I meet a lot of ex-cons and I don’t know why. The easy answer, I suppose, is that young people require adventure, and adventure requires danger, and danger requires making small talk with ex-cons. The accurate answer is in a hazy middle ground between “I live near the railroad tracks” and “I used to smoke cigarettes in parking lots.” Sometimes this was a learning process – I saw what would happen if I kept boozing and alienating people – but it was usually just horrifying.
Example. A few years ago, I was at McDonald’s and got cornered by a guy who poured 20 packets of sugar into his coffee and sauntered up to my booth to tell me he was a poet. He did most of his writing, the important stuff, in jail. He kept inching closer until he blocked my exit route, then read me a poem about how his soul was a battlefield. The battle was between light and dark, he said, because of course he did, and the light made him want a good time. But the dark made him want to stab men with his knife and watch them bleed to death. It was a lousy poem – I hate it when people subject me to their poetry – but the worst part is he followed me to my neighborhood and I had to ditch him at a 7/11.
A few months later I got on a train going from Sacramento to Bakersfield. I was warned against getting on it, because it passed by the Wasco State Prison and there would be ex-cons there. My family called it “the prison train.” I got a big lecture about how the world is evil and you don’t need first-hand experience of evil to know what it is. About how leaving your home to seek out danger is interesting only at 20 and then never again. And my grandma lobbied against it because I was in college, and anything you do in college, she correctly reasoned, is patronizing to the working class.
It was all great advice, but I didn’t care because the danger of taking a train seemed too cinematic to turn down. It was almost a selling point. Life, in all its grotesque splendor. Real shit. I’m not old enough to roll my eyes at beat poets.
I sat next to another 20 year old. He claimed to have a sixth sense for knowing exactly which passengers just got out of jail. (At this point I realized my family was right about prisoners being a real thing and not just a dramatic tool that facilitated the production of cop shows.) I asked what the guy’s system was. He said if they were playing cards, that sealed the deal. It was a lock. A sure thing. But he could tell just by looking at their faces. He just knew.
Then he proposed a bet. Once we got to Wasco, he’d point out everybody he thought was an ex-con and then personally verify each one. If he got any of them wrong, I got five bucks. Over the course of the trip, he specified a dozen people or so. He would walk up all casual, say “you just get out?” and then go back to his seat. And every last person said yes. His batting average was perfect. He said it was the eyes. And I owed him five bucks.
I always wondered how exactly his intuition developed – how did he just know? How can the eyes actually have enough data to give the layman a stranger’s criminal record? Was this a pre-meditated prank to cheat me out of a crumbled five dollar bill?
Last Saturday I came a bit closer to finding out. I was at a book store. The Christmas parade was coming through later. I was studying some fringe book about UFOs, or how JFK knew about UFOs or something, and debating if it was funny or overwrought enough to make a good stocking stuffer. (No, by the way. Because there was a chapter about Vince Foster, which meant it had too much politics and not enough cosmic paranoia.)
Right after I got to the chapter about when all those top secret documents will be declassified, I heard somebody say “man, I can’t believe people are setting up chairs for the parade already – the damn thing is three hours away.” It occurred to me that if there’s a Christmas parade, I should probably take the 8 year old to it. So without looking up, I said: “What streets does that run through? Is this the main one?” Then I looked up.
The eyes. This guy’s been in jail for a violent crime. I saw the eyes.
It wasn’t his manner of dress or even the way he talked – polo shirt and cargo shorts, acceptable haircut, shaved a couple days ago. It was strictly the eyes. I got a bit nauseous but chalked it up to reflexive distrust and decided to power through.
He took my question about the parade as an invite to a leisurely conversation. He gave me his name, said winter hit town like a ton of bricks, the usual. He said he was a graphic designer and asked what my job was. I’m not clever enough to lie so I said I was a freelance writer for some bullshit website. He said he was a freelance writer too.
He said he didn’t believe in writing on the internet, because that’s just a way for people to bitch faster. A bitch factory, actually. He only wrote on paper. I passively agreed. Then he locked eyes and said “You should do jokes. Everybody loves jokes. At the ad agency, I had some out there ones. Everybody else hated them.”
This still wasn’t proof he’d been to jail for a violent crime, but my gut told me it was. Then he told me his secret weapon. “Obama jokes. People love those. I write at least one a day.”
There it was.
No doubt anymore. His eyes gave him away. He still hadn’t said anything that explicitly proved he committed a violent crime – disliking the internet and Obama aren’t actually crimes – but the emotional tenor was off. There was an antisocial streak to how boisterous he was. He said Obama with too much gusto. He said “bitch factory” with too much gusto. A well-adjusted person says “bitch factory” dispassionately, in line at a gas station or during a traffic jam, right? Bitch factory doesn’t come from a place of happiness. It was a huge red light.
I thought I was out of the conversation. I didn’t want it to get worse. I started pretending I was really obsessed with that UFO book, really scrutinizing a potential purchase. No words, no words, no words, I’ll be out of here in 30 seconds. I’m gonna buy my book and we’ll be all clear.
“You know,” he said, patting me on the shoulder, and I’m not paraphrasing because I wrote it down while pretending to text somebody, “I was in the war. I was in the Philippines and Vietnam. You know what I learned about people? The present is the only place to live in. The hell with the past. If you live in the past, you get worried. And all worried people are bad people. I’m not worried, so I’m not bad.”
Then he got me involved.
“You’re not worried, right?”
I didn’t say anything. Pretended like maybe I was gonna get in touch with the publisher of the UFO book, secure the film rights. Meanwhile he kept turning into J.T. Walsh in Sling Blade.
“Worry means you’re not trustworthy. A worried man is capable of anything. You’ll do anything. Are you worried?”
This was my cue to completely shut him out and pretend I was getting an urgent phone call. This was now horrifying in the same way that guy with the murder poem was horrifying. It was the same tone of voice. It was an excerpt from a manifesto. He obviously thought a lot about worried men, and worry had some sort of very private, studied meaning for him. If he had scrutinized my body language at all, he would have quit talking. And he did, for a few seconds, to take a breath and straighten up his posture. Then he talked some more.
“Great news. The man I shot is dead.”
That’s where fight-or-flight is supposed to kick in, but where I always just go comatose. I have bad reflexes.
“They found his body under a bridge. Dead. Good riddance. I tried to kill him and now it’s done,” he said, laughing presumably as an act of transference, to mask his anger. “And I’m not worried. What is it the Arabs say? The best revenge is to outlive all your enemies! I did it! I win! He loses!”
I left when he noticed a new stream of parade attendees. He started complaining about all the chairs and “bottles of Starbucks” and I immediately crossed the street. Then he left the book store and started following me, matching my pace exactly. I went into an ice cream parlor so he couldn’t follow me to my truck, and waited until he got bored. He looked for me awhile, maybe 10 minutes or so, then he strolled on over to the train station.
On the drive home, I wondered if the eyes are really a dependable shortcut for identifying dangerous people. There’s no way. It’s too much of a pseudoscience. It’s something that shows up in self-help books by middle-tier con artists. But that man’s eyes gave me nightmares. I spent the rest of the day looking over my shoulder, waiting for him to yell out something about how worried I really was. I looked for him in crowds and passing cars and wondered if I saw him at the gas station. I’m romanticizing it though. Thinking the eyes are some magic decryption code for understanding bad people. Being able to spot a psycho is probably just intuition sharpened by your environment. And eventually, you just know.
(Note: I stewed over this piece for a day, and something about it bugged me. I had this gut feeling that I was withholding some key information. It’s all true; I took exact quotes and the timeline is accurate, though it’s just a story, not journalism as such. It came down to this: the event itself was an outlier in my day-to-day life. It’s an accurate representation of two hours on December 6th, 2014, yeah, but what happened then is something that happens to most of us maybe 4 or 5 times in our entire lives. To withhold what happened the next day would be self-mythologizing, so here it is: I sat in front of a computer for 11 hours and thought about making pancakes, but skipped it because I was out of syrup.)