I drove through Leavenworth again recently. I remembered driving a friend up there. Leavenworth’s prison was one of the three things she wanted to see in Kansas. She had never been to the midwest. Grew up in Jersey, lived in New York City. She flew in for a bar mitzvah, and in her free time, she wanted to see Leavenworth, sunflowers, and buffalo.
We were able to check off all three wishes in one afternoon. Why on earth did she want to go to Leavenworth? I had never been there, myself. “They’re always mentioning it in ‘Brighton Beach Memoirs,'” she explained.
This was the same friend who took me on the “tour of rich New York,” which consists of dressing fairly well and walking boldly into a variety of fabulous locations just to look around. The Plaza hotel ballrooms were lovely, but more like the ballroom at the Hilton than you’d expect. She was the same friend who I was with, wandering around the Village, and looked up to notice the display in that store was all equipment intended for… expressions of love or great enthusiasm for physical pleasures. She was no prude. She was not, though, the artsy, angsty friend I thought I would make in New York. Maybe I was angsty enough for the both of us.
We approached the prison. It looks like a temple. A temple to the gods of punishment, or safety, or something. It’s a bold, white building, with a big central dome. It could be a library, or a university building, except that it’s surrounded by so much barbed wire. I pulled over the car so she could see it. A huge sign right next to us said, “WARNING. NO PHOTOGRAPHS. FOR SECURITY REASONS, IT IS A FEDERAL CRIME TO PHOTOGRAPH THIS PROPERTY.” My friend jumped out and handed me her camera. “Quick!”
If there was one thing I was learning in those years, it was to consider, “What’s the worst that could happen?” I snapped the photo. She slipped back in the car, and I took off like J. Edgar Hoover was on our trail.
Around the bend, still near the prison, there was an enclosure of buffalo. I think they are still there. I think I saw one, from far off. And on the highway, on our way back, we found sunflowers. They were big and bright. It must have been fall.
We had a great time at the bar mitzvah, once I survived the intense suffering of seeing the boy, who was very dear to me, being choked by a tie and doing what he had to do in front of all those people. He became a man, and my friend became acquainted with the exotic secrets of the midwest.