Forrest City Low

10 03 2017

I live in an exclusive gated community.  Residence here is by invitation only.

Our community has a staff of hundreds.  Our laundry is picked up, washed, and returned the next day without fail.  Our facilities are cleaned seven days a week – even on holidays.  We have free cable.  The community brags a library so trusting that most books don’t even need to be checked out – just grab and go.  We have a restaurant that serves meals designed by an on staff dietitian.  The meals are all included, of course, at no extra cost.  Alcoholic beverages are not included, but can be obtained in a variety of venues.  Our inter-racial barber shop has four chairs and is open long hours with or without an appointment.  Standard trims are provided at no cost, though gratuity is appreciated (and recommended if your barber is a former mobster like mine).

The community boasts an on site medical and dental staff, and we even have our own pharmacy right here on the grounds.  If you make an appointment today, they might be able to see you next year, or next month if it’s an emergency such as a heart attack.  The care is spectacular; you cannot die here.  If your heart stops beating on the premises, you will be placed in chains, taken outside the front gate, and pronounced dead there.  You’re perfectly safe inside.

Our athletic area has two baseball diamonds, four basketball, four handball, one volleyball, and one soccer field.  There are two jogging tracks; one is paved and the other is dirt.  We have elliptical machines, stationary bikes, and treadmills.  I suggest you sign up for the spin class; it’ll kick your butt.  Be sure to be with a few friends on your first visit; you don’t want to learn the unwritten rules the hard way.

We have a 0% unemployment rate.  Everyone has a job.  Many don’t pay anything and don’t have any actual duties, per se, but you will have a job.  The hundreds of “Ghost jobs” allow the facility to be in compliance with various requirements of the authorities.  Your first job will pay twelve cents an hour, but with enough time you can get to forty cents an hour!

Our chapel caters to every religion large and small, from Buddhist to Wicca with rarer flavors like Santeria and Odinism mixed in.  That’s right, worship of the Norse gods is alive and well here among a small but…  dedicated group.  Tip:  Don’t sign up to worship Odin unless your skin lacks melanin and you were invited to the community for the *right* reasons.

Most amazing here are the people you meet, and their backgrounds.

Bank robbers are, as a group, the most gregarious bunch you’ll ever talk to.  They’ve a “devil may care” attitude that’s infectious.  They’re always ready for some fun and never met a man they didn’t like.  Tax dodgers, on the other hand, tend to be a disgruntled lot, and very suspicious of your motives.  Most surprisingly, the murderers are a pretty light-hearted bunch and often have plans for the future.  One such fellow told me of his intent to return to his old business.  In between choruses of songs from the 80’s, he described his craft in great detail, “Yeah, I can get $15,000 for a hit.  But, you gotta do it right!  Not one shot, not two, I empty that muthafuckin’  clip!  Tha’s my signature!”  Another, rumored to have killed over a hundred and gotten away with it, would never be so crass as that.  He’s a gentleman, always well groomed, friend to everyone, and at times seems to have the most pull of anyone here.  He slaps me on the back everyday, and with his slight Italian accent, honestly seems to care, “How you doin’ buddy?”

For all the diverse experience, many of the folks here are pretty helpless with some basic skills.  I’ve done work for them as a cobbler, tailor, and cabinet maker.  So far, the cheesecake business I’m involved in has been the most profitable.  We mark our cheesecakes up 300% and we still can’t make them fast enough.  We get six stamps a slice and I often have no idea what to do with all the profit.

But, legal work has garnered me the most respect and gratitude.  A simple motion, typed relatively free of spelling errors is a precious thing here.  Two fellows even offered “favors on the outside” in exchange for my efforts.  “Uhm…  thanks.  But, how about a box of crackers instead?”  Seriously man…  if you change your mind, I can get it done…  “Yeah, no.  Crackers are good.”

There’s a real danger that if you stay long enough here, you won’t want to leave.  I’ve seen it over and again; men are terrified to leave the relative safety of this place.  Some take drastic measures to ensure that their invitations are extended.  One, who was within a month of losing his place here, was able to get a reprieve by beating another nearly to death.  I met a man who had stayed at similar gated communities longer than I had been alive.  He robbed a bank with a note, sat down outside, and waited for the kindly people who would bring him back home.



Old Man in the Cafeteria

4 01 2017

An old man just dropped his papers.  The young black woman in the absurd fur hat had just told him “No.”  In his nervousness, he spilled all that he was carrying.  She wouldn’t help him pick up his papers any more than she would grant his request.  She stands, shoulders straight, face forward, and watches him, her eyes cast downward – impassive and uncaring.

What was his request?  Something minor.  For someone who has been here as long as he has – since the Reagan administration – it had to be something minor.  He knows better than to ask for anything that will require much more than a nod of her head.

The old man stoops to pick up his papers.  He’s shaking, but I don’t know if it’s from age or the confrontation of the moment.  His legal papers, a jumble of typewritten pages, handwritten notes, and official envelopes, contain his proof – proof of how he has been wronged – proof of how the system has failed him.  I know this because I have a pile of papers just like his with its official court seals and signatures of attorneys who can afford me no more of their time.

He carries his jumbled pile to a nearby table where he takes pains to straighten it and remove the filth from the cafeteria floor.  He returns the papers to a folder crafted from a box which once held a dozen cans of grape soda – trash pressed into service to contain and protect his most cherished possession:  his hope.

A judge destroyed his life one day.  A judge took away his future and condemned him to age behind walls, to die slowly outside the view of his friends and relatives.

This is nothing new.  Every prisoner here knows this.  Every man here has been through the process.  Plead guilty to a crime you may not have committed, or exercise your “Right to a trial,” lose to an opponent with unlimited resources, and be punished four or five times worse for having the audacity to say, “I didn’t do that!”

This is justice in America:

  • Prosecutors who wield more power than judges and use the threat of extreme sentences to force the innocent to confession;
  • Judges who follow guidelines set by a congress eager not to appear “soft on crime;”
  • Defense attorneys who are as cowed by the system as the defendants and can only help by showing you where to sign your confession;
  • Corporations who profit from our policy of mass incarceration by supplying goods to the prisons, or even the prisons themselves;
  • Guards who supply drugs, cigarettes, and favors to inmates with the resources to make it happen, or who use their authority to express their hatred or racism.

The old man will try again.  He’ll approach someone else when another month of his dwindling reserve of life has passed and the sting of the disinterested woman is gone.

Thirty, forty years eventually passes and then the old man will be cast onto the street, his family gone, friends disbursed.  He’ll have no money and may even owe a huge fine.  Too frail and elderly to work, he’ll find a bridge to keep the rain from his blankets.