If you insist on wearing rhinestone-studded tennis shoes, you may run into trouble at the metal detector.
I watched my grandmother learn this the hard way as she shuffled back and forth, again and again, through a screeching detector at FCI Cumberland, a medium-security federal men’s prison just south of Cumberland, Maryland.
“Ma’am, can you take off your shoes?” the guard asked. He’d already made her remove her jewelry and belt, one piece each time she set off the detector.
I rolled my eyes. “She’s not going to do that,” I muttered. I’d agreed to bring her to visit my uncle, incarcerated after pleading guilty to charges of tax and loan fraud, but I hadn’t agreed to be a good sport about it. I was in my mid-twenties, and while I had performed for inmates with college theater and music groups, this was a whole different story.
The guard agreed to wand her so we could dispense with the high-pitched beeping, and we moved on, through one locked door, then another, along an outdoor sidewalk between two buildings, and into the main visiting room.
We had left almost all our belongings in lockers to the left of the front desk, but we carried a baggie of nearly $20 in quarters. Apparently one of us could go to the machine to buy snacks and drinks from the vending machine in the visiting room for my uncle, but he was not allowed to touch the money himself. Those are the rules: you bring down a bank, you lose your vending machine privileges.
I let my grandmother take my arm as we approached the door to the visiting room—after finally making it through security, she seemed to be more stooped than usual, more in need of physical support. We entered, took seats in molded plastic chairs, and waited for my uncle to appear.
It was Saturday, a busy visiting day at FCI Cumberland, and because we’d driven from Baltimore, it was already after noon and not far from the 3 pm weekend cut-off for visiting inmates. I’d pushed the car hard down I-68 across Maryland, trying to maintain conversation as my grandmother glanced from the tree-lined vista to my car clock to her watch.
We were one of the few families around the room without a kid or two in tow, and my grandmother was the oldest person in the room. A lot of FCI Cumberland’s inmates are there on drug charges, and that day, most of them seemed to be younger. It’s also home to a number of white collar criminals in for financial misdeeds—some of the more famous recent residents include former New York City police chief Bernard Kerik and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff.
While we waited for a guard to bring out my uncle, I watched families take photos in the far corner with their fathers, uncles, brothers. The prison had set up one of those backdrops you see in yearbook photos and a couple beaten-up umbrella lights, and families mugged for the camera, the kids and the wife in street clothes, the prisoner in regulation khaki scrubs, his number on a patch across the right side of the chest.
My uncle appeared, far less tan and much thinner than I remembered him before he filed guilty pleas with the U.S. District Court. He spoke in low tones, and my grandmother tilted her head to crank up the volume on her hearing aid.
We pulled our three orange chairs together, knees almost touching. He leaned forward and launched into a long monologue about what was happening “on the inside” and the money he needed so some guy would leave him alone. He’d been making deals to protect himself. From his first sentence, my grandmother slowly deflated, and I watched helplessly, not sure whether I should jump in and defend her from the verbal onslaught.
“I need to talk to your grandmother alone,” he hissed at me. “Get me something from the vending machine.”
“What do you want?”
“I don’t care. Something crunchy. Just get me anything.”
My grandmother handed me the baggie of quarters, and I walked over to the wall of machines: coffee, soda, sweets, snacks. Other visitors punched in their numbers and carried candy bars and cold cans back to their inmates. Everything had to be consumed in the visiting room—it’s a treat, but a limited one, at best.
I returned with a bag of chips, and my uncle glanced sideways at me as I approached, then stopped talking. My grandmother had begun to fold over on herself.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
We sat in awkward silence while he opened his chips.
He ate for a moment, then said, “You understand why this is so important, right? You get it?”
“I’ll send you more money,” said my grandmother, but her voice was strange and detached. This was the woman who I remembered knocking heads with as a little girl, her opinions strong enough to bowl me over, but now, here she sat, her voice as frail as her aging presence.
“I need you to send it to the guy I told you,” he said. “Do you need me to write it down for you?”
“I need something to drink,” my uncle hissed at me.
I returned to the vending machines, but turned when I got there, and spotted my now-red-faced uncle whisper-screaming at my grandmother’s forehead. She stared at the floor near his feet, her face turned down, her fingers knitting and unknitting themselves.
I hurried back. “What are you telling her?” I asked, handing over the soda I’d bought without asking him what he wanted.
“It’s none of your concern,” he said.
“I drove her here, and you’re yelling at her,” I said. “It’s absolutely my concern.” But I had no idea how to back up the assertion. I wanted my grandmother to stand up to him, tell him we were walking out the door if he didn’t quit haranguing her. I looked over toward the guard station, wondering what constituted enough line-crossing to call them over. But I didn’t act.
“I need something else to eat,” he said, staring me down with pale eyes. “Get me a candy bar.”
Even though I’d been spending quarters, the bag of money felt even heavier than it had when my grandmother first handed it to me. I rushed over, elbowed another visitor out of the way to get to the candy machine first, bought a Snickers, and rushed back, hoping not to have missed any critical conversation.
“TELL ME WHAT I TOLD YOU,” my uncle was whisper-yelling. “REPEAT IT BACK TO ME.”
My grandmother looked a third smaller than she had when we walked in. I was afraid to touch her arm—she had become brittle under the onslaught.
“Stop talking to her like that,” I said. “She is your mother.”
“I will talk to her any way I want,” my uncle hissed at me. “She has to help me.”
He grabbed both my grandmother’s knees, then, and I half-expected her to cleave under his grip.
“We have to go,” I said. “Visiting hours are almost over.”
He flashed me a look of panic, then. “No, they’re not.”
“They are,” I said. “And we have to go.”
My grandmother, who had made a career of performing music for audiences all across the country, could not speak.
My uncle was almost in tears by the time we left, still begging my grandmother to send some unspecified amount of money to some other inmate. He hugged her goodbye, his eyes scanning the room over her shoulder as if he were evaluating threats. Then he hugged me, his hands rummaging against my back like eels.
I hurried my grandmother through the doors as quickly as the guards would let us through. I retrieved our things from the locker. I let her hold my arm again all the way to the car. I drove back through Cumberland to I-68 and headed toward Baltimore in the golden light of late afternoon.
We didn’t talk about what had just happened, and shortly after I hit highway speed, my grandmother slumped against the window, her feet, in their rhinestone-studded shoes, crossed on the floor beneath her, asleep so hard I had to touch her knee a half hour later to make sure she was still warm.