CHAPTER EIGHT, Letter From the County Jail #3, BOOKS-A-MILLION
Dear Baby Sis,
No, I’m not writing you two letters in a row to chide you for not answering me sooner.
It’s been, what, ten days, two weeks since my last letter? I mean, even if you had received my last note and answered it in this short a time, it would be expecting a lot, not so much out of our postal system, but certainly out of the hard-working members of the Sherriff’s Department whose job it is to keep our outgoing mail, redacted, screened and appropriately stalled before mailing. Then, for them to have received your return mail, to have stalled it, screened it, redacted it appropriately AND gotten it up here to me already . . . I mean, that’s waaaay too impressive for a group of people who pride themselves on being the dimmest bulbs in the chandelier.
No, I’m writing you two in a row because I realized a couple of things about my last note I wanted to correct or expand upon. The first of them (and I’m somewhat embarrassed to do so) is to mention your birthday and Dad’s, both of which happened, as you know, during the second half of last month when they both would have been perfect topics of conversation in my LAST letter. Don’t know how I find myself belated when I had made both mental and physical notes to be sure to offer many returns of the day when last I wrote, but. . . . alas, so sorry about that. I have no excuse for your natal day acknowledgement screw-up except for my usual lameness, exacerbated in this case by the additional mental slovenliness brought on by extra worry, a lack of any kind a cerebral stimulation and a dearth of fresh vegetables.
Here’s a horrible thought about my (hopefully fictional) jail time demise: not having wasted away from worry, not stampeded in a prison riot. No, in the end, it was the scurvy that got him.
As for having failed to acknowledge Dad’s birthday, that’s an easy one. Much as I miss both Mom and Dad, I am glad that if I did have to have a brush with the criminal justice system at some point in my life, thank heaven for small favors in that I managed to avoid it until after the point at which we had been orphaned.
And now, to turn to the subject of books: as you may or may not . . . (well, how would you know?) The list of pastimes available to us here in Jail Camp is pretty limited. There
is TV, that is to say, there are two television sets mounted about twelve feet off the floor, the viewing range for each being comprised of about half of our floor space (which I would estimate being about 3500 square feet, laid out in a kind of irregular oval), but, as I discussed at some length in my last letter, TV viewing in jail (except for the first half hour or so of morning rec time when not everyone has yet emerged from his post-breakfast nap) is (still) literally that: viewing, watching without sound. In the time between my last letter and this one, I have both simplified and expanded my reasons for this:
There is probably no one cause for it, but whether out of the aforementioned castle/king syndrome, or because the topic of whatever conversation at hand is simply more interesting than anything else at the moment, OR simply because the poor quality of basically everything on TV except for professional football and Judge Judy practically demands obliteration by conversation (phew, big breath), it is just possible that we’re all simply incapable of shutting the fuck up.
The deputies, almost to a man, refuse to let volume control go above mid-level. But even if they did, removing the governor from the remote controls would have no effect, however. From whatever low level the remotes begin every day, increasing the volume of the TV does nothing but inspire louder, competing conversation, which further inspires an increase in TV volume. Etc.
With the concept of TV as a pastime thus reduced to visuals on a screen rendered basically meaningless by the loss of a comprehensible soundtrack to describe them, I can move on to the other electronic medium available to us as a viable means of passing time as painlessly and quickly as possible. Much as I would love to describe our state of the art, acoustically magnificent listening library, filled as it is with spectacular earphones, turntables and CD players, and a vast collection of history’s great storehouse of recorded music, I can’t because, of course, it doesn’t exist.
Instead, I’ll tell you what we CAN get, and that would be the overpriced but easily broken transistor radio that is available every week (complete with featherweight, flimsy earplugs) as a commissary item. Like with everything else here, it is never a bad idea to set the bar of expectation at a low level because it might just be a little much to expect your newly purchased radio to pour forth music, news and/or talk like it was actually a reliable, laudable . . . you know . . . radio. What kind of precedent would that set? An unfair one, I’d say. So, lucky for you, if you are, as I am, an NPR junkie, you can spend lots of time and expend a shitload of energy in the act of hearing very little that will sound in any way like . . . you know . . . radio.
It’s not that these radios don’t come with functionality. They just don’t come with very much of it. All you have to do is to hope that the weather is right and that it happens to fall into conjunction with the strategic placement of whichever heavenly bodies are required for however long a period is needed for the ratios, one to the other, of their relative, specific gravities to maintain a steady, resonant foundation for a connection with sufficient viability to provide a signal into the target stability without compromise or deteriorating values, until acoustical fusion is accomplished and . . .
. . . oh, I am so sorry. Those are not atmospheric features one can generally find in cooperative working order here in the Monroe County Jail. It’s not that they don’t ever converge, you understand. It's just that it's incredibly rare. You should give it a whirl, and, at some point, I’m sure you'll luck into a spot where you actually do get a signal. If you have any kind of physical coordination at all, you can probably even stand still in that spot for long enough to receive some really satisfactory listening time. I’ll never forget successfully completing my first connection stabilization, and the sweet, static-freedom of the next three minutes. It was three minutes of magic, I can tell you. As it turns out, it was also my record thus far for radio static-freedom.
Fortunately, storm clouds do occasionally come with silver linings, even here at the Monroe County Jail. You see, even though our expensive radios with the flimsy earphones are barely functional as radios. They are perfectly adequate as earplugs! As such, they are an almost effective means of making the world go away, a state I find to be particularly helpful every morning after meds when it feels really great to get physical. We can’t go outside, but I accomplish about a half hour of speed walking around the pit in a big figure eight that takes me up and down stairs; that way, it's almost a workout.
There is a gym, but it’s just a separate space, same concrete floor but with a fake wood over-flooring as opposed to linoleum. There are no machines or free weights. It does have a couple of basketball hoops and an almost inflated basketball, but . . . c’mon. I was rotten at basketball when we were all a bunch of gawky, teenaged white guys. Now, at my relatively advanced age, to play basketball with a group of twenty-somethings who grew up convinced that they were going to be the world’s next filthy rich rap superstar or filthy rich NBA superstar (or both) . . . I can’t see it.
That leaves playing cards, which is, actually, how I’ll spend as many as three to four rec time hours a day. The company is usually fun, and there’s no doubt that it is an excellent time passer, but (I ask you) how well do I really need to play Hearts or Jailhouse Rummy? I am certain that I’ll be missing nothing out of life’s rich cornucopia of achievements realized if my current level of excellence is as good as I get.
As for hard labor or work in the kitchens or roadside cleanup crews or license plate stamping, you won’t find any of that here. I wish that was not the case, but, alas, those pursuits are state and federal prison occupations that have the incidental value of being (very badly) paid employment. In order to find gainful employment here in the Monroe County Jail, you have to advance to the level of trustee, a far more limited position than it might sound, and one for which, believe it or not, I haven’t been here long enough to qualify.
And to be a county jail trustee is not exactly to have found gainful employment, either. It means that you get to be on cleanup or laundry crew, the compensation for which is kind of like a reboot of that old joke about the questionable sweepstakes: first prize means getting constantly harassed by the deputies. Come in second and you win constant harassment by the deputies PLUS the occasional, bonus dinner tray. Include me out.
All told, rec time accounts for about seven and a half hours per day. Factor in a half hour per meal, and what is left of the twenty-four hours is spent locked (not by choice, you understand) in your cell. Of cell time, knock off whatever it takes for bathroom time and,
oh, don’t forget grooming, pacing the floor, staring out the window, restless napping and restless nights (remember, all with the light shining overhead, at least until you get your sleep mask), and what is left is still a pretty hefty chunk of time. I would fill much of it with letter writing, but I pretty much write only to you because, with communication from here being slow, difficult and inconclusive, it makes more sense to have a central point of information (you) than to run the risk of stirring up more unanswerable questions than I'd ever have time to answer among any family and friends who are good enough to care.
So, then, given all the time I have left over, I am gladder than you can possibly know to fill it with reading. In truth, if the book is a good one (and there have been lots of those), I will easily ditch rec time downstairs so that I can keep reading in my cell. I am being totally sincere when I tell you that if reading were not available to me, the jail experience would be beyond heinous.
All of which brings me to a thank you that I offer in inverse proportion to my ability to express it. Until that is NOT the case, it will have to suffice for me to say in as big a way as possible, thank you SO MUCH for all of the books. I’m sure I will love this most recent batch as I have loved everything you have sent, which is not to say that jail has made me a man of indiscriminate tastes. On the other hand, maybe I’ve been fooling myself all these years, failing to appreciate that omnivorous reading might possibly be synonymous with indiscriminate.
(And there was that occasion when I missed a plane because, killing time in the airport bookstore before departure, I became absolutely riveted with indecision over what to take for my in-flight reading: a collection of essays by Woody Allen or an Agatha Christie mystery. I deliberated at length: Woody Allen, Agatha Christie, Woody Allen, Agatha Christie. I finally bought both books and strolled down to the gate to find that the plane had been gone for forty-five minutes. That experience taught me a valuable lesson, which I have applied to all travel plans ever since: if you think you’ll enjoy it or learn from it, read it. Also, don’t do mushrooms the day before a flight.)
Anyway, the fact that I loved them all (the books not the mushrooms; well, yes, the mushrooms too, but not here, mushrooms, not that you would ever do or send . . . I think you know I'm talking about the books now) has more to do with your discriminating taste than mine—as usual.
I still smile when I think of all of those books we got for Mom in those years when she was really slowing down, and reading was one of the few pastimes still available to her. She had a particular favorite, Debbie Macomber, you probably remember, a sort of Dainty June among the many authors regularly turning out the considerably more hard-core bodice rippers of the day. Whenever Mom would request another Macomber, I always complied (or you did), but never without suggesting something with a little more literary backbone or, if it was going to be a substance-free book, at least to opt for a good ol’, trashy Jackie Collins.
Don’t laugh, then, when I relate the absolute joy I felt on the day, very early in my stay here, when Shirley made the offhand comment that she’d try to find me a book. Shirley is the mental health staffer assigned to keep me sane during the rocky road of Intake. I had already categorized her as an angel the first time she popped in to see how I was acclimating. When she came back a day or so later, she handed me a very well-worn copy of Montana by Mom’s old buddy, Debbie Macomber. The cover had been torn off, and I seem to remember that it was missing a couple of pages, here and there, but after three days of nothing to read but graffiti, I could have kissed her.
It is always very exciting when, in the hour or so before dinner, they send packaged mail up from property, and the deputy calls my name to come up to the bubble because I’ve received a load of books. You have to understand, they (“they,” of course, being our keepers) do not share with us the origins of books (or contributions to our commissary
credit), but I know that since Eric shared with you the fact that books are acceptable as long as they come directly to us from Amazon, whenever I get books I know that
they must be from him or you or Kristen or Gary, and, honestly, every time, it’s as good as Christmas.
I know you said in your last letter that you had placed a book order, but I don’t know whether or not the batch I received yesterday (one of which was a Nicholas Bonhoeffer bio) was from you. If it was, thank you. If it was not, don’t despair. “They” are so unbelievably slow about everything that happens here, there is no telling when I’ll get what you ordered. But it will show up eventually. Dates from Amazon are accurate per a packing list, and the packing list has been dated upon the arrival of the books into the building. It is astounding how much time passes between then and when the books are actually placed in my hands here in The South Towers, Level Three. I guess that the act of checking the books for files, saws, ropes, lead pipes, firearms and explosives is as time consuming as it is exhaustive . . . for morons, anyway. Have no doubt, however, because (I hope you don’t mind that I say it again) I’m so grateful.
And that is pretty much the news, well, not so much the news; more, I guess, like another installment in the long and, I’m sure, difficult to believe account of the way it is in the (did you ever believe I’d be writing this?) county fucking jail.
In closing, in addition to sending best wishes to all of you, I’m also requesting more information as to what is going on in YOUR life. Also, I want to re-stress my ardent wish that, to the best of your ability, you try not to worry.
Finally, I also send this silly little poem. Actually, to call it a poem is very much to overstate the case. Doggerel is a much more accurate description of what it is. At any rate (and having spoken at such great length about all the time I have on my hands), it’s a little homage to all of you and, by way of titles, authors and allusions to them, the books you have all sent so far.
LET US NOW PRAISE GREAT (AND GOOD AND EVEN MEDIOCRE) BOOKS, AND THE
MUCH-LOVED FRIENDS WHO SEND THEM
(With Apologies to Roger Angell)
Once upon a time in jail
My life was saved with books by mail,
Without which, truly, don’t you know,
Around the bend my mind would go.
So Eric, Gary, Kristen, Sis,
Please accept my thanks for this.
And just in case you have a yen
For titles and/or by whose pen,
Went into making up the ways
The joy of reading filled my days.
A fullish list will here ensue,
And bring enlightenment to you.
John Grisham and some other sorts,
Like Scott Turow and their world of torts,
All made a fun and rapid read
When courtroom drama was my need.
Americans from years ago,
Like Hawthorne, Irving, Wharton, Poe
Seem even more important when
Their light shines on in Roth and Flynn.
To Muriel Barbery all praise rages
To the Hedgehog of her pages.
Margaret M., I loved her when
Of Tara I did read again.
A shout-out was deserved, thought I,
By Andrew Davidson’s first try.
Exotic ladies sang to me
In works by Tsukiyama, See.
Historic fiction came to the fore
By Follett, Mantel, Adichie, more.
But when I’d crave a pulpy thrill,
Macomber, Sheldon filled the bill.
Fiction-non, I found inspiring,
(If now and then a little tiring).
Doris Goodwin, Ron Chernow,
With Alex and Teddy packed a pow.
Too, tales of war in lots of stages
Came to life on many pages.
Laura Hillenbrand with Unbroken,
Many others’ tales were spoken.
Marcus Luttrell, sakes alive,
George Wilson in If You Survive.
Another tale of winning bold,
When boys in boats their saga told.
Extended works were really nice,
His Dark Materials, Fire and Ice.
And silly stories based in truths,
Like Almond’s Candy, Truss’s Shoots.
Then, back in fiction, it was tops
To read of Dave Baldacci’s cops.
And when my taste would run to gory,
Jeff Lindsay’s Dexter. What a story!
While running very close behind,
Lee Child, Jo Nesbo come to mind.
Short chapters and an easy read,
James Patterson has filled that need.
In fleshing out some heartfelt notions,
ML Stedman lit two oceans.
And whimsy came in big supply
When over Scotland love did fly.
Two operatic bios bold
Were Voigt and Fleming’s memoirs told,
And lest from this cool book I balk,
Billy Lynne’s Long Halftime Walk.
Also, full of woe’s, not smiles,
More stories from the British Isles:
The Secret Scripture’s tragic child,
And Manderly’s bleak shores run wild.
Like a bigger book, not littl’r,
Bonhoeffer’s almost killing Hitler.
To leave this out would make you grouse:
Miss Shirley Jackson’s haunted house.
That covers most of what I’ve read,
But one great hurdle lies ahead.
Long sentence untangling skills I’ll boost
When first I tackle Marcel Proust.
Whew! Even if that takes a year,
I must confess a constant fear:
That never is a greater need,
Than having that next book to read.
As grateful as I’ll always be
For all that you have done for me,
Please make sure that I never lack
For one more book, its spine to crack.