Dag goes back to prison
I was lying in bed one evening with my Serbian girlfriend a decade ago or so when, as she was stroking my back, she suddenly jerked away her hand, looked me in the eye, and said, “You've lived an easy life!”
One of her arms was badly scarred from some atrocity or other that I never really inquired about; and because I am not so badly mangled as she, she assumed that all is easy for me, the easy-going Yank. Well, not so easy-going, as she knew too well. The ground would rumble during the bombings, concussion surging into my bones and pulling me apart at the joints; and the air would become electric in strange ways, like a spider web of jolts running through us all, all of us connected to the pain. I loved it. My girlfriend ignored it all, pouring another drink. I recall in the past being afraid sometimes, but that was years and many years before when I was afraid sometimes. Fear changed, and I didn't feel fear the way I did when I was a boy. Fear in the later years was something I could see in me, like looking at a stranger and seeing a fellow human being I had no interest in, just somebody passing on the sidewalk who would be gone in an instant and be thereafter forever forgotten, though to him every moment was his own precious moment. The girl, like all the girlfriends I've had, was smart enough. Like too many, she was also insane. Yes, my life was easy. Wound for wound, that girl probably had me beat, though I was close to twice her age. Like a couple of others, she was obsessive, following me right to the border where I entered the land of enemies just to be rid of her, a land she couldn't follow me into, no matter how much her passions drove her. She was a prisoner of war. For her there was no escape. It was a life sentence. Yes, my life was easy. For her, for others, for them, life is a prison and it is a whole life. For her and for them there is only one way out. I'm free.
My first attempt to go to prison in Iquitos, Peru was a failure from the start, that Sunday morning in the warmth and sun being festive in the downtown area from where I began by failing to hail a mototaxi, the few on the road being occupied already, and those others waiting being blocked by police from entering the streets filled with Christmas revellers and children going to see the Nativity diorama at the Plaza de Armas. Thus, with my companions, a Brazilian handicraft seller and his new bride from France, I made my way out of the immediate area to catch a mototaxi to El Penal, the regional maximum security prison in Iquitos. We got no more than a few kilometers toward prison before our driver stopped and lifted the seat off his motorcycle and began pounding the works inside with his fist, getting the sputtering motor to catch again, and off we went for another few blocks in heavy traffic, our transportation stalling a few times before the driver pulled over in despair and sat on the kerbside with his head hanging down. We paid him a dollar and hailed another ride, this one taking us more directly to our destination, down a long dusty road filled with potholes, littered heavily with garbage from the row of street vendors casting away the remains of food stalls and various other needs of the residents and visitors to the area en route to the prison. The dust was thick in the bright sunshine and the traffic on such a small road was heavy, visiting day for those incarcerated.
We three entered the outdoor reception area of the prison, my companions dressed for it, the man with a sleeveless tee shirt showing top to bottom “sleeves” tattoos, a stainless steel nut tied into the pointy end of his long thick beard, his neck and chest covered in junk jewelry, and the crotch of his ballooning pajama-style pants hanging nearly to his feet. His wife, not so tattooed, wore a bright red, close-fitting thigh high cotton dress, shoes, and nothing else. Showing up in a cotton shirt, walking shorts, and sandals, I took off my Peruvian Military baseball cap once I saw the staff had seen it. I was not dressed for the occasion. I announced that I had permission from the director, whose name I dropped and then took out a card I took from my wallet and showed to the admissions staff, all of whom agreed that if I wanted to see him I had to return during business hours of a week day. I explained that I didn't want to see the warden but that I had permission from him to visit the general prison population on visiting day. It was not working, and I spent my time chatting up a beautiful woman working as a prison employee. But the fun had to end, and it ended in failure. I couldn't get into prison that day.
But prison is my destiny in Iquitos. I swore that I would be back and that I would go to prison if it was the last thing I ever did. My life might be easy, but I can make it damned hard when I want to. Prison or death, I said to myself. I will return. I will go to prison.
And so I did, this time with a man who should know the ropes, the familiar face around town for those “looking for something?” I went to El Penal with Juan Maldonado.
Juan is known by name and reputation to most people who come to the city for more than a few days, but that's usually all the time it takes to hear of him, if not sooner for those looking for what others might happily avoid. Juan can get you anything, “but no drugs,” he will hasten to add. After numerous failed attempts to gain entry to the local prison I figured it was time to give up my solo efforts and enlist the aid of a professional, and Juan, if no one else, is the man to go to prison with here at Iquitos. “I have lots of friends there,” he says. “I know everybody.”
Juan is 66 years old, now still a wiry little explosion of energy, barely able to sit still as he knocks back a large cup of creamy coffee and puffs deeply on a Winston cigarette, the expensive kind in town, not the cheap things he has bought to give out to prisoners during our visit.
We met at the popular gringo hang-out in town, Ari's Burgers, where Juan was already wired on coffee as he wolfed down a burger at 8:01 A.M. and made calls on his cell phone, expressing shock and horror as he looked at the screen, for my benefit, perhaps no one on the other end of the line at all of a Sunday morning. I sat in, coffee arriving soon after, Juan having paid it already in anticipation of my arrival, putting it on his credit card, showing the card to me so I could see the credit card, it being a credit card I could see in his hand, his credit card. I have some of my own, but nevertheless I was suitably impressed and showed my approval by looking impressed. I was, from the beginning, in Juan's debt. We hadn't settled on a price for his services, “Whatever you want to pay,” and the meter was ticking before I sat down for my coffee. Juan has been in his business for a long time.
Juan came from Lima after a couple of compulsory years in the military, found a job as a fireman, which obviously didn't appeal to him, because after a few years of having children he found himself hitch-hiking to the northern frontier at Colombia where he caught a boat to Panama and from there made his way north to New York City. He mentions his time there frequently but doesn't say what he did there, changing the topic, telling me how a friend of a friend was in a fight in Mexico and how Juan was mistakenly scooped up in the aftermath and thrown in jail for 15 days where he made baskets by hand. He says he's never been in jail since. This makes sense for a man who is in love with making small money. “He works cheap,” says Bill Grimes, the coolest guy in Iquitos and the American consul and all round guy one wants to know even for no reason at all. Juan Maldonado? “He's a scammer,” says my other real source of information in the city, Edwin at the tourist information agency, IPeru. Edwin knows what there is to know about the city's history and legitimate sights and sounds and tastes. Edwin is the shining light of information about the city for those who walk the streets and narrow. Juan is not so much the same. Edwin got me so far toward my trip to prison, but it takes Juan Maldondo to get me through the locked gates and past the armed guards.
This trip is my ninth attempt to go to prison at Iquitos. I've never had this kind of trouble getting into prison before. But this time I can't seem to manage it without efforts beyond the norm. The only good thing about this is seeing the strikingly beautiful prison employee at the front desk, a plain wooden table with a sign-in book and a ball point pen, no computer, no clanging security buzzers, no bulletproof glass and id. tags to hang around ones neck, no glitz or pizazz, just the most beautiful woman in this nation of strikingly stunning beauties. She takes a passport from me and opens it at random, taking basic information from a visa from Paraguay, not seeming to care that she has missed my photo in the front pages somewhere, and she notes my name in the register, asks my age, and moves me on to the next stage of entry to El Penal. I follow the jittery Juan down the cracked concrete sidewalk under a shelter of rotting tin roof to a shack where we take off our belts and pass them to a guard who leaves them on the bench where sit other guards, all of them indifferent to our presence. We move on again and sign in to pass on again where we find another table, another person waiting to look at out papers, this time getting the inside of our forarms stamped with, I hate to note, rubber duck tattoos. Mine is sideways and I can see it clearly as I raise my arm; Juan's is smeared and he thinks it's a dragon. I show him mine and he looks in disgust again at his own. We move on to a shack where, one by one, we enter to be searched for contraband, exiting into the main area of the prison where we are shown to yet another window where we are given visitor's passes, heavy rectangular metal tabs that we stick in the watch pockets of our pants, this time me being dressed up a step or two from last time, my wrist watch in a sack left with the cashier at the burger joint, my wallet left securely under my pillow at home, me all set to go to prison like an inmate with no nothing to his name and little way to cause trouble till I find the ways and means to sneak and arm myself with needed things. The greatest useful tool, as always, is information, and I enter the prison with a dire shortage, not enough to defend myself. I am at the mercy of the system, and I do not grasp its subtleties.
Juan and I are at the prison this day to look at wooden chess sets, both of us being very keen players. Our moves are blocked, not by superior strategy and long term thinking of a smart adversary, but by dull inertia. We have finally passed the last gate and are in the yard of the forecourt waiting for our trustee to guide us around during our time inside, the price of a sole settled for services, and then, standing stupid, looking at crude murals of macho religious themes of a hostile looking Jesus and a bleeding bird with a dagger though its guts, a cross that looks like it should be used for clubbing the next man in line, and school child daubs of cartoon houses surrounded by outlines of clouds in a dying sky of freedom sort of recalled on a crumbling concrete wall, we watch as men shuffle into the main yard through yet another flimsy iron gate, men entering the heart of El Penal. There we are fucked.
Juan tells me we can go no further, the place is full, too busy, and that the way is blocked. This cannot be true, others behind us getting in without problems. But my way is barred, the case is closed, and I must retreat again to the outside world of relative freedom to plot my return to break into prison somehow otherwise. They can't keep me out forever. I'll go to prison no matter what I have to do.
Juan and I walk back to the main road in the mud, my fancy leather shoes taking punishment they were not designed for, my mood close to murderous, my mind not made for such shabby treatment either. And so the ride back is quiet, Juan sensing my disapproval, me calculating what to pay him for this failure, this window to keep open for other needs I might have later that he might open to me. Thus we landed again at Ari's American hang-out and Burgers joint where I no sooner sit to stew than the gringo on dope, the man who three days ago accosted me with insane nonsense and drunken slurring about his toughness and ability to kill me with his feet, a demonstration promptly offered as he lifted one bare foot to show its dirt and filth from a day of walking the streets bare in the mire, a move that made me reach for my most nasty hunting knife to slice his ugly and dirty sole to the bone, an urge I resisted for want of information about my rights to self-defence in this city where I know too little of the laws, the gringo who was the day I met him shaved and clean and scrubbed but now filthy and hungry and angrier, approached and demanded in high theatrics that Juan give him a cigarette, which, taking, he put behind his ear and lit another in his hand. I looked at this simple and easy ticket to prison at Iquitos and decided I'd lose all respect from my fellow inmates for downing such piece of shit as he. My luck so far would find me cell mate with this fool, and perhaps for years I don't care to waste. I'll go to prison, but I will do it well.
My life is easy and my scars are faded and faint. I can walk away from prison in a moment and live with the idea floating freely in my mind that I will return yet again and enter it and be free. I can stand next to those locked up for life and I can make any move I please, stopped by stupid chance and dullness, free to try again where others might quit and sit and wait and stare at blank walls they can't penetrate. I will go to prison. I will keep chipping away till I enter and have my day. For me it's an easy life I live.
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