I made three mistakes within my first twenty-four hours of arriving in Big Spring. My first offense was pissing in the toilet. We do not do this. We do not piss in the toilet. We piss in the urinals. Toilets are for shitting in, except the toilet on the left. You may piss in that toilet, or shit. Otherwise we piss in the urinals and shit only in the toilets.
My second gaffe was one I’d made my first day in Mississippi. I didn’t know then that I was expected to sit with the other white men in the chow hall and consequently suffered through a tense breakfast with a gang of Mexicans. This time around, however, I gathered my food tray and settled across from a gentleman of exceptional whiteness. I asked if he didn’t mind my sitting with him. He swallowed a bite of bologna sandwich and replied very sweetly, “Of course you can sit here. You can sit anywhere.”
Right then I knew I had sat at the wrong table again, because no self-respecting white man in prison would dare say such a thing. A proper white man would have wiped the salad dressing from his beard, screwed one eye up at me and said, “Why sure you can sit here . . . long as you ain’t a homo or cho-mo”–child molester. Or he might have told me, simply, to fuck off.
Sit anywhere–imagine! Here was a man who had no appreciation for the prison caste system or, for that matter, the white man’s rightful seat at the top. Obviously this poor soul was an exile, banished by his own race, but for what misdeed or to what band of outcasts he belonged I did not know. I finished my sandwich and ran.
My third mistake wasn’t so much a mistake as an uninformed decision. I was fiddling with the broken latch on my locker when I was approached by a tall gray-haired man who introduced himself as Speaker for the Whites. His appearance was sudden but not surprising. Here it was, the first order of business, the standard greeting for every new arrival: Who are you? Where are you from? Who do you run with? Are you a sex offender?
“Are you a sex offender?” the Speaker asked.
I held his gaze and answered as I always have. “No,” I lied. “I’m not a sex offender.”
“Because it’s fine if you are,” he qualified. It is? “There’s lots of sex offenders here”–there are?–“and we don’t bother or harass them or steal their shit.” You don’t?
Big Spring, it turns out, is a sanctuary to some 300 sex offenders. Strength-in-numbers and a no-tolerance policy keep them safe. Mess with a sex offender and you might find yourself facing criminal charges or, at the very least, spending the rest of your bid in a penitentiary up north where it snows nine months out of the year. Had I known I’d find protection here in the company of others, I might have decided to come clean.
Like the Whites, the sex offenders have their own speaker, a young gay man named Michael whose charge, I’m told, involves child porn. I saw him passing through the gym yesterday with a new initiate in tow. One of his roles as speaker is to welcome incoming sex offenders, introduce them to the crew, lay down the rules (tell them about the toilets), and give them a tour of the facility: and here are the elliptical machines and stationary bikes, and here the leather craft shop and equipment closet, and the art room hung with tentative but promising oil portraits of actresses, quarterbacks, Jesus Christ, and of wives and children left behind in Mexico. They passed me at the water fountains, the newb still shitting street food and looking overwhelmed like a man trying to drink from a fire hose, and continued out a back door and on to the horseshoe pits and the Natives’ sweat lodge.
The speaker is also responsible for securing turf for his constituents. In this respect Michael has done well. The sex offenders control all land and picnic tables between the rec center and Mexican-owned hand ball courts. Middle Earth, the Whites call it. They also enjoy the chapel’s courtyard with its solitary white-washed birch tree, the only tree like it on the yard. And, accessible from inside the rec center, through a door marked NO SUNBATHING / NO BRONCEAR, is their own private outdoor patio with chairs, tables, and flat screen televisions. Leave it to a homosexual man to vie for the coziest spots on the compound.
They do well for themselves, which makes me think I should rescind, take back my hasty lie and join the other pedos, homos, and cho-mos on the porch for a game of Scrabble or Scattegories: name a candy that begins with p–Pay Days, peanut brittle, penny candy.
The Whites have amenities, too–a private television room and unfettered access to the weight pile–but disassociating myself from the sex offenders did not automatically grant me access to these White-only privileges. The Speaker made this clear. If I want to run with the Whites I must present them with my paperwork–court documentation proving I am neither a sex offender or snitch. Without such evidence I am white only in color, not in status. I am white with a little w. I run solo.
It didn’t take long to figure out that that man I’d eaten bologna sandwiches with was a sex offender. He and the other cho-mos occupy four rows of tables nearest the hot-and-cold bar. And though it wasn’t my intention and have since found other accommodations, I can at least say with good humor that I had sat at the right table after all.