COLUMN FIFTY-EIGHT, APRIL 1, 2001
(Copyright © 2001 Al Aronowitz)
STOP THE PRESSES! I WANT TO
WEBS, WASPS AND WHIPLASH
WHILE CRUISING THE O-ZONE
OUT MY WINTER CLOTHES
I began seriously planning for PDI soon after my fellow Unitarian
Universalist Frank Sepulveda was transferred. I began spending more time
observing the goings on inside the prison. I paid more attention to the
unwritten rules that many of the prisoners lived by. I talked with the
What I found was, as I have said, a slice of the free world. We had it
all and more. Long-smoldering feuds. A legal profession. The peacekeepers. The
assassins. The poets. Capitalists, socialists, anarchists. The weak and the
strong. A class of poor, a broad middle class, the wheeler-dealers hustling
through their financial ups and downs. At the top, a handful of power brokers.
Just as in the free world, that reliable old rain barrel theory applied inside
the prison---the scum rising to the top. Many had even linked up with community
organizations like the Jaycees.
One day I was sitting out in the yard watching the endless stream of
prisoners walk by. One young fellow came over and sat down near me. He hadn't
been there long. I remembered interviewing him when he came through the
hospital. All the required questions. Have you had such and such? All the prison
hospital medical stuff. Then my own questions. His was a particularly sad case.
He had a serious learning disability. He had stolen a car and taken it across
state lines. He had done it again and again. He was, in the eyes of the law,
"incorrigible." Tell him anything and he believed you. Ask him to do
anything for you and he would.
I had come across him one day a few weeks earlier. He was sitting in the
middle of a driveway between two buildings. I asked him what he was doing.
"The next truck to come driving by is gonna kill me," he said.
"Why do you want to die?"
"The Bible said that if you give it'll come back to you three-fold.
I've been giving away everything I get from the commissary. Nothing has ever
come back to me."
"Who told you to do that?"
"The chaplain's clerk."
I explained to him that the verse didn't mean he would be rewarded here
on earth. Rather, I said, "The rewards will come to you in heaven."
Since he had placed so much faith in the Bible I explained that Jesus didn't
want him to give to people who already had more than he did. Instead, Jesus
wanted him to share with people
This time he looked like the problem was more than waiting for a return
on donated candy bars.
"How you doin'?" I asked.
"I been makin' friends in the Jaycees. Good friends."
"I made thirteen new friends at the meeting."
"Yeh. Exactly. Thirteen."
"Who were they?"
"I don't remember names but I counted them."
"Do you try to remember their names?"
"No. I just count. There was thirteen Jaycees that fucked me. They
told me that every time I let a Jaycee fuck me he would be my friend."
He was starting to cry. He was 24. Maybe 25. Young for his age. He looked
19. The Jaycees loved him.
"I think you should tell them that you hurt real bad. Tell them that
you may have to go to the doctor if anyone fucks you again. Tell them you think
you have some kind of infection."
I knew how much the thought of infection would affect them. They'd all
start using rubbers.
Sitting there talking. Watching him suffering. Thinking that the great
majority of the Jaycees were closely associated with the church. Members of the
choir. You see them with their Bibles. Their little testaments.
Like the free world. The women bleed. Without women, they manufacture
substitutes and the subs bleed.
When I first arrived, I was invited to a meeting of Trailblazer Jaycees,
so named because they were the first Jaycees chapter in the federal prison
system. After my introduction, I was asked what I'd like to accomplish while I
was in prison. I told them I'd like to convince the prison Jaycees group to drop
out of the
DILEMMA: HOBBY CRAFT OR JESUS
As my plans for the newspaper took shape I began discussing the idea with
friends I could confide in. Very few of my friends encouraged the idea. Most of
them had much more experience with prison populations than I did. Maybe it was
my naivete that made it happen. Whatever. After some interesting escapades and
scares over the next ten- or twelve-month period and a transfer to a medium
security joint in Sandstone, Minnesota, I was released on parole.
Before you can "walk" you have to check out of each department
in the prison. That means you have to personally go to each department head and
have him sign a release form stating that you have nothing of value that belongs
to that department. When I got to the chaplain's office I put on my very serious
mask and asked him
He was wary, but he invited me into his office. I sat down and explained
that I was leaving and that I was faced with a seemingly impossible problem. I
had to make a decision that I had been struggling with for days. He was all
ears. He couldn't believe he was listening to this kind of talk from the fellow
who had helped shove a Unitarian Universalist Fellowship--he first inside the
federal prison system---down the throat of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in
Leavenworth two years earlier. I explained that I had wrestled with the problem
for days. Now I had to choose. I couldn't work it out by myself and needed his
He came out from behind his desk and sat down beside me. The chaplain had
this look of disbelief on his face. He put his hand on my shoulder and reassured
me that he would help in any way he could.
"Do I have your absolute confidence?" I asked.
"My office is like the confessional, Joe. You know that," he
That remark almost broke me up, but I held the serious look. My eyes were
kind of watery as a result of holding back the laughter. He was in heaven. I
looked him in the eye and explained, "You know I'm being released." He
nodded. "You know I have to check out with all the departments." He
nodded and said, "Yes, Joe. How can I help?" I explained that since
yesterday I had two departments remaining to sign my release forms. My problem
was that I had been going to the departments in their order of importance. With
the religion and hobby craft departments the only two remaining, I couldn't
decide where to go first. "Would you help me, Father?" I asked.
"Should I have you sign or should I go to the hobby craft shop first?"
He froze. He took his hand away from my shoulder and stood up, walked to
the chair behind his desk, turned to me, and called me a son-of-a-bitch. As I
stood up to leave I added, "That's right, priest, but a son-of-a-bitch who
thinks the philosophy of the good carpenter is a gas as opposed to your
adulterations of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood."
He had answered my question. I headed for hobby craft.
The next day, the chaplain had the final word in the matter. Before he
would sign my checkout form, he made me wait three hours.
No, I take that back: Even with the wait, it was a pleasure watching him
sign his name right below the director of hobby craft's signature.
NAKED AT THE LIQUOR STORE
I stepped out of that northern Minnesota federal prison ten days in front
of 1970. John Eastman was there to greet me. I had just made a terrible mistake
and was in a vile mood. The associate warden had seized one of my paintings---a
combination sculpture/painting that I knew was going to make me enough money to
start the newspaper. I didn't find out what they had done until I picked up my
parole papers and was stepping out of the prison. I had 15 or 20 paintings to
load into John's station wagon. Right away, I saw that they had removed the
sculpture part and given me only the painting part. I returned to the window and
asked the guard on the other side about my missing art. He said I used federal
property to make it. He was talking about scrap metal that had been discarded.
From my papers I took out the document giving me permission to use the scrap.
The guard said,
It's at times like this that the boys are separated from the men. I
should have torn up my parole papers and refused to leave. Hindsight has
convinced me that if I had shoved my papers back through the slot and refused to
leave I would have been given the sculpture. If I had been thinking clearly, I
would have realized that
That particular sculpture, made up of scrap metal, was a powerful
piece---the best piece I had ever done. I might have turned to art full-time if
I had stayed for a showdown that evening. Who knows? Who cares? Art is the grass
that is always greener...Maybe it's what I'll do when I grow up.
But I was infected with "getting-out fever." I wanted out and I
was one door away from freedom. I was ready to walk. John was standing there. My
paintings were loaded. I turned to the guard. "Will the sculpture be safe
until I call the bureau in the morning?" "Absolutely!" he
answered. I believed him. Can you imagine? I
Believing a guard! Allowing your wants to override experience. I'd simply
call the director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons in the morning and scream.
There was no way they could take my property away---not just my property, MY
Heading south toward Minneapolis I outlined my plans for a prisoners'
newspaper. Money wouldn't be a problem for long. I'd sell my paintings and use
the money to get started. Talk about a distorted view of reality.
I felt so good wheeling down the highway with cold beer and a little
smoke that the three-hour drive to Minneapolis seemed to last just a few
minutes. John has a never-ending supply of stories, inspiring stuff, the good
guys always lose. Approaching the Washington Avenue exit I asked John to turn
off and drive west on
"Hell, yes." I put the case down and grabbed four long-necks
and motioned for John to come join us. John isn't a beer drinker but he got into
the spirit of the moment. We opened the back of the wagon, set the cases inside,
popped four "Linees," and we raised our beers to peace.
Christmas was only a few days away. These two men, hawking drinks in a
liquor store parking lot and freezing their asses off---I knew these guys, good
old guys, and they were in a worse prison than the one I had just left.
"This ain't exactly beer drinking weather," John said.
"Bullshit," the older of the two men said. "It's always
beer drinking weather."
I asked them what they would be drinking if they had a choice.
"They got some Four Roses on sale that would warm us up."
I handed John my beer and came back with a couple quarts of
I handed each of them a bottle. "Merry Christmas."
The old fellow in the ratty jacket was damn near jumping up and down. I
couldn't make out what he was saying until he put his teeth in. "This'll
warm things up tonight."
John was stamping his feet and I was wondering what it would be like
living in a prison where your heat source was a 30-gallon barrel. It must have
been 10, maybe 15 degrees.
Since I had planned on changing into some of my old clothes that John had
brought up from Iowa, I handed the old guy my overcoat.
"This and the bourbon will keep you warmer."
Suddenly the old guy was giving me the once over. "What ya got on
your mind? You a faggot or something...""
His partner became indignant in an almost aristocratic manner. "Shut
up, fool. Ya got a new overcoat and the best bottle of booze I've ever seen you
sucking on. This dude's comin' on like Santa Claus and not asking for Jack
John was laughing so hard he was crying.
I handed the other guy the sport coat I had on.
"What size shoes you wear?" I asked him.
He didn't even look down. "Any size ya got."
I took my shoes off and handed them to him. He glanced at them, sized
them up, put them in his coat pockets. I started unbuttoning my shirt.
The old man looked at John. "What's your friend been smoking?"
I handed him the shirt and took my pants off. "Thirty-two
"Me exactly, but what are you gonna wear?"
I took my shorts off. John handed me one of the bottles and I took a
Now both of the old guys were laughing almost as hard as John. I guess it
was a strange scene.
I flashed on my old Navy buddy Don Pelvit running six blocks through the
snow one January night in Minneapolis, naked and barefoot. It was 33 degrees
I took my socks off. The two guys were looking at my feet like they
expected my toenails to have fingernail polish on them.
A woman came out of the liquor store laughing and yelled, "You're
freaking out the store manager. He just called the cops."
We all piled into the front seat. John was laughing so hard he could
barely drive. I grabbed a pair of old Levis and a sweatshirt. A few minutes
later we were eating burgers from White Castle and washing them down with Jack.
We dropped the old guys off some place on Lake Street and headed south on
Throughout the remainder of the trip John talked about making films. He
had sent me one film to show our fellowship but custody had taken it away and
returned it to custody. I asked him what it was about. "Some nuns walking
around down in Mexico. Strange shit." That same film, The Day Love Died,
was later used in a successful United Way fundraising effort.
I outlined my plans for a newspaper that would open lines of
communication between prisoners and the free world.
"Who's going to buy your newspaper?"
"Because I'll give them material that will blow their minds."
"No one cares."
"Only because the material hasn't been presented to them in an
I had convinced myself! No one could reason with me. No one could change
my mind. John had known me long enough to know that the stories were true. He
had freaked often enough, been fired from enough jobs, stared at enough
rejection slips, been married and divorced and remarried enough times that he
knew how important it was to be able to tell your story.
We drove all night. It was like old times, being with a friend I could
When we reached Cedar Rapids, John asked me how I felt.
"I feel pure. Nothing to hide. No place to go but up." What I
lacked in discipline I figured I could make up for with enthusiastic bullshit.
It had been a great drive. I think I'll always feel a chill across my
buns whenever I think of standing naked in that parking lot by the Discount
Liquors in Minneapolis. But that kind of cold I could deal with-watching the sun
come up as we drove south through the rolling, snow-covered Iowa farmland, with
the air so clear and sharp that it brought tears to my eyes.
This was an off period in John's life. Nothing permanent. John dropped me
off at his small apartment, gave me the keys, and said he'd see me in a couple
days. I went in. John's place was always as good as home and it was good being
home. I needed rest and time to organize my thoughts. Another of my dearest
friends was waiting to help---Marsha was one of the elements that combined to
After the reunion amenities, I called the Federal Bureau of Prisons and
explained about the painting and the sculpture.
Two hours later, a fellow from the bureau called me back and said that
the sculpture had been destroyed. "They figured it was prison property so
it was taken to the welding shop and taken apart with a cutting torch. It was
I made few non-prisoner friends while I was locked up.
I'd make fewer in the next three years.
ART ATTRACTS COLLECTOR
A phone call to Eli Abodeli got me space to paint for a month in one of
his downtown hideaways. Another call to the People's Church got me space for an
I had left prison with enough art supplies to last me ten years. When you
paint in prison an interesting thing happens. Prisoners come by and watch. They
see you doing it and it looks easy. They send home for money for supplies and
tell the family to send photos. "I'll have oil portraits for you in a
month," they reassure the folks at home. The money arrives, they buy the
oils, brushes, and a couple of "how-to" books, and everything they
touch turns to mud.
They finally end up making a deal with one of the prison artists. You get
the supplies and you paint them a picture they can send home.
I slapped more oil on canvas in the next 30 days than I had in my entire
life. No style, no nothing. Just a hodgepodge of emotion. Pictures that I hoped
would sell, if not for the art at least for the curiosity.
My show was memorable for two reasons. The first reason was that I met a
person who was interested in two of my paintings, but wanted to see them hanging
before making a choice. I agreed to bring them to the person's home that night.
I found the place on the east side of Cedar Rapids in a neighborhood of
luxury homes. A long curved drive led to a huge entrance; just inside the
entrance was a Marvin Cone painting. Pretty heady company. On the tour of the
home, I saw originals by Grant Wood, Picasso, and Matisse, and what seemed to be
more early American
A huge staircase led up from the front entry way. On the first landing
was a prime spot for a large painting. Upon entering the house it was the first
spot you saw.
"I think the large one might look good there."
I agreed with her.
"The warm colors will be complemented by the woodwork."
I had never seen that much woodwork in a home in my life. Plus it was a
painting I had done in a day. "Angular Compromise." Two figures. Hard
to tell if a man or a woman was compromising. John had named it. It was a steal
We went upstairs to look at it from above.
It was beautiful.
At the top of the stairs was a large area with more stairs leading off in
three directions. The area was lined with bookcases and built-in seats.
"Would you care for a drink?"
As the drinks were being poured I looked at the books. They were all
matched sets. Some of the sets had 25 or more books in them. All appeared to be
bound in leather, or at least material that looked like leather.
I didn't recognize the titles or the authors, but it didn't take me long
to realize that I was not looking at the classics. She Was Daddy's Little Girl
and Cheerleaders Romp. Many years would go by before we'd see a marquee with
Lawyers in Lace on it but I'll bet the book was there if it was in print. As I
gave the books a closer examination, I was aware that I was being watched. I
took a book off the shelf and opened it. Clit lit. Hundreds of books. Expensive,
matched sets of cheap trash. I'm not talking erotica. No Henry Miller or Anais
Nin in this collection.
I couldn't believe it. The collector from hell. Grant Wood and Marvin
Cone Behind the Green Door.
"You like to read books like those?" I was asked.
It was clear where this evening was headed. No sense in playing games.
"Which do you prefer, the large painting or the small one?" I asked.
"I can't make up my mind. I like them both," was the response,
spoken slowly while my glass was being filled with the first Calvados I'd ever
tasted. I've wondered about Calvados for years. It was what Ravic always ordered
in Remarque's Arch of
"I'll buy the small one because it's the better of the two
paintings. I'll also buy the large one if you will spend the night."
I sat there with my Calvados. What would Ravic say? I couldn't believe
this. Was it the fascination of being with a newly released prisoner? I thought
about the $400. Maybe it would have been possible if she hadn't looked so much
like Charles Bukowski.
"We could read to each other."
"Sorry. I'm driving a borrowed car and have to return it in half an
"Could I have them until tomorrow night?"
"Sorry. I have obligations." Obligations?
I was grateful to pick up $120.
The second memorable happening was that I made $2,500 from the art show.
If the sculpture that had been ripped off by the guards at Sandstone had been in
the show I would have made $7,500.
BUILDER BUSY BUILDING WARDENS
A week earlier I had moved to Iowa City and enrolled at the University of
Iowa. An interesting incident happened to me when I arrived there for the first
time. While in prison I had taken some correspondence courses, mostly in
criminology, from the University of Iowa. The professor who I sent my lessons
to, Professor Caldwell, was the author of a widely used criminology text. I had
poured my heart into those lessons. Typewritten papers that would run 30 and 40
pages always returned with an "A" boldly marked across the first page,
usually followed by "Remarkable" or "Good work." Years later
I'd sit around with teaching assistants from that same department. The long
papers only elicited groans, they told me. The papers would be passed around.
Care would be taken to not spill any beer on them. The best ones were the
shortest. No BS. Just the facts.
As a prisoner, I had been impressed by Dr. Caldwell. He had headed the
department and authored an important text. He had praised my work. On my first
trip to Iowa City to find a place to live, I stopped at his office to meet him.
It was a typical office, narrow and long. Books lined the shelves from floor to
high ceiling. Sitting behind a large desk that was stacked with books and
papers, he looked
He recognized my name immediately and welcomed me to Iowa City. We talked
about various topics: prison, his department, what I would probably find at the
University of Iowa. He failed to mention everything I learned to love and hold
dear while in Iowa City: drugs of every imaginable type, fun stuff, with peyote
topping the list. And love. I found love in all forms, including the permanent
But at this point I revered the old professor. Finally I asked him the
question I had come there to ask. Thinking that he would be the centerpiece of a
lengthy article in the journal someday, I asked him, "Dr. Caldwell, you
have been involved not only with the subject of criminology but with the prisons
and prisoners of Iowa. What do you believe is the most important contribution
you have made that has been a benefit to prisoners?"
He leaned back in his chair, shut his eyes, and was deep in thought.
Finally he leaned forward and looked at me. There was a dramatic pause. Was it
practiced? I'd never seen him lecture. "My most important contribution?
That's easy. I'm responsible for the chapel at the Anamosa Reformatory. I'm
prouder of that than anything."
It figured. He was nothing but a guard. The guard from the department
head's office. It seemed like every time I turned around, some script for a
grade B movie was happening before my very eyes.
I sat there looking at him. He seemed to expect a response. I didn't say
anything. I just stood up and left. I couldn't believe it.
That department at the University of Iowa, I later found out, led by the
likes of Caldwell, turned out more federal prison wardens than any other single
institution of learning in the country. And the federal prison system, then and
now, contrary to the public relations drivel that is ejaculated from Washington,
is one of the most
The new year found me in a small, cheap, furnished room three blocks from
the University of Iowa on the southwest corner of Jefferson and Van Buren. I
wasn't carrying much with me: an easel and some art supplies, a few books, and
odds and ends of new used clothes. My personal needs were few.
The PDI, on the other hand, needed a non-profit, tax-exempt corporation,
a board of directors, and money. What that added up to was a serious need for
contacts and advice. I'd also need space for an office, at least one
extraordinary staff member, and ultimately a home large enough for a staff that
I figured would grow to 15 when we were publishing. All I had were a few ideas
and the money from the sale of paintings.
That money was earmarked for emergencies. Staffing of the PDI was not
going to be easy. I wanted ex-prisoners in key positions. I knew prisoners who
had developed those necessary skills while serving long prison sentences.
Unfortunately, they were still inside, with little chance of getting out.
To save money I applied for and received tuition assistance.
When I learned that I could use it to help pay my rent and that I could
qualify for grants to cover the rest of my rent and my living expenses, I
enrolled full time.
Culturally, economically, and politically, Iowa City was the place to be. It had an excellent symphony, the best rock concerts, opera, a remarkable university drama department, the Bijou where two art movies played nightly, year around for 50 cents, and reasonable rent. You could walk anywhere in town. Politically the university campus was boiling over with antiwar activity. Opposition to the Vietnam War was drawing the kinds of crowds Vivian Stringer would draw years later with the Iowa women's basketball team. Sit-ins at Old Capitol. Gentle people making a non-violent statement while the jocks ran across their bodies.
At my first sit-in, I needed every
Every night crowds would gather. Occasionally they would spill over into
the streets. Banners would be unrolled, poster board would appear, and as
quickly paint and brushes. An American flag appears, upside down, draped across
the front of a house. The Iowa City police come pounding on the door. Jackie
Blank comes out and
The police wanted no part of that scene. Everyday it became increasingly
more difficult to break away from the discussions, the planning sessions, and
the teach-ins to attend classes. That problem was soon solved when the action of
the streets moved into the classrooms. With increasing frequency students were
challenging instructors about the significance of what they were teaching.
Some students who objected to the interruptions would counter with,
"We're trying to get an education! Why don't you take your rhetoric some
place else?" To them, activists responded, "What the hell do you think
I'm here for? I'm paying tuition just like you are---but I want more for my
Questions, Accusations, And Confrontations.
One day a group of students challenged an instructor about a comment he
had made in an offhand manner. After some give and take the instructor finally
got angry and told the students, "If you don't like what I'm teaching or
how I teach it, you can get out." One of them jumped up and said,
"Wrong! Either you begin to deal
Thinking he was involved with just three loud-mouthed radicals, the
instructor called the university police. When they arrived, the three students
were addressing the entire lecture hall about the use of police to back up
instructors who "were out of touch with reality." As the police
advanced on the three, 95 percent of the
I had been away from school for a long time. What I saw now was more than
students demanding an end to a war they believed was unjust and illegal. They
were demanding the right to participate in the decision-making process. They
wanted some say in what they were being taught. The most vocal students were
being singled out as troublemakers, and no doubt they were. But the trouble they
were causing had been a long time coming.
In many ways the university's attempt to stifle dissent reminded me of my
recent life in prison. Prisons have always been intractable as far as rules are
concerned. You do as the state tells you, or else. In prison, you refuse an
order and you land in solitary confinement. You don't get kicked out---you get
kicked farther in. When prison personnel find themselves in a situation where
they are wrong and a prisoner is right, they simply change the rules. No
Traditionally, neither prisoners nor students had any say in how their
institutions were run. But now, as I became acclimated to my new environment, I
saw that educational institutions were changing. The PDI would act as a catalyst
to open prisons to greater public scrutiny, I vowed. As a result, change in the
prisons would be possible also. Making prisons more democratic would not be
easy. Once people realized that only a small percentage of the prisoners were a
serious danger to society, change would come.
Punishment for radical activity was a reality on the campus. Some of the
more conservative students, especially from the fraternities and the athletic
department, would catch antiwar activists alone and attack them. During sit-in
demonstrations, the leaders invariably ended up getting kicked around, stepped
on, and punched when they were being carried or dragged away. Vietnam veterans
who were opposed to the war were often attacked. A young bearded veteran with a
flag sewn on his sleeve upside down was set upon one night by a group of ROTC
students who ripped his dog-tags off and whipped them across his face again and
again. He was cut rather badly, but he refused to press charges against them or
tell anyone their names even though he knew the students who had attacked him.
He had seen and participated in all the violence he could endure in Vietnam, he
told me. "There is nothing anyone can do that will cause me to fight---ever
Sobering. Your anger would rage. Understanding would be almost
impossible. But finally, painfully, you realized that he and others like him
were right. The resolution of disputes through the use of force and violence
accomplished nothing positive and led only to more violence.
And just as it was tough for the most active protesters, it was also
tough for many of the instructors. I was awed by the sophisticated methods young
students used to pin instructors down on issues pertaining to the war. There
were groups that seemed to be devoting all of their time to the war. They were
In my previous life as a full-time student many years before, I had
always viewed professors as intelligent, dedicated, educated people. Frequently,
we students didn't like their regimen or their methods, but we never thought to
challenge them, to treat them like equals. Now I was watching professors being
dragged out of their
For example, at the beginning of one semester, a professor who had been
head of the department the previous year was putting everyone to sleep. Finally
a young man stood up and started making his way to the aisle. "Pardon me.
Excuse me. Pardon, etc. etc," he was saying in a conversational voice as he
squeezed by the students
"May I ask where you are going?" he said to the young man.
The student stopped, looked at the professor, and said, "Yes." And stood there.
the professor asked.
"No, I'm not well," he answered. "I signed up for this
course thinking I'd get my mind fucked. I'm certainly not going to listen to
this drivel for the rest of the term." And out he went.
I had never heard the word used in reference to mind stimulation and
gratification, but I understood.
A number of other students must have understood as well. About 20 percent
got up and left.
mailing out the flyer I sat back and waited for the postage paid return mail
cards to flood in. In a few weeks we would have a return of at least 50 percent.
Why not? It was free gratis. If you don't like it, just write cancel on the
invoice and forget it. No obligation to inspect a 72-page tabloid written,
a direct mail campaign brings in a 3 percent return it is considered successful.
I believed that the PDI's uniqueness alone would bring us a return of 50 percent
or more. Not all of them would subscribe, but I knew that most intelligent
respondents would at least consider $6 a fair investment. Prisoners could
subscribe for $1, although we were encouraging them to spend $6 if they could
afford to do so.
response during the first five weeks was less than exciting. Three weeks after
the mailing, two cards came in. A few days later we received three more. Another
week passed and two more came in. Seven in five weeks, out of 7,000.
I thought. Is anyone out there?
the response to the mailing in my hand, I understood clearly that the only
people I could count on to support the PDI were the people who were unable to do
lack of response from the libraries I could understand. In their eyes, our
content was so specialized that no one besides prisoners and correctional
employees would be interested. I had failed to convince them that 20 to 25
percent of the general population was interested in the problems facing
prisoners and their families.
greatest disappointment was the lack of response from the colleges, particularly
those with criminology departments. I had fine-tuned my list so that the mailer
was sent directly to the department heads as well as to those professors who
were well known because of books they had written.
also mystified me was that no one called or wrote to ask questions about what I
was doing. The PDI was the only newspaper dealing directly with incredibly
serious problems---problems that concerned the public as well as prisoners. Our
initial presentation to prospective subscribers had been professionally done.
Yet it generated no response.
distressing was my not being able to discuss the problem with anyone. Becky and
I were the only people who knew. If I mentioned what was happening to anyone
else, I would never be able to undo the damage. For those few weeks while I
waited for postage paid cards to arrive, I had imagined a flood of so many cards
that I would have to borrow money to pay the postage. During that time I would
occasionally find myself sitting in the office late at night. Becky would be
typing articles. I'd reach to the rear of the bottom drawer and take out the
seven return mailers that we had received. Becky would glance over, see what I
was looking at, and shake her head. I simply cannot believe that there are not
more people who are curious enough to drop a postage paid card in the mail to
get a free copy of a publication of any kind, I would say for the fiftieth,
sixtieth, or hundredth time.
would shrug her shoulders and respond, over and over, No one gives a damn about
prisoners, or about you or about me.
night, just as she was saying that to me for the umpteenth time, an Iowa City
police car slowly drove by the office. Becky smiled and added, At least not
anyone willing to spend $6 on a year's subscription.
was absolutely right. It took over a month for the facts to sink in for me to
understand and admit to myself that my dream of a widely circulated and
subscribed to monthly journal that would provide a power base to bring change to
one of the most repressive prison systems in the world was not happening. There
would be no wages for staff and travel and lobbying. There would be no research
We were in trouble.
get a pizza.
pizza Becky and I discussed options.
the PDI is going to press, it will happen because we make it happen, Becky.
had been to all the board meetings. She had heard the details of my dream. More
than anyone, besides me, she was a believer. Becky I could confide in. I
explained what I was going to do and asked her if she wanted to help. Since it
was a week night and she wasn't allowed to party she said, Let's go do it.
returned to the office our sanctuary and started filling out postage paid return
mailers. By morning we had filled out about 3,000. We were tired but we felt
satisfied. Every person, every department, every college and university that I
had believed would request the first issue was going to get that first issue. So
me I had my lists.
locked up, had breakfast, and walked over to Van Buren for a quick rest. Becky
still lived two doors up the street. A couple hours later we walked to the
office, filled some brown bags with the postage paid cards, and then went to the
was eager to hear about the mailing. Becky and I walked in like we'd just hit
the lottery. All smiles. Shaking with what everyone thought was excitement
instead of exhaustion. Not being one to waste words, I just emptied the bags on
the table and announced that we had a 43 percent return. These were business
people and they were stunned by the return. It was a higher return than any
direct mail solicitation they had ever heard of. After a general discussion
about what was next I said that I felt safe in projecting a paid subscription
base of around 20,000 by the end of the first year.
I explained that I needed $1,500 to pay for the return mailers and $2,500 to
print and mail the first edition of the PDI. The vote was unanimous. Combined
loans from Dick Myers, Mace Braverman, Sharm Scheuerman, and John Clark totalled
the $4,000. Becky and I walked back to the office and went to work.
had the money now for the first issue. We even had enough money to pay Becky.
But we were only three months into the lease on the van and I knew I'd be unable
to generate the $225 needed to keep it. Not with the office rent, utilities, and
printing costs plus two separate places of residence. The problem of housing was
solved with the help of Sharm Scheuerman and his partner Steve Richardson. Using
my GI loan, that I picked up from my time in the navy, I bought a large
three-story house at 505 South Lucas Street. The combined rent that we were
already paying on separate places almost covered the monthly payment. I still
had money stashed from the sale of my paintings. We were going to have financial
problems, but we were going to get out at least two issues.
became synonymous with PDI.
more room, a large house, a yard, and a great kitchen, more people began
spending time at the PDI. Included, in particular, were some of the kids from
welfare families I had been helping out.
number of people who were living and working at 505 previous to our printing the
first issue fluctuated between five and eight. That number, plus the constant
flow of visitors, forced us to locate sources for large quantities of food. I
think we were one of the first groups to check out the commercial food
wholesalers around closing time each day. Staff members would show up to pick
over the fruits and vegetables that were too ripe to be sold to the stores the
Wholesale Foods provided us with tremendous additional quantities of food,
thanks largely to David Braverman, patriarch of the Braverman clan, the founder
of Hawkeye Foods, and a genuine friend. David's generosity was legend throughout
the area. During the holidays he would load up our van with turkeys and hams.
recognized that we didn't share a religion, but we damn sure shared a
philosophy. As a result we set a dinner table that was second to none and always
had food to share with a dozen or so other poor families. We were the largest
welfare family in Iowa City. We housed runaways, escapees, wanteds, people who
were walking to the beat of a different emotional drummer, and children from
we applied for and used food stamps regularly, many of them went to families who
came to us for emergency help. Families also came to us when they felt they were
not being treated fairly by Human Services. When that happened I was the one who
usually accompanied them back to the office to lodge a complaint. I would listen
to the long list of regulations concerning food stamp eligibility, then
aide would open the door. Cleo would be sitting at her desk, buried behind
stacks of paperwork; all you could see was the top of her head. I'd start right
these people are desperate. I've never lied to you and I'm not lying
would just raise a hand and wave for us to go away, yelling, "Just give
Grant the goddam food stamps."
we could have cloned a Human Services army of Cleo Marsolaises we would be
living in a more equitable world today.
became expert on living well with an incredibly small amount of money thanks to
the PDI's first vegetarians, Warren and Cathy Dearden. Warren and Cathy came to
us in 1971 after Warren won a scholarship to the Writer's Workshop at the
University of Iowa. Grove Press had just published A Free Country, a book by
Warren that was not only entertaining, it resounded with the ring of personal
experience. They hadn't been in Iowa City more than a few hours before hearing
about the activities at 505 from a woman at the workshop. That afternoon, they
wandered in and introduced themselves.
had taken an early pot bust and done some federal time. He was quiet, had a
great sense of humor, and seemed to know what he was doing. For a person so
small and slight, he moved around with deliberation and authority. That first
night, we didn't even have floor space so they ended up on the living room floor
at the home of
the next morning, when Elinore came downstairs, Warren had just awakened and was
standing in the middle of the living room, naked, facing away from her. Just as
she was about to say good morning he bent over, and it appeared that he was
mooning her. Had she spoken, she recalled to me later, she would have been
talking to Warren's butt. She turned and walked back upstairs, then came down a
time later, she asked me if I thought he had done that deliberately. I wasn't
sure. He and Cathy hadn't been long off a desert commune in New Mexico where
food and water had to be carefully conserved. Elinore was living in what
appeared to be rather affluent surroundings. He might have decided to let her
take a good look at
next day they were back at 505. Cathy checked the kitchen, the stove, and the
refrigerator, and walked through the house. After about a half hour she
indicated that she wanted to talk.
prepare two meals a day, breakfast and dinner, make out the grocery lists, and
see that someone does the shopping or do it ourselves," she offered.
"We all clean up for ourselves and Warren and I will live in the
was no question in my mind that Cathy was exactly what 505 needed. I was right.
Soon Cathy and Warren were cooking two meals a day at 505. Cathy was also
working part-time at a pseudo-Mexican restaurant, the Taco Vendor, across from
Keith Dempster's Mill Restaurant, and playing out a whole host of roles at the
house: to Warren she was a wife and lover, to the women in the house she was a
sister, to the kids she was a mother, to the men she was damned attractive,
quick with a smile, always a pleasure to be around, and absolute boss in the
kitchen and dining room.
Taco Vendor, she scrubbed pots and pans during the lunch rush. Her boss was a
man who seemed to have trouble with women who thought for themselves and
expected answers to questions.
like Cathy. Cathy would do her job, but when he started laying trips on her she
would just look at him and smile. Finally he decided that she had to wear a bra
when she washed the dishes in effect, Wear one or lose your job. I recall her
getting that slight, lopsided grin on her face, slowly shaking her head from
side to side, raising one eyebrow quizzically,and saying, He is really screwed
up. We assumed
was always my most important meal. I had been raised on substantial breakfasts.
My mother was a tyrant when it came to breakfast. As soon as you were old enough
to work, play, or go to school, you left the breakfast table with the
nourishment to carry your share of the load for the day.
for me, Cathy had graduated from that same nutritional school. Breakfast
consisted of cooked cereal made up of a variety of grains, raisins, and nuts
with gallons of raw whole milk from Moss' Dairy. It always appeared that Cathy
had made more than the regulars and visitors could eat. Yet invariably the last
person to eat would be cleaning out the second of the two huge cast iron kettles
that were seasoned to perfection.
was spread out over a three-hour period, beginning about 6 A.M., as people
wandered in from the six upstairs bedrooms and the two basement bedrooms. It
wasn't unusual in the morning to find people sleeping on the porch or in the
backyard, or neighborhood kids walking in for breakfast on their way to the
elementary school a few blocks away. With Cathy's touch, the house at 505 became
a home. Of course she had a pretty responsive crew gathering for those meals.
Many had spent long years lining up for food in prison mess halls; they knew
what it was like living on a diet of cake and wine in solitary confinement.
kids who came for breakfast not only were welcomed, but they became close enough
to us that we started filling in for parents. Often teachers contacted us if
there was a problem. We'd stop in and discuss grades, behavior, all of the
issues that parents normally discussed.
observation I made was that when the kids spent time at 505 their behavior and
also their grades seemed to improve. I could easily understand why: they had
people around them who were genuinely concerned about their welfare. They were
getting good breakfasts and attention in a friendly, laidback environment. Being
with the kids, I learned this important lesson: the best way to rehabilitate
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