Long Story Short

Reflections of time spent in the New York State prison system at age 18. 1967-1969


My mother thought life was sweeter anywhere but where we lived. She had wanderlust; only it wasn’t for traveling to other countries, but for moving back and forth between Brooklyn and Long Island. My father went along with her flights of fancy so as not to ruffle her feathers. He was patience personified.

At the end of ‘65 we moved back to Brooklyn yet again, this time to Bay Ridge. The Ridge is so close to the North Atlantic Ocean, you can smell the salty air mixed with the scent of pizza and bagels. Within a two-mile stretch you can ride the Cyclone at Coney Island, or cross the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge into Staten Island.

While living here I had the terrible misfortune of being arrested for telling an undercover agent where he could by $7.00 worth of pot.

About a year previous I had been listening to the Young Rascals in concert at a nightclub in Port Jefferson Long Island. A distant acquaintance at the concert introduced me to someone who wanted to buy heroin. I didn’t know anything about heroin, but I pointed across the room to my friend Rodney who was selling seven-dollar bags of reefer.

I forgot about the incident till eleven months later. Cops came screeching up to my house warrant in hand. The police mistook my father for me and started to take him away, but Dad finally convinced them that he was Carl Thomas not Al Thomas. I was rousted from bed, arrested, and then handcuffed before I’d wiped the sleep from my eyes. Another hundred and fifty people would be arrested before the day was over, including my boy-hood friend Rodney. The sting was called Operation Snowflake.

The person who introduced me to the narc, was, little known to me, a junky looking to get a shorter sentence by ratting out anyone who was stupid enough to help him procure drugs for the man. I had been a punk and small-time crook in my adolescent and early teenage years, acquiring a minor police record for loitering, stealing a car battery, and forging a credit card signature for $4.00 worth of gas. Even though these were petty offenses it wouldn’t look good in front of the judge.

I spent the better part of a year on bail. Waking at four in the morning, whatever the weather, I rode the subway into Manhattan where my father had found me work as an elevator operator and janitor. He had somehow gotten me into the janitors union, which seemed to be the domain of the Irish. Abercrombie and Fitch, and Bonwit Teller department stores were my working-world for those months.

It was now December of ’67, and Suffolk County Long Island was not exactly known as a bastion of liberality regarding pot laws.
The courts hardly differentiated between pot dealers and heroin dealers. My parents couldn’t afford to hire an expensive lawyer so the court appointed a free legal-aide attorney. I could smell the alcohol on her breath. As if I needed more drama, my draft notice the arrived the day of my sentencing.

The judge looked sternly at me and barked, “You need to learn respect for the law!” and gave me three years in the New York State penal system. He didn’t want me to go into the Army; he wanted me to go to jail.

I was numb with shock. My freedom, to which I’d never given a second thought, was taken away, and the course of my life’s path wrenched in a new direction.

Handcuffed and head bowed, I was led away as my mother stood there weeping. All for conspiring to sell seven dollars worth of pot! I wasn’t even a dealer, I hadn’t even touched the pot that changed hands, nor did I make a cent from the transaction. I was only seventeen when the deal went down. But it was too late to change anything. It rankles me still. It probably always will.

I was considered a ‘youthful offender’ because I was younger than eighteen when the big crime was committed, so it wouldn’t go on my record as a felony. This good news was like a shaft of light amongst the ominous darkening clouds. I wasn’t going to Vietnam either. Maybe this nightmare was a blessing in disguise? If it was I couldn’t see it then, for fear, anger, bitterness and hopelessness engulfed me.

I remember being hustled back to county jail and taking a shower before being shipped upstate to my final temporary destination and new home. I cried quietly to myself, hoping none of the other inmates could hear me. I had just bottomed out and knew it would be a long time before I’d be free again. Now I’d have to put up a front and be tougher than I really was. It would be fourteen years before I cried again.

Some of the thugs on my cellblock in county jail had talked one of their weaker cohorts into stealing my candy when I wasn’t looking. In jail even little meaningless things like candy mean a lot. I caught the intruder and was livid not only because I was being ripped off, but also because I was still a sugar junky. I ripped the Snickers bar from his thieving brown hands and chased him from my cell. I was off to a good start with my false bravado, though his buddies jeered me and berated him.

First I was sent to Elmira – a maximum-security prison in Elmira NY – to be sorted out. Here I was evaluated to determine where I would do my time. The prison administrators found it hard to believe that I was there for so minor an offense. This bit of commentary made me feel elated.

I was a guest at Elmira for four months, much of it horrifying, and a shock to the system for sure – we were caged like animals and treated not much better. At least I had my own cell. If the guards caught you talking after lights out, they’d beat you with a Billy club.

For the remainder of my time I was sent to Camp Pharsalia, a minimum-security work camp further out in the sticks of upper New York State. The place was situated on a few acres in the middle of thick woodland with no fences or barred doors. I was now stuck inside a dormitory/bunkhouse with eighty other unlucky souls, all of who were innocent of their crimes.

Camp P. had a sawmill and lumberyard, a baseball diamond too. The inmates worked in conjunction with the Department of Conservation. Our main job was cutting down stands of trees for the sawmill. The only days we didn’t go out to work was when it was raining, or below freezing. We were just below the Canadian border so it was freezing cold in the winter months.

When I wasn’t working outside in the forest, I played my guitar, wrote songs and gave my first guitar lessons. I began to read a lot, and started writing my innermost thoughts into poems and stories as well. Nowadays my friends may wonder how I can enjoy living alone. It stems back to when I was incarcerated; there was no such thing as alone. There was always noise and other people around me. And I longed for silence and solitude.

Right next to my bunk was a ping-pong table: a guaranteed noise factory. The stereo was playing non-stop when we weren’t working. People talking, the guards yacking and yelling, it weighed on me before too long.

The inmates formed cliques and stuck together. The Black Muslims gathered in one area, the druggies in another. The brainy type guys grouped at so and so’s bunk, and the hicks congregated somewhere else. You stuck to your clique. Mine was the drug group; pot dealers, amphetamine and heroin addicts.

I was so desperate to leave that place if only in my mind, that once I tried to get high with some hash a friend had smuggled in. But I was so paranoid about getting caught that the two hasty puffs I was able to muster had no affect.

A big Irish kid used to taunt and ridicule me for being a Jew. The warden must have found out. One morning as we were standing at attention in front of our bunks for inspection the warden slapped him in the face nearly making him cry in front of us all. The Mick never made disparaging remarks to me again. I might have done something about it myself but I was trying to be on my best behavior so that when I went before the parole board the might give me less jail time.

I did get into a fight with a black kid named Archie though. We had driven up to the prison together in a squad car after we’d been sentenced from the Riverhead courthouse. We became friends and were tight. He soon became a Black Muslim while at Camp P. There was a lot of pressure within the black community to stick together and become Muslims. They’re frustration was funneled into hating us white boys. This obsession had a way of turning the nicest black kid into a self-righteous, mean and angry dick-head overnight. I’m sure they had their beefs, but who didn’t? More fucking racism, just what I need.

I was working in the kitchen for a short time. While serving Archie his lunch one day I said something that ticked him off. I have no memory of what I said, but I do remember we were all on short fuses because of our circumstances. Even though it was a work camp it was still jail: we couldn’t go home, nor could we get laid or see our families. It was no damn sleep-away camp to be sure.

We lived in a constant state of longing to be free, and an unrelenting fear that we’d somehow fuck up and have to finish our time in jail instead of making parole.

Archie copped an attitude, got hot under the collar and said to meet him in the laundry room where he worked. The laundry room had a closing door, so if you fought there you had a chance of not being found out by the guards.

I couldn’t lose face with the inmates because every dude with something to prove would find a reason to pick on me. So even though I wasn’t a fighter as such, I kept the appointment to fight. I wasn’t angry at all, harbored no grudge with Archie, but I had to go.

Archie had been a Police Athletic League boxer so I didn’t stand much of a chance, but I went in swinging. It didn’t do me much good though as Archie gave me a shot to the eyebrow that knocked me down lickety split. It was a joke, I was stunned for a second then he let me get up, but the fight had gone out of him and he shook my hand and we forgot about whatever had set him off to begin with. Good thing for me. As always, it was bad luck followed by good.

One inmate was a filthy slob, and everybody detested him. A heavy-set pimply-faced Swede whose name was Hefner. We all lived in close quarters, our bunks three feet apart. It would gross us out if someone were dirty and smelly, as we had no choice but to be near him. Some of the black brothers were downright fussy with their personal grooming, using shit like moisturizer, baby powder and the like. So they were on Hefner’s case too.

The guards made Hefner sleep right next to their station so they could keep an eye on him because they were worried that someone was going to hurt him. And they were right.

Every day we’d haul out to the forest with a conservation ranger and cut entire stands of pines down with bow and crosscut saws. Once you knew how to fell a tree properly you could drop it anywhere you wanted. If the inmates didn’t like someone they might try to drop a tree on him, accidentally sort of. You were supposed to yell. “On the wood!” which meant that a tree was coming down so look out. But maybe you’d mutter it under your breath instead of calling out.

After a couple of close calls in the woods, Hefner was quickly assigned to kitchen duty. That was brilliant, wonderful news; just what everybody wanted to hear. Now this repulsive kid would be serving us our meals. But that didn’t last too long as the goofball was so afraid of getting offed he ran away.

Not thinking with much foresight, he chose the dead of winter for his escape, and in his haste had neglected to even take warm clothes. Not the brightest bulb in the lamp. While attempting to steal clothes for warmth off someone’s clothesline he was spotted and dragged back by the scruff of his neck to good old Camp Pharsalia. The guards beat the living shit out of him, and attached another year to his sentence. Pitiful dude, you wanted to feel sorry for him but you just couldn’t.

At Camp you could make money depending on how hard you worked. If you didn’t do shit, the state would pay you 15¢ a day. If you were a decent worker you could make 20¢ a day. And if you were a hard worker you could make as much as 35¢ a day. But only eight super-achievers could make 50¢ a day. Now that’s not a lot of money even though it was 1968, but being a “Raise man” made it look good on your record when you went before the all mighty parole board. I worked diligently at whatever task I was given and eventually became 50-cent man. It really wasn’t the money I assure you; mainly I worked hard because it took my mind off the time.

I can see it as clear as day right now: preparing for my first day of working outside in mid-winter. First I put on long johns followed by cotton chinos over them. On top of that I put on thick wool pants. Next came two layers of wool socks which went under my big rubber steel-toed boots. Then came a tee- shirt, a long-sleeve shirt and a sweater, underneath a huge canvas overcoat. Add glove liners and gloves and a hard hat and I was ready for heavy weather in the high altitudes of upper New York. The clothes must have weighed twenty pounds alone.

Out in the woods they put me on a five-foot crosscut saw with big Rob, a huge, strong black brother. It whipped my ass weary. I was so tired that night I could hardly walk to dinner, and was sore for a week. But after a while I got in shape and loved going out into the spacious white-carpeted woods of upper New York State.

We’d saw or chop a tree down, then limb it, removing all the branches, and finally we’d carry it on our shoulders to where the lumber trucks were. Tough work, but it kept your mind occupied. You’d have to be in synch with the other fellows carrying the log. When it was time to drop it to the ground it had to be done in unison, or it would bounce back at you and there would be consequences without a doubt. After a half hour of work we’d have to remove our coats and sweaters because of the sweat soaking us through and through.

Becoming a 50-cent man had its privileges; one of them was going with the conservation ranger and flagging the next stand of trees to be cut down. Undertaking this task you were hardly under the scrutiny of the guards. It was a minimum-security situation, any of us could have run away at any time, but what was the use? Better to finish out your time and be done with it.

Big Rob and I were the two-man team the conservation man usually chose to go on these reconnaissance missions. Rob used to call me ‘Shine’, short for my biological fathers last name, Scheiner.

One spring afternoon Rob and I were out in the woods flagging some pines, far away from the other inmates. The ranger was not too far away but we were basically alone. I knew that in the prisons homosexual activities were going on, but at Camp P. I wasn’t aware of that kind of shit happening. Maybe there was, but if there was I didn’t know about it, and frankly I didn’t want to know about it.

Rob and I were sawing away and Rob smiling mischievously, said jokingly:

“Shine Shine, ya doin’ fine, ya miss one stroke an ya ass is mine!” Said in rhythm like the meter of a poem, like a modern day rap.

As I said, he may have been kidding around, but I wasn’t taking any chances, so I looked him square in the eyes and warned him,

“Rob you better be willing to kill me if you try any of that shit with me, ‘cause I’m dam sure gonna try and kill you!” He just smiled and continued sawing away saying,

“Ah Shine, I jus funnin’ wid you man.”

Maybe so, but I had to let him know not to fuck with me. And I damn well meant it even though he could have kicked my ass from there to Idaho. It was pitiful to see young blonde pretty boys turned into some big tough guys girlfriend in places like Elmira. I would seriously have rather died than endured that kind of abuse. As I said before, there must have been an angel watching over me because I slid through that place without too much trouble. The mental anguish just being there was plenty enough to deal with however.

I buried myself in books when I wasn’t working. A library on wheels would come once a week and I could get a handful of good ones. I found Autobiography of a Yogi there. That book proved food for the hungry soul because it talked about meditation, a way out of the mind. It described how to meditate on a candle, and since I didn’t have a candle I meditated on the knots in the pinewood walls, anything to transport myself from that place even for a minute. Reading Yogananda’s book prepared me for further enlightenment when at the end of 1971 I received the meditation techniques of Guru Maharaj Ji. So even here every step was leading me to the next.

Charlie Brown, a mellow black kid with coke-bottle thick eyeglasses, was my first guitar student. Who would have known that I was sewing the seeds of my livelihood for the future with that lesson?

Come Christmas I gathered a group of talented singers and helped put on a concert, with me playing back-up guitar.
Aside from the enjoyment of doing the shows, it was always a great boon to be able to see the women who visited their inmate relatives. Girls would also come from the towns nearby to drop off some Christmas cookies to the “poor” boys at the camp. I would watch them wistfully, and think, “What I’d give to be able to touch the soft skin of a woman again, to smell her!” If I was close enough to catch the scent of one of these angels, I would blanche, and become catatonic with a combination of lust and embarrassment.

When we traveled in our converted school bus to and from work in the different forests, we’d pass small towns and hamlets where we’d catch people carrying on with their normal lives. I’d just about jump out of my seat when I saw an attractive woman, all the guys on the bus pointing out this one or that one, jostling for the best view.

It reminds me of that line in a Jackson Browne song “Save me a taste of something fine.” And I’ll add a little line of my own here: “’Cause when I get back out on the streets, I’ll be making up for lost time!”

I began lifting weights, and wound up weighing 175 pounds – the heaviest weight of my life then or now. With a ravenous appetite from the work in the forest, and the three big meals I was scarfing down every day, it wasn’t difficult for me to put on the pounds. My parents hardly recognized me when they came for their fist and only visit. My father had back problems and couldn’t hack sitting in the car for the eight-hour drive.

Over the years I have come to believe in blessings in disguise. Who knows, maybe my jail sentence saved me from going to and possibly dying in Vietnam, – would have I even gone to Vietnam? – But it never lessened my rage at the justice system for dealing with me so harshly. I didn’t learn respect for the law, but I did learn an abiding fear and mistrust of it. I know with certainty the anger I harbored thereafter had a major part, some eleven years later, when I blithely threw pot seeds into my garden in Malibu, and all the reefer madness that followed in the years to come.

I felt as though every time I broke the law regarding pot, I was getting even because of the raw deal I unjustly got. Payback, if you will. Cock-eyed justification most likely, but that’s the drift nonetheless.

I was paroled after serving eighteen months. I’d counted every single day till my release date, fantasizing about the traveling I would do once my parole was finished. I thought long and hard about what most people took for granted: freedom.

I was free all right, but for ten years solid had nightmares about being sent back to prison. The dream was always the same: walking back in through that big heavy steel-barred door, with the guards mocking me, saying, “See, I told you you’d be back again!”

While I was incarcerated Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King were assassinated. The Beatles ‘White’ album and Dylan’s ‘Nashville Skyline’ and ‘John Wesley Harding’ recordings came out. It seemed like the pages of history had turned without me.

I spent a month in Elmira State Prison just before my release, to prepare me for the “world”, and to remind me of where I never want to wind up again. When that big steel door closed behind me I let out the deepest sigh of relief. Now all I had to do was be cool and not fuck up, as I still had a year and a half of parole to do.

It went like this: a commercial bus stopped in front of the prison, and I got on it, no guards, no bars, nobody to tell me what to do and where to do it, a free man. I was now twenty-one and it was the middle of 1969, a month or two before Woodstock. The bus dropped me in Manhattan, and from there I took a subway to Mill Basin Brooklyn; yes my folks had moved again.

On the subway I had to work hard to keep my eyes from popping out of their sockets as there were all these sexy young girls wearing mini-skirts and blouses with NO BRAS!!! I felt shy and self-conscious. My free state eyeglasses with Buddy Holly thick black rims were steaming up, and I couldn’t wait to get the ill-fitting ‘state o’ suit off and throw it away.

Though only a year and a half had gone by, things in the world had changed, and I was enjoying some of the changes right off the bat.

My brother Richard had saved a hundred bucks from his job at a bakery in Bensonhurst. He had slaved away for $1.00 an hour, but took me to the East Village and spent it all on a new wardrobe for me. What a kid brother.

An attorney I had known from my pre-jail days found me a job in Queens working for a real estate company; answering phones and running errands. Two months later he booked me for a gig up in the Catskill Mountains singing at a hotel in the ‘Borscht Belt’ for one night.

The “Borscht Belt” refers to the Yiddish meal of borscht, which is a cold beet and sour cream soup. The “belt” refers to a long string of hotels in the Catskills where New York Jews go for summer vacation.

It so happened that the weekend of my gig was the same weekend as Woodstock, which was taking place only seventy-five miles away. But I didn’t want to push my luck with my parole officer so early in the game, so we killed the idea of going there immediately.

The Yids who went to the Catskill hotels were used to a different kind of show than my particular act, but it didn’t matter much as they were absorbed with eating and Kibitzing (talking and socializing). I had practiced for this gig and it went of well, with me performing original songs, Beatle songs, and some folk and R&B tunes.

My brother Rich came along to keep me company and do our brother hang, as we had some catching up to do. On the train in route up to the gig we had met some bona fide brown rice-eating hippies.
We jibed with them, and after some small talk they invited Rich and I to their farm should we want to come and hang out after my gig. I scribbled down their address and said we’d give it some thought.

I had the extreme good fortune of meeting a sweet young waitress at the Catskill gig, and we hit it off right away. The next day she and I made love in her cabin to the sound of raindrops falling on the roof. I was one hell of a lucky guy, but she was an equally lucky girl too, as I had lavished all my pent up desire on her.

The following day Rich and I decided it was time to move on – a theme that would be very popular with me for the next few years and then some. Leaving the Catskills we hopped on a train and made for the hippy farm.

They were glad to see us and cooked a special dinner in our honor. They whipped up a sumptuous organic vegetarian meal with apple pie for dessert #1. And for dessert #2 they offered us Windowpane acid.

I was so paranoid of getting busted again at this point, and would have a hard time even smoking weed for a while to come, but I felt safe here, and Rich and I took the offering and went with it.

Rich was convinced he could only feel the acid on the left side of his body. We watched a huge moth in awe at its perfection. It rained that night too, and we listened to The Incredible String Band album and tripped out of our minds.

It felt like the cobwebs were being removed from my soul, and I was home again.