Through the chain-link, blue-gray portico that looks like the entrance to a Lowe’s Garden Center, into its hallowed halls, and across the shadows cast by razor wire over the lush flower beds and manicured lawns have passed some of the most notorious of the criminal element—men and women who might shoot you if you smiled off script.
Patricia Hearst, the heiress-turned-bank robber with the Symbionese Liberation Army; Michael Milken, a junk bond dealer convicted of securities fraud; Sara Jane More, the would-be assassin of President Gerald R. Ford; Heidi Fleiss, the “Hollywood Madam” whose little black book contained the names and numbers of politicians, business tycoons and the entire Hollywood A-list.
Each has played tennis, worked on their tans, toned their bodies in a weight room shared with the Oakland Raiders, and gotten a head start writing their tell-all memoirs at Club Fed, the Federal Correctional Institution at Dublin, California.
And so too has Pavlo Lazaremko, the former Ukraine Prime Minister who was convicted of laundering $200 million at the Double-Bubble Clean & Green Laundry Emporium in Tarzana and is currently waiting his turn in the House spotlight to testify in the on-going impeachment inquiries of Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Delecto.
This morning, however, the world awaits the release of Felicity Huffman, the Hollywood actress who was found guilty for her part in the sordid and tawdry criminal business of cheating on an SAT exam.
Ms. Huffman, who gets really miffed if you call her Mrs. Macy, has been described as a blonde to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained-glass window. She didn’t actually cheat on the SAT exam, however. She paid somebody to cheat on it. Not for herself, mind you, but for one of her daughters who apparently isn’t bright enough to get into a decent college, like Harvard, for instance.
She could have been charged with criminal altruism.
For the record, Ms. Huffman took her SAT exams in 1980 when she was a junior at my alma mater, Interlochen Arts Academy. In Michigan. By Traverse City. Seventeen winding miles south on a road once lousy with deer. Lots of ‘em. Other than having been artistically gifted youths, we—Felicity and I—have nothing in common. (My rap sheet pales by comparison to hers.) I graduated eleven years before her, which meant I also had that whole gifted youth thing happening with Meredith Baxter who was more my type, even though she didn’t have a clue who I was.
Where was I? Oh, yeah…
Sunday morning. The television cameras are in place. The paparazzi armed with their expensive Leica box cameras—like the one Sonny Corleone smashed to smithereens at his sister’s wedding. The jaded print reporters in their rumpled khaki suits. They’re all there to await Felicity’s emergence from prison—cardboard suitcase in hand, a crisp $20 bill to help her start her life anew on the outside.
Things suddenly turn to black and white.
There was a desert wind blowing…one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.
A ‘70s-era Chevy Impala, dusty from its trip across whatever desert is 20 miles southeast of Oakland, pulls up. The driver is not a familiar face. The dashboard is covered with faded Beanie Babies. Why? The back passenger door opens and Ms. Huffman starts to get in. She stops and turns. One leg poised against the rocker panel, her skirt pulled back to reveal her fishnet-stocking-covered thigh. For a moment, she felt like Faye Dunaway. For another moment, she felt like Tallulah Bankhead.
“I was studying for a part,” she says, her voice reminding all that before she was a desperate criminal she was a desperate housewife.
“What part?” yelled the notorious Harvey Weinstein from the shadows of the midday sun. “And what’s with the stockings? I don’t mind your showing me your legs. They’re very swell legs and it’s a pleasure to make their acquaintance.”
“It’s a noir thing,” she cooed, peering through the netted veil of her dark gray velveteen pill box hat. She felt like Bette Davis.
She turned her head to face the crowd. She wanted a drink. Whiskey. Straight, no chaser. The cheaper the better. And a cigarette, a Gauloises. For a minute, she sounded like Garbo. Or Goofy with a head cold. One of the two. The piano stylings of Thelonious Monk faded into the background, as if on cue.
It had been a long thirteen days. It could have been one day longer if she hadn’t received credit for time served. But the time spent—three to a cell designed for one—was a hard-won lesson.
She had busied herself with the assigned task of cooking breakfasts for the 1,200-plus inmates, all of them women who were trying to keep their girlish figures in the face of a steady diet of lard-fried potatoes, fatty slab bacon, locally sourced acorn porridge, and black coffee as thick as an Exxon oil spill. She took classes to qualify as a forklift operator. She spent her afternoons sewing nylon parachutes and velvet theatrical curtains in the Textile division.
Who would buy a parachute made in prison? she wondered.
Every waking moment of her incarceration she lived with her mistakes—the prison’s unpainted block walls echoing her guilt, the steps of the guards setting the tempo of her life’s new rhythm. She slept with one eye open, wary to the inherent dangers of prison life. Inside the joint, minimum-security means little. One never knows who holds a grudge, or a shiv fashioned from a swivel potato peeler.
The court-ordered parenting class taught Ms. Huffman that if her kid wasn’t smart enough to get into Harvard, how would she have fared academically had the fake SAT scores secured her acceptance. Ms. Huffman found it daunting. She was then assigned the task of diagramming that preceding sentence, which was even more daunting.
She spent her evenings watching Old Yeller (which alternated with It’s A Wonderful Life on a continuous loop in the prison’s plush den) and knitting, a pastime she had abandoned when TSA had once confiscated her knitting needles on a red-eye flight to Newark. She would eye the double-fenced wall topped with razor wire and yearn for her freedom. She imagined herself as Peter Pan, sailing past the guard towers scattering pixie dust in gentle arcs.
Why, she wondered, didn’t I just buy the kid a participation trophy and call it good?
“I was as hollow and empty as the spaces between stars,” she muttered, wistfully, but to nobody in particular. She found herself alone, but only with her thoughts.
That first taste of freedom on the dusty gravel driveway of Club Fed was delicious. It tasted like the whiskey she had craved for almost two weeks. After all, there is no bad whiskey. There are only some whiskeys that aren’t as good as others. And some seem to be dusty. Go figure.
Her adventure in search of a hidden truth had taught her that dead men are heavier than broken hearts, or something like that. She wondered what, if anything, it might mean. She felt like she was channeling an old friend whose name she never knew.
She settled deep into the car’s plush back seat, her mind swirling. She crossed her legs and lit a Gauloises with a match from the Copacabana. She had learned a lot in thirteen days in stir.
What she hadn’t learned was why FCI Dublin had received a 3.8-star rating on Google, who conducted the poll, and why it mattered. She knew that there was little comfort in numbers.
And she’d never been to the Copa.
Photography by Courtney A. Liska