Bruno wasn’t an attractive man. He was even more unattractive as a woman. A union truck driver for 37 years, he’d held it together and then when his wife, that bitch Darlene, said she’d found true love with some muffler repairman she’d been engaging in cybersex with on the internet, Bruno had to admit he wasn’t a very happy guy. Mainly because he wasn’t very happy as a guy. But he didn’t know that yet.
Stuck in the urban sprawl that had once been a highly sought after suburb of San Francisco, but now, in Bruno’s opinion, was more an extension of Southeast Asia – hundreds of little brown families having invaded over the past twenty years – it had gotten so Bruno didn’t even recognize the old neighborhood and worse the signs were all in a writing he couldn’t decipher. Bilingual wasn’t in Bruno’s vocabulary, plus he just didn’t give a shit.
Sitting in their half empty duplex, Darlene having taken exactly half of everything, well at least what all she could fit in a 5×8 utility trailer pulled by a Ford Galaxy, the car Bruno had bought when they first married, and she had insisted on keeping well past its prime.
“Don’t like change,” was Darlene’s motto. But if that was true why was she off banging Mr. Goodwrench and Bruno was still here?
Bruno, in the reclined position of the La-Z-Boy, his feet up so he could stare at his legs encased in nylon pantyhose sticking out of a red cocktail dress – one of many Darlene had left behind. Thankfully she and Bruno were somewhat close to being the same size, and so every night after work he’d come home, slip on a bra, pantyhose, and this dress, pop open a beer, and watch TV until it was time to fall asleep. In other words essentially nothing had changed in Bruno’s life, except Darlene was gone and now he felt free enough to indulge in what he’d only fantasized before.
But as Bruno watched TV he kept seeing a world out there he’d never really thought about, or even considered. And slowly he realized he’d been living a lie. Him and Darlene hadn’t had sex in twenty-three years. The only thing that’d turned him on was fingering her lingerie, and that was only when she wasn’t in it. Night after night they’d shared a bed, not touching, and Bruno laying flat on his back wondering why he couldn’t stop thinking about that prison sex exposé on MSNBC’s Lockdown. Visions of sweaty muscle-bound tattooed convicts fudge-packing each other all night in their dank prison cells ran on a continuous loop through his brain until he feared he’d somehow gotten infected with the homo-gene.
And yeah, there was that one dude at work, Stevie. Everyone sweared he was gay. But him and Bruno had always eaten lunch together, everyday for years. Maybe Stevie was gay, and it’d somehow rubbed off? But then why’d Bruno only get a stiffy when he slipped on a pair of Darlene’s old polyester rayon panties, and not when he’d stared at Stevie’s ass?
“Have I turned gay?” Bruno asked himself as he straightened the A-Line of Darlene’s… well, actually it was his red cocktail dress now.
Segue to the present, after numerous sessions with his therapist, Bruno was no longer Bruno, he was Bridget. His house in the suburbs sold, Darlene forgotten, Bridget had moved into what was known as transitional housing. Otherwise referred to as a “county subsidized single occupancy environment” that San Francisco provided for mental health and recovering drug addicts. Bridget had entered into treatment for GID, gender identity disorder, and because of this qualified for hormone replacement therapy – Bruno had made the decision.
Shaved her legs and then he was a she. She says, “Hey babe, take a walk on the wild side.”
“Wish it was that fuckin’ easy,” said Bruno.
He had to live for at least a year as a woman. Dress like one, and go about life, before he could even think about getting the tuck-and-roll surgery. Of course this made keeping his job almost impossible. If the guys thought Stevie was gay, what were they going to say when he showed up as Bridget? Not to mention the double D’s he’d just gotten implanted. No, it wasn’t going to be pretty and Bruno had no intention of living through that hell. Fuck them. San Francisco was where it was at.
I step into the elevator and there’s a large unattractive woman, or at least I think it’s a woman, but in this building it could be anybody’s guess, and really I don’t care. I turn my back on her and press the button for the lobby. Damn elevator won’t go straight to the ground floor as there used to be a security desk on the 2nd floor, back when it was a building just for clients fresh out of rehab, and they’d hooked it up so that everyone had to check in with a uniformed guard. But now it just stopped on the second floor, the door opening to an empty desk, and then it’d continue its decent to the lobby, where there was nothing to prevent any scumbag from gaining access.
“You smell good,” says the large ugly woman behind me.
“Thanks,” I say. “Must be my hair goo.”
“Pineappley coconut, like a Mai Tai.”
“Name’s Bridget. I could just eat you up.”
I turn and look into Bridget’s eyes and see sadness and pain and shitload of fear that belies her outspoken bravado. Then notice her outstretched hand and quickly grab it to shake. It’s unbelievably rough and calloused, makes mine look nancy-boy soft, her grip like a macho jock.
“Easy there, Bridget.” I pull my hand back, shake it lose. “Kinda partial to havin’ all my digits intact and working.”
“Sorry,” she says with what I assume she must think is the voice of a young girl. Only that girl would’ve had to been smoking twelve packs a day for fifty years to achieve that gravel.
The door opens and we’re at the lobby. There’s sun coming in and a stumbling wino is weaving his way towards us.
“Hole da ‘vator!” he screams and I step out of the way, but he collides into Bridget, the impact sending him backwards onto his ass.
“Holy shit!” he screams. “Ya play fo da Niners?”
Outside, under the elevated freeway that serves as the roof to our building’s front entrance, I stop to light a cigarette.
“Have a nice day,” coos Bridget as she teeters off on high heels, navigating the usual detritus of broken bottles, human waste, and spent syringes that’s always present here on the sidewalks of the yet to be gentrified SoMa district. And I’m standing there thinking how does it come down to whoever Bridget was before she decided to become Bridget making that decision and then living with it? My life is pretty simple right now. All I got to do is stay clean, steer clear of the law, and avoid those deep holes of depression that pop up every now and then. Not like I’m in the wrong body. Or even wondering who I am. Unfortunately, I know who I am. That’s why I’m here. So, I guess I’ve answered my question, because that’s why Bridget’s here too.
I suck in smoke, like my life depends on it. Mixed in with the fine black soot that’s raining down from the freeway and I’m probably looking at emphysema and a host of other terminal pulmonary disorders that will result in my having lived here for years.
“Everybody’s gotta die sometime,” I mumble to myself.
Two days later I’m in the laundry room, switching my clothes from the washer to the dryer, and in walks Bridget with a portable hamper in her arms. Only she’s not dressed as Bridget. No makeup, no wig, no dress, no heels. Just sweats, hoodie, pair of converse, and a flattop haircut.
“Hi Mr. Pineapplehead,” she gushes. But the effect is a little bit unnerving. It’s like as if my soccer coach from eight grade was imitating Marilyn Monroe, and very badly.
“Ya know Bridget, you ain’t gotta do all that with me.”
“Nah, we’re cool just the way it is. Ok?”
“Sure,” and the she’s loading her clothes into the machine I just vacated.
“Thanks,” she whispers.
“No problem,” I say.
It’s a hot afternoon. I’m on the roof in the shade of the utility tower watching the cars come off the Bay Bridge. Up here I’m almost even with the elevated highway, and there’s this melodic rhythm of rolling rubber across concrete that’s deafening, but at the same time hypnotic. When I first came to look at the apartment in this building the county was offering me I said to the lady that showed it that I wasn’t sure I could get used to the constant noise of traffic.
“After awhile,” she said. “Starts to sound like waves in the ocean.”
“Waves honking horns maybe,” I said.
Although now, unless I’m up here, I really don’t notice, and being somewhat mesmerized, I didn’t so much as see or hear Bridget walk up as felt her presence behind me.
“Gotta extra smoke?” she asks.
“Of course, here.”
I pass her the pack of Camels and the lighter. She sits down, lights up, and hands them back.
“Ever feel like bein’ someone else?”
I have to think about it for a second, I mean sure there’s vague desire to be like a rock star I’m sure most everyone’s gone through. Always wanted to be thinner, have a better body, or look real good. But to truly want to be someone other than me?
“Don’t think so,” I say.
“Ya know, I wasn’t always Bridget.”
And instead of making a snide remark, or some of my usual smartassness, I continue smoking as she talks. Telling me all about Darlene leaving, thirty-seven years driving trucks, and why she prefers to dress in women’s clothes. Feels like some sort of confessional, only I ain’t no goddamn priest.
“Don’t like change,” she mumbles.
“Nobody does,” I say, and then there’s just the sound of traffic as we sit there in the shade.
When the sun hits the top of Twin Peaks, and light changes to a softer hue, I notice Bridget is gone. I light another cigarette and wonder why she’d told me her life story and then quietly left without even saying goodbye.
The ambulance is outside, along with the fire trucks and police. They’ve all got their lights flashing. I make my way through, and get accosted at the front door by a cop.
“Checkin’ everybody’s ID,” he says.
“You live in this building?”
“Yeah. Do you?”
“Smart guy, huh?”
“Just tryin’ to get home.”
“What floor you on?”
“Have ta use the stairs, taking the body down now.”
“Nother suicide. This building, y’all should be used to it.”
The elevator door opens. Two EMS workers push the gurney out. There’s a black body bag on it, whoever’s dead was large. The cop puts his arm out, moves me out of the way.
“Make room,” he shouts. But it’s only me and him and the paramedics.
“Who killed themselves?” I ask.
“Ugliest tranny I’ve ever seen,” says the paramedic as he shoves the rolling gurney through the door out onto the sidewalk. “And believe me, I seen a lot.”
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Originally published by The Weeklings April 26th, 2014
Anthony sat on the floor, mindful of his breath, getting ready to meditate. But there was no room. He was all squeezed up by the front bars, his knees below the bunk, his back bent sideways, and he cursed the damn cell for being too small. Less than five feet away, on the back wall, was the steel toilet, and he didn’t want his face anywhere near that shit, so he had no choice but to be uncomfortable where he was.
In general population your commode was sparkling clean. Hell, dudes even stored food in them like free people on the outside with their insulated beer coolers. But here in the Segregated Housing Unit—known to one and all as the SHU—it was nothing but snitches, “J” Category crazies, and stone cold killers like Anthony doing “administrative detention” and none of them, Anthony included, kept a tight house. Especially seeing as how you couldn’t get any quality cleaning products. Correctional Officers considered them contraband, meaning they could be used as chemical weapons. Last thing a CO needed was some overly depressed sociopath drinking bleach or tossing Ajax in another maniac’s face.
Still, Anthony wanted to get his meditation on. He’d been stressing like a motherfucker and thought if he could just get in a fifteen minute sit he’d be all right. Only Rebel, Anthony’s cellie, had a different agenda and wouldn’t shut up for one minute, let alone fifteen. His newest outrage, another example of disrespect; the oatmeal crème pie was missing from his bag lunch. Which of course elicited an ongoing verbal rampage.
“Know them mutha-fuckas in the kitchen stole it, ” said Rebel.
“Just a damn cookie,” said Anthony.
“How can ya say that Ant? Oatmeal crème’s my fave, bro.”
There was no consoling Rebel. He wasn’t going to just say “oh well” and forget all about it. In fact nine months from now when they finally released him from the SHU, he’d take his time getting reclassified and then reassigned to food service. Until he too was part of the assembly line putting together the bag lunches every convict got for their mid-day meal. And then when Rebel looked down that long line of men, each with their own integral assigned dietary segment in their hands, that when put together made up a state certified nutritious 750 calorie meal, he peeped cookie dude all the way at the end. Feigning he’d run out of plastic sporks, Rebel made his way to the boxes of supplies that just happened to be at the end of the line. But as he got up close to the shelves containing dry goods, instead of grabbing a new box, he sided up next to cookie dude and said, “hey, motherfucker.” While slipping out a slim piece of steel he’d managed to get loose from one of the food carts, and for the last four nights scraped against the concrete floor of his cell until it was as near pointed sharp as it was going to get. In one fast fluid ultraviolent movement that everyone else in the room was going to swear they didn’t see, he drove that honed piece of steel through cookie dude’s neck, killing him dead. No matter that the jobs were rotated and it wasn’t the same man that had failed to put the little cellophane wrapped baked good into Rebel’s bag lunch that day, way back when he was in that cell with Anthony.
“Fuck with my oatmeal crème, you die,” he said as they led him off in handcuffs, his kitchen whites covered in blood. Everyone else just staring at him—because like who really cares that much about a damn cookie.
But right now Anthony didn’t know any of that was ever going to occur and besides he thought Rebel weak, not to mention a dumbass, so he just told him to shut up and went back to staring at the cement slab wall on the other side of the bunk.
“Gots to get my nirvana on,” he whispered.
“Gots ta get my oatmeal crème,” replied Rebel.
Anthony’s eyes were half closed. Deep in meditation he was letting go, feeling an overwhelming sense of relief from his anxiety. He saw himself leaving prison, dressed in street clothes, his mother hugging him, an unknown child at her feet. In the center of his chest grew an emotional knot. Anthony was doing life without possibility of parole. He knew that moment would never come. Returning his concentration to his breath, he let the images fade, and wiped the tears from his eyes.
Anthony’s life had been a series of disappointments and this recent prison sentence was no different. At his trial he had just barely escaped Death Row. Murder One was no joke and the DA was hell bent on making Anthony another trophy in her collection of high-profile-low-life convictions. But in their over zealous bravado the cops had really fucked up Anthony’s case. The investigation was shoddy, witnesses coerced, and the evidence was so tampered that even the judge got indignant. Anthony’s PD had all but said it was a mistrial, and it would’ve been if Anthony’s DNA hadn’t been all over the deceased.
“Ever heard of gloves?” asked his PD.
It took the jury 20 minutes to return a guilty verdict. Anthony’s life would’ve flashed before his eyes had he been paying attention. Instead he just concentrated on the DA’s tight skirt and round ass and knew that was the last piece of trim he was ever going to see.
Then it was shackles, a one-way ride on the grey goose up to SQ, and 60 days in R&R. No cigarettes, no showers, no chow hall, just bag lunches and 24-hour lockdown with a noise level that would block out a 747 taking off.
“Winner winner, chicken dinner, we gotta room with a view for you,” said the CO. “Next thing smoking to Folsom, roll it up.”
“Oh, you a funny man,” said Anthony.
Anthony didn’t know shit about Folsom, and that afternoon he sat on the bus in leg irons handcuffed to a serial killer from Tulare and watched the San Joaquin Valley slowly roll by. It was twilight and one could even say a bit beautiful. The sun setting behind them as the bus drove through a small town. A dark building with a huge wall rose up in front of them. It was old school creepy and looked like Dracula’s castle. And something inside of Anthony’s stomach twisted a little. But it was back to another month of R&R before he’d see the joint for real.
His first day in Gen Pop Anthony hit the yard dressed out in his pressed blue bonaroos and freshly scrubbed white Adidas. He was cool, he was popping, he had his stroll down to perfection as he made the handball courts. And then some J-cat going all spaz-mode for the ball stepped backwards to make a long shot, and stomped on Anthony’s brogues. All the dudes in the clique went silent as Anthony inspected the offending scuff on his shoes. He had been up all night with a state issue toothbrush getting those fuckers ready and in one second flat whacko boy had fucked them off.
Anthony’s anger grew up inside of him and it was on. The J-cat never saw it coming. Anthony has been in the SHU ever since, and Rebel was there waiting for him.
Opening his eyes, Anthony is stuck with the futility of it all. Amongst the constant screamed conversations that bounce off the cellblock walls there is a silence in his heart.
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Originally published by Out Of The Gutter December 29th, 2016
Wednesday was like any other day; I was running late to work, scrambling for a parking place, had five back-to-back meetings with difficult clients and a staff meeting that went on for entirely too long. By four o’clock I’d just about had it, and if I wasn’t in recovery I would have been parading out with the rest of humanity to hit a bar for happy hour for that “over the hump day” celebratory cocktail (or, for me, 20).
However, these days I’m not only in recovery but I also work part time at a rehab, so I don’t even have “normie” co-workers to entice me into cocktail hour (not that I’m easily tempted, but you know what I mean). Instead, I just packed up my meager belongs and walked the three blocks to retrieve my car to head home.
My job is located in a highly-populated neighborhood in Los Angeles, and finding parking is always an ordeal—even when I’m not running late. There have been a few times when I’ve left work not able to remember where I had parked, and walked aimlessly until it came back to me. This time, when I got to where I was sure I had parked, there was another car in that spot. After a few strolls around the adjacent blocks, I concluded that my car had either been stolen or towed—the latter being more likely because my car is old and undesirable. But even with this knowledge what was I to do? It’s not like I’m versed in either situation, and after a few minutes of stress bordering on a panic attack, I pulled out my phone and called the number listed on the numerous and confusing city parking signs posted throughout the neighborhood.
“West Hollywood sheriff’s department,” they answered.
“Yes, I’m wondering if my car’s been towed?” I tried not to panic.
The helpful, yet surly peace officer gave me a number for the “parking enforcement” department, who I then called, where an equally surly voice told me that, yes, they had towed my car—although this person wasn’t sure exactly why. Now I needed to call the tow yard.
“Why did you tow my car?” I demanded.
“It was in a tow-away zone,” he replied.
Standing on the block where my car had been parked I looked down a long row of parked cars that obviously hadn’t been towed and then glanced up at the parking sign. There was nothing on there about this being tow away zone.
Then it started to rain.
“You coming in to get your car?” He was getting impatient.
An overwhelming rage erupted in my soul and I wished for days gone by where I could slam the phone down for that satisfyingly abrupt disconnect, but instead I mumbled “Yes,” and stumbled toward a busy intersection while fumbling with the Uber app. It was now rush hour, raining (which in LA is close to Armageddon) and traffic was at a standstill—plus the Uber app showed me that we had moved into “surge fare,” meaning three times the normal rate. This day was just getting better and better.
Defeated, I walked to the closest bus stop and waited. When the bus finally arrived, I made my way to the last seat, an uncomfortable aisle seat in back. Soaking wet, I sat there feeling overwhelmed and depressed. I didn’t have the money for whatever the tow and traffic ticket was going to cost (which caused me to mentally calculate how close I was to being destitute) and all my financial fears rose to the surface. Then my phone rang.
The area code indicated that it was a Sacramento, California number, and I don’t really know anyone in Sacramento—but what the hell, my day couldn’t get much worse, and so I answered abruptly, “What?”
“Hi, is this Patrick O’Neil?” a woman asked.
“This is the Office of Governor Jerry Brown, we’re calling to let you know you’ve been pardoned.”
Suddenly an overwhelming warmth erupted in my soul and I felt incredibly calm. For once I was at a loss for words, my eyes misted over and a tear ran down my cheek. Looking up, I noticed a tough-as-hell Cholo staring at me across the aisle, when our gazes intersected he diverted his eyes. Crying on the bus was probably not acceptable in his world—nor would it have been in my former world.
Twenty years ago, I made the bad life-changing decision to commit a series of armed bank robberies to support my heroin habit. At the time, I was mentally and spiritually as low as I could go: strung-out, desperate, in fear, self-centered and deranged. I saw no way out from where my addiction had taken me, and I decided that my life was over and whatever I did didn’t matter as life just wasn’t worth living.
I was eventually arrested, convicted and sentenced to prison. Then one day, on the yard of San Quentin, I realized that unless I made some drastic changes, that this would be my life from now on. Upon my release, I entered rehab and started attending NA meetings. When I graduated from treatment, I became a drug and alcohol counselor. Then I went back to school and got my Master’s degree in creative writing. I wrote and published a memoir, began teaching college and continued my involvement with my fellowship.
Without my noticing, the days turned into months, the months into years and my life continued to evolve into the most wonderful existence beyond anything that I could have dreamed of—except my criminal record kept following me. Teaching gigs and appointments to full professorship eluded me. I applied for positions and the application always had that dreaded “have you ever been arrested” box that needed checking—and when I did, I never heard back. I’ve also been denied apartments, volunteer positions and bank loans.
Then, two years ago, an amazingly generous pro-bono lawyer took on my case. After a mountain of paperwork, six months of waiting and a court appearance, I was granted a Certification of Rehabilitation by the State of California which automatically made me eligible to apply for a Governor’s Pardon (“automatically” meaning another mountain of paperwork and another year of nervously waiting).
So on a day when I wasn’t feeling grateful for anything that has been so graciously given to me, a phone call made my immediate problems disappear.
“Mr. O’Neil?” she asked after my long, silent pause.
Jolted out my memories, I told the woman about what a bad day I’d been having, and how I was on a bus to get my car from the tow yard. She told me how sorry she was to hear that.
“You just made my day,” I said.
“Is there anything else I can help you with?” she asked.
“I know this sounds cheesy, but would you give my best to Governor Brown?”
Since my first day in recovery, I have never once regretted making the commitment to change my life. I am eternally grateful for all that has been given to me, and in return I try to be of service to others, carry the message to addicts (and alcoholics) and practice these principles in all my affairs. It has been a long journey, but worth it. And the pardon for my past behavior is another in a long line of gifts that confirms I am doing the right thing and that I’m not alone.
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Originally published as “The Day I Was Pardoned for Committing Armed Robberies” by AfterPartyMagazine February 9th, 2017