My Journeys into the Margins of Society as an Ex-Con
The margins, the twilight, the fringe of society—that's where the present first rolls over into the future, and this column aims to report from there.
Photo via Flickr user Jorge Quinteros
On November 13, 2003, I was arrested for the crimes I had committed in August of that year. I was carrying a book I had just picked up, but it was knocked out of my hand by an overly enthusiastic police officer and remained on the sidewalk. A decade was to go by before I could go back for it. The volume was a hardcover of Luc Sante's Lowlife, which explored the messy realities of life in Manhattan's slums in the 19th century—basically, the sort of life I was leading and the sort of topics I wanted to write about, only 100 years back in time.
I finally got to finish it years later when I located a copy in a prison library. I also own some of the author's discarded paperbacks—he had donated an entire box of French poetry to a prison I stayed in during 2008, Eastern Correctional Facility, in Napanoch, New York. Only the Haitians could read it and only I had the interest to pick up his Dadaist collection of Tristan Tzara. When I saw the stamp that announced where the books came from, I was astounded by the coincidence and even wrote the author, but he never answered. Still, his volumes of marginal poetry, hard to understand because they valued the avant-garde above readability, remain in my possession. But I never found Low Life.
Having returned to society earlier this year and kept as busy as possible with steady forays into journalism, I cannot satisfy my curiosity for marginal culture as much as I would like, but I did visit the square of pavement on the Bowery in Lower Manhattan where I was arrested in 2003. The book was gone—the New Museum sits over the parking lot where I left it.
The margins, the twilight, the edge of society—that's where the present first rolls over into the future, and this column aims to report from there. As the world around the corner and under the bridge often harbors things criminal and vicious, as well as delicate and subtle, the investigator must be a man of certain talents and experience. He has to be able to walk through the shadows of both art galleries and gangland, and return to describe the fringes of life in a way that makes sense.
Marginal culture is simply life beyond the mainstream, the work and world of those Americans far from the everyday, the ones who have not chosen washing machines. And their stories tell us more about America than those of the hardworking citizens and safe, mediocre idols that television pushes on us. Michel Foucault wrote in Discipline and Punish that to measure the health of a society, one must examine how it treats it prisoners, as the correctional system of a nation is its filtering organs—its liver and kidneys. Having spent ten years in those very places after committing five robberies in the desperation of heroin addiction (and related debt to a crazed Ukrainian dealer), I have been freed with a passport that has helped gain the trust of many people who would not otherwise talk to me. It's a release ID from Fishkill Correctional Facility, where I finished my sentence, and it is useful to flash in project stairwells and ghetto cellars. I report back from the marginal parts of society to entertain, of course, but also because each manifestation of something new that is unheard of in the suburbs or middle America is another clue to how our society truly functions.
The lowlife has been fodder for both literature and voyeurism for centuries. The Romans had Petronius, who explained how the poor and depraved lived in The Satyricon, which Fellini adapted into my favorite film. Then came a staid dark age of low literacy, when only things written in Latin were considered essential. But spoken languages defeated a dead one, and soon enough the marginal was being mined for literature again by racy authors like Rabelais and Boccaccio. The virtuous 19th century loved the reports Dickens made from the lawless East End of London in Sketches by Boz, despite the immorality of opium dens and fallen women. All of Europe waited on the serialized work of Eugene Sue to learn the truth about life in French sewers in The Mysteries of Paris. New York has had its share of chroniclers, like Liebling and Paul Auster. This column will continue in that tradition.
These days, mainstream American life is easy enough to observe, as so many others do it for us. The latest misdeeds of a pop celebrity or the current political squabble in Washington are mere clicks away. But what about the work of artists who descend into tunnels and climb water towers to spray-paint their work (without compensation, I might add), and then embed it into the digital world? Or the life of a stolen bicycle, which travels far and undergoes dissection, to fund many a drug habit? Advanced tools like nitrogen injectors for shattering frozen locks and rotary saws to defeat hardened steel are now wielded by bike thieves. And yet this crime is at the lowest end of the spectrum and therefore almost exclusively committed by junkies. These are common enough actions in the margins, but things that most Americans don't even think to think about.
Years ago, as I was being beaten with my own boot in an upstate prison during the process of entering solitary confinement, I never imagined that telling the story to guys on a corner who were drinking something cheap out of a paper bag would allow me access to a basement beneath a grocery store. Dogs were being bred there. Staging fights between animals for the amusement of an audience, usually low-class and bloodthirsty, with the propensity to gamble on the outcome, has a long pedigree. The amphitheaters that the Romans left all over Europe, like the well-known Coliseum, were not only for gladiators. The trade in exotic animals for the arena was lucrative. Giraffes were imported to battle rhinoceroses, and many a lion faced a tiger in the bloody sand. The Londoners Dickens described were just as creative, pitting badgers against hounds and bears against bulls and even dogs against rats, the contest being how many rodents the mutt could destroy in a set amount of time—a famous terrier could dispatch 40 in a minute.
With my educated speech, natty clothing, and pale face, it's unlikely that I would be allowed to learn about such things without establishing that I suffered the same fate as some of the corner drinkers. However, my incarcerated decade did nothing for me in earning the trust of Jesse Mosher, a painter who goes to punk shows and paints to the music, a form of synesthesia. What did was having met the luminaries of the 80s art world, at least the Russian ones—my father is a writer of some note in that scene, and has also run a radio show about contemporary culture for 20 years. I spent a childhood surrounded by people who are now Wikipedia entries without even realizing it. Josef Brodsky was the most prominent, or perhaps Baryshnikov, but I also shook the hands of men like Andrei Sakharov, Shimon Peres, Kurt Vonnegut, and Norman Mailer. I met the latter writer in the Russian Tea Room, and sitting with Mailer was Milos Forman. But I didn't know who he was.
The margins include men who paint with spray cans at night and writers who post only parodies of the work of others. It includes chefs who illegally run restaurants in their homes, feeding those in the know exotic delicacies, and doctors without licenses who prescribe Soviet medication, available from old ladies in Brighton Beach as long as you have a "prescription." The margins include transgender folks who cater to the executives of Wall Street with strip shows that are invite-only—every performance culminates in the disclosure of an erection. A friend I met in prison makes a good living this way because she is very pretty but also wields a "nine-inch gun" to wave at the men in suits before they go home to their wives and children. The margins are where Albanian brides are sold and junkies sing in musicals. It's where things get interesting, and where life gains texture and clarity. And sometimes a buzz.
America's taste for drugs is satisfied by an ever-increasing variety of chemicals, which remain legal for a bit, then become scheduled as banned substances, and then return to availability in head shops and on the Internet as outlaw chemists tweak the molecules. Despite the marginality of this occupation, fortunes are made in this business and specialized education of the highest levels is required. Underpaid Chinese and Russian scientists are hard at work right now creating chemicals to get Americans high, while their opposite numbers at the DEA work to identify molecules to ban. An entire chemical clash conducted in the margins! It almost makes me a former prisoner of war.
I paid heavily for my youthful foray into drugs and crime; my participation cost me ten years, but now I can continue my investigation with my calling card and without addiction. The margins are wider than one may think, and sometimes share space with conventional life, but at other times are hidden deep and far from the light of day. My last look into the lowlife of the past remained on the sidewalk as I was told at gunpoint to "Get on the floor, motherfucker!" But Lowlife explored the long-ago, whereas I want to see the future. As today melts into tomorrow, I am watching. This time I'll carry a notebook instead of a pocketknife, observe without participating, and report back to you.