Stephen Newman

A Few Minutes To Be Judgemental By Stephen Newman

My battery powered alarm clock sounded sick at 6:30 when it went off this morning. Luckily, it was just loud enough to wake me, because I had an intense group therapy session at 8 AM.

The weekend was a perfect blend of fun and lazy. It was much needed. (“The state of the union is on at 6 tomorrow night, not 8. I wonder why they said 8 earlier”). For one, I needed to get my mind off the “parole denial” recommendation from the pre-parole interviewer. (“Robin Leach is on Who Wants to be A Millionaire, on Channel 6 — that’s insane! Oh, he’s playing for the Boys and Girls Club”). There’s a process called “pre-board” where we fill out an application packet with answers to things like: “Describe how you commited your crime” or “List all of the times you’ve been arrested in the past” or “Describe your childhood”. Then the “pre-board officer” reviews the material and makes a recommendation — it’s usually a denial. (“Super blue blood moon eclipse…tomorrow….I don’t even know what the fuck that means. They just put up one of those ‘and we’re gonna tell you about this coming up next’ bullshit.”)

OK, I’m trying like hell to tell my story here, but as you can see from the parenthetic remarks above, my cellmate is, as usual, telling me everything he sees on TV, as he sees it — I always get the play by play and I find it so hard to ignore him. So I figured, screw it, I’ll incorporate it into this blog so you can experience what I experience!!

Let’s get back on track. The case manager, Ms. Rios, called me and nine other guys into her office to read us the pre-board results. She had posted a memo a week prior, saying, “The following 10 inmates need to come to my office on Tuesday to learn your pre-board hearing results” Three of the names on her list were highlighted, the other seven were not. I was on the non-highlighted list, which was the list of denials. Mine said, simply, “Continued incarceration will protect society from possible future violence.”

It should be noted that the recommendation (“oh my mom said that my dad said yesterday that it was in the 50s in Michigan. Today it’s 26 degrees and they have 4 inches of snow on the ground”) rarely matches the actual result from the parole board. Most people who get bad recommendations still get released (at two-fifty-one AM…super blue blood moon eclipse. No I don’t. So a super moon looks bigger because it’s closer in orbit to the moon…oh, ok, two full moons in one month is called a blue moon…yeah I don’t care about that. So this is an eclipse…last time this happened was 1866 it sounds like the blood moon is apparently not ugh god I can’t even understand what they’re saying…it doesn’t sound like it’s gonna be a proper eclipse…it makes it sound like the moon won’t go away it will just turn red. I don’t know what the fuck’s going on. Wednesday morning. It should be interesting.”) I’ve also seen a few people get good pre-board recommendations and still get “flopped”, which is our term for being told to come back and try again. On my first try, in 2015, I got flopped for two years. In 2017 I got flopped for nine months. I have my next hearing on Wednesday, February 7th, at noon. I hope the third time’s a charm. I’ve worked hard and stayed out of trouble, so I feel optimistic. Plus, the parole board basically told me last time that if I did what I’m supposed to that they’d let me out this time around. I’m just hoping all the #MeToo stuff isn’t going to change their minds.

I went off on a tangent there. Sorry about that. The weekend started off nicely. I stayed up until 3:30 AM Friday night, watching Caroline Wozniacki win the Australian Open, her first Major tennis tournament in her 11 year career. I woke up around 10. In the afternoon I played 4-man chess with my friends Larry, Kenny, and Travis. It’s a really cool variation of chess, where you play with a partner and compete against the other team. We hadn’t played in several months, because Larry got mad at his partner last time, called him an idiot, and vowed never to play again. But this time went much more smoothly. Each team won one and lost one, so everyone was happy. As we were playing, some of our orders arrived for this quarter’s Special Olympics fundraiser. Every few months, we are allowed to purchase special items, and the profit ($3000 this time) goes to the Special Olympics. The offer was Fried Chicken (from the grocery store deli — the extra greasy kind that is packaged up in a box), up to two half-gallons of ice cream (double berry cheesecake flavor, or one called moose tracks), and 2-Liters of Pepsi or Ruby Red Squirt. The ice cream and soda arrived first. Then, later in the evening, the chicken arrived. It was delicious. On Sunday morning, more orders showed up, including another half gallon of ice cream, which was delivered at 9:00 AM. Of course, there’s no way to keep it frozen. We have an ice machine, but ice isn’t going to keep ice cream from melting. So I woke my cellmate up and we had a nice 1000.calorie ice cream breakfast first thing in the morning. Everyone was stuffing themselves with chicken and ice cream. Everywhere you looked, someone was drinking a ruby red squirt. The smell of chicken wafted through the air. I just ate mine plain. But inmates — they have some need to always alter whatever food they get. Fried chicken will, for many, turn into chicken noodle soup, or chicken enchiladas. One guy soaked the chicken, got the skins to separate from the chicken, then he fried the skins in the microwave, getting them nice and crispy.
It’s weird how prison does this to some people. I’ve never gone to KFC and said

“I think I’ll soak my chicken in water, and then I’ll soak the cole slaw in water to get all the mayo out of it, and then I’ll chop the chicken up, and put it on small flour tortillas, and top it with the rinsed off cabbage from the cole slaw as a garnish, and call it a soft taco.” I’ve never gone to In-N-Out Burger, ordered a double double, taken the meat patties off the burger and chopped them up and cooked them with taco seasoning and hot sauce, then stirred them into a broth with some pork skins and called it menudo. I just want to eat the freaking cheeseburger, or the freaking fried chicken. But prison changes people. Nothing, by itself, is ever good enough. Everything, and I do mean EVERYTHING, must be altered.

Earbuds need to have yarn wrapped around the cord, so that it won’t short out and break prematurely. A fan needs to have every other plastic spoke cut out of the frame, to maximize air flow and reduce noise. Shorts need to have the waistband cut, and the elastic unfolded, which will make the shorts 2 inches longer. A TV remote must be taken apart, and foil from the $2 deodorant needs to be stuck to the motherboard of the remote, so that the buttons will be more sensitive to the touch and will last longer. (Note: if you don’t have tin foil, you can draw on the motherboard with a #2 pencil and it has a similar effect). A TV coax cable needs to have an unsharpened pencil attached the the end of it, and it will work as a digital tv antenna. (Some paid $20 for an actual digital antenna. Suckers! The smart inmates paid 15 cents for a pencil….and the pencil actually worked BETTER!!). It’s just a reality — in prison, you have to alter things. Nothing is sufficient by itself, unless you’re me. I’m lazy. I am a traditionalist. I figure the Colonel didn’t spend 100 years perfecting his chicken recipe only to have some ungrateful asshole soak his delicious extra crunchy fried chicken and herbs and spices in water. I like to eat food the way it is intended to be eaten!

Don’t even get me started on hot sauce and squeeze cheese, which inmates put on everything — spaghetti, hamburgers, teriyaki chicken, salads, even Thanksgiving dinner. When you were a kid did you ever bring tapatio hot sauce and processed sharp cheddar squeeze cheese to grandma’s house for turkey dinner? So gross. But it’s the norm here. That’s right: I’m the weirdo because I don’t squeeze cheese onto my turkey and stuffing. (“Joey’s passed out and they can’t wake him up…on full house….and they bang pots and pans and he won’t wake up and someone says in his ear “what’s up, doc?” and Joey jumps up and says “oooh I hate that Rabbit! Wait? What’s going on?! It’s so stupid.” Yes it is, and I’m so glad you interrupted me yet again to share that fascinating story, bunky).

On Sunday I talked on the phone for 4 hours. $32 in phone calls. I talked to Cari for 3 hours. And I talked to Jack, my ex brother-in-law, for an hour. It was great — I haven’t spent much time on the phone lately, so it felt good to catch up. Cari and I could talk for 12 hours, easily. We had so many good laughs. I could have talked to Jack longer, too, but he was at work so I let him get back to his cars!

Today, I called my lawyer (only 8 minutes for the call to him — he bills $350 per hour, so 8 minutes is $50!). I updated him on my parole hearing and my job offer, and he is feeling optimistic about our chances next week. I’m still nervous, but also excited. The prospect of actually being released seems so surreal at this point. I’ve been in here for 10 years, and it feels like this is the only life there is anymore. If they tell me I can leave, it won’t feel real. So many inmates are terrified to leave. I’m the opposite — I’m terrified NOT to leave. Yet at the same time, walking out of here will definitely feel surreal. It’s gonna take some getting used to. (“ooooh I hate that rabbit!”).

After dinner, I sat in the dayroom and talked to an inmate I had never spoken to before. He worked as an Electrical Engineer for Tesla, and used to live in Fremont (a bay area suburb where I lived for 8 years). So we began talking about Fremont, and his job. It was nice to talk with someone educated and with professional job experience. There are plenty of roofers and plumbers and carpet installers in here, but I never can relate to them. My dad always said, “I’d rather open up my checkbook than my toolbox.” As a result, I am about the least handy man in the United States. But I’m very skilled at hiring people to fix things. Craigslist worked wonders for that. Even when the opossum died in our attic, and stunk the entire house up….I paid a guy $50 to go upstairs, bag it up, and take it away. (Hah — I am now remembering the time I hired a woman to come to my house and iron all of my clothes for $100. My wife came home from work and there was this woman ironing my clothes and my wife flipped out! She never understood me and my quirks.)

Well, my intelligent conversation with the engineer was cut short when a 32-year-old who doesn’t act or look a day over 19, brought drama to our table. That guy can find drama no matter where he goes. And he calls me “the Newmanator” every time he walks past me, which annoys the crap out of me but I know he means well…he’s just, shall we say….immature. Once he left, the old man — a religious fanatic who spends his days and nights writing poetry — interrupted our conversation and asked, “Can you guys be judgemental for 3 minutes?”

“Uh…sure,” I said, confused.
“I think I’m here for being judgmental,” said the engineer.

The old man proceeded to read some of his latest poems from his yellow writing tablet. He actually does have a talent for poetry, and many of his poems I really like…..until the endings.

He always has to wrap up all of his poems by preaching about Jesus Christ, dying on the cross, our sins, church, God, and so on. (“Oh that Waco thing is starting”) I keep hoping that he will one day write a poem (he’s written 20 so far this month) that doesn’t preach at the end. Don’t understand me wrong — they’re his poems, he has every right to write whatever he wants. But the RazorWire won’t let me publish poems that focus too heavily on religion. I’d like to showcase the guy’s writing talents, I know he wants to have his writing published in our paper, but I don’t have the heart to ask him to edit the religious references out of the poetry.

He continued to read one poem after another, and I was trying to find a polite way to excuse myself. Three minutes to be judgemental had now turned in to over 20 minutes of praise (wow, I really liked that one, that one was really good, I wish I could write poetry…you have a talent for it!) and if I didn’t leave soon, I was going to be there all night, listening to poems. I’m such a nice guy, I hate to hurt a person’s feelings, so I took it like a champ as he read one poem, then another, and another. One of his poems mentioned clam chowder…that’s when it happened!!

A man I refer to only as “Chef” overheard the chowder reference. He approached our table and said to the poet, “You know, I have a really good recipe for clam chowder if you’d like it.” The poet accepted, went to his cell to get a pad of paper and pen, and returned to copy down the recipe.

It should be noted that Chef lives his whole life talking about food. He worked for years as a chef for various country clubs near Palo Alto, California. Some of the inmates have a game we like to call the “Chef Challenge.” The trick is to initiate a conversation with the Chef…about anything…anything at all…and keep the conversation going for two minutes without the Chef switching the topic to something food related. I’ve seen it done twice, but at least 50 people have failed the challenge. It is extremely difficult. You might tell him that the State of the Union speech is tomorrow night at 6, and he might tell you that Trump’s favorite dessert is Apple Cobbler, and here’s how to cook it. You might tell him that it’s supposed to snow tomorrow, and he might talk about his favorite shave ice stands in Kauai — the ones that put condensed milk on top of the shave ice and call it a snow cap. The secret to winning (shhh, don’t tell) is to start a conversation about superheroes.

As the poet was writing down all purpose flower, leeks, yellow onions, clam juice, clams….I slyly stood up and sneaked away from the table, and into my cell, where I told the story to my cellmate, and commented on how it would have made a hysterically funny scene in a sitcom.

The day is over. It’s 8 PM, and tomorrow I have to fold 170 newsletters at the school, then I have another couple hours of therapy in my treatment program, and I also promised to help the Native American horseshoe player with some of his homework. For now I’m going to relax for a couple hours, listen to Joni Mitchell, and get ready for “The Good Doctor” at 10. If anyone is actually still reading this, you’re awesome, whoever you are!

Stephen Newman
DOC #90843

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