In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 19
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I returned to my room to find Doc burning a growth off his torso. This time he had inserted the tip of a sewing needle into a large nodule on his stomach. He held a burning match under the needle to heat it. Doc noticed me staring.
"Needle's not a bad conductor," Doc said, as he lit another match. I got the first whiff of burning flesh when four guards marched into the room.
"G.o.dd.a.m.n!" one of the guards said when he saw Doc's procedure. "What the f.u.c.k you doin', Dombrowsky?"
Doc lit another match. The guards hadn't come for Doc. They had come for me.
"White," a female guard said, "go stand in the hall."
"Get out!" she screamed.
As I stood in the hallway, the four guards emptied the contents of my locker and spread them out on my bunk. The procedure was called a "shakedown." They examined my belongings. They uncoupled my socks, shook each article of clothing, tasted my toothpaste, smelled my bottles of shampoo and conditioner, and flipped through the pages of my books, magazines, and diary notes. They found my stash of scent strips from the magazines and confiscated them as contraband.
"Mr. White," the female guard called out.
I stepped into the doorway. "Yes," I said. My heart rate shot up.
"You got ten sheets of carbon paper!" she said. "That's h.o.a.rdin'."
Doc, who had been allowed to stay in the room, blew out his match and interjected, "He really likes office supplies."
I wrote four to five letters a day, and I made a carbon copy of any I might not retrieve after my release.
"Why can't I have ten sheets?" I asked.
"You can tattoo yourself!" The female guard explained that I could press a thumbtack through the carbon paper and into my skin to duplicate the effects of a tattoo needle.
I pulled up my sleeves to show her my clean arms, and she laughed. The thought of me tattooing myself seemed ridiculous, even to her. Doc lit another match.
"I keep duplicates of my letters," I said.
The guard said that if I told her I would use all of the carbon paper within forty-eight hours, I could keep it.
"It should last longer than that," I said.
"But if you tell me tell me you will use it in forty-eight hours," she said, "I can let you keep it." you will use it in forty-eight hours," she said, "I can let you keep it."
One of the other guards, trying to be helpful, said under his breath, "Just lie."
"I'm in here for lying," I said.
The guards looked at each other for a moment and went back to the shakedown. I stepped back into the hallway and leaned against the wall. For so many years I had used my connections to get special treatment. I expected people to overlook my tendency to bend the rules or cut corners or even kite checks. Standing in the hallway, temporarily banished from my prison room for illicit possession of office supplies, I felt good about telling the truth. It was a small thing. Nothing at risk but a few sheets of carbon paper. But it felt important.
On a Sunday afternoon in late January, more than forty-five inmates packed into the sports TV room to watch a playoff game. All the seats were taken, so several men, including Mr. Dingham and his friend John Gray, leaned against a windowsill. Dingham had a terrible cough. He hacked and coughed, and then hacked and coughed some more. After about fifteen minutes, Juan, the wheelchair-bound Mexican inmate who had been shot by a DEA agent, told Mr. Dingham to leave the room if he couldn't control his cough.
"I can't help it," Dingham answered. "I'm sick."
"Then shut the f.u.c.k up!" Juan said. He and Dingham knew each other well. They were cla.s.smates and my students.
The coughing continued, interrupting the commentary and irritating everyone in the room. Juan, who had been cantankerous all week in our cla.s.sroom, couldn't take it any longer. He picked up his thermos mug and tossed coffee at Mr. Dingham, except it landed on the man next to him, John Gray.
John Gray stood and walked toward Juan.
Fights in television rooms had come to be expected. Any inmate who spent any time watching television would eventually witness a fight. John Gray didn't want to fight a man in a wheelchair. He expected an apology.
John Gray stood before Juan, held out his coffee-stained T-s.h.i.+rt and said, "What the h.e.l.l did you do that for?!"
John Gray did not get what he expected. Juan, still in his wheelchair, thrust his right hand at John Gray's chest. It wasn't really a punch or a push or even a slap. Later, I heard it described as a jab.
Juan turned his wheelchair around and zipped out of the room. John Gray put his hands over his sternum and fell to his knees. Kirk, an inmate from Lafayette, Louisiana, who wrestled alligators, tried to help him up.
"He got me," John Gray told Kirk. Blood had started to soak through John Gray's T-s.h.i.+rt. When Kirk saw it, he bolted from the room and ran down the hallway. An inmate in the TV room yelled, "Shank!"
Juan rolled down the hallway as fast as he could, expecting to escape from prison by wheelchair. Kirk tackled Juan from behind, knocking him to the floor. Juan flopped like a fish on the concrete, waving his homemade knife, willing to cut anyone who got near him. Kirk eventually wrestled the knife away from Juan, and in the process saved a guard who had just stepped through a doorway right over Juan.
Kirk controlled the situation. He tossed the shank out of reach and pinned the paraplegic to the floor until the guards handcuffed him.
The shank, a sharpened piece of metal, lay on the concrete floor. Drops of blood spotted the hallway. The tip of the knife was covered in the brightest red blood I had ever seen.
Juan had stabbed John Gray over the smallest act, a twist of fate. I thought about how many times I had leaned over Juan to help him with his math, and I wondered if his shank had always been within reach. I imagined how many times Ella and Harry had pa.s.sed within one foot of Juan in the hallways.
As the guards dragged Juan and Kirk to the hole, I stared at John's blood against the dull colors of the colony floors.
The prison alarm echoed through the hallways, and the guards rushed us all to our rooms. When the siren was finally turned off, I heard the sound of the ambulance helicopter that would take John Gray to a hospital in Baton Rouge.
Overnight, Carville became a high-security prison. Our freedom of movement was taken away. We were confined to our rooms. Extra guards were hired. They wore black T-s.h.i.+rts with the letters SWAT printed on the back.
The FBI was called in to investigate. They interviewed everyone who had been in the room. The Mexican inmates said they hadn't seen anything. A few of the white witnesses told the agents exactly what happened. If Juan were to be convicted, it would be by the testimony of the white inmates.
We were allowed to leave our rooms at mealtimes, but we were escorted by a dozen guards. They cleared the hallway of leprosy patients before they let us pa.s.s. Carville now posed a problem for the Bureau of Prisons. There was no way to secure the facility. Two doorways dividing the colony could be locked, but it was impossible to seal the breezeway and the corridors. If an inmate wanted access to the leprosy patients, it would be no problem. In the cafeteria, I nodded to Ricky and Chatto, my Mexican handball buddies, to let them know I was still their friend, but they just looked away. A few Mexican inmates stared into the eyes of those who had "ratted" and made stabbing gestures at their chests.
On the third night of lockdown, Link slipped out of his room to check on me and offer advice.
"You shoulda kept your job in the kitchen," Link said, "'cause you can f.u.c.k somebody up with boiling water." Link described how he once saw flesh melt off the skin of an inmate at another jail when his enemy had crept up behind him with a pot of water just off the stove.
"Socks is another thing," he said. Link described in detail the damage that could be inflicted by placing three or four padlocks inside a tube sock. He demonstrated how an attacker could swing the sock to build up momentum, the heavy locks inside gaining velocity on the outer perimeter like David's sling against Goliath. The impact would break ribs or fracture a skull.
"Thanks, Link," I said. "I'll keep that in mind."
"Now, if you don't wanna kill the motherf.u.c.ker," he said, "just put bars of soap in the sock. It'll just bruise him and s.h.i.+t."
Link's advice, coupled with the fact that our rooms had no doors, wasn't comforting. He wasn't the only inmate making plans. A devout Catholic from Texas-a man who told me I was going to h.e.l.l for taking Communion at the Catholic church-stole rat poison from the kitchen to use against any inmate who threatened him. Another man stole a baseball bat from the recreation department. Still another was planning to use his roommate's prosthetic leg to fight off intruders.
On the fifth day of lockdown, we heard the news.
The Baton Rouge Advocate Baton Rouge Advocate reported that John Gray, fifty-eight, had died of a ma.s.sive heart attack nearly four days after being stabbed by another inmate. A prison spokeswoman was quoted: "Gray received a superficial abdominal wound. It had nothing to do with his heart attack." She added that no other information could be released until the FBI completed its probe. reported that John Gray, fifty-eight, had died of a ma.s.sive heart attack nearly four days after being stabbed by another inmate. A prison spokeswoman was quoted: "Gray received a superficial abdominal wound. It had nothing to do with his heart attack." She added that no other information could be released until the FBI completed its probe.
The man we had known for nine months was gone. And every inmate in Carville knew exactly what caused his death.
Lockdown was frustrating. No walking. No library. The leprosy patients, understandably, were nervous, too. We were never to pa.s.s a patient unescorted again. Guards were put at every corner of the inmate courtyard, and they increased the frequency of shakedowns and strip searches. One guard kept watch at the breezeway to make sure no inmates had any contact with the leprosy patients.
"I seen you talkin' to the old lady," he said to me. "Them days is over."
The guards had a light in their eyes I had not seen before, as if this were their first opportunity to act like real law enforcement officers. Running around in their SWAT s.h.i.+rts, they enjoyed the drama.
A week after the stabbing, as we were escorted to the cafeteria for breakfast, I heard a guard yell, "Against the wall!" Sixty of us parted like the waters of the Red Sea and stood with our backs to the walls. It was Ella. One guard walked in front of her, another behind. As she rolled slowly through us, Ella made eye contact with each inmate and smiled. When she reached the end of the line, where I was standing, I expected her to nod or wink or give me some kind of special sign, but she didn't.
I got the same as everyone else.
Betty Martin, who took furloughs from Carville to her home in New Orleans.
In the midst of lockdown, I learned that my furlough had been approved. I would be released for five days. It could not have come at a better time.
In the administration building, behind the door marked R & D, I was frisked by a guard.
"You understand the rules?" he asked. I told him I had read the papers, but he reviewed them anyway. While on furlough, I was not to break any laws, leave New Orleans, use drugs or alcohol, go inside a bar, take prescription medication, go see a doctor, or eat food containing poppy seeds (apparently, it could cause a positive result on drug tests).
I signed my forms and the guard escorted me to the end of the hallway. He opened the door and said, "Be back by 8:00 P.M P.M. Friday." And I walked out.
I still didn't understand the logic behind a furlough. Why would my captors, in the middle of my prison sentence, simply say, "Go home for a while"? But I was sure happy about it.
Mom waited in her small, maroon Isuzu with Neil and Maggie. On the drive to New Orleans, Neil and Maggie took turns sitting on my lap. We laughed and played games, and I pulled out a list I'd made of fun things to do during our time in New Orleans.
"Anything the two of you want to do," I said, "is great with me."
Mom's place in the French Quarter was built in the 1800s. The second-story apartment was long and narrow with fifteen-foot ceilings. A small balcony with wrought-iron railings overlooked Toulouse Street. The windows ran from floor to ceiling. And when the bottom window was pushed up, I could walk under it without ducking. The back of the apartment connected to a huge wooden spiral staircase that led to the ground floor, where there was a slate courtyard with a small fountain and garden.
During my last few months of freedom, I had lived in the apartment above Mom's. Linda and the kids had lived there after I reported to prison, so Neil and Maggie felt right at home. The neighborhood was familiar territory for them. We walked to Le Marquis for fruit pastries. The manager of Le Marquis, a woman who grew up in New Jersey but donned a French accent for the tourists' sake, asked where I had been. I told her I had moved. With Neil and Maggie at my side, I didn't want to try to explain my absence. Maggie ordered a fruit tart, Neil got three donuts, and I ordered a croissant, although the poppy seed m.u.f.fin looked enticing.
At Jackson Square, we tossed pennies into the fountain. Neil and I threw a Nerf football in a small patch of gra.s.s while Maggie ran in circles inside the gated park. We met my father there, who had come to visit. And my sister, Liz, who was living in New Orleans, introduced me to her fiance, Sal. I didn't even ask her what excuse she'd given Sal about where I'd been.
Once everyone arrived, we toured the ma.s.sive Catholic cathedral. We watched street performers walk on stilts and ride tall unicycles and perform acrobatic dances. One of the local magicians asked Maggie to a.s.sist him with a magic trick. A tall, thin contortionist had Little Neil squeeze into a tiny, transparent box. Then the man placed his six-foot frame inside. It was impressive.
Artists' booths lined the outer edge of the park's iron fence, where they sell paintings and charge $40 for a quick portrait. There were palm readers and fortune-tellers and voodoo ladies. A tarot card reader tried to solicit business from a group of young men walking by. "You can't change my future, old man," one yelled out. The tarot man yelled back, "No, but I can help you prepare for it."
At the end of the day, we all gathered around the granite base of the statue of Andrew Jackson on horseback and asked a pa.s.serby to take our picture. My first day of freedom, even though temporary, had been full.
Late that night, after Maggie and Neil fell asleep, I told Mom I was going for a walk. I roamed the French Quarter. I pa.s.sed discos and zydeco bands. I looked through the window of M. S. Rau Antiques, a store so exclusive and expensive it could pa.s.s for a museum. Rau stocked rare commodes used by kings in eighteenth-century France, fancy diamonds that cost half a million dollars, two-hundred-year-old chairs designed by European royalty for easy access to multiple s.e.x partners, globes that cost more than a year's salary, and contraptions designed by insane nineteenth-century scientists.
I continued down Royal Street and stopped at Hurwitz Mintz, a furniture store where Linda and I had spent $7,000 on two leather chairs and a leather couch. Before Carville, I'd had my eye on an expensive round conference table.
At the far end of Royal, I pa.s.sed Mr. B's Bistro. Mr. B's had been one of my favorite restaurants. The staff had treated me like I was special because I published New Orleans New Orleans magazine. On some evenings, I would spend more than $500 treating clients or friends to dinner. Now, I had less than $100 to my name. The warm yellow lights made the rich wood walls glow. I stood on the sidewalk and looked inside. I didn't worry about being noticed by anyone I knew. The people inside Mr. B's didn't bother watching the people outside. magazine. On some evenings, I would spend more than $500 treating clients or friends to dinner. Now, I had less than $100 to my name. The warm yellow lights made the rich wood walls glow. I stood on the sidewalk and looked inside. I didn't worry about being noticed by anyone I knew. The people inside Mr. B's didn't bother watching the people outside.
I rounded the block and pa.s.sed a couple of seedy strip joints. I wanted to step inside. Just to take a look. I felt like I might better relate to the patrons of the Artist Cafe strip club than any of my old hangouts, but I didn't want to violate the furlough rules. And I figured the bouncers wouldn't let me stay without buying an overpriced drink.
I walked back toward the heart of the French Quarter and thought about the patients at Carville. Some of the patients took furloughs, too, but only if a family member would accept responsibility. Before the 1950s, no more than ten patients could be away from the colony at a time. And many patients had been forsaken by their families.
I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Ella or Harry to go home after being locked away for so long. Betty Martin, the New Orleans socialite who contracted leprosy at age nineteen, took a furlough. She came back to New Orleans to visit her mother and father in their Uptown home, located just a few blocks from where Linda and I had lived. When Betty came back to New Orleans, she never left her parents' home. Friends and family, the few who knew the truth, came to visit her. She stayed inside; she didn't want anyone to see the woman who was now known by the alias Betty Martin.
I understood her fear, why she shrunk away from old contacts. I didn't want to mingle with the same people I had sought out before Carville.
As I meandered the French Quarter, I made a mental note to remember to climb the levee at Carville before I reported back from the furlough. I'd been so excited to see Neil and Maggie waiting in Mom's car, I'd completely forgotten to stop and see what direction the river flowed.
Before I went home for the night, I stopped at the A & P grocery at the corner of Royal and St. Peter. The store was tiny, aisles so narrow the store provided specially designed, miniature shopping carts. I bought Hot Pockets and applesauce and SpaghettiOs and macaroni and cheese. I stood in line behind a transvest.i.te with a neck brace. In her heels, she was at least three inches taller than I, and she had a five o'clock shadow. She had two items in her basket: aspirin and cat food.
"Headache and the cat's hungry, huh?" I said. The man/woman looked at me, surprised, I think, that I spoke.
"Yeah," she said in a deep voice, "life's grand."
In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 19
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In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 19 summary
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