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A 21st-Century Rip Van Winkle: What Changed In My Decade Behind Bars

Illustration for article titled A 21st-Century Rip Van Winkle: What Changed In My Decade Behind Bars

When the New World was two centuries newer, Washington Irving set a fable, "Rip Van Winkle," in the oldest parts of New York State, where the original Dutch settlers' culture still lingered. Life was European then—just set in America. But progress stops for no man. The story's hero evades his nagging wife in the wilds and takes a nap after drinking a supernatural potion. Awakening 20 years later, he is amazed by changes that aren't as obvious to those who slowly lived through them. For example, having missed the American Revolution, he infuriates a tavern's locals by toasting the wrong George: the recently defeated king of England, not the recently elected first president of America.


Two centuries on, that Old World atmosphere has been largely paved over to make way for the Department of Corrections' 54 local facilities. I visited 12 of those prisons over the course of my 10-year sentence, some nestled in the same rural, northern scrub that Rip himself might have napped in. Of course, my slumber was both shorter and lighter. The news of yet another polarizing tyrant named George leaving office reached me in 2008, when I was halfway through my "dime." Garbled and muffled, I learned that the "Electrical College allowed" the election of Barack Obama, which had enough oompf to wake even the incarcerated. That November, we prisoners were thrilled by and large, and the joint rang with hurrahs, while the mostly conservative guards ran around turning off radios.

When sleepers like me are finally, fully woken—or released by the parole board—the distance our absence created lets us see changes most civilians find invisible. My decade apart from society has sharpened my nose for the subtle differences between today and 2003. Well-rested and curious, I found that the marvelous future of 2014 was a better place than I'd imagined, having undergone a more radical transition than I'd assumed. I was released a year ago February after serving my minimum of 123 months; it's a story I've told in this space before, but to be brief, one bad week in August of 2003 put me to sleep for 10 years. The treacherous potion was heroin. After graduating from NYU and starting a career in publishing, two years of narcotic addiction left me desperate enough to commit several amateur robberies. The newspapers may have called me "The Apologetic Bandit" for my contrition at the crime scenes, but the pocketknife I wielded (luckily without hurting anyone) classified my felonies as armed robberies. The judge gave me a dozen years to think (or dream) about it.

During my sentence, I had magazines, the radio, and collect calls to my family. I spent a dozen conjugal visits with my wife—44-hour periods in private—and called and wrote often, but my family could not know what I was deprived of, and how severely. Naturally, I had no frame of reference myself: By the time I saw a flatscreen HD television, they were in every home. I'd never used Facebook or YouTube. I'd talked over politics and war with my friends inside, but the creep of progress was just as invisible to them. And as for my friends outside, I barely knew what questions to ask, and how would they convey the taste of a Cronut, anyway?

The year of freedom since has let me catch up and sharpen my perspective. Here's my sense of what changed while I slept, and what strikes me that probably hasn't quite struck you in the same way.

The Rise of Barry

The difference between November of 2003 and February of 2014 is both short on societal revolutions (give or take an Arab Spring or Ukraine's Orange Winter) and subtly radical. During most of time before the 20th century, unless the decades contained world-historical events, they were hard to tell apart. We've sped up since, of course; 10 years of our lifetime are distinguishable easily via technology alone. Both literally and figuratively, a time-traveler nowadays can learn the date with a mere glance at a cell phone.


But even asleep in the far north, I heard echoes from civilization; if nothing else, FM radio came in from Montreal. Good thing I minored in French. In 2003, the wars in the Middle East had already begun and allegedly ended: George W. Bush's delivered his "Mission Accomplished" speech in May of 2003, when I wasn't reading the newspapers much. Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then possibly the richest man in Russia, was jailed. Lorena Bobbit's victim/ex-husband made a porno called Uncut. I had to piece together the rest.

Magazines are a dying industry, but reading them kept me abreast of the 21st century's big-picture events. I knew about the Iraq War's escalation, our economic near-collapse, Obama's once-unthinkable election, and the violence in countries like Russia and Venezuela. Hugo Chavez and Benazir Bhutto died, but Fidel Castro still hasn't. Justin Bieber went from a nobody to a huge star to a cautionary tale.


That is what I gleaned from official, reputable sources; the news I heard through word-of-mouth in the prison yard was a different story. Often the information was twisted and misunderstood: When North Korea's leader died in 2011, the tragic passing of beloved rapper Lil' Kim was erroneously mourned in the yard. Other events announced themselves by grimmer means: The economic collapse that rocked the world mostly just rocked our mess halls. Budget cuts rendered the food even more vile than before, the meat mostly replaced with soy. Obama's ascendance was initially celebrated, but soon enough he was gauged to be "not black enough," and derisively called "Barry" to underline it. I fought hard for my island of rationalism; NPR and BBC America were lifelines for preserving a mainstream mindset in an ocean of extremism. God bless the New Yorker, too.

Cars Shrink, and Phones Bulk Up

One of the most mystifying objects I encountered upon my release? A touchscreen. I had never seen one.


But first came the drive home, where I had a more mundane but just as jolting realization: I noticed that the highway out of Rip Van Winkle's homeland was now full of little cars. I had seen them in Europe, but I had to wonder: Was the nation of Route 66 ready for Fiats? Then a Prius passed us.

Ten years ago, vehicles like the Smart car were European or Japanese oddities. Hummers ruled the roads of the early 'aughts, powered by rap metal, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and George W. Bush's bulletproof approval ratings. Despite the price of gas slowly rising to, well, European levels, even housewives drove the civilian equivalent of tanks. Fast-forward a decade, and Americans autobahns featured Renaults, Citroens, and VW Beetles. Honest to god, I'd once heard SUV advocates bemoan the hazards of American prairie winds: Smaller cars would certainly just blow right off the road. But that was long since forgotten. I was driven home in a Mini myself, my parents having traded in their old station wagon. Public opinion had shifted; the old prejudice against foreign models and the insistence that American roads and car culture required larger vehicles wasn't carved in stone after all. Detroit-style patriotism fell prey to the skyrocketing price at the pump; today, the aversion to practical vehicles is gone with the wind.


As for society, the changes were both bigger and subtler—harder to both believe and quantify.

"He's Gay, by the Way"

In 10 years, American society, as seen from my perch in New York, has leaned towards tolerance. This is not how my friends see it, especially the ones who have marched for causes. It has been a bad year full of atrocities in places like Ferguson and Staten Island. But returning to an America with Obama in the White House is shocking and unfamiliar, even if everyone else is used to it. In prison segregation, was the rule. and only a decade ago, racial jokes were still told at the drunken ends of parties I attended. They were told by my fellow NYU students, even though my alma mater is theoretically a bastion of liberalism. Racism is far from extinct, but mercifully, it seems somewhat less popular, or less tolerated by the rest of us. Today, the same friends who used the worst slurs are still cavalier about "political correctness." But now that I'm back outside, they haven't told me an offensive joke yet.


In an even quieter and subtler fashion, homosexuality has crossed an elusively defined barrier into something resembling acceptability. There's a sense of grudging inevitability even among those who call it sin. In 2003, most likely at those same parties, the word "fag" was still bandied about even by ostensible progressives, and gay marriage was barely on the horizon. Its ascension to a political reality with (relatively) broad support may be the single most shocking cultural transition of my time inside.

Ten years was enough to normalize homosexuality; I see evidence in minor events and national ones. Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann's husband, who ran a business "curing" homosexuality, was treated with respect before I went in, but today it's become a punchline. Hotels now offer single-bed rooms to men traveling together without blinking; traveling with a pal this winter, we were asked if we were "together" without a trace of mockery or insinuation. I asked if any of my old company noticed this new tolerance, but they claimed it's been this way since Stonewall. I'm not so sure. Recently, a writer I was about to meet was described to me meticulously beforehand; the final bit of info I got was,"by the way, he's gay." A decade ago, that would've been the lead.


The notion of transgender rights is today's issue that bewilders the same folks who once would've sworn that gay marriage was impossible in our lifetime. The unabated bullying epidemic and resulting suicides are painful enough to hollow out any claim of progress, but I see hope in the strangest, seemingly least consequential places. Gay culture, rich with humor and euphemism, has entered the mainstream; a recent nationally distributed movie I saw had a joke in it that relied on the mainstream audience understanding what a "bear" and a "twink" was. Everyone in the theater laughed, getting it. Ten years ago, this language was largely unknown to those outside the gay community and certainly not used in Hollywood films. I haven't been to a gay marriage yet, myself, but my wife has raved about them.

You Are What You Eat, Which Makes You Kale

New Yorkers have dieted since Manhattan was settled, and the belief that one can never be rich enough or thin enough is still taken quite literally by us status seekers. Farmer's markets were already in Manhattan a decade ago, but today they're also commonplace in Brooklyn, and apparently in most relatively hip urban enclaves nationwide. Even in Texas. Prices have grown astronomically at these stands, of course, and places like Whole Foods charge outrageous rates shamelessly. People are buying both food and the story behind it now; restaurant menus describe the ingredients' sourcing in detail that would have been a joke before my long nap. Ten years ago, there was far less interest in the quality or provenance of a meal's ingredients.


Nor were there half as many self-imposed limitations. When I was released and started eating socially again, it seemed like an epidemic of celiac disease had hit the city. Gluten-free is a common eating restriction, and often a superfluous one. Even my wife tried it for a spell, while an old friend even went paleo.

Having dated a vegan once and been a vegetarian for a few months when I was a poor student, I wasn't new to self-imposed limitations. Politics also plays a role. I am forbidden Russian products by my friends with Ukrainian sympathies; in prison, I ate figs that were marked as a product of Iran and are now probably embargoed. The alimentary canal defines us today, just like the strain of Buddhism that locates the soul in the stomach. But the ubiquity of the topic quickly became tedious.


Where I slept for a decade, you ate what you could get. Knowing hunger, market-stall venders in the free world who insisted on the benefits of eggs that cost a dollar apiece only irritated me. Despite speaking four languages and having read Proust, I myself once pulled a roll out of a prison garbage can—thrown there by a guard—because I craved real bread. I ate around the mold and felt no shame. Today's obsession with food was one innovation I woke up to that I did not much care for: The priority of authenticity is both exploitive and boring. But the foodies themselves are usually otherwise cool.

I've always cooked and ate adventurously; in my view, society has simply caught up. I knew about quinoa from reading about the Andes, but never imagined that it would appear at the suppers of women who used to dine on malt liquor. Now, people who are genuinely hip—meaning that they dress fashionably without any assistance, and have at least somewhat active sex lives—are "into" food, and regularly sing the praises of kale, heritage chicken, and almond milk. I visited another old friend to catch up; he muddled mint leaves to make me the perfect julep while his daughters played. Before my incarceration, he had once poured me a cocktail of NyQuil and methadone when he called me over for help in disposing of the corpse of an enormous dead python. I noted the evolution, but he didn't remember.


Log In

Unlike Rip Van Winkle, I was not actually asleep for years—I just wasn't online. Many find this just as shocking, though in my opinion, a decade without air-conditioning was worse. Radio reaches over the walls, and TV is piped in, but the internet is absolutely forbidden: The paranoid authorities fear fraud and hacking. Mistakenly sent to a typing course once, I turned the screen upside-down through the settings, unsettling the teacher so much that she removed me from the class for "cybercrime."


Computer courses are taught in the vocational departments of prisons, but without internet capability, they leave the prisoners as ignorant as before. Having lived by two housing projects, I know that today's criminal classes are members of the digital revolution, too: On my way recently to interview the grieving sister of a man killed on Riker's Island, I was surrounded on a filthy stairwell in such a building by the local gang. They Googled me to make sure I was not the police. I passed. But prisoners waking from sleeps as long as mine—and often longer—usually cannot adjust, and say that their thumbs are too thick for the little keys of a smartphone. I learned not to question such things in my dealings with the illiterate. When a grown man asks you to read something for him because he has "forgotten his glasses," you read between the lines and don't mention that you've never seen the fellow in spectacles before.

Upon my release, the availability of information with which to fill my curious head enticed me enough to cause arguments with my wife, who suggested I marry the iMac instead. I gorged myself on the endless sites and things to buy; before my dreamtime, I used Compuserve and AOL, but everything was slow and difficult. Today, the buttons actually work, and the porn is so much better. And free!


Facebook and other social-media tools are actually a released prisoners' best friends. Not only does it let you reconnect with people who succumbed to "out of sight, out of mind," it gives you a chance to present yourself and your story to your advantage. By tweeting and posting, you let go of some of your privacy in exchange for a role in crafting your presentation. That's good news for armed robbers. In my case, there is a New York Post article about me from 2003 that I particularly dislike; having published 62 pieces in 2014, I have pushed it from the first page of my Google results to the fourth. One day I hope to push it off a cliff.

The Snooze Button

Even after a subsequent year's hearty stretch, the effects of my decade of sleep remain. I still mine it for writing material, of course, but in many senses I'd be better served by putting it behind me as I face the Brave New World. Broad societal ills have shown both thrilling progress and demoralizing stasis; my friends' newfound obsession with food is either irritating or excellent, depending on whether they're willing to try my pigs' feet and sea cucumber. The smaller cars on the streets don't trouble me in the slightest; I plan to buy one myself. This is a new world, I suppose, but in many ways it reminds me of a distinctly old one: Europe.


Daniel Genis is working on a memoir of his incarcerated reading life for Penguin/Viking, titled 1,046 for the number of books he read while in prison. You can also follow him on Twitter here and read his other work here.


Image by Tara Jacoby with original etching by Solomon Eytinge, Junior.

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