When I walk into a prison or jail to visit with a client, I’m aware of the ultimate paradigm. Power is the decisive common denominator, the hostage-taker. Everything is about who has power and in what setting, and if you don’t believe that then you’re not paying attention. Doesn’t matter if this concept is applied to a marriage or work relationship or celebrity status or being locked up. It’s what Virginia was saying when she demanded that women have a room of their own, thoughts of their own, decisions of their own. Virginia knew that power imbalance deadens the spirit and mind.
Power perceived and assigned by others can take you off-guard. I felt this firsthand when I became unexpectedly famous in my laundromat. Presidential candidates swamp New Hampshire every four years to conduct obligatory town halls and handshaking campaigns. They visit the locals on their own turf, pleading for votes by being just as ‘down-home’ as anyone else. Since I had been in touch with the Obama campaign office in Concord regarding the subject of AIDS in a rural setting, I was invited to meet the man personally. Although I didn’t run out to buy a new outfit or get my hair done, I admit to seeing stars.
Each of us was invited to ask one burning question of him and I spent considerable energy crafting mine. Our assignation was to take place at Lindy’s Diner, where every Presidential candidate has come for decades to shake hands amongst the locals. All across NH, hopefuls make sure they hang out in diners. It’s as though the nostalgia associated with these eateries represents their own unique room, supposedly full of just plain folk speaking just plain conversation. Obama’s people had planned a rally in town that day and we were told we had 30 minutes prior to the event for the six of us to chat. I surveyed the diner’s outdoor patio, worn plastic tables and chairs with sharp edges, the frayed umbrella, flowers drooping in the midday sun. Couldn’t get more down-home than this.
Bedraggled media types mingled with buttoned down secret service guys around the perimeter. Expectation was in the air as we introduced ourselves to each other and waited for the man to appear, which he did without fanfare. White shirtsleeves rolled up to combat the heat, no signs of sweat or worry, our future President strolled in the way that men who are long and lanky so casually do. His smile was a spotlight that drew us to our feet. I was the first one to move toward him, hand extended, smiling, and heard the cameras snapping. We sat around the table in our unforgiving plastic chairs, a mere 4’ away from him, aware of the magnitude of our good luck.
After a brief preamble, we began to engage. Pieces of paper appeared with our thoughts and questions. We did admirably, six different subjects explored one on one with our candidate. And he remained for a full hour, which I’m sure screwed up his schedule. But we were articulate and he was interested. Before he left we each got to put our arm around his waist for the official photo op. That moment was thrilling for two reasons. We all believed he would win the nod and forever we’d have the story to tell about hanging with the future President of the United States at Lindy’s Diner. But more important to me was the feeling of a deep sense of equality. He did not stand on ceremony nor was there any bullshit in his responses. He had an air of intelligence that did not usurp our place at this meeting or threaten to turn us into tongue-tied sycophants. Instead he expected us to operate at his level. The opportunity was as clean as the day was bright.
My photo appeared in the paper, page 3 above the fold, a large black and white. It wasn’t bad but neither was it Pulitzer Prize material. It generated lots of commentary and made me happy that I’d had the honor of this experience to recount, but hardly placed me on any pedestal. Or so I thought until that day in the laundromat. One practical, guilty pleasure I allow myself is dropping off a laundry basket full of dirty clothes and hours later picking up my items clean and crisply folded. It was about a week after the Obama photo ran that, as usual, I walked into my laundromat ready to dump the basket on the counter and head off to work. Fans were swirling fetid summer air in an effort to mimic relief. I was aware of something fluttering on the wall to my left as I entered but paid no attention as I smiled at the owner, a pleasant Oriental gentleman whom I didn’t often see at the cash register.
“Morning,” I said.
He put down his book, stood up, a look of realization on his face. Smiling broadly he said, “You famous! You our customer! Famous!”
“What?” I replied, completely stymied.
“Look! There! You famous! Obama!” He pointed over my left shoulder and I turned to view my newspaper photo tacked to the wall. I felt sick to my stomach.
“Oh, thank you, but no, I’m not famous. Really.”
But he would not be deterred. “Yes, you are! You with Obama! Famous!” I thanked him again and got to the business of my laundry before more undeserving accolades came my way. I left conflicted about what happened. Although I appreciated the owner’s delighted response, there was a disconnect between our interpretations of the event. The sense of equality I’d enjoyed had been hijacked. The owner’s attention was personally uncomfortable, and when I told others of my dismay their reaction was to consider the owner pathetic, which wasn’t at all the point. I didn’t join in the chiding because I’d seen the look on his face, so proud of his connection to my 15 seconds of fame. Between July and September I watched the newspaper image fade as the edges curled around the clipping. Enough, already. I finally asked him to take it down and a week later it was finally gone.
Every day is about power, inequality and imbalance in all kinds of systems, but this is a 24/7 reality if you’re incarcerated. Otherwise meaningless items take on great significance. Access to the commissary is everything, providing barter items that help to assign inmate pecking order. To combat prison food, packages of peanut butter crackers, candy, chips, pork rinds, hot sauce and other goodies become gold. Of course, you can only order from the commissary if someone on the outside makes sure you have money in your account since a prison job pays $2/day and these funds accrue until the day of departure. Inmates who have no one to provide for their needs eat processed cardboard and stale sawdust and soggy messes with an aluminum aftertaste.
It’s easy to translate this same dynamic into personal relationships. Without the honor of a room of our own and its inherent authority we become trapped, an inmate lacking commissary privilege. My clients tell me unbelievable stories of the world that exists in prison right under the eyes of the guards who more often than not perpetuate the system because it helps to keep inmates in line, thereby making their job easier and assuring their power grid. How is this any different from a domineering workplace where favoritism and discrimination is rampant? Or a family run by its bullying overseer? When deeply held desires and values collide against abusive authority, we might as well be behind bars.
I asked a client for help the other day and he replied wryly, “Two soups and a hot ball.”
The currency of power is a tightrope bargain.