Reading in Prison: 'The Art of War' as Survival Guide
By Michael KrikorianSeptember 9, 2012
The Art of War by Sun Tzu
I HAVE SEVERAL FRIENDS in prison. They are all black street gang members and shot callers who I've met over the past three decades, both as a crime reporter and as a fixture of the Fruit Town section of Compton in the 1980s. For the record, there is nothing “fruity” about Fruit Town. One of the roughest sectors of Compton and the home of the gang known as the Fruit Town Piru Bloods, it is so named because of the streets there: Cherry, Peach, Pear.
Fruit Town, like so many neighborhoods in ghetto America in the 1980s and early ‘90s, ran on crack cocaine. The economy of Cherry Street was dominated by the drug.
At 707 W. Cherry Street, where I lived on and off for several years, crack ruled with an iron pipe. The household was headed by a grandma with four daughters, one son, one daughter-in-law, and many grandkids. My memory is fading, but, let’s see. Daughter Jackie had two kids, Kathy had three, Cynthia, two or three, I think, and Addie Irene, my girlfriend, had three, the youngest being born in 1988 and named Michael Krikorian, Jr.
There were times, before Li’l Mike came along, when all four sisters were on the pipe. I dabbled myself, enough to know it was not for me. (I preferred my Jack.) To get away from the household where sometimes more than 20 humans slept in the small two-bedroom house, Irene and I would go to motels in Compton. There was and is a motel on Compton Boulevard, just west of Central, that didn’t have a name and where I – and I bragged about this to the boys way back when, and still do to this day – had credit. One time I didn’t have any money, but Irene and I went there. I asked the manager for the room — it was $12 for two hours — and told them I’d pay tomorrow. To my delight, they said ok. The next day I came back and gave them $15. In Compton, way back when, my credit was black label.
The routine was we’d rent a room, get a $20 rock, smoke it up, maybe fuck, often not, maybe get another rock, come back to the room, smoke it and go back to Cherry Street. One of those nights at the no-name motel, I watched TV and learned that Len Bias had died of a coke overdose. It wasn’t the death of the so promising basketball player that convinced me crack wasn’t shit. It was the realization that I was going to motels not for sex, but for a high that didn’t exist, except for the act of getting it, coming back to the room and smoking it. Inevitably, gloom descended as the rock dwindled. I’ve seen many portrayals of drug addicts on TV and in film — the heartbreaking Bubbles of The Wire, the fidgeting Breaking Bad speedsters, the Spicoli stoner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I have never seen an actor nail a crack head. Usually the on-screen crack addict behaves like a meth freak. Unlike marijuana or booze or — and, I’m assuming heroin — crack provides no obvious, stereotypical high. The only remarkable thing about crack is the overwhelming urge to get more. I’m pretty sure that less than an hour after I heard about Len Bias, I made Irene’s radiant smile bloom by telling her I would go get another 20.
Fruit Town had some dull moments, but not many. People usually exaggerate when they describe a neighborhood as a place where there are shootings “every night.” In Fruit Town, there were shootings every night. Most of those shootings did not result in injury. The street was full of expert duckers. On top of it, the rival gang members, particularly the Palmer Block Compton Crips, were horrible shots.
But, of all my haunts, Cherry Street in the eighties, for all its death and gloom and devotion to crack, was one of the most alive places I ever spent time. There was the loveable smoke hound Donald walking up the street slapping me five, telling Irene and me “I’m on a mission” to score. Almost every night he was on this mission. There was Gilbert and his homeboys walking to the corner singing “So in Love” in sweet harmony. There was pure joy in the house when I’d walk in with a bucket of Church’s or KFC or Popeye’s or bags full of groceries. There was someone pulling a knife on me after I called him a “punk” and he proclaimed himself a “Trojan.” Irene’s grandmother, respected by the hoods in the hood, came to my rescue one night from, of all places, her bedroom window. There were gales of laughter when Irene’s sister Kathy would openly flirt with me in front of her and Irene would say “Michael, please, please go take that tramp to the motel. No one else will.” There were Irene’s kids, Marlon and Tyrell, piling in my car as we went off for the adventure of the drive-in. They loved the Sylvester Stallone film called Cobra.
I bring this all up because it was there I first knew people who went away for many years.
The thing about the guys I know in prison is — even if they were shot callers (gang leaders) — when they go away, very few of their homies write to them. I know how important it is to these guys to get a letter, to know someone is thinking about them, to be gone but not forsaken. So for nearly 20 years, I have been writing letters to inmates, the vast majority incarcerated in California state prisons, though three are in federal joints.
I am no pen pal looking for some kind of vicarious thrill. These guys were my friends on the street and they still are inside. And while some of them may never get out, those that do say they owe me. Let it be known, I don’t do it for a return favor. On an average, I’d say I write eight letters a month. In addition, I occasionally send a book.
One cannot simply mail a book to an inmate. It must be ordered online and shipped by a third party. Only paperbacks are acceptable. I guess the thinking is a hardback would make a better weapon. Hell, some guys I know inside, like legendary Big Evil from 89 Family Swans (who recently had his San Quentin death-row conviction overturned and awaits retrial at Los Angeles' Men's Central jail) and Loaf from the Bounty Hunters of Nickerson Gardens (locked away for 20 years at the federal prison in Lompoc) are so tough they could hurt someone with not only a paperback, but a term paper.
These books I send are sometimes a book the friend/inmate has requested. Sometimes it is a book I think they might enjoy and, for a while, get their mind outside the prison walls for a brief respite from California hell.
The single most asked-for book, requested by roughly 20 percent of the guys I know in prison, is a 6000-word glorified pamphlet called The Art of War, written in the 6th century by a Chinese guy named Sun Tzu. This book is such a prison staple that a California prosecutor tried to use possession of it as proof that an inmate was a gang member.
For a prisoner, The Art of War is a survival guide, another avenue to gain mental toughness in a place that demands it. All of these guys are tough physically, some of them world-class bad asses, so that front is covered. One of the book’s key points is to avoid fighting through tactical mastery. General Douglas MacArthur, Henry Kissinger and Gordon Gekko were all big fans of the book, so why shouldn’t Big Evil and Big Cat want the knowledge? To deal successfully with prison life, a strong mind is much more useful than a strong left hook, despite what the bullshit movies say.
I’ve twice sent on request Alex Kotlowitz’s There Are No Children Here, the true saga of two children growing up in the Henry Horner housing projects in Chicago. Blue Rage, Black Redemption, the memoir of Stanley “Tookie” Williams, the founder of the Westside Crips who was executed in 2005 at San Quentin, has also been requested and sent out twice.
My namesake, Michael Krikorian, Jr. who is doing 40 to life for a Compton gang-related homicide gets the most letters from me. (It’s too long a story to explain here, but anyone interested can read about it here.) He just got out of “the Hole” at New Folsom and requested I send him The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. I did. It’s a sort of guidebook on how to achieve stature with tips from characters as varied as our boy Sun Tzu to Talleyrand to Casanova.
Because my inmate friends are black, I usually — but not always — send books with black characters. Two favorite authors of mine (and now theirs) are George Pelecanos and Walter Mosely. I have received letters from Big Evil and Daude praising Mosely's Little Scarlet (featuring his Easy Rollins and set right after the 1965 Watts Riots) and Pelecanos’ Hard Revolution (about a young cop, Derek Strange, set in D.C. after the 68 riots there).
Derek Strange, in more current times, appears in Pelecanos’ trilogy Right as Rain, Hell to Pay and Soul Circus, where he teams with a former white D.C. cop Terry Quinn. All three of these have made their way into various California state prisons.
I have also sent Mosely’s Always Outnumbered, Always Outgunned, one of my favorites, which features Socrates Fortlow, an ex-con who tenderly cares for a troubled street kid. I sent it to a few guys so long ago I can’t even remember who got it. I’ll send it out again next week.
I haven't sent any of another favorite of mine, Michael Connelly and his Harry Bosch books. I don’t think my guys would root for Bosch, an LAPD detective. Private eye books are good to send. Books featuring the LAPD as the good guys are not.
One non-fiction work I’ve sent out was written by Bob Sipchen, a friend and an ex-colleague of mine at the Los Angeles Times who is now National Communications Director for the Sierra Club. It is titled Baby Insane and the Buddha, about a San Diego Neighborhood Crip whose Folsom-bound life is turned around by a tough but compassionate cop. Many years ago while he was at Soledad, Big Cat from the Rollin’s sixties Crips had some trouble with it as he told me he never ran into a “compassionate cop”. Still, he enjoyed the read. Most recently he requested Form Your Own Limited Liability Company by Anthony Mancuso. My man Big Cat has some plans for the future. I was gonna send it to him, but my cousin Greg, who is an investigator for the Federal Public Defender’s office and has known Cat as long as I have, sent it to him first.
I’ve ordered Kevin Cook’s Titanic Thompson and sent to at least four prisoners who relished it. The book, subtitled The Man Who Bet On Everything, chronicles the life of Alvin “Titanic” Thompson, said to the be the model for Damon Runyon’s Sky Masterson. Myself, I wanted to read Titanic after its first line: “Is it wrong to gamble, or only to lose?” I love that line. The biography of this white guy has been enjoyed at Corcoran, Delano, High Desert and Pleasant Valley, the cruelest-named prison in the United States.
Years ago, probably in the late 1990s, I sent Melvin “Skull” Farmer from Eight-Trey Gangsters Crips Moby Dick. I don't know what I was thinking. I could have very well been drunk. Maybe I thought he would get so into it that his mind would drift from his cell to the ocean where Captain Ahab and The Whale rumbled. Skull had written his own book, The New Slave Ship, about being the first Californian to have his “three strikes” conviction overturned. He later told me he had seen part of the movie and knew it was “about fishing” and he didn't like fishing. He said he tried to read it, found it boring and when another inmate showed an interest, he traded Melville for six cigarettes, better known behind bars as “squares”. (Why squares? I have no idea.)
A couple months ago I got a letter from Grape Street’s Bow Wow from Grape asking if I could get him 50 Shades of Grey. I did not see that one coming. And a week ago, Big Evil said he wanted to read Crime and Punishment. Talk about the gamut.
I stated before that all the inmates I send letters to were black. I’ve recently added a white guy. My friend Gail Silverton told me about a friend’s son, one Gabriel Singer, who is doing a slew of years — currently at Calipatria down by the Salton Sea — for firing a gun in the air that may have lead someone else to fire a gun that killed someone. I haven’t had a book request from him yet, but I suspect I will.
Still, the most requested, umm, reading material is not a book but rather a catalogue of scantily clad black women from a mail-order firm in Long Beach. I once sent Li’l Cat (Rollin 60s) a $20 money order when he was at Corcoran doing life on another “three strikes” case. He was very grateful, but said if I ever have another twenty to send his way, use it to buy 20 photos from this Long Beach place. He said he could enjoy the photos, then sell them for three times what I paid for them. His big brother, Big Cat, most recently requested the same. In prison, as in the outside world, the right woman, even a photo of her, is more valuable than a book.
Michael Krikorian is a writer from Los Angeles. He can often be found at either the parking lots of the Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs housing projects or the bars at Mozza and Jar restaurants.
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