(Hello and welcome to my serial novel. Art by spoon+fork.)
Everything was going great until she wanted to talk about two things I hated: California and family.
The latter because I didn’t really have one and the former because everyone from there was rich or at least well-off and looked down on New Jersey. Ever since a surfing magazine listed Shore Points as one of the top places to catch a wave on the East Coast, communes of college kids from L.A. would rent out entire houses for the summer and hog up our beach. The chamber of commerce even ran ads out there to get more California kids over.
You could tell they weren’t local because they wore expensive body suits. They weren’t used to a cold ocean.
The girl I was having dinner with was from California, but she had nice tits, which definitely made her likeable. I had found her waiting for the shuttle bus to the mall that got axed in the last recession. I had got the girl to talking and shared my joint with her.
Her name was Quincy, like the TV show. She was 19 and was wearing a flower-patterned bikini, cutoffs and Reeboks with socks. The hair was long, straight and brown. The only problem was she had a snub nose, but it didn’t bother me enough.
We were having fried clams and beer in the Chatterbox on the pier. The tartar sauce cup was holding up okay, but we were running low on the cocktail sauce. I held up the empty bottle and shook it a few times at our waitress.
I turned and saw that the hostess up at the front was glaring at us. She had had it in for me ever since I first started working at the Chatterbox. Bon Jovi had stopped by for a drink and I had washed the glass before she could put it up on the wall. Someone told me later she got her cherry popped to the “Slippery When Wet” album.
The hostess was looking at me so hard, I could hear her voice in my head, and it was loud.
I was the last-shift dishwasher — the hardest position to keep staffed, so the Chatterbox let me run a tab for meals. Otherwise I’d never take a date there.
When the cocktail refill came, Quincy spun her fried clam on her plate and said, “Someday I wanna have a house full of kids in the Bay Area. Everyone there is very open-minded.”
I didn’t know where the Bay Area was exactly, but I tried to imagine what 20 years of cooking and cleaning would do to this mostly beautiful girl. My mind came up with an image of my mother, so I tried to get rid of that real quick.
“I really love children,” Quincy said in a tone that was way too sexy.
“I love children, too,” I said. “I really have a way with tits, I mean, kids.” She laughed. I picked up two fried clams and swished them in tartar sauce. Now we were back on track.
“Thanks for getting me the beer,” she said.
“I told you there’d be no problem.”
She rocked the bottle of Bud Light on the table.
“You’re the tallest guy I’ve ever kissed,” she said. “You’re even tall when you sit down.”
“You oughta see me horizontal.”
There was a moment of silence. She drew a question mark into the condensation on the beer bottle.
“My boyfriend’s in Germany right now.”
“Oh, what’s he doing there?”
“He works with a missionary organization.”
Talk about God was trouble. Sin and hell would weigh on a girl’s mind and stop her from doing things.
I needed help and I was out of pot.
“Wait right here, Quincy, I’ll be back.” I went out of the restaurant and down the pier to find my source on the boardwalk.
My usual connection wasn’t by the pier on the beach. It started to rain, so I pulled my shirt over my head and ducked under the pier. It stank like hell under there, like fish guts and piss. Thunder boomed and the sky tore open. It couldn’t last, though. These summer showers only run about 10 minutes. I was squeezing out my shirt when a homeless guy came up to me from out of the back.
“Hey, you smoke pot?” he asked. The man was hunched over and wasted. He looked like Keith Richards without a guitar.
“Why do you want to know?” I asked.
“Some guy was here and he dropped a bag by accident.” He held up a sandwich bag packed like a brick of guinea pig feed. It looked like it was worth $100, at least.
“I’ve got $10,” I said.
“Are you offering me money for it?”
Feeling a little suspicious, I said, “Smoke some first.”
“I don’t smoke. I’m a drinker. Pot just makes me hungry.”
I gave him the money. After I stepped out from under the pier, I found the ground surprisingly close to my face. My body was flat on the beach.
The man said something into his radio. Further down on the beach, I saw a couple coming out of the water and running over to me. I spat out some sand. My right arm hurt. I couldn’t feel my left.
I had fucked up badly when I got nailed by the cops. The “Weed Out the Garden State” measure had passed earlier in the year. It was New Jersey’s way to get tough on casual pot smokers. Why? They were trying to clean up the services industry for the tourists.
Everyone who worked in the Chatterbox liked to toke and we had a lot of accidents and “sick” days. It would have happened even without the drugs because we were all idiots who didn’t care about anything, just like our manager said. We were all pissed off at some level that we had to work while all these people were coming down to the shore to party.
My lawyer was terrible. I think he hated me because I looked like his son. When I got the mandatory one-year prison, one-year probation sentence, he muttered, “That ought to fix you.”
I didn’t know what jail was going to be like. I’d seen “Bad Boys” with Sean Penn, but I was too old to go to a juvenile detention center.
I was sent to East Jersey State Prison in Middlesex County. It was scary hearing “prison” and “sex” in the same sentence. I was kept in the minimum-security wing but I could hear yelling from the maximum-security cells that scared me shitless.
I was terrified the first week that there would be a jail break and all the lifers would get loose and go on an anal-rape spree.
My cellmate, this skinny white nerd named Mike, had only a few weeks to go on his sentence. He was a social activist serving six months for disturbing the peace. But Mike seemed pretty calm, and believe me, in a game of grab-ass, his would have been the first grabbed.
Turns out that having a routine to settle into helped me to adjust to life in the slammer. I had a job making furniture while Mike took a bus to a prison meat-packing plant that made beef patties. Life in jail was sorta like high school, only there were six periods of shop and instead of going home, you slept in the bathroom.
After work, we had the option to watch television in the lounge for a few hours, but Mike would elect to go back to the cell and read. After a few hours of hanging out with the other jokers in the lounge, I’d find Mike curled up on his bottom bunk, showing off that he was still reading. He’d keep on reading until the lights were shut off.
One day, I asked him what he was trying to prove.
“That I won’t allow the system to lull me into being just another drone.” He was dead serious when he said it.
The day he was being released, Mike gave me a copy of a book called “Man Has to Be His Own Savior” and told me to read it instead of watching TV.
I’m never going to fucking read this, I thought. But time went by and I never got another cellmate, so I picked up the book and read the entire 50 pages straight.
The way to make your life better was to identify clearly the one thing that you really wanted to do, the book said. Once you had that, you only had to work steadily in that direction. You weren’t going to get there right away. Chairman Mao wanted to free his country, but he had to do all these side missions and go on a long retreat before his ultimate victory. The American auto workers had to strike and endure death threats and bullying before they won their fair work week and right to unionize.
“Perseverance” became my favorite word for a little while.
I was motivated to read more books, but that one self-improvement book stood apart because unlike the other books, it didn’t say you needed God to set you straight. Volunteers from the local Catholic Church came by to visit. They wanted to see me, I think, because of the fact of my Irish name, but I wouldn’t come out.
Being confined with books forced me to read steadily for the first time in my life and it became a genuine love for me. I felt like I was living in the words, not lying on a cot, reading. I became like Mike in a way because I stopped hanging out in front of the TV and read in my cell. I saw things in my mind without being high. The only time I really craved the outside world was at night when the smell of the ocean came inland to where the prison was. I could feel the beach in my blood. I was born in Shore Points and grew up shaking sand out of my shoes.
I worked in the prison’s DEPCOR plant making adjustable office chairs. “DEPCOR” sounded like one of those business-y names like IBM or XEROX, but it was short for “Department of Corrections.” There were DEPCOR plants in a few prisons where the inmates were considered the best ones to be sent back into society–with practical job experience. But I couldn’t imagine any employer overlooking a jail sentence. They sure didn’t bother to train anyone on how to use a cash register.
One day when I was in the mood for goofing around, I sat in one of the chairs and spun in a circle. I told my inmate instructor, my boss Ben, that I wouldn’t really mind working in a factory making these things when I got out. He came over and stopped the chair with both hands. Then he wheeled me over to a desk set up with cubicle walls.
“How’s that feel?” asked Ben.
“Feels like I’m a guidance counselor.”
“If you have any brains, get a job in an office with a good retirement plan. There’s no sense in wasting your life.”
“I don’t want to be some jackass in a shirt and a tie,” I said.
“You’re more of a jackass working in a factory. If I can get one thing into your head, it’s that America’s run by white collars. Blue-collar workers have to live by the boss’s rules and the union rules. I got news for you, too. A lot of those white-collar guys don’t have any more of an education than you. You gotta hustle and keep your nose clean. When you’re up there, you play by your own rules.”
Ben smiled sheepishly before adding, “Well, within reason.”
He was doing time for ripping off rich people he was supposed to be investing for. “Moving assets for assholes,” he had summed up for me before.
“I think I get it,” I said.
“Good, because what you’re learning here is waste. The only places making furniture are jails here and in Asia.”
Taking a lesson from “Man Has to Be His Own Savior, ” I wrote “office job” on a piece of paper and put it above my polished metal mirror so I’d see it every day.
(Part 2 next week.)