Matthew Tomlinson, April 2012

The TWYG Sheets by Matthew Tomlinson

April 24, 2012 Tuesday—

Day Number 18,826 is as good of a day to start, or more precisely, to pick up in the middle of a thought thread, as any. The characters need to be introduced. There’s you, and what a character you are, huh? Then there’s Sweetheart, my typewriter. Why is she Sweetheart? When you’ve got several volumes of legal work to write, and you look at your 28-cent ink pen and you wonder how long before your arm will detach itself from your torso due to Writer’s Cramp… then, yes, even the most basic, bottom-of-the-line typewriter is a Sweetheart!

After you and Sweetheart, the main character is the nut behind the keys, yours truly,  me. Just Me will do fine, you know. This evening’s mail brought your letter about the Journal Project. Well, there are plenty of misgivings on my part, as it seems there are perhaps a half dozen people who make print in your excerpts that you mail to everyone. It likewise seems to this old rascal and to Sweetheart that the people you chose are somewhat less than stellar. Oh well. That’s life. There’s nothing to be lost by answering your request for journal material. You need to know what you’re seeing.

This isn’t a carbon copy. There’s no original. The people at commissary want an exorbitant price for ribbons for Sweetheart, and the price is beyond my budget. Thus it’s my custom to feed Sweetheart here a diet of Carbon Paper Sandwiches. That is what you might think… if you’re of the age to remember what carbon paper was. A piece of paper is slid over the top of a sheet of carbon paper, and then another sheet is slid into the back. Sweetheart doesn’t print on the cover sheet, but she makes a good enough impression on the back page for these projects you are soon to be receiving. Carbon Paper Sandwiches are cheap. The price paid for them is that there’s no correcting the errors from my typo-typing. There’s no way for me what Sweetheart is producing until later, when it’s time to do the editing. So what you get is a sheet of paper with smudged characters and blotted-out phrases, victim of my editing ink pen. Yet what you get is far more than what you’d get if you were waiting for perfection, neat margins, word-processed cute sheets. It doesn’t happen. This is more or less prison. You don’t find much perfection here. The cute things you do find in prison… well, you’ll have to ask the other prisoners about those kinds of things.

We now have a start, and we have some ground rules so you’ll know what to expect out of future entries. Prisoner Express has my permission to store and retrieve the material sent in these journal pages, and to use them for non-commercial purposes with merely the proper credit to me. If you’ve got commercial intents, or if you’ve got readers who have intents to reuse my material, write me first. Copyrights to everything, save with those exceptions above, are reserved. There we go! Now let’s get started.

What a run-on paragraph that was to get underway… It’s much like when you meet someone for the first time and you find you have so much in common that you both talk ninety miles a minute! Oh well. those with a little bit of training in creative writing can readjust that paragraph to be as many as they like. Myself, my original intent was to eschew paragraphs and run a stream-of-consciousness string of thoughts. Paragraphs will work better, solely because this old rascal is trained to write in coherent, cohesive, collections of thought.

And so we change pace in the middle of the race. We go from Brainstorming back to paragraphical outlines. It’s still a first draft, so take whatcha gets. That’s one of the things people learn in prison: the TWYG Syndrome, pronounced “twig.” It’s an acronym for “Take What Yuh Gets.” It’s more-or-less self-explanatory. How agout that? We have a name for these sheets: “The TWYG Sheets.”

No promises on this part, but Sweetheart here will try to leave you enough space in the margins to allow you the later option of punching holes in the paper and attaching it to a common three-ring binder, or such collating machinery as you now have or which everafter may be invented. They used to sell three-ring notebooks here in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) some years ago. Then TDCJ officials found out that a convenient way to organize our writings made us a potentially formidable adversary in legal work. The notebooks were discontinued. That’s prison life.

They have me in the windowless graveyard known as High Security. There’s nothing to see beyond walls. The door does have two vertical slits of plastic that give me a view of the cells across the hall. Now, really! Why would a reasonable and prudent person want to look across the hall into someone else’s cell? It’s a good way to get “burned”—let us define the term as meaning “exposed to sights a heterosexual man doesn’t need to see.” The commode is at the front of the cell, you see. Yes, and you can imagine that when nature makes its demands, it’s easy enough to turn one’s back to his cellmate and thus prevent him from getting Burned. As for those who are outside looking in? Maybe ya doan need tuh be lookin’ in there, huh? Unless, yuh know, yuh wanna see a little something? Take that thought a step beyond what it appears to be. When you’re On The Outside Looking In, in any manner, then do you have a right to expect to see only the decent things you want to see? We have more than our share of those who want to resort to the Lowest Common Denominator and exhibit their anatomically correct features. They do that as if to say: “See? They can’t take THIS away from me!”  They should be cautious with that declaration . TDCJ hasn’t confiscated that yet, but “yet” never means “forever and always will never.” They should be careful.

Now if we wanted to discuss creativity in some of its fashions, we could make jokes all the livelong day along those lines, the Lowest Common Denominator, the most demeaning topics that adolescents and pre-pubescents find so funny. That level of humor abounds around here. Let’s pass that by. Yet let’s reserve the right to add some of it in the following entries when appropriate.

Let’s discuss what inspires creativity more than anything else. It’s called Gunpowder. TDCJ commissary sells a 4-ounce bag of Royal Pacific Plantation Blend instant coffee for a $1.15 price presently. Both bag and powdered contents are brown, hence its name, “Brown Bag.” The powder is about the same consistency as gunpowder. For $1.15 they give you enough coffee to make about three gallons. Take a spoon of Gunpowder, add a little hot water, and you can enjoy the taste of the dirt they sweep up off of the coffee factory floor. Then again, you can be a hero and do it “John Wayne” by drinking it with cold water. Cold coffee is one thing. Cold Gunpowder… the very thought appalls the civilized. Nobody claimed this old rascal was ever close to civilized. The younger set will ask me: “Hey, Old School, can yuh spare a shot?”  My fair warning is : “Sure. It’s Gunpowder, though.” Their faces fall.  “It’s not mixed with something to kill the taste?” My head shakes sadly. “Nope. Straight Gunpowder. Help yourself, though.” That separates the men from the boys in a hurry. Real coffee drinkers say : “Thanks!” and help themselves. Any Coffee Is Better Than No Coffee. Those with finicky taste buds change course. “Um..uh…hey, that’s all right, lemme go see if this guy over here has any coffee.” My response is always : “All right. If you change your mind, the bag is right here on the table. Help yourself.” Sharing my Gunpowder doesn’t bother me. But it’s a TWYG deal, you know, where yuh Take What Yuh Gets. Most of the kids (defined as under thirty) would rather drink Caster Oil than Gunpowder… if they knew what Castor Oil was.


April 25, 2012 Wednesday—

Day Number 18,827 is a good day, and 0245 hours is a good time, to make an attempt to bless you. It may be that my keepers here in TDCJ will permit me to draw you a line sketch to give you a perception of what the solid steel doors in High Security look like from the outside. They look different from my side, but that’s for another time. The doors are solid with two panes of semi-plastic serving four vertical windows. Below the windows is a food slot door. At any time after 0200 hours, unless they are running late, the guards will start at the end of the odd side of One Row (the bottom floor) and start feeding breakfast. They’ll stick an iron crow bar in the locking mechanism for the food slot of C-101 cell, pry down on the crow bar, and let the food slot pop open. They’ll stick two trays in there. Two cups will pop out fast if those people want any of that State coffee. The coffee will be provided, and the guard will kick the food slot closed. He’ll move on down to 103 cell, and repeat the process. He’s got 17 cells on the odd side, 17 cells on the even side, and then 34 more cells on Two Row upstairs to get fed. He’s learned to move at a pretty brisk pace if he wants to get 138 trays passed out and then 138 empty trays collected before he goes home at 0530 hours.

You can hear the tray slots slamming open if you’re down on the end, like in 129 Cell, like me for now. You’ve got a little time to get your assets out of that bunk and get ready for breakfast. Room service! It makes no difference if it’s warm and comfortable outdoors, if it’s raining, if it’s come a good snowfall (which, in Amarillo, has been known to happen as late as the first week of May), or whatever, because you never have to bother going to get your food. They serve you. They come around and collect the empty trays and put the remnants in the slop barrel for you. Come 0900 hours, lunch, they’ll do it again for you. Around 1430 hours, they’ll bring your supper. You don’t even have to tip the wait staff.

Many of my fellow felons here in High Security would be hard put to it if they had to cook their own pancakes. Many don’t know what goes into pancake batter. They believe you get pancakes from a box. After so many years in prison myself, the question arises: could this old rascal remember how to make pancakes? Assuredly, he could at least read a recipe book and go from that point. How many people locked up with me could do that? How many of them could get along on their own, if TDCJ gave them one more chance to get loose?

Oh well. The food slot of 118 is being kicked shut, so it’s time to put my considerations aside and be ready for the flapjacks they’re about to stuff through the slot. The folks on Two Row have their game plan all worked out. They know that one guard, who’s trying to get chow fed, can’t drop what he’s doing and come up to Two Row just because they’re up to mischief up there. WHUMP! That’s the sound of a brogan boot kicking the food slot. WHUMP! KER-CLANG! That’s the noise of a food slot on Two Row being kicked open.

“Come on, Homeboy, get out there!” There’s some more WHUMP! noises, but they’re muffled. WHUMP! “Aw, hell, Homeboy, what’s the matter, you ain’t ate your Cheerios yet?” WHUMP! KER-CLANG! The second food slot falls open. The guard makes a mental note of it, but that’s all he can do. “Naw Road Dog, I ain’t ate my Cheerios yet. Come on with the issue!” There’s a bag of chips that passes from one cell to another, two cells which happen to have doors adjacent. Then a can of soda makes the trip. There are ways for us to get things from cell to cell, when the items are too big to slide under the door. “Hey Road Dog, naw-naw-naw! You sent me regular chips and a grape soda water. It’s supposed to be barbecue chips and a strawberry soda water! Come on with it.”

“That’s all I got, Homeboy.” “Naw, it ain’t! Come on with my stuff!” “I ain’t got it. My cellie hogged me for it last night.” “Kick his ass, Road Dog!” “I can’t, Homeboy. He fights better than you!” SLAM-CLACK! That’s the noise of Homeboy’s food slot being pulled back shut. “Damn, Road Dog, you scared me so much I had to get back in my cell and hide under my bunk! I’ll let you make it on the items. But next time, you gotta stand up to your cellie, man. People will think you’re getting your ass taken. Old Chino might come down there and get some of that.” SLAM-CLACK! “Yeah, I better get myself back in my cell too, before Chino comes down here and sucks my…” “Road Dog, you wanna play that Come-On Game this early in the morning?” Chino laughs wickedly. “You ought to be my cellie, Road Dog. I’ll give you some chorizo for breakfast.” The conversation goes along those lines. Add your own color, your own favorite shades of blue.

The guard cuts the conversation short. “Ya wanna eat up there? Ya keep those slots closed. They see it on the camera, you know, and how does that make me look, huh? Keep ‘em closed or you don’t eat.” That’s fair warning. You can never be sure if that particular guard might refuse to feed Road Dog, Homeboy, Chino… and their cellies, too. He might. All those six could do was starve and talk trash. They’re a little smarter than average. The average fools would scream something like: “Eat my dick, you busted-ass bitch! Yuh gotta feed me anyway!” Yeah, they might. And they might find out, swiftly enough, whether that guard did have to feed them or not. These six said nothing. The slots stayed closed. Everybody got a tray of pancakes.

That story has a happy ending. The guard could have been obnoxious and not fed them. One of the three could then have opened their slot, put a container of piss out there, and “dressed ‘im up!” really nice for an early morning shower. That’s a felony nowadays. People who aren’t going home in this century tend not to care too much about another felony indictment. Yeah, but it didn’t have to happen that way, and it didn’t this fine day. They kept their slots closed… because they’d already completed their Trafficking & Trading, granted, but they kept their slots closed for whatever reason. The guard fed them. Everybody’s happy.

That’s how we get along in here. We don’t have to, but we do because it’s usually the path of least resistance to act civilized. We don’t have to be civilized, just act the part every now and again for the record, you know. There are even worse fates than being “dressed up” like that. There was a time in the not-so-long ago when the battle cry used to be: “Shit ‘em down! Shit those muthafuggahs DOWN!” It’s about what you’d imagine. Ever heard a grown man scream like a woman? Wait until he gets the food slot open, unsuspecting, and gets a face full of well-fermented feces from a milk carton. This old rascal has seen them literally take that iron crow bar and knock dents in that steel door trying to get to the prisoner, who was laughing. Let me tell you in short words. From that day onward, that particular guard (if he ever came back to work) would make it his personal business to be certain that the one who shit him down like that never—and that means never, ever—got denied a tray again. That particular guard made sure that particular shitty prisoner got everything he was supposed to have.

Yeah, we don’t have to be civilized. It’s more a compromise than anything else. We’ll keep the uproar to a minimum, and they’ll keep their nonsense to a minimum, and life goes on without flying feces. Don’t Start No Shit And There Won’t Be No Shit, they say. That’s a fairly accurate summary of life in lockup.