DP134037.jpgAcross the avenue from my doctor’s office is the building with the clock tower.  It was 4:05 PM.

Clock towers: “Back to the Future,” the Prairie Village pool complex, with the clock up there where we could look up from the water to see it was the time Mom said we had to leave, “Peter Pan.”

I had allowed an hour to get to the doctor, and it had taken half an hour to get there.  I had written to my boss that I would have to leave a little early.  Now it was cold and raining and I had half an hour.  I crossed my arms for warmth, and crossed the avenue, and followed a mom and a kid up the steps and in the doors.

Inside was as lovely as outside, vaulting ceilings, a grandiose spiral staircase going up and a Hobbity one going down.  I went down first, Hobbity, and looked over the space, a bitty art display in the hall, then a room of people staring at laptops and books, a few of them homeless and pee-scented.  The public library scene.  Upstairs, at the top of the spiral, there was a wheel of iron that kept the tower open, held it to its proper circumference, kept is lung open, and there were more rooms that were now library rooms, the people, the same, basically, quiet, and I walked around spectator only like I had no interest in books and no library card in my billfold.

These were courtrooms, these various rooms, where people, instead of being in quiet, were engaged in civilized fighting and frequently were chewing on all kinds of hostile feelings and worries.  The children’s reading room was once the police court, the adult reading room was a civil court.

In the entry, there was a glass case with a display about the history of the building.  It was a market and a tower to look for fires (like in the wilderness, now), then that was demolished.  Famous architects built a courthouse.  Completed, it was named one of the five loveliest buildings in the world.  It was a courthouse, then various city offices, then attacked by all the forces of irritability of the city trying to be modern, and saved, post-Penn Station.  The building is on a funny-shaped lot, where Greenwich Village starts and things get confusing, and have gotten confusing, in every way since they set up the grid uptown.  The back half of the lot is also a funny shape, and on it was built a women’s prison.

It was the 1930s, and prisoners in New York City were moving from what is now Roosevelt Island to Riker’s and to this facility, and they were becoming “inmates” instead of “prisoners.”

When it opened, people complained that the building was too lovely for such a shitty neighborhood, Greenwich Village, 1932.

People complained that the screams of the women in the women’s prison were bothersome.  “Hardly the conversation we want our children to hear.”  For forty years, people yelled up to their friends, relatives, and enemies housed inside.  It was a prison with windows that opened, and whosoever was in jail was yelling out and free people were yelling in and at it.

Dorothy Day, Angela Davis, and Ethel Rosenberg: in.

And what time is it?

After moving our prison from Roosevelt Island to Riker’s, the New York Times suggests, among other ideas, that Riker’s be “given back to the sea gulls.”  And the people we imprison or inmate will be moved again.

When the women’s prison was torn down, a process begun by Mayor Lindsay in a cute white hard hat, the courthouse that became a library was no longer overshadowed.  Its clock tower could be seen again from more angles.  And the piece of land behind it became a park: “10 Star and Saucer Magnolia trees, 7 Yoshino Cherry trees, 2 American Yellowwoods, 7 Thornless Honeylocusts, 10 Crabapple trees, 70 fairy hedge roses around the lawn, 60 pycarantha, and 56 holly bushes in clusters.”  I stood and read that with my lips moving because all the names were so melodic, the wind was cold, and I saw that there were roses growing in and on the fence because there were thorns.

It was 4:25 PM.

In the image above, the prison is the ominous thing on the left.  The elevated subway on 6th Avenue is long gone.  

Photo by Berenice Abbott, 1935, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My favorite source on the Women’s House of Detention

The Garden and what was planted there.


The Real Criminals

DT1158I was sitting on the train looking out the open doors to the platform, the doors were open, a woman took out a book without looking at it, a yellow paperback, and she held it up, upside-down, then she looked down, and she turned it around.

The class I was in was about resurrection, and I had to admit, I didn’t think I believed in it.  What I do believe in is transcendence.  I know how to be bigger.  I can almost always sit or kneel and close my eyes and be bigger.

I walked by a long plate glass window and even with the glare I could see there was a huge screen of floating pink flower petals behind the man in the suit.  The man in the suit looked at me, smiled, waved me to come in.  I was like, no.

I turned the corner and there were at least four more guys in suits, all young, beautiful men in suits, which is something I don’t mind looking at at all, it is no trouble, and two more of them invited me in, and I looked away.  I stopped once I was past and wondered why I had not gone in.  I felt like I should stop and say, “I don’t have any money,” as the whole thing was so lavish and I was not about to buy anything they were selling.

I turned around and went back, each suited man greeted me, one gave me a booklet and explained this was a “multisensory experience,” I went inside, around a corner past the flower petal screen, the first man approved of me changing my mind.

Each little station inside, it was quite dark, soft black.  At each station a beautiful, well-shaven man looked into my eyes and told me, in a pearl voice, the honorable act I was about to engage in.  And I stopped to look over into pools of water full of rose petals, when you bent over, the water knew, and parted, and a beautiful fact about the special roses, grown only in a certain town in France, used for perfume appeared.  A pool of jasmine petals was on the other side.

I moved my hand through beams of light that played notes, making a chord like the chord of the perfume, with all those notes.  I looked at a bunch of clear plastic squares hung up in a neat pattern, no one explained that one to me.  Finally the last suited man told me to walk up and lean into a cutout of a perfume bottle and smell.  Ah, there was the smelling, they saved that for last, of course.

When I thought of the rent on that space, and the cost of the suits, and the men, it was clearer to me where my money spent on perfume goes.  It was equally upsetting and great.  What is a scent without mysticism?

Church the next week, I thought of a few other things I believe in: submission.  To your fate, that is, what is happening and not happening to you now, to ideas bigger than you, to pain, to forgiveness.

I went to Williamsburg for this lecture on the prison system.  Williamsburg is one of those “cool” parts of Brooklyn that I do not live in.  The volume of young people and cute restaurants exhausted me.  I went into the theater for the lecture, and sat next to a long red rope hanging from the ceiling.

The talking about prisons included liberal bemoaning “the real criminals,” an old woman jumping up and demanding we speak about police violence (at her age I will let her say whatever, but it was boring), and us all congratulating each other for being such eager to pay taxes, open minded people.

People who all love the idea of living next door to, say, a convicted sex offender.  Or paying higher taxes in this already wicked expensive city.

A white guy asked about how not to be scared for the girls in prison he was working with, and five people jumped in and explained why he shouldn’t be scared of people who are in prison, or have been in prison, in fact, I was incarcerated, they look just like you and me.  A man who has been making regular trips to Rikers is, you know, not afraid of people in prison, but they heard what they expected to hear.

Did I have to move to Brooklyn to love Republicans?  No.  I already loved them.  I just appreciate them in a different way now, raging liberal though I remain.

The great parts were: the magnificently pinstripe suit attired, slightly bumbly, hot shit cohost of the panel.  She had crazy hair.  She has her own dance company.  Also: that red rope?  That was her thing.  We were told to pull the ropes whenever we wanted, to keep things “risky,” which, philosophically, they were not, but with paper scraps and white feathers occasionally raining down, they were more interesting.  I tucked one feather, and one scrap of black paper, into my purse.

I took the train back into Manhattan and then back into Brooklyn, to home, it was faster, don’t ask, all the time reading, thinking I could not listen to music or play my all-important candy crush knockoff game.  All my progress in conquering pretend Australia: gone.  My phone had been stolen that afternoon.  I felt very strongly that things would not be all right until I had a phone again.  All the music I had ever bought on actual CDs, gone, gone, I had not gotten around to moving it to my laptop.  I had left all the actual CDs in my last move.

When I walked into my living room, I thought, oh, home.  I didn’t remember ever having thought that of the apartment in quite that way, home seemed more like a word for it I was expected to use.  My cat walked out of my bedroom and fell on her side to show me her belly.

Image: Flower Study, Rose of Sharon, Adolphe Braun, 1854, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Keys

The prison visits were the most educational part of my last job.  The prisoners we would interact with were fathers.  We were supposed to give them surveys so that we could report on their attitudes about parenting.  Some of them had participated in parenting classes while at the prison, and some had not.

All the researchers were women.  All the prisons we visited were men’s prisons, medium and minimum security.  We were told to dress modestly.  We were told to keep our last names and addresses to ourselves.  We made a lot of jokes, but we covered up, ankles to necks.

Part of the reason we were going was our literacy.  To get the information we needed, we were to read questions aloud to the men, if they couldn’t read well.

Prison campuses are a lot like college campuses.  Open areas of green.  Little bedrooms.  Libraries.  Murals painted on gym walls.

They are like high schools, too, with those long, round-seat cafeteria tables that fold up in half and tall.  They are places where people have to be observed and managed carefully, to prevent violence.

Of the three prisons, two felt good and one felt wrong.  I’m going to attribute this to an outrageous generalization: there are two kinds of prison guards.   (This works for most authority figures– teachers, police officers– but we’ll stick with prison guards mostly.)

The first kind longs to create order.  They have sought authority to create order.  For a vulnerable community, order is safety.  Order is justice.  Order is peace.

The second kind like to break things.  Authority figures get to break things, and people, and they’re more likely to get away with it than the average person.  The second kind like to intimidate and humiliate, and they don’t even know, or care, that intimidation and humilation are dangerous.  Not just for the victim.  For everyone.

Knowing how to structure human interaction so that calm reigns is an art.  It’s hard skill to teach.  I think some people’s egos are too bruised or too weak to manage great disparities of power, like those that exist between guards and inmates, teachers and students, or police officers and citizens.  When I visited, I met prison guards and leaders who reeked of peace like a Zen master.  And guards who seemed edgy.  If there’s anything a prison needs, it’s peace.  A lot of people are in there because their peace meters ran on empty too long.

Every year I have my students watch a documentary called “What I Want My Words to Do To You.”  Eve Ensler, later to become famous as the author of “The Vagina Monologues,” led a writing group in a women’s maximum security prison, and the 2003 film shows how writing affected the inmates.  It gives a voice to people who are usually forgotten.  Being forgotten might be part of their punishment.  The problem is that they have a lot to teach us.

Even if you’re not a squishy rehabilitiative-minded liberal, like me, you ought to wonder what people in prison are thinking because you’re paying their rent.  You’re buying them breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  Those meals could be nourishing them along the way to self-improvement, or they could be feeding their anger.  Most people in prison get out.  Few of them are locked up forever.  Eventually, they’re going to be your neighbors and your coworkers.

In the documentary, all the women take responsibility for their choices.  That might make it easier for some people to watch.  The women don’t complain about false accusations or bad influences who controlled them.  On the other hand, I’m not sure why people think everyone in prison should take full responsibility for all their choices, though.  Most people on the outside don’t.

People in physical prisons, and all the other kinds, too, need structured, peaceful places.  Without structure and peace, it’s very difficult to be honest.  And without honesty, how can anyone change?  The people who keep some of our prisons structured and peaceful don’t get much respect.  The value of their contribution far exceeds the recognition they receive.