In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 16

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Smitty, a Cajun marijuana grower, argued, "Hey, you said to accentuate the positive. Ain't much positive about writin' down you was in the slammer."

"I don't know," I said to the cla.s.s.

"You tryin' to get us jobs," Smitty asked, "or tryin' to get us fired?"

I had envisioned this cla.s.s being helpful. But not helpful in disguising our incarceration. For future cla.s.ses I would propose less personal topics. Current events, debate, or maybe newspaper reporting.

Back in my dorm, I received a notice that I was scheduled for a team meeting. My team, a group of guards a.s.signed to evaluate me, would determine whether I qualified for a furlough-five days of freedom in the midst of my prison sentence. It seemed odd that the guards would just let me go home for a week.



The next morning after breakfast, I sat in the patient cafeteria and read a copy of the regulations for inmate furloughs. Ella rolled up to my table and smiled. I told her I might get to go home for a while.

"No place like home," she said. "I goes back to Abita Springs all the time."

I was confused. I thought Ella had spent her adult life at Carville.

"When did you first get to go back?"

"I always been goin' home," she said. "'Fore my legs got bad, I walk all over town."

"I thought you contracted leprosy when you were twelve?"

"That's right," she said, nodding. "That's right."

"But you got to go home?"

"I comes and goes," she said.

There were so many things I didn't know about Ella's life. To me, her history was a puzzle with a wealth of missing parts. But at some level it didn't matter. Whatever wisdom Ella had acquired over the years was a gift she was willing to share with me. And I was grateful.

"Hope you get home soon," she said. Ella put her s.h.i.+ny hands on the cranks of her wheelchair and turned toward the hallways.

CHAPTER 55.

I waited for my team meeting with five other inmates.

"Don't expect nothin'," one man told me. "They just f.u.c.k with you."

An hour later, my name was called. I sat in the middle of a big room surrounded by four guards. Mr. Flowers, the tall black man who dressed like a cowboy, led the meeting.

"Mr. White here had quite an offensive scheme going on the street," Mr. Flowers announced to the group.

"I see you went to Ole Miss," he said, staring at my file. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said, looking at the other team members, "Ole Miss was the last major university to integrate."

As I realized I was the only white person in the room, I remembered my first year in an all-white fraternity at Ole Miss. I was named Model Pledge. Later, as master of ceremonies, I guided new initiates through a ritual that had its roots in a secret society in fourteenth-century Bologna, Italy, when foreign students needed protection against the evil Balda.s.sarre Cossa. Eventually, I was elected grand master.

Prospective fraternity brothers were scrutinized before receiving a coveted bid. Any shortcoming-the wrong kind of shoes, a floating eye, an unsightly mole, or any hint of a low socioeconomic background-could be grounds for rejection. When pa.s.sing judgment on a potential member, a specially designed, two-compartment box was pa.s.sed in silence from brother to brother. Inside one side of the box were white b.a.l.l.s and black b.a.l.l.s. The box allowed us to accept or reject secretly, by pa.s.sing a white ball or a black ball through a small hole connecting the two compartments. One hundred men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two sat in reverence of the ritual. To allow members.h.i.+p to just anyone would dilute our prestige. And that was unthinkable.

I dropped a black ball more than once to keep out an undesirable. I didn't want to hurt the young men. I just didn't want them a.s.sociated with me, or with my Greek letters.

The worthy ones who did pa.s.s muster based on appearance or wealth or family reputation seemed like perfect companions. I was proud of our pedigree, and I didn't hide it. Our fraternity T-s.h.i.+rts read a kappa sigma: the most wanted man in the country. The walls of the frat house were adorned with posters that read "Poverty Sucks" and "Greed Is Good."

I felt ent.i.tled and important. I was the leader of a group of handsome, affluent, prominent men who would eventually be the leaders in our state, or maybe even the country.

Now I stared at Mr. Flowers and a room full of guards who could blackball me, keep me from a furlough, and block five days on the outside with Neil and Maggie.

"If I remember correctly," Mr. Flowers said, "the National Guard had to be called in to protect Mr. Meredith."

I wanted to point out to Mr. Flowers that I was two years old during the integration of Ole Miss. I also wanted to tell him that many of the students, even in 1962, were supportive of Mr. Meredith's enrollment and integration. I wanted him to know I cochaired a Racial Reconciliation Committee and joined a group pus.h.i.+ng to banish the Rebel flag as an official university symbol. But none of that would change his view of me. I reminded myself of Ella's advice. What he thinks of me is none of my business What he thinks of me is none of my business.

"Do you think you deserve a furlough?" he asked.

I was glad to see him drop the Ole Miss topic. "I don't know," I said. "But I'd love to see my children."

Then Flowers mentioned that he attended Jackson State University, a historically black inst.i.tution. "We played our football games at night after the Ole Miss games," he said. "We had to sit in stands filled with the trash and beer cups left from your party."

I nodded. "We have some inconsiderate fans."

"I'm glad to see you admit this," he said.

Flowers reviewed their policy for furlough approval. "You can leave now," he said. "In the unlikely event your furlough is approved, one of us will let you know."

CHAPTER 56.

I left the meeting and walked to the library. As I turned the far corner of the colony, Link joined me. We heard the rattle of chains. Guards were running. The crackle of the guards' two-way radios echoed down the hall, and Ms. Woodsen ran toward us. "Get in here!" she yelled, waving her short, fat arms. "We got an emergency census!"

Link and I waited with about thirty other inmates in the education building. Ms. Woodsen had us stand in a line against the wall as she counted and recounted us. I stood between Link and Big Gene, an inmate who weighed more than four hundred pounds. Big Gene leaned in toward me and whispered, "Somebody done left."

When a prisoner escaped, all other inmates were detained and counted to confirm the escape. To Ms. Woodsen's credit, she came up with the same number in each of her counts, but apparently a guard in another part of the colony could not get his numbers to match.

After standing for almost half an hour, Big Gene said, "Ms. Woodsen, my feets hurt."

"What'd you say?" Ms. Woodsen said, moving into teacher mode.

"I said, 'My feets hurt,'" he repeated.

"Oh," Ms. Woodsen said, "OK, I thought you said 'foots.'"

A few minutes later, Link yelled, "Ms. Woodsen, it's hot up in here."

Ms. Woodsen opened the door at the end of the hallway, and the putrid smell of chopped sugarcane rushed in. Carville, a former sugar plantation, was surrounded by sugarcane farms. When the rotten stalk is chopped into mulch, the smell can drift for miles. We all grimaced and coughed at the rancid odor.

"G.o.d," one of older inmates said, putting his hands over his mouth, "what is is that?" that?"

"That's Ms. Woodsen," Link said. "She opened up her a.s.s and let some air out."

"I know who said that!" Ms. Woodsen called out from her office. "I'm gonna write you up!" At that moment, another guard yelled that the census was clear. Link ran as fast as he could back to our dorm.

As I was leaving, Ms. Woodsen emerged from her office and grabbed me by the arm. "Mr. White?" she asked.

"Yes?" I said, hoping she wasn't going to ask me to identify the inmate who said she was the source of the aroma.

"You still wanna teach?"

"Yes," I said, without thinking about it.

"Good," she said. "You start Monday morning."

A teacher. I would be helping inmates prepare for the GED test. Relieved that I would no longer have to mop floors or wash dishes or serve in the cafeteria line, I realized I would also have to relinquish my post as garnish man and menu board ill.u.s.trator. I would no longer have access to the leprosy patient cafeteria. I would lose my best opportunities to talk with Harry and Jimmy. And I would lose the chance to have coffee each morning with Ella. Our time together, before the sun crested the levee, when we could talk in privacy, was coming to an end.

The patient cemetery, where many of the tombstones are engraved with aliases.

CHAPTER 57.

Link was given a new job, too. The guards, who knew he was scared of ghosts, gave him a job weed-eating the gra.s.s around the tombstones in the leprosy graveyard.

The cemetery, covered in shade from pecan trees, was located at the back of the colony. Leprosy patients, most of whom had been abandoned by family, were buried there. With more than seven hundred white tombstones similar to military markers, the graveyard was visible from the second-floor hallway. As dawn came, the tips of the stones jutted out just above a shallow mist. The tombstones were often marked with nothing more than a patient number. When a name was engraved, it was often the patient's alias etched in marble.

After his first day on the job, Link said he stepped in a sinkhole and his leg sank deep into the ground.

"I felt the G.o.dd.a.m.n leper bones!" he yelled. I didn't believe him, but Link was superst.i.tious. After the "leper bones" incident, he refused to set foot inside the graveyard. Later that week, a guard asked Link to climb under one of the buildings to repair a pipe. Link had heard about an inmate who, climbing under the same building, had been bitten by a snake. On the neck.

"But it wasn't poisonous," I said.

"G.o.dd.a.m.n!" Link said. "It don't matter. A snake bite me in the neck, I'm gonna have a motherf.u.c.kin' heart attack!"

The following morning, two guards tried to coerce Link into going under the building. One of the guards, in a fit of frustration, tried to push Link's head under, and Link bit his hand. Free of the guard's grip, he raced around the colony screaming, throwing his hands in the air, trying to bite anyone who touched him. When they finally caught him, he was sent immediately to the hole.

As the Bureau of Prisons geared up to take over the colony, the inmate population surged. A new crop of inmates would be transferred to Carville from other prisons, and they would take most of our jobs in food service. Doc got his hands on an internal memo that listed Carville as 99 percent over capacity. In order to abide by federal regulations, the warden would have to take over the entire facility. And that's what he wanted.

I told Ella about my new job. She nodded, as though she approved. I wanted to know if she had heard about the future of her home. I wondered if the patients had been informed about the Bureau of Prisons's plans. I couldn't imagine the stress relocation would bring for long-term residents like Ella who had spent their lives here, where they were safe.

If Ella were relocated, I might not see her again. I found myself scheming about ways to pa.s.s her notes in the hallway. If I mailed her letters, no one would ever know. I could send letters through the prison mail system, and a few days later, it would arrive at Ella's post office box. Even if she were relocated, we could keep up a correspondence.

For decades, mail at Carville was controversial. Until the late 1960s, all mail from the colony was sterilized before being released into the general population. It was baked in a huge electric oven. Even The Star, The Star, the magazine published by the patients, was cooked after it rolled off the press to be mailed to forty-eight states and thirty countries. the magazine published by the patients, was cooked after it rolled off the press to be mailed to forty-eight states and thirty countries.

One issue of the magazine, almost eight thousand copies, was burned to a crisp because a staff member was inattentive. I would have been outraged had my magazine been charred before subscribers received it.

"Do you write letters?" I asked Ella.

"Nope."

Many of the leprosy patients didn't write letters. Holding a pen or pencil was difficult; for those with severe absorption, typewriters weren't much help, either.

"Do you get any letters?" I asked.

"I gets some," she said, "but I don't look at 'em." Ella said she gave them to a lady friend who read the important ones. I didn't want anyone else reading my letters to Ella. And, if the "lady friend" was an employee of Public Health Services, as I suspected she might be, she might report me to the guards.

Jimmy Harris sat down at our table. "Good morning to you both," he said, nodding to me and Ella. Jimmy was the one patient who would talk about any subject. I felt like nothing was off-limits with him.

"Jimmy," I asked, "where was the oven-where they baked the mail?"

"Across the way," he said, pointing toward the infirmary. "Every piece got the treatment. Sometimes they burned it."

Jefferson, the skinny inmate with gold teeth from New Orleans, danced by our table. "They baked your mail," he said, "but that ain't s.h.i.+t. You shoulda seen what they did at the Loyola Street Post Office in New Orleans."

"What happened there?" Jimmy said.

"They zap them letters with an X-ray machine."

Jimmy and Ella were confused. "What you talkin' 'bout, boy?" Ella said.

Jefferson told us he'd worked for the postal service in New Orleans.

"You delivered mail?" I asked.

"Naw, I worked at the main post office building. I manned that X-ray machine." According to Jefferson, every single letter and package went through the X-ray machine before being processed.

In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 16

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