My Life with Piper: From Big House to Small Screen
The other true story behind ‘Orange Is the New Black’
By Larry Smith
I was 29 years old and living the dream, or at least my version of it, when everything changed. I was in love with an amazing woman and had a rent-controlled sublet in New York City’s West Village and a good job at a glossy magazine. By any estimation as I now recall my life before it was tossed upside down, my girlfriend and I had no discernible problems.
I was a senior editor at a magazine called P.O.V., which was aimed at young guys who wanted to make a ton of money and spend it trekking in Tibet (tagline: “Work hard, play hard”). Five days a week I walked 10 blocks to my job, hunkered down in my cubicle, shot the shit with the editorial crew, and settled into making life better for twenty- and thirty-something guys who already had it pretty good. And I had it pretty good, too. How hard can things be when your big goal for the day is to write an article for a grooming column on how to get the perfect shave? I was cruising along with my story (“Step 3: Apply a preshave moisturizer to open up pores and loosen hairs”) when Piper called to say four words no one ever wants to hear: “We need to talk.” For emphasis she added, “In person. Right now.”
What had I done? Drunk-dialed an old girlfriend? The ’90s were hazy, but I did not recall that happening. Was her old boss luring her back to San Francisco to produce the follow-up to her smash infomercial for Sweet Simplicity (the ultimate hair remover)? I doubted it.
The 20 minutes until she reached my office from our apartment were long, but I did what I always do: kept going.
I have no memory of the first time I met Piper Kerman. I am told it was in the summer of 1989. I had a job as a counselor at a program called Exploration, or Explo, one part summer camp with all the usual stuff (softball, archery, and, because it was on the rarified campus of Wellesley College, windsurfing) and one part afternoon “courses” taught by college students such as myself. I taught a class in social psychology. I’m not sure what we did for an hour a day for three weeks, save for watching that scary video of the Stanley Milgram experiments (where subjects administered what they thought were real shocks to their peers) and discussing the famous Zimbardo experiment that examines prison guard-prisoner role play. With much more gusto I led a class called “I Got My Tie-Dye at Macy’s: The ’60s Meets the ’80s.” About a dozen precocious teens and I discussed freedom rides and civil rights, read Kerouac and Martin Luther King Jr., and listened to a lot of Dylan.
It was at Explo that I crushed hard on my first lesbian, Susan. I had no idea she was gay because I was a clueless 19-year-old, and she appeared to be keen on another counselor named Leif, a short Nordic-looking guy who everyone fawned over because, well, he was an actor. A Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, to be precise. He played Donatello in the movie.
Shortly after I realized Susan wasn’t into guys, she decided that she liked me, and we hooked up. I had no idea then that, for whatever reason, I would love a lot of lesbians in the next two decades, and they, oddly enough, would love me back. This and good hair are the gifts the universe has given me.
Piper had been invited to speak to the students by my friend and fellow counselor, Kristen, as part of a gay and lesbian awareness day program. In 1989, teaching a bunch of 15-year-old summer campers that being gay was OK was pretty damn edgy. I have a vague memory of standing at the back of the cafeteria that had been set up as an auditorium while gays and lesbians talked about being gays and lesbians. But I don’t remember Piper, who was one of the speakers. If I had met this Breck Girl blonde then, I’m sure I would remember it. I was likely staring at Susan, who was surely staring at Piper.
I loved Explo, but I wouldn’t be back. I was graduating college that spring into a job market in deep recession, and I wanted to become a writer, so that summer was better spent learning how to wait tables. Little did I know that at a brewery in Northampton, Massachusetts, Piper Kerman would be doing the same thing.
Piper and I arrived in San Francisco via very different routes, even though we were heading west for the same reasons: to reinvent ourselves. Going to college at the University of Pennsylvania, just 30 minutes from the South Jersey town where I grew up in a loving and occasionally smothering home, had me itchy to expand my worldview. Don, a friend since fourth grade, also had a notion to get out of Dodge after we graduated in 1991. The plan was this: Take as long as our funds would hold out and see as much as the country as possible, with a vague idea that we’d end up in San Francisco.
We camped in our blue L.L. Bean tent. We slept in our car in hotel parking lots and cleaned up in the lobby bathrooms in the morning. In some cities, we called upon parents of friends from college, asking to crash in their guest rooms. We did it because we were 21 years old, had little self-consciousness and lots of entertainment value, and usually ended up being taken out to dinner. In St. Louis, we woke to the smell of just-baked muffins my friend Allison’s mom left us. On the kitchen table was a note that said: “Tom and I will be home at 6 and we’re all going out for burgers. I’ve left you house keys and a map to the city.” We got high and went to the Arch.
We looked for juke joints in the Mississippi Delta. The night we arrived in New Orleans we checked into a youth hostel and then hit the town hard, and shortly thereafter were mugged at knifepoint. Briefly, but with enthusiasm, Don and I looked into renting an apartment in Kansas City and applying for jobs at the weekly newspaper. We encountered a friendly anti-Semite in Texas and were gently propositioned for a threesome by a man who worked at the Carter Center in Atlanta. In Nashville, we snuck into Vanderbilt’s student cafeteria, crashed a frat party, threw up our dinner, and fell asleep on couches in a common area in a dorm. I remember, with absolute clarity, being curled up in the fetal position with a massive hangover the next morning and hearing the voice of what I assumed was an RA saying, “Does anyone know who these two guys are?” and someone replying, “I think they’re Phil’s friends.” We were not.
More than two months and 13,000 miles later, Don and I were in San Francisco. I had long before fallen for the city after a family trip out west and repeated viewings of Vertigo (VHS). After discovering my mom’s beat-up copy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl among the Mona Simpson and Toni Morrison novels, I started reading Kerouac and the Beats.
My parents have always been a weird bundle of neurosis and contradictions. They never coddled me like Larry Bloom’s parents on Orange Is the New Black, but anyone who knows Carol and Lou Smith can see how they share the Blooms’ overprotective instinct.
My mother was the daughter of a family doctor who took pies as payment when his patients were cash poor; she worked as a high school teacher, then took time off to raise three kids, returning to school to get a master’s degree in social work. My father was the son of a Russian immigrant, Morris Smith, whom everyone called Smitty. Smitty came to America at age four and lived the classic American dream, ultimately owning his own pharmacy in Maple Shade, New Jersey, a small suburb of Philadelphia. My dad is now in his early 70s and still practices law at a small firm he runs in South Jersey, in the same town where he and my mom were high school sweethearts.
But in ways that seem much weirder from my newly acquired perspective as a parent myself, my folks were unconventional. They took my two sisters and me to see Saturday Night Fever in 1977 and covered my seven-year-old sister’s eyes during the nude scenes. We were the youngest people at the Eddie Murphy concert (usher: “You know this show contains very graphic language.” My dad: “Yes”), and for my 13th birthday I took a dozen friends to see Pink Floyd: The Wall.
We were never spoiled, though we were showered with love, with guilt, with expectation. No one was Tiger Mom’d in my family, but my sisters and I caught an intense work ethic by osmosis: It wasn’t until I graduated from high school that I realized most middle-class dads back then didn’t work six days a week.
With the help of grandparents, who embraced every early-bird special they ever met, my parents put three children through college. Their terms and conditions: We were not allowed to apply to school on the West Coast. So perhaps it was both my destiny and suburban-boy rebellion to head west as soon as I was on my own.
In the early ’90s, San Francisco was still years away from its first tech boom, and you could show up with little money and make your way. My six-week search for a place to live ended when I wandered into a garage sale taking place inside a three-bedroom apartment in the Lower Haight. For $800 a month, it was all ours.
I got an internship at SF Weekly, the city’s alternative newspaper, and a series of jobs waiting tables at increasingly worse restaurants, culminating in Pizzeria Uno, where I served $9 lunch specials and drank after my shifts like only a twenty-something with tip money in his pocket can. I started getting freelance writing assignments, which was fortunate, because I was a terrible waiter.
One of my first accepted pieces was for a weekly called East Bay Express. I wrote an overwrought personal essay in response to a Time cover story about Generation X. I don’t have the stomach to re-read those words now, but the piece was illustrated by a guy named Dave Eggers, who had also recently arrived in the Bay Area. Dave said that he liked my story and wanted to get coffee. He had an irresistible charm and a way of making you believe that anything was possible, and he invited me into the crew that would help him launch Might magazine (tagline: “It’s a goddamn brain picnic for the young and restless”). Might was not long for this world, but it catapulted Eggers and many others in its lattice into professional orbits, changing my own life along with it.
Across the country, Piper Kerman was finishing up at Smith College and moving onto, briefly, a similar path. Faced with a terrible economy and little sense of what she wanted to do with her life, she took a job at a brewery in Northampton, where she got entangled with an older woman (known as Nora in Piper’s memoir, and reinvented as Alex Vause on the show). I have to take Piper’s word that Nora, too, had an irresistible charm and way of making everyone in her orbit believe anything was possible, changing Piper’s life along with it. Less than a year later, Piper would tell her lover she was leaving her and the drug world she’d become enmeshed in and head to San Francisco. A few months after settling into the city, Piper was working two waitressing jobs, keeping her secret past very close to her vest, and moving into a flat two blocks from me.
I almost didn’t meet Piper a second time. I stayed in sporadic touch with Kristen from Explo over the years; this was pre-Facebook, when you really had to work to keep up with friends. When Kristen left a message on my answering machine to say that she was in San Francisco, I was pleasantly surprised. She invited me to join her and a friend for brunch, which I almost blew off because I had a writing deadline. But when I realized they were meeting three blocks from my apartment, I powered down my Mac Classic and arrived halfway through their meal at Kate’s Kitchen.
Piper was pretty by anyone’s standards, but blonde, blue-eyed, Waspy girls are catnip for hairy Jewish guys like myself. I zeroed in on her killer calves, the kind you can get only from good genes and miles and miles of running. Piper and I got off to a good start, bonding over our love of Kate’s bacon-cheddar pancakes. The conversation turned to sex. Piper mentioned that her relationship was in a rocky spot.
“What does he do?” I asked.
“She is a law student,” Piper said, without missing a beat and with a bit more irritation than warranted.
Surely, she assumed I was yet another meathead straight guy. Yet my gay cred was impeccable: college thesis on Cole Porter; unpublished op-ed in support of a gay rights march in 1991 in Kennebunkport, Maine; gay roommate.
I rolled my eyes, ate my pancakes, and figured that was the last I’d see of the touchy lesbian. Then the conversation moved on to Melrose Place, the going television concern in 1994. Piper did not own a TV, which was kind of wonderful for someone who had recently transitioned from the food service industry to working for an infomercial company. Piper and Kristen invited themselves over that night to watch it with me and David, my ebullient, red-haired roommate. Piper soon joined David’s gay and lesbian book club and was back in my living room a few weeks later. She was warming to me. She mentioned that she liked my Miller’s Crossing poster and my extensive Tom Waits CD collection, two of the quicker ways to my heart.
Soon enough, Piper and I were both ending relationships—I with a graduate student, she with an aspiring U.S. Olympic softball player. My ex looked like Ali MacGraw, circa Love Story, hers like actress Nancy McKeon, circa her role as Jo on The Facts of Life. We were both intensely driven at a time when few people our age in San Francisco seemed to be. We worked longer hours than most of our friends, who could be found rollerblading in Golden Gate Park by 5:30 p.m. Late-night empathy calls from our offices across town turned into 10 p.m. dinners.
Piper was the ultimate platonic playmate: We drank bourbon, ogled girls, shot pool in lesbian bars, and walked on weekends to all parts of the city, stopping to catch a church gospel service or grabbing a Bloody Mary. Best of all, no one gave me better advice on women, holding nothing back and offering a few pointers. If you’re a straight, single guy, I cannot recommend a no-bullshit lesbian bestie highly enough.
My folks visited often. They loved San Francisco and adored my ex-girlfriend—Harvard grad, tattoo-free, half-Jew that she was—and were taking our breakup hard. As we walked down Haight Street during their first trip to see me after I told them the bad news, we ran into Piper. She was carrying a basket of freshly laundered clothes, her blonde hair bouncing in time to her step—poised, personable, and most likely wearing a sundress. It was easy to see why, as she once told me, she was the friend other friends took along to dinner when their parents came to town.
We said goodbye, and I could see my dad’s brain working as he watched her trot down a street paved with piercings, surly, tattooed video clerks, and pre-Etsy handcraft shops. “Now there’s a nice, all-American girl,” Louis Smith, Esq., announced. “Why don’t you go date her?”
“Thing is, Dad, that’s the all-American lesbian,” I explained.
My father shook his head in a familiar way. It wasn’t a shake of disgust or disappointment. It was the gesture of a man who still used a dictaphone instead of a computer and knew he would never adjust to a rapidly changing world. “I just can’t figure this place out,” he said.
My first weekend going away with Piper seemed innocent enough. The plan was that we two good pals, neither of whom theoretically had any romantic interest in the other, would drive up the coast, check into a B&B, and kick back for a night. When I shared this weekend agenda with my roommate, he was dubious. Hadn’t I fucked up a number of female friendships already in the messy year that I’d been single? (Yes.) What’s the big deal, I countered—Piper and I had slept in a bed together multiple times after nights of excessive drinking, all without incident. One night away? Piece of cake.
“Larry,” he said to me like a stern father, “remember: She’s a lesbian.”
I tried to. But when you’ve been sitting across from the coolest, hottest woman you know in the dining room of the Boonville Hotel in Northern California, having the best time in your life, and find yourself doing things you’ve never done before, like ordering port, things get cloudy.
The drive home the next morning was awkward. I was sure we were not going to be lovers and wondered if we would still be friends.
The following year I went to the desert arts festival Burning Man with garbage bags full of ready-to-burn wicker baskets from my apartment’s walls and 20 friends who comprised our new theme camp, Motel 666.
Over the next three days, I learned about the genius of the gift economy (nothing for sale; everything for trade); met the then-unpublished author Jonathan Lethem, who gave me a galley of his first book, Gun, With Occasional Music (wish I’d kept that); and began to become the adult person I was meant to be. And I shared a tent with my new girlfriend, Piper.
That fall I wrote a story for P.O.V. about the festival and ended it with a series of responses to the question, “What does Burning Man mean to you?” People said heady things like: “It’s like Yom Kippur, a day of atonement, only you don’t have to fast” and “It’s a symbol of destruction that can make way for creation.”
Piper’s response? “In the end, I think everyone just likes a topless girl on a bike.”
I’m not sure if that’s the moment I knew Piper was the girl for me. Or if it was when she told me that she was tempted to sleep with me just to shut me up about another woman I was obsessed with, whom she had decided was not worth my trouble. But the moment I was hooked forever was probably during a cross-country trip we took when we decided to move to the East Coast together. After a few days in Kansas City, we were set to hit the road toward Louisville when she told me she required one last stop at Arthur Bryant’s for a slab of ribs for breakfast that we could eat in the car. Shortly thereafter, she turned to me and said, “Baby, would you pop open a beer?”
The freedom of that road trip, and our first year back east that followed, was about to come to an abrupt end. Twenty minutes after saying “We need to talk,” Piper appeared in my office. The look on her face told me whatever was going on was about her, not me.
She pulled me onto the building fire escape. “You know how I told you I worked for an international art magazine after college?” I did remember, but she had always been vague about that time in her life.
Against everything in my nature, I had not pried about this unclear, seemingly lost year traveling the global art world with a girlfriend she never talked about. Her post-college year sounded cool, but all she’d said was that it was “not a great time in my life.”
I knew nothing about everything she was about to tell me: A story that years later would be told by Piper herself in a book translated into 20 languages, a story that would stream to millions of people across the world.
I don’t remember the exact first words I said on that fire escape. But the scene that played out before us was pretty close to what happens between Piper Chapman and Larry Bloom in the first episode of Season 1 of Orange Is the New Black. I didn’t say, “Are you fucking kidding me?” Clearly she wasn’t. The blood did not drain out of my body leaving me lifeless, nor did I lose my mind and start screaming. I didn’t, like Larry Bloom, exclaim, “Who are you? I feel like I’m in a Bourne movie! Have you killed?” But I wish I had—it’s a great line.
She didn’t tell me everything about her secret past that afternoon—she feared that I could be called to testify against her if she did. But she gave me the mind-blowing broad strokes: Shortly after graduating from college, Piper fell for what she described as “a sophisticated older woman” who asked Piper to travel with her to Bali, Brussels, and beyond as she continued her part in an international drug cartel. Piper was led to believe she would not have anything to do with the drug ring, but rather simply be there to keep her girlfriend company, all the while enjoying fancy hotels, decadent meals, and other so-called perks of the trade. A few months into their travels, Piper was asked to carry a bag of money from Chicago to Brussels, which she did. Shortly after that she was asked to carry drugs, which she narrowly avoided. She broke up with her girlfriend, fled the scene, and relocated to San Francisco. Fearful that her life and possibly her family members’ lives were in danger, she told her parents a version of where she had been and what she had done. For many years her secret seemed safe.
Finally she was telling me for the first time.
As has now been seen on TV, with many of the same words I used that afternoon, I told her I loved her. I told her we’d deal with it. I told her we’d get through it together. She told me she needed to borrow a cell phone from a co-worker of mine in order to call a lawyer in case our lines were being tapped. Paranoia? Perhaps. An indictment does that to you.
The men in my family would not be described as brave. What we are is loyal, and we are good problem solvers. So I moved into trying, with as little emotion as possible, to help fix this thing. It would be years before we would tell my own father and mother anything about this ordeal. Right then I needed to talk to someone who could at least help us navigate the road in front of us, so I called Eric, a good friend and, more important, an attorney. He was a big networker and would surely know more than we did about good legal counsel in Chicago, where Piper had been indicted. Above all, he was available to drink at lunch the next day.
As Piper began to wind her way through the criminal justice system, we kept our situation quiet from all but a few intimates. This decision was both practical and emotional. The late ’90s swept Piper out of her career making infomercials and into the dot-com bubble. She was a creative director at an online agency that seemed to be sold and/or change names every few months. While her job often involved standing over a 20-year-old and making sure he coded instead of playing EverQuest, she wanted to keep it: It was important to stay busy to stave off thinking about the future. And we had mounting legal bills.
Then there was a consideration that cannot be overstated: If you know your friend or family member is very likely on her way to prison, the topic threatens to consume every conversation. Even the chats among the few people who knew what was happening were draining.
Perhaps the most annoying reaction was disbelief, as in: “Middle-class white girls don’t go to prison for old drug crimes!” It’s a sentiment that’s fucked up on multiple levels—probably because to some extent it’s true; because it implies we could buy our way out of the problem; and because I knew Piper was going to prison. I did not know when and exactly for how long until she appeared before Judge Charles Norgle on a cold December morning in Chicago in 2004, pleading guilty to a reduced charge of money laundering, and receiving a reduced sentence of 15 months in federal prison.
Piper was scared and angry and depressed. Scared because she had little idea of what to expect inside a prison. Information about the female federal prison experience was scarce—the early-’80s TV show Prisoner: Cell Block H and the memoir of Scarsdale diet murderer Jean Harris don’t get you very far. Angry because it all seemed like such a waste: a waste of government resources; a waste to remove a functional and now law-abiding citizen from society 10 years after the crime; a waste of the opportunity to have Piper do years of community service, such as working with addicts, talking to kids about her mistakes, or mentoring young women in trouble. Depressed because six years knowing you could be sent to prison at the drop of a hat will break anyone, even my unbreakable girlfriend.
I was mostly fine. There were moments when I thought about Piper’s decision to break the law and was furious. I wasn’t mad because Piper made a bad decision when she was young and stupid. I was mad because I did the math on all the time and mental energy consumed by the ordeal, and it was time we wouldn’t get back. There’s not enough meditation in the world that could make most men I know believe “everything happens for a reason” when you live under a cloud of uncertainty for so long, a cloud that you can’t help but think is pissing on your best years.
Even so, these feelings rarely came up when we were in the middle of everything. To be mad while she was freaking out before her departure or trying to navigate her new world didn’t seem like a fair fight. I may have become an angrier person during Piper’s time in prison, but I also became a more patient one.
As the actual sentence neared, we began what felt like both a coming out (“I’m a convicted felon…”) and a farewell party (“…who will be going away for a while”) as we told our larger circle of friends. We spilled the story to gaping looks, uncertain questions, and supportive hand squeezes. If we seemed calm, it was because we were both ready for her to get in and then out of prison and move on with our lives. We got good at these talks; it became a script we had down cold. I also realized that when you tell your friends a story like this one, they pick up the check. I started booking these get-togethers at better restaurants.
How our friends reacted told us as much about them as it did about us. Our friend Candace burst out: “No fucking way—I knew something big was up! A bunch of us thought you were in the CIA.” One of our most tough-love and Republican friends, Michael, could not have been more empathetic, and his mom was Piper’s best pen pal over the next year.
Over pastrami at Katz’s Deli, our friend Gary said: “I’m going to tell you a version of what I told married friends who recently found out that the wife had cancer. I told them no one should get cancer, but if any couple could handle the challenge, it was them.” In other words: Honey, if any couple has to have a spouse go to prison, it probably ought to be you, because at least your friends all know you’ll be okay. He looked at me, and we all looked at each other, nodding in tacit agreement: Larry, on the other hand, wouldn’t do so well in the pokey.
In the spring of 2013, I am watching an advance screener of the soon-to-be-released Netflix show Orange Is the New Black, and a guy named Larry, who looks more like me than not, proposes to a blue-eyed blonde named Piper, looking like the younger cousin of my wife. They’re on a beach, as we were when I proposed, and he removes a ring from a sealed plastic bag, as I did. Larry Bloom, in one of his best lines, explains: “I gotta lock this shit down before you leave, Pipes.” I’m pretty sure it’s something I said, too, and even if I didn’t, it’s the scene at which my friends dropped their vocal opposition to Jason Biggs. For the record, though, I have never called her “Pipes.”
When Piper optioned her book to Jenji Kohan, the creator of Weeds, a number of people were asked to sign over something called “life rights.” In short: Some version of our lives could be depicted on the show, and we each agreed not to sue its creators if, for example, the character based on one of us was depicted as snobby, dopey, bitchy, overbearing, short, whatever. There’s a tremendous amount of trust that Piper had to put in Jenji.
If the show was unrealistic, salacious, or just plain bad, it could tarnish Piper’s book, a serious, accessible, and largely sex-free window into the women’s federal prison system. It was also a memoir written by a reluctant memoirist. Piper is a private person who told her story because she believed she could get a lot of people to pick up a book about prison who probably wouldn’t otherwise. Through this “Trojan horse” protagonist who might remind them of themselves, their daughter, or their niece, readers would get a peek into the diverse and complex world of women in prison: who they are, what happens when they get there, and what kind of world they’re dropped back into when they are released. The reaction to the book Orange Is the New Black gave Piper an opportunity to speak out on criminal justice reform—an opportunity very few prisoners have. The decision to give such a personal work over to a stranger—albeit an Emmy-winning one—looks easy now. Back then it wasn’t.
Piper’s instincts are great (with, um, one certain huge exception), and she is not risk-averse. She liked Jenji a lot and trusted her to do right by her book and the issues it brings up, while doing what Jenji Kohan is paid to do: make compelling television. And we trusted Piper. So we all signed the form. The one exception was her brother, who always likes to go his own way.
As the show began to come together, Jenji asked us a question: Could she call the main characters Piper and Larry? Tough choice. If the show works, it’s great to be “the real Piper.” But “the real Larry?” I wondered why they would want to use a name that peaked in popularity in the ’40s. In a rare moment of not overthinking, I gave in.
It was a much bigger decision than we realized. It’s trippy to watch an adapted version of some of the most intense, intimate moments of your life play out on TV, in some version of real time, and know millions of others have watched it as well and have formed an opinion of “Piper and Larry.” It’s one thing to see someone reading your wife’s book on the subway; quite another to be standing in line for a movie in Brooklyn and hear the guy in front of you say to his date, “That newsstand we passed looks just like the one where Larry in Orange Is the New Black bought all those papers that printed his article.” It’s like living an out-of-body experience out of someone else’s body.
It’s also surreal to be moved by your own fictional—though mostly true-to- life—marriage proposal, recited by someone else. It’s funny to at once wish I had said a few of the things Jason Biggs (who plays Larry) said to Taylor Schilling (who plays Piper) and also be annoyed the writers didn’t use some of my lines.
Let’s go to the tape: Season 1, Episode 1, minute 19:30. We, too, were on the water, stationed on a big rock with sand in the middle of a cove on the New England coast, not the sprawling beach you see in the show. I did have a ring that I stowed in a Ziploc bag, but not just one ring, and there were no diamonds.
I knew, for example, that Piper wouldn’t want a large stone. Instead, I gave her seven small, elegant rings from her favorite jeweler, one for each of the years we had been together. Unlike Larry Bloom, I didn’t capture the moment on my phone, but only because in the early 2000s phones didn’t have video. I can assure you that if that same scene took place today, I would, and my Piper would, like her TV counterpart, yell, “Oh, you asshole” upon realizing the camera was on.
“What did you do the night before you dropped off your fiancée at prison?” This is a question I’ve been asked a lot, and one my life had not prepared me to answer before I learned about Piper’s past.
In the TV version of our lives, the last supper was a pig roast with friends in a Brooklyn brownstone. We didn’t do that. We were still living in the East Village. We also did not want to share our last night together with anyone, even our best friends. I did what I do on special occasions: I cooked. I made Piper a big steak, rare the way she likes it, with homemade fries and my famous mixed greens, blue cheese, pear, and edamame salad, as well as a killer bottle of red wine, all served as we watched The Big Lebowski. We had foie gras to start, the leftovers of which became the foie gras sandwich that in her book she describes eating in the waiting area at the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury. In the show, that sandwich gets changed to a burrata sandwich, which, to my mind, isn’t what you want on your way into prison.
The scenes of Larry Bloom dropping Piper Chapman off at prison are otherwise almost exactly as they happened—the words, the gestures, the goodbye kisses—and they are painful to watch. We parked outside the prison so Piper could sort through a pile of photos to bring in with her in a clear plastic bag, each shot a reminder of who and what she wasn’t going to have in her life for a while. When we drove to the gate, the guard assumed we were visitors and seemed nonplussed when we told them she was there to “self-surrender.” In time I would know that Piper was by and large OK and would learn how to do the job put before each prisoner: survive in there. I did not know that then. It was a sad and scary day for both of us.
The five dumbest things people said to me during the 13 months Piper spent in prison:
“Will you visit her?”
“A year to read and get fit? That sounds pretty good to me.”
“Since she’ll have lots of free time, think she’d mind reading my unpublished novel?”
“Does she have email?”
“Your girlfriend’s in prison? Cool.”
Everyone wondered how the separation would change us, individually and as a couple. They worried. About violence (for her). About sex (implied lack thereof for both of us). About stress (for us and our families). About health (they assumed she’d be fine but that there was a good chance I’d eat a bowl of cereal and drink half a bottle of red wine every night for dinner).
Piper’s attitude was that you can survive anything for a year, so no one should be feeling sorry for her. It’s classic Piper: steely and self-contained. I grew up with a different window into the world of women, one where they are a little neurotic and a lot needy. In general, being with Piper was a revelation and a relief. But the downside was that I often missed the neediness and neurosis, which wasn’t this particular tough, sexy dyke’s strength. No part of me was happy that she was going have to learn to lean on me in a radical new way. And it wasn’t easy for her to surrender and realize what would later help her do her time more than anything else: She was not alone in this.
There were the pure logistics of managing her time away. Before she left, we created thepipebomb.com, a basic website where I could post updates about Piper and information about visiting, sending books, writing letters, et al. The day before she self-surrendered, Piper wrote the Piper Kerman Is Going to Federal Prison FAQ, answering questions such as “What kind of place is the prison?” “Will Martha Stewart be there?” and my personal favorite, “How’s Larry? Should I buy him dinner or something?”
Larry needed extra-special care, for sure. I had a part-time job keeping Piper’s life in order while she did her time. I paid her bills, kept her email inbox from overflowing, and signed for her packages, wondering exactly when she had stopped bidding for vintage clothes on eBay. I began my own weekly visitation routine and managed her visitation list so that she wouldn’t have three visitors one weekend and none the next. Unlike Piper Chapman, the real Piper had a broad community of different people on the outside that was pulling for her. At times I felt like a cross between the president of a prison fan club and a crazed soccer mom juggling her children’s schedules.
There’s an expression when talking about the loved ones of prisoners: “They do the time with you.” What we boyfriends and husbands soon realized was that we were also doing the time with one another.
From the beginning, Piper and I knew we had to physically see each other as much as possible for her sake and mine. Visitors are a prisoner’s lifeline. They are vital for so many reasons, but ultimately I think it comes down to this: We’re a reminder—both to the prisoner and to others—that these prisoners are people who are needed back on the other side. According to a 2006 study by Hedwig Lee of the University of Washington and Christopher Wildeman of Yale University, more than 17 percent of all American women have an imprisoned family member. The happiest and saddest place I’ve ever been in my life was the visiting room at FCI Danbury on Mother’s Day.
Most partners of prisoners aren’t as lucky as I was. I didn’t have to scramble to find extra money to put in Piper’s commissary account, where she could buy things like Cremora and toothpaste. I had a car and was able to afford the gas to drive the 70 miles to the prison during weekend visiting hours. During the week, when I would be coming from midtown, I was fortunate that my job at Men’s Journal allowed me to cut out of work early to catch a train to Danbury. I doubt a position on Wall Street or at Walgreens would have allowed such flexibility.
I visited nearly every week, once in a while crashing at a nearby motel so I could come back the next day. The prison visiting room, which was then open Thursday through Sunday (later they cut the hours to Saturday and Sunday only), looked like a neglected kindergarten with its wobbly chairs and tables, peeling paint, and signs like “Smile, God loves you.” When I had to miss a visit for an out-of-town magazine assignment, I felt bad. When I couldn’t make it because I took a trip to a sandy beach in Mexico with six people who didn’t get involved with an international drug ring, I felt guilty.
The visiting room wasn’t filled only with men, but those of us there for our wives and girlfriends had a special bond. Like at the men’s room at Giants Stadium, where the hedge-fund manager sidles up next to the pipe fitter, we were drawn together for a common cause, feeling exposed and maybe a little sheepish, but fiercely loyal and rooting for the same team.
I struck up an especially good rapport with a guy named Ray, who, like me, was in the visiting room week after week. Ray was optimistic, with a warm smile on his face. His girlfriend, Yoga Janet (aka the real Yoga Jones), was a pretty blonde lady like Piper, also in for a drug offense. After Thursday or Friday visits, when I’d leave work early and take the train up from the city, Ray often gave me a ride back in his VW Bug, jazz playing on his CD player, easing the sting as Danbury faded into the distance for another seven days.
When Piper learned that John, the husband of one of her fellow-inmate friends, was my neighbor in Brooklyn, I arranged to give him a lift on the occasions when I drove up—with his baby snoozing in the back. John worked for a conservative management-consulting firm, and unlike me, his friends and co-workers had no clue about his wife’s situation. Women are the fastest-growing segment of prisoners in the U.S. (hence the title, Orange Is the New Black), so there have never been so many people like John and his family in this country. I was not a dad when Piper was in prison, but I am now. What happens to kids and families when mothers are sent to prison is indefensible.
Whatever the car-pool configuration, we husbands and boyfriends appreciated our common ground. We talked a lot of logistics, as if prison were a puzzle to be solved or fantasy football game to be won. How much “good time” (prison lingo for time off for good behavior) did your lady have? To what halfway house would she be released after prison? For that year, no one else in my life knew the reality of our circumstances, like why buying your fiancée a Diet Coke from the vending machine in the visiting room was among the greatest acts of love you were capable of performing.
I’m not sure why, but we never talked about sex.
Let me be clear: There was some seriously frustrating sexual math going on. The longer Piper was inside, the hotter she was getting. The day I dropped her off, her eyes were swollen from crying, with bags from too little sleep and too much booze.
Once in prison, you can be a slug and sit around watching terrible TV through your commissary radio headset ($42.90—that is, if they have them in), eat the crappy food, and gain weight. Or you can read everything you can get your hands on, live on cucumbers, raw cauliflower, and peanut butter, and run in circles like a rat around the track. Piper chose the latter. Each week I showed up, she was getting more ripped, and I was getting more “backed up,” to use the preferred phrase of the ladies at Danbury. To make matters worse, a crafty prisoner with serious seamstress skills made her khakis tight tight tight.
Prison rules allow for one quick kiss upon arrival and one at departure. After spending time in that room week after week, I got a little too comfortable. One afternoon, a lingering kiss was loudly interrupted by a guard nicknamed “Gay Porn Star” for his likeness to a Tom of Finland illustration (you may know him as “Pornstache” in the show), who screamed across the visiting room, “Watch the contact or you’re outta here!” It was a humiliating moment for me and a scary one for Piper. “You gotta knock that out, Larry,” she growled at me. “They can put me in the SHU [Special Housing Unit, aka solitary] for this.”
Gay Porn Star was the worst, but he wasn’t the only guard who played a role in our relationship. They controlled the inmates’ lives, and, on visiting days, they controlled our lives, too. While it pales in comparison to the strip-searching, groping, and general dehumanization that prisoners go through every day, it killed me to have to act so subservient to them. We walked through that door, spat out our gum, turned off our phones, and ate a big bucket of Bureau of Prison shit. We acted stupidly pleasant—what I always imagined a lobotomy would feel like—as if it would somehow help us curry favor with the guards. It doesn’t work at the DMV, and it doesn’t work at the BOP.
When a prisoner asks a question—why has the GED program been put on hold? Why is the track closed?—the common refrain is, “You got nothin’ coming.” That organizing principle—“nothing coming!”—extends to a prisoner’s friends and family. My old SF roommate David once arrived in the wrong clothes—shorts—and was told to turn around. Forget your I.D.? Even though you had handed over the same card for 20 weeks in a row, if the guard’s in a sour mood, Turn your ass around, Chief.
And when you think about it, as few of us do, who really wants to be a prison guard when they grow up? Most guards I interacted with surely wanted something different out of life. Now they were just trying to get through the day; if given the chance, they could show a glimmer of humanity. There was one female guard who was kind and decent and who always called for Piper as soon as I walked in. I chatted with her over that year and learned, among other things, that her previous job had been as an exterminator. She iced up a bit after my kissing reprimand, telling me, “I’ve been told to keep an eye on you,” but I knew she was just doing her job. As the seasons changed, the sun shifted to the point where it was bursting in right at her desk, where she would sit in mirrored sunglasses like she got lost on the way to the set of Terminator 5.
You can look around a prison and see so many varied people and things; criminals, or at least the convicted; largely unmotivated people hired to “correct” and take care of them; an institution that is so broken and nonsensical that it’s hard to have hope for an overhaul. But what almost every person who walks through the gates of a federal prison or jail has in common is that, somewhere along the way, life didn’t turn out as planned.
Being in the visiting room of a women’s correctional facility nearly every single week for a year wasn’t in my plans. Once it was, I had one job: make Piper feel that there was an outside world waiting for her. In its own peculiar way, the visiting room was where I could make Piper feel better with a method that we Jews know best: by feeding her. Outside food was forbidden, but you could buy food from the vending machines. They looked like those old-school automats with pies on plates, but not in a cool, throwback way. Like so many aspects of prison, the vending machine was random and unpredictable: Yogurt, strange sandwiches, and, most unnervingly, frozen chicken wings would be there one week and gone the next. Once or twice I believe a Yoo-hoo appeared.
I brought lots of change—prisoners aren’t allowed to touch money—and we ate microwave popcorn and Fritos, enjoyably combining them. We had amazing hours together in that room. We did not talk about real estate or the latest Atlantic Monthly article about how to raise moral children or schedule time when we could sync up our schedules. We had long, sometimes weird conversations about what was going on in her life and mine. She was making the best of her time: Friends filled her mailbox with books from her Amazon Wish List that she devoured; she wrote tons of letters (which were invaluable primary sources when she decided to write the book); she cranked out mile after mile on the prison track and picked up new skills in her job in the electrical shop. Above all, Piper was making friends on the inside who helped her survive in a way I simply could not. We didn’t fight about random daily bullshit. We just hung out and enjoyed each other in a way we never had before, and in some ways haven’t since.
The end of Piper’s stay in the United States Federal Prison system was in Chicago, in what’s called a Metropolitan Correctional Center, or MCC — a federal jail. While Danbury was no “Club Fed,” the conditions in Chicago were so much worse. Like so much of the prison system, that she was sent to the MCC and held there for over a month so she could be called up to testify in a trial for a few hours made little sense.
On March 4, 2005, 13 months after I dropped her off in Danbury, I flew to Chicago to bring her home. This was not the way anyone wanted it: Piper had hoped to leave from Danbury and say goodbye to the people who meant so much to her during her time there. And me, well, I fantasized about driving her out of the place where I dropped her off with so much anger and misery, wanting to feel gratitude and joy as the Federal Correctional Institution at Danbury faded from our view. I’d been working on a “Driving Home From Prison” playlist for months.
Instead, when her time was up, Piper was deposited out of a side door wearing baggy men’s clothing and with $28 she’d been given to restart her life. As she waited to be released, she watched Martha Stewart leave her prison in West Virginia by helicopter on the women’s unit TV. “That bitch stole my thunder,” she said.
We flew back from O’Hare, landing at 10 p.m. in Newark, and finally drove home. I reminded her that we now lived in Brooklyn (we had been looking to leave the city, and when I saw a good deal, I made an executive decision to grab it) and asked her where she wanted to go for dinner. She could have chosen Blue Ribbon, which stays open late, or the fancy fish spot in our neighborhood. “I want to get a slice of pizza,” she said, “and I want to go home.”
A little over a year later, on the 10th anniversary of our unexpected hookup, we were married. With our friends and family all around us, nature cooperated and the day-long rain showers finally stopped, allowing Piper to walk down a muddy path lined with redwoods, her parents by her side, a friend singing Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers.” As everyone headed to the reception down the road, a massive rainbow appeared. It was like a scene out of a movie. Or maybe one day on TV.
Eight years later, we were in a screening room of the New York Botanical Garden for the premiere of Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, whose first season has been nominated for 12 Emmys. We had spent some time on set, seen the whole series in advance, and, like many others, thought that the show was like nothing we’d ever seen before on TV. Even before the show was publicly released, the buzz was big. But still, we didn’t have any idea of the impact it would have as both entertainment and as an inspiration for more serious conversations about prison—although this was what Piper hoped for more than anything. We could not have guessed that a year later, Piper would be called to testify before a Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, including unlikely bedfellows Ted Cruz and Al Franken, about solitary confinement and women. We could not have guessed that Laverne Cox (the transgender actress who plays Sophia Burset) would grace the cover of Time magazine. And there was no one to coach me to hear my father recount how he and his dentist were making small talk, as they have been doing for the last 20 years, when the good doctor casually remarked, “Lou, my wife and I have been watching the most fascinating show about these women in prison…”
But that evening we did know what was coming: the first episode of the first season of OITNB—the hour that most looks, sounds, and feels true to our lives from my point of view, if in plot more than actual “Piper” and “Larry” personalities. It was all there on a huge screen: telling our families about Piper’s crime; “we gotta rally” sex the night before; the last moments of freedom in our car. Was it weird to relive some of the most intimate and awful moments of our lives with our families right there in our row, along with Ricky Gervais, two seats down from my dad? You bet. And it was thrilling. And totally unexpected. And, as bizarre as it is to see a teenager dressed up as Piper Chapman on Halloween, the true story that began for Piper in 1992 and for me six years later when she told me, “We need to talk,” will always be stranger than fiction.
The question I hear every week is, “How has your life changed?” Piper’s crime, indictment, and punishment changed our lives dramatically, for the worse. Then came the story of what happened.
Unlike Piper, I’ve always written about my life. From an essay about why Piper and I finally decided to get married in The New York Times to an article in Redbook about going to Canyon Ranch with my mom (with an accompanying shot of the two of us in robes and mud masks), I’m comfortable sharing my intimate stories. I have no fear of embarrassing myself (see: mud mask). And without getting all Tony Robbins, I do believe there’s a personal power you get by sharing your story. It’s why I launched the storytelling website, SMITH Magazine, with the tagline: “Everyone has a story. What’s yours?” When I talk to classrooms, I try to convey to kids as young as seven or eight that no one knows your story as well as you do: not your family, your friends, or anyone who seeks to define you, with good intentions or bad.
So it’s strange that my own story has now been told in my wife’s memoir and, in a way, by the Netflix adaptation of it, yielding such delights in my inbox as a link to an article called “A Guide to the Internet’s Love of Hating Larry Bloom From ‘Orange Is the New Black.’” What can you do with that? Well, I read every word, clicked on every link, and laughed my ass off, appreciating the passion and level of detail that went into documenting the love of hating Larry Bloom. And when my friend’s teenage daughter texts me to say that she just wants me to know I am so much cooler than that guy, I appreciate that, too.
The reality is that I probably enjoy this wild ride more than Piper does. She cares little about whatever level of celebrity she has and cares a lot about having a chance to speak out against the many problems of the U.S. criminal justice system that fly in the face of common sense. She talks about how she was able to have her sentence reduced to 15 months from a possible 22 because she could afford many, many hours of zealous legal counsel, whereas 80 percent of criminal defendants have a court-appointed attorney who most likely has a far-too-heavy caseload. She talks about meeting women in prison who were doing three, five, ten years or more, and asking herself: “Could this person possibly have done something that was so much worse than what I did?” (The answer is “No.”) She uses the headline “The Real Piper from Orange Is the New Black” to tell an important and infuriating story about prisons and jails in which she’s a minor player, but one with a large speaking role right now.
When City Arts & Lectures, an august Bay Area–based speaking series, asked Piper to do an event, she forwarded the email to me with the words, “Honey, I know you will love this.” I did.
As luck would have it, I was booked to give a talk on storytelling in Los Angeles the same day as Piper’s appearance. The organization that hired me accommodated my request to move the talk up a few hours so I could catch a flight to San Francisco and be at my wife’s event that evening. Then fate intervened: There was weather in Northern California and my flight was delayed by hours. There I was in Orange County, losing my mind about missing it. I was deeply intent on seeing my wife on this big stage, in front of 2,000 people, including many of our closest friends. I needed to hear the roar of the crowd, the roar for her.
I landed in SFO and sprinted to the taxi line. “I need to get to the Nourse Theater as fast as possible,” I told the cabbie. I rushed in at 8:50 p.m., harried and adrenalized. “It’s just about over,” someone said as I headed to the auditorium.
“That’s my wife in there,” I said, pushing the door open dramatically as if I were a doctor rushing to perform CPR. Piper did not, of course, need CPR. There she was in conversation with a journalist named Nancy Mullane.
The next day, a local columnist described what happened next:
M.W., who attended “Orange Is the New Black” author Piper Kerman’s recent City Arts & Lectures talk, said Kerman, who’d done time for her role in drug trafficking, said that when she was released from prison, she ran down a long corridor into the arms of Larry Smith, her husband. No one runs in prison, Kerman said, “because you get shot.” Just as she finished describing this, a door in the back of the Nourse auditorium opened and Smith entered, as though in accordance with a planned performance. His plane up from Los Angeles had been delayed... From the stage, Kerman looked up as the door opened and a shaft of light appeared, and said, “Speaking of Larry Smith…” The audience broke into applause.
Thinking back on it now, I wonder, what, ultimately, were they clapping for? Were they clapping because as written by my wife in her book, I’m a good guy? Were they clapping because they’ve seen the show and are relieved to discover I’m not Larry Bloom? I stuck by Piper because it never occurred to me to do anything else. I later signed a marriage contract with Piper Kerman, and a life rights release with Jenji Kohan and Netflix. And now, here’s my version of the story. If you ever meet me, I hope you’ll discover I am neither the saint of Piper’s book, nor the schmuck of a hit show.
But I do love a good round of applause.
This story was written by Larry Smith, edited by Kate Lee and Mike Benoist, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Lawrence Levi. Portraits were taken by Ryan Pfluger.
Larry Smith interviewed Jason Biggs about the latter’s role on Orange Is the New Black.