In prison, privileges are up to the warden. No facility is exactly the same. Just like when I was a kid switching schools all the time, there's some uniform basics, but you have to spend the first few weeks laying low and learning the particulars of your new place when you get there.
Here, I got a cassette player and a pair of headphones that I kept on me at all times. The commissary charged $5.50 per week to rent. I made $20 a month from my job assignment putting together bed frames, and the rest I scraped together mostly by selling fruit cups off my plate. I didn't let anybody borrow the headphones. First thing any new cellie learned: Don't bother asking.
The library had audio books on tape. A grand total of 11 books. Imagine how quick you could get through that with nothing but time on your hands. No roof to shingle, no lawn to mow. No bowling alley. No bar.
The reason I rented the cassette player was Lisa. Lisa Machelski, from my hometown. She found out about me when she read the local newspaper.
After a few letters, she said she was bad with writing and preferred to talk. Phone calls cost too much, so we worked out that I would write, because that’s the way I prefer to communicate, and she would send tapes.
For the first one, she sent a mix tape with a bunch of songs, and in between she recorded herself talking about how she liked the song and what it made her remember.
As soon as I heard her voice, I knew she wasn’t from Gladewater. She said she’d moved down from Ohio in 7th grade. We discovered that neither one of us got along with anyone, her because she was always an outsider, even after 20 years, and me because that’s just my way.
She could rattle on. About her mother, about the neighbors. About anybody she passed in her day, and their dog. And their children. She hated everybody, but she smiled and sweet-talked like God’s own ray of sunshine to get what she wanted.
She put her tape recorder in her bag and walked through the mall with it on. She shoplifted a watch from a kiosk then went to the bathroom and told me all about it, sitting on a toilet. She giggled and said she felt like I was her accomplice. She asked me how much time somebody could get for that - emotional support of theft.
Lisa and I had been exchanging letters and tapes for three months when I went to the canteen to extend my rental and the guy there said no-can-do. He said he had to collect what I had and turn it back in. Privileges on all electronics had been revoked. I made the point that the cassette player runs on batteries. He said it didn’t matter.
A C.O. followed me back to my room to make sure I didn’t have another set squirreled away somewhere. A week later, they did a sweep and took my tapes, including the last one which I didn’t get to hear.
Lisa and I went back to writing letters, and she joked that she was going to get one of those messenger pigeons and feed it until it was big enough to carry a cassette player to me that I could hide. I told her if we were talking trained birds, I wanted a falcon. Something that could claw up rats.
Lisa said that letters took too much time, weren’t as much fun. It reminded her of essay assignments in high school, when they made her write two full pages like everybody else, even though she was dyslexic.
The letters gradually tapered off from once every other week to once a month, and then a two month stretch before one last letter where she mentioned a neighbor she met at church. He was divorced, with two kids he got every other weekend. He was turning his life back around from alcohol and needed a friend.
Find someone who feels trapped, and nine times out of ten they’ll start comparing themselves to a bird in a cage. But the thing is, most of those birds have been held and petted since birth. A bird in a cage is about as close to a wild animal as a puppy is to a wolf. Forget natural habitat, home is what you’re used to.
Every now and then, a wild bird will fly into the rec area here, or the green house, and can’t get out. Always a small bird, like a sparrow or pine siskin. It freaks out when it realizes it’s got a roof over its head. You never see a crow make that mistake. Too smart. Crows gather out in the open, squawk like they’re shooting the shit, laughing at us. One day it looked like they were trying to get a pick-up game going with members of the 211 Crew out in the yard.
A couple weeks after suspending electronics privileges, the warden visited the warehouse while I was working my assignment. He spoke to a lieutenant for a couple minutes then exited through a side door. I took off through the front, running to cut him off and confront him about the cassette player. When I caught up with him, he was alone. I stopped running. Two things the warden wore at all times: a bull horn bolo tie and a firearm. Before I could get a word out, he had his hand in the air motioning me over. He called out loud, “Bring that claw hammer over here.”
I forgot I’d had it in my hand. Set one foot outside of the warehouse, and tools are contraband. I tightened my grip and walked over.
He pointed down, at a vent. Something was trapped behind it. The warden told me to wrench it off. I pushed the claw behind the edge and pulled. The vent popped off, and there was the sparrow, grounded, but doing its best to raise its wings at the sight of us.
The warden knelt down and put his hand toward the bird. The bird opened its beak and stepped further back into the vent, but in a scoop he had it out.
Crouching down, the warden rested his arm on one bent knee, like a soldier at a comrade’s grave. He touched a finger to the back of the bird and said in a low, sure voice, “Come on, darlin’. Go on. You’re out from where you don’t belong.”
I stood staring at the back of the warden’s head, saw a large liver spot he had under a few sparse hairs. I wasn’t thinking about the cassette player, or Lisa’s neighbor, or crows that laugh and fly off.I raised the hammer I still had in my hand and, like any creature without wings, let gravity work.