“To the memory of those who made us laugh: the motley mountebanks, the clowns, the buffoons, in all times and in all nations, whose efforts have lightened our burden a little, this picture is affectionately dedicated.” – “Sullivan’s Travels”, 1941 Preston Sturges film.
The gloomiest population in all of Los Angeles is found at the Sunday morning gathering in the inmate visitor’s waiting room of the Men’s Central Jail, aka CJ..
There may be more doomed locales in town – the coroner’s identification room, a hospice where the only hope is that the end will soon come – but, for a mass gathering of gloom, nothing beats the CJ crowd on a Sunday.
It’s depressing here every day, but there’s something extra glum about the Sunday morning visit. Perhaps it's the thoughts visitors have of being elsewhere: Of still being in bed or attending a morning church service or taking the family on a Sunday drive or having some early cold ones with the boys before the resurgent Rams or Chargers play an outta town game at 10 a.m..
Instead, here they are, in the main lockup of the largest jail system in the United States where nearly 20,000 inmates are housed. Some of the visitors are seeing loved ones off before they take the long bus ride to Corcoran or Susanville or even San Quentin's Death Row. Some are there to encourage those still facing trial. But, most are there to let the incarcerated know they are not forsaken.
Me, I’ve been here I don’t know how many times. I think less than a 100, but that I even have to think that lets you know I’m no stranger to the gloom. I’ve even been the one the visitors were waiting to see.
Last Sunday, I was there to visit an old friend, one Cleamon “Big Evil” Johnson. I first wrote in the Los Angeles Times about Johnson, who has been called the most violent gang member in the city by homicide detectives, back in 1997 when he was convicted of ordering a double and sentenced to the Row. (He spent over 14 years there before his conviction was overturned by the California Supreme Court and he awaits retrial here.)
I bring this all up because of what happened that last Sunday as I waited in the gloomiest room to see him.
I arrived just after 7 a.m. for my scheduled 8 a.m. visit and took a seat on a green metal bench in the “Hi-Power” visitors waiting area of the roughly 12,000 square foot, brightly-lit room. I sat facing the interior of the room, not toward the wall where television was mounted and playing something that – with just a quick glance – struck me as buffoonish.
Facing me in the row across from mine about four feet away were several people including a very solemn looking 40ish black guy, ‘bout 6-4, 250, wearing low top white Converse. Next to him was a grandmotherly looking tiny Mexican lady with a blue and grey scarf. And next to her, also wearing white low top Converse, was a late 20s woman telling a lengthy story in English and Spanish to a middle-aged Latino who was all ears. Behind them, facing me in the next row, was the only white lady here, a toothless meth-looking type with a three-year old kid in tow. There were close to 20 others nearby, but those folks caught my eye
I took out a few sheets of paper and started writing something. Less than a minute later, I heard a lady right behind me bust out with a short burst of laughter. I didn’t pay it much mind and wrote on. But, maybe 30 seconds later, she laughed again, this time louder and longer. I looked up and tiny grandma is looking up at the TV behind me and smiling. So is storyteller girl. Even solemn big black looks like he is almost fighting off a grin.
I turn to look what’s on the TV and see a white family on a lake outing having difficulty in their boat. An oar goes flying off their boat and the visitors around me laugh louder.
I turn back just to watch the reaction to these people waiting to see their (allegedly) criminal loved ones. Instead of writing what I had planned, I start to take notes on these people. Something else happens and big black gives up and starts laughing. Story teller girl has abandoned her tale and is mesmerized on the plight of the white family. Even Miss Meth is chuckling in loud staccato bursts.
I take a quick look backward at the television. By now, the apparent father is running for his life away from a speeding truck. Of course, dad is running directly in front of the truck in a straight line down the center of the road, having clearly never seen a Gale Sayers highlight reel.
This brings gales of laughter. Pryor and Carlin would love this crowd.
Then, suddenly, there is silence as the truck driver gets out and is about to confront dad. He looks like he’s about to clobbered pops with a straight right hand, but instead he unfurls his hand to reveal a ring.
“My ring! He found my missing ring,” mom says. Back to the visitors. They are all smiling. Close call. Big black has a tender smile. So does grandma and the white girl, too.
A few seconds later, there’s another round of laughter. I have been to open mic comedy shows with less mirth.
I am reminded – as any film buff reading this might be – of that ending scene in Preston Sturgis’ 1941 classic “Sullivan’s Travels” when inmates are howling with laughter as they watch a clip of Walt Disney’s 1934 cartoon “Playful Pluto”.
On this Sunday, the mood suddenly reverts to reality when a deputy sheriff starts calling out names of inmates. The laughter stops. The smiles fade. Big black goes back to stern. He gets up when his inmate’s name is called.
When "Johnson, Cleamon" name is called, I go to my assigned row (H-12) and have my visit. I tell him about the laughter in the waiting room. He says, “I guess they need a good laugh before coming to see us.”
When I got home, I checked the TBS website for their programming. It turns out we were watching “Vacation”, the 2015 remake of the 1983 Chevy Chase “National Lampoon Vacation”, starring someone named Ed Helms. This version had a Rotten Tomatoes score of 26%, but for the crowd at CJ it might as well been “Some Like It Hot. “
I hope you never have to visit a loved one at CJ. But, if you do, let me give you some advice. Before you make your appointment, check the listings of TBS. If Vacation is playing, see if you can schedule your visit about an hour after it comes on.
And even if you don't ever go to Men's Central, - and I'm doubting that you will - you oughta still check out something funny, even if it's on the stupid side. Lotta people looking for a laugh these days, even if they ain't visiting someone on their way to Pelican Bay.