It was like falling asleep surfing the web while watching Letterman and waking up in Chaucer’s England: the surroundings were familiar – enough for one to function, or appear to function; the language had enough similarities to English to get the gist of what was going on; but only God knew what the hell everyone was up to.
What was going on – the only thing going on – was the almost completely unspoken, certainly unexplained, routine of the day. That was communicated by the opening of corroded cells and the two hundred pound sliding glass doors that sealed off the unit, groans, moans, yelps, COs slouching and shuffling down the corridor, the TV in the ‘day room’ suddenly blaring, a dozen more subtle noises. It was dizzying, confusing, and produced the first of a series of out-of-body experiences.
Bridgeport is a county jail, a depository for the newly arrested and parole violators, transient in nature and, as such, a new face is nothing new. Getting acknowledged was hard, getting information, impossible.
9:00 am, orientation. The room was full, at least forty new arrivals – except they were not. It took me a very few minutes to realize I was the only ‘newbie’ in the room, the only one with a need to read anything. One of the documents tossed in front of me (in retrospect, the perfect introduction to the DOC) was a notification that, if requested, the State had to provide pretrial detainees with a single cell after 17 days of holding. I signed that immediately, it was worth far less than the roll of toilet paper handed out on my way out the door.
I returned to my unit carrying the allotted three pairs of socks, boxers, t-shirts, just inside the door I was met by a tall, young, Puerto Rican, “Hey, man, I’m outta socks, give me a pair?” Nothing threatening, I certainly did not feel it, hell, I did not feel anything at that point, I threw him a pair, started to move by, “”That too easy man, don’t be scared, nobody here will bother you.”
I mumbled something about not being scared and moved by, tossed everything onto my bunk and went to the day room where three or four guys sat watching ELLEN – two immutable truths of prison life everywhere, though I did not know it at the time: if you want to be alone in prison, get up early, everyone sleeps, and sleeps; and, all women are ‘bitches’ (i.e., chess, “gonna take yo’ bitch, man” = threat to Queen) with two notable exceptions: Ellen DeGeneres and Martha Stewart – they are inviolate, revered, never to be slandered, and always, always, referred to as Ellen and Martha.
After an unidentifiable, inedible lunch, we were allowed out to the gym for ‘rec’ with the adjoining unit. Maybe 40 guys in a gym designed for one basketball game and no spectators. I was tired, pissed and numb at once – a weird and not recommended combination – restless as hell (I was just starting to comprehend one of the major problems of Connecticut incarceration of any kind, the utter lack of books, newspapers, magazines – more on that later) and wandered onto the basketball court.
A defining moment for the next four and a half years and I wish I could say I planned it that way (like the movie cliche, “when you get to prison pick out the baddest mother and hit him….. “) but this was born out of pure anger and boredom – I had just turned 48, had played rugby into my mid-thirties, soccer until I was 44, had a new hip courtesy of the two, and had one certifiable skill that will probably be with me until I can no longer use my arms: I can, shoot a basketball. ‘Like water,” the gang bangers at Willard were still yelling as I went out the door.
A basketball bounced to me at the precise moment a tall, good looking 30 year old black guy reached me and, not unkindly, said, “This ain’t no place for old dudes, man”.
Dribbling idly, left to right and back, I replied, probably weakly, “Oh?”, and shot off the dribble . . . all net, from a foot behind the 3 point line.
“White guy’s on my team,” my new friend yelled …. and that was it. I ran full court with them, hit my first three 3s, stunned reactions from, well, everyone …. and then, every time I touched the ball I got racked. Hard. I was not allowed my contacts, so my glasses were the obvious place to start and they took a pounding. My right wrist was next.
I refused to call a foul (another unintentional exactly right thing to do), started passing quickly (and getting hit after) and waited …… the guy who kept nailing me (always man to man defense) black, 5’9″ by 5’9” came down the lane for an uncontested layup, I was under the hoop, but my shoulder perfectly into his sternum and put him into the wall, hard. Then stepped away to enjoy the human detritus on the floor. He hit, rolled like a weeble, popped up screaming foul, was shouted down by everyone, including the COs on rec duty …………. and that was that, for good. “Larry Bird” was born (I have reddish blond hair, freckles, can shoot, it was inevitable in every prison I was in), I was never hassled again, I was left free to shoot without risk of broken bones.
Off the court an hour later, I was introduced to everyone, the long term guys gave me food, extra clothes, instant camaraderie, which was a big help, and appreciated. Then they found out I was an attorney ………..