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Six Days: Some Rememberings
FROM AI.ASKA QUARTERJ.Y REVIEW
1 WAS IN JAIL. 1 had been sentenced to six: days in the Women's House of Detention, a fourteen-story prison right in the middle of Greenwich Village, my own neighborhood. This happened during the American War in Vietnam, 1 have forgotten which important year of the famous sixûes. The civil disobedience for which 1 was paying a sm ail penalty probably consisted of sitting down to lmpede or slow some military parade. 1 was surprised at the sentence. Others had been given two days or dismissed. 1 think the judge was particularly angry with me. Mter ail, 1 was not a kid. He thought 1 was old enough to know better, a forty-five-year-old woman, a mother and teacher. 1 ought to be too busy to waste ûme on causes 1 couldn't possibly understand. 1 was herded with about twenty other women, about 90 percent black and Puerto Rican, into the bullpen, an odd name for a women's holding facility. There, through someone else's lawyer, 1 received a note from home, telling me that since l'd chosen to spend the first week ofJuly in jail, my son would probably not go to summer camp, because 1 had neglected to raise the money l'd promised. 1 read this note and burst into tears, real running-downthe-cheek tears. It was true: thinklng about other people's grown boys, 1 had betrayed my little son. The summer, starûng that day, July l, stood up beCore me day aCter day, steaming the city streets, the after-work crowded city pool. 1 guess 1 attracted some attention. You - you white girl youyou never been arrested before? A black woman about a head taller th an 1 put her arm on my shoulder. - It ain 't so bad. What's your time sugar? 1 gotta do three years. Vou huh?
Six Days: Sorne Rememberings Six days. Six days? What the fuck for? 1 explain ed, sniffling, embarr assed. You got six days for sitting down front of a horse? Cop on the horse? Horse step on you? Jesus in hell, cops gettin crazier and stupide r and meaner. Maybe we get you out. No, no, 1 said. 1 wasn't crying because of that. 1 didn't want her to think 1 was scared. 1 wasn't. She paid no attentio n. Shoving a couple ofwom en aside - Don't stand in front of me, bitch. Move over. What you looking at? - she took hold of the bars of our cage, comme nced to bang on them; shook them mightily, scream ingHear me now, you mother fuckers , you grotty pigs, get this housewife out of herel She returne d to comfol't me. - Six days in this low-down hole for sitting front of a horsel Before we were distribu ted among OUI' cells, we were dressed in a kind of nurse's aide scrub uniform , blue or green, a liule too large or a !ittle too small. We had had to submit to a physical in which ail our hiding places wel'e investigated fol' drugs. These examinations were not too difficult, mostly because a young woman named Andrea Dworkin had fought them, refused a grosser, more painful examin ation some months earlier. She had been arreste d protest ing the war in front of the U.S. Mission to the UN. 1 had been there too, but 1 don 't think 1 was arreste d that day. She was mocked for that determ ined struggl e at the Women 's House, as she has been for other bl'averies, but accord ing to the women 1 questioned, certain humiliating, perhaps sadistic customs had ended - for that period at least. My cellmate was a beautiful young woman, twenty-three yeal's old, a prostitu te who'd never been arreste d before. She was nervou s, but she had been given the name of an import ant long-termer. She explain ed in a businesslike way that she was beautiful, and would need protect ion. She'd be O.K. once she found that woman. ln the two days we spent together, she tried not to talk to the other women on our cell block. She said they were mostly street whores and addicts. She would never be on the street. Hel' man wouldn 't allow it anyway.
1 slept weil for some l'eason, probab ly the hard mattress. 1 don 't seem to mind where 1 am. A1so 1 must tell you, 1 couJd look out
189 the window at the end of our corrido r and see my chitdre n or their friends, on their way to music lessons or Greenwich House pottery. Lookin g slantwise 1 could see right into Sutter's Bakery, then on the corner of Tenth Street. These were my neighb ors at coffee and cake. Someti mes the cell block was open, but not our twelve ceUs. Other limes the reverse. Visitors came by: they were prison ers, detaine es not yet sentenc ed. They seemed to have a strolling freedom , though several, unsent enced, unable to make bail, had been there for months . One woman peering into the celi "topped when she saw me. Gracel Hil 1 knew her from the neighb orhood , maybe the park, couldn 't really remem ber her name. What are you in for? 1 asked. Oh nothin g - weil a stupid drug bust. 1 don't even use - oh weil forget it. l've been here six weeks. They keep putting the trial off. Are you O.K.? Then 1 compla ined. 1 had planne d not to compla in about anything white living among people who'd be here in these clanging ceUs a long time; it didn't seem right. But 1 said, 1 don't have anything to read and they took away my pen and 1 don't have paper. Oh you'lI get ail that eventuaUy, she said. Keep asking. Weil they have ail my hairpins. l'm a mess. No no she said, you're O.K. You look nice. (A couple of years later, the war continu ing, 1 was arrested in Washington. My hair was still quite long. 1 wore it in a kind of bun on top of my head. My hairpin s gone, my hair straggled. wildly every which way. Muriel Rukeyser, arreste d that day along with about thirty other women , made the sa me genero us sl~terly remark. No no Grace, love yOll with your hair down, you really ought to always wear it this way.) The very next mornin g, my friend brough t me The Collected' Stones of William Carlos Williams. - These O.K.? Godl O.K. - Yesl My trial is coming up tomorrow, she said. 1 think l'm getûng off with time already done. Over done. See you around ? That afterno on, my cellmate came for her things - l'm moving to the fourth floor. Working in the kitchen. Couldn 't be better. We were sitting outside our ce Us, she wanted me to know something. She'd already told me, but said it again. - 1 still can't believe il.
Six Days: Some Rememberings
This crcep, this guy, this cop, he waits he just waits till he's fucked and fine, pulls his pants up, pays me, and arrests me. It's not lega\. Jt's not. My man's so mad, he like to kill me, but he's not that kind of - he's not a criminal lype, my man. She never said the word pimp. Maybe no one did. Maybe that was our word. 1 had made friends with some of the women in the cells across the aisle. How can 1 say "made friends. Il 1just sat and spoke when spoken to, 1 was at school. 1 answered questions - simple ones. Why 1 would do such a fool ihing on purpose? How old were my children? My man any good? Then, you live around the corner? That was a good idea, Evelyn said, to have a prison in your own neighborhood, so you could keep in touch, yelling out the window. As in fact we were able to do right here and now, calling and being called from Sixth Avenue, by mothers, children, boyfriellds. About the children: One woman took me aside. Her daughter was brilliallt, she was in Hunter High School, had taken a test. No she hardly ever saw her, but she wasn 't a whore - it was the drugs. laIer daughter was ashamed, the grandmother, the father's mother made the child ashamed. When she got out in six months it would be different. This made Evelyn and Rita, right across from my cell, laugh. Different, 1 swear. Different. Laughing. But she could make it, 1 said. Then they really laughed. Their first laugh was a bare giggle compared to these convulsive roars. Change her ways? That dumb bitch Hall Another woman, Helen, the only other white woman on the cell block, wanted to talk to me. She wanted me to know that she was not only white but Jewish. She came from Brighton Beach. Her father, he should rest in peace, thank God, was dead. Her arms were covered with puncture marks almost like sleeve patterns. But she needed to talk to me, because 1 wasJewish (l'd been asked by Rita and Evelyn - was 1 Irish? No,Jewish. Oh, they answered). She walked me to the ban'ed window at the end of the corridor, the window that looked down on West Tenth Street. She said, How come you so friends with those black whores? Vou don't hardly talk to me. 1 said 1 Iiked them, but Iliked her too. She said, Ifyou knew them for true, you wouldn 't like them. They nothing but street whores. You know, once 1 was friends with them. We done a lot of things together, 1 knew them fifteen years Evy and Rita maybe twenty, 1 been in the streets with them, side by side, Amsterdam,
Lenox, West Harlem; in bad weather we covered each other. Then one day along come Malcolm X and they don't know me no more, they ain't talking to me. You too white. 1 ain't ail that white. Twenty years. They ain 't talking. My friend Myrt called _one day, that i~ called from the street, called - Grace Grace. 1 heard and ran to the window. A policeman, the regular beat cop, was addressing her. She looked up, then walked away before 1 could yell my answer. Later on she told me that he'd said, 1 don't think Grace would appreciate you calling her name out Iike that. . What a mistakel For years, going to the park with my children, or sim ply walking down Sixth Avenue on a summer night past the Women's House, we would often have to thread our way through whole famities calling up - bellowing, screaming to the third, seventh, tenth floor, to figures, shadows behind bars and screened windows - How you feeling? Here's Glena. She got big. Mami mami you like my dress? We gettin you out baby. New lawyer come by. And the replies, among which 1 was privileged to live for a few days - shouted down. - Vou lookin beautiful. What he say? Fuck you James. 1 got a chance? Bye bye. Come next week. Then. the guards, the heavy clan king of cell doors. Keys. Night. 1 still had no pen or paper despite the great history of prison Iiterature. 1 was suffering a kind of frustration, a sickness in the way c1austrophobia is a sickness - this paper-and-penlessness was a terrible pain in the area of my heart, a nausea. 1 was surprised. ln the evening, at Iights out (a Iittle like the army or on good days a strict, unpleasant camp), women called softly from their cells. Rita hey Rita sing that song - Come on sister sing. A few more importunings and then Rita in the cell diagonal to mine would begin with a ballad. A song about two women and a man. It was famitiar to everyone but me. The two women were prison sweethearts. The man was her outside lover. One woman, the singer, was being paroled. The ballad told her sorrow about having been parted from him when she was sentenced, now she would leave her loved woman after three years. There were about twenty stanzas of joy and grief. Weil, 1 was so angry not to have pen and paper to get sorne of
long song in her head, and in the nex t few nights she sang and cha nted others, sometim es with a smalJ chorus. Which is how 1 finally und erst ood that 1 did n't lack pen and pap er but my own memorizing min d. It had been given away with a hun dre d poems, called rote lear ning, old-fashioned, backward, an enemy of creative thinking, a grea t hum an gift, disowned. Now ther e's a garden where the Women's House of Detention onc e stood. A gre en place, safely fenc ed in, with protected daffodils and tulips; roses bloom in it too, sometimes into November. The big women's warehollse and its bar red blind windows have been removed from Greenwich Vilt age's affiuent throat. 1 was sorry when il hap pen ed; the bric ks came roar ing down, gre at trucks carried them away. 1 have always agreed with Rita and Evelyn that if ther e are prisons, lhey oug ht to be in the neig hbo rho od, nea r a sub wa ynot way out in distant suburbs, whe re families have to take cars, buses, ferries, trains, and the populat ion that considers itself innocen t forgets, denies, chooses to nev er know that ther e is a whole huge cou ntry of the bad and the unlucky and the self..hurters, a country wilh a population gre ater than that of many nations in our world.
it down that 1 lost it ail - ail but the sorrowful plot. Of course she had this
Six Days: Sorne Rememberings