Toward the end of my first week here at the Seagoville Federal Correctional Institution, I was approached by another inmate.
“You ready, Brown?”
“Ready for what?”
“Whites having a meeting.”
I hesitated. Of course, by this point in my incarceration, I was aware of the extent to which inmate affairs are usually organized along racial lines, but this was the first time my presence had been requested at a white-people meeting. Back at the rather overcrowded Mansfield jail unit, where I’d spent the past year or so, there was simply no space for any group to meet in private, and meanwhile there were hardly any white people around to attend such a meeting. I was, in fact, still getting re-acclimated to the presence of other white people and wasn’t sure I was ready to encounter an entire room full of them. More fundamentally, attending any sort of white-people meeting went against every racially inclusive instinct with which I was inculcated during my early-’90s public elementary school education. On the other hand, I reflected, I’d done my first two years of high school at the private Episcopal School of Dallas, and what was that if not one long white-people meeting in and of itself?
“I’ll be there.”
Like all racial meetings, the white-people meeting (you can tell I enjoy writing “white-people meeting”) was held in the room that also serves as the chapel. I noticed a bookcase with one shelf filled with Bibles and another shelf filled with copies of Left Behind. Suddenly I had a most horrible vision, and I knew with something approaching absolutely certainty that within a few hundred years Left Behind would actually be incorporated into the New Testament, pushing out the Book of Revelation itself. At first, I didn’t know whether to find this amusing or terrifying, so I decided to find it terrifying simply out of an abundance of caution.
When the 17 whites of the Seagoville jail unit had assembled, the white-people meeting was brought to order by our “speaker,” a heavyset meth dealer who had been voted into office a few months before (and in fairness to our white-people polity, I should note that this electoral process is more universal than that of the early United States, which not only limited the franchise to the white and male, as we do, but also required of its voters that they meet a property qualification, which we do not; one might even make the case that our race-based prison gang is rather progressive, if one were drunk or something).
The speaker began by chastising the assembled for an incident a few days before when a yelling match had broken out between a black and a Paisa — a member of one of the two Hispanic gangs into which all Latin inmates are divided (the other one is called, quite splendidly, Tango Blast). Blacks and Paisas had begun collecting around the two disputants, and it looked as if there might not only be a fight — which is a minor affair so long as it remains limited to two combatants of the same race who have the discretion to conduct the melee in one of their cells, away from the eyes of guards — but a full-on race riot. As the speaker pointed out, many of us had stood there watching things play out instead of going back to our cells in order to ensure that no whites got involved, which would have been more prudent. As he summarized, “If it ain’t white, it ain’t our problem.” Clearly the neo-cons had made no inroads among the whites of the Seagoville jail unit; we would be spared the tumult of an interventionist foreign policy, with its entangling alliances.
Someone else wanted to say something. It was the older gentlemen who struck me as looking like a Roman centurion.
“I didn’t hit nobody with no lock,” he announced.
You see, the centurion had gotten into a fight with another white that week, and afterward a rumor had been going around to the effect that he had struck his adversary with a padlock swung in a sock, such being an acceptable means of combat on a medium- or high-security prison compound but considered not altogether cricket in a mere jail unit. Another guy asked whom he had fought, only to be told that that was between “them two.” Incidentally, it was the guy standing next to him, the one with the black eye.
No one else had any announcements to make, so the speaker again took the floor. It was time, he said, to “get down to business.”
Once again I was terrified. Luckily I had finished being terrified about the whole Left Behind thing a few minutes prior, so I could concentrate on this new, immediate terror. What, I wondered, was he going to have us do now? I hoped it wouldn’t be a preemptive strike against Tango Blast, because I was kind of hoping to join up. Could it have been that I was too hasty in ascribing an isolationist stance to our speaker? COULD IT HAVE BEEN?!
“Thanksgiving is coming up and they don’t feed us near good enough,” the speaker said. “So we’re going to get together and do turkey nachos again this year like we did last year. You were here last year, Bruce. Them turkey nachos came out pretty good, didn’t they?”
“Yep,” confirmed Bruce.
A sheet was passed around so that everyone could mark down whether they could contribute chips, cheese, beans, turkey logs, or whatever. I put myself down for a turkey log. The meeting was adjourned.
EPILOGUE: A few days later, I got a turkey log from the commissary and put it in my locker. But when I took it out on Thanksgiving, I saw that the plastic wrapping had been chewed through and a little piece of the turkey was missing from one end; a mouse had gotten at it. I tried to give it to the whites anyway, but they didn’t want it. I pointed out that we could just cut off the end with the mouse bite, but they said we had plenty of turkey logs already. I’ve found criminals to be a rather fastidious people.
In The Count of Monte Cristo, the protagonist encounters his fellow prisoner, an Italian revolutionary priest, who despite his years of isolation has managed to write out a treatise on the prospect of Italian political unity. For ink, he mixed the wine provided to him on Sundays with soot from an abandoned fireplace, for a stylus he used a fish bone, and for parchment he used his ripped-up sheets. Another Italian, the communist leader Antonio Gramsci, struggled through a fatal illness brought on by his own incarceration in the 1920s to write a history of Italy since Garibaldi. By contrast, I myself have written absolutely nothing about the Italians. To follow, then, are a few words on Mussolini.
I received for Christmas, among other fine books, Mussolini: The Rise and Fall of Il Duce, by Royal Society of Literature Fellow Christopher Hibbert, who fought in the Italian campaign of ’43. Within 50 pages, Mussolini is already dictator, Hibbert having dispensed with the fellow’s misspent youth by way of a few telling anecdotes. For instance, when the parents of the 16-year-old girl he insisted on marrying refused to permit the match, he pulled out a pistol and threatened to shoot the girl and then himself — an exquisitely Italian solution to the problem. One might see this as boding ill for the marriage itself, but one would be wrong. Mussolini and his wife were actually quite happily married up until his execution and had five healthy children, only one or two of which died fiery deaths in the massive global war that he would go on to help start. And the blushing bride managed to ride out the whole ordeal in safety (it was his mistress, not his wife, whose body was strung up alongside his in ’45) and without noticing that much of anything was going on, having at first only a vague idea that he even worked in politics. When informed that her husband had become head of the new government, she exclaimed, “What a character!” and then went back to whatever it was she was doing.
As replete as the book is with flamboyant Mussolini behavior, it is Nazi Germany’s Reichsmarshal Goering who steals the show despite putting in only a handful of brief appearances. This will surprise none of those with a firm command of the past, among whom it is a well-known fact that Goering is the most hilarious figure to have ever stumbled across history’s blood-drenched stage. From a scene in Berlin:
“That evening, at a banquet at the Italian Embassy, [Italian Foreign Minister] Ciano bestowed on Ribbentrop the Order of the Annunziata. Goering, who had gone into the dining room to change the cards on the table so that he rather than Ribbentrop should sit on Ciano’s right, came back into the drawing room to see the Ribbentrop, surrounded by guests, admiring the Collar of the Order which gave him the right to consider himself the cousin of the King of Italy. Feeling that if anyone was to be honored it should have been himself, Goering, with tears of disappointment in his eyes, made an embarrassing scene, said the collar was really his, and was with difficulty dissuaded from walking out of the embassy.”
“At the beginning of the following year Goering arrived in Rome wearing what Ciano described as ‘a great sable coat, something between what motorists wore in 1906 and what a high-grade prostitute wears today.’ ”
Ah, Goering. The Reich was too small to contain your greatness.
Bible Verse of the Day: Deuteronomy 25:11-25:12
When men fight with one another and the wife of the one draws near to rescue her husband from the hand of him who is beating him and puts out her hand and seizes him by the private parts, then you shall cut off her hand. Your eye shall have no pity.