Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.
THE HOURS AT work help to dull the acute consciousness of my environment. The hosiery department is past the stage of experiment; the introduction of additional knitting machines has enlarged my task, necessitating increased effort and more sedulous application.
The shop routine now demands all my attention. It leaves little time for thinking or brooding. My physical condition alarms me: the morning hours completely exhaust me, and I am barely able to keep up with the line returning to the cellhouse for the noon meal. A feeling of lassitude possesses me, my feet drag heavily, and I experience great difficulty in mastering my sleepiness.
I have grown indifferent to the meals; the odor of food nauseates me. I am nervous and morbid: the sight of a striped prisoner disgusts me; the proximity of a guard enrages me. The shop officer has repeatedly warned me against my disrespectful and surly manner. But I am indifferent to consequences: what matter what happens? My waning strength is a source of satisfaction: perhaps it indicates the approach of death. The thought pleases me in a quiet, impersonal way. There will be no more suffering, no anguish. The world at large is nonexistent; it is centered in Me; and yet I myself stand aloof, and see it falling into gradual peace and quiet, into extinction.
Back in my cell after the day's work, I leave the evening meal of bread and coffee untouched. My candle remains unlit. I sit listlessly in the gathering dusk, conscious only of the longing to hear the gong's deep bass,-the three bells tolling the order to retire. I welcome the blessed permission to fall into bed. The coarse straw mattress beckons invitingly; I yearn for sleep, for oblivion.
Occasional mail from friends rouses me from my apathy. But the awakening is brief: the tone of the letters is guarded, their contents too general in character, the matters that might kindle my interest are missing. The world and its problems are drifting from my horizon. I am cast into the darkness. No ray of sunshine holds out the promise of spring.
At times the realization of my fate is borne in upon me with the violence of a shock, and I am engulfed in despair, now threatening to break down the barriers of sanity, now affording melancholy satisfaction in the wild play of fancy.... Existence grows more and more unbearable with the contrast of dream and reality. Weary of the day's routine, I welcome the solitude of the cell, impatient even of the greeting of the passing convict. I shrink from the uninvited familiarity of these men, the horizontal gray and black constantly reviving the image of the tigress, with her stealthy, vicious cunning. They are not of my world. I would aid them, as in duty bound to the victims o social injustice. But I cannot be friends with them: they do not belong to the People, to whose service my life is consecrated. Unfortunates, indeed; yet parasites upon the producers, less in degree, but no less in kind than the rich exploiters. By virtue of MY principles, rather than their deserts, I must give them my intellectual sympathy; they touch no chord in my heart.
Only Wingie seems different. There is a gentle note about his manner that breathes cheer and encouragement. Often I long for his presence, yet he seldom finds opportunity to talk with me, save Sundays during church service, when I remain in the cell. Perhaps I may see him to-day. He must be careful of the Block Captain, on his rounds of the galleries, counting the church delinquents.' The Captain is passing on the range now. I recognize the uncertain step, instantly ready to halt at the sight of a face behind the bars. Now he is at the cell. He pencils in his note-book the number on the wooden block over the door, A 7.
"Catholic?" he asks, mechanically. Then, looking up, he frowns on me.
"You're no Catholic, Berkman. What d'you stay in for?"
"I am an atheist."
"A what? "
"An atheist, a non-believer."
"Oh, an infidel, are you? You'll be damned, shore 'nough."
The wooden stairs creak beneath the officer's weight. He has turned the corner. Wingie will take advantage now. I hope he will come soon. Perhaps somebody is watching
"Hello, Aleck! Want a piece of pie? Here, grab it!"
"Pie, Wingie?" I whisper wonderingly. "Where do you get such luxuries? "
"Swiped from the screw's poke, Cornbread Tom's dinnerbasket, you know. The cheap guy saved it after breakfast. Rotten, ain't he?"
"Why, you greenie, he's a stomach robber, that's what he is. It's our pie, Aleck, made here in the bakery. That's why our punk is stale, see; they steals the east to make pies for th' screws. Are you next? How d' you like the grub, anyhow?"
"The bread is generally stale, Wingie. And the coffee tastes like tepid water."
"Coffee you call it? He, he, coffee hell. It ain't no damn coffee; 'tnever was near coffee. It's just bootleg, Aleck, bootleg. Know how't's made 2
"Well, I been three months in th' kitchen. You c'llect all the old punk that the cons dump out with their dinner pans. Only the crust's used, see. Like as not some syph coon spit on 't. Some's mean enough to do't, you know. Makes no diff, though. Orders is, cut off th' crusts an' burn 'em to a good black crisp. Then you pour boiling water over it an' dump it in th' kettle, inside a bag, you know, an' throw a little dirty chic'ry in-there's your coffee. I never touch th' rotten stuff. It rooins your stummick, that's what it does, Aleck. You oughtn't drink th' swill."
"I don't care if it kills me."
"Come, come, Aleck. Cheer up, old boy. You got a tough bit, I know, but don' take it so hard. Don' think of your time. Forget it. Oh, yes, you can; you jest take my word for't. Make some friends. Think who you wan' to see to-morrow, then try t' see 'm. That's what you wan' to do, Aleck. It'll keep you hustlin'. Best thing for the blues, kiddie."
For a moment he pauses in his hurried whisper. The soft eyes are full of sympathy, the lips smile encouragingly. He leans the broom against the door, glances quickly around, hesitates an instant, and then deftly slips a slender, delicate hand between the bars, and gives my cheek a tender pat.
Involuntarily I step back, with the instinctive dislike of a man's caress. Yet I would not offend my kind friend. But Wingie must have noticed my annoyance: he eyes me critically, wonderingly. Presently picking up the broom, he says with a touch of diffidence:
"You are all right, Aleck. I like you for 't. jest wanted t' try you, see? "
"How'try me,' Wingie?"
"Oh, you ain't next? Well, you see-" he hesitates, a faint flush stealing over his prison pallor, "you see, Aleck, it's-oh, wait till I pipe th' screw."
Poor Wingie, the ruse is too transparent to hide his embarrassment. I can distinctly follow the step of the Block Captain on the upper galleries. He is the sole officer in the cell-house during church service. The unlocking of the yard door would apprise us of the entrance of a guard, before the latter could observe Wingie at my cell.
I ponder over the flimsy excuse. Why did Wingie leave me? His flushed face, the halting speech of the usually loquacious rangeman, the subterfuge employed to "sneak off,"-as he himself would characterize his hasty departure,-all seem very peculiar. What could he have meant by "trying" me? But before I have time to evolve a satisfactory explanation, I hear Wingie tiptoeing back.
"It's all right, Aleck. They won't come from the chapel for a good while yet."
"What did you mean by 'trying' me, Wingie?"
"Oh, well," he stammers, "never min', Aleck. You are a good boy, all right. You don't belong here, that's what I say."
"Well, I am here; and the chances are I'll die here."
"Now, don't talk so foolish, boy. I 'lowed you looked down at the mouth. Now, don't you fill your head with such stuff an' nonsense. Croak here, hell! You ain't goin' t'do nothin' of the kind. Don't you go broodin', now. You listen t'me, Aleck, that's your friend talkin, see? You're so young, why, you're just a kid. Twenty-one, ain't you? An' talkin' about dyin'! hame on you, shame!"
His manner is angry, but the tremor in his voice sends a ray of warmth to my heart. Impulsively I put my hand between the bars. His firm clasp assures me of returned appreciation.
"You must brace up, Aleck. Look at the lifers. You'd think they'd be black as night. Nit, my boy, the jolliest lot in th' dump. You seen old Henry? No? Well, you ought' see 'im. He's the oldest man here; in fifteen years. A lifer, an' hasn't a friend in th' woild, but he's happy as th' day's long. An' you got plenty friends; true blue, too. I know you have."
"I have, Wingic. But what could they do for me?
"How you talk, Aleck. Could do anythin'. You got rich friends, I know. You was mixed up with Frick. Well, your friends are all right, ain't they? 11 "Of course. What could they do, Wingie?"
"Get you pard'n, in two, three years may be, see? You must make a good record here."
"Oh, I don't care for a pardon."
"Wha-a-t? You're kiddin."
"No, Wingie, quite seriously. I am opposed to it on principle."
"You're sure bugs. What you talkin' 'bout? Principle fiddlesticks. Want to get out o'here?"
"Of course I do."
"'Well, then, quit your principle racket. What's principle got t' do with 't? Your principle's 'gainst gettin' out?
"No, but against being pardoned."
"You're beyond me, Aleck. Guess you're joshin' me."
"Now listen, Wingie. You see, I wouldn't apply for a pardon, because it would be asking favors from the government, and I am against it, you understand? It would be of no use, anyhow, Wingie. "
"An' if you could get a pard'n for the askin', you won't ask, Aleck. That's what you mean?"
"You're hot stuff, Aleck. What they call you, Narchist? Hot stuff, by gosh! Can't make you out, though. Seems daffy: Lisn t' me, Aleck. If I was you, I'd take anythin' I could get, an' then tell 'em. to go t'hell. That's what I would do, my boy."
He looks at me quizzically, searchingly. The faint echo of the Captain's step reaches us from a gallery on the opposite side. With a quick glance to right and left, Wingie leans over toward the door. His mouth between the bars, he whispers very low:
"Principles opposed to a get-a-way, Aleck?
The sudden question bewilders me. The instinct of liberty, my revolutionary spirit, the misery of my existence, all flame into being, rousing a wild, tumultuous beating of my heart, pervading my whole being with hope, intense to the point of pain. I remain silent. Is it safe to trust him? He seems kind and sympathetic
"You may trust me, Aleck," Wingie whispers, as if reading my thoughts. "I'm your friend."
"Yes, Wingie, I believe you. My principles are not opposed to an escape. I have been thinking about it, but so far-"
"S-sh! Easy. Walls have ears."
"Any chance here, Wingie?"
"Well, it's a damn tough dump, this 'ere is; but there's many a star in heaven, Aleck, an' you may have a lucky one. Hasn't been a get-a-way here since Paddy McGraw sneaked over th' roof, that's-lemme see, six, seven years ago, 'bout."
"How did he do it?" I ask, breathlessly.
"Jest Irish luck. They was finishin' the new block, you know. Paddy was helpin' lay th' roof. When he got good an' ready, he jest goes to work and slides down th' roof. Swiped stuff in the mat shop an' spliced a rope together, see. They never got 'im, either."
"Was he in stripes, Wingie?"
" Sure he was. Only been in a few months."
"How did he manage to get away in stripes? Wouldn't he be recognized as an escaped prisoner?"
" That bother you, Aleck? Why, it's easy. Get planted till dark, then hold up th' first bloke you see an' take 'is duds. Or you push in th' back door of a rag joint; plenty of 'em in Allegheny.
"Is there any chance now through the roof?"
"Nit, my boy. Nothin' doin' there. But a feller's got to be alive. Many ways to kill a cat, you know. R'member the stiff' you got in them things, tow'l an' soap?"
"You know about it, Wingie? " I ask, in amazement.
"Do I? He, he, you little-"
The click of steel sounds warning. Wingie disappears.