by Aimee Levitt
Of course you wanted to know about it. That's the first thing just about any adult thinks of when they hear about a man going to prison. Even before the image of the bright orange jumpsuit comes to mind.
A few weeks ago, disgraced former Missouri politician Jeff Smith, now a professor at The New School in New York City, found himself at a party, "teeming," he writes on the blog The Recovering Politician, "with Brooklyn hipster-intellectual types -- young college profs, Times reporters, social entrepreneurs, assorted do-gooders." As soon as the party's host announced to the hipsters where Smith had spent 2010, he writes, they surrounded him and bombarded him with questions.
Was it white-collar? (Maybe 5 percent.) Was it violent? (Occasionally.) Did you get in fights? (A couple.) Did you get hurt? (Yes.) What were the people like? (More interesting and less pretentious than you.)
They reached for the gin, hoping the liquid courage would help them ask the question they were dying to ask. But it didn't. Instead, one stammered, "Did you get..., uh...was there a lot of sex?"
Short answer: No, no, Smith did not. He remained faithful to the woman he later married. He did get a proposition of sorts, though, from his cellmate just before he was due to see her on visiting day. "'Ten stamps if you can get me a lil' Teresa on here,' he said, thrusting a tissue into my hand and inhaling theatrically. 'Mmmm-mmmm, I bet she do smell like fresh strawberries!'"
Astonishingly, Smith declined.
The first order of business at prison orientation, at least at the Federal Correctional Institution in Manchester, Kentucky, where Smith did his eight months, is a video about the perils of accepting candy from strangers. It featured "a 40-ish white guy warning you not to eat the Snickers bar that may be waiting on your bed when you return to your cell," Smith reports.
(He ate his, unwittingly signaling to the predator who left it for him that he was ready and willing.) All the guys in the visiting room laughed. So did I. But at 117 lbs, I reminded myself not to accept any sweets during my tenure, lest I "get my windows tinted," in the parlance of Federal Correctional Institution, Manchester.
Porn, of course, was highly valued, sometimes commanding sums of up to $200 in prison stamps. Smith's first cellmate referred to his times in the bathroom with his magazines as "[getting] married to (his) baby Coco." Afterwards he would announce, "Now I need a muthafuckin cigarette!"
He explained his candidness thus: "I got more time in this place on the toilet than you got time." (He was on year nineteen of a twenty-year sentence.)
Over the course of his sentence, Smith's vocabulary grew:
[My cellmate] explained that "gunslingers" were men who ran strings from their toes up their leg to lubed-up toilet paper tubes fitted around their penises. To 'gun [a guard] down' would've been to wire himself and go to the chow hall at mealtime, position himself at a table near her post, and toe-tap away until he...well, I won't extend the gun metaphor any further.
Smith writes that he never saw -- or experienced -- prison rape. He did, however, witness the slow flowering of true love between two inmates. Porkchop wooed J.T. slowly, with invitations to join his exercise group, instruction in the preparation of prison nachos (a dish comprised of ingredients stolen from the warehouse) and by ironing his prison greens before visiting day.
And then one day, as I walked down to the bathroom late one night, I saw it. They were in bed together, snuggling and talking quietly. I saw a newbie snicker, and then a prison old-head ice-grilled him. "It ain't none o' yo muthafuckin bidness," said the look, and the newbie scurried back to his cell. After that, no one said a word about it.
But the love between Porkchop and J.T. was, Smith believes, more tender and intimate than anything experienced by the crowd of Brooklyn hipsters.
So there. That's what you get for asking rude questions.