The hardest thing to explain was the cupcakes. Altan had more tattoos on his body than just about any prisoner at Rikers and each time he had returned (and he’d been on the island briefly twice before) he had enjoyed that first moment in the weight room when he removed his shirt and someone would say, “Damn! You got a lot of ink there, son.”
It was always said with respect and made for an easy way to tell anyone who wanted to know a little more about him, “A conversation starter,” as his mother used to say. She had brought him a bag of plastic gold coins once, after she took a trip out of town, and said he could bring them to school and pull them out on the playground as a conversation starter, ‘cause he was always going to a new school. And then she got mad when he gave them all away but whose coins were they in the first place?
Now he had tattoos.
“This here green rose,” he said as the guys gathered ‘round between the free weights this time, studying his torso like a bunch of ladies in a butcher shop eye-balling the marble in a slab of meat, “was for a girl named Rose I knew who had the greenest eyes you’ve ever seen.”
“What’s with them drops of blood on the rose?” someone asked. Short little black dude with hair like a Brillo pad. “Was she like on the rag or something?”
Brillo laughed at his own joke and looked around the circle to see if anyone else was going to laugh. Problem with Rikers was you got all kinds of punks like this who were just here for a few days ‘cause no one knew what to do with ‘em. Altan was glad no one else laughed but they all looked at him, awaiting his answer.
“We used to shoot together,” he said, looking at the tattoo on his bicep, touching the drops of blood as if they were morning dew. “She passed a few years back so this is kind of a tribute to her.”
There were some silent nods. Most people here knew someone who had died but losing a girl gained you some respect. Altan didn’t tell them that she had OD’s in the next room while he was watching Antiques Roadshow but even so, he knew some of these guys had done worse.
Then there was the skeleton key, a long key with an actual skull at the top; Rita had come up with that one and Altan had just gone with it, though frankly by the time she was finished he was already sick of the bitch. Most of his tatts had been inspired by or even suggested by women he’d known, some of whom were tattoo artists themselves. So sometimes talking about all his tatts was like talking about all the women he’d known, and that got old fast.
“What’s up with the cupcakes?” This time it was some old white dude, glad to know there were a few here, Rikers tended to be younger and black. This was one of these old Hell’s Angels looking dudes, probably awaiting trial for cooking meth or some shit. He had a pretty impressive set of tatts himself but it was the usual prison shit: Jesus with some freaking barbed wire on His head, like they even had barbed wire then.
“That was for some girl I knew,” Altan said, bending his arm slightly so they could admire the realistic pair of chocolate cupcakes with the white icing and red candy hearts on top. “She just really liked cupcakes.”
The room busted up, big old boys and little street punks like Brillo there, but Altan rode it out, just watched the feelings like Bart had told him to do here once, and smiled. Maybe they weren’t thinking anything so bad. This was the place where if someone thought you were a pussy they’d just come out and say so, or would to someone like Altan anyway, who was big but not especially bad. Maybe they were all thinking of stupid shit they had done for some girl, who knew? Then Brillo said it again: “’She just really liked cupcakes,’” and they all started laughing again.
He was going to have to work on his story.
It took David weeks to get the space he needed to teach the beginner’s class, even though Prison Dharma had been there before without incident. But Bart was the one who handled all that stuff then, and he was so much better at that kind of thing than David was. Or maybe it was just the rules that had changed, or maybe they just made you go through the whole thing every time.
“New day, same rules,” Brian Keith had told him over the phone. “Though sometimes they make up new rules on the same day, just to see if you’re paying attention.”
David hadn’t met Brian Keith yet but he imagined he was fat; he wheezed slightly in between his words, like the sound a bagpipe player makes before he begins to play. Keith was a deputy chief of staff of operations at Rikers and always used both names when he answered the phone: “This is Brian Keith.” The first time they spoke he said to David he’d added, “I’m not the dude from the Family Affair.” David didn’t know what he was talking about but laughed anyway, figuring it was the way to get on his good side.
“I don’t know if you remember when we were there before,” David said, “but we had a very good response from both the prisoners and the guards – “
“Reports were very positive,” Brian Keith said.
“So basically we want to do the same deal. Come in for like an hour, do a little guided meditation and then have Dawn lead them some basic yoga poses.”
“Did you say ‘Dawn’? This is a girl Dawn?”
“Yeah, but she’s taught in jails before,” David said. At least he thought she had. Now, talking to Brian Keith on the phone, he wasn’t really sure.
“Gonna make it hard for them to concentrate, don’t you think? Having some girl bending over, getting down on all fours.”
“Well, we generally do this after the meditation – “
“You know what I like to concentrate on?”
David paused and listened to Brian Keith’s breathing.
“Orange juice,” he finally said. For a second David thought he was losing his mind.
“You know, concentrated orange juice?”
“That one needs some work.” Brian Keith sighed and David could hear him shuffling some papers. Prison Dharma already had permission through the Department of Corrections to teach meditation in jail, they weren’t even the first ones to do it. But David needed Brian Keith to sign off and coordinate the space, go through his own formalities.
“Let’s talk about next steps.”
Brian Keith told David much more than he really needed to know: that most of the inmates at Rikers were awaiting trial and the rest were prisoners who had been sentenced to less than a year; post-trial offenders who had been sentenced to more than a year and were awaiting the move to prison upstte; probationers who had violated the terms of their parole; as well as some illegal immigrants.
“We got crazies here, too,” he said. “You think your meditation will help them?”
“Actually, there is a lot of debate on that subject,” said David.
“And I’m sure it’s interesting,” said Brian Keith. “They can’t come anyway, not the ones who have been diagnosed. We spend a lot of time trying to sort people out, observing them after they arrive here. We don’t just dump everyone into the same population and expect them to get along.”
“Of course not,” said David. He wasn’t sure where this was going, or why this man was telling him this stuff, but felt he needed to listen.
“So basically you’re here as a DOC volunteer and you have to register with them first,” Brian Keith continued.
“I did that.”
“And you and Dawn have to have valid ID’s.”
“Would it be okay if we brought a reporter?”
“A reporter? Why not bring a whole camera crew, sell tickets?”
“No, it’s just that we want to spread the word about Prison Dharma and this is one way of getting publicity and support. Dana.”
“Sorry, that’s the pali word for generosity. We depend on donations from people who want to help us spread the dharma.”
“Then why not just say ‘donations’?” Brian Keith’s breath sounded like bellows blowing on some sodden coals and David was afraid he had made him mad. “And who’s Paulie?” He laughed at his own joke. “Now I’m just messing with you.”
He took the reporter’s name from David, who wanted to add that he hadn’t actually heard back from her yet but thought that might just confuse things. He felt he needed to plug the work they were doing one more time, even though Brian Keith had not said anything overtly hostile.
“There was a documentary about Vipassana teaching in a prison in Alabama,” David said. “It’s been very effective in getting people to deal with their anger issues, and helping reduce recidivism.”
“I guess we could use some help with that,” said Brian Keith. “Here I just expect to see the same people over and over, and seldom am I disappointed.”
Altan had to wait nearly a month for his trial. They moved the date once, and the guy from the public defender’s office said the DA was still making his case.
“What case?” Altan said. “I grabbed a lady’s purse.”
The public defender was a bug-eyed little dude who always looked kind of surprised to find himself sitting at a table in a jail talking to someone like Altan. So he couldn’t really tell if his comment had registered.
“Well, there was the matter of the other evidence.”
And he knew then that he was fucked. The first time Gaby saw his souvenirs she had called him a name and even laughed at him.
“What do you want to carry all this shit around for?” she said when he told her where it had come from. “You supposed to get rid of people’s shit after you rob them, genius.” She had gone through the little knapsack and pulled out a bunch of picture ID’s wrapped in a rubber band; a rabbit’s foot on a key chain; a string of rosary beads; and a squishy frog he could squeeze when he was stressed. “It’s not even worth anything.”
He was staying at her place in the Gompers Houses and maybe she was worried about him bringing that shit into her place though she didn’t complain the first time he pulled out a bag, had her own works and everything. So maybe she was just teasing him for something to do. But afterwards they just lay there laughing and listening to the music coming from the apartment upstairs.
His last grab had led them to her place. Altan was wondering down by the Liberty Ferries, just keeping his eyes open, he wasn’t even jonesing, hadn’t even been thinking about it, when this dumb ass lady set her purse down on a lawn chair. Her daughter was being drawn by one of those Korean artists who made everyone’s head look huge, if you could call them artists, and she just set her purse there as if to say, Go ahead and take it! And Altan had walked by twice, the second time the lady’s back was completely turned and her daughter was trying to smile and the Korean guy was turning her into a potato head and Altan figured, fuck it: Welcome to New York, lady.
He was running in broad daylight, cold enough to keep the crowds away when some citizen started yelling, “Stop! Thief!” Altan could laugh now at the memory but at the time he wanted to look around, see who was yelling, what century they thought it was, see if they really meant him. And he heard the fat lady yell, “He’s got my purse,” in this kind of mournful voice like she was disappointed in him and jumped over a railing squish into the mud, running in his black biker boots, a bad idea anytime and then he heard a voice real close go, “Hey!” and this time he did turn and saw them all, a bunch of cops running after him. Only later he finds out they weren’t real cops at all but TV cops and one of them he recognized, Frankie something, and he’s running faster than all of them, laughing even, and then someone hit Altan – whomp! – just broadsided him like they were playing football and when he tried to sit up he couldn’t feel his breath.
That’s when they dog-piled on him, some of them yelling like they were real cops, “Just stay there, asshole!” as if he could move if he wanted to.
“And you want to know what the irony was?” Altan was on the bottom bunk, telling his story to the new guy on the top but the new guy wasn’t saying much, just moaning like he had a toothache. Punk-ass probably didn’t even know what irony was.
The piece of paper that had Gaby’s address on it was from the methadone clinic over on Avenue A that they had visited together, only to find out they couldn’t even get an appointment until, like, a month later. (“Seriously, dude: a month.”) And when he went out that morning he wasn’t even looking to grab anything, he just had to get out, away from the smells of that place, the shit she ate in the morning. (“They’re plantains,” she said as she poured hot sauce over what looked like fried bananas, “you never had plantains before?”) And grabbing the fat lady’s bag led them to his bag and that, the public defender said, was part of the problem, and why they were still building their case.
“Can you believe that shit?” Altan said to the bunk above him but the guy up there said nothing.
“Do yourself a favor,” the public defender had said before he left that day, “wear a long-sleeved shirt, okay? I know this judge. He’s not going to like all those tattoos.”
But Altan had forgot and only thought of it when he was in the van, headed for Manhattan the morning of the trial and it didn’t seem like the time to stop and ask if he could go back and get his jacket, and when he walked into the courtroom the public defender had just looked at his arms and shook his head. Hadn’t said anything, which was smart.
It turned out the prosecution had been busy, matching the names on the ID’s Altan had collected to the crimes committed against them, and as surprised as many of the victims were to be contacted, they were almost all eager to identify him as the culprit, some had already picked his picture out of a selection shown them by the police and others had even offered to testify, though the guy from the DA’s office said the cops had told them that it probably wouldn’t be necessary, as if it was a done deal and everyone knew he was toast.
“And how the fuck could they know that?” he asked the quiet cell. “Isn’t this still a world of laws?”
The kicker though was something that had nothing to do with him. About a year ago Altan had lifted a wallet off some old black guy at a bar in Atlantic City and he’d kept his Navy ID: little picture of him as a young sailor, still pissed off looking, but Altan had liked it, had liked the guy actually and he thought it might bring him luck. But it turned out afterwards the guy’s wife had gotten mugged that day and when he found out he had some kind of stroke. And was still in the hospital, while his wife was fine now!
“Can you tell me how exactly that’s my fault?” Altan asked the bunk above him. This time he even stood up to look at the guy, who had wrapped his pillow around his head like he was trying to suffocate himself. “What did I do that had anything to do with what happened to this guy, or his old lady?” The head inside the pillow just groaned.
Altan lay back down and put his arms behind his head. The judge, some old Jew, had in fact hated him on sight. “You’ve been a quite a busy little beaver,” he’d said, like they were back in grade school. “But I guess you needed all that money to buy all those pretty tattoos.”
His lawyer had presented what he called mitigating factors, including his heroin habit and had even called his mother a prostitute, though Altan thought that was stretching things a bit. He’d learned before that people took those statements you wrote and just twisted them but this didn’t seem like the right time or place to complain about it, and half this stuff the judge didn’t allow anyway. When it was all over he gave him three to six years, because of what he called the non-violent predicate and “the repeated, habitual nature of his crimes,” though Altan kept thinking he was really being sentenced for what happened to that old man – not even in this state, though it turned out he was from Brooklyn – and for his tattoos and for some suggestion the DA made that he wanted the ID’s for some kind of identity theft and just for being Altan.
The good news was he was getting out of here. The bad news was he was going upstate.
David had forgotten how huge Rikers was. “It’s like our own little universe,” Brian Keith said as he drove them from intake and past the administration building. David and Dawn had taken the bus out there that morning and though neither of them mentioned it, they were the only two white people on the bus.
Brian Keith was black himself, which surprised David. He was not the fat white man he’d imagined, but a compact black man in his forties. He didn’t wear a uniform but a short-sleeved white shirt and tie, giving him the look of a high school vice principal. Once David saw him pull an inhaler out of his pocket but he put it away without taking a hit.
“Thank you so much for coming to meet us,” David said, almost bowing when he shook his hand. He had learned from Bart to be overly polite with officials, “Kill ‘em with kindness,” he’d said, “they’re your best friends on the inside.” And now Bart was dead.
“This is Dawn,” David said, introducing the woman he was with. She smiled and mumbled something and David noted that she seemed to have lost her words somewhere along the way. She had started the trip being very chatty, climbing on the Q101 on 19th Avenue as if they were going on vacation but by the time they crossed the skinny bridge over the East River to the island, which looked more like a dump than a rock to David, she had stopped talking altogether.
“I don’t know why you guys do this,” Brian Keith said as they climbed into his compact car, “but I know people here appreciate it.”
“We believe in spreading the dharma,” Dawn said. She had squeezed into the back and was clutching the pink yoga mat she had brought with her.
“I believe in spreading the peanut butter,” Brian Keith said as he put the car into gear. “But whatever works, you know?”
He drove them past a series of squat buildings, all brick, concrete and aluminum, supplying running commentary as he went. “We have over 14,000 inmates on Rikers at any given time,” he said. “We have ten jails here, some for general occupancy, and separate facilities for juvenile offenders and women, as well as people with contagious diseases.”
He pointed to new looking concrete fortress, surrounded by barbed wire. “This here is where we house people we determine to be mentally incapacitated.” Through the wire David could see a mural painted with a message: “Improve the moment,” he read out loud.
“Coming in here is one moment I think a lot of these boys would like to improve,” said Brian Keith.
He parked in front of what could have been a public school. “We got schools, stores, chapels. This here is a gymnasium where some of our school-age visitors have athletic activities. This is where you guys will be teaching.”
“Do you know if the inmates will have their own yoga mats?” said Dawn. She was still in the backseat, clutching her own close to her mouth like a giant fruit rollup.
Brian Keith stared at her for a second before replying. “No, ma’am, I don’t believe they will.”
They passed several guards, showing their passes as they went, and then Brian Keith unlocked a metal door beside which an armed guard also stood. Inside they found a larger crowd than he and Bart had taught the last time, at least fifty men, he reckoned, in different drab colored uniforms. There were no women and the inmates, who were sitting on folding chairs and talking among themselves, fell silent when they walked to the front of the room. All eyes were on Dawn who seemed to be trying to hide behind her yoga mat.
“Gentlemen!” Brian Keith said loudly and David noted that he said it without irony or condescension: he didn’t seem to be making fun of them. “Thank you all for coming today. I hope we haven’t kept your from any important previous engagements.”
There was general laughter at the corniness of his joke and then the men fell silent again. David remembered Bart telling him, “Most of these guys want what we’re selling. And the rest are just curious.”
He introduced David and Dawn, who smiled and tried not to look too nervous, though David could see she was shaking slightly. There were a couple of armed guards in the room, standing back against the ochre colored walls, observing the men in the middle, but their presence did not seem to relax her.
“I would like everyone to start by finding a comfortable sitting position,” David began. “Traditionally we sit cross-legged on cushions, but sitting on your chair might be better than sitting on this hard floor.”
“If any of you brought yoga mats you can sit on those,” said Dawn in a rather tremulous voice.
“How’d you like to sit on my face?” a prisoner shouted. Instead of laughter the room was silent again and one of the guards left his position on the wall and grabbed the man who had made the remark by the arm.
“Let’s go,” he said. The prisoner got up and left quietly.
“May I remind you,” Brian Keith shouted, “that being here is a privilege? Anyone who does not wish to participate can leave now.”
“Once you are relaxed,” David continued, “I would like you to gently close your eyes – “
“What happened to Bart?” someone said.
David turned to take in a large white man with long hair and a pointed beard, sitting in the front row. He was covered in tattoos and sweating profusely.
“Bart’s no longer with us,” David said, forcing a smile.
“Where’d he go?”
“He went to India to study – “
“Sir,” Brian Keith stepped forward again. “I’m going to have to ask you to be quiet or leave.”
The man opened his mouth and closed it without making a noise. It looked to David like he was about to cry.
“And now,” he said, “I’d like you to gently close your eyes.” He kept his open for a moment and surveyed the prisoners before him. The remaining guards were doing the same thing and one of them looked at David and shook his head, as if to dismiss everything they were doing.
They were having trouble finding room for Altan upstate. “Don’t take it personally,” said the corrections officer who gave him the news. “They’ve been closing those prisons faster than you guys can do the crimes.”
This was some little black dude he’d never seen before. A guard brought him to his office and stood outside the door for the five minutes the entire meeting took. Altan had already been at Rikers three weeks since his sentencing and hadn’t seen his public defender since that day in court. He seldom saw anyone in the system more than once, except for the guards.
“So I just sit here until then?”
The man looked on the verge of smiling. “Unless you’ve got something better to do.”
“Well, the thing is,” said Altan, “I’ve been feeling sick. I think I’m going through withdrawal.”
The man opened a manila folder and looked inside. “It says here you were evaluated upon intake and it was determined you had not used heroin in over a month.” He closed the folder and looked at Altan again. “And you’ve been with us for almost two months now. Meaning any withdrawal symptoms should have passed by now.”
“Well, they haven’t, okay?” The guard outside the door shifted his position, just to remind Altan he was there, but the man he was talking to did not seem intimidated.
“And you’ve been to the infirmary?”
“Yeah, and they said it was all in my head.”
The man smiled a little. “Isn’t everything?”
“I can’t sleep!” He couldn’t get the whine out of his voice. “I’m sweating all the time and my stomach hurts.”
“We’ve got some people coming in here to teach meditation,” he said. “Maybe they can teach you to do your time standing on your head.”
Actually Altan had taken meditation classes at Rikers before, twice. A guy named Bart had spent a long time talking to him after class the second time, a lot longer than this deputy dawg, or his lawyer, or that judge, for sure. More than ten minutes in other words. He’d talked to him about taking each day as it came and not thinking about the next – classic prison advice, he guessed, but it sounded better coming from this guy. Bart looked like a movie star playing a guy who volunteered in a prison, and Altan couldn’t believe he was really coming back.
And then he didn’t. The first class he went to was taught by some little pizza-faced dude and a skinny hippy chick and when Altan tried to ask about Bart that same corrections officer threatened to have him thrown out. So instead of meditating Altan just sat there with his eyes closed, thinking about how he’d like to wring that fucker’s neck.
His symptoms seemed to pass, though, through no help of the Buddhists. Altan found himself sleeping again and his stomach stopped hurting. The way he used was not a steady, daily kind of thing – he could go months without a hit and then binge for a week, so it made sense that his withdrawal was not on a regular schedule.
Just as the sickness left another feeling came over him like a cold front. He couldn’t describe it really; it was like he’d been hollowed out, like an apple, and he woke each day feeling as if he were in the world alone. Maybe it was being clean, and if this was being clean it was definitely overrated. Being told there was no room for him upstate was rough, no doubt, as much as he dreaded going to prison. It reminded him of foster care, always waiting on somebody who didn’t want you once they got you.
“Hell is full and heaven doesn’t want me,” his mother used to say, to explain why they were always moving, he guessed. Though it didn’t explain where she went.
Then one day in the weight room some Middle Eastern dude asked him about his tatts. Altan didn’t feel like giving him the guided tour, he’d never seen this guy before and was suspicious of the little beanie on his head. Besides, talking about his tatts was starting to make him sad. He didn’t even like to look at himself in the mirror anymore.
“They’re just about where I’ve been and stuff,” he said. He was sitting on a bench in front of stack of free weights. He thought if he didn’t look at the guy he might just go away.
“Like stickers on a suitcase,” the man said, and Altan turned to really look at him now. He had sharp eyes and a little moustache and he was smiling slightly at Altan. “When I was a child my father would come back from traveling and have decals from all the places he had been.”
“I guess,” said Altan though glancing at the riot of black and red on his arms they looked more like scars. “Tell you the truth I’m getting kind of tired of them.”
“You should have them removed,” the man said. He was still smiling but his message was delivered with an intensity that surprised Altan. “The prophet has cursed the one who has tattoos, and the one who has made them.”
Two strikes, thought Altan. He thought before speaking and was surprised not to feel the blood rising to his head. “Why?”
“The creation of Allah is perfect and it is not for us to deface it.”
Altan snorted and turned away but the man didn’t move. “Thanks for telling me.”
“You are welcome.” The man touched his chest with his hand and then raised his arm in the direction of the door.
“Please,” he said. “Would you like to come to prayer services with me?”
The room was filled with the smell of sweat and clinking of weights, louder than any machine. He looked at the man and he looked at the door and he felt a need in him growing. He could not think of a reason to say no.
David and Dawn were scheduled to return to Rikers a month after their first visit, but the week of their class David found a message on his voice mail from her, begging off.
“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I just feel like a piece of meat there.” A pause. “And I don’t even eat meat.”
He sighed. The chances of him finding someone else who wanted to come to jail and go through some basic poses were remote, especially on such short notice. Instead he called that reporter who he talked to a few months ago; maybe she’d like to join him this time?
“I’m really sorry,” she said, when he got her on the phone. “I’ve got a new editor and he doesn’t seem very interested. Maybe if there was some news angle or something.”
So he rode the bus out to the island by himself this time. There were mostly women, going to see their men he guessed, and a lot of them were dressed as if they were going out dancing: dresses, high-heels, makeup. A black woman with huge red earrings like chili peppers caught him looking at her and yelled loud enough for the whole bus to hear.
“What you lookin’ at, scarface? Phantom of the opera motherfucker starin’ at me, why don’t you go look in the mirror?”
David turned to the window and in the glare saw his reflected image, the same pockmarked and pitted complexion that had haunted him since high school, over ten years now. This was why he had starting studying Buddhism in the first place, to see past the surface of things; it was something he had talked about in therapy, or did when he could still afford it. Now he was working in a bookstore and could hardly afford to take the bus to Rikers Island. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the breath.
Brian Keith met him at the bus again and expressed only mild surprise to see him alone. “Given the choice, most people would only come here once,” he said.
There were more people in the gym this time, some of them already sitting cross-legged on the floor. Before he could begin someone asked, “What happened to the girl?”
“Dawn couldn’t make it this time,” he said and there were sounds of disappointment and someone said, “Damn!”
“All right,” said Brian Keith. “Why don’t you all settle down and let the gentleman do what he came to do?”
It took a minute for the crowd to settle and then David began as he had before. “I’d like everyone to find a comfortable position, on the chair, or on the floor, it doesn’t matter.” He watched them, some squirming and shifting while others, in the front mostly, seemed determined to take this time to block out the world they were in and all they had done. “Now gently close your eyes…” He was still standing and in the back of the room he saw another man standing as well, the same prisoner who had asked about Bart the last time. But now the tattoos on his arms were covered. He was staring at David intently when he shouted:
“There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger!”
Everyone in the room turned to look at him and one of those sitting up front yelled, “Fuck you, asshole! We’re trying to meditate here!”
“You are excused, sir,” said Brian Keith, and one of the guards against the wall came forward to lead him away. The man did not yell again and did not look back at David.
Brian Keith drove him back to the bus stop after class and apologized to David. “That guy’s become a real problem,” he said. “He just found “prislam,” the jail version of Islam, and now has gone all fundamentalist on us. Yelling about the food not being halal – I mean, about twenty per cent of the population here is Muslim. The kitchen does halal.” He started to wheeze a bit and pointed toward the glove compartment in front of David.
“Would you mind?” he said. “There’s an inhaler in there.”
He pulled over and David handed it to him. Brian Keith took a long pull and breathed several times before putting the device back in his pocket.
“Sorry,” he said, as he pulled back onto the road. “You gotta to hide things like that here. Guys are always looking for some sign of weakness, you know?
“Anyway, our friend Altan there has a religious conversion – not that unusual in jail, by the way. And generally something we try to be supportive of. I mean, I’d rather have these guys believing in something, right?”
“Sure,” said David.
“But then he comes to me last week and says he wants to have his tattoos removed. Tells me they’re haraam.” He paused for a moment. “And I wanted to say, ‘Is that like a harem? I thought that was a good thing.’” He looked at David as if expecting a laugh. “I got to work on that one.”
“Is there any rule against him having his tattoos removed?”
“Well, no,” said Brian Keith. “But you got to go to one of these tattoo removal places, where they do it with lasers. Just getting a little one removed costs hundreds of dollars and that guy is just covered with ink!”
“Wow,” said David.
“But here’s the kicker.” They pulled up behind the bus stop where some of the same women David had rode out with were waiting. “He wants the state to pay for it.” The man started to laugh. “Now doesn’t that beat everything?”
David called the reporter at the News again the next day. He was still hoping to get her to write a story about their classes but he also liked talking to her. The first time she had called him and had spent almost an hour with him on the phone, talking about Prison Dharma. His best relations with women were over the phone. He told her the story about the prisoner with the tattoos and she got very excited.
“Now that might be a hook,” she said.
“Really?” said David. “But it doesn’t have anything to do with what we’re doing.”
“Yeah, but it’s an angle. A way of getting into the story.” He could hear her typing above the thrum of the newsroom behind her. “It’s something my boss would like.”
The next day an item ran in the News about the prisoner on Rikers who converted to Islam and wanted the state to pay for removing his tattoos. Most of the quotes were anonymous and David realized reading them that she was quoting him, even though she’d said nothing about it when they talked. Brian Keith McCulloch, a deputy chief of staff operations on Rikers, was quoted saying that at no time did he or anyone else say that the state would or could pay for the tattoo removal, but that didn’t stop the story from getting picked up and going viral. Rush Limbaugh loved it.
David called Brian Keith to apologize. “I had no idea she was going to make that the story,” he said. “She never even mentioned Prison Dharma.”
“You can’t trust reporters,” Brian Keith said. His breathing sounded worse than usual but he did not sound especially mad.
“I’m not going to talk to her again,” said David.
“That may be wise, though honestly, this story has taken on a life of its own. I got a call from guy in the Department of Homeland Security who had read the story. Raised a ‘red flag,’ he said.”
“No, I don’t think he was part of the conversation.” Brian Keith chuckled and then said, “I’m sorry. I do a little standup routine on the side, you should come see me sometime.”
“I’d like that,” said David, though he didn’t really mean it.
“He said they worried about these guys converting in prison, especially white guys. Not that you could tell he was white with all that ink.”
“What do they worry about?”
The breathing on the phone got heavy again, like steam escaping a radiator. He heard the gasp of the respirator, the quick lip-smacking sounds of relief.
“He said they worry guys like that are going to leave and go on some kind of suicide mission. I said, ‘Most of these boys are on a suicide mission. They just don’t realize it yet.’”
They were quiet for a second and David said, “That’s not really funny.”
“It’s not supposed to be.”
David sighed. “But I would like to come back out there.”
Brian Keith laughed, a short bark. “People in hell want ice water,” he said. But after a moment he added, “Let me see what I can do.”