Read A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden Online

Authors: Stephen Reid

Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000

A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (11 page)

12. Somehow the homos and the snitches and the strip searches and the marshals and the killers and the five am roll-ups after cornflakes in blue milk seem to all get jumbled together in the endless miles of bad road you've been travelling for too long. To survive you must find the zen of the chain. For instance, if you're unfortunate enough to have a black box designation and you have to wear that uncomfortable contraption over your handcuffs all day, don't dwell on the cramps and pain it causes, flow with it, become your black box. Don't be a new wave crack baby criminal, don't go sissy on yourself. Suck up them fumes, concentrate on your breathing, find your mantra. Diesel in, diesel out. Let that which doesn't kill you make you stranger. Transform yourself and your busload of fellow maniacs into an edgy version of Ken Kesey and his band of merry pranksters. Be patient in all things, let the seasons come and go, and one day fortune will smile. The bus will rumble to a stop at some front gate and you will walk in, passing by enough piles of coiled razor wire to make a knife, fork, and spoon for every man, woman, and child on the subcontinent of India. You will step into the induction area, they'll take off the chains and do the strip fan. You'll get dressed again but this time the bulls will direct you to the right. And just like that you're walking down a corridor towards a mainline. You feel weightless. You have survived. Life is grand. Until next time.

H
OOKED

T
WO JUDGES, IN LESS THAN ONE YEAR
and on separate occasions, have sentenced me to life, and to death — of sorts. The first one took away my freedom and the second one didn't take away my cigarettes.

The first judge gave me an eighteen-year prison sentence, which in terms of parole eligibility is the same as a life sentence for murder. But it was the second judge, Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein, who did the real damage. She overturned a WCB/Solicitor General conspiracy to ban all smoking in BC jails. Now that I can smoke cigarettes as fast as I can roll them I don't know if I'll live long enough to finish this bit. Doing time is easy, quitting cigarettes is hard. I've got long history at both.

I've quit before. Once for seven years, another for four, and a thousand times for an hour or two. And I'm in Carl Sagan numbers for the times I've intended to, or promised someone I would — soon. Starting tomorrow.

I started smoking young but didn't catch a serious habit until I turned eleven. My first brand was Craven A, mostly because Old Man Hallett kept them on the shelf in his drugstore right opposite where he was distracted by people buying bus tickets out of the small northern Ontario town I was growing up in. That same year I was introduced to morphine. The doctor who unzipped my childhood would afterwards deliver a lecture on the hazards of smoking.

By the time I became old enough to buy my own bus ticket out of town, I had changed brands. On the streets of Vancouver, at the age of thirteen, I learned how to buy my own drugs and my own cigarettes. It was never a love story.

Seventeen years later I was living in Arizona, a Marlboro man under an American alias, on the run in two countries from six different police forces. I had managed to escape prison three times, was living drug clean, but had never got free from the cigarettes. I was always looking for the easy, the painless, the instant, the guaranteed way out. Then I saw the ad for the money-back guaranteed Shick Stop Smoking Program.

Americans know how to sell health, or anything else: imbue it with sexiness. I flew down to Phoenix, parked my Mooney 201, rented a car, and scooted up to the glass and steel Shick office tower, all ficas and ferns, and polished faux marble foyer. The personable blonde receptionist confirmed my appointment and took down a little personal history (all lies, since I was a fugitive) and buzzed me through another set of doors to meet my counsellor, another attractive human being, a little smoother. She took down some more of my lies, then told me she expected me to commit to four sessions on four consecutive days, and that I had to cough up nine hundred charlies, plus tax, on the spot. How could I refuse? I'd already been there ten minutes, in the company of two different and beautiful women: to bail out now would be like welching. So I reached into the sky rocket and anted up a stack of twenties. More accustomed to a cheque or plastic, her smile changed only slightly and for a brief moment, then she counted the twenties back like a banker and slid them into a drawer.

I signed the contract — we were to begin in a few days — and shook her hand goodbye. I stopped to pick up a couple of cartons of Marlboros on my way back to the airport. My counsellor said I had to bring cigarettes to my first appointment.

I flew home, drove back up to my house in the canyon, confident that I would soon be puffing my last. The next morning the FBI kicked the doors in.

I spent a couple of nights in the Flagstaff jail, then I was transferred down to the Maricopa County lockup in downtown Phoenix. They ran me up four breathless flights of stairs to the super-max wing — a dingy row of cells — and locked me down. I was dying for a smoke so I called out to the Mexican in the cell beside me. The next thing I saw were his fat brown fingers holding out a shag rolly. I took this misshapen excuse for a cigarette, loose shreds of tobacco spilling out both ends, and was about to ask for a light when it dawned on me: this was the day I was supposed to be sitting opposite my beautiful personal counsellor in the upscale office across town. I started to think about the nine hundred American, plus tax, and tossed the shag in the toilet, pushed the button, and never smoked again, until . . .

Four years later when I was sitting on the segregation unit in Marion, Illinois. There had been a riot in the chow hall at the evening meal. I wasn't involved but had been standing too close to a guy who got his throat cut and spewed blood all over my pants; they scooped me up in the aftermath. My friend Alan, who was involved, was locked up next to me; when his door opened for a shower, he stopped in front of my cell and put two Camels and a match on my food slot. “Alan,” I said, “you know I don't smoke; them things are bad for you.” Alan laughed, “Look at you. Sitting buck naked on the floor of the Chinese cell in the worst joint in the whole federal system. How much worse can it get? Here, fire one of these up, maybe you'll get lucky and get cancer.”

Two weeks later the warden found me not guilty in the chow hall massacre, and released me back to the mainline. On my way back to my unit I stopped by the commissary and picked up two cartons of Camels.

You've never been hooked until you've been hooked on Camels. Another year passed: first thing each morning I tapped out one of those non-filter Turkish blend little suckers and fired it up. The smoke hit bottom like an overhead right to the lungs. I was wired to the hilt by the time they sent me home to a Canadian prison, where it was nothing but Export A and Drum tobacco. I threw cigarettes to the ground again.

Not a few years later the clock ran out on my sentence and I was released. I went to work pounding nails for a skinny carpenter who smoked the longest, strongest cigarettes you can buy and still be called a Canadian. This guy went all day, a cigarette dangling out the corner of his mouth, driving six-inch spikes in three clean swings. I figured it must be in the cigarettes; by the time I got the hang of pounding spikes and learned it had nothing to do with cigarettes, I was hooked again. I finally got lucky with a film script, and was able to quit the heavy labour, but by then I was pounding back a pack a day of Players Light.

Meanwhile my youngest daughter developed a habit of her own: breaking my cigarettes, lecturing me on second-hand smoke, leaving pictures of black and tarry lungs on my pillow, and telling me how my clothes smelled bad. How I stank. I caved in and quit again.

A couple of years after that my daughter and I took a five-star holiday to Cuba. While my eight-year-old danced the Macarena with the hotel dance instructor, I started up a conversation with an elderly Cuban gentleman who rolled Cohiba Robustos in the lobby. What could be the harm in an occasional fine cigar? Even my daughter agreed: cigars are cool. I returned home with five boxes in my suitcase.

By the second box I was inhaling, and I'd stopped handing them out. When my stock ran out I went to the local tobacconist to replenish it. A box of the cigars I bought in Cuba, I discovered, cost, in Canada, about the same as a used BMW. Before long I was smoking smaller and smaller cigars until I was right back down to cigarettes.

Now both my daughters were on my case. The older one had turned fifteen and was far too mature to smoke. She'd quit, and she was riding me the way only a reformed fifteen-year-old smoker can. Time to get quit again.

The patch. Great dreams but it made my skin itchy, and I got so-so results. I asked my doctor to prescribe Zyban: Zyban appealed to me because you got to keep smoking for the first part of the regime. But I wasn't only taking the Zyban, I was eating Percodans all day. One Zyban, ten Percodans. It didn't seem to be having the desired effect. The way cigars led me back to cigarettes, the Percodans took me back to heroin, which in turn put me back on the wrong side of a prison wall.

As I awaited trial, and the announcement of Sheldon Green's (BC Attorney General's office) and the WCB-ordained smoking ban in BC jails, I continued to light up. A few days before New Year's, no smoking ban in sight yet, they tossed me in the hole — for possession of a contraband X-Acto knife blade. I was going to use it to slit my throat if I couldn't quit. Prohibited from smoking, I managed to quit for two days, then a few minutes before midnight the youngster in the adjacent cell fished me over a contraband cigarette. It was the eve of the new millennium: that was my last cigarette. Of the 20th century, that is.

Now that I've been transferred to the federal system maybe there is something I can do to spite both judges. Quit, just because one said I didn't have to, and by doing that maybe win back the years the other one sentenced me to.

A WCB spokesperson characterized Justice Sunni Stromberg-Stein's ban on the smoking ban as “a bump in the road.” For most cigarette addicts it's been a long road, a road as straight and flat as a run of bad luck.

T
HE
C
ARVING
S
HED

A
CURTAIN OF RAIN FALLS SOFTLY
across the tin roof, mixing like a snare drum with the rhythm of Frog Lake on the tape player. There is the smell of red cedar and the shadows of two men carving in silent concentration. The shed is Native Brotherhood territory but I'm welcomed here not just because my great-grandmother was Ojibway, but because in the eyes of the Brotherhood, anyone who has done as many years in a white man's prison as I have must be all right.

Under the yellow light tacked to the crossbeam, our little carving shed becomes a world unto itself. Space and time seem to pause together and suspend the three of us in a gift of place. The razor wire, the gun towers, the years behind us, and the years ahead don't hold much weight in the curve of this moment.

Bobby kicks the cedar shavings from a moon mask he's been working on into a small pile. Narcisse, an elder, who has been whittling a talking stick, unfolds his tobacco pouch and rolls a cigarette. No hurry, we're on Indian time as he's fond of saying. I mark my page in a new hardcover I'm reading, Eden Robinson's
Monkey Beach
, the story of young Haisla “Flower”, a girl coming of age in the coastal village of Kitamat.

I turn Bobby's moon mask in my hands, checking the depths of the cuts, running my thumbs along the swirling grain. I pass the mask to Narcisse. Bobby is encouraged enough by Narcisse's silent inspection to suggest mother of pearl for the eyes. Narcisse says “abalone shell.”

Young Shawn comes running in out of the rain. He squeezes the water from his ponytail, his long blue-black hair as shiny as a crow's tail, hangs his soaked benny on a nail. Underneath he's wearing a sweat top illustrated with a pair of manacled hands and the words “Free Leonard Peltier”. Shawn made the sweater's logo when he first drove up on this bit but in the ensuing months his consciousness has shifted from the political towards the spiritual and his red fist has become unclenched. He says now of the sweater, “It's more like wearing a poppy, to remember, plus it keeps me warm.”

Shawn reaches under the workbench and makes me a present of one of his drums, a caribou hide stretched over a pine frame. Last week, I helped him bang out a gradual release plan and filled in the corresponding applications. Afterwards we sat together to write a different letter, this one to his
Tsinii
Al up in Haida Gwaii. I had to dig it out of him to find words, his words, to make it his voice and his letter. Shawn had come down from Masset and landed in the East End of Vancouver. When the pavement came between him and the earth, he fell into confusion, addiction, and when welfare was no longer enough, he became involved in senseless crime. Many of his friends ended up in small boxes in cheap funeral homes but Shawn ended up here in a bigger box. Prison, is, simply put, the bottom rung of the welfare ladder.

The Correctional Service of Canada tries. They recognize the gulf between native and white rehabilitation. They encourage the Native Brotherhood to function, they hire native contract workers to act as counsellors, teachers and Elders. They allow the carving shed, the sweat lodge, and a private space for healing circles. In spite of the tension and mistrust from both sides, the red path is attainable — if a native prisoner recovers his culture, he recovers himself.

Tonight, Shawn's face is etched in troubled lines as deep as Bobby's mask. He tells me he wanted to take the money from selling his drums and make restitution to his ex-landlady, the woman who returned home to broken locks, smashed lamps, and missing valuables. Case management had turned him down, stating there is no process within Corrections to make restitution without a court order.

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