Content Warning: This piece of literary nonfiction includes racial slurs within dialogue quoted by the author, who is currently incarcerated at New York State’s Attica Correctional Facility.
The bells sounded. Two short blasts. Somewhere a fight had broken out. If it was in one of the yards, it would end with the officers wielding black batons. Bloodied bodies would be tossed into cells, where they’d be locked away for days. No medical attention. No food. I could easily be one of them.
Other guys on the gallery, also dressed and waiting to go to the yard, were growing frustrated. There was a good chance we would remain in our cells. To pass the time, guys stood at their gates and shouted at each other.
“Hey yo, son, ya hear me? I’ll punch that nigga in the face. He’s a piece of shit. I tole that nigga to send me the brick he owe me. Son, I ain’t the one. I’ll stab that mothafucka. Ya heard?”
“Hey yo, son. He’s a dirtbag, ya hear? He don’t pay nobody. Somebody oughta cut him, teach that nigga a lesson, ya heard?”
I lay on my bunk with a copy of García Márquez’s Cien años de Soledad. My prison-addled brain could barely digest the Spanish.
While I had languished on Riker’s Island awaiting trial, my ex-wife had sent me a copy of El Amor en los Tiempos del Cólera. It was my first encounter with Márquez. With nothing to do but watch gory movies like Saw in the cavernous day room, I retreated to my cell and tackled the novel using a hefty Spanish-English dictionary that my ex had wryly included as a Márquez starter-kit. A native Ecuadorean, she had pestered me for years to improve my high school Spanish.
After nineteen months on Riker’s Island, the glacial pace of the judicial system finally resulted in a plea bargain: twenty years. I was thrilled to leave purgatory. At three in the morning, with all of my possessions in two plastic garbage bags, I was tossed, cuffed and shackled, onto an aged Correction bus. Through the steel grating on the windows, I watched fat, puffy snowflakes land in the parking lot and melt on contact. The snow was a harbinger of my destination. Buffalo. The land of legendary lake effect snowstorms. The final stop: Attica.
True to its reputation, the prison was violent. And ugly. I witnessed cuttings and stabbings in the yard. They erupted without warning, like lightning. At night in my cell, I heard the screams of men being beaten by the guards. My appearance often saved me from problems. Older, pasty white and graying at the temples, I had not a single tattoo. It was obvious that I was no gang member. Despite that, the block’s reputation and repressive environment made it difficult for me to attend programs like meditation or AA. Even a visit to the library was a challenge, requiring a negotiated passage through six electric gates. Some officers resented prison education; some resented the fact that I breathed.
After two years of frustration, I qualified for the honor block. I liked the freedom of movement it offered. But ironically, because we were allowed to congregate on the galleries or in the day rooms, it was even noisier than the block I had left. Just outside my cell, men played dominoes by slamming the plastic tiles down onto a Formica table. Shouts of “chinga tu madre” and “hijueputa” caromed off the terrazzo floors and tile walls. The day room was a battleground. Heated poker games. A contact-sports version of ping-pong. Even chess games erupted into physical combat. I blocked out the noise by employing industrial earplugs and rereading Márquez’s Cólera.
I also identified with the frustration of Juvenal Urbino, the novel’s protagonist. Juvenal writes long, plaintive letters to the love of his life, Fermina Daza. But she imperiously refuses to answer them.
“Hey yo, hometeam, get ridda that bitch. Ya hear me?” Two guys outside my cell were beefing about their shorties.
“That bitch is thick, son. Ya heard?”
To the men in prison, women were bitches, usable and disposable.
Márquez’s novel depicted the lost art of romance. I admired Juvenal’s determination to win Fermina’s love. He worshiped her, despite having to pursue her for thirty-five years.
When it was nearly deserted, the honor block yard was a tranquil oasis. Bordered by red tea roses and a vegetable garden, it served as a refuge from the pandemonium. Oregano and mint sprouted in wild tufts. Strawberry patches and zucchini plants heavy with orange blossoms received tender care from doting convicts. Fresh cilantro scented the air.
Eddie sat on the rusted workout bench next to me. Dark-skinned, with soulful eyes black as olives, he had the torso and face of a pugilist—brawny shoulders and massive cheekbones. Most days he pounded the punching bag hanging from a bracket that shook the brick wall, resounding throughout the block. But today, he was doing bench presses. The barbell held steel plates suspended like rolls of quarters.
“I wish it were like this out here every day,” I told him. “Don’t have to fight for the weights. Nobody shoutin’, arguing.”
“Doesn’t bother me. If I’m not listening to guys arguing out here, I’m listening to them at work. That’s all we get in the Grievance Office—complaints, and arguments.” He looked off in the distance at the massive concrete wall encasing the prison, seeming to accept it, and whatever else came his way.
“All the hollering and noise gets on my nerve. Guys are shoutin’ at a man standin’ two feet away. Everybody’s mad all the time.”
Eddie turned towards me. “They’re not mad,” he said. “They’re scared.”
“Scared? Scared of what?”
“Being locked up.” He returned to his workout, lifting the barbell off the benchpress. The weight of the plates arced the Olympic bar. He finished his set without showing the slightest sign of being winded. Elbows on his knees, he looked directly at me, his head capped with a white knitted kufi that contrasted sharply with his skin. “Dean, you didn’t grow up in the ‘hood, so you don’t understand.”
I got defensive. “Just because I’m not from the ‘hood doesn’t mean I don’t know—”
“Most of the guys here have been told all their lives that they’re pieces a shit. That they ain’t never gonna amount to nothing’…Most of them grew up with no fathers, no role models. Nobody gave them good advice, told them they were smart, to stay in school, get a job.”
Eddie’s words reminded me of my father, his constant harping. Nothing I ever did was good enough for him.
“They’re afraid of the truth. And when they get locked up, they’re afraid they’re gonna be forgotten—by their families, by their homeys, by their baby’s momma.” He exhaled. “It’s the fear of no longer existing. The fear of death.” He leaned back, placed two beefy hands on the barbell, and pounded out another set.
I stared at the brick wall, stunned. “The fear of death?”
“Yeah. We cling to things because we’re afraid to let go, to let go of everything—freedom, life, everything. It’s fear that creates our suffering.”
“Sounds kinda Buddhist.”
“It is. We create our suffering by clinging to things. You get aggravated by this place, by the noise and chaos, because you’re clinging. You’re refusing to accept what is…Don’t expect guys here to act like you. They’re scared, and they’re doin’ the only thing they know how—fighting. Fighting each other, fighting for survival.”
The door to the honor block yard opened. Eddie and I returned to our galleries, to the noise and chaos inside.
The day room was cluttered with men signing up for chow and waiting for mail call. I didn’t feel like dealing with the mess hall, but I stopped in for a minute as the officer read off the list of men getting mail. When he finished, I returned to my cell, empty-handed.
“I’ll kick your ass, you piece a shit,” one man said to another.
“I’ll cut you, mothafucka.”
I took off my boots, changed clothes, and lay on my bunk with a copy of John Banville’s novel Ghosts. Holding it up to my face, I retreated to a quiet island in the North Sea. Seagulls keened. I pictured the protagonist, who has been released from prison and begins to feel like a ghost.
Novels provide my escape. It’s hard for me to admit that I belong here in Attica, that this oubliette is my destiny. Before I came to prison, I surrounded myself with celebrated, glamorous people. Models, actors, singers. I lured them to a laser treatment center, where I erased their wrinkles and scars. I praised and pampered these people. And as they became dependent on me, I wormed my way into their homes, their parties, their opening night galas.
Like guys who grew up in the ‘hood, I was raised with little love and subjected to abuse. To hide my pain, I created a world teeming with glamor and riches. And as the money rolled in, I spent it on drugs, restaurants, nightclubs, and exotic trips to chic getaways. I wrapped myself in designer clothes, drove expensive cars, and roamed among decadent mansions, where I wandered nocturnally from room to room, twisted and high, searching for a glimmer of happiness.
When I found myself shuttered in prison, I thought I was different from everyone here. But Eddie showed me we had something in common: the same fears of suffering, of being forgotten, of dying in here all alone.
On a Saturday afternoon, I sit in the day room, awaiting a guard who will lead me out to the honor block yard. Outside, cold rain falls from the sky. The block’s football players are arguing over a game they’ve just played. Epithets are hurled, and accusations are made. I can’t wait to get out.
I drink a tall cup of tepid coffee while reading a story in The Times. It’s about an art show at the Met. An exhibition of Picassos and Matisses that Gertrude Stein and her brother had amassed while living abroad in Paris. Thousands have flocked to see the paintings. I long to see them and to sit on the steps of the Met, to gaze down Fifth Avenue, to watch the attendees come and go.
The article displays Picasso’s portrait of Stein. She is sitting in a chair, monolithic, in her Paris atelier. She looks so content, serene, surrounded by her art. Alice Toklas is probably not far.
The Company Officer passes me, leaving his post. Without a word, he slams the door shut to the day room, sealing off the yard. His shift is over, and he is heading home.
I stare out the day room window at the empty honor block yard. It is time for me to return to my cell. There will be no yard today. I am forgotten. Invisible again. Like a ghost.
– September, 2012