Part 2, Chapter 05 : The Shop
Part 2, Chapter 05
Berkman, Alexander (1912) Prison Memoirs of an Anarchist, Mother Earth Press.
I STAND IN line with a dozen prisoners, in the anteroom of the Deputy's office. Humiliation overcomes me as my eye falls, for the first time in the full light of day, upon my striped clothes. I am degraded to a beast' My first impression of a prisoner in stripes is painfully vivid: he resembled a dangerous brute. Somehow the idea is associated in my mind with a wild tigress,-and I, too, must now look like that.
The door of the rotunda swings open, admitting the tall, lank figure of the Deputy Warden.
The Deputy slowly passes along the line, examining a hand here and there. He separates the men into groups; then, pointing to the one in which I am included, he says in his feminine accents:
"None crippled. Officers, take them, hmm, hmm, to Number Seven. Turn them over to Mr. Hoods."
"Fall in! Forward, march!"
My resentment at the cattle-like treatment is merged into eager expectation. At last I am assigned to work! I speculate on the character of "Number Seven," and on the possibilities of escape from there. Flanked by guards, we cross the prison yard in close lockstep. The sentinels on the wall, their rifles resting loosely on crooked arm, face the striped line winding snake- like through the open space. The yard is spacious and clean, the lawn well kept and inviting. The first breath of fresh air in two weeks violently stimulates my longing for liberty. Perhaps the shop will offer an opportunity to escape. The thought quick- ens my observation. Bounded north, east, and south by the stone wall, the two blocks of the cell-house form a parallelo- gram, enclosing the shops, kitchen, hospital, and, on the ex- treme south, the women's quarters.
We enter Number Seven, a mat shop. With difficulty I distinguish the objects in the dark, low-ceilinged room, with its small, barred windows. The air is heavy with dust; the rattling of the looms is deafening. An atmosphere of noisy gloom pervades the place.
The officer in charge assigns me to a machine occupied by a lanky prisoner in stripes. "Jim, show him what to do."
Considerable time passes, without Jim taking the least notice of me. Bent low over the machine, he seems absorbed in the work, his hands deftly manipulating the shuttle, his foot on the treadle. Presently he whispers, hoarsely:
"What did you say?"
"You bloke, long here?"
" Quitcher kiddin.
"Honest? Holy gee"'
The shuttle flies to and fro. Jim is silent for a while, then he demands, abruptly:
" Wat dey put you here for 2
"I don't know."
"Been kickin'? No.
"Den you'se bugs."
"Dis ere is crank shop. Dey never put a mug 'ere 'cept he's bugs, or else dey got it in for you."
"How do you happen to be here?"
"Me? De God damn - got it in for me. See dis?" He points to a deep gash over his temple. "Had a scrap wid de screws. Almost knocked me glimmer out. It was dat big bull' dere, Pete Hoods. I'll get even wid him, all right, damn his rotten soul. I'll kill him. By God, I will. I'll croak 'ere, anyhow."
"Perhaps it isn't so bad," I try to encourage him.
"It ain't, eh 2 Wat d'you know 'bout it 2 I've got the con bad, spittin' blood every night. Dis dust's killin' me. Kill you, too, damn quick."
As if to emphasize his words, he is seized with a fit of coughing, prolonged and hollow.
The shuttle has in the meantime become entangled in the fringes of the matting. Recovering his breath, Jim snatches the knife at his side, and with a few deft strokes releases the metal. To and fro flies the gleaming thing, and Jim is again absorbed in his task.
"Don't bother me no more," he warns me, "I'm behind wid me work."
Every muscle tense, his long body almost stretched across the loom, in turn pulling and pushing, Jim bends every effort to hasten the completion of the day's task.
The guard approaches. "How's he doing?" he inquires, indicating me with a nod of the head.
"He's all right. But say, Hoods, dis 'ere is no place for de kid. He's got a twenty-one spot."'
"Shut your damned trap!" the officer retorts, angrily. The consumptive bends over his work, fearfully eyeing the keeper's measuring stick.
As the officer turns away, Jim pleads:
"Mr. Hoods, I lose time teachin. Won't you please take off a bit? De task is more'n I can do, an' I'm sick."
"Nonsense. There's nothing the matter with you, Jim. You're just lazy, that's what you are. Don't be shamming, now. It don't go with me."
At noon the overseer calls me aside. "You are green here," he warns me, "pay no attention to Jim. He wanted to be bad, but we showed him different. He's all right now. You have a long time; see that you behave yourself. This is no playhouse, you understand?"
As I am about to resume my place in the line forming to march back to the cells for dinner, he recalls me:
"Say, Aleck, you'd better keep an eye on that fellow Jim. He is a little off, you know."
He points towards my head, with a significant rotary motion.
The mat shop is beginning to affect my health: the dust has inflamed my throat, and my eyesight is weakening in the constant dusk. The officer in charge has repeatedly expressed dissatisfaction with my slow progress in the work. "I'll give you another chance," he cautioned me yesterday, "and if you don't make a good mat by next week, down in the hole you go." He severely upbraided Jim for his inefficiency as instructor. As the consumptive was about to reply, he suffered an attack of coughing. The emaciated face turned greenish-yellow, but in a moment he seemed to recover, and continued working. Suddenly I saw him clutch at the frame I a look of terror spread over his face, he began panting for breath, and then a stream of dark blood gushed from his mouth, and Jim fell to the floor.
The steady whir of the looms continued. The prisoner at the neighboring machine cast a furtive look at the prostrate form, and bent lower over his work. Jim lay motionless, the blood dyeing the floor purple. I rushed to the officer.
"Mr. Hoods, Jim has-"
"Back to your place, damn you!" he shouted at me. "How dare you leave it without permission?"
"Get back, I tell you!" he roared, raising the heavy stick.
I returned to my place. Jim lay very still, his lips parted, his face ashen.
Slowly, with measured step, the officer approached.
"What's the matter here?"
I pointed at Jim. The guard glanced at the unconscious man, then lightly touched the bleeding face with his foot.
"Get up, Jim, get up!"
The nerveless head rolled to the side, striking the leg of the loom.
"Guess he isn't shamming," the officer muttered. Then he shook his finger at me, menacingly: "Don't you ever leave your place without orders. Remember, you!"
After a long delay, causing me to fear that Jim had been forgotten, the doctor arrived. It was Mr. Rankin, the senior prison physician, a short, stocky man of advanced middle age, with a humorous twinkle in his eye. He ordered the sick prisoner taken to the hospital. "Did any one see the man fall?" he inquired.
"This man did," the keeper replied, indicating me.
While I was explaining, the doctor eyed me curiously. Presently he asked my name. "Oh, the celebrated case," he smiled. "I know Mr. Frick quite well. Not such a bad man, at all. But you'll be treated well here, Mr. Berkman. This is a democratic institution, you know. By the way, what is the matter with your eyes? They are inflamed. Always that way?"
"Only since I am working in this shop."
"Oh, he is all right, Doctor," the officer interposed. "He's only been here a week."
Mr. Rankin cast a quizzical look at the guard.
"You want him here?"
"Y-e-s: we're short of men."
"Well, I am the doctor, Mr. Hoods." Then, turning to me, he added: "Report in the morning on sick list."
The doctor's examination has resulted in my removal to the hosiery department. The change has filled me with renewed hope. A disciplinary shop, to which are generally assigned the "hard cases"-inmates in the first stages of mental derangement, or exceptionally unruly prisoners-the mat shop is the point of special supervision and severest discipline. It is the bestguarded shop, from which escape is impossible. But in the hosiery department, a recent addition to the local industries, 1 may find the right opportunity. It require time, of course; but my patience shall be equal to the great object. The working conditions, also, are more favorable: the room is light and airy, the discipline not so stringent. My near-sightedness has secured for me immunity from machine work. The Deputy at -first insisted that my eyes were "good enough" to see the numerous needles of the hosiery machine. It is true, I could see them; but not with sufficient distinctness to insure the proper insertion of the initial threads. To admit partial ability would result, I knew, in being ordered to produce the task; and failure, or faulty work, would be severely punished. Necessity drove me to subterfuge: I pretended total inability to distinguish the needles. Repeated threats of punishment failing to change my determination, I have been assigned the comparatively easy work of "turning" the stockings. The occupation, though tedious, is not exacting. It consists in gathering the hosiery manufactured by the knitting machines, whence the product issues without soles. I carry the pile to the table provided with an iron post, about eighteen inches high, topped with a small inverted disk. On this instrument the stockings are turned "inside out" by slipping the article over the post, then quickly "undressing" it. The hosiery thus "turned" is forwarded to the looping machines, by which the product is finished and sent back to me, once more to be "turned," preparatory to sorting and shipment.
Monotonously the days and weeks pass by. Practice lends me great dexterity in the work, but the hours of drudgery drag with heavy heel. I seek to hasten time by forcing myself to take an interest in the task. I count the stockings I turn, the motions required by each operation, and the amount accomplished within a given time. But in spite of these efforts, my mind persistently reverts to unprofitable subjects: my friends and the propaganda; the terrible injustice of my excessive sentence; suicide and escape.
My nights are restless. Oppressed with a nameless weight, or tormented by dread, I awake with a start, breathless and affrighted, to experience the momentary relief of danger past. But the next instant I am overwhelmed by the consciousness of my surroundings, and plunged into rage and despair, powerless, hopeless.
Thus day succeeds night, and night succeeds day, in the ceaseless struggle of hope and discouragement, of life and death, amid the externally placid tenor of my Pennsylvania nightmare.
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