Spider was an evil sonofabitch—mean, stupid, and a bully, but tough. He had been down for years and played the role of the “convict”, except he spent way too much time talking to the Po-leese seeking favorable treatment, a sure sign of an inmate, not a convict. He was in prison for involuntary manslaughter with an habitual offender charge added; he got a 50 year sentence, but was released after twenty.
I had a single encounter with him. One night not long after I arrived, he banged on my cell door, making a scene for everybody to watch.
“I don’t like you,” he shouted. “I don’t care who you are or how famous you are. To me you’re nothing and nobody.”
I just stared at him.
“You heard what I said?” he demanded.
“I heard.” Then I shrugged. “I don’t know you and don’t want to know you, so let’s solve the problem quickly--don’t ever talk to me and I’ll never talk to you,” and I slammed the door on him.
We never exchanged another word. When I asked Gino Gambatti, my Mafioso mentor (read the book to learn about him and his compare Mario Biagini), what Spider’s act had been about, he said Spider was testing me. He did it with everyone except those he knew would not take any shit off him; he was the classic bully.
Mario was 23, in with Mario for drug trafficking. They’d been working for their “family” in New Jersey. Both were heavily tattooed monster weightlifters. No one every fucked with them and for some reason they’d adopted me soon after I arrived in prison.
“Spider ever try that with you?” I asked Gino.
He’d just stared at me. “He’s still alive, isn’t he?”
I kept careful eye on Spider after that and watched him challenge new arrivals to prove his toughness. He was tough, years of incarceration had hardened him, yet he was early fifties, overweight, and not in great shape anymore. He’d been beaten with a mop ringer at his previous prison, had his jaw broken and a metal plate inserted in his head. No one had come to his aid; that should have taught him a lesson, but he couldn’t admit that time had passed him by.
His second clocking happened shortly after confronting me, a revelatory incident about the Prisoner Code all inmates had to live by.
Gino had preached the Code. It was sacrosanct: “Do not get involved in other guys’ problems and conflicts. See nothing, hear nothing, say nothing unless it’s a buddy or gang brother. MIND YOUR BUSINESS. Mario and I cover for each other; that’s it.”
Everyone else stressed the Code. DO NOT GET INVOLVED. It was a commandment like DON’T SNITCH. Prisoner Law.
Easy enough, I thought. Until the Spider/Kevin incident
Kevin, called Little Eddie Munster, was an excellent chess player, short, chubby and soft, intelligent, articulate and friendly. Early thirties, married with two children, he was so mild mannered that one would not have guessed he was in for two murder attempts, the knowledge of which should have warned off Spider who played a couple chess games with Kevin and got his ass beat.
I had played chess since high school, wasn’t bad, but after watching Kevin play, I knew better than to challenge him—prison was humiliating enough without getting beat at board games.
Chess is very popular in prison. The most unlikely play—monsters; WWE types--and they’re good, partly because they have all day to practice, but prison chess differs from chess on The Street in that it is noisy and pieces are slammed down for emphasis: “Now what are you gonna do, motherfucker?”, as a bishop is whammed on the board.
It’s also played quickly; seldom are more than 30 seconds taken for a move: “You gonna play or not, motherfucker? I don’t have a life sentence to wait for you.”
But no matter how quickly opponents played or how forcefully they slammed down their pieces, Kevin never lost a game. Everyone was good natured about it because he was too good to beat and he was a gracious winner. Only Spider couldn’t take losing to him.
After one game, Spider began to pick on him, brushing up against him, making insulting remarks that became humiliatingly sexual: “Get out of my way, faggot.” “Don’t come near me, queer.” “You trying to suck my dick?”
I liked Kevin; we talked about books—he was a history buff and had reviewed several books in scholarly journals. I called him Squid because he’d been in the Navy; he called me Jarhead. However, Kevin’s naval career did not end well. To support his family, he worked nights at a convenience store. One night when he showed up after duty, the store owners told him a case of beer was missing and they fired him. He protested that he was innocent, but they terminated him anyway.
He went back to base, got a pistol, returned to the store, and shot them both. Not so mild mannered after all.
In prison everyone is dangerous. The meekest turn in a moment if pushed too far, but you often don’t know what too far is until too late.
Spider’s taunts escalated, but no one said anything because inmate law decreed: MIND YOUR BUSINESS. DON’T GET INVOLVED.
I was embarrassed for Kevin but abided by the Code.
After a particularly vicious encounter in front of everyone one night, Spider got popcorn and settled in front of the TV to watch a movie in the day room. Kevin went to his cell.
The movie was Animal House, fitting I thought, and fondly remembered, so I settled to watch it too. I was engrossed until popcorn and drinks flew across the screen.
I don’t remember this in the movie, I thought, and when I looked around, I saw Kevin clubbing Spider with a sock stuffed with something heavy.
Spider was down, trying to protect his face as Kevin kept hitting him.
Suddenly Mark jumped in and wrestled the sock from Kevin. When Spider scrambled up, Mark tossed it to him. Spider, a half foot taller and fifty pounds heavier, wrapped the sock around Kevin’s neck and began to choke him out. The rest of us, about forty men, stood in a semi-circle watching. Kevin began to turn blue. Spider pulled tighter, lifting him off the ground.
I was watching a murder—frozen. I looked to others; no one moved or said anything. At the last moment, a guard rushed up and pepper sprayed Spider. Kevin dropped to the floor and Spider kicked him in the head with a steel-toed boot. Mark hid the sock.
Spider was cuffed and taken to The Hole. Guards recovered the sock and brought Mark to The Hole for aiding in the fight. Kevin was brought to medical.
That night in my cell I couldn’t sleep. I’d just stood there while Kevin was being murdered. Why hadn’t I done something? What had become of me?
I thrashed for hours in self-disgust. Then I resolved I would never let that happen again. Fuck the Code. What kind of law excused murder? I couldn’t live that way.
The next morning when it came out that Kevin had put bars of soap in the sock instead of metal combination locks that would have caused greater damage, guys were derisive: “What a fuckhead. He should have killed Spider.”
Worse denunciation was heaped on Mark: He had interfered; he’d broken The Code.
No one disparaged Spider. He’d been attacked from behind, fought back bravely, then was pepper-sprayed by a guard.
Gino was on the weight pile that afternoon when I recapped what had happened. His analysis was succinct: Kevin was an idiot to have used soap as a weapon; Mark never should have gotten involved, and Spider handled himself well.
“So I should have just stood there and let Spider kill Kevin?”
Gino gave his inevitable Italian shrug, lower lip raised, hands slightly opened. “Who cares?”
“I care! I won’t ever let that happen again. Fuck your Code. I won’t stand by and let some get murdered.”
Another shrug. “Then don’t.”
“But the Code! Your fucking Bible!”
He smiled. “Who gives a shit about that?”
“You do. That’s all you’ve been preaching. You hypocrite!”
But he ignored me and went back to lifting weights.
I stormed back into B Block thoroughly pissed at Spider, Kevin, Mark, Gino and myself.
Only that night after spending another couple hours rehashing everything did I realize what Gino had done. He’d taught me the most important lesson yet: there is no sacrosanct Code. We’re in the jungle. You’re not accountable to anyone. You do what you have to do to survive.
Next morning, I confronted Gino. “I’ve spent two sleepless nights because of you. There is no fucking Prisoner Code, is there? Its’s like laws everywhere. You break them all the time. You would have saved me if Spider had choked me out, wouldn’t you?”
He looked to Mario. They smiled. “Probably not,” Gino said.
“You asshole,” I said.