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RANT RHAPSODY: Memories of San Quentin

Ed.’s note: The following was delivered at the Rail’s most recent Rant Rhapsody reading.

Odd as it may sound, I’ve lately found myself feeling rather nostalgic for San Quentin. That sensation is even more peculiar when I remind myself that etymologically, nostalgia means homesickness. No, I wasn’t conceived or raised at San Quentin. The only time I ever did there was three semesters in the college program ten years ago. But given that many of my formative intellectual experiences occurred inside the prison’s walls, I do consider the place to be a home of sorts in my life.

I have plenty of good memories of the characters I met at Quentin. One of my favorites is of a student I taught who simply went by Kane. The course covered the history of western punishment. In concluding one of his papers, Kane declared that “There is no justice. It just is.” Foucault could not have made the point any better, and he most certainly wouldn’t have said it any clearer. Kane also offered a rather unique take on a proposal floated at the time by the California Department of Corrections, which would have forced the prisoners to trade in their denims for orange jumpsuits. As Kane explained, this change meant that “If you escape, you’re gonna have to jump somebody just for their clothes.”

Many of my most vivid images of San Quentin actually are not from the mid-1990s, when I was there. They’re from the 50s and 60s, mostly from before I was born. They come from the many writings in and about the prison that I was reading at the time, and that I’ve gone back to lately. Prisons in many respects are haunted houses. The walls and grounds contain the remnants of many dead souls whose spirits survive in the lore passed down from the older cons to new. And so even though I was there several decades after the people I’d read about, I still felt that being in the same place enabled me to get to know them, too.

From the early 50s through the late 60s, San Quentin was literally a Who’s Who of American Prisoners. Through its walls passed many of the great writers and musicians of the day. The writers included George Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Malcolm Braly and Edward Bunker, who was “Mr. Blue” in Reservoir Dogs (and screenwriter of Straight Time, one of the best films about ex-cons). The musicians ranged from Merle Haggard to the great saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Art Pepper. Johnny Cash never did time, but he did of course visit on more than a few occasions and record one of his best albums there. “San Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me…”

In the late 1950s, the most famous American prisoner of the period was also at San Quentin. I doubt whether anyone here tonight is old enough to remember him, and I am absolutely certain that most of you haven’t read my book about his case. But Caryl Chessman was internationally renowned as a bestselling death row author who nearly succeeded in writing his way off of death row. After much controversy and outcry, he was executed in 1960. But among other effects, he had helped put San Quentin in the national spotlight and inspired many better writers, including Braly and Bunker, to pick up the pen.

My favorite works about San Quentin are not the novels, although Braly’s On the Yard and Bunker’s The Animal Factory are both outstanding. Nor are they the landmark political tracts written by Cleaver and George Jackson—which are obviously quite important, but not specifically focused on San Quentin. Instead, what I find to be the most insightful writings about San Quentin are two autobiographies: Braly’s False Starts and Art Pepper’s Straight Life. Written in the mid and late 70s (respectively), both works are now forgotten, yet both still have very much to say about prisoners and prisons, then and now.

I must confess that I was very much inclined to like Malcolm Braly’s False Starts before I delved into it. The Penguin paperback edition carries a notable blurb. It declares that the work is “The best prison book I have ever read.” The statement is from one William Cole, father of The Rail’s Williams Cole. William Cole, as many of you know, was a legend in the New York literary world—as an author and editor, as well as a humorist and a bit of a sex fiend. In short, I would trust his judgment regarding any piece of literature.

Braly was born in 1924, and grew up in various towns on the West Coast. He was raised during the Depression, living with a father he described as a “used-car salesman and a failed confidence man.” While in high school, he launched his career as a thief by stealing clothes from a laundromat; he also quickly initiated his habit of getting pinched by wearing a gabardine coat he had taken in the heist to a local pool hall, where the owner of the coat happened to be. It was the first of many foolish robberies that sent him away, to reform school and then to prison.

Braly’s first prison sentence came at age 20 in Nevada. He and two reform school pals were driving a stolen car, when they were nabbed by a small-town sheriff. In the police station, Braly and his buddies flipped the script and overpowered the sheriff and another officer, handcuffing the cops to the jail cell and stealing money and a rifle. Needless to say, that got him sent away. The Nevada stretch also factored into Braly’s sentence three years later to San Quentin, for a robbery that netted all of 35 cents. He had a record, after all, and a wrongheaded public defender had convinced him to plead guilty.

As he tells tales about life on the inside, Braly recaptures many lost treasures in prison lore: the art of safecracking and lock-picking; the joys of Benzedrine nasal inhalers; and the days when art, music and writing classes were common. Even when describing the monotony and mundane details of the everyday prison routine, his writing is quite lively and vivid. Of the Quentin cafeteria, he notes:

What you are aware of here is the noise. Thousands of spoons and forks thrashing away at thousands of metal trays, thousands of conversations, mixed with the banging of metal dippers against steel cauldrons at the serving line, while back in the kitchen the dishwashing machines roared like reapers. Across the mess hall we can see the blue Quentin population. There is every type. The kind of street bravos I had known in [reform school], mixed with creeping old men and intellectual cons, spooning chili and reading books, and a lot of just plain prisoners. The blacks were segregated in the mess hall. The Chicanos weren’t. High above us, on a narrow metal walk, two bulls walked around and around carrying rifles.

After 2 ½ years, Braly got out, and moved across the bay to San Francisco. He got married, had a kid, worked odd jobs, but ultimately couldn’t hack it. He got pinched again for robbery, this time after stealing gold fillings from a dentist’s office in Palo Alto. After briefly spending part of his second stretch at Folsom, at that time the prison where the worst criminals in the California system went, he came back to San Quentin. After parole was denied, he described what the following year would be like:

I would see fifty-two movies, of which twenty would be B Westerns, and eat meatloaf thirty-seven times. I would jack off approximately two hundred times, examine my hairline at least once a week, and my stomach would continue to bother me, and my crotch would begin to rot.

Braly was in his 30s now, and in prison he had grown older, though not much wiser. It was only after getting out, moving to Santa Barbara, knocking off another medical office, and coming back to Quentin for a third stretch, when things finally began to change. And why? Because he finally decided that he would become a writer. It is a surefire cure for stupidity.

Reflecting back on his experiences in and out of prison two decades later, Braly makes no false apologies and provides no pop-psych explanations for his behavior. He simply did his crimes and his time. “I remain typical of those prisoners forced into thoughtfulness by the effort to understand and perhaps reverse the apparent ruin of their own lives,” he says. When that moment dawned on him, San Quentin—amidst the era of rehabilitation—had plenty of programs, writing and otherwise, that allowed Braly to become a successful author. At the time, such efforts were encouraged by both the culture of San Quentin and of American society as a whole.

And what a keen, often wryly hilarious understanding of both his own actions as well as the absurdity of prison life Braly displays. A prison evaluation of his character had once declared that Braly “appears to be a pseudo-intellectual who may have homosexual tendencies.” Though he preferred having sex with women, Braly would indeed have sex with men while locked up. At one point, he notes:

One of my rational fantasies—there was some slight hope of it—was [that Quentin officials] would somehow slip up and put an attractive queen in my cell, and this, like so many of my projections, came true, but in its own way. The queen was grossly fat, farted like a mule, and lay around at night in an outsized pair of women’s panties, embroidered with the signs of the zodiac.

In such a twisted environment, writing is one of the best ways to stay sane.

Rather than a nobody who made himself a success, like Braly, Art Pepper came into San Quentin with serious artistic credentials. Born in 1925, Pepper grew up in Los Angeles, where his father was a longshoreman in Long Beach. Pepper cut his chops in the Central Avenue jazz scene of the late 1940s, where Dexter Gordon was king. His breakthrough album was Art Pepper Meets the Rhythm Section, recorded in 1957. That rhythm section was on loan from Miles Davis, and consisted of the greats Paul Chambers, Red Garland and Philly Joe Jones. Together they created a truly stellar album, with Pepper’s alto sweetly leading the way.

But the tale that Pepper (with his wife, Laurie) tells in Straight Life contains little of the upbeat outlook of West Coast jazz. The true nature of the book is suggested by the title, a double entendre. Straight Life is both a prison sentence and what addicts must embrace in order to recover. Pepper’s first addiction is to (hetero) sex—and in the book, “joint” also has a double meaning. When I retrieved my copy of Straight Life from the Rail’s Williams Cole the other day, he noted that “parts of it gave me wood.” Now that would make a great blurb.

The only cure that Pepper found for his sex addiction was heroin. That addiction, in turn, destroyed his musical career. He hocked his saxophone for dope money. He took up a life of “boosting,” or stealing whatever he could get his hands on—at one point, he recalls stumbling down the street dragging a hydraulic jack. After a bigger score, a nightclub safe, Pepper says:

I felt so happy. I had never felt any elation like that before. It was a feeling of power, of accomplishment. I really felt like a man. I don’t think I’ve ever been so satisfied with anything I’ve ever done. I looked at other people on the streets and I thought, ‘They ain’t nothing compared to me! I’m a giant! King Pepper! King Arthur! Mr. Jazz! Mr. Everything!’

Instead of stealing, Pepper ultimately got pinched for possession of heroin—and was sent to San Quentin in 1961. From the get-go, it was clear to Pepper that the joint was not the integrated world he had known in the jazz scene. There was a rising tide of black nationalism sweeping through the prison, and Pepper felt shut out. At San Quentin, he notes:

I started forming a dislike for [blacks]…because I thought, ‘Here I am, a guy that played jazz, had black friends. Why wouldn’t they [now] talk to me, help me out? Because I’m white? I’m not a Mexican. The Mexicans help me.

Pepper’s animosities towards other races and types of prisoners only grew worse. He was not there in San Quentin trying to understand anyone, least of all himself. His description of the mess hall is just a bit different from Braly’s:

I saw people with part of their chins blown away or an eye gone. Hideous people, little white sissies, spooks’ punks, with all kinds of jackets on to protect them if they got shanked. It was a sea of faces and not one smile. Just looks. Evil, cold, penetrating looks. I thought, ‘Is this what I’m going to do for two to twenty years’?

Bitter, vengeful, and brutally honest, Pepper recounts how he spent the first half of the 1960s in San Quentin. He should be at the height of his musical career, but instead he’s in the joint. And the only thing he learns is that prison truly can be hell.

Sad to say, when thinking about prisoners’ experiences today, Pepper’s is probably the more common one. Very few prisoners go in having achieved much success, artistic or otherwise, on the outside, of course. But given the extremely high rates of return, it’s hard to see what good prisons are doing for the more than two million people incarcerated. College programs, vocational training, and all kinds of rehabilitative programs have been cut. So even if someone wants to change their criminal ways, like Braly, there’s no encouragement. And so the people who do make it out are more likely to be embittered, their attitudes about racial and other groups hardened.

One of the more direct lessons I learned at San Quentin was that anyone could become a criminal, and fit any number of types. A fellow teacher and I once discussed what we thought might be the specific convictions that had sent most of our students away. He assured me, rather too nonchalantly, that they were a “bunch of wife killers.” Not too long after that, this same teacher’s girlfriend was trying to leave him. He took some sort of speed, tied her up, and forced her to watch him threaten to commit suicide. He was sentenced to at least a few years for that crime.

As we chatted outside the prison’s education building one day, one of my students and I discussed the high rate of return among prisoners. That student, Jason Gottleib, observed that “There are a lot of knuckleheads in here.” Clearly, he could have been referring to some of the teachers as well. Jason helped administer the college program, and about a year and half ago received parole, no easy task in California. Jason once wrote a piece about San Quentin that we published in the Rail. He’s not trying to make a career as a writer (a life sentence of a different sort), but the last I heard, he’s doing well on the outside. In some small measure, the spirit of Malcolm Braly carries on.


Theodore Hamm


The Brooklyn Rail

MAY 2007

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