“There’s some guys, they should never get out. You wouldn’t want ’em out, believe me. You ever saw ’em, you’d know it.”
Marty Harris said that to a group of students in a night class I’d been teaching. It was $800.00 per semester on top of my day job, which was bringing white kids from the suburbs to the city to work on educational projects with Black kids. Eleven thousand a year I got for that, plus gas. Those were the days. Or some of them, anyway. I don’t know what happened to programs like that. Maybe the people deciding they should get funded gave up.
I’d asked Marty Harris to come in because, with those guys in the night classes, you had to mix things up. You could talk with them about what you’d asked them to read for a couple of classes, and they’d go along with that. But you had to have something else the next time, or at least be able to say something else was coming. You had to surprise ’em, keep ’em awake. They were coming from work, almost all of them. Eight hours, then a sandwich somewhere, coffee or a beer, and two and a half hours of class, attendance compulsory if they wanted the government check, which they did, except for one guy who apparently didn’t.
“Ritchie’s an idiot, is what it is,” Vito Fortunato told me when I asked why his brother hadn’t been showing up. “Free money. Something you get back for humpin’ along in the jungle, or maybe you were just sittin’ around in Germany, waitin’ for something to happen, that you hope it won’t. Maybe you never leave home. Wherever. It’s free money, either way. He’s an idiot for not takin’ it, right?”
Even Ritchie, going through the motions, would have left the class with something to talk about on the night Marty Harris came in. Not that he was a great speaker. He was not. He did everything they tell you not to do. He played with his ring, turning it on his finger, so after a while sometimes you just watched him do that and you didn’t hear what he was saying. He looked around the room, but he didn’t make much eye contact. He sweated. He looked like he’d rather be somewhere else. He groped for words sometimes. He said “Ya know,” a lot.
But he was talking about prison, and that had my guys. People have all kinds of ideas about what it’s like to be in prison. Somebody who’s been there, they’ll listen to him, see if he knows what he’s talking about. Some of the others, maybe if it hadn’t been for the army, some of ’em would have been in there, too. And some of ’em, or at least one of ’em, had other reasons for paying attention. I didn’t know that until later.
The week before I’d told them that, of course, they would have the opportunity to ask questions. And after Marty Harris had introduced himself, before he’d even started turning his ring around on his finger or saying “Ya know,” the first question was what anybody might have predicted.
“What did you do?”
It came from a short, skinny guy named Kevin who didn’t look big enough to have been in the army, but he’d made it through a tour in Viet Nam, same as a lot of his classmates. He’d showed up one night a month earlier, drunk enough so anybody could tell. He’d gotten to the classroom before I did, and when I came through the door, he was at the blackboard, lecturing. In surprisingly neat letters, he’d printed:
It is a sneak who will steal from a workman his tools.
Kevin looked at me and smiled. He spread his arms wide in a gesture that said, “That’s all I got.” Then he almost fell down. He caught himself against the heavy oak table in front of the board.
“Might be a good night for you to take one of your two allowed absences,” I said.
“Might be,” he said.
“And take the ‘T’ home,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “Absolutely.”
Kevin had come back to the next class repentant.
“I caught a welder’s flash that afternoon,” he’d said. “I knew the headache was gonna be awful. I started drinking right then.”
He hadn’t missed another class, so he was there for Marty Harris, and, as I said, he had the first question.
“I was like a lotta guys,” Marty said. “I was a drunk. But maybe I was stupider than a lotta guys. I had this idea, me and another guy, who was also a drunk, we would hold up a liquor store. Take the money and some Jack Daniels, too. Two birds, ya know? Only we didn’t have a gun. How do you hold up a place without a gun, right? But then this other guy who was gonna do it with me, he said, ‘Hey, I gotta cigarette lighter LOOKS like a gun, ya know? We’ll use that.’ ”
Somebody in the back of the room laughed once and said, “Jesus.”
“Yeah, like I said, stupider than a lotta guys, ya know?” Marty Harris said.
“I don’t know,” Kevin said. “If you’d had a gun, they coulda got you for armed robbery, right? Woulda been worse than whatever you got, right?”
“Yeah, well, I’ll get to that,” Marty said.
He cleared his throat. He made a lot of noise doing that. He looked at his shoes and played with his ring and worked his neck around a little, as if he’d slept on it wrong and it had stiffened up.
“Like I said, I was a drunk. So we went in there, this other guy and me, to this mom-and-pop packie, and I don’t know why I was the one who had the cigarette lighter, but I was, which, like I said, I was maybe stupider than a lotta guys. And I told the guy behind the counter, a big guy in a T-shirt that said “Breakfast of Champions,” had a beer can on it, I told him ‘Open the cash drawer.’ He did it, and there was the money. How much, I don’t know, which, now you can guess, I never got to count it. Turned out the cigarette lighter didn’t fool him, and what he did, I reached for the money, and he slammed the cash drawer on my hand.”
“Jesus Christ,” said the same guy in the back. He was a guy named Eddie. I don’t remember his last name. He was working for Gillette, doing who knows what. Maybe electronics, something the army had trained him to do, or maybe that was just one of the places hiring vets for whatever needed doing.
“So then everybody in the place — ’cause it was fulla people, ya know? — they started laughin’,” Marty was saying. “But I didn’t get it. A lotta things I didn’t get back then. So I said it again. ‘Open the cash drawer.’ And he said, ‘Okay…okay…,’ and he did it again, and I reached for the money, and he slammed my hand in the drawer again. So there I was, and what was I gonna do? Pull the trigger on the cigarette lighter? Pop up a little flame, scare him to death with it?”
“So you got outta there,” Kevin said. “Doesn’t sound like anybody’d call the cops.”
“They were laughing, what they were doing,” Marty said. “Nobody was callin’ anybody. What for?”
Marty had done what storytellers do. Maybe he hadn’t known he was doing it, hadn’t done it on purpose. He still looked as uncomfortable as ever. But maybe he had, though. He’d been going around telling his stories, which the Quakers had him do after he’d hooked up with them when he got out of prison a couple of years before that night. They paid him something. Enough, I guess. Maybe not. Anyway, that was how I’d heard about him when I was looking for guys to bring into class. A guy I knew went to the Unitarian Church, and he’d heard Marty there one Sunday.
I think Marty came in a month or so after the guy who said he could prove Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t acted alone unless he had an acrobatic bullet. Anyway, maybe he’d worked out a rhythm to the telling, Marty had, never mind he looked as if he didn’t know what he was doing up there with all the “Ya knows” and the nervous sweats and the horsing around with his ring.
But he had them wondering. If he and his buddy and their cigarette lighter left ’em laughing at the failed, drunken hold-up, how’d he come away with it any worse off than a couple of bruised fingers? How’d he end up in a prison cell?
Marty waited until just before somebody might have asked about that. Then he said, “Well, ya know, it hadn’t worked the way we wanted. That’s true. But I guess we figured it was for practice. I don’t know. I wasn’t doin’ a whole lot of thinkin’, what it was. Maybe, ya know, we’re walkin’ out of the place and, hey, one of us looks around, and there’s other places, right?”
He explained that they’d tried it again at another liquor store down the same block.
“That was the kind of street it was,” Marty said. “Still is, I guess. I haven’t been back there. Anyway, somebody saw the cigarette lighter in my hand when we went in there, the second place, and whoever it was, maybe they needed glasses, ya know? I guess it looked enough like a gun. Something.” He shrugged. “They were the ones called the cops,” he said.
“So you got pinched,” Kevin said. “How old were you? You have the money for a lawyer? Or your family, they had it?”
“I’m gonna skip the boring parts,” Marty said, which was another reason I thought maybe he was more organized than he seemed to be, breaking all the public speaking rules, never missing one, but everybody was listening.
“I got up before a judge, and he said something about a plea, and it was silly, ya know? Because the guy who came to see me about it, said he was an attorney, anyway, he had it all worked out. What was I gonna say? ‘I didn’t do it?’ Lotta people saw me, ya know? Wasn’t like I was wearin’ a mask. So I’m guilty, which the judge already knows, and he gets right to the sentencing, which is gonna be a good long time, right? Because that cigarette lighter didn’t fool the big guy in the beer can T-shirt in the first place that night, but the state says carrying the damn thing’s created the impression that I’ve got a gun, in the second place it did that, never mind I don’t, and so it’s armed robbery the way that judge sees it, and off I go for a good, long time. But before I go, he says — the judge does — he tells me that I’m a young guy and there’s no reason prison can’t teach me to behave myself so that when I come out I get a new start, which, he tells me, should be a start that does not involve Jack Daniels or guns, and maybe also not cigarette lighters.
“From there they take me back to the holding cell, and the next day to the state prison, or maybe it was the day after that, and I’m there about twenty minutes before I know the judge, either he’s never been inside a state prison, or he’s a liar. Or maybe it’s both.”
Marty went on, and I looked around the room to see how he was going over. Nobody was asleep. Kevin was nodding, as if in agreement.
“Ya know,” Marty was saying, “you see those shows on TV, and the criminals, they’re always masterminds. They got blueprints of the places they’re gonna knock over, got tools where they can cut through glass, drill out a lock, whatever…do it all without anybody hears ’em. They’re in and out with the money, the jewels, whatever they’re after. No fingerprints. They’re too smart for that. Cops only find ’em because they’re even smarter. They got the cameras all over the place, take pictures of all the license plates going across the bridge, wherever. DNA when it comes time for that. Guy sneezed on the doorknob, whatever. They got even better stuff than the criminals. But you look around in the prison, there, what you see is not masterminds. Not so many masterminds in there. What you see is drunks and addicts, stole what they could steal so they wouldn’t get sick. Or sicker, what it is. Some of ’em grateful to be locked up, maybe, where they don’t owe anybody money and nobody they ripped off can get at ’em. Some of ’em get clean. Some don’t.”
“So you did?” Kevin asked.
“So far, so good,” Marty said. “One day at a time.”
“I heard that what they say in there, in the prison, they say ‘Nobody guilty in here,’ right?”
“There’s some think about it that way, I guess,” Marty said. “The Black guys, they get the worst of it. They can see it, how a white guy kills somebody, he’s offered a plea, maybe murder two, maybe manslaughter. He knows when he’s gonna get out. Black guy does the same thing, they’re gonna go after him for murder one, likely as not. It’s an easier conviction, and then some of it’s just out of habit, ya know? Sentences they get, they don’t know when they’re gonna get out. Might not, ya know?”
“But some guys, maybe they aren’t guilty, right?” Eddie asked.
“Some,” Marty said. “I knew a guy, he got told that if he didn’t take the plea they offered when he was charged with a stabbing, the guys who did it would mess up his family. Guys who did it told him that. Guy figured he could live with the time better than he could with whatever might have happened to his wife and kids. He told me that. I believed him. He was taking courses while he was inside, going to school, ya know?
“Another guy, he was in for assaulting a woman after a big party. She knew him and all, and they’re back at her apartment. They tell him later he damn near strangled her to death, and he swore she was a willing participant, but he was a drunk, like me, and who knows what he remembered and what he made up, ya know?”
“But those guys you were talking about,” said Eddie from the back. “You said there were some guys you didn’t think oughta get out.”
“What happens in there is mostly what you decide is gonna happen,” Marty said. “Guy decides he’s gonna be a big shot while he’s in, maybe the first time somebody looks crossways at him, he beats the guy stupid. Somebody else thinks, ‘Well, maybe I’ll just keep my head down, do the time, learn something if I can — how to be a barber, maybe, or how to fix up a car — have something to do when I get out, which it’s gonna be sooner if I don’t hit anybody over the head while I’m here.’ But then you got your guys who don’t think much, or if they do think, it’s ‘Too late for me,’ ya know? They been in and out a couple times, probably a little longer each time, and they maybe decided something, too. What they decided is that they’re not going anywhere else, so why not shut up that guy who’s been screamin’ all night?”
“It’s dangerous,” Kevin said.
Marty nodded. “Sometimes it is,” he said. “Mostly it’s boring.”
When that class ended, some of the students, Kevin among them, thanked Marty for coming in. Kevin leaned against the blackboard at the front of the room while everybody else filed out, several of them lighting cigarettes as they walked. When the room had emptied, Kevin told me he thought it was a good class.
“He was all right,” Kevin said. “You gotta root for him, right?’
“You mean to stay sober?”
“Sure,” Kevin said. “That, sure. And to keep doing what he’s doing, right? I mean, people hear him, maybe their attitudes change. Maybe they find a little compassion for a guy who’s incarcerated. He’s still just a guy, right? Most of ’em, anyway.”
“You sound as if you’ve got a dog in that fight,” I said.
“I got a brother doing a bunch more years in the same dump Marty was talkin’ about,” Kevin said. “Only I don’t think he was dumb, like Marty was saying. He wasn’t into drugs, didn’t drink a lot. Just got in with a gang where we were. Shot a guy who was shooting at him, whatever. I was just a kid when he did it. Twelve, I guess. He was seventeen. Same thing might have happened to me. The gangs and all. But one day when I went to see him — maybe I was sixteen, seventeen by then — he told me ‘Go in the army. Get outta here. Maybe they train you to do something. Not much goin’ on in the way of war for the army, right? War’s in the neighborhood, what I remember. Get your ass outta there.’ ”
I might have said something, but I only listened. When you teach in a program full of guys who grew up in places you maybe wouldn’t walk through on a bet, you learn how you can learn, and it’s not by talking. I saw the army as one more place poor Black kids got screwed. Some of those kids, though, made it work for them. Kevin’s father was Black. His mother was Cambodian. His brother — a half-brother from before their father met Kevin’s mother — had joined a gang that had no use for Kevin. Prejudice comes in lots of flavors. But the army was okay with taking Kevin on, and he was okay with the army. Now, after re-enlisting a couple of times and having avoided the worst of what might have happened to him had he been less fortunate in his deployments, he was working as a welder, a trade the army had taught him, and he was collecting a check every month for pursuing an associates degree at a college that would have gone under if it hadn’t been for lots of guys like Kevin showing up all at once after Viet Nam.
“It’s a joke,” Kevin had said to me on the night I met him. Most of his classmates probably agreed. They’d just finished a semester where they were supposed to be learning about economics, but the teacher had made it plain from day one that as far as he was concerned, they were all in on the same scam.
“You do what you like,” the professor had said. “I’m gonna read the newspaper. If I finish with that, I’m gonna read Sports Illustrated, which I also have, right here in my briefcase.”
“He gave us this booklet about supply and demand,” Kevin told me. “You could read it in a couple hours. That’s if you were slow. We read that. Some of us did. He read the paper, like he said. 9:30, we all went home. Came back and did the same thing the next week. And we all got paid. That was how it was last semester.”
After everybody else had arrived on that first night, I told the class what Kevin had told me, and I said I thought I’d like to try doing things a little differently. I told them I’d have stuff for them to read, and we’d have some guest speakers, and I’d ask them to write about what they were reading and what they were hearing. Who knows? Maybe with the practice they’d get to be better writers. Not a bad skill to cultivate, I’d said. Some of them were surprised that I was going to make an effort, and a few of them didn’t believe I would. Most of them kept coming to class.
“This guy, what he’s talkin’ about, that’s what I think I could write about,” Kevin was saying. “What he says about guys in prison, and that judge who told him prison was gonna give him another…what did he say? It wasn’t ‘chance,’ right?
“Opportunity,” I said.
“Right,” Kevin said. “And how that was something, you know, he could tell right after he got there, that the judge was full of shit and all.”
“Either he was lying, or he’d never been inside a prison. Right.”
“My brother’s done some reading while he’s in there,” Kevin said. “But it’s not the prison that’s got him doing it, you know? They make it hard. Something happens somewhere else, across the yard in another building, wherever. They shut down the whole place. Guys who didn’t do anything, they’re in their cells twenty-two hours a day, anyway. Might be a couple days before my brother can go to the library for an hour.”
“They have a library?”
“Little, one-room thing, you know? But there’s some law books, whatever. My brother read enough to tell me how he mighta been okay, he’d had a lawyer who coulda argued self-defense. Didn’t happen that way. It was like Marty said. Black guy doesn’t know when he’s gonna get out, no matter he trains the service dogs, talks to high school kids when somebody wants him to do that, brings ’em in. Helps somebody else learn to read. My brother did all that. He might never get out, anyway. Most likely, after a while, everybody he knew before he went in, they forget him, so I don’t know what he comes out TO, it ever comes to that.”
“What about you?” I said. “You doing okay?”
“What I’m thinking,” Kevin said, “me and my brother put our heads together, we could tell people about what he’s seen in there, what he told me, ya know, about where the war is, all that. Put it in a book.”
“Sounds like a plan,” I said. I didn’t say anything about how hard it is to get a book written, let alone published.
“Got to have a plan,” Kevin said. “Might help somebody else. “
“Might help him,” I said. “Might help both of you.”
“Soundin’ better and better, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “But don’t quit your day job.”
“Oh, yeah,” Kevin said. “I’m fine. I’m fine. And there’s no tellin’ where I’m goin’ once I get that associates degree. Prob’ly be people banging the door down to hire a welder got one of those associates degrees.”
I laughed, and I was glad Kevin could laugh. Maybe the night school program was a scam for a lot of those guys. Sometimes it felt like all it was just $800 a pop for me. That night it felt better than that. Looking back, I’m good with it.
That semester I kept Kevin and Vito and the rest of them reading and writing, jollied them into it when they got lazy, told ’em learning to stop writing “there” when they meant “their” wouldn’t hurt them any.
When the term was over, the guys in that class moved on. I think they had history next. I didn’t know the woman who was going to be teaching that class. She only came in at night, like the rest of us.
I never saw Kevin again. Years later I read his book. A lot of people did. It was a good book.
After the following summer, when they asked me to teach English to another group of veterans, I found I’d lost Marty Harris’s number. I called the guy who’d told me about him, and he said somebody had found Marty dead in the room he’d rented.
I didn’t ask what it was.
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