The heap of state-issued linen was bulky and warm and smelled of cheap detergent. There was a decrepit mattress cover, one sheet, an old gray blanket (woolly and itchy), a thin pillowcase, a bar of soap (that irritated my skin when I used it), a washcloth with small holes in it, a toothbrush and toothpaste (both travel-sized). All of those items I cradled protectively, guarding them like a newborn. I knew nothing of how plentiful or scarce those items might have been on the compound, so I squeezed them close.
An officer pointed at me with a swollen, hairy hand, dark threads crept from beneath the cuff of his shirt. “You’re in dorm seven.”
“Dorm seven,” I repeated, the words reminding me of my friend Brando and the Bronx and a particular rap song by Eric B. and Rakim.
“Yo! Did you hear that?” Brando screamed the question excitedly as he speed-walked to the tape player and poked the ‘rewind’ button with a snap, a forty ounce bottle of Olde English in his left hand.
“Yeah, something about ‘seven holes in his face’ but I don’t get it.” I sat on a shaky wooden chair by the window.
Brando’s bedroom was the daily hangout spot, a place where we listened to Hip-Hop music religiously, sometimes silently, mentally analyzing the lyrics, bouncing our heads to the beat, only speaking to make an observation about the words jumping through the speakers, to clarify a particular line or to announce our approval of a rapper’s delivery and word choice. Mostly, that’s what we did, but his room was more than just a laboratory where we broke down rap music. It was a place to engage in underage drinking, where I lit my first cigarette, a place where we told stories, screamed and yelled and made fun of each other, sometimes rudely and mercilessly, but, more significantly, it was a place where we felt safe because right outside the window, laying sprawled out amongst a milieu that occupied four blocks, was Castle Hill projects, and I’m talking late 80’s, early 90’s Castle Hill, when baby-faced drug dealers crowded the streets and gathered in the lobbies of the buildings and crack addicts roamed the halls and parks and sat on sidewalks, when gunshots rang nightly, to nobody’s surprise, a time when safety was just another privilege we didn’t have.
“That’s ‘Five Percenter’ knowledge,” he said, “but here, listen again.” He pushed ‘play’ and Rakim’s trademark mellow flow filled the room.
“…seven holes in my face as I’m looking out my window/speak with the beat and it seems like the wind blows-
Brando paused the music. “The seven holes he’s talking about are your eyes, ears, nostrils, and mouth. In the Five Percent Nation the number 7 is a godly number.”
“Wait. Why is it called the Five Percent Nation?”
He told me the belief was that eighty-five percent of the world is uncultivated and lost and ten percent of the world exploits that ignorant eighty-five percent while the remaining five percent is enlightened and has ‘knowledge of self.’ “So that’s why they’re called Five Percenters.”
A pensive look communicated my nescience and curiosity. “Okay, and why is 7 a godly number?”
“Ra actually mentions that in this same song,” he said, then pressed play to resume the music. A minute later he flicked a half-smoked cigarette out the window, gently placed his giant beer on the dresser, gestured to his ear with one hand and pointed at the speaker with his other.
“…I’m god, G is the seventh letter made…”
“Right there! That’s called supreme mathematics,” he said, and proceeded to explain that the numbers 0 through 9, according to the Five Percent teachings, each has its own qualitative merit, like 1, 2, and 3 represent knowledge, wisdom, and understanding, respectively, and the number 7 represents God. And it may have been at that moment, on the second floor of that apartment building, dissecting a tune by Rakim entitled ‘No Competition,’ hanging out with Brando, the broad-shouldered, bushy-haired room dweller, that I began to ponder the meanings of numbers and took notice of the frequency with which certain ones were magnified in my life, like seven, which I concluded was a good sign. Maybe I was delirious from the dense smoke swirling about me, peskily threatening to activate my sneeze response, galvanizing me to swat at the air in front of me, or maybe it just made sense.
“Yeah,” the officer responded, “just follow that guy out to the rec yard. You’ll see the big 7 on the building across the compound.”
Doing as told I followed the inmate who was ahead of me in line, not blindly, but rather closely, down the hall, through the lobby and out the door, squinting my way into the sunlight, the open air, and there I paused.
I stood there, a worried boy in a swirling world of feral men, and no officers in sight. It was a combustible mix, I knew it, and I noticed the curious glances, stares and double-takes. I didn’t blend in, not with a 145-pound frame, not with a skinny face that accentuated my cheekbones and jawline, not with my wide eyes and smooth skin, man, I just started shaving.
My body was spilled over a plastic lawn chair in the ‘Juvie’ pods of Orange County Jail, watching reruns of Martin, when a correctional officer approached, a white and orange Bic razor in his extended hand. “Varela, you need to take that off,” he said.
I sat up, grabbing the arms of the chair. “What?”
I knew what he said. I heard him. I saw the cheap razor. I gripped the arms of the chair, not to steady myself or hoist my torso forward, no, I did it to keep my composure, ground my body to the seat. I needed a split second to remind myself where I was. To openly celebrate a new biological development was taboo, I mean, it was a milestone in a young boys life but, given my surroundings, I feared a rambunctious response would invite laughter. I was enlivened over the officer declaring my facial hair grown enough to warrant a shave. I wanted to snatch the razor and run, wildly ascending the metal stairs, straight to my room, my cell, and gently glide that razor across a lathered cheek, the way I saw it done in television commercials. Instead I furrowed my brows and pursed my lips, suppressing a boyish grin that was struggling to be noticed.
“You know the rule,” he said, “You have to be clean shaved at all times.”
I pointed at my chin and said, “Look at this. Really? C’mon.”
With a small back-and-forth wave of the razor he asked, “When was the last time you shaved.”
“Really?” His voice conveyed suspicion and disbelief.
I nodded. “Yeah, for real.”
“Do you know how?” It was a sincere inquiry.
I thought I detected a spark in his expression, a hint of a grin with a genuine bent to provide instruction. “Okay,” he said, “you’re going to need some shaving cream, but if you don’t have any-
-then use soap to lather up the areas you’re going to shave.” He spoke in a warm tone, advising me to use hot water, to shave in a downward direction and not “against the grain.”
There are moments that life reserves for a father and son, instances that afford one an opportunity to impart wisdom and the other a chance to receive it, interactions that foster a mutual appreciation. It’s as if the world freezes for their benefit, and a father becomes the chief component in his son’s latest transition towards manhood. Nature designed it that way, for a dad to be a forester or gardener of sorts, to protect and oversee the maturation of his seed. He ensures all developmental stages unfold organically, uninterrupted by life’s vicissitudes. I never had such a male figure in my life. My keeper wasn’t a relative who I strove to emulate, no, it was someone who would jam me in “the box” if I violated a rule, who told me to ‘shut up’ while I was eating, who would, at once, dump my few possessions all over the floor and call it “a routine search.” All of those things confused me because that person, that officer, villain, overseer, was the same person who taught me how to shave.
But shaving was of no pressing concern, not with me standing alone in the middle of a prison compound for the first time. I darted my eyes, surveying those closest to me, wanting to steer clear of thievish looks and strong-arm intentions, hoping to make an assailant before he ever moved. The thought of scrapping over cheap supplies that could be replaced for a few cents was chilling, but there was no other option. There could be no flight response because there was no safe haven to which one could flee. Unfortunately, that left fifteen hundred people who never learned to handle problems in a rational and diplomatic manner, who were acutely tuned in to their fight response, to coexist within the confines of an oppressive and punitive arena – certainly not a recipe for growth and rehabilitation. My sense of self-preservation instantly heightened and my chest beat a cadence unfamiliar to me. Life would never again be as simple as “in case of emergency, break glass and pull down handle,” no, it was more like “in case of emergency, break glass, grab a large shard that fits nicely in hand, wrap a t-shirt around one end of it – a makeshift handle – and use the pointed end, the sharper, more jagged end, for purposes of survival.”
I saw a village, like an old walled city, with peddlers pushing their wares, hand-drawn greeting cards in exchange for one or two bucks in commissary, three soups for two cigarettes, a pin-sized joint for ten bucks. There were watchtowers but something was happening in every blind spot: Dimly lit corners were gambling dens. It was a bustling little city of exiles.
A circled track was the main street. The dormitories were all around it. I walked slowly towards Dorm 7, listening to every conversation, gleaning what I could. I stepped inside the dorm. It was too dim, too many shadows. There weren’t many people inside. They were probably taking advantage of the daylight hours.
I approached the first officer I saw. “Where is this room,” I asked, holding out a piece of paper with my bunk assignment.
“Just walk upstairs and circle your way around.” She was young and pretty, maybe twenty-six years old, with blond shoulder-length hair.
I heard each step on the metal stairs like church bells. People watched me, glancing repeatedly at my progress, but not one person spoke. By the time I stepped into my cell I was sure that everyone knew exactly which cell “the new guy” was in. There was a steel toilet immediately to the right, attached to a steel sink. A scratched and blurry mirror, also made of steal, was drilled into the wall above the sink. The bottom bunk was taken, fixed neatly, but my cellmate wasn’t in, maybe in the rec yard. I assumed my cellmates bunk was set up properly and I tried to arrange mine in the same way, with the gray blanket pinched tightly beneath the skinny mattress, the white sheet cuffed at the top, just below where the pillow sat. I guessed it was a military style. I tucked my toothbrush and toothpaste beneath my mattress.
“I guess that’s good,” I said aloud, then turned towards the window.
I wasn’t tall enough to see out the window, but a radiator cover, which guarded against a radiator that was mostly set into the wall, jutted out about two inches. I put the toes of my right foot on the lip, held onto the top bunk for balance, and hoisted myself upward. I pressed my face against the thick metal mesh to get a better view. I saw that walled city again. There were people walking around the loop, gesticulating wildly and laughing. Inside of the circular walkway were basketball courts, handball courts, and a covered exercise station. And if I focused on the window, instead of the rec yard that was beyond the window, because of the sun’s glare, I could see what was happening behind me. And a silhouette appeared in the doorway of my cell. He remained there. He didn’t step in. I hoped to see him move along after a few seconds, but he didn’t. I turned to look at him over my shoulder. He was about six feet tall and muscular.
“You’re cute,” he said.
This is it, I thought. I knew I had to react strongly. Just a few hours in South Florida Reception Center and my fight response kicked in for the second time. The first incident I avoided easily, just some words I didn’t like. In the Bronx we’d call’em “fightin’ words,” but, even in that moment, I understood them for what they were, one man’s attempt at announcing his tough-guy status, standing on a mound of my swallowed pride to preach his message. This was different. This guy wasn’t performing for others.
I jumped off the radiator cover, spinning as I did, to face the man in the doorway. There was seven feet of space between us. He was bigger and older which, to me, meant more strength and experience. But my youth meant more speed and agility. And I knew I was a better fighter than my years would suggest. I had never felt so focused.
“What,” I said through clenched teeth, my fists balled up at my sides. “What did you say?”