“I have a fabulouso idea,” gushed Jane, the publicist. Whenever she said fabuloso instead of fabulous, you knew it was going to not be a good idea. It was like she was trying to distance herself from the word and therefore its meaning by making it sound a little bit Italian.
“What we do is like Johnny Cash playing the prisons, only instead of prisons it will be like those kid prisons, JD centers.”
When she said “we” she meant the singer. The rest of of just tagged along with various jobs. Jane did publicity. I was the tour manager, holding the guitars, mandolin, spare strings, passports, money, some sort of financial reckoning book which remained blank. My main job was to just make sure she showed up, at soundcheck, on stage, on time, with a glass of still, not sparkling water, sparkling was a crime against nature in her book, still water on the stage. It sounds a lot easier than it was. I have a vivid memory of rushing onto planes just as the doors were closing, with stern faced air hostesses giving me the evils. And I wanted to say, this is not my real job. I was drafted. Left to my own devices, I’d be two hours early for the flight, buying magazines and buying lipstick at the airport drugstore. I remember once doing a gram of sulphate in the toilets so I didn’t get stopped at customs for the transAtlantic leg. I figured if it was in me, not on me, I’d be safe. I’d talk shite to the customs guys for five hours, but there would be no illegal drugs secreted up an intimate orafice. But I talked lots.
But I gotta tell you about JD centers. Now at this point, the only Juvenile Delinquent center I had heard of was Spofford, up the the Bronx, cos a kid my sister knew went there and whenever she and my mother would have a fight, my mother would screech, “Do you want to wind up in Spofford like ______________? In fact, we don’t even know if that girl went to Spofford. She smoked pot and painted her fingernails black before anyone else did, but that was hardly a crime. But the threat of Spofford was the end of the fight.
In later years I heard Spofford’s name was changed and eventually closed for ” a history of poor conditions and brutality against children.” But the idea of Spofford, before I knew about the child brutality bit, appealed to me. I liked the idea of living with all those bad girls, painting my nails black and eating creamed potatoes. I didn’t even know what they were but we heard that’s all they ate there, that and tinned peas. But going there as a grown up with a job to do, that was less appealing. I had feeling these kids did worse stuff than paint their fingernails black and smoke pot.
At this point as the lowly and unknown tour manager for one person, one folk singer who really liked this idea because she herself had been held at some facility at some point and therefore could relate to the kids, I had no say in this. But I had the fear.
“Well, what are the kids in for? Did they stab their parents? Did they go into fast food restaurants and shoot 40 people because they just felt like it? Or did they just shoplift from the 7-11 too much? What kind of crimes are we talking about?”
“Oh who cares? It will be her Folsom , her San Quentin, only a home for bad girls, maybe in New Mexico. I think they have a good one there.
And what makes a good center for juvenile criminals? Good security? Nice people who just did one bad thing? Do they rehabilitate them so that they can all aspire to be folk singers and do tours of other JD centers?
Will they stick gloved fingers up our bottoms to confiscate potential drugs? Will we eat creamed potatoes in metal trays? Will they riot? Should we bring candy and cigarettes? Will there be fat, bored looking security guards saying ten four into their walkie talkies? Will, in a moment of weakness, will I adopt and try to reform one of the younger ones?
Jane ignored my litany of questions. Instead, somehow we wound up in New Mexico, which was having a balloon festival. The big balloons that have a basket at the bottom and you ride in them. I thought what a great, stylish way to escape from a correctional facility. But it was really a separate thing. I really wanted to go to the hot air balloon festival, never having seen one. But we had to go to kid prison instead. We did get commemorative balloon festival tea towels. So we could pretend we went, on account of the commemorative tea towels.
Jane had a friend in New Mexico so we stayed at her house instead of a hotel. She had one of those stockpile freezers in the garage. I peeked in and the whole freezer was filled with Weight Watchers frozen dinners. She had some kids, nice kids who would probably never have to go to a JD centre and eat creamed potatoes. Heck, they could have different Weight Watcher TV dinners every night. We hung out, watched TV, ate Weight Watchers and drank buckets of diet cola. When in New Mexico, do as your hosts, even if you are speed freak thin. The singer was working on a set list. I was OK but experiencing a strange and unpleasant stomach disorder, that involved live worms coming out of my bottom. You eat a lot of crap on the road. Who knows how I got it but I confided in the host, who said, oh, no problem, I’ll call my doctor and get you a pill that will kill the worms.
She called the doctor. I do love America on this front. As if by magic, the pills arrived in a blister pack. The Weight Watcher hostess says take one now, take one tomorrow morning to kill the eggs.
I said I hadn’t eaten any eggs.
She said the eggs of the worms. If they hatched I would be back to square one, scratching my arse and seeing live stuff emerge in the toilets.
So I took a pill, slept very well, and the next day we were off the to the first JD center.
In the morning my guts felt a bit strange, but they always do so I ignored it and got me and the singer and all her implements of musicality into some taxi and I said to the driver the name of the facility, adding, “We are just like, visiting, playing a gig. We will not be incarcerated.”
The driver gave us one of those non committal smiles that said yeah whatever your freak scene, I don’t need to know the details.
The correctional facility had an agenda. We would have a tin tray creamed potatoes meal with inmates, and then go into the grassy area and the folk singer would play her gig, and interspersed she would tell them how much she related to them, and they would nod in that American facility concert right on, sis, way.
What I had not accounted for was the very heavy security, nor the side effects of the worm pills.
So first there was the meal. I really don’t know how to talk to young people in prison. I said something
like “could you pass the salt” while leaving my tray of unidentifiable mush untouched. One kid said, “Can I have your food? Do you have drugs or cigarettes, or both? Can you braid my hair during the concert?” I gave the kid my food, which was brown mush in one compartment, white mush in another, and tinned peas.
At this point I had an evacuation emergency,the pill had kicked in. I think it works by flushing out every discovered internal organ and some undiscovered ones. I pushed my tray to the kid and looked for a fat walkie talkie guy.
I said, rather quickly,I very badly need the toilet facility. Say the word facility in a facility and you are half way there.
“Yeah the food sucks but you get used to it.”
“I don’t think it’s the food, it’s a pill”
“Are you under the influence of drugs, mam?”
“yes but not fun ones. These one kill worms and I got em from the Weight Watcher lady, I’m in serious gastro intestinal trouble.”
The walkie talkie guy thought. Finally he said , “Well I can come with you to the toilets but I will have to stand outside. That kid you were sitting with, stabbed her mom with a pitchfork.”
We went way too slowly through lot of heavy doors. He had to consult a big key chain each time, to figure out the right key for the door.
It’s hard to describe the acoustic hell in an echo enhanced empty toilet in a correctional facility for wayward children, if you have the runs.
Once I had excreted every organ and then some, I went wanly back to the grass, and made sure the folk singer had a radio mic gaffer taped up to her back pocket.
Some girl behind me started to try to braid my hair. I said my hair doesn’t really braid, it’s too kinky.
“YOu look kinda white for a black chick”
“Im just a white chick with kinky hair.”
It doesn’t really braid.
“I can cornrow it. If you have drugs or cigarettes or candy.”
“No, just a worm pill.”
Wow, cool. So like, worms get high on it? What does it do to people?”
“It makes you need the toilet really badly”
“That totally sucks. Don’t you have anything else?”
I turned to look at her. “No. Do you.”
She moved away.
The singer sang some folk songs. She said she could totally relate, having been forcibly incarcerated herself for not being Mormon enough. This sounded made up, but I wasn’t gonna call her on it. I was too weak.
The kids cried out for Heavy Metal songs. She didn’t know any. She sang about pies and Alaska.
“Alaska,” said one kid. “Is that a facility”
“No it’ a state. Lots of snow. Bread is very expensive there cos they can’t grow wheat. Or something.”
That night, we returned to the Weight Watchers house, then the next day, flew out to Texas. There we stayed with her father. We ordered Taco Bell but didn’t finish it. The next morning, still hungry, we reheated the rice from the Taco Bell and ate it. We got really, really sick. So sick she had to cancel the next state Pen for wayward children. I had to go to the home for wayward girls and tell the girls she was sick.
I was led into a room of girls. Their faces fell as soon as they saw me.
“Hey , my name is Michele”
“No you are not. We’ve seen pictures, you are not her.”
“No that’s right. I’m the other Michele. She is sick. Taco Bell”
“So we dont get the concert but we do get Taco Bell???”
“no, not exactly, but we have a check for 200 bucks, you can buy a good guitar or a few not so good ones. Maybe a drum made on an Indian reservation.”
They looked really pissed off.
“What about the concert. Can you play, the fake Michele?”
“Um, I know some Neil Young songs”
“Who’s he? Is he in Led Zepplin? You guys are from England right, you gotta know Stairway.
I did, actually, but refused to play it. The second pill, which I took that morning, threatened to explode inside me. I made my excuses and left to cries of “YOu suck, you’re not even the real one, fuck the guitars, lets get Taco Bell” and so on.
It was not a good leg of the trip. In fact, we had to haul our sore and sorry arses into her father’s van and get to the next gig. I slept in her brother’s room the night before. He had posters of horror movies all over his walls. It was not a peaceful night. The next night we were somewhere in Texas, she had to leave the stage to be sick. We had to stop the concert. We stayed in a hotel that night. Soft loo roll. That was good.
Many years passed and I was back in England and had never been to prison here. Then a friend of a friend asked me to go to Holloway with him to visit a girl he knew. These girls were grown ups, but they still wanted candy and cigarettes. She looked bigger than when I saw her last. She said prison is boring so you eat. No one tried to braid my hair. We didn’t stay long, and later we went to the mini mall in Islington to buy a court suit for the girl. My friend said make it two sizes too big, so she looks small and vulnerable.”
I didn’t think it would work, but I quite like Next and all the office girls who shop in their lunch hour. I don’t know what happened to the girl or if the outsized suit thing worked. I’ve never had worms since, though my kids have. I have a phobia of reheated rice. That, and a lot of memories. ENDS