There Are No Bars in Rush City

At Rush City Correctional Facility you find your rush where you can. It’s nearly 2pm, so that means 2nd watch is in a hurry to finish their final security round, punch the clock, and peel out of the staff parking lot as quickly as they can. Eager, I can only imagine, to do the things civilians do after their work day is done. Meanwhile, 3rd watch has already parked their vehicles, locked them, double-checked them, and slogged in from the lot to the prison. In the span between their vehicle and the entrance to the facility, they have donned their canisters of pepper spray and their prison guard personas in order to get through another perfunctory 8 hours. Monotony is motion. Welcome to Rush City close-custody pen. Population: 1000 incarcerated men. More or less. 

Meanwhile, back in the cell, I’m sitting at my desk, taking a break from painting. Not a still life, but a portrait from the shoulders up. “Just an old bald white guy,” was how my former cellie Scott used to describe himself. It might look like I’m watching paint dry, but I’m really gauging what I’ve put down so far, and planning my next moves. I pour a cup of coffee and dig out some cookies I smuggled from chow. They’re chocolate with those fake M&Ms baked in. I don’t like eating sweets alone. So I offer some cookies to my new cellie who is perched up on the top bunk watching his TV. He declines. He claims that sweets mess with his 18-carat gold teeth. More cookies for me then. Why do these cookies seem to taste better, here in the cell, than if I ate them in the chow hall? Is it because I have my hot coffee and relative peace and quiet? Or is it because I made it through customs with the illicit chocolate treats? 

I take another bite of cookie as I look at the head and shoulders portrait in progress. The composition may be simple, but the subject is not. The man contains multitudes and it’s a tricky thing to recapture a life on canvas. It’s more than mere talent. Talent is like tap water. And it’s more than endless hours of honing the craft. But that is a big part of the process. Consistency beats the occasional flash of brilliance. Hard work beats talent, when talent won’t work. I’ve spent enough time around my friend Scott to learn these little mind morsels. 

For hours each day, Scott and I would do artwork. He would work in pen and brush on paper. The pieces were done in a technique using tools at hand, by opening up a Bic pen and blowing out some of the ink into the bottom of the plastic sewing kit (w/o scissors). He would load one of his customized bristle brushes with ink and lose himself in another world. Creating beauty in grayscale, rendered with subtlety and nuance. He would sometimes ask me to stop painting and chime in, looking to the “more experienced” artist for affirmation and direction. I am 15 years younger than Scott and there are few things I am more experienced in. So I enjoyed the role reversal. He was an open vessel. He was deliberate and efficient. When he wanted to learn things, to understand things, anything—he would be all-in. He was a man of many talents and curiosities. 

One time, Scott wrote a paper on bulldog ants. It wasn’t for a college class. He was just interested in bulldog ants. The paper was close to ten pages—typed. He read it to me over coffee and snacks. I believe I may have forgotten more than most have known about bulldog ants. But I do remember my friend Scott reading it with enthusiasm and panache. Pausing at all the appropriate moments, using the gruff voice of a prison thespian. The paper would’ve been an “A.” The audiobook would have been rated: MA/SLV (for strong language and violence). 

Scott and I would get our workouts in every day. Gym, courtyard, or in the cell. We’d also run stairs for 30 minutes a few times a week. “The heart‘s a muscle too, Redd.” Before I met him, nearing 20 years now, I thought I knew what “in shape” meant. He had a level of fitness honed over decades. His workouts were grueling and effective. They burned copious calories and casual workout partners. “Most guys can’t hang, Redd.” He called these torture sessions “Bailey Workouts.” He had a lot of salt in his ass. 

Scott was over 6 foot, with muscles like braided bridge cable under his tattooed hide. I remember being in the cell with him, kicked back on our bunks, staring at our 13-inch Secureview television, watching some nature program, where a giant constrictor put the squeeze on some poor, pitiable prey. Breathtaking, this beautiful horror. An apex predator. Nature does nothing in vain, or so it would seem. 

Before Scott relinquished being “the best” at handball. Before his legs would occasionally betray him when he ran stairs. Before he had to strap his hands to the pull-up bar while I pretended not to notice. Before he shook out his hands like they were frozen or on fire. Before Scott signed up to see the Physical Therapist because it was “just some tendonitis, Redd.” Before he alarmed the P.T. enough to order more tests. Before Scott or I had ever heard the medico invoke the possibility of “global nerve damage.” 

Scott and I would work on our art pieces until shift change—the guards on 2nd watch would clock-out, an