"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I was as blond and naive as Piper Chapman, the WASPy, Smith-grad heroine of “Orange Is the New Black,” when I surrendered to federal prison in 2006. Like Chapman, I was busted for trafficking drugs (marijuana, in my case). Before that, I’d never been in trouble with the law aside from an occasional parking ticket.
When I was told I’d be going to a camp, the lowest-security prison, the word sprouted warm Midwestern memories of 4-H and Girl Scouts — hot summer nights, mosquitoes and youthful sexual stirrings — but my surrender to the Federal Prison Camp, called Alderson, was anything but familiar. The first night, with no belongings besides a black pen and a bar of Lucy soap, I — inmate 87836-198 — felt barren. My only solace was an empty creamer bottle an inmate gave me to drink water. Like Alice down the rabbit hole, my world had distorted and warped. I surrendered to prison an educated white girl, the minority prison group to which I was condemned. A black woman sneered as I left the bathroom. “Who’s that dirty white-girl bitch?” I felt ashamed. I’d forgotten to wash my hands.
The release of the show’s sophomore season fills me with anticipation and dread. On a Saturday morning in early June, I rushed to Best Buy to purchase an adapter and HDMI cable so that I could stream the show directly to my TV.
“I watched the first six episodes last night,” the hipster with dreds at the register casually announced. Inside, I was screaming. I wanted to tell him I was trying to psych myself up to watch “Orange” by bribing myself with pepperoni pizza, that I’d been in prison too, and the thought of putting myself through an entire second season sort of made my skin crawl. Yet how could I not watch it? I needed to dive into the world of Litchfield prison so that I’d never forget the locked-up women I’d left behind. I needed to support Chapman and the other inmates too! Prison was my new sorority. I wanted to shout, “I’ve been in prison!” and claim it like a trophy or a prize. Cowardly, all that came out was, “Why do you like watching women in prison?”
* * *
I started my countdown to binge on “Orange” like I counted the days to my release back in prison. I’d begin watching “Orange” at 4 p.m., enough time for a hot yoga class, errands and a walk on the beach. I needed to prepare myself to be strong when I watched the show so that I didn’t fall into the weird prison warp I’d fought with like a sibling when I was locked up … the one that would headlock me into submission.
Oddly, 4 p.m. was the exact time of standing count — a daily event at federal prisons nationwide that “Orange” seems to have glossed over. To me, standing count was very important. If the beauty of the mountains that surrounded the compound we lived in or the chipmunks that ate Jolly Ranchers out of our hands had seduced me into believing I was not in prison, standing count would shake me back. I’d silently stand by the entrance of my cube while my gay bunkie from Chicago tempted me to talk with whispers … or played uninterested, opting for cool. I didn’t feel cool, I felt powerless with that inmate ID prominently displayed around my neck on a pink cord as two guards walked the concrete aisle, counting us, making sure that we — the 1,600 women on the compound — hadn’t escaped. Keys would jingle, and the clicking of the tally counter would haunt me when I went to sleep at night. I knew in only a few hours, as we slept, we’d be counted again. I’d drift off to sleep like I was on an airplane, on guard as I waited for the echo of steps and the light from the officer’s flashlight that would illuminate the walls. I wondered, would I ever rest well again?
By 4 p.m., my stomach clenched like it would when I’d only had a few hours left to my prison visit. I knew my boyfriend would leave, and I’d have to walk back up the hill to prison.
I didn’t turn on the TV.
A half-hour later, I couldn’t get the HDMI cable to work, so — defeated at 5 p.m. — I surrendered to my laptop and earbuds. Surrounded by pizza and red licorice, I almost longed for the mix of nuts, gummy bears and peanut M&Ms I’d dump into my plastic bowl when I was in prison to make myself feel better. I leaned back in my bed against my soft down pillows, so far away from the hard plastic pillow in prison that hid the metal bar of my bunk. I hunkered in for the long haul with fear and excitement. Maybe prison was closer than I thought. Actually, like cancer — a disease we watch bank-robber Rosa suffer through — I don’t know if prison ever leaves.
* * *
I was immediately sucked in. Chapman’s emotional decline after weeks in solitary — the SHU (security housing unit), a punishment the guards passed out at Alderson as casually as candy — was as soothing as when she bends over and coughs, as if by watching “Orange,” I could reverse time, and Chapman could take over what I’d been through and do it for me instead. “They’re putting us in the SHU like it’s an adult time-out!” an inmate on “Orange” complains three hours later after Caputo, the prison’s administrative official, is pushed by assistant warden Fig to crack down on the inmates. Bingo! It was another perfect score for writer Jenji Kohan. Luckily, I hadn’t had the luxury of experiencing the barren walls of the SHU, but I’d had my own periodic meltdowns (which I called “prison menopause”), especially when I ran out of minutes and couldn’t use the phone. “Do you know where they’re taking us? Where are we going?” Chapman whines almost better than I did when I was arrested and taken downtown to a holding facility and for hours didn’t know where I was.
When Chapman barters her underwear to a male inmate in exchange for getting a message to ex-lover Alex, her manic eyes and determination suck me in. I’m brought back to tuna packets used as lottery tickets for the Spanish girl’s manicures and special Tiger Balm rubs, instant creamer for ironed clothes, and Laughing Cow cheese for the Asian girl’s skillful blond highlights. I’m relieved that Chapman makes out just fine and is transported back to her familiar prison, even when she’s backstabbed by Alex, who tells the truth when she testifies after urging Chapman to lie (which she does). It was another familiar twist and parallel to mine and a hundred other women’s stories. Were we naive, or were we just criminals trusting one another?
Upon Chapman’s return to Litchfield, she’s greeted back by the other prisoners with open arms like a daughter who’d gone off to college. How wonderful and scary when prison starts to feel like home and other inmates like family. And, in a way, they are — my favorite part that “Orange” expertly explores. In prison, we did everything together. I had church with Kelly on Saturday, dinner with Sonia on Sunday, and evening check-in with my best friend, Ericka, who’d come to the floor where I lived just to say good night. We understood one another even more as our relationships with our families began falling apart and we realized nothing was under our control.
Like Chapman’s Larry, boyfriends strayed, and husbands cheated or simply left. “I don’t even know if my lotions are out or where my things are,” Chapman tells another inmate. Locked up, I knew where my things were — in storage. My boyfriend had sold the house. Maria’s husband had packed her stuff and moved. When she was released, everything was still in boxes. When Chapman’s mom stays silent about her dying mother because Chapman’s in prison, I held my breath. It took three weeks for my boyfriend to tell me my cat Zoey had jumped out of the cat sitter’s window and had never been found. When Chapman pursues, I wanted to reach through the screen and high-five too. Go get ’em, Chapman!
The minute I stepped through the prison gates, my world divided — I was in, and everything I valued and loved was out. “I miss wasting my freedom,” Chapman laments over the prison phone when her ex-fiancé, Larry, tells her he waited in line for hours for a fragel. I’m immediately propelled back to prison and my own locked-up yearnings. Then, I’d just wanted to be out. I promised god that I’d make something out of my life. I crossed my fingers that I’d be a good girl, crossed my heart and made secret agreements that I wouldn’t waste time. I’ll do anything. Locked up, I valued everything outside of prison before I’d complained about — traffic, exhaust, errands and all. Prison takes away, but does it also give?
Ping. An inmate had dropped another crochet hook from her top bunk, its noise echoing against the concrete and harmonizing with an inmate — a mother — crying on the phone. Her own mother was taking care of her two children, a story that fit most of the women I was locked up with. Again, I was the minority. Maybe a bigger question was, why are we in prison at all?
“That’s my mom,” a younger inmate told me in passing, and I believed her. “No, silly. My prison mom.” After four months in prison — and my first victorious altercation with an inmate from D.C. who’d stolen my mattress — not much surprised me anymore. I was used to the prison routine. Like Chapman, I’d toughened up. By winter, I was walking around the compound with purpose. I was no longer the cheerleader from a Midwestern small town. I’m in prison. Don’t fuck with me.
But was I ever going home? Prison had slipped in with the speed of a fastball and replaced the “real world,” as women in prison called everything outside of prison. Had my life before prison only been a dream? I wondered if I was ever going back to a world where phone calls were unlimited, where people used my first name and I could go wherever I wanted without signing out, where I could be touched. Will I ever have sex again?
* * *
Let’s talk about sex. The minute I hit the compound at Alderson, it seemed that everyone wanted a girlfriend. Besides getting caught playing nurse with my best friend Sally when I was 6 or the alcohol-fueled kiss with the cute brunette at the bar in my 20s, I was straight. After one month in prison, though, even I was tempted to take a girlfriend. I didn’t, but I almost did. Sex-deprived, missing any touch, our hormones raged. Throwing my passion into crocheting cute stuffed animals that took the place of pets did nothing to relieve my pain or my loneliness.
Like lesbian Big Boo, my bunkie, Lamont, dressed like a man. She dyed her black hair fire-engine red with packets of Kool-Aid bought at the prison store. We could not have been more opposite. I cried when I found out Lamont had been assigned to my cube, but later, she became my biggest protector and friend. Girls morphed from “Cindy” and “Tammy” into “Nick” and “City.” Long locks were exchanged for butch cuts or cornrows.
When the white girl who’d been locked up for seven years told me she’d slept with a male guard in Florida, I didn’t want to believe her. “It goes on here, too,” she said. Six months later, when I saw the new preppy-looking guard on the compound, I understood. I found myself excited when he did count or stood by my cube. I couldn’t wait to see him. My heart would race as I eyed the handcuffs that hung off his belt as my mind wandered down new aisles that felt exciting but unsafe. Isn’t he here to protect me? For six weeks sleeping out in the open under fluorescent lights — an area we called the Bus Stop — with a male guard only 3 feet away, I made a tent out of my nightgown to change under. Why are there male guards in female prisons? I thought.
Sex at Alderson also stayed mostly hidden from me, and I liked it that way. But I congratulate the liberal sex scenes in “Orange” that heat the series like a blowtorch, unveiling the truth that sex does go on in prison. How lucky we are, as viewers, to be able to see scenes even Chapman can’t see. I was shocked by the very first shower-sex scene in Season 1 — and every one after that — and I’ve been in prison. I’d heard rumors: sex at night in the bathroom, the shower stalls, in women’s cubes. Perfectly orchestrated trysts in the abandoned cottages where Martha Stewart once lived. At night, I’d wish away the need to pee that woke me up for fear of walking the long aisle to the bathroom and catching two women entangled in arms — or worse, vaginas. Six years after my release, I’m no longer a prison virgin. “Orange” has deflowered me.
I’m on Episode 10 now, and I’m in love. I recognize the characters from Alderson. After working with women going into prison, I believe most prison camps have a mentally unstable but enduring Crazy Eyes, an inmate like Big Boo who dresses like a man, a lord of the kitchen like Red, a Yoga Jones, an activist nun like Sister Jane, and an ex-meth addict like Pennsatucky … and every woman has a story, which “Orange” so masterfully tells. “Orange” gets the racial tension and the guards’ characters just right. The truth is, no matter what our color or our station, we were all imprisoned together.
Considering that the only time we had privacy was when we showered or used the toilet, I think we all got along quite well. Sure, at Alderson, a woman beat another woman’s face with a padlock in her sock, and a jealous lover attacked the woman’s other girlfriend in the dining hall. Still, a woman I know who was incarcerated for 13 years said something wise. “Women would rather hug each other than shank each other.” I had to laugh at that. It’s so true.
“Orange” is my cheerleader, as the show reaches to expose a corrupt prison system, poor prison conditions and people like Fig — the corrupt assistant to the warden who’s embezzling money, the Wicked Witch of the West. But this is no fairy tale. With each episode I watched, I untangled my own list: eating expired food, pushing pills and overmedicating, undernourishing, dizzy spells from lack of protein, periods that flowed for months or stayed plugged up and didn’t flow at all, mysterious rashes, an overabundance of staph infections, hair falling out, faces breaking out, one suicide attempt, one escape, and one woman mysteriously dying in her cube — all of that happened in my 14-month stay. I was a short-timer, but what does that mean? Even one day in prison is one day too long.
But prison changed me, and as much as I was desperate to leave I didn’t know anymore who I was or how I’d be in the “real world.” When Chapman is on furlough, and one of her relatives says, “I’m sure you’re anxious to return to your old self,” she pauses. “I’m not, actually,” she finally responds. And I got goose bumps. I completely understand.
You see, I was Chapman. I still am. I’m just different now, that’s all. Prison has a way of getting under your skin and becoming a part you can’t undo or erase. And, the truth is, like Chapman, I don’t think I want to. Prison shined a flashlight on a world I don’t want to forget. If I could take every woman locked up on a lengthy, mandatory minimum drug sentence out of prison, I would. For that matter, maybe I’d release all the millions of people locked up for nonviolent crimes. I’m not sure how much I believe in prison at all.
Days after my binge-watching, I’ve still got two episodes to go. I think for now, though, I need a prison break. Maybe I’ll never finish the show. I don’t think I need to. I’ve done my time.
Jennifer Myers’s memoir, "Trafficking the Good Life," was published in 2013 by Bettie Youngs Books. Jennifer is an author, speaker and federal prison consultant who prepares first time nonviolent offenders and their families for federal prison. She is also co-founder of R.I.S.E. to Empower, a Nonprofit dedicated to empowering girls and young women to make positive choices. Find her at www.jennifermyers.co.More Jennifer Myers.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)