There are many things you can do wrong in prison, most involving the breaking of skin. However, you can also commit crimes of a metaphysical nature, the kind that should send you to Purgatory rather than solitary confinement. Unfortunately for me, it turned out that the Department of Corrections polices the ethereal realm as well. Buying the souls of other inmates in exchange for coffee is against the rules, something I would learn the hard way.
Seven years in maximum security is seven years living in a locked cage. Sounds awful when put like that, but even though the gate locks you in, it also keeps the prison out. The fourteen or so hours I used to spend with my door shut were a respite from the madness without. Building a pocket of civilization in the joint is hardly impossible. NPR burbles on the radio, coffee bubbles in the pot, and the New Yorker dutifully arrives once a week to bring the tidings of culture. I even had a mezuzah on the bars.
All of this was taken away from me when my security level dropped to medium status. Theoretically this means that us chosen ones have been deemed safe and personable enough to live in a dormitory of forty souls. In practice it is an ordeal of snoring, gambling, the pursuit of the perfect beat on a steel locker, shower sex, petty theft and public masturbation. The NPR just cannot get loud enough to drown the bedlam of night shriekers, rappers, crappers and compulsive flushers, because yes, the toilets are right there as well. Coffee can be brewed in a microwave, but you will be asked for some a dozen times before your first sip. However, no one asked me for the New Yorker.
It was a difficult period of adjustment for me and I remember being unable to sleep the first night. But with time, a niche can be carved even out of such porous material. I found myself a corner with only one neighbor, and spent a lot of time walking around the rainy yard. Settling into the place, I made the best of my compatriots, trying to find something interesting about each of them. When I asked about whatever it was that they were best at, I received a sensible reply. As a result, I know how roofing is accomplished while drunk, the economics of stripping Con Edison lines for the copper, and how to get high on Reddiwhip. My own story I shared in selective bits, emphasizing the one morning I spent working on a Tropicana truck as an adolescent and omitting Europe. And college. Nevertheless, the fellows soon figured out that there was something different about me. Some were interested in how tennis is scored and how to swear in French, but others equated my origins with something altogether different: money.
Most prisoners are poor. They do not receive funds from home and live on the meager 'state pay'. That is issued every two weeks. The lowest grade, which somehow equates to the most strenuous physical labor (cue Marx), was six dollars. The maximum was sixteen. That's not per hour or even day, but for each two-week cycle. The irony was that I always received the highest grade, because I did white collar work in libraries and offices (thank you, NYU BA!). However, I lived on a monthly allotment of a hundred dollars. This meant that I was rich.
The items in commissary cost about as much as they do in the real world. As a result, it is very hard to smoke or consistently drink coffee on state pay. Actually, not hard but impossible, as packs of cigarettes are the same ten bucks in there as out here. Most prisoners smoke. All drink coffee. There are many jailhouse trades that men engage in to feed these habits, but the most common is simply begging. Easier to ask someone who has it, and might feel a little guilty about having it, than to earn it.
I had been shielded from this for the entire first seven years of incarceration simply because my possessions were in the locked cage. Now and then I was hit up to 'lend' something that I would bring out to the yard, but it was much easier to say no when the item in question was not visibly on display.
All of a sudden I was deluged with requests for spoons of coffee, rolling papers, tobacco, stamps, etc. First I was liberal about it, being naive about such matters. But the nature of caffeine and nicotine means that soon every supplicant is a repeat customer. Trying the role of tightwad was hard on me. Eventually I came to the conclusion that the best method of dealing with this problem was an old and trusted ally: humor.
Having recently read both Goethe's and Thomas Mann's takes on the subject, I embarked on a new venture: cup of coffee for your immortal soul, step right up! I quickly printed up a few contracts of exchange, which to my later chagrin appeared all too authentic. I announced that the price of coffee is simply to sign on the dotted line, and included creamer and sugar.
That evening I had five customers. I dutifully poured the coffee and collected the signatures. Everyone had a big laugh, and repetition was impossible because it was understood that each man came with only one soul. A harmless jest, but I made the mistake of keeping the contracts, imagining myself telling this very story at a dinner party and producing the evidence.
I was handcuffed in the yard the next day, thrown into a van and admitted to solitary after a cavity check. My belongings were haphazardly packed up and partially thrown to the winds. I sat in the hole and pondered my fate. When I was served with a ticket for 'unauthorized exchange', I could not believe this was really happening. The misbehavior report was a Tier III, which is the highest level of malfeasance, for which the punishment can be years in the box.
At the hearing, I felt my oats a bit and asked the man whether he was really willing to sign the papers convicting me of buying five human souls for cups of coffee. He was. Just like the cop who found the contracts lying around my bunk, he was an evangelical who had no taste for the satanic. They all went to the same fire and brimstone church down the hollow. I explained that it was a joke, that it was just to stop the endless beggary, that I did not really exchange anything because it was impossible to exchange souls. But a witness was produced against me. Graciously, I was allowed to ask the first questions:
"When you signed the paper saying that I could have your soul in exchange for a cup of coffee, did you believe that you were really selling your soul?"
"No, it was just a joke."
"Case closed?" I asked the hearing officer.
"Not so fast," he replied, turning to the witness. "But did you in fact receive the cup of coffee?"
"Yes. With creamer and sugar."
"Case closed," he gloated.
It turns out that in the fine print of the unauthorized exchange rule, giving something is also forbidden. I was found guilty and sentenced to three months in solitary for a cup of coffee. Of course, in reality it was for having a sense of humor which did not work well in an upstate prison. It was for my godless vibe and Mephistophelean education. It was for being an overly clever New York Jew. It was for being out of place, and I was guilty.
I did every one of my 90 days in the hole. On that trip I read Musil's Man Without Qualities, so I cannot complain about the use of my time. But I believed my appeal would reach someone who wore a suit to work rather than a baton, a worldly administrator who would see reason and release me from solitary. The appeal was written by fellow New York Jews from Prisoners' Legal Aid. Esquire magazine printed my letter and dubbed me 'Entrepreneur of the Month'. Albany was not moved. I still did the whole sentence and then had to explain the story all over again when I went to something called the Time Allowance Committee. I could have stayed in prison for an extra few months because of this, but luckily I met with the committee on Halloween and know how to tell a tale.
Maybe I should have stayed in my locked cage in the Max. It would have been safer for everyone's soul. The punishment was severe. Unlike most of the other disciplinary infractions that happen in prison, no one in this incident was slashed across the face with a can-top or suffered boiling oil splashed on them while sleeping. Nefariously, I meant for the soul-sellers to learn a lesson in humiliation, to cease asking for things. Perhaps playing this game when one is rich and others aren't is in poor taste. Although the cops who discovered the soul contracts and wrote a ticket for them and then found me guilty were ultimately motivated by other philosophical beliefs, namely those learned in churches with glossolalia and NRA donation boxes, they did catch me doing something I would not do again.
On the other hand, it is 2014 and there are five contracts for the sale of human souls in an Albany evidence locker. Have medieval times returned to the world of discipline and punishment?
Daniel Genis is the author of the novel Narcotica, as well as many translations from the Russian. He began his career with a rather classical education, and finished it off with a decade in prison. These days he is concentrating on reconciling the subtleties of the Brooklyn scene with the requirements of parole.