Minnesota Correctional Facility, Lino Lakes, K Block, Lower A Wing, Cell 30. An underground crib in a tumbledown ’hood. One faint glimmer in the great penal constellation.
A name tag announces the identity of the madman tenant. I check my demons at the door, and it swings shut behind me. The clamor of crazed moronic laughter passes away into a pale murmur. The jailbirds have migrated to a distant roost, Siberia for all I care, and fate sends a clear and present warning.
It’s Friday night at The Convict Cabaret.
On a ceremonial impulse, I belly up to the desktop coffee bar, loosen my collar and signal the bartender for a shot. Columbian, three scoops, black as hell, no rocks and save the small talk. He already knows. Put it on the tab, Jack. I handle my business and tip like a two-hearted fool.
The steaming tonic arrives, mystic and rich. A swirling vapor cloud tangos seductively over the frothy head. Anticipation leaves the tongue sandpapery and slick. One sip and my nerves become unjangled. My insides warm to a liquid fuzz. The mojo rises; its genesis tunnels down my throat.
There is a flaccid pulpy mass where my latest cellmate sprawls unconscious with his guts full of panhandled grease and plunder and Tahitian Treat under the sheets and a thin membrane of terminal cluelessness. He bungles and plows his way through another bottomless slumber. I’ve installed a virtual barricade around the bottom bunk to blot out his existence.
Tonight, as in every night, the only thing cool about him is me.
But no quarter is given or matter paid. The FM dial is anchored firmly into the fray. The party roars, the current throbs, the speaker bleeds frantic percussive hisses. Ooonce-Ooonce-Ooonce-Ooonce…The wild rapt eager beat blows, the grinding swell rages, the electric lifeblood thunders. The machinery of my mind spins like the spool on Satan’s sewing machine.
I am reckless. I am brave. I am a bullet on the techno autobahn.
When I cross the threshold into my 64 square feet of faux seclusion, I am no longer a beast of burden but a man of leisure, a natural born agent of change. The Convict Cabaret is my fleeting season of reprieve, a place to turn my back on the ferocity of longing for something better and the burning vacancy of lost love.
It is a sacred escape where I can reach out and touch faith. I can trespass into hostile terrain and then, at the perfect moment, plead no contest, nolo contendere, and escape without conviction. I can think of genuine ways to say I’m sorry. I can throw haymakers at the mirror. I can feel my wounds heal in silence.
The Convict Cabaret is modest in scale—well-appointed but not quite infested with the senseless clutter that can kill a living space. There is an overall semblance of homespun comfort. On the wall is a bulletin board festooned with pictures of family and sunsets and Winslow Homer watercolors. When I jones for a fresh take, I tear fingernail squares of tape from a fanged dispenser and painstakingly revise the ensemble.
At the bedside ledge is a paperback library where God and salvation and the ghosts of literary kingpins loiter. Faulkner, Melville, Updike, Kafka, Twain and Hunter S. Thompson. Desperadoes all. Together we mock the absurdity of the human race.
I’ve got two pairs of shoes (one for work and one for sport), a wristwatch that divulges the time and date, a grip of ballpoint pens, a little elastic cord that keeps my glasses from falling off during episodes of intense exertion, the standard shampoo-toothbrush-deodorant-type pillars of personal sanitation, plastic hangers to drape my mustard and sweat-stained T-shirts from the gallows, and a cut-price fan to churn out background noise and bully around the exhaled air.
A riot of luxury in the lair of the loser!
Gliding along the post-caffeine downslope, I rest hypnotic on the stainless steel swivel-stool, staring out into the priceless realm beyond the razor wire. The perimeter patrol creeps in the cool midnight. A lonely oak rains acorns in a halo of streetlamp glow. The cottonwoods secretly undress for the winter dance. The stars cut the dark autumn night like diamonds.
I am watching the wide-open window, my movie screen to the world, and wearing a state-issue blue jacket, XXL, which I suspect has been striving for years to keep the Minnesota weather off the slumped shoulders of a long line of heartbreak and failure just like mine. I notice a shadow of oil-soak vaguely shaped like Idaho on the left sleeve and drop a quiet F-bomb. Yesterday’s cheeseburger casserole. There is no choice but to tolerate.
It is now, served by a summons to appear before the urinal, I am compelled to recollect the shattered life I’m obsessively trying to Superglue back together.
When I stray from the asylum of the Convict Cabaret, if only for a quick spin down the warpath to the john, I’m sucked into the buzz saw of acute awareness and intrusion. The nerves are re-jangled. The silence becomes paranoid jazz. Bells of guilt are gonging in my head. I am strangled by the lethal bouquet of ass-crack and turpentine. I am bombarded by the ruthless cycle of lewd transactions, the pervasive menace of duplicity, the blinding aura of entitlement and the relic of virtue drifting toward derailment. Surveillance cameras spy my every move and ear hustlers wire-tap my words. I am tempted to lie down and let fear steal upon me.
Trying to withstand the onslaught is like trying to throw water at the sun.
I climb back up to the top bunk and, sparked by an animal premonition, I am once again a refugee—and because I sense the turmoil of tomorrow already conspiring against the innocent dawn, I change back into my big ironic pissed off prison grimace.
The dazzling unpredictable whirlwind awaits. But as certain as death and revelation, I will soldier on,
Front page image by Jack Parrott.