I was talking to someone recently about the availability of Narcan where we live (a college town in southern Indiana, population 80,000). Narcan is a medication that blocks opiate receptors. When given to someone who recently overdosed on heroin, fentanyl, or painkillers, Narcan can save their life.
In the lobby of the county jail, there’s a vending machine that dispenses Narcan for free. It’s like those rest stop snack machines – type in a number for the item you want, then a corkscrew turns until that item falls into the slot for you. Every row has Narcan. Only Narcan. A sign on the front asks patrons to consider taking several doses.
I don’t know how many people actually used this vending machine – I always feel nervous about the surveillance state when I’m standing in the jail lobby, and I’m not even particularly likely to be incarcerated.
But I imagine that fewer people use the vending machine now. The jail lobby was open to the public, but now the outer door is locked and you have to be buzzed in. Press a button for the intercom, then a correctional officer’s voice crackles through to ask why you want to come inside.
The person I was talking to: she lost her partner to an overdose last autumn. She’s been distraught ever since, which led to a relapse (she has a child and had been clean since the beginning of her pregnancy), which led to jail.
“I actually hate that Narcan is everywhere. I don’t know if this is how it is, but it feels like the EMTs don’t try as hard. Like they’re thinking, if nobody cared enough to Narcan somebody back, then they aren’t going to do it either.”
“They’d brought him back before, a few years ago. But this time … I mean, maybe there was nothing they could have done. But I wish they’d tried. I wish there’d been a way for me to say goodbye.”
“And now, somehow, I have to tell our daughter. That her daddy’s never coming back. I mean, it happened months ago. Maybe she knows. She probably knows? But all she says is that her daddy’s in a box upstairs. Because that’s what I had told her.”
“And I wish my mom would stop talking bad about him. My daughter, she’s with my mother now. Thank god she’s with family. And, like, my mom, I get that she never liked him. He did some bad things. My baby shouldn’t have seen him throw me around.”
“I mean, he threw me, literally threw me out the front door one day. But, god, he’s dead, so can’t my mom just talk like my baby’s daddy wasn’t bad?”
There are facts that are true, and feelings that are true, and sometimes they tell us different things.
Narcan saves lives. Given at the right time, it can bring back a person’s breathing.
In that moment, Narcan helps.
But a dose of Narcan also apparently feels awful. A body was free from every ache and pain; suddenly, every harsh sensation returns. Many people, when revived, immediately use more of whatever drug had nearly killed them, hoping to take the edge off.
And, simply knowing that Narcan exists might make the world more dangerous. Perhaps the sense of security leads to riskier behavior? The same argument is made about padded football helmets – that thick helmets lead football players to block and collide in fundamentally unsafe ways. And in real estate: past insurance payouts have lead to the construction of extravagant homes in locations likely to be destroyed by future hurricanes.
When so many people have access to Narcan, then perhaps, if nobody revived a person, perhaps that person would seem to be less loved. Even if this wasn’t true. After all, there are all sorts of motivations that could prompt a person’s unsafe choices: they might’ve been using alone because they didn’t want the sight of drugs or needles to be triggering for a family member in recovery. They might’ve felt shame to be slipping back into old habits after months or years of doing better.
Because they’d tried to protect others, a person who overdosed might not be noticed until too late.
I always assumed that access to Narcan was helping. And, more: that access to Narcan felt like it was helping.
But perhaps not. After a loss, everything – including antidotes, and EMTs, and remembered stories – can cause pain.
During the first year and a half of the Covid-19 pandemic, the local county jail wouldn’t admit volunteers. Incarceration in the United States sounds crummy most of the time, but most of the people I’ve communicated with have said that things were even worse during the pandemic: more fear, more tension, fewer opportunities to do much of anything either than sit & worry.
Around that time, the Midwest Pages to Prisoners Project – an organization that sends free books to people who are incarcerated – received many letters like this:
“The prison I am at has us on 23 hour a day lockdown due to the coronavirus threat. We also lost access to most jobs around the prison, visits, library, and a lot of other things that help relieve stress, like sports, walking track, weight-lifting, church, etc.
So books will be a huge help, we are three-deep to a cell and I can’t say I always enjoy the company.”
And also –a la Baudelaire’s “oasis of horror in a desert of boredom” – we received some terrifying stories from people who got very sick:
“On Sept 1st I was Covid-positive, on Sept 4 shortly after 6 a.m. I was rushed to the hospital. I was on a ventilator & in paralytic coma for 6 ½ days. Both lungs free of pneumonia, I have now been diagnosed with stress-induced cardiomyopathy due to Covid. I am back at the prison. My voice sounds like a man (LOL).”
There are almost always communicable diseases circulating through the jails and prisons. That’s certainly still been true during the Covid-19 pandemic: in southern Indiana, vaccine uptake is relatively low, especially among the population of people usually targeted for incarceration. Still, volunteers began visiting the jail again as soon as we were allowed – during stressful times, people need more support and kindness than usual, not less.
For the past few months, the administration has been letting us bring equipment to record people reading books for their kids. Then librarians at our excellent local library send the video and a paper copy of the book to the person’s kids.
After a Sunday morning recording session, someone was telling me a bit about her recent experience:
“We’ve got three levels of security in the women’s block right now, so we’re on lockdown about 22 hours a day. They only let us out to the common area one level at a time.”
“Breakfast at 4:30, why I was feeling a sleepy. They do have coffee at commissary, instant coffee. Commissary’s a little tough, the prices of everything have gone up but they didn’t raise the weekly cap, so you can get a little less each week. My parents have been putting money in my commissary, but you can’t do more than the cap.”
“My parents have been taking good care of me, thank God, not that I deserve it.”
Which always breaks my heart to hear somebody say. She deserves help. We all do.
I doubt there’s anyone among us who would be pleased to have people always associate us with the worst things we’d ever done. Or have our worst moments mulled over by judges and prosecutors and public defenders, then written up in someone else’s words and stored in a permanent file.
I’ve certainly done bad things & broken laws: I had the good fortune to not be caught. (Good fortune, plus pale skin, masculine frame, upper-class accent, apartments in wealthy, less-policed areas …) I drove with drugs in my car. And I definitely hurt people – started petty arguments, callously trampled feelings – in ways that aren’t illegal, but I’d still feel awful having those moments replayed again and again, discussed in a courtroom, treated as though those smallest, meanest moments were the essence of me, the most important thing for somebody to know about me.
In Just Mercy, lawyer Bryan Stevenson writes that:
“I thought of the victims of violent crime and the survivors of murdered loved ones, and how we’ve pressured them to recycle their pain and anguish and give it back to the offenders we prosecute. I thought of the many ways we’ve legalized vengeful and cruel punishments, how we’ve allowed our victimization to justify the victimization of others.”
“But simply punishing the broken – walking away from them or hiding them from sight – only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.”
“I frequently had difficult conversations with clients who were struggling and despairing over their situations – over the things they’d done, or had been done to them, that had led them to painful moments. Whenever things got really bad, and they were questioning the value of their lives, I would remind them that each of us is more than the worst things we’ve ever done.”
“I told them that if someone tells a lie, that person is not just a liar. If you take something that doesn’t belong to you, you are not just a thief.”
In jail that day, I tried to say something vaguely similar. But at the end of our recording session, I got to return to my loving family. I got to read a book to my children while hugging them.
She went back to the block, waiting for us to mail a DVD of her reading & a copy of the book to her kids. Which isn’t the same, and isn’t enough.
My family recently visited a state park for some hiking. I know that we are quite privileged to be able to do it, but visiting nature is really restorative right now.
At the end of the day, we sat near a firepit and roasted vegan marshmallows.
After a few minutes, a woman and her partner asked if they could join us. They sat on the other side of the fire, and we got to talking.
The woman used to work in special education, but now she teaches geography and world religions. She loves her work, because she helps students in her small Midwestern town realize how much possibility there is in our world.
Her partner works for the Department of Corrections as a hostage negotiator.
“In training, you feel like you’re doing the same things over and over. Like, hasn’t there been enough of this already? But then, when you have to use it, you hardly have to think about it, you know just what to do. All that repetition really pays off.”
A few months earlier, several of the guys in our jail poetry class were talking about the drills they’ve been in.
“It was the scariest thing of my entire life. I knew it was just a drill, too. It was fucking terrifying. All these SWAT guys running in, screaming, they’ve got paintball guns, Get on the ground!, yelling, If you fucking move your ass is grass!”
“You’re lying there, face on the ground, can’t move, they might ziptie your hands behind your back, you can’t move for hours. I mean, I was lying there, just watching this puddle of piss spreading from the guy next to me. I fucking hated that guy right then. But he tried to hold it, I know he did. They had us lying there so long.”
“You tell a guard, I have to piss, he’s going to say, too fucking bad.”
“You’re lying there smelling shit, because you know some guy shit himself.”
“You’re smelling shit like right away. They come in yelling like that, some guys shit themselves from fear.”
“I know! I’m that guy. I was so fucking scared.”
“Your on the ground, lying on your stomach on the ground, I mean, the ground is gross, right? You’re lying there with your face on the floor and your neck hurts and you want to like turn your neck, but you got this guy yelling, You so much as fucking move, your ass is grass. Like, it’s pathetic, but it hurts.”
“Walked through this indoor rec later, paintball splatters all over the place. Like, fuck, what happened in here? Some guy in there, they must’ve lit him up.”
“I been through some rough shit in prison, but this one time, it was a piss-ant county jail, I was in the drill there. That was the worst. Like, there were only fifty guys in that place, what’s the big deal? But they came in there, boom, they fucking pepper sprayed us. For a drill.”
“I’ve watched guys die. But that shit, that’s the most scared I’ve ever been.”
I asked one of the guys, Jason, if he’d write about it.
“That’s something people should read,” I told him.
He shook his head.
“I’m trying to write, like, uplifting stuff. Help guys get on a better track, do better than what I done. This stuff … I don’t know. I don’t even really like talking about it. I don’t want to think about it enough to write it down.”
Header image: cropped photograph of a Val Verde county (Texas) drill from the Laughlin Airforce Base. Most of the time, cameras aren’t allowed inside jails or prisons.
At about eleven a.m. on my birthday, I buckled the kids into the car to drive to our local print shop. Taking the kids with me for a fifteen minute errand seemed like a good gift for my spouse: she’d have some time in our house alone, which is rare to come by right now.
The print shop is just across the street from the (currently closed) services center for people experiencing homelessness, just down the street from the services center for people recently released from incarceration, a few blocks from the hospital. There’s a popular bus stop on the sidewalk out front. Across the street, a truck rental company has a large, mostly empty parking lot.
Large crowds of people have been hanging out near the print shop. Day and night.
I pulled into a shaded parking spot. We had the windows down. “I’ll just be a minute, can you sit in the car?” I asked.
The kids nodded, not looking up. A friend recently gave us a stack of Ranger Rick magazines, and we’ve been doling them out gradually for car rides.
I had my wallet in my pocket with a twenty and a ten, and we’d already been sent the bill for our print order. $20.49 for a stack of postcards to send to my spouse’s future AP biology students, explaining their summer assignment.
Normally she’d give kids a slip of paper with their assignment sometime during finals week, but this year had no finals. For many kids, no school.
But don’t worry. The assignment isn’t too bad. Students choose from a set of things like “fill an old sock with trash, bury it, then dig it up six weeks later” or “take a walk and look for things that match each of these different colors.”
I looked in the center console of the car for a pair of quarter. We keep them in a little pouch, ready to pay for parking. Haven’t been using them recently – the meters are still on, but there’d be nowhere to go after parking the car.
I thought it would be a nice gesture to pay in cash with exact change. The credit card company wouldn’t be taking a cut of the profits, and exact change would minimize the length of our transaction.
As I was zipping the pouch closed, a man ambled over. I’d guess he was a little over six feet tall, a little over two hundred pounds, with light brown skin, a buzzed head, and a bristly beard. He leaned down to the open passenger-side window and said something to me, but I couldn’t parse it – his words sounded mushy, thick with saliva.
“Hang on,” I said, “I’m hopping out of the car, let me come around.”
I walked around the back of the car, stopping a few feet away from him. He said the same thing again. I shrugged and shook my head. My brain takes a while to process spoken words, even under the best of circumstances. I can’t listen to audiobooks – whole chapters wash over me without any understanding. I can’t listen to podcasts – when people recommend them, I’ll search for a transcript, then read it and pretend that I too listened while riding an exercise bike or something.
By the fourth time he repeated himself, I understood him better. I think part of the problem was that he was speaking too quickly – almost everybody gets nervous when approaching a stranger.
I can relate. I doubt I’d ever be able to flirt with strangers in a bar.
“I like your hair,” he said. “I grew up in Gary, came down fifteen years ago for Indiana University, but I caught that bipolar. Just got out of the hospital, today’s my birthday, five twenty-six, and I just got out.
He still had a white plastic bracelet on his arm, which seemed to be printed with his name and age. He didn’t gesture to it or anything, which felt nice. As though the two of us would need no evidence to trust each other.
“Your birthday? How old are you?”
“Thirty-seven,” he said, without hesitation.
Indeed, the bracelet was printed with the number 37 in a fairly large font. But it seemed like this was a nice thing to ask.
“No shit,” I said, “thirty-seven. Same as me. Today’s my birthday, I just turned thirty-seven.”
“Naw, man, you’re shitting me.”
“It’s true.” I turned to the car, shouted to the kids, “Whose birthday is it today?”
The kids said something, but neither the man nor I could hear them. The crowd across the street was loud.
The man reached into his pocket, pulled out a jumble of stuff. Dice, some black beaded necklaces, a keychain, a tiny flashlight, nail clippers, a tube of toothpaste. He put the toothpaste back into his pocket.
“Don’t need this yet,” he mumbled.
“You got a toothbrush?” I asked. We actually have some spare ones in the car to give to people.
“Yeah,” he said, pulling out the green plastic handle of a toothbrush, “but I used that already. See these, my teeth so fucking white.”
He smiled for me and I nodded approvingly, murmuring that his teeth were indeed very white. A full smile. Several teeth were stained dark near the edges, but I’ve met lots of men with worse teeth than that.
“Hey, you paint your nails, too,” he said, noticing. “See this, look at this.” He reached out, his hands still full of stuff, to show me his fingers. They had tiny remnants of polish, pink on several but a pointer finger with a mix of red and black, just like I use on mine. My nails were barely even chipped, because I’d painted them the week before. I usually do them about once a month these days. Hard to find time for the little things since having kids.
“I got … here, how about this,” he said, handing me the nail clippers. “They good, they good ones, I haven’t even used them yet, they’re clean.”
As he spoke, spittle flew from his mouth. Luckily, I’m not much of a germophobe. Luckier still, I think I already had the disease that’s going around right now. Between a pair of kids in preschool, a spouse at the high school, and me teaching in jail, I catch most of the viruses that come through town.
I turned the clippers over in my hand. A large pair, space-age iridescent top glimmering in loops of purple and blue, big letters “Made in China” etched into the metal.
“They’re beautiful,” I said. “I like the look of that metal. But we’ve got so much stuff already. Meeting you, that’s present enough today.”
I handed the clippers back. As he took them, one of his dice tumbled from his hand. I bent down to pick it up, gave that back to him, too.
“You play craps?” he asked.
“Hey, I’ll teach you. Come on, here, you gotta get a seven, eleven, don’t want snake eyes.” He bent down, blew on the dice, and rolled. A five and a six.
“Eleven, hey, that’s good,” he said. Then picked up the dice, blew on them again, and rolled. A two and a six.
“Eight. Now I got to roll an eight before I get a seven, see, that’s crap out.” And he rolled about four more times before he hit his seven.
“Now it’s your turn,” he said, and handed them to me.
I rolled, got a two and a four.
“That’s a six, that’s a hard one, got to roll a six again before you crap out.”
I rolled again, same two and a four. Maybe I didn’t shake the dice enough – they didn’t really tumble on the ground, they just sort of plopped down on the asphalt in front of me.
And I found myself thinking how strange it is that dice are a big thing for both the toughest and the wimpiest groups of people in town. Street people and folks in jail gamble with dice, and then there’s Dungeons & Dragons, fantasy buffs rolling 2d6 as they tell stories.
I’ve heard that Dungeons & Dragons is pretty big in some prisons, too. A few prisons have banned D&D or roleplaying books from being sent in – reputedly, people got killed over developments in their games. Somebody’s elf cleric was betrayed and a few days later guards found a body in the showers.
I don’t know how much truth there is to that. But, when people at those prisons ask for D&D books, I have to write an apology and send some fantasy novels instead.
I tried to give the dice back after rolling my second six, but he said I had to keep playing. “I got two, hey, you got to see where you go on this next roll.”
“Okay,” I said, “but then I got to pick up, my spouse is a high school teacher, she has this print order, some post cards to send to her students.” I gestured with my head toward the shop. And then I rolled.
An eight. Followed by a seven. I was done.
“Thanks for teaching me,” I said.
“And, hey, hey, I was thinking, for my birthday, you help me get something at Rally’s. I’m trying to get a pair of ice cones, for me and my girl.”
I gave a wan smile. Normally I don’t give money to people. It’s a tricky situation – people have things they need to buy, and even the chemical escape can seem necessary. My life is really good, and even I struggle with the sense of being trapped inside my head sometimes. And yet, I don’t really like the thought of my money being part of the whole cycle, keeping drugs in town. I’m even pro-drug, mostly, but meth and heroin typically do bad things to people’s lives.
A few days earlier, when I crossed paths with a friend from jail while my dog and I were out running, I’d asked if my friend was eating enough. He laughed at me and said, “Fuck, no!”
It’s true, I’m pretty bad at looking at people’s faces when I talk to them. When my friend started laughing, I finally met his eyes and realized how gaunt he looked.
“Is it a money problem, or …?”
“Oh, dude, don’t give me any money. I could eat, I think I can eat, I just don’t. You give me anything, I’d just spend it on meth.”
Instead of handing money to people on the street, we buy paper and pencils for folks in jail; we support our local food bank; we give time. Building human connection takes time, and there’s no shortcut.
Still, on my birthday, I was standing there in the print shop parking lot next to a man who’d just given me a present – nice nail clippers, even if I didn’t keep them. And we’d played craps. Maybe he’d won – I’m not sure what the rules are about draws. And I had a pair of quarters in my hand.
I’d hoped to have exact change. But I shrugged and gave him the quarters.
“Thanks, man,” he said, and I told him “Thanks for the game,” and walked over to ring the doorbell at the print shop, ready to pick up my order. The kids had been doing a great job of waiting patiently in the car.
At the beginning of our poetry class, back when the county jail was still admitting volunteers, two men read some poems they’d written together.
The first was a love poem – the gist was that any relationship that could survive a partner’s incarceration could probably survive anything.
The second was a poem about living in a trailer park:
If you’re looking for drugs – not just grass –
Depends where you look, you’ll pro’lly find glass
Pitbulls in the back
Nine times outta ten you’re already in a trap
As it happens, I already knew that one of the authors had a pack of five chihuahuas that road around town in his backpack. After they finished reading, I mentioned the dogs.
The other guy answered: “Well, yeah, he has those chihuahuas, but I’ve got two pitpulls.”
After we finished talking about their poems, they had a question for me:
“Hey, so you’re a scientist, right? Cause I heard there’s like this planet where diamonds rain from the sky. Do you know anything about that?”
I said it sounded ridiculous. I was imagining walking through a field and suddenly getting hit on the head by a diamond. Like a really hard hailstone.
Whenever hail falls, my children dart outside to eat ice. But a fallen diamond would break your teeth. Doesn’t melt in your mouth or your hand!
During class, we spent a while talking about how diamonds form. Under extremely high pressure, the hydrogen atoms in an organic molecule can be displaced by carbon-carbon bonds. There are a few different shapes that work for a molecule made entirely of carbon. You can have all the atoms in a flat sheet, which we call graphite. The atoms can form spheres, which we can buckeyballs. A length of graphite can wrap between the two round caps of a buckeyball. Or you can have the atoms in a tetrahedral lattice – a diamond.
If you squeeze carbon atoms under really high pressure, you can turn any of the other shapes into diamonds. Diamonds are the most stable form. You can make diamonds just by compressing natural gas.
“This pencil, the part it writes with is graphite,” I said. “If you were strong enough, you could squeeze it until it was a diamond. But I don’t think they’d fall like rain.”
I was wrong. I was biased about what planets should look like – I live on a small, rocky ball with a thin atmosphere, very different from the gas giants that broil like miniature stars – and biased, unfortunately, against the people who wind up in jail. I study chemistry, I big expert!
Obviously, there are many occasions when the other people in class know things that I do not. About poetry, chemistry, and physics.
Since 1981, computer models have shown that the extreme heat and pressure deep inside Neptune was likely to create diamonds. If I’d ever taken an astronomy course – or had borrowed library books about our solar system when I was growing up, instead of reading the same book about Godzilla movies over and over – I could have known this, too.
The sky on Neptune is very different from the sky on Earth. Our air hugs us with a pressure of about fifteen pounds per square inch. Deep inside the clouds of Neptune, though, the air would squeeze you six million times tighter. Needless to say, you’d be crushed. Parts of you might compress into diamond.
Temperature is a measure of how fast molecules are moving. Hot air bumps into you more often than cold air, and each collision is a little harder.
Deep in the clouds of Neptune, the gravity is so strong that air molecules accelerate dangerously fast between every collision. This means the air is really, really hot – thousands of degrees. Any parts of you that weren’t being compressed into diamond would melt, or wisp away into the broiling clouds.
The high temperature means there’s plenty of energy available for chemical reactions, so molecules can adopt their most stable configurations even if there is a high “activation barrier.”
An activation barrier is like a wall that separates a thing from what it wants. Maybe you’d like to eat breakfast but dread the thought of leaving your warm bed – that’s an activation barrier, too. We could make the activation barrier lower by yanking your blankets off, which makes your current circumstance worse. Or we could increase your odds of overcoming the activation barrier by pumping you full of caffeine. With more jittery energy, maybe you’d get up on your own.
The second strategy – caffeine! – is roughly what happens when you raise the temperature of a chemical reaction. Carbon is very stable once it becomes a diamond, but it’s difficult for methane to slough off the warm security of all those bonds to hydrogen atoms.
After methane on Neptune is compressed to form a diamond, the diamond will fall. A diamond is more dense than the air around it. But the diamond won’t hit the ground like hail, because there’s no ground beneath the hot dense sky of Neptune. Instead the rocky core seems to be covered by a superheated ocean – well above its boiling point, but still not evaporating because the liquid is kept in place by dense clouds. Roughly the same way an Instant Pot uses high pressure to cook food in superheated water.
When the diamonds splash into this ocean, they melt.
In class that day, I hadn’t yet researched Neptune’s atmosphere. I was mostly scribbling crude schematics of crystal structures. I explained how to read a phase diagram. We talked about diamond mining and the technology used to create synthetics.
I claimed, incorrectly, that diamonds weren’t likely to fall from the sky.
One of the guys shook his head.
“I mean, yeah, that sounds all smart and all, but I swear I heard this thing about diamond rain. Can you look it up before next week?”
The guys in jail can pay to use iPads – at a rate of five or ten cents per minute – but they have very limited access to the Internet. There’s one un-blocked application with some scientific lectures, but that’s very different from being allowed to learn what you want.
So I agreed. It sounded ridiculous to me, but I jotted “SKY DIAMONDS?” and promised to do some research.
The next week, I was ready to deliver my big mea culpa. But when I got there, we were missing one of the guys who’d been invested in our discussion. I asked about him.
“Yeah, he’s not coming back,” said the guy sitting next to me. “Somebody said he was a cho-mo.”
“Oh,” I said, grimacing. “He went to seg?”
“Yeah,” said the guy, nodding. We left unsaid that this man probably got the shit kicked out of him first. If somebody convincingly claims that you’re locked up on a child molestation case, bad things happen. In prison, you might get murdered by a gang looking to bolster their reputation – because child molesters have such a toxic reputation, there are less likely to be reprisals. And even a county jail can be a violent place.
After the first fight, the guy who got beaten up will usually choose to go to seg. Segregation, or solitary confinement, is known to cause permanent brain damage – people suffer from depression, anxiety, and hallucinations. But staying in a cell block with thirty people who want to kick the shit out of you is likely to lead to brain damage, too.
Solitary confinement might be the less bad of two terrible options.
Despite his bias, the guy I was talking to offered a little sympathy.
“It’s rough,” he said. “But them’s the politics of the place.”
At the beginning of our poetry class in jail, I walked around the room to give the printed poems to people. I noticed that somebody was working on an elaborate Valentine’s Day card. (The date was February 28th.)
“Oh, cool,” I said, “did you draw that?”
“Naw,” he said. “I commissioned it and all, though. Designed it. Cost me two Honey Buns. Check it out.”
He waved me in to see the card up close. The front had a red rose with marijuana leaves sprouting from its stem. The poem he’d written inside began:
Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
If you were a blunt
I’d smoke you too …
“Cost me two Honey Buns each time,” he said. “They shredded my first. I mailed it out, but they said I addressed it wrong, said I wasn’t, what’s that thing, no money on your books … ?”
“Indigent mail,” somebody told him.
“Yeah, said I wasn’t indigent, so they shredded it. Now I’ve gotta send another one.”
Another time, somebody explained the booms and busts of the economy in jail.
In the world at large, the business cycle typically lasts about five to seven years – the economy will rhythmically surge and then contract. This is bad news for the unlucky cohorts who begin their careers during the cyclical recessions – these people typically have lower earnings over their entire lifetimes – but because the cycles are so predictable, central banks are supposed mitigate the downswings.
In jail, the business cycle lasts a week.
“We get commissary on Friday, so every Friday, people have coffee again, we all drink too much. People pay off their debts … or you get an asshole who racked up a bunch of debt then goes to seg on Thursday, tells the guards he’s hearing voices.”
“But near the end of the week, Wednesday or something, people are running out, so coffee gets more expensive. You got to pay a bunch of interest if you’re trying to get coffee from somebody.”
“Worst is you get here near the end of a week. Cause even if somebody puts money on your books, it’ll take a while before they add your name to the list and you can get commissary. So you’re getting everything on credit, people bleed you dry.”
Many people are aware that the central bank has a mandate to “control inflation.” This is very important to political donors – low inflation benefits people who already have wealth, at the expense of current workers.
But most people – including professional economists – think that the central bank controls inflation by manipulating the money supply. This misconception might be a holdover from ancient history. Long ago, only sovereigns could create money. Kings and pretenders would mint coins as a way to flaunt their power. And they’d unleash their full wrath upon interlopers.
The central bank is a little different.
If there’s too much money, which would cause prices to rise, the central bank is supposed to yank money out of the economy by selling bonds. If there is too little money, the central bank is supposed to print more.
The central bank attempts to control the money supply this way.
At the same time, other banks are lending money. If you decide to buy a house, you won’t call up the federal reserve – you’ll probably visit a few banks around town and apply for a mortgage.
Because most money doesn’t exist – it’s just a tally of credits and debits maintained on a server somewhere – a bank that gives you a loan is creating money. Modern banks don’t actually check whether they have money before they lend it to you.
The theoretical support for deregulation was based on the unrealistic assumptions of neoclassical economics, in which banks are mere intermediaries. This does not recognize their pivotal role as creators of the money supply.
Since the 1980s, bank credit creation has expanded at a considerably faster rate than GDP, with an increasing amount of bank credit creation channeled into financial transactions. This is unsustainable and costly to society.
Inflation has stayed low, because the amount of money available for purchasing real things hasn’t grown much. Low inflation means that if people took on debt to go to college, that debt is often still hanging over them years later – inflation would make it easier to clear debt, because employers would respond to inflation by raising salaries. The amount of debt relative to a week’s pay would fall.
Instead, the money supply in only one corner of our economy has ballooned, producing a flurry of destructive activity in the financial sector.
This has been lucrative for people willing to work in finance, though.
Skidelsky explains that:
The economic collapse of 2008-2009 showed that monetary policy directed to the single aim of price stability was not enough either to maintain economic stability or to restore it. The economy collapsed, though the price level was stable.
Preventing a collapse in the money supply was to be achieved by what was euphemistically called ‘unconventional’ monetary policy: pump enough cash into the economy and the extra spending it produced would soon lift it out of the doldrums.
As it happens, the method that the central bank chose to inject money into the economy was perversely ineffectual. The central bank gave money to wealthy people.
One strategy was “quantitative easing.” The central bank paid people above-market-rate for low-quality financial assets.
This helped the people who owned these particular low-quality financial assets – typically foolish wealthy people. They should’ve lost a bunch of money. They’d bought junk! But they didn’t, because the central bank stepped in to save the day.
Our central bank also fulfilled a small set of private companies’ insurance policies. The corporations who bought absurd insurance from AIG should have lost all their money when AIG, unsurprisingly, was unable to fulfill their policies.
If you’re in a high school cafeteria and somebody says, “I bet you a million dollars that …”, you shouldn’t expect the kid to pay up for losing the bet. But our central bank intervened, giving huge amounts of money to destructive corporations like Goldman Sachs, because it wouldn’t be fair for them to win a bet and then not get the money (even though they’d been betting with a kid who obviously didn’t have a million dollars to pay).
And yet, these tactics didn’t stave off financial recession. Since the central bank only gave money to wealthy people, these recipients of our government’s largess had no incentive to actually spend the money.
The main effect of the central bank’s reliance on “portfolio rebalancing” to boost output was to boost the portfolios of the wealthy, with minimal effects on output. One doesn’t need headwinds to explain why.
“There’s a lot you can get in jail. There were a couple years when people had all this spice, but they cracked down on that. Still, you can get a blowjob for a couple Honey Buns, some guys will give you a stick for a soup … “
“What’s a stick?” I asked. My initial assumptions were that it was either something sexual or drug-related, both of which turned out to be wrong. A single soup would be pretty low to pay for drugs – soups are worth less than Honey Buns.
“Hey, ________, show him.”
A guy pulled down the front of his orange jumpsuit. In gothic letters arcing across his chest, he had the words “WHITE TRASH.” The skin around the letters was an agitated red.
“People think you need pens and ink for tats,” somebody said, “but most guys just use a staple and some burnt hair grease … “
The most popular black pigment for oil paints and acrylics is made of charred animal bones. The calcium phosphate from bones is pale – the deep black color comes from carbon. When you burn organic material, you’ll make buckyballs – small spheres of carbon like hollow soccer balls – as well as tubes of graphite. And these molecules have high absorption across the visible spectrum.
Whenever a photon of visible light hits one of these molecules, the light is absorbed. This causes an electronic transition. But then the physical shape of the molecule doesn’t match its electronic structure, so the molecule begins to vibrate.
By the time the molecule collapses back to its initial electronic structure – which ejects a photon – some of the energy that the molecule absorbed has been used up by vibrations. So the outgoing photon will have lower energy. It’ll be “infrared radiation,” which we can’t see. So, colored light goes in, and then invisible light comes out – to us, it looks black.
Still, I hadn’t considered that you could burn the gunk that gathers on unwashed hair in order to make tattoo ink. Despite the brutal efforts of our government, people find ways to live even while incarcerated.
As in the world at large, many transactions in jail are made with hard currency. If something costs a Honey Bun and two soups, you might be expected to hand over the food. Sometimes, currency actually exists.
But people can create money, too.
“Thanks, I owe you one.”
With those words, we gain the power of medieval kings.
As with most fictions, the story that we tell about money helps some people more than others.
Money, in and of itself, is useless. Gold, cowry shells, slips of paper with pictures of dead presidents. The story makes us want these things. We tell ourselves that these items can “hold value.” Instead of lumbering about with all the goods we want to barter, we can carry a small purse of coins. As long as everyone believes the same fiction, we can trade our apples for some coins, then later use those coins to pay someone to help us dig a well.
The story that money has value is most helpful for the people who already have money.
If everyone suddenly woke up from the story, and decided that coins were worthless, the people who grow apples would be okay. In some ways, it’s less practical to pay people with apples – coins don’t bruise or rot – but it can be done. Similarly, the people who dig wells would be okay.
But the people who owned coins would be worse off – previously, the things they owned could be traded for other, inherently useful goods. And people who had made loans would be much worse off – they would have given away money at a time when it could be used to buy things, and when they receive the coins back, they’ll be worthless. No recompense for past sacrifice – only loss.
So people with current wealth benefit most from the fiction that money has value.
This is, as far as I can tell, the only real virtue of Bitcoins. This form of currency is not anonymous – indeed, it works through the use of “blockchains,” a permanent ledger that records everyone who has ever owned a particular piece of money. Bitcoins are a little like dollar bills where you have to sign your name on it in order to spend it. And they’re excruciatingly bad for the environment – it takes energy to mint a real-world, metal coin, but nothing like the amount of energy that’s constantly wasted in order to verify the ledgers of who owns which Bitcoin. Ownership is determined by vote, and the system was designed to be intentionally inefficient so that it’s difficult for one person to overwhelm the system and claim ownership of everybody’s coins. And it’s unstable – it’s difficult for someone to outvote the system and take control, but not impossible.
Those all seem like bad features. But Bitcoins are now incredibly valuable – in the years since I explained all these flaws to a high school runner who’d begun investing in Bitcoins, his $500 investment has burgeoned to be worth $24,000.
The only “good” feature of Bitcoins is that the system is designed to reward past wealth. The total money supply approaches an asymptote – new Bitcoins are added to the system more slowly over time. If the currency is successful, this will impose a deflationary pressure on prices. Today, a certain amount of heroin might cost 0.1 Bitcoin – in the future, that same amount of heroin might cost 0.01 Bitcoin.
This deflationary pressure would cause the value of current holdings to increase. By simply buying Bitcoins and hoarding them, you’d gain wealth!
But this only works for as long as people keep believing the fiction that Bitcoins have value. And the more people who buy and hold Bitcoins, as opposed to actively using them as currency, the less believable the story will be. Anyone who “invests” in Bitcoins is wagering that other people will behave in a way that maintains the fiction, even though the person who is making the wager is actively undermining the story.
When we immerse ourselves in stories, we often need to temporarily suspend our disbelieve, but that particular set of mental gymnastics is too twisty for my mind.
Modern money barely exists. Before, we spun stories about the value of coins – now, the fiction lends value to certain strings of numbers. In addition to the Federal Reserve, any bank can create money by making a loan and claiming that a certain amount of currency has been added to one account or another.
This has allowed our fictions to become more intricate. In 2008, the banking crisis threatened to make wealthy people much less wealthy – they had purchased certain financial assets that seemed valuable, and then these assets turned out to be worthless.
It’s as though there was a certain new Magic card that everyone assumed was great, and a few rich kids bought all the copies of it, but then people finally read the card and realized it was terrible. Now these rich kids are holding hundreds of copies of a worthless piece of cardboard.
This would be sad for those rich kids. But, lo and behold, it was fixable! If everyone can be forced to believe, again, that the item has value, then it will. The story needs to be chanted more loudly. If I paid $50 for this card last week, then it’s still worth at least $50!
That’s what “quantitative easing” was – governments around the world agreed to buy worthless items in order to convince everyone that these items had value. This way, the wealthy people who had initially bought them wouldn’t have to suffer.
In the years since I’ve been teaching in our local county jail, I’ve struggled to comprehend the disparities between the way we treat poor people and wealthy people who made mistakes.
For instance, stock traders stole $60 billion from state governments across Europe – the trick was to have two people both temporarily own the stock around tax time, then they lie to the government and claim that they both had to pay taxes on it. Only one set of taxes were actually paid, but they lie and claim two rebates. Money from nothing!
From David Segal’s New York Times article:
A lawyer who worked at the firm Dr. Berger founded in 2010, and who under German law can’t be identified by the news media, described for the Bonn court a memorable meeting at the office.
Sensitive types, Dr. Berger told his underlings that day, should find other jobs.
“Whoever has a problem with the fact that because of our work there are fewer kindergartens being built,” Dr. Berger reportedly said, “here’s the door.”
They stole billions of dollars, and the question at stake isn’t whether they will be punished, but whether they can be forced to return any of the money.
By way of contrast, many of the guys in jail are there for stealing $10 or so. A guy did five months for attempting to use my HSA card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Another violated probation when he stole a lemonade – “In my defense,” he told me, “I didn’t even mean to steal it, I was just really fucking high at the time.”
Two weeks ago, a dentist visited the jail during my class. I go in from 4:00 p.m. to 5:30 – at about 4:15, a guard came to the door and barked somebody’s name.
“Med call?” somebody asked.
“Shakedown?” asked another.
The guard looked at the sheet of paper in his hand, then said “Dentist.” And suddenly six guys started clamoring, “You got time for extras? I gotta get on that list!”
The man whose name had been called jumped out of his chair and sauntered to the door.
After he’d left, the guys explained the system. “You can get dental, like real dental, but you have to put your name on the list and they only come like every five, six months. So there’s no hope unless you’re gonna be here for a while. And it’s kinda expensive, you pay like fifty for the visit and another ten for each tooth they pull.”
Apparently that’s the only service – pulling teeth.
“They do good work,” said the older man next to me, “I got these bottom two done here.” And he tilted his head back and opened his mouth. But I grew up wealthy – it’s hard for me to assess quality by eyeballing the blank gap between somebody’s teeth.
About twenty minutes later, the guy came back.
“Which ones you have them do?” somebody asked him.
“I had ‘em get these bottom three,” he said, although his voice was slurry because they’d loaded his mouth with novacaine.
“You idiot! You didn’t have them get the top one?”
“No, man, that’s my smile! Gonna find a way to save that tooth.”
“Man, see, how come I couldn’t be on that list? I would’ve had ‘em pull a whole bunch of ‘em out. Wouldn’t give ‘em no that’s my smile bullshit.”
As it happens, I’d gone in for a cleaning at my dentist just the day before. And I’ve had braces. Invisalign. I suddenly felt rather self-conscious about my own perfectly clean, perfectly straight, perfectly intact teeth.
“So who was it, that lady doctor?”
“Naw, was the Black guy.”
“What? Fuck’s it matter that he’s Black?”
“Nobody said it matters, it’s just, there’s three dentists, there’s the lady doctor, the Black guy, and then that other guy. There’s just three, is all.”
Our man was out eighty dollars after the visit. Could’ve spent ninety, but he was holding out hope for that last one. And they didn’t let him keep the teeth.
I’m not sure the tooth fairy ever visits the county jail, anyway.
While teaching poetry in the county jail, I’ve chatted with lots of people who landed there for dealing.
Allegedly dealing. Everything that I’m about to write is a work of fiction. The product of my imagination. Or somebody’s imagination, surely. Inadmissible in a court of law.
“My name’s S______, but don’t nobody call me that. Even the cops, they’d say to me, like, ‘Yo, G_____, we know you’re dealing, but you’re only selling marijuana. So that’s okay. Just be cool about it. Don’t sell that shit near campus, a’ight?’ And that’s how I knew, this last time, something was up. Cause it wasn’t ‘Hey G_____,’ this cop car pulled up and they were like, ‘Hey, S______, get your ass over here,’ and that’s when I took off running. Now they’re trying to give me seven years. Over marijuana!”
A lot of the guys have claimed that cops are just trying to keep drugs away from campus.
“There used to be all that housing north of campus, near where they built that informatics shit. But now they’re driving everybody out. Like I know five, six guys, used to live in that place, they’ve all been moved down to the south side. They’re trying to concentrate everybody there. Down at that Crawford [a low-income housing facility], down where they’ve got Shalom [a resource center for people experiencing homelessness]. You might have a place up north, you get busted, by the time you get out, they’re putting you on the south side. Up north, must be cop cars crawling by like every fifteen minutes. Out of everybody I used to know, only D____ is still living there.”
The guys fear being near other people who are experiencing the same struggles as them. It’s easier for the city to provide services in a centralized location. But it’s also easy for the people who need services to cross paths with old friends and slip.
“I go into Crawford, I don’t even ask or nothing, pretty soon people are coming by, offering some of this, some of that, ‘Hey, haven’t seen you in a while, wanna get high?’ My old lady was living there, and on the nights she’d kick me out, I’d just sit there in the hall, right outside her door, like, ‘Please, babe, let me in,’ and everybody walking by would offer me a little something.”
“I seen you in that hall!”
“Yeah, my old lady, I love her to death, but she’s got herself a temper.”
Last week, somebody told me it’d be his last class for a while. He was getting out.
“I don’t know about these cops, man, but I feel like the DA here, the prosecutors and all, they’re not even that upset about it, if you’re selling drugs. Like, it’s okay to move a little, as long as you’re mature about it.”
I asked what he meant, mature.
“You know, mature, like you’re staying away from campus, staying away from college girls, not selling dope near schools or nothing, not cutting it too much, not making people OD. You’re not going out there and trying to push it onto people. Like if somebody comes to you, then you’ll sell, but you’re not out looking for customers. You’re not trying to, I don’t know, you’re not trying to get anybody hooked or nothing. It’s a good system if it’s flawed in the right way.”
“So you think they know sometimes, and they’re letting you do it?”
“I know they know. Cause I got into this drug thing, it was like an experiment. It was psychology. I wanted to see what was up with these people. But then I get the feeling, like on Messenger, the cops know I’m there to watch them, to learn what’s going on, so they all start fucking with me. Like they’re saying … fuck, I don’t even know. Like I write something but then my messages say something else. Or I go and pick something up and then somebody else writes to me asking to buy the exact same amount I just picked up. Like everybody knows what I’m doing. Like they’re watching me.”
“And they’ve got drones everywhere. Like all over Bloomington. One time, this drone was just following me, doing circles right over my head, and I freaked out. I was pretty high at the time. I ducked into the woods. And the drone, it came with me. And pretty soon this jeep pulled up, these guys got out, they were looking around, you know, like they were looking for somebody. Even after they left, that drone was up there, circling. After it flew off, man, I booked it home.”
“If they don’t much mind, though, why’d you end up here?”
“That’s the thing! That’s what I don’t think is right. Cause I came in here on like a nothing – I mean, yeah, they found me with the dope, and there was this night I woke up with like eight cops surrounding my place, they were like come on out and I was like, fuck that, no, and they beat my ass and brought me to jail.”
“And I was only here, like, five days or something. They had me sign this piece of paper. I never should’ve signed it. I mean, who has time to read that shit? But they put me on ‘pre-trial release’ or something, and then I failed this blow-and-go – or, no, I guess I caught another charge.”
“I got high, I stole a lemonade. But that’s like a ticket thing! I was just trying to be a good doctor. And now I been here fifty days, looking at two felonies. I don’t think they should be able to do all that if you haven’t had a trial.”
“How’s a lemonade make you a good doctor?”
“Shit, man, I don’t know. I just try to take care of these h–s. But now it gets to be that you can’t trust nobody. Snitches everywhere, you know? Like there’s snitches who’ll buy, and they’ll shoot the dope, and then they go and give some fake shit to the cops. Like that’s what he sold me or whatever. I mean, damn. Snitches everywhere. Like on Messenger, like on Facebook, I get the feeling half those people on there must be cops.”
I reminded him – again – that his word wasn’t an acceptable synonym for “women.” And I still couldn’t understand what he was trying to accomplish with the lemonade.
He had an erratic mind. We were reading a set of poems with allusions to Greek mythology – W.H. Auden’s “Musee des Beaux Arts,” Jack Gilbert’s “Failing and Flying,” A.E. Stallings’s “Art Monster,” Barbara Hamby’s “Penelope’s Lament,” Dan Chelotti’s “Ode to Hephaestus.”
When it was his turn to read – “Art Monster,” featuring the minotaur mired in acedia – he could only make it through a few lines before offering another rejoinder to the text.
I was fed
on raw youths and maidens
When all I wanted was the cud of clover.
“So he’s like a cow then, right. Man-a-cow?”
“Yeah, half-bull, and …”
“So he’s got cow thoughts. And I was thinking, they’ve got those things, right, that can reach into your head? Like magnets? I mean, like, fuck with your brain? Read and control your thoughts?”
“Um, I guess with transcranial magnetic stimulation – I mean, the right pulse of a magnet, aimed at the right …”
“No, cause, I got this thing on my phone, right? It’s this little guy in the phone, and he’ll look right into my eyes, he said that all the time, like look into my eyes, and every single thought I had, he’d know before I said it. I swear! It’s this phone thing. I still got it, I can show it to you.”
Another guy – bedecked in tattoos, who apparently has a pack of five chihuahuas who’ll jump into his backpack when he whistles, then ride around town that way, zipped inside the bag – shouted, “You need to smoke less meth.” and we got back to the poem.
The minotaur’s despair at waiting didn’t resonate as well as I’d hoped. But the poem still seemed to work.
“He’s murdering all these people, eating young girls or whatever, but it says, like, I wanted clover. But they thought he was a monster, treated him like a monster. They wanted him to be a monster.”
Dealing sometimes does make monstrous things happen.
There’s the regular problems – dealing means selling drugs, and some people shouldn’t be buying drugs – which I’ve heard many men lament.
“I mean, we read shit like this, somebody shooting up in front of their kids, not taking care of their kids, not getting them fed, and I know. I know. Right? I might’ve sold this. You sell for a while, you’re gonna have somebody OD.”
Drug dealing means moving in a world where lots of people are on edge. The buyer, or the seller, or both, might not have slept in days. Paranoia sets in. People worry about jail time, and undercover cops, and the risk of being cheated. The danger of the drugs being no good, or too good, or simply unpredictable.
“These last few years, man, seems like every month, another buddy dies.”
“Hell, five times, last year, five times I died. Five times I ODed, and somebody brought me back.”
And there’s a lot of money involved. So people plan heists. Sometimes these go spectacularly wrong.
During my second year, I was working with a group of men living in an ostensibly rehabilitative dormitory on the first floor of the jail. That was a hard year – because we worked with the same people every week, and they stayed in that same cell for months or years at a time, we grew particularly close.
Chamayou argues that drone warfare is qualitatively distinct from other forms of state violence. The psychological rift stems from asymmetry – one side risks money, the other risks life.
The use of drones keeps U.S. soldiers safer. But in Chamayou’s opinion (translated by Janet Lloyd, and slightly modified by me for students to read aloud),
If the U.S. military withdraws from the battlefield, enemy violence will turn against targets that are easier to reach. Even if soldiers are safe, civilians are not.
Drone warfare compels enemy combatants to engage in terrorism. They cannot shoot back at the soldier who is shooting them – that soldier might be sitting in a nondescript office building thousands of miles away, unleashing lethal force as though it were a video game.
I don’t mean to trivialize the suffering of U.S. soldiers who are involved in drone warfare. Pilots have an extremely high suicide rate – they are expected to placidly shift from the battlefield to the civilian world each evening, and this is deeply disturbing to most people.
But enemy soldiers cannot fight back. They could shoot down the drone, but the U.S. military would launch a new one. There’s no comparison between that and the drone shooting a missile at your family’s home.
An enemy combatant can only put U.S. lives at risk by attacking the general public.
Our policies don’t always have the outcomes we want.
Not unexpectedly, somebody in class mentioned the War on Drugs. Banning marijuana caused a lot of problems, he said.
Somebody else disagreed – he’s been in and out of prison on drug charges for seventeen years, but has high hopes that this next stint of rehab is going to take. “I still think marijuana’s a gateway drug. That’s what I started with.”
“It’s not pot, it’s the lying about pot. They say over and over that marijuana’s as bad as heroin. What do they think will happen once kids realize marijuana’s safe?”
“If people could’ve bought pot, maybe nobody would’ve invented spice. Like that K2 stuff was sold as incense or whatever, but everybody knew it was pot replacer.”
“You take this,” a guy said, holding up a sheet of paper, “spray it with spice, send it into prison. Two thousand dollars, easy. You get somebody to OD, then everybody’s gonna want some. People like that feeling, right at the brink between life and death.”
Somebody sighed. “I know. I’ve done a lot of drugs, and with most drugs, I could take it or leave it. But that spice, man. No offense to anyone, but I’ve never sucked cock for drugs. For spice, though, I’d think about it.”
“You just get so sick.”
“So sick! I’ve kicked heroin, and that feeling sick was bad. But not like this. There were weeks when I had to set an alarm, get up every two hours to take another hit. Otherwise I’d wake up puking and shitting myself. And I’d be in there, you know, sitting on the toilet with a bag, still taking my hit.”
“I got that too. I was waking up every ninety minutes.”
“Would you have started smoking spice if marijuana was legal?” I asked.
“I mean, yeah, now you’re gonna have people who would. Because everybody knows about it. Like you had that summer two years ago, people all along the street, up and down Kirkwood, smoking it right out in the open. But, like, before it all started? Nobody would’ve sat down and tried to invent spice if they could’ve sold pot.”
“I remember reading a review of K2 spice on Amazon,” I said, “must’ve been in 2008, before it was banned, all full of puns and innuendo. The reviewer was talking about how it made him feel so ‘relaxed,’ in quotes.”
“ ‘Relaxed,’ shit, I get that. I never touched the stuff before this last time I came to jail. But I’ve smoked hella marijuana. So somebody handed it to me and I took this giant hit, the way I would, and I shook my head and said, ‘Guys, that didn’t do shiii …’ and, BAM, I fell face first into the table.”
“You were so out of it!”
“It was like, WHOA, blast off. I was lying there, like flopping all over. That night I pissed myself.”
“That sounds … “ I said, “… bad. A whole lot worse than smoking pot.”
“But you can get it!”
And there lies the rub. With so many technologies, we’re playing whack-a-mole. We solve one problem and create another. But sometimes what comes up next isn’t another goofy-eyed stuffed animal mole – the arcade lights flash and out pops a hungry crocodile.
Since people couldn’t buy pot, they started smoking a “not-for-human consumption” (wink wink) incense product that you could order online. Since enemy combatants can’t shoot back at soldiers, they plant more bombs in subways.
As one American soldier explains, “We must understand that attempts to isolate our force against all potential enemy threats shifts the ‘burden of risk’ from a casualty-averse military force onto the populace. We have lifted the burden from our own shoulders and placed it squarely upon civilians who do not have the material resources to bear it.”
In jail, we were discussing isolation when somebody mentioned the plummeting price of marijuana. We’d read a quote from quantum physicist Richard Feynman about sensory deprivation:
I went into isolation tanks and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Ordinarily it would take me about fifteen minutes to get a hallucination going, but on a few occasions, when I smoked some marijuana beforehand, it came very quickly. But fifteen minutes was fast enough for me.
The guys asked me when these experiments had happened.
“Late 1950s, early 60s,” I told them.
“Man, marijuana must have been so expensive then! Just in the last few years, the prices fell so hard. Like now you can get five pounds for fifteen hundred bucks.”
I was shaking my head. “Five pounds? The most I ever bought at once was half an ounce, back when I lived in California. Even then, I think I paid two hundred for it.”
“Two hundred dollars? You got ripped off!”
I laughed. “Yeah, but I probably deserved it.”
“Let me tell you,” the guy sitting next to me said, “next time you see me on the streets, I could hook you up with some good stuff.”
I demurred. “I haven’t smoked in so long, you could probably sell me a baggie of oregano, I’d hardly know the difference.”
The guy’s face fell. The room grew silent. Until somebody shouted, “Oregano? He just called you a major asshole!”
I felt pretty bad. I’d really hurt his feelings.
As it happens, this guy – the one whose feelings I’d hurt – is in jail for robbing me.
Unsuccessfully. Possibly by accident. But still.
There was a dropped wallet. His attempt to use my family’s Health Savings Account debit card to buy two sandwiches and a pack of cigarettes. Some yelling at whomever was working the counter at Village Pantry when the card wouldn’t go through. Then an arrest.
That whole episode transpired almost three years ago. But I didn’t learn who it was until last month, when the prosecutor sent a letter to us asking for a victim statement.
The guy has been in my class several times before. I like him – he reminds me of an old friend of mine, enthusiastically participates in our classes, and always bikes over to say “hi” when I see him on the street. Apparently they’d put him on probation after the debit card incident, but now, after another slip up, they’re trying to slap him with all his backup time.
Everybody in class laughed when I told him he was there for robbing me. He said he hadn’t known whose card it was. I shrugged and asked him to write an apology to my spouse. Then we sent letters to his prosecutor and the judge, asking for leniency.
Money isn’t sacred.
I’ve heard guys tell stories about taking money from each other. The story might end with somebody getting punched in the face, but there aren’t hard feelings. Money comes and money goes. It’s just paper. Or less: numbers inside a machine.
That HSA account only has money in it through a fiction agreed upon by my family, the pharmacy, and the bank. We scan a card and the value of our account goes down. Nothing physically happens.
Financial trickery seems so hollow compared to sandwiches or cigarettes.
But passing off drugs as something they’re not? That violates something sacred. Inside the jail, people’s possessions are stripped away – all they have left are their reputations.
You don’t have to be honest all the time. You can embellish stories about cops you’ve evaded, people you’ve slept with, money that’s slipped through your fingers. That’s all harmless talk. Passing the time, shooting the shit.
If you’re there for hitting a girlfriend, you can say you failed a drug test. Or admit you’re in for domestic, but say that you didn’t do it. For the sake of your future, maybe it’s best you tell an alternate story often to believe it.
When you’re talking about drugs, though, people can get hurt. If you say it’s dope, it’d better be dope. Not pot dipped in embalming fluid. Not heroin spiked with fentanyl.
I won’t tell another joke about oregano.
Indeed, the guy who’s in jail for trying to use our HSA card isn’t too upset about most of his charges. But one really rankles him:
“Do you remember that time, summer of that ‘Occupy Bloomington’ thing, when all those people kept going to the hospital cause they were ODing on bad spice? The cops tried to pin that whole thing on me! They put my picture on Fox News. I was so fucking pissed! I’ve done some stuff, but I didn’t do none of that.”