August 19th, 2011
We get over by the stage in the Big Yard. It has the air of an outdoor music festival. The sun is beaming, the skies are clear, the Yard open. It must be at least a couple football fields in size, no bleachers though, just those thirty-foot walls surrounding everything. There’s a stage being set up in one corner just inside the fence. As big as the Yard is, nothing is totally open here, locked fences all around. From the building, we’d walked between them, had to have the guards in one of the towers let us into the basketball courts and then again into the Yard. The female guard escorting us had to call up a few times, “Uh … tower 10, gate 9 please.” Silence as the gate remained locked. “Tower 10, gate 9 please.” The gate opened, and we went into the Yard where there were many guys busy at work setting up for the show.
It is the prison roadie crew hard at work with the stage and tent, the amps and instruments, the sound system. They are all dressed in blue, a color we’d been told not to wear because blue equals inmate. Again, we all remember the orange vests for there will soon be 1000 men in blue out here. For now though, there are just the two crews setting up, a stage crew and a sound crew, and a few guards in orange vests like us. There is mixer by the stage for the monitor and stage mix and another one about fifty feet directly out from the stage for the Yard mix. The Slants begin to help setting up their instruments, so I have a few moments on my own. People are buzzing around me running wires and cables and setting up speaker columns, mixers, and amps. They are placing microphones around the drum kit and testing PA levels, and in the swirl of movement, I fall out of the scene to observe, have one of those moments of disappearance.
I look at the walls, the prisoners, the guards with guns and can’t believe where I am. “Fuck,” I say. Everyone moves. Everyone is busy as I stand still and look around in disbelief. The singer, Aron Moxley, is walking around and speaking to some of the inmates, but I feel invisible as bodies go hither here and there, and the thought comes, I’m in fucking prison. Everyone in this place must have experienced such a moment, the total disappearance, the disbelief, “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.” I see an old man over by the long fence that runs the length of the interior of the Yard. He’s sitting on a bench and leaning a little to his left. He’s sweating in the heat of the sun but doesn’t seem to notice or mind. He’s a perfect cross between the skipper from Gilligan’s Island and Ernest Borgnine and there on the bench seems a lost, lonely, left-out old man. I keep looking, and our eyes meet. He nods his head. We have an understanding. The old guy has indeed disappeared, but he’s where he wants to be. I give him a slight nod back and looking away touch my left hand to my right bicep where I have a few scratches and a bruise, scars from a moment of passion.
I count the marks in the skin, six, and admire the purple blackness of the bruise. A couple nights ago one had taken hold and not let go. It was a good moment, but I suddenly get sad over it. The scratches and the bruise will heal and disappear, but I have no picture of her. She’s gone, out of my life. There is memory of course, but one day that may fade, and it will be like it never happened, like those beautiful moments of life did not occur, like those nails did not dig in, but they did. I can still feel her hand squeezing my arm, clawing into flesh, impregnating memory. A moment of passion. I suppose moments of passion gone wrong got some of these guys where they are.
“Woman, huh?” I look up to see a middle-aged guy standing next to me. He’s fifty at most.
“Yeah,” I reply. He’s a little twitchy but seems friendly enough with a smile and wispy thinning hair. I suddenly get the idea though that I shouldn’t have answered in the positive. When was the last time this guy had a woman? Why rub that into his wounds? Why taunt him so? But then, why lie? He knew already anyway.
He touches his cheek, “I can hardly remember the last woman I had … and there weren’t that many of those back then.”
“How long you been in here?”
“Oh, almost thirty years. I’m up for parole again next year. I tell you, if there are still fat chicks out there, then I’ll be OK.” He has a gleam in his eyes as he says that. He truly will be happy with any woman if he ever gets out of this place. He won’t care about looks so long as she offers herself to him. He won’t care about sense of humor, political leanings, reading habits, TV habits, musical tastes, so long as she offers herself to him. I’ve turned down or willingly let go people who had very much offered themselves to me. I’ve been the one turned down, too. We all do such at the slightest whims, but this guy won’t. It’s perspective. The world looks very different from inside these walls. They do things to the brain
The guy gives a mild grunt and leaves. I don’t say anything. He must be thinking about women now, specifically that unknown future fat woman. What does one do in this place when the ladies enter the brain? I can’t even imagine. Maybe I just don’t want to know. I look at my arm again, put my hand on the bruise, the scratches. They will indeed fade. Will the memory do so too?
I look back over at the old guy on the bench. Every prison I’ve ever been in has been of my own design, except for this one. I’ve escaped them all in the end, just as I will leave here in a few hours, but that old guy on the bench and that one thinking about fat women might never leave. They could very well die behind these thirty-foot walls and leave not a trace of themselves upon the world. That thought scares me. I touch my hand again to the bruise and wonder what traces I will leave behind when my time comes.
“That’s me.” We shake hands.
“I’m Chad Hamlin, head of the roadie crew. I’ll show you around.” We walk around the stage, look at the mixers, talk about music and sound. Like me, he plays bass so there’s an instant connection. We end up behind the stage as The Slants begin to play. The first song, “How the Wicked Live”, could be taken as a comment on where we are with lines like these:
This is how the wicked live
Wasting with their dead tomorrows…
But it isn’t a comment. It’s just a song, and most of these men aren’t wicked, or they were only so in moments, moments that cost them years, moments they wish they could take back. Chad and I listen to the song and think about tomorrows that might never come, about being stuck behind thirty-foot walls and disappearing completely from the world outside.
“How long are you in here for?”
“Twenty-five to life, man. Done ten years already.”
He gives me a little smile as The Slants begin their second song, “Every Chance I Get”.
“I’ll tell you about it after their first set.”
So we listen, and I think about ten years, thirty years, life. I look over, but the old guy is gone,
and the disbelief comes back, the refrain I’d be singing if I were stuck in here for a moment of passion gone horribly wrong, “I’m not here. This isn’t happening.”
The Slants played in the Oregon State Penitentiary on June 4, 2011. This article was delayed while waiting for pictures from within the prison to be approved by prison authorities. Part I is here. Parts III, and IV to follow.