The worst year of my life
It starts with an unprovoked assault by a stranger and rapidly goes downhill from that low point. Hair-breadth escapes and violence! Includes the story of my return to prison and ends with a heart attack. A chapter of Kick Me.
by Alan Carl Nicoll
Copyright 2021 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved
My worst year started with a bang, literally. I was downtown for a meeting in the morning and walking toward Dagny’s when I saw a well-built black man running along 20th Street in my direction. I paused to let him pass, but he didn’t run past—instead, he punched me in the face while speaking loudly to me, words that made little impression. I turned away, astonished, and he proceeded to rain another four or five blows to the side and back of my head as I covered up as best I could. Then he ran on. I yelled after him that he was crazy, but, fortunately, he did not return, instead he yelled some more, presumably curses on the whole white race.
I felt fortunate that I was not seriously injured—he hadn’t struck my glasses, nor my nose or mouth, but my head ached. I recognized the likely injustice he had suffered throughout his life because of his color, and recalled that James Baldwin had said something about the rage of the black man, and I recognized that although I was a white liberal who sympathized with his rage, I had not done anything of significance in my life to struggle against the injustice rampant in America. If any white man deserved to be punched in the face in his old age, I deserved it just about as much, or almost as much. And if, by venting his rage on me, a relatively healthy and robust old man, he later spared another who might be more fragile, I’d take it. Something that’s all too easy to say, until it happens and the whining starts.
I know that my childhood was nothing like this man’s must have been—I grew up in the 1950s in the world of Ozzie and Harriet, essentially. For him, that was an impossibility, and not only because he came on the scene forty years later.
These were something like the thoughts I had at the time, while I also recognized that I was vulnerable, frightened, and annoyed.
On March 4th I was arrested; it came about like this. In December, 2019, I bought a couple of DVDs: Girls Gone Wild—Blondes, and American Nudes, Volume 1. These were listed as “for adults only” in the Hamilton catalogue, so I knew that I was being “naughty”; even worse, I knew that I was crowding the line that probation has established between permissible and impermissible behavior.
A week or two later I went to my scheduled polygraph exam; one of the requirements of my Federal probation is to be examined thus, twice a year. It was a new examiner and he asked new questions. In answer to one, rather than attempt to lie, I told of these two DVDs.
A month after that, my probation officer came to my place and confiscated those DVDs, sealing them in a plastic bag without touching them. I was not surprised by the confiscation, but the handling thereof should have warned me that I might be in trouble. But the doofus remained blissfully ignorant.
A month after that, on March 4th, I was called into the probation office “so they could return to me the MacBook they had previously confiscated.” This was a ruse. Instead, I was arrested and told that I had violated probation because those confiscated DVDs were “pornographic.” That’s debatable, but I didn’t argue the point. It took several months to learn my fate. To shorten a long story, I’ll just say that I spent the next nine months in prison—the maximum sentence for this violation. I turned 73 years old on March 27th.
Now, my situation was that I had lived alone, I knew no phone number to call, I was renting an apartment. I wrote to my landlord; fortunately, I had been at the same motel for four years and I knew I was a model tenant; I promised to repay him the $7,200, with interest, if he would hold on to my stuff. He wrote back saying that he would hold my apartment and my stuff. This was a huge load off my mind.
What about my bank account? I had recurring withdrawals which would eventually result in being overdrawn, if Social Security stopped making payments. I couldn’t see any way to handle this except to let the chips fall. Fortunately, I didn’t own a car.
I was in a two-man cell at Kern Count Jail. COVID-19 was all in the news, people were getting sick and dying, and prisoners were in 23-hours-a-day lockdown. Each cell is opened for an hour a day, allowing access to the Day Room, with its TV and telephone and room to move around. I was worried. We were given masks. I was more worried when, during one month, I got ten different men sharing my cell and moving on—this was a lot of exposure, a lot of risk, and I was of an age to be especially vulnerable.
The food is poor at Kern County Jail, with a sack lunch every day, and a somewhat better breakfast. Without cash in the bank to buy commissary, it’s a great way to lose weight and maybe get sick. I was fortunate enough to receive gifts of food from other inmates, sometimes rather a lot. One man, a Sikh, spoke no English and we were unable to communicate, but he was especially generous to me.
I had noticed some dark spots on my face that were some months old; I decided that they were likely skin cancer and I requested sick call. I was seen by the prison doctor and, to my surprise, he didn’t dismiss the possibility. He said I’d be seeing a dermatologist.
Then came a new inmate to my cell. Ali was a tall, dark, slender Arab in his twenties. We got along reasonably well, not exactly cordially, but I shared food with him, not always graciously. He asked me for food, even the very desirable ramen packages that are called “soups” in prison. I was down to one soup, and he asked me for it; I responded quickly and flatly, “No.” I regretted the impulsive refusal, but I also didn’t want to share my last soup with no prospect for more for several days. After half an hour I gave him half the soup. On our final day together I gave him a hard boiled egg without being asked. I knew that he needed more calories than I did, given that he was young and vigorous and I was fat and lazy.
A couple of hours later, I was lying in bed, the bottom bunk, reading, and he was up and moving around as he often did. Then he sat down on top of me, and then he was choking me. At first I thought he was playing, pretending, but within one or two seconds it was clear that he meant to kill me. His eyes were unreadable, apparently completely calm and without anger. I pulled at his wrists but I couldn’t break his grip. My windpipe was sealed off like a garden hose bent in half—I could feel the front and back being pressed tightly together and I could not get any breath at all. I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. In chemistry class you use soft plastic tubing to connect glassware together, and when you need to shut off the flow you apply a clamp. The circle cross-section of the tube becomes a straight line, and I had that image vividly in my mind, feeling the two sides of my trachea being squeezed together.
He was too strong for me, I couldn’t throw him off. I reached for his eyes, but he was tall and his arms were long so he kept his head out of reach. I tried gouging at his side, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t really hurt him that way. The seconds ticked away in deadly silence and I could feel my strength ebbing—if I didn’t come up with something inspired, I was a dead man. I would die here, I thought, yet I seemed calm. Finally, I reached toward the pit of his left arm and thrust my extended fingers into it. I pushed hard; I was getting good leverage, my arm was fully extended and I knew it must be hurting. I pressed and pressed, and his hands weakened! His left hand was off my throat! I could breathe! I yelled “Help!” I yelled and yelled while still struggling with him.
Yelling for help in prison isn’t necessarily effective; there is some kind of yelling by an inmate almost every day, and it’s usually ignored, but I was persistent and loud. Then someone was at the door, another inmate, pounding on it and yelling. I’m convinced that he saved my life.
Ali did not relent. He remained sitting on me, grappling my wrists and I grappling his, and it must be that his left arm had become useless because I was able to fend him off while my right hand was free. I wanted to get him off me. I pointed my right index finger at his left eye and tried to make him understand that I could thrust that finger into his eye, blind him. I would do it if he didn’t get off. Either he didn’t understand or he wasn’t giving up, but in any case he didn’t move. He held me down with his weight, even after the guards opened the door and told him, in English of course, to get off.
They tased him. It was ghastly, a loud popping sound and he was off writhing in pain, and it was his turn to yell—as I told it to others later. At the time, I was gleeful over the torture he received. I cannot blame myself for that.
I was led out to go to the infirmary; when I entered the day room, the other inmates of the pod cheered and clapped. I raised my arms over my head in the usual sign for victory.
I was taken to the infirmary and saw that my left arm was bleeding a bit. The skin of my forearms is fragile because of damage by sunlight, so the top layer is easily torn; in our struggles, that skin had torn and the thin layer, an area about the size of my thumb, could be pushed around on the under-surface like a wet tissue on a sheet of glass. My injuries were photographed, including, it seems, some light bruises and redness on my neck. Then I was tended by nurses and my arm was bandaged. I had some minor pains, nothing significant, mostly a stiff neck. I was interviewed and asked if I wanted to press charges. I said no. I was returned to my cell.
As I entered the day room, the inmates again cheered. I was asked to tell the story, and asked again, until I was weary telling it.
Later that day I saw the guard who had interviewed me and said I had changed my mind and wanted to press charges. My concern was not vindictive; I wanted to prevent his ever being in a position again to try to kill someone. The guard said he’d bring me the paperwork to sign, but he never did. I didn’t try to make an issue of it.
I relived the attack numerous times, and when I was assigned a new “cellie,” I found that when he stood up in the room, I was immediately reminded again of the attack. These memories were mildly disturbing, but rarely or never really interfered with my sleep or otherwise meant anything to me. Now, in July, 2021, I still have this mild PTSD.
In June or July I tested positive for COVID. My symptoms were mild, and I was never absolutely sure that I was ill at all. But I was put in isolation for the most miserable month I’ve ever spent in prison, primarily because I couldn’t get anything to read. I had some papers with me, in particular a copy of the periodic table of the elements and a list of the Presidents of the United States. I memorized these tables, that is, the names of the elements in order, and the Presidents. I had a chess set which I played with in the attempt to learn to force checkmate with a King, Bishop, and Knight versus a bare King. With these pastimes, and exercising (a new thing), writing down my dreams, and drawing faces on the cell wall, plus the Bible and one novel that I had to read, I passed the month of quarantine.
When the month was up, I was shipped off to Metropolitan Detention Center, Los Angeles (“MDCLA”). I was not told why this was happening less than three months before my release date. I decided that it was because Kern County didn’t want to pay for my visit to a dermatologist. Since my skin cancers had not changed in appearance, I wasn’t unduly concerned. As it turned out, the food at MDCLA is the best I’ve ever had in prison. However, my last month or so was again spent in quarantine.
Comes December 1, 2019, the day of my release. I was turned loose in downtown Los Angeles, with a voucher for bus transportation to Bakersfield. Getting to the Greyhound station was my responsibility. I was told that it was at Alameda and Seventh Street; since I knew Los Angeles well enough to know how to get there—MDCLA is on Alameda so I just had to go South—I decided to walk. The day was warm, but I didn’t anticipate any trouble.
I found, however, that I was weaker than I knew, and walking, carrying the little that I had, turned out to be more fatiguing than I had expected. After a few blocks I had to sit down and rest for a couple of minutes. I started again. The landscape was bleak; there are almost no stores or other businesses, just a lot of warehouses and treeless blocks. Several people were living on the street in that area, and trash was abundant.
I was forced to stop several times to rest; I was becoming alarmed. Finally, I could see Seventh Street ahead, but I was fast running out of gas. I sat down on the curb, feeling growing nausea, and eventually vomiting into the gutter. Feeling somewhat better, I got to the intersection and looked around for the Greyhound station. I couldn’t see it. I walked around a bit, then finally asked some pedestrians; they pointed east on Seventh. I crossed Alameda, then sat down on the curb again, feeling some serious chest pain. The pain grew more intense and my weakness increased, and I realized that I was having a heart attack. I called across the street to a security guard to call 911, but he ignored me. I considered the traffic and my general situation. Greyhound buses were leaving the station, just a block away now, pulling out and turning onto Seventh just at the end of my block. If I could get to that street and lie down in front of the buses, they would have to stop and help, if only to call the cops.
But I was too weak to walk, then too weak even to sit up. I lay down on the sidewalk, knowing that people lying in the street were generally ignored and I was to learn that even asking for help, asking passersby for help or to “call 911” will indeed be ignored. So there I lay, thinking I was a dead man. For the second time in six months. This would be my ignominious, bitter end, dying because everybody wanted to avoid becoming “involved.” Practically dying in the gutter.
It was not to be. I got to feeling a bit better. I sat up. I stood up. I could stagger. I could walk, weakly, slowly, and so I headed for the Greyhound station—there, at least, I could get an ambulance. The full length of the block was fenced off. I had to stop and rest, then walk again. Eventually I got to the door and went inside, and asked for help, and got help. A fire engine and a city ambulance arrived, I was checked out, put in the ambulance, taken to White Memorial Hospital in downtown L.A. Pretty much like you see on TV. I had Medicare, so I wasn’t too worried. After three days and two nights, I was released, carrying a new stent in my coronary arteries (I’d had one emplaced in 2001 because of angina at the time).
Eventually I received bills totaling $147,000. After several months, most of that was paid by Medicare.
I was stupid about the DVDs and won’t make that mistake again; a second probation violation would be for more time in prison, and I would lose everything, little enough though it is.
So my year of 2020 was the worst ever for me: I returned to prison, had to fight for my life, got COVID, then had a second, different fight for my life. Subsequent events—how I contacted worried friends, threw away now-worthless food, had issues with my laptop, was treated for my “skin cancer” (without getting a diagnosis or biopsy), suffered what I thought was a second heart attack but was diagnosed with “stable angina” (another hospital stay), suffered erectile dysfunction (impotence), and so on—don’t need telling in detail.
Copyright 2021 (text only) by Alan Carl Nicoll
All Rights Reserved