One Thanksgiving I spent in jail. I was young, and therefore brash and rash, and so thought myself immortal, impervious. Didn’t think then, there in stir, about doing serious prison time, which is what I was facing. Just had to wait for the holiday weekend to pass, I figured, then the lawyer could tease the bail down to a Sane level. Which is what happened. The serious grinding over the prison time, that came later.
Thanksgiving was my third or fourth day in the place. I occupied alone a single-cell, which I belatedly learned was supposed to be a sort of punishment. I could smoke in there—can’t do that no more, in the jails in this state—and I could think and plan and wonder and reflect. There were tolerable volumes from the jail library with which I could pass the time. Nobody bothered me. I could talk to the folks—though yes I couldn’t see them—in the cells on either side of me. But I could choose not to, too.
This was 25 years or so ago, when they still fed you decently in the jails around here. And so on Thanksgiving they shoved through the bars a fair approximation of a traditional American Thanksgiving repast: turkey, mashed potatoes, rolls, cranberry sauce, yams, etc. I ate all of it. Yams I hadn’t much eaten before, and I haven’t eaten them since. But I had already discovered, there a monkey confined to a cage, that I’d eat just about anything the keepers slid my way. You do tend to get hungry, in every way, when your life is caged.
After Thanksgiving dinner the screws punched a video into the TV/VCR combo that sat on a low metal table rolled about on casters in the hall outside the cells occupied by we “serious felons.” I absolutely could not believe it: the film was The Black Stallion, one of my favorite movies, a tone poem completely about freedom, but one that I figured these cynical magpies in the “serious felon” row would hoot down and away, dismissing it as a “children’s flick.” How wrong I was. They, as it developed, had been on this row much longer than I; they had seen this film several times before, and they valued it. They got it as only people who don’t have it could get it.
Because it was Thanksgiving, that night we got a double feature. The second film was a ninja thing. As soon as it was punched in, we heard a groan from the guy in the cell to the far right.
“What bullshit,” he groused in his gravelly voice. “This is the one with the guy who takes more bullets and lives than even the guy in Scarface. What bullshit.”
And it was true. The ninja hero at one point was riddled with what looked like 20 or 30 bullets, mostly to the head and chest . . . but still, he kept on coming. As this nonsense approached its zenith, the guy in the cell at the far right kept muttering variations on “bullshit” and “check out this shit” and “no way.”
My unseen jailbird companion to my left at one point whispered to me: “That dude at the end, the reason why he’s pissed at this stupid shit: he’s in here on murder. He knows what it takes to kill a person. And it ain’t much.”
Several years later I spent Thanksgiving at Denny’s. I didn’t have to be there; I could have been other places, with other people. But Denny’s is where that Thanksgiving I chose to be. Even at the time, I knew that my Thanksgiving in Denny’s was worse than the Thanksgiving I’d spent in jail. Because then, in jail, somebody else had locked me up. But in dining at Denny’s, I had entered a jail of my own making.
Usually, these days, I don’t associate Thanksgiving with jail. But in 2010 it came back at me. Because the day before Thanksgiving, there in 2010, a jury out of Texas decided that Tom DeLay, former majority leader of the United States House of Representatives, had committed enough crimes to stash him away in a cage for the rest of his life.
DeLay is a person who is not hard to fathom. Like many among us, he is wedded to his own private personal phantasmagorical version of The Way We Were. In DeLay’s particular phantasmagorical world, there exists a Golden Age when all was Good and Decent, before Negroes got uppity, and women burned their bras, and homos flaunted theyselves before all and sundry, and no-account po’ folk commenced the St. Vitus Dance about how they iz jist No Reason, far as they kin see, why they shouldn’t get doctors jist as good as those who attentively pore over the aging flesh and paling blood of an American aristocrat like Barbara Bush.
And so DeLay roared out of Texas, and into Washington DC, determined there to reverse the course of the world, return it to that place where he imagined it once was and should forever be.
As a true believer, DeLay presumed, like all true believers, that any and all weapons at his disposal were righteous for him to wield.
“If thy laws offend thee,” Delay borrowed from Matthew 5:29, “pluck them out.”
And so DeLay, for the Greater Good of more GOoPers in Congress, which he perceived as Absolutely Necessary in order to turn back the clock and return us all to The Way We Were, pulled down his drawers and shat upon the laws governing wheeling-dealing financial contributions to politicos He Happened To Like.
The prosecution alleged that Mr. DeLay skirted the state ban on direct corporate donations to candidates using a sort of shell game. Corporate donations to Mr. DeLay’s political action committee were transferred to an arm of the Republican National Committee; the same amount of cash, raised by the RNC from individual donors, was then donated to the candidates.
Those campaign dollars were credited with helping more Republicans win seats in the Texas House; they used their power to redraw congressional districts that favored Republicans, prosecutors argued.
The redistricting plan, which was engineered by Mr. DeLay, was later enacted by the Legislature. A number of longtime Democrats subsequently lost their congressional seats, increasing Mr. DeLay’s own power and prestige.
It was a kind of political money-laundering operation that had very important consequences. With the help of those six victories, Republicans took back control of the Texas legislature for the first time since the end of slavery. But most important was this: that same legislature was later in charge of a deeply controversial redrawing of constituency boundaries in the state that helped DeLay significantly to reduce the number of Democrats sent by the Lone Star state to the US Congress in Washington.
The Texas jury condemned DeLay as a money-launderer—akin to a drug-dealer, or a Mafia capo—and returned verdicts on counts that could lock him away as a convicted felon for up to 99 years.
“Law” as we know it hasn’t really been around all that long.
Back in the day, white Europeans settled serious disputes via “trial by combat.” That is, I’d send out a “champion,” and you’d send out a “champion,” and whomsoever physically prevailed in a brute-force tangle would establish, via “might,” who was “right.”
Eventually it came to be understood that this was Ridiculous and Embarrassing. And so scribblers were set to work codifying Rules. So, henceforth, if, say, you brazenly stole my cow, instead of me slipping coin to some beefy mercenary to take on your beefy mercenary, or simply tramping over to your place to steal one of your cows, I’d go to something called a “court,” and there I would obtain “justice,” by way of a “remedy.”
The “remedy” was intended as a way to fairly recompense a loss. In the case of a stolen cow, the remedy was simple: if it was found that you indeed stole my cow, you returned that cow, or another cow, or something of equal worth. The court meanwhile denounced you from the bench as a form of rat bastard, for stealing my cow, and the community commenced to shun you, for some appropriate period of time.
Unfortunately, not everything is as simple and straight-forward as cow theft. And so white Europeans, in formulating this “law” business, soon flapped completely out of control. If you stole an apple from a market—hey, cut off the dude’s hand. You steal shit with your hand, so, if we lop the thing off, you won’t steal shit no more. Too, hanging’s good: if you die, you sure as shit can’t commit no more crimes. By Charles Dickens’ time, the English were hanging people—including children—for all sorts of no-account offenses. Solves the problem. A little muss. Not much fuss.
There in the USA, in 2010, still blindly stumbling behind forebears, they don’t much lop off hands, or hang ‘em high, anymore . . . though they do bubble up into the veins of The Accursed sufficient poisons to kill ‘em, and meanwhile lash into any foul cage any old miscreant they can lay their paws on.
It is hard to determine what sort of “remedy” best serves as punishment for Tom DeLay. It is clear that the guy flouted the nation’s laws in order to subvert the government of the United States. But there is no precedent for simply stomping into the halls of Congress to grab by the neck those who, via DeLayed illegalities, had come to be seated there, and rudely depositing them in the street. The cause and effect, under the laws, is too attenuated.
So they are, instead, the Americans, faced with the reductionist notion of confining DeLay to a cage.
I’ve been in a cage. Three times. And I am here to tell you that a cage is not a place that any human being wants to confine another human being, without extremely just cause. Like, you’re pretty darn sure that, if the person is not immediately confined to a cage, sometime in the next 24 hours s/he will unaccountably run amok, and, for No Reason, bite someone in the neck.
Tom DeLay—Wrong as he is—is not that sort of person. He’s just a has-been sadsack, who once was somebody. Who, torn down off his throne and thrown in with the pretty-much nobodies, today may run his mouth, may run, at best, a PAC or two. But who can no longer be feared as someone capable of subverting the government of the United States.
I just don’t sign on to sending people to jail. Sorry. I basically don’t care who they are. Few things have sickened me more, over the last dozen years or so, then so-called self-described “human rights” defenders, who crocodile-tear over, say, victims of the War on Terra, or Wall Street malfeasance, and then foam at the mouth and thump the tub about shutting away via kangaroo court Darth Cheney and George II and a random thousand “banksters” in some cell where the sun don’t shine, for the rest of their natural lives.
You’re all Khmer Rouge to me. New boss; same as the old boss. No different from who you despise. It’s just different people, you want to lock away, and throw away the key.
In the course of things, regarded in hindsight, by truly evolved humans, jails will be considered as sad and silly as such other atavistic ur-human artifacts as weapons, cities, and money.
The future of humans is Alec on the island. That’s just the way it is.
Anyway. Normally I don’t spend Thanksgiving in jail. That was Aberrant. In the usual course of things, here in this gene pool, for decades Thanksgiving was a family affair, and I and I would gather for a week or so at the beach.
We’re a family who for 40 years flowed back together for Thanksgiving, there in a little house on the coast of California. But people, they do get old, and so the woman who rented the place to us all those years, for a modest, reasonable fee, was recently forced to pass the property on to her children, who, it develops, are Robbers. They want rent achievable only by folks who serve on the board of directors at Goldman Sachs. So, since, the family, for Thanksgiving, has stayed scattered.
Before this Calamity, I developed a serious gumbo jones, and one year took my spike to the coast for Thanksgiving. There I succeeded in hooking all the junior members of the family. Since I can no longer physically, in physical space, stand and deliver, I post each year here the recipe, so all the scattered family can brew the drug in their own homes.
My recipe is a variation on that of Maudice and Bill Gentry, lately of Oakland, California, formerly of Texas and New Orleans. Gumbo, associated most with New Orleans, is a West African, Afro-Caribbean dish, with French and Choctaw Indian accents. Some folks think gumbo must contain okra, but in this they are Wrong. You can put okra in it, but it’s no more necessary than is owl or monkey, which some folks also like to see floating in their gumbo.
First you have to make chicken stock. My stock recipe comes from a Frenchwoman, but that’s acceptable, because, as I said, there are already French people in gumbo.
5 pounds chicken wings/backs
4 medium onions, quartered
green part of 2 leeks, washed and chopped
4 medium carrots, cut into eighths
4 bay leaves
20 parsley stems
4 cloves garlic, smashed
roughly 6-7 quarts water
6 sprigs fresh thyme
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
Heave the chicken wings/backs into a stockpot. Add the onions, carrots, bay leaves, garlic, and parsley stems. Run enough water into the pot to submerge these ingredients, with an inch or two of water atop. Place on burner. Bring to a boil. Add the thyme and peppercorns.
Reduce heat to very low, so that the stock bubbles very gently. Partially cover and cook, for at least two, but no more than three, hours.
Strain stock into a large bowl. Mash down on the meat and vegetables in the strainer to ensure you get every drop. You’ll secure at least the 4 quarts of stock you’ll need for the gumbo. The rest will refrigerate for up to five days, pushin’ it; after that, it’s into the freezer.
4 quarts homemade chicken stock
2.75 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tablespoons Old Bay seasoning
1.5 teaspoons garlic salt w/dried parsley
1 tablespoon coarse-ground black pepper
1.5 pounds uncooked medium/large prawns, peeled and deveined, shells reserved
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
6 andouille sausages, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
6 Louisiana-style hot links, sliced into 1/2-inch rounds
6 medium jalapeno peppers, diced
7 medium serrano peppers, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
7 green onions, diced
1 large yellow onion, diced
4 stalks celery with tops, diced
9 cloves garlic, minced
more olive oil, maybe
1 cup all-purpose flour
1.5 tablespoons Zatarain’s gumbo filé
Cut the chicken breasts into 14-18 large pieces. Dump in a bowl and mix with the Old Bay seasoning, garlic salt, and pepper. Cover and place in the refrigerator for four hours.
Dice the hot peppers, bell peppers, green onions, onion, garlic, and celery. Combine well in a large bowl.
Slice the sausages into rounds.
Get the shrimp naked by stripping off their shells.
Okay. In a large stockpot, bring the chicken stock to a boil. Add the reserved shrimp shells. Reduce to a simmer, cover, keep slowly simmering.
In a cast-iron dutch oven heat the olive oil and brown the chicken on medium-high heat. Remove. Next saute the andouille and hot links, for about 8-12 minutes. Remove.
You now need 3 ounces of fat (6 tablespoons) in the dutch oven. If you weren’t able to produce that much in browning the meat—and you probably weren’t—add olive oil to make up the difference.
Adjust the burner to medium. You’re going to make a roux.
Add one-third of the vegetable mixture to the hot fat/oil in the dutch oven, then sprinkle 1/3rd cup of the flour over the veggies. Let the flour dissolve some into the vegetable juice and fat before stirring to incorporate. Then keep stirring patiently, letting the vegetables soften and the flour brown. Some flour will insist on sticking to the bottom of the dutch oven; when that happens, ladle in some of the simmering stock, and scrape the flour loose.
After about 10 minutes or so of arm-wearying stirring, and occasional ladling and scraping, you’ll be ready to add another one-third of the veggie mix, sprinkled with another 1/3rd cup of flour. Do what you did in the previous paragraph. After 10 minutes or so, do it again, with the final one-third of the veggie mix, and the final 1/3rd cup of flour.
Your veggie/flour roux should be a light caramel color. So now you’re going to turn it green. Turn the burner down to low, and sprinkle the gumbo filé atop the roux. Allow the filé to dissolve some, before starting up the stirring again. Stir till everybody’s all mixed up.
With a slotted spoon, remove the shrimp shells from the stock. Bring the stock to a boil, then add 2 cups of the stock to the roux. Return the stock to a simmer; meanwhile, back in the dutch oven, allow the roux to thicken again. Then pour the roux into the stock. Add to the roux and the stock the cooked chicken and sausages. Bring the whole mess up to a simmer, then cook, simmering slowly, for at least 4 hours, preferably all day.
Just before serving, add the raw shrimp, turn off the burner, cover, and wait five minutes.
And if ain’t all all right: no matter. Because sometimes, as I well know, it’s all about the wrong move. That made it right.