— a jailhouse memoir —
Teddy Ruiz’s reputation didn’t align with his first name, with the Steady Teddys of the world, society’s Winnie the Poohs. Ace, Ivan, Tito—shadier, grittier better suited this Ruiz’s history. A small-town larrikin, he had managed to etch the “Mr. Bad Boy” image into the scenery of his youth.

I’d never met him, but the stories were garish—beat up his old man for a lark at seventeen; tossed out the door of a polite party, he re-entered swinging a fire ax; broke a cop’s arm with his own nightstick. Not heinous crimes by modern measure, but these dated to the West Coast’s peaceful ‘60s, before Mac-10s and drive-by mayhem. In that context, Ted Ruiz had a rep. Still, it wasn’t a name I expected to find scratched in the paint of my cell block, especially at County, where some of my cellies, for crimes even more sinister than mine, were waiting for transfer to the state pen.

“They booked you for trespassing?” The guy talking—the dude talking, as I would learn, named Dwayne—had been pushing a broom down the narrow cellblock hall. Now he stopped, looking at me, leaning on his taxpayers’ broom on the taxpayers’ floor in the Santa Barbara County jailhouse, corner of Anacapa and Figueroa. He was loafing, a fact I chose not to point out to someone who seemed inured to life in the joint.

“Yeah, trespassing,” I repeated, staring at my bare feet, still grass-and dirt-stained from my venture of the night before, “and disturbing the peace.”

“Is that a fact?” His accent was Billy Graham-Slim Pickens.

I nodded. “And malicious mischief.” Though unschooled on the codes of incarceration, I sensed copping to the whole rap posed no risk to my standing among the prisoner class. The three-strikes rule wouldn’t apply.

Disgusted, disappointed, Dwayne nearly spit bile, “Fucking screws!” he cried. It had the ring of learned opinion, and I hoped it didn’t refer to me.

Cool Hand Luke-ish, I said, “Yeah. Yeah. What about you?”

“G.T.A.” Yes, grand theft auto, but this was 1971, not a video game.

“What’d you steal?”

He considered me from under one rust-colored eyebrow, an honor-among-thieves appraisal, “Which time?”

“Which…? Oh!”

Looking wistfully into space, as if in self-analysis, he began confirming things: “XKE,” he said, “Olds 4-4-2. MGB. 409 Chevy. I guess I got into them letters and numbers.” The observation seemed new to him, and he nodded; “I liked the Os, too—Camaros, Rancheros, El Dorados.”

Wholesale boosting of high-value vehicles was well beyond my own criminal ambitions, but we were rolling now, Dwayne and I, “Anything else?”

“ADW;” He was challenging my code-breaking skills, which must have been evident across my corrugated brow; “Assault with a deadly weapon,” he said, as though explaining to a ten-year-old.

I looked around for an escape tunnel to mommy and daddy’s house. Again, he read my mind, “Don’t sweat it. It was a cop. I don’t hassle squares, no offense.” No offense taken…at being called a square by Dwayne while on his way to the Big House for—get this—trying to kill a policeman. Offended? Moi? In fact, I was relieved, though I doubt it was apparent through the film of sweat now covering all my exposed surfaces.

If I may explain—
It was Saturday morning. At about 11:30 the night before, I and a dozen other good-for-nothing teenage drunks stumbled out of a fraternity house near UCSB wearing only boxer shorts, and intent on popularizing ourselves with some of—any of—the local females. The communal alcohol-and-testosterone hallucination under which we were functioning argued that we were exceedingly desirable to young women, but invisible to authority figures. Within the hour, disabused of this imagined state of affairs, three of us were in the back seat of a Dodge black-and-white en route to the county lock-up.

Standing barefoot in one’s choners, courting a mammoth hangover before a small crowd of sniggering coppers, while being fingerprinted and booked on three penny-ante misdemeanors makes for deep regrets in the small hours of the morning. Still, to paraphrase the man, Act like slime, you do the time. So, we were ready, right? Bullshit!
The two guys I got nabbed with were near strangers to me, one called Baff-man, patois for buffoon, and UCSB argot for deranged, someone who abused the rules. He thought the nickname made him sound licensed to raise hell, which he did. I’d met Baff-man for a few sober milliseconds in some lifetime before being handcuffed to him and hauled off to the calaboose. His buddy, Mike McLaughlin, was known as Jackal to his confederates, not because he scavenged dead meat that others had abandoned—though he did this—but because it referred to a scurrilous, untrustworthy creature beneath a dog’s contempt. He liked the effect. Ah, college life!

At the last sorority house to which we’d laid juvenile siege, Jackal and Baff-man had been tossed without ceremony into the sheriff’s car. I, in inebriated chivalry, and convinced that they shouldn’t go to jail alone, behaved obnoxiously to all and sundry long enough to get collared and pushed into the backseat of the cruiser.

Once booked on the ground floor at County, we climbed three flights of stairs into a short corridor bounded by five-foot windows to the left overlooking the courthouse’s spot-lit main wing—an icon of Spanish Colonial architecture—and the lawn of its sunken gardens, now shrouded in a veil of midnight mist tinged silver-gray by the light of a descending moon. On our right, opposite the windows, was a floor-to-ceiling wall of white-painted prison bars. Beyond them lay a parallel universe, another corridor onto which opened a row of square, iron-slatted chambers—the jail. Our guard marched us straight ahead, through a door on the right, and then back up that block of cold cubicles beckoning for our arrival.

Each cell held four thin, steel-framed bunks, a sink, and an open toilet. Only three bunks were empty, two in one cell, one in another. The other two dickheads paired up, putting me in a cell with three strangers. Come daylight, I’d know just how strange. Meanwhile, I tried to slow my trip-hammer heartbeat and figure out how to survive the night.

Prudence over the intake and effects of vast quantities of beer has never been an esteemed talent of college boys. I would add more than my share to that tradition, but family and professional honor, and mercy toward the reader, stay my hand from recording further examples. Yet I’ll tell you this for free: nothing sobers up a nineteen-year-old former altar boy like stepping into a ten-by-ten steel cage at 01:00 with three cons headed upriver to do hard time. There is no blackish fable, no clip of hard-boiled cinema, no whiskey-filled story followed by other whiskey-filled stories that can replicate the frigid embrace of fear when a cell door clangs shut the first time, with you on the wrong side.

I sat up all night, Indian-style, on the bunk. I don’t recall lying down, closing my eyes, or sleeping. I had a lot to think about.

What was my father going to say? (I knew what my mother would say—that this was, somehow, my father’s fault.) And the university brass? I had only just transferred from a Jesuit university in Los Angeles to UCSB. Was this what they should expect from young men raised in the Church and trained under the Society of Jesus? Would I get thrown off the rugby team? Would I get sodomized by a prison gang of cackling Richard Widmark look-alikes?

Funny what adrenalin and brain chemistry can do when one is scared out of one’s post-adolescent mind. I held on for grim death. Time passed at the pace of a seminar on life insurance. Recalling it now, I’m reminded of Albert Einstein being asked to explain Relativity to a layman. “Yes, I can do that,” he replied. “If you sit on a hot stove for two minutes, it seems like two hours, and if you sit next to a pretty girl for two hours, it seems like two minutes.” Had young Albert spent time at The Grey Bar Hotel, I’m certain it would have enriched his metaphors exponentially.
I awoke in a fog, from a nightmare of anxiety, still sitting cross-legged, my chin on my chest. Holy Hell! Had I fallen asleep? (Sleep–Nature’s way of leading you through one third of your life blindfolded.) My mouth was parched, my neck killing me. I counted things up, finding all my body parts, as my three misanthropic cellmates snoozed on. Said misanthropy would yet be revealed, but I had made it through my first night in the slammer with my virginity—as I shall call it—intact. At 8:30 a.m. breakfast arrived.

Being incarcerated is an ulcerative, degrading, gut-wrenching experience, not fit for beasts. Then there’s the food. The “meal” had been prepared at another county facility ten miles away, thrown into steam trays, and trucked over in a converted delivery van (I learned this all later from a friend who worked in that kitchen). Gracing the menu were re-heated Weber’s Bread toast, re-heated oatmeal, scrambled yellow something, red-streaked strips of pliable animal fat, Tang, and a Kafkaesque fluid described as coffee. This sardonic imitation of food for humans was the nutritional equivalent of providing marbles and ping-pong paddles for lab workers researching the quantum theory of physics.

Outside the cells, this grim fare was dumped onto plastic plates, slapped on trays, and slid through an opening in the bars onto a narrow steel shelf to each diner in turn, one tray at a time. As I stared down at my tray, the cold-blooded reality of what had happened to me and where I was congealed in my consciousness like tales from The Plague. Words of bleak despair ran through my head: Jail, jailer, jailbird. Warden. Doing time. The Slammer. I began to free-associate: Stone-Wall. Exercise-Yard. Escape-Recaptured. Lawyer-Prison. Appeal-Prison. Future-Recidivist.

Whining to myself, I shifted my tray of trailer-trash calories. Below it, words were scratched into decades of old paint on the cold, damp shelf. The letters, small, sloppy, and jagged, had apparently been scrawled with a jailhouse shiv. The words, now under one or more layers of newer white paint, showed in negative relief, like a ghost, the message there to be read if you happened upon it or knew where to look: “Teddy Ruiz—I am innocent.”

What I knew about Ruiz inclined me to believe he was lying. In my naive and middle-class cant at the time, if you had been arrested and were in jail, you were, ipso facto, guilty, yours truly a case in point. Why should posterity believe Ted Ruiz, known as a quasi-notorious, trouble-making hellion, and no more able to separate right from wrong than a blind man could tell puce from chartreuse? He was rumored to be a misfit, a lout, and a vandal, and now, if his own words were to be believed, an ex-con.

From the half-baked irony of Ruiz’s unlikely claim, I drew no mirthful pleasure. Jail does that—dulls your endorphins. But I did see it as an opportunity to break the grinding monotony of my first eight hours behind bars.

“Hey, Mike, get a load of this.” If I was anxious my first time in stir, Jackal was rapidly succumbing to a rampaging psychosis. I didn’t know him well, but I couldn’t abandon him to insanity, even if he and the other numb-nuts had got me pinched. I knew he had a more than passing acquaintance with Ruiz, and I thought the latter’s misbegotten claim against injustice might brighten Mike’s crumpled spirits. It did, but only briefly, a sort of “Kilroy was here” moment, after which Jackal reverted to his misery. The re-telling of Ruiz’s manifesto over beers in the years to come would provide many more laughs than it did at the time.

Turning with my so-called food toward my cell, I expected to see my three cohabitants astride their bunks with their flaccid toast, Yellow Peril, and vat-brewed Tang. I guessed I might eat with them until, in the full light of day, I saw them. On the top bunk opposite mine, a chubby Chicano about my age was folding Juicyfruit Gum wrappers into interlocking links in a daisy-chain, like a granny knitting booties. From the speed he was working (painfully slow) and the length of his achievement (approximating the Equator), I estimated he was far older than he looked, and that he’d begun the project during the lead-up to Pearl Harbor. Where he got the gum wrappers I have no idea.

Cellmate No. 2, also Latino, had a more cinnamon skin-tone, no doubt from years laboring in the sun. He sat on the bunk below Señor Wrigley, drawing nude women in charcoal on the cell wall. He was working on what appeared to be the third iteration in his oeuvre, more representational than Impressionist, eschewing Rubenesque for Playboy-meets-Fritz-the-Cat, with a generous measure of Black Velvet kitsch. It was impossible to judge which were more surrealistically outsized, the irises or the nipples. I tried not to stare.

Turning toward my bunk, I came face to face with Roomie No. 3. Actually, he was sitting down on his mattress looking up at me, and for one eternal instant, I could do nothing but stare. At him. He had his shirt off, and his arms, shoulders, neck, and chest gave the impression of a full-body wetsuit stuffed full of grapefruits, baseballs, and rope. This was pre-Arnie, but this guy had the look of a Marvell Comics hero, and musculature so defined and outsized as to be stunning. In addition to this rock-crusher physique, he was a skinhead with half-inch fingernails. No jail could hold him.

It would be disingenuous for me to say I didn’t notice he was African American. Few families from that heritage lived in the farm town where I grew up, and even fewer went to Catholic school. Truth be told, this was the closest I’d been to a black man. And here he was, my cellmate—half-nude, bald, with a Vampira manicure, able to squash me like a honky potato chip. Still, he didn’t seem black to me. With his bare pate and taut, naked skin stretched over spherical deltoids and cast-iron triceps, all covered in a patina of sweat, the light came off him like he was plated in chrome.

It looked, too, like he wanted to live up to the promise he showed—to squash me, crush me like a vanilla Frito. Then I was visited by a frightening recollection. In the murky memories of the night before, distorted and deluded by alcohol, and either the absence or occurrence of sleep, I had an image of myself climbing into the top bunk in the dark and somehow disturbing this man. The look in his eye indicated my recall was correct, and that he was judge, jury, and hangman for my transgression.

This was communicated from his eyes to me in an instant, subtracting five years from my life. Then he looked away, a bad thing. As the intruder, the interloper, I should have looked away first. If he looked back at me, I would quickly look away, submissive, absolving myself, but he didn’t. Scowling at the plaster that was peeling off the nearby wall, he said, in an effective blend of command, threat, and disgust, “Don’t step on my bunk.”

He knew there was no ladder, no stool or chair. My bunk, the top one, was level with my shoulder, my levitation skills rusty, and I wasn’t a high-jumper. To sit up there to eat, I was going to have to set the tray up on the mattress and then somehow, without using Superman’s bunk for assistance, overcome Earth’s gravity, no doubt making a jackass of myself and probably knocking my food tray onto the floor (or onto Him, which didn’t bear thinking about).

At times like this, one’s character, fortitude, and essential resourcefulness rise to the surface to teach one, and others, what one is capable of under duress. Steeling myself for the moment, I laid my tray at the end of my bunk, pivoted on the ball of my left foot, and walked out the cell door, bumping into, and making the acquaintance of, Dwayne and his broom. It was then we had our tête-á-tête, related earlier, over the law’s allegations concerning our respective misbehaviors.
I didn’t mind Dwayne referring to me as a square. It was in my nature that if I ever met a felon who had been convicted of trying to kill a cop, my philosophy would be “Live and let live.” That seemed fair—There but for the grace of God, and all that. Besides, I found out later that a square, in Dwayne’s context, meant a law-abiding citizen, a bystander in the crime-drama of life. Dwayne wasn’t calling me uncool. Truly.

“Been inside before?” he asked. Apparently, Dwayne was developing an interest in my welfare. For a fleeting instant, I thought about introducing him to my cellmates, especially No. 3. Then I realized they probably already knew each other. Perhaps too well.

I shook my head vigorously, “No. No, never. Huh-uh.” Was I being too adamant, using too much conviction in my denial, absenting myself from our shared experience, all men equal before the law, and so forth. Was I distancing myself from the commonality of our incarceration, however harsh and perverse? Was I distancing myself from Dwayne, my only true friend behind bars? I looked into his eyes. He seemed hurt by my rebuff, castigated by my attitude. Blotchy patches of color rose above the collar of his jailhouse overalls, blending with his ginger-brown hair and three-day stubble. He seemed unsure how to deal with my remark. I tried to rehabilitate the moment, “No, never had the chance.” I actually said that: Never had the chance. How lame can one person be? “My name’s Lance,” I said, and stuck out my hand.

“Dwayne,” he said, and we shook on it, back on track. I wondered how he’d fit into Jackal’s fraternity.

“So, then you’ve been in before, Dwayne?”

He looked at me with pursed lips, calculating, “Maybe six times.”

Six times? Well, maybe not Jackal’s fraternity!

“Wow,” I said. I wanted to say, Six times? Holy Fucking Christ! What the Hell’s wrong with you? but I didn’t. I said, “How old are you?” It seemed like a reasonable thing to say. Wrong.

“Twenty-four,” he said. He looked a lot older. Dwayne was six feet to six-one, bony, about one-sixty, with muddy, bugged-out eyes, and missing a couple teeth in the corners of a tight-lipped mouth. Twenty-four, maybe, but parts of him looked forty, “My first time was sixteen. Chino. My older brother Perry’d pistol-whipped some creep during a gas station stick-up. I helped Perry out during and after. Got clipped for aiding and abetting, harboring.”

My tongue moved like mice on morphine, “You…were…sixteen?”

“Yeh-up. Almost seventeen. Eight years ago, pert’ near. Next was for—lemme think—drunk and disorderly. Then, about eighteen, I did my first piece in County for . . .” He wanted to get it all just right, as if there wasn’t anything else in life he knew for certain, “Receiving stolen goods, yep.” He decided I didn’t need any more fine detail, and heaved a sigh, “I guess I ain’t been out more than six months all up since Chino.”

The shock of hearing that has never really left me. I was nearly twenty; Dwayne was twenty-four. I’d been in jail half a day. Except for six months, he’d been in jail for the last eight years, all his adult life—if you wanted to call him an adult. “How come you’re sweeping this place?” I asked, stumbling for purchase on this greasy deck of depressing sociology.

“I’m the trustee for the block. On account of my experience.”
Notre Dame played Michigan State in football that afternoon, a match-up that, the previous year, had decided the national championship. It was on TV in the cellblock, but did I give a shit? No. I needed to get out of jail. Later that day, Tommy Westervelt scraped up $50 for a bail bond and sprung me.

I’ve often thought about Dwayne with a certain sense of gratitude. The fear born in me from what his young life had become haunts me still. Yet, as wet behind the ears as I was back then, I did realize what a hopeless, stripped-out world Dwayne’s was, and how, if I could keep my head out of my ass long enough to finish college and get a job, I might make it along the path toward adulthood free of self-imposed calamities and disastrous bad luck. I might avoid being Dwayne.

Lance Mason worked blue-collar through his BSc (Loyola) and doctorate (UCLA); has lived, worked, and taught in the US, New Zealand, and Brazil; and his work has appeared in many journals, magazines, and anthologies, winning a dozen honors and awards. His work, reviews, and opinions can be found at www.lance-mason.com.