Just after breakfast, after they’d returned to the cell and were waiting for their work detail calls, the fight happened. Bill had stepped up to the cell gate when they called for brown bombers and he had taken two of them though he hadn’t yet swallowed them. He was standing close by.
The new inmate was a small guy, a kid maybe Bill’s age. He knew he’d been robbed when he awoke and couldn’t find his butts. Since Bill’s bunk was directly opposite, the new man went there first. He asked Bill, who was still up on his bed, if he had a cigarette. Bill got down and gave him one and a light too.
“My name’s Blake,” the guy said.
“You see who robbed me?”
“I’m no rat.”
“I’m just doing my time like everyone else here. You see it or not?”
“It was the tough. He always has a crew around him. I’d let it go if I were you.”
“I’m a black belt. I’ll handle it.”
“Don’t involve me,” Bill said.
“I appreciate your help. I won’t. But I got your back now.”
Blake waited until everyone was hanging out waiting for their call to work. Then he stepped to the middle aisle in the middle of the cell and called out for everyone’s attention. “I was robbed last night. Someone took my cigarettes and my soap. I’d like them back, no questions asked.”
No one said anything. There were a few guffaws but otherwise, no one paid Blake any mind. Everyone continued with whatever they were doing. So Blake started stepping up to people, asking if they’d seen anything. Of course no one did. He stepped up to Bill too. Bill simply shrugged him off.
Blake tried several more people before he stepped up to the tough. “You the big guy in here?” he asked.
“Some people think so. What of it?”
“Well maybe you could help me out.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“Saves you a beat down.”
The tough laughed. “How you figure?”
“Well,” Blake said, “I’m gonna be here about a month and I’m not planning on getting robbed anymore. Someone gotta pay. I don’t get my stuff back, it’s gonna be you.”
The tough stepped away from Blake a bit. “You hear that?” he said to his crew.
“Well?” Blake said. “What’s it gonna be?”
The tough took first swing. Blake evaded it deftly. The tough swung again and missed. Back on balance, he rushed Blake. Blake sidestepped and pushed the tough on his back so he fell forward face first. That’s when the tough’s crew stepped in. Three came at Blake simultaneously. Meanwhile, the tough was standing up again, stepping in again.
Blake went into his karate mode. He put down the three crew members, two with his hands, the third with a side kick. The rest of the tough’s crew, seeing this, stayed quiet.
So it was the tough and Blake, one on one.
“You can still walk away from this,” Blake said. “Just get me my stuff back.”
The tough looked around, saw that he was all alone, saw that the one who’d been kicked had not gotten up yet. “Okay,” he said. He started to walk away but pivoted and threw a kick at Blake. Blake blocked it and hit the tough just once directly in the solar plexus. The tough fell to his knees gasping for breaths.
Blake stepped up to the tough. He put a hand on his back and sat him down. “Shh,” Blake said. “You’re okay. Take it easy. Breathe slow. Relax yourself.”
When he was ready, Blake helped the tough up. “Stay away from me and my stuff,” he said. “I’d appreciate it if you saw to it no one comes near me. And I’d like my smokes back. Whoever took it, can keep the soap.”
Blake left the tough and went back to his bunk. A few moments later, the call came for the first work detail. Bill’s was the third detail called this morning. When Bill got up to the gate, the guard said, “Not you Wynn. You’re getting out today.”
Bill walked back to his bunk more than ecstatic.
Day Sixteen at night, Bill’s stomach still ached. It had ached all day. Bill thought it was the disquieting images from what he’d seen and the new-found anxiety it roused in him. What happened reminded him of how vulnerable he was, how vulnerable they all were. Even the tough was vulnerable, Bill thought. Anyone could get anyone if they really wanted to and were willing to accept the risks and the consequences.
He remembered. The first time he was hit with a nightstick was when he was about seventeen. He was riding the subway and had his feet up on the seat in front of him. A cop came from behind him, smacked him on the knee and told to take his feet down, which he promptly did.
Bill laughed to himself. He remembered telling that story to a friend. The friend cavalierly said he’d have gotten up and decked the cop. No, Bill thought. You wouldn’t have.
Hang ’em high Shul, Bill remembered. He got the most right-wing judge there was. The liberal judge wanted to throw the case out at the pre-trial hearing, saying it was the most ridiculous case he’d ever seen, but he didn’t do it because he believed the police would have re-arrested Bill, charged him with rioting, a felony, and raised his bail so high he’d have been stuck in jail. And that was not to mention his facing time in the State penitentiary.
We’re all vulnerable, Bill thought. Every one of us.
His stomach would not give up. He did not go to the commissary. At times he couldn’t breathe, it started to hurt so much. So he lay there thinking maybe it wasn’t anxiety. Maybe, he thought, he needed a brown bomber.
Sleep did not come easily that night. Unlike what had been his norm, he lay awake long after lights out. He listened to the snoring, the wheezing, the coughing. He didn’t cough yet, but he figured he would from the smoking sooner or later. The smoking had surely killed his mother, he thought. He believed it would kill him too.
He thought. He listened. That night, like every night, there was the procession to the john, the parade of men who went to take a leak or to take a quiet crap. Bill got up once to pee.
He was settled back in his bed when he saw the tough get up. The tough made his way to the bathroom with three of his gang following but he took a detour at a new inmate’s bunk and quickly rifled through his stuff. Bill saw him steal cigarettes and soap. Bill made sure to not be seen seeing.
When he finally did fall asleep Bill did so with the images of the guards beating that big guy. The repeated kicks, each strategically placed, replayed before his eyes. They brought back his own beating the day he’d so innocently gone to meet his professor for lunch. They brought back the other times in his life he’d been the direct subject of injustice. No matter what that big guy said or did, he didn’t deserve that beating, Bill decided.
Bill dreamed about the tough. He dreamed about the theft. He awakened with a start a half hour before wake-up, his stomach worse than ever. He decided he would take a brown bomber.
Bill had taken his usual seat in the paddy wagon. They were just marching the new inmates off the bus, a march Bill knew well. Bill and his work buddies watched the so-familiar routine not expecting to see anything they hadn’t seen before.
After exiting the bus, the new inmates, still in street clothes, were being lined up. The guards were just beginning the dance of intimidation and all seemed quite normal, quite usual until the same guard that had picked on Bill went off on one of the new arrivals. He was a big guy, much bigger than Bill, much bigger than the guard.
Everything was predictably unremarkable until Bill saw that big guy spit in the face of the guard.
“You see that?” the guard said to his friend.
“Sure did,” his friend said. “That’s assault on a police officer.”
“Sure is,” the guard said.
While they talked, the guard took out a handkerchief to wipe his face but another guard quietly walked behind the line. Bill saw him swing his nightstick one time and crack that big guy right on the back of his neck. The guy fell to his knees, completely stunned. That same guard reared back with the stick and cracked him again right across the back, and then again, two cracks to his rib cage.
No one on the paddy wagon said anything. Everyone watched intently. Everyone watched the guard who had been spit on kick that big guy in the face knocking him back and down, his legs still tucked under him since his knees were bent.
“Okay, big guy,” he said. “It’s gonna be a long stay for you.”
“F–k you,” the big guy said.
“Yeah, yeah,” the guard said. He walked beside the big guy and kicked his face once again. This kick knocked the big guy out.
The guard with the shotgun who oversaw everything stepped apart and said to everyone in the line “Move and you get shot. You think not, try me. No more words from me.”
The guard who had been spit on stepped over the man down and unzipped his fly. Bill could not exactly see this, but he did see the stream of urine flowing down from him over the face of the unconscious new arrival. He took his time and took a long, happy piss on the man’s face.
“Okay,” he said when he was finished peeing and had put himself back together. “Let’s march them off.”
Bill and his work detail buddies watched as the men in the line were led into the workhouse. The guard who had been spit on remained with the man down, and so did his partner. Only when no one else was in the courtyard/reception area but them, did the two guards go to work. The spit-on guard used carefully placed kicks, one after the next after the next. His partner used the tip of his nightstick, jab after jab. They beat the big guy about the ribs, the buttocks, the belly, the thighs and the souls of his feet. They beat him until they were tired of beating him, but more calculatedly, they beat him until they knew it was enough, until they knew they couldn’t get away with doing any further damage.
Finally, they pulled him by hooking their night sticks into his handcuff chain. They pulled him out of the way so the bus could move and let the paddy wagons out to head off to the work details.
“No one,” the guard on Bill’s paddy wagon said, “no one, saw anything. Anything,” he repeated. “Anything,” he said a third time with finality.
In the factory, the police were around all the time. Those coming to shoot came into the factory where they could be issued bullets. A supply officer logged all occurrences. He noted badge numbers and names, type of bullet and quantity. Most cops at this time shot .38 caliber, usually from a six shooter. Standard issue was a Smith and Wesson model 10.
Most of the shooters were in jovial spirits. Most of them liked to shoot, liked to practice, considered the trip to the range as fun except when they were qualifying, which made it a more tense and sometimes traumatic event. Almost every cop stopped at the vending machines where they bought soda, chips and candy for the inmates making the bullets they would use. So Bill now had candy and chips and soda, and sometimes the cops asked him what brand of cigarettes he smoked, so he had those too without having to use that many packs from his commissary account.
This job was preferable to the one sorting the copper from the lead even though he sprouted two new blisters and his right arm got sore. He could talk with the other inmates, he could converse with the cops, he didn’t have to worry for anything since they were continually monitored by the police who worked there and supervised the production.
The jail routine was comforting in a sense. Except for having to be aware of the surroundings and what was going on around him, Bill didn’t have to think at all. No one was interested in him. He wasn’t the tough so new inmates didn’t have anything to prove by bothering with him. He hadn’t ruffled anyone’s feathers that he knew about. He kept to himself at all times and he liked it this way. He liked the regularity and the predictability of the everyday sameness. He liked the quiet he could find inside himself when he lay atop his bunk with eyes closed. He wasn’t tired. Hunger had left him a long time ago. He couldn’t even remember when.
Day Sixteen in the morning, just after breakfast, which he didn’t eat, and before he went off on his work detail, Bill noticed an ache in his stomach. His first reaction was that he needed to go to the bathroom, but no way, he thought, was he going there. That was another thing about working in the bullet factory—they had a decent bathroom with private stalls he could use. If he had to go, he thought, he’d use those facilities.
His right arm was sore all up and down. It was simple muscle ache, he knew, and if it was consistent with what he’d previously experienced in his short life, he knew this would be the last day of it. Muscle ache from overuse took three days to get back to pain free, so he expected his arm would have adjusted and acclimated itself to the work pattern by tomorrow. Then, the muscles would be ready and already strengthening. He’d learned not to pay much attention to the blisters. The two new ones were quite minor compared to the ones he’d already overcome.
He’d spoken to Sue twice this week. She was doing okay. She’d just started her senior year at the University and she was busy with UDC, the university dance company. Classes and rehearsals, she said, were keeping her mind away from worrying too much. She said they were still working on getting him out for the Jewish Holiday, but so far no news to report. She told him she would see him on Saturday.
This morning, Day Sixteen, a new inmate arrival was in progress when they boarded the paddy wagon. Bill would never forget this one.
Sue’s second visit was on Day Eleven. Same as the week before, she and Alex were waiting for him. Bill kissed her quickly but they skipped the hug so as not to have to engage the guards. He shook hands with Alex. They chatted, all of them more at ease this time since Sue knew from the phone calls that Bill was okay. Most striking about Bill, she would say later, was the weight he had lost. Eleven days with no food other than the Snowballs and soda made his already trim self look emaciated. Bill had not told her or Alex he was not eating. Alex told Bill he was having his lawyer petition the judge for an early release since the Jewish New Year was coming. They were all hoping that the judge would see fit to not make him spend one of the High Holy Days behind bars. Alex told him to keep his fingers crossed and to keep out of trouble.
That morning he had kept the same book from the library. He was slowly moving through it by reading a few pages and then falling asleep. It was great for the weekend days since it led him into naps that passed the time.
Sunday afternoon, Bill attended his second AA meeting. Different people led the meeting and spoke at the meeting, but the coffee and donuts were there and it was time out of the cell. On the way out Bill copped two extra donuts for eating later. He reasoned that they were left over anyway and he was in need so…He drank coffee and looked around and didn’t hear a word that was being said. Oh, his ears heard the words and his mind heard the words, but he didn’t process them. If anything, like at the first meeting a week ago, he stored the words and stockpiled the message.
Then it was back to work on Monday. Monday was Day Thirteen. Monday was just another day like any other work day and went by like any other work day. There was no early inmate arrival so no early morning guard show. They went off on time, same crew as Bill had started with. Bill drank chocolate milk for lunch and he had a soda that was given to him by the police at the range. He was also given a pack of cigarettes—that was just a gift, one each to each of the inmates.
Tuesday, Day Fourteen, brought a little surprise. When they got to the range, Bill was escorted inside the building where they actually put the bullets together, into the bullet factory. He was told that one of the inmates had been released, the slot had opened up and he was the one they assigned. He was told there was no choice involved, that this would be his next job.
For this job, he sat at a table on a production line. He was taught how to work the machine that pressed the tip of the bullet into its place. It was no big deal, really. The bullet parts were passed to him and all he had to do was set them in place and carefully pull the handle of the machine so that the thing—he didn’t know what to call it—came down and pressed the parts together. Then he took the completed bullet and put it into the racks that were provided. Each bullet was inspected by a trained, police officer bullet maker before any bullet was used. Any item that did not pass muster was removed. These bullets were only used on the practice ranges. Bullets used anywhere by the police department on the job were all store bought and top quality.
This new job had its perks, as Bill would learn. It also had its negatives since Bill soon discovered a new set of blisters from the repetition on the handle of the machine. Maybe that was purposefully designed, he thought.
The whole of the next week went by as quickly as could be. Sunday was the only long day because there were no work details. But inmates who wanted to, could go to church services.
In the afternoon they announced an AA meeting. One of the inmates nearby to Bill told him it was a good thing to do because they served coffee and donuts and it killed a whole hour. So at the age of twenty Bill attended his first AA meeting.
True to what the inmate told him, the meeting lasted an hour. It was what they called an open meeting. That meant you didn’t have to be an alcoholic to attend. They gave a whole lot of suppositions for who might be there, like friends of alcoholics, think you might be an alcoholic, curious about the program and more. Then one of the men—it was all men—joked and said it was okay if you just came to get out of your cell for an hour or for the coffee and donuts. They all laughed at that. That was the reason most of them were there.
Bill helped himself to two donuts and two coffees. He didn’t listen to the message too carefully, but later in his life he would recall attending this meeting and admit he might have fared better in his life if he had paid attention and understood how the symptoms fit him and the message applied to him. Bad timing, he would tell himself over and over and he would attribute it to that at this point in life substances had not yet taken their toll on him. (Actually, they had, and big time too, but not in his thinking.)
He ate the second Snowball Sunday night. After the lights had been turned on, he pulled the package he had wrapped as well as he could from underneath the folded towel and assorted other items he had set on top of the towel. There had been one argument in the cell about stealing that almost turned into a fight, but it was the tough who had done the stealing and the inmate who bitched punked out from the direct confrontation because the tough always had some of his crew around him, even when he took a shit.
As he ate, Bill wondered what he would have done if someone had stolen his food. He could only see two choices: ignore it or make an issue of it. Either way, it was a losing scenario. He ate his snowball slowly, relishing it, enjoying it, thankful for it and for having made it this far.
He called Sue several times during the week. He didn’t really have anything to say to her, anything he wanted to say. He called more for her, to reassure her he was okay, to tell her that when his time was served he’d be home to her. He could see that now. He understood now that the five months from the arrest to the deal to the trial, five months he had spent wholly depressed with the depression magnified by drugs and alcohol, were wasted months, months filled with useless worry and exaggerated fears.
Sometime, mid week, the blisters that once were, that had dried and been continually re-used by the forced work, same work over and over, had stopped hurting, didn’t bother him anymore and we’re turning to callus. Just like he was told, he thought. Just like they said.
He ate Snowballs every night. He drank a soda every night. He had a shower midweek and again on Friday. Some inmates rolled ’em up, some new ones came in. He saw the guards do the welcoming show two more times. He saw the tough do the tough-act. SSDD.
Saturday night Bill discovered the commissary. Commissary call came early evening and inmates could go two at a time, escorted by guards, of course. Bill found that they had left him twenty-five dollars and two cartons of Marlboro cigarettes. He took two packs of cigarettes, making sure to get two books of matches, and he bought a package of Snowballs and a can of soda. He also bought a tube of toothpaste.
Back on his bunk, he smoked a cigarette. He still had some left from what they’d given him at the police range so he didn’t have to use his own. All the while he smoked, he read the package of Snowballs. He read the ingredients and all the copyright materials. (Back then, nutritional information was not put on packaging.) He looked at the Snowballs, two coconut semicircles with flat bottoms. Underneath the coconut, he knew, was chocolate cake, and in the middle of that was fluffy vanilla creme. He looked at them, turned the package, looked some more, put the package to his nose and sniffed, smelled the sweet, smelled the coconut. He salivated. He held the package, fingered the cellophane wrap, turned the package again. Then he placed it next to him on the bed and picked up the book he’d taken from the library.
When he finished the cigarette, he lighted another one. He read, he smoked, he reached every now and then to the package of Snowballs next to him. He recalled the visit, recalled that the last thing he’d seen as the guards took him out of the doorway and down the corridor was Sue crying. He’d wanted to run to her and hold her and tell her everything was okay, but what he wanted didn’t matter, just as what he’d done and what had really happened at that demonstration didn’t matter either. Yes, he was against the war. Yes, he was a hippie and non-violent. Yes, he had attended some gatherings run by the groups that led the protests when they had met on campus in their club forums. So what?
So he was meeting one of his professors, one who wrote poetry and taught a course called Japanese Literature in Translation. This professor had edited several editions of translations of Japanese poetry, something Bill, as a poet and writer, was interested in. They had a lunch date at which they were supposed to discuss Bill’s poetry and the meeting happened to coincide with the beginnings of the demonstration that day.
“Let’s go see what’s going on,” the professor said.
Bill shrugged his shoulders and said okay and so they moseyed down Neil Avenue to the campus gate where the protestors were.
The rest was history.
Bill did not open the Snowballs. After trying to read several pages, he closed the book and picked up the package. He cherished that package, fingered it again. He thought about eating it but his stomach hadn’t had anything solid in it for four days and while he could hear it grumbling now that it saw the Snowballs, he wasn’t sure it could handle it. He knew he didn’t want to get the runs or even have to go to the bathroom.
He waited until after dark when the dim lights were on. Then he quietly, carefully unwrapped the cellophane so that he did not destroy it and could re-wrap the Snowballs. He took one from the white cardboard—if you could call it that—bottom of the package and brought it up to his nose. “Here goes,” he said to himself. He sniffed it again then took a bite, a very small bite. Then he popped the top of the soda can.
He ate one Snowball and saved the other. He drank the entire can of soda.