A Crowbar in the Buddhist Garden (9 page)

At sixteen I found myself back in Vancouver, back on the Corner. Two years gone but I entered into the rhythm of the street so quickly you'd think I'd only been to the bathroom. I heard that Kitty had dropped some Purple Rain and gone to Haight Ashbury to find herself. I spent Christmas that year in the solitary cells under the old cow barns in Oakalla prison, for selling some bunk pot to an undercover agent.

Once I got out I went back east again, to London, where I took up with a hooker named Big Julie and acquired a methamphet-amine habit. When shooting crystal got too weird, I found myself another nurse who cried over the tracks on my arms. When she ran out of tears, and went back to her life, I took my madness to Toronto. Wired to the yin-yang on a $500-a-day habit, I picked up a Saturday Night Special.

Before Christmas of 1970, I was charged with three bank robberies. The hold-up squad had beaten me so badly I had to be arraigned in early morning magistrate's court wearing a garbage bag over my head. Don Jail officials turned me away at the front gate — I was sent to St. Michael's Hospital instead, where my jaw was wired, my broken teeth pulled, my forehead sutured, and my ribs strapped back into place. After two weeks of being handcuffed to the hospital bed, I was returned to the Don and admitted. The doctor waiting to do my intake medical, in a joyless cinderblock room, was Paul. I had learned he'd recently received five years for sexual assault and administrating a narcotic to a minor, and gathered he was being made to serve his sentence as a somewhat glorified orderly. He sat behind a bare table, wearing an ugly white smock, and went down the perfunctory checklist, never raising his eyes from my file photograph, asking questions in a monotone.

When we were done he didn't ask me if I was in any pain, and I didn't ask him for any morphine. A month shy of my twenty-first birthday, a judge handed me ten-years in Canada's oldest prison, Kingston Penitentiary.

My second night in the pen an old dope fiend named Suitcase Simpson hooked me up with a handful of pills. The head keeper saw me crossing the dome on the wobble and sway and ran me straight to the hole. He charged me for “condition other than normal,” or C.O.N. for short. It was a charge I would receive frequently, and a condition I would aspire to for the next few years.

Prisons are about addictions. Most prisoners are casualties of their own habits. They have all created victims — some in cruel and callous ways — but almost to a man they have first practised that cruelty on themselves. Prison provides the loneliness that fuels addiction. It is the slaughterhouse for addicts, and all are eventually delivered to its gates.

When we were lucky and got a package in, we used homemade rigs — syringes made from ballpoint pens and coat hangers. Other times we cooked down Darvons and cough syrup from the infirmary, or stole yeast and tomato juice from the kitchen to make a brew. We did what we could to get past the four corners of our cells.

Eventually I was transferred to a medium-security facility. I decided to throw the dope to the ground and look for another kind of escape. Within eight months I had a hook ‘n' ladder play happening and was living the life of a fugitive in Ottawa, where I met Paddy Mitchell and Lionel Wright; the three of us became known as the Stopwatch Gang. For the next dozen or so years, heroin ceased to be at the centre of my universe. I sipped whiskey to soothe the beast but I was too busy to chase a dope habit. We stole millions of dollars, racked up nine escapes between the three of us, and made the Most Wanted list in two countries. By Halloween of 1980 the FBI had caught up with me in Arizona. They dragged me off to the ultimate penitentiary, Marion, Illinois.

Four years later I was transferred to Canada. I had grown bone-weary of prison culture and my criminal lifestyle. I went to my cell one day, closed my door, and began to write. When my head came up a year later I had the first draft of a novel. I sent the manuscript to Fred Desroches, a criminologist at the University of Waterloo, who passed it on to their writer-in-residence, Susan Musgrave. Susan became my editor, then my wife, in a maximum-security wedding. I published
Jackrabbit Parole
, and a year later I was released.

We moved to Vancouver Island, to a vine-covered cottage by the sea. I bought a weedeater and a pink bicycle for my stepdaughter, Charlotte. I planted annuals. I began to engage with a new matrix of friends; I planted perennials. For the first two years I fixed up our home, pounding nails and painting trim. Susan and I had a second daughter, Sophie. I began another novel but found myself staring for hours at a blank page. I had been released from prison, but still I had not escaped. I felt the same aloneness in the midst of my warrant-burning party in our garden as I had in my grade nine class. Once again I went in search of the only solace I knew.

The only real serenity I have ever experienced in life, paradoxically and tellingly, has been without the assistance of drugs. It arose from a long period of abstinence, late in life, encouraged by the love of my wife and my daughters, nurtured by my friends, and witnessed by a God of my understanding — in whom, ultimately, I could not extinguish my addiction.

But even after a lifetime, I was not done with my crimes, nor were they done with me. In 1999 I returned to a full-blown heroin and cocaine habit. I had tried to keep a foot in each world, to hold onto the weight of love and family, but was pulled into the underworld of drugs. I chose to destroy both lives — not in a calculated way, more by default, but I chose nonetheless. I committed the worst bank robbery of my life, an unprofessional, unprovoked act of violence. It cost me an eighteen-year sentence, and nearly cost some people their lives.

Now, at fifty pieces, I find myself stripped bare, beaten back from hope, all out of illusions, in yet another prison cell. Having fallen through the crust of this earth so many times, it seems only on this small and familiar pad of concrete, where I can make seven steps in one direction, then take seven back, do my feet touch down with any certainty.

A year before my arrest, when Sophie was nine, we went out sliding after a freak snowfall. Hurtling down the hill on a red plastic saucer, we whirled faster and faster until the edge caught and we spilled. We tumbled through the snow, Sophie's pearly whites shining to the heavens, her laughter like small golden bells.

Now Sophie is twelve. When she accompanies her mother on their weekly visits to the prison, I hold her on my lap, and those wide brown eyes fix onto mine. Sophie needs to see me rise up again, return to her life. Though we are connected in unbreakable ways, I worry about her memories of a drug-addicted dad.

So I pace, seven steps one way, seven steps back. And I write. The days pass. I sit on my concrete pad, cross my legs and begin to breathe. The darkness of my world melts away, and as I move towards the mystery I can almost hear those faint golden bells. Slowly I enter the heart of unknowing, without expectation, without heroin.

L
EAVING
T
HEIR
M
ARK

L
EAVING
T
HEIR
M
ARK

T
HERE IS A SCENE IN
Men in Prison
where Victor Serge stares at an ostensibly blank wall, which, upon closer inspection, reveals a labyrinth of scrawls, etched there by generations of prisoners.

Victor Serge's wall is in a French prison, more than half a century ago, but if you walked into the Victoria city lock-up today, where no writing instruments are permitted, the first thing to strike you would be the amount of writing scratched on the walls, into the tabletops, and scorched onto the ceilings.

There are odes to drugs, verses and curses, and scatological limericks aplenty. But, mostly there's just a name, a date, and sometimes the sad reason:

ANGEL — DEUCE LESS — B&E — APRIL/98 — FTW

So perfectly minimalist is this story that Raymond Carver himself could have adopted the form if he'd thought his readers might understand the language of jailhouse graffiti. The story tells us Angel is young because he's been sentenced to a reformatory term, and that he's a repeater, because the judge gave him the maximum two years less a day for break and enter. It's easy to imagine the rest, a young man lying on his bunk, freshly sentenced and awaiting transfer, trying to make sense of where he is, where he is going, and scratching words on the wall until it becomes real for him. Then, in an angry afterthought, adding the acronym.
Fuck
the World
.

Like Angel, prisoners everywhere have felt the need to leave to leave their mark. In Kingston Penitentiary a novel was written in berry juice, in the Russian gulags journals were routinely inscribed on cigarette papers, and the poems of war prisoners have been found carved in bars of soap. Lady Jane Grey, awaiting execution in the Tower of London, supposedly pricked tiny holes in a piece of paper to form the words to a poem.

These voices come out of the dungeons and the labour camps and the penal colonies. This is writing from an experience, not about it.

C
RIME AND
P
UNISHMENT
(
2000
)

T
HE SORRY STATE OF PRISON LITERATURE
in North America is almost criminal. There has been scarce good writing, let alone any great writing leaping over the walls.

In other times Solzhenitsyn was locked up by Stalin as Dostoevsky had been by the Czar; Hitler imprisoned Victor Frankel, amongst others. A communist regime placed Václav Havel in a cell and, on another continent, military juntas jailed and tortured Jacobo Timmerman.

What's wrong with this country? We fill our jails with junkies but have yet to produce one Genet. Maybe it's time for a good old-fashioned purge of the intellectual class: the political climate seems to be ripening. Put a few writers down for a hard time. How would a sequel to
Alias Grace
read after Peggy did a stint in the Kingston Pen? Deprive Mordecai of his Bordeaux and bottle him up in the real Bordeaux, a two-acre jail in Quebec where the Anglais are literally an endangered species. Or handcuff John Ralston Saul and lead him away . . . no, no, the image of Her Excellency wrestling to open a can of Five Alive on visiting day is too painful to bear.

If we don't want to lock up intellectuals maybe we could slam down a few journalists instead. To what end I'm not sure. Christie Blatchford would probably spend more time in the weight pit than at her computer and get yet more tattoos. June Callwood would organize all the women into a sit-down. Jan Wong would have problems holding her pen and a spoon, never mind hearing over the clatter of steel trays in the chow hall. David Frum would quickly become the warden's clerk and write glowing columns on the humane treatment of Canadian convicts, and why no other prisoner deserves what he, the David, is receiving.

Perhaps the days of prison literature have passed. Our society doesn't lock up intellectuals, and our culture doesn't encourage those locked up as criminals to learn to engage with their experience on any intellectual level. The discourse on crime and punishment, in our parliaments and newspapers, has been reduced to bumper stickers.
Zero Tolerance: Three Strikes and You're Out
. We are a society impatient with its misfits.

This procession towards orderly thought demands a moral consolation, not a confrontation. There is a turning away from the darkness and the turmoil, the wickedness and the sick livers. These things belong to someone else, something foreign, not us. No one wants these problems in their living room or in their literature.

There is no “noir” left in American crime novels; the characters are all Republicans. The best prison books are written by non-prisoners. A novel called
Green River Rising
occupies the American paradigm so perfectly, it is shocking to learn it was written by an albino psychologist (Tim Willocks) from London, England. No other recent fiction, with the exception of Edward Bunker's
The Hate Factory
,
Little Boy Blue
and
No Beast So Fierce
, comes close.

In the Belly of the Beast
, a work of non-fiction by Jack Abbott, a prisoner, has a great title and comes from a hard-forged mind, but it is his literary mentor Norman Mailer who succeeded in a true crime book of his own,
The Executioner's Song
. The last major book to emerge from the dungeons in Canada was Roger Caron's
Go Boy
, but this was more of a personal accomplishment than a blast from the zeitgeist.

The decline in the genre is inevitable in the context of the reigning critical correctness. The prison writings that are competent enough to be published today are either so filled with facile remorse as to be obvious, or so seduced by the requirements of entertainment they become tales of false bravado.

Rebuked by the public, prison authors have learned to write with shame, but not about it. Many choose to invert shame; most drown in it. The dignity so essential to authentic literature is not easily recovered in the aftermath of a crime and its punishment. The moral authority to express suffering is forfeited and everyone, reader and writer, in this age of absolutes feels uncomfortable stepping into the territory, the eventuality of reclamation. To enter through the gates of a prison, carrying the weight of your crimes, to hear that six-hundred pounds of steel slam shut, is to know absolute loss. Later we become belligerent or accepting, reflective or numb — often all of the above. But misfortune earned can become a profound privilege. To know absolute loss, to suffer real guilt, to look back on how you have betrayed most of what you thought of as decent and good — that is a stripped-down place indeed: a naked page on which to write down the lost language, that language which reflects the enormity of being born.

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