Read A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden Online

Authors: Stephen Reid

Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden





© Stephen Reid, 2012
All rights reserved

No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher or a licence from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For an Access Copyright licence, visit
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Thistledown Press Ltd.
118 – 20th Street West
Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, S7M 0W6

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Reid, Stephen
A crowbar in the Buddhist garden [electronic resource] : writing from
prison / Stephen Reid.

Electronic monograph issued in HTML format.
Also issued in print format.
ISBN 978-1-897068-36-6

1. Reid, Stephen. 2. Prisoners' writings, Canadian (English).
3. Prisoners--Canada--Biography. 4. Authors, Canadian (English)--20th
century--Biography. I. Title.

PS8585.E606Z47 2012      C813'.54      C2012-904719-8

Cover illustration by Elana Ray/Shutterstock
Cover and book design by Jackie Forrie
Printed and bound in Canada

Thistledown Press gratefully acknowledges the financial assistance of the Canada Council for the Arts, the Saskatchewan Arts Board, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for its publishing program.


For Susan — all the love there is

Kind of faith June has for me, 'bout wore down to nothing
Kind of faith June has for me ‘bout wore down to nothing by now but like the rock in the unfarmed field it's not going anywhere.

— Johnny Cash, as imagined by Michael Blouin


Prologue (
The Beachcomber


The Last Score

A Man They Loved

Celebrating Midnight 1999–2000

The Last Jesus I Know Of




Leaving Their Mark

Crime and Punishment (2000)

The Clockwork Grey of the CSC

The Zen of the Chain


The Carving Shed

In the Company of Women

Bushwhacking South of the Border

There Are No Children's Books in Prison

Tough Guys Do So Vote (2004)

Born to Loose


Without My Daughter

The Art of Dying in Prison

Epilogue (
The Beachcomber


The Beachcomber

washed up on a beach you might laugh and walk on by. But when you find a pink vibrator washed up on a beach and you are in prison — you do a snatch and run.

William Head Institution, a.k.a. “Club Fed,” is an eighty-acre windswept rocky peninsula that juts out from the southern tip of Vancouver Island into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It is both a penitentiary and a place of terrible beauty. At night you can see the lights of Port Angeles, Washington, twenty miles to the south; Victoria, British Columbia, winks from five miles away to the northeast. A high steel fence topped with razor wire and backed up by two gun towers closes off the land entrance, and the cold black waves of the Pacific Northwest lap the perimeter shores like packs of hungry guard dogs.

The prison, as is the nature and purpose of all prisons, serves to keep those of us sent here separate from society, cut off from the daily commerce of life. These craggy shores, dotted with fir and pine, stands of Garry oak, and the twisted limbs of arbutus, has always been a place of forced isolation. In the tribal memory of the Scia'new, People of the Salmon, the local native band upon whose traditional territory the prison sits, this was where, in pre-contact times, those who offended were banished to “find a new direction.”

Then from the late 1800s to the middle of the twentieth century, it served as a quarantine station for plague-ridden ships from Europe and the Far East. The lepers were sent to a small offshore island, the victims of cholera and smallpox were confined on this peninsula. Some are buried here. I often think of those who journeyed so far in the holds of sailing ships, in what must have been horrifying conditions: the Chinese, the White Russians, all coming as refugees to the New World. They could only stare across at the lights of Victoria, so close as to seem within reach. They left their bones and their sorrow deep in the soil of this land.

Since the 1950s, when the original prison was built, many thousands of prisoners have passed through the gates here, and this finger of rock and bush has kept us as cut off from humanity as the first native who stole salmon from his neighbour, or the last girl to disembark from the
Empress of Russia
. But times are modern, and the sea that all but surrounds us, especially in the winter storms that batter the rocky headland, also brings in messages, signs of lives being lived out there beyond our reach.

Amongst the plastic shopping bags and Javex bottles, the fishing floats and frayed pieces of dock rope, are flattened Cheerios boxes, empty packages of Hot Blue Corn Chips, a can of Turtle Wax, a baby's car seat, a child's plastic Batmobile with one wheel and the driver missing, a broken piece of plywood with the words FORBIDDEN ZONE.

The detritus up on these rocks sometimes fuels our prison economy. There are men who sit with their faces to the wind, hunkered down out of sight of the patrol trucks, scanning the waves for a bobbing whiskey bottle with a few dregs left or a Ziploc baggy with a few buds of pot, still smokable. One stone alcoholic told me about finding a half-f bottle of Bacardi rum (Black Bat, he called it) and how he downed it on the spot in one gulp. He eventually sobered up and helped found the AA group here, which in a fit of unbridled irony they named The Beachcomber's AA Group.

The dope fiends have to stoop a little lower and look a little harder, combing through the bull kelp and raking their fingers through the stones to uncover the small plastic syringes, which can then be sold for twenty dollars or traded straight for a flap of heroin.

The pink vibrator, once it was rinsed, dried, a couple of new wires soldered in, and batteries installed, hummed to life as good as the day someone walked it out of a love boutique. This buzzing missile ignited a frenzied bidding war. The lucky beachcomber is rumoured to have got twelve bales of tobacco for it and then was able to return and back-tax the buyer for an extra four bales not to reveal his name to the rest of the population.

One young Cree from north of 60 fished out a wallet containing sixteen American one-dollar bills. Functionally illiterate and unfamiliar with the look of US currency, he thought he had hit a jackpot and was downcast when his dealer did the cold math for him. Still, with the exchange rate, he had enough for a flap.

I don't drink or get high these days; my needs are small, and I beachcomb for a different reason. I walk the trails above the coves every day and stare down at the flotsam and jetsam amongst the logs and kelp and natural debris. I watch for that half-submerged square edge, or that colour or texture that is out of pocket with the natural world. I fish out the ripped condom package, a pair of mirrored sunglasses (one lens missing), a high-topped Reebok, size thirteen.

This is my news from the outside world, my mail, posted anonymously and arriving by accident, connecting me to the lives of strangers on the free-side shores. I conjure up the genesis of each item, its journey, its past lives, and try to envision the lives it touched. I imagine a young man on a beach ripping open a red condom package with his teeth, or his girlfriend astride him tearing it open with hers. Could it have been tossed out the porthole of a passing cruise ship after a gay liaison? Did a ten-year-old steal it from his parents' night table to make water balloons and impress his friends?

I wonder about the flattened package of Hot Blue Corn Chips. Was it opened and poured into a bowl at a barbecue? Or were the chips shared by two friends, eaten right out of the package, while they sat on the edge of a dock, their toes touching the water and each other?

Where was the missing Batman for the Batmobile? Who had Turtle waxed their Pontiac Firebird on their day off, then tossed the brown container into the bay? Had the plywood door with the one hanging hinge finally and mysteriously come to rest against the rocks in this place on purpose? In the real Forbidden Zone? These battered and broken and waterlogged objects on the beach are the strings that tie me to the outside world. Each has its story, and it is their stories, unlike my own, that set me free.



UNE 09, 1999, 9:15 AM
For me,
emerging from the Shell station toilet, my head rocking from a fresh
jolt of heroin and cocaine, and twenty minutes behind the nine ball,
this am is about to become anything but standard.

I climb into the passenger side of an old hot-wired Dodge whose back seat is loaded with enough artillery to light up a small country. The bank is six blocks away.

We hook a right on the red and head south. The coke is screaming through my blood but the heroin begins to whisper back and I settle in a bit, wipe some sweat and scan the traffic. I never got mangled before a score — not since I was a juvenile throwing corner stores up in the air.

I take a quick hinge at the toothpick behind the wheel. I recruited him last night. He has a lint-ball hairdo and the wild eyes of an amateur. My wheelman and this primer-painted, six-cylinder scrap of a getaway car have a shared personality: they are both mutts.

The motor coughs blood, threatens to die, but the tread-bare tires roll down the sloping pavement and we enter Cook Street Village, a gentrified hub of small shops and businesses: two cafes, both with patios, an Italian bistro and an English pub. The village proper is less than three blocks long and on my side of the street it's book-ended by the Royal Bank of Canada and a Mac's Milk. We pass the Mac's Milk.

The sun filters through the leafy canopy of the great horse chestnut and elm trees that line both sides of the street. People sit at sidewalk tables sipping foamy coffees, folded newspapers on their laps. A light breeze trembles the leaves, and their shadows on the sidewalk become like little fishes kissing. A couple strolls by, she with a sweater tied around her waist, hugging him. The whole morning and the people in it seem clear and bright and shiny — everything I'm not. I slide even deeper into the sunless interior of the car.

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