The cliché applies: It’s been a long and winding road. I was born in Chicago in 1948. My father was a German Catholic country boy from a small town in Missouri, who discharged from the Navy in Chicago after WWII and married my mother, a Polish Catholic country girl from a small town in Wisconsin, who migrated south with dreams of being a Big City Bohemian lover of bebop and the Big Band sound. My father hated Chicago. He missed the squirrels, the crickets, the frogs and fireflies, the crowing of roosters, the savory smell of wood smoke, and his mother’s down-home cooking. He longed for a town with no taxi cabs or traffic lights or pizza by the slice or people of color. Four years and three kids later he prevailed, and we five departed Chicago for the rolling green hills of Missouri…where my mother was miserable. She squandered no love on her in-laws—she considered them hillbillies—and the antipathy was mutual. Two years later, the family having grown to seven, my mother prevailed, and we moved to St. Louis, where, soon after, due to the great Caucasian Migration to the suburbs, we were the only white family on the block. My little playmates, next-door neighbors Tyrone and Oscar, are resurrected on the pages of Inside the Mind of Martin Mueller as the characters Lloyd and Quincy.
In 1956, we crossed the Mississippi River to a small town in Southern Illinois where every family was white. We added sibling number six and I spent the next ten years finding every excuse to leave our claustrophobic little house and wander till the wee hours. Nearby was a railroad track and on hot summer nights I would lay on my smelly mattress and listen to the approaching train whistle grow ever louder, then disappear into the dark. Gogi Grant’s haunting rendition of The Wayward Wind moved me:
The wayward wind is a restless wind,
A restless wind that yearns to wander,
And he was born, the next of kin,
The next of kin to a wayward wind.
The spirit of these years is captured in my short story, Bead by Bead.
In the summer of ’66, I left home and hitch-hiked to Southern California, where I let my hair grow, got laid, and learned to surf. Thumbing home, ostensibly to finish high school, I was diverted to Mexico and on the return across the border was arrested in a stolen car driven by a wild-eyed whiskey drinking outlaw biker with a pistol and a pound of pot. An innocent passenger, I was released, but I had tasted the spice of life and was loath to return to school.
School was for kids.
On the far side of the world, the Viet Nam war raged. A high school drop-out, I was drafted and sent to Korea, where I smoked dope and took black-and-white photos of crumbling statues of Buddha in remote mountain graveyards, and was introduced to the mysteries of oriental sex, an experience memorialized in my flash fiction piece, A Kim in Every Camp. I was eighteen and loving life. I was discharged as undesirable for possession of marijuana, but not before getting my GED. I returned to the Midwest (with a detour to Berkeley, California, for the first of many acid trips) and enrolled in Southern Illinois University where I fancied I would get a Ph.D. in Philosophy. I wrote a clever paper comparing the works of Nietzsche and Heidegger and asked the young resident creative writing instructor, Douglas Hobbie, author of Boomfell and Being Brett, for an assessment of my brilliant work. He read it and shook his head and told me to forget Philosophy; I had nothing new to say. Anything worth saying had already been said. Write fiction instead, he advised me. There, he said, I would find endless possibilities for being whomever I chose to be. His love of fiction moved me. With child-like enthusiasm, he declared of Melville’s leviathan: It was a big whale!
I took his classes and placed a piece of fiction in the school’s literary journal, Sou’wester, entitled The Outlaws Of Linn Valley. Hot damn! I was a published author on my way to a promising literary career! However, I was also meanwhile becoming involved in the burgeoning trade of marijuana, a rare commodity in the Midwest in those early days. Drug dealing then did not carry the stigma it does now, that of sleazy social pariah. Rather, it was a form of protest, a kind of back-door political activism. One was an outlaw, an anarchist, a non-conformist, a latter-day Robin Hood, a champion of expanded consciousness who defied the new prohibition for fun and profit, not just another tax-paying, sycophantic Citizen Of The Empire! It was a viable career alternative that promised lots of action. Writing could wait until I had something to say. I would engage the world, gather material, and return to my typewriter one day to mold it into a compelling collection of tales of my outlaw days. I would be back! Hobbie tried to dissuade me, saying: Writing is action. I quoted Bernard Malamud’s character, Willie Spearmint, in The Tenant: Action is my action!
For the next several years I was one of a select group of kindred insurrectionist entrepreneurs. We had our own society. We flew first class and stayed in the best hotels. We ran truckloads of Mexican marijuana from the border towns of Juarez and Nogales, and boatloads of Columbian Marijuana from the Gulf Coast. Profits were funneled into quasi-legitimate enterprises: Rock concerts, taverns, galleries, movies, and political careers.
But like the rainbow-colored sand of a Tibetan Buddhist mandala, my little empire was suddenly swept away. In 1977 I was found guilty of possession of a large amount of marijuana and sentenced to ten years in prison. I appealed and lost. I assumed an alias and became a fugitive. For the next five years I eluded the law, but when my money and my options ran out I abandoned my romantic notions of outlaw and desperado and surrendered. I’d had my fun. It was time to begin a new phase.
I spent from 1983 to 1987 in an Illinois State Penitentiary, a memorable and enriching experience: I completed my Bachelor’s Degree through a Southern Illinois University Extension Program; conducted interviews of inmates and collected data for a published study of gender identity in prison (transposed into the chapter The Gump Report in the novel Penitentiary Tales: a Love Story); joined an inmate drama group, the Comet Players (resurrected in Penitentiary Tales as the Players of Conviction); produced a video extolling the virtues of the prison’s Vocational School; won a gold medal in boxing in the prison’s version of the 1986 Summer Olympics; ran hundreds of miles around the camp’s quarter-mile cinder track and did thousands of pushups on the cold concrete floor of my cell; enrolled in a Writers’ Digest fiction writing course, wrote a few short stories, and kept an extensive journal. Taped to the walls of my cell were the affirmations: It’s of no use to wait for your ship to come in unless you have sent one out; Making, making, someday made; Take the hard road, and I am a great writer, I am a famous novelist. I was programming the future…or myself into it.
Where I’m Going To
For a quarter century after my release, I was the tax-paying Citizen Of The Empire that I had so long ago foresworn. In 2012 I retired from a humdrum career in Yellow Page Advertising Sales in San Francisco and was accepted into the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA. I dusted off my prison journal and upon it based my thesis, subsequently expanded into a hefty novel of 500 pages.
Penitentiary Tales: a Love Story recounts the escapades of one Dean Davis, a thirty-something, educated, straight white male from the affluent community of Sausalito, in Marin County, California, who is sent to an Illinois prison dominated by a daunting, ethnically diverse population of inmates from the mean streets of Chicago. How does he do his time? What challenges does he meet? How does the experience affect his social and political consciousness? Addressing issues of race and gender, it is at once a serious inquiry into the minds and hearts of the marginalized and the oppressed and a bit of a romp. It will appeal to adventurous and intelligent readers of all persuasions who appreciate a literary walk on the wild side. Pending final revision, it should be available in the first quarter of 2019.
Meanwhile, read and enjoy Inside the Mind of Martin Mueller, available now, which tells the story of a man of wealth and taste who believes the prison he is an inmate of is in the basement of his country estate, and whose mission in life is no less than to “reassemble the scattered shards of the shattered Over-soul of mankind.” Still to come are several novels in varying stages of completion, a memoir, and a multitude of short stories reflecting the material gathered on my long and winding road. When they have been written, I will have gotten to where I’ve been going for a long, long time…and when I arrive, I hope to see you there.
Thanks for stopping by.