DARKNESS COME DOWN by FLOYD SALAS
HIS NAME WAS PANCHO and he messed with me the first day I was put up in C Tank in the county jail. A white-skinned Mexican dude in his thirties probably who had a bunch of knife scars on his pale, pink body. I checked them out when he took off his shirt for some reason, maybe to take a shower though I don’t recall him ever getting into the shower when I was in C Tank with him that couple of months or so.
In fact I was the only guy of about twenty guys and more who took a shower every day, every morning in fact. I was eighteen and didn’t even shave and weighed about one-fifteen with my clothes on. Five-five with a wiry body, small-shouldered bone structure but with a big chest and thick shoulder muscles, not shaped like a body builder but full-formed, a fly-weight novice amateur fighter, had a handful of fights when I was seventeen. Dark brown wavy hair, not curly, wavy, with big curls that waved back from my temples, medium complexion, big hazel green eyes, a speck of yellow in the iris softening the green. A prisoner said, “Good body,” when I had to take a shower in B, the incoming tank on the first floor of the jail, the thirteenth floor of the county courthouse, down below the C and D tank, which were on the fourteenth floor. That was when I first got to the jail to face a superior court trial for two counts of strong-arm robbery and an aggravated assault against an off-duty cop who saw me and three other guys in a street fight in East Oakland, Ninety-Eighth Ave, and chased us down ‘til we skidded to a stop and jumped out and fought him, too. And he lost the fight and covered up with his arms and bent legs, but chased us when we first drove off from the fight and ran to a cop phone on a boulevard street corner and put out a calling-all-cars alarm and pretty quick we were in jail, thinking we just had a street fight with two guys.
But they were calling it armed robbery because we took a bottle of whiskey from the guys we were in the street fight with in the first place—when the off-duty cop first saw us—and, big crime, a paper sack with men’s socks in it.
But the real reason they were over-charging us was because we beat up the cop even if he was off-duty in street clothes and we didn’t know he was a cop.
In any case, here I was, in jail with a huge bail of fifteen thousand dollars on me and a lawyer that wanted a thousand dollars to take the case and this was in 1949 when it only cost thirty-five cents to go to the show and I earned a dollar fifteen an hour as a kitchen helper at Duchess Party Foods. I was put in this jail tank on the fourteenth floor of the Alameda court house with a bunch of adult felons and didn’t know what I was doing or going to do since a trial date hadn’t even been set yet. When it was finally set, it would be four months away.
So, I was a kid in a barred tank, a big day room with a stationary iron table and two iron benches on each side of it secured to the concrete floor in the middle of a jail tank full of felons, ex-convicts and soon-to-be convicts when they got sentenced and here’s this guy Pancho in front of me talking nasty like I was nothing, insulting me, telling me to get off the mop-wet floor or something and I didn’t even know what he was talking about but I knew he was spewing bullying hate with his spittle when he talked at me—not to me, at me.
He wasn’t big. Average size man, about five-eight or so, probably in his thirties, medium build, one-fifty say, and brown hair that fell straight across his forehead sometimes and was combed to the sides from a part in the middle, old-fashioned style in a way, foreign, like he was from Mexico.
C Tank was the best tank to be in the four tanks of the county jail—I’d find that out the hard way when I got transferred out of it. C Tank faced south and got the sun most of the day. It had a view of the South Bay over the roof tops if I’d climb up the bars a few feet and peek past the barred hallway that separated the tank from the outside walls of the county courthouse.
I don’t know what I’m supposed to do on that first day and suddenly here’s this guy in front of me talking nasty and belligerent with his thick lips spewing out spit, saying, “Get off the floor!” or something like that and I said something back and he must have pushed me because I threw a punch at him and he reached out and blocked the punch and we struggled for a moment when this older guy named Jim Fox jumped in and got between us, stopping the fight.
Maybe he was trying to protect me because I was smaller, but I could think, I was smart and I could fight, too, and I feared no one. I could drop any guy I hit with one punch, no matter how big, and had never lost a street fight in my life and I’d had about twenty or so of them by this time.
I’d gone to nine public schools before I finally graduated because I acted like a big guy which could rile some dudes. If there was a bully in the crowd, itching to vent his anger at being alive and having to fight for survival every day, he’d decide to take his pecking order instinct out on me, the smallest guy around. I was smart, too, and had skipped a grade so looked even smaller for my age around the older kids, and acted like I belonged to any crowd.
But after a fight or two, I didn’t have to fight a lot because I always won. I had athletic talent, graceful movement and was always a leader and could hit hard for my size and could drop anybody I hit, no matter how tall, and every school I went to I got a reputation as a tough kid who didn’t mess with anybody but would fight if he had to. There were boxers in my family on both my mom and pop’s sides. It was in the blood.
Usually I was the sharpest in the crowd and knew more about the adult world because my older brothers had both taken me with them on their adventures, both intellectual and physical, and treated me like an adult while still watching over me. I kept my mouth shut and got along with the older people I met through either of them, my big brothers, and learned about the big world.
I had dropped that cop after those three big guys I was with, my friends Dexter McGee, Corky Bible and Bill Waters, couldn’t put him down. I did it by reaching up between them and dropping him with a single left hook to the chin. They then each booted him once as he covered up like a ball. I saw the only unprotected part of his body and kicked him right between the cheeks of his ass and he yelped and we then jumped into Bill’s car and sped off.
But the cop jumped in his gray Ford coupe and chased us and, as we sped down San Leandro Boulevard through a mile-long section of East Oakland that had the Frisco Bay and light industry buildings on one side and houses and fields on the other, I saw him brake, jump out of the car and run to a police phone near a gas station.
“That guy might be a cop,” I said.
But Bill said not to worry about it—he’d report his car as stolen. We’d just had a fight—no big deal—Dexter said, so we decided to go get a big bottle of Coke to mix with the whiskey at an all-night drugstore market on Nineteenth and Broadway and party.
That’s when the cops hit. Bill parked his car on the corner of Nineteenth with his back-end on Broadway, the main drag in Oakland, and Corky jumped out and went inside the store to buy the Coke. The store had two doorways, one facing Broadway and the other Nineteenth. My father’s restaurant, the El Patio, was right across the street from the Nineteenth Street side door, but it was closed this late at night, after midnight. I was sitting on the passenger side of the front seat when the next thing I know I see a man through the glass window standing right outside my closed door, bent over, wearing a rumpled dark suit and hat. And he’s got a black pistol aimed at my face. He’s not a big guy but he’s not kidding. I know he’s a cop and do what he says, “Get out.” Bill and Dexter get out of the car, too, and then I’m standing on the sidewalk with Dexter and Bill and cops standing all around us—guns pointed at us.
There’s some reporters and a photographer, too. One of them, some guy I can’t see too clearly standing between two cops in the streetlight on the corner, starts bad-mouthing us, talking tough, and when he says something real wise-guy like, Dexter says something back and they trade smart remarks for a few wise-cracks. Bill and I keep our mouths shut.
I think I’m in trouble for getting in a street fight, no major thing, even if I’m going to jail. I don’t want to be there, but I’m not freaking out either. I’m glad my father’s restaurant’s closed though.
Then I’m in jail and the long nightmare starts.
HE THUMPS HIS BLACKJACK down on my thigh. A thick-bodied cop, thinning black hair spreading back on top his head from his wide face—pushing up against me on the bench where I’m waiting to get booked. I still think I’m in there for a street fight, no big deal, but they’ve taken my pants off for evidence from a spot of blood on them and now I remember Dexter in the back seat of the car leaning over next to me, dripping blood on me from his bloody nose. I’m in red boxer shorts and bare-legged and feel the heavy hardness of that blackjack on my skin clear to the bone. He got me good.
Then he does it again, in the same spot. I wince, whether I want to show that it hurts or not.
I wait for another shot and tighten my leg, but just then a gray-haired guy in civilian clothes, dark slacks and sport shirt, probably an inspector, walks in from the next room and looks at me when he walks by with what seems to be an amused smile or smirk and the balding cop leans back away from me and against the wall, playing it safe so he won’t get in trouble for brutalizing a prisoner, I guess. The booking room is the bottom floor of the city hall, which is twelve stories high, with a drive-in right next to it in the building where they drop the poor suckers off who are going upstairs to the top floor of the building, the jail, and that includes me.
I used to carry a hair brush to keep my scalp and hair healthy. Baldness ran in the family on my father’s side, but not on my Mom’s side and I was a scholar and had worked in the library as a page for a buck an hour on my first job after high-school and studied hair among other subjects like dreams and Freud and novelists like Richard Wright and so carried a brush because brushing your hair every day was healthy, I’d read. I did it so I’d never get bald when I got older.
But when the cops had me strip naked, one cop picked up my brush and with a bright look in his eye told me to turn around. I said no and wouldn’t turn or obey him because I knew he was going to poke me in the ass with it.
THAT WAS THE BEGINNING of jail time. First they put me in a separate, single row of cells that faced an enclosed yard in the middle of the main jail floor which was the twelfth floor of the city hall. The elevator stopped there.
I sang out in the middle of the day, pretty pop songs a young man just entering manhood with thoughts of mating would sing, like Louie Armstrong’s
I found my thrill
on Blueberry Hill
where I found you.
The moon stood still
and lingered until
my dreams came true.
Once, I was taken into a room with two detectives. The big fat detective in a dirty, rumpled suit, gray with age, asked me what happened, and I told him about the guys shouting at us and us getting out to fight them and picking up the bottle of whiskey and the bag with the socks and driving off and getting chased by this guy and then driving off, never mentioning that I dropped that cop with a left hook to the chin, underneath his guard and in-between the bodies of Dexter and Bill and Corky while they were throwing punches from all sides at him and couldn’t bring him down.
Then the cop says, “You sign this and we’ll charge you with petty theft and let it go at that.”
I signed and felt pretty good. Both cops that grilled me were in their forties, at least, and sloppy in their dress, and the one fat cop, who grilled me and got me to sign right off—a dumb kid who didn’t even know that I could ask for a lawyer, me just thinking it was a small charge, petty theft thing, like the cop said, no big deal—talked real civil, without education, but high-school English level, street level language, fat cop sitting opposite of me in the cubby-hole of a tiny room, and wrote down my story and got me to sign it at the end of the long yellow sheet.
I was in the cell when I was called out into the hall in the middle of the second day or so to face the two cops and all three of us, me and Dexter and Bill, were handed felony warrants for two strong-arm robberies and one aggravated assault. Their hypocrisy and deceitful behavior in over-charging us in every way, left me standing there in front of the two cops, knowing there was nothing that I could do about it. Nothing. Strong-arm robbery? Assault? He chased us. At least they didn’t charge us with attacking a cop, but that was small consolation.
Then I was taken out of the line of cells that faced the small yard down below and put up on the top tier of that cell block, the back cells, the felony cells, five levels up, facing the gray blank wall of the opposite side of the cell block at the top of the city hall. This tier had the only windows in the cell block that opened out and let the cold air in. The guys on the bottom level sweated with heat and were always crying out for us to open the windows while the guys on the top tier like me wanted the windows closed because they let in cold air that the heat from the main floor down below didn’t reach.
A couple of things happened in the twelve days of darkness I spent there that stuck with me. I found a way to keep my cell door unlocked by sticking a magazine in the doorway when the trusty in the stairwell pulled the lever that closed off the cells in the row, blocking it from closing. At night, they’d close those cell doors but in the day time they were often open and the prisoners could move up and down the tier of their cell block and go into other prisoners’ cells. You could move around at least and even sneak down to the bottom tier level sometimes. It was there where some big black dude did some tough talking and I said, “You want to spar?” and charged at him and drove him back in his cell to the back wall, throwing just body shots to keep it from being a fight, but showing what could happen if he wanted to really tussle. He backed away.
Then there was Jesse James. That was his real name. A nice black guy, average size, one-fifty maybe, who was in on auto theft and had a cell next to mine. One night the wind’s whistling in the windows in that row of top tiers and I hunker down in my blanket and try to stay warm, but start sniffling from the cold every once in a while, in the dark. The lights are out, it’s sleep time, when I sniffle again and hear from the next cell, Jesse James’ voice: “You okay, Floyd?” as if he thought I was crying. It would come to that.
“Yeah, I’m okay, Jesse. Just a little cold. Thanks,” I answered.
BUT THE DARKNESS CAME DOWN. Twelve days in that dark hole and finally there’s a preliminary trial, but long before that, days before that, there’s the life in the felony cells, the floors of iron with the caged walkways. At night, a woman would sing from the women’s dorm, which must have been on the other side of the wall of the felony cells. Her voice would come down into the tank from the darkness of the night outside those windows. A sweet pretty voice that suited her name, Pearl.
My preliminary trial was coming up and the future was unknown and filled with threat and my fear. I was in Hell on Earth and had to survive it, and so did she and so did all of us. And yet she sang and there was something about the rich tones of her voice, like chocolate or blackberry wine, that was sweetness itself. It touched my spirit and that of those around me.
© 2012 Floyd Salas
from Contrappasso Magazine #1, August 2012
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Floyd Salas is the critically-acclaimed author of four novels, a memoir and two volumes of poetry. His publications include Tattoo the Wicked Cross (1967), winner of the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and a Eugene F. Saxton Fellowship; What Now My Love (1970); Lay My Body on the Line (1978), written and published on National Endowment for the Arts Literary Fellowships; the memoir Buffalo Nickel (1992), which earned him a California Arts Council Literary Fellowship; State of Emergency (1996), awarded the 1997 PEN Oakland Literary Censorship Award, and his poetry books, Color of My Living Heart (1996) and Love Bites: Poetry in Celebration of Dogs and Cats (2006).
He was a staff writer for the NBC drama, Kingpin, released in February, 2003 and a 2002-2003 Regent’s Lecturer at University of California, Berkeley. He has recently completed a novel about 1940s Oakland entitled Seventh Street Jump. He is also working on Maverick: Prayers of Heresy, a volume of new and selected poems from the last fifty years.
He is editor of Stories and Poems from Close to Home (1986) and other anthologies of San Francisco Bay Area writing, and the author of numerous essays and reviews about writing and the creative life. Tattoo the Wicked Cross and Buffalo Nickel are featured in Masterpieces of Hispanic Literature (HarperCollins 1994). His other awards and honors include a Rockefeller Foundation Fiction Scholarship, an NEA creative writing fellowship, and two outstanding teaching awards from the University of California, Berkeley. His fiction, non-fiction and poetry manuscripts as well as letters and biographical information are archived in the Floyd Salas collection in the Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley. His novel, Tattoo the Wicked Cross, earned a place on the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Western 100 List of Best 20th Century Fiction. He has taught creative writing at San Francisco State University, University of California, Berkeley, University of San Francisco, Sonoma State University, and Foothill College, as well as at numerous writing conferences and at San Quentin, Folsom, Vacaville and other correctional institutions. He is a founder and president of the multicultural writing group PEN Oakland, and a former boxing coach for University of California, Berkeley.