Now that I’m done with school and Patrick is the healthiest he’s been in years (no trips to the ER since last October-- woo!), we're both a little manic with all this new-found health and freedom—trying to cram four years’ worth of living into scarcely two weeks. It’s burning the candle at both ends, but in a good way. Parties, Mother’s Day, dinner with friends, poetry readings, movie-going, volunteering, working on the house, long walks, cooking. I’ve already made two trips to the library.
And, of course, writing.
For my senior thesis, I finished a draft of my latest novel, Under Julia. It’s been two weeks since I worked on it, and tonight I begin editing and revising.
Under Julia is the story of a group of homeless sex offenders living under the Julia Tuttle Causeway in Miami. City law states that registered sex offenders may not live within 2,500 feet of a school or daycare. Halfway houses, hotels, and homeless shelters will not accept them.
I learned of their situation several years ago when I read an article in The Miami New Times, a sister publication of Kansas City’s Pitch, on the Julia Tuttle sex offender encampment. Back then, the encampment consisted of about 40 people. By 2010, the encampment had become a full-fledged shanty, with over 130 people living under the bridge in shacks and lean-tos. I’d like to tell you that it was public outcry that demanded the parolees be removed to halfway houses, but it had more to do with the fact that they were an eyesore. The law has not been repealed, though all of the parolees have been moved to other living arrangements.
When I first read the article, I was stunned by the accompanying photographs—the tents and sleeping bags, and especially the system of ladders and ropes to help the men up and down the steep concrete embankment, which struck me as a nightmare version of Never-Never Land. (To give you an idea, here’s a photo stream of the encampment from 2008 on Flickr.)
Here, I thought, is a story that needs telling.
Chapter One: Winstead
When I came to live under Julia, we had about thirty guys living down here. But they come and go. Don’t go thinking this is a happy story. That some of us will work hard and endure or some shit. Redemption is a lie. Everyone here is guilty. And this is hell.
Hey, don’t look at me. I’m not one for fucking introductions. So let’s just get right to it.
On my last day inside, I sat in this little room, waiting for processing. A little room, inside of a larger room, inside of a larger room. A progression of smaller and smaller rooms, dead-ending in cells. Or at least that was how it had been on the way in, a rodent caught in the contracting digestive tract of a serpentine system. But now I was on my way out, the progression going in reverse, bigger and bigger rooms until, before I knew it, I’d be disgorged into the expansive outside. And yet, no less caught. No less a dead end.
One of the fluorescent lights overhead buzzed. Flickered.
The night before, the guards had reminded me that I was getting out today. As if I could forget. But it’s procedure. Making me wait here now—I think that’s procedure, too. Normally, I’m real good at waiting. But today, I sat very stiff and still in the hard plastic chair, afraid to so much as breathe wrong, my hands folded on the metal table in front of me. My stomach burned and roiled. I was developing an ulcer, I just knew it. Of course it had started after I’d been told I was getting out. When a lot of guys find out they’re getting paroled, they get all excited. And even before that, a lot of them spend their whole time talking about all the shit they’re going to do when they get out—oh, the places they’ll go, but not me. Until the moment of release became a reality, I was just paranoid as fuck, like I’d been smoking Big Bang. I spent a few days shuffling around all wall-eyed, too scared to make a move. What if there’d been a mistake and they didn’t really mean to release me? What if they rescinded the parole somehow? What if I got in a fight? What if we went into lockdown? A lot of fucking ifs. Not to mention the terrifying prospect of being let out in the first place.
Then these lines popped into my head: There is no ‘then.’ There is no ‘after.’ Vivien Leigh. The Hamilton Woman. I probably saw that movie back in 1987, but here it is, floating up out of my consciousness. Everything is now. The past never stops happening. It collides with the future, a car wreck you can see coming but are powerless to stop because you got behind the wheel shit-faced.
Even if I was bugging out, I had to prepare. After I got over feeling like I got smacked in the head with a two-by-four, I exercised my phone privileges. Four phones mounted on the wall. I always choose the third from the right. Funny the little habits that form. All calls are collect.
When my mom picked up, her voice sounded all breathy, a sure sign that she was, has been, or is about to cry.
“Yeah. It’s me.”
She drew in a big gasp of air. Started crying.
The sound sawed along my nerves and without meaning to, my lip curled. I didn’t say anything. Just listened to her carry on for a minute. Then I said, “I’m getting out.”
She sucked in another breath. “Where can I come get you?”
“You can’t. We’ve been over this.”
“I just don’t understand. Where are you going to go?”
“Don’t worry about it. I just wanted to call you and tell you I’m getting out.”
“But I want to see you.”
“I know. I want to see you, too. But it’s not good right now.”
Yet another quavery breath. More tears. I closed my eyes and held the receiver away from my ear for a minute.
“Mom,” I said. She couldn’t talk. “Mom. I gotta go. I don’t wanna run up your phone bill.”
“When will I hear from you again?”
“I don’t know.”
She said some other things, unimportant things. I don’t really want to go into it. But I had to tell somebody and there wasn’t anybody else.
Yesterday, I gave most of my stuff away to my cellies, as was expected. I had amassed quite a collection of books and some magazines—most of it I suppose real serious reading types would term trash. I went back and reread all my old favorites from when I was growing up: Zane Grey, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft, even some comic books. But mostly, I stuck strictly to more recent adult fare: Stephen King, James Patterson, that sort of thing. I also had a bookshelf, a plastic storage carton, a small plug-in percolator, a clock radio, an old Walkman tape deck (because you can’t have CDs in prison), some games, an electric shaver, some junk food from the canteen, and a few photos and letters.
I kept the photos and letters. Basically, just what I’d be able to fold up and put in my pockets.
The light overhead kept going on and off with a sound like flies collecting on a screen door, dimming brownish-gray and pulsating. Off. On. Off. On. I swallowed and thought I would give my left nut for a roll of Tums right about now.
Finally, the door opened.
A screw brought me a box with my dress-out clothes, gave me five minutes to change. I put everything on. It all felt stiff and scratchy. The prison canteen doesn’t have clothes except sweats, and you don’t get Internet access inside, so my mom had to buy everything and send it to me. New boxer shorts and undershirt, size L, white. New socks, size 11½, also white. New jeans, 34 x 34, medium blue. New button-down shirt, short-sleeved, size L, green. It was the first shirt I’d worn in fifteen years that wasn’t blue or white. Running shoes, size 10, blue and gray, with laces. The brand: New Balance. I’d never heard of it before. All my shoes had been bo-bos—mostly stretchy, soft-soled slip-ons, the kind favored by people with water-retention problems, or leather sneakers with Velcro straps that looked bizarrely like a catcher’s mitt for your feet. I tossed my prison clothes, pale blue, into a laundry basket, white.
When I was done, the CO led me back out to the R&R desk, where yet another box held the rest of my belongings. My watch with a plain steel band and a dead battery. Wallet with expired credit cards and a driver’s license five years out of date. Wedding ring for a marriage twelve years over. They gave me two hundred dollars gate money. The money I’d earned inside would be electronically deposited when I got a bank account. I signed everywhere they told me to sign.
From there, the guard took me to the main tower to sign out. And then, he loaded me into a van. When they take you to prison, or transfer you between prisons, they take you on a bus. Like a school bus, except it’s not yellow, and there are restraints. They make you wear a paper jumpsuit in case you’re thinking about pissing or shitting yourself or anything like that. And there is absolutely no talking.
On the ride away from prison, there was no talking either.
The guard took me to the nearest Greyhound, in Fort Myers. It was early, not even 7:00 yet, so there weren’t many people around. But there were enough. I didn’t know how to be, how to act. I kept having this funny tickling between my shoulder blades, like I was being watched. But that was stupid, nobody was looking at me. Why would they?
But the first thing, I mean the very first thing I noticed, was the air. Prison stinks. I mean that literally. A lot of guys don’t fucking bathe, ever. They fling shit when they get bored, like we were some kind of goddamn ape house. They get the urge to redecorate, they choose shades of urea and excrement. I don’t even want to talk about what the bathrooms are like. And even if you are one of the clean ones, you can never get really clean. It’s not like you have an extensive wardrobe. Two sets, three sets of clothes, max. You only get to shower every couple of days, and you don’t want to send your clothes down to the prison laundry—that means entrusting them to the other inmates. Most of us wash our clothes while we’re in the shower, so nothing ever smells like detergent or anything. Staph and all kinds of nasty, contagious shit is a constant problem, and invariably, you get racked with some crusty, disease-ridden, skid mark-laying motherfucker. Standing in a bus station redolent of diesel fumes and overflowing trash cans and poor slobs who can’t afford a plane ticket was like a field of fucking wild flowers. Everyone who passed me was like some wondrous new bouquet—I could smell perfumes and colognes and scented lotions, fabric softener, shampoo. A woman walked past me trailing some fruity smell that sent my mouth instantly to watering and my dick sprung so hard it’s amazing the fly on these new Wranglers didn’t shoot off like a broken garage door coil.
I slunk off, looking for something to distract myself with. I had paid for my ticket with cash, so I had some change. I went over to the vending machines. They looked weird to me, modern. Everything looked so different. The computer console at the ticket booth—I hadn’t seen anything like that before. And the fucking cell phones everywhere, with obnoxious rings, with music programmed as the ringers. I heard one that was, “Knocking on Heaven’s Door,” the GNR version. So many different kinds of phones. People walked around with them, typing on them on these little fold-out keyboards. They walked around, talking seemingly to nobody, with little devices stuck in their ears.
A lot of this stuff I knew a little bit about from magazines. In prison, they edited our TV, so we didn’t get the news, and no movies above a PG rating. No violence, no sex. But even if I had been watching the latest updates, all day, every day, it wasn’t the same as actually seeing this shit. And the new fashions. Women bent over and flashed G-strings, their lower backs tattooed—more ink than I ever would have expected outside of prison. More piercings, too. It seemed like all the women had at least three earrings in their ears, and lots of other kinds of piercings too—noses, lips, eyebrows, worn by men and women alike. Hair ironed flat, like it had been in the 70s, streaked with highlights or some crazy colors. Layered hair with severe ends that looked like it had been hacked with a dull blade. Hair gelled so it was arranged in careful spikes.
Feeling like a time traveler from some extinct era, which I suppose I was, I bought a cup of coffee and a Twix bar. But the real kicker came when I went into the bathroom. They had self-flushing toilets that sprayed my ass with cold water when it flushed because I guess I moved the wrong way or something. When I finished and stood up to look for the handle, there wasn’t one. I stood there nervously, trying to figure out if I should just walk away or what, and then was startled again when the toilet flushed. How could it tell? Self-dispensing soap, automatic hand dryers that sounded like a jet take-off and made the flesh of my hands ripple. It was too much.
I went outside for a smoke. You couldn’t smoke inside anymore. People were definitely looking at me now, disapproving of my filthy habit. They didn’t know from filthy habits. I had no luggage, nothing but what I had in my pockets.
I practically swallowed the first cigarette and immediately lit up another. My hands weren’t too steady.
Finally, it was time to get on the bus. The ride from Fort Myers to Miami took over five hours with all the stops. I sat with my head against the window and took deep breaths. My head was jangling. Everything looked grainy and unreal, like I was still inside and just looking at a picture of this road ahead of me, of these grassy, marshy embankments on either side of the highway, of the pale sky with its shifting patterns of clouds. Only the burning in my gut to assure me that it was all very real. That cup of coffee had been a bad idea. I felt the beginnings of a headache forming in my temples as I inhaled the scent of rubber, vinyl seats, exhaust. The wheeze of the bus doors opening and closing.
Released. Disgorged to the dazzling summer sun. Then I was walking along the side of the road like a bum, hands in my pockets, the traffic roaring past me.
First stop, parole office.