by: Frederick Foote1
Sometimes people fight the system just to keep from being crushed into conformity, and sometimes people fight just because it is in their blood…
A long, slender man, brown skin with red undertones, armed with a flattering and disarming smile saunters into my office at 10:00 AM. He sits long limbed in my comfortable floral patterned, over-stuffed chair. He leans fully back and pretends to relax.
He steeples his tapered fingers and turns his serious brown eyes on me. Not a look of contempt or challenge. More of a test to see if I will blink first in nervous confusion or creeping uncertainty, a boy’s game played by boys of all ages.
I have my name for him, Long Easy Magic Hands. In my mind, I call him Easy. We had a rough start, but now we have this incredible rapport. He’s easy to be with. He befriended me during my first two weeks in this Machiavellian northern wilderness. He pointed out the battle lines, the minefields, the dead ends, the assassins, the snares and traps of this bureaucracy charged with the custody of young offenders in California. He has made my transition here a hundred times easier than it would have been without his aid. I didn’t ask for his help, but I readily accepted it and quickly came to rely on it.
Now he’s here to collect. There’s an electric core of tension within him that his act of relaxed coolness can’t quite conceal. On the other hand, I can relax. This is my office. I’m his boss’ boss. I’m second in command here at the E.F. Foster Youth Facility. “Facility,” is a Youth Authority euphemism for prison. I lean back and return my favorite Youth Counselor’s, another euphemism for prison guard, gaze with a patient, contemplative look.
Poor Easy, I think. I have four brothers, one a fraternal twin. I was playing boy games in the womb. I know who’s going to win this contest.
Slowly, a smile creeps onto his face, and he actually starts to relax a little. My smile mirrors his. At last, Easy’s at ease. I wait for him to speak.
Whatever it is it’s serious and important to Lucky Philip Carson, the name his mama gave him. He takes a deep breath and leans forward in his chair.
“Kendricks, your Assistant Superintendent on swing shifts has been screwing around with our female wards after hour’s right up here in Operations.”
The swing shift Assistant Superintendent in question is William “Uncle Bill” Johnson, a 68-year-old legend at this facility. I don’t react, other than to nod for him to continue.
“It’s been going on for a decade or more as best as I can determine. It’s common knowledge among the wards and staff.”
I let him talk.
“I learned about it six months ago, about a month after I arrived here.”
Good, that was going to be my first question.
He pauses and looks off out the window behind me.
So what did you do about it? Come on Easy don’t make my first disciplinary action, here be against you. I like you. You know I do, but don’t try to play me. You better know by now I do not play.
“I tried to confirm it, tried to see if the rumors were true. I worked a swing shift on Security. I saw him bring two girls up here around 8:30 PM. He took the girls back to their Dorm just before ten.”
He looks at me pleading for me to step in and give him some idea of where I stand on all of this. He’s going to have to wait a little longer.
“I, I aww confronted him after the shift. He told me to mind my own fucking business. He warned me to watch my back. Mandé I, I thought he would, would deny it or promise to stop….I didn’t know what to do. I was new to all this.”
He uses my first name. That will not work on me. I keep my face noncommittal, and now I’m the one trying to fake relaxed. I believed in this brother from the beginning. I believed in him like I believed in my husband, my now ex-husband, when I first saw him.
Don’t disappoint me Easy please. I’m not ready for another disappointment so soon.
“I went to my Assistant Super. He told me I was pissing up a rope.
I came here to see your predecessor, Dr. Larson. He put a note in my jacket for spreading rumors and defaming an ‘icon’ at this institution.”
Easy stands up and walks nervously about the office. He stops at the window and stares out.
“I went to see the Superintendent. He told me that ahhh the girls, the wards, were doing clerical work. He told me the whole thing was approved at a higher level a long time ago. He thanked me for bringing it to his attention. The whole meeting took less than two minutes.”
So I’m back in the shit again. That’s one reason I left LA. I’m so tired of being chin deep in this shit. It’s time to let Easy off the hook.
“Lucky, sit down please.”
He sits full of uncertainty, wary, cautious.
“Why did you wait two weeks to tell me this?” I know the answer to this one. I just need to hear him say it.
He looks me in the eyes. “I didn’t know if I could trust you. I wanted to….but I had to be sure….you understand?”
“And now, do you trust me?”
“According to the YC’s and staff that have been here for forever. You have done more to clean up this swamp in two weeks than anyone else has done in the last ten years. I mean, you ended the ‘parking lot parties’ and put the shift schedule on a fair basis, and you’re out on the yard every day. Yeah, I trust you.”
I take him through his story again in detail: names, dates, times, witnesses, everything he remembers.
I’m five years older than Easy, but by the end of our discussion, I have aged ten years.
This is going to be a real shit storm, and again; I will be at the center of it. The only silver lining is that Easy didn’t disappoint me. He did almost everything right. That means a lot to me.
“Lucky, if I, if we fail to get the YA to act, we will do whatever it takes to stop this abuse. You hear me?” I stand to signal the end of our meeting.
I believe him because I have lived through worse, and because it’s hurting him to live with this, and he’s destroying his YA career with his persistent effort to stop it.
He steps back behind my desk and gives me a quick hug. I wasn’t prepared for that. I had thought about being in his arms. I didn’t realize how much I had thought about it until he did it again.
These hugs are something I have to get used to. I’m not a natural hugger. However, in these facilities the wards, particularly the girls, but most unexpectedly the fourteen and fifteen-year-old boys, seem to crave a hug or a kind touch. These boys present the most difficult behavioral problems in every facility I have worked in.
Easy says the boys are just trying to cop a feel, but we both know it’s more than that.
Easy is different. On my second day here I doubled back after a day shift to check on swing shift operations. I was at Operations in the control room when the “Request for assistance with AAH” came from Dorm Three. The acronym “AAH” was new to me and staff told me it meant with “All Available Hands.”
The Security staff told me Casimir ”Carl” Kochanowski, an 18-year-old fireplug of a kid out of Fresno County, famous for his physical outbursts, was the reason for the AAH. Carl was refusing to go to his room and was pacing in front of the front door. He was with us for the third time. He was here this time because he put three Mexican gang bangers and three Fresno cops in the hospital. On his last visit here he sent two of our staff to the hospital. The three Security staff at Control were clearly anxious about confronting Carl. That’s when the message came over the intercom. “Hey, Control, this is Carson on Dorm Four. Stand down. I got it.”
I had not met or seen Easy at this point. He was off on my first two days here, but no way was I going to let one Security person face this prodigious brawler alone. I deployed four Security staff to Dorm Three. I went out into the yard to intercept this Carson, a man who was either crazy or ignorant of exactly who Casimir ”Carl” Kochanowski was.
Easy saw me coming in his direction and stopped and waited.
When he saw who I was, he gave me this, “I love the way you look, and I like you very much smile.” He knocked me right off message and left me stuttering.
“Stay in the background and keep quiet and if this goes south, don’t touch Carl. He’s twitchy. He does not like to be touched. Just talk to him. Got it?”
No employee talks to me like that, but I was a step behind him as he long legged it to Dorm Three. He waved the other Security staff back out of sight.
I was so angry that I actually lost my voice and by then we were in Dorm Three.
Carl is standing by the door with a bundle of clothes and notebooks in his hands. He’s pacing nervously back and forth in front of the door.
The two Dorm staff are standing well back from Carl.
“Carl, you got everything you need? You got your notebooks?” As he talks, Easy steps right out in front of Carl, blocking his pacing.
“Mr. Carson! Mr. Carson tonight they’re coming. Picking me up! Mr. Carson they’re picking me up tonight, tonight, man, tonight.”
Easy puts both his hands on Carl’s shoulders. There’s an audible gasp from the Dorm staff.
Easy is looking down into Carl’s eyes. Holding Carl still with his eyes as much as his hands. “They’re not picking you up here. All pickups are from the lockup at Control. You ready?”
“What? What! They didn’t….“
“Carl, there are five operating dorms here and there are four more facilities with at least four dorms each within a mile of here. They don’t have time to hit each dorm. Count your notebooks. Make sure you have them all.”
And that’s it. Carl walks up to Operations and into the lockup cell with Easy. Easy gets him to take his meds and sits on the floor by Carl’s bed holding his hand waiting for a space ship until Carl is snoring. Easy has magic in his hands.
Ronald L. Green is the Superintendent here. I have a name for him too, Pus Pocket. This is a creature I would not accept affection from in any form. This is Pus Pocket’s institution. The rest of us just work here. Green made that clear to me on my first day here. I’m the Exec here. I run the day to day operations of “his” institution.
I’m a military brat. I grew up with that macho bullshit. I didn’t like it when my jackass of a father pulled it on us, and I like it even less now.
Pus Pocket didn’t hire me. His bosses hired me over his strenuous objection. I’m “the new set of eyes” that will somehow bring “order out of chaos and hope out of despair.” Bullshit! I’m not going to last out the week if I step into this mess. It is outside of my purview.
I check out the details of Easy’s story. I talk to the one girl that’s still in custody about the incident. She admits going up to Operations with Johnson. Jasmine Yodell was 14 at the time of the incident. She’s 15 now and cute as a button and as dumb as a brick. She’s very vague on what kind of clerical work she did or even what clerical work is.
She assures me that Uncle Bill’s like a father to the girls on the ward. They all love him. She blinks rapidly and frequently looks away from me as she talks about Uncle Bill.
Willa Short,14, has been released. I call her at home five times. When she finally gets on the line, and I ask her about Uncle Bill, she gives me an emphatic, “Fuck you!” She then hangs up.
I check with five staff that work the girl’s dorm. They all confirm Johnson’s pattern and his preference for younger girls, 14 or 15 year-olds, 13 year-olds when they are available. Among those, he prefers girls who are not “the brightest bulbs on the tree.” He does his “clerical” work two or three times a week.
There will be no more “after hours clerical work” at this institution, as long as I work here, even though that may not be very much longer. I’m here to clean up a specific mess, but not this mess. I have clear and explicit directions to leave things like this to Pus Pocket and his ilk. I will not do that. I cannot do that. Pus Pocket has had his chance to stop this long-running atrocity. I’m just beginning to understand why I was given such a limited portfolio here.
I alert Security to escort Johnson to my office when he reports to work. I don’t consult Green.
The day after the Carl Kochanowski incident I was nervous about visiting Easy’s dorm. I didn’t know what to expect from him. I got the unexpected. I stepped into the day room and Easy greeted me like a long-lost friend. He came to me and gave me one of those brother-to-brother handshake hugs. I was surprised, relieved and embarrassed at the same time. My confusion must have shown on my face because the kids cracked up.
He introduced me to each of the wards, all thirty-seven of them. They accept me, as much as they accept any of us staff. Easy’s hug’s a stamp of approval that they all buy into. Dorm Four now feels like my home dorm. Even when Easy’s not working I feel closest to the wards and other staff on this Dorm.
I find myself thinking about Easy too much. After his hug in the office, I make up my mind to stay out of his arms and away from his magic hands. I’m not up for anymore heartbreak and drama. I have had too much of that in my recent life.
I have a hand-held radio on my desk. It squawks: “Chief, Uncle Bill insists on seeing the Super first. Over.”
“Do you work for Uncle Bill or me? Over.”
“On our way, Chief. Over.”
I’m taller than Uncle Bill’s five seven or eight, but he has puffed himself up like an angry tom cat. He’s dressed in boot cut jeans, cowboy boots and fancy western shirt. His face has curdled like angry red buttermilk.
“You, you fucking bitch! You fucking black bitch. You dumb ass, nappy headed….“
“Johnson, shut the fuck up. Put your badge and keys on my desk. Now!”
“Oh, you, you’re fucking dead. I’ll put a contract out….“
I turn to Griffon, the Security Staff, escorting Uncle Bill, “Take his ID card and his keys. Search him for any other YA property. Seize any YA property you find on him. You are authorized to use reasonable force to accomplish these objectives. Do you require assistance in carrying out these tasks?”
I have memorized this incantation, I have done it too often too recently.
“Griffon, you listening to this nigger….“
Griffon snatches the badge off the chain around Uncle Bill’s neck. He unclips the ring of keys from Johnson’s belt. Johnson does not resist.
“Assistant Super Johnson, I want you to turn out your pockets now, or I will search you with vigor.”
Johnson follows Griffon’s directions. Griffon conducts his search in a thorough manner without any resistance from Johnson.
Griffon is ex-military like a lot of the men who work here. I like the way he handles this business.
“Johnson, effective immediately, you are on administrative leave. You are required to inform me of your location during business hours, and you must be available for phone contact during business hours. You are not to step foot on this institution’s grounds without my prior approval. Do you understand what I have just said?”
Uncle Bill has deflated. The colors gone from his cheeks. His eyes are vacant, nobody’s home in there now.
“Griffon, if you find him on the institution grounds detain him for trespass. Call the locals and have him arrested.”
In like a lion, out like a lamb. I step out of my office with Griffon and Uncle Bill. All work has stopped. All office doors are open. All eyes are on us.
A good thing it’s a Friday. Pus Pocket leaves early on Fridays. I put a detailed written report in his inbox. I don’t try to call him. I’m sure his secretary or friends have already taken care of that. I have just a little time before the hurricane sized shit storm hits.
“Find me a girl that will testify against him. Do it before the end of shift. But you don’t go home until you do. I will be working the swing as Assistant Super. Bring her to me when you find her.”
Easy is standing at my door with a smile as big as Texas.
“Mandé, I love you sister. You, you are something else. You….“
“Lucky, this is not over. It’s just starting. Lucky, we will truly be lucky if we’re working here Monday. It’s going to get real nasty. You need to understand the Department can’t stand to let this mess see the light of day. They will crush us to make this go away. Get a list of all the girls who did “clerical work” for him. Do not hassle these girls or trick them. They are young and dumb, but they’re not stupid. We don’t want to exploit them a second time. Understand me on this.”
The smiles now gone. He feels how serious I am.
“Use your best manners. Get a female YC to work with you. You do the interviews with her. You don’t talk to these girls alone. Not for one minute.”
My phone rings. It sounds urgent and angry like all of my calls are going to sound for the rest of my short stay here. I wave him out of my office.
They, the bosses, want to meet with me right away, this very minute. However, it’s Friday afternoon and all the big shots are long gone, so I have a meeting with the Chief Deputy Director on Monday at 7:30 AM in Sacramento. I hang up on Pus Pocket twice in five minutes.
At 5:30 PM Easy calls. They have a girl, Caroline Maria Sanchez-Smith, age 14, a mixed-race Puerto Rican black girl. I check her file. She has the face of an angel, a slightly retarded angel with an IQ of between 65 and 70. She’s here because she used a broken bottle to carve up the face of a rival girl. They’re pictures of the wounded girls face. They turn my stomach. She prefers to be called Luscious.
Easy did good in selecting an interview partner. He recruited an Appalachian refugee, a plain, straight-forward white woman, Jessie Gains. Jessie worked her way up from Security to Youth Counselor. She’s well respected by staff and wards. She doesn’t play favorites or games with the kids. She’s strict and fair and relentless as hell. You do not want to get on her shit list.
I do play favorites. When I find people like Jessie and Easy, I put opportunities in their pathway. I want smart, strong people who care about these kids to succeed in this fucked-up system of ours.
I go up to the control booth where I can watch the three of them approach Operations. I just have a feeling about Luscious. Something I just can’t put my finger on.
She has the statuesque body of a grown woman with breasts, legs and an ass that would make some pimp a millionaire. She has perfect sandy colored skin and thick jet, black hair. The whole picture is marred by a slackness in her face and a dullness in her eyes. In her eyes, there’s a hint of confusion and anxiety as if she knows she’s about to take a test, a test that she always fails no matter how hard she tries. She’s a pimp’s wet dream.
I have Sue Haskell, a Security person I trust and rely on, escort Luscious to my office and stay with her.
I talk to Easy and Jessie in Pus Pocket’s office.
“Tell me about Luscious.”
She arrived here four weeks ago from Modesto. They handled her with kid gloves no promises, no threats. According to her, there’s no sex. Uncle Bill sat behind his desk and had the two girls moving filing folders from one stack to another for a few minutes while he talked to them. Later, he had them unbutton their shirts one button at a time. When their shirts were completely unbuttoned, he had them take off their shirts. A little later, he had them take off their bras, and he had them naked to the waist shuffling file folders. He “jacked off behind his desk and drooled and stuff, moaning and stuff.” The girls giggled at him, but Johnson didn’t seem to notice. He gave them a pack of chewing gum, Juicy Fruit, and candy, Milky Way or Three Musketeers, before he took them back to the dorm. She told them that other girls had told them what to expect. They believe her.
Luscious is described as a “very poor liar” by her dorm staff. She has a temper. She’s sensitive about her “slowness.” She’s scared that she did something the “way” wrong. She plays to men. She believes she can manipulate men with her looks. She likes Road Runner cartoons and plays with her “perfect” paper doll family. She will fight to protect her paper doll family. Her nails are bitten to the quick. The other girls barely tolerate her but very few of them mess with her. Her best friend is Denise Atwood, a 14 year old clever, street-wise black girl from Oakland, who looks out for her and helps her with school work. They give me more and more information, all of it good. The good stuff that I would expect from these two, but it’s not what I’m looking for. What am I looking for?”
She’s in my office, sitting on the edge of her chair. Her knees pressed tight together, wringing her hands with a bowed head and a slight trembling in her shoulders. It’s been three minutes of silence. Easy and Jessie are waiting outside in my reception area.
I’m standing at my window with my back to Luscious. I’m looking out at the parking lot that draws so much attention from those in my office. I speak without turning around.
“I don’t know what you’re up to or what kind of game you’re playing. I need to know that. I need to know that right now. Wait, wait. Think before you answer. I know you do this act because it works for you. I know that. I don’t want to expose you. I just need to know what you’re planning. I need to know why you’re here. Think before you answer. I’m not going to play your game. Think about that.”
Minutes tick by in silence.
There’s only a soft weeping from Luscious and her occasional incoherent muttering dripping with fear.
“It’s a good act Caroline. You can take it on back to the dorm.” Luscious looks like she wants to say something. “No! Not a word from you. You had your chance.”
As I cross to my door to call in Easy and Jessie, I’m jerked to a stop. For an instant, I swear I hear her laughing among her gibberish, a clear and derisive, peal of laughter. But when I look at her, she’s unchanged, still sniveling, playing the fool.
“Caroline won’t be able to handle the pressure of this. See if you can get her something to eat if she missed dinner.”
Still weeping and moaning she nods her bowed head and scurries toward Lucky and Jessie.
When I was in college, I saw a film in my psychology class with a low IQ girl with the exact facial expression and body posture I see in Luscious. It’s like she saw saw that same movie and she’s acting out this version of a retarded person. I don’t think she would last very long out in the dorms if her dorm mates understood how she had played them. Luscious probably was allowed to overhear or see things because they all believed she was too dumb to know what was really going on.
“You two get something to eat. Take a break. Be back here in an hour.”
They’re back in fifteen minutes with coffee and sandwiches for all of us. The strange thing about this job is I work with some of the best and some of the worst of humanity. I mean, employees as well as wards. I’m an Administrator because I worked with men and women like Easy and Jessie. They have given their best, not for me, but for the kids and to do right when right was possible, but I’m beginning to understand that sometimes people fight back just to keep from being crushed into conformity by the system. Some people are designed to fight authority. It is dawning on me that I might be in that latter category.
I explain that I have no confidence in Luscious’ ability to stand up under intense cross examination. I warn them to be especially careful around her. They are curious about my warning, but they don’t ask any questions. I tell them they have done good work. “Go home. Get plenty of rest. You’re going to need it. Think about who you’re going to interview on Monday.” They want to keep looking, but I send them home. Before Easy leaves, he invites me to Sunday dinner with his family. I’m too tired, too shaken to think of a way to get out of that very bad idea.
At home, I strip off my clothes on my way to drawing my bath. I put on Seven Steps to Heaven. I pour myself a huge brandy. I masturbate in my tub. It brings no relief. The brandy is sour in my mouth. The hot water is not hot enough to sooth my nerves. Miles is off-key tonight. I’m scared. Luscious has shaken me bad. I just can’t get it out of my mind that she’s hunting big game and that big game’s me. I have been face to face with Hells Angels, the Aryan Brotherhood, Bloods and Crips and all types of criminals, but none of them has had this kind of impact on me. I keep seeing the pictures of the girl she cut up. I think she has something worse in mind for me, much worse.
“You, you fucking bitch! You fucking dark, pitch black bitch. You dumb-ass nappy headed….“
“You, you’re fucking dead. I will put another contract out….“
He’s reaching for me….
“Are you fucking Mr. Carson to death yet? I don’t think his wife or undertaker would approve. Do you? Do you? Ain’t he a little young for your old ass, black bitch?”
She has a broken bottle, jagged bottle in her hand….she’s smiling as she lifts it to my face….she is laughing and it sounds like a toilet backing up.
I wake up gasping for air. I have the shakes. This has never happened to me before. I’ve never felt like this about a ward. God, I’m sick. I have the chills. What’s happening to me? I pray for dawn and sanity.
I go to work on Saturday, my day off. I walk the grounds. Every dorm, every security station. The school, the gym, the auto shop. The pool, each and every building. I do this every shift, not always at the start of the shift, but before the shift ends I’ll walk the grounds. I speak to every staff person I meet. I talk with any wards that want to talk. The odyssey can take from thirty minutes to three hours depending on what I see or who needs to talk.
Tensions are high with staff and wards. They all sense that the shit will hit the fan soon. They wonder if they will be spattered or drowned in the coming shit storm. No one will get away clean. Most of them know that.
Today I collect twelve hugs. I try not to flinch. Eight of them are from staff and four from wards. The wards are all females and are all on the list of Johnson’s “clerical workers.”
On my rounds, I get twenty four evasions. Cold shoulders, hostile glares, walk a ways and one open public challenge. The lion’s share of these hostile behaviors are from staff.
As I leave the girl’s dorm, I see Luscious peeking at me over a magazine. I turn toward her. She lowers the magazine just enough to give me a rapacious leer that is gone so quickly that I wonder if my eyes are playing tricks on me.
Eventually, I have to go home to my apartment of unopened boxes, unwashed clothes and unanswered messages on my phone. The only call I return is to my mother. I tell her everything is fine with me. I’m happy and carefree. She calls me a liar and poor excuse for a daughter. She threatens to come and babysit me if I don’t get some rest and take time off to recover and heal. She says she loves me and hangs up on “my lying ass.”
No dreams about Luscious, none at all, just nightmares about Norwalk and Winston, my ex, and the bloody divorce and the dry miscarriage, just the normal run-of-the-mill stuff.
I wake up at 10:03 in the morning. It takes me an hour to get the energy to get out of bed. I have bad coffee and a quick shower. I open my windows wide to let out the noxious remains of my nightmares. I escape into the June heat of San Juan, California.
I find a theater, a movie, The Long Goodbye. I sleep in the movie. I sleep well.
Goddamn it all to hell! Fuck! I forgot about dinner with Easy. I have thirty minutes to shower, dress pick up a bottle of wine and drive to his house. Too late to call and cancel. Shit, I don’t want to do this. Easy’s the first man I have been attracted to since, since the divorce. How uncomfortable is this going to be?
She has on a simple white apron over a clinging blue and white-flowered dress, heels and gold hoop earrings and her hair is cut short and classy. She’s brown and full of lovely curves from head to toe. She’s gorgeous and warm. She makes me feel awkward and old like a dry, dead stick of wood.
Sara whips off her apron to embrace me and pull me into her home. She takes my breath away. And Easy comes from nowhere and hugs me and restores my breathing. I don’t flinch at all.
I’m welcome in their house, wanted in their house. How long will that last? Not long. Their two girls Eden, eight and March, seven are dressed in their Sunday best and bubbling with suspicion and bristling with hostility. They don’t like their father hugging or even touching me. They don’t want another woman in their home competing for their father’s attention. I like them right away. I understand them.
So does their father. He crosses to them and kneels down to their level and tells them that this is his boss and his friend, and that they may not like it but they will treat his friends like he treats their friends with kindness and respect.
They try. They give it an honest effort for him. They would do anything for him.
At that point I almost panic and run out, but I stay instead and barely hold on.
Sarah cooks as good as she looks. She puts me at ease, puts us all at ease. Lucky’s so fucking lucky. He did good. He did very good.
Easy and Sarah touch each other. They do it unconsciously throughout the evening. They actually like each other, like being near each other. I feel elated and depressed at their casual displays of affection. Their daughters sense my ambivalence and join in the touching frenzy, delighted to show me what an invincible family fortress they are.
After dinner, there’s brandy. How did they know I like brandy? Easy is dismissed after the brandy. Sarah kisses him and asks him to put the girls to bed in the master bedroom and watch a movie with them. The girls are delighted. Easy starts to question and protest, but she gives him that look. He looks at me, and shrugs like men do, and he follows orders. She has him housebroken and well trained. I like that.
We sit sideways on the couch facing each other. She’s simple and direct. She thanks me for suspending Johnson. The “Johnson thing” has been eating away at Easy for the last five months. She thinks I have saved him from an ulcer or hurting someone out of sheer frustration.
“He likes you. No, listen, he really likes you. From the day he first set eyes on you. He admires you so much. Intentionally or not you have seduced my husband. He likes women in general and they like him, but he finds you very attractive. He’s a good husband, a grade B husband, but he’s an A-plus father. My mother used to say, ‘There’re only a few good black men out there, girls. If you find one hold on to him for dear life.’
I have one of those few good black men. I’m going to keep him. If he strays, I will make him pay dearly, but I will keep him for me and our girls. I will forgive him eventually, but I won’t ever forgive you.”
It’s not a threat. It’s a promise. I feel her. I do. I can’t look away from her or lie to her. I’m at a loss for words.
She slides over close to me. “If you understand me, and I know you do. I would like to be your friend. You’re going to really need a friend up here. Besides, I can keep a close eye on you if we’re friends.” She offers me her hand. I take it. I’m crying on her shoulder. It happens so quickly. I don’t understand how it happened or why.
It all floods out of me: divorce, miscarriage, Norwalk, the carnage in LA, my whole fucked up last eighteen months. I can’t stop babbling or crying. I make a total fool of myself with this stranger. She’s patient, comforting, nonjudgmental. I drink too much. I sleep over in the guest bedroom. The first good night’s sleep I can remember since before the divorce.
I’m up at five well rested for a change. I leave a note for my host and drive home to prepare to meet my Waterloo in Sacramento.
The Chief Counsel’s short, chubby, white and a hand maiden for the Administration. He barely looks at me.
The Chief Deputy Director compensates for the Chief Counsel’s neglect by frequently glaring at me as if I were the Antichrist. Pus Pockets littering his conversation with references to my incompetence, insubordination, ignorance, disdain for the chain of command and my total lack of “just plain human decency.”
They come to the consensus that they would move “the grand old warrior” to another institution and let him retire early next year. No one asks my opinion on this solution, so I give them another option.
I stand and take a folder from my briefcase. They turn to look at me with contempt and open hostility. “No, William ‘Uncle Bill’ Johnson will not work one more day in any California correctional facility.” There’s an angry outburst from all three of them. I wait it out.
“You can fire him or he retires today. You will also get a written agreement from him today barring him from adult and juvenile facilities for life. You will courier me copies of these signed documents by the close of business today or the Los Angeles Times will have your pictures on the front page tomorrow.”
I toss my letter to the Editor of the LA Times on the Chief Deputies’ desk. It covers in detail the “Johnson matter” and how this perversion has been sanctioned by the highest levels of the YA for a decade.
I don’t wait for their response. I gather my belongings and head back down to San Juan to clean out my office, say my good-byes and thanks, and plan out the rest of my life.
I’m not bluffing. I have contacts in the LA Times. I have credibility with reporters and editors. I will fax my letter to the Executive Editor at 5:00PM. The story will be in the Times before the week is over. And the “grand old warrior” will get richly deserved prison time. Besides, my mother’s right. I need a rest. I need a break from this relentless rising tide of shit.
I’m five minutes down I-99 when the Highway Patrol black and white pulls me over. The Director is requesting to meet with me immediately.
The meeting’s with me and the Director, no flunkies. It’s short and to the point. Johnson’s signing his retirement papers even as we speak and Legal’s preparing his facilities ban. I’ll have my copies before I leave today.
In return, I’ll finish my clean up at my institution. I’ll complete that within the next six months.
I’ll not report to Pus Pocket. I’ll report directly to the Director.
This deal’s on the table because the Feds are threatening an investigation of the entire YA system after what happened in Norwalk. If I do my part, at the end of six months, I can go to any Department anywhere in the State of California I choose at my current level or higher.
I don’t have much choice. I have no future with the YA. They’re too many people at every level of the organization who have good reasons to hurt me or worse. I’m not exaggerating the scope or intensity of the threats against me. Norwalk has put a price on my head. Just as my actions with Uncle Bill makes me a target in Northern California facilities as well. I don’t fear the wards, except for one, nearly as much as I fear the administration and the staff.
After work, I call Sarah. I explain that as my new friend, it’s her obligation to help me celebrate. She enthusiastically accepts that responsibility.
There’re not many good venues for entertainment in San Juan and there’s almost none on a Monday night, but something magic is in the air.
We look good, but just a little off our game. We’re not as sharp as the women who’re out there looking and hoping on a regular basis. There’s a “girls’ night out,” amateurish look about Sarah and me.
The magic works in our favor at the Hilton’s bar. There’s a national service organization convention at the hotel. Ninety percent of the conventioneers are male and white, but there is a lively contingent of southern blacks as well. And the music is the divine product of a black jazz trio that plays to the mood of the house.
We dance holes in our stockings until there are aches in our legs and pains in our feet, and we love every minute of it.
We dance with white, and black and brown and young and old and the magic holds, and it is a gracious fun-filled night.
We have drinks four and five deep at our table. We’re shameless flirts, but the men understand that it is just flirting and that there’s no end game here, no sack or rack time, just two women enjoying the company and men, the magic of the music and memories of earlier, freer times.
Sarah and I close the joint up.
I intend to go to my apartment, but Sarah vetoes that. I’m sleeping in the guest room. I promise to get up and help her get the kids off. She vetoes that too. We are going to both sleep in and Easy will get his girls off to school and call in sick for us at work.
“Mandé, we need to let our husband earn his keep. Our husband, but my lover, exclusively, got it?”
I kiss her on the cheek. “I’m cutting you lose Sarah. I’m withdrawing from our friendship. You’re just too damn bossy and so damn stingy with your toys.”
That guest room must be part of the evening’s magic because I sleep so well there.
I now have a full portfolio. I’m to detect, correct and eliminate any and all activities in violation of State or Federal law and Department rules, regulations and directives.
I pull together my team: Jessie, Easy, Sue Haskell, Pastor Griffon and Lily Chan as our secretary.
We hold our first meeting Tuesday at 5:30PM. “If you accept this assignment you will become pariahs in this Department, and you will jeopardize your future in any correctional or law enforcement agency in the State of California. You will work crazy hours, and your behavior has to be beyond reproach. You may be required to appear as a witness in court. I’ll fire you on the spot if I even suspect you of leaking information about this operation.”
Griffon interrupts me, “Chief, is there any upside to this operation?”
I have to think about that for a minute. “If we don’t attempt to stamp out the corruption and abuse here we will live and work in a cesspool. Whatever we accomplish may be short lived, but if we don’t fight this, we deserve to swim in shit. Go home. Talk it over with your families and if you are ready for this, we’ll start tomorrow here in my office at 5:30PM after work.”
The major issue here at the YA is overtime abuse on a grand scale that costs the Department millions of dollars each year. Records are falsified to show employees working overtime when the employees are at home sleeping. Some employees supposedly worked sixteen hours of overtime every day of the week for months. Plus, employees who had left the Department are still collecting overtime. Payroll clerks, First Line supervisors and administrators were all key players in the scam. In Norwalk, the payout from this larceny was so great that the facility parking lot looked like a high end automobile showroom.
But, that was not enough for some staff. There was a flourishing prostitution ring where staff brought Johns to the facility to patronize the female wards. Some girls were bringing in over $800 a night four nights a week.
The E.F. Foster facility is definitely running the overtime scam, but when you start pulling at that loose thread, all kinds of activities come unraveled. It is going to be horrendous even if the overtime is the only thing we find.
I get a surprise visitor. Luscious has requested to see me. She’s less confident this time. She’s nervous around her eyes. Not faked, real. I sit and wait for her to talk. She hangs on to her act. One, two, three minutes. I reach for the phone to have Security take her back to her dorm.
“Wait! Wait please.” The slackness is gone. Her eyes are bright and angry.
“You, you’re moving me? Moving me to Acorn Ranch, to Sacramento, Why?”
Her intelligence network is excellent. No secrets in this place. This is a move I tried to keep top secret. The truth is I’m moving her because she scares the shit out of me.
She wants to stay here. She’s willing to trade. She will give me evidence on Security staff and YCs bringing drugs into the facility and carrying messages out. She will give me drug stashes today and the names of three staffs and an administrator having sex with the wards.
“Why do you want to stay here so badly? What’s here for you?”
She gives me this weird look that flashes across her face again so fast it’s impossible to read. She looks directly into my eyes. “Denise and I are in love, man. We need to stay together.”
“Does Denise know about this little game you’re playing on everyone?”
Now there’s no doubt of her anger. “Fuck you man! That’s none of your fucking business. You, you….we….do we have a deal? Do we have a deal or not?”
She’s nervous now and biting her lower lip, her breathing harsh, rushed. I let some time pass, let her sweat a bit.
“Depends on you delivering what you promised and you being willing to testify if required.”
We work out a deal. I promise to keep her secret and let her stay here until charges are brought against the dirty staff and administrator. She refuses to testify. She assures me that her testimony will not be required anyway.
It takes twenty minutes for her to lay it all out for me. She is scary, smart. She has a road map to conviction that even a first first-year law student could follow. She will not need to testify if things go as planned.
After she leaves I sit in my office alone for twenty minutes not taking any calls or visitors. My hand shakes so bad I spill my coffee.
I’m not the second in command any more. I do not have an office on the administrative side any longer. I’m with the social workers, psychologist and the public health nurse. I have three small offices for me and my staff.
My cover is that I’m here on a special project that utilizes my Sociology skills. I’m researching recidivism in our wards.
And the Green Pus Pocket is gone too. He has been replaced with a photogenic, articulate white woman in her late 30s. Brenda Brown-Bowman is our new Superintendent. She takes credit for all our reforms, achievements and arrests. She’s the bright and new, softer, more caring face of the same dirty old YA.
Her exec, Nola Garcia’s, not nearly as attractive, but she’s much smarter and even more ambitious.
And now I have what I never have had before, the real power in this institution with the backing of the Director. Every staff and every ward knows who’s in charge. I never raise my voice to anyone. I don’t have to.
I feel sorry for Brenda. Garcia’s going to eat her lunch. And for her role in sending their friends, family members and coworkers to prison, she will become a non-person in our facilities.
Brenda’s just completing a press conference announcing ten new indictments. She manages to look tough and hard-nosed and sexy and cute at the same time. The woman does have talent.
The Director and the District Attorney are on the podium with her as well as the State Senator who chairs the Standing Committee on Public Safety. Garcia’s not on the podium.
This is all the Director’s idea. He thought I might object, but I’m delighted to be out of the limelight and to have the power and freedom to do my job.
I have three attorneys, an accountant, and a specialist from the Controller’s’ Office working with us. I put in twelve to sixteen hour days, seven days a week for the first two weeks.
Easy steps into my office. He turns and locks the door and crosses to the wall and unplugs my phone.
“Lucky, what do you think you’re doing. Are you high or crazy or both? This is no time for games.” For a mad minute, I think he is going to take me on my desk. I try to blank that idea out instantly. I almost succeed.
He stands over my desk. I spring up to look him in the eyes.
“Go home. Take the next two days off and have a four-day weekend. You need….”
Who the fuck does he think he is? His balls aren’t nearly big enough to order me around. I lose it. I really lose it. I step around the desk and take a wild swing at him. He steps inside my punch and puts his arms around me again. I can feel the heat of him and his need and mine. For a moment….
”Lucky, let me go now, please.”
He looks puzzled for a moment, sighs and steps back and leads me to the window and my reflection. I glimpse my bloodshot eyes, with bags as big as steamer trunks and my sallow skin. I’m killing myself with work.
I have to leave the office right this minute. He insists. He unlocks and opens the door. The rest of my staff enters the little office. I’m outnumbered and overwhelmed. Later, I’m extremely grateful for people that care about me. I leave him and Jessie in charge. I get out quick before they see my tears.
My father, the General, is a son-of-a-bitch. But he’s an equal opportunity son-of-a-bitch. He treated all of us like shit, including our mother.
Growing up he required the same task of me as he did of my brothers. I had to sharpen and repair hand tools, do household plumbing, adjust a carburetor, change the spark plugs and oil, fix flat tires, qualify on the range, learn to box, clean rabbits, fish and the birds and other game he caught or killed.
I suffered the same punishments and the same cold hostility and pervasive contempt. I hate the motherfucker. I have not talked to him since he retired, divorced our mother and married a teenage Japanese girl and started a new family in Connecticut. But he’s on my mind a lot lately. Sometimes I feel we are alike and that scares me. This operation here at the facility feels like one of his field campaigns.
We are winding down operations, twenty seven indictments so far and more coming. All but one of Luscious’ cases has been charged, and the DA assures me that will happen in the next few weeks. We have doubled his usual workload. I’m disbanding my team. I’m finding places for them outside of the Department. It’s part of my deal with the Director.
Jessie asks me can she come with me wherever I go. I tell her absolutely not. She needs to sail on her own wings. She’s visibly upset at my response.
“Jessie, you will be running your own Department one day. If you want that you will do that. We’re not Batman and Robin. You’re not a sidekick kind of a person. Go someplace and do good. We’ll be there for each other.”
She calms a little, sips her coffee. “Will you take Lucky with you?”
I look at her like she has lost her mind. “Are you taking him with you?”
She blushes, smiles, looks at me and sighs. “He hugged our previous Director. Hugged her in front of the bosses and everyone. Embarrassed all of the bosses. Delighted her. Made her laugh. When she left the Department she called him to say goodbye. Never called any of the bosses. I might miss him a little….yeah, I might.”
Jessie looks at me for a moment, stares at her coffee cup like she’s reading tea leaves.
“Mandé, I think I want out of this. It won’t be much fun without your ornery, old ass. This shit will never end. I want to be an engineer. I want to solve problems that stay solved. My brother’s an engineer, and I’m smarter than he is.”
“Yeah, my twin’s an engineer. He’s smart enough, but outside of engineering his life’s a mess.”
We sit there for a moment comfortable with each other again.
“Oh, I’m taking Lily with me. She’s the only one.”
“Are you going to let up on her? You’ve worked her harder than any of us.”
“I have to be hard on her. She and Sarah try to run my life. If I don’t keep them busy they’ll do that.”
This has been a pretty good campaign. I have Lily, Jessie, Easy and Sarah for new friends and allies. It’s like I found four pots of gold at the end of the rainbow. I could never even have hoped for so much.
When I was fifteen and sixteen, we were at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany. I liked the German kids a lot more than the American kids. I especially liked the German boys, and they liked me. I had two German boyfriends at the same time. When my mother found out she went ballistic. I was cursed at, browbeaten, grounded and worst of all my mother actually made plans to send “my whorish black ass” home to Toledo to live with her mother.
I pretended to give up one of the boys, but I didn’t. I think I owe my father for keeping us out of the U.S. for most of my formative years. Our father insisted we go to school with the “natives” and learn their languages and ways, not out of respect for their culture, but because they were always our next enemies to him. If I had grown up in the U.S. I might have been indoctrinated with the lie that I was too tall, my skin was too dark, my hair was too kinky or my nose too broad or my lips too big. I hated moving all the time. I especially hated leaving my German boyfriends, but I like who I am now.
Sarah and I are at my place. She’s sleeping over for a change and is driving me to the airport tomorrow morning, back home to LA.
“I don’t understand why he isn’t taking the Park Ranger job? The Academy starts next week. Is he angry with me? For what? Why?”
Sarah pulls at her hair with both hands and utters a little soft moan of frustration. “Ego. You chose Jessie as your second in command. You didn’t offer to take him with you.”
“Shit, I’ll go talk to him right now. What a big baby our husband is.”
“No, let him alone for a minute. He usually comes to his senses. And he’s mad at me too.”
“He thinks I stole his friend.”
“Sarah, I’m worried about him. He has to get out of there. They have a contract on me.”
“Yeah, yeah they do. I can’t work in or visit any facility down south. Look, convince him to get out as soon as you can. Work at it….please.”
“Don’t talk like that. You’re scaring me with all that contract nonsense.”
We sit there on my couch thinking about the man she loves, and the man I care about way too much.
“I’m going to miss you, all of you.”
“Humm….we’ll see about that. Tell me more about your two German boyfriends. You were kinda freaky, huh?”
I’m back in LA, but now I work for the Department of Health working on MediCal hospital utilization review programs, abstract, analytical, and data driven projects. I’ve been here for a month. I find the numbers relaxing and non-threatening.
I’m a third-level manager. I’m learning my people and my new program.
All the expatriates from E.F Foster are doing good or flourishing. I keep in contact with them.
It’s 5:30PM on a Friday, and the office is deserted. As I head out the door my direct line rings. I know this is a call I do not want to take. I almost walk away.
“Department of Health, Utilization Review Section, How may…..“
There’s a moan like a death rattle and a gasping, choking sound, “Mandé, Mandé….he’s in jail….fucking one of the wards….a child….just fucking her….for months, Mandé. His face….his face she….cut….and his hands….they smashed. Awww Mandé…..girl named Delicious or something….a child….a poor retarded girl….oh God….oh my God.”
After I vomit, I dry heave and once I stop shaking, I head for the airport. I close my eyes. I see Sarah and Eden and March. It takes all my resolve to get on that goddamn plane to San Juan.
I remember my mother saying that too, “There’re only a few good black men. You just gotta find them and hold on to them.”
- Header image is by the incredibly talented, John Ross. [↩]