Silence On Cellblock # 9

When I left the USA for Africa in February 2020 over 80,000 prisoners were incarcerated in solitary confinement in US prisons, which equals the entire penal population of the UK. The practice was fist introduced in the Eastern State Penitentiary in 1830. The punitive toll on inmates had been touted by prison officials as the last recourse for convicts who were a danger to other prisoners and guards. Quakers and Calvinists supported the isolation of inmates as a less vicious alternative to public floggings.

At present New York State has the highest rate of ‘disciplinary segregation’ in the nation and Rikers Island was a hellhole for adolescents subjected to long stays in ‘the hole’. It is torture. Plain and simple, but many people in Rikers are awaiting trial, because they can’t make bail for their release.

And now everyone in the world has been sentenced to ‘solitary confinement’ due to Covid 19.

Home every day.

Out for an hour every day.

No freedom everyday.

Just like Thomas Silverstein, who has been locked down thirty-five years for killing a prison guard and died in Range 13″ at ADX Florence federal penitentiary in Colorado.

We are now all in the hole.

Our crime?

To be human.

Hopefully it isn’t a life sentence.

VOW OF SILENCE by Peter Nolan Smith

Almost everyone in the world has a phone. Cellular service can connect New York with Antarctica or Greenland. I can call my son Fenway’s mom and Mam will pick up in Thailand. Every minute millions of cellular calls and SMS messages crisscross the globe searching billions of destinations. We are so close, yet so far away from each other.

Yesterday evening AP and I moved a set of headboards from the 3rd Floor to the penthouse landing. They were heavy and luckily neither of us hurt our backs.

“Thanks,” my landlord/friend/architect said, walking down to the 2nd floor.

“No worries.” I ascended the stairs to my apartment.

Those three syllables ended my verbal communications for Saturday. I walked over to my apartmetn on Myrtle Avenue and put on CITY OF THE NIGHT.

I was in bed by 9. Three beers sang my lullaby. Sleep wrapped my body in bliss.

The next morning morning I rose slowly from my slumber. Rain splashed against my window. I checked my watch.

7:30am. Sunday morning. Church belles were ring in Brooklyn.

Today was a day of rest and I shut my eyes in hopes of making it to noon.

My second unconscious state extended another five hours and I woke at 11:16am.

The rain was falling harder than before and ominous clouds crawled across a charcoal gray sky. I pulled the cover over my shoulder and read more of John Rechy’s novel about gay hustlers. Ten minutes later the book fell on my chest and I napped for another half-hour.

Waking up I looked at my phone.

No one had called.

Not my wife in Thailand.

Not my family in Boston.

Not my friends around the world.

I got out of bed and looked out the window. Not a soul was visible in the alleys behind the brownstone. The dark sky was devoid of airplanes. I could be the Last Man on Earth, but I am not Mada, Adam’s dead end. Hungry I cooked myself breakfast. Two slices of toast and milky tea with one sugar. I sat by the window and eyeed the windows across the backyard alley. There was no sign of life from the neighbors.
Five million people lived in this borough, but none were visible today and I wondered if zombies had risen from the dead and eaten the entire population of Brooklyn, but there are no zombies, because I would have heard the screams of their zictims.

In truth families were having brunch at the restaurants in Fort Greene. Kids were on playdates with their friends. Lovers laid late in bed. None of them were thinking about me and I went into the bathroom to run a hot tub.

After a good twenty-minute soak I decided to resign my day to a monastic vow of silence, because if I didn’t leave my top-floor apartment, I could spend the entire day without speaking.

This was a tradition dating back to my old apartment on East 10th Street.

During the 80s I regularly exiled myself from the rest of the world. Sunday mornings were spent in bed with a book. A late breakfast was followed by a long afternoon bath with my evenings devoted to finishing the book and drinking a bottle of wine.

Once or twice during these Sundays I checked the phone for a dial tone. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that buzz, because it meant that no one thought to call me on a Sunday and I returned the favor, as if we had a pact.

This vow of silence lasted, until I started dating Ms. Carolina. The former beauty queen liked talking and I couldn’t blame her. She lived in a redneck community below the Mason-Dixon Line. Many of her neighbors entertained very conservative thoughts about the intermingling of races and religions.

“Sometimes I need to speak to someone sane.” Her accent was pure Tarheel.

“I’m not really sane.” I warned her about my Sunday tradition.

“You don’t speak to anyone on Sunday.”

“Is it a religious thing?” Ms. Carolina had been educated at a convent school back in the era when convent schools were run as convents.

“No, I’m an atheist.”

“Then why the silence””

“Seneca said, “As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man.”

“Which means?”

“That I like not speaking on Sundays.”

“Don’t worry. I respect your beliefs.” The blonde southerner was a true gentlewoman. “But what about if you just pick up the phone and listen to me? That’s not really breaking your vow of silence.”

“Let me think about this.” One Trappist sect was very strict on silence, but my rest of my life style was a complete rejection of the Cistercian dictates and I told Ms. Carolina, “As long as the phone calls don’t last longer than twenty minutes, I’ll pick up the phone.”

“Thank you.” Her gratitude was sincere.

Every Sunday morning down south Ms. Carolina was obliged to attend church and the services lasted hours. Baptists wasted the entire day trying to save their souls, although her congregation was very advanced for North Carolina. They believed that blacks possessed a soul.

The next Sunday my phone rang at 11:15. I was soaking in my bathtub in the kitchen. My apartment was very East Village. I picked up the phone.

It was Ms. Carolina.

She recounted a visiting preacher’s ranting sermon.

“He believes that all homosexuals are damned to Hell. I told him after the service that I knew that he was going to some Richmond bars where men were dancing with men and gave him a check for $25. It’s going to fix the roof.” Ms. Carolina was originally form New Jersey. Her family was Old Yankee same as mine. We had more than those genes in common. I knew her husband. The doctor was a good man and I was feeling bad about ‘us’. She kept the conversation low and ended with the wish, “Good luck with your vow of silence.”

Luck had nothing to do with that Sunday’s silence.

I had merely listened to a woman on a phone.

Words never left my lips.

Two weeks passed and Ms. Carolina drove north to visit me in the East Village.

Saturday night we dined at a good restaurant in Soho. I drank more than I should, but I was a sucker for a good Saturday night drunk.

Sunday morning I woke up before Ms. Carolina. Light filtered through the shades. My eyeballs were socketed in sandpaper. My guest lay on her side facing me. She liked to watch me sleep. I picked up a book, Peter Freuchen’s BOOK OF THE ESKIMOS, and read away the pain in my head.

A little before 11 Ms. Carolina opened her eyes and said, “Sometimes I think you’re dead when you’re reading. You barely breathe.”

The blonde heiress accepted my shrug as an answer. We had one week a month together. She deserved more, but I could only give what I had to give.

“You know the Trappist monks never really had a ‘vow of silence’.”
This was news to me. My mother loved the quietude of their monastery outside of Boston.

“St. Benedict, their founder, had three tenets; stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. Benedict preferred the monks to exist in silence, because speech was disruptive to contemplation.” Ms. Carolina was as good as a nun and only wicked with the lights out.

Like my Irish mother I have the gift of gab, although dampened by my father’s preference for silence. The Maine native had held his piece for years under the blitzkrieg of my mother’s monologues, but today Ms. Carolina wanted to hear my voice and I surrendered to her need.

“I’ve been to the Trappists monasteries in Belgium. They made good beer. Actually not good, excellent. Did I ever tell you how I started my vow of silence?”

“No.” Ms. Carolina was a repository of my vocal history. She had heard many of my stories on our road trips through Guatemala, Peru, and the Far West. Listening was one of her better traits.

“Back in 1979 the phone in my 10th Street apartment was shut off.”

“Let me guess. Non-payment.”

“Yes.”

I had racked up a $700 bill tracking down the whereabouts of my blonde girlfriend from Buffalo. My broken heart remained broken all that time.

“My service was cut for months. I never could get together the money to pay the bill. The phone gathered dust under the sofa. One Sunday I was watching a BONANZA re-run and a telephone rang. I thought to myself, “That’s funny, I didn’t think they had phones on the Ponderosa.”

“And they didn’t.” Ms. Carolina laughed at the image. She was my best audience.

“No, it was the phone. It rang for a minute and then stopped. I picked up the phone. There was a dial tone. I tried a number. My parents. I hadn’t spoke to them in ages. It worked and not only that I could call anywhere in the world.”

“Strange.”

“Even stranger was that the phone would ring every Sunday at the same time.”

“During BONANZA.”

“Correct.” I liked the chemistry between Little Joe and Hoss.

“Did you ever pick it up to find out who was calling?”

“No.”

The phone stayed in service for two month, then went dead again. After that I never spoke on Sundays. At least until I met you.”

“You’re still quiet on Sundays.”

“I try my best.” I led Ms. Carolina by the hand into my bedroom. There was no need for words in the darkness, as our bodies spoke without words.

That Sunday was over twenty-five years ago. Ms. Carolina has been dead for ten of them. This Palm Sunday the sky was lightening over Brooklyn. A scream shivered up the stairs. I went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of beer.

Orval is a Trappist beer.

The suds poured into my mug with a pleasant glut glug glug.

I raised my glass to Ms. Carolina.

She had been a good friend and tomorrow it would be Monday.

I would call Mam. Fenway would get on the phone. He likes to speak with me and tells me to come home soon.

“I will.”

My vow of silence would end then as it always does, because no Sunday lasts forever.

Honor Blackman RIP

After a successful TV career on THE AVENGERS Honor Blackman was cast in the James Bond film GOLDFINGER. Pussy Galore was twice the woman most men were then and now. Even 007 was tested by the leader of an all-woman gang.

Thanks to her acting skills Honor Blackman rivaled Sean Connery every time they were on the screen.

No easy feat, but the camera loved the Honor and she reciprocated the lens’ love.

Let’s not forget her aerial team.

They sprayed Fort Knox with deadly germ.

Mod assassins.

Honor Blackman rocked THUNDERBALL, but the woman’s career lasted decades.

I was shocked to read she was 94 at the time of her passing.

A challenge to men always.
Bless your soul through the cosmos.

James Bond Aston Martin Cool

Sean Connery epitomized cool.

Aston-Martin.

Saville Row suit.

The Alps.

GOLDFINGER.

DETECTIVE POEM # 1

It’s Three in the morning
And my client’s mistress hasn’t left
The diplomat’s 65th Street townhouse.

The blonde wisp entered at One.
The upstairs lights were extinguished at One-fifteen.

I stand in the alley.
The night wind is a little cold.
No complaints.
My job is mostly to watch someone else’s life.
Not a spy.
Just a private eye.

Five days ago a rich Wall Street banker
Entered my Chinatown office.
He asked me to tail his mistress.
From Dusk to Dawn.
While he was uptown
With his loving wife and two children.

The banker wanted to know.
Was she messing around?
And with whom?

His shoes cost more than I earned in a month, s
So I doubled my rate plus expenses.
He said okay asked, “How long?”

“I never know,”

His mistress was easy to follow.
Her passage on the street was marked by the snap of men’s heads.

The banker’s instincts were on the money.
The mistress had other men.
Thursday night, a Lower East Side artist.
Friday night, a young lawyer with a bad left leg.
Saturday night, a hometown athlete,
Whose name never hit the headlines.

On Sunday night she stayed home.
A West Village apartment.
The only man to enter was the Chinese deliveryman.
He delivered moo shu pork and left five minutes later.
Sunday was her day of rest.

Monday night I picked up her trail
After the banker kissed her goodnight.

Ten minutes later he called to ask,
“You learn anything?”

“Nothing.” I couldn’t see behind walls. “But soon.”

Twenty minutes later his mistress returned to her apartment on 65th Street
I wait outside praying it doesn’t rain.
Two hours later the front door opens.
The mistress exits.
She pulls a fur coat tight to her neck.
Her golden hair falls over the black.

I lean back into the shadows.

She crosses the street.

Heels click on the asphalt.

I smell her perfume on the night air.

She stops in front on me.

“Are you cold?”

I don’t lie.
I don’t speak.
I step onto the sidewalk.

“Care to join me for a drink?” She smiles knowing the answer. “We can’t go to my place, so why don’t we go to yours.”

My cellphone rings.

“Is that him?”

I nod yes.

She reaches into my pocket and shuts off the phone.

“My name is Sybille. You pay for the taxi.”

I nodded yes again.

Taxis are part of my expenses
And padding the bill is important in my job.

Not a spy.
Just a private eye.

foto by anthony scibelli 1978