Prison is a young man's game. Or woman's; I don't want to take a sexist position here, but I will take an ageist one in that it absolutely requires the vigor and resilience of youth to properly "jail.” Not to mention the credulousness (or stupidity) of juvenility necessary to take prison politics seriously, which is essentially the dynamic of the schoolyard, writ large and punctuated with extreme violence. In the real world, there is a point at which children start to become properly socialized and stop behaving like a troop of baboons; in prison, the baboon model is standard and continues well into middle age and beyond. My "problem" is that I did not partake of the Kool-Aid during my impressionable youth and must therefore view these shenanigans through a jaded and ironical lens.
Oftentimes youngsters will helpfully point out to me the fact of my advanced age, to which I will usually say something like, "Yes, I am old, and thank you so much for reminding me—it had completely slipped my mind. That's what happens when you get old, I guess, you forget stuff like that. Say, how old are you? 22, 23? Yeah? You know what I was doing when I was 22? Having lots of sex — with women. Drinking beer, hanging out with friends, driving cars, going to parties, stuff like that. These are your prime pussy-getting years and you're spending them locked up with a bunch of swinging dongs, playing macho power games."
Women in the audience, I meant no offense by my crude reference to the desirability of your reproductive apparatus. I respect, honor and cherish your gender and the totality of your beings, and did not mean to reduce you to a single body part, but the truth is when you're 22 and male it really is all about getting that one thing.
You'll notice that in the account of my youthful activities above, I didn't mention "going to college" or "building a career" or anything remotely responsible. The reason for this is that I did not engage in any behavior that could be considered remotely responsible. I had a great deal of fun, and 1 was part of a significant historical and cultural phenomenon (the punk/hardcore scenes of the late 70s/early 80s), but my misspent youth did not really set the stage for any kind of secure or comfortable middle age and in fact probably contributed significantly to my current unfortunate condition. Still, I say that if you've got to do time, you may as well do it after no one wants to have sex with you anymore. No point wasting your best years.
I'm not exactly degenerating into decrepitude just yet; I'll be 56 in July, but that represents the upper end at this facility. Most inmates develop health problems that necessitate chronic care and medication by the time they hit their 50s, and the private prison's medical facilities are purely decorative—no health issues are tolerated here. Ergo, the bulk of the population is young and robust and those few of us with AARP eligibility are spry and healthy. Physically, anyhow. You'd be hard-pressed to find a more cranky and cantankerous group of prematurely senescent 50-somethings. They seem to take the presence of youth and virility personally. They never laugh and their conversation is 100% bitchery. They resent being entertained and are forever changing the TV channel to grim reality shows about weird people suffering terrible privations in inhospitable climes. Meanwhile, I'm the weird one because I like to watch Family Guy and play punk songs and do yoga.
I've always treated the aged with the respect and deference they deserve. I've never set anyone adrift on an ice floe, either literally or otherwise, which of course begs the question: how will global warming affect Esquimaux retirement policy? Will they now just push their grandparents into the water and have done with it, there to be ravaged by ferocious leopard seals and skewered by unicorn whales? Seems heartless and cruel. I know they don't have any trees up there, so maybe we down here in the timber-heavy latitudes could ship them some lumber to make rafts. It's the neighborly thing to do.
Anyway. Remember how the Safeway in Ukiah used to have the tables outside, before they decided the homeless were getting their cooties all over them and ruining it for the regular people who wanted to enjoy grocery-store sushi in a parking lot? Well, one fine morning I was occupying one of those tables, enjoying a dangerously over caffeinated coffee bev from the Starbucks inside. I had the place to myself as the Morlocks hadn't yet arisen, and the table was clean and cootie-free. It was a beautiful morning with every indication of fulfilling its promise of a lovely day. An elderly lady came out of the store, towing behind her one of those two-wheeled carts so favored by folks of her demographic. She approached my table and asked if she might sit down. "Of course," I said. "Mi mesa es su mesa."
"What's that?" she asked.
"Nothing, nothing. Sit, sit, welcome."
She did, with a little "unhph" sound, and said, "I've got some little walk home yet, and I wanted to rest a minute."
"By all means," I said. "By the way, my name's Flynn."
"Flynn, like Errol Flynn?"
"Exactly. You get it."
"Oh, of course I remember Errol Flynn. He was a beautiful man. You don't look anything like him."
"Well, we're not related or anything. It's just my first name."
"How old are you, young man?"
Hah! Young man! Love it! "I am 48 years of age," I said.
"Hmph! I'm nearly twice that. 86 years old," she countered.
"Well, twice 48 is 96. That's like, a whole 5th grader off, so not really. It's pretty good, though. Hey, if I can guess who was president when you were born, can I have something out of your bag?"
"Well, you don't look like you know too much. Give it your best shot, sonny."
I stroked my chin thoughtfully and did some calculations. "Okay, it's 2008, minus 86 puts you somewhere around the Civil War, so, could it be… Uh, no, no, maybe it's World War II was thinking of, which was presided over by… You know what, I'm just going to throw a random name out there. Warren G. Harding."
She squinted maliciously at me and said, "Well, that's right. Fair is fair," and began pulling random items out of her cart: a block of barbecued seitan, a pair of reading glasses, a tin of cordovan shoe polish, a jar of marmalade, a plastic spatula, a mango. "Anything here strike your fancy?"
"Ma'am, I should probably tell you that you've been hustled. I mean, I'm still going to take something, but I have a trick memory and can do the presidents backward and forward. I can also tell you the motto, bird, flower, tree, and capital of any state you might care to name, if you want," I said.
"No thank you. And I should probably tell you that I didn't pay for any of these things, so it's no skin off my nose."
"What?” I said gleefully. "Get outta town! You're a shoplifter?"
"Well, it gives me something to do and provides a little excitement in what is otherwise a dull life," she said.
"All right. Respect," I said, putting out my fist for a bump. She put her hand out flat under my fist as if I were going to drop a hard candy into it, so I slipped her some old-school skin.
"What's your name, anyway?" I asked.
"Lillian, but don't call me Lily. My neighbor is also called Lillian and goes by Lily. She has a dog that barks at inappropriate times. I was named for Lillian Gish, do you know who that is?"
"Silent film star, right?"
"You're pretty smart for someone with no job," she said.
"Hey, easy. For all you know, I could be on the second shift somewhere. As it happens, I'm between jobs right now, but I expect something to turn up soon."
"Jobs don't turn up. You have to go and look for them. You know, during the Depression, we ate dandelion greens from the front yard."
"Yeah? Why does everyone who lived through the Depression tell that same story? My grandma says the same thing. If you had a yard, why didn't you grow some potatoes instead of eating weeds?"
"They were delicious, that's why! And if we had a potato, we didn't plant it, we ate it."
"Fair enough. Just seems like you might've wanted to take the long view. Alright, Miss Lillian, I'm going to take this mango because I earned it and it looks delicious. And I would like to walk you home and tow your basket for you, if that's okay."
"Fine, but don't you try anything. I know people in this town."
"So do I, and they're mostly rotten bastards. You I like, though. No worries."
She lived just a couple of blocks east on Gobbi, in the low-income apartments along the tracks. When we got there a tweaked-looking middle-aged woman was coming out of an apartment with a yapping Chihuahua in her arms. "Don't tell me — Lily?" I whispered.
"Yes. Shhh, don't look at her." Lily glared at Lillian and scuttled off. "Tramp," she hissed at her receding back.
I left Lillian at her door with a warning to be careful with her boostings. "They'll never catch me," she said with a wink.
I never saw that sweet, light-fingered old lady again, but that conversation and short walk definitely made my day. And the mango was, in fact, delicious.