© 2018  Laura Jean Baker

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Corn Nuts and Nirvana T-Shirts

November 15, 2017

If I were to outline my childhood using crime TV as bullet points, I’d include, for starters: Dukes of Hazard, Cagney and Lacey, MacGyver, Hunter, and Magnum, P.I. As an adult, I’d extend that list to include films, among them Shawshank Redemption and The Reader, set fully or partially in prisons, pulling rank at no. 1 and no. 2. Like most Americans, I’m not bashful in admitting my hearty appetite for crime dramas.

 

Nevertheless, I’m somehow still surprised by tidbits Ryan brings home from the Winnebago County Jail or the Oshkosh Correctional Institute – real but cinematic moments spliced from his work-a-day film reel.

 

On the silver screen, inmates always seem to alleviate their boredom by scheming. After all, Andy Dufresne spends two decades tunneling to freedom, one chunk of rock at a time. Apparently, Ryan’s clients are no different. This year alone, Ryan has represented half a dozen convicts – in jail and prison – for scheming to smuggle or trade drugs, using plans seemingly borrowed from some Hollywood script.

 

George Rizzo, for example, was a mastermind on the inside. A ten-year sentence allowed him time to analyze and exploit the cracks at any correctional institution.  He would take orders from inmates in the yard and call them in to his girlfriend and co-conspirator on an also-smuggled-in burner phone.  She filled miniature latex balloons with marijuana or heroin, tied them into bindles the size of corn kernels, and smuggled them through jail security as part of a regular ploy. At the vending machine inside the prison, Rizzo would purchase Corn Nuts – as easy as F6 or D3. Then in the bathroom, his girlfriend would dump the savory snacks into the garbage, filling the foil bag with little festoons of dope instead. Rizzo would swallow the snacks, washing them down with iced tea.  When his visit was over, back inside, he would regurgitate or defecate out the balloons and deliver the narcotics to his waiting customers. 

 

Just up the street, at the jail, women named Sydney White and Shayna Wilson – as if they were twins – separately inserted baggies of drugs into their birth canals while out on Huber work release. Who knows how many times they smuggled the dope back into the jail, to use and to sell, before they were caught? But maybe it’s worth the risk. With a little extra cash, a lady can purchase something as luxurious as St. Ives Apricot Scrub from Canteen.  

 

Another guy, Woody Barnes, pretended to swallow his anti-seizure meds every day, just like Angelina Jolie’s character from Girl, Interrupted. But out in the commons, he’d spit the pills back into his hand and trade them for coffee or beef jerky – the kinds of pick-me-ups that helped him survive a life behind bars.

 

Trying to out-smart authority figures must be an in-born coping mechanism. A student wrote this morning, nearly a week after a big due date, to say “I’m sorry I didn’t turn this paper in on time. I thought I hit ‘send’ but didn’t.” If technology has served any real purpose in the 21st century, it’s as a scapegoat. Blaming technology elicits a collective eye-roll. It’s an invitation to some communal nuisance. We’ve all suffered that headache.

 

“Does she think you’re a moron?” Ryan asked. It didn’t matter. Loopholes, white lies, little saving graces. She is a freshman, a student athlete, and certainly overwhelmed.

 

For two full weeks since Halloween, I have ferreted out candy wrappers from a million hiding places – pants and jacket pockets, books (where they’d served as book marks), pillowcases (so much for toothbrushing), backpacks, folders, and bathroom drawers. At least the kids knew enough to eat their Twix and Fun Dip under the radar, as every adult had warned them against binging.

 

Sometimes when Gus resists leaving the house for school, I ply his pockets with trinkets or goodies, anything from bouncy balls or coins to Tootsie Rolls and bubble gum. Smuggling little secrets into school is a source of comfort for him. Audrey Penn’s The Kissing Hand, too sweet for the prison inmate, is not entirely off-base. In the story, Chester Raccoon’s mom kisses his palm and convinces him that the kiss remains, a token of love he can hold and feel throughout his first day at school.

 

Sneaking around with some tangible proof of love or existence gives us strength – a talisman, a rabbit’s foot, something to ward off evil.

 

Irie’s most exciting art project ever was the “Book Safe,” an opportunity to carve out a secret compartment between the hard covers of an old novel with a razor blade.

 

Covert operations quicken the senses, don’t they? Flying under the radar resuscitates us.

 

As with Irie’s hidden compartment, one of my most vivid childhood memories – crime TV aside – is of visiting the Octagon House in Fond du Lac. A hidden tunnel lead to a clandestine crawl space, formerly a waiting room meant to keep slaves safe as they awaited the next leg along the Underground Railroad. Crouching in that cubbyhole as a small child galvanized me against whatever tediums or dangers awaited outside, as it must have done, a thousand-fold, for bond-servants. During the Civil War, “contraband” was defined, in one of many ways, as an escaped slave who’d passed into Union territory.

 

Every generation of school children has trumpeted, then smuggled in, their contraband. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, we imported and exported, across school-yard lines, slap bracelets, Garbage Pail kids, rubber poppers, and Big League Chew. Remember those Co-Ed Naked T-shirts? I never wore one, but plenty of bootleggers did.

 

And Pokémon cards have endured the test of time.

 

“Frank, how many times did you get in trouble last year for bringing Pokémon to school?” I asked.

 

“A bunch,” he said, laughing. “Yeah, a bunch.

 

Irie is next in line to boast about the Ghost Notebook she tried to smuggle on a field trip to the Grand Opera House. When she refused to leave the journal at school, her fourth-grade teacher left Irie, his pupil, behind instead, a day with the school secretary, instead of a theater, a punishment she does not regret.

 

Though she doesn’t violate the dress code often, she still thrills (as would I) at wearing her Nirvana In Utero T-shirt zipped under a sweatshirt, the transparent anatomical female mannequin like the equivalent of foreign fresh fruit, not allowed past Customs, unless, of course, it’s hidden away in a suitcase beneath a pair of running shoes.

 

Once at Marcus Cinema, when a gal at the box office sent my friend, Alex, to pitch our two hot coffees – “no outside beverages allowed” – Alex pretended to discard them but met me and the kids at a side door. We smuggled those lattes inside, and all the while Leo cried, “We’re going to get kicked out.”

 

“Oh, Leo, relax,” I said. “We’re not running drugs.” Since when is decent espresso at the movies a crime?

 

And wouldn’t it be easier to treat our children’s coughs by tucking Luden’s throat lozenges into the secret lunchbox flap than filling out paperwork with the school nurse, as if declaring duty-free merchandise?

 

When it comes to the serious criminal trafficking, kids will be creative. A report out of Illinois describes high-school students smuggling drugs inside such inventions as cored apples, hollowed-out markers, and tampon applicators.

 

Wow – a blunt encased inside a plastic pipeline, itself inside a Kotex wrapper, that no adult would question, except for the one who does.

 

Such reports illustrate how complicated we are. Do we dare applaud ingenuity? Look how creative we can be if we yearn enough to placate whatever bores or hurts us. Or should we hang our heads and decry, like all generations before us, the downfall of modern society?

 

A few years ago, after updated – and healthier – nutritional standards were established for school lunches, a few kids in Indiana (and perhaps elsewhere) smuggled salt and pepper shakers into cafeterias. According to some anecdotes, savvy teenagers sold these flavor-enhancing condiments at a cost, such that a school board president warned of students activating a “contraband economy” just as happens inside the walls of jails and prisons.

 

Now that is the stuff of legends, or at the very least, worthy of an episode of Red Band Society or Sherlock or whatever it is kids watch these days.

 

Right now, though, I’m entirely preoccupied by the bobby pins and hair-ties in my pockets; what else might I load up on to get through the day?

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