An Inappropriate Life

Memoir by Stan Gotlieb

Hush Puppies are Where It's At

New prisoners at Duluth Federal Prison Camp are required to turn in all their personal clothing, except for one pair of shoes. They can only wear their own shoes for visits. Otherwise, they must wear prison issue work boots. Unless they have a "foot problem", in which case they can apply for a pair of fake Hush Puppies, made, as are the boots, at another prison, by prison labor, out of inferior materials. In "the joint", status can be bestowed by the damnedest things. One of those things is a "tailored" khaki shirt, modified from standard "dress" issue by the tailor in the clothing detail; another is a pair of beige, suede, lace-up brogans.

There's another advantage to being a shoe-wearer: certain areas, such as the kitchen, the factory, and the grounds-keeping crew, require boots. No boots, no need to find some other way out of these details, the most tedious in the prison.

Almost all the senior Mafiosi wore shoes. They also got soft jobs. They didn't have to ask. The prison authorities offered. They controlled a significant piece of the prison population, and their troops were a disciplined if not brilliant bunch. In exchange for peace, they got privileges.

I found this quite amusing. The so-called Hush Puppies were card-board-y, with thin hard rubber soles. Most of the folks who wore them suffered from some kind of abrasion or another, but hey, appearances count, right?

One day, I noticed that a couple of the most senior mob members' Hush Puppies looked a little different from the others. Upon closer inspection, I determined that they were, in fact, real Hush Puppies, smuggled in, and worn in violation of Bureau of Prisons regulations. Everyone pretended not to notice, including me.

One of the oldest of the crew, all of which arrived one day on a prison bus at the end of a grueling trip from Danville Connecticut, was a guy named Carmine, a heavy hitter from the Brooklyn mob. Now in his 70s, with false teeth and a litany of health problems, Carmine was fawned over by prisoners and guards alike. This may have had something to do with his having had his chauffeur drive his Rolls Royce limousine out from Brooklyn just to pick up his ex-showgirl wife when she arrived at the Duluth airport in his private jet, for a two-hour visit. He was overheard to say to the warden, "can't have my wife taking a cab, can I?" referring to the 1.5 mile trip to the prison.

Carmine used to come to my room to play chess with one of my room mates, an enforcer for the Roselli mob in Chicago who got caught in one of the periodic conspiracies to plunder the Teamster retirement fund. They would play very fast, and the quality of their games showed it. They would spice their moves with dire threats to each others' life and limb. They were having a good time, a couple of hard cases spoofing themselves and each other.

One day I asked my room-mate exactly who Carmine was. He pulled a book on Robert Kennedy off his shelf, saying "read this". In one chapter, the book talks about how Kennedy's power grew enormously when, while serving as a prosecutor, he lucked into information that a group of east coast mafia dons were holding a "summit meeting" at a hunting lodge in the Catoctin mountains outside New York City. The prosecutions resulting from that discovery catapulted him into national attention. According to that book, the man who called the meeting was Carmine.

About a week later, I was briefly assigned to kitchen duties. Carmine worked in the dining hall. His job was to put out the salt and pepper shakers before lunch, and then put them away afterward. Probably, his health wouldn't have allowed him to do much more, but there was no question that the job came as a gesture of "respect". On break, I wandered into the dining room, and there was Carmine, sitting at a small table in an alcove, sipping coffee. He waved me over, and gestured to the coffee pot. I poured a cup and joined him.

Carmine kept himself amused, when he was not paying chess, by testing everyone around him, and I was no exception. "So, you're here for dealing drugs, eh?" That's right. "Whaddaya, a hippy?" Nope, just a businessman, like you, Carmine. "Hey, sonny boy, I never approved any of my boys doing no drugs. I think drugs are immoral". This with a little smile and a twinkle in his eye. Well then, Carmine, with all due respect, it's a good thing I wasn't working for you. He chuckled.

Having been invited to do so by his question, I asked him a question of my own, one which is not well received in prison: what about you, Carmine? Why are you here?

"Da Gee (referring to the FBI) been trying to get something on me for my whole life. They never were able to pin even one felony on me. They tried to frame me (a common prison plaint). They messed with my family. They brought me in for audits every six months. I've spent maybe 10 years in prison, four or five or 18 months at a time. Income tax. Refusal to testify in from of a Grand Jury, or a Congressional committee. Always trying to break my balls."

So, why are they so mean to you Carmine?

"Ya wanna know why, I'll tell you why. Only one time, I fucked up. I went to this cockamamie meeting. I shoulda stayed home!"

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All materials copyrighted, 1994-2004 by Stan Gotlieb and Realoaxaca.com