These letters written during the period September 20, 1950—May 20, 1952, while James Blake, a night club pianist by profession, was a convict in a southern county jail. The Mr. X to whom a number of the letters are addressed is a well-known American author.
FEB. 25, 1951
Thanks for your note and the enclosed dollar. It couldn’t have come at a better time, at the end of a long week of diggin’ and dyin’.
I’m doing two years altogether here, two six-months sentences on counts of petit larceny, and a one-year sentence for breaking and entering.
As far as my fall is concerned, the only mistake I made was one of judgment in choosing a partner for my small predations—we did some boosting together and everything was cool, until he got drunk and was picked up for prowling cars.
Then he was seized with an attack of compulsive garrulity and voluntarily directed them straight to me. I copped out on the larceny charges, figuring to get six months at the most, but they sprang a breaking and entering rap that I knew nothing about. What happened, Don H. got drunk and went on the prowl again, but in the boarding house where we were staying. How about that? My presence on the burglarized premises was established, and that was enough to get me a year.
Briefly, my fall partner was a southerner, with a brother on the force, and I was a Yankee ripe for burning. I got two years, he got six months.
I’ve been here since last September 20, and it’s rugged back-breaking labor on the bull gang. We work out on the road under three shotgun guards. On the occasions when I simply wasn’t able to keep up, and tired of trying, I was sent to the Box, a solitary cell, high and narrow (3 x 8 x 8 ) with no window or bed and a tin can for sanitation. Five slices of bread a day and all the water you want. At first it just made me mad, but now I’ll admit I’m scared of it. As a result I spend most of the time in a haze of anxiety, trying to work hard enough to please the head-guard, Piggy, a fat sadistic Georgia cracker, real high-type Southern gent.
All of it has got my nerves to a dangerous point, and I must get away. It’s been done by a lot of prisoners, running right out from under the gun. It isn’t as hard as it might seem, because one of the guards will grease for twenty-five bucks. Once over the line, only about twenty miles away, there’s no serious pursuit, because the County is too broke to finance sending after anyone any distance. So I’m trying to raise the loot and just waiting.
Incoming mail is not opened at all, and it’s easy to kite a letter out, as I’m doing with this. We’re allowed to receive just about anything except firearms, so if you have a white T-shirt and a pair of old tennis sneakers, I could use them, not only for working in, but they’ll be handy when I hang it up. Stamps and envelopes are hard to come by here too, and writing and receiving mail is really the only thing to look forward to.
What I do need though, to help me hold on to my fading wits, is a radio. Being without music is like being deprived of light and air, it is as though all the color and shape and meaning have gone out of my life. Please, Bud, if you can get hold of any kind of beat-up little radio, send it along.
Anything you do, any loot you can send will be repaid—I’ve got a little over 300 bucks stashed in a safe place nearby, the remains of the proceeds from a gas station we pilfered before we fell. I guess the only reason my voluble chum failed to spill his guts about that was the faint hope that he’ll be able to lay hands on it when he gets out, but it’s safe enough, the poor child.
Well that is the whole loused-up deal, and the only good, if it is that, to come out of it is that I now have muscles in my eyebrows and all elsewhere.
And that somewhere along the line in all this tohu-bohu I’ve come of age. And am I bitter? Bébé!
P.S. There is another and better way to hang it up, which is to have a car pick me up on the road where the crew is working. I’ve looked at it from all angles, and it’s practically foolproof, since the guards aren’t allowed to fire at a moving vehicle. So if you have a taste for a little B-movie action, let me know. Seriously, Bud, I know it’s too much to ask but Jesus, I godda get odda here.
P.P.S. When you get this, please send me a postcard—just checking on the mail connection.
MAR. 4, 1951.
Many thanks for your note and the enclosed buck; I was able to purchase some tobacco to supplement the weekly ration of yak dung they issue here.
For good behaviour I get a big four months out of two years, leaving twenty months. As for parole, nobody within memory has ever made it out of here by that route. County needs the free labor, man.
I have carefully considered all the ways of hanging it up, believe me, and the simplest easiest way is to be picked up by a car. The crew is in the same spot every day to fill the water barrels for the road—from there it is simple to follow the truck until it arrives at the work location for the day, and await the proper opportunity.
As I explained, the next easiest way is to grease one of the guards. He’s a young guy and under no suspicion of accepting bribes. When all the conditions are right, he’ll take twenty-five bucks and give you about ten minutes before sounding an alarm.
Even the hardest way, running right out from under the gun—after you have maneuvered so that you have a good distance between yourself and the guard, and his back is turned—is workable. In the past three months three guys have done it, but even that entails a certain amount of cash for buying clothes in town, and taxi fare into town. (Nobody has ever been turned in by a cab driver.)
Having very little else to think about, I have worked out detailed plans along each of these lines, too involved to be explained here, but I’m sure they would be successful. If not, I would probably get from six months to a year additional, wear the chains for sixty to ninety days, and try again.
You advise checking these plans against reality, which I assume means calculating my chances of success. In an existence of days of heart-tearing labor and nights of dreary bestiality, any chance is worth taking. I’m just trying to get the best odds I can and a little wherewithal will supply that—I don’t mean from you, Bud; if you’re having it rough I’m damned sorry to hear it, you were so great to me, and I was pretty much chicken-shit—but I’ll get it somehow.
I’m going into a solitary cell at my own request sometime this week, to put an end to that part of my troubles that stems from my fellow-inmates and aberrant sex run wild—so I sincerely hope you will find it possible to send a radio. I can’t possibly convey how hungry I am for music, how starved for it, and I know it would do so much to fill this horrible gray emptiness, and to relieve this tension, this anxiety—
When, I shall have to resort to the ultimate refuge of the inarticulate—it stinks!
MAR. 18, 1951.
Well, my best-laid plan has gang agley—The Man, in some mysterious way, got information that three of us were planning to run, and I have been transferred to another work crew, and haven’t been out from under the gun since I joined it. That does not necessarily mean that all is lost, but it will be some time till I can sniff my way to another crack. I’ll keep you informed.
The transfer has one good angle to it, the work is lighter. Now instead of laboring like an ox, I have merely to work like a mule...
Certainly I wish there was some way of your getting that stash for me. It’s hidden in the room I occupied in a boarding-house, in a place that only the dismantling of the building would reveal, and getting it out will be more or less ticklish if the room is occupied, comparatively simple if it’s vacant. I had planned to get next to the colored maid there, who’s pretty hip, but not hip enough to be fly, if you know what I mean. If you want to make a stab at it, you can come here first (visiting hours on Sunday 3–5), and I’ll tell you exactly where to look.
Merci mille fois for the buck, it’s more than ever welcome now that I’m living in solitary—being away from my mentor, the Muskie, and all that sex hassle, has done wonders for my peace of mind and serenity, but it has also put me completely on my own resources. So if you can throw in some stamps when you send that T-shirt, I shall be glad to knock off a filling station in your honor, come The Day.
I hope fervently that you can do something about the radio—Last night I had the Polovtzian Dances from Prince Igor running through my mind, and would have given anything to hear it—before that it was Mary Martin singing “Cockeyed Optimist”—and it goes on all the time. Please do what you can, and thanks again. I hope you’ll decide to make the trip up here.
MAR. 25, 1951.
Psychologists may be right about the small percentage of junkies that are really hooked, but every case that I have personal knowledge of seems to indicate the opposite. In Lisa’s case, the ravages produced by an insufficient supply of the drug were not only mental, but excruciatingly and plainly physical. However, perhaps the book should be recommended to her. I know that she is still hot on the trail of the elusive and ephemeral fix.
From the way things look at present, the heat is really on as far as hanging this up is concerned. Both the guards on the crew are young and discouragingly agile, but I am still seeking the chink of venality in their armor. Patience is indicated, ulzo fortitude.
You do not mention going to the boardinghouse, for which I do not blame you. I can understand your reluctance to become involved in this road-company copsn’ robbers opus. With the weasel-cunning and hardihood this hassle has given me, I shall yet confound these chinchy rascals, if I can only get a little temporary backing from you.
Thanks for the Yankee dollah, it gets me through the week in pretty good shape. I regret that for the moment I can only reiterate pale gratitude. And many thanks for the package, I shall be looking for it.
APRIL 1, 1951.
The regimen of unendurable boredom indefinitely prolonged continues in force. If all the digging I have done in the past week could have been devoted to the excavation of a tunnel, I would now be somewhere under Paterson, N.J. The hope of hanging it up is rather dim at present, the new guard follows me about with a truly touching single-minded devotion. I attempt to make a friend of him, but I am singularly inept at that sort of thing, and my overtures sound false and hollow to my own ears. However, I have discovered that he has three kids, one an invalid, and is nearly always in financial straits, which may make him somewhat vulnerable—but I shall have to wait a bit.
My cozy solitary cell was needed for the quarantine of new prisoners, so I am once more back in the dormitory, and plunged even deeper into the joyless overblown sex charade from which I fled—Lord, I will be a demon ascetic when I can extricate myself from this hassle!
All this suffering would undoubtedly be salutary for my Art, if I had an Art, but I am afraid that the tiny pianistic talent I possess is more of a monkey-trick than a Sacred Flame. My problem is how to adapt all this noble suffering to a more sparkling piano rendition of “My Baby’s Boobies” or “The You Don’t Know the Half of It Dearie Blues.” Assuredly too great a heat for such a picayune pie.
I cannot adequately express my disappointment about the radio—I ran across something in Flaubert that seems apropos of all my struggles to say what I mean—“Human speech is the tin kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance, when we would move the moon.” Or T. S. Eliot’s, “Oh the agonizing struggle with words and meanings!”
Mutely yours, B.
APRIL 4, 1951.
There has been a sudden change in the shotgun guards on our crew, and one of the replacements is the young guy who was on the bull gang when I was with it, the venal one who does the little traffic in abetting escapes for a two-bit consideration.
The story is that the guards are going to be switched around every two weeks, apparently to discourage fraternizing with the prisoners. So I have two weeks to hang it up in, the easy way and the best, or else run from under the gun and risk what the boys call a “Rash in the ass,” or worse.
I had a chance for a word with him today, and the deal is still hot. Another prisoner, a kid from California, has agreed to run at the same time, but in the opposite direction, to complicate pursuit somewhat...
I have a place ready in town where I can hide out and get clothes, and lay low until I can get to that loot I’ve got stashed. From there I’ll go to Rose’s in Atlanta, and buy there what I’ll need for the trip north.
Can you swing it, Bud? I hate like blazes to impose, more than I could tell, but it will only be a temporary thing, a week at most, and I shall be forever in your debt, even when the gold is repaid. I’ve got to get out of this blasted deadfall. The way I feel now, I can wallop the world, and I want to get away before jailhouse apathy makes me no goddam good for anything.
Many thanks again for the buck, Bud. And now, sweet Jesus willing, let’s see if we can’t get me off your back and on my feet again. Je meurs, Armand, je meurs!
APRIL 15, 1951.
Still watching for my opportunity to take off, waiting until the heat is off a little. This Spring weather has set off a rash of plans on all sides to hang it up—two prisoners from the other work gang tried to run, were caught that same night, and are now wearing chains. The sight of those has made me doubly cautious, but the moment will come.
My “protector”, Joey D., the Muskie, is greatly exercised at my plans to leave—there was no way of keeping my receipt of the money from him, since we bunk together, and could not be more intimate if we were inside the same skin. He threatens intermittently to take the money away from me, but as yet has done nothing but twist my arms and pummel me some, which I am accustomed to as all a part of the impossible game I have been forced into playing here.
We also have a group of prisoners called “creeps” or “night-crawlers,” who prowl the dormitory at night and steal from the other sleeping prisoners. To report these unsavoury and totally lost creatures is of course a violation of the rigid convict code, and is called “ratting” or “cheese-eating”. Lord, what a beautiful warped bewildered pack of troglodytes. I try to preserve a philosophical attitude towards it all, lest I be provoked into making an incautious move, but the position at times is somewhat untenable.
I hope you will forgive my temerity in asking for the white T-shirt, but it really is a necessary part of the plan, and I have no other way of getting one.
Glad to hear that you were able to ransom your typewriter, and wish I had one too, so I could spare you the eyestrain of deciphering my lurching hand.
P.S. Has that fugitive fall-partner of mine shown his face? He hung it up a couple of days ago you know, and may head for Miami, since his mother lives there. I thought it best to warn you to have no truck with him, he’s pure poison.
MAY 2, 1951.
It’s damned annoying and frustrating as hell to write letters and then have them go astray. I presume that’s what has happened again, since I haven’t had any answer to my last one. I’m quite sure I shall be able to get this one out.
I’m still trying to tell you how grateful I am for your intercession with X. I hope that some day I shall be able in some way to repay that enormous kindness. And I’m still awaiting my opportunity and trying to possess my soul in patience. However, I am still in need of a white T-shirt to wear in place of the prison shirt when I take off. It isn’t just an idle whim, but a very necessary part of the operation, and I can’t obtain one except by having one sent through the mail.
The loot you sent I have deposited with the house-man of the prison dormitory, a trustworthy elderly prisoner from Miami, who has been a good friend to me. It will be safe with him until I need it. I have convinced Joey (the Muskie) that I have changed my mind about running, so things have quieted down somewhat in that direction. He objected strenuously, and is psycho enough to foul me up in some way, so I had to forestall that.
I’m trying to raise enough dough now to finance my trip north. Not from you, I hasten to say, but from some of my erstwhile friends in Chicago. I shall have to hitch-hike most of the way, I suppose, but I should like to get out of the chain-gang territory before I attempt it. I’ve heard a lot of reports from prisoners telling of the rugged chain gang sentences they’ve pulled for hitch-hiking and vagrancy, all the way up the coast to D.C, and I don’t want to make a Dixie Odd-ysey out of this thing.
And if you can possibly make it on your way north, please stop by for a visit. I shall probably saturate you with salt tears of gratitude, and may not be able to refrain from licking your hand, but I long to see a face from the outside world and to hear an intelligent word.
Let me hear as soon as you get this, so I shall know if the mail gimmick is in working order. It has been in sad disrepair.
P.S. Please forgive this rather incoherent scrawl. The strain of all this waiting and hoping has me a trifle distrait.
MAY 7, 1951.
The small sadness and resignation in your letter quite touched and distressed me, truly, and for a little I was able to forget my own horrid and disorderly situation in realizing the dissatisfactions and frustrations of another—Really, my engulfing egocentricity makes me all but blind and deaf at times...
It’s wonderful of you to visit Lisa; the poor child is desolate—but I am in the hands of these cannibalistic Crackers, my pillow is wet, and the night wind carries my keening...
It is Monday night now, and I’m going to try to get this out tomorrow. I shall have to perpetrate some small swindle for an envelope and a stamp, or perhaps bestow my bedraggled favour on some prison-type gent. (Flahrs, kep’n, buy some flahrs from a paw gel?...).