The Rogue Voice


June 02, 2006

Who Loves You?

Jesus or Wal-Mart?

Editor's Notes: Stacey Warde

Welcome to our Jesus loves you, Wal-Mart hates you edition of The Rogue Voice.
In this month’s issue, worlds collide.
The evil world of Sam Walton and fundamentalist Christians clashes against the sensibility of love and life lived with color and passion and protest.
Imagine getting evicted from Wal-Mart, the symbol of America’s pride, where we can fulfill our lust for ever-cheaper goods and services, consume more and spend more, where senior citizens work to supplement their meager retirement, where travelers in gas-guzzling RVs camp free in mega-parking lots and chomp on food that causes cancer and holds no nutritional value, and where possibly, one day, you might even meet Jesus. Well, that’s exactly what happened to our window-washing wanderer, Ben Leroux, when he stopped for a visit at the Wal-Mart in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He got the boot for overstaying his welcome. See page 8, where the ninth installment of his Window Washing Across America series begins, and check out page 9, where you can read his Wal-Mart eviction notice.
Ben didn’t exactly meet Jesus at Wal-Mart but he’s met a lot of his followers over the years and once prided himself in turning them away through his great wit and charm. But something’s changed. The Christians are after him again, and this time he can’t shake them off. They keep coming back with friendly invitations, like going to church and bible study and stuff like that. Maybe it’s his lifestyle that turns gets them excited and convinces them he desperately needs salvation. Whatever it is, if you’ve been following his journey across the country, you can see why God would want a guy like Ben. For one thing, he’s good at washing windows. For another, he’s exactly the kind of person God loves most: poor, resourceful, cheerful, and living day to day. Turn to page 14 for another story by Ben Leroux where he describes his latest confusing exchanges with Christians and how they have stirred up his theophobia.
Ben isn’t the only Rogue contributor who had something to say about Christianity and organized religion in this edition. (He’s the only Rogue contributor who’s ever been evicted from Wal-Mart.) Dr. Steven Sainsbury, one of the more respectable members of our Rogues’ galley, puts faith in a positive light and it may appear to you that we ganged up on him, because his experience with religion, as written on page 4, is the only one that openly says it’s a good thing. We salute Dr. Sainsbury, brave soul, for joining us in what otherwise is mostly a good bash against organized religion. We started with our esteemed doctor because we respect his opinion, a fine apologetic on behalf of believers, in “Religion bashers: practice what you preach.”
What follows, tends to take us down the slide toward paganism, prison ministry, and religion on university campuses such as Cal Poly. While these accounts may read like slams against religious life and Christians in particular, if you look carefully, you’ll see that they’re a whole lot more than that. They demonstrate some of the more contradictory elements of our culture where you can simulatneously praise Jesus, burn women at the stake or treat them like second-class citizens, and shop at Wal-Mart with a clear conscience.
Tito David Valdez Jr. relates what mischief can occur in the prison chapel, where inmates gather to do the Lord’s work. They strive to keep homies in the yard happy by supplying bibles, music, and materials for making greeting cards. On off days they might use the chapel for a tryst or for stashing their porn. Appearances aren’t always what they seem, which might explain the Catholic Church’s failure to screen a priesthood overpopulated with pedophiles, and it’s probably true that mischief will abound in any religious setting because, as Dr. Sainsbury notes, we’re all human and imperfect. In any case, Tito wrote what I consider to be his best work yet, a penetrating, humorous and compassiante look at how inmates serve the Lord while serving time, see page 5.
Now, picture yourself tied to a burning pole, greased for the fire, with Christians waving their crosses at you, telling you to repent or you will surely die in the fiery flames and go straight to hell. While it sounds fantastic — gothic, almost —a kind of modern horror film like Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, these things really happened. And they could happen again, which is why I take issue with Christians who hate pagans. I like pagans and I especially like those she-devils who dance naked around the fire and sing and laugh and love and celebrate life as well as, if not better than, most Christians I know. My account of the church’s treatment of heathens, “God loves pagans,” begins on page 12. This is my apologetic for those who would rather get naked and worship in the forest than put on a coat and tie and sit in a stuffy church all day.
Finally, meet the Christians at Cal Poly who would like students to study their bibles as much as they study their science texts. See intern Joe Sargent’s story, “Cal Poly on the Cross,” on page 18.
By now, you’re getting a taste of the mix we’ve prepared for you in the current edition of The Rogue Voice. We’ve got scandalous women chasing after a chef who may not have enough vigor left to outlast them. He needs help to keep up. He’s caught in a dilemma when, after a full night of loving an older woman, a younger hottie the next day says, “What’re you doing tonight?” Elder Cabby Dell Franklin, whose love for author Tobias Wolff is obvious and whose quiver of experience with women is full, offers a few helpful suggestions to the young lover (see “Cabby’s Corner: Ode to Tobias Wolff,” which starts on page 10).
We’ve also got aliens and probes and dope smokers mixing things up on Route 166 near Santa Maria (see Anne R. Allen’s “Alien monkey love” on page 22). How three local yokels end up on a spaceship is a mystery to me, but as Dan Hicks suggests in one of his songs about UFOs, if visited by one, “Hell, I’d go.” If not for the ride, then I’d go just to be with that sexy greenish gal who doesn’t know when to quit.
And a trip to the city finds “T.J.” (for Talmadge Jarretee Jr.) and his friend Rocco dodging rain and ducking into in a bar with flamboyant, chatty men who love to cook. This month starts a three-part series called “The rain” (starting on page 20), where the Santa Cruz author recounts a recent visit to San Francisco where he likes to drink at the local dives and play pickup basketball games at area courts.
Finally, don’t miss our Rogue of the Month, Brad Heizenrader, who’s got whatever you need and can fix you up right away and whose unfixed cat, Salem, runs the way we all want to run, terrorizing neighborhoods, loving with abandon and going balls out in all our enterprises. Meet Salem and Brad on page 16.
Special thanks goes to Grady Houser, who’s as spiritual as anyone you’ll ever meet and who loves us and who created this month’s cover. Be sure to check out Grady’s art this month Kelley’s Espresso in Cayucos and at Fiona Bleu in Morro Bay.

Stacey Warde is the editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at

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Washing windows across America (part 9)

Evicted from Wal-Mart
Santa Fe’s ‘Always Welcome,’ low-price alternative
pulls the welcome mat

In the summer of 2003, I discarded all I owned and loaded a troubled 1975 Plymouth with clothes, books, a guitar, a cat named Reggie, and $17.94 worth of window-cleaning equipment. I drove across the United States, stopping in nowhere towns, pail and squeegee in hand, cleaning windows for another day’s pittance. Free of any attachments, I floated vaguely east, wandering in a private stratum without itinerary or expectation. I became a true outsider, a fugitive from the banal, suffocating cycle of madness that passes for a “normal life” today in America.

By Ben Leroux

There’s a rumor that camping overnight in Wal-Mart parking lots is free. A quick Internet search confirms this. Though the policy is intended for people to stay just one night, Wal-Mart is lenient — up to a point. Sam Walton’s successors know that travelers, more than anyone, need food, toiletries, and auto supplies. And it’s all at Wal-Mart — anything a human being could ever need.
As I pull into the Santa Fe Wal-Mart parking lot, I face an ethical dilemma. Where I hail from in California, it is fashionable to harbor a deep-running contempt for the Wal-Mart culture, and the dulling, materialistic havoc it wreaks. Any socially responsible, liberal-minded Californian worth his salt recognizes the late Sam Walton for what he truly was — the personification of evil. At the same time, I have no money for a motel room. All I have is a vehicle to stay in.
“Welcome to Wal-Mart sir,” says Edward. He is a Mexican man, a senior citizen of meticulous grooming with every silvery black hair raked into position. His neat gold watch and gold-rimmed bifocals highlight carefully clipped and filed nails. His blue Wal-Mart vest is pressed to perfection and adorned with award buttons and pins. Edward is one of Wal-Mart’s front-line soldiers in the war against high prices. Edward is a Wal-Mart Greeter.
“Is it true what I’ve heard?” I ask Edward. “Is it true I can camp overnight in the parking lot?”
“Sure, we don’t mind,” says Edward. “There’s an area out by the far fence where we like the overnighters to park. You’ll see them all gathered out there after dark.”
“Thank you, Edward. You’re a nice man.”
Edward looks me up and down, managing to hold his greeter smile. Slowly though, he arches an eyebrow, as he sees the change of clothes and makeshift shaving kit under my arm, and the scabbed chicken-scratches on my forearms. The day before, springs and metal had slashed into my flesh as I’d done battle with the bench seats from the Plymouth, extracting them victoriously in the end.
“I’m just going to use your restroom, Edward.”
“Of course. It is down there and to your left.”
“Thank you.”
I discover quickly that men’s-room hygiene is impractical. There is nothing quite like the reaction of a father and son as they walk into the men’s room and see a half-shaven, half-dressed man with one bare, soap-lathered foot lifted up into the sink. It’s not something you expect your little boy to have to witness when you bring him to Wal-Mart — a truck stop maybe, but not Wal-Mart.
I manage though, and get clean enough to scare off the two flies that had been following me around for a week.
I go back to the Plymouth to enjoy its new décor. A plank of plywood the width of my body now extends from under the glove compartment to the backrest of what used to be the back seat. I have the plank swaddled in padding and blankets. There is more than enough room to lie down now, and I can even sit up against the backrest and stretch my legs out. Everything I need is within arm’s reach: my books, my guitar, my clothes.
I read and sleep and sleep and read. I sleep like a madman, making up for a month’s worth of shallow, skittish catnaps. I sleep the ferocious type of sleep that leaves one’s bone marrow buzzing with electricity.
I awake to a grainy pink sunset, and see what Edward is talking about. Seven or eight of the finest motor homes you’ll see are lined up along the side-fence of the parking lot. I start the Plymouth and drive over and join them. A few curtains shut as I near. I park among the RVs.
I get out and go into the Wal-Mart to use the restroom. On the way, I pass huge families coming out pushing carts that spill over with Wal-Mart products. The undercarriages sag with bags of dog food and cases of soda. I am proud to not be a part of this. I am proud that I have the self-discipline to use Wal-Mart for nothing other than its parking and restroom facilities.
A Wal-Mart security cart cruises innocently down the lane toward me — a golf-cart with an anemic, turning yellow light. I wave it down. Sitting inside, wearing a reflector-orange vest and a badge that says Wal-Mart Security, is Neil. Neil has the build you might expect of a man who sits in a golf-cart for a living.
“Hey, excuse me,” I say. “I just want to let you know that I am staying in that Plymouth over there. I’ve already told Edward about it. He said it was okay.”
“You say you’re staying in that car?”
“Yes, Edward said it was okay. I made sure to check first.”
Neil shrugs.
“It doesn’t matter to me what you do,” he says. Then he zooms off at 5 mph.
Edward the greeter is gone when I get into the lobby. He’s been replaced by a hefty red-headed woman, probably in her late 50s. She shares a hearty laugh with two co-workers. Where Edward’s awards were arranged with great detail and order on his vest, this woman’s pins and buttons spread out crookedly and chaotically around a nametag which reads: MYRNA. Some of her pins are family photos covered in plastic. When she laughs, her enormous bosom causes all her family photos and smiley faces and Wal-Mart slogans to clank and clatter together obnoxiously. Myrna does no more than glance at me as I pass through. I wonder where my greeting is.
After using the restroom I come out and pass by the aisles and aisles of cut-rate bargains that so many Americans are titillated by. I scoff at it all. I’ve never really shopped in a Wal-Mart, and don’t care what they have on their shelves, to be honest. I pass through the lobby and Myrna again shuns me. It irks me a little bit. I think about asking her what her problem is. But something tells me to let it pass.
Outside, the high New Mexican air is spicy and warmly arid. I walk past the RVs, toward the Plymouth. Tomorrow I’ll explore Santa Fe a little. It’s the nation’s highest and oldest capital, and some say that it and New Orleans are the two most culturally unique cities in America.
Before settling in for the night, I think about getting some malt liquor. I figure that since I haven’t had any in some time, and since I have remodeled my living quarters, I owe it to myself to drink. So on foot, I locate a 24-hour convenience store. There, I buy a bottle of the Old E and a large soda cup, which I fill with ice.
Back in the Plymouth I recline and throw a cover over me. My cover is an unzipped Coleman sleeping bag I found for eight dollars in a thrift store. Underneath, hidden from the Wal-Mart security cameras, I drain the Old E into the cup of ice, and stick the straw through the lid. I bring it out and openly drink from it. Neil chugs by in the security cart, and I wave to him while taking a long drag from the straw.
In the morning, Edward the Greeter is back on greeting duty. I smile and wave to him as I enter the lobby, and say “Hey, Edward.” But he looks down and away, as if he’d never met me.
Well, I deduce while peeing, a Wal-Mart Greeter greets so many people in a day that he can’t be expected to remember every face. A Wal-Mart Greeter has more important concerns than some boondocker from the parking lot who keeps coming in to piss in the Wal-Mart urinals without buying anything.
Still, I start to wonder what the deal is with my Wal-Mart Greeters. Either they despise me because I lack a shiny motor home, and am instead tarnishing the parking lot with the ugly Plymouth. Or, maybe I had started to take on the invisibility of a homeless man and the sight of me had become just disturbing enough to keep me under the Wal-Mart radar. Perhaps that was a good thing, I thought. Being able to sleep in a Wal-Mart parking lot indefinitely would change the ball game. It would give me a whole new set of options.
The window washing gets off to a slow start. The monsoons hit every couple hours it seems. I kill the stormy periods inside a Borders bookstore. I earn enough for meals but that’s about it. I am only able to canvass a very small part of Cerrillos Road, the main thoroughfare of Santa Fe. It goes on like that for a couple days.
Each night a new set of RVs joins me along the fence at Wal-Mart. One night, down to a few dollars, I loosen my standards and allow myself to buy Wal-Mart toothpaste and beef jerky. Just this once, I tell myself -— until I start making a little cash.
On the third night, I decide to take advantage of Santa Fe’s proximity to the Santa Fe National Forest. I drive north into the mountains, and pull into an unoccupied campsite.
I lay in the Plymouth all day drinking, reading, writing, sleeping, and smelling the crisp musk of pine trees through open windows. Huge, heavy globules of rain pelt the old metal roof of the Plymouth in spasmodic kettledrum riffs. I snack out of two bagfuls of Wal-Mart products: canned meats, crackers, pickles, cookies, and peanuts. I write into a nice Wal-Mart notebook with a nifty Wal-Mart pen. Together, it had all cost about seven dollars. It would be my very last purchase ever from a Wal-Mart. I fall asleep fat, lazy, and drunk. I wake up at 5 a.m. from the cold, and drive back into Santa Fe.
I snag a few jobs later in the day. Though friendlier than Albuquerque, there is still the city’s suspicion of strangers, so I get turned away about 90 percent of the time.
But now that I know I can fade into obscurity in any Wal-Mart parking lot, I begin to feel like I have a home base. And now that my Plymouth is converted into a poor man’s motor home, and now with my newfound invisibility, I believe that if I wanted to, I could live at the Santa Fe Wal-Mart or any other Wal-Mart a year or longer without anyone noticing.
And, I suppose I could eat Wal-Mart food on a short-term basis, and buy their dirt-cheap toiletries and clothes and whatnot. I could conceivably drive across the country that way, without ever checking into a motel. With all the Wal-Marts strung out across the nation, I could boondock my way to the Atlantic or down to the Florida Keys. How cool would it be to spend the winter in the Florida Keys?
On my fourth night, stumbling back half-awake from a 4 a.m. restroom run, I notice a piece of paper folded and stuck under a wiper blade of the Plymouth. I leave it, assuming it’s a flyer. But in the daylight, when I wake for good, I unfold it and find that it is an eviction notice in Wal-Mart letterhead.
In so many words it explains that I have been identified as one of a few bad seeds that are not complying with Wal-Mart’s generous overnight parking policy. It includes a friendly reminder that all license plate numbers parked a day or longer at Wal-Mart are filed and tracked, and that if the abuse continues, ne’er-do-wells will no longer be allowed within Wal-Mart stores or on any property under its immediate control. Someone has scribbled “noticed 4 days” in a margin of the letter. At the bottom, it is signed by Leena Thompson — Wal-Mart Management.
Washing windows later that day, not knowing where I’d boondock for the night, I repeatedly take the folded eviction notice from my pocket.
As I reread it over and over, my mind races with conspiracies regarding Edward, Myrna, and Neil. I keep looking at that handwritten: “noticed 4 days” in the margin, and seethe at the injustice of it. I become convinced that it is the handwriting of Neil the security guard. Neil was a bold-faced liar. He hadn’t given me credit for the night I spent up at National Forest. I should only have three days against my record.
Throughout the day, I think about going back to Wal-Mart and confronting Neil, Edward, Myrna, and Leena Thompson. But I let it go. I fold up the eviction notice and put it away.
That evening I settle into a big, soft chair at Borders, and guzzle their coffee. Sure, I buy their coffee, but none of their books. I’ll read them, but not buy them. That’s where I draw the line. If I need to buy a book, I’ll go to a little used bookstore.
Just as Borders is closing up, I come up with a Plan B for sleeping that night. I decide I’ll park behind the 24-hour IHOP I’d seen earlier in the day. I have two or three more days worth of window-washing left in Santa Fe, so I’ll need a homebase of sorts. The IHOP parking lot is spacious and well lit, and there’s an accessible men’s room, which I’ll use as needed. But no pancakes. You gotta draw the line somewhere. §

Ben Leroux writes from a motel room in Morro Bay, and still plies his trade as a window washer. He can be reached at

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Cabby's Corner

Ode to Tobias Wolff
And to men troubled by more women than they can handle

By Dell Franklin

Around eight on a Tuesday evening two girls came out of a bluesy, upscale bar near city hall. Dressed in jeans, sweaters and tennis shoes, they were headed for the Performing Arts Center on the Cal Poly campus where humor essayist David Sedaris was performing.
“David Sedaris the writer?” I asked, as they settled in the back seat.
“Yes. He’s supposed to be a humorist. He’s supposed to be a modern-day, poor man’s Mark Twain.”
“He’s pretty clever. He writes a lot for the New Yorker. Are you English majors?”
“Yes,” they said in unison.
“Are you interested in writing?”
They both nodded, told me they were in a writing class. I asked if they studied and wrote short stories. Yes! Well, had they heard of Raymond Carver? Yes, but they had not yet read him. I could not believe this.
“Raymond Carver is an American Chekhov,” I said. “He’s passed away, you know. He was a very good friend of Tobias Wolff. Surely you’ve heard of Tobias Wolff.”
No, they had not. I explained that with Raymond Carver gone, Tobias Wolff might be our greatest living short story writer.
“Yes. Who the hell teaches you? Every short story Wolff writes is a lesson, a moral, and a disturbing truth alien to most of us, unless we decide to really put on our thinking caps and enter into the darkness of our situations, and our souls.”
“My God, are YOU a writer?”
I dropped them off at the Performing Arts Center and urged them to be sure to secure a book of short stories by Wolff — “The Night In Question.” They thanked me and said they’d enjoyed talking about writers because they loved writing and hoped I picked them up another time in my cab. I gave them my card.
It was a cold, slow, dead night, so I headed downtown and parked next to the Wells Fargo Bank which provided good lighting under which to read. I did part of a crossword puzzle and read a Richard Ford short story and yawned, an hour killed. Though I knew the main drag, Higuera, would be slow, I decided to cruise around just to be doing something. Much to my surprise, I was flagged down from the sidewalk by a man named Jason, a chef at a new local bistro that was busy every night, taking SLO town by storm. I usually picked Jason up at a nearby bar around one o’clock when he was very drunk, and drove him a couple miles out toward Foothill where he shared an apartment with two other cooks. But tonight was different.
“It’s my day off,” he told me, getting in. “I’ve worked six days a week, thirteen hours a day, for four months. I’ m exhausted. Man, I finally got laid last night. I had this forty-six-year-old woman. I’m thirty. I was so horny, I screwed her six times! So what happens? This thirty-two-year-old, a real fox, wants me tonight. I’m supposed to meet her at a motel here in town. But man, you know, my libido is way down.
“Dammit! Why does it always have to come in bunches? When I’m on a cold streak, the women, they smell it, man, and run from you like you’re the plague. But when I’m getting it, they’re all over you. What am I supposed to do, man? I need your advice.”
“You say she’s thirty-two years old?”
“Yeh. Pull over at the 7/11. I’m gonna find me a good porno magazine. Maybe that’ll help.”
I did so. On the way in, a couple homeless kids hit him up, and he gave them cash. Coming out, another kid hit him up, and he gave him cash, too, then settled in the back seat.
“I need to go home and shower,” Jason told me. “So dude, what am I gonna do about this thirty-two-year-old fox who wants to rock and roll?”
“I don’t know, man. A thirty-two-year-old woman is at the very peak of her sexual hormonal drive. A horny thirty-two-year-old woman in heat has no business with anybody but a twenty-year-old, preferably a GI who hasn’t been laid in a month.”
“Man, I know. This woman, she could kill me. Pull over at that liquor store. I’m gonna get me some tequila. You want anything?”
“Nah. I’m fine.”
“A sandwich or something?”
“I’m fine, Jason, but thanks anyway.”
He went in and came back with a fifth of tequila in a brown bag, nipping from it, a troubled man with big problems. Now he handed me a hundred dollar bill and told me to keep the change after I dropped him off for good, though he wasn’t yet sure where that would be. He said he needed to stop off at his apartment for a change of clothing to take to the motel where he planned to meet his thirty-two-year-old fox. I dropped him off and waited in my cab, reworking the crossword. Jason returned in about ten minutes. I felt good. I was going to make a lot of money off this guy, whom I liked. I wanted to help him, but what could I do? Or say? I had, in my past, gone through cold spells with women as a confirmed bachelor. As a bartender down south, I had also enjoyed streaks where I slept with a variety of women of all ages over a long period of time, always drunk while wallowing in delicious, lascivious, loveless sport-fucking, and I cannot remember ever having had such a deliriously wonderful time since, and would not trade the experience for anything.
The thing is, after a while, even that kind of hedonistic life got old. I yearned for a companionable woman to go to a movie with, enjoy a quiet dinner, just hang out together and do nothing. It seemed, as an American male, I was indoctrinated early on into this frenzied ob-session to get laid as much as possible, like my compatriots. It was all crazy. Sometimes long periods of celibacy were more peaceful, though waking up in the morning without a woman was always lonely, and sometimes miserable. Is there ever a balance?
Anyway, Jason was still expressing his uncertainty of what to do about the fox as we headed back downtown, to Motel Row on Monterey.
“Man,” he said, sagging in the back seat, yawning. “I’m beat. That forty-six-year -old kept me up all night. I got about an hour sleep, max. Then I worked all morning on the books and had a meeting this afternoon with my cooks, and then I started boozing. This woman, she wants me bad. So I got the tequila, I got the porno magazine, I got plenty of cash, but I got a libido of a ninety-year-old. What am I gonna do?”
“Why don’t you give that thirty-two-year-old fox to me, man. I haven’t been laid in ages. Nobody wants me anymore, because I’m old.”
“How about that porno place in Atascadero? Diamond’s? Maybe, you know, I can give this woman some action until my libido comes back. I can use one of them dildos to replace my poor chewed up dick.”
“That’s a round-trip of nearly a hundred dollars, Jason. You’ll have to get another big bill out for that.”
“I don’t care, man. Right now, if I go with that woman, she might kill me. I’m in pain. I over-did it with that forty-six-year -old.”
“Well, there’s other things you can do, without a dildo, Jason — and without your dick. Every man knows that.”
“Man, if I can’t perform, she’ll get rid of me, though.”
“Well, as a last resort, why don’t you try talking to her. I know a motel room isn’t the perfect place for it, but why don’t you try and get to know this woman as a real, live human, and maybe let her get to know you the same way. Maybe she’ll have mercy, Jason. That may be your only hope.”
“Pull over at that gas station, please,” Jason said. “I’ve got to eat something. This tequila is going right to my head. I haven’t eaten a thing all day. I won’t be able to do much of anything if I don’t get some food in me.”
“Right. Fuel for the grind.”
Jason seemed to be delaying the situation in the gas station mini-mart on Monterey, on Motel Row. He browsed through some more magazines, then talked a little with the guy manning the counter, and then he purchased one of those synthetic, awful smelling corn dogs and a big hotdog, which he brought back to the cab along with a six-pack of Lite Beer.
He asked me what kind of hotel he should go to: A fancy one, like the Holiday Inn? Or one of the low-rent places? I advised him to take one that was not too expensive, but respectable. He accepted my expert advice and I dropped him off at a motel where I might take a girl. Fat chance. So Jason toted his porno magazine, change of clothes, tequila, cell phone, gizzard-curdling chow, and stood outside the office, looking like a lost soul while I counted my tip — $76. He was still standing outside the office, using his cell phone, when I took off.
My cell phone rang, and the dispatcher sent me back to the Per-forming Arts Center on campus. It was just around the corner, and, amid the mob spilling out of the plush auditorium, the two English major girls waited for me.
“It's YOU!” they cheered in unison, getting in the back.
“Hey! How was David Sedaris?”
“Fabulous! And guess what?” said the chunkier of the two, who sat up to tell me the good news. “David Sedaris was talking about how he gets depressed from time to time, and even considers suicide, and he said one of the reasons he will never commit suicide is because he might miss out on the next short story by guess who? Tobias Wolff! He loves Tobias Wolff. He must really be good.”
“So now you gotta read him, honey. You got two people recommending him — David Sedaris, world famous author and lecturer, and your local cabbie.” §

Dell Franklin is the publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at

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Life in the Cage

Mischief in the prison chapel
Inmates take advantage of a religious opportunity

By Tito David Valdez Jr.

When it comes to religion, I personally believe that one can benefit tremendously from any of the numerous faiths one chooses to believe in. I speak from experience, for I was a believer. As a young, misguided, lost 19-year-old college student who was in a fra-ternity, partying day and night at the frat house, I felt empty, like something was missing in my life.
Then, one day my hot young blonde girlfriend invited me to church. I took up the offer. Attended a Foursquare Church. A Christian faith. While there the first time, I felt a sense of peace, of belonging which the fraternity lacked, was overwhelmed by the blissful, soulful, hypnotic music. Felt high, like I was at a Rolling Stones concert, but without the joint.
When the preacher called out, “Is there anyone out there whom the Holy Spirit has touched, who wants to be healed by the blood of the Lamb, who wants to accept Jesus Christ as their personal lord and savior? Raise your hands!” I raised my hands high. I slowly walked to the altar, mesmerized by the black man’s fancy finger work moving along the chapel piano keys, and the numerous audience members who laid their hands on my body. Like a dope addict who just slammed an issue of heroin, I slowly fell to my knees in tears and repeated the preacher’s words, the “sinners prayer,” accepting Jesus Christ as my personal lord and savior.
It was a powerful, unique experience, much like the first time I fried on a tab of LSD. I felt the love equivalent to the effects of ingesting a tab of ecstasy. I hugged people I didn’t know, felt accepted, felt I had a purpose, that there really was a higher power out there.
I soon became a regular, like a drunk at a local bar, babbling about the Ten Commandments, about the twelve apostles, about the book of Revelations and the Antichrist who will be recognized by the number of the beast — 666.
I began to take bible study courses. Actually went to nightclubs and keg parties to tell the stoned and the drunk that Jesus loves them, handing them tracts to read. Most people threw the tracts on the ground.
Caught up in the midst of this utopian society, I had forgotten that my girlfriend and I quit having sex. The bible says to not fornicate. I was reminded of my need for sex every day when I woke up with morning wood. I was missing out on the good life. Had to bust out the porn to satisfy the moment since my girlfriend stopped sleeping over.
When I approached the pastor, he told me sex before marriage was indeed fornication, as was stashing porn. It was better to marry than to be in sin, lusting, being cast into the lake of fire, he said. But, as a young man in my sexual prime, full of testosterone, it was a difficult decision to resist the natural temptations when I was around my hot-looking girlfriend. Instead of the very revealing clothes she used to wear, she started wearing baggy clothes, so I wouldn’t lust over her.
Nine months into our sexual abstinence, it was too much for us to handle. The lust of the flesh consumed us. Acting on primal instinct, I rocked her world in the back seat of my VW bug — no time to make it to the local motel. I was just as aggressive and creative as a convict who spent a decade in prison, and just got paroled, like Ben Affleck in the movie, “Reindeer Games.” She performed like a nymphomaniac porn star, having repressed her wildest fantasies for months.
It was the best sexual experience I’ve ever had. We realized that we couldn’t follow the biblical teachings, and were human beings, and so we dropped out. I view that religious experience as a phase in my life.
It was 1997 when I arrived at the maximum security prison in Tehachapi, California, located high above the Southern California mountains. There was no grass, no trees, no flowers, just a concrete jungle, barbed wire and asphalt. There was an aura of misery.
Within the first few weeks, I was assigned a prison job as a janitor in the prison chapel. On my first day, I was interviewed by the prison chaplain, a youthful 40-something Latino man with trimmed mustache, dark brown hair, and trendy Calvin Klein eyeglasses. His name was Pastor Chavez.
“Mr. Valdez, I see here in your file that you have clerical skills. My clerk happens to be leaving next week, transferring to medium security. Tell me, what is your faith?”
Feeling it was a trick question, not knowing what faith he believed, I replied with confidence, “I’m agnostic. Don’t believe in anything.” This seemed like the perfect diplomatic answer.
“You’re hired! I need someone like you. We have several different faiths that utilize the chapel, so you will be perfect! You won’t take sides or show favoritism.”
I started the job immediately. The outgoing clerk, a tall, lanky white guy, with long blond hair, who looked like a stoner, trained me, gave me the scoop.
“Dude, you’re going to see a lot of funny things go on around here. My advice, keep your mouth shut. A lot of convicts are scandalous, using the church for personal benefit. They are opportunistic human beings. Just turn a blind eye. You got it?”
I nodded yes, but did not understand exactly what his cryptic message meant until he transferred.
Suddenly, I was in charge of the prison chapel. Had my own office, desk, computer, institutional phone. Was trusted with outside guests’ personal information (social security, driver’s license numbers). Had
to establish a schedule for every faith to give all believers a fair share of chapel time. I became exposed to jailhouse religion, and soon, understood what the outgoing clerk was trying to tell me.
Prison chapels run like churches in free society. The Protestant believers have elders, deacons, and other lower-level servants. Elders were like gods, and they had the juice card, could come in and out of the chapel without reason. They sat in on all the meetings with the chaplain, dictated policy, were like high-level managers. Deacons did the elders’ work. They aspired to be elders. Lower-level servants did what the deacons told them to do and aspired to be deacons.
On the surface, it was like organized crime; everybody in the know had to answer to the boss and strived to be somebody, having to earn their bones to rise to the top.
Deacon Bob, an intellectual-looking man in his 40s, serving life for killing his wife, was in charge of the prison outreach section. Hundreds of cassette tapes from outside churches were sent to the chaplain to be catalogued and made available to the Christian inmate population. There were six non-recording tape players available for check out.
Deacon Donnie was an African American inmate in his 50s, serving life for killing a rival dope dealer in Oakland, and was in charge of prison ministries. He solicited by mail outside churches to donate books, tracts, greeting cards, which could ultimately be dis-tributed to inmates.
Elder John, a tall, very buff, scary looking African American inmate with a bald head, was serving time for killing three men who raped his daughter. He worked on getting outside speakers to come in to preach to inmates. He spent hours on the phone kissing ass to out-side pastors and seminar speakers, like a record label public relations executive talking to program directors trying to get a record air play.
These characters ran the programs with an air of pro-fessionalism. I’d never speculate that any of them were abusing their authority or still indulged their character flaws. But as time progressed, their true intentions were revealed.
“Brother Bob, I did a count of the cassette tapes that came in this month. The chaplain logged in 200 cassettes. Why does your log say 100 tapes?” I asked with a tone of confusion.
“Uh, sit down, my man. Here’s the deal. The churches send us two sets of everything. The other set, well … we make use of them.”
“What do you mean?”
“Guys on the line, they need the tapes to use as blanks. Some guys have contraband recording devices. They can record off the radio or duplicate CDs or cassettes. I sell them tapes for two bucks apiece.”
“Really? Does the chaplain know about this?”
“Only if you tell him. You don’t want to do that. Think of all the men who count on these tapes. Christian men who record Christian rock off the radio stations. The tapes are still being used for God’s will. There is no harm.”
“Okay, but what do I do about the log?”
“Just turn that number two into a one. Praise the Lord!”
Learning as I went along, I then came across deacon Donnie, who was sorting through thousands of Hallmark cards, donated to us by the Hallmark corporation.
“Donnie, the chaplain logged in 10,000 cards, which he picked up at the prison mail room today. Why does your log say only 5,000 cards arrived?" I asked, with a tone of confusion.
Speaking in the tone of a ghetto hustler, he answered, “My brotha, there’s only 2,500 inmates on this yard. We gonna give each convict who comes to the Christian services this Sunday two free cards. Believe me, every convict is gonna show up this Sunday. Everyone is coming for the free cards. Dope fiends who will sell them for Top Ramen soups or a bar of soap. I keep the extras, the other 5,000, to get my hustle on, know what I’m sayin’?”
“Damn, how do you get rid of so many cards?”
“I sells ‘em four for a dollar. No harm done. Convicts benefit. Cards in the canteen are one dollar apiece. Just spreadin’ the love of Jesus to those can’t afford to pay a dollar a holler. Here, take a stack, get on your hustle, homie. We straight?”
“Yeh, man.”
Then there was elder John. While replacing filters in the air conditioning unit, I found three hardcore porn books inside a manila envelop, stashed and hidden in the back of the unit.
“Elder John, there are only two people who have the keys to open this unit — you and the chaplain. The chaplain gave me the keys this morning. What’s up with this?” I asked, with a tone of confusion.
“Dave, I been struggln’ with porn. I got life without parole, will never be intimate with a woman again. I been prayin’ for the Lord to heal me of this addiction.”
“Why don’t you just stash it in your cell somewhere?”
“Cell searches. What would officers think if they found these? I’m the elder of the church. What would my cellmate think? He is an elder, too. Please forgive me. I’ll get rid of them now.”
“Don’t trip. I’ll put them where I found them. Ain’t my business.”
As time progressed, it got wilder.
During Protestant services every Sunday morning, I began to notice the chapel inmate bathroom was being used as a private motel room. Guys went into the windowless bathroom to jerk off due to their cell mates who never left the cell. Some guys smoked weed, or slammed. At times, the bathroom smelled like ass and coconut butter lotion. It wasn’t until the chaplain walked unexpectedly into the bathroom and espied a graphic homosexual encounter in progress that he ordered the prison plant manager to install a new bathroom door with a see-through window.
The pages of small Gideon bibles were being used as rolling papers to smoke Buglar tobacco.
The hardcover of donated bibles were being used as backings for custom-made greeting cards, which inmates sold for a dollar a piece.
After spending months to organize the chapel to where there was equal time for Jehovah Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, Mormons, Muslims, Catholics, Orthodox Jews, Black Jews, suddenly along came a new faith — the Wiccans.
“Yo, clerk, we needs to get chapel time for OUR faith,” said a lanky young African American inmate with long dreadlocks.
“What is your faith?” I asked.
“Wiccan. We believe in nature. The woman is our Goddess.”
“Okay, no problem, sign this form. I’ll set you up with a couple hours a week in the small backroom. The chaplain will extend your time as your membership grows.”
They only had four members. Soon, a flyer was distributed to the inmate population stating that at the next equinox a woman would be coming as a guest, and would disrobe naked so believers could wor-ship her. Well, in just seven days, the Wiccans had a membership of more than 800 inmates. I had to give them time in the main chapel, scheduling out the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
“David, I can’t believe this,” said the chaplain in a confused tone of voice. “The Wiccans actually put in a request to me to allow this woman on the flyer to come in and disrobe naked. This is a first.”
I looked at the flyer again. The voluptuous woman, who called herself a priestess, had long red hair, a nice rack … I’d be quick to sign up as a member, too, just to get a peek at her. She looked like a porn star. Do you want me to process the paperwork?” I asked the chaplain.
“No, I’m referring this matter to the warden and Legal Affairs in Sacramento.”
The higher-ups denied their request. The Wiccans put up a fight. A public interest law firm from Sacramento filed a lawsuit against the California Department of Corrections on their behalf, on religious grounds. The court held that a dis-robed woman in the presence of convicts would disrupt the safety and security of the institution. However, the court ruled that the Wiccans could post a naked photo of their high priestess on the wall to accomplish the worship rituals.
Quickly, when news broke out about the court ruling, membership dropped back to four inmates.
I worked as the chaplain’s clerk for three years until it was my time to transfer to a medium security institution. Despite the selfish and deceptive motives of the many convicts who volunteered time in the chapel, I reasoned that they are human beings. Everyone struggles with personal addictions or the desires to steal or abuse their positions of authority. Who was I to judge other people when I was not sinless myself? Nor others. My staff was not paid by the state of California; they were volunteers who worked long hours for free, to spread the gospel to sinners, to try and turn them into better people. These men have to eat. Prison is about survival.
The prison chapel, like most churches in free society, operate from receiving donations and contributions, and welcomes the dopers, hustlers, prostitutes, offering a new life, a new direction. Even Jesus never turned a blind eye to such rogues. I’ve seen many men’s lives changed for the better by becoming involved in one of the numerous faiths available. Religion can be beneficial.
On my last day at Tehachapi Prison, looking forward to trans-ferring to CMC in San Luis Obispo, I trained the incoming clerk, a hippie looking white-guy with long curly hair who resembled Tommy Chong, the legendary comedian. He was also a non-believer.
“My friend, you are going to see a lot of funny things going on in here. Just keep an open mind. Cool?”
“Yeh, man, I get it. Here’s a going away present from me to you, man. I bought it from Hustle Man a year ago. It’s a recorded copy of Led Zeppelin IV.”
“Thanks, man. I’ll listen to it when I get to CMC.”
When I arrived at CMC, once I was given my personal property, I placed the dubbed cassette into my Walkman and enjoyed many hits, in-cluding “Black Dog” and “Stairway to Heaven,” while I strolled the yard. At the end of side one, as the song faded out, a black preacher’s voice abruptly came on, very loud — the voice of legendary preacher, T.D. Jakes.
“HALLELUJAH! PRAISE THE LORD! Thank you, Jesus! Amen. Turn over to side two for a spoken word on the book of Mathew…”
Turning over to side two, the Led Zeppelin song “Misty Mountain” came on. §

Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. He can be reached by email at, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689.

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