The pen twitched and jerked six-inches from my left eyeball, “FUCK YOU, YOU RACIST MOTHAFUCKAH – I KNEW YOU WAS AYE-BEE!!”
“AYE-BEE? AYBEE?! HOW THE FUCK COULD I BE ARAYAN BROTHERHOOD IF I’M HALF-FUCKING-JEW?”
It was just my fifth night in the twelve-by-eight foot concrete cell, and apparently my cellmate, a hilariously militant member of the Black Guerrilla Family, was convinced that because I’m white and had spent rec periods sitting with the six or seven other white dudes at one of the picnic tables instead of among the fifty or so black and Latino guys – I had to be racist.
“OH YOU’RE JEWISH, YOU FUCKING CRACKER? Jews stood on the docks WAITING slave ships to come in so they could buy my people on the CHEAP!! YEAH!” Every time he emphasized a word, the pen was thrust closer to my pupil.
“DAMON WHAT THE FUCK!! MY GRANDPARENTS GOT HERE FROM THE UKRAINE IN THE EARLY NINTEEN-HUNDREDS! Bro, no one was buying or selling slaves anymore at that point!” Given my situation, I figured it was a good idea to just give my paternal Jewish background, and not get into the fact that my Cajun maternal side may or may not have had a little free help on the farm.
“I’m gonna take this fucking PEN and shove it right into yo’ fucking BRAIN, motha-FUCKAH! You ready to DIE tonight? Maybe I’ll kill you NOW, maybe I’ll wait to stab this pen into yo’ eye while you fucking SLEEP!! YEAH, BITCH!” Since getting stabbed to death through my eyeballs in my sleep isn’t my idea of a good time, I decided I was done calling his bluff- both my hands shot up to his wrist and I wrenched the pen free. As it clattered to the ground I pushed him away from me and took inventory of our cell.
Resembling a forgotten cinderblock storage closet somewhere in the bowels of a 50 year-old high school, stains and other residues – some patches appearing to be toothpaste or residue from old tape, others indeterminate pale discolorations – covered nearly every square inch. Our metal bunkbeds stood stacked to my left at eye-level, and our two metal stand-up storage lockers were on the right, leaving a walkway maybe two-feet wide, and behind the friendly neighborhood gang member were our metallic sink-toilet combo, two metal shelves four-feet up, and our massive metal cell door.
“FUCK YOU DAMON! You’re gonna fucking kill me for sitting with white people?” Granted, one of the white guys was an “Odinist,” a group that used the study of Norse mythology as a really, really transparent front for promoting White Supremacy, but after he turned over the wooden Hammer of Thor he wore around his neck to flash the swastika penned onto it, I rolled my eyes and laughingly explained that I was half-Jew, so there was no reason to try and recruit me. “I’ve got a black best-friend,” I exclaimed to Damon, “a freaking black god-daughter, and I’ve helped a rack of black kids I’ve coached escape their upbringings and get into college!”
“FUCK YOU WHITE BOY!” Apparently my cellmate was unswayed, “you fucking euro-PEAUN!!” I rolled my eyes at this and sat back down in our cell’s lonely plastic chair.
On my second day in Housing Unit 7, notorious as the prison’s gang unit, a “kite” had been slipped under the door. Unfolding the crude note, I found a threat purportedly from the Muslim Brotherhood demanding $85 a month in food from me. Skeptical, and not yet realizing Damon was a fucking psychopathic junkie since at first he’d sold himself as a friend, I asked him what he thought of the note.
As soon as he started trying to convince me it was a real threat and that his “boys” could protect me for less money, I realized I was in the middle of my first protection racket. But I played dumb and let him prattle on until our door slid open, and ignoring the kite’s warning not to discuss things with ”my European friends,” I went to get confirmation that my hunch was right from the other honkeys on the tier.
Over the next week-and-a-half more kites followed, and Damon’s threats grew increasingly violent and bizarre. We’d go form having a heartfelt and intelligent discussion about slavery’s enduring legacy and the damage the War on Drugs has done to inner-city Baltimore, to minutes later Damon pulling the giant steel drawer out from under the bunk-beds and wielding it over his head, threatening to bash my brains in right then and there – or after I’d fallen asleep and thought I was safe.
I honestly don’t know how much of his erratic behavior was fueled by smoking K2 and snorting Seboxone, and how much was good old-fashioned mental illness. Well, and how much of it was just being an asshole. But I felt I was between a rock and several hard places: if I got busted fighting I’d risk screwing up any chance or parole and having his gang the BGF come after me, if I told a guard what was going on I’d be labeled a snitch and definitely get stabbed, and if I “checked-in” and demanded to go into protective custody, I could be marked as a pussy and targeted for the rest of my bit.
Things finally came to a head when I came back into the cell after evening rec to find Damon standing with his shirt off and swinging the lock, which had been previously been attached to my locker, around in one of his ratty socks. His sheets were torn off his bed, and he held a note in the hand that wasn’t swinging the lock-in-a-sock that he shoved towards me. The note claimed that a guard on the Black Guerrilla Family’s payroll had popped our cell during rec, and some BGF members had stormed in, broken my lock off the locker and stolen all my food and toiletries before Damon had miraculously managed to get the broken lock into a sock and fight the thieves off.
Pure bullshit, but I wasn’t sure what to do yet, so I just played along, which resulted in a roughly six-hour rant about how “Europeans” had fucked the world up and not done it a single nit of good. Since Damon was menacingly swinging the lock-in-a-sock throughout most of his rant I managed to stay awake as I laid on the top bunk, occasionally grunting my agreement. Finally the door popped for 4:30am breakfast and I was able to grab a quick nap while my violent lunatic cellmate went to eat. I woke as the door clanged open for his return and for some reason breakfast, or maybe it was withdrawal, had made him even angrier - as after pump-faking with the lock-in-a-sock multiple times, Damon finally hit me in the side with it.
Jumping down off the top bunk I hollered a hearty, “THE FUCK DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING!!” and backed Damon up against the cell door. Even with his weapon I was pretty confident about a fight, so long as I was awake for it and not ambushed in my sleep. I knew Damon wasn’t athletic and although he was he was about six-foot four, with his shirt off his physique resembled the evil antagonist hobgoblin from Sin City: little bitch tits and a distended belly.
Damon spun the prison mace over his head, but after feinting a few times I closed the distance and ripped it from his hand. He swung a fist at me so I dropped down under his arms and ripped his left leg up into the air. “WHAT NOW, BITCH!! YOU STILL WANNA FUCKIN’ DO THIS!?” I hollered at my cellmate, who was now hopping on one leg, unable to attack me. In a wrestling match I would’ve been well on my way to a two-point takedown, for the time being I’d brought myself some time.
Later that night during rec I conveyed the full story to the only guy I kind of vaguely trusted since his older brother was a three-time State Champ who had wrestled against one of my high school teammates, and he reassured me that removing myself from a situation where my cellmate was threatening to kill me in my sleep with a variety of weapons, as well as breaking and stealing my shit, didn’t really constitute snitching. So after rec was over, I told the guard on duty that I “refused housing,” and would not go back into my cell. Guards on duty on the compound, irritated at having to actually do something other than nap, brusquely handcuffed me and threw all my stuff into a cart, and then escorted me to Housing Unit 5, where inmates on administrative or disciplinary segregation are housed, which is where I now write from in my luxurious – instead of small space heater, the entire floor is heated by hot water pipes – single cell.
So long as you relax into it, there’s something oddly comforting and peaceful about the stony uterine embrace of a prison cell. There’s no cell phone to buzz or ring, no jarring unexpected emails, no awkward conversations, and absolutely no obligations or responsibility. Not only do I get breakfast in bed, I get lunch and dinner in bed too since the cell is small enough to let me reach the door flap my food trays come in while still seated on my mattress. And although the portions are meager, I’d gotten pretty freaking fat from the stress leading up to my sentencing, so a diet I can’t possibly break will likely be good for my health in the long run.
Plus when you’re pretty much constantly hungry, everything tastes amazing. And time becomes a funny thing when each and every day’s schedule is indistinguishable, in the present you can get really, really bored – but then you blink and it’s four or five days later, or has it been six or seven days? – and you can’t recall much of anything from the time that’s passed other than eating and reading a whole lot. Is it Thursday or Friday? Would it make a difference?
Although the investigation into the domestic issues Damon and I had could take upwards of six months, with any luck I’ll be out of here by Christmas, able to· walk outside for the three daily meals instead of trying to glimpse nature solely through the tiny half-inch holes in my window grate, getting several hours of rec a day as opposed to the one-hour locked in a cage indoors every three days I get now, and hopefully working as a tutor or teachers aide before too long. Sometimes I play the whole experience with Damon back in my head to see if I could have handled things differently, and although I was 90% sure he wasn’t going to kill me in my sleep, given his heavy drug use and growing paranoia and mental instability, that other 10% wasn’t really something I could mess with.
(Note: A couple of years after this incident Damon was released back into society, and within a few months committed this shooting. So uh… my math may have been a tad optimistic.)
Oh yeah, and after breaking my lock off he got into my mail and waved a letter with my parents’ return address in front of me – threatening to send the BGF to their house to kill them if anything happened to him. So all in all, I think the end we reached was fairly inevitable and maybe the best of all possible outcomes.
For now, I wait. One day melts into the next. Guys shout back-and-forth across the tier and it occurs to me that even Lil’ Wayne would blush at their liberal use of the n-word … assuming Lil’ Wayne can blush. The wind makes the plastic trash bag I have taped to my leaky window with the labeling from food products crinkle and sigh, pipes shudder and moan from all different directions as toilets are flushed, and somewhere out there the people who love and miss me are living their lives without me.
I hope everyone’s doing okay.