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I used to sweep the floor at night while the big black kid, Red, I think his name was, mopped up behind me as all the guys banged on their cell doors in fits of rage screaming profanities at one and other for no real reason other than they could. Most times no one took it personally we were all in this together after all, for now. Someday most of us would go home, someday. Then there were the others who never would, this was their home until they transferred out to their permanent home though this hadn’t really settled on us yet. Everyone knew who those guys were or at least had a good idea but we also knew it could end up being any of us. All kind of uncertain things could happen in an uncertain world and there wasn’t a good goddamn thing any of us could do about it. You lived for the day because, well, that’s all we had.
I knew where I was and why I was here or at least I thought I knew why. I thought I knew it all back then yet, I questioned everything. The first real lessons of my manhood were learned there in Division 9 maximum security school wing of the Cook County Jail. Division 9 school wing was reserved for young offenders, most of us of the violent kind, between ages 17 and 24 who were on trial for class 2 felony criminal offenses or above and lacked in a high school diploma. Boys with possible sentences ranging from six years to life. Most were gang members and those who were not would likely become one. While the other kids were going to prom and getting skinned knees we were looking at hard-time and the uncertainty of the next day. There were hard places but this place was the hardest time of all, some called it gladiator school, they were not exaggerating, we called it hell.
Red and I were lucky, a Sheriffs Deputy named Daley liked us and appointed us his closers of the deck for lock down every evening he was on shift. Every hack had his favorites for different reasons, we just happened to be Daley’s favorites. Everyone would lock down in their cells while Red and I would stay out and sweep and mop the day room floors before we too were locked down for the night. It was a chance to enjoy the emptiness and quiet of the deck after the madness and chaos of daily life. A chaos you grew used to, even became comfortable with. A comfortable chaos.
We would smoke cigarettes and listen to old Motown cuts and new Lionel Ritchie songs while we danced with our mop and broom tucked in close to our chest imagining them to be the girls we missed. The ones on the street we loved and those we never knew. We had no clue what real love, intimacy, and companionship was only a vague idea of what we thought it was. What the fuck did we know most of us were barely seventeen or eighteen a few in their early twenties and many of us had never even been with a girl sexually. We didn’t have time before we got locked up we were too busy robbing, dealing drugs and getting high. Most of those who had been couldn’t even remember it while others had forced themselves on those they called the loves of their life. Our sexual escapades were built on bravado and bullshit of things that never happened. Shit, many of these guys had already killed someone prior to their first blowjob. I myself had only experienced the act twice neither of which I could recall very well. The first time I was a drunk fourteen-year-old punk being schooled in the essentials of sex and intimacy in a dark alley by an equally drunk eighteen-year-old girl. The second time was in a drug-induced stupor stoned on quaaludes, a sixteen-year-old with a hard-on, not exactly a night to remember.
The most sexual experience we had was masturbating to the G-Shot pics, jailhouse slang for naked girlie pics, that we ripped out of the porno mags the hacks would sneak us in and paste to our cinder block walls with toothpaste, the crazy glue of the day. Nobody in their right mind was giving any of us real glue, that was considered contraband because the hacks were afraid we would either try to sniff it or eat it and kill ourselves. The naked girls in those G-Shot pics were our teachers in the fine arts of sex, love, and intimacy, hell we didn’t even know how to like ourselves how the fuck were punks like us ever going to ever love someone else. So we listened and we swayed to Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Say You Say Me’ and ‘You Are’. His words of romance crooned of lives lived and love lost as his words soothed the savage beast that existed in our young minds. The words of love calmed the air in a world thick with violence and helped us create fond memories of loves that never happened, they were simply youthful mistakes, accidents or fantasies played out in our young minds that made the unmanageable days and nights a little easier to manage. These are my memories of love.
A decade plus and another life later I would have the pleasure of meeting Lionel on a few occasions. I thanked him for the memories and helping me make it through those years. I don’t think he ever really considered the possibility his music would be the defining factor for the psychological survival of an incarcerated teenage kid to make it through his days and nights. But that’s a story for another day.
Every one of our lives was inconsequential and our futures all had an expiration date on them, the next riot, violent episode or the next court date, whichever came first. We never lived much further than that in our minds. On the streets, we couldn’t get ourselves to school and many had no home to go to yet we were well schooled criminal law and some of us read so many court briefs and case law we probably could have slid into law school as easy as we slid through a second story window. Our cases were dinner conversation and many were well versed in the criminal statutes, the probability of conviction and the fact that the odds that were stacked against us making it out in one piece on a daily basis. Yet, we could not make it on the streets without getting caught up.
Most of us were not violent by nature, we all had our problems with authority, none of us were sociopaths, at least not yet, though some would cross that threshhold. On the fringe, blood, beatings and bullets are the rule of law and violence is inevitable. You either grew comfortable with your surroundings or you became prey. A kid schooled in the subtlety’s of the jailhouse life could smell fear on you. If you smell like fear they will eat you alive. It was a shark pool. So you learned how to mask your fear with jailhouse ink, a thousand mile stare and eyes vacant of any emotion that would make a poker table pro envious. Jailhouse attributes that make you forget how to love before you ever even learned how. We learned how to survive on our fantasies.
So here we were doing what we did every night Daley worked, dancing mop and broom in hand on the dimly lit deck of the gang wing. Day Care for kiddie criminals who would one day be big criminals if we lived that long. I used to think to myself, ‘sometimes things can only get better, too bad today just ain’t one of those days’.
(to be continued.)