A Memoir: The Fortunate Son, Part 13
by Jake Rohrer, July 28, 2011
A concrete stairwell provided an interesting place for me to play my guitar, an old Martin that belonged to a good friend, Harry Jackson, who generously loaned it to me the whole time I was down. As a substitute, I gave Harry my Gibson Dove, to my thinking a vastly inferior instrument; it was a one time knee-jerk purchase for its cool looks. A bottleneck slide played against steel strings in that hard-surface concrete environment provided the best reverberation imaginable. I could really make it sustain and sing and before long I'd have an appreciative audience lining the upper stairs. Obligations for inmate guitar lessons came with the territory, which I didn't mind.
The prison had an auditorium and, from time to time, brought in outside entertainment. One night we were presented with an all-black fashion review, “Originals in the Essence of Elegance.” Black inmates filled the first 20 rows in the auditorium. When the curtains parted, two pretty red-headed black ladies in skimpy whore's negligee performed vulgar dance-step gyrations to the slap of a disco record while framed in a gaudy backdrop of tinsel and sequins. The brothers went wild, hooting and clapping. Prisons used to get Johnny Cash and the likes of our fashion show, a far cry, I think, from what they get today. A year before I arrived, the “Police,” featuring, of course, “Sting,” played a concert at T.I., leaving behind some of their equipment for the inmates. “Take-away” is the game prisons seem to excel at and it includes entertainment as well as personal comforts. I'm glad I wasn't around when they decided cigarettes would no longer be allowed, an entire population of criminals on edge undergoing nicotine withdrawal.
Another evening featured comedy, a black front man named “Shoo-fly” told jokes and clever stories. At one point, Benny the Ferret started to heckle him, Shoo-fly responding, “...look, man, if I want any shit out of you, I'll come down there and squeeze your head.” Benny didn't say much after that. Another night featured San Francisco 49-er running back, Wendell Tyler, along with a musical review. A couple of songs were sung, and then it happened: the old Jesus sell. An ex-con came out to tell us about how tough he used to be and all the rat-holes he'd been in. Then he met Art Linkletter and Jesus. I was put off by the ruse and didn't stick around very long.
When not otherwise in use, the auditorium could be reserved for inmate rehearsal of music or drama programs. I fell in with a couple of guys who invited me to join their band. David, a hyper but pleasant black fellow, was the leader and bass player. He was joined by a drummer we called, “Sticks,” and a rhythm guitar player/singer who had the implausible name, Cashmere LeBlanc. I came on board as the piano player and we soon added a diminutive, four-foot-ten Thai, on flute, who went by the name, “Choo-Choo.” Musically, we were a rag-tag bunch. Cashmere could actually sing a bit and David was a practiced funk-soul bass player. He was serious about music, and anything he lacked in actual talent was made up for by his tremendous confidence and the stars in his eyes. Cashmere actually looked like his name sounded: he was a slender, handsome black man of medium height, cool and confident, with slicked back hair and a Boston Blackie mustache, well spoken and polite with a warm voice and gleaming eyes, an exceptionally smooth operator. I wanted to use his name in the band's name, and I christened us “Cashmere LeBlanc and the Champagne Brothers of Righteous Ecstasy,” or CLB&CBRE.
Cashmere could barely tune his guitar, and I had to help him most of the time. The raggedy old piano had 3 keys permanently taped down and was grossly out of tune. Sticks had two cymbals, a kick-drum and a snare, but he could count to four and keep time. Choo-Choo played his flute with all the enthusiasm of Pan, prancing around the stage, pixie-like, on the toes of a ballerina. His broken English was a kick in the ass: “...we jam down tonight, yes boys? I am too many strengths down for this work all time, is not in my body working to plus four hours of the day on this night.” When he blows a solo, he says, “...lats!” — a Thai rodent I suppose. David's funky bass playing sounded something like the musical accompaniment to the Jerry Seinfeld show on TV. We played songs by Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and James Brown, but we never made anything really fly. Then Cashmere got rolled up and stuck in the hole, “under investigation,” for what I never learned, but I never saw him again. He was replaced by a transvestite whose name was Chantay. David came up with a new piano player and I moved to electric guitar, but this guy played like he was wearing a baseball glove on each hand. Then David found “Two-Step” who was a pretty good guitar player, and I moved back to piano, and all of a sudden we started to sound at least as good as a second rate bar band in a skid-row dive. I managed to teach the band, “Proud Mary,” and Choo-Choo took the vocal: “...lef' a goo' jah ina chitty...low'lin, low'lin, low'lin ona livah.”
We played mostly contemporary black music in a lot of strange keys and I had to figure out a lot of new chords, but David insisted that this is where the soul comes from. I asked him once if we could do something in plain old C-major, or G-major, keys where I could get in some of my better hot licks on the piano. “Naw, man. Them's hillbilly keys. We gonna get down, brothuh!” Right you are, David.
* * *
“Carpet creeper, sizzly-juicy, calliope, asshole tear & atomic bomb.”— farts, as once classified by brother Robbin
Chris is working overtime at his job in prison industries and I'm laying back reading, passing not only the time, but some noxious gas as well. Whatever they served for dinner that evening was at war in my stomach. Old Lame Dave, the chaplain's assistant, is wandering around with his broom, an accoutrement that sticks to him like his shadow. He's a quiet, unassuming fellow, sort of strange looking with bad posture and a crooked mouth, but there's something about him that sometimes makes me wonder if he's really all there. I've heard it said that they keep him drugged with Thorazine, a powerful sedative. Across the canal from our side of the dormitory is a cannery where tuna and other fish products are processed. Sometimes if the wind is right, a rank and horrid smell snakes across the water and permeates the air at T.I. Pretty soon Dave saunters into my cubical to bum some coffee and walks smack into the invisible cloud of my most recent fart.
“Man, that smell from the fish factory really comes in on this side of the dorm,” says Dave.
“Yes it does, Dave,” I say, “It really does. Sometimes it can be downright awful.”
“Whew!” says Dave. “It's really strong tonight!”
“Yes, Dave. It certainly is.” I mimic HAL the computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
“Jesus!” he says. “I didn't know tuna-fish could smell that bad.”
“Well, it seems to be diminishing a bit now, Dave. Living on this side of the dorm, you know, one gets used to it.” Poor old Lame Dave. He thanks me for the coffee and with his broom, ambles off about his business.
* * *
Christmas comes to prison as only the government could bring it. The warmth and cheer of Nancy Reagan presenting cabbage patch dolls to Korean orphans under the perfect symmetry of the White House Christmas tree pervades the air. We are provided with a scrawny, wire-and-bristle fake Christmas tree and tinsel-strips, along with pretend wreaths, ornaments and suchlike. The inmates seem divided between Scrooge and delight. A couple of the more delighted inmates masquerade as elves and help me with the preparations. DeLafayette Washington and Leon Swackhammer assist me decorating the tree and the C-Unit lobby with cheery enthusiasm. DeLafayette is about six-foot-seven and has to bend over to put on the crowning ornament. “Tha's...one...fine...uh...muthafucka!” he says in his heavy, slow motion drawl, his words reaching me with the velocity of a pearl dropped in heavy oil.
The dope addicts are generally ecstatic about Christmas because with Christmas, usually, comes dope, packed into tiny sleighs of plastic wrap and concealed in someone's colon while visiting with a connection. Another crew of enthusiasts are trying to fix a string of flashing lights for the tree, but “Wasted” Anthony crosses some wires and plugs them in backward and blows out the power in all the wall circuits. We call maintenance and they send over their top-gun repair ace, “Arky Malarky,” who announces his arrival with his trademark, “Howzit goin'?” He is his own self-opening bundle of addled humor, pouring out the corniest jokes imaginable, most dealing with the purported enormity of his reproductive apparatus. Tools and rolls of electrical tape hang from his midsection. “Yew fellers got a little problem here?” Arky resets the breaker and all is well. Subjected to a pat-down coming out of the kitchen, Arky tells the cops, “...watch out when yew come to that 40 pounds of swingin' meat, there boys. That's how I got my hernia, yew know, liftin' that thing all the time,” guffaw, chortle, snicker.
* * *
Personal physical conditioning worked its way into my weekly schedule, and I began to run on the South Yard track and started some weight training as well. I read a few books on the subject and began to understand the benefits of aerobic training, something I'd ignored while dealing dope. I lifted weights so that maybe I would start to look good naked. In the nine months I spent at Terminal Island, I lost the 30 pounds of unhappiness I brought in with me. By the time of my final release, I will have left over 50 pounds behind me and was in the best physical condition of my life, at least since high school. I later met a fellow at camp who was over 300 pounds on arrival and went out the gate at 160, leaving a whole person behind him.
It was on the running track that I began to take notice of Charlie Harris who was from C-Unit but lived on the opposite side of the dormitory from me. Quiet and retiring, he was mostly a loner. We hadn't met one another yet, even though more than anyone else in C-Unit, Charlie and I shared similar intellect, humor, temperament and social background. We were the strangers in C-Unit, the ones who stood out against the norm. We would both be transferred to the prison camp at Lompoc within a month of each other. We began with just a smile and nod, acknowledging one another on the running track. Soon we were conversing and taking stock of one another.
Charlie once told me about “Shy,” a sleepy looking unkempt black man whose bunk was near Charlie's in C-Unit. “He'd been down eight years,” said Charlie, unbelieving, “and was within a week of release. I think Horace talked him into it.” Horace was a tall, sharp looking black man who also lived in Charlie's C-Unit neighborhood and ran on the track with us. Horace beamed intelligence and was an operator, maybe a one-time successful coke dealer. Apparently, there was someone on the yard who owed Shy five dollars and the debt was grossly overdue, the debtor stringing him along. Shy wanted his five dollars.
“Dat man disrespectin' you, Shy,” said Horace, devil in Shy's ear. “Makin' you look a fool!”
Worked up by Horace, Shy went looking for the debtor with a two-by-four and let him have a good whack on the head, damn near killing him. Shy was rolled up and put in the hole pending assault charges. Any thoughts of parole were now likely another five years away. Charlie was incredulous that five dollars could inspire such unthinking, foolish behavior, no matter the circumstance. Charlie later shared a room with my brother and me at the Lompoc camp, establishing a bond and friendship that still goes on today.
* * *
Once weekly for 12 weeks, I attended the prison drug rehabilitation program, mandatory for every C-Unit inmate. The leader was Gurucharan (“Feet of Wisdom”) Singh, a very pleasant and well meaning Sikh who wore a turban, earning him the inmate designation, “Diaperhead.” I assume he had some sort of professional degree in psychology. I cannot imagine a more hapless, unappreciated task than trying to rehabilitate the C-Unit addicts. Cooperation from the inmates was nil to non-existent. The idea of participating in a meditation or yoga exercise was beyond them.
“…can't get into it, man. S'not my trip.”
“…wasn't me robbed that bank, man. Was cocaine robbed that bank! I don't even belong here…”
One biker-type starts bragging about how tough his chapter of the Gypsy Jokers motorcycle club is, when a black inmate interrupts him with “…dey ain't shit, man. My uncle whupped a buncha dere asses in Portland las' year.” And they bristle and foam at one another, almost coming to blows before Gurucharan can settle them down. Then we start into another meditation exercise that attempts dialogue with that part of our inner self that feels drugs are necessary in order for life to function at a satisfactory level. More than half the class rejects the idea of closing their eyes and trying to relax. A discussion on the merits of injecting methamphetamine into a vein while participating in sexual intercourse ensues and poor Gurucharan's control of the class is tenuous at best.
Back in C-Unit I engage in the paperwork required when new inmates arrive. In prison vernacular, inmates don't arrive, they “drive-up.” I had driven up eight months ago. The duty officer usually assigns the bunks, but sometimes it falls to me. Today there are eight new arrivals, and Morales, the duty officer, assigns them their bunks. One white boy, “Gator Red,” tattooed with confederate flags, a swastika and “White Power” down the back of his arms, wants to make sure he doesn't get bunked with a “nigra” person. Then I come across a new recruit who will go through life with no balls and one strike: Owen Juan. From the back of the unit, Clearthur Sims storms up to Morales, demanding, “...whuffo you put that big, nasty white boy in mah house, Morales?” It’s hard to keep everyone happy. Morales throws up his hands and tells me to make the rest of the assignments. I make Clearthur happy by moving “Moose” out of his cubicle and put him with Owen Juan in an empty spot. Next, a mousey little man with scraggly pageboy hair follows me as I set out to find an empty bunk for him. “Make sure it's with a white man,” he says. I head for “Pig Iron” Biggs' house, but he already has a bunkmate. Just across the aisle there's an empty top bunk over a Mexican fellow. The mouse flinched at living with a Mexican, but I told him that was the space available. I don't think the Mexican was thrilled at the prospect of living with the mouse, either. I have to bring a mattress from another bunk for the mouse. “Hasn't been no niggers sleeping on it, has there?” whispered the mouse. I told him it was rumored that the last occupant had crabs. Pig Iron takes this in and laughs. He says, “...you know how to get rid 'o them, doncha? You picks one 'a da little devils of'n you an' you paints him black, den you sticks him back on. All da others will move out in a worl' a hurry!”
* * *
Starting with the unit manager, then up through the prison bureaucracy, I was recommended for transfer to a low security camp setting. The only thing that remains before I am transferred is my parole hearing. The paroling authority will examine my case and history and decide how much of the fifteen years of my sentence I will actually serve before being paroled. The minimum time possible under my sentence is 60 months. I asked a new acquaintance, Roger Reaves, what a parole hearing was like and what I might expect. Roger was a friend of my brother's who earned a disciplinary transfer from the Lompoc camp for getting caught smuggling contraband. “Expect to be cross-examined by four or five eggheads in business suits who have the demeanor and attitude of prosecuting attorneys.” Four against one didn't seem like a fair contest. I asked Doron to come down and represent me at the hearing.
The hearing itself was conducted in a dark and cheerless dungeon-like environment without windows or fresh air. Doron warned me, “They'll correct you from the record if anything you say disagrees with what they have written in front of them.” We were ushered into the dim surroundings, looking very much like an interrogation room in some TV cop drama. There were only three of them across the table from us, looking exactly as Roger had described.
“You understand that we'll hear from you later, Mr. Weinberg. We want to hear from Mr. Rohrer at this juncture.”
“Yes, of course,” said Doron.
“Now, Mr. Rohrer, would you care to expand on the causes of your, ah, spurious activities?”
“Yes, sir. Where would you like me to start?”
“Harrumph,” he snorted, “It says here that you imported and distributed two hundred-five pounds of cocaine. Would you care to elaborate on that?”
“Begging your pardon, sir, but I think you are confusing the crimes of Mr. Green, the informant, with what is alleged against me.”
“Harrumph,” again. “…Oh yes, I see it here.” This 'harrumph' lacked the righteous indignity of the first. He shifted his weight on his chair and rattled the papers in front of him. “Yes, here we are. Now, as I understand it, Mr. Green is currently serving a twenty-year sentence, is that correct?”
“No sir. Far from it. Mr. Green was released after serving 18 months, a reward for his cooperation and testimony against me and others.” The questioner retreated into his papers, the 'harrumphs' now weak and wimpy, his ears turning a noticeable crimson. The interrogator to his left took over. I reflected on how the feds considered ratting on others as “cooperation.”
“Can you tell us, Mr. Rohrer, how a man of your background ever got caught up in this sordid business?”
“Yes, sir. A weakness at the time, born of financial need, fear and, I guess, the ease of opportunity. I was out of work and desperately needed to support my family.” I looked him right in the eye, buoyed by the simple truth of the statement. “It was a very stupid thing to do,” I added for effect.
“Let's go over this, shall we? I see that there are two other defendants in a related case, your brother, who it says here introduced you to this business, and a Mr. Sinclair. Do you know what their sentences are?”
“Yes. My brother was sentenced to six years, and Mr. Sinclair, who was Mr. Green's best friend ever, was sentenced to one year and a day. With all due respect, (this was a term I picked up from Doron at my appeal hearing; he would use it whenever he wanted to tell the justices they were full of shit) and hoping it doesn't seem presumptuous of me, I would like to suggest that Mr. Green soft-sold Sinclair's role in all of this at my expense.”
This seemed to get their attention. “I am not denying my guilt, but I do take issue with the extent of my involvement as alleged by Mr. Green. Mr. Sinclair was sentenced as a minor league participant, even though the only “hard” evidence in the entire case was one hundred thousand dollars in cash, a confiscated payment from Mr. Sinclair to Mr. Green, which clearly suggests that Sinclair was something more than a minor league player. What I am alluding to here is that Green, in accounting for all of his claims, protected his old friend, Sinclair, by trivializing his participation while overloading the claims against me, a recent acquaintance. As you know, the evidence against me was solely the word of Mr. Green.”
“Judging from the outcome, I can sympathize with your feelings,” said the suit. Can you tell us the extent of your involvement?”
And on it went. Whenever the government referred to the weight of a particular transaction, it was stated in pounds. Whenever referred to by our side, it was stated in kilograms. Thus, an eleven pound accusation became a five kilogram defense, “street value” mentality and theatrics playing their roles. The hearing ended with Doron defending my character, pointing to mitigating circumstance and blaming it all on my brother.
“A fancy courier,” is how Doron put it, “who simply stepped into a going concern in which he had no hand in building. Nor, gentlemen, is it alleged that Mr. Rohrer ever had a hand in importation, as is admitted by other defendants who received far more lenient sentences. We agree that the amounts in this case seem large and that is because that was the level on which Mr. Rohrer was introduced to this business. Had Mr. Rohrer's brother been a gram dealer rather than a kilogram dealer, Mr. Rohrer would stand before you today charged in grams rather than pounds.”
After a brief conference of only two or three minutes, they gave us their decision: 60 months, the minimum allowed. They seemed apologetic that it couldn't be less. “The judge saw to that,” they said. Their decision would have to be confirmed by the regional parole commission, which it was. Doron and I would now set our sights on Judge Schnacke, who we would ask to modify my sentence to an appropriate level given the circumstances, a process that would take another two or three years.
* * *
I gathered up my belongings and said my goodbyes to those I cared about. Chris was working and I left him a note with a mailing address. I crossed the yard and started to climb the steps to R & D, when Chris came running up behind me. “Amigo! Amigo! I will miss you my fren'. You are the smartest and best dude I ever bunk with.”
“I'll miss you, too, amigo. I left a mailing address at your house. Let's stay in touch.” And off I went, Terminal Island at my back, the Federal Prison Camp at Lompoc out in front. I was given ten hours of freedom, a furlough, and it was up to me to arrive at Lompoc on my own. I got laid on the way, an unsatisfying roll in the hay from a relationship that was mostly dead before I checked in, a final performance and dying obligation; an exchange, I suppose, for helping herself to my records and moving her boyfriends into my home.