“Rocky III”

For a excruciating day and a half last week, the power was out, so no TVs or fans worked and ever, except in the CO’s office. There was nothing to do, the unit was a sweat box, and everyone was at each other’s throat. Three fights erupted over that brief period. I was one of them.

It resulted in my first fighting ticket. My hand is still fucked up–purplish and swollen–but I’ve got no other injuries. Someone said that’s how you know you won, or at least didn’t lose: your hands hurt but your face doesn’t.

This has been a long time coming. I’ve been in one fight in the county and one last year, in the bathroom, pre-arranged and refereed. But this was the first time where I didn’t have to, where it was a spur of the moment affair. Not that I’ve stayed bullshit-free the past year. But with a pending case where my behavior faced intense scrutiny, I had sought to avoid as many tickets as possible. There has definitely been at least 2 or 3 occasions where I should have fought, and probably would have if I didn’t think I had a chance at parole soon or didn’t have this case looming over me. Regardless, I’m non-confrontational by nature; I’d rather throw money at a problem than handle it physically.

On the other hand, I knew I’d have a real bit to do once I got sentenced; I needed to put on a demo early on, so that the constant bullshit I was dealing with would end sooner than later. (A demo is prison slang for demonstration, by making it publicly known that you will fight.) The problem with spending your way out of situations is that eventually you run out money. Also, this being prison, people watch carefully, and their predatory instinct kicks in, and they will devise or force a situation that gives them a reason to tax and squeeze as much money as possible.

For example, a few months ago a situation arose when I owed a dude $25 on store day. When I brought the guy his money that day (5 coffees, a peanut butter, a couple meat sticks and soups), he insisted that we agreed to “no coffees”. Sans coffee, I would be well short. I knew this guy levied exorbitant late fees beforehand, so it wasn’t a surprise when he threatened to double the balance if I didn’t have it by the end of the day, and then again, every day late after that. But this no coffee thing was a complete surprise (and completely fabricated). After a little digging around, his end-game quickly became apparent: he didn’t want to be paid on time so he could double it a few times, and then blame me for why he didn’t have any dough for one of the big dogs of the yard to whom he owed hundreds of dollars. Of course, he’d be expected to take off on me if I still didn’t have or refused to pay the money after a week or so.

Not wanting to be someone’s scapegoat, I scrambled that night and was able to swap the coffees by yard’s close, so the situation was dead before it got started. This is what bothered me most–out of the 5 or 6 guys that owed him, he singled me out specifically, so that when it escalated to physical violence, he expected that I wouldn’t do anything in return, and if I did, that he’d be able to beat me pretty easily. Granted, I was the target by default because his other options had either paid for protection, or belonged to his organization. Still, the fact that he’d even attempt something so scandalous on me stuck in my craw. I guess it dawned on me then that in this dog-eat-dog jungle, there were hyenas that considered me prey. Sure, I preferred not to fight and remain civilized, but I had reached my limit. Whether I had to do a few more years or a bunch, this perception, which allowed someone to consider that a feasible strategy, had to be seriously altered, if not completely rewritten. I didn’t want to start fights, but neither did I want to be known as soft as Charmin’.

The problem was that there was no smooth, convincing way to mention how I fought once in the county and then once for a brief moment in the bathroom, especially when the majority of the few people present for that were no longer here. I’d sound like a virgin who swore he had sex the past summer with a girl from Canada or his cousin’s friend in another state or something equally unbelievable.

I could go around puffing my chest out and avowing to beat anyone’s ass who would try to steal from or run game on me, but I don’t think I’d be convincing. My word would quickly be tested–I had seen that a bunch of times. One of my old bunkies, fresh from quarantine, promised that if anyone stole his TV or store bag, as had recently happened in the cube, he’d “fuckin kill em.” Two weeks later, he picks up his secure pack and once he got back to the unit, a big black guy blew down on him with some tough talk about getting his bag taken and my bunkie wilted fast under the pressure. Like a complete hoe, he literally handed the guy $15-20 to leave him alone. Then, that guy went to the front hall and told some kids what happened. Once word got around that my bunkie was sweet (meaning, someone you can squeeze a lot of money out of), he was accosted in the same way 3 or 4 more times. By the time I returned to the unit with my secure pack, he only had 3 bags of coffee and a deodorant left out of a $100 bag, the remnant hidden strategically in our cubies’ lockers.

So, fast forward to last week: I legitimately owed Dell a $20 tax because of how short I was last store and how much longer it took for me to pay the original tab. As far as taxes go, it was a little harsher than the standard rate (which is 1.5 the original amount, but on store day many people charge double), and plus, I had already agreed. I planned on collecting what was owed me first and then paying from that, instead of out of my bag with shit I actually want.

However, the weekend before store, which was on Thursday, Dell was moved up to my unit and assigned a bunk in the cube before mine. He was a bug so I knew he’d be watching my every move, especially if I was carrying money, but I wasn’t gonna give him anything until store.

On Tuesday, he asked if I was gonna have his $30 on store; immediately, I objected to the amount, and asked how it was that. He grumbled about how late I was and how I still owed on the original debt (which, technically, was true, but by one soup, or .35). He seemed unwilling to consider his math was wrong, so I didn’t press the issue, and reassured him that I’d have it, but he’d have to wait a little after they passed out bags.

Thursday rolls around, and we get store during count. I’m in the first few cubes so I’m one of the first to get my bag, and on my way back, bag strung over my shoulder, I walk by Dell, who’s standing in his cube’s entryway and eyeing me intently but doesn’t say anything. I count out what I owe to others while they’re still passing out bags and pay my most important bills to two dudes down the hall. I’m thinking, all right this is less stressful than normal, and review the list of who owes me. Of course, Beard, who’s in my cube, has a song and a dance about how he’ll have it when yard breaks; I should know by now he’s a professional spin artist.

I’m opening a bag of Now&Laters when Dell approaches the front of my cube but addressing me still in the hallway. I notice how he slightly flexes his arms and balls his hands into fists.

“Where the fuck is my shit, man?” he asks in a voice with much more bass in it than normal.

I calmly tell him to give me until this afternoon, which is what I said two days ago, and remind him of that.

He growls and says, among other things, fuck that, he needs it now, before the store carts leave. By this point every one in my cube is watching our exchange and so are some people across the hall. He walks back to his cube, and I go to my locker to count some money out.

I figure that I might as well pay him now to avoid situation. But, at the same time, I’m fucking heated. I dont like being talked to like a bitch when you know I’m gonna pay. I’m way short of $20, and Chicken, my cubie, sees that. He offers to lend me the money without a tax, but I’m so mad about how Dell was talking to me that I’m cursing under my breath, and reply that I almost wanna take this situation to the bathroom.

Charlie, who’s Chicken’s bunkie and petty as fuck, is like, “Well, make sure to get my two bucks before you do,” and laughs, because he knows I’ll go to the hole if we get caught fighting. I can tell he interprets my bluster with skepticism. But I cool down, and I’m like, fuck it I’ll pay him now.

Chicken and I count out the food, and it comes to $20.11 or something like that. I carry it over to Dell, and hand it to off him. He goes, “If this ain’t $30, I dont even want it. I need it all nigga.”

“Well, fuck it then, it’s $20 that’s what I owe you,” I reply.

“Nah nigga, it’s $30. I need my fucking money.” His voice is still 2 octaves lower than usual, but he’s getting progressively louder. I see heads peeking out of cubes down at the end of the hall.

“You can’t just make shit up and say that’s what I owe you, bro.” I stomp back to my cube, but I remain by the entrance. I’m really fucking angry now, and my cubies are all looking at me like, what the fuck is going on? I declare, to no one in particular, that I’m not paying an extra ten bucks for no reason. Chicken offers that he’s got it if I want it, but I decline. If I coughed up the money now, people would believe I’d give them any amount of money as long as they talked to me recklessly and threatened me with physical retribution.

Dell strides over to my cube again, and I can see from his body language that he’s angry as fuck and feeling aggressive.

“What the fuck, nigga? Nigga, I need my money now, I don’t give a fuck about who you owe, nigga I need my shit. I dont wanna have to whoop your ass.”

There’s a few things going on here I should point out. First, I’m white and he’s black. In the joint, if you’re white you’re considered soft until you prove otherwise. (I know that’s “unfair” and “prejudiced”, but it’s kinda true. White people don’t stand up for themselves half the time.)*

Secondly, this is my first time dealing with him, but he knows I have a reputation for paying my debts, and I have the resources to get another $10 if I really needed to. He knows I’m not gonna punch him for trying a squeeze play (although I should have). Basically, he thinks I’m gonna be his sweet thing. Luckily, I already had it in my head : this ain’t that.

At this point, guys are standing on their bunks so they can see what the brouhaha is all about. I’m not backing down, and no matter how loud he is, I calmly refuse his demands. He threatens to beat me again, and takes a step back. I tell him I’m not giving him a penny more, and step up in his face. I’m a half foot taller than he is, so I’m towering over him, and I know I’m provoking him. Essentially, I’m calling his bluff and alpha-dogging him.

Predictably, he throws a punch off-balance, but it’s enough to break my glasses and get me to back up. I can’t really see shit but I know he’s expecting that to serve as a warning and I’ll jus go get his shit right then. Instead, I catch my breath for a split second, look around (the whole unit is watching now, having heard the fracas), and then I do a little 1-2 hop and swing at his face with all my weight behind me. I can see the look of total surprise right before I connect. He stumbles, and I hit him again, on the side of the head, and he tackles me to the ground. We’ve fallen to the middle of my cube, wrestling, and I eat another punch. I hear a bunch of people yelling to stop as I get him in a headlock with my left arm, and deliver as many quick, hard jabs to his chin with my right.

Then, some guys intervened, and yanked him away from me, outta my reach. Dell tries to hurry out of the cube before the cops (not literally, actually the COs) arrive, but one’s only five feet away when Dell leaves my cube, and cuffs him up. A bunch of yard cops hustle behind him 15 seconds later, and ask who the other one was. I volunteer myself, by stepping forward and putting my hands behind my back. I can tell they’re surprised because I don’t catch tickets; conversely, Dell is well-known among the police, because he should’ve been home a year ago if he didn’t catch so many major misconducts.

They take me to medical to check for injuries. I’m painfully aware of my fingers, which are now throbbing, and probably broken, as my adrenaline subsides, but otherwise I don’t feel a thing.

The lieutenant asks for a statement from Dell, who refuses, and then me, and I follow suit. I could explain how he was trying to squeeze me or even that he hit me first, so that I’ll receive less days of sanctions when I get found guilty on the ticket. But a week or two of less LOP isn’t worth being called a rat for the remainder of my bit. They’ll review the cameras regardlessly and see how it played out; they’ve already designated him the aggressor without a word from me, so I can be expect some leniency.

In the past, you were almost guaranteed to ride out after a fight, but since the covid crisis, they just put you in the hole for a day or two tops and then return you to general population. Luckily, I had only spent like 4 hours in the hole before I was let out, and I had so many endorphins and testerone flooding my brain that it wasn’t bad at all. I felt like a conqueror, and euphoric as hell–it was the prison version of a post-coital glow. That fight released a ton of pent-up frustration.

In the world, the only thing that could erase so much stress was fucking, and that’s no longer an option for me (well, it is an option, but it’s certainly looked down upon and comes with a whole different set of issues). Fighting in prison is like a one-night stand: it’s incredibly refreshing if it’s been awhile, but if you do it too often, it’s considered kinda trashy. At least, people look at you differently if it’s a regular thing.

When I got back to the unit, everyone was surprised I got out so quickly, and I also noticed a new gleam of respect in their eyes. The vibe felt tangibly different.

A couple black guys came up to me and high-fived me, giving props for standing up for my shit. They tell me that what he did was bullshit. Shit, even Dell’s homeboys who were familiar with and peripherally involved in our business situation admit that he was wrong to try to get extra and even more wrong to start a fight; he had led them to believe I still owed on the original balance. They assured me that no one’s gonna try to get revenge or anything. The situation was dead.

There’s a few guys I’m real cool with who actually have some pull on the yard, and they gave me props as well, and confided that they’d already been telling the yard I whooped his ass. I wouldn’t go that far, but I definitely had been getting the best of him right before we were separated.

Additionally, it’s a bad look for a black dude to lose a fight to a white guy; worse than it would be if it were the other way around. That’s really a moot point–the important thing is to put up a fight, regardless if you win. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just elated that everyone now knows that I’ll fight back; that I’m nobody’s sweet thing; and that I’ll stand up for myself.

Colloquially, I was earning my stripes. Or, even better, getting my ‘rones up.**

* Shit, even in the world this is true; no body but a white person feels guilt for being the race that they are. It’s one thing to apologize for and disapprove of what your ancestors did; it’s a whole ‘nother thing to abase yourself with apologies for being white and by transparently wishing for the extinction of your race. In my personal experience (and just by virtue of my incarceration, I’ve had and continue to regularly have way more interactions with minorities than 90% of whites), minorities appreciate and respect the former, but disdain the latter.

**This means, literally, getting/raising your testosterone level. Meaning: acting in a way that makes you more of a man.

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