The following is the third portion of the story Minimum Security, a tale concerning loneliness, insomnia, incarceration, Burmese Pythons, and Dadeland Mall. Previous episodes are here.
Hierarchy / Pájaro Libre / Julian(n)a
Even after four months at Dadeland I still wasn’t sure where I fit into the prison hierarchy. At a maximum-security prison the social pyramid would have been clearly delineated: the bank robbers and drug kingpins were on top and the rapists and child molesters were fending off shank attacks at the bottom, but we didn’t have any drug lords or pedophiles, no sex offenders of any kind, and the closest thing we had to a bank robber was Cedar Rapids Brinkley, who blew out the engine of his mom’s Oldsmobile Cutlass dragging an ATM down Kendall Drive.
At Johnny Rockets my position in the doo-wop singing hierarchy was better established. I was the bass, by virtue of my being the only one on staff who could hit the low E flat on “Blue Moon.” The eldest of the hedge fund-embezzling tenors sang lead, but you could tell the younger hedge fund-embezzling tenor wasn’t happy about it. His harmonies were always spiteful. The codeine-trafficking baritone, on the other hand, was a consummate professional. He had sung backup vocals in an all-Cuban Lynyrd Skynyrd cover band before the Feds caught wind of his improprieties with cough syrup. His band was called Pájaro Libre. They were planning on doing a reunion show when the baritone got out of prison and their original Ronnie Van Zant look-alike recovered from injuries suffered in a mango tree-climbing accident. Possible venues included a quinceañera, a corporate awards dinner, and a middle school dance.
For incarcerated felons, the embezzlers, the codeine-trafficker, and I were pretty decent doo-woppers. We sang all the standards: “Sh-Boom,” “Book of Love,” “Earth Angel,” “Duke of Earl.” But we also did originals—the younger embezzler, when not managing or mismanaging hedge funds, had been a quite prolific composer. All of his songs were about girls who had spurned his advances in high school, in alphabetical order. He was currently writing “Juliana.” “Julianna” was next.
Minor Celebrities / Now That’s Meat
There were a handful of minor celebrities incarcerated at Dadeland. After all, no one’s perfect. Not even minor celebrities. One minor celebrity worked in the food court, at Charley’s Grilled Subs. He had been a child actor, then became a former child actor, then became a serial panty snatcher, then became a product of the Florida penal system and a Charley’s Grilled Subs cashier. As a child he had played the character Little Jimmy on the popular mortuary sitcom Whose Teeth Are These? He had one of those faces. Sometimes people would remember him from being on TV as Little Jimmy from Whose Teeth Are These?, and other times they’d remember him from being on TV as a serial panty snatcher.
Another minor celebrity worked at Men’s Wearhouse and Tux. A few years back he had made a sex tape with a popular CNN correspondent and had parlayed the resulting notoriety into a successful career as a deli lunchmeat spokesman. There had been some public outcry at first, but the lunchmeat bigwigs knew it would pass. They were no dopes. They knew sex sells. It even sells pimiento loaf and bologna. People went crazy for that lunchmeat. Customers were always saying the spokeman’s catchphrase, Mmmm, now that’s meat! as he was fitting them for their tuxes.
Just because an inmate was a minor celebrity didn’t mean he was at the top of the prison hierarchy, however. Everyone liked the deli lunchmeat spokesman because they were fans of his performance in the sex tape and the prison kickball league, but no one liked the former child actor. Prisoners threw soy sauce packets at him in the food court and pushed him in front of SUVs backing up in the prison yard all the time. It was a bum deal, but in the inmates’ estimation the former child actor was a bum. It was what it was. Whose Teeth Are These? was not widely admired by the criminal element, and the general consensus was that panties were to be obtained consensually but never snatched.
I thought a lot about hierarchies while struggling to sleep, as Jean-Claude berated me beautifully in Creole. Why were we always categorizing each other, putting each other into boxes, labeling those boxes, organizing those labels by color, UPC-A barcode, font serif, and Best If Used By date? In elementary school I was categorized as a spaz and a problem student and a chronic bedwetter. In high school I was categorized as a slacker and a problem student and a cystic acne sufferer. In my romantic relationships I was categorized as a commitment-fearer and a responsibility-shucker and a possessor of limited earning potential. No one ever categorized me as a me. Not that I blame them. I don’t think they even knew that me was a possible category.
I had few friends in prison. I had few friends outside of prison, too. The deli lunchmeat spokesman got sackfuls of mail—a 17-year-old girl from Pembroke Pines was the president of his fan club—but all I ever got were collection notices and envelopes telling me just how much I could be saving on my car insurance. That always gave me a laugh. I didn’t even know how to drive. My sweet Maria had had to chauffeur me all around town in her Mitsubishi Galant. But not anymore. Now she was probably riding all hither, thither, and yon on the back of a motorcycle with that goddamn Dominican and his goddamn Burmese python.
Jean-Claude was sort of my friend. He didn’t like me poking him at night, but I think we had an understanding. I was also friends with the codeine trafficker in my Johnny Rockets doo-wop quartet. He was a great songwriter. I was a big fan of his early material: “Aaliyah,” “Abbie,” “Acacia,” “Adele.”
My best friend had been my sweet Maria. We did everything together. We sort of had to, as I couldn’t drive a car. We had met at a vending machine—the Skittles she had purchased had gotten stuck, and so I had valiantly charged full-speed into the machine to knock loose her captive candy and suffered a radial fracture in my forearm. My sweet Maria drove me to the hospital, and by the time my radius fully healed she was driving me everywhere. I still had my cast—she signed it with con amor and a big red heart. She never did get those Skittles, though. I sometimes wondered who did, late at night, as my regrets salsa danced on my chest.
Lonesome / Perfumania
It sure got lonesome in prison. Especially for inmates like me, who could never expect an intimate visit in a Banana Republic dressing room or the handicapped restrooms near The Cheesecake Factory. Sometimes in my free hour after work and before dinner I would walk by the sweet-smelling kiosk girls at Perfumania and try to muster up the courage to ask them for a sample of cologne, but I never could. Not that it mattered. I knew that asking for a sample of cologne would never lead to an intimate visit in the handicapped restrooms near The Cheesecake Factory. It would only lead to me disappointing the Perfumania girls by not buying cologne or perfume.
Some of the other inmates were able to meet women in the mall. Big Leonard was dating a salesgirl at Bath & Body Works. Benny the Snake had regular liaisons with a 19-year-old who had recently started working at Piercing Pagoda. Juan “El Rata” Veracruz had one sweetheart in Stride Rite Shoes and another in CVS. Of course, they were all con artists. Meeting girls was always easier for con artists, even if they had ankle monitors that could potentially cause the mall PA to play Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” In the prison hierarchy, con artists were number one at meeting girls. Disgraced corporate executives and hedge fund managers were number two. I wasn’t sure where exactly mail defrauders fit in, but it was definitely near the bottom. How many girls read letters anymore? None that I knew. Letter reading, like mail fraud, was a dying art.
We had a few disgraced corporate executives at Dadeland. They sure had it easy. Even though they were disgraced they were still able to pull all kinds of strings. Like, they only had to work half-shifts at Hot Topic or Sunglass Hut. And they always got to pick the teams in prison dodgeball. And they could eat as many Churromania churros as they wanted. It didn’t seem fair. One disgraced corporate executive had swindled shareholders out of several hundred million dollars and had bought a Caribbean island that he dynamited so it would look like the silhouette of Jayne Mansfield from the air. I was lucky if some old lady from Boynton Beach mailed me back a crumpled twenty. But who got punished more? It sure wasn’t the disgraced corporate executive. He’d been disgraced for a couple of months. I’d been disgraced since the day I was born.
Most people were in prison because they were poor and wanted to be rich, or because they were rich and wanted to be richer. I guess that was the problem with being rich. You never could tell when you were rich enough. I had never gotten rich, though. I had never been very skilled at mail fraud. My sweet Maria hadn’t been rich, either. As a child she had eaten cookies made of dirt and salt and vegetable shortening in Nicaragua. I sure wish I could have made her rich—and I tried, I really tried—but despite my best efforts I landed in prison and she landed on the backseat of some macho’s motorcycle. That didn’t seem fair, either. But what did seem fair? Not much. That was for sure.