“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Monday, May 13, 2013

A Cup of Coffee

Yesterday afternoon I sat at a table on the sidewalk in front of the Maxwell's House of Caffeine on Dolores Street at 17th.  I had spent my last two dollars on a cup of coffee and sat with my two bags, one of which holds three days worth of clean clothes while the other holds my papers, the book(s) I am reading, stationery, stamps, notebooks, tools (tiny LED flashlight, screwdriver, etc.) and toiletries.

I had spent my last two dollars on coffee for a couple of reasons.  For one, I was tired and yet not ready to rest (that is, I had no place to rest, no place to go except the street).  For another, I wanted to stay within a few blocks of where I was while waiting for a return call from a friend who lives around the corner. The cup of coffee was a way to rent a table at which to sit while I waited.  And beyond these reasons, coffee assumes a special importance when you are as poor as I.

I grew up drinking coffee black.  I even believed in the moral superiority of those who drink coffee black.  I looked down on those who polluted the brew with cream and sugar as weaklings who could not take the real thing.  But when I became poor, I quickly learned that there are big jars of sugar and entire pitchers of milk available free to anyone who buys a cup of coffee.  If you can get the barista to leave enough room in the cup, you can add enough sugar (carbohydrate) and milk (protein and fat) to relieve your hunger for a couple of hours. So there I sat, sipping my meal and reading the novel I had checked out from the library.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw an African-American man pulling himself along the sidewalk sideways.  He approached me deferentially.

"' 'Scuse me, Sir," he said.  "I'm not tryin' to rob you or nothin'."

"O," I said, "I know that."

"Do you have a dollar or a quarter you can spare?"

"I'm sorry, but I don't," I said.

He had not paused for my reply but continued his probably oft-repeated appeal.

"'Cause I just got released --"

I cut off his pitch.

"Yeah, I got released two days ago," I said.

His tone of voice changed completely, no longer pleading but simply direct and familiar.  "From where?" he asked.

"Bruno," I said, dropping the "San" from the name of San Francisco County Jail 5, which is in the city of San Bruno, and thereby establishing my bona fides as a former inmate.

"And now I'm homeless," I went on, "and this cup of coffee is my dinner."

He looked at me kindly as he slid past me, continuing to sidle down the sidewalk on his way.  As he passed me he leaned in close, tapped me gently on the shoulder with a closed fist, and spoke softly, close to my ear.

"Take it easy," he said.

"You too, brother," I heard myself reply as he walked away.

It was the first time in my life that I had ever called a black man "brother", and I had done so instinctively, without thinking.

As much as I might have wanted to use that term in the past, I had always felt self-conscious and afraid of giving offense.  The shame of privilege had restrained me. That shame had kept me from expressing a common humanity into which my incarceration had now set me free.


Today is Mother’s Day, in honor of which an art show was held last Friday in the foyer of County Jail #2, the women’s jail, at 425 Seventh Street. (It was through this foyer that I was released from custody both when I had been held for only 2 days at 850 Bryant and when I had been held for 10 at Bruno.)
The artworks were by inmates of the San Francisco County Jails and by Evan Bissell, an artist who worked with groups of inmates and children of inmates to create portraits of these inmates, portraits that tell the stories of the impact of incarceration on all of them.  Almost every work brought tears to my eyes.   A quilt made of pieces of prison clothing, all that particular orange, brought back a vivid memory of the feeling you get when you are allowed, after the search, to cover your nakedness with ill-fitting orange socks, briefs, drawstring pants, a t-shirt, and a sweatshirt.
Many of the artworks told stories of the new lives people have built after their release, the lives they began building even while incarcerated.   Some memorialized those who died behind bars.  All told of the struggle to retain dignity and purpose under those circumstances.  I gave my contact information to one of the volunteer organizers of the show and hope to have photographs and more detailed information to share in another post soon.
For now, though, let me tell you a thing or two about jail.


From the very moment in which the words “under arrest” are uttered, everyone you encounter contributes to rendering you powerless.

When I was preparing to begin student-teaching, I talked to a number of experienced teachers who advised me to remember that the most negative response you can give a student (or anyone else for that matter) is to ignore him or her. Not to rebuke, nor to deny, but to ignore. If you have a student who speaks up too frequently and too often without a point, and who is generally disruptive, the best response is to say nothing at all. Let their talk be answered with empty silence. Render them invisible -- non-existent -- by treating them as such.

The police who arrest you, and then the sheriff’s deputies who are your jailers, similarly negate everything that constitutes your sense of self: your will, your intellect, your emotions. They do so by ignoring you completely. No answers to your questions, whether about the charges, about the process you are going through, about your ability to communicate with anyone outside -- about anything. You are something that they process, the ultimate objectification.

Everything is uncomfortable and debilitating. The handcuffs hurt, and having your arms behind your back makes it hard to get into the back seat of the squad car without falling into it. The back seat itself is hard molded plastic, without upholstery of any kind. You can’t sit with your back supported by the seatback because your manacled arms are in the way. You slide across the hard plastic with every turn, every acceleration or deceleration the driver makes.

At the precinct station house, they hold you first in a tiled room with hard wooden benches bolted to the shiny concrete floor, in the midst of which, as in every room you will now occupy, you see a drain toward which the floor slopes from all sides. Through a small window with holding wire mesh suspended within it, you can see someone going through papers in the adjoining room. She occasionally looks up at you, and occasionally others appear in the room with her. Eventually a cop or two, their equipment swinging and rattling heavily from their belts, enter the room you are in and, still refusing to answer any questions, take you back out to the car, load you in, and drive you to the county jail.

There it is the sheriff’s department which treats you with the disrespect of ignoring your humanity. Although you listened to the driver radio ahead to them before you were out of the precinct station parking lot, you must wait in the car, cuffed and folded on the hard back seat, while the two offices who brought you there talk to their counterparts at the door, chat to other waiting officers aabout the times they worked together or did this or that or knew so-and-so. When you are at last admitted to the building, you begin waiting at the first of a series of desks, counters, or office cubicles that comprise the stations of your entry into the system. Your privacy is stripped away, and whatever interior selfhood you have is violated, during the photographing, the fingerprinting, and the questioning about your birth, about your residence, about your workplace, about your medical history, about your current medical care. Then the stripping and the violation culminates in the taking away of your clothes and the ensuing inspection of your naked body, including any possible hiding places on or in it.

The cops have added a further refinement to the dehumanizing strategy, one that would never have occurred to me. During the hours and hours that this process takes, the cops are cracking crude jokes, telling stories about one another (or worse, about poor souls they have arrested or seen in jail in the past) which they consider amusing and at which they laugh loudly. They toss around every kind of racial, ethnic, sexist, etc. slur you can think of and they guffaw.

They ought to be ashamed.

Instead they think it is you who is in the shameful position.


Once you have been entered like data into the system, the castration of your will grinds on through the mindless routine of day after day. You cannot do any of the things you need to get done to keep your life, the life to which you hope, perhaps quixotically, to return, together. I had no idea whether any of my friends or family knew what had happened to me. Had they noticed my absence yet? Because I was homeless, no one was waiting to hear me come through a door somewhere.

Having had to surrender my mobile when arrested, I didn’t have anyone’s phone numbers. Even if I had, I soon discovered, you are allowed access only to very expensive pay phones for which you need to buy payment cards from the commissary, something you can do only once a week. You can make very expensive collect calls, but since most cellular service plans block collect calls, you need to know landline numbers Once upon a time I knew dozens of phone numbers, but nowadays we call someone by touching their name on our phone’s display screen, not by entering their number. After a couple of days passed, I was finally able to remember the number for the landline at my sister M’s house, and after a couple of tries I was able to speak to her.

One of these days I’ll tell you how that went.


I mentioned mindless routine.

You are awakened at 4:30 AM, ordered to dress and make your bed in the exact manner of this particular institution, made to wait standing for the carts to arrive, and then called one by one to get a tray of food from the guys who came with the cart from the kitchen.

As for the food, I must tell you about the peanut butter. You get a wad of it, wrapped in wax paper, about the size of a lemon an egg, with some soft, easily torn white bread and no utensil to help spread the was, which is itself only semi-soft. In every holding cell in the system, you see wads of peanut butter stuck to the ceiling overhead. The ceilings are always 15 or more feet high. It takes a powerful arm to launch a stiff, hard wad of peanut butter at that ceiling hard enough to get it to stick. Once it is there, however, it seems to stay for perpetuity. I never saw, or did I ever hear tell of, one of these peanut-butter hardballs coming down.

I won’t bother describing the rest of the food. To do so would be of as little interest as was the food. And as in the joke Woody Allen tells in “Annie Hall”, there is never enough of it.

At about 5:15 AM you are ordered back to your cell and locked down for a few more hours of sleep.

The rest of the day consists of a rotation of time spent locked down in your cell and time spent in the common area, where you can find conversations, card games, books, magazines, and loud televisions tuned either to movies (action pictures, crime, jails, violence -- lots and lots of violence) or to sports.

This common area is semi-circular and two stories high, the cells ranging along the rim of the circle, their interior walls all glass. A steel staircase and catwalk provides access to the upper story of cells. Everyone is visible at all times. The only nod to privacy is the pony-wall, about 24” high, in front of the toilet in your cell. It assures that when you sit on the toilet you are visible only from the waist up.

The guard’s desk, a miniature command center, stands at the hub of this semi-circle. She or he is watching you all the time.


I spent the lion’s share of my time reading. I read a P. D. James mystery called “
The Lighthouse”, a book by Robert Reich called "The Work of Nations”, and a sci-fi adventure by Michael Crichton called “Timeline”. They were long enough, engaging enough, varied enough, and well-written enough to occupy my mind through the ten days I spent at Bruno.

I also played a kind of solitaire that my cellie, EE, taught me. He was arrested on a domestic violence charge because he left some food and clothing for his infant son on the doorstep of the house where his son and his baby-mama still live while no one was home. The Restraining Order issued by the court, however, forbade him from coming within 100 yards of the house. And since he was in the country illegally to begin with, he was put on an ICE hold immediately upon his arrest. I am sure that within no more than a week after I got out on bail, he was being put on a plane back to Honduras. He said that he would have to wait a year and a half, maybe two, before he returned. It would cost $5000. It will be his third or fourth border crossing.


Once upon a time, in a galaxy far, far away, I had attended a fund raiser for Robert Reich’s campaign to be Governor of Massachusetts. He was running against Mitt Romney. I contributed $250. I remembered how delightful our conversation had been, as only a conversation with someone who has great intelligence, a kind heart, and deep knowledge of the world can be.


While incarcerated, I was lucky enough to find myself in a holding tank waiting for transport from 850 Bryant back to Bruno.  I waited there with, among a group of about 15 men, two of the best storytellers I have ever heard.  I was still new to the system and was keeping my eyes downcast and my thoughts off my face.  But these two made me smile to myself and soon look up to watch them as they played to the exclusive audience gathered there.

I quickly realized that they were competing with one another the way break-dancers did when I lived in Manhattan in the 1980s.

After finishing one of his stories, as a kind of interlude I think, one of them started asking the other whether he remembered certain guys, listing names like Jerry and Damon and John.  He mentioned having seen so-and-so a few days before, and had been glad to see that the guy was doing well, had a nice car, a good job, and nice home and family.  "You know," he said, "back in the 70s I always told those guys 'I will not be the last crack dinosaur on the streets!' and here I am, the last Cack Dinosaur on the streets!"  Everyone laughed, and our burdens were lifted a little.

But this was a competition, and before our laughter died down, the challenger spoke up.

"O I got off that crack.  Gave it up completely."  He paused and and after a two count declared with voluble glee: "'Cause I found out about that crystal meth!"

Shouts, laughter long and loud.  "You can fuck all night and the next day and at the end of the weekend you still got money in your wallet!"

Many stories were told that day, and I will share more of them in the future. 

Let me just add here that "Sullivan's Travels" was never far from my mind.