The Death Row Companion

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I started a strange journey nine months ago.

Out of the blue, I contacted an organization in order to correspond with an inmate on the US death row. I’ve always had a strong fascination for the penitentiary world. Prisons qualify as heterotopias, these “other spaces” of society theorised by French philosopher Michel Foucault. Heterotopias are enclosed public locations run by their own rules and their own relationship to time.

Ten days later, I received the name and address of the man who would become my penpal. There was a short manuscript letter enclosed, with his request to be put on the waiting list for the penpal program. He had been waiting for 14 months. I was moved in an unusual manner when I saw his handwriting. I instantly sensed that I was getting myself into an extraordinary human adventure.

The organization provided me with a list of recommendations and advice. The one that stroke me the most was that I was supposed to regularly check the calendar of scheduled executions on the official death row website. Most likely the information would be online before the court and lawyers would announce it to my penpal. I was going to know before him when he was scheduled to die.

They strongly recommended not to try to find out information about the facts, but one of the first things I did was to google the man. My curiosity to discover his face and the crimes he was accused of was too strong.

His name is ΝΣ. He’s going to be 47 in August. I learned from the web that he had been involved in drug trafficking. He was convicted of first degree murder in 2000 for commending the double murder of a couple. The woman had died and the man had survived the bullet shots in his head.

I didn’t know anything about his life conditions in jail and it was super touchy to write my first letter to a stranger who had been cut off from the outside world for the last 14 years.

He replied very fast, and I remember being disappointed by his first letter. He was complaining about the prison selling iTune songs for $1.49 to the inmates. He thought it was a total rip off. I felt stupid in my spiritual expectations. I wanted deep moving conversation, remorse, metaphysical reflection on life and death, and I was facing a supposed murderer who ranted that Apple was overpriced. I had got caught in my own game of craving for depth and redemption. I replied to him that I was paying my iTunes songs £0.99, which was more or less the equivalent. “And I haven’t killed anyone” I thought. But I didn’t write it.

I toned down my expectations after that. I chose not to ‘want’ anything from the guy.

We never talk about the facts he’s charged with. I let him bring up whatever he wants about his trial, his case and his life conditions. I don’t have an opinion about what he did or not. I don’t know the truth. I am reading between the lines that he’s claiming innocent.

I chose to believe him when he says that his trial was botched up and that the American justice system is a maze. He says he had poor defence. The court didn’t look at the evidence and didn’t call his witnesses. He’s studying law books to work on his case every day. He had an appeal in May, aiming to get a new trial in a few months.

Gradually, we started having some kind of relationship.

He asked me to ship him the World Almanac. I have to learn the procedure and rules for everything I want to send his way. I got him candy and chocolate through a food order form for Christmas.

He told me a little about his background. He was born in Trinidad and Tobago. He has 6 or 7 siblings but his family almost cut him off. One of his sisters visits him once a year. My favorite part of his letters is the description of his day to day, the rules of the prison, his life conditions, the updates on his trial.

I mostly tell him about my trips so he has names to look up in the World Almanac. I always get him postcards everywhere I go. I often don’t even send any to my family and friends, but I always make sure to get one for him. After all, he’s also the only person who sends me real letters.

After a few months, I started signing my mail “Your friend, Σ”. He did the same.

I started referring to him as my ‘Death Row Companion’, or more familiarly as my ‘Death Row Babe’ – which I obviously don’t tell him.

To thank me for my gifts, he had my portrait drawn by another inmate on the death row who is his friend. He used the photo of me which I sent him at the beginning of our correspondence. I don’t know when they meet, because they have individual cells, but they have up to 6 hours of recreation per week which must be collective.

This portrait of myself is one of the most precious gifts I’ve ever received, because there’s the hell of an intense story behind it. It doesn’t look like me but it does at the same time. The movement of my hair looks incredibly real with pencil. I have put it on the top shelf, between the books by my dear Virginia Woolf and King Kong Théorie by Virginie Despentes.

He was impatient to get my feedback on the drawing. I think he was happy to have shipped me something. I asked him the name of the artist to thank him as well.

Now, he starts being more chilled with me. The other day, he asked me for tips to cut down his belly fat. I laughed and I made him funky stick man drawings of the plank position. He told me he has been doing the exercises every day. Next, I’ll send him some stick man sketches of the sun salutation.

I’ve decided to go and visit him at some point. I don’t know if I should, because this friendship is scheduled to stop and I can’t say that I wasn’t aware of it.

I’ve received an email from the organization this morning. The subject was: “Two executions scheduled for September”. I opened it in a hurry, but his name wasn’t there.

I am tough and stubborn, so I’ll end up visiting him anyway.

There are currently at least 30 people on the death row in the US who are waiting to be put in contact with a penpal. I know 2 organizations which run the penpal program: the ACAT in France, which is the Christian organization I am involved with, but you don’t have to be Christian or to be a practicing Christian to register with them. Human Writes is a British organization which also runs the death row penpal program. The only requirement is to be over 18 and to commit to write regularly, as this correspondence may be the only support received by the death row inmates.

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New Orleans Episode #3 – A Tropical Eros & Thanatos Story

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# New Orleans is Contradiction

New Orleans is slow, humid, warm and sticky like sex. When you are about to let go and indulge, losing yourself into it, someone or something brings your awareness back because it can be a matter of life or death. I have never been anywhere where the Eros & Thanatos friction (pulsion of life vs pulsion of death) is perceptible in such extent.

# New Orleans is Glamour

Who would have believed that I would have fully embraced my frustrated glamorous side in New Orleans? Certainly not me. Glamour is appearing to me just like that.

On Tuesday, I crashed the movie set where κ² is currently working. New Orleans has a lot of cinema and TV show shooting going on, as it is cheaper than LA. The set I crashed is a big production with Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton. I told the massive security dude that I knew someone in the crew and he didn’t ask me anything. He just held the door for me. I was surprised at how easy it is to get on movie sets, but apparently it is not supposed to be the case. I was just lucky. The same day, I saw Katy Perry on Frenchmen street. She was performing at the Smoothie King Center. She had no security around her, just a bunch of weird friends. She was on everyone’s lips the day after. “Katy Perry was in town!” Yeah, I know.

And same day finally, the drag queen living upstairs knocked the door late at night. I opened to him and we decided to meet up for brunch. Those who know me know my obsession for drag queens. They are my absolute favourite creatures of all. So I was excited like a teenager on a first date. He told me his story. We exchanged a bunch of artistic inspirations and he took me shopping. “Would you like to come with me to my favourite wig shop?” What a question. I had to control myself not to scream and kiss his size 14 feet. On the way, he told me that he would like a wig like my hair. He actually gave me hope, because in New Orleans, there are girls who do drag. It is called “Faux Queen”. (Love the irony of how a girl incarnating a girl is called “faux”). I’m on the way to embrace this. New Orleans has been almost the only time of my life that I want to be in my skin and not in someone else’s. Probably because my glamorous daily needs are finally met? I went to see my drag friend on stage on Friday. His outfits were the fanciest of all. He danced on “Dancing Queen” with a whole bunch of fake flowers pinned on his head.

# New Orleans is Morbid

The city has a weird relationship to death. By order of importance, the top symbols of New Orleans are: the Fleur-de-lis, skulls, catholic imagery and voodoo stuff. They all mix up. There are more skulls than one can see, and it is not only due to Halloween coming up – which is huge down here, of course. (But Mardi Gras still is the main celebration.) Witchcraft and tarot readers are omnipresent. My drag friend explained me that New Orleans funerals are very eccentric. They sing and dance endlessly and take pictures of the dead surrounded by his/her favourite objects. I really want to crash a funeral while I’m here. My dark side is magnetised by this place.

# New Orleans is Burlesque

And Queer. The burlesque scene is vibrant, and they create new concepts for it, like “Erotic poetry reading” nights the first Wednesday of the month. There is a tradition from burlesque inherited from the chic brothels. You see more drag and burlesque than regular strippers. On Frenchmen street, I interacted with an “Erotica smut writer”. She writes you an erotic poem while you wait. She also had a one woman show called “Slut (r)evolution”. There’s a lot of fancy dress, costume, cross dressing all over the city. It is the kingdom of Creatures. You can’t really get self conscious for wearing whatever you feel like wearing. On my first day at Floras, the cafe where I write, a lovely bearded woman from California made my coffee. Nothing could be more normal here.

# New Orleans is Violence

You only become a true New Orleanian once you’ve been mugged. I don’t get used to it. People talk about violence and crime all the time. It is a huge part of their mind set, but as a European, it is not a part of mine. I always walked home late at night or early in the morning in all the cities where I’ve been (including New York which is a European city at that extent). It frustrates me to stop myself from embracing the night. I asked the guys if I could walk around with no money and no purse so I have nothing to steal. They told me that I could still be raped. (True. This one I can’t leave at home.) Mind set.

You don’t want to know how many guns are in the city. A taxi driver I was talking to asked me the usual question: “Is it safe back there?” (Europe). And then he told me that he had a gun under the seat because 6 taxi drivers were shot last year. I was tempted to ask him to show it to me but I’d rather keep away from these as long as possible.

I was at a bar with the guys of the arty house the other night – and by the way, you can still smoke in public places – and they simultaneously showed me their respective weapons under the table cause they are illegal. β4 had brass knuckles and μ3 had a knife shaped as a pen. She also got a taser for Christmas. I was seating between them and realised that I was surrounded with armed people.

The weirdest is that violence is explicitly or implicitly codified. Guns are legal, but brass knuckles and a bunch of “minor” weapons are not. You can get mugged/raped/murdered on the street but you can leave belongings under your porch a few steps up from the street, and no one would touch them.

Fascinating place.

New Orleans, Episode #1 – Sleeping in some Strangers’ Kitchen

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I can barely recall how events have chained up in the last 24 hours up to that point. There is a surreal dimension to it.

I got off the Amtrak in the City of Jazz yesterday at 5.30pm after 21 hours on the train. How glamorous I was feeling!

In the first seconds, New Orleans (aka NoLA) hit me like a sauna. I walked out of the station and saw the first palm trees. No one bothered to warn me that Louisiana was THAT tropical and I was feeling kinda stupid with my rainbow fur coat. I will have to use something else to make connections with strangers while I’m down here. I’m totally unequipped for that climate.

On the train, I had exchanged a bunch of text messages with 3 different people I didn’t know (friends of friends of friends) and I started losing track and mixing them up. The only tangible element I had was an address where a party was apparently happening later on, so I asked if I could just come over with my huge bag of irrelevant clothes. Someone texted ‘yes’ so I followed that track and got on a cab. I had a starting point at least.

I was excited to chat the taxi driver up, but he politely asked me to shut it cause his wife was on the phone. Welcome to town.

Then, magic kicked in. I got dropped off on Burgundy Street in front of this little Gone with the wind looking house plus palm trees. NoLa is movies. A tall and pretty ginger girl who looked like Madison Young (queer sex positive porn actress) came out of the house and asked me if I was me. I said yes. When I got inside the Gone with the wind looking house and found myself face to face with a giant papier mâché rib cage, I knew that I had been set up with the right people.

Pretty ginger porn star doppelgänger is μ3, her boyfriend working on the gigantic papier mâché skeleton is β4, and there was also their housemate α6, who is a mix of Salvador Dali and Alice in Wonderland crazy hatter. The three of them got on a car four months ago and moved to New Orleans from their native Ohio to make puppets, papier-mâché skulls, films and arty stuff. They all rock the world and welcomed me like a member of their family.

Their house is to die for, there are crazy details to watch in every corner. The house is “gunshot” shaped, which means that it is like a long corridor of rooms (back at the time with no air conditioning it was apparently the best way to get a draft). The legend says that it is called ‘gunshot’ because from the entrance door you can shoot your wife cheating on you in the last bedroom at the end of the corridor. Here, the first room is the crafty workshop.

We talked for a very long time drinking French wine and they gave me security tips cause the city is dangerous. α6 got mugged with a gun last week cause he walked home alone at 2am. So I will have to compromise on my night hawk and loner tendencies and rethink my travel habits. They all seem a bit concerned for my safety and made a map of areas not to go to. I’ve never really dealt with crime risks in all my US trips so it’s new to me.

Shortly after, κ² arrived at the house. He is the one responsible for all this. He worked with my super good friend H on a horror movie few years ago. His job title on movie sets is “grip” — which from what I understood means that he pushes the trolley with cameras when filming traveling shots. My description of it is probably heretic but it’s just to give a rough picture.

We all went around the corner to eat tapas. I’m French so I know my stuff regarding food, and these really were in the Top 2 best tapas I’ve ever had. NoLA is food! On top of it, I quenched my thirst with a house cocktail called “Hawaiian Erection”. I couldn’t have invented this.

The guys are going to set me up with a bunch of interesting people that I want to portrait for my blog. Their above neighbour is a drag queen and μ3‘s boss used to be a millionaire sent to jail for buying gifts to judges. Good encounters ahead.

More people came in later at arty house and I had great conversations about guns and death penalty with them. μ3 says she doesn’t like guns but prefers that citizens carry guns rather than having only representatives of the government carrying guns. Basically, she said that many Americans own guns to defend themselves against police and justice because they are not trustworthy. I had never thought of that under that light and that’s when soaking with locals is priceless. It is so easy to caricature Americans all the time with our European standards, just claiming they are violent for the sake of it and own guns to play it like western movies. Fuck clichés.

I was meant to sleep over at 겑s but arty house guys blew me a mattress and I slept in their kitchen. Of course.

I’m now writing this from a café in the French quarter. κ² is working on a movie set around the corner. I’m going to try to catch up with him in his lunch break. Maybe I’ll get a better understanding of what his job is actually about.

I can’t believe I didn’t know these guys 24 hours ago. Magic.