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Zuzus, WhamWhams & The G-36

In a recent Letters column, a Mr. Tom Reier wrote in re: the linguistic impenetrability of Mr. Tone Dogg's tale of reggae and river shenanigans and bouncings around in some the region's finer detention facilities. I appreciate the confidence in me, but I'm afraid Mr. Dogg is just too manic for me. I couldn't really make head nor tail of a lot of that gorgonzola and suspect ol' Tone is employing some artistic license.

Prison slang isn't what it used to be, either, there being so much cultural bleed-through between the house of correction and the general urban landscape — though you can't get much less urban than Mendocino and Humboldt counties without actually donning overalls and a feed-store cap and standing around the pickle barrel over to the general store and discussing crop-lore with Zeke and JimBob.

Most of what you hear coming out of the mouths of young convicts these days is mirrored in the lyrics of popular songs and is well-known and used by children who will never see the inside of a jail cell.

Time was, the argot of prison was a singularly colorful and secret language, employed like any cant to identify the ins and exclude the outs. But rap artists seeking to establish their bonafides and television producers aiming for gritty realism have spilled the beans and rendered what was once exclusive jargon into fairly common currency.

Consider the example of one of the finest, most euphonious and fancifully descriptive phrases ever to come out of the big house: zuzus and whamwharns, used to denote your various snack items available at the commissary, chips and candy and the like. As in: "Aright, son, you got you a little job now, put a little zuzus and wharnwharns in your locker."

Now, not only does every straight joe paying a little attention know exactly what zuzus and whamwhams are, a major snack-food manufacturer has actually co-opted the name and branded its products directly with it, stripping it of all cachet and cred.

If you want to hear some real, old-school, arcane prison lingo, you've got to go to the O.G.s, especially when they go after one of the youngsters. "What the fuck you just say to me? Who do you think I am, some kind of Willie Lump-Lump? Motherfucker, I look like a foo-foo to you? I will punctuate your fartbox, you little half a sissy. I will sew you up inside a trick-bag so tight you won't remember how to wipe your little candy-cane ass.”

“Come around here sellin' those woof tickets like you think you got a pair. Best tuck that shit behind your legs when you talkin' to me, Susie. I will smother you in onions and serve you au gratin, see if I don't. I will fricasee your little ass. Now get the fuck outtahere, I'm tryin' to watch the Food channel."

Prison on the whole has changed dramatically in recent years and the dilution of language is only one symptom.The War On Drugs, overcharging, mandatory minimums, zero tolerance, and Linda Thompson have all contributed to a huge prison population who would not normally (pre-Reagan) have been locked up, forcing California to revise and expand its protective custody, or SNY (Sensitive Needs Yard) program.

At one time it was reserved for snitches and sex offenders whose lives would be forfeit on a regular yard, but later became a haven for gang members looking to come in from the cold. After that came an influx of ordinary joes looking to escape the politics and racism of the mainline (myself included), GBT inmates (I left off the L and the Q because the L is strictly the province of the ladies, whose policies regarding sexuality differ quite widely from the fellas, and I'm not entirely clear on what the Q signifies — I've heard Questioning, which seems vague, and Queer, which must somehow be different than Gay, though I'm damned if I know how), and pretty much everyone who's become disenchanted with the old dopey-stabby prison model.

As might be expected, turns out there are quite a few people who, if given the option,will elect to forgo being stabbed. Ergo, more and more yards are "flipping" to the SNY designation.

As might also be expected, many of the problems and challenges plaguing the mainline have reasserted themselves in SNY, specifically gangs. Many “dropouts” supposedly trying to turn their lives around are actually either escaping retribution for shady behavior or just flat-out pussies who crave the power and security of gang life but are unwilling to incur the attendant danger inherent in the lifestyle, figuring to find softer, weaker targets to exploit on SNY. This strategy proved workable, to a degree — after all, many inmates here have open and honest lines of communication with the authorities — but there was at least one faction who chose not to become victims, who said to the reconstituted gang members, "Yeah, no."

The Letters section of the AVA is occasionally used as a forum for bickering inmates in different prisons to accuse and threaten one another, and you will sometimes hear a charge of affiliation with the GBG, mainliners supposing this to be a grievous insult. “Gay Boy Gangsters” seems to them absurdly oxymoronic, as they cannot reconcile what they consider mutually exclusive conditions, “gay” and “gangster.” Unenlightened inmates carrying around certain erroneous models in their heads — of either an Archie Bunker-ish conception of a simpering priss in Edwardian lavender tiptoeing through the tulips or one of the dapper, artistic wits of the Bravo channel — who run afoul of the GBG learn very quickly the danger of stereotyping.There is nothing feminine or even vaguely sissy about the beat-downs they administer, and in fact for sheer ferocity and willingness to mix it up, the GBGs exceed many of their straight macho counterparts. Like the diminutive Ducky Boys of Wanderers fame, underestimate them at your peril.

I would never join a gang — I'm way too antisocial for that — but if I did, I might like to function as token breeder in a GBG faction, having had the experience of another of their organizations.

At the beginning of my term, my arrival at CCI (Tehachapi) coincided with the start of softball season, and I went to see the rec clerk about getting on a team. "You're a little late," he said. "All I've got is a spot on the gay team, so…"

"Sign me up!" I said without hesitation. I just wanted to play ball.

As it turned out, only about a third of the team was actually “gay,” the rest being people identifying as female — some actively transitioning, some not — and their boyfriends, who considered themselves straight and just there to support their womenfolk. These nice people welcomed me onto their team warmly and sincerely. They did ask me about my personal proclivities, and when I informed them I was straight, said, “Good for you. You let us know if anyone gives you any shit about playing for us, we'll take care of it. Now, what's your position on ass-slaps?”

“Well, the major-leaguers do it, so I guess it's okay,” I said.

“That's the spirit. Now grab a glove and get out there, sweetie.” He gave me a little swat. “Welcome to the Children of Sodom.”

“Glad to be here. I usually function as utility infield.” “Alright, take second. Careful of the first-baseman.”

Manning the one-sack was Malaysia, a rotund transgender with a big chip on her shoulder.

During the season opener, the first opposing baserunner to perch on her bag attempted to make conversation. “Hey, how you doin’?” he said.

“Bitch, I will kill you,” Malaysia said

We won that game, and ended up at .500 on the season, every victory exceedingly sweet as we watched, in the late innings, the panic in our opponents eyes as they realized that they were about to go down at the hands of a group of sodomites.

Of course, the worrisome possibility suggested by the success of the GBG is other blocs within SNY organizing, demanding recognition and respect for their unique properties and perspective, which makes sense if you're gay but not if you're, say, a rat. Can you imagine a prison gang composed entirely of snitches? They probably wouldn't get away with much. “Okay, hoys, we're gonna hit the NRs right after chow. Rocko,you pass out the weapons. Johnny, you brief the lieutenant."

Or worse— the formation of Chomo Nation. The mind reels, and not pleasantly. Whatever monkey business they might get up to as a unified entity does not bear thinking about.

Nope, prison is not what it used to be, but hey,what is?

As near as I can tell, the purpose of the neologisms crafted by youth is to confuse and irritate older people, so: Mission accomplished, Tone Dogg. Not to brag, but I'm pretty good with words, divining meaning from context, extracting roots, scrutinizing morphemes,etc., and I still felt sometimes like I was talking to an octopus. Entertaining, though, I'll give you that.

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