Baltimore City Jail and Other Catastrophes by George Sparling
Pratt Street, the 1861 riots, martyring slavery, I not knowing which side I was on, not the War, of course, but where I stood in worlds of hierarchies and triumphs, their debaucheries and failures of my ill-gotten suburbanite lies, how much I required
justifying myself, so, in ’67, I joined VISTA, panacea for all youthful daydreams, unclotted ideals, its history zoning me in to six-weeks of training.
Introducing myself, I stood before only five correctional officers, telling them I wanted to change jail policy: set up inmate grievance councils, conjugal visits for both male and female prisoners, bring in entertainers in which inmates could identify, especially musicians, more free time out of their cells, no more isolation holes, a healthy diet. Rather mild, I thought. They walked out immediately after my little talk, one saying, “That’s country club shit.”
My first lunch, rather than eating in the officers’ dining room I insisted eating with inmates. The warden balked at first, then, probably thinking the inmates would attack me, accommodated my request. I sat in the clamorous dining room, seated with three other inmates taken by surprise, but I ate the baloney sandwich and drank Kool-Aid. In those days, I wore a sport coat, they in blues. ”Food’s better in the CO’s dining room.” an inmate said. “The warden will have to spend more than eighteen cents a meal to get better chow,” I said. “I’ll lean on him.” They laughed, one saying “He’s too pussy to lean on anyone.” They meant me, not the warden. My words sounded false, something until thenI never realized.
An assistant professor of sociology asked me in the community bathroom, gigantic ductwork hovering in the echoic chambers of dandelion urine and sepia stools, whether I used nutmeg, its psychedelic properties unknown to me, and I said no. I wanted to comeback, saying, “Don’t confuse nutmeg highs with psychosis.” Nutmeg I associated with Christmas and old-time office parties where eggnog and nutmeg flavored our tongues.
I fast-talked, jumping from one subject to another, dirty clothes, their stench, loudly laughing at nothing in particular, inability to communicate as a fluent, middle-class twenty-five year old, my extreme political radicalism, how I decried Big Daddy
Corporate Inc., and withdrawal from socializing with other trainees, though there were exceptions. Social/political/sexual affairs got buried beneath the blatant mental disturbances of the psychotic kind. He left the bathroom just as sneakily as he entered.
Three weeks later, the professor invited me for a cup of coffee. At the restaurant counter, he told me I was a snob because I did not share what I knew. I told him snobs lived in suburbia, sent their children to elite universities, looking down on people like the vulgar middleclass. He meant me; I was a snob. He must have read my application, seeing why I wanted to join VISTA, my lofty ambitions, referencing nonfiction as well as fiction writers about altruism, meaningful change, amelioration, slow progress. Had I
believed what I wrote? No. A snob: no. Desperation to avoid the draft: Probably.
The real reason happened the year before as a caseworker in the New York City Welfare Department, I finding out from a clerk: caseworkers were not exempt from the draft. VISTA meant a thirteen-month deferral. What a naïf I was. One trainee class in particular sealed my fate when a gorgeous black woman, our instructor, asked the class: “What does For Members Only mean?” I shot up my hand as if I were still taking a social science class in college, saying, “For blacks only.” They placed me in the Baltimore City Jail, I having had a black welfare supervisor who filled me in, knowing a bit of black culture, its lore.
During training, Patricia, a trainee, I coaxing her into driving all night to New York City, I having a friend in NYC, a former workplace colleague in ‘66, strictly hands off sexually speaking, though she had good connections, a boyfriend. We had shared a joint, he telling me to make sure to see a psychiatrist at Whitehall Street, the induction center a slice of America’s Empire in which I would not participate. VISTA, in actuality, was just another clog in the War Machine. He said when The Man asks if anyone wanted to see a psychiatrist, yell “I do!” Jackie and her friend perfumed my life and soon I joined VISTA, an escape valve. I drank many cups of strong coffee, telling the shrink all my troubles and instabilities being a homosexual drug addict.
Without uppers, I chose her NoDoz pills making me frail rather than awake, vulnerable and torpid, but her driver’s fury, the MG her amphetamine, reaching an art deco department store; her panty hose had ripped, I not yet intoxicated with sexual fetishism. I waited in the car and she bought new ones, hurrying to the car, driving to Jackie’s tiny apartment in Greenwich Village, cat dander moving through the air like thick asbestos. I coughed, wheezed, sneezed, Jackie looking uncomfortable seeing me with another woman, not jealous but offended that I brought a woman to her tiny, dirty, cluttered abode. Too depressed to clean things, I guessed. I had to leave, and Pat, bored, put out that Jackie had no interest in me as an ex-boyfriend, Jackie and I never had sex other than the time I jumped her in the presence of her brother, drunks on a faded Oriental rug. Pat’s intuition sniffed that out. I was a poor sexual prospect.
Quickly, the turnaround, back we sped to Baltimore, where she lay on her back on my apartment’s stiff couch, I struggling to unbutton her shirt and pull her bra off, hating dating tradition of any kind, I too fatigued to undo the bra, could not see straight,
placing my woozy head on her bosom, craving sleep, not sex, she telling me, “You don’t know how to make love.”
She left two minutes later. I knew she made it with at least one black man I met whose brother worked with a black Baltimore civic action group. I was among six trainees participating with this group which had some kind of arrangement with the activist priest, Father Philip Berrigan, he shaking my hand, thinking I had something to offer but upon hearing a single banality, he quickly left, leaving me alone in an office with the civic action member who had introduced us.
The group tried reversing the white racism inherent in ghetto life, making it better in some tangible way. The only thing that we did, as representatives of the Federal government, was pressuring the landlord to clean debris on a vacant lot. He must have
been contacted by the professor, making us white guys think we had power to change things, that progress could be made.
Pat’s black friend, the brother of an activist member of the group, had talked to me on a stoop, urging me to date Patricia. “She’s yours for the taking, easy as pie,” he said. That was before the NYC escapade. All those years growing up in white suburbia, it took a stranger to clue me in on basic, non-puritanical instinct.
The first prisoner I met showed me newspaper clippings he pulled out beneath the his mattress, Time magazine included, about his homicide charge. During his boasting, one article used the word “inmate,” a derogatory, subservient term. Standing shoulder to
shoulder with him, he not a convict, those incarcerated in state prison next door, they were convicts, but Mac had his case moving through the court system, so he was not guilty of anything. If his case reached the Supreme Court, its decision ruling against him, then he was guilty. He was a major player, a celebrity, a bone fide man of worldly fame, one who needed outsiders to show how powerful a person he was, a man whose dignity flowed through criminal channels, perhaps, but in his mind he wished his case snuck into commercials, Mac playing the next door neighbor in sitcoms. I saw him link his destiny with Earth’s fate, Jupiter seen in nighttime skies.
Forget the specifics of his case, forget his blue uniform, and forget the facial scar. Mac’s essence shined through his gruff voice, our elbows touching, he knowing such a weak-hearted duffer I was, a white boy’s bargain with suburbia. We shook hands again, I
wanting to bow my head, not as in that famous Millet painting, “Angelus,” two peasants supplicating, we were talking 1967, Charles Whitman in that Texas tower, sniping, killing sixteen people, not forgetting Vietnam, the slaughtering fields, vast uprisings having to be quelled by God Bless America’s empire, and myself, drinking New York Cream Sherry, listening to Jefferson Airplane take off with “White Rabbit,” how it ascended crescendo-like, my groin hot, my apartment empty, my solitary mind blanked, Mac & Company terra incognito, at least temporally, always going to the jail with a hangover.
Sometimes in the morning I would go to a bar near my apartment on downtown Eutaw Street, drinking a morning beer before serving as a VISTA counselor, a small, white-painted room my office, but this redneck bar had severed connections with the Rolling Stones “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” not playing after I punched the buttons. I told the barkeep, “Censorship is God, eh?” his face immobile. I walked to the jail tipsy. One day I Zeroxed hundreds of yellow pages in the administrative office, each ending in big letters, “Freedom Is God,” after I arranged with the D.A. office to establish a program enabling qualified prisoners release on their own recognizance. I passed the sheets around, hundreds of prisoners hoping their chance had come. The only male released on his own recognizance was a frightened white boy.
A few days later a near riot occurred, with Mac touching it off by tossing a burning dry mop at guards. I heard the news on the radio, and when I tried gaining entrance, the security guard would not let me in, orders from the warden. I would be among the reasons for the uproar. In a secured unit, a prisoner, charged with rape, sent me notes asking for help regarding his plea of innocence. I assented finally. Eldridge, a taxi driver, pleaded behind bars, I nearly touching his cherubic face, wanted me to visit his family in the ghetto. It took three buses, but I finally sat in a large living room with ample space and three big couches, I sitting on a comfortable settee, its straight-back propping me up, a Federal employee of moral rectitude. His mother, two sisters, three cousins, and an aunt reading me their softened riot act, an uprising of calmness, but using feminine persuasion, a sister gently touching my arm, she handing me a photo album, gathering me up in the fine art of describing his childhood, growing up among caring relatives.
Eldridge had not financially contributed to his only wife, she with two children. I ate freshly baked brownies, one cousin showing me his high school diploma, even suggesting I visit the taxicab office because of his unblemished record, an accident free, courteous driver. I choked up a bit in the swell of his cousins’ tears, his grandmother and church friends explaining how such a kind man prisoner Eldridge was. When I read Eldridge Cleaver’s 1968 “Soul on Ice,” I flashed back to this Eldridge, his tribulations, charged rapist or not, and seeing his mother, how tired she looked, tortured by the belief he might be guilty, I non-judgmental, her damp eyes, her gray hair, her belief in God, his church-going, this and more I believed true, their voices, one by one, yes, but their eyes, frightened, distinguished with doubts, their voices strong.
After an hour, I stood at a bus stop, waiting forever, streetlights out, broken either by gunfire or rocks, few on the street, eleven o’clock. I arrived wearied at Eutaw Street, feeling guilty, the futility of puny gestures, and when I saw Eldridge again, telling him of my errand, he thanked me, but he must have known I was no William Kunstler, a Movement lawyer. I stood at its fringes, Wordsworth’s “Ode: Intimations of Immortality” should read “Mortality,” death just outside the jail’s gates within same plot of land as the state penitentiary, executions for some of my jailhouse “brothers.”
I, penitential, sad, confessions, not those gained by torturous beatings, but those interior confessions, the foundation of my life, its hold on me amplified with every prisoner I met. The pointlessness of working for the State, I an appendix, a superfluous organ.
A thin young man, in oversized blues, said to me he knew all about religion, rattling off Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, his eight fold path to end suffering, the Four Noble Truths, about suffering, living without suffering, Jains, their shramana dharma were those
without attachments, he saying he memorized the Sermon on the Mount, reciting its verses until abruptly stopping. He had read the Koran, and meditated in his cell, wanting to meet me after his upcoming release date. I gave him my address, so impressed by his intellectual prowess, his memory. I said I would wait outside for him, paranoid this mental giant would rob me, maybe shoot me in the process, but nothing happened and we were driven in what he, Red, having streaks of red in his Afro, said was a ghetto
limousine, cheaper than regular cabs.
Shortly we entered a bar, two white bartenders, man and woman, handing out beers, wine, pouring shots, all black patrons, Billy Holliday on the jukebox, I saying that’s great jazz, Red saying, “No, it’s Blue’s,” he going straight to the bathroom, “I’ll join you
later,” he said, and disappeared. Was he shooting up?
After twenty minutes, he sat next me at the bar, and I asked him, “Could you get me some pot?” I tried once, lucky tokes as it turned out, but maybe Red could sell me stronger weed. He and I left the bar in late afternoon sunshine. The cab stopped, we got out, and he hollered at someone on the second floor of a grubby building, I thinking this was a rundown commercial building, but I saw a hand dropping keys caught by Red, the man attached to the hand had not wanted to know anything Red was up to.
We walked upstairs and Red opened a door, and we entered, Red then taking out a transparent baggie, green inside. “For $7 it’s fine weed,” he said, and I gave him the cash, he rolling me a joint. I told him I could not do that, “I’m all thumbs,” I said, never before using that expression, nerves perhaps, and I smoked it but nothing happened. “You’ll have to smoke lots of pot to break through your mental roadblocks.” We taxied back to my place, Red wanting to come with me, but I first thought he wanted sex, that the Four Noble Truths had been bullshit, then I thought he would kill me, who knew what was on his mind, I feeling that he figured me a chump for falling for what was simply alfalfa, so I dashed out, without the “weed,” and ran to my safe zone, away from a man dressed in street clothes but internally still in jailhouse blues.
A hometown friend, Donny, a Marine stationed at Fort Detrick, visited me, he a very smart high school student, and he made many long distant phone calls to alleged girlfriends, but I thought he was an intelligence operative, an agent provocateur perhaps, in some way trying to scuttle my life, connecting me with The Movement, singling me out for a prison sentence or turning me around, being a snitch in The Movement. Who was on the other end of the line? His handler was undoubtedly giving him instructions about what to do with me, ending life as a “social worker,” sending me to the state penitentiary, running into Mac, the man convicted of murder, unafraid of killing me in our shared cell.
We went to a hip downtown bar, sitting at a table, talking about the suburban town we forsook, and girls, a subject he knew like the underside of his penis, though he might be homosexual, a good-looking guy ensnaring me, turning me into something I considered
anathema, I, Hetero-Man, but homoerotic a better term.
A large balding man walked to our table, I wearing an Army jacket, two corporal stripes on each arm. A snake tattoo circled the man’s forearm, his trimmed goatee, he drew out a pocketknife, saying, “We’re anarchists around here.” Donny sat quietly, unhelpful, both of us strange to Baltimore’s habits, and so I let him poke the blade until the stitches broke loose. “Doesn’t that make you feel better,” he said. “Bye cherie,’ he added, and left us. My friend leaned over and said, “He called you ‘sweetheart’ in French.”
Later, I had another visitor: My mother. She stayed at a plush hotel, and came to meet the warden, sensing my immaturity, lack of confidence, and living on my own. I had been spoiled, in her words, a passive taker, a gimme-gimme guy. We sat in front of the warden’s large desk just as an older inmate, maybe fifty-five, stopped polishing the warden’s shoes. He called him “boy,” without the slightest hesitation. She asked about my duties, and like all figures engaged in law enforcement, he lied, telling her I
encouraged prisoners to read.
I met a black poet in a bar, a local poet well known to Baltimoreans. I had invited him to read his work to prisoners, which he did after getting a haircut from an inmate barber charged with rape. They were from the same neighborhood growing up, the barber
twenty years older than the poet. I had asked to supply the jail with books, getting the Feds to send one hundred paperbacks. The poet read his poetry to fifteen prisoners, I sitting among them. Later, when I received a telephone call in the main administrative
office from a reporter working for the Baltimore Sun wanting to do a story about me, the only piece of interest was getting the books delivered and the poet. Nothing else to offer, he said he would call back sometime. He never did.
Mother and I saw a movie, “Hawaii,” about a missionary and his wife leading the charge, there to soften the natives up, advancing colonialism with the best of intentions, much like VISTA, slipping into the ghettoes, lowering tensions, but, in fact, heightening
the political contradictions. My own contradictions, a young man who should have lived in feudal times, then I could have apprenticed as a baker or blacksmith. The Movement soon included Hawaii in their all-fronts attack on USA’s aggression.
One day at summer’s end the warden called me into his office, saying, “You don’t make me look good.” He would call Washington. This was the imagined telephone talk: “He was inadequate and incompetent, having no practical sense at all, a loafer, a leech,
accepting the $198 monthly pay without doing anything except gathering a large collection of sherry bottles spread out through my filthy apartment. He was a sojourner, literally meaning “under day,” a tiny-eyed mole living beneath the earth, a troglodyte, an
unsociable, misanthropic, obsolete, outmoded person: A Man For No Seasons.”
I flew back to suburbia, finding my parents in grief mode. I asked my father to sell my stock in the corporation in which he held an executive position. He bellowed at me, “You should never sell your capital.”
Now, I remind myself I had considered myself a pariah, but after a few decades that condition had ameliorated. I have traveled around the world, many destinations, except to Baltimore.
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