Yes, sir,” we responded.
He stood quietly, except for his labored breathing, waiting for the chance to make an example of someone, or maybe, in his mind, he was a plantation owner in the 1700’s, shopping, eying a potential purchase but wondering if it/he/I would fit well on his land. He was sizing us up, trying to separate the obedient from the rebel with one investigative glance. After a few seconds he turned, hocked and spit, his tobacco-infused saliva smacked the concrete with a splat.
One minute after stepping off the Blue-Bird we were led to a cage, locked inside with one officer amongst us, and ordered to line up in two rows facing each other. More than five officers watched from outside the cage, ready to rush at even a hint of aggression towards their own.
The officer strolled between the two rows of convicts, spun around when he reached the end, set his feet a bit more than shoulder-width apart, swung his hands behind his back. “Take everything off and place it in a pile in front of you,” he said.
A collective split second of hesitation incited the officer to scream. “Now! You need to take all your clothes off now, and stand there, naked as the day you were born, until I tell you what to do next.”
Being made to strip naked, ordered to line up in two rows facing each other, while locked in a cage with one officer, well, in retrospect I recognized it as a psychological tactic. Everything was designed as a tool for conditioning our minds.
I began tugging my shirt over my head at a sloth-like pace because we were outside, in sight of all the other officers and staff. Maybe I was hoping the officer would say ‘Just kidding, leave your underwear on,’ but he didn’t, so I continued disrobing, down to my skin, until I had a small pile of neatly stacked clothes one foot in front of me. Then I just stood there like everyone else, statue-still, waiting, self-conscious.
After a few minutes we were each given a pair of boxers to put on and a big manila envelope. As instructed, we stuffed our personal belongings into the envelope, sealed it, and wrote our names on the outside in bold, black marker. Then, as ordered, we all spun “ninety degrees to the right.”
That first day I found myself in a hundred lines. After being suited with our prison “blues” we exited the cage in a quiet, single-file, and then we lined up to be weighed. I was 145 pounds, a Welterweight by boxing standards, easy prey if using the prison scale. And we lined up to have our heights recorded. “Five feet, seven inches. Step down. Next!” And we lined up to get our ID’s and to be issued a ‘Classification Officer,’ who did nothing but tell me that I could expect to be transferred to my “permanent camp” within a couple of weeks, but I already knew that, everyone knew it, because we were in South Florida Reception Center which is a temporary holding facility for those of us who were convicted and given time. And we lined up to get our linen and finally rushed off to some dimly lit hallway and ordered to sit in a row of those chair-desk combos that everyone remembered from their school days.
A smiling woman, maybe in her lower forties, appeared at the end of the hallway. Her hair was short, dirty-blond, and her voice revealed a Spanish accent. “Listen,” she said, “be quiet because you don’t want to get into trouble when you just got here. I will be back in a few minutes to give you your dorm and bunk assignments.”
The guy in front of me turned around, swiveling his head in a way that reminded me of an owl. “How do you say ‘pretty’ in Spanish,” he whispered.
“Linda” was the class of word he sought, it means ‘pretty,’ but I said, “call her ‘titere’.”
“Titere,” he asked, pronouncing it correctly while squinting at me.
The word ‘titere’ translates literally to “puppet,” but deep in the lexicon of Spanish slang it possesses pejorative and vulgar connotations. It refers to someone who is easily manipulated, like a puppet, but also, think of the kind of puppet that comes alive only when a hand is inside of it.
‘Yeah,” I said.
The short-haired latina appeared at the end of the hall, discussing something with an officer while pointing at a sheet of paper she held. When she started to walk away ‘the guy in front of me’ gave a low but extended catcall, then, in a kiddie sing-song voice that he probably thought was cute, he said, “Titere.”
“She didn’t hear me,” he said. “I’ll catch her on the way back.”
What if he gets into trouble, I thought. He might get angry. He was barely taller than me but had me by about 40 pounds and 10 years. And as we moved about our day I noticed that he snuck in a nod or a ‘wassup’ to about twenty different people, so he was a local, a resident of nearby Miami.
I stretched forward, tapped his shoulder. “Wait, wait, don’t call her that.”
“Because I made a mistake. That word means something else.”
“What?” He looked at me from the corner of his eye.
“Yeah, call her ‘linda’ instead.”
“Then what does ‘titere’ mean?” He glared at me, his head tilted diagonally, eyes squinted and one corner of his lip slightly raised.
“It’s a slang word. She might misunderstand what you’re trying to say.”
“What, that word means ‘slut’ or some shit?”
My answer tumbled out over chuckles. “Nah, it’s nothing like that.”
“Then what does it mean?”
“Don’t say it to her,” I repeated.
“I just did but she didn’t hear me.”
“I know,” I said.
“If I had got into trouble for that we would’ve been fightin’.” He shook his head.
“That’s why I’m telling you not to call her that.”
“I don’t care man. We would’ve both went to confinement about that shit.”
Every head in our group turned to face us, expecting us to spring from our chairs swinging clenched fists. They were probably edgy and uneasy that a clash might begin so soon, only a couple of hours after having arrived on the compound. I was supposed to respond with mirrored aggression, and I could tell he was ready, half-turned in his chair and scowling, daring me to accept the challenge, but I didn’t, though my face was warm with anger and adrenaline lapped through my veins. And it bruised my pride, I mean, the Bronx taught me to accept all invitations to fight, unmindful of the results, the outcome something the “winner” bragged about when trading war stories in a circle of his peers.
“This ain’t my first time down. I don’t play like that, and I don’t care about confinement,” he said, glancing at the others, no longer facing me.
I looked at him, pressed my teeth together, said nothing. My heart told me to get up, swing, fight dammit, but I didn’t. I had no experiential knowledge of prison, no idea of the rules, not the ones clearly outlined in the handbooks that were given to us, but the real rules, the ones that mattered, the ones created by and for convicts, the rules that correctional officers knew nothing about. I needed time to study my new environment, at least that’s what I told myself. It’s like learning to ride a bike. A few bruises and scrapes are expected in the beginning, just part of the learning process, but soon you pick up speed, you learn how to maneuver on two wheels, and only after that do you take chances, barely noticeable at first, but chances, and then you graduate to the ‘very risky’ category by attempting a trick that might actually impress the onlookers. There is a time for everything and instinctively I felt that right then, at that moment, it was not the time to fight.
*Please let me know your honest opinion of my writing. I welcome any and all criticism and advice