The Overdose

By Curtis Price

Posted April 4, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

He lay splayed out on the concrete behind my car trunk, legs spread and crumpled, like a limp doll that had been tossed out a fifth-floor window.  A neighbor and the apartment complex manager hovered over him. The manager dialed 911 and pacing frantically, shouted, “Where is the ambulance? Why aren’t they here?” The man – a young, black male in his late 20s-early 30s – breathed in short, rapid clips. His eyes rolled up in his head, exposing just the whites. I took his pulse – normal and regular rhythm – and gave him a sternum rub, to no response.  To me, his skin felt like a salamander’s, cool and clammy. He sweated like a pig. It was the tell-tale sign of an opioid overdose. But there were no fresh needle marks on his arms so perhaps he had swallowed the dose that was slowly killing him. 

His so-called “friends” – a multinational gaggle of one young white young male, one young black male, and a white woman in her mid-40s, a perfect demonstration of the values of diversity and inclusion so prized in these modern times of ours, jumped around agitated. The white guy, in his 20s, was stoned out of his gourd and maybe on the way to his own oblivion as he staggered around glassy-eyed and dumb-founded. The black guy, just like the mute body on the pavement, was café-au-lait complexion, wiry and gaunt, his hair also worn natural and disheveled. Were they brothers or was it just a coincidence that they looked so similar? This second man, the driver, was jittery and mumbling, but more alert than the other two. 

But when he heard the sirens, the driver jumped back in the car and revved up and out of the parking lot. The white woman had disappeared in the confusion. Someone said they saw her heading to the homeless shelter down the street.  

 The sprawled man’s “friends” were rightly looking out for their self-interest because under Alabama law, anyone who supplies drugs known to have killed someone becomes legally liable for their death. No doubt, they were “running dirty” themselves and couldn’t risk a car search. The car sped up and disappeared over the horizon. Only later did I find out the black driver had pushed the white guy out of the car at the other end of the complex, where he was found staggering and wide-eyed and then arrested for “public intoxication.”  

I don’t know if the sprawled man, Rashid Evans – for that was his name – survived. If he had taken Fentanyl,  a shot of Narcan may have been enough to bring him around. Maybe he had ingested Tianaa, known in the South as “gas station dope” because, until a couple weeks ago. Tianaa was legally sold at gas stations and vape shops throughout Alabama as a “dietary supplement.” Tianaa, widely used in Eastern Europe as an anti-depressant, has never been FDA-approved in the U.S. When taken in large doses, it produces a heroin-type euphoria, making it a popular street drug. And, until recently, legal too, because through a regulatory loophole, the Tianaa ingredients were allowed to be imported. 

It’s hard to see how this deep alienation, the desire to obliterate consciousness, among many parts of the working-class – young people of all races and middle-aged whites without a college degree especially – will end. Contrary to what the Left assumes, if tens of thousands of $25 dollar an hour factory jobs suddenly dropped out of the sky, I don’t believe it would put a dent in this state of affairs. Such is the contemporary situation in the United States, that “laboratory of human suffering as vast and terrible as that in which Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote” Nelson Algren so aptly wrote himself over fifty years ago. 

The Glove Man of Norman

By Richard Dixon

Posted March 19, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

       He was the best-known of all the mental patients who live in this university town full of college students, but also full of mental patients who have recently been released from the state mental hospital or the community mental health center; released to live in the community, classified (at best) as outpatients, most of them living in close proximity to the university campus, since that’s where the cheaper rents are. But not the Glove Man.  No one really knew where he lived.

            The Glove Man was a walker, having no driver’s license and no choice, and he walked all over the town, always in perpetual motion, as if afraid to stop, and constantly talking, like he was carrying on some kind of extended conversation with the universe, or himself: same difference. Sometimes ranting and raving; one arm, then the other thrusting up toward the sky; sometimes mumbling, muttering under his breath, quietly seething.

            To say the least, I was entranced. I would roll down my car window when I was stopped at the light and he was standing at the intersection’s corner, unsure if it was safe to cross, stoplights and crosswalks not being a part of his lexicon of living, so: he would be standing there, getting louder with what he was saying, and it was always a variation on, “I tried to tell those sonsabitches, but they wouldn’t listen.”

            Once, I saw him on Main Street, on the other side in a restaurant’s parking lot, picking up handfuls of dirt and depositing them into three small paper sacks, not all at once, but one at a time.  The sacks were spaced a few feet apart, but in no recognizable configuration.  At one point, he turned and looked in my direction, and would have caught me watching him if I hadn’t ducked down behind my car, just in the nick of time.  Later, as I was driving down Main Street, I saw him walking ahead on the sidewalk, and I pulled over all the way to the left-hand lane of this one-way street, and rolled down my window. As I passed by him, I leaned my head out of the car and asked, “Hey, how you doing, dude?” For several seconds, there registered no discernible reaction on his lean, hard, high-cheek-boned face.  Then he glanced at me, and then back, all in the space of maybe a second, and said,  “Don’t bother me; don’t bother me,” the accent of the word bother coming down when his right foot hit the pavement, like a drill sergeant out practicing the troops.

            Another time, I saw him again at one of the usual intersections. This time I wasn’t driving; my car was parked in the adjacent parking lot of the grocery store. I walked up behind him, then slightly around him to make sure I approached from the side. He didn’t look at me or in any way acknowledge my presence. As innocently as I could sound, I asked, “Excuse me, could you tell me how to get to the university?” Almost without pause, but again without making eye contact, he answered, “Go down Flood to Boyd;  turn left and keep going.” I walked away smiling at the utter simplicity of his direction;  most people would have given a far more complicated answer, to no better effect. And:  he had answered me!

            The story I heard about the Glove Man, or “Gloves,” as I called him, was that he had gone into his burning house to try and get his family out, or maybe just one person;  the details sketchy, as well as the outcome: did he ever get them out? In the attempt, at any rate, he had severely burned his hands, and had henceforth worn gloves, usually heavy-looking work gloves ever since, the hundred-degree days of summer making no difference, and also making no difference to his regimen, his 15-20 miles a day constitutional. Occasionally bringing his name up to friends, maybe twice a year in casual conversation, the last time I did I was informed that Gloves had passed away, his obituary having been read by my informer the week before. Gloves was probably close to sixty years old, maybe a little older, although he had an athletic twenty-five year old body, and I wondered about the cause of his death. Heart failure from over-exertion? Hit by a moving car, trying his best to get through one of those damned intersections? Or possibly by the long-burning memories of a long-ago fire, memories that eventually extinguished?    Or, fatigue and frustration, finally, with all those sonsabitches who wouldn’t listen.

                                      

On The High Horse (A Serious Look at the Margins)

By Richard Dixon

Posted March 10, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

  I had gone into the biker bar with the straightforward assumption of shooting some pool. I enjoy playing pool, but hadn’t done much of it in several years. I was invited to play pool by Jerry, the manager of the Kerr-McGee service station where I sometimes worked weekends. (I also cut their grass, as well as the owners’ house). Jerry worked at the service station every day, of course, and everyday, at the end of his shift, headed to the bikers bar, which was located no more than a hundred yards from the station, at the far end of a building which also housed an automotive garage. Ford Parker was a mechanic in that garage (and my future bodyguard, if only in my mind). Ford was a big guy, and though polite to a fault, always wore an air of quiet menace. 

            Jerry seemed to me a big guy; not so much tall but stout, like a bull, demeanor and all. Jerry was a brawler, I sensed, and so always resisted kidding him about the biker bar being his second home, which it was; he went there every night, ended up drunk and passed out, usually on one of the pool tables, only to be awakened in time to open up the service station at 7 a.m., him being the manager – and if he stayed hung over the better part of the day, who was to say? The owners themselves were alcoholics, mixing drinks all day in the back of the station even as they tried to balance the books, but somehow, until they sold out three years from then, always managed to make it come out right. 

            The bikers bar was called The High Horse, and had a reputation for being quite wild; it was run by bikers, who sold speed on the side while their ‘ol ladies danced topless and turned tricks, that is to say prostituted on the side, the Ramada Inn by the interstate being their destination of choice. What was always strange to me was  even though the High Horse was a biker bar, it was managed by a fraternity pin-wearing college graduate named Donnie, who was preppy as he could be, a 180 degree contrast from the bikers who seemed to really run the place. 

            If I had known that evening, upon entering that bar, my life was going to take a drastic change for the next few weeks, I would have had strong, serious reservations. As it was, my ignorance and my love of pool were my guiding lights that mild January evening, and they led me through the door.

            The strains of “Honky Tonk Women” were ripping through the speakers from the jukebox as Jerry and I walked in. I could see the bar was clearly divided into two parts; the two pool tables in the rear, partitioned off by the actual bar, and the large room in front with many tables, chairs and booths, all leaning toward a half-circle stage, bright stage lights, and more chairs all around the stage apron. I could easily see that all these chairs were occupied, twenty shining male faces turned up attentively to the girl dancing naked on the stage.

            Jerry racked the balls and we played a game. Or rather, after I broke the rack and made nothing, Jerry proceeded to run the table. Jerry was a good player; steady practice is nothing to be sneezed at. I had the thought that having a second home with pool tables in it had its advantages.

            I started to put the quarters in for another game but Jerry stopped me, saying, “Well, I’ve gotta meet somebody over here on the other side in a couple minutes, come on over and I’ll buy you a beer.” Silently, I followed him.

            Having just been recently divorced, I was still in the phase of not taking any chances with females, any sort of initiative, so as to keep the safety of the rejection net perfectly intact. Safety or not, I also had a natural aversion to being one of the ogling, all-too-obvious guys who watched nude dancers. But, a free beer was hard to turn down, so I joined Jerry in a booth on the dancers’ side of the bar, about thirty feet from the stage. 

            A rather short, blond and nice-looking girl came over to take Jerry’s order. Her blond hair was long and straight, down to the middle of her mostly-bare back, her skin white and, in this light, nearly translucent. Her teeth even sparkled when she smiled and said, “Hi, my name’s Melody. What’ll it be for ya’ Jerry, and your cute friend over here?” 

            Jerry ordered the beers, and as soon as they arrived so did Jerry’s “appointment,” and they immediately left me at the booth and moved to the back part of the bar. I thought, Well, I have a beer to drink, it would look kind of dumb, me sitting here with my back to the entertainment; I might as well watch the dancing. As I turned around in the booth, Melody returned, eyes fixed on me, and asked, “So what are you up to?” 

            “Not a lot,” I answered, looking at my watch. “I think in about twenty minutes I’m going down to the dollar-fifty theatre to see this Neil Young concert film, ‘Rust Never Sleeps’.” 

            “Oh, really?” Melody smiled, “I love Neil Young. Listen; if you can stick around, I think I can get off the rest of the night – I’d love to go and check out Neil Young – do you mind?”

            “Not at all,” I managed to say, flattered and confused. “Great,” she said, “it’s a date.” 

            Before we went to the movie, Melody had some dancing to do, and I had some dancing to watch. The jukebox tumbled out the cowbell-and-drum intro to “Honky Tonk Women” (this Rolling Stones song was a recurring favorite of the dancers), then the rest of the song proceeded to (again) rip through the huge, overhead speakers. I turned in the booth toward the next dancer stepping out onto the stage, moving the lower half of her body to the rhythm of Mick and the boys. She was dressed in a halter top and bikini bottom, both fringed in white, and black stiletto high heels. The smoke from the room wafted onstage and found a home in the spotlights. I felt secure in the booth, safely away from the stage, while the men in the chairs surrounding it worked their sweaty faces into different levels of anticipation.

            The tall brunette finished her dance, turned and walked to the jukebox and punched in another song (I learned later that all the dancers had their favorite songs programmed on there). The brunette stepped away and out of the jukebox came the nine-bar intro to “In The Garden Da Vida.” During the song’s intro, the new, dark-complexioned dancer took off her top, with considerable response from the peanut gallery ringing the stage. By the middle of “Start Me Up” (this girl was definitely a Stones fan), she had nothing on except a few beads of sweat above her eyes and, while deeply bending her knees, was gesticulating her entire pubic area just inches from the hot, glazed eyes and protruding tongues in front of her, all around  that stage apron. All at once, as if on some silent cue, arms and hands came out toward her, each holding a bill of dubious denomination creased sideways, down the middle. These bills were then placed on the stage, creased side up; the dancer then bent her knees, back arched and, while keeping perfect beat to the song, picked up each bill in succession, without benefit of appendage or apparatus, all the true work being done by her vaginal muscles. All the bills thus dispatched, she danced off the stage, in step and time, to the song’s dying strains.

             Melody and I proceeded after another twenty minutes (she was officially “off” work), to go see the Neil Young concert film, and from there, to my house, where I had hoped to engage in a one-night stand, but that was just the beginning of surprises.

            The company I kept during this time was somewhat strange, to say the least. After my divorce, I had just been through a drag-me-through-and-count-me-fortunate-for-surviving fling with a ballerina, the original prima donna, and that had left me not scarred, but feeling a little rode-hard-and-put-up-wet. And then along comes Melody. The company I kept since my divorce, I have to admit, had been strange indeed, and I just seemed to keep adding to the equation, like some mathematician in search of the perfect quantum theory. In retrospect, I should have added up two and two, and figured out it equaled time to cut this shit out. But, like the dumb-ass-fatalist I was, I had to see it through. 

            Melody was very short, shapely and sexy; a hair’s breadth over five feet, she had long, blond hair to the middle of her strong back, nicely-muscled legs and breasts that just wouldn’t quit, sticking right out there, full and pointy, like an L.A. version of the perfect short woman. She also had a pretty face, but in a plain, Midwestern way. Most of the plainness came through in her eyes, which were myopic-looking, and I found out later she needed (and secretly used) glasses to really see anything, but right now, in the throes of stardom at the High Horse, she was doing without them. Melody gave off this incredibly innocent persona, but in her own clever way was always angling everything to her advantage, always working the score to be: Melody, 10 – dude, 0. And she was a good scorekeeper, and an incredible athlete on this field of endeavor of her choosing. She captured me in more ways than one, and thus in her eyes, most likely another fool.

            Patty, Melody’s roommate, was an ex-old lady of some biker. She had been through several reform schools and in and out of a life of (minor, I think) crime. She was sweet, in those wee hours of the morning, but ultimately deadly, as was Melody. And, as with the other dancers in the High Horse, these two ladies of the late, late night supplemented their income by turning tricks, and if they could get a john to ultimately fall in love with them, or be otherwise romantically stupefied, they could milk him for several days, really getting their (actually, his) money’s worth. Buy me this, buy me that, buy me the world, and tonight, about 4 or 5 in the morning, if you’re not passed out from all the drugs, drink and overindulgence, I just may give you the fuck of your life.

            Patty shot speed, “crank,” then sipped whiskey, smoked cigarettes and stayed up all night, tending to her bitch dog who had just had eleven puppies, all of them shitting on every space in that duplex where a person was likely to step.

            Melody’s former boyfriend was a junkie, as were several other of her friends. Not to say there was an attraction, but junkies didn’t mind at all the hours Melody kept and, rather than someone to fuck, she mainly wanted someone to hold her (tightly) when she came home from “work,” very late at night, or when she didn’t come home at all for a day or two. If you didn’t have infinite patience, then being a zonked-out junkie is the next best thing, according to Melody’s schedule.

            Melody needed $400 to move into a house; she needed to get out of that too-small duplex-apartment. Her two options were: going to New Orleans to the Mardi Gras and tricking for a week or two, or borrow the money from her boss, the owner of the High Horse. Going that far to trick was kind of a clown trip, but then so was fucking her boss for his $400, which would be the way they’d both set it up. For Melody, life was becoming one big dilemma.

            I was only one of two or three “boyfriends” Melody had at this time. Her other main boyfriend was Willie, a 25 year-old guy who was already bald, and already a dope-addict/alcoholic. I called him Weak-Knees Willie, after a character in a Springsteen song. One night at Melody’s duplex, it was me, Melody, Willie, Patty, Paula and Paula’s biker ol’ man, Alan, who sold speed out of the High Horse while Paula, one of the dancers, took her intermittent tricks for forty-five minute intervals to the Ramada Inn. At some point, Willie decided we were out of beer, and jumped up to make a run to go get some more. He was parked in the driveway of the duplex, and Alan was parked parallel on the street, right behind him. What does Willie do? He backs his old Chevy straight into Paula’s old man’s car, full-speed, mightily crunching it. We all heard the loud crash (I had already guessed it was coming; Willie was just too fucked-up). When Willie came back in, minutes later, sheepish only a mild word for the expression on his face. He earnestly told Paula’s ol’ man he would settle up with him on the damages, then left again on his beer run.

            Before I left her duplex the next day, I felt as if I had had enough; enough of this drug culture, enough of this late-night craziness; enough, mainly, of my feeling that Melody was trying to use me, in the manner of a john, so I wrote her a note:

             Melody – your getting to be (and this ain’t your daddy talkin’) real selfish. I’ve been your bitch, which is fine, but I have yet to be your lover. It’s like you’ve fucked so much for money, you can’t fuck (or make love) for the pure and simple pleasure of it.  Where has that gone?  A $100 bill?  $200?  $400? 

            I can’t be your pimp, and I can’t be your boyfriend/lover, and it’s getting really hard to be your friend, and I goddamn sure ain’t no junkie, which seems to be your perfect mate cause they’re fucked up for four days (a life) at a time and don’t notice too much you’re not being there, cause you’re out bringing home the bucks.

            The point is I feel hostile, cause you introduced me to Willie, whom I’ve met, through you, three fucking times in almost as many days – that’s outrageous.

            You are inconsiderate as a person to the point of causing consternation or at least frustration or at least constipation cause you don’t have time to separate your clothes – it takes too much time, all of it 5 minutes.

                                                                            Your friend, Badass

            Let it not be said that Melody couldn’t give as good as she got. Sometime in the next few days, she got hold of my notebook ( I had decided to quit seeing her, and maybe did so only once more, so this really had to be surreptitious) – a few days after that, opened my notebook to read the following “poem,” which Melody had inscribed:

                                                “A WHORE STORY”  

Here I am out with this man never seen him before in my life but he had the money and I had the time, for trickin’ on a Saturday nite

they’ll go to McDonald’s and out to a show she might kiss him goodnite you

my sister is probably out with some guy who asked for his date on Monday

just never know. But here I am the best restaurant in town in my high heels,

my hat a loose open blouse, my nails politely filed down when the waiter comes with the check we’ll go to the Holiday Inn or some other nice clean hotel where they clean up the sheets and no one will ever know

well paid for my services, treated like a queen, this man’s face even looks alright but there’s so many other things I’d rather be at than trickin’ on a Saturday nite.

            That kind of says it all, doesn’t it, as far as relationships go?  I mean, with Melody? One afternoon, I had just pulled up to a convenience store to get a Dr.  Pepper, and in trying to find a blank page in my notebook, had just read the above. A girl, all of seventeen and blond, sat in her maroon Mustang next to where I had just parked; sunglasses on, waiting for Columbus. When I came out of the store with my soda, I could see her looking at me through those impenetrable dark lenses. I backed up, pulled forward to the road, looked once again at her in my rear-view mirror, and waved. Lolita waved back.

            Damn, I thought. Why don’t I just go back there and strike up a conversation?  But I didn’t; I was on my way to somewhere else, my map only partially unfolded.

            One of my problems, my half-sister had told me (the night before, over the phone), was that I had a preoccupation with younger girls. What had set her off (what didn’t?) was me telling her about accepting a bicycle from a crazy man at the park while I was playing tennis, a couple days previous. The guy had just pulled the bike up, parked it beside the courts, looked over at me and said, “This is a personal communication; it’s what’s on my mind at the moment. I got home at 5:30, smoked a joint and went out to witness a beautiful winter sunset – the sky was raining fire. So many things on my mind;  I’ve been riding my ass off since 3 P.M., in my head and someday on paper. I may have pissed off my boss by being late again; another example of my trying to be too many things at one time to too many people, and not paying enough attention to my source of sustenance, anyway – doing things I end up not liking myself for – but then that becomes inspiration and I merge out of that, usually with a good feeling but sometimes with cynicism and self-hate. Anyway, thanks for such a nice-looking, well-made bed. I hope you got a ride. You keep leaving stuff – I’ll have to check you out a locker – okay, coach? This is on my mind – too much alcohol blunts my passion, can’t call it an orgasm, guess I’ll have to call it fashion, but then Sunday morning I could’ve come in a minute. Two extremes – I’m having trouble finding the balance.”

            And the guy just walked off, and left the bike. And after another hour playing tennis, since it was still laying there, I took it with me. And I’m still riding it.

             I never talked to Melody again.  I just cut it off, like I had this sharp knife that was useful for that purpose. And, about two years later, I came home to my bachelor house after work one afternoon and found this note taped on the front door: “Dear William, I am hoping beyond hope that you still live here – still mad at me?  It’s been 2 years? About that, I hope you’re doing well, no doubt I’ll stop by sometime & find out (when you least expect it – expect it).        OX –  Melody

P.S. – if you’re not William, then please don’t laugh at me, I’m trying pretty hard.”

            About an hour after I got home and read the note, the phone rang; it was Melody.  She was still in town and wanted to know if she could come by. Sure, I said. An hour later, Melody was sitting in my living room, where she had been a few times before, telling me she was the mother of a fourteen-month old baby boy, courtesy of Weak Knees Willie, and was living back home, in her small, rural town, in her parents’ house.  She told me she had, in the interim since we had last talked, become a born-again Christian, and would be raising her infant son in that tradition, and that one of the main reasons she had wanted to contact me, while she was in town, was that she wanted me to make her a cassette-tape copy of an album I had played for her one time, Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” She loved it, she said; she now wanted to make it a part of her ‘life’s music.’

            Be glad to, I said.

                                                                   

Shelia Washington Dies

By Curtis Price

Posted February 10, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

In early February, Shelia Washington, the founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum, suddenly died. We had been friends on FB and I occasionally sent her “Gasoline & Grits” posts concerning North Alabama.

The one time I went to visit the Scottsboro Museum a couple years back, it was closed. I thought (incorrectly as it turned out) that it was a dead project, like so many of those that are driven by a single individual’s commitment and lapse when they no longer commit. But I found out later it was not only open but undergoing renovations.

I hoped to go back this upcoming spring when I moved closer to Scottsboro and meet Shelia but sadly this won’t be. You can contribute to keeping the Museum alive at this GoFundMe link:

https://www.gofundme.com/f/scottsboro-boy039s-museum-remodel-project?qid=0869d24fe89b4eeb52ffa8e603fcb441

The Museum webiste: The Scottsboro Boys Museum and Cultural Center

Below is an edited tribute written about Shelia from a non-profit she worked at times with.


Tribute to Shelia Washington

With profound sadness, we learned of the death of Shelia Washington on Friday. Shelia was the executive director and founder of the Scottsboro Boys Museum

in Scottsboro, Alabama. She was strong, determined, and overcame a wealth of obstacles and setbacks to tell the story of a horrific miscarriage of justice that occurred in her hometown. Her inspiring journey spanned more than 30 years, as she worked to create the museum that many in her community didn’t want.

When she was 17, Shelia found a book stored in a pillowcase under her parents’ bed, a discovery that would shape the rest of her life. The book told the story of the Scottsboro Boys, nine black teenagers who were falsely accused of rape by two white women in 1931.

Eight of the nine were sentenced to death by an all-white jury in a Scottsboro courthouse, with the youngest receiving life in prison. Even after one of the women admitted to lying about the rape, the boys were convicted again. The case created a national protest and was considered a seminal moment in the birth of the civil rights movement. In Scottsboro, it wasn’t talked about.

A few years after she found the book, Shelia’s brother was murdered in prison, his body filled with many stab wounds. He had been accused of killing a white man. From that point on, Shelia said, she was determined that “one day when I get older, I’m going to found a place and honor the Scottsboro Boys and my brother, and put this book on a table and burn a candle in their memory.” She talked about her effort to create the museum during “Confronting Racism’s Legacy, One Community at a Time,” a webinar organized by Widen the Circle in November.

The Scottsboro Boys case led to two landmark Supreme Court decisions, on the right to adequate council and on jury diversity. None of the boys were executed, but all served at least six years in prison and one as long as 19 years.

Despite strong local opposition, Shelia opened the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center in 2009. The museum was housed in a building that had once been a church and was built by former slaves after the Civil War. Opening the museum was the fulfillment of a lifetime of effort. “If you have a dream, don’t give up on it,” she said, “And at 17 I had a dream that one day I was going to honor those nine Scottsboro boys.”

Many in the Scottsboro community actively opposed her dream. “I even lost my job because of the Scottsboro boys,” she recalled. “I was working at city hall for 22 years….They were going to do a walking trail and I mentioned to [the mayor] ‘Oh, wouldn’t it be good to do something for the Scottsboro boys?’ and he pointed his finger to the tip of my nose and said, ‘You leave a dead dog sleeping and don’t you do anything to resurrect it.’” She added, “If only he could see me now.”

Shelia was a gifted storyteller, and she had a powerful story to tell. The museum included an old church pew that was designated the crying pew. The saga of the Scottsboro boy is so moving that the pew was used frequently.

One day, she said, the grandson of the town’s founder stopped by to tell her he wanted the museum closed. She told him, “Well it’s too late. The story is out there and it’s going to be told.” It turned out he didn’t know the history in detail, and by the time she finished talking to him, she had changed his mind. His family foundation gave the museum a $5,000 donation.

For years, Shelia and others advocated for the state to exonerate the Scottsboro Boys. The governor told her that it had to be done through the state legislature. In 2013, with the help of legislators on both sides of the aisle and the state’s Black Caucus, the legislation was passed. Gov. Robert Bentley traveled to the Scottsboro Museum and Cultural Center to sign the bill.

Despite its successes, the museum had to get by strictly on donations for its first 10 years. Shelia appealed several times to the city council for a grant, as the council provide to other local museums. Each time she was turned down, and eventually she decided she would not go back. In 2019 the museum received its first government grant, from the Alabama Historical Commission. In 2020, the attitude in Scottsboro had changed enough that the city approached her with a $20,000 grant to help fund a renovation project.

“Perseverance helps. Time helps” she said. “Time brings about change. And I guess they figured we weren’t going anywhere. We weren’t moving or giving up. We kept pushing forward.”

.

Cultural Monosophy And A Plant In Eastern Iowa

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted January 2, 2021


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

I was hired to fulfill a court order to work as a management level generalist in Human Resources. I was there to satisfy the settlement of a successful hostile environment lawsuit brought by long-suffering black employees, all of whom were hourly workers. I didn’t know about the law suit until after I was hired as a complete outsider. It never came up in the rounds of interviews, surprise, surprise.

My job, was to act as a management liaison for black employees and keep them happy with a willing ear, diversity initiatives, investigations of racist acts, and teaching the settlement mandated “get-a-long” school, as zero tolerance racial harassment policy training was known. I wondered how a plant in relatively tolerant and integrated Eastern Iowa could be such a hot bed of racism that even a traditionally conservative, pro-business US District Court would force them to change?

Built in the late 1940’s, the plant grew into one of the largest aluminum rolling plants in the world. A mile long under roof, the plant needed lots of workers quickly to satisfy the growing post WWII airline industry in a competitive local job market. One of management’s staffing answers was to look to the South for employees in places like Alcoa, Tennessee.

Alcoa, TN was a segregated company town in every sense in 1948. It seems that opening an operation in the Sough meant following local customs and paying lower wages rather than bringing any enlightened Northern thinking. Much like the carpetbaggers of the post civil rights era, making money led to northern support of social divisions rather than seeking to change them for any greater good.

Incorporated by a closed door act of the Tennessee state legislature, organizing the town of Alcoa deprived the next closest town, Maryville, of tax revenue. Alcoa, TN was designed, built, and run by company leadership. The city manager was an Alcoa manager from its beginning in 1919 until 1956. The police of Alcoa, TN acted as plant security and protected strike breakers when necessary. A violent confrontation in 1937 resulted in the death of a police officer and striker when management broke a strike by busing strike breakers through a picket line. Alcoa, Inc’s economic hold on the town wouldn’t break until the ‘60’s. Alcoa is today one of the most violent cities in Tennessee.

Why would a plant in Iowa go so far to recruit workers instead of just competing for them closer to home? The answer became more obvious when I visited other plants across the country and noticed their commonalities. From Pennsylvania to Texas and beyond, these plants were near cheap sources of electricity and were in the middle of nowhere. The company obviously liked being the only game in town.

Monopsony is a market condition of one buyer and many sellers. It is the hallmark of a company town. Plant management succeeded in creating a cultural monopsony in Iowa by recruiting southern and local segregationists to a place in the North where labor unions had been desegregated for over 40 years. Plant management didn’t seem to care what people thought about others as long as they did the often back breaking work when demanded. Plant management used an overtime, slow growth, and nepotism approach to create a stable work force. It also protected itself from the unwanted complications of the differences between the local culture outside of the plant and the one inside.

Long before people thought about work-life balance, plant employees were encouraged to work overtime whenever possible, and there was a lot of overtime to be had. 80 hour work weeks were not unheard of in the 24/7 plant. I asked an old timer how that was possible and he said there was a difference between being at work and working. The management culture in the plant was one of surveillance, control and appeasement. By the time I arrived, management and union leadership had learned to play nice as long as it wasn’t contract negotiation time. The social culture inside the plant had to be appeased since management preferred new workers who were family members and friends of those already there. With long hours and familiarity, the plant became a petri dish of marriages, divorces, cliques, grudges and restraining orders.

The plant, as a federal contractor, was forced to hire black workers in the 70’s by Nixon Administration Equal Employment Opportunity laws. Plant management was unconcerned with or unprepared for the social backlash within the plant. It left black workers exposed to open acts of racism from management and their union brothers. Nooses in lockers, KKK graffiti, aluminum shavings in safety shoes as well as the trump card of the “N” word in conversation were just some of the examples of things that happened there. Plant medical staff were accused of giving substandard care to black workers and were specifically noted in the settlement. If you’ve ever received treatment from someone who didn’t want to touch you, you’ll know the feeling black employees said they felt when seeking medical attention.

Management’s answer was to keep blacks separated by shift and department and as few as possible. Results of tests for promotion were manipulated and ignored. Getting ahead while black had more to do with being tolerable to the toxic culture than anything else. Despite the hardships, the overtime pay meant the money was good so many black workers kept their heads down and endured for the sake of their families and their hard won middle class lifestyles. They petitioned management. They petitioned the unions. They took all they could until they couldn’t take it anymore and started a class action suit.

The historical, cultural monopsony in a plant community of 2,500 people made tolerance of intolerance the rule. Equity across racial, ethnic and gender lines didn’t seem to even occur to people who should know better until they were forced to recognize it with the threat of fines and public embarrassment. It was like going back in time to the civil rights battles of the 50’s when I joined the plant in 1998.

I talked to a friend who was part of the class action recently. She said going through the 4 years of Trump in the White House reminded her of what they had to endure over 20 years ago in the plant. Management gaslighting and union downplaying of the significance of racists acts in the past felt all too familiar with the same things happening locally and nationally today.

Some traumas run deep and the more things change…

Notes

https://www.areavibes.com/alcoa-tn/crime/
Crime in Alcoa, TN
https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/268805969.pdf
History of Local 309, United Steelworkers of America, Alcoa, TennesseeSammy E. PinkstonUniversity of Tennessee, Knoxville
John P. Cooper, et. al. v. Aluminum Company of AmericaCIVIL NO. 3-95-CV-10074

Gadsden, Alabama: Arson at BLM Offices

By Curtis Price

Posted December 22, 2020


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

Early morning November 12th,  an arson destroyed the Gadsden BLM offices. Unknown intruders smashed in the back door, set fires, then fled. People nearby reported hearing a “boom!” like a bomb went off and it’s possible an incendiary device was used. Gadsden BLM activist Jerome Gunn is convinced his business, which also housed his barbershop and detail shop, was targeted because of his BLM activism. The day before, BLM had picketed the Ellen Sansom statue in Gadsden, which was erected in the Lost Cause era to memorialize a woman who had assisted a wounded Nathan Bedford Forrest ( later the founder of the Klan),  demanding the statue be moved.

Gunn’s RJT and More Auto Detailing was not only an informal office for BLM but also fed the homeless, sponsored an annual Halloween carnival for local kids, and a yearly school supply drive. Gunn reported receiving a flood of hate mail since BLM began, which he finds ironic since the majority fed at the soup kitchen are white. The police department says the incident is “under investigation.”

“Under investigation” – where did I hear that phrase before? It was the same phrase the Gadsden police used when Tina Johnson’s house mysteriously burnt down a couple years before at the height of the furor over Roy Moore. Johnson was one of the women accusing Moore of sexual harassment when they were teens. That incident too, as far as I know, is still “under investigation.”

Gadsden is one of the many smaller blue-collar cities dotting Alabama struggling like fish flopping out of the water, gasping for air after the economic tides receded beginning in the late 1950s. At one point, Gadsden was an economic powerhouse, second only to Mobile in trade. Steel, rubber and textiles once thrived. But the trade winds shifted south and railroads detoured elsewhere. The largest surviving industrial employer, Goodyear Rubber, one of the few unionized factories in Alabama, shut its Gadsden branch after 91 years earlier this year, leaving a gaping hole in the local economy. The flopping fish heaves more today.

(The rapper Yelawolf, one of Eminem’s protégés, was born in Gadsden. And Roy Moore rides his horse to the polls every Election Day. The city routinely makes the lists of Top Ten Worst Cities in Alabama.  But the downtown is reviving and and winning awards, so maybe after all, Gadsden will have its post-industrial day in the sun.)

***

After the industry and textiles left, drugs and crime moved in.  Gadsden’s crime rate is nearly three times the national average.  Gadsden drowns, awash in meth and heroin, in part because the city lies on the interstate drug route starting in Atlanta and the first stop is supplying secondary markets such as Birmingham. Birmingham acts as a regional hub, shipping north past Gadsden and “Meth Mountain,” as Sand Mountain is now known, to tiny Guntersville, a picturesque town on the shores of Lake Guntersville. Guntersville further links to tertiary destinations such as Huntsville, Decatur and other northern Alabama cities. A well-oiled, seamless and effective supply and logistics chain, replacing the ones from the industrial past.

Gadsden is also infamous for its jail, the Etowah County Jail, a sprawling, forbidding complex downtown. Etowah County Jail became notorious for two things. First, it houses one of the largest and most brutal immigration detention centers in the country. As one former detainee says, “That place in Alabama, oh my God. That’s the worst place, that’s the worst place ever.” (1) This Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) center is the target of a local campaign called Shut Down Etowah that provides visits, legal support, fills practical needs and, when possible, bail funds. The authorities routinely ban and then lift their contacts with detainees, arbitrary intrusions like so much state authority in Alabama.

Second, former Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin was at the center of the “jailhouse food-funds” scandal, a scandal that implicated many other Alabama county Sheriffs. Under an archaic law, county jails – which were decades ago small operations where the Sherriff’s wife cooked for the prisoners – were allowed to shuttle unspent inmate food monies to the Sheriff. Fast forward to the present, where jails house hundreds, if not thousands of prisoners, and food gets prepared in huge lots. The law still allows local sheriffs to pocket leftover monies from inmate food funds into personal accounts, giving sheriffs an economic incentive to underfeed prisoners. Entrekin owns  multiple properties with assessed values of over $1.2 million dollars. Over the last three years, Entrekin claimed $750,000 extra income over his salary on “savings” from inmate food funds. Perhaps not coincidently, Entrekin also purchased a $580,000 house in a tony section of Orange Beach on the Gulf Shores around the same time.

When confronted with this evidence, Entrekin replied to a reporter’s email, writing  “As you should be aware, Alabama law is clear as to my personal financial responsibilities in the feeding of inmates. Regardless of one’s opinion of this statute, until the legislature acts otherwise, the Sheriff must follow the current law.”

 And so ”follow the current law” he did. Entrekin, though, was booted out of office the next election and Alabama legislation plugged most of the loopholes. But Entrekin wasn’t an outlier. Once in 2009, Morgan County’s Greg Bartlett a.ka.“Sheriff Corndog,” known because he bought a large consignment of corndogs and fed them to inmates for all three meals for months, siphoned $212,000 to a controlled personal account. Even in Alabama, there’s limits to naked corruption so the good sheriff ended up briefly incarcerated in his own jail. But to this day, no one knows how widespread the practice is since less than a quarter of county sheriffs responded to Freedom of Information requests.

Gadsden and the surrounding area were also hotbeds of Klan activity during the 1960s. Just thirty miles away lies Anniston, another distressed blue-collar city. Anniston is known for the infamous “burning bus” incident during the Civil Rights era in which mobs of enraged whites pulled over a bus with Freedom Riders, beat passengers and set the bus on fire. The images of the burning bus were among the iconic photographs of the era and today, a commemorative mural showing the bus covers a wall in Anniston at the site of the attack. How many of these embers still smolder undetected in hearts and minds?

Gadsden and the surrounding area were also hotbeds of Klan activity during the 1960s. Just thirty miles away lies Anniston, another distressed blue-collar city. Anniston is known for the infamous “burning bus” incident during the Civil Rights era in which mobs of enraged whites pulled over a bus with Freedom Riders, beat passengers and set the bus on fire. The images of the burning bus were among the iconic photographs of the era and today, a commemorative mural showing the bus covers a wall in Anniston at the site of the attack. How many of these embers still smolder undetected in hearts and minds?

There are two souls of the South today. One tied to the past and the other to a different future. One sign of this South, struggling to make itself heard but whose voice is strengthening, is in the letter written by the surviving relatives of Emma Sansom still living in Gadsden. Here are excerpts. You can read the whole letter at ”Descendents of Emma Sansom Statue Call For Removal of Statue,” https://abc3340.com/news/local/descendants-of-emma-sansom-family-call-for-removal-of-statue?src=link

“. . .Some white people in Gadsden say they feel a connection to this statue as part of their heritage, and consider the statue part of the fabric of their home. Our Black neighbors are making it clear that they agree, and that is exactly why they need to see change in our community. We want to live in a harmonious democratic society where all can live free of intimidation.

Many people who feel pride about Emma Sansom discuss ‘division’ about the statue like it is a new phenomenon. The outcry against the statue is the voice of an awakened community. They understand that it is time to address the focal points of what has really caused a division in our community for over a hundred years. It only seems like a new ‘division’ to those of us who benefit the most from the ‘normal’ status quo.

We ask those who may feel a sense of pride about the statue to examine if most of their Black neighbors feel the same pride. You may say you are not personally racist and have good deeds to prove it. The statue’s effect in Gadsden is not about anyone’s personal feelings or failings – it is a feature of the systemic oppression that acts to this day against the freedom of Black people. . . .”

Notes

1. Paul Moses. ‘The Worst Place Ever’ Is ICE’s Etowah County Detention Center in Alabama. The Daily Beast,  June 8, 2018. https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-worst-place-ever-is-ices-etowah-county-detention-center-in-alabama

Resources

1. Shut Down Etowah: shutdownetowah.org, also on Facebook.

2. Etowah Freedom Fund:  “We assist with bonds, commissary, and other expenses for people caged by ICE, with a focus on those at the Etowah County Detention Center in Gadsden, AL.: http://etowahfreedomfund.org/?fbclid=IwAR2gmNC8sB79RtlfTKrUNq94GUOpmtsEXdS9et7LTAXwYohOjwIS9HZvlsI

3. To help Jerome Gunn rebuild, donate to GoFundMe: https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-blm-gadsden-leader?fbclid=IwAR2rXFsr8FKGpvGJMBZ40FDMsKnYFL1_ONVBW3PkHVifFSo-xnj1Z9F41oc

I Know Why The Miner’s Bird Sings

By Kwame P. Dean

Posted November 30, 2020


On the evening of January 31st, 2016, I heard a loud thumping on the door. It was the kind of ominous knock that makes your heart skip a beat. I was flooded with a sense of dread that something bad  was getting ready to be set off. And sure enough, something bad was about to unfold.

I opened the door. There, standing outside were two mean-looking, redneck Alabama sheriffs with a tense look on their faces and hands on holsters. They brushed me aside and did a quick sweep through the apartment. Then, they told me I had to come with them. I asked, “Am I being arrested and if so, what for?” They didn’t answer. Instead they escorted me to the waiting cruiser. But I noticed they didn’t handcuff me.

Driving down University Drive, one of the main drags in Huntsville, the night was starting to fall and all I remembered were the street lights blurring together like stars that had fallen from the sky, illuminating a path. Bur a path to where? The sheriffs still refused to tell me where we were going. They engaged in the hard-bitten banter of lawless law enforcers and I was the invisible, powerless,  prisoner under their control.  I thought to myself this is what it must have felt like in 1937 Soviet Union, with the GPU rounding people up without warning.

To me surprise, however, they drove past the county jail – an ugly, squat building known on the street as “The Blue  Roof Inn” because of its distinctive blue roof tiling. Instead, they pulled into the Huntsville Hospital ER. The sheriffs bundled me out of the car and escorted me inside a locked area, a mini-Panopticon with a staff desk in the middle surveying everything that went on. Right away, I heard an older woman who looked like Phyllis Diller with a shock of blond hair hanging over her face like a rooster, yelling “Get your motherfucking hands off me!” and swinging wildly. Then it dawned on me. I was in the Psych Ward.

No, dear reader, I hadn’t suddenly decided to fly over the cuckoo’s nest. As I soon found out, an involuntary petition for civil commitment had been filed against me for being “suicidal and homicidal.’ A former BFF who I had cut off contact because he went on a crack run had filed the petition in a fit of vindictiveness, because being drug-addled and being able to manipulate the system aren’t two mutually exclusive propositions. I would remain involuntarily committed until I saw a judge for hearing two days later. The staff placed in a holding room painted sickly, institutional green with the only furniture a cast iron bed. That would be my impromptu “home” until a bed opened up on the inpatient psych unit.

A nurse came in to interview me. I let her have it, in controlled outrage. How can people be picked up against their will just on hearsay, I said? Isn’t this what Third World dictatorships do, where anonymous complaints lead to incarceration?  Where were my rights? She remained calm, explained what was happening and what I could expect. I sat down on the hard metal bed while the older woman continued screaming next door. But at least they left my door open which was a sign they didn’t see me as a security treat.

I was due to work that night at 11pm so I went out to the desk and asked if I could use the phone to call my job. A yellowed sign said “No personal calls allowed.” But in one of the many instances that happened to me over the next two days, she broke the rules and let me call work. It showed me how even in the most bureaucratized and regimented situations, ordinary people will ignore the system and reveal some humanity if they think these rules unfair. They don’t do it because they consciously want to buck the system. They do it unselfconsciously from a personal sense of what’s right.

It wasn’t until 1 am that I was admitted upstairs to the locked ward, to a plain room with just a bed, one wooden chair, and a small desk.

I slept soundly. I don’t remember if I dreamed.

At 7 am, staff woke everyone up and sent us to the day room for breakfast. The day room was a large lounge with a communal eating table, a big screen TV, a jumble of worn but comfortable mismatched chairs- and the only reading material a few old, torn-up “People” and “Entertainment Today” magazines. I looked around at my fellow inmates. One woman, a small white woman in her late 30s with waist length, dirty blond hair, lay stretched out over a chair like a wilted flower, hair dangling, staring vacantly into space, dealing with who knows what inner demons. The whole time she was on the unit she never talked to anyone and held her head down while eating, avoiding all eye contact.

I recognized Phyllis Diller from the night before. We talked. She said she was here because she changed her will, cutting a daughter out, and the daughter filed commitment papers as retaliation. I asked the nurse later how often that happened. She said quite a lot. One party in a messy divorce would file a petition to prevent the other from getting custody. Wills were yet another common reason, like with Phyllis Diller. Swearing out an involuntary petition gets used to settle lots of scores.

I thought, “Isn’t this so typical of how America works?” People living disheveled on grates and baying at the moon can’t get help while perfectly sane people are rounded up against their will, wasting scarce resources that others in real distress are denied.

Phyllis Diller went around with a perpetual Bernie Mac “WTF?” expression on her face, cursing like a small battalion of sailors while  demonstrating a natural comedic flair with pitch-perfect timing .But quite honestly, I found her draining to be around because she was too high-strung and talkative. She told me she used to work in the chemical plants and when news came out about birth defects in children born to line workers, she stormed into the supervisor’s office with her work shears in hand and told the supervisor, “If my baby is born with no balls, I’m coming after yours.”

At meals, we were only served decaf, on the theory that caffeine over-stimulates the nerves of the mentally distressed.  I told the monitors, two young, hip, muscular black guys, I needed real coffee. One went off the unit every meal and brought me fully-strength coffee from another floor. Again, that spontaneous willingness to break the official rules.

People came and went continually while I was there because most patients had signed themselves in voluntarily and thus could freely leave on their own volition. Later that first day, a middle-aged black woman was admitted. She shuffled in, shoulders slumped, deeply depressed. But as the hours went on, she became more outgoing, as if being around the warmth of others’ company caused her to open up, the way a seed sprouts under the sun’s rays. She told me her story. She had married a man, who whisked her off to the deep country, where he isolated her from her family, and continually beat her.  Finally, she escaped to the local ER, threatening to kill herself and she ended up transferred here.

We hung out talking while watching TV, which was always tuned to Steve Harvey and Dr. Phil. Many times she would talk back at the TV, giving advice, and her advice contained more wisdom and insight than anything coming out of those two clowns’ mouths. I wondered what she would do when she was released. Would she end up, like so many battered women, back in the same situation she had escaped ? I got a hold of some napkins and borrowed a pen from a staff member, wanting to write down my impressions. I guess to outsiders I looked like the right madman, furiously scribbling away on napkins. But by this time, I was resigned to being held against my will and was determined to record all my thoughts.

Later that evening, a nurse brought me a mobile phone from the nurses’ station, telling me I had a call. It was the security guard from the job who had demanded – and won-  the right to speak to me. Again, that breaking of the rules, because patients were only allowed to use the communal phone in the day room. The security guard said that when the rest of the night shift heard what happened to me, they set up a prayer circle overnight. She and one of the other workers wanted to come to my hearing and testify on my behalf.  The nurse listened next to me, with a warm, concerned expression, obviously moved by this show of solidarity. But I told the guard she didn’t have to come because the hearing didn’t allow witnesses. (The security guard, by the way, was a hard-core Trump supporter and Christian fundamentalist, but pro-abortion, pro-gay and with many close black friends. We met for breakfast several times afterward and still keep in-touch occasionally years after I left the job.)

On the second day, I had my psychiatric evaluation. An elderly West Indian psychiatrist, very serious and official, speaking in a thick lilting accent, administered the test. I could tell from his eyes, because he wore the blank expression of professionalism, that he could obviously see there was nothing clinically wrong with me but he had to go through the motions anyway. He said nothing though to reveal his thoughts and left. I talked briefly with a new admission, a young white guy, rail-thin and heavily tattooed, with sores on his face – a tell-tale sign of heavy meth use. He told me he had just gotten out of jail and I thought him admitting himself was maybe a ploy for an upcoming court case. But he spent most of this time on the communal phone afterward and we didn’t talk any more. The rest of the second day went like a blur.

On the morning of my hearing, after consulting with my appointed lawyer, the psychiatrist came in. He asked if he could pray. Not wanting to be difficult and potentially causing him to change his evaluation, I agreed. He intoned a prayer, with his mournful, long face, for about 20 minutes. Of course, it should have been illegal to mix religion and public services. But I guess in the psychiatrist’s own way he was a rule breaker too. It was a fitting, concluding absurdity on top of already accumulated absurdities.

The hearing was over in 15 minutes. Of course, they found no reason for my long-term commitment and the case was dismissed and expunged.

I walked out into the crisp, winter morning, closed my eyes and felt the sun hit my cheek, the first time I had breathed fresh air in two and a half days.  Now, I was free. But others weren’t. My fellow comrades in bad luck, misfortune and powerlessness were people taxed to their limits, isolated, unable to cope, and with no social support. Most would be discharged in three days  back into the same circumstances that sent them there. The system works, just as it was intended to.

I’m sure some are still wondering why there were so many tears of joy among black people as the election was called for Joe Biden. Certainly, some of my more progressive to far-left colleagues, including young, black activists, have asked the question. After all, the election result isn’t likely to usher in the systemic changes needed to open the door to equity for black people in the US. The president-elect is a centrist on a playing field that has been systematically shifted to the right since Johnson’s “Great Society”. 

The redistribution of wealth to the upper class has continued unabated over the past 40 years, no matter the party or the race of the president, as the rising tide lifted only the largest yachts while sinking the economic dinghies most of us were in. As the money flowed upwards, so too the political influence, further locking us into policy choices benefiting the haves at the expense of the have-nots. Even pandemic fueled state spending hasn’t changed the equation as hundreds of billions of dollars have flowed directly to the boardrooms of the already super wealthy. As all of this continues, the scope of material, political possibility seems to shrink with each political cycle as social identity and moral issues replace the conversation about “Who has what and why?” to “Who is whom and what do you think about them?”

So following his election, Biden spoke of saving souls and healing more than changing tax codes and cutting military spending. He spoke of restoration rather than freeing up resources to transform our neglected social safety net, one that wasn’t good to begin with. He spoke of addressing climate change without mentioning the necessity of breaking the hold of big energy money on republicans and democrats alike. He has no incentives to offer politicians from either party to counter their interests in maintaining their positions and increasing their personal power and influence.

So again, why the tears when so many have said that there was no real policy choice for blacks in this election? The answer is simple. We smelled gas filling the room and the election of Biden/Harris opened a window.

The vote against Trump was a vote for a future free of a system willing to throw dissenters under-the-bus. Having been under-the-bus for most of our history in the US, we knew exactly what was at stake as a people united in our otherness and historically alien status. Trump’s dehumanized Black Lives Matter protests and majority black cities rhetorically. He employed secret police on-the-street. He supported the ongoing system of a lack of accountability for police killings. All of that exists in a social context. 

The recognition of the humanity of black people in the US was a result of the political actions of war and legislation. Political processes, largely beyond our control, determined our standards of living and right to live, with the law being a poor substitute for general acceptance in a society disproportionately influenced by our presence in it. The laws themselves have needed to include deterrents to curb the exclusionary and genocidal tendencies of some of our fellow citizens. That, in general, is not the white experience in America. Freedom from automatic suspicion, control and “otherness” is a primary feature of the social construct of whiteness itself.

Many blacks in the US recognize existential threats because those threats have been our constant companions in a country where the question of what to do with us has been a recurring theme since before slavery ended. Our recognition of the threat Trumpism poses is more than paranoia, it is cultural memory. While some dismissed the talk of blacks voting for our survival as hyperbole during the campaign, the Trump administration and its Senate allies continue to do nothing to abate the public health crisis of the century that disproportionately affects poor and black people, people both essential and disposable. Trump supporters idea of freedom and short term economic interests are more important than the health of others, especially if those others have no social cache in their world.

So yes, there were tears of joy shed from eyes open to the historic indifference and enmity of people who would support the likes of a nativist demagogue. Despite 4 years of a pro-Trump evangelical campaign, a lackluster candidate in Joe Biden who needed rescuing during the primaries, the late support of high profile wealthy black people, and a general incumbent bias in the electorate, an estimated 90% of black people voted against Trump, Trumpism and republican policies with historic levels of voter turnout. Maybe now with Trump’s defeat we can focus on transformation rather than once again defending our right to exist…until the next Trump comes along.

Somalia On The Interstate: Growing Piracy In The U.S. Trucking Industry

By Curtis Price

Posted November 18th, 2020

The freedom of the highway and truckers, rootless and always on the move, bawdy roadhouses and neon-lit nighthawk truck stops, is an iconic American cultural meme, perhaps with highways performing as the last frontier since Frederick  Jackson Turner famously pronounced the original frontier shut. Such is the myth. But the reality, as opposed to what is celebrated in song and other popular lore, is quite different. Trucking is dangerous, hard, unglamorous work, although truckers I’ve known value their freedom from office politics and backbiting at the water cooler. The fevered imaginings of automating trucking to get rid of the human element – the driver – is a managerial wet-dream. Truckers master over 23 separate skills that can’t be easily replaced by robots or autonomous driving such as Johnny-on-the-spot repairs. I knew of a 70-something driver in North Carolina who could break apart and reassemble an entire rig.

But trucking is also work that relies on the commodification of the trucker’s body. This body has to be primed for maximum efficiency, pushing itself to the limits to overcome the inevitable routine obstacles and delays. Trucker’s work life is determined by an intersection of time and distance and at this intersection is where their money is made. (1)

COVID19  has thrown a new spanner in that equation, besidse the shutdown in commercial traffic in the early days of the pandemic: increased piracy.

Industry sources report a 56% increase in incidents of theft and 80% increase in the value of goods stolen in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same time in 2019. In April 2000 alone, thefts skyrocketed 300%. But actual thefts are notoriously under-reported because trucking companies don’t want to get a bad rep for not securing their trucks. The true figures are much higher and the reported figures misleading because there are incentives for all parties concerned to keep quiet. Since industry reporting is voluntary, the federal crime figures woefully underestimate the true extent of theft and piracy on the highways..

The type of goods stolen since the onset of COVID-19 has shifted too. Before COVID19, electronics scored high, with most electronics stolen by professional gangs that then shipped the goods overseas to South America to be broken down and sold in Asian markets. But with slowdowns in international trade in the first few months of the epidemic, thieves turned to food, bottled water, and other household consumer items. These goods are easy to unload on the domestic black market and thieves with a determined hustle can peddle food stuffs to mom-and-pop stores with virtually no ability to trace such transactions. As one industry loss expert says, “You can’t put serial numbers on almonds.”

 But as the economic pain from COVD19 spreads, the incentive to pirate trucker loads has only increased.  As good capitalists, criminals will tailor thefts for local markets; for instance, nitrate gloves were stolen for areas with shortages and stolen bottled water gets diverted to hurricane-struck areas where drinking water fetches premium prices. In one heist, 18,000 pounds of toilet paper were spirited away for black market destinations.

Another factor boosting opportunities for theft is lay-offs or absenteeism because of COVD-19 at shipping docks, which leaves less eyes to keep track of goods and gives thieves more opportunities. Even before COVID19, truckers faced a shortage of berths at truck stops and with COVID-19, many truck stops closed or cut-back staff and hours, forcing truckers to bunk down in less secure areas, which has led to a number of violent attacks. Trucks, for instance, have been commandeered at gun point. In one case, a trucker who had pulled over for the night in a parking lot in Detroit was shot and his rig set on fire,

Many of these attempts are small-fry crimes of opportunity where attempts to steal unprotected goods devolves into violence. The big boys use more sophisticated technique such as hacking into logistics computer systems, posing as legitimate cargo shippers and even setting up phony shipping companies.

The figures for shootings and other violent acts against truckers have mushroomed since COVD-19, leading some truckers to start a “Trucker Lives Matter” Facebook group to fight for the right of truckers to carry arms.  Trucking companies for insurance purposes forbid drivers to drive strapped and state laws don’t recognize gun permits held out of state so even a trucker with a permit in Oklahoma can be arrested for carrying the same weapon in Arizona. Truckers are demanding not only that companies allow them to carry arms for self-defense but also  are demanding a federal law letting truckers traveling cross-state to be armed without legal repercussion.

COVID-19 is having a ripple effect throughout U.S. society and if economic hardship grows, it logically flows that attempts to appropriate necessities by any means necessary may stand to increase too. The uptick in violence and piracy in the trucking industry is just one of those hidden, unacknowledged  markers of social disruption following in the wake of COVID-19. As one truckers posted on a trucker’s list said, “It’s wilder out here now than anything I’ve seen in 35 years of driving.”

Notes

1. See Benjamin H Snyder, Dignity and the Professionalized Body: Truck Driving in the Age of Instant Gratification,  The Hedgehog Review, Fall 2012. Accessed from https://hedgehogreview.com/issues/work-and-dignity/articles/dignity-and-the-professionalized-body-truck-driving-in-the-age-of-instant-gratification

Losing A Friend To Covid19

By Kwesi P. Dean

Posted October 26, 2020

He has always been contrary.

He’s one of the most intellectually curious people I know. He taught himself to speak German by reading a scientific textbook and looking up and logging the words and phrases he didn’t know, page by page, until he finished the book. Disciplined, he pursues his interests through reading, observation and conversation, all the while not taking himself or others too seriously. His talent for languages, he speaks five, and handling people led him to work check-in and customer service at a local airport. It was a great place for him to exercise his skills of observation and practice crisis management with a smile with people from all over the world. It’s no wonder that he’s now doing that as a social worker for his adopted country.

A secret to his success has always been looking right when people tell him to look left. He’s great at finding new ways of thinking about situations and new possibilities with his clients. He’s effective because he finds solutions that work both for his clients and the agency instead of covering his ass with endless orders about what people must do. I think my fellow immigrants who get to work with him are lucky.

From the beginning, we talked about watching the spread of Covid-19 like being stuck on the tracks with a slow moving train heading our way. Having to deal with it was inevitable and neither of us knew what that would mean. We knew it could change everything. We didn’t know it would change us.

Just as soon as we started to get information about the virus and its spread, a number of medical doctors and scientists started to offer their take on what was happening and what should or shouldn’t be done. They weren’t offering research, they weren’t publishing in peer reviewed journals. They were going straight to the public through social media to make their pronouncements with a political agenda. My friend found many alternate views from these doctors that fit his need to find something contrary to the government and big media line. It was Stuart Hall’s Reception Theory in practice. Like an itch he couldn’t scratch, the notion that something seemed off about the government line wouldn’t go away. He felt he was being lied to. He couldn’t accept the uncertainty nor the limits he felt on his freedom.

It started with him forwarding me videos of Covid denier doctors. All of them had a similar pattern, great sounding questions followed by unfounded answers that would lead to more great sounding questions. It was like watching a “documentary” about ancient aliens. Underneath it all was the notion that someone is doing this to us for some reason.

At first, I would point out all of the logical problems in the videos, thanks to Carl Sagan, and justify going along with social distancing as the most responsible thing to do in an uncertain situation. As I debunked one source, there was always another. I soon realized that no amount of logic was going to satisfy him. The belief that the situation isn’t right wouldn’t go away. Science and logic, with all of their hypotheses, alternatives and maybes will never beat the comfort of a firmly held belief.

The biggest collective, emotional event our generation has ever experienced soon became something we couldn’t talk about anymore.

It is an effort to talk to him now as we steer clear of the pandemic. Luckily, there is plenty to talk about and there is also a third rail in our conversations that wasn’t there before. Recently, talking about what I miss about concerts and dancing led to a lecture that echoed Donald Trump’s advice to not let the virus change my life. He accused me of living in fear and something broke between us.

The pandemic will pass, eventually. Will our relationships heal? I don’t know and I can live with that.