(in which Berman is surprised to discover he’s not the only person listening when he chats with his smoking-buddy Doris in the county jail library)
Considering that Doris, or Kenneth Schmidt as the cops knew him, was locked up in the county slammer, having a chat with him wasn’t the easiest thing to arrange. Like a lot of places, Penobscot County requires you to file an application to visit a prisoner, and you have to get the application from the inmate who has to get it from an official inside. And if they approve you, you can only go on certain nights, based on the first letter of the prisoner’s last name, and you can only stay for an hour. On top of all that, you can’t just pick up the phone and call somebody who’s locked up. They don’t exactly have phone service in their cells and the jailers take away all their electronic devices, including cell phones, when they put them away. The only way I could get Doris’ attention was to write to him, which I did. I asked him to call me collect when he got the letter, which he did as soon as he got it.
“Hey, dude, what’s up? I didn’t expect to hear from you for a while.”
I got right to the point, sort of. I couldn’t help thinking about the fact that some sheriff’s deputy was probably listening to every word we said.
“Doris, how would you like a visitor one of these days?”
“Hey, man, that would be a fine thing. I haven’t seen anybody since I got here.”
“I’ve been trying to follow up on the stuff we talked about last time, but I’m getting really hung up. I thought maybe if we sat down together, like we used to do, you could help me sort things out.”
“No problem, Jed. When do you want to come? Looks like I’m going to be here for at least another couple osoap, f months. They knocked my charges down to cultivation—they grabbed the five plants in my apartment. Since this was my first run-in with the law, and I pleaded guilty, I get to enjoy this fine county hospitality for another four months.”
I’ve done a few stories about life in jail, even the county lock-up, over the years. It’s not a nice place to hang out, even for a little while. I couldn’t really picture Doris inside.
“How has it been so far, my friend?”
“Oh, you know how it goes. That stuff about not bending over to pick up the soap is pretty much on target. I don’t plan to become anybody’s bitch while I’m here. I keep pretty much to myself. They let us use the prison library, so I can still read, although Reader’s Digest Condensed Books don’t provide much of a range, in terms of topics.”
I pictured him smiling to himself as he delivered that bit of humor.
“Could I visit you in the library or are you considered such a hardened criminal they couldn’t take the chance on giving you that much freedom?”
“Oh, no, that would probably work. You can ask for it on the application.” He chuckled. “You know, it’s kind of funny. I’ve actually gotten high with a few of the guards in here over the years.”
I heard a loud beep at that point, then the line went dead. I laughed a little. I guessed maybe the guards had decided Doris and I had talked enough for one day. Doris mailed me the visitor’s application, which I completed and mailed to the jail, and two weeks later, on a Thursday night—that’s when people whose last name started with M through Z could have guests—a guard led me into the prison library and told me to sit down and wait until the prisoner was brought in. He warned me not to try to pass anything to Doris and not to let Doris give me anything. They brought him in a couple minutes after that, accompanied by a guard with a police dog on a leash.
They sat Doris down across a big reading table from me. The guard and the dog stood by the door, which made me a little uneasy. Doris, however, looked as calm and relaxed as he always did on the bench by the smoke shop in Old Town, with that slightly quizzical expression on his face. He seemed to be looking forward to our conversation. In fact, he spoke first.
“So, welcome to my home.” He swept his hand through the air as though he were showing me into his parlor. “Don’t really have much time. What did you want to talk about?”
Just then another guard came through the door, looking a little flushed. He stopped by the canine officer and asked him a question.
“Hey, is Ken here for this?”
The other guard shot him an angry look, but responded in a matter-of-fact tone.
“What do you mean? Of course, he’s sitting right there.” He pointed at Doris and looked directly in the new guy’s face. If the canine officer was trying to send some sort of signal, the second guard missed it.
“No, I know he’s here. But is Ken going to be here?”
They were no more than ten feet away from us, but the first guy tried to respond in a voice he didn’t seem to want us to hear.
“Yes, Ken is here,” he hissed, almost without moving his lips. He jerked his head toward the ceiling, as though indicating someone above us. That made me at least curious, if not a little more anxious. I switched into reporter mode in an instant. I looked straight at the guard with the dog.
“Is someone else here in the jail listening to our conversation?”
The guard punched his colleague in the shoulder hard enough to push him off balance, then turned to me.
“Yes, the lead investigator from the drug bust that brought us your friend there is in the sheriff’s office listening on the intercom.” He pointed to a painted grill I hadn’t noticed on the ceiling. This I hadn’t expected.
“Why?” I asked him, in as noncommittal a tone as I could manage.
“Because he wanted to.”
“Why?” I asked again, feeling a little flushed in the face.
“Don’t worry your pretty little hair-sprayed head about it, Mr. Berman,” he told me. He looked a little smug as he said it, as though sneaking in another cop to listen to our conversation was a pretty clever stunt. I looked at Doris and shook my head.
“Why doesn’t that surprise me?”
“Whatever, you know? If we’re gonna’ talk, we’d better get started. They just wasted five minutes of our time with their little games over there.”
I wanted to be annoyed and let the guards and Ken the investigator know it, but I realized Doris was right. We got on with our chat, but not before I added that experience to my already long list of grievances against the cops. I have to admit I had high hopes for everyone in Maine, including the police. Discovering that they could be just as underhanded and devious here as they were everywhere else I’d worked was disappointing, but not really surprising.
Doris said he knew the cops suspected he was a bigger player in all the drug stuff than he’d confessed to. He figured the investigator was hoping Doris would feel compelled to tell me things he hadn’t bothered to share with the police and they could use that to nail him for more serious offenses. I looked over at the guards who were both studying the ceiling as if they hadn’t heard a word we’d just said. Doris was right. They weren’t worth any more of our time.
I told Doris about the research I’d been doing, based on his suggestion, and said I’d be glad to blame all the awful violence in human history on a relatively few callous, depraved, twisted, sadistic individuals, but that just didn’t solve the problem for me. I told him I didn’t understand how they got away with what they did. For the zillionth time, I asked him and the universe why billions of people would cooperate with those evil people and do their violent bidding or worse, let those people and their minions rise up and destroy families, and tribes, and nations, instead of opposing them and ending their tragic rampages. I was getting up a pretty good head of steam when Doris threw his hands into the air to interrupt me.
“Whoa, Jed! No need to get that cranked up about all of this. I know you’ve been pondering all of this for a long time, and you know I have, too. But sometimes I think you don’t want to face some facts that might actually explain this whole human mess.”
That stopped me for sure.