Life in the cage: Sleepless in Soledad
The wife left me once she found out my sentence was 25 years-to-life. My handful of female friends slowly reduced to zero as time passed. They moved on with their lives; got married, had kids.
At the Mens Colony, I listened religiously to 91.3 KCPR FM, the local college radio station broadcast from Cal Poly, to feel like I was not housed in prison, but at a college university dorm.
Life in the cage
Sleepless in Soledad
By David Valdez
As long as I can remember, I’ve always hated soap operas. My mom was hooked to the classics: General Hospital, One Life to Live, Days of Our Lives. Each episode a mix of real life stories mixed with fantasy, drama, adventure, suspense and romance.
I dreaded when it was my girlfriend’s turn to treat. Dinner and wine was always fine, but in order to sixty-nine I’d have to endure two very long hours either at the movie theater or on the living room couch watching her choice of chick flick.
Went through the motions; holding her hand, letting her cry on my shoulder, holding her during certain scenes, shedding a tear now and then to show solidarity. It was a means to an end. If I wanted to get some, I had to show her that I really believed such tales of love and storybook endings really can happen in our daily lives.
One evening we went to the local movie theater with my mom to see “Sleepless in Seattle” with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan. As a radio personality in Los Angeles, I related to this love story about a female disc jockey who meets her prince charming, an avid listener of her radio show.
Doing Top 40 radio three years, I talked to women listeners every evening. Developed a fan-base of regulars that jocks call “groupies.” They called in daily just to talk about anything. Between playing songs on the play list, I was a therapist on the phone request lines.
Women often offered to come by the studio, to do any thing I wanted for concert tickets, or just to hang out. If a caller sounded like a beauty, it didn’t always turn out that way. To screen the ladies, I’d tell them to meet me at a live remote broadcast, which could be at a nightclub, bowling alley or sports event. If she turned out to be a whale, I’d do my best to hide behind the station promotional van. If she was a babe, well, you know what happened.
Throughout my experiences, I realized the power of celebrity. We all fall in love with actors, porn stars, models, sports figures—even radio personalities. We wish we had what they have, or the life they live. We are sucked into their world as an escape from our own reality. Hollywood and the movie and music industries exist, and continue to thrive, because of their fans.
If there were no sizzle or hype, we wouldn’t give a rat’s ass about Brad and Angelina or Tom and Katie.
During the last decade of doing time, with only a television set and radio to experience, see and hear what is going on in the outside world, I found hope in certain radio personalities, always looking forward to their next show. Particularly, three female jocks I developed interactions with while serving my time in prison.
While housed at Tehachapi Prison, a maximum-security Level IV prison located in the Tehachapi Mountains in the middle of nowhere, not one woman visited me. The wife left me once she found out my sentence was 25 years-to-life. My handful of female friends slowly reduced to zero as time passed. They moved on with their lives; got married, had kids.
My once hopeful soul succumbed to loneliness. At my lowest point, feeling depressed, taking psychotropic medications just to cope, I began to place pen pal ads on websites, but seemed to get the regular responses from the usual suspects: desperate housewives who wanted to talk dirty in letters since their husbands were impotent and couldn’t satisfy them, gay men who wanted a boy toy to fantasize about. Life felt hopeless.
In 1998, I got transferred to medium security, the California Mens Colony East in San Luis Obispo. CMC was like Disneyland compared to the harder joints. Had a key to my own cell, night-yard until 9:30 p.m. A mini-canteen to buy sodas or ice cream, open all day every day. No prison politics, and lots of television and radio stations.
I tuned in to 91.3 KCPR FM, the local college radio station broadcast from Cal Poly. Listened with great interest to the many youthful female personalities. Young voices who sounded like the hotties I used to date while partying in Orange County or San Fernando Valley. Valley girls. I listened to the station religiously to feel like I was not housed in prison, but at a college university dorm.
One Monday evening, I came across a show called “Blue Monday.” The host, Allison, had a strong, confident voice, as if she took life seriously, yet had a witty side to her, was playful when it mattered. She played two full hours of ‘80s new wave flashbacks from bands like The Clash, Depeche Mode, The Cure, The Smiths, and New Order. This was the music I grew up with in high school. Each song took me back to better days as a free man: the frat parties, one-night stands, special songs that reminded me of girlfriends from my life on the outside.
Since she took requests from listeners, I decided to write her a request. Didn’t think she would even acknowledge my request. After all, I’m a prisoner perceived as a piece of shit who has nothing coming. Even newspaper reporters will tell you that prisoners have no credibility. It would be fair to say that any woman who gets a letter from a stranger in prison would think the guy is a stalker.
I listened to the next show with great interest to see if she would play my request. From 7 p.m. until 9 p.m. I had my own portable radio perched on a shelf, anxious to see if she was as special as her personality on the air, if she could look past judging me and view me as a human being.
She didn’t brush me off. In fact, she played my request, starting off her show by saying, “This is for you, Dave, at CMC. Here’s The Cure with ‘Just Like Heaven.’”
The song took me back to my adolescent days when I just got my license to drive. My first car, a low-rider VW Bug. Weekends cruising on Balboa Avenue in Newport Beach. Bonfire parties on the sandy coast of Huntington Beach. Friday nights dancing with hot babes at Studio K in Knott’s Berry Farm. Saturday nights at Videopolis in Disneyland. Paying off the wino old man, a fixture on the sidewalk in front of the liquor store, to score us some beer. Strawberry Hill for the ladies. Coming home with a pocketful of phone numbers from all the chicks I scammed on.
Alison gave me an inch. As a desperate lonely man who felt accepted for the first time in years, I proceeded to see how far I could go with her. I began to write to the station every week and ask for hard-to-find songs, challenging her. She always came through, even finding a rare late ‘70s rockabilly cut, “Antmusic” by Adam Ant. She always talked to me, gave me shout outs. It felt as if I knew her. She was all I had.
I pushed further. In my letters, I asked her personal questions about her life, her likes and dislikes, her goals and ambitions. She always addressed my questions as part of her show, in a way that only she and I knew, through innuendo.
It surprised me how attracted I felt to her, and maybe even her to me. When my letters didn’t arrive to her on time (due to some flunky intern at the station forgetting to give her the mail), she sounded disappointed. It was as if my letters uplifted her spirits as well, offering her something fresh for her routine.
After many months, I asked her to write me directly. She never did. I was so curious to see what she looked like so I asked her for a photo. She never sent one. For whatever reasons, she never crossed the line between fantasy and reality. Despite my eagerness to know more about her, she never abandoned me. Alison and I had a connection far beyond just a radio personality playing requests.
I fell into the fantasy, falling in love with her. My emotional stability was dependent on hearing her voice. Sometimes I could feel her pain when she was having a bad day. She could feel my pain too, through the words I expressed in my weekly letters.
Alone in my cell, I cried myself to sleep many nights when she played classic slow jam cuts like Berlin’s “Take my Breath Away,” and Depeche Mode’s “Somebody.”
I fantasized that she would one day write to me, perhaps visit me, save me from a worthless fate, rescue me from the dull life I lived daily. She was Meg Ryan, a radio personality; I was Tom Hanks, looking to her for guidance.
For two years, even with all the publicity of the murders of Aundria Crawford and Rachel Newhouse by CMC parolee inmate Rex Allen Krebs, she kept up the interaction with me on the radio, never judging me a criminal. She gave me hope, always something to look forward to.
It all came to an end when she graduated. I still remember her last show when she said goodbye—one of the saddest and loneliest days of my life.
One evening while channel surfing on my portable radio, I tuned in to an alternative rock station, SLY 96 FM, after midnight. I immediately connected with the overnight jock named Shaylene. She sounded like a Cal Poly chick, but she had the “it” factor, that special something a record producer spots in a fresh talent. She had what it took to be a star, just needed a little guidance. So I wrote her.
She wrote back! Began to interact with me on the air. We started a dialogue. When I challenged her, she challenged me back. She even sent me photos. Indeed turned out to be a hottie: 21 years old, athletic, light skin, brown hair, brown eyes, and a local waitress.
She listened to my advice, was improving and developing a style of her own. I saw her potential. Whereas Alison got me through the misery of prison life once a week, Shaylene was with me every evening, five nights a week. I stayed up till 2 a.m. each day, sacrificing my precious sleep, just for the high of feeling wanted, loved, accepted. All I could think about was what it would be like to meet her in person—face to face. Was it possible that this hottie could step foot into state prison, to give me something real, the ability to smell her, feel her, kiss her? I felt love.
Then one evening, she wasn’t on the air anymore. A week went by, and nothing….
She wrote me to say that her program director had intercepted a letter she wrote to me. Apparently, it was returned to sender due to insufficient postage. In the letter she talked shit about her boss, a controlling prick who always told her to follow the “liners,” to follow the play list instead of playing songs she wanted to play. He read the entire letter and fired her.
Despite the unfortunate circumstance, I felt I made a positive difference in her life. She was immediately hired by WILD 106 FM, a Top 40 radio station, doing mid-days. She became a success, even moving to the morning show.
I wonder where she is today….
For years, I’ve listened to female radio personalities, but none matched the interest I had for Alison or Shaylene. Until last year.
I got transferred from medium to minimum security in Soledad, a rural farming community in the Salinas Valley off Highway 101. I was pleased to find out the prison has satellite cable too! I attached a wire from my radio to the cable system and could get stations as far away as San Francisco.
I came across an alternative rock station in Monterey. I immediately became attracted to the female weekend personality. She sounds young and ditsy, with a strong, confident, yet sometimes childlike voice. She impersonates voices and has a laugh that echoes in my soul.
Every Friday evening, she kicks off her weekend shift with a special ska/punk rock show, playing classics like Suicidal Tendencies “Institutionalized” or current hits from the Aquabats “Idiot Box.” After a month of listening to her, I took the incentive to write her with requests.
I listened attentively for my requests to be played but didn’t hear anything. Two weekends went by, nothing. On the third week, I received an email (delivered to me on paper; inmates don’t have direct access to the web) from the program director of the station.
The letter read: “Please do not write Cheri any future letters to the station. Thank you in advance.”
I wasn’t angry. It’s understandable that any corporate-owned radio station would frown on receiving fan mail from prison. The envelopes are clearly stamped in huge black ink: “Sent from State Prison.” It’s a dead giveaway. However, without a way to call toll-free on the request lines (our phones only dial collect), I was faced with a predicament. How could I let her know I exist, that I long to hear her every weekend and that I want to make requests to her?
One evening, she gave out her personal email address and her MY SPACE address as a way to connect with her listeners. I found a pen and immediately scribbled it down on paper. I then mailed it out to a friend, asking her to print me out the website and send her the personal email message quickly.
Surprisingly, she responded on-air, playing my requests that weekend. I was thrilled! She was receptive to me, even though I was a state prisoner.
When I received a printout of her MY SPACE website, she was more beautiful than I could ever have imagined. It’s a known fact that many radio personalities are not so attractive. That’s why they are in radio. But this DJ, she was a 20-year-old blonde, blue-eyed angel. From reading her profile, we seem to have all the same interests, everything from movies to television shows, to music.
For the past year I’ve found purpose in each mail I send her, sharing my knowledge of how to blossom her talent. Likewise, I’ve become her “man in the box,” a supporter of her ambitions and career, always providing encouragement, pushing her to make the best of each shift, to maximize her potential. She gives me an escape from the misery of the everyday routine, where it’s Groundhog Day everyday.
I’ve asked her to go deep into the station vaults to pull out records that have collected dust. Hits from the ska band The Specials, “Concrete Jungle,” ‘90s hits like the acoustic versions of Stone Temple Pilots’ “Plush” and Foo Fighters’ “Times Like These.” She recently made me cry for the first time when she found a hard-to-find classic, a Smashing Pumpkins cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide.”
We continue to interact over the radio. The average listener and her boss haven’t any idea that some of her bits and on-air statements are something between her and me.
One has to wonder why such wholesome, sweet women are attracted to bad boys.
Of course, I’ve asked her to write me direct. Meet me. Hasn’t happened…yet. She said she still lives with her parents. Oh my, what would happen if her parents intercepted a letter from a state prisoner!
It’s the possibility of meeting her, turning my fantasy into reality that gives me hope for another day. Three days a week, I get to hang out with her. Four days a week, I’m on my own.
Her latest change to her MY SPACE website says she would meet “anyone.” Also says that one of her favorite movies of all time is “Sleepless in Seattle.” Hmmm…
Meanwhile, as the saga continues, I’ve decided to get back on the Internet myself to list my profile: Virgo, 35 years old, Hispanic, healthy, tan, fit, unemployed and living with another man in a prison cell…Favorite movie: “Sleepless in Seattle.”
The headline to my page will read: Sleepless in Soledad. §
Tito David Valdez Jr. resides at and writes from the minimum security Correctional Facility in Soledad, Calif. Listen to his radio segments on prison life on the nationally syndicated program, “The Adam Carolla Show.” For times, visit www.adamcarolla.com. Tito can be reached by email at email@example.com, or by mail: Tito David Valdez Jr. J-52660, CTF Central E Wing Cell 126, P.O. Box 689, Soledad, Calif., 93960-0689. Read more of his "Life in the Cage" series here: