Voluntary Jail

At sunrise along the Congress,
a street woman didn’t care where the Shelter was
and wanted to be left alone.
Then the morning sun rose into clouds,
and better-dressed people ignored me.
Some “night trains” were leaning against a bank.

It felt more natural asking them —
they said the Salvation Army
was over on the 8th Street,
against the traffic court and I-35.
But the Shelter wouldn’t accept for another hour,
and the “night trains” needed a smoke.

I never got their names
as we smoked my next-to-last one.
One man needed a dollar.
My state of mind was almost out of cigarettes,
and I couldn’t help him —
walking away as morning crowds gathered in the city.
I smoked the last on a bench
as several buses passed every half hour
and a crane added layers to a building.

During the rush hour
a bus discharged a black man dressed in gray.
He hesitated for a second … seeming pleased,
steppin’ down to the pavement —
throwing old air out and taking new air in.
The same carbon black face as baseball’s “Cool Papa” Bell,
his clothes were state issue.
He sat down beside me, silent a little while …
clearing his throat before calling me sir, which amused me.

Released from prison yesterday,
he wanted to know where some shelter was.
When I told him about sleeping in a Lutheran play yard,
he said his name was Max Gonzales from a Huntsville prison.
He sat looking around like a man who’d been away,
and spoke in complete sentences, noting our cars had changed.
Then our conversation evolved
into Luthor teaching poetry at a California prison,
and Max said there weren’t any poems in his cell.

When I asked him what he wanted to do,
Max said he wanted to be a cabinetmaker
and asked about me:

“I might try writing.”


“It’s cheaper than farming.”

Max laughed and asked again
if I knew where the Shelter was.

Another storm was coming, so we started walking,
clouds covered us with a quick rain — toward the Capitol,
we turned right for the Shelter.
Six more blocks uphill in the wet,
till Max asked a man
who pointed at an impersonal structure
rising like a four-story warehouse.
Max said it looked assembled on sight —
with the same tilt-up construction technique
that prisons used.

I wondered if the beds were clean,
but Max told me to keep my mouth shut in there.

The concrete enclosure seemed about five years old,
yet the steps were middle-aged.
Up the stairs with wet clothes, they let us in.
The Shelter was pitted walls and frustration smells
with buzzer doors having crisscrossed wires in the glass.

We were called clients —
there were forty of us in the foyer, maybe more.
A blend of screaming and shoving
with a little Spanish chingaso and some fuck you.
We used our ears in a simple exercise figuring out the rage,
and Max guessed the winners sat in chairs
and the losers stood arguing with the winners of those chairs.
Arguments and pissed-off tension veering to indecision.
More bullshit when everyone heard the fiction and nonfiction
of an ex-soldier passing a radio around,
saying tubes made a warm sound …
Max handed the receiver back with a smile.

Then up through the old clothes and iron hair,
harassed shelter monitors passed out numbers
from behind a steel credenza.
One bellowed at us to stay
within the painted lines of a reinforced floor …
We did, standing in twisted shadows from damaged overheads,
while the man ahead of us had lost his bicycle in Round Rock
and the man behind us came in to bathe.
When we got our numbers,
we were number twenty-four and -five
through the wire door.

The other side opened to a cavern
where street noise evolved from
disagree to violence in the back alley.

Down the stairs, a quick sideways glance
at a wall hung with clammy clothes.
Did we need to see elderly men in the open showers?

We did — and still wore damp clothes at eleven a.m.,
with Pine-Sol odor at the written check-in.

Two hours of standing around another credenza
before the process woman wrote us into
Lane’s Job Searching Class.
She ran the elevator too and then unlocked
the steel door at the third room.
The process woman told us,
so we’d know where we were —
no humor in the eye contact.

Inside, we smeared our language on forms —
while Lane said he’d served on submarines
and introduced us out loud to the class,
who didn’t care who we were.
Lane had a depressing pallor and weight,
in a windowless room — no view and pass/fail like high school.
And everyone wore the same kind of tennis shoes.

When Lane asked, I mumbled the cover lie of a broken motorcycle;
then his eyes teared up, saying, “That’s just too damned bad.”

He told Max at the break how the Shelter saved police man-hours.

Lunch, was food in the noise,
and a classmate wanting my Reeves —
she called herself Hope, telling me her name twice,
and kept the book under her sweatshirt.

Hope left the Alleghenies after tenth grade,
before being raped in New Jersey
and driving Freightliners out of Shreveport
to pay for tattoos in New Orleans.

Later on, she became a thin woman
topless dancing near Juarez
and buried her dog on the rock hill of Oatmeal, Texas.

A confusion of voices over a pale yellow stew,
and my filling broke on hard bread.
No knives used, as most heads stayed down
in a sea of disagreement over the spoons.
Discarded empty plates in the trash cans
with mentions of God.

Down the hall, Salvation Army commanders
dressed like admirals, and I’d almost forgotten where I was.

That afternoon Lane had us practicing interviews for jobs.

The Shelter’s most useful rule
was “shower before bed or be evicted as unwashed” —
so we were a naked mass in a group shower.

I slept with forty-two clean men that night.
The adjacent bunk had a congested Stanford lawyer
who’d served time for grass,
and above me a mechanic saving his money for tools.

In the half-light, ex-clients called “monitors”
paced between the bunks, watching us out of gas on our mattresses.
A fight woke me to two thieves stealing the same pair of shoes.
Shouting monitors solved the shoe chaos.
Then — just as Max said — it was “quiet down” in the voluntary jail.

At five-thirty we ate breakfast donations
while someone threw chairs at the overheads.
Later on became morning job exercises,
and that afternoon everyone passed the class.

On the third day, Lane set me up with Rashmon
over at the Labor Hall on the 2nd Street for some cash work.
Rashmon wore dirty white shirts, shaved badly, and got screamed at.
He used a morning number toss for your place in the work line.

I lost Rashmon’s toss and went outside to the parking lot.
Overcast above the homeless men on the asphalt,
as they surged around a contractor bellowing “fence holes.”
Failing to break through the crowd, I heard
someone else’s “garbage cans.”
Dove in to say I’d do it, and got in a truck
to paint garbage cans green.

On my fifth day in the Shelter,
I walked into the Labor Hall and lost the toss again.
Outside, there was too much anxiety
in the crowded parking lot,
so I bought my way through the noise
to the river with three cigarettes.
I found peace near the running paths
next to traffic on the 1st Street.

After a few hours beside the sand-colored water,
couples mostly ran back and forth
beside the Colorado between two weirs —
small dams that slowed the surface to a fluid mirror.
Maybe they were Lyndon Johnson’s weirs.
The upstream had an old power plant
with concrete verticals and aging stains rising from distant trees;
downstream, I felt kind of outside of things,
while an eight-man shell rowed beneath an Austin bridge.

My restless journey across the Southwest
continued to a smaller Asphalt Café,
northwest of the Capitol by the 24th.
I drank coffee inside, before leaving
to get fresh clothes from the motorcycle.

Most nights, after curfew in the Shelter,
it was cigarettes in the common,
like the old jail yards Max said.
A yellow line divided us from women,
while a monitor mopped a mess in the corner.

So we were smoking near the harsh ammonia,
while across the line, a young Kentucky girl offered herself —
a feminine nightmare with skin disease —
and the mop man enjoyed her.

Most of the women were usually beaten crazed
or ruined young, and some were just stupid
like the Kentucky girl.
Most nights, Hope stumbled over the line for a smoke,
blowing plumes of stories from the women’s floor.

Her dry hacking cough mixed in
with screams and scratches over a fur coat.

Smoke mixed in with bleeders from the gums
flushing their guts away — too much for Max,
and he turned aside as she got to the dead one.

Hope just kept going through it,
talking woodenly about them as children,
and I was thoughtless of my own.

Lane called me in on my eighth day in the Shelter:

“Rashmon’s got something for you,
but it’s complicated and strange — a little patience.”

“Fine, what is it?”

“Well, there’s a roofer takes our people in.”


“Leo fixes roofs. Meet his man Brian in the morning.”

My long week in the Shelter
meant much more than a turnstile
for saving police man-hours —
I wished Max well and left at dawn.

Outside there were “night trains” asleep against the walls.

A month later, Hope still lived in the bedlam and avenue grime,
while Lane’s records indicated Max made rural chairs
out in Dripping Springs.

But when I checked there,

no one knew who Max Gonzales was …