Here are two more unforgettable prison characters from the early days of my imprisonment. Murph the Surf. And Bobby B.
To maintain his dignity and privacy if he still lives, I will call him Bobby B., the masculine partner of this affair, and call his chain gang lover, “Pepper,” the nickname bestowed upon the feminine half.
One of the prison realities is the widespread usage of nicknames, colorful, descriptive, humorous, and sometimes mean or disparaging. Once a prisoner is tagged with a nickname, it sticks to him for life. In some ways, this becomes a transitional device, accepting a new name and role in a harsh new world, leaving the previous life behind.
There are men I’ve known only by their nicknames for twenty or thirty years, and if you asked me if I remembered so-and-so, speaking their given name, I’d have no idea who you were talking about. But if you mentioned Mama Herc, Buzzo, Bushaxe, Murph the Surf, Pearl, or Black-hearted Pete, I’d know exactly who you meant. There are countless Georgia Boys, Texs, New Yorks, Chicagos, L.A.s, Cowboys, Gators, Squirrels, and Snakes, geographical and varmint descriptions. I never knew if Pepper’s nickname was self-imposed or placed on her, which is how the feminine homosexuals referred to themselves— she or her or that girl or that bitch—or why that name was chosen, nor do I recall her real name. Pepper it was, and Pepper it will always be.
Years before the “same-sex marriage” issue and LGBTQ movement became widely- accepted in free society, American prisons were dealing with those issues in their own unique ways.
Bobby B. and Pepper consummated their love for each other in an entirely different manner from Big Willie and Timmy. Both worked in the laundry with us and lived together in a cell in Building Ten.
Bobby was short, maybe five-six, but very muscular from years of heavy weight-lifting. Pepper was small and slight, perhaps five feet tall, one of the exaggerated effeminate boys, with shaved eyebrows, painted on with a marker, high crescents on her forehead, giving her the appearance of being perpetually surprised.
Pepper also obtained mascara from somewhere, highlighting her eyes in a futile attempt to look like a woman.
After many years of imprisonment and direct observations of thousands of prisoners, I’ve come to the conclusion that one of the underlying causes of crime is ugliness. Ugliness. Go to a Department of Corrections web site, click on a prison, and scroll through the photos of a few hundred prisoners, male or female, and you’ll see what I mean. I’m not saying that all prisoners are ugly—occasionally you’ll see a clean-cut, handsome, normal face, but there seem to be an inordinate percentage of really ugly people behind bars, some of them scary-ugly, or “YOO-GLY,” as some say.
Many of them never had a chance at normalcy, shunned by society. Pepper was one of those, so scary-ugly that she drew one’s eyes in fascination, like some human/insect hybrid. Clown makeup wouldn’t cover it up. I felt bad about her ugliness and the feelings of repulsion she generated in me, since Pepper was actually a very nice person, quiet, respectful, soft-spoken, withdrawn, dealing with the hand Mother Nature had dealt her, adapting to her environment in the only way she could, as a stronger man’s homosexual lover. Whether Pepper was actually gay and a willing participant or just a small, weak man who had little choice in the matter, I never knew. We weren’t in the position of being able to have intelligent discussions of such matters.
What I remember best about Pepper was her walk. Many effeminate prisoners have an exaggerated walk that they feel communicates their womanliness. Some swish. Pepper took tiny steps, almost tip-toeing, giving one the impression that she walked like a Japanese geisha, or one of those Chinese women with the bound feet. It looked weird, the two of them, Bobby, the man, with the rolling gait of a short, muscle-bound man, like Popeye, and Pepper, the woman, hurriedly taking the tiny steps, trying to keep up.
One day at the laundry, Pepper tiptoed into the office, head down, eyes averted, and stood before my desk holding a piece of paper.
“How ya doing, Pepper,” I said. “Can I help you with something?”
Pepper looked up then and smiled—such terrible teeth! The rounded Magic Marker-drawn eyebrows high on her forehead gave her a permanent look of shock or surprise. The un-artful, carelessly-drawn eyeliner and some sort of homemade pink lip coloration only highlighted Pepper’s ugliness, like a garishly made-up little girl who’d gotten into her mother’s makeup. Up this close, her look jarred me, but I tried to ignore it and remain neutral.
“Here,” Pepper said, handing me a folded paper, heavy beige card stock.
I opened it. “What is this?”
“An invitation, Norman,” Pepper said. “Me and Bobby are getting married Saturday night, and we want you to come. You’ve been a good friend.”
Me? A good friend? I’d never said more than hello, how you doing, to either of them. Now I felt bad.
“I don’t know, Pepper. A wedding?”
Pepper smiled that scary smile again. Obviously, she was delighted at the pending nuptials.
“I made a dress!”
“A white dress out of sheets, on the sewing machine.”
These were more words than I’d ever heard from Pepper. We were almost having a conversation.
“And we’re gonna have a reception, Norman. We’ll have reefer, and five gallons of grapefruit buck, and cake. I really want you to come.”
“Bridges is baking a big banana nut cake with icing. He learned how to decorate it at baking school.”
Bridges, the baker in the kitchen, made a killing selling banana nut cakes, baked in bread pans, for two dollars each. The prospect of a piece of special cake from the master overcame my squeamishness at the impropriety of two men getting married in a chain gang wedding.
“Okay, Pepper, you talked me into it.”
It would be held in our building, anyway. We’d all be locked in. Where was I going to go otherwise. To sleep?
“Thank you, Norman. I’m so glad.” Pepper grinned even wider. “I so wanted the good people to come to my wedding.” She dipped, almost a curtsey, spun, and tiptoed back to her sewing machine with the rest of the sissies. Only sissies operated the sewing machines at Raiford, for some reason.
Saturday came. Pepper’s friends began decorating our building with strips of colored paper taped to the stairways. Folding chairs were set up in the dayroom. I didn’t know if I should bring a gift for the couple. I felt anxious, having no clue as to how to proceed, there not being any chain gang guides to protocol for such an occasion. Better safe than sorry, I went to the canteen and bought a bag of coffee. Hard to go wrong there. Coffee and cigarettes were always appropriate in prison.
Someone in the prison print shop, probably the same person who’d printed the invitations, had made an actual wedding certificate. A tape deck blared a cassette of country music, no wedding march available. Pepper looked prim in a bizarre, cross-dressing way, her white dress wrapped around her tiny body, a small bouquet of marigolds clutched in her hands. Big Willie, dwarfing Bobby B., stood beside him as best man, while Timmy acted as maid of honor. A chapel clerk, Nathaniel, performed the ceremony. For some reason, the invitation of, “You may now kiss the bride,” didn’t have the same feel to it as I remembered from the weddings I’d attended on the street. Call me old-fashioned, but I turned my head at that point.
The reception began promptly; however, there wasn’t any dancing. True to their word, a line formed at the door of one cell where joints of marijuana were passed out. Another line formed for cups of the prison wine, buck, at a different cell. A table held the large sheet cake decorated with crude outlines of a bride and groom in green icing, with red flowers. Bridges, the baker, happily sliced and served generous pieces. Passing on the pot and wine, I held my cake on a paper towel, congratulated Pepper and Bobby, and gave them the bag of coffee wrapped inside a manila envelope, the best I could do. I took a seat on a folding chair off to one side, watching the festivities as best I could as an impartial observer, like an anthropologist studying the rituals of some lost tribe. The dorm prison guard, Mr. Brown, eating his cake, came over and spoke to me, astounded at what he had seen. Bobby B. walked over to him, Pepper tiptoeing behind him.
“How’s the cake, Mr. Brown?” Bobby asked.
“Excellent, Bobby. That guy sure knows how to bake.”
“That’s true. Listen to me—you know me and Pepper just got married, right?”
“And you know what cell we’re in, right up there, right?”
“So we’re gonna go have our wedding night, we’re gonna lock our door and hang a towel over our window to give us some privacy.”
“Since you know we’re in there already, you ain’t gonna do anything stupid that might embarrass you and me, like open our door at count time and look in there, are you?”
“Don’t worry about it, Bobby.”
“Okay. Good. Thanks. Have a nice time.”
The bride and groom ascended the stairs to the applause of several wedding guests. At the cell door, Bobby picked up Pepper and carried her over the threshold, kicking the door closed behind them.
They got fairly rowdy that Saturday night, those who got drunk on the wine. The pot smokers mellowed out and watched TV or disappeared into their cells. As the loud talking and horseplay rose to a crescendo, Officer Brown took his last piece of cake into the officer’s station and closed the door behind him, preferring to stay where it was safe. I went to my cell, put on my headphones, turned up the volume, and read a book. I wondered how long this chain gang wedding would last, and how it would end.
The homosexuals weren’t the only ones who got married in prison. It has always been a popular activity between heterosexual couples, although traditional weddings in prison had to be approved by the chaplain. Every week, it seemed, someone got married in the visiting park. The chain gang wedding to beat all chain gang weddings occurred when a prisoner named “M.J.” got married.
M.J. was one of the big prison drug men, although you couldn’t tell it by looking at him. An unassuming, freckled man with a thatch of bright orange hair, M.J.’s girlfriend brought his three children to visit him from Jacksonville every weekend.
M.J. didn’t need any paternity tests to prove those children were his. Ranging in age from about nine years old to three, each miniature M.J. sported bushes of carrot-colored hair just like their father, with arms and faces covered in freckles. Since their mother had dark brown hair, the little M.J. clones were that much more noticeable climbing on their father during visits. Since M.J. had been imprisoned continuously for over ten years, it was obvious that the children were products of prison conception. Finally, their mother reached the stage where she wanted her offsprings’ births legitimized, and M.J. went along with her wishes, promising to give her a wedding to equal one in society, money no object.
Prison time went by. The days seemed endless, but the months blurred past quickly. The laundry job was behind me. I didn’t know M.J. very well. We lived in the same housing complex, in different buildings. I didn’t have a perspective on him until one afternoon when Sergeant Estes came out of the control room to talk to a group of prisoners. This particular group of a dozen or so good old boys, Southern white prisoners, were standing outside in a courtyard area listening to a couple of old timers spin tales of the good old days, before prison got soft.
Sergeant Estes had been at Raiford twenty-nine years and bragged about it. He’d seen it all, and knew it all. He was an average height man with white hair, but his size was anything but average. Huge isn’t the best word to describe his bulk. Round? Perhaps. He was so fat that when he rested his fists at his sides, where his hips would be on a normal person, they were far out from where they should have been. He was more inflated than fat, like a Macy’s balloon. He seemed to glide over to the group. I was bending over pulling weeds from one of my several flower beds in the area, but stopped to take a break and listen when Sergeant Estes strolled up. His appearances were more performances. The old timers shut up.
“Mister M.J.,” he started. “Biggest dope dealer in the Rock the past ten years.”
No one said a word.
“I know where your dope gets dropped off down the road; I know who picks it up; who moves it; who brings it in. I know who holds it, who bags it up, who sells it, who keeps the money, who sends the money back outside to them redheaded sisters of yours. I know everything there is to know about your system except one thing. I ain’t never been able to catch any on you, but one of these days, I will.”
“Damn, Sarge, you know everything,” M.J. said. “There must be a leak in my organization. Who is it?”
“You’re right, M.J.,” Sergeant Estes said. “You got a rat in your house. You want me to tell you who the rat is?”
“I would appreciate it, sir.”
“You’re the rat, M.J. You tell on yourself. I sit right over there at my desk, behind that glass, and I see everything. It’s not hard to figure out. You think you’re so slick, but you ain’t near as slick as you think you are. You need to tighten your game up, boy, you’re slipping.”
“I appreciate that, Sarge. I’m gonna take your advice. Thanks for looking out.”
“I’m not looking out for you, M.J. I’m just telling you like it is.” He glided away.
The year before I’d obtained permission to plant several flower beds between the three buildings comprising our housing area. I started the seeds under lights in the prisoner self-help program office where I now worked.
Since I had all the flowers, I got invited to the wedding on a Friday afternoon in the visiting park. I cut several bouquets and arranged them for the bride, bridesmaids, and flower girl, M.J.’s daughter, all of them genetically female, unlike the previous wedding I attended. Murph the Surf and his prison band, “Truckload,” had been contracted to provide the live music. They spent hours hauling speakers, amps, and equipment from the band room, the old Death Row, on carts and setting up. This was an event, not to be missed, and Junior Bullard and his “West Side Boys” from Jacksonville manned the entrance to keep out the gate crashers. M.J. had paid off someone, and not a guard was to be seen. The visiting park belonged to the wedding party.
A dozen or more of M.J.’s relatives came in, his redheaded sisters flitting around in their bridesmaids dresses, organizing the serving pans of real food brought in from the street, and a real wedding cake with bride and groom figurines on top.
Over in a corner of the outside visiting park, back by the bathrooms, I noticed several of Junior’s boys bent over digging in the dirt with their hands. I wondered what in the world they were doing. One reached down and pulled a sealed five-gallon bucket out of the ground. A few more minutes of diligent digging resulted in another five-gallon bucket coming to light. I learned later that they’d brought all the ingredients for ten gallons of prison wine to the visiting park on Monday morning, mixed it up, dug holes with shovels and covered it up, where it lay fermenting, grapefruit and orange juice, rice, yeast, and sugar, all week. By Friday afternoon, the buck had reached its peak, ready to get at least fifty people drunk as skunks, as they say.
Live music blasted for half an hour or so, until the strain was too great on the ancient electrical system. All the power in the visiting park and the Rock blew out. The music died, but the celebration continued unabated. It was a beautiful ceremony. The redheaded sisters cried. A sissy caught the bouquet thrown by the bride.
There are various separate spheres of power and influence in prison and set chains of command. The prison chaplain was nominally in charge of all things of a religious nature, including prison weddings, but he bowed to the colonel, the highest-ranking person in uniform over the guards and security. He answered to the assistant warden, who answered to the warden, who was gone that day, fortuitously. Apparently the payoffs had gone all the way to the top.
I heard this from someone who knew, later on, but have no doubts of its veracity. While Murph the Surf’s band was blasting its music across the compound and into the buildings of the Rock, including the colonel’s office and the chapel, Colonel Jackson telephoned Chaplain Cornett and demanded to know what in hell was going on in the V.P., outside guests had brought in enough food to feed an army, that damned band was giving him a headache, why didn’t he, the colonel, know anything about it, where was the memo he hadn’t signed, and why wasn’t the chaplain out there supervising and conducting the ceremony if, in fact, a wedding was going on?
Chaplain Cornett succinctly told the colonel that he had nothing to do with it, he had been bypassed, they were bringing in their own preacher, assistant warden Jim Reddish had approved everything, and personally told the chaplain to stay away, don’t interfere. And he suggested the colonel heed the same advice, which he did. The wedding went on unmolested. The food was eaten, the wine was drunk, and M.J. and his bride slipped into the women’s bathroom where several blankets from the laundry carpeted the floor, allowing the newlyweds to consummate their marriage, followed by the redheaded sisters and a couple of lucky prisoners they fancied. “Money no object” are three magic words in prison, as they are elsewhere.
Years went by. I was at the reception center in Orlando, in the midst of a transfer from one prison to another, standing outside in the sun with a thousand fellow prisoners doing the same thing. A small slight man approached me, taking tiny steps, like on tippy toes. As he neared, he cast his eyes down toward his little feet.
“Pepper,” I said. He’d gotten older, his eyebrows grown out, no makeup, but it was him. Two other effeminate prisoners stood behind him. Strength in numbers, I suppose. Time had worn him down, aged him. The wear and tear of his lifestyle as a chain gang female for over twenty years had left him faded, a wrinkled older man rather than the excited youth I’d once known, smiling and waving as Bobby B. had carried him into their honeymoon suite so long ago.
“Norman, how you doing?”
He wanted to talk, so we stood there and talked. When you’ve done years of prison time, and encountered others who’ve done the same hard time in the same hard places, you share a common bond of brotherhood, even though you may not have been friends at the time, or even acquaintances. You’d both survived the prison holocaust, where thousands of others had not.
Pepper seemed to know about everyone we’d known at the Rock at that time, and filled me in. Big Willie, Timmy, and Bobby B. had all served their time and been released. Big Willie had died, stabbed to death in a drunken bar fight. Timmy had got out, met a woman, got married, got a job, and left his chain gang life behind. He was now a father, as incredible as that seemed to me. Bobby B. had returned to his family , wife and children—that never occurred to me—and had a good job. He’d sent Pepper money a few times on the sly, but Pepper hadn’t heard from him in years.
Life goes on. Pepper was sure that if Bobby fell again—returned to prison—he would find his former lover and they would be together again. Another form of divorce, prison style—get released, rejoin your real wife, leave your chain gang wife behind.
“What about you, Pepper?” I asked. “What’s it look like? Do you have a parole date?”
Pepper dropped his head again, whether in shame or embarrassment I didn’t know. He looked me in the eye.
“I was a bad person once, Norman. I’m never getting out. This is my home. I’ll die here.”
“I’m sorry to hear that, Pepper,” I said, and meant it. “You have to keep your hopes up. Things might change.”
Pepper looked up at me and smiled. Those terrible teeth were worse! If anything, he’d gotten scarier-uglier over time. He reached out his little hand and squeezed my forearm.
“Thanks, Norman, for saying that. You were always a positive person. You shouldn’t be in here with us.”
Pepper dropped his eyes again, turned, and took his little steps off and away, followed by his escorts. I felt very sad to see him go like that.
Charles Norman has been serving LIFE for 1st degree murder in Florida since 1979, a murder he says he did not commit.
Charles Norman #881834