In the hole
‘You need to realize where you are. In a hellhole, with killers, rapists, real criminals, ese. Sabes que? It’s every man for himself. No honor amongst thieves.’
‘Hey homie, no disrespect, but for one, you got to cut that hair. This isn’t a country club or Woodstock Festival. You are in the joint ese—with men. The vatos will think you are weak, a homosexual.’
Life in the cage
In the hole - (part 2 of 2)
Where ‘all you have is your word and your balls’
By Tito David Valdez Jr.
As the cell door electronically opened, I looked inside and saw a buff bald-headed Chicano with tattoos all over his neck, face and body. He looked me up and down as if I was a fresh piece of meat. Perhaps my shoulder-length hair made me look feminine.
I stepped in, the cell door closed. He asked me the all-too-familiar question: “Hey ese, where you from?”
Answering that question was tricky, seemingly trivial, but could have deadly consequences. If I claimed a city that happened to be an enemy neighborhood of his, he would have no hesitation to throw blows with me.
“I don’t bang, just a regular Chicano, who grew up in Downey, California. My name is David.”
“Horale holmes. Me llamo Sleepy. Watcha, I got a homie who is suppose to move in here so don’t make yourself too comfortable,” he said in well-spoken English with a Mexican accent from the barrio. “You can put your things in the locker over there.”
He sat back on his bunk, sitting on the end of his futon mattress which was rolled up, against the far wall. He firmly held a pen-filler in his right hand and continued to draw Aztec art on a square plain white handkerchief.
To familiarize myself with my new cellmate, I offered him some of my canteen, asked him a few questions.
“Would you like some chips? I got some candy bars too.” He got up, grabbed a piece of plain white typing paper from a folder in his locker, and laid it flat on his bunk, pouring chips out of the paper trash bag, which I handed to him.
“Gracias homie. I haven’t had chips for a while now.”
“So, where are you from? Where did you grow up?”
“I’m from Mexico, Mexico City. I run with Southerners, not with the paisas. I stayed out in El Monte when I got arrested. Did you remember that club in El Monte called Florentine Gardens?”
“Yeah, I used to throw parties there. I know El Monte very well. How long have you been down?”
“Since 1991. Serving time for second-degree murder, killed a vato from an enemy neighborhood who was out to kill me. Got fifteen to life.”
“Have you been to the parole board yet?”
“Yeah, holmes, but they will never give me a date to go home, too many write-ups. I got too much violence in my jacket. Had to prove myself here and there, to survive over the years.”
“Really? I just started my time. This is my first time in the joint. Can you give me some advice on how to survive in here, without using violence as a means to an end?”
“Hey homie, no disrespect, but for one, you got to cut that hair. This isn’t a country club or Woodstock Festival. You are in the joint ese—with men. The vatos will think you are weak, a homosexual. Second, homie, you got to grow a mustache. Every Chicano vato has one. No moustache is a sign that a vato might be gay. And damn homie, you got to get a change of jumpsuit when they do clothing exchange next week. The one you got on right now is too small, too tight. Like those jean pants, Sergio Caliente.”
I felt offended. Who was this guy to tell me how I should look? But I wasn’t going to debate with him. He might kick my ass. I asked more questions.
“You said you have a homie in here. Why did the officers move me in here instead of him?”
“One thing you will learn homie in here is that nothing goes according to plan. The placas [cops] don’t even follow their own rules, so you just got to be patient. If you don’t learn patience, you will lose your mind.”
“How long have you been here in the hole?”
“I’ve been in this cell for about eight months. Waiting to be transferred to the Corcoran SHU.”
“How did you get here?”
“Beat down a cellie pretty bad. He tried to pull a power trip on me, telling me when I can stay in the cell and when I can’t. I smashed his television set on his head, after I knocked him out. Shit happens.”
“So, do they give you extra time for that or just hole time?”
“I got an assault charge. The D.A. offered me two years; I took it. But it was worth it, holmes, that guy won’t be trying to control cell mates anymore.”
“I’m going to get on my bunk, I’ll let you get back to drawing.”
I started to write my wife a letter when, minutes later, the prison chaplain came by passing out Bibles.
“Inmate Valdez? Who is Valdez?” asked the older lanky balding Caucasian man in his early 60s, with clean-shaven face, and the presence and personality of the typical, on-fire-with-Jesus preacher.
I jumped off my bunk, eager to see why he wanted me.
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Hello, I’m Chaplain Ray. Are you Protestant or Catholic?”
“I’m agnostic, don’t believe in anything.”
“I wanted to let you know that we have Protestant literature available, if you are interested in reading something while you are here. Would you like a Bible? Jesus is always here for us when we need his help. Would you like also two address books?”
Sleepy lifted his head from his drawing and directed his voice at me, “I am Satanic, get one for me so Jesus can save me.”
“Yes, I’ll take two Bibles and two address books,” I told the chaplain.
Officer Rodriquez, wearing a smirk on his face, let out a quiet chuckle, and opened the tray slot, as the chaplain handed me two paperback Bibles, along with two small address books.
“Thanks chaplain,” I said.
“If you ever need someone to pray with or anything, just write me a kite, addressed Chaplain Ray, Protestant Chaplain.”
Officer Rodriquez closed the tray slot, and commented: “I hope you guys actually read the Bibles and not use the pages as rolling papers.”
Sleepy grabbed a Bible and an address book, placed them in his locker. I climbed up on my top bunk.
“Watcha homie, whenever you write your people’s address and phone numbers, never write down the real numbers or street names,” said Sleepy.
“What do you mean?”
“Look, check out mine.” He grabbed his address book from under his neatly folded white state-issued T-shirt, and opened it.
“You see right here, the name Guadalupe Hernandez, the last name is not Hernandez, but it’s really Cortez. The street name she lives on is not Olivera, but Olive. The address really has four numbers, notice here, it has five, I put that extra last digit there on purpose.”
“Tell me, what is the purpose of doing that, writing different names and numbers?”
Sleepy got up, speaking passionately with his hands, as all veteran convicts or ex-cons do when they try to explain something or make a point.
“Some cellmates are snakes. Some will go through all your shit when you are out on the yard—your photos, your letters. They might even try to write your old lady or mom. Everyone in here trying to hustle, come up. So always be smarter than your cellmate. Think ahead.
“Wow, cellmates actually do that?”
“Hey homie, look around here. The hole is packed with nothing but hardcore criminals—prison’s most wanted. They ain’t here for being nice. You need to realize where you are. In a hellhole, with killers, rapists, real criminals, ese. Sabes que? It’s every man for himself. No honor amongst thieves.”
To pass time, we both did our own thing. He continued to draw. I continued writing my wife. Officer Rodriguez came to the cell door, interrupting our routine.
“Yard time! You both going to the yard?”
Excited to get out of the cage for a while, we both replied at the same time, “Yeah!”
I jumped off my bunk and Officer Rodriguez told me to sit on the stainless steel chair at the far end of the cell, and face the wall while my cellmate stripped out and cuffed up. Then, it was my turn. We were escorted to the larger yard, searched and wanded; then the cuffs were taken off once we set foot inside the yard.
Officers let in a few inmates at a time, while we waited until everyone arrived. Sleepy offered to cut my hair.
“Hey holmes, before I introduce you to the homies, let’s get rid of that hair. The place provides us with an electric trimmer every yard day. I can give you a number-one cut right now.”
“Yes, for sure, let’s do it”, I said.
One of the yard officers handed him the trimmer and he positioned the setting to the shortest length, number one. He buzzed nearly all of my hair off, leaving just a very short length. I went to the far corner of the yard, washed my head in the small porcelain sink, as I watched stubbles of hair slowly disappear down the drain.
The yard was soon full of Mexican and white inmates, everyone in boxers and shower shoes. Across from us, in a separate large cage, were all black inmates. Sleepy called me over to talk to the fellows.
“Horale homies, this is my cellie, David, he just drove up from L.A. County, he is a regular vato, no neighborhood. Grew up in Southern California. He runs with us. He will be participating in the routine today.”
It was like meeting all the associates of a Mafia family, like in the Godfather, but these were tougher men, tattooed down, each with their own nickname, shaking my hand, giving me their respect. Sleepy introduced them all….
“This is Droopy from Harbor Area. Dog from San Gabriel Valley. Huero from San Fernando Valley….”
As I shook their hands, they each said, “Mucho gusto, homie.”
They carried themselves like field marshals, shrewd warriors, fearless, ready for action. They were different from many of the Chicanos I had met in general population.
Soon, two Chicanos organized the warriors into four rows. A few white guys stood near the sink, engaging in conversations. Then, the workout began. I found a place near the back, since it was my first time; I needed to learn the routine.
The two convicts yelled out, “OK, homies, we will start off with 100 arm rotations…. Ready? Vamanos!”
It was like watching old film clips of Hitler’s SS Army on the History Channel, where they walked in perfect formation, moving as one terrifying, formidable force. Each of us moved in perfect unison as the different exercises were called out, everything from “Navy Seals,” to “Belly Busters,” to “Burpees.” Sleepy was beside me, in the next row.
“Hey homie, we do this for about thirty minutes,” he said. “If you get tired, just run in place.”
Soon, after ten minutes of the workout, I was burned out. So I ran in place. After the workout was over, we got into one line, and shook hands with the two convicts who led the workout.
“Gracias homie,” each man said, appreciating the routine they put together.
After stripping out and being wanded again, we were escorted one-by-one to our cells. Once we arrived, Sleepy spoke.
“Hey homie, I’m going to bird bath. Get on your bunk, por favor, and when I finish, you can bird bath after me.”
With the displeasing thought of seeing a naked man just inches away from my face, I asked, “You are going to shower here, right now? Don’t we get showers on every third day?”
“Check this out homie. Some people might do that, wait till the placas come on the third day to shower us, but we are Southerners, we take pride in ourselves. Bird baths are mandatory.”
Without placing up a sheet to cover himself as he showered, he stripped naked and began to lather up his body with soap, as he stood next to the sink, using a state-issued cup to pour water on himself. Water fell to the floor and he used white towels to soak it all up, afterwards.
Within ten minutes, he finished. He wiped down the floor with shampoo, using the towels, cleaned the sink, then hung the towels on a homemade clothesline he had created using dental floss. He then sat on his bunk, starting to draw again.
I jumped off my bunk, gathered my soap, shampoo and towel. For some privacy, I tied a sheet from one end of the bunk to my locker.
I took a birdbath. It seemed very demeaning, yet it was the only way to stay clean, and not stink.
I cleaned up the cell, the sink, and then got up on my bunk. Felt very refreshed, relaxed. Started to take a nap. My snoring caught Sleepy’s attention.
Sleepy got up, and started to lather up the floor with shampoo. I woke up from the sound of the faucet running, and saw him cleaning. I thought perhaps I didn’t wash the floor to his satisfaction. Maybe it upset him. I kept my mouth shut. He spoke to me once he saw I was awake.
“Hey homie, check this out. It’s my responsibility to tell you that you can’t nap at all during the day from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. It’s all mandatory here in the hole to roll up your mattress. Mandatory for you to always wear your shoes during that time too.”
“Why, what’s up with that?”
“Officers are known to open cell doors electronically on purpose. We aren’t getting along right now with the blacks. All it takes is for you and me to be napping and the blacks come in the cell when the doors open. Not only will they catch us off guard, the homies will discipline us for slipping. You got to always stay alert at all times. Be ready for war.”
“Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. We discipline those who take naps. So for your own good, roll up your mattress. No naps.”
Dinner arrived at 3:30 p.m. Chicken casserole slop. We both did not eat it. After chow, I ran out of things to do. Sleepy continued to draw. Drawing was his escape from reality. He was very good at it. Then, an hour later, it was mail call.
“Valdez, last two?” said Officer Brown.
“That’s me—six, zero”, I said, telling him the last two digits of my prison number. I jumped off my bunk and Officer Brown opened the tray slot and handed me three letters. He closed the tray slot and continued walking to the next cell…”Thompson, last two?”
I received letters from my mom, wife and aunt. Excited to get mail, I spent about an hour reading the letters. I kept my wife’s letter and began to respond to it. Writing with my skinny pen filler and notepad, throwing the other two letters in my locker.
“Hey, homie, I noticed you threw your mail in your locker, still in the envelopes,” said Sleepy.
“Yeah, I can only answer one at a time. Is there a rule against that?”
“You ain’t right homie,” he said, laughing. “Watcha, remember I told you about scandalous vatos in here?”
“Yeah, you told me to always change numbers of letters on names and addresses.”
“You need to tear off the return address, too, off any letters you receive, and flush it. This way, your cellie can’t write your people.”
“People actually do that too?”
“Yeah, holmes. Let’s say I was one of those scandalous vatos. Wrote to your wife. Told her to send me a hundred dollars to help you with canteen. Made up some excuse as to why you couldn’t go to canteen yourself. Not knowing what is going on, she will probably send the money to me. By the time you and her talk, I’ve already received and spent that money. You got to be on your toes, homie. I am just trying to teach you how to survive in the joint.”
Feeling I owed something to him, for looking out for my best interests, I offered him some Top Ramen soups inside our small plastic state-issued cups, poured hot water from the faucet, used the chili flavor seasoning packet, and talked, while I sat at the corner of his bottom bunk, on cold steel, since his mattress remained rolled up.
“Hey homie, you play dominoes?” he asked.
“Yes, do they have them I here?”
“No, but I made some.”
Sleepy pulled out a full set of dominos, which he made from the backings of Bibles. Each piece was the size of a real domino, had the number etchings on each piece.
“Wow, that’s brilliant,” I said.
“It works homie. You want to keep track of points?”
“You think that’s brilliant, watch.” Sleepy pulled out his line, from his locker, sliding it to the neighbor's cell, then stood on the toilet, speaking to someone through the air vent.
“Hey, Rascal…. Rascal, hey homie!”
“Yeah, homie, what’s up?” responded Rascal with the raspy voice of a smoker.
“Hey, shoot me your lighter homie. I want to light up a flajo. Hook it up to the line.”
“Horale homie, be looking for it right now.”
Sleepy obtained a lighter. Using the pages of the Bible Chaplain Ray had brought by earlier, he tore a page out and rolled up a cigarette.
“I didn’t see tobacco on the canteen list; do they sell it another way?” I asked.
“You can get anything in here for the right price.” Sleepy lit his cigarette, taking a hit, like rap mogul Suge Knight, smoking a Cuban cigar.
We played dominos to pass time, until 9 p.m., when the roll call began.
“Buenos Noches Sleepy, Buenos Noches Droopy, Buenos Noches Goofy, Buenos Noches Rascal, Buenos Noches David….”
After the 7 a.m. roll call, breakfast arrived. Pancakes with oatmeal, toast. No taste, bland. I felt extremely sore, the workout routine from the day before worked muscles I never used before. I walked around the cell to loosen up the muscles in my calves.
“You sore, homie?”
“Yeah, I don’t think I am participating in the 8 a.m. cell workout this morning.”
“Be strong, homie. Try, do the best you can. If you can’t, just run in place. The homies are watching our cell, as we are also watching theirs. You got to keep me motivated.”
At 8 a.m., the workout began. I did my best, five minutes worth, and could barely even run in place. Sleepy, who had mastered the entire routine, was sweating profusely, within just thirty minutes. I could only strive to accomplish such a feat, but not today.
After the workout and the birdbath, Sleepy offered input about exercising.
“Hey homie, the reason we do this mandatory workout is because it keeps us strong, alert, and ready for anything that comes our way. Do you notice how good you feel after a workout?”
“Yes, for sure. But don’t you get sick of the same old routine every morning and on the yard every three days?”
“Of course, like anything you do over and over, it gets old. But to learn discipline, you have to train your mind to tolerate pain. You get used to the routine in here after a while. You look forward to ‘busting down,’ working up a good sweat.”
I got up on my bunk, sat back on my rolled up mattress, and wrote my mom a letter, while Sleepy continued to draw his Aztec art on a handkerchief.
A voice suddenly came from the air vent, sounded like Holloway.
“Hey Valdez, flush the sheet, I’m ready down here. I’ll send you up some flicks!”
I yelled back through the air vent, “Not now, later!”
“Come on man, I gots a sweet tooth. Hook me up!”
I turned to Sleepy, “Hey, do you know how to hook up a line, using a sheet, flushing it down the toilet?”
“Yeah, homie. But check this out. That vato you are talking to is crazy. He is also a mayate. Not even his own people respect him. He is no good. He is hiding something, not going along with the program. He never showers, never comes out for yard. You are your own man, but I advise you, homie, cut him loose, it looks bad if you associate with him.”
“I don’t think the guy is really crazy. He is probably fooling the psychs.”
“It doesn’t matter. He is mayate. You are Chicano. You don’t share your food with mayates. The homies would discipline you for that if they found out.”
“Alright, how do I get rid of him?”
Sleepy got up on the toilet, and yelled into the vent.
“Hey you, cell 215!”
“Valdez, is that you?” asked Holloway.
“No it’s his cellie, Sleepy. You yell into this vent again, I will kill you. Or I’ll send one of the homies on a mission to kill you, once they let you out of that cell for classification. You got it?”
“Yeah, OK. Sorry, man,” Holloway said, with the voice of a mild-mannered white accountant.
Sleepy then started to wash the cell floor with shampoo and water, around the toilet, and the sink. Then, he arranged everything in his locker, wiping dust off. I thought he might be an obsessive/compulsive personality.
“Hey, why do you clean the cell so much, it’s not like we go outside and bring in dirt every day?”
“We homies try to stay clean. It’s mandatory to clean the cell three times a day. Look at the bottom of the cell door right now, lots of mayate curly hairs, dust flying in. Every time we piss, drops hit the floor. There is lint that falls off our navy issue blankets. If I don’t clean it, it’s going to smell like piss in here. I tell you what: Tomorrow, you clean. We will take turns everyday.”
“Alright, let’s do that.”
Dinner arrived at 3:30 p.m., the usual time. Tuna Casserole with nasty vanilla pudding that tasted like NyQuil. It was another lousy meal, time for Top Ramen soups again. After our inexpensive homemade meal, I climbed up on my bunk, letting out a really lard fart. Sleepy stood up angry.
“Hey homie, didn’t any vatos tell you in the county jail, the rules on farting?”
“No, I lived in mostly dorms.”
“No farting openly in the cell. If you have to fart, sit down on the toilet, let it out, and then flush. We take that as disrespect. You also don’t ever piss, fart, or shit, while your cellie is eating or drinking.”
“Damn, there are so many rules; it’s like living inside a prison, enclosed in another prison, walking always on thin ice.”
“Homie, it’s like this for a reason. Like Scarface said, ‘All you have is your word and your balls.’ Respect is everything in prison. Lose respect; you got nothing coming, like your mayate friend, Holloway.”
After the 9 p.m. roll call, the cellblock was quiet, except for the few black inmates talking to each other through the air vent, using it as if it were a phone. I took off my Jap Slap shoes, unrolled my mattress, and began to fall asleep. I then heard screaming, coming from what looked like cell 345, which was across from our cell. A young black inmate was screaming for help.
“Help me! Help me! Deputies, officers!”
He kept banging on the doors but no officers responded. At the pod, the control booth where the officers were standing, they were reading magazines and drinking coffee.
Many men in cells began to bang their doors, in solidarity. Possibly believing someone could seriously be ill and in need of medical attention. Everyone yelled out, “Man down, man down!”
I got off my bunk to check out the action, looking out the thousands of small holes of the cell door. Sleepy kept drawing, uninterested.
An alarm finally sounded, as officers dropped their magazines, and ran up the stairs to cell 345. Officer Brown, the unit officer, opened the cell door, pulled out his pepper spray and sprayed someone as other officers rushed in.
Out came a lanky feminine-looking light-skinned black inmate with long hair and in cuffs. Then, a large muscular, dark-skinned older black inmate, squinting from being pepper sprayed. They were escorted to holding cages on the first floor.
“Hey Sleepy, don’t you want to see what happened?”
“I already know what happened. Cell 345 is home of the Booty Bandit. This isn’t the first time he tried to rape a cellie.”
“Really? Why do they keep giving him cellmates? Shouldn’t he have a single cell?”
“Like I told you before, sometimes people do not do their job. My homie still hasn’t been moved in here yet, right? You are still here. We put in for that cell move two weeks ago.”
“What’s going to happen to that youngster they pulled out who was raped?”
“He will go to the hospital, then be transferred to a ‘Sensitive Needs Yard.’ Protective Custody. Do you see what I mean about looking feminine in the joint?”
“Yeah, I get it.”
Nearly thirty days later, I was taken to classification along with everyone who was in that holding cage two months prior, who witnessed the white guy getting stabbed in the back.
We were all released from the hole. The assailant was never caught. The committee labeled me an “associate” of Southern Mexicans, due to officers observing me participating in the workout routine. The committee told me that I could appeal the decision once I arrived at the Level IV maximum-security prison I would ultimately be sent to.
When Officer Rodriguez came to open my cell door this time, I didn’t have to strip out or cuff up. I carried my things in a tied up sheet, preparing to move from Building 6 to Building 5, general population. I shook Sleepy’s hand on the way out, giving him my respect, leaving a few Top Ramen soups and candy bars, which he could later eat when he was hungry.
Sleepy was disappointed once I exited, because his new cellmate was waiting outside to be placed in the cell, a vato who wasn’t the homie he put the cell move in for.
I moved into a cell with a 19-year-old Chicano youngster, a homie from Long Beach. He had also lived in dorms in the county jail, so he was not schooled on the convict code. I shared with him what I learned from Sleepy as the days progressed, tales of what the hole was like. A place I told him was full of hardened criminals.
A couple weeks later, I finally got to see my wife. Visits in the reception center were two hours long, non-contact, behind a Plexiglass, talking on a phone, just like the county jail. She sat there, so beautiful in appearance, yet, I had never touched her, or kissed her, even on the day we got married in the county jail.
I heard Holloway got transferred to Atascadero State Hospital after officers had to extract him from his cell for refusing to come out when officers attempted to go inside and flush his toilet. The Booty Bandit ended up transferred to the Corcoran SHU.
Two windows over from me was JD, the rapper from the county jail, visiting with his wife, a woman from the record industry, who married him in the county jail. Rapper Ice Cube was funding his criminal appeals, so he was in good spirits.
And to the far left, at the last non-contact visit window, in the visiting area designated for guys in the hole, was Sleepy, my old cellmate, who was visiting a fine-ass Latina chick. Pretty girls always seem to gravitate to the bad boys.
When my visit was over, on the way out, I threw up a peace sign to him, and he raised his clenched fist to me, showing solidarity.
I was looking forward to finally getting out of Delano Reception Center, and transferring to a state prison, where there would be weights to work out with, televisions in the cells, and conjugal visits.
During my 45 days in the hole with Sleepy, I didn’t hit it once, since I couldn’t even fart without him being suspicious.
Editor’s note: David’s first conjugal visit, scheduled for February 1996, was cancelled by prison officials at New Folsom Prison when then-Gov. Pete Wilson passed an emergency regulation disallowing all life-term inmates from the conjugal visit program. David’s wife, Veronica, divorced him seven months later. David hasn’t been laid since Dec. 1, 1993, nearly 13 years.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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:
Mischief in the prison chapelJailhouse prunoA momentary breath of freedomBreakfast ClubTrappedInstitutialized Evening dayroom Destination ASHSleepless in SoledadJailhouse lawyersIn the hole (part 1)
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Cabby's corner: A real winner
A large percentage of fares at county jail are savagely hung over from a night of drinking and are subdued and bedraggled from being busted.
‘Listen, ma’am,’ I said, ‘I’m just a cabby trying to make a living. I don’t wanna kill him if I don’t have to.’
A real winner
He’s a little short and in risk of his life
CABBY’S CORNER, 1988By Dell Franklin
I was at county jail, out by the state prison and Army base, on the outskirts of town, waiting for a fare when this guy around thirty emerged from the glass door looking like some big lanky gangling, shambling moolyak in farmer’s bib overalls. He jounced along, without rhythm to his gait, poorly defined facial features, unfocused bloodshot eyes, reminding me of a puppet on a string.
You never know what to expect when they send you to county jail. Half the time it’s a no-show, the caller using a cab as back-up while they try to contact a friend or relative to pick them up after a DUI, drunk in public, or a domestic dispute. One time I picked up a guy who got into a verbal altercation with another driver on the freeway and was reported by car phone to the police for giving him the finger in a menacing manner. He was jailed for eight hours.
Even when you find somebody at county jail, it’s usually 50-50 whether they have enough money, or any money, and checks are no good, so they almost always beg you to take them wherever with a promise to pay on arrival of destination. No cabbie is supposed to take anybody anywhere without proof of cash for an out-of-towner, or even a trip into San Luis Obispo (around $14), but sometimes you give them a break on instinct, like the finger-giving guy who lived in Arroyo Grande and tipped me twenty bucks.
A large percentage of fares at county jail are savagely hung over from a night of drinking and are subdued and bedraggled from being busted, cuffed and degraded by police officers. A bad scene. Half the time, in the morning, they are college students. You must keep an eye on them or they’ll puke in your cab, and no amount of disinfectant or
Lysol will remove the stomach-churning stench, which lingers for weeks, a cabby’s nightmare. If they are severely hung over and you see that their jowls quiver like a frog you pull over instantly and order them out of your cab.
“Go on, puke your guts out, but not in MY cab!”
This guy didn’t look like he was going to puke. I didn’t know what to think of him. “How much to Greyhound?” he asked, settling in the back seat. “I can catch the bus to Atascadero.”
“About fifteen bucks.”
“Oh, great. I got it. Say, how much to Atascadero?”
“About forty bucks.”
“Hey, I got it.”
“Can I see your money, pal?”
“Sure.” He showed me a thick wad with a twenty on top.
We started out. I asked him what he was in for. This was a Tues-day evening, around six. I was working alone. Usually a dead night. No body waiting for any rides. He said he was walking down the street about eleven in the morning, drunk, and a cop pulled him aside to check him out and found a joint of weed in his pocket, and so they checked him into jail for drunk in public and possession of marijuana. Mickey Mouse bullshit. Harrassment.
We got into town and he wanted to stop at a liquor store on Monterey to get a sandwich, as he hadn’t eaten all day. Sure. He came out with a bag of goodies and began stuffing himself in the back seat as I pulled onto the freeway, headed north for Atascadero. Despite his bad day, he seemed in high spirits, and I saw why when he pulled a pint of Jim Beam out of his paper bag and took a good snort before returning to some mad chawing of his sandwich, spilling crumbs all over his overalls. While crumbs spilled from his mouth, he explained that he worked part time in a furniture store but was going to quit because the work was too hard for what they were paying him. He was originally from Fresno, and proud of it.
As we climbed up toward Cuesta Grade, he asked: “You take checks, don’t you?”
“No, we don’t.” I pointed to the sign above the dash—ABSOLUTELY NO CHECKS CASHED.
“Well, I’m a little short, pal. No sweat. I only got six dollars left. But I got my bank card. No problem. We’ll stop at my bank.”
When we got to the bank in Atascadero, he couldn’t find the bank card in his wallet or on his body. We went to his residence, which was half a mile away. He lived in a windowless, converted garage, the in-side of which was a rubble heap of clothes and junk. He must have slept atop it, like a cat. He spent five aimless minutes sifting un-successfully through this heap for his card. He did find his check book. No identification on the checks. “Sure you can’t take a check?”
I shook my head.
“Can I pay you tomorrow?”
I shook my head. “Why the fuck would I come all the way back here? You either find a way to pay me, or we’re going back to jail.”
He began combing through the debris, eventually coming up with a card. He held it up, grinning, his teeth big yellow chalky things, like Howdy Doody. We drove back to the bank. I was out of radio contact, didn’t know how busy I was back in San Luis, knew I had a few regulars waiting on me. The moolyak giggled and whistled as he stuck his card in the slot. He had drank most of the bottle, eaten three quarters of the sandwich, all of a big bag of chips. The back seat was a pig pen. He couldn’t get the card to work. I tried it. A voice came on, testifying that the card was invalid. I looked at the expiration date—it was two years past valid. I handed it to the rube.
“You playing games with me, pal?”
“No, man. I must have the wrong card.” He got into the back seat, and I got behind the wheel.
“I said, ‘You playin’ games with me,’ pal?”
“Let’s go back to my place again.” I drove back. He got out of the car. So did I. “Well,” he said, throwing up his hands, shrugging helplessly. “I ain’t got but six bucks. And I need that to live on.” He puffed himself up, looming over me, “What you gonna do about that?”
“I’ll call the cops. Throw your ass back in jail, pal.”
He shook his head, acting cagey. “You can’t do that. You agreed to take me. I know the law. You’re no cop. I’m clear.” He grinned.
I stepped closer. “Then I’ll beat you to a pulp with my crowbar.”
He stepped back. “What if I run?”
“I’ll run you down in this cab, flatten you like road kill.”
He was beginning to get the message. “You’d do that? For a lousy forty bucks?”
“I’d do it for nothing, considering the source. I’m prepared to maim or kill you, right now, right here, on general principles. I’d be doing humanity a favor eliminating you.”
He was backing up. He opened his palms in front of his chest in a protective gesture. “Slow down, man. I got a girlfriend. I mean, well, not really. She kicked me out last week. Ain’t talkin’ to me.” He sighed, shrugging. “It’s my only hope.”
“Get in the cab.”
I drove through town, across the freeway, up onto a knoll, following his instructions, arriving at the seediest, weediest, most godforsaken ramshackle trailer park I’d ever seen. We got out of the cab, walked up a sagging stoop and stood before a scratched, scuffed, splintered screen door. He knocked softly. We waited a while. Then a vile-looking hardscrabble woman came to the door, holding a one-year-old with smeared face. Her eyes were pale, watery, with bags drooping in two St. Bernard-like folds to her mouth. The woman fixed the lummox beside me with a murderous scowl. He slumped and went hang-dog, and then she fixed her flinty agates on me. I nodded. She looked back at the slug, who was staring at the porch, toeing the rotted boards.
“What’re YOU doin’ here, you worthless sonofabitch?” she lashed out at him in a voice that was gravel and nails. “I thought I told you never to put your foot on my porch again, you no-good miserable piece of shit!”
He shrugged. She turned to me, eyes ablaze. “Who the hell is HE?”
I said: “I’m a cab driver. I’ve transported this turd clear from the other side of San Luis, from county jail. He said he’d have money to pay, but he didn’t. It’s either back to jail, or I maim or kill the sonofabitch. I killed thirty-seven people in ‘Nam, and I wouldn’t feel half bad about making this puke number thirty-eight.”
She leveled her gaze at me. “It’s fine by me if you kill the worthless sonofabitch. Go ahead. Be my guest.”
“Listen, ma’am,” I said, very conciliatory, noticing the lummox shrink visibly. “I’m just a cabby trying to make a living. I don’t wanna kill him if I don’t have to.”
She nodded, switching hands with her baby. “Can you take his check?”
She glanced at him, shaking her head with weary resignation tinged with exasperation. Then looked at me. “How much?”
She seemed to contemplate the price tag. Then: “If I give you forty dollars will you drive this asshole as far away from here as you can? I’ve been trying to get rid of him for weeks.”
I nodded. “I promise, ma’am.”
She disappeared into the house. We waited in silence. She re-turned and handed me two twenties. The turd quickly retreated to the back seat of the cab. I thanked the woman and got in the cab just as the slug drained what was left in his whiskey bottle. He was grinning and giggling, almost gloating.
“I did it again,” he said. “Heehee. Man, did I make out like a bandit, huh?”
“Yeah, you’re a real winner.”
He crunched up his sandwich, finishing it, crumbs and stains all over his T-shirt and overalls. “Could you take me to the closest bar?”
I shook my head. "This is Atascadero, remember? The Central Coast Bible belt. There’s thirty-five churches and two bars. Why don’t I drop you off at the Mormon church.”
“Ha ha. How about the liquor store?”
I dropped him off at the liquor store. Before he got out, he said: “Would you really kill me for forty bucks?"
“I told you, I’d do it for nothing,” I said, and drove off. §
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached at email@example.com. Read more of the Cabby's corner series, here:
Ode to Tobias WolffSisters from South CentralA soldier's storyFirst fare (hair of the dog)The good lawyerMr. HeadphonesLittle Miss SunshineA rainy New Year's Eve in the 'A' cabThe mayoral candidateOld blind LizzieCheerleader
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If we cannot win and we cannot quit, then what are we to do?
If so many of our citizens are unwilling to pay a modest price in Iraq, then we cannot ask so few to pay the ultimate price.
Successful attrition requires that the insurgents be finite in number. In Iraq, the enemy was never finite. Each anarchic day turned moderates and pragmatists against the American occupation.
THINKING SOLDIER Author Nathaniel Fick led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.Salvaging Iraq
By Nathaniel Fick
America’s delusional debate on Iraq is paralyzing our country. The war’s supporters argue that victory is still possible, that we can achieve it with one, last-ditch effort, and that doing so doesn’t require sacrifice from most of our citizens. The war’s opponents claim that we can safely withdraw from Iraq without disastrous long-term consequences for the United States. But we have the proverbial wolf by the ears, and we can neither hang on nor let go. The sooner we recognize this sad, mad irony, the sooner we can find a third way forward, minimizing wasted lives and further damage to America’s standing in the world.
Military force can no longer win the war in Iraq. The conflict has passed through at least three distinct phases since the 2003 invasion, and American military strength on the ground had a chance at success in only the first two. Recalling this history is useful in charting our next moves.
The three-week march to Baghdad was largely a conventional blitzkrieg, and American units battled precisely the enemy described by the Bush Administration: hardcore Baathists, foreign jihadists, and criminals. We won those fights, but were unprepared for the aftermath. Instead of bringing peace and prosperity, our arrival in Baghdad ushered in chaos and anarchy. The Iraqis desperately needed more troops to help patrol the streets, provide medical care, and begin the gargantuan task of rebuilding the country’s long-neglected civic infrastructure. Without those troops, violence bubbled up across Iraq, and citizens, with mounting skepticism, were unable to send their children to school, buy gasoline, or even walk the streets after dark.
By August 2003, the war slid into its second phase as these average Iraqis–not ideologues or dead-enders–began to take up arms against us. Some were motivated by disillusionment with the Americans’ inability to restore order and basic services. Others, with families to feed, accepted payment to bury bombs in the roadside.
So began two years of insurgency in Iraq. If history and the Army’s own Counterinsurgency manual are any guide, then quelling an insurgency among a population of 26 million people requires over half a million troops committed to counterinsurgency tactics. These tactics, anathema to the training and culture of most conventional militaries, emphasize performing concrete acts of assistance to the population, rather than killing the enemy. Successful attrition requires that the insurgents be finite in number. In Iraq, the enemy was never finite. Each anarchic day turned moderates and pragmatists against the American occupation. More soldiers and Marines were desperately needed to reverse this trend. The United States averaged only 150,000 troops on the ground in 2004 and 2005, and was reluctant to adopt the proven tactics of counterinsurgency. A vicious downward spiral ensued, as American forces were insufficient either to squash the insurgents directly, or to sap their popular support by showing a better way forward to the people of Iraq.
The war’s third phase exploded early in 2006, with the bombing of the fabled Golden Mosque in Samarra, ushering in a year of savage sectarian combat. This is where we are today. Hundreds of Iraqis die each week as factions, tribes, and sects choose their own agendas over national unity, and there is little that twenty-year-old, English-speaking Americans can do to stop them. Yet our government’s response now is to “surge” in Iraq, sending more than 20,000 additional troops to augment the 140,000 already there. As the previous phases of the war show, this is military folly for at least two reasons.
First, it isn’t really a surge at all; it’s an incremental escalation of about fifteen percent over the current number of troops in Iraq–in Jon Stewart’s observation, a gratuity, not a surge. This may be the maximum possible for an over-engaged military to provide and a disengaged electorate to accept, but it’s far short of the minimum necessary to make any significant difference. Many in the military call this the “JEL” option–“Just Enough to Lose.” A real option for doubling-down in Iraq would involve hundreds of thousands of troops over a period of years, not tens of thousands over a period of months.
Second, our window of opportunity to use military force to effect political change in Iraq has shut. More troops in 2003 could have stopped the looting, sealed the borders, and demonstrated our commitment to making Iraq’s future better than its past. More troops in 2005 could have provided the security necessary to begin ferreting insurgents out from among the passive civilian population–a prerequisite for all other progress. More troops in 2007 will do little to quell sectarian violence, and could possibly inflame it further.
This does not mean that the U.S. should withdraw from Iraq. America’s military forces, however insufficient for victory, are the lone dampening rods preventing a complete meltdown.
Unconstrained by our military presence, Iraq’s Shi’a majority would move decisively to consolidate control. Iraq’s Sunni minority would intensify its resistance, including efforts to enlist the support of their religious brethren in Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere around the Muslim world. Iraq’s Kurdish minority would attempt to opt out of a Shi’a-Sunni conflict by increasing its autonomy, exacerbating neighboring Turkey and Iran’s concerns about their own Kurdish minorities. Faced with Sunni intransigence and Kurdish separatism, Iraq’s Shi’a would increasingly turn to Iran for help. Withdrawing American forces from Iraq, under any rubric or justification, would serve as a catalyst for instability across the Middle East.
If we cannot win and we cannot quit, then what are we to do? There are few new ideas, and no easy answers. Three steps, though, can maximize our chances of salvaging a tolerable outcome in Iraq, which might be defined as preventing genocidal killing, checking Iran’s destabilizing bid for regional hegemony, and thwarting al Qaeda’s attempt to organize with impunity inside the country.
First, our government must re-engage the American people in this fight. We undertook a total war to transform the political culture of Iraq from a socialist Sunni Arab dictatorship to Western-style liberal democracy, but we only mobilized limited resources to do it. The entire burden of this war has been borne by the fraction of one percent of our population that wears a uniform, and by their families. We cannot just shuffle forces around, hire a smart general, and hope that everything will turn out fine. It won’t. President Bush has squandered so much public trust that citizens will not re-engage voluntarily; our elected officials must lead the way. Unfortunately, the time for idealistic calls to service is past: too few will answer. Americans must be hit where it hurts: their pocketbooks. We should abandon the folly of tax cuts during wartime, and instead implement a series of taxes to pay for the war, care for our returning veterans, and encourage lower gasoline consumption and higher investment in renewable energy. If so many of our citizens are unwilling to pay a modest price in Iraq, then we cannot ask so few to pay the ultimate price.
Second, American combat forces must begin to withdraw from Iraq’s cities, where our conventional troops are increasingly unable to intervene effectively in sectarian strife. We can move a portion of our troops, perhaps a quarter of the current force, to remote airbases in Iraq’s vast deserts, where they can bolster regional stability without stoking resentment and providing targets on the streets of Iraq’s cities. The resulting violence in Baghdad and parts of Anbar province will be as terrible as it is inevitable. But this is no longer a classic counterinsurgency campaign, and the best we can do now is to ensure that the violence does not spill over into the rest of the region.
Our most promising insurance policy in this regard are the teams of American advisors working with Iraqi military and police units. In a high-risk, high-reward strategy, these troops don’t hole up in comfortable mega-bases; they live in remote outposts with their charges, learning their language, sharing their danger, and living the rhetoric that the United States can only stand down in Iraq when Iraqis begin to stand up. There are currently about 3,000 of these advisors. Their ranks should be expanded at least five-fold, as recommended by the Iraq Study Group. Besides making military sense, this recommendation, like others made by the group, has the indispensable advantage of support from both political parties and the American people as a whole–an absolute requirement for the success of any policy of such importance.
It would be a critical blunder to commit our little remaining deployable land-power to the so-called “surge” in Baghdad, leaving America without a strategic reserve at a time of growing danger elsewhere in the world. This new strategy will fail because the United States lacks the capability to clear and hold the city, and the Iraqi government lacks the will to help. When it fails, our over-committed military and under-committed citizenry will be even worse off as Iraq begins its final descent into chaos. §
Nathaniel Fick is the author of the New York Times bestseller One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Corps Officer. He led troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. He is a member of the Board of Visitors at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy at Dartmouth, and served as a Visiting Fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and other publications. For more information, visit www.nathanielfick.com. “Salvaging Iraq” © 2007 Nathaniel Fick, used by permission of the author.
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Washing windows across America: Life in Lockhart
Sitting in front of the pane, wearing a straw hat, and leaning back in an old decrepit chair is the store’s owner. It takes only a quick glance between us to sense the bad blood.
The coffee begins pooling at the bottom of my gut where the Krispy Kremes have clotted into a tough doughy sealant.
Life in Lockhart
The town where they used to kill a man every day
By Ben Leroux
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.
Thanks to a car repair and 64 ounces of rotgut, I wake penniless and nauseous in the parking lot of a Lockhart, Texas, Wal-Mart as a dull, cloudy brain tries to engineer plans to get food into an angry, bellowing stomach. The brain comes up with only one thing: washing windows.
So, carrying an empty bucket and supplies squint-eyed across the parking lots of several retail businesses, clothes and hair creased at nonsensical angles, gauzy lips smacking, mining for saliva, facial ticks twittering, I go in search of relief. The first regrets over having spent my last three dollars on malt liquor surface. I’d been about halfway into it when I remembered being out of soap and ammonia. But after 20 or 30 ounces, such things as soap and ammonia become tomorrow’s problems. Now tomorrow is here, and people are coming to their store windows to get a look at the sick, haggard-looking man lurching along.
I make it into the cool air of a supermarket, but as I do what feels like the beginning of a roller derby starts careening around the inside of my skull, and in the frozen foods section I go to one knee while a rush of hot, white queasiness passes. I had gotten myself into a bad way and needed to get some grease or fat of some kind into my stomach just to fool my brain into thinking I could function.
I find a manager, and while looking at him through a hazy veil of tiny twinkling lights, nonchalantly ask him for directions to the town square, and if he thinks I might make some money down there since I am a window washer by trade and, “Oh by the way, what about your windows?” I say it as if it hadn’t occurred to me until just that moment, when in fact even in my state I’d evaluated the windows on the way in. It is a ploy I’ve used a couple times. Some people like the direct approach, others you have to play hard-to-get with.
“When can you do ‘em?”
“Well, since I’m out of soap and ammonia, not until…“
“Go pick yew whatchyew need off the shelf.”
“I could use a couple donuts too.”
“Getchyew Krispy-Kremes. They’s the best.”
I select a bottle of Lemon Joy and generic ammonia, and take two Krispy Kreme donuts from a display case. Outside, I swallow them whole while filling my bucket with water from the store’s spigot. The dough fills a placebic void in the stomach for now. The indigestion, the heartburn, the thirst, the headaches and dizzy spells, I’d worry about later. You see how things come together?
My extension poles, I find, are too short for the store’s windowpanes. No problem. Stacked around the store are 3-foot-high bags of deer-corn. They serve as a ledge that I make my way around the store on. See how things work out?
After the supermarket, I find the town square, park the Plymouth in front of a coffee shop, and follow the smell of brewing java up a set of concrete steps. Wheezing and with heart palpitations, I nearly run into a young Texas bohemian sitting on the steps. He has an open guitar case in front of him and is tuning up a nice six-string. If I were well, I might stop and talk to him. But I’m not, and I need caffeine badly.
Before going in, I again instinctively examine windows. The coffee shops are pristinely clean—obviously recently done. But the windows of the business next door—the first business along the square I will solicit once I’ve had my coffee, are bad. It is a dim-looking toy store with dusty boxes of Lego and wooden trains displayed behind a pane with a good six months worth of crust on it. Sitting in front of the pane, wearing a straw hat, and leaning back in an old decrepit chair is the store’s owner. It takes only a quick glance between us to sense the bad blood.
In the coffee shop, I sink into a sturdy, bottomless couch with a cup of coffee. It is either the most comfortable couch ever made, or months of living in a car have dramatically lowered my standards.
I start throwing down the coffee, and slowly the stodgy gray starts to separate. I pick up a book off of a table—an historical picture book of Lockhart. Through old sepia photos of cattle drives, high school classes, livestock winners, baseball teams, stringent-faced little kids, cotton farmers, and honored citizens, I learn a little about Lockhart. The “Barbecue Capital of Texas.” Part of the old Chisolm Trail. Known in earlier times as “the town where they killed a man every day.” On the first page is a message from the town mayor, and on the back page a short tribute to a family of one-time slaves.
After a second cup, the coffee begins pooling at the bottom of my gut where the Krispy Kremes have clotted into a tough doughy sealant, and when I move I can hear the stagnant reservoir of coffee sloshing around like the last gallon of gas in a tank, but I am at least lucid, and now able to make out my surroundings, and realize: “Jesus, I’m sitting in the Cadillac of all coffee shops.”
Spacious, opulent, plush, with dark hardwood floors, a baby grand piano, overhead jazz piped in from Austin, and off to one side an Internet room where people clack away at supercharged computers. When I look over at the deep mahogany bar and see men in farming caps, cowboy boots, and cutoff sleeves standing around sipping Joe and talking shop, I fear I am hallucinating from the DTs.
The busy eyes and smile of a woman are standing over me.
“This your place?” I ask.
“Yes?” The smile stays in place while the eyes brace for conflict.
“I hope you don’t take it the wrong way,” I say. “But it’s as if your coffee shop is out of place here in Lockhart. I bet you’d be hard-pressed to find a coffee shop this nice in San Francisco or Seattle or anywhere.”
The woman blushes. “Oh, oh. I am so glad to hear it. Now if I could just get the rest of the square to revitalize along with me. I mean, just look at the beautiful architecture we have here on the town square.”
She and I look through her windows out onto the grassy lot in the center of the town square, where glowing cream, brick and black in the late-morning sun stands the Caldwell County Courthouse. A person with no architectural taste whatsoever could tell that building was something to look at. A miniature gothic Disney castle. It was the same way in most of the squares of these little Texas towns. While half the businesses around it were empty, and the dollars and souls of communities were gravitating out toward the Wal-Marts, Sonics, and Dollar Worlds, and the only thing flourishing here were the weeds rising from the cracks in the sidewalks, these marvelous old steepled buildings stood proud and sturdy in the middle of what was once called the “town square” but was now called something more marketable like the “old historical district.”
“I bet this old timer next door isn’t much for revitalization,” I say to her. “The toy store guy?”
“Who? Ol’ Toy Store Bob? He’s one of ‘em I was tellin’ you about would like to keep the square, ahem–the ‘historical district’—the way it is. A real old fuddy-duddy.”
She leaves me and I take a long look at the town square. Sentiment aside, that square was nothing to me than a stage. Once I climbed these stairs with my gear and started going door to door, word would start to spread around the square, and what one lonely merchant couldn’t find out about me through the grapevine, another could find out by simply observing my body language and work habits as I progressed from shop to shop. So it helped to get off to a good start on the square, where I wasn’t only cleaning windows, I was also auditioning.
Halfway down the stairs I stop and drop a dollar into the bohemian’s case and listen to him for a second. He’s not very good. Can barely hit the chords and his shrill excuse for a voice sends a knifing sensation through my temples, and at this point if I tried to barf up the Krispy Kremes I probably could.
“Already got someone,” Toy Store Bob says, spitting out into the street, looking past me, rocking back and forth in his chair. I stand in front of him, while staring at the dirty window behind him. I look down on his sour, dumpy face and suddenly want to grab a handful of it. In his features I see some of the waxy-pale, ovular noggins I’d seen in that picture book, with round spectacles, and a little portal for a mouth and a bit of double chin. I want to pinch the chin and twist it. Something about the guy I don’t like.
I let it go though, and start to move on to the gift shop next door. But Toy Store Bob has something to add.
“Don’t bother goin’ ‘round this squay-er, neither.” He spits. “There’s a feller out of Luling does all these windas.” His drawl is tinny, and buried in his throat are little warbles of Old South-caution and plantation leisure. My pulse starts skipping, and the coffee at the bottom of my gut starts to bubble, and as my mouth goes sandy, I remember I’ve forgotten to drink water. I am near the steps, heading back toward the Plymouth in retreat, when a hairline combative streak in me that Toy Store Bob doesn’t know about kicks in, and makes me stop. I go back to the opaque layer of white window-film on the gift shop’s windows, and say to Toy Store Bob: “Really? Your feller must not do all of them.”
Toy Store Bob doesn’t look at the window. He just rocks back in his chair. “Prob’ly ain’t got to it yet,” he says. He chortles.
“Well, he ain’t got to it in about two years then,” I say, hot, moist air streaming evenly through my nostrils now.
“Suit yerself,” he says, jiggling like jelly. “Best just to move on though.”
Shaking, jaws clenched, I walk through the gift shop, praying, unbeliever that I am, that in the name of all that is just and right that I come back out of here with the job. Because the just, right thing to happen at this moment would be for Toy Store Bob, a guy who could care less about a Yankee drifter and the car repairs, food, Advil, Rolaids, and medicinal booze he might need, to have to watch as I come out of this gift shop and start lathering up these windows with soapy water. Toy Store Bob just wanted me to move on.
“Guess your feller missed this one,” I say to him, remerging from the gift shop and laying water on its windows.
Toy Store Bob’s reaction couldn’t be more perfect. After a double take at the windows, followed by the sight of my ill-willed smile, his stung face droops in stages into a paralysis of humiliation. As he stands and picks up his chair, he looks down and mutters. I make out the words “smart” and “aleck.” Toy Store Bob then takes his chair inside his store, locks the door, and turns over his CLOSED sign.
Bilious fluids surge for my throat as I cackle triumphantly, and with the shakiest of hands, put the squeegee to the glass.
After the supermarket and the gift shop, I’ve got enough money to get solid food in me from one of Lockhart’s award-winning barbecue houses. I could even buy Ibuprofen and a gallon of Gatorade, and go back and lay in the Plymouth for the rest of the day.
That is probably what I should do, but I am instead standing in a musky farm supply store, bracing myself on a rabbit hutch to keep from fainting while waiting for a woman behind the counter to get off the phone. And as I stand here I can see Toy Store Bob, that little waxen devil, across the way, sitting outside his store again with his OPEN sign turned back around, glaring over here, waiting to see what’s going to happen when I come out. My mission now was not only to show Toy Store Bob that I could get work in Lockhart, but that I could get it with relative ease. The fact that I was now on the cool, shaded side of the square, I felt, worked in my favor.
I’m not sure about this woman behind the counter though–something judging in her behavior. And she’s one of these that, rather than tuck the mouthpiece under her chin for a second or tell whoever’s on the other end to hold on for one goddamn minute, prefers to talk to both of us at the same time, nodding, smiling, shaking her head, not looking in any particular direction, saying “mm-mmm,” and “mm-hmm,” and “no not you,” without anyone knowing who’s being spoken to. The only way to cut off the confusion is to go outside and start cleaning her windows.
Before I dunk brush into bucket though, I’d be remiss not to turn and wave to Toy Store Bob and watch the hope fall from his face once more. So I do.
She’s still on the damn phone when I finish and go back in. “Mmm-hmm,” she says.
“Three doors down now,” she says, looking out ahead nowhere, but pointing to her left.
“Three doors down?” I ask, not knowing if she hears me.
“Mmm, furniture warehouse three doors down” she says still pointing. “No not you,” she says. “Mm-hmm.” I’m still not sure who she’s talking to.
Then I catch onto the pattern. “Mm-mmm” is for me, and “mm-hmm” is for her friend. It makes sense. Using “h” on the common laborer would be a waste of a perfectly good consonant. I don’t get the hmm, I get the mmm and I am fine with that.
So I walk three doors down to an empty old furniture warehouse and start washing. First though, I stop and turn and look for Toy Store Bob. Not there. Unable to stand the degradation I suppose, his CLOSED sign is turned back over and he is gone.
Even so, I beam with gladiatorial pride while toiling feint and pale, and still rather drunk probably. Bristling with a feverish cold sweat, I swear off malt liquor for life, knowing that most likely it was just the malt liquor talking. The Krispy Kremes try escape, but the combative streak won’t let me stop washing windows for one second–not even to shit or puke.
About halfway through the job, I level out enough to comprehend that I had been very foolish with the farm supply lady, a woman I didn’t know and hadn’t even talked to yet. I’d let her send me off on some wild goose chase to clean the windows of an old furniture warehouse that belonged to god-knows-who, without even agreeing on a price.
I finish hurriedly, imagining all kinds of scenarios. No one had stiffed me yet, but there was always a first, and she seemed like the type. That was probably her MO. Instead of using the feller out of Luling, she just waited around for wayward fools like myself to come through, and pretending she was on the phone, started sending them all over town to clean her dirty windows, waiting for them to come back for their pay at which point she would smile hospitably and say: “Don’t you know about Lockhart, honey? Why they used to kill a man here ever-day.” You picture yourself getting chased out of Lockhart by trucks of rifle-bearing cowboys.
I’m shaking again by the time I start marching back to the farm store, eyes aflame, bowels atremble, tongue swollen to the size of a bath towel, almost wishing the woman would try it. I ask myself if she did, what my next move might be, concluding that the only recourse I really possessed was the threat of such juvenile acts as sabotage, vandalism, or psychological terrorism. I ask myself would I, a peace-loving man of middle age, in the name of all that is just and right, resort to such acts? Such threats? Maybe it was still the malt liquor talking, but after some soul-searching the answer comes back darkly, sweetly: “Yes. Yes I would.” §
Ben Leroux lives and works and writes from his hovel in Morro Bay. Evicted From Wal-Mart (episode 9)Santa Fe Pride (episode 10)Leaving Las Vegas (episode 11)Tucumcari: End of the mother road (episode 12)Clovis ain't Texas (episode13)Welcome to Muleshoe (episode 14)Dry times in Lubbock (episode 15)Zen and the art of messing with Texas (episode 16)Directions from Texas (episode 17)A bug you can't see (episode 18)The bigger they are (episode19)
Rogue of the month: Ilan Funke-Bilu
‘Our vice president being too high-handed to go before a jury is, to me, the beginning of fascism, and might well lead to fascism.’
‘I fight with my tongue and my brain and my instincts, and my knowledge of the Constitution.’
Though his physical stature could be intimidating, and at least imposing, it is his presence that puts you on the alert, but also puts you at ease.
Photo by Stacey WardeIlan Funke-Bilu: Courtroom warrior
And a mensch among men
By Dell Franklin
In this lowkey, very waspy neck of the woods, Ilan Funke-Bilu is as different as his name, a breed of man who, as a defense lawyer, “goes to war” for his clients. It is a job he takes so seriously, and prepares for so diligently that he feels, in some sense, that it affects his family life.
“I’d like to say I’m as successful a family man as I am a defense lawyer,” he says, as we sit out on the sunny terrace of his law office in San Luis Obispo. “But I’m not. I’m a good family man, don’t get me wrong, but the time I put in, the dedication, it does limit my time with my family.”
“Well,” I say, as Ilan stretches out and props up his feet, smoking a fragrant stogie, dressed in old sweat pants, polo shirt and ball cap, “you’ve got a reputation for success, for being in demand, for taking on tough cases, and defending a lot of drug-related cases…what is your secret to success?”
“Work, work, work. Look, here it is a Sunday afternoon, and I’m at my office, getting ready for a case. I’m psyching myself up. I’m going to war.”
“Do your wife and kids have a sense when you’re going to war?”
“They feel it. I’m like a boxer training for a big fight. Only I don’t fight with my fists. I fight with my tongue and my brain and my instincts, and my knowledge of the Constitution.”
Ilan is a big man, very long, around 6-4, who played baseball and basketball in high school. Though his physical stature could be intimidating, and at least imposing, it is his presence that puts you on the alert, but also puts you at ease. He is a man who affects other peoples’ lives and he takes this role to heart. There is to his makeup a unique distinction that could possibly derive from his origins—an Israeli citizen until he was 8, then moved to New York City, returning to Israel to live on a kibbutz one summer years later. Since its inception, Israel has been at war, back against the wall, always on edge and the aggressor who strikes first. For Ilan, surviving in New York helped him develop his own edge, his propensity to take on daunting challenges, as well as controversial ones, in the courtroom.
“What was New York like?”
“It was tough, but educational, good preparation for the world. My dad even had a little store in Harlem, and I helped him out there.”
“What did he sell?” He grins. “Schmattas” [A Yiddish term for rags].
“Were you one of those Jewish boys who grew up wanting to be a lawyer?”
“No. My mother wanted me to be a lawyer. My dad died when I was twenty, and my mother offered to pay my way through college if I studied law.”
“What do you like about being a lawyer?”
He puffs that stogie. “The courtroom brawl.”
“Some lawyers have reputations for ripping people off,” I say, “getting a piece of everything. Some people hate lawyers, make nasty jokes about what sharks they are.”
“You can say the same thing about doctors, or car salesmen,” Ilan responds. “The reason people get bad reputations is because they let down their clients, screw up. There are positions where a life can be affected and taken advantage of. You can say the same about most professions.”
“I’ve heard you like to take on cases for underdogs without much money.”
He perks up. “I take cases for money, too! But I also like to help people who feel there’s nobody out there to help them. There’s a lot of satisfaction in getting a ‘not guilty.’ It reinforces my faith in our Constitution, which I put right up there with the Torah as a great document. I’ve got to hand it to the goyim, they probably created one of the best pieces of work ever produced. Sometimes, in a case, the Constitution is all I have to go against a state that has infinite resources to get your guy. These kinds of odds make it difficult, and not that many lawyers go in for defense, because it’s a brawl, and you’ve got to feel it. When I go to war, it’s not some-thing I can turn on and off, and a jury always feels it when I’m fighting for my client.”
“How do you feel when you lose?”
He takes several long puffs on his cigar, really savoring it. “I don’t think I really lose. I’m fearful of losing, which is why I prepare so hard.”
“Is there a big rush when you win a big case, a really tough case when the odds are stacked so a victory seems impossible?”
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘rush.’ I don’t gloat. That’s not what the Constitution is all about. I never get too low or too high, but I feel a sense of satisfaction in upholding our Constitution.”
“So you don’t celebrate—even when your client is overwhelmed with gratitude for you keeping them out of jail?”
“I’ll sit back and smoke a cigar and drink a fine scotch.”
“What kind of cigars and scotch?”
“Cuban cigars if I can get ‘em. I usually drink Dalmore, but my favorite is Bruichladdich.”
“How would you feel about defending somebody accused of a violent crime, someone you knew was a bad guy on a high-profile case? A person you suspected of being guilty?”
“I’ve never had a case like that.”
“OK. Take O.J. Simpson. Did you believe, before the case was tried, that he was guilty?”
“Would you have defended him?”
“Would you have felt bad had you gotten him off?”
“You’ve defended a lot of drug cases. What do you think about legalizing drugs?”
“They should all be legalized. It would take away a substantial amount of my business, and reduce the need for police, judges and D.A.s. Seventy to eighty per cent of all crimes are drug-related, and not just about dealing and using. Bad checks, domestic violence, theft—almost all crimes can be related to drugs. But the biggest drug dealers in the country are the pharmaceutical corporations. People can get anything they want.”
“A lot of people who are incarcerated for small drug felonies are victims of the three strikes rule, putting a person away for life after a third strike, no matter how petty the crime. What do you think about that rule?”
“All in all, it’s not a good thing. It leads to overcrowding in prisons, budgetary problems in Sacramento. It does not address the underlying problems—economics, housing, education, the basics. Philosophically, nobody feels any safer today anymore than they did before the three strikes law was enacted.”
“Do you think California’s prison system has become a prison industry?”
“You could say so. What concerns me is a developing mentality to take a bite out of crime by building more prisons and locking up more people as quickly as possible and throwing away the key.”
“Not to mention a powerful prison guards’ union.”
“Could be the most powerful union in the country.”
“What about prison rehabilitation?”
“There is no rehabilitation right now. The only successful rehabs are those individuals able to rehab themselves despite the prison system. Right now, in Sacramento, they’re trying to expand the rehab system, because they realize this current one is a failure. The big problem is that the entire philosophy of creating prisons has taken on a psyche of locking people up and leaving them there, and it does nothing to deter crime.”
“Would you ever consider being a judge?”
“I’m not the type of lawyer meant to be a judge. Being a judge means submitting to a different canon. I could not talk to you the way I am now if I was a judge. You have to be impartial, especially about your political and social opinions. Too much invasion of your privacy. Too many rules. I don’t want any more rules. I’d rather eliminate rules.”
“What do you think of our current government, and the administration in the White House?”
“I don’t think many people feel good about our government these days—even Republicans. The recent Libby verdict teaches us that the president and vice president think they’re above the law. And I think they deliberately mocked the Constitution. Our vice president being too high-handed to go before a jury is, to me, the beginning of fascism, and might well lead to fascism. This Libby case is worse than Watergate. Watergate was about criminals. This is about lies. Libby used the justice system to pursue a political agenda. He had his marching orders. If he was a good lawyer, a man of the Consti-tution, like he was supposed to be, he would have stood up against the VP. Even a good soldier will stand up against orders he knows are against the law.”
“Is our system salvageable at this point?”
“Hell yes. Because we’ve got a great Constitution. You take a lawyer like this Fitzgerald, who convicted Libby. You never saw him smiling like a Cheshire cat during or after the Libby trial, like this guy Wells, who defended Libby. This was just flaunting the law. What pissed me off the most, after this verdict, was Bush. He said, ‘I feel bad for Mr. Libby and his family.’ Libby and his family are a pimple compared to the country. What Bush should have said is, ‘I feel bad for this country’!”
Ilan’s stogie was just about gone, but he seemed to be having a good time, despite the fact he needed to get back to work on this Sunday afternoon. Still, I needed to ask one more question.
“You’ve got dual citizenship—Israeli and American—and you’re bilingual, so that half your heart must be in Israel. How do you feel about what is going on over there?”
He is slow to answer, seems troubled. “Hezbollah, as currently constituted,” he says finally, shaking his head, “they are no good for this region, and especially for Lebanon. They’re an extension of Syria and Iran, and it’s too bad, because Lebanon was once a very prosperous country. The situation with Palestine and much of the Middle East is the same old story—lack of jobs, economic opportunity, quality of life. Unless things get better for the people who have nothing, and nothing to look forward to and live for, they will keep blowing them-selves up so they can go to a better place and sleep with virgins.” He puffs some smoke. “This is a tough one for me. I can’t be objective. I’m too close to Israel.”
“Do you think the entire region will continue on its path unless the Israeli-Palestinian situation is resolved, like Bill Clinton says?”
“Is there any hope?”
“There has to be."
There is a Yiddish term for a man who takes care of his family and business, looks out for his peers, challenges bullies, and stands out among other men: A “mensch.” §
Meet some of our previously featured "rogues" here:
Mandy DavisCasimir PulaskiJim RuddellSteve TrossLori Lynn MeltonLong John GallagherBilly Hales
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In defense of Imus
To watch Imus bow before the likes of hypocritical demogogues like the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson was a blow to my gut, an act that almost caused me to vomit.
By Dell Franklin
I shall miss Don Imus. For more than ten years now I have manged to get up at three in the morning to listen to his show on MSNBC. Imus cheered me up with his incessant instigation of derision and dissension. Imus held no sacred cows. He picked on everyone. He denigrated, demeaned, degraded, disgraced and sometimes destroyed his guests, be they senators or morally upright icons. His regular on-set comedians poked fun at Rev. Jerry Falwell, Dr. Phil, Bill Clinton, Teddy Kennedy, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and Hulk Hogan, to name a few.
His sidekick and producer, the brutally cynical Bernard McGuirk, satirized the imaginary Catholic Cardinal Egan as well as the unctuously transparent, narcissistic and incompetent mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, imitating them both with such subtlety and accuracy that I drank coffee to stay awake so as not to miss them and their rare, irreverent humor.
I shall miss Imus’s refusal to be politically correct or to hold anybody in high regard. Imus’s contempt for the frailties of the human race tickled me. His vicious banter with the usual guests made me feel good about myself. To be insulted and belittled on his show was, to these grandees, flattery to the vanity of those who were used to having their asses kissed fifty times a day by sycophants, phonies, opportunists and greed-mongers.
To watch Imus bow before the likes of hypocritical demogogues like the reverends Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson was a blow to my gut, an act that almost caused me to vomit. Even a lifetime liberal and civil rights backer like myself finds these two men self-promoting grandstanders and charlatans, whose eloquent if not vacuous oratory is a stench to the legacy of Martin Luther King.
So Imus screwed up badly, referring to female basketball players from Rutgers as “nappy-headed ‘ho’s,” and robbing them of their humanity and moment of glory. These black female hoopers, who proved, surprise of surprises, to be intelligent, mature, classy, talented and dignified, were a startling contrast to the nauseatingly sanctimonious commentary of black and white pundits that ran continuously on 24-hour cable stations for a week!
Well, there are a lot of black people worthy of this kind of praise, and they are not superjocks and comedians and singers and evangelical poseurs—they are working class blacks who go to church regularly, trim their lawns and wash their cars on Saturday afternoons, drink beer on Friday nights, and send their children to school in new, clean clothes, with fine manners.
Not all blacks are gangbanging thugs spewing a toxic effluvium of mysogyny, though Imus, along with McGurik, parroted and parodied black lingo over the years, seeming to have fun with it much like Richard Pryor once had a ball with his outrageously hilarious imitation of tight-assed whites who walk around like they’ve never been properly laid.
Imus swung wildly at blacks, Jews, Italians, Mexicans, women, gays, fatties, skinnies, rabbis, priests, gangsters, politicians (in a class by themselves when it comes to deserving flak), jocks, etc. A point of interest is the bashing Imus himself received from McGuirk and jocks like Boomer Isaison and Terry Bradshaw, who, as football players, know how to give it back and then some from spending years in locker rooms, where no deficiencies or vanities, by they physical, mental, emotional, racial or sexual go unnoticed. Nobody laughed harder than Imus when he got his verbal comeuppence.
Yes, I shall miss Imus, but not as much as Imus will miss his job, for he would not have groveled before the likes of Al Sharpton if he did not love his job, love the people he abused over the years, loved his crew, and, more than anything, loved to browbeat and shame politicians and millionaires into donating vast sums of money to cancer victims, autistic children, and horrendously wounded Iraq veterans of all colors—victims who receive lip service from the white bastion of powerbrokers who run this country like the incompetent corporate pimps and whores and thieves they are.
I’m sorry Imus said “nappy headed ‘ho’s.” It stuck a dagger into a lot of people who count, and so now we won’t have Imus to kick us around anymore. But a racist? No. I’ve worked and lived on the Mississippi River as a young man and faced real racist haters, and believe me, the sight and sound of their innate viciousness still sends shivers up my spine.§
Dell Franklin is publisher of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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This recurring nightmare
We need to rethink our deployments and the purposes for which we send out our troops to risk their lives. We need to rethink what we ask them to die for.
I’d hate to awaken one night and find that this recurring nightmare, with its promise of death and destruction, had come true, as it has already for far too many Americans.
By Stacey Warde
I have this recurring nightmare. It’s come and gone for years, since getting out of the Army in 1979.
It’s nothing like what vets of the Iraq war must experience in their many dark nights, but still, it’s annoying, if not frightening.
The dream usually goes like this: I’m years past my date of departure from military service. Yet, there I am, wearing a uniform, quite older than most of the younger troops, and beginning to wonder: “What the hell am I doing here?”
A buzz of activity stirs in the barracks. Soldiers retrieve their weapons, gather their combat gear and pack their belongings. Officers enclose themselves in their offices, the senior noncoms and first sergeant bark instructions, and occasionally top disappears into the company commander’s office for updates on the status of our mobilization.
“Sir, first platoon’s packed and ready to go. Weapons platoon’s still short a mortar. Full gear formation at 0330, sir.”
At the nearby airfield, the planes warm their engines, waiting for the troops to arrive, loaded down with weapons, ammo, radios and enough face camouflage to hide a football field.
I never saw action, but experienced plenty of mobilizations in the Army’s determined attempts at readiness. Trips to Europe, Panama, and Canada kept us alerted and edgy enough to take on all aggressors—Idi Amin, Ayatolla Khomenei and the soon-to-be-extinct Soviet Threat. Like any well-trained troop, I was always ready, if not eager, for action.
The buzz in my nightmare goes on, word spreads that we’re mobilizing for Iraq. Images of fanatic jihadists jumping out of the shadows passes through my mind—murderous, suicidal bastards with no regard for life shooting at me from every direction. They’re trying to kill me; and I’m just as eager to kill them.
Frankly, I’d rather not kill anyone. I’d rather not fight the jihadists. I search for top to tell him I should have processed out of the unit years ago. I don’t know why I didn’t leave here way back then, but now’s as good a time as any. He’ll understand, I reason, if I just take my orders and go home.
But in this most recent dream, two childhood friends, twin brothers I’ve known for nearly 40 years, solid men who love their mother and support their families, are gearing up for war too. We’re in the same unit. I look at them and realize that I can’t bail now. I have to go with them.
It’s silly and sentimental, except for the fact that when I awakened, my nightmare was still with me. My two childhood friends really are gearing up for war.
The brothers have orders to ship out for their third and fourth tours. Both have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. I fear for their lives. But there’s nothing I can do for them.
Except, maybe, pray. And trust that because they are the best soldiers this country could ever hope for, they’ll find their way back home, unharmed. Yet, I know life doesn’t work that way. The best don’t always come back home.
George Carlin recently told an audience that he couldn’t feel sorry for someone who was dumb enough to sign up for military service while the United States was engaged in one of the most corrupt and misguided wars ever to be waged.
Oddly, when I first heard him say it, I laughed and agreed with him. How could anyone be so dumb to think this was the right war? That Iraq had anything to do with terrorism? That George W. Bush was a worthy commander-in-chief?
And then there’s my friend with three healthy, virile young sons, two old enough to become soldiers, who argues, “They can take my sons over my dead body…. War is a racket.”
He’s also right. Except for one thing.
The jihadists really do want to kill us. They hate us enough to wrap themselves in explosives and drive bomb-laden vehicles into our paths. And leaving them alone to kill themselves off in Iraq won’t put an end to their desire and determination to kill us. Too many Americans—sadly, liberals seem to be the majority here—fail to realize this.
So, while I agree with Carlin that stupidity got and keeps us in Iraq, and with my friend about rackets and war profiteering, it’s right that we maintain our readiness to defend ourselves—and to help others.
My friend with the three sons says he can take care of himself. He doesn’t need the government to protect him. I feel the same way. I don’t want the government placing children or my friends in harm’s way on my account. I’d rather take care of myself than have my childhood friends returning to the battlefield for another tour.
Our government fails to understand that our needs for survival, and the security of our future, are greater here at home than they are in adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. We can maintain our readiness to defend against our enemies while pouring more of our national treasury into building our neighborhoods instead of wasting it on no-bid contracts with questionable bidders.
It’s been suggested, to the scorn of “realists,” that an army would be more effective and welcomed if it took pains to prevent war by building rather than destroying communities.
My friends, as much as they love their country and their jobs as soldiers, I know, would much rather create community than keep it at bay at the point of a rifle or cannon. We need to rethink our deployments and the purposes for which we send out our troops to risk their lives. We need to rethink what we ask them to die for. I’d hate to awaken one night and find that this recurring nightmare, with its promise of death and destruction, had come true, as it has already for far too many Americans. §
Stacey Warde served three years in the U.S. Army, and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger unit at Ft. Lewis, Wash. He is editor of the monthly literary journal, The Rogue Voice.
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City life: Looking for a job
My transgressions were of a lesser nature than Lucifer: I once took off all of my clothes at a sedate Telegraph Hill party in San Francisco merely to see what would happen.
I refused to sign the Loyalty Oath, required of all California teachers. But perhaps more damning to employment personnel is the Aquarian’s desire for freedom.City Life: Looking for a job
By Dennis Cutshaw
I was born under the sign of Aquarius, which gives me license to behave, dress, and in general carry on in society beyond any accepted guidelines of common sense, or common decency for that matter. These personal characteristics of an Aquarian are perhaps not desirable in today’s highly competitive job market. No, these lovely attributes are best kept under wraps, hidden from view, yes, but there they sit, smoldering, just waiting until circumstance fans the embers into flames.
Although an Aquarian by birth, born under the sign of the water bearer—the carrier of mystical truth, cutting-edge ideas, non-conformity, and utopian idealism—I see myself more as a “fallen” Aquarian—somewhat like Lucifer, once a good angel who took it upon himself to save mankind and for his trouble was booted out of heaven.
My transgressions were of a lesser nature than Lucifer: I once took off all of my clothes at a sedate Telegraph Hill party in San Francisco merely to see what would happen. Another time, when in a teaching position, I refused to sign the Loyalty Oath, required of all California teachers. But perhaps more damning to employment personnel is the Aquarian’s desire for freedom. In my case this has meant no identifiable “career” but a series of jobs that I could generally leave at will, and had flexible hours. This included a six-month stint as an engine boy on a Norwegian freighter after I had graduated from college. Writing newspaper articles for my hometown newspaper while wandering through Africa. Deep--sea diver. Gardener. Peace Corps volunteer—this job was an Aquarian’s dream: There was so much free time I was able to read every book in the huge foot locker issued to volunteers.
And so. Like my alter-ego, Lucifer, I find myself earthbound—scrambling along on the lower depths of the material plain, no longer flitting about plucking harp strings with my aerie brethren.
No, I am stuck here on planet Earth, standing in supermarket lines, breathing polluted air, contemplating my declining bank balance, and questioning why I, a card-carrying Aquarian, whose true profession is staring off into space, has to apply for a, quote, “real” job. (Actually I did have a “real” job once—when I was six I had a lemonade stand—but it’s been pretty much downhill since then.)
Reluctantly, I went through the “help wanted” section of the newspaper. A retirement home in San Luis Obispo needed a person to head up landscaping maintenance. I drove over and was interviewed by a nice fellow who took me on a tour of the grounds, which turned out to be a forbidding expanse of massive neglect: overgrown shrubs, weeds galore, broken watering systems—it went on and on—and the size of this retirement community was huge; it seemed less a small community and more like a neglected Third World country—Transylvania comes to mind. And, at seven dollars an hour, I didn’t think there were enough hours in a year to get the job done, let alone energy in my body. I felt a sigh of relief when I was not offered the position.
Next, I applied for a job at Gottschalk’s department store. A woman interviewed me this time—even nicer than the first fellow. She offered me a bowl of hard candy and asked me if I’d had any marketing experience. I mentioned my lemonade business but she didn’t seem overly impressed. Then she asked me what kind of a job I’d like. I said, “I’d like your job.” The reason I said this was because a friend of mine once said that to an interviewer and got the job because they liked his chutzpah. However, my chutzpah was not admired and no job was forthcoming.
Looking back at my job history, my longest “career” was as an environmental-friendly gardener. I used no power tools. I had an old-fashioned push lawn mower, I swept up with a broom, I pruned and edged with hand clippers—no “mow, blow, and go” for me! And, I got around town by bicycle, pulling a five-foot-long cart loaded up with my tools and two dogs. My partner, Nattalia, once drove by me in her BMW and shouted out: “Dennis! You’re single-handedly turning Morro Bay into a, Third World country!”
I didn’t care, I was living by my Aquarian principles: simply, frugally, and for the good of all. The end came for me one day when I had compromised these principles. I purchased an electric mower to speed up my mowing chores, and the gods did not take kindly to this: One day I was hurrying along and reached down to adjust the mower and inadvertently lopped off the end of a finger. This, to me, was a sure sign from heaven to finally become a writer full-time, before I lost any more body parts. It seemed like all my dreams would be realized. I did not know at that time that staring at a blank piece of paper was harder and more terrifying than manual labor—and way less remunerative.
So maybe I do have a job—I write various things and take them to my writing group and read them and my highly talented fellow writers and my teacher generally praise what I write and then for some reason tell me to “re-write” it, whatever that means…but someday I hope to be able to do this, to attain the unattainable, the exalted professional title—no, not Writer—RE-WRITER!§
Dennis Cutshaw Re-Writes from his home in Morro Bay.
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