Issue 210, Fall 2014
The white looked like a long-legged biker, as if, instead of being inside these razor wire–topped walls, he should be leaning back on a chopper going down the highway, with his long legs extended and his boots on the chrome footrests. When he walked, he rose up on his feet like the piston in a motor—up and down—chin always up, an eighth Cherokee, last name Turner. Jimmy Turner.
They told him you could get transferred anywhere in the gulag system, from state to state, and wind up in the shoe. They said you’ve declared war on the state of Indiana, we’ve declared war on the United States. This organization is bigger than the United States. We go to the outside, two thousand, three thousand miles away. This is a structure. We’re like al-Qaeda. They give us life, double life, life without. The state has our commanders in max segregation units, no human contact, twenty-four hours a day, and they’re still calling shots as far as politics, operations, whatever the case might be. The state takes everything they can and we’re still going on like magic.
We control the drugs, we control the individuals. People fear us, in here and on the street. We control the nicotine, they said.
Jimmy, smoking a cigarette under the blue sky, nodded.
He hadn’t always been here, he had started his bid in Rikers. I built up to it, he told his social worker. I passed through there, Rikers, doing skid bids. I had a life more or less. I didn’t see my opportunities.
What about your behaviors do you need to watch out for?
The drugs. Definitely the drugs.
The social worker was an obese blonde woman whose facial features were confined inside a small area in the center of her face.
I ain’t like these other guys, he told her and glanced to check if her features relaxed and spread apart slightly.
Positivity, he said.
Jimmy grew up wearing a plaid shirt, standing brooding silent with his mouth shut, the trace of a mustache over his lip, waiting for Patrick to say, Let me have the spanner. Then Jimmy would take the spanner out of the red toolbox and hand it to him, in the basement of someone’s house in the neighborhood, down with the boiler and the risers.
A woman teacher at Cardozo told him in front of the class, You’re not registered as Jimmy Murphy. I don’t know what to tell you.
Why am I registered as Turner? he asked his mother.
Their house was full of curios, bedding, scratch tickets, yard equipment, and vinyl records. Wearing a robe, his mother sat in the lace-curtain living room, her feet up.
She turned her carved-from-a-mountainside face toward him and said, Come here, I’ll tellya a story. She had a bag on and the story was about something else completely.
The rooms upstairs were a mess of clothes and junk. You could open a drawer in a broken dresser and find a stack of Polaroids of people and scenes you did not recognize, then look at yourself in the mirror and wonder who you looked like. A seventies barbeque, sunshine and green fields and￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ motorbikes. You might recognize your mother as one of the faces cut off by the camera, eyes bright, lifting a beer, fifty pounds younger.
Patrick was bigger than his real father, who had spent his life in prison and was now dying of aids in Morristown.
I’ll give you carfare if you want to go to see him, if you should want to do that, his mother said. I wouldn’t stop you. Don’t ask me to go, though. That, I’m not up for.
She pressed her hand to her eyes and checked her palm for tears.
Jimmy became a union man in rubber coveralls, boots, and a World War I helmet, going down into the ground for the city. He’s made his bones, his mother said at the bar. Patrick had a shot with him.
Good luck down there, lad.
What began as grounds for celebration became his daily life. The irrelevant sun rose over his windshield as he drove to work, Led Zeppelin playing on the stereo.
He had a confined-space certificate. You could feel the rock being pulverized seven times per second. Under the noise frequency, an Irish voice and a West Indian voice sounded identical. They ate their lunches underground, by lantern light, Jimmy’s blackened hands leaving fingerprints on his white bread.
After work, his eyes hurting in the daylight, he put the Zeppelin on again, a mysterious version in another language of the great underground music of the drill. The excavation site was in Midtown Manhattan, by the river. He drove through the flickering channel formed by the suspension cables of the bridge and headed back to the rusted fences and dilapidated houses to a bar where there were union stickers on the wood and the brogue was distinct.
Drinking opened tunnels in his head that led into the third tomb of the night.
He Watched an amateur video of guys doing stunts on bikes, set to hip-hop by a white DJ crew. They did wheelies, burnouts, endos. The backdrop was a heavy tree line. Jimmy put his hand in the plastic bowl of Doritos. The guy whose house it was came in from the kitchen and sat down in his chair and said to the TV, She’s making hot dogs. A helmeted rider tilted his bike forward, elevating his rear wheel, and drove past the camera￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ balanced on his front wheel. Dismounting, he pointed to the Wheelz logo on the back of his jacket. That’s dope, the guy whose house it was said. In the kitchen, you could hear a woman boiling water.
The TV was an enormous sleek cabinet-sized piece of equipment. The three men watching it were Jimmy, a plumber, and the guy whose house it was. The plumber was the intermediary. To Jimmy, he had said, Why don’t you come out? We’ll hang out, smoke a bone . . . He sat between them now, having placed his beer on the carpet next to his feet.
One of the riders lost control and wiped out and his bike flipped over. It landed on him and went sliding down the road.
Where do they do this? the plumber asked.
Bay Shore. That’s my boy filming it. He gets money from, like, the promotion.
The guy whose house it was’s woman brought out a tray of hot dogs.
There’s relish, she said.
She sat down on the couch and spooned relish on a hot dog.
You want one? she said to the back of her guy’s head.
The video was ending. The words Strong Island Wheelz scrolled by on the screen.
The woman, who had high hair and a judgmental nose and lips, had left the room. The plumber took out a flask of Captain Morgan and they all drank Dixie cups of it. The guy whose house it was lounged in his chair with his knees open, the ceiling light reflecting off his eyes. His clothing was clean, like his house. His jeans, with a loop for a hammer, appeared freshly laundered. Speaking to the ceiling, he said,
I’m getting the phattest street bike.
The plumber remarked that he used to ride in the Air Force. Vegas, Lake Havasu. I used to meet a lot of women, boy.
We oughta all ride together. He looks like a biker.
My man Jimmy’s got the look.
It’s how you carry yourself, Jimmy said.
The men regarded him, their eyes at half-mast. He took a hot dog off the tray with his silver-ringed hand, his jaw opened, and he bit it in half.
My man Jimmy over here. Look at him. Them hot dogs don’t stand a chance. Don’t worry about it, my man. He’ll tell his old lady to cook more.￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
My man’s a sandhog. He’s on the biggest dig in the city after the Holland Tunnel.
There’s a lot of money in that.
There could be, Jimmy said.
Like with tools and shit.
I bet a lotta shit walks off the job.
They never stole heavy-duty construction equipment. When Jimmy was arrested, it was for DUI. He had a couple of bags of cement in his trunk and a Ryobi that retailed at six hundred dollars. He wasn’t raised to steal, Mrs. Murphy said. Up in the Bronx, the local received a call about him and in the bars they said he was going to get bounced. In the meantime, he kept working. He had his supporters. Keep your head high, Jim. He went to the rectangular building with many windows on Queens Boulevard near Union Turnpike and went through the metal detector, found his part.
His defender, a sarcastic man with a double chin, did not seem to understand that they were both Irish and what this meant or that Jimmy was a union man and what that meant. Jimmy stood outside the part waiting for him against the dirty marble wall with the other people who were milling and waiting. The defender showed up late, after the case had been called, pushing through the crowd with his briefcase.
They called me already.
I’m sorry, I had another case. The judge talks too much. But you don’t need me today. They’re dropping the vandalism, aren’t they?
What vandalism? That wasn’t me. I’m DUI.
DUI, right. You’re Turner. I thought you were Rodriguez.
The next time he got arrested, they impounded his Skylark and locked
him up and he stood before the court while wearing sneakers minus the laces. In court, they referred to him as Mr. Turner. He turned to his defender: I thought you were getting me off. His defender said, Nobody can get you off. You’re guilty. Right or wrong? You did it, didn’t you? Yes or no? So take the plea and next time learn to call a cab.
Rikers could make you deaf. For weeks after his release, he shouted. It turned his volume up. He somehow found himself in exchanges with other men on the subway or on the street who had passed through the jail as well. ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼They found each other by the way they spoke out in public, in the line outside the unmarked entrance in Ozone Park where Jimmy waited with the other offenders wearing sweatshirts over their heads and blowing vapor in the cold, shuffling upstairs to give his number and get his pills.
On the corner, windburned, dull eyed, they said, Oh, you a union man. There’s a pride, Jimmy said. You got it made, they said. All you gotta do is keep tight. Keep it in tight! they laughed. They lived in a shelter off Centre Street and did temporary work unloading trucks for Chinese merchants who owned lighting businesses on Bowery.
When I got out after five years I would do any job, a Puerto Rican named Cat said. My sentence was for murder. I served my time, I don’t care. It happened because I was seeing a woman. She was Dominican. Highly attractive to men. Everybody noticed me with her. This guy, he was a big dude, he liked her and he kept trying to pursue an interest in her. I went to talk to him. He broke my nose, hurt my pride. I came back and knocked on the door. She come out and I said get Jose, and as soon as he come, I had a butcher knife. I jumped on him and kept stabbing him. They gave me murder. When I served my time, I used to jump rope, go for a jog, anything to forget the time.
The following occasion, they sent Jimmy upstate for fifteen months. He knew no one, and he was tense until he fought. The staff rushed in and broke it up and he kept his head up as he was led away. Twelve hours later, they brought him back and the tension started building again. So did the schemes. The idea was to get a hold of tobacco or coffee or anything for a buzz. He clicked up with a couple guys from New York. One was German Italian, a young man through whose field mouse–colored hair you could see the scars on his scalp. What hood you claim? They played cards using sugar packs from the chow hall as chips. That’s where I’m from, said Frankie. Bumrushing Flushing. How come I ain’t never heard a you? What level you at?
Prepared to fight again, Jimmy stood up. Frankie hugged him. One love, kid. Frankie from Franklin Street, all my life, since ’93. Stay on point. We fight niggers all day in here.
At Krayville, all the fat blonde social worker asked him was, Are you a Nazi or an Aryan?
He named his last prison. I was with the white boys there.￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼
￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼He saw whites wearing flip-flops and white socks, getting patted down, sticking out their tongues, arms out like Christ, white eyes with flat, black circles like sharks, getting walked with leashes.
They went to chow together, the yard together, they moved as a unit, posted sentries when they were working out. There were politics and the politics were secret—you’re out of bounds asking about it, so don’t ask. In the yard, they put their towels out on the ground and did their calisthenics, following cadence called by the mob. They jogged together under the Indiana sky, past the sign that said one person at a time.
The mob taught how to be stabbed under freezing showers, to teach you not to flinch. Their workouts were secret, like Shaolin monks. They wore Chinese symbols on their chests, eyelids, meaning strength, stealth, honor. The swastika itself was a Buddhist sign. It represented the pattern of a ghost running in an ancient field. They tattooed their faces, shaved their heads, stole the hardened steel spring from the barber’s clippers to carve a dagger out of the metal stock of their bunks, going over and over the same cuts tens of thousands of times, a form of meditation. The guards believe they have power. What they have is the tower, an illusion. Jimmy was given what they called artillery to put in his rectum. He carried it out on the yard and removed it and secreted it in the dirt under the picnic table.
When an incident occurred in the yard, an air-raid buzzer went off through the entire prison and out into the fields and trees beyond the walls. Wherever you were, you dropped down on your face and spread your arms out. Five hundred convicts wearing high white sweat socks up to their knees got down on their faces in the dirt. Correctional officers sprinted out across the turf toward two men attacking a third. The frenzy is unbelievable—you watch him getting hit one, two, three, four times, falling and scrambling away, trying to run and falling. One of the men flattens out—you see the knife flip out of his hand. They hit one with gas as he tries to get a last lick in, and he falls on his face. The victim pushes himself away with his sweatshirt in red flaps and his skin showing like someone bitten by a lion.
His birthday came and went in a rainy season, when the staff manned the perimeter of the vast yard wearing camouflage Gore-Tex and the inmates tramped through the mud, doing dips and chin-ups in yellow foul-weather gear. He didn’t receive the card his mother had sent until three months later, ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼after it had been opened by the prison staff and scanned beneath a laser. It contained nothing but a picture of a cake and candles. There was no money. Money’s tight right now. —XO Mom
On their way to chow, they strolled by a cell with wadded bloody towels on the concrete floor. Correctional staff in rubber gloves were lifting up a man who looked like yellow plastic. Crusted and streaked blood on his shaved head, stab holes like shark bites, with rubber tubes coming out such as you would use to siphon gasoline. He had been murdered with a sword.
A shame about you-know-who, they said when they were eating.
Some days he slept for up to twenty hours, but when he opened his eyes, it was still the same calendar day, the same bus-station bathroom light was still flickering in his cell, and he was still hammered by the same sound of the place, the distant slamming and calling.
Outside came months with names like May, June, women’s names, names that wore summer dresses in his mind. He popped open the bottom of his deodorant and put his finger in the space where he stashed his ball of foil. The ball of foil had been unrolled and rolled back up again many times. When it was unrolled, you could see it contained a chip of what looked like the wing of a cockroach. His cellie had a needle—a tiny tube resembling the ink tube from a ballpoint pen with a needle on the end. They dropped the blankets over the bars after lockdown and cooked up and got high.
When he was high, Jimmy sat nodding with his eyes shut, his marked-up white arms extended, folds of fat across his white belly. His cellie, shaved head gray, bulbous, and helmetlike above his tan face, sat slumped forward, his state sneakers at odd angles to his legs. Speaking with his eyes closed, his cellie said,
This time a year, we used to slaughter a half dozen hogs and everbody would come for miles. They come on bikes, trucks, ever which way. We had us a kind a moonshine a man couldn’t drink. I had me nigger braids in them days. My teeth was gone be all gold all across here . . .
Even high, they did not smile. Jimmy calculated that he had not smiled in over a year. He lay down and covered himself with his sheet and lay like a sack of laundry.
The Aryans were bikers, and choosing his moment, Jimmy let it be known that he had been a biker, too. Not a biker, but he had ridden bikes￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼ ￼￼￼￼￼￼￼￼in Bay Shore. He’d done stunts with them, wheelies, putting them up on the front wheel—little-ass rice rockets. One time his bike had flipped over and landed on him and everybody thought he was dead. It hurt like hell, but he’d stood up and walked it off and they were all amazed. He’d ridden a Harley, one of those badass choppers with the long neck in front, him just leaned back like this, shades on, gloves on, cruising down the highway. No, he hadn’t been in any chapter or nothing. He’d been a lone wolf. He had gone to, let’s see, to Virginia Beach, if he remembered. He’d been out to Vegas, where the chicks went crazy for a guy on a bike. He’d been to this other place—he had a picture of it at home in a drawer—a green field, a barbecue somewhere he couldn’t remember, but he could remember the good time he’d had, the freedom and the honor and the good music and what it had all meant to him.