The Walls Sing
Which of us has looked into his father’s heart?
Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?
Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
There are things I know – about survival, and grit, and how some have to fight harder because every demon in hell is conspiring to pull them down. It was Tony who taught me. Of all my prison students – he was the one who could make it and beat the odds. He was the one to tell me that on the inside you had to do a certain kind of listening, develop a sixth sense, and then you’d be protected. He said inmates thought of it as a network, and years ago they used to say the walls sing.
I met Tony my first day on the job at the Westchester County Penitentiary. As a new worker I had toured the prison during orientation, and felt ready to take that walk again. A correction officer came to escort me and we started out through the maze of interconnecting tunnels that led to the main cellblock. There was a damp odor in the tunnel and cobwebs clung to the light fixtures along the ceiling. Some of the bulbs were out and it was intermittently dark. We were completely alone. Every so often we came to a steel gate and the only sound was the crash of it closing and hooking behind our backs. The passageway snaked around to the right, one final gate, and we emerged in the interior of the block.
The main gallery was a three-tiered structure that vaulted up, up, and up; the presence of cold, polished steel was strong and the men were everywhere: leaning against the railings of catwalks, sitting on the cots in their cells, sauntering down the platforms in pairs. They wore green prison fatigues and tee shirt tank tops that were tight. Tight. Corded biceps and smooth, hairless forearms with ID numbers etched into their arms; hair cropped close or pony-tailed, most clean shaven but now and then a beard, a woman’s mesh stocking pulled taut around the head; crescendo of male voices talking, shouting, rapping, rap music, hard rock, bongos, hands slapping rhythms against the bars. We ascended metal steps and crossed a catwalk that brought us closer to the men; as we passed by, they didn’t move, but neither did they block our way. A young white woman going through the prison drew interest and I could feel their eyes boring into my back.
My classroom was at the end of a long corridor, not visible from the officers’ Central Control Booth. The wall and door facing the hallway were glass – a kind of fishbowl security system, the phone out of order. I set my materials on the desk, wondering if anyone would show up. Only the younger men were eligible for GED one-on-one tutoring, but my “Life Skills” course was open to the population. It was a pretty fair guess that those who enrolled were coming out of curiosity, boredom, and because it would look good for the parole board.
“Hey, is this school?”
I looked up. A tall, muscular kid was standing in the doorway. His eyes moved around the room, sifting every detail. His face was handsome, young, yielding now to manhood.
“Yes, this is school. Are you registered for classes?” I asked.
“Yeah, I’m signed up. I signed up last week.” He loped into the room, grinning widely as though signing up was some kind of special accomplishment.
“This only for minors, right? I’m sixteen so it’s all right, but some of the older guys wanna go ta school too, and they don’t like that they’s can’t.
“Have a seat. What’s your name?”
“Tony Lesterson, yeah, an’ I’m on that list. You check it and see.” He plopped into a chair, smiling, knowing that, whatever “school” was, he was going to be in his element.
The kid was on the list just like he said. I handed him the preliminary evaluation test and explained he could take one hour to complete it. He nodded solemnly and began penciling his way through. Thirty minutes later he had pulled a ninety-eight on the first part – a smattering of reading comprehension, vocabulary, math and logic. As he read through the questions on Part II, inmates came by and peered in the windows of the classroom. Some poked their heads in the door — “This school, right?” — and disappeared down the hall again. A short roly-poly kid stopped and asked if he could borrow a pencil. I reached over and handed him one from my desk. Tony kept looking down at his exam paper and said, “Guess ya know you’ll never see that again.”
“I don’t know…you never know.”
He shook his head and kept on writing. Twenty minutes later, the stocky kid came back with the pencil. “Thanks,” he said, and handed it to me. I held the pencil and looked at Tony, who flicked his eyes briefly in my direction and then back at his paper. “They jus’ testin’ you.”
“I know that,” I answered.
“Yeah, they be doin’ that with newcomers, and you shouldn’t leave your door open neither – so’s jus’ anyone can come walkin’ in. Don’ they tell you nothin’ ‘fore you start work here?”
“They tell you a few things, but not very much. Guess it’s a learn-as-you-go job.”
“Yeah, well, you probably think that’s funny, but somebody shoulda showed you the ropes first.” He nodded curtly to emphasize his point. ”So, how’d I do?” His grin was widening out ear to ear. He knew he was in his element.
By the end of the week fifteen men had enrolled in school. They signed up for learning slots on some list I never saw and they showed up on time. They were personable and they were bright, and some were very bright, but they were wired: tuned in, their antennas picking up cues and signals from the network that kept them informed to what was happening on the inside and what was happening on the outside, hour by hour, minute by minute. The network ran on the buzz of words, on the energy of eye contact, and on raw emotion. Some days it lay like a thick blanket of anger in the air, heavy and dank. Other times it would drift, slow and lazy, then suddenly shoot out at lightning speed if there was an incident or if a full-blown riot erupted. It was a funny thing about me in that prison environment: fear – I just didn’t have it. I walked the halls light as a feather and felt like I was protected by a guardian angel. Maybe I did have an angel, because some things are fated and carefully guided in life; but later, I discovered that my “shield” was not the correction officers sitting in glass booths, it was the men, the men and the network with its spider-legs reaching into the corners and crevices, down into the bowels and belly of that God-forsaken place.
After a while I got to know the men who roamed the halls almost as well as those who came to class. Maybe I had established the one inviolable criterion for surviving as a worker on the inside: credibility. In prison there are no gray areas. You’re either in or out, liked or detested, respected or ignored. If you can’t establish credibility with the men, you can’t last a minute. With time, the line between the inmates who came to class and those kept out by the rules began to blur. The older men came by to visit now and then, and a dozen signed up for the Life Skills course. There was Carlos, and Timmy, P.J., Jeremy, Juan, Chachi and Mike, Ruby, Jean-Pierre; some with strange names, some with made-up names, names that were unpronounceable, and there was Tony.
Tony brought me coffee, pecan candy bars, and bits and pieces of his life that told about his experiences on the inside and how it was going to be when he got out. Twice a day, when he wasn’t in class, he walked down the hall to my room and stood for a moment, looking in. A vein pulsing on the side of his neck showed he was irked that I left my classroom door open – that I was still a civilian, a greenhorn – hopelessly soft.
After a few weeks I was tuning in to the network. I knew which inmate would be coming to visit, could look into a man and “read” him. There were times when I’d get a crawly feeling on the back of my neck and the next minute an inmate would block my path, ask an inane question, grudgingly walk away. Almost always, inmates I knew had the guy “pinned” with their eyes, ready to move in if there was trouble. Being in the prison all day, every day, was having an effect: I was under its influence, awash in its atmosphere, the boundary of skin and space dissolving. Some days I walked the halls and could feel the men swarming, feel that we were moving as one amorphous organism.
But it wasn’t a perfect system because one day, Central Control sent the wrong inmate to my classroom and I never saw it coming. Suddenly, I was face to face with a hollow-eyed psychopath from the self-contained B Block. He stood medium height, built like an iron fireplug, his stare cutting slivers in the air. Time compressed, everything froze. Through my peripheral vision I saw Tony at the window, the air turned electric as a beam of understanding shot back and forth between us. In a second he was in the room, eyes red and magnetic, body a colossus of raw intent that seemed to swallow up the man’s space. It was only a few seconds: the intruder held his ground, turned slowly and left the room.
After that, I sent memos to the warden to have my security phone fixed; even kept my door locked for a while. Soon, everyone knew a guy from B Block had gotten to my classroom and that Tony had saved me.
The next day I bumped into Jesse sweeping the floor outside my classroom.
“Hey, Mrs. H., you learnin’ to listen to the walls?”
“Guess I’ll have to listen harder, Jesse.”
Ol’ Jesse swept the hallway floors. That’s all he ever did, day in and day out. Of all the men I’d met in prison, Jesse was the toughest to figure out. He was thick-torsoed, old, white-bearded, maybe fifty or so, and by prison standards that made him an ancient. The penitentiary is a young man’s place. If I hadn’t noticed it myself, it was taught to me on a day I ran the Life Skills group.
Chico looked around the circle of fourteen men, “Where’s that new guy, Mosey?”
Carlos answered, “Maybe he got out.”
“Nah, he didn’t get out.”
“Maybe he’s in the hole.”
“There ain’t no more hole, don’t you know nothin’ about prison reform?”
“Peut-etre le diable lui mangerent” (Maybe the devil ate him), said Jean-Pierre.
Everyone looked around the circle as though Mosey was going to jump out from behind a chair. Then it was Mick, “It doesn’t matter where Mosey is – don’t matter whether he’s in or out, because there ain’t no difference. We’d better get us some life skills, and fast, cause everyone I know is either in here or dead.”
Whatever their crimes, the men knew the old story of the revolving door. They were arrested, charged, sentenced, served their time, got bounced back, and the cycle started over again. On the inside, all professed to being “new men,” through with street living.
“When I get out I’m gonna get me computer training and a job – there are plenty of places where you can get good training.”
“Yeah, I had it with this, my cousin Johnny can get me a job where I’ll learn car mechanics.” Everyone had plans: Jaime would work in Chinatown, Ruby in Queens, Lou was on his way to a college career.
Mick spoke, “Oh yeah. You gonna look me in the eye and tell me that if someone comes to you and says they have a job, a foolproof job, you wouldn’t say, ‘OK, I’m in’?” A silence flattened the room.
But ol’ Jesse swept the halls, and seemed free of the young men’s angst. I asked the correction officers about Jesse, why he was still here, and why he swept the halls over and over again. Some laughed, some shrugged; one threw out, “Who knows! Maybe for him it’s a fucking Zen experience.”
Tony Lesterson was cheerful too. I decided that was because of his youth, because he was getting out, and because he was in a familiar environment. To him, the prison was as congenial as a freshman fraternity house, this place, this simulacrum of a home. One morning, Tony confided that he had a plan.
“Hey, you know, I’m gettin’out in a couple a weeks, but I gotta get myself back in here by December.”
“Oh?” Don’t say anything; don’t react.
“’Yeah, ‘cause that’s when my little cousin Joey is comin’ in – he wrote me that he got sentenced to eight months in the pen. He’s never been here before, and if I’m not here, the first night’ll be too tough for him.”
“You mean he’ll be frightened?”
“No. I mean he’ll be beat up.”
“Yeah, or worse.”
Tony looked serious, but it was a studied seriousness. He was trying to impress me.
“Yeah, ya know, it’s dangerous here – at least for someone not experienced about life on the inside. The men have weapons, and it can be bad.”
“What kind of weapons?” Damn. Don’t ask.
Tony kept his eyes lowered. “There’s lots a ways. One way is you take a toothbrush and you melt the handle with a match, then you jam a nail upside down into the handle, and ya got a knife. Or, razors are smuggled in the soles of a shoe sent from someone on the outside. The first night in prison the men put you through a kinda initiation, and ya need someone older and experienced to protect ya.”
Out in the hall I bumped into Jesse. “That one there,” he said, pointing toward Tony who was whisking his way down the hall, “He has a chance to make it.” I followed his gaze. “Yeah,” Jesse went on, “He’s different from the others – he’s smart, like in the school sense, and he’s talented too – with art and photography. It’s jus’ that he needs to be pointed in the right direction – needs someone to set him straight.”
“Yah,” I said, “It would be great if he could make it. Let’s hope it happens.” He grinned, holding the broom handle against himself. I smiled too, but Tony’s words were holed up in my mind.
Three weeks later Tony was released from prison, and I knew that if he kept to his plan it wouldn’t be for long. Where did he go when he was outside the prison walls? He never mentioned a mother – nor a father, for that matter, but had, on several occasions, talked about his “ahnt.” I pictured him moving quickly through the streets, hanging with the brothers in a bar with cheap-liquored air, whispering to a girl friend, sweet-talking his aunt and falling asleep on her living room couch. “I got some things I wanna do when I’m out there,” he said, but the possibilities in that statement were painful to think about, and the idea of how he would get himself back in prison by the time his cousin came in, even worse. How would he get caught? Wasn’t it instinct to run? Tony…run. Why did I care? The prison was filled with Tony’s. The idea was to keep your distance and not get involved; and not ruminate on things.
Like what the men said or thought about me when they were alone: this thirty-two year old woman who looked twenty-two – dark hair and eyes that could pass for Italian, or Spanish, or Indian or any mixed-breed anything: an ethnic-type for them to project their fantasies on, or their memories of a girl who waited (or wasn’t waiting) back home. I didn’t want to think about the karmic twist that put these men in the ghetto while I went home to a husband and two kids in suburbia. And darker things too, about them, their acts, and hadn’t we been warned not to speculate. So, I didn’t think, and for me, the men didn’t think. The men just were.
A few more weeks went by, and I tried to keep busy, but without Tony the job didn’t feel the same. Ol’ Jesse came by and picked up on my feelings right away. “Ya miss the kid, huh?” he said, with a dry little laugh, eyes all crinkly and bloodshot.
“You’re right, Jesse, I do. What do you know about him?”
“Oh, I know the kid real well ‘cause I knows the family. They be livin’ in my ole neighborhood down in Harlem. Yeah, I saw Tony grow up, an I used to worry that he’d get sucked down jus’ like they’s all get sucked down. Tony, there, his mother got pregnant wit him and she was happy about that. She was doin’ OK at first, and wanted to better herself and go ta school. She was always at Tony to get good grades, and he tried to please her, and was in a talented and gifted program. But then, it all got too much for her, and she started hangin’ wit a bad sort, and after a while, doin’ hard drugs like heroin, an she wasn’t lookin’ after the kid. One day she jus took off; she was all used up, it was sad, and the kid, Tony, he got bounced around, and finally an aunt took him in.”
“And his father?”
“Well,” Jesse looked down at the floor, “I don’ know much about that. But, Tony, there, he stood out from the others, ‘cause he got something special.”
I wanted him to keep on talking and tell me exactly how he saw Tony, and then that made me wonder what there was in him that would make him able to see a special quality in a street kid. But Chico was waiting in the doorway; I had broken about a dozen of my own rules about inmates and their personal lives, and didn’t know what I was going to do with this new knowledge or where it was going to find a place inside of me.
It didn’t take long for the network to spread the word, though the messages were confusing: Tony had been on a “job,” something had gone wrong – he’d been shot and was in a hospital somewhere. The kid was dying. I started making phone calls and got tangled in red tape – no one seemed to know anything. The next week was hell. I couldn’t take not knowing – for the first time I hated the place, the inmates, the system. I packed my things, then unpacked them. I cried in the women’s room, wondered why I was being so emotional.
Finally, I got word. Tony Lesterson had been on a job, was busted, hadn’t been hurt. They were holding him in the jail and in a few days he’d be back in the pen. I was exhausted – and relieved. The next morning, he came into my classroom strutting a ghetto walk, yet I knew he was uncertain about how his return would sit with me – and that he was glad to see me.
“Hey, man.” We both smiled, and then neither of us seemed to know what to do next.
“So, how’re you doing?”
The mile-wide grin spread across his face, “Oh, I’m doin’ all right. Yeah, I’d say things are goin’ good.
I didn’t say anything.
“Oh,” he said, “I know you’s think I shouldn’t be back.” His grin was annoying me.
I fiddled with my pen. There was a silence.
“The network said you were dying.”
“Yeah, well if you really listened to the walls, they’d a told you I was okay.”
“Tony, listen, do you ever think about your life – I mean beyond this day, and your future, and what you’re going to do with it?” I hoped I didn’t sound like every self-righteous pain-in-the-butt social worker.
“Yeah, I do. What, you think I’m stupid?”
“You know I don’t. But bouncing in and out of here like it’s a country club, and…not worrying about it….” I had the feeling that if he denied it and said he was going to be all right – all was lost.
He fidgeted. “I didn’t come back here for myself – I came here for Joey.” His words made me cold and fearful, like an icicle in my chest sending trickles through my body; and then I wasn’t sure whether it was his fear I was feeling, or my own.
“Tony, if you want to help Joey, the idea is to stay out of prison – to get yourself straightened out and be an example for him.”
He was slumping low in his seat, “Sometimes we do that for each other. Yeah, we get back in here to help out a younger guy.” His face was dark and I couldn’t see the glow in it.
“What about you – you’ll probably be leaving soon.”
I knew he meant “bailing out on us.” He had sensed right though; of my fifteen GED students, only three sat for the exam, one had passed. What was the point? I wanted out.
“Is there a reason I should stay?”
“Yeah. Be the example.”
His words dug deep, only I didn’t want to think about it now. “Let’s talk about you. Tell me about your photography.”
He kept his eyes lowered. “Oh, Jesse, told ya.’ Yeah, I mess around with that sometimes.”
“What sort of pictures do you take?” I asked.
“Oh, jus’ pictures of where I live and the people around them streets.”
“Would I be able to see your work?”
His face brightened for a moment before closing off again. “Yeah, I got some upstairs. I’ll get ‘em for you.”
It took a while, but he came back with a worn manila envelope under his arm. He took the photographs out, holding them carefully at the edges, and we propped them against books on the long metal table. At first, I just looked and didn’t know what to say. Tony was getting his old rosy mood back again, and there was a look of something like pride in his eyes. Just then Ol’ Jesse came in, and the three of us looked at the photos together.
It’s hard to describe what I saw in the pictures. They had to be the ugliest streets in town, and in them were some of the most down-and-out creatures ever to set foot on this earth. There were drunks with the life gone out of their eyes, an old woman glancing sideways at the camera as she dragged her shopping cart along; menacing groups of men who might have been pushers, and here and there a kid looking more lost than lost. But toward the top of the photos, above the darks, and grays, and blacks, was a phosphorescent kind of light. Once you noticed it, it was hard to pull your eyes away, and I wondered how – what kind of technical skill it would take, how this kid could have captured that light.
After seeing the light in Tony’s photographs, I couldn’t seem to uproot myself. It seemed to me one of those rare occasions that come to spark an element deep inside of us; a pure moment you hold onto – like the day I walked down the hall and heard a melody that drew me forward. A few of the men were singing in the yard. I knew the song – “Death Letter” by Son House; and there was nothing like that sound, nothing like those voices, all silky and dreamlike. I got a letter this morning, how do you reckon it read? ‘Hurry, the gal you love is dead.’ I got a letter this morning, I’m wonderin’ how you reckon it read, he say, ‘Hurry, hurry, on account that gal you love is dead.’
Some of the men in the hall heard it and stood in the doorway around me, and the music had something that was soothing to the soul, and we stood there and let it soak into the pores of our being.
Later, after the men left the courtyard, I stood leaning against the doorpost, then sat down on the stoop. One of the inmates came over and sat down next to me and we just stayed like that, not wanting to shake off the reverie. Ol’ Jesse was outside sweeping the courtyard. The inmate and I began talking as though resuming a conversation we had started a little while before. “Ol’ Jesse used to be quite a guy, ya know.” I looked up with interest. “He was an artist, and a good one, and one of the art teachers in the public school took an interest in him and used to give him lessons on the weekend in return for Jesse cleanin’ and sweepin’ up his place for him. Jesse’s paintings had somethin’ in them – like God hisself painted them. It’s a damn shame he wound up in here ‘cause he coulda been somebody.”
I stuck it out for a year. Tony had been released a couple of weeks before, and it seemed right that I would leave soon after. I stepped into the hall and Ol’ Jesse was there.
“Mrs. H., I hear you leavin’ us, is that right?”
“Yes, Jesse. I’ve got to take some time, make some plans.” He looked tired and leaned against his broom. “This is a sad day for us, Mrs. H.”
“Thanks Jesse. I’ll miss you. Take care of yourself.”
“I got a letter from Tony, and he sent this for you.”
He handed over a carefully folded piece of lined notebook paper. I opened it and read,
You stay in. I’ll stay out.
I held onto the paper, and the two of us stood there a while. Then we hugged. As I walked down the main corridor, the warden was standing outside his office. He called me over and said quietly, “you know about ol’ Jesse, don’t you?” I shook my head.
“Well,” he said, “maybe it’s only prison bullshit, and maybe it’s the truth, but the word out for the longest time, is that Jesse is Tony Lesterson’s father.”
My heart did a sort of flip-flop inside my chest. I looked back down the hall, and ol’ Jesse was still standing there right where I’d left him. Our eyes connected, and a small, nearly imperceptible smile appeared on his face.
The note from Tony turned out to be prophetic: soon after, I was hired to teach psychology in a small suburban Liberal Arts college. They liked that I had experience inside the walls and offered me three Introductory courses, two on campus and one in their college prison program. My first college teaching assignment was in the Westchester County Penitentiary. Over the next several years I taught Psychology in every prison in Westchester: Taconic Correctional Facility, Bedford Correctional Facility for Women, the Westchester County Penitentiary, and the notorious Sing-Sing. For a while, I kept track of Tony by calling his social worker. She told me he was doing well, was in school, but that it was always touch and go with kids like that. During those years I taught in prison because I wanted to, because the atmosphere felt flat on campus, because the inmates blew the other students away. I took with me everything I learned during those first months at the Pen: I listened and I listened hard, and the walls kept singing, but it was always one song, and the name of the song was Tony.
Lyn Halper’s stories and poems have appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Karamu, Fiction International, Snake Nation Press Journal, Aries, Iodine Poetry Review, and others. In 2004 she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Fiction International. She is formerly a professor of Religious Studies at Rockland Community College.