Odysseus in the Yard
June 16, 2014 | by Daniel Genis
Celebrating Bloomsday in prison.
The man I affectionately termed Odysseus, though never to his face, was sixty-five and ailing. He was Philip Rubinitz, a onetime actor who had served about twenty years by then for the crime of stabbing his best friend through the heart with an antique SS dagger. Nevertheless, he was the facility rabbi’s clerk. His liver was failing and his back hurt, but he took laps with me around the yard of Green Haven Correctional Facility, observing our simulated Dublin through cataracts in his eyes. It must have been hard for him to keep up with my much younger legs, but he tottered around our Nightown seeking out a way home to his long-lost wife with the same fervor that Leopold Bloom had. His parole date was still five years away. I followed around full of the overconfidence and energy of youth and insecurity, much like Stephen Dedalus. It was June 16, several years ago now, and little did Rubinitz know that he was helping me celebrate Bloomsday in the yard.
After I’d been convicted, my father had said, “Good. You’ll finally read Joyce.” But it took a few years inside to finally come to it. Having initially avoided Ulysses, my mind was blown when I finally gathered the fortitude to read it—the scales fell from my eyes, and from then on I decided I had to celebrate Bloomsday with the rest of the converts.
None of whom, it seemed, were anywhere near me. Working as a prison librarian, I had seen a few men attempt A Portrait of the Artist, but our edition of Ulysses always stood on the shelf gathering dust. Grim, thick, and foreboding, it was too imposing in reputation for even the most ambitious of convicts. Finnegans Wake wasn’t available at all. The civilian librarians knew better.
I had access to NPR, which of course did celebrate Bloomsday with me—but despite what our old futurists once promised, it’s still impossible to radio in a kidney. My father would kindly report on the New York readings, costumed and lubricated, after having visited the pubs and stages in person. And I would sit on my cot and have a bit of cheese that I pretended was Gorgonzola and lift a glass of root beer to the twentieth century’s masterpiece, the one book that contains all other books within it. (Pipe down, Karamazov, not today!) I read along with the radio, finally learning certain pronunciations I’d wondered about.
But does a Bloom necessarily need to know that he is a Bloom? That June 16, when I walked around with Rubinitz and witnessed him wax lyrical, reciting assorted non-Joycean monologues from memory and bowing to an audience of astounded gang members, I felt I was celebrating Bloomsday much more veritably than I had through my nonsense with the cheese. Here was a lost Ulysses, wandering for twenty years, passing between the Scylla and Charybdis of the metal detector every time he stepped into the yard. He had grown old and intermittently wise on his quest. That day his fine fettle appeared to be from the sixty milligrams of illicit morphine he had consumed.
Our Martello looked over us as we spun the yard, taking in the monsters and the maniacs. Though we were both Jews, we became Irishmen against the oppressive English guards. The real Irishmen were discussing how best to tattoo a Celtic cross at a table they always favored. They knew who Joyce was, just like they knew the names Yeats and Shaw and Beckett, but only as passwords. It was part of their ethnic schtick, their “inheritance”—they could roll off Bobby Sands and Parnell and the Molly Maguires just as easily, but all that had little to do with appreciating those things. It was just about being a gang in jail. When they finally got a guy with a brogue, they were happy to forgive the fact that his twenty-five years were for tying a girl to a bed and strangling her, and soon they sat him at their table. Erin go bragh.
But what kind of Stephen Dedalus was I? I had taught, without much pleasure, myself, and I had certainly indulged, though instead of whiskey it was heroin, and the consequences of that habit are a bit more severe. But if truth, at least lyrical truth, lies in intentions, then I was a fine Dedalus to follow my makeshift Bloom around. I too wrote on scraps of paper, and I too wished for literary fame and glory. Rubinitz had had these dreams himself once, but the decades had erased them. A fine Bloom. Only Penelope was missing.
And I had one, a fine Molly at home in the form of a beautiful Hungarian woman whose infidelity I could worry about endlessly. But that was Bloom’s job—and instead, Rubinitz wanted to talk about Thomas Mann. He hadn’t read Ulysses, and I did not bring up Bloomsday, but I did steer the conversation to literature of the Gaelic nature. We both enjoyed our Beckett and could talk about Molloy. It was a rare friendship, between a sixty-five-year-old grizzled con and me, the “newjack,” but I needed the guidance, since they don’t teach prison etiquette in universities, and he needed someone to talk to about Karl Kraus. We matched each other just fine. There were times when I began to feel like his Molly, as friendships in prisons are quite a different matter from the real world; jealousy sparks easily. Throughout my stint in prison, I cut contact with Rubinitz three times, but I always ended up forgiving him. Bloomsday comes every June, and he was the finest actor in the prison.
Daniel Genis is the author of Narcotica, a novel. His memoir is forthcoming.