The alarm went off at 4:45am on December 25th, 2009, but I had long been awake. My flight from JFK to LAX touched down nine hours earlier. I was tired, jet lagged, and anxious about the day ahead. I had that “first day of school” feeling. Mom fed the cat while my younger sister packed a cooler of refreshments for the day.
We took off in Mom’s car a little after 5:30am.
Usually, the family spent Christmases on the beach in Maui. Now we visited Dad in prison. Prison? How did this happen?
The trip to the maximum security Corcoran Prison clocked in at 3 hours. Having been turned away before, we called the prison visitor center hotline to make sure the inmates weren’t on lock-down.
Mom turned on the radio “To listen to traffic,” but it was really to drown out the silence. We drove by Magic Mountain and I remembered the Free Fall ride from my high school trip, dropping 50 stories in half a second and leaving my stomach back at the top. That’s how it felt driving to prison.
We made a pit stop at the county line in Bakersfield for one last restroom break: prison restrooms, even at the visitor center, typically had no toilet paper or soap. I’d seen Himalayan out houses that were cleaner.
The only things visitors were allowed to bring in were money, an ID, car key and an unopened pack of tissues. Sometimes I smuggled gum in my bra. Dressing for prison was a constant costume conflict, and I had to come prepared with a suitcase of clothes in the car. I liked to dress for the holidays. Years prior, I rented an Easter Bunny costume and wore it to visit Dad in jail. Oh jail. Life was so simple then.
Regardless of the written rules, if a guard didn’t like what you were wearing, you were turned away. I liked to pretend I was line at a hot new night club, hoping they’d pick me to come in.
Halfway to the visitor center door, I realized my bra had the contraband under-wire and had to rip the wires out right there in the parking lot.
Usually getting processed at the visitor center took about an hour and a half. Lately it took us over 3 hours. The guards mostly relaxed behind the counter, resting their big black boots on their desk with their big black sunglasses on, holding their big black guns. It looked more like The Terminator Convention at recess.
The guards called our names to go through security. I took off everything – my shoes, my jewelry, my bobby pins – dumped it all in the plastic bin and walked through the x-ray machine, just like at the airports. We walked through the electric gates and followed the yellow path to Dad’s facility as the tower guard watched us.
We took our table in the visiting room – much like a high school cafeteria, except for the prison guards armed with rifles, batons and mace. We bought Dad some fruit from the vending machines; the inmates couldn’t get fruit at chow, as Dad called it. They fermented the fruit into alcohol, and some fermented the packs of BBQ sauce into wine. These guys were like Eagle Scouts, and I decided if I were ever trapped on an island, I’d want a California inmate with me.
Dad came out dressed in his best double denim. This was my 10th year spending Christmas at prison since Dad’s murder conviction of his strip club partner. My father, once so powerful, now treated like a caged animal, donned with shackles. It was like seeing Superman without his powers. “I’m still the head of this household,” he’d remind us.
I knew what we’d talk about during the visits. He rehashed the same stories over and over – his case, the guards, his cellmate. He’d talk about his trial to ad nauseum, as if he’d forgotten we were there by his side.
I glanced over at Mom. She was hunched over staring at the floor, playing with hot sauce packets, squeezing them between her fingers. Mom’s life was in limbo – prisons, attorneys, questions. Even with her holiday cheer sweater, donned with bouncing bells and red ribbons, she looked defeated. Out of everything, I resented Dad most of all for that.
My sister was opening up the wrapper from the New York cheesecake we bought Dad in the machines. I used to buy my dad books, music and fine wines for Christmas. Now I sent him stamps and bought him vending machine food. “Surprise! It’s a frozen hamburger!” I’d say to lighten up the mood.
Dad looked over at Mom and squeezed her knee. Mom perked up and said “Michael, why don’t you ask your daughter how she’s doing?” Since moving to New York, I only saw Dad a few times a year.
He reluctantly switched gears for a few minutes and asked me about my car. I’d been trying to pinpoint the cause of a slight vibration. “Did you try cleaning the engine mounts?” he offered. “Yeah, I did that already and tightened up the exhaust as well.” “You should really sell that car,” he constantly repeated, since my move to NYC.
Just when we thought we’d gotten him to switch gears and have a normal conversation, he jumped right back into his usual ranting and raving. We continually hoped he’d ask us about ourselves.
Call me crazy, but I actually looked forward to one thing at prison — burritos in the vending machines. Forget about finding any worthwhile Mexican food on the East Coast. Occasionally, out of despair, I’d hit up a Chipotle in Manhattan to get my fill. Back in the fake cafeteria, I got the meat and cheese burrito. It was called The Bomb, and had red flames on the wrapper.
I eagerly waited in line with other inmates, mostly sex offenders, to microwave my Christmas meal. I doused it with extra hot sauce and dug right in. Mom warned me not to devour The Bomb, but I didn’t listen.
As I came up for air from The Bomb, I realized Phil Spector was across the room. I didn’t recognize him at first without his big wig. He looked more like Benjamin Franklin now. I politely smiled at Phil, bits of The Bomb stuck in my teeth. “Inmate restroom break,” broadcasted the guard a bit too loudly over the static-filled intercom. Phil got up and walked by me; I smiled again. Dad said he had given Phil nail clippers when he first arrived, but now didn’t speak to him much.
The guards announced visiting was over. I let out a huge sigh. Dad walked us to the door, squeezed me hard and said “take care of yourself, Lip. I love you.” I held back tears and gave him a big kiss. It was like leaving your dog in doggy day care. We waved goodbye to him through the windows. The guards herded the inmates back to their cells.
The drive back home was quiet, as usual. We were still adjusting to Christmas with sex offenders, drug lords, murderers, and now Phil.
I felt filthy after leaving prison – I called it “prison dust” and I was covered in it. My stomach rebelled against the hot sauce.
In the hallways back at work, a coworker asked me how my Christmas was. I hesitated and wondered if I should divulge the truth about prison, Phil Spector and The Bomb‘s exit strategy. Instead, I replied “Fine, and yours?”