The Warp

Jan Bindas-Tenney & Andrew Jaicks

I would never agree to do an interview about life inside the joint. It isn’t you; you’ve proven you’re a true-type person, but then again, just because you’re cool and chasing some deeper, different kind of truth, something you want people to maybe feel and care about, really doesn’t change having that same pry-level aspect of any driveby-stretch-your-eyes-strettttchstretttttch-at-bloody-carwreck-worm that just can’t wait to wiggle out an orgasm over something actually untouched, unfelt, unendured. But I like you, there’s some innocent, reaching vibe you emanate, reaching for something that should be shown, should be felt, should be known. How do you put the brick in the hand of someone who’s not there at the jobsite? Well, maybe cyber-ness, virtuality, will create a way someday. But now that ain’t the case.

I would never agree to interview you about inside the joint. It’s hard to imagine that type of containment, hard to imagine you contained. As we sit outside at the café in Tucson, a year after your release, you in your 1980s rocker shirt with your blonde hair combed back, calloused hands cradling a pint of beer, your stories cascade and snowball, harried and tangential, almost to the point that I think we won’t make it out, that we’ll be lost here in a memory as the desert sky darkens around us, then blackens, until morning. But you always find the exit and we thrust our heads back out into semi-clarity. You’ve become one of my dearest friends here in Arizona, Jaicks. Someone I’ve felt the most challenged and frustrated by, felt that I could rely on in some deep desperate sort of way. Between completely out-of-control and tightly-enclosed, your stories get me thinking that our back and forth interrogates the idea of containment. We’ll see. Maybe.
          Visiting the place where I grew up in New Hampshire and sitting on the pine-forested hill, I watched as the federal prison was assembled piece by piece across the valley, the afternoon buzzing through me. I watched where they clear-cut hardwood to form a flat landing pad, the walls became a concrete formation like a repeating wave pattern, and eventually the sea foam colored roof. Gorham, New Hampshire–cold, rugged, verdant, bleak, rural, wooded–a small town on the edge of Canada, just north of the Presidential Range. Mt. Madison looms just south; Mt. Jefferson hulks a little west; the bald granite bulb of Mt. Eisenhower rests close by. My mother told me rich people paid big bucks to spend a night locked up before the inmates arrived. From what she hears, it was a big party.

It’s a square-one thing, isn’t it? Your prodigal return to New Hampshire, Granite State, USA, and me in 1988, the birth of two-decades-plus of life behind bars. It equals a good chunk of my life, what we inside used to call a taste, which in terms of incarceration means just about anything other than life and more than, say, five years. And it’s ever that new moment, isn’t it, that being reborn, that first entry, and maybe later, if you’re lucky, the last, when you notice shit, see it hard and large.

The embarrassed aftermath of industry in my Granite State hometown left everyone worrying about rural dignity and glorifying a past when the mountain air smelled like the sulfur pulp of a paper mill and men carried a time card to punch. Pundits call for the recovery of rural America. Re-cover: to blanket again, re-cushion, re-pad, end an addiction, a way out of cold turkey despair. My mother says: “Don’t be so depressing when you write about this place.” But whose idea of recovery doubles the town’s population with two lock-ups behind layers of razor wire and concrete eyelets? The local news headlines read: “Pinning Hopes on a Prison” and “Economic Life-line” and “Federal Facility Could Lift City, If It Ever Opens.” Etymology: (pri/pre) and son—prison is mere letters away from person. 
          The cells arrived as single pieces of poured concrete on the backs of 18-wheelers rattling through town.

As a prisoner being transported away from the world in the dark pre-dawn, sailing past all these ugly places, town names are just that, the names of towns within which hunker the joints that will house you. If you’re lucky, you get some sweaty view out through barred bus windows, a land of sun-scorched flatroof stucco domiciles with sun-dimmed pickups sagging at rest in carports: adobe, concrete-block, desert-trailerpark tumbleweed-tumbletrash. And me: in my very own Spaceship Rocinante Mothership quixotic-whatever. You look out at these specimens, illustrations beside the dictionary definition of desolate, wishing more than anythingthat you were out there. This wish is the full-on vampire that will suck your blood and swallow your marrow, it will lean back and pick its teeth, then vanish, know what I’m saying?

The 333 resulting prison jobs in my hometown required youth and good credit: under 37 with a credit score above 750. Forty percent of employees transferred from other facilities; of the remaining 60 percent or 200 available positions, applicants must not have missed a credit card payment. Of the young people in  town, it’s hard to say if any don’t have a delinquent cell phone bill or a marijuana charge or an overdraft. The mayor counts on trickle-down dollars. My mother doesn’t know anyone who got a job.
          The architect’s website for my hometown prison features wispy watercolors of blue skies, blotted cotton clouds, a border of poplar leaves above rings of razor wire. The paintbrush dipped into the watery dye and a hand erected a mountain village under surveillance. The architect’s ruler and pencil divided cells, sketched bars and double-lock doors, the lighting for the interior of the dining hall. The plans seem to thwart all views of planet earth’s horizon, only grass and sky, any sense of orientation prevented.
          You gaze out; I gaze in. We will meet in the middle somewhere.
          C.D. Wright begins her book One Big Self with a quotation from Eric Schlosser: “The spirit of every age is manifest in its public works.’ So this is who we are, the jailers, the jailed. This is the spirit of our age.” The American ideology of seclusion seems inextricably linked to locking up, as the U.S. incarcerates the largest prison population in the world by a landslide. The Department of Justice claims nearly 2.5 million people behind bars. African-Americans are incarcerated six times more frequently than their white counterparts, which Michelle Alexander has termed our new racial caste system in The New Jim Crow. In our early communications, you sometimes wrote to me in a kind of big round-it-all-up way, like when you once declared: “So then, ‘gated’ means separated from, which then creates this world where ‘purpose’ gets thus warped and violence in its name becomes one’s reason for being, continuing and thereby overcoming anxiety pain fear and emptiness.” Separation, out of fear and for money, is its own form of violence. “Gated” warps our purpose; danger ensues. Or as Wright says, “Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury, the warp in the mirror is of our making.”