Once you purchase a new vehicle, particularly if it was pre-owned, and you hop behind the wheel, all excited to make that first trip home, you notice that identical model everywhere? It seems as if a third of the vehicles on the road are variations of your car, but just hours previous, when you made the decision to purchase said vehicle, you somehow thought you were buying a rarity. In fact, you could hardly recall ever seeing one before. Of course, you soon realize they were there all along, hiding in plain sight.
Many wonders of life are like that, unearthed through knowledge and understanding.
In the hills of Jamaica, there is a rickety store that doesn’t look like it would survive a healthy storm, yet I somehow know it’s been there for ages. Here, cold soda or beer is fifty cents more than room temperature ones, and along the back wall on a dusty top shelf sits two small Mason jars filled to the same level with a clear liquid. There is a price adhered to the front in manila tape and written with a Sharpie – one is fifty cents, the other is three dollars.
The woman who owned this unnamed store was the only obese person I saw in Jamaica. She was a mammoth of a lady. She always wore a sundress, loved to chat, and never moved from her bench by the cash register.
One day I asked her what was in those jars. Some form of exotic rum, I presumed.
She replied in a sonorous Jamaican accent, “Dem be da cheeta’s mawk.” Once she elaborated, I learned that they were jars of acid of varying strengths. You buy them when your significant other has strayed, and you feel that it’s your duty to warn future suitors of their infidelity. It’s a simple process: purchase the jar, locate your lover, unscrew the lid, and toss it into their face. That be the cheater’s mark.
From the moment I stepped out of that hut, I saw the cheater’s mark everywhere – a discoloration of the neck on a woman, a splash pattern on the arm of a man, or a melted droop to a face.
In prison, I’m uncovering many things, and I have learned that we have our own version of the cheater’s mark. The most notorious is called a buck-fifty. It’s a scar across the cheek from a razor slash. I see them everywhere. I also see scars down forearms. A rather hideous one started at the elbow, was two inches in width, and ran all the way to the wrist. Its stitch marks were the size of raisins.
I spotted three of these today, and as I pictured the fresh wounds required to leave such a mark, my anxiety rose. I envisioned the defensive pose utilized upon impact; the crude weapon that inflicted it; the rage inside its wielder; and was briefly envious of inmates in PC (protective custody.)
I read a book about Juarez, Mexico called Murder City. They have a torture technique (they have many) called bone-tickling. They take an ice pick, stab it into your forearm, and drag it along your ulna. Now, this still sounds unpleasant, but compared to the disfigurements before me which are native to my current habitat, I’m downgrading bone-tickling.
I wonder what the annual numbers are for inmates stabbed and sliced. I’m sure they don’t give them out, and I’m equally sure they are higher than anyone would imagine.
I spent a year in jail and never worried about my safety, nor am I cowering now. But in quarantine, all the talk is about the stabbings, and how to avoid getting buck-fiftied. You learn that there is no place free of knife wounds. It’s only a question of how many go down at your joint.
If stabbings are one-third as prevalent as I hear, inmates should be allowed to purchase gauntlets and chainmail. And, it’s not just the inmates who perpetuate this. I overheard one CO talking to another. The one asked if this was his first day at quarantine. Guy replied, ‘Yeah, but I just did seven years at ‘some joint’” (funny how they use the same terminology as the inmates as far as ‘doing time’ here, but they’re here too, living this). The first guard asked if it was as bad as he heard. Guy said, ‘If you consider a stabbing a day bad, then it was worse’.
I wish I would have heard where that was. I’m too civilized to be a full-time warrior, plus I was sort of hoping to have a normal life upon release.
I know what some of you are thinking: toughen up, you’re going to a Level I, not a Level IV, and that logic is sound. It’s just not what you hear in here. In here, you learn that there are a lot of stabbings in Level I’s. The young kids go there with expectations of a certain prison life, and are eager to prove how down they are. There are weak men everywhere, and fear is a pheromone to the predator.
The Level I kids stab, and IF they are caught, they go up to a Level II or IV, where they learn to chill out, or end up in the infirmary.
You might think that the opportunity to stab would be sparse, but quarantine is a Level V, the most secure facility they offer, and if we went off of the time that we are out of our cells, and had two categories: stabbable, and too risky to stab, you would find 100% of our events listed under stabbable. The guards are never close. There is almost no camera presence, and the cameras only watch areas where we are packed in like gazelles at a river crossing.
Besides being jumped, it also seems that fights are rare at all joints. In order for one to proceed, you need two willing participants, a designated area to throw-down, and no observers. It’s simpler, quicker, and less risky to poke a guy a few times and move on.
It’s crazy to imagine going to that world. I understand that in the law’s eyes, I’m not innocent, and I’ve previously done much that could have brought me here. Yet, it’s demoralizing to be here now, at a time when crime was not in my daily life, but transition was; when hope and love were what I was striving for on a daily basis, and for the first time in years.
I have two opposing thoughts pertaining to this.
One: a person like me (or any of us), is not meant to have too much joy. I feel I possess an understanding of life that allows me to live at my heart’s content, but perhaps I enjoyed a forbidden amount of material, physical, and spiritual pleasures. Me being in prison is life saying, “Come on now, X, you had your fun. Now let’s get you back where you belong, and where you’ll stay.”
Two: I got shot a few years back (long story), and as I healed, I developed an itch to write, and it spread. A muse invaded my being and imparted a gift (I hope), and though I knew it was there, I neglected him, only feeding him scraps of time in the form of writing exercises and edits. Now, he is scolding me, reminding me that it’s rude to reject a gift, reminding me that I owe it to certain people to try and create entertainment in the form of story. Prison is where this will happen. So relax. Stay focused. Develop tunnel vision.
The latter feels right to me, but we know I’m an optimist, and optimists have a reputation for being naïve, ignorant, gullible, and downright annoying.
Of course, there is a third option, that Einstein was correct, life is chaos, and nothing matters. But people don’t believe that. If even half of the people who say they believe life has no purpose, really believed it, I’d have a lot more peers behind these bars.
I love the famous people of history. I idolize Einstein’s passion, and I’ve tried hard to believe he was correct about life being chaotic and pointless. After all, he was brilliant and possessed savant-like insight, but regardless of my effort and determination, I’ve never been able to shake this spiritual yoke from around me.
Do any of us?
In prison, you’re afforded plenty of time to think. I think about how all of the experiences, choices, and obsessions that I’ve had could make for a good story, even a good writer. If things go close to what I envision and I write stuff people enjoy, I’ll be a full-blown believer.
But then I’ll have the daunting task of dissecting what I actually believe.
As always, wish me luck!