In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 8

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Until that moment, I had believed the patients were still imprisoned. I couldn't imagine why anyone would choose to stay inside the colony walls.

Then Father Reynolds told me a story. In the late 1950s, after medications were developed to control the spread of leprosy, the gates of Carville were opened. At that time, 297 patients lived at the leprosarium. One year later, 281 remained inside. Ella, Harry, and others, who were brought here involuntarily-sometimes in shackles-chose to stay, even after they had been set free. For them, freedom was more terrifying than imprisonment. The stigma of being labeled a "leper" had cut as deeply as any physical scar.

PART III.

Fall

CHAPTER 26.



Frank Ragano, Jimmy Hoffa's lawyer, was terrified he would catch leprosy. He refused to touch doork.n.o.bs or handrails, compulsively wiped the library typewriter keys, and scrubbed the cafeteria's plastic utensils with his s.h.i.+rttail. So, naturally, the guards gave him a job picking up cigarette b.u.t.ts outside the cafeteria.

For five hours a day, Frank picked up the trash and cigarette b.u.t.ts left by the 500 inmates, 50 guards, and 130 leprosy patients who pa.s.sed by. He wore sterile rubber gloves and a paper mask.

Link immediately picked up on Frank's idiosyncrasy and one afternoon, while standing in line for dinner, yelled, "Who that is? Motherf.u.c.kin' Howard Hughes!" A leprosy patient in a motorized wheelchair stopped to listen to the commotion.

"Look at that motherf.u.c.ker," Link announced, "wearin' a G.o.dd.a.m.n mask and gloves. This ain't no f.u.c.kin' laboratory!" Link grabbed the stub of a cigarette from one of his friends and flicked it past Frank. It bounced against the wall. Link laughed again, knowing that Frank would have to pick it up, and the inmates standing in line laughed, too. Frank did not move.

The skin on Frank's arms was thin and spotted with purple patches where capillaries had ruptured. The tiny wrinkles on his forearms looked like small waves on a lake. This man, who was now being ridiculed by a drug dealer, in front of leprosy patients, had been the highest-paid criminal defense attorney in Florida. He had argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and convinced them to overturn his clients' criminal convictions. He flew into Cuba in 1959 and stared down Castro's lieutenants to get Santo Trafficante released from custody. For all his courtroom brilliance, Frank had no skill for dealing with this kind of humiliation. He stared straight ahead in his flimsy paper mask, arms at his side.

Later that afternoon, I saw Frank sitting on a bench in the inmate courtyard. I'd heard he was writing a book about his days as a mob lawyer, so I asked him about Jimmy Hoffa.

"What was he like?" I asked.

"Jimmy always preached 'Charge a pistol. Run from a rifle,'" Frank said, grinning. During one of Hoffa's criminal trials, a man pointed a pistol at his head. Hoffa charged like a bull toward the a.s.sailant and wrestled away the gun.

"What's one thing," I asked, "about Jimmy Hoffa that no one else knows?"

Frank looked surprised. "That's the first question my book editor asked." He leaned in a little closer, as if to prevent anyone from hearing his words. Frank had successfully represented Hoffa for years. During trials they had worked late into the night, exchanging confidential information. I was about to hear a private revelation about one of the most infamous men of the twentieth century-something no one else knew about the notorious Jimmy Hoffa. Everything was coming together again for me as a journalist.

Frank knew how to make the most of a dramatic moment. He pressed his lips together and swallowed, contemplating whether to reveal his secret. Finally, he motioned for me to move closer. Then he whispered, "Hoffa loved to fart."

Frank smiled and reiterated, "He loved it."

I imagined Hoffa banging his hand against the Teamsters podium, red faced, veins protruding from his neck, relieving himself during a sudden burst of applause. Or sticking his index finger in the face of Attorney General Robert Kennedy and barking, "Hey, Bobby, pull this." Or leaving a little something for the pa.s.sengers on the elevator at his headquarters in Chicago.

I laughed and said, "That's not going in your book, is it?"

Frank shook his head and smiled again. The secret was all mine. But Frank obviously had other secrets. "Do you really know who killed Jimmy Hoffa and JFK?" I asked.

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I do."

Little Neil, Maggie, and me on a fall visit.

CHAPTER 27.

I missed my cologne. For years, I would douse myself with British Sterling every morning. I even kept a little bottle in my office, for a refres.h.i.+ng boost during the day, hoping the people around me would a.s.sociate my presence with a cla.s.sic, soothing smell.

I hated to walk into the visiting room to see Linda without my fragrance. In prison, cologne was contraband. My signature scent was beyond my reach, but I soon discovered a source. On Monday afternoons, the magazine subscriptions arrived in the prison library. I volunteered to help put them in their proper order so I had first shot at the scented advertis.e.m.e.nts bound into GQ GQ, Esquire, Esquire, and other fas.h.i.+on t.i.tles. As I organized the periodicals and flipped through the pages, I tore out the aromatic inserts. I stockpiled the samples in my locker, and before visiting hours, I opened the strips and rubbed them against my s.h.i.+rt until the fragrance permeated my green uniform. For the rest of the day, whether inside or out, cool or perspiring, I was the best-smelling inmate at Carville. and other fas.h.i.+on t.i.tles. As I organized the periodicals and flipped through the pages, I tore out the aromatic inserts. I stockpiled the samples in my locker, and before visiting hours, I opened the strips and rubbed them against my s.h.i.+rt until the fragrance permeated my green uniform. For the rest of the day, whether inside or out, cool or perspiring, I was the best-smelling inmate at Carville.

But the allure of cologne was no match for reality. Things weren't going so well with Linda. The financial arrangements I had made to support my family while I was in prison were falling apart. As was our relations.h.i.+p. Lately, Linda and I had been arguing-on the telephone and in the visiting room. During a recent visit, Maggie told us, "Y'all don't fight. Y'all hug." But a hug wouldn't solve the money problems.

I had loaned money to a friend who said he would send a monthly check to Linda, but his lawyer advised him to stop making payments when we filed bankruptcy. It was money Linda had counted on, and I had no way to persuade my friend to do otherwise. Prior to reporting to Carville, I had also sold advertis.e.m.e.nts for a publication. Two of the advertisers were to send payments to Linda, but they had failed to do so. Linda was going to have to go back to work, and the kids would go to after-school care, something we'd hoped to avoid during this year while I was in prison.

To make matters worse, she ran into Bill Metcalf, the owner of the region's premier publis.h.i.+ng company, a generous man who made me publisher of New Orleans New Orleans magazine while I was being investigated. I had left many unfinished projects when I went to prison. One project left prepaid contracts that couldn't be fulfilled without more sales. Bill's frustration with me was justified; I'd left him with a mess. But when Bill let Linda see his anger, she was again reminded of the terrible situation in which I had left not only my family but also my friends. magazine while I was being investigated. I had left many unfinished projects when I went to prison. One project left prepaid contracts that couldn't be fulfilled without more sales. Bill's frustration with me was justified; I'd left him with a mess. But when Bill let Linda see his anger, she was again reminded of the terrible situation in which I had left not only my family but also my friends.

After seven years of marriage, we sat in a prison visiting room and argued. When we married, I a.s.sured Linda that, together, we would be free and independent. That we would have extraordinary adventures. I had not kept my promise. Now we were living off the charity of others. My mother was paying the rent on Linda's apartment in the French Quarter. Grandparents paid tuition for Neil's school at Trinity Episcopal; Linda's parents were paying for Maggie to continue at the Louise McGee School, a private school just around the corner from the Garden District homes of Anne Rice and Archie Manning.

About the only thing Linda hated more than charity was pity, and she was getting it from everyone around her. From well-meaning friends. From fellow church members. Even from family.

And the apartment in New Orleans was a problem. It was located one floor above my mother's weekend apartment. Mom thought it would be a good idea to be close enough to help care for Neil and Maggie. She was right, except that, despite my incarceration, she still talked about the high hopes she had for my future. For Neil and Maggie, it might have been a good thing. For Linda, who was trying to make a clear, objective decision about what to do with her life, my mother's praise of her precious son was hard to swallow.

On a visit in early fall, when Linda and the kids were planning for the beginning of school, I thought it was time to talk to Neil and Maggie about Daddy's camp. If the talk of jail and prison conjured dangerous images, like the psychologist had said, I a.s.sumed it wouldn't affect them now, since they had seen the place. They actually seemed to have a good time here. They loved playing with the other inmates' kids; Neil particularly liked the vending machines that held frozen pizzas, Hot Pockets, and ice cream.

They could see that there were no bars, no really dangerous people. And I didn't want them to be caught off guard at school if someone brought up the fact that their father was in jail.

"I want to talk to you about camp," I said.

"I forgot," Maggie said, "why did you have to come to camp?"

I reminded Maggie of what we had discussed-that I got a little bit greedy, wanted to buy too many magazines, and used money I wasn't supposed to use to buy them.

"Boy, Daddy," Maggie said, "you must've really loved magazines."

Then I told them that this place, Carville, wasn't exactly a camp. It was a prison camp. Kind of like a jail, but different.

Maggie had taken a bite of cookie. She looked up and asked, "Are you a bad guy, Daddy?"

"Of course not," I told her. "Remember, camp is kind of like time-out for adults. Only adult time-out lasts longer than kid time-out."

"Did you used to be a bad guy?" Maggie asked. I shook my head. I hated that I had put my daughter in a situation where she would have to ask such a question. I looked over at Little Neil. He didn't ask any questions. He stared down at the floor. Maybe he didn't want to talk about this. Or maybe he just wanted to go outside and throw the ball.

I took Neil and Maggie out to the visiting room deck and gave a coupon to Bean, the inmate photographer. Prisoners could purchase a family photograph for one dollar. All proceeds went to the inmates-in-need fund. Linda said she didn't want to be in the picture, so I put Neil on my shoulders, and Maggie stood on the bench next to me. As we posed for the photograph, Steve Read walked by.

"Ah," Steve said under his breath, "prison memories." Neil and Maggie didn't seem to notice, so I let it go.

I continued to write letters to Linda and the kids every night, and I made collect calls from the pay phones that lined the walls in the hallways. But some nights the phone line was too long, and I went to sleep without speaking to them. Other nights, I would call about 9:00 P.M P.M. to say good night to Neil and Maggie. Sometimes, I would call late at night so Linda and I could have a conversation without the kids overhearing, though it wasn't really private since inmates were usually standing close by waiting for their turn.

Every three minutes, a recording interrupted the telephone conversations: This call originated from a federal correctional facility. This call originated from a federal correctional facility. It was designed to discourage phone scams, but when it interrupted my conversations with Linda, it was just another reminder of where we stood. It was designed to discourage phone scams, but when it interrupted my conversations with Linda, it was just another reminder of where we stood.

The night before Neil started first grade, I called to talk to him. It seemed like an inopportune time. Linda was cooking dinner; Maggie was running around the house screaming; Neil was doing something that clearly irritated Linda. They had been arguing.

I wished I could have been there to help. I would have taken the kids into the courtyard to play, or I would have offered to cook dinner to give Linda a break. I wanted to climb through the telephone line, hug the kids, and tell Neil his first day of school was going to go just perfectly.

Linda handed the phone to Little Neil, and he took it into the closet and shut the door. He was crying. He didn't cry very often. I told him how much I loved him, how proud I was of all that he did, but it was no subst.i.tute for a hug. If I'd been there, I would have picked him up, put his head on my shoulder, rubbed his back, and rocked with him until he felt better.

The best I could do was listen. "Tell me what's going on?" Neil tried to keep from crying, but he couldn't speak. "Tell me what you want, buddy?"

He cried until he caught his breath, and then the words came out. "I want you, Daddy."

CHAPTER 28.

Initially, I couldn't fathom why the federal government would decide to put inmates in the same facility as leprosy patients. Link and his buddies claimed we all were part of a secret government experiment. He was certain we would catch the disease, which, of course, was fine with him since he planned to cash in on the situation. Link's theory was corroborated by other inmates, who pointed to the experiments on prisoners at Tuskegee and in n.a.z.i Germany.

The logic behind this experiment was hard to follow. Did some bureaucrat announce, "Hey, I've got a good idea. Let's put federal convicts in with the leprosy patients!"?

But now I was beginning to realize what an insult it was to the leprosy patients. Despite how the inmates felt about it, for the patients, it was another slap in the face. That the federal government thought nothing of moving criminals into their home said a lot about their standing.

When Link was finally given a job, he was a.s.signed to the cafeteria, an a.s.signment that brought him into contact with the patients. He intentionally bungled his tasks. He let pots and pans pile up in the wash room, he filled the salt shakers with sugar, and he ran the floor buffer over its own cord and burned up the motor. The guards wisely decided not to let him get near the food.

Link wasn't happy about having a job, and his opinion of Carville was changing.

"This place is all f.u.c.ked up!" he said.

"It's not so bad."

"It is. Ghosts everywhere. About a thousand of them leopards died in this motherf.u.c.kin' place. And the G.o.dd.a.m.n Mississippi River flows north!"

I'd heard other men say the river flowed north at Carville, but I found it hard to believe.

"Link," I said, "I thought this place was like a country club?"

"It is!" Link said. "A f.u.c.ked-up country club!"

Though he spent most of his day sleeping in the back of the walk-in cooler, Link was a.s.signed to the patient cafeteria to help pick up trays and dishes after breakfast and lunch. Most days, I helped him. But a guard usually had to rouse him from sleep. One day when I was preparing the menu board, the patients left an unusual mess. Link entered the room and saw the pile of trays left by the patients.

"G.o.dd.a.m.n leopards!" he yelled.

I looked up and saw Ella still eating. Harry, who was leaving, stopped and turned around. He looked like someone had just punched him in the stomach. Stan and Sarah, the sweet blind couple, reached across the table and held tight to each other's hands.

I felt terrible that Link had hurt them. They had chosen to stay in Carville, their safe haven, to avoid this kind of pain. But with the arrival of the inmates, the stigma of leprosy had slowly crept back into their home.

At that moment, I saw in their expressions just how vulnerable they were to the odious label. I promised myself I would not view my new friends as "lepers." And I made a commitment not to use the word that had caused them so much suffering.

I called Link over to the menu board. For all of Link's street savvy, he wasn't so good in the sensitivity realm.

"They hate that word," I whispered. "Plus, you're saying it wrong."

Link shrugged. I led him over to the corner and talked in a low voice. "Link, a leopard is large cat." I looked at him to make sure he was following. "People with leprosy are sometimes called lepers-but they really, really hate it."

"What the f.u.c.k?"

"They hate being called that as much as certain people hate being called certain words," I said, hoping Link would make the connection.

"n.i.g.g.e.r!" Link yelled. "You mean n.i.g.g.e.r?"

"Well," I said quietly, hoping Link would follow my lead, "that's one of them."

"I say that word all the motherf.u.c.kin' time!" Link said.

I was about to launch into an explanation about the subtle difference in delivery, source, history, perspective, but instead I just asked Link again not to call them lepers-or leopards.

"What the f.u.c.k you want me to call them?"

I didn't know. But I would find out.

Link and I finished with the trays; he went back to the cooler for a nap, and I apologized to Ella for what Link had said.

"It don't bother me none," she said. "That word in the Bible. And there ain't no leprosy in heaven."

Ella's att.i.tude was amazing.

"We do our sufferin' down here," Ella said. "Jesus gonna be waitin'. So it don't bother me none." Ella was quiet for a moment. Then she said, "But that word do hurt other peoples."

In The Sanctuary Of Outcasts_ A Memoir Part 8

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