In Cool Hand Luke (1967) Strother Martin as Captain of the chain gang encampment tells Paul Newman as Luke something like, “Son, in this place you can do hard time or you can do easy time, it’s up to you,” which has always neatly summed up America for me. In that movie Luke found it hard to do easy time - which wasn’t the idea anyway. If he had done easy time Cool Hand Luke might have been a very dull movie indeed.
Doing easy time in any prison basically means staying out of trouble, blending in, not attracting attention, none of which is easy, so, actually, doing easy time may be the hardest thing of all. There is one other way of doing easy time that’s much easier – doing short time. The shorter the better. It vastly improves your chances of survival.
In the late sixties, San Francisco County Jail down the peninsula at San Bruno was considered an easy-time venue by the hippie inmates. When I was delivered into it in the summer of 1968 the resident longhairs had just successfully concluded a hunger strike to allow them to keep their long hair – only a year after the Summer of Love their’s had been a popular cause. My own hair was longish to be sure, but far from touching the shoulders, and I had no idea this strike had just gone down. We were living in a place called Schellville, a few miles outside Sonoma, an hour’s drive north of San Francisco, where we rented an old chicken farm and tried to stay out of trouble while the Psychedelic Wars raged in the Bay Area – definitely, I was out of touch. So much so I didn’t object when it was explained to me that getting a haircut was a routine procedure for all new arrivals. Within a couple of hours after walking into San Bruno, sporting a freshly shaven skull, I was persona non grata on my row.
Now I’m sitting on the floor outside my cell and this big fella, Burn, comes up to me. He seemed friendly enough with his, “Hey, man, you okay now?”
I was looking up at him, running one hand over the smooth surface of my head at which he seemed to be gazing with some intensity. “Sure, I’m fine. How about you?”
“Been finer in my time,” he grinned. “Say, you got your hair shaved off I see.”
“They tell me that’s the routine in here.”
“Oh yeah?” He shook his shoulder-length locks. “Then how come I got this, how come my hair isn’t shaved off if that’s the routine?”
“Well, how long have you been in here - a couple of years?”
He stared incredulously. This was County Jail. Nobody did two years here.
“Okay, let me explain it to you. I got here three weeks ago. Since then we been on strike – hunger strike – so we don’t get our heads shaved. We won. Monday they gave up. Today is Wednesday. You come in here and get shaved. My question is You sure you quite with it, man?”
My time at San Bruno certainly hadn’t started well! I got to my feet. Burn still stood 2 inches taller, so I had to look up at him. I apologized. I told him I was sorry, I was new and I hadn’t known. I told him I found this embarrassing. He grimaced as if in pain.
“Embarrassing? You find this embarrassing? Man oh man, you one sensitive perpetrator aintcha?”
Then he had to laugh. I joined in. It wasn’t long before we felt pretty comfortable with each other, and Burn must have signaled to some of the others because from then on they just accepted me as one of them, that is to say as a freak.
Later that eventful first day one of the warders, as we called them, came strolling down the walk asking if anyone knew how to type. Whether there was nobody or nobody wanted to volunteer I never found out but stupidly said, “Yes, I can type.” Big Mistake Number Two! The man took me down into the reception office right in the cavernous entrance downstairs that looked out on very neatly kept lawns and fields, a pastoral idyll. “There’s the typewriter.” He pointed at a small wooden desk with an old IBM on it. “Let’s see what you can do.”
I sat down, drew a couple of sheets into the machine, shifted into place and started typing at a good clip: the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog the quick …. In the fifties, back in Hamburg after The War, my mom told me, “Learn to type, you can always make a living typing.” I’d taken a six-week touch-typing course and never looked back, and here I was making a living or at least a life typing, just like she told me.
“Whoa, there, buddy, that’s fine, you can type!” The man pulled out the sheets, scanning what I’d written. “What’s this with the quick brown fox anyway?” “That’s the standard test sentence”, I deadpanned. “It contains all the letters of the alphabet. Here, take a look at those e’s, they all look more like c’s, that needs to be fixed.”
“And how come you use two sheets?”
“That’s to protect the cylinder, make it last longer.”
“Okay,” he grinned, “you’re hired.”
It was explained to me that I’d have plenty of time to be shown the ropes by the inmate at the typing desk who would be discharged in a couple of weeks. The current typist was an amiable bank clerk who never told me why he was in San Bruno. It took him the smaller portion of one hour to show me the ropes – typing up admission forms for new arrivals. After watching him work for a couple of hours I was allowed to walk out the front entrance, twenty feet to the left, to sit on a bench - later basically whenever I liked I could sit out there, take in the air and the view. As far as jobs go this is certainly one of the better ones I’ve had - especially since I never actually got going on it. But San Bruno was starting to treat me very nicely, thank you.
That very afternoon I was transferred to the dorm – a spacious hall with maybe thirty beds in it. The beds were large, the matresses firm, almost as good as the bed Anita and I slept in up in El Bende Grande (as the locals called it because that’s where the road from San Francisco takes a big turn toward nearby Sonoma). In fact, the bed I was assigned reminded me of my own bed with Anita in it – hadn’t had time to think of her with all the action I seemed to be involved in without as much as lifting a finger until I landed that cushy non-job, typing the quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog and never no more than that.
Finding myself with time on my hands after settling in on and around the bed I couldn’t help noticing that almost every bed was occupied by a man who also seemed to have time on his hands. A friendly elderly neighbor to my left informed me that they didn’t exactly work you to death at San Bruno, there was plenty of leisure all around – a man was bound to take a liking to the place, as had he right from the start, serving ninety days for accumulating a hefty bill at the Mark Hopkins, including fancy dinners at Top o’ the Mark, the hotel’s 3-star penthouse restaurant, and eventually declaring himself unable to pay the bill. Had I ever seen ‘Modern Times’?
Sure had. The scene where Charlie the Tramp picks out a cigar at a vendor’s stand, lights it, then shows his empty pockets first to the vendor then to a cop who promptly arrests him? Yeah, I’d seen it. Well, that’s basically what I do. Of course, I travel a lot because your second conviction carries a mandatory six months to a year, and your third three years. So I travel up and down the coast. When I get out, I think I’ll mosey on up to Tacoma where they don’t know me, I hear there’s good trout fishing up there. So what’re you here for?
“What kinda fraud?”
“Unemployment. I thought I could collect for days I wasn’t working but there’s a rule says any week in which you work, even if only for a day, you can’t collect for the days when you’re not working. It doesn’t make sense to me but they see it differently. Have you seen ‘Cool Hand Luke’?”
“I have,” said Frank, “that’s one helluva movie.”
“Right. Remember that scene where Strother Martin gives Paul Newman a real dressing-down after Luke breaks some rule or other?”
“Sure do,” said Frank, “you mean where he says, ‘Son, you and I we got ourselves what I’d call a communication problem.’?”
“That’s it, that’s the one.”
“What about it?”
“Well, that’s what I told the investigator who came to visit after he explained to me how I was defrauding the State of California and I tried to explain to him how I saw it and he just kept shaking his head.”
“So how long you in for.”
He smiled sweetly, probably the same way he
smiled when he checked in at a hotel, and then smiled at room service, and probably at anybody he met while doing his thing. There was absolutely no guile in this smile of his.
“Well then, son,” he smiled his con-artist smile, “welcome to the sixties.”
Frank and I (I seem to remember his last name as Shorter) shared an interest in the movies, as who mightn’t have though probably not with the same intensity. It allowed us to strike up casual conversation any time of day. And once in a while I’d run into Burn whom they still kept up on the lock-up tier along with the other hippies, probably to retaliate for having lost the strike. In fairness I ought to mention that there were only three dormitories downstairs, so dormitory capacity was limited, which made it a privilege to bivouac there.
Burn showed absolutely no envy or intolerance. He did mention that he felt he was developing scurvy due to Vitamin-C deficiency.
“You get into the kitchen, don’t you?”
“Maybe you can get me some onions, they’re good against scurvy. Or oranges. Whatever, I don’t want my choppers falling out.”
“You got it,” I told him, “I’ll do my best.”
In the kitchen I snatched the first onion I got close to – a big one – there were no oranges. Burn pocketed it with nary a nod, I guess he figured I owed him though I had no idea for what. And he kept coming back for more, I mean did they have onion orgies up there? I tried to switch to carrots. He didn’t want carrots even though they’re said to be a lot better than onions for scurvy prevention. When Burn started getting picky and sort of demanding, I told him I didn’t want to risk getting thrown out of dormitory by supplying him with onions every day.
“Not every day, Burn, you can understand that, can’t you?”
“Sure, man, you’re playing it safe, I can dig it. How’s that typing job coming along.”
“They treating you alright?”
“I can’t complain. Everybody is very nice to me.”
“You’re one lucky perpetrator, aintcha – dormitory, kitchen privileges, all because you let them shave your head.”
“And because I can type.”
“I can type,” he grinned, “by I’m not in the dormitory and I ain’t got kitchen privileges.”
I told him that was because he was a man of principle – one principle. He looked at me sort of askance.
“Meaning what exactly.”
“Meaning I’ve got a lot of principles, so I don’t mind not standing on any one of them.”
He looked at me thoughtfully for at least five heartbeats, then told me that was the damndest thing he’d heard that day or the previous day for that matter – at which juncture he was told to return to his tier by a warder who pointedly ignored me lounging there with him.
Within a few days I had my routine down to a T. Rise at six, wash, dress, meditate half an hour, then breakfast, report to the admissions office, watch the bank clerk do nothing until 1pm when the first busload of new men arrived, watch him type up a dozen forms, sit out on the bench and while the time away until five when the second busload arrived, finish at six, go straight to dinner, then back to the dormitory for another half hour of meditation, chat a little with Frank or pass the time thinking about Anita and how quickly I’d got used to and begun to really enjoy life at San Bruno, then lights out at ten. Sixty days wouldn’t be all that long, really – I was vacationing.
I know I shouldn’t have felt that way, knew it then. I should have been more concerned with my little family stuck out there in the boonies in Schellville, Anita all alone with the kids (October, 7; Noah, 4) no money, didn’t know how to drive, having to hitchhike into town with the kids to pawn something like the diamond ring she found in a laundromat and put up a sign that was there for weeks but nobody ever claimed it so it became one of our mainstays for pawning. Somehow that all seemed to be drifting away very pleasantly, I had a perfect excuse for enjoying myself at San Bruno Country Club and Spa for six weeks – three squares a day, no hassle, all the meditating I could handle, what more could a man ask for! Hadn’t even had time to get horny by the time management informed me I’d go back to court the following day for a hearing. A hearing? Why a hearing? I’d been heard and sentenced, what was there to hear about?
Quite naturally, at lunch, I told Frank about this.
He looked at me, slowly shaking his head.
“We’ll have a farewell party for you tonight.”
“Farewell party? I’ll be back in the afternoon.”
He grinned wistfully.
“No you won’t. In the afternoon you’ll be a free man having a grand old time in the bosom of your family.”
“You don’t say,” I laughed, “now what makes you so sure? I’m serving sixty days, you’ll be out of here before me.”
“Well, a party’s a party – no harm done. Long as you show up, buddy.”
We shared a laugh on that one. After dinner we did have that party. As the guest of honor I presided at the head of the table, Frank to my left, a tough-looking guy named Joey to the right, and four, five other guys I’d met in the ten days I was there. Frank had managed to procure coffee, sugar, cookies and cigarettes: this was in the days when smoking was not a sin, not in movie theatres, not in county jails, not in bed. Even though I don’t smoke I might start waxing nostalgic at this point but I won’t. Still, I see those sneak-preview evenings at Marin Theatre in Sausalito before me, a rather thick curtain of smoke that made the on-screen action a lot more realistic, especially in black-and-white classics like ‘The Lady from Shanghai’, a perennial favorite at the Marin because it featured the Sausalito waterfront at the end-forties – to say nothing of Orson Welles and yes Rita Hayworth, I’m sorry to say she had to age and die …
Frank began by pronouncing a toast to me, my family and my future – come to think of it he may have had a crush on me, I was a goodlookin’ lad in those days, still am today, but I swear he never touched me. He then regaled us with a story or two about his adventures as a hotel guest, had us in stitches in no time. Then he politely prevailed upon me to contribute something from my own repertoire of adventures and misadventures. Of course I had never done anything like that - nor ever would, I’d like to be able to say but then I’d be lying. My own years of skipping out on hotel bills lay mercifully concealed by the mists of time, the closest date a decade in the future, the year the mastermind of the Watergate plumbers, G. Gordon Liddy, was released from prison after being pardoned by Jimmy Carter.
By then I’m marooned in a place called Manhattan aka Blow-job Island where I meet Georgie St. John, an ex-Hungarian outcast journalist eking out a living writing brilliant articles about Fidel Castro whom he knew during the Cuban Revolution. Georgie happens to be an intellectual con-artist type with an authority tolerance problem that dates back to Vlad the Impaler who wiped out most of his family back in the 15th century, so one day he (Georgie, not Vlad) tells me he wishes to go to Washington, DC, for the weekend, to sew up a deal with Roll Call, an ultra-right vigilante rag catering to folks who among other obsessions want to keep America American, would I like to come along? At this time I’m staying at the Riverboat, an all-black welfare hotel on 94th near Riverside Drive and I’m the only white person there, so, yes, I would like to come along, if only to stop being the only white person at the Riverboat for a few days.
We take the train from Penn Station, me in a white-and-blue seersucker Georgie has borrowed from a friend apparently a couple of inches shorter and a lot fatter than myself who later upon intensive questioning turns out to be Georgie himself, so my wrists and ankles are liberally exposed while the rest of the garment leaves ample flopping space for me to move around in. Still, walking through the lobby of the Washington Sheraton to the reception desk I notice people smiling politely, treating me with considerable decorum and respect much of which I attribute to the ill-fitting seersucker, a DC signature in those days.
While Georgie checks us in I play the strong silent type: at forty-four-something there’s just a touch of grey at my temples, so I might be a Congressman nobody knows, and in Washington people make sure they don’t ignore somebody who might be a Congressman. Indeed, later in the afternoon when we’re out for a stroll sightseeing, some younger politicos nod and toss me the sort of semi-salute you see people in Washington tossing at just about anybody, just to be sure they don’t slight someone who might be on an Appropriations Committee. All of this leads up to how the following afternoon we’re sitting in our suite sipping champagne, watching G. Gordon Liddy on TV just after being released, quoting Nietzsche to the assembled media, telling them, “As Friedrich Nietzsche put it so aptly, folks: ‘What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.’” Puffing himself up in true Liddy-fashion, that is to say in the manner of a man who once held one palm over a lighted candle and without uttering as much as a peep watched his own flesh bubble and smolder away for a minute or two just to prove how tough he was. And Georgie and me then lightly skipping out on the hotel bill the following morning.
It’s a story that might have gone over nicely at table with my buddies at San Bruno if I’d already lived it to tell it, which I hadn’t yet, so instead I tell them about when I smoked my first joint, at the Monterey Jazz Festival, to which I rode in a car owned and operated by Badtalkin’ Charlie, a North Beach character of color who then shared a room with me and two other cats and was evicted by hotel management for being one too many in the room but more likely for being one too many Negro in the room, not that Charlie or anybody else cared much, we were all pretty cool with everything back then and he simply bivouacked in his car that night.
Now, a whole year or so later I’m sitting in the Coffee Gallery on Grant and in one corner, well into his cups, or into weed or whatever, Badtalkin Charlie starts grumbling and mouthing off and finally screaming how I owe him two dollars gas money from when we drove down to the Monterey Jazz Festival where I got paranoid behind my first joint, thinking people were wiring the place to blow it up when all they were doing was stringing colored lights through the trees to make it look pretty. I got some good laughs out of this story, then somebody asked What about the gas money you owed Badtalkin’ Charlie?
“Bullshit,” I told them. “I never owed Charlie Dawkins no gas money but I paid anyway. I wanted him to shut up so I could keep on
chatting up this squeaky clean straight chick with a nice pony tail who’d walked into the Coffee Gallery to cash a check for five bucks and I’d told Leo the bartender who didn’t wanna cash it I’d be good for the money if the check bounced.”
“Ahhhh yeahhh,” they roared, “and what happened with the chick?”
“I took her to the sauna on Market Street where we made sweetbread until I almost fainted in the heat.”
All of which is true though admittedly horribly macho in the recall, if appropriate in the setting then, for boys will be boys, the Buddha notwithstanding, which must be one reason why we’re all wandering on and on in a samsara of dukkha with nary a chance to be released from the never-ending cycle of birth, death and rebirth.
At the Hall of Justice on Bryant Anita is waiting for me with a release form duly signed and stamped by the Hon. Carter B. Mush, Hush or Lush, I can’t be sure which at this remove - something he is not authorized to do according to the clerk at the window where a goodbye fee of 5 dollars must now be paid.
“No way he coulda signed this.” Shaking her head. “But he did, didn’t he?” Throwing a mildly curious glance at Anita who isn’t about to disagree with her. “There you are, Ma’m. And there he is, that’s him, isn’t it?” Now she is nodding – at me. “Yeah, you, you lucky dog you. You promise me right here and now I won’t see your face in here for at least a year and you stop making trouble for this young lady, promise?”
“You have my word of honor, Madam.”
A final sigh, shrug and wink at Anita. “You take care of him now, girl, he don’t look all bad to me, this one – leastwise not yet.”
As you can hear, this was more than three decades before 9/11. People still took an interest, this was still America then – and Anita of course still Anita in her prime, the lithe, tawny snow princess from Sweden who for for me then and now still unfathomable reasons had taken a true shine to me so when we kissed we kissed swoony-like and when she picked me up that day at the Hall of Justice her emerald eyes were still dizzyingly iridescent from having stared down and hypnotized Hizzonor (thanks, and a tip of the hat to the Dean of West Coast columnists, Herb Caen) an hour earlier so he hastily signed the release papers and I the perpetrator didn’t even have to appear.
All human, even humanistic shit this, I understand. We – Anita and I – at play in America, in California, in the Land of the Golden Dream. I’d been sentenced for fraud in the days when fraud was still fraud, know what I mean? I did what turned out to be ten days, ostensibly for unwittingly trying to defraud California and US taxpayers of an infinitesimal small portion of their hard-earned I need to say pennies here, so nobody got hurt. I hadn’t defrauded the American people of 2, 3 trillion dollars so I could invade a country and kill hundreds of thousands Iraqi children, women and men while inflicting profound suffering on millions of others while stealing their fckn oil, in other words I was not a saint but I was karmically just fine, thank you.
So I finally did 10 days, I call that Justice with a capital J. Hello-o! I did 10 days for not reading the fine fckn print, yes. That was stupid of me, and who can be proud of being stupid. But since I’m putting it in writing, the truth is I had actually read the fine print. I knew what the rules were. But I needed the bread and I hoped nobody would notice because even already then back in 1968, shit, man, Nixon and his boys were defrauding the American people of hundreds of millions of dollars while killing hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese, that time, plus inflicting horrible genetic damage on their gene-pool so that even today in the Year of Our Lord 2008 little monsters are born to apparently healthy women in beautiful distant Vietnam, yes, sirree, I don’t mind telling you that’s disgusting. Disgusting, tragic, diabolical, whatever you choose to call it, but Vietnam established a precedent. Why, Vietnam was the precedent. Which is why Iraq is unforfckngivable. It is a horrible sinful thing for which only da Loud as Lord Buckley called Him can forgive the American people, yes, the American people, not a handful of politicians - the entirefcknamericanopeople. Ask the Germans! Seventy years after Hitler they still haven’t forgiven themselves! I’m glad I got outa there in 1954 when I was nineteen!
As my cozy little stretch at San Bruno ended Anita’s good friend Lee Hill, a freckled redhead amply equipped in the chest department, had gone all the way out to Schellville to pick her up with the kids and my dog Wiebke, a beautiful Great Dane Boxer mix. Anita’s Dobermann Samba had been killed a few weeks earlier: a lively, lovable bitch, she ran out on the road right smack dab into a car, died in my arms right there in the roadside ditch. We buried her behind the barn. Anita, the kids, everybody loved that dog. It was terrible. But Wiebke hated Samba. Every now and then she’d jump her and I’d be out there physically holding two big, snarling dogs apart with my bare hands so they couldn’t get at each other’s throat.
After Samba died Wiebke had the place all to herself for a while, but then, in the fall, we decided to go to Europe and I couldn’t think of anybody who would take her, so I tied her to a bench in the park in Sonoma and left her to her fate. It was a stupid, cruel thing to do, and I cried heedlessly as we drove by her tied up out there looking around to check if I was coming back for her and me bawling like a kid on the bus to San Francisco. Only other time I cried like that was when our daughter died the day she was born in September the following year. Good thing I don’t believe in cosmic tit-for-tat in matters of such gravity otherwise I’d have to say that taking my daughter in return for abandoning my dog was cruel and unusual punishment, even though I’m sure this sort of thing happens every day in this world of ours.
Not quite true, there was one other time when I bawled my heart out – wept for three days. My aunt Ilse told me about it when I was in my forties, visiting in Berlin.
“When you were seven, when your friend died …”
“Winnfried. Winnetou, the Apache Chief.”
“You cried your heart out, we thought you’d never stop.”
I didn’t tell her that subconsciously speaking I never did stop - not until my daughter died three decades later, so there you have it, that’s about all the serious crying I’ve done in my life, some 100 hours of actual, physical crying time. I googled it. Took me a while to find the right search words, try it some time, it’s instructive. You might think one hundred hours of crying would place me at the very top in the world but far from it. Turns out I’m low in the top 3 percent, at the very threshold of 4 percent. Of course. In fact, when you think about it, it’s astonishing that I placed that high on the list of tears when you consider the millions of mothers who lose their kids every year. On the other hand most of them don’t google, they’re statistically unavailable. So, even counting tears is a privilege of the few, not the many – it’s a rich man’s game, like counting cash.
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