It was days before Christmas, and Tinsel Town sparkled with flagrant extravagance. I liked the festive look, though short in spirit; I liked the looks of it.
My mother had called early that morning wanting to know if I’d be home for Christmas and I so hated to break her heart.
“I’m a performer, Mom. I work Holidays; entertain people who might otherwise consider killing themselves – just think of me as a traveling social worker.”
My lousy joke met with silence. I knew it was hard to understand. To them, Christmas was about kids running through the house, family, snow on the ground, baked ham and turkey and candied yams. I knew I’d disappoint them, but hey! all I had ever wanted was almost in the palm of my hand; so close to success, I could taste it. I had studied hard, trained hard, worked hard, and I knew what was required: concentration, and blind dedication; nothing short of that. And so I walked a straight line between performances, untouched by side-line distractions like the presence, or absence of Christmas spirit. It wasn’t as if I didn’t believe… no… I simply stayed focused on what was important to me.
This December, our comedy ensemble booked a special holiday performance at Lampoc State Penitentiary. I’d performed at minimum security prisons like St. Luis Obispo, but Lampoc? Why?
“’Cause we pay you two-hundred-seventy-five Equity minimum wage,” said Harry, our company manager, and hung up.
That was good enough for me.
Ten of us, sandwiched in a van, made the lengthy trip from Los Angeles, thinking this is just another gig – nothing to it.
“What could go wrong… there’ll be guards, right?”
Jack had volunteered to drive. I didn’t think it a good idea; the man was crazy. It’s what made him a good comic, but he was craaaazyyyy! He turned his head slightly to his right side, keeping his eyes on the road, thanks for small miracles, and asked: “Are you scared?”
“No… just wondered, that’s all.”
“Elsie is chickeneeen!”
“I’m not scared! Now, stop it!”
“Chick…chick, chick…” he spewed between his teeth.
“Go fly your broom, will you?” I leaned my head on the head rest and closed my eyes hoping to sleep the rest of the way.
We arrived on schedule. I was not duly prepared for what followed. Nobody was. The heavy steel gate closed behind us with a bang. Talk about a heart stopper. I could feel my muscles tightening. I winced and then looked at Jack for comfort, but heck! the color had drained from his face – never thought that was possible – not with him. Once inside, we followed instructions to empty all contents from our purses and pockets. After scrupulous examination, one of the guards put our possessions inside boxes with our names on them, and placed them inside a vault. Then we were searched, before being allowed to continue. I felt violated. Not realizing at the time, I had the freedom to feel violated.
“What a thrill,” I whispered in Jack’s direction out of the side of my mouth. He put an arm around me. It felt good.
Two armed guards accompanied us through long sterile corridors, permeated by the stench of industrial disinfectants, occasional rodent sightings on the way. I had a crawly feeling on the back of my neck, and my wit rapidly vanished, as the grim reality of life behind bars became evident. Several steel gates slammed behind us before reaching the auditorium; with each, I felt the impact of incarceration.
After what seemed like an endless labyrinth, we were shown into a small room where we were to meet some of the men; the ones who were trusted around visitors and who would lend a hand, backstage. We’d been briefed: keep your distance – do not touch the inmates. And even so, I was so unprepared for the encounter. I desperately needed the protection of the fourth wall, but that wasn’t a stage; it was live action – improve time – theater in the round. I had a hard time making eye contact, I remember. Suddenly, I found myself face to face with people who in my thoughts never had a face, much less a name, and their cumbersome presence was paralyzing.
What seemed like a long, laden silence in the room, cried for interruption. Out of that silence, a voice of despair screaming for compassion, found its way into my heart, though I don’t remember inviting it. With hardened, hallow eyes, their faces taut, they had waited for us like gray shadows, and I saw before me a semblance of human life; flesh, robbed of its essence. Finally, someone spoke: “Thanks for coming, I’m Bob.” A guard’s watchful eyes shifted in his direction.
In the true spirit of performance, the show went on. We gave them a glimpse of life, forty-five minutes of hysterical laughter, and left. But the once faceless, nameless statistics, now had identities I wouldn’t forget.
It was a long trip back to L.A. I pretended to sleep on the way. Tinsel Town’s exuberance, somewhat relieved my heaviness. “It looks like a vision of purgatory on the way back from hell!” I was happy to know my sarcasm had survived the day.
Finally home and exhausted, I flopped down on the couch, closed my eyes to rest a while, and memories of that day unfolded in fluid outpour. My thoughts burst in countless directions, and quite unexpectedly, brought it all home.
Always sure of myself, I knew, without a doubt exactly where I was going. But today the straight line I had been walking for so long had suddenly made a left turn. Today I had seen both the absence and the presence of the spirit.