Author’s note: Frog Gravy is a nonfiction account of incarceration in Kentucky, first in jails and then in prison, during 2008 and 2009, and is reconstructed from my notes.
Inmate names are changed, except nicknames that do not reveal identity.
Frog Gravy contains graphic language.
I also post Frog Gravy at Firedoglake.com in the MyFDL diary section.
McCracken County Jail, Cell 107, sometime in February, 2008
Horse. Jail art by Crane-Station on flickr. Colored pencil, magazine ink.
On the way out of visiting, I stop in the booking area to wait for a guard to take me back to the cell. On the wall in this area is posted a laundry list of jailhouse offenses that can get us more time than we already have. I scan the list. Then I see an address in Frankfort for grievances.
My hand flies to my pocket, and I fumble for a no-shank pen and paper. I jot only crucial numbers, street names. I commit the zip code to memory, quickly.
The guard approaches and says, “What are you doing?”
“Are you writing the address to Frankfort?”
“They don’t do nuthin’ for you.”
“I want to get to PeWee as soon as possible.” (PeWee, or KCIW is the penitentiary for women in the Louisville area)
“I mean, even if you work for them they won’t do nuthin. C’mon now, let’s go.”
“…next bus. PeWee…”
“PeWee? You been final sentenced?”
I think the guard was concerned that I might write a grievance to Frankfort, explaining some of the jail conditions. Which is exactly what I do. There is absolutely nothing else to do, in fact, but write Frankfort. I write everything down, names, times, dates, events, including the pregnancy disaster, and run it all in to Frankfort.
In the cell, back in my own insanity, I fix the towel back onto my head. I find myself in a very unusual situation. I am all alone in the cell. And I have tobacco. And a lighter.
I am so gonna smoke.
In honor of one of the religious in-cell handouts that pictures a multi-headed beast and labels it “The beast of Revelation 13:1-10 symbolizes the papacy,” I have chosen, from a pocket-sized book of rolling papers labeled “The New Testament” and placed in plain view on the windowsill, a page from St. John’s Revelation, to roll the tobacco in and smoke it.
I am seated at the steel table alone, with a towel on my head, surrounded by notes, papers, and origami cranes. Some of my notes are just random, the sort of thing that an insane, entombed person might write:
“Purest of gold walks through the hottest of fires.”
“Israelites’ journey in the desert has to do with poisonous snakes, their bite caused death. People complained to God. He told Moses to fashion a bronze snake- anyone bitten who looked at it would be cured. Modern symbol of medicine.”
I scan the hallway for traffic as though I am about to rob a bank, and seeing no one, I flick the lighter. Nothing happens. Flick flick click click flick click fuck FUCK.
My memory banks kick in. I recall bits of some early conversations in the cell about how to light things.
“…two double A batteries on a steel table and…”
Nope. No batteries.
“…ghost lighting. Guys do it all the time. Just roll the lighter backward….”
Here I sit, in an orange jail suit with a towel on my head, trying to roll a lighter backward on a steel table to create a spark, only the little roller thingies are stuck and they don’t even roll, forward or backward. I hold the lighter up to the light, turn it upside down and focus. There is no fluid in this lighter.
This is starting to suck.
“…pop the socket. Just take a piece of foil, or metal, hold it with tissue, stick it in the socket, and it creates a spark….”
I am a madman. By miracle, I find a paper clip and straighten it out.
“…or you can unplug the TV a little, then touch metal to the metal on the TV cord. See how the TV plug is damaged? Some jails paint the plate but not this one…”
Just about the time the TV wall socket plate parallaxes into my insane view and I begin to formulate a plan, the steel door opens and in walks Ruthie.
I look like the cat that ate the canary. She says, “What are you doing?”
I spit out a canary feather, adjust the towel and ask, “Do you have any idea how to pop the socket? Because if you do, I’ll share this with you.”
Ruthie is beside herself with giddy excitement. “Hell yeah I know how to pop the socket I seen it before! Hahahahahaaa, we gonna smoke!” She runs to her bunk, gets a cup, then goes to the toilet and fills the cup with water, brings the cup to the steel table, sets it down, and says, “Here. You’ll need this.” She also produces a length of toilet tissue and says, “and this. You’ll need this too.”
I ask a question that made sense at the time: “What do you do with the water? I mean, I don’t really think it mixes too well with electricity.”
“Yeah,” says Ruthie (I swear to God), you wrap the paper clip in tissue, then dip it in the water, and then jam the wet part into the socket.”
I think I am actually living inside of a Roadrunner cartoon, where there is always something that you want but cannot get, so you are always hungry and pissed off, and in the end there is always an explosion where you die and everyone laughs. The steel door opens again. In walks Christie and Tina. Christie says, “What are you guys doing?”
“We were just about to pop the socket.”
“God dammit, I thought you were smarter than that! Y’all are going to kill yourselves!” says Christie.
“Don’t ever use God’s name like that again,” snaps Tina.
“Yeah, Christie. Use motherfucker instead. It’s more polite.”
“I can’t believe you guys,” she says.
“Well, quit runnin your dick sucker and show us how to do this right, then,” I say, “Before two more people walk in and then we gotta share this thing with six people. This is not a six-people cigarette. And I’m not cutting it with banana peels again, so don’t even go there.”
“Okay,” she says. “But keep the water. You’ll need it.”
Christie addresses me as if I am a child. “When you pop the socket, it creates a huge spark. You catch it on a Maxipad. The pad catches fire. You will need the water to put the fire out.”
“You cannot possibly be serious.”
“And stick that paper clip into a plastic no-shank pen sleeve,” she adds.
We partially unplug the TV, lay the clip across the prongs and there is, quite literally, a huge popping sound, a spark, and a Maxipad fire.
But there is more. We have knocked out the television to all of the cells in the hallway for the entire weekend and, of course since everyone knows who the idiots were, the guards were not at all amused, so they just went ahead and left our TV off for, like ten days.
The yells start coming: “MotherFUCKER!!”
And Harry, down the hall in his isolation cell, “Let me out! Helpmehelpmehelpme HELP!”
While the TV is off and I am coming up with insane plans because there is nothing else to do, I decide that a TV show called, “How To Survive Jail Hellhole.” Today we will discuss all of the uses for toothpaste, tomorrow, we will make dominoes out of toilet paper, and the next day we will be popping the socket.
I do this all the time. That guy flying out of the window? That’s me.