Real Men Wear Beige

By Donato Alfredano

Biography & memoir

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3 mins

Solitude Is Bliss


The Zach Attack It was a cold winter, circa 2004. It was about 7:00 p.m. on the tier at Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail complex. It sits on a four-hundred-acre island in the East River, between Queens and the Bronx.

We’d just finished dinner. Normally, everyone would be settling into their favorite spot and doing their thing, whatever that happened to be. But this night was different. There was tension in the air as guys were trying to hide what they knew was about to happen. For days, plans were being made by a group of guys to mount a 7:30 p.m. surprise attack on Zach and his buddies—about eight of them. It was covertly being called “the Zach Attack.” Just about everyone knew about the planned offensive, and most had either picked sides or placed bets or both.

Zach was a smart-assed little prick—you know, one of those punks who pranced around lapping it up as if they were at summer camp or in high-school gym class. He was constantly pushing everyone’s buttons and often ended up getting his ass kicked for it. But he wouldn’t quit. No matter how many times he got smacked around, he’d go back and start the same shit all over again. He eventually managed to put together a gang of heavy hitters who hung out with him and helped protect him: a combo of black, white, and Latino outcasts desperate enough to pair up with him. Zach reminded me of a ten-year-old who keeps asking questions, and even after you answer him, he continues to ask, “Why, what for, and how come?” just to bug you. To me he was simply annoying, but there were others who absolutely hated him and wanted to do him some serious harm.

The “big hand” inched down toward seven-thirty on the caged, gymnasium- style clock on the back wall of the tier as everyone hung around trying to act as inconspicuously as possible—a little too hard, I think. The air was so thick that one of the correction officers (COs) asked me and my buddies what the hell was going on. In fact, at 7:29 p.m., it got crazy quiet—so quiet that the same CO was beginning to stammer into his radio, “I got a code five, blah, blah…. Things don’t feel right in here. I’m gonna need—” And before he even finished his sentence, the rampage began. The first blow was a kick to Zach’s head as he and his buddies were sitting on the floor against the wall playing cards. He didn’t see it coming.

It was solid, and it was brutal. Zach’s gang was at a great disadvantage because they were all on the floor, giving their assailants (about ten of them all together) the ability to kick and beat them as they struggled to stand up. None of them even had much of a chance to fight back. More guys jumped in on both sides, but it was an easy two-to-one ratio against Zach’s gang. Yes, it was a slaughter-fest that felt as if it lasted forever, but in reality lasted only about two minutes from start to finish. A steady flow of COs began rushing into the tier, but the onslaught was practically over before they were able to do much about it. Toward the end of this mini-massacre, Zach made his way up off the floor with his face full of cuts and blood and attempted to get away from the beating. Have you ever seen someone who was knocked so senseless that he couldn’t walk a straight line? I’ll never forget it. He was actually walking sideways, one foot over the other, with his arms out to keep his balance.

Then, to top it all off, Zach made it only about ten feet before someone came up from behind him and hit him with one last blow to the head, which knocked him unconscious, and he collapsed over a lunch table. The whole thing was gruesome and sad.

Sure, everyone knows incarceration has its horrifying moments and shocking events, but times like these always made me sick…and I mean literally. I’m not just talking about witnessing someone getting brutally beaten; I’m talking about the guys who got off on watching it happen. Jumping around, cheering, and howling like a pack of wolves over their wounded prey. Being in prison made me realize for the first time in my life how little difference there can be between man and beast. At the core of our existence, we share that “pack of wolves,” gang-style mentality. There are those who prey upon and devour the weak, the disadvantaged, and as in Zack’s case, those whom they just don’t like. I just wasn’t cut out for this kind of crap. In time, it would become clear to me that I was in the prison minority on the issue.

We were locked down for twenty-four hours and then twenty-four more as the authorities tried to run through the videotapes and figure out who to throw in the hole and who to sack with criminal charges. Lockdown meant that once a day, two of us at a time could leave our eight-by-ten cells for long enough to walk to the bathroom, stand around for twenty minutes, and go back to our cell again. There seemed to be no such thing as a thermostat at Rikers. Twenty four-seven, you felt like a piece of slimy fried chicken being dipped in a deep fryer. That meant forty-eight long hours of sweat, stink, and a whole lot of silence. Yeah, you run out of things to talk about after the first twelve hours, and after the second twelve, you don’t even care.

It may be a cliché to say, but during times like these, I tried hard to think positive and focus on inspirational thoughts. I thought about things like this quote I once heard by Laurence Sterne: “In solitude, the mind gains strength and learns to lean upon itself.” Prison made me believe this was absolutely true. Yes, the mind’s amazing ability to endure and overcome relentless emotional pain and suffering is nothing short of a miracle. And I haven’t stopped searching for miracles. So, just like a child, I guess I still believe in them.

It’s been years since those dark and dirty days in lockdown. Life has been good to me, and I’ve moved on. However, it was behind prison walls that I learned some of the most extraordinary lessons about life and humanity. These life lessons are now ingrained in my heart and soul. And yes, when the lights go down, I still support the notion that “solitude is bliss.”



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