Stay Under the Overhang
1981. His Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme backfires as it pulls into the employee lot outside of the Control Building. Upon graduating the academy, he (along with practically every other male graduate) was assigned to the Housing Detention for Men, shortened to HDM by both employees and occupants of the building. Finished in 1933, it is the eldest of the jails on New York City’s own Australia, Riker’s Island. Happy that the car managed to make the journey from his native Massapequa, a sinking feeling now grips his stomach. If it weren’t for the June heat he would have broken out in a cold sweat, of that he is sure, but since his beat up Cutlass wouldn’t survive if he used the A/C, he left if off and the windows down for the drive. Stepping out and reaching behind his seat, he grabs a frameless rucksack, one of his relics from active duty, and then unhooks the garment bag containing his new uniforms. Slinging it over his shoulder and clutching the rucksack, he gives the heavy door a prod with his knee to close it. A few cars over a group of four Corrections Officers stand around an open trunk. He tries to head in but one of them calls out before he can even take two steps towards the building.
“Hey rookie, get over here!”
Rolling his eyes he takes a deep breath before straightening his face and turning back to the men. He had hoped that the whole rookie hazing thing wouldn’t extend to him, that maybe the officers assigned here would know about him and his service ahead of time, and that maybe this knowledge would somehow spare him from the pestering nonsense. As he approaches, he anticipates that his thoughts couldn’t be further from the truth.
As a group they are rather nondescript, in that they all seem to share the same haggard and taxed appearance, apparent in the way they carry themselves, slouched and drained of energy, and the five o’clock shadows on their faces. There is a palpable air of apprehension permeating the circle. The CO’s all clutch open beers, some of them one in each hand. The man who called him over, a salty Irishman with a shock of silver hair, sits on the bumper of the car with the trunk open. As he approaches the man reaches inside the trunk, pulls out a bottle of vodka and takes a long pull, immediately chasing it with his beer. Finished, he hands the bottle off to the man on his left who repeats the process. The rookie looks down at his watch. 3:12 p.m. Way too early for these guys to have gotten off the eight to four. They had to be scheduled for the four to twelve, just like him, and they were getting hammered beforehand. His stomach sinks further.
The Irishman looks at him. “I remember you. You’re the sixty gunner, right?”
“Yeah, although it’s been a few years.” An inch or so shorter than most, he makes up for his height with his broad shoulders, thick arms, and a slim waist. In high school he had played fullback, and his platoon sergeant noticed his brutish build as soon as he had arrived in country, and threw the hog on him from that day forward.
The Irishman nods across the circle to a man with a thin comb over of black hair and glasses. “Hear that Tellus? Kid handled the big mother over there.”
Tellus sucks down another drag of his cigarette, burning it right to the filter. As he responds the smoke pours from his mouth. “Fuck do I care about that? Not like he has it on him now.”
“Point I’m making is you was both in Nam, you asshole.” Tellus just shrugs and flicks his cigarette away. He immediately pulls another from the box in his pocket. The Irishman gives Tellus a dismissive grimace and turns back. “See, I remember you ‘cause you were paired up with a gook when you was in here for OJT a while back, and I thought to myself, ‘ain’t that just like the Cap’n, pair off a Vietnam vet with a fuckin’ gook. Stupid bastard.”
The rest don’t seem to acknowledge or decry the expressed sentiments. They just go on drinking and smoking. “You had Lorenzo as your trainer right? What’d you say your name was again?”
The man off to his right laughs sarcastically. “What the hell kind of a name is that?”
“It’s Polish you idiot” Tellus chimes in harshly. “Just what we need, a fucking Pollock.”
Will glares at Tellus after the remark, and the man just glares right back. One set of eyes burns with anger, the other with resigned indifference. Neither budge.
“Shit, how the hell you even spell that?” the Irishman offers, trying to break the tension. Will seems to sense that the man is the comic relief amongst the group, or at the very least a self-appointed morale officer. “You must have what, nineteen letters or some shit, right?”
The man to Will’s right chuckles again. “Yeah, we got a fuckin’ walking alphabet here.”
Irishman laughs back. “Alphabet soup!”
Another chimes in, “Fuckin’ Campbell’s even!”
The Irishman almost spits out his mouthful of beer. “There it is rookie, five minutes in and you already got your nickname. Ain’t nobody gonna be able to pronounce that last name anyhow. From now on you’re Campbell’s.” The men all chuckle and repeat the nickname to one another.
Will looks at the group laughing at his expense and decides to let it go, even the ethnic slur. It’s wasn’t like he came off the boat from Poland or anything, and besides, these were the guys he was going to have to learn from and rely on once he was inside HDM. That in and of itself was reason enough not to make anything of the heckling, which he had already resigned himself to receiving anyway. The scary part was the thought of having to rely on these guys, although plenty of those in his platoon had gotten high or drunk before patrols, and they were armed with automatic rifles and hand grenades. At least these guys couldn’t frag him on accident. There were no weapons authorized in the cell blocks.
“Yeah, well, nice meeting you guys. I’m gonna head in and catch the bus, first day and all. Want to set up my locker, you know?”
Will takes a step away but the Irishman hurriedly finishes his pull from the bottle, it having worked its way back around, and waves him back. “Wait a second rookie. Didn’t that gook get rained on when you were here last?”
Will stifles his frustration again. The man he is speaking about was a classmate of Will’s in the academy, Sam Kyo. He was of South Korean descent yes, but also third generation American, a far cry from the Viet Cong, and no more a gook in Will’s eyes than he himself was a pollock. “If that’s what you call it, then yes, I guess he did.”
Now it’s the Irishman’s turn to shoot him a grimace. “That is what I call it, rookie. Tell the rest of the fellas what happened, it’s hysterical.”
Knowing they won’t let him off the hook, Will relays the story as best and as quick as he can. Three weeks ago they were in the final phase of their academy, a one week period of on the job training in active jails, shadowing full corrections officers so that they could gain a modicum of experience before graduating and being assigned themselves. He and Kyo had been assigned to Officer Lorenzo, (Will never did get his first name.) The Captain, a hulking black man with a massive gut had berated Lorenzo for ten minutes before releasing them from roll call.
“You take care of these two, you hear me? Don’t leave their asses alone, don’t be sending them down the tier themselves, none of that shit, understand? Keep these fucking recruits out of trouble, you understand?”
Lorenzo had humored the Captain, even though he had probably heard the speech a hundred times before. The Italian from Brooklyn walked them from the Control Room into general population. Will had been instantly reminded of the prisons he saw as a kid in Jimmy Cagney movies. It was virtually the same setup, with three tiers of catwalks on either side of an elongated building, cells lined up one after another. They were to be stationed on ground level for the day. Their first lesson: stay under the overhang. Eye opening as it was being amongst the inmates for the first time, and in light of receiving endless harassment and heckling at their hands thanks to the grey shirts, Lorenzo kept his word. He and Kyo spent the day learning a great deal from the man, who seemed to have a knack for instruction on top of a genuine interest in seeing that they were set up for success. He covered everything he could in the hours they walked the block, from how to watch your back, to handling inmates and situations, to operating the ancient panel and spill wheel that controlled the entire tiers’ cells by way of a massive hand crank and pulley system.
The nerves that he had felt being there for the first time had largely dissipated thanks to the seasoned corrections officer, and he was pretty sure that Kyo was feeling the same. Lorenzo had assuaged their anxiety through solid tutelage, the exact kind of foundation Will was hoping he would receive while on OJT, and that had only been the first day. He could never be certain, but he thought Kyo got too confident and began thinking he survived his first day before it was over. That’s when the man began walking out amongst the inmates instead of underneath the overhang. Will wasn’t sure why he did it. Perhaps he wanted to show the inmates that even though he was wearing the tattered NYPD hand-me-down OJT grey shirt, he wasn’t afraid to walk right up to them. Lorenzo had turned his back for a minute to peer at a group that were being vocal about something, arguing loudly. In that short time, an inmate on the tier above used his plastic wash bin, issued to all occupants of the HDM for the purpose of cleaning their clothes, to dump several cells worth of collected piss and shit soaked and blended together down onto Kyo. The foul mixture saturated his hair and covered his shoulders, drenching him in human filth. The stench was appalling. The entire block saw what happened and collectively lost their minds with hysterical laughter, hurling obscenities and mockery at the Korean American.
Lorenzo turned around and threw his head back with exasperation, knowing the Captain was going to chew his ass for this. The officer whisked both he and Kyo away to the locker room, where he shoved the rookie into the shower fully clothed. By the time he had gotten the shit out of his hair, Captain Braxton was there, getting a report from Lorenzo who vehemently affirmed that he told the recruit to stay under the overhang. Braxton pulled the recruit aside and spoke with him for a few minutes. Even with two hours left in the tour, Kyo didn’t have another uniform to change into, so the Captain sent him home early. Another lesson was driven home to Will right then and there: always have spare uniforms in your locker.
Upon hearing the part where the shit gets dumped on Kyo the men in the parking lot laugh cynically, and for a long time as well, taking pleasure in the man’s unfortunate mess. “Well, where’d he end up getting assigned? They didn’t send the poor bastard back here, did they?”
Will looks at the Irishman flatly. “No. He quit the next day. I never saw him again.”
The smiles and laughs die down a little bit at that, but not because they feel bad for the man. No, it was because the department as a whole was desperately short on manpower, and they all had been working mandatory double and sometimes even triple shifts, four days in a row, each week for as long as they could remember. This graduating class had been the promise of some much needed easing of the pace, once they could get the rookies integrated into the blocks.
“How many your class end up graduating rook?” Tellus asks.
“We had two hundred and fifty four before OJT. We graduated a hundred and twenty one.”
The men shake their heads and go back to drinking, spinning off into a tangent of getting on their Union reps to get them more time off in the next contract negotiation. Will takes the opportunity to slip away and head through the Control Building to a waiting employee shuttle bus that takes him and several others to HDM. After setting up his locker and donning his uniform, he heads back downstairs to roll call watching as the same men from the lot come stumbling to formation, barely able to hold themselves upright. Most of them stand with their button down uniform shirts open, the fourth standing with one shirttail sloppily sticking out of his pants. The garments themselves are threadbare, the evidence of thousands of scrapes, fights, and close calls, worn on their person. He is all too aware of the brand new, pressed and starched shirt he is wearing seeing the men up close, knowing full well how it will make him stick out just as much as his OJT greys did three weeks ago. A few moments later Captain Braxton enters the corridor and unceremoniously starts dealing out the assignments for the shift.
About three quarters of the way through the assignments he stops. “Shit, why ain’t no one told me Lorenzo banged out today?” He looks over the clipboard, looks up and directly at Will, looks back at the clipboard. “Pris…bose…sky?”
“That there is Campbell’s Captain,” the Irishman yells from the back of the hall.
“Ain’t nobody talkin’ to you Sullivan, shut the fuck up.” He looks back at Will. “I ain’t never gonna get this name right, so let’s just go with PBJ.”
“Yeah Cap, on mufuckin white bread!” one of the black officers in the corridor calls out. The other black officers standing around him laugh and give him some skin.
The Captain seems to chuckle a bit as well. “Alright, settle down.” He looks back at Will. “You trained with Lorenzo on the ground a bit ago, right?”
“Yes Sir.” This elicits a few snickers behind him.
“Know it’s your first day and all, but you think you can handle the post tonight?”
“I can handle it, Sir.” This time someone makes a series of kissing noises. Someone follows it with a gagging sound. Everyone laughs again. Everyone except Will and the Captain. He waits for the noise to die down.
“Alright then, you got it rook.”
A few more names and they are dismissed to head to post. Will relieves the morning shift officer, asking for any special orders that were issued in the earlier tour. The man rolls his eyes and mutters something in Spanish as he walks away. Will begins his shift, making a preliminary round, checking the cells, making sure no suicides were being attempted or illegal activities taking place. He gets harassed the entire time, most of the inmates joshing with him about being the rookie on the block, calling him the predictable “fresh meat, fresh fish, cracker, cracker ass cracker, mufucka, motherfucker, fucking motherfucker” and so on and so forth. A few however look to establish their dominance over the officer, or at least lay the groundwork for such.
Will tunes it out, employing the lesson that allowing inmates to see that they can get to you can be your undoing. The leaders of certain circles make themselves known. “Don’t bring yo chickadee ass over by my cells nigga. We’ll fuck you up, you feel me son?”
“Hey esse, do yourself a favor homes and stay the fuck out my face if you know what’s good for you. Pop, pop, pop, pendejo.” The last was referring to the shiv he undoubtedly concealed on his person. Will stares at the man flatly, holding his eyes, noticing the tear drop tattoo. He laughs at the man as if he is no big thing and moves on. “That’s right maricon, you keep walking.”
The shift continues with a relentless barrage of slander, but nothing more comes of it. Fair warnings it seems to be. Will keeps an eye on things but also doesn’t interject. When it came down to it, he really had no fucking idea what he was doing. Basic training barely prepared him for combat, why should his academy then fully prepare him for the tiers? The idea was preposterous. No, Will followed the example of his platoon leader, who despite the stories he heard from other Nam vets to the contrary, was exceptionally squared away. He had been fortunate to have such a good leadership team during his tour, of course until the LT bought it in an ambush. Then things had really changed. But before that happened he had told Will, “You have to observe, first and foremost. Take stock of everything, the sights, the smells. There are signs everywhere. Only once you’ve pulled in all that data can you begin to analyze and come up with a plan. The fool that rushes in just gets killed.”
So Will watched. He listened. He identified the pack leaders, the bitches, the enforcers. The Muslims, the Bloods, the Crips, the Latin Kings. The drug dealers and the hooch brewers. The guys that could get you extra cigarettes from the commissary because they had a hook with the officer who oversaw it. When he wasn’t sure what to do he delayed a bit to see what a seasoned officer was doing. He followed the established routines, because after all, prisons run on routine, they thrive on it. And all the while, he stayed under the overhangs.
The inmates are scheduled to be in their cells at 11 p.m. with lights out at midnight. After a day of nothing but relentless beratement, Will looks at his watch. It reads 10:35. Trying to speed up the minutes to lockdown, he starts another circuit of the ground level. When he is about halfway down the row an argument breaks out in the common area. Will stops, watching the altercation grow in intensity while the crowd around the two black men begins to swell, the onlookers egging them on. Getting anxious, he looks around the tiers but can either not see other officers or sees ones that are preoccupied with their own interactions. The volume explodes into full out screaming and cheering as the two men who were arguing are now in the midst of a full on fist fight.
Will is sprinting before he even realizes what he is doing. He screams at the crowd to move as he shoves his way through the onlookers. Breaking into the open space, he rushes to the two men and thrusts himself between them. “Break it up!” he screams. “Break it up I said!”
Stars flash in front of his eyes as he is sucker punched in the back of the head. The two men who were just fighting each other turn and start wailing on him. In short order blows are being rained down upon him. All Will can do is cover up. Distantly he reprimands himself for being so stupid while at the same time praying that he won’t end up with a shiv in his back. He thinks he hears an alarm going off but a punch hits him in the ear, leaving it ringing to the point that he can’t be sure. He pushes at random against the throng of the group around him. The inmates let his blind momentum carry him forward, suddenly moving out of his way and shoving him as he passes. Off balance, Will stumbles and falls onto his side, subsequently rolling onto his back. The kicks and punches don’t follow him while he is on the ground, so cautiously he uncovers his head, just in time to see the wash bin emptied from the tier above.
If Kyo had been drenched by a couple of cells worth, then this must have been an entire day’s worth from the whole damn tier. In an instant he is covered in shit and piss, it getting into his eyes, his nose, his mouth. A massive puddle spreads out around him from the splash, so much so that as he flounders in revulsion, he slips and slides on the floor. All around him inmates on the ground level scatter, running back to the cells. The riot squad, having now arrived through the gates, chases them and they avoid it by diving into any opening, even if it doesn’t belong to them. Other officers at the end of the tiers work the cranks, locking all the cells. Out on the floor those not fortunate enough to escape get blasted with batons, forcing them to the ground where they cover up. Others just drop and cover up from the outset of the riot squad’s arrival, since they know they could never outrun the officers. They at least are spared any part of the beatings.
Several officers get to him and offer him their batons to help him up, not wanting to actually touch him. Will doesn’t blame them for that, he wouldn’t want to touch him either. “You okay, rook?” some ask while others mutter, “dumbass rookie, fucking ten minutes to lockup. Look at this fucking mess.”
When he is up he moves gingerly towards the center of the room where a group of seven inmates have been corralled, most with fresh welts. Captain Braxton is standing there, along with a dozen officers. He looks Will up and down and shakes his head. “Almost made it through. You alright?”
Will nods, but clutches his left side with his right hand, thinking he might have a cracked rib or two. His head is still throbbing from the initial punch he took too, possibly a mild concussion. “I’ll be okay Captain,” he lies in front of the inmates, trying to give the appearance that the attack didn’t phase him. They smile. He knows he fails at it.
The Captain looks him over some more, and then turns and points at the group of inmates. “You say so. Which one hit you?”
“I got hit from behind Captain.”
Braxton stares at him. “I don’t think you heard me. Point out which one hit you rookie.”
Will searches the man’s face over, which is dead serious, and then looks at the group. He tries, but it all happened so fast. “I’m sorry Sir, I can’t be certain. It could have been any of them or none of them.”
The Captain’s face turns angry. The officers around him hiss and shake their heads. “It was those four fuckers Cap.” It was Sullivan speaking, standing slightly behind him. “I saw those bastards jump him from where I was up on the tier.”
“Naw man, it wasn’t me mufucka! You a lying bitch ass dog!” An officer punches the man in the gut. The inmate heaves in air as he falls to his knees. He stops yelling.
Braxton turns to a few men on his left. “Take these assholes outside,” he says pointing to the four men on the left of the group.
The men erupt in protest. “I didn’t touch his sorry ass! Wasn’t me Cap’n, I swear! Fuck that pussy, I didn’t do shit!” They try to go on but batons lodge in their stomachs. In short order two officers each escort the doubled over inmates out past one of the gates, several other officers in the squad trailing them.
The Captain comes up close to Will, practically nose to nose despite the crap he is covered in. “You don’t ever say that shit again, you hear me?” he says in a stern voice, barely above a whisper but still forceful with anger. “These fuckers will go and tell their lawyers that you said you couldn’t tell who it was. In case it hasn’t sunk in yet rookie, you’re vastly outnumbered in here. You remember this, one of them touches you, I don’t give a fuck you don’t know who it was, you point one out, any one. Someone’s got to pay for it. The only thing keepin’ them in line is the fear of a fuckin’ beating. You remember that, and this too. Ain’t nobody gonna rescue yo ass you do something so stupid again. The fuck you think this is, the schoolyard? We don’t break up fights. Let these savages sort themselves out. Shit! You hearin’ me rookie?”
Will nods through the lecture, trying his best to wipe the shit from running into his eyes in the meantime. “Yes Sir.”
Satisfied, Braxton nods and looks past him. “Get him inside and clean him up. Fill out the reports and then get the fuck outta here. Should be quittin’ time about then.”
Sullivan nods and gestures for Will to move towards the gate, which he does, making footprints of crap with each step. The entire block explodes with laughter and taunts, many of the calls wishing him farewell, not expecting to ever see him again. Others tell him to get a good night’s sleep, since they get to do it all over again tomorrow. In the locker room Will sprints into the shower and begins stripping his uniform from his body, simultaneously cranking on the water, any water no matter how cold or hot, to get the feces and urine off of his face and out of his hair. Once naked, he begins scrubbing at himself furiously. Sullivan continues the Captain’s mantra, handing him a bar of soap at some point. Will scrubs and scrubs and scrubs, his mind in a different place, unable to hear anything of what the man says. After cleaning himself three or four times, but yet still feeling soiled, Will gets out of the shower and puts on a clean uniform, even though the Irishman tells him it’s unnecessary since they’ll just be doing paperwork the rest of the night. He collects his wet uniform and shoves it in a spare trash bag, and then drops that in his rucksack. They go back to the corridor where roll call was conducted and Sullivan hurriedly walks him through filling out his incident report, all the while religiously checking his watch. At five after twelve he rips the incomplete paper away and tells Will that’s good enough, then disappears down the hall.
Will sits for a few more minutes, thinking the locker room will be full of officers that he doesn’t want to face just yet. The pain in his head throbs and his side aches. After fifteen minutes or so he gets up the courage to go in and heads upstairs to change. A few men are still lingering behind, one or two in the showers as well. They give him a look and shake their heads to one another upon seeing him. He changes quickly and heads out of the HDM with his stinking ruck, catching a shuttle back to the Control Building and his waiting car.
In the lot there are several groups of officers standing around and drinking. Their laughter is palpable and contagious to all but him. It takes him a minute, but then he realizes that they are celebrating. They came out unscathed, survived another shift, one day closer to retirement, and so they toast to one another with warm Budweiser cans and bottles of Coors. Will gets to his Cutlass and sees the same group that called him over earlier drinking at the Irishman’s car. They too give him a look of disgust and turn away, all but Sullivan. He walks over, the bottle of vodka in his hand three quarters drained. He offers it up. “Rough day rookie, and there will be ones even rougher, but you’re out here while they’re still in there, and you’re alive. Here, take a pull. It takes the edge off.”
Will looks at the bottle. “I’ve never been much of a drinker, but thanks anyway.”
The Irishman grimaces, and pushes it on him again. “No one is when they start this fucking job.”
Will reluctantly takes the bottle and upends it, taking a long swig. He grits his teeth as the liquid burns on its way down his throat but instantly feels the warmth of it in his stomach. He hands the bottle back.
Sullivan gives the smallest of smirks. “See you tomorrow Campbell’s.”
Will nods as the man turns away. “Yeah, see you tomorrow.”
Physically he feels every part of the beating he took during his ride home. Mentally, he is checked out, and he fights to keep his eyes open as he works his way down the Cross Island Parkway to the Southern State. Completely exhausted and fighting against the shot of vodka, he pulls into the driveway of his tiny ranch a few blocks north of Sunrise highway just shy of 2 a.m., cutting the lights so that they won’t shine into his bedroom windows.
Will steps inside and immediately takes the rucksack to the unfinished basement where he starts them in the washer. Money is tight so they usually try wait to do full loads, but something about mixing the shit filled garments with that of his boy’s baby clothes grates at him. Not caring about leaving them in the machine overnight, he stumbles back up the steps. Ever so quietly he slips into his boy’s room. The place is small, really only two true bedrooms to the house, so they double up his two year old and his toddler in one of them. Will watches them both for a minute, kisses them each on the forehead, and then goes back out. In the dining room he strips down to his boxers, leaving his wallet, badge, keys and change on the table while he drapes his civilian clothes over his chair.
He steps into the bedroom. It was odd to have a bedroom off of the dining room, the real estate agent had said, which is why many couples had passed on the home. In truth, they had found it beneficial, given that the other houses in their price range were garbage compared to this one, small though it may be. Denise lies in a full length nightgown despite the summer heat, the covers and sheets kicked to the end of the bed. He watches her for a few moments as well, noting how long her blonde hair is, draped to her lower back. Suddenly overcome, he turns away and just sits on his side of the bed, arms resting on his thighs. He begins breathing heavily.
“Will honey, are you okay?” she says. She never was much of a sleeper.
Her words do it. He leans forward, putting his face in his hands, and begins to weep. She asks what’s wrong several times as she curls up against his back and rocks him in her arms, but when no response comes she eventually stops asking and just cries with him, not knowing what to do or say.
19 years, 364 days to go…