Chicago Stories: There Are No Children here

I used to sweep the floor at night while the big black kid, Red, I think his name was, mopped up behind me. It was always chaos as all the guys banged on their cell doors in fits of rage screaming profanities at one and other for no real reason other than they could. Most times no one took it personally we were all in this together after all, for now. Someday some of us would go home, hopefully, someday.

Then, there were the others who never would, this was their home until they transferred out to their permanent penitentiary home. Though this reality hadn’t really settled on a lot of kids yet. We all knew who those kids were, or at least had a good idea, we also knew it could end up being any of us. Anything could happen in our volatile world and there wasn’t a good goddamn thing anyone could do about it. We lived for the day because, well, that’s all we had.

I knew where I was and why I was here or at least I thought I knew why. I thought I knew it all back then yet, I questioned everything. All the questions and no answers. No chance I was going to listen to you but how badly I wanted someone to just listen to me. I was, we all were still kids really, but you learn. You leave the streets and climb into the chaos and you learn how to hate in order to survive. It is in Division VI where I learned my first real lessons of my manhood.

In those years Division VI maximum security school wing of the Cook County Jail, reserved for young offenders, between ages 17 and 21 who lacked a high school diploma who were on trial for class major felony criminal offenses. Most of ours were crimes of violence, some more extreme than others. Young men, kids really, facing possible sentences ranging from six years to life. Most were gang members and those who were not would likely become one. While the other kids were preparing for prom and becoming adults, we were locked down, looking at hard-time and the uncertainty of what the next day might bring. There were hard places, but this place was the hardest time of all, some called it gladiator school, they were not exaggerating, we called it hell.

Red and I were lucky, a Sheriff’s Deputy who worked the 3rd shift named Daley liked us and appointed us his closers of the deck for lock down every evening he was on shift. Every hack had his favorites for different reasons, Red and I just happened to be Daley’s favorites. Everyone would lock down in their cells while Red and I would stay out and sweep and mop the day room floors before we too were locked down for the night. It was a chance to enjoy the emptiness and relative quiet of the deck after a long chaotic day. It was a chaos you grew used to, even became comfortable with. A controlled chaos. After long enough it was even comfortable, you didn’t know what to do without it.

We would smoke cigarettes and listen to old Motown cuts and new Lionel Ritchie songs while we danced with our mop and broom tucked in close to our chest imagining them to be the girls we missed. The ones on the street we loved and those we never knew. We had no clue what real love, intimacy, and companionship were, only a vague idea of what we thought it was. What the fuck did we know most of us were barely seventeen maybe eighteen, few in their early twenties. Many of us had never even had sex with a girl. The closest we came was a beat-up jailhouse porno magazine that had been passed around if you had the right connections.

Intimacy and sex? We didn’t have time to learn about that before we got locked up. We were too busy robbing, extorting, dealing drugs, hurting people and getting high. Most of the kids who were experienced, couldn’t even remember what it was like or if it was even consensual. Our sexual escapades were built on bravado and bullshit of the things that never happened. Shit, a lot of these kids had already killed someone before they ever got their first blowjob. I myself had only experienced sex twice, only once that I could almost remember. The first time I was a drunk fourteen-year-old punk being schooled in the art of sex and intimacy in a dark alley by an equally drunk nineteen-year-old girl. The second time was during a drug-induced stupor stoned on quaaludes. A sixteen-year-old with a hard-on, not exactly a night to remember.

So, we swept and mopped and danced as we swayed to Lionel Ritchie’s ‘Say You Say Me’ and ‘You Are’. His words of romance crooned of lives lived and love lost as his words soothed the angst that consumed our young minds. The words of love calmed the air in a world thick with tension that existed on a foundation of violence. Still, those songs helped us create fond memories of loves that never happened, they were simply youthful mistakes, accidents or fantasies played out in our young minds that made the unmanageable days and nights a little easier to manage. These are my memories of love. They kept me sane.

Eventually, life would go on, but it would be several years and many mistakes before that happened. But those memories never left me, they are etched on my soul.

Many years and another life later I would have the pleasure of meeting Lionel on a few occasions. I thanked him for the memories and helping me make it through those years. I don’t think he ever really considered the possibility his music would be the defining factor for the psychological survival of an incarcerated teenage kid to make it through his days and nights. But that’s a story for another day.

Every one of our lives was considered inconsequential, our futures, in question, didn’t measure up to much. We didn’t even have the emotional capacity to look forward to anything past the next riot, violent episode or the next court date, whichever came first. We dared not imagine what a good life could be like for fear it was only a dream.

On the streets, we couldn’t keep ourselves in a classroom seat, book smart maybe not, yet we were by personal experience well versed in the laws of crime. Some probably could have slid into law school as easy as we slid through a second story window. The odds were stacked against us making it out in one piece. Yet, we could not make it on the streets without getting caught up. Jailhouse purgatory is where we existed. Most of us were not violent by nature, we all had our problems with authority, none of us were sociopaths, at least not yet, though some would eventually cross that threshold.

When you live on the fringe, blood, beatings and bullets are the rule of law and violence is inevitable. It was an alpha-dog predator prey world. You either grew instinctively cautious and comfortable with your surroundings or you became prey. A kid schooled in the subtleties of the jailhouse life could smell fear on you. If you smell like fear, you get eaten alive. Sink or swim in a pool of sharks. So, you learned how to mask your fear with jailhouse ink, a thousand-mile stare, eyes vacant of any emotion. We learned how to survive on our fantasies of things that had never been and likely never would be.

So here we were doing what we did every night Daley worked, slow-dancing mop and broom in hand on the dimly lit deck of the gang wing. Day Care for kiddie criminals who would one day be big criminals if we lived that long. I used to tell myself, “Sometimes things can only get better, too bad today just ain’t one of those days.”

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Stephen P. Conrad

A Gypsy Nomad, Writer, actor, artist, semi-nomad, anti-sycophant, socially maladjusted and comfortably near complete insanity.