An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

What I Did on my Summer Vacation

In the mid eighties I went to prison. Well, not exactly prison. More like junior high school with uniforms.

Duluth Federal Prison Camp sits on the edge of the Duluth Minnesota airport. It used to be an air national guard base. There are no fences, no perimeter patrols, no guard towers. The only gate is a railroad-crossing type of arm that stops autos on the main road into the grounds. Anybody can walk out at any time, and Department of Prisons rules forbid the guards from chasing them. Fully half of all prisoners prosecuted for escape while I was there had walked back in voluntarily, usually coming from a (forbidden) trip to the local liquor store, or a clandestine conjugal visit at a nearby motel. As one warden put it, prisoners in Duluth have themselves for a guard. If they stay, it's because they would rather stay than end up in a prison with walls. On the whole, the guards took this as license to treat the inmates like shit.

One day, a prison bus pulled into the parking lot, and out stepped about two dozen rumpled, grumpy, unshaven middle aged to elderly gentlemen from the minimum security prison camp near Danbury, Connecticut. They'd been on the bus for four days, staying in county lockups by night. Their belongings were in cardboard boxes, furnished to them by the guards who had awakened them at 5:00 a.m. and told them to line up for shackles in 15 minutes. A couple of the oldest among them were hospitalized on arrival, suffering from lack of needed medicines, and one of those subsequently died. This was not a happy group.

Word quickly spread: Mafia. Heavy duty mobsters. Killers and extortionists. Organized Crime had come to Duluth. And guess what? Nobody was more overawed than the prison staff. None of them gave these guys any shit. They got good jobs. They got privileges. They got respect. This, despite the fact that as a group, these were the dimmest witted bunch of useless human beings I have ever encountered in one place, except in a sports bar during a "big game".

[Before I get the Italian-American Bund screaming stereotype at me, let me make a disclaimer: most Americans of Italian descent are about as boring as those whose ancestors are Jewish or Greek or Chinese. Only a small percentage of any ethnic group turn to organized crime; only a slightly larger group turn to any kind of crime at all. About the same number do anything of lasting value. Like almost everybody, the vast majority of anybody never do anything extraordinary, dangerous, stimulating or unique. They are good citizens: dull, complacent, obedient and conformist]

There were two lounges in my barracks building. One downstairs and one upstairs. The upstairs lounge was pretty much devoted to T.V., while the downstairs room featured cards and board games. On this particular night, there was a boxing match being televised: a racist mismatch between a black heavyweight champion and yet another of those periodic "great white hope" opponents that are sure to sell big on pay-for-view in South Boston.

I was playing a round of cribbage with a Carmine (there were several Carmines, Sonnys and Roccos in this group), when the door burst open and in walked one of his "boys", a Sonny, very agitated. "Carmie", he whined, you won't believe what just happened! One of those Niggers in the T.V. room, he called me a Wop!"

"Why'd he do that, Sonny?" I asked, doing my best to keep a straight face.

"I don't know, maybe he didn't like it that I was cheering for the white guy".

"What did you say when you were cheering for the white guy?" asked Carmine, quite seriously.

"Just something about knock the boogie back to Africa", said Sonny.

"Well", said Carmine quite judiciously, "I guess maybe you could-a used some other word, maybe less offensive to them niggers. Whaddaya gonna do? They wouldn't dare talk back to us at home, but look where we are! Fahgeddaboudit; go back and watch the fight."

Later, I asked someone what Carmine and Sonny did on the outside. Carmine ran the loan sharking business on the docks in an eastern state, I was told, and Sonny was his enforcer, his knee breaker. On the outside, they were men to be feared; on the inside, with no business to be done, they were men of peace.

Kosher, Is Better:

On my first day, I was approached in the lunch room by three guys with the map of Israel on their faces.

"Your name Gotlieb?" I was asked. I confirmed.

"We represent the Jewish Community here in Duluth Federal Prison. We want you to know that you have friends here. If there is anything you need, come to us."

"How about that?" I quipped. "A Velcome Vagon!"

"Well, you may laugh now, but someday you might find us useful. For instance, did you know there is a Kosher food line here?"

I looked down at my tray, which held a surprisingly good assortment of tasty food, including ingredients taken from a truly magnificent salad bar.

"Why do we have a Kosher line?" I asked. "Are there Orthodox Jews here?"

"No, it's strictly political. We sued the Bureau of Prisons and won based on religious grounds, but it's really just so we can eat better."

"What about the Muslims" I asked. "They have very strict dietary rules, do they get their own line?"

"No, they never sued for it."

"Did it ever occur to you guys that they pretty much have the same restrictions you do? How come you didn't include them in your suit? I don't feel right about this. I think I'll wait until the Muslims can join the line, then I will."

A few months went by. One day, a Muslim who usually ate at the same table I did said "You Jewish?" Yep. "How come you don't eat with the Jews?" I explained my position. He looked at me like I was crazy. "Man, if I could eat on the Kosher line, I'd of signed up when I walked in. If you can get an advantage in here, you take it. Principles? You are one weird dude."

That afternoon, I went to the Chaplain and declared myself to be Kosher.

Next day, I pushed my tray through the window into the kosher kitchen. It was taken by a button man (assassin) from Philly, part of the Danbury contingency. I was expecting one of the Yids, so I stuck my head in and looked around: all Italians.

What, no Jewish cooks on the Kosher line? "We made a deal" explained one of my co-religionists. "Everybody knows Italians are better cooks than Jews. We traded cushy jobs in the Kosher kitchen (there were less than two dozen being fed on the Kosher line) for good food; they traded other cushy jobs so they could steal some of our better-grade meat for their illegal after-hours restaurant operation."

Eventually, I went back to the Chaplain and renounced my Orthodoxy. I missed the salad barů

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