Wednesday – September 13, 2006: Gangster had to go to court today, meaning right after our 4 A.M. delectable breakfast menu was consumed, he was quickly called to sit in the waiting cell for about three hours. It is unnecessary to call people for court at 4 A.M. but every step of the process has the misery maximized to encourage the squeezed to take a deal and move along to the next shelf. Back in the cell Tom felt liberated by the absence and relief from the tension Gangster was so skilled at producing. He was emboldened by the lack of an imminent punch in the face, this had a strange effect on many of the guys, and I could literally see Tom reverting into his more idiotic former self. Fear does keep people from acting as much the fool here. I thought for sure he would rush to get back to bed before I was asleep in direct violation of Gangster’s order, so I tried to eliminate the concern.
“If you want to go back to sleep don’t worry about me. I can’t go back to sleep after going downstairs and being frightened by breakfast like that.” It was a joke, and the type of joke I would be making less and less of in this milieu. Self-deprecating remarks or jokes in any form, under any circumstances were not recognized by 99% of the population. What was heard was an expression of weakness. That was the interpretation, and like running from a dog or wild animal it was perceived as a sign to charge and give chase.
“I’m not tired,” Tom paced as Gangster usually did, “wanna play cards or something?” I had yet to play cards, dominoes, chess, or any of the house gaming options. There was always a lot of screaming, especially for a chess game. I was amazed by the Muhammad Ali trickle-down effect on all competition. As Ali would taunt and tease his opponents while he methodically beat the daylights out of them, these guys would produce vein bulging screams deriding their opponents worth, ability and often sexual prowess based on moving a pawn two spaces in the second move of the game. It was disturbing to observe at first, such gross exaggeration of ability and importance, and I was in the group.
But a game of 500 rummy on the cell floor, where no one would be around to impress with delusional Muhammad Ali fantasies, somehow seemed more stable, or at least less risky. There’s no way to produce a ‘Look-at-me’ moment when no one is there to look. So I agreed to play. During the first hand, I scooped up about 16 cards to lay down three sevens, and Tom assessed my play as that of a “card whore” and he violently kicked the bunk in a display of displeasure. He was also probably thinking he was intimidating me because I said nothing in return to being labeled a “card whore”. Days earlier a DA referred to me as a “violent thug” and “threat to the community” in court, and after that “card whore” lost a lot of its sting for me. My silence and contentment to seemingly pick up every card Tom discarded to turn into points, did something I simply cannot explain through any rational prism of thought to Tom’s behavior. He began to say things vaguely at first; “card whores should have their asses beaten”, to eventually, “I ought a kick your card whorin ass for playing like that”, and other threats, which at best could only be described as myopic. Tom might have been younger than me by a few years, but time had not been kind to him. And while not a street fighter or brawler by any stretch, I wasted a lot of time lifting weights at the gym. Tom had fragility in his appearance of someone who’s liver might break if he were hit.
At the conclusion of the hand I slid the cards to him after adding my points up and said, “Your deal.” Hardly what I considered fighting words. As best he could, Tom sprang to his feet. He walked to the back wall and turned around to face me. His arms were extended out from his body as if toothpicks were uncomfortably placed in his armpits preventing them from resting at his sides. His chest was puffed out indicating he was clearly doing the “jailhouse peacock” thing, and maybe what is called for in the wild if a coyote or some other smaller predator is spotted; he was trying to make himself look bigger. And he did; he looked like a bigger, shot-out, idiot with a deconditioned body, which might fool a bobcat, but from the floor of the cell it looked pathetic. Then he asked a question which made no sense on the surface, but I realized it was a threat soon after.
“So what we gonna do about it, Holmes?” Never good to be addressed as ‘Holmes’, and I never did come to understand that either. I had no clue what the “it” was in that glue-sniffing cranium of Tom’s, but I knew what he wanted. I felt my heart racing, not due to fear necessarily, but because I just did not want to fight anyone over reasons so abstract Socrates could not pin pointed the issue exactly. Very quietly, after I realized he was not going to sit back down and deal without a retort, I ventured forth.
“If I get up off this floor, I promise you, it’s going to go real bad for you Tom.” I spoke these words with the intensity of someone ordering a venti latte at Starbucks. During my life, if I had been moved to threaten someone, I was usually so upset by then, I was screaming. And probably drunk too. I never said anything like this so calmly in my life, with a clear head, never. He sat back down and dealt.