Do Not Pass Go

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If poverty is the mother of crime, then want of sense is its father. - La Bruyère

TV’s Officer Funk had said to look both ways before crossing the street; I always did so. It wasn’t so much being safe as doing the right thing. So I checked the street with deliberation only a naïve and priggish child could.

Victor, who I met when I was ten was the first person I knew who shoplifted. His family lived on lima beans, ice milk* and charity. Victor had a sharp, unashamed sense of class warfare. No surprise that he eventually became a Marxist. I was pretty shocked and even mentioned his stealing to my parents. Fear or maybe conditioning kept me from stealing but not from being Victor’s passive accomplice a couple of times.

Savannah’s economy and population were shrinking as I grew up. Dropping out of college after a couple of quarters I suddenly found myself needing a job. A large slice of the available jobs could only be had through employment agencies. Employers pay for white-collar workers. But if you are searching down at the minimum wage level you pay the agency a percentage of your first few months’ salary.

John needed a job himself so we made the rounds of employment agencies. One place required a $5.00 fee for signing up. We paid it and filled out the applications. It was a one person shop and after a while John and I decided the woman who ran it made some of her money by collecting fees from people she never intended to help.

In revenge we started playing phone pranks on her. I don’t remember much of what we did. We must’ve asked the usual stupid questions, had taxis and pizza deliverymen drop by. I do remember we regarded her with special malignancy. Which is probably why I went what would prove to be too far. Companies were much more trusting thirty years ago. I didn’t have to do more than dial the phone to cut off her water, gas, electricity and telephone.

We’d planned to not call her from anywhere other than a payphone in the future. But John couldn’t resist and rang her up a day or two later. After the call we couldn’t disconnect, our phone line had been ‘locked.’ My parents’ line. We fled.

My mother knew I’d be at Victor’s. She called to tell me that the police had arrested my father. He’d bailed himself out and I’d need to go turn myself in. When I did I was told that I’d be put in jail until the bails bondman arrived. Thankfully it was a one person holding cell.

Weirdly my father didn’t mind getting tossed in the jug (I never thought to ask but it probably wasn’t his first visit). He seemed relieved instead of angry at my prank. Everything else I said and did seemed alien to him but harassing the employment agency woman passed for apple pie normal.

I was allowed to plead nolo contendere, put on probation and told to seek therapy. The county therapists hated me. I’d yet to learn the discretion of deceit and refused to say I’d done anything to be ashamed of. They threw me out after the first session so I went to the psychiatrist I’d been sent to back when the folk who ran my high school told my parents that I was unwholesomely odd. The probation officers were pigs and I neglected to return after a few visits.

*Ice milk was made from milk from which the fat had been extracted. It was very cheap. Later it was reborn as fat free ice cream. The change in name was accompanied by an increase in price.

In my late teens and earliest twenties John was my advanced school of hard knocks. I can’t remember why we were hitching from Atlanta to Savannah.

A middle-aged alcoholic gave us a ride somewhere after Macon. He had the dry, waxy skin and purple splotches that are like billboards proclaiming doomed drunkard. He quickly passed out and John took the wheel. And a tour through the guy’s pills; John never met a pill he wouldn’t try. And I was witling enough to swallow them with him.

I don’t know if we really had been barking at trucks on the highway. But that is what the cops said when I woke up to discover that we were in Statesville jail. We shared our cell with a man in for murder but the cells were in site of the cops.

My father, my momma told me, wasn’t about to come bail me out. Probably the pills that put me there are the reason I can barely even remember my few days in the jail. Eventually my father relented and my parents came and paid for my freedom.

The aftershocks of my arrest were more important than the time in jail. Blaming John for my arrest my father asked me about him. Finally he asked what he probably always suspected: is John gay (it wasn’t hard to tell)? Was I? Lots of lightening and thunder, if I was starving or dying don’t call home, get out of the house and never come back. How many gay men have heard those words even in the 21st century?

It was well worth the days in a cell to have that finally out of the way.

Aside from my days in the prostitution racket I never made money illegally. I did sell one pound and a couple of ounces of pot; but only as a favor to the seller and buyers. Maybe If I’d read a novel about the fun of drug dealing I’d’ve given it a shot as an early experiment in self-employment. Given a wholesale buy all you had to do was walk down Peachtree Street saying “Acid, psilocybin, mescaline?” People were always coming up with hope in their eyes and an outstretched hand even if you weren’t.

Pedaling guys did prove an entrée into all sorts of petty scams and crimes. I spent lots of time hanging out with Charles Ray who’d done time for armed robbery (he specialized in small loan companies). Through him I met lots of guys whose livelihood was cheap thievery and confidence tricks. I was pretty impressed by the guy who had no other discernable talent other than walking into a bank and getting any check cashed without ID. Spending time with these folks must’ve influenced my one attempt at crime.

Tearing opening the latest arrivals to the post office box I found myself looking at a couple of stock dividend checks. They weren’t mine; a clerk had shoved them in the wrong slot. You might’ve taped the envelopes together at returned them. Others would’ve tossed them in the trash. I put them in my pocket. I don’t think I had any particular plans for the checks. Pity that I didn’t pass them along to the people I knew who could’ve harvested them easily.

Victor was working for Pick ‘n Pay Shoes when I went to visit him in Eden, North Carolina. Walt, who has a friend of mine back then, was visiting as well so it should’ve been a good trip.

But I decided to borrow a nice suite from Walt and go to a bank and cash one of the dividend checks. I can lie for fun. But I can’t con anybody. Which is why I’ve never tried a religious scam. You need that blend of foolishness and talent that lets you half fool yourself if you want to fool others.

Not only did the bankers refuse my check they called the cops. The detectives weren’t mean. They did complain that I’d stopped them from going home but seemed weary rather than mad. The more talkative of the two seemed genuinely puzzled that I’d tried. Maybe I was the most inept criminal manqué he’d met. They were much kinder than the uniformed cops who took easy pleasure in handcuffing me to someone else in a complicated fashion.

This time my parents really weren’t going to come bail me out. I spent at least a couple of weeks in the Eden County jail. Much of the jail had been condemned and had been padlocked by the Feds. The group of twenty bunks in my cell was grim and grimy enough.

A couple of prisoners had marked me as gay. But I think any soft-spoken straight man would’ve found himself likewise classified. These guys were in for assault and murder, barely literate: being able to read and write was questionable. Late my first night two guys came by saying they had to shove a broom handle up my ass. They tried to pass it off as an initial ceremony. But I had no doubt it was a test. So I went into the closet and slammed the door shut tight. I don’t feel that I really had any reason to feel ashamed. But I did and do. I’d come to a place where I dare not be myself. A tiny, totalitarian state. Power exchange fantasies are fine. As is acting them out. But few want to really be raped and abused (funnily enough I’d brought a Genet novel with me to read). I said a lot but can’t remember a word. But whatever I said was what it took to get the men to go away and leave me alone.

Pot was smuggled in a few times. When they got high they’d encourage me to tell them if I really ‘had the package’ as they called being gay. The guy I shared a ‘room’ with was big and strong enough to do with me whatever he might want to do so I was happy I’d convinced them.

I could hear a black queen carrying on in the cellblock above us. I was torn between wishing I could be up there with him and wondering if I could’ve maintained my heterosexual cover if I had been. To hear him it sounded like he was in cock sucker’s heaven. Maybe he was. I always wished I could talk with him and find out if it was just a desperate sham.

The jail was so old that the fried bologna, dried eggs and instant coffee was shoved through a slot at the bottom of the cell door. The dirtiness and dehumanization of that is my main image of my time in that jail.

I stood a good chance of spending a year or two in one of North Carolina’s state jails. Can’t guess what would’ve become of me. Maybe I would’ve found myself some thug’s bitch. I might’ve come out tougher. Or my mind blistered with hate. Or just shrugged it off as one of those things.

Luckily my public defender encouraged me to write to anyone who might give me work if I were released. I’d done lots of survey research interviewing for Claiborne Darden, Jr. owner of Darken Research Corporation. Claiborne was a good ole boy of sorts. Born into a very wealthy family he’d put himself through Emory and founded a market research company that left him well off enough to hobnob with Ted Turner.

Turned out his family owned about a fifth of the bank I’d tried to cash the check at. The Darden’s were a considerable economic power in North Carolina. The charges against me vanished. When I went to trial my PD stood up and asked that the charges be dismissed, the judge said OK and I was free (with the understanding I’d do some telephone interviews for Claiborne when I was back in Atlanta). I’d never seen the barely visible power that really runs things that closely before. And never felt less objection to it.

The squalor of the jail, even more the fear of being hurt in a way I’d never imagined, the humiliation of hiding my sexuality convinced me that I never wanted to come near to that kind of Hell again.

About fifteen years ago with a hangover that was mostly residual drunkenness I went to nearby Pentecostal church and scribbled obscenities on their door. That is the only dangerously foolish act I’ve permitted myself since my weeks in the Eden County jail.

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Thanks,
Richard

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