I was at the State
Correctional Institution at Pittsburgh, commonly known to the cons as Western
Penn, to visit my brother. He's serving a life term and I'm writing a book
about him and the prison, about two brothers losing touch and then finding each
other again, because of and in spite of the stone walls separating them. That's
why I was in the joint. To visit my brother and work on the book. I never
expected to find Reds. Reds had been a cop, a good guy the last time I
remembered seeing him. Then he materialized in the prison visiting lounge 20
years later, an inmate, a bad guy, a ghost.
prison is like returning to Homewood, my old neighborhood in Pittsburgh,
because you never know whom you'll see, who will pop up and in what disguise.
As usual, I had a few uneasy minutes alone in the room where inmates and their
visitors meet at Western Penn before my brother, Robby, sat down at the table.
He had to undergo a strip search before he entered the lounge and again when he
left. Reds first appeared across the room while I was waiting for my
The lounge was
crowded and noisy. There were many more black faces than white. I quickly
looked away from Reds. Tried to ignore him as I ignored other visitors,
granting them the privacy I seek with my brother when we claim our little bit
of turf, two vinyl-cushioned chairs with a low, two-foot-square table between
Most prisoners and
the majority of visitors were less than 30. Lots of little kids had come
visiting. Prisoners yelled across the room for a cigarette or to greet another
prisoner's familiar guests. There were many exchanges of hand slapping,
exclamations of surprise. Oh my Gods, when a person ran into someone
unexpected. The prisoners wore sky-blue tunics and string-tied trousers a
darker shade of blue. Under the baggy uniforms rippled the lean, muscular
bodies of athletes.
Robby does 1,000
push-ups daily in his cell. He also runs five or six miles each day around the
prison yard. Staying in shape is more than recreation. In the prison it's a
necessity for survival. Robby has told me I'm his measuring rod. Since I'm 10
years older, he derives a little comfort from the fact that I still play
basketball. He can imagine himself 10 years down the road. If he keeps fit
until he gets out, even if it's not for seven or eight more years, he can at
least look forward to having something left of his body.
That day in the
visiting lounge about a year ago, after Robby and I hugged each other, I asked
him almost immediately who that guy was. The old white guy over there with the
Murphy, man. A crazy, simpleminded old dude," Robby said.
"Does he have
a nickname? Does anybody call him Reds?" I asked.
like him or talk that much to him. Might be Reds, for all I know. He's Murphy
to me. Used to be a cop. Lucky ain't nobody killed him. Cops ain't too popular
in the joint. You know what I mean. Lots of guys in here love to get their
hands on a cop. Wouldn't think no more of offing a cop than stepping on a
roach. Once a cop, always a cop. All of 'em snitches. But old Murphy been here
a long time. Don't nobody bother him no more. He's just another con
It had to be Reds.
The elongated, pale face. Big hands. His thick body softer now, going to fat,
but that aggressive forward hunch still in his shoulders. Tyrannosaurus rex.
Arms short for his body, hanging limp but bent at the elbows, coiled, ready to
receive a pass or snap into position for a two-hand set shot.