Amanda Oliver
25 min readApr 7, 2018


Bike courier, dope peddler, and full-time hedonist — Featherhead had it made. Until his roommate threatened the president.

This story was originally published for Washington City Paper on March 21, 1997. My uncle wrote it under his bike courier nickname, Featherhead.

In prison he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and was released early due to his rapidly declining healthy. He passed away three years ago today from complications from M.S.

He is loved and remembered and part of the wildest and most free parts of me.

Hey, Washington, remember me? It’s your fine-feathered friend, your long-lost prodigal. I’ve been meaning to write, but it took more than a year to get my hands on a working typewriter, and then another month to buy a print wheel and ribbon. I make only 17 cents an hour here at the federal prison camp near Cumberland, Md.

I miss you, Washington. I miss Rollerblading in Rock Creek Park, I miss riding through the workday crowd on 18th Street downtown, and I miss drinking shots of tequila during happy hour at Mister Day’s. I even miss the sound of traffic there — I would love to hear a horn blown in anger.

Once I thought the world was mine and set to music. I had a lover then, too. You should have seen her in cutoff jeans and cowboy boots. But I woke up one Sunday morning and found that everything, including her, was gone.

Perhaps I should just do my time quietly, but considering that I am in a federal prison 184 miles from Washington, there is nothing anyone can do or say to injure me further. In that sense I am free, and my desire to communicate exceeds my reticence about being honest about how I ended up here.

My nightmare began back in 1995, on a deliciously cool summer Sunday morning just before dawn at my house in Mount Pleasant, about the time I would usually hear the animals starting to squabble just down the hill at the National Zoo. But I heard a different beast that morning: the United States government — the Secret Service, poking its black, snakelike flashlights through my iron-gated front door. I gulped a breath and went downstairs to meet them.

I came to Washington about the same time as Ronald Reagan. He had a vision. I had five bucks and a bicycle. I got a job riding a bike all day, which was like paying a monkey for climbing a tree. I had found my Shangri-La.

For years, I rode through the city as if I owned it. As a lark one day, I festooned my helmet with ostrich feathers, purple, pink, and blue. I added peacock feathers for a touch of green, plumage fluttering in the breeze to express my glee. It was a big success. A TV show did a story on couriers featuring my helmet. Regardies magazine later did the same. I was famous in a small and satisfying way, which is to say, on my own terms.

Like any good American, I used my notoriety to cash in. I was already peddling passports, plane tickets, press photos, etc., as an adjunct to my courier enterprise, so I took it a step further and started slinging acid — that’s LSD to you GS-7s. Couriers would spot the feathers and give chase from blocks away.

Between the acid and the bike, a nice rhythm developed. A bowl of cereal and bananas for breakfast. No time for coffee. Instead, a bong hit and a dose of LSD that would keep me spinning all day long. I’d put on the fanny bag with walkie-talkie, Walkman, at least a dozen $40 bags of weed, and I’d fill my wallet with LSD. Give my sleeping sweetheart a kiss, strap on the feathers, and fly out the door to early-morning ice hockey.

Saddle up before dawn, pinch the tires, check the pressure, spin the wheels, and check for true. Squeeze the brake levers — hear that snap? Horsie ready to ride.

The streets would still be black, headlights of the early-morning go-getters breaking the quiet chill of winter, my favorite season to ride. Tune the Walkman to classical or a tape of the B-52s. The acid would start kicking, eyes watering in the winter wind as I flew south on 16th Street and took a left on Florida Avenue. 6:20 a.m. Perfect timing.

Florida onto Benning Road, rush-hour traffic beginning to growl, the sun peeking over the horizon now. Stretch it out and time the lights up and over the Benning Road Bridge. Right on Minnesota Avenue SE, the only white face around. I’d wave to the same black dude courier each morning, his white teeth flashing as he pedaled downtown to work.

As I pulled my bike up the steps at the Fort Dupont ice rink, I could hear the pucks smack the boards — kerthud. My lungs and legs strong from biking, head fortified by LSD, I could do the spin-o-rama, relentlessly chasing the puck. The morning games were a men’s club on ice: airline pilot, Senate staffer, doctor, lawyers, journalist, salesmen, and one acid-addled courier. The games made me feel part of a larger Washington beyond my small world of riding bike and smoking pot. We skated hard, played fair, and had fun.

Game over at 9 a.m. I would shower, dress, and then push my bike through angry traffic across the Sousa Bridge to Capitol Hill. Potholes tried to swallow me, palms stinging on the handlebars. A leisurely breakfast in the Longworth Building cafeteria to recoup my strength before checking in with the boss.

“Good morning Dana, Nine-Oh here at the Longworth. I’m good to go.”

“OK, Nine-Oh. Pick up at the Longworth, Room 2201. Judy there has a package for Willkie Farr. I’ve got more. Call me ten-eight.”

I paid my dispatcher a kickback of an ounce of weed ($150) every week. My customers could then call her to arrange rendezvous so I could conduct my business on the run. I was strictly a courier when I got started; you know the routine — Point A to Point B, please-sign-for-this-why-thank-you-have-a-nice-day. But then I made the mistake of selling a $10 bag to a colleague. For a while, I was making $500 a week as a legit courier and more on the side, but my side business grew until it supplanted my courier business altogether.

Most of my customers were people I would meet in the course of courier work: other couriers, chauffeurs, cabdrivers, beer-truck drivers, concierges, and sidewalk vendors. I would arrive at my delivery stop with a customer, or sometimes several, waiting. We would ride the elevator together, then walk the stairwell down and do the dirty deal while taking a quick one-hit on the run. Business was good, sometimes too good.

Everybody wanted something I had. As keeper of the cookie jar, my ego was inflated to dangerous heights. I thought I was immune. Once a workday I would stop, park my butt in a locked toilet stall, and fold, straighten, and stash the many wads of cash I had shoved into my pockets, socks, fanny bag, and even my drawers. I ran out of places to put the money.

Friday nights in Dupont Circle, couriers would line up to buy a $40 bag of weed and a week’s supply of LSD. For me, and others like me, it was impossible to do the courier job drug-free. The biking was nice and all, but for the most part being a courier was incredibly boring.

Apart from getting high, there were occasional respites from the monotony. Once and only once in a 10-year career, I even had sex. I’m not talking about strolling-hand-in-hand-in-the-moonlight sex, I’m talking about courier sex, sex with your boots on. I was making a drop at a real estate office on Connecticut just before lunch. I knew the receptionist there — we had smoked a joint together once or twice in the Circle.

We rode the elevator down, together.

“You know,” she said, “I’ve always wanted to see your chest.”

“Well, gee, gosh, I’ve always wanted to see yours.”

We walked out to the street and took the first cab to her apartment in Mount Pleasant. My dispatcher kept yelling for me on the radio.

“Nine-oh! Nine-oh! Where are you? Give the office a call!”

“OK. Relax. Just a minute. I’m coming.

I’m coming.”

We caught a cab back to her office and my bike. It was too good to last, and of course, it didn’t.

On a warm and dreamy evening back in November ’88, I was hawking my wares in Dupont Circle while the rush-hour traffic hummed ‘round and ‘round. I was approached by a grungy high-school kid looking for acid who flattered me by calling my name. We left the Circle and went to sit on a log in the parking lot behind the Riggs Bank on 20th and Mass. He handed me a 20, and as I began to tear off a four-hit strip of acid, we were quickly joined by a large, athletic-looking undercover cop wearing a baseball hat. He stuck his badge in my face and told me I was under arrest.

I spent that night in jail. And I lost 200 hits of acid, 2 ounces of magic mushrooms, 4 grams of weed, and $1,400 cash. They took my purple shoelaces, too. The feathers were mine to keep.

I was facing felony charges and 22 months in jail unless I was willing to talk. “Let me put it this way — it’s your ass,” the cop, who was named Todd, said. “It’s your turn to go to jail unless you find someone else to take your place.”

I debated the moral ramifications for five or 10 minutes before making up my mind. I was in love at the time and unwilling to allow some other guy to do what I had been doing with my girlfriend while I was locked away. So I became a creep. I started crawling underground.

I had to clean up my act as well. No more dealing on the streets or alleyways downtown. Instead, I shifted my operation to a defensible space — the locker room of my courier company up in Adams Morgan. On payday Friday nights, the couriers would gather there, nearly a hundred strong. The smoke was thick and the money was fast.

I would supply several cases of beer, and we would smoke huge, cigar-size joints while business was transacted. I sold pounds, quarter pounds, ounces, mushrooms, and acid by the hit, strip, or sheet, and then came home trashed with a big pile of cash and courier paychecks that I charged a buck or two to cash. My girlfriend started thinking that maybe I wasn’t serious about going back to college and getting a master’s degree in teaching.

Things were rolling, if you didn’t consider the fact that I had a criminal charge hanging over my head. I remained nicely deluded, staying high all day. But after almost a year out on personal recognizance, the cops turned up the heat and told me that if I didn’t put the finger on someone else, my time was up. I started spending my evenings with my police buddy Todd and his partner. We would drink pitchers of beer at a hippie hangout bar on Wisconsin Avenue. We became friends, in a sense, trolling the drug-dealing waters, looking to make a big bust.

“Wow! Look at that girl in the long skirt,” Todd would say.

“Yeah. And look at that one in the shorts,” I’d respond.

“See any drug dealers here?” they’d ask.

“Yeah, maybe. But don’t you want a bigger fish to fry?”

“I’ll take whatever you got,” Officer Todd would say. “Just remember, though: To get out of jail, you have to hook a bigger fish than yourself. And you better hurry, too, ’cause you’re running out of time.”

I woke every morning with a pit in my belly, sorting again through my list of cohorts, trying to figure who could go to jail to take my place.

I eventually got lucky in the parking lot of RFK Stadium just minutes before a Grateful Dead show. My victim was perfect. A pothead who had gone astray and become a crackhead — he had burned me and almost everyone else for cash and product. There, amid all the Deadheads, I set him up.

I gave my cop pals tie-died shirts to wear, but with their Lycra running pants, banker haircuts, and paranoid demeanor, they looked like what they were: cops. I told them to keep their distance while I made the buy of 100 hits. I actually bought 200 hits and stuffed one sheet in my sneaker.

The SWAT team moved in on the guy who sold me the acid while I took my ticket and went into the show. I was elated. I was free. I sold the sheet of acid, purchased by the Metropolitan Police Department, and used the money to buy reefer and beer. Is this a great country or what?

My court appearance had shrunk to a formality. Woodies (remember Woodies?) sounded like the place to shop for docket wear. I went for the TV weatherman look — gray sport coat, dark blue pants, and red tie. It seemed to do the trick: I was sentenced to 15 months’ probation and 100 hours of community service. I was sent to work at a public library in a nice part of town. I shelved children’s books alphabetically and stacked old magazines chronologically. I also did business there, selling bags of weed to some of the librarians.

My brush with the law did not have the intended effect. Because I skated on the criminal charge, I became emboldened. I foraged upstream to get closer to the source, hoping to make some big money.

My girlfriend kicked me out, convinced that I had tripped over into reefer madness — she was right, of course. I took an eighth-floor apartment at 18th and Columbia with a stunning view of downtown and beyond. I would smoke pot and drink beer at night and watch the planes landing at National Airport while customers came by to cop. And I devoted a sun-filled corner of my kitchen to growing pot — I added a high-pressure sodium light that I could see all the way down on the street.

One day my landlady pulled me inside her office. “Now, honey,” she said, “I really do not care what you do in your apartment, but the building inspector has been here and he said, ‘Hey lady, there’s a pot farm up on the eighth floor.’ I suggest you remove those plants, just to be safe.”

I borrowed a car to relocate my “puppies.” When I walked out the back door of the apartment building carrying two buckets with 6-foot-high plants wrapped in garbage bags, I was confronted by a tangle of cop cars and cameras. They were filming the short-lived DC Detective TV series. I politely asked a policewoman to move her car so I could load up. I carefully retrieved a few fallen leaves before I drove away. I took my puppies to a friend’s grandmother’s house and set up the light in the basement. She was too old and feeble to walk down the stairs, so I knew my puppies would be safe.

I soon moved as well, to a flat in Mount Pleasant where I set up shop. I took all my clothes from the closet and started a grow room there.

In addition to farming, I thought it was time to get into the transportation business. The economics were compelling. Marijuana sells in Washington for about $1,200 a pound. In Mexico, where much of it is grown, that same pound can be had for $50. On the border, in Brownsville, Texas, a pound might fetch $300. If you can take it 100 miles north and get it past the U.S. Customs checkpoint near Kingsville, you are sort of home-free, and a pound is now worth $500 or $600. Bring it back to Washington, break it down and work it, selling quarter ounces for $40 and ounces for $150, and that $1,200 pound becomes almost $2,400 — as long as you don’t mind a constantly ringing phone and a bunch of potheads sitting on your couch all the time. Which was just fine with me.

On my first trip to Brownsville, I spent a week there waiting to cop, drinking coffee and reading the sports page at a Whats-a-Burger. When the deal came down I spent $10,000 for 20 pounds. A good deal. We boxed it up and Express Mailed it home. It never arrived.

On my second trip, just before Christmas, I brought a friend and bought the same amount of weed. We took the packages and stood in line at Kmart to get our poundage gift-wrapped. Everything was fine. I flew home, and my friend took the bus with the stuff. Everything was fine until the drug-sniffing dog got on the bus at the customs checkpoint. The dog would not wait until Christmas to open the packages. My friend spent two weeks in jail and left with a fine of $20,000 that he never paid. I lost another $10,000.

On my last trip to Brownsville I filled a suitcase and got on the plane. At National Airport, I grabbed my suitcase from the baggage carousel (the last bag) and ran to the Metro. There I called Charley. My connection. Collect.

“Charley! We did it! I’m back in Washington and I’ve got my bag!”

“Great,” he said, “sell it quick, so we can do

it again.”

I stood on the Yellow Line platform at National and felt overjoyed. “I did it,” I thought. “I’m gonna be rich!” I was wearing a T-shirt and shorts, so I took the key from my pocket and opened the suitcase to get my jacket. When I did, my eyeballs nearly fell out. There was my jacket. My Walkman. A book. And two bottles of Corona beer. Not a shred of pot. I cracked open a beer in a futile attempt to stay calm and spilled half of the foaming bottle on my shirt. I stomped and stamped and muttered up and down the platform cursing under my breath, beer froth smeared on my face. People stared at me as if I was mad. I was. I had lost my life savings — $30,000 in three trips to Texas.

But I would not give up. If I could not import, I was just going to have to grow my way to the top. The woman in the flat upstairs on Monroe Street up and moved out one day, and a friend suggested renting her apartment and turning it into a pot farm. Now there’s an idea, I said. I called the landlord and made the arrangements.

I started construction immediately on an indoor marijuana farm and hired a growing consultant. For several thousand bucks, he designed and equipped my new enterprise, replete with foot-high starter plants, CO2 generators, squirrel-cage fans, and track-mounted thousand-watt lights. The first harvest was a success. Each plant produced almost an ounce of superskunky $300-an-ounce lime-green pot.

I quickly expanded the operation. I converted the kitchen into a nursery for the “babies,” and the basement became three large grow rooms for budding the finished product. When spring arrived, I put a ladder up to the roof through the skylight and started growing plants there in buckets under the free and glorious sun. I could hear the plants singing every morning as I carried a coffee cup up there to commune with them and share the promise of the day’s first rays of sun.

The guy was a shithead. The guy was a shithead, and I let him into my house. He ruined my life with an errant drunken phone call to 911 at 4-something in the goddamn morning.

The shithead had offered to teach me how to grow psilocybin mushrooms. This guy, let’s just call him Shithead, came by most evenings to my house to grow his mushrooms and teach me to do the same. Mushrooms sell for $150 an ounce and, I soon found out, cost very little to produce.

Shithead was ugly, fat, and friendless. He was nasty to my girlfriend, but I didn’t care. I rented him a vacant bedroom to grow mushrooms and, stupidly, I let him move in along with the ‘shrooms.

One day, Shithead broke his foot somehow (the fat klutz), and instead of seeing a doctor, he self-medicated with whiskey and Valium far into the night. Then he got on the phone. Ostensibly, he was calling his “girlfriend” in Texas. He always spoke of her in the present tense even though she had left the area and slapped him with a restraining order six years ago.

The operator told him, “Sir, that number is unpublished.”

“You better give me that number, bitch! Because I am a special agent with the Scottish Intelligence Service, and I must have that number!”

“Very well, sir. Hold, please. I’m going to switch you over to 911.”

Shithead then spent 25 minutes spewing invective, threatening almost every American of note, living or dead.

“That bitch Nancy Reagan! I’m gonna kill her.

“And that bastard, Chief Justice Burger! I’m gonna cut off his head.” Justice Burger was no longer with us at the time.

“And that son of a bitch Bill Clinton! I’m gonna slice his throat from ear to ear!” The 911 operator had notified the Secret Service that she had a Washington, D.C., nutball on the line, and when they heard Shithead threaten the president, well, that’s when they put down their coffee cups.

At this time, I was sleeping — 300 marijuana plants in buckets were doing the same on my roof. Another hundred or so were nestled snugly under lights in the basement.

I woke up because I thought I heard a noise. I walked down the stairs in my underwear and realized that I must still be dreaming — the cars were pulling up, one after another: D.C. police, Secret Service — seven or eight if you’re counting. A whole goddamn posse of gun-toting, badge-wearing government employees gathered on my front steps. One of them spoke.

“Did you make a phone call threatening the president? We have traced a call to this address.”

“No. I did not make any phone calls. I was upstairs asleep,” I said through the cracked door. I excused myself and went up to find Shithead on the phone still threatening God knows who. He came back downstairs with me and the cop asked me to pass a phone out to them. It rang in his hands.

“Yep,” the cop said as he answered it. “We’ve got the right house.” As he hung up the phone he said to me, “Now, let’s open the door.”

“I’m not opening the door. You don’t have a search warrant.”

“We don’t need a search warrant when someone threatens the president. So open the door, before we bash it down.”

I opened the door. The cops came storming in and quickly came across some recently uprooted and drying plants stretched out on my table. That’s where the fun started. They ransacked everything — books, couch cushions, drawers — tearing around looking for drugs or weapons. There were no weapons — if there had been, I would have killed Shithead on the spot.

I took a breath then took a seat, wearing handcuffs now and watching the horde gleefully trash my house while a combat-booted photographer jumped around with a video camera recording it all. Even though it wasn’t yet 6 a.m. I was quite awake. Shithead sat, cuffed, nearby.

“Why did you do it? Why would you want to kill the president?” I asked him.

“Because,” Shithead said, “he was trying to kill me.”

Before I could explore the dynamics behind that, the cops came across even greener pastures.

“Hey! Looky here! We got ourselves a plantation!” A Secret Service cop had climbed the ladder to the roof and seen 300 gorgeous, green, skunky marijuana plants just about to see their last ray of sun. Shithead and I were carted off to jail in the cage of a K-9 van. My plants, I knew, would be given the death penalty.

The drill began of its own accord. Fingerprints, mug photos, a putrid, green fluorescent-lit booking room with the detritus of the past night’s arrests. Then I was locked in a dingy, green, graffiti-scrawled cage to sit and stew with Shithead. I tried to fashion a pillow from my sneakers.

“You shithead, Shithead. You ruined my life.”

“I’m sorry.”

A day later we were herded into another airless pen with plexiglass booths to visit with lawyers. In there, Shithead told me not to worry.

“I am still a secret agent. I’ll get us out of here in a helicopter before lunch,” he said. I spit in his face, and before I knew it three beefy U.S. Marshals charged into the room and grabbed me by my shirt, hair, and arm and hustled me out. My face was shoved against the wall and I was shackled hand and foot. Hard. I had bruises on my wrists and ankles for days.

I was hoping to be prosecuted in D.C. Superior Court. You know, maybe 10,000 hours at the library, plus a promise that this time I had really learned my lesson. A lawyer friend came to visit me, and he told me there was a good chance. But later that day I was shackled again and (oh, no!) driven across the street to the U.S. District Court for Washington, D.C. The Beast.

My goose was cooked.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch things were busy, even though I was under the care of the federales. It was a nice photo op, from what I heard. Monroe Street was blocked off to traffic. A police helicopter roared over rooftops looking for more marijuana plants. Several TV news crews set up satellite relay trucks to film the destruction of my puppies. The Secret Service Dance Troupe willingly performed, donning rubber gloves and surgical masks, forming a conga line of pot plant-killing cops. A few of my neighbors assembled to watch and speak to the cameras about their disdain for this variety of criminal activity. I’m sure the rest gathered to discuss where they would now cop.

I missed all that excitement. Locked in a jail cell, they pushed around a cart with cellophane-wrapped doughnuts and too-sweet coffee. Shithead was asleep. I ate his doughnuts.

My personal abasement was all over the news: all three network newscasts, local news, etc. My sister read about it on the front page of the Los Angeles Times. My parents saw my rooftop farm on the Today show. A day later I made a courtroom appearance that was well attended by the press. My lawyer asked for bail.

“No,” the judge said. “This man is a danger to society.”

Instead of going directly to jail, my lawyer was able to get me placed in a halfway house at 1010 North Capitol Street. I was allowed to exit the halfway house on weekdays from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., ostensibly to work as a bicycle courier, but after a few hours of that I would be immobilized by despair. I would instead meet up with my girlfriend Tatyana and go swimming at the Francis pool at 25th and N NW. Then I’d go out to lunch before spending the rest of the day getting stoned and drunk.

That’s how I would return to the hot-as-hell, roach-infested halfway house. I’d take cold showers to shake off the heat. Other inmates would gather in the shower room to smoke crack. They would offer me a toke. The world was sweet and dreamy after that, but only for a minute. I would towel off and return to my bed.

There I would strap on my Walkman and cover my eyes with a cold, wet towel. Listen to music and fantasize. Scheme about running away. I did not want to go to prison.

“A train ride!” I’d say to myself. Take Amtrak to Chicago and continue west through Denver to San Francisco. Party there with some friends for a week. Go out late at night for noodles in Chinatown. Catch another train north to Seattle. Spend a week there at the YMCA, playing basketball and hearing the early-morning foghorns in the harbor. Continue north to Juneau. There, pitch my tent near a graveyard (I’ve been there before). Relax. Drink, eat, and smoke Matanuska Valley weed until my money was gone. Then, buy a gun, walk off into the woods, with those strange 6-foot-tall fern leaves, and shoot myself in the head. Turn myself into fertilizer. Or grizzly fodder. Anything but a prisoner.

But I hung in. One day I went to the police station at 17th and U Streets NW to reclaim my wallet and the contents of my confiscated car (a Neon). At the station, a Hispanic officer in plain clothes (blue jeans, tank top, gold chain) approached me shaking his head, wearing a big, friendly smile.

“Man, I was at your house,” he said. “Man! I’ve been on the force for 15 years, and I have never seen a setup like that. Man, you got guts.”

“Thank you,” I said, extending my hand.

“No,” he said. “I won’t shake your hand. But I just wanted to say that to you.” Still smiling, he shook his head and walked away.

The halfway house at 1010 North Capitol was chock-full of crack dealers on their way into or out of jail. I would see them every evening on their bunks, counting wads of $20 bills from the day’s work. I was mugged, twice, in my room — for $10. Just shoved against the wall and my cash lifted. No big deal.

I had two roommates in my hot little room. One guy worked all day at McDonald’s, then came “home” and read the Bible. The other guy had a steady stream of traffic at the place buying his $20 rocks. Little chunks of crack cocaine. Then he was released, and a young boy drag queen in high heels and strong perfume moved in. She/he had a steady boyfriend and a couple of part-timers, too. More than once I woke to see her and her boyfriend doing what couples do in the heat of a hot summer night. Appalled, I averted my eyes and tried to sleep.

Weekends, the place was on lockdown. Contraband brought through a second-story window with a rope and a 5-gallon bucket — beer, liquor, reefer, crack, pizza, chicken — was available for a price. The cigarette smoke was thick. Small fans pushed vainly at the stagnant air.

I heard my name announced on the loudspeaker one Sunday afternoon.

“Inmate (Featherhead), report to the counselor’s office on the third floor!”

I opened the door to his air-conditioned office (ahhh…) and he offered me a chair.

“I haven’t had the chance, but I have been meaning to talk to you. I’ve read about your case and saw it on TV, and I’m real curious about a few things. Would you like to play a game of chess?” he asked. He was a good chess player, beating me easily. He shared with me some of the highlights of his life story — the U.S. Army in Iceland, etc. — and then said, “You know, I can always find the raggedy brown stuff, but I plan to go skiing in Colorado this winter, and I would love to bring some good, green, skunky stuff for my friends, and I know that’s the stuff you can get your hands on.”

I politely demurred. “Call the DEA,” I told him. “They’ve got all of my bud, and my five cases of Sam Adams beer, too.”

The U.S. Attorney allowed me an hour, just one hour, to get back into my house and collect what I could of 40 years of stuff. The landlord was to keep the TV, stereo, furniture, etc., because, she claimed, I had done $10,000 worth of damage to the house by watering my plants and drilling holes in the wall. A small crowd of friends came as I ransacked my house with the landlord watching. All I took was some books, clothes, and pictures of my grandfather and others. The landlady sold my three bikes to me for a hundred dollars a pop. My brother came down from Buffalo and collected them along with the rest of my stuff.

There wasn’t much else to argue over. The electricity had been turned off, and the chaos and the darkness there made me feel like a ghost. The fish in my two aquariums were dead and rotting. My classic BMW motorcycle was gone.

The next morning, carrying five toothbrushes in my pocket, I smoked a joint and then walked into the courthouse at 2nd and Constitution to enter my guilty plea. My best friend from junior high, Carl, showed up, and I was glad for that. The place was pretty much deserted. I took my guilty plea, was held and then shackled behind the courtroom, and then was taken in a Marshal’s car to D.C. Jail to await sentencing.

That place was a monkey house. There was a murder, a suicide, fights, stabbings, and constant noise and cigarette smoke. The food was terrible and there was never enough of it. I spent months there without seeing the moon or a tree. I was brought to the courthouse one day in chains to be interrogated by the DEA: “Are you sorry for what you did, or just sorry that you got caught?”

“Is this a trick question?” I wanted to ask. But I kept my mouth shut. More months later, before dawn, I was transported to the courthouse for my sentencing and tongue-lashing by the judge.

The judge said she was appalled that I had worked so many years as a lowly bicycle messenger. Smoking pot and riding a bike, she sneered. And here, all the time I thought I was pursuing my bliss. I said I was sorry because I knew she wanted to hear it.

My father, mother, and two brothers had driven down from Buffalo to lend their support. The judge reamed me out for a few minutes before imposing the sentence: sixty months. Same as my car payments.

It was all over in five minutes, and then I was locked in a cell once again. My father and mother were allowed to visit me separately and say goodbye. My dad squeezed two fingers through the bars for a handshake, and my mother could only manage half a kiss. They both admitted that they didn’t know what to say.

Another month or more in the monkey house, with its wild screams in the night and then, a few days before Christmas, I had my butthole inspected, was chained hand and foot, and bussed north in a snowstorm to Lewisburg Penitentiary.

We passed through small Pennsylvania towns, a busload of shackled convicts. The cozy little houses with snow-swept porches and twinkling Christmas lights seemed like a landscape from another solar system. We arrived at what looked like a bad scene from a Stalin-era Russian movie: Lewisburg had gun towers, spotlights, 25-five-foot-high thick cement walls, and black-suited snow- and wind-swept guards holding M-16s. My time was up, but in a way, I was just getting started.

We shuffled in chains through snowdrifts to the Receiving and Discharge station. Inside, I was stripped. I entered the Bureau of Prisons the same way I entered this world, naked and screaming.

I only spent a month at Lewisburg before coming, once again in chains, here, to the federal prison camp, or Camp Okie Dokie as it’s called. It’s one of those country-club prisons that drive conservatives crazy. Life here is easy but boring, and ultimately pointless.

I have always been an early riser, and I usually wake at 5 a.m., when the dormitory (minus the snorers) is quiet and dark. I lie in bed and think.

When I was outside, I wandered around stoned, with a pleasant buzz in my ears. As it turned out, that buzz was the sound of a train hurtling toward me with my name on it. I didn’t get out of the way and it smashed me flat. I’m guilty, but guilty of a kind of innocence, a naive belief that I could continue what I was doing because I had always gotten away with it. But mostly I was stoned — a caution-obliterating, reason-obviating state of botanical contentment that left me too high to see what was coming.

After many months of federally mandated sobriety, I realize now that it was only a matter of time before something broke through the haze and brought me back to reality, which for me now revolves around a cell, three squares, and a calendar that refuses to hurry. But the days will pass. Including good time, drug-class credit, and six months’ halfway-house time, I could be back as soon as June ’98. Until then, I will miss you, Washington.



Amanda Oliver

Author of OVERDUE: Reckoning with the Public Library • writer, editor, teacher • amandaoliver.com