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James Carr

James Carr

By DAN HAMMER

Ed. Note: Below is the original introduction to BAD: The Autobiography of James Carr, written by Dan Hammer, editor of the original edition and brother of Carr’s widow Betsy Carr. The book is now available. Click to view order options and additional details.

When I was nine years old I burned down my school.” James Carr started fighting when he was very young and never gave up. He was a child prodigy of crime in the streets of the L.A. ghettos and the scourge of half a dozen boys’ homes and reform schools. In his teens he advanced to armed robbery and bookmaking, a career which was quickly cut short by arrest. In prison he fought harder than ever, and became one of the most notorious rebels in the seething California Penal System.

Because he was a fighter and not a preacher, James Carr relates the story of his life with a cold passion that allows him to illuminate the details of daily life on the streets and in prison powerfully, yet free from political polemics and moralistic complaints. Jimmy reveals the horrors of penitentiary life—race riots, murders, unexplained and irrational punishments, corruption of prison officials, to name but a few—from the standpoint of one who has overcome them. At the same time, he shows us the tremendous force and even joy of condemned men who refuse to die, who confirm their humanity through rebellion.

Jimmy’s relationship with George Jackson and his other black comrades was in sharp contrast to the chaos around them. As they progressed through the system they formed the Wolf Pack, a brotherhood that protected its members and came to guarantee them a certain margin of material security. Forged in deadly battle—first against the authorities and the other convicts, then almost entirely against the former—Jimmy’s and George’s friendship grew into much more than a partnership for survival. The Wolf Pack stayed alive for so long not only by fighting but by loving; their love for each other was fed not only by common dependency but by a great intellectual development and their amazing ability to have fun in this most unpleasurable environment.

Through Jimmy’s evolution we see the gradually dawning consciousness among many convicts that they have been manipulated to struggle against their own interests, both by making war on each other and by fighting the authorities on the latter’s own terms. Led by George and Jimmy, the Wolf Pack first fought its way to a position of strength in the prison race war, then worked to stop that war entirely in order to work solely against the system. With this development, the authorities were forced to increase their brutality and to separate Jimmy and George.

On his own after 1965 in the more subdued atmosphere of the California Men’s Colony at San Luis Obispo, Jimmy transformed himself from an openly rebellious con whose actions were self-defeating automatic reactions into a coldly calculating thinker who manipulated the authorities and ultimately engineered his own release. In the process he became an accomplished mathematician, a champion weightlifter, and a wise adviser to the new generation of prison rebels.

Using his wits to fight on his own terms was a hard-won lesson for Jimmy, one he had to learn over again after his release from prison. He came out expecting to find masses of armed revolutionaries preparing for battle, and took up with the Black Panthers, a group that produced Red Army propaganda, if no army.

Their activity was the embodiment of the parade-ground militancy Jimmy had striven to overcome. He was already harassed by the police because of his record and his continued relations with George; consorting with the Panthers virtually insured his rearrest. It was only a matter of time before a pretext would be found for putting him back in prison for life.

The opportunity presented itself on April 6, 1971, when a courtroom scuffle broke out at a Soledad Brothers’ hearing and Jimmy stepped in to help out his old friend.

San Francisco’s Hall of justice is under the freeway, separated from skid-row warehouses by a line of expensive bars that cater to the legal trade. On a hot Wednesday afternoon in early August, 1971, I pushed open the heavy glass doors and passed through the metal detector. The cop at the counter told me that city prison visiting hours were over. Fortunately, a woman sitting on one of the marble benches in the lobby piped in that I might be wanting to visit County Jail. I said I didn’t know.

“Who d’ya wanna see,” the cop barked.

“James Carr.”

“Oh yeh, Carr . . . ” He spat the name out. “Lemme see your ID.”

The line to the County Jail visiting room ran up drafty concrete stairs from the sixth to seventh floors. There were around sixty people, nearly all black and Chicano. Most of the Chicanos were mothers and wives, but many of the blacks were friends and business associates—very slick dudes and beautiful women. After an hour’s wait, the last twenty of us were let in through the thick metal door, where we registered in the visiting log and proceeded to a stark L-shaped room with green cement walls.

As I sat there waiting for Jimmy to come out, the place started to get to me; it seemed to be designed so that even the visitors could never forget who was in charge.

I was somewhat apprehensive, too, about what I’d say to Jimmy. Even though he was married to my sister Betsy, we’d met only a few times before his arrest, at a time when he was engaged in a practice that I had denounced as Stalinist. Now he’d cut his ties with the Panthers and criticized his past, but I had no idea what he wanted next.

When I saw him come bouncing down the hall, joking with another prisoner, I felt more at ease. He grinned, leaned into the little phone, and said, “Whatshappnin.”

“Not a lot”—which was the sad truth. “Nice place you got here.”

Jimmy chuckled. “ Oh, it ain’t much. They put on a big fortress show for visitors so you think they got a real pen here. But it’s just a second-string joint run by second-string dogs.” I raised my eyebrows and pointed to the phone. “Oh yeh,” he continued, “they listen in, but they can’t do nothin’ about anything we say unless we start talkin’ about how you’re gonna get me outta here.”

Our first visit was shorter than the regulation twenty minutes. We discussed Betsy’s health—she was about to have their baby—and talked a bit about our few mutual friends. We parted relieved to be over the awkward stage of meeting in this rather artificial setting, and sure that we wanted to meet again.

By mid-October we got the guards to let us talk for over an hour, and even that was never nearly enough.

Together we read about and discussed revolutionary theory and history, concentrating on recent French developments that clarified Jimmy’s growing dissatisfaction with the Left. Usually, as those very serious talks ended we’d become lighthearted: we both loved to make fun of our own situations and our adversaries’ follies. When he got going Jimmy could make it seem as if guards, stalinists, and bourgeois politicians had been created solely for his own amusement. He’d go into his Eldridge Cleaver imitation, thrusting his finger forward, exclaiming, “Dig… we got to resolve the contradiction between Granny Goose and Captain Crunch,” and laughing his deep, devilish chuckle.

We talked about all kinds of books for hours on end. From various prison libraries, Jimmy had culled everything even remotely related to social criticism. When I’d seen him in court back in July, he’d had a copy of Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil stuck like a pistol in the back pocket of his jail jumpsuit; we’d all laughed when he turned to face the judge.

We exchanged anecdotes about our lives, tripping out whenever one idea caught our fancies. Jimmy didn’t want to discuss his childhood: “Fuck, man, it was just one of those goddamned ghetto childhoods. You’ve heard a thousand stories like it.” But we did talk about other things, like school and religion and romance, and of our adventures there.

We saw each other in late August, shortly after George Jackson was killed at San Quentin in what was alleged by prison authorities to have been an escape attempt. The previous week when I’d come to see him, Jimmy had been on restriction while they investigated his possible connection with the events at Quentin. I was a little afraid that Jimmy might really do something crazy, but it was obvious when I saw him that he was in complete control of himself. He was very upset, but not at all surprised: “Those motherfuckers been drivin’ George up the wall, just waiting for him to hit back, and you know sooner or later he’s gonna play their game, he just had too fuckin’ much pride not to. I’m amazed he took as much shit as he did, ‘cause they ain’t never dished it out like they did to George.”

We sat in silence for a while before Jimmy went on. He talked about George’s mistakes—how he’d seen the trap but fell into it anyway; how he’d stunted his political development and allowed himself to be used by the Panthers—but how, despite all this, he’d been a great revolutionary: “He kept us all from falling apart, and he was the only one who could do it.”

Around mid-November Jimmy’s legal proceedings began to shape up. After weeks of hassling, his attorney finally got the authorities to agree to a misdemeanor plea with time served as the sentence. Then Jimmy’s fate was cast up to the Adult Authority Board, which could send him back to prison if they felt he’d violated his parole. So in the near future he was going to be out of County, to the streets or to the pen. Either way, he was going to have to raise some money to support his family, which led him to think more concretely about writing a book, a project we’d discussed together with our friend Isaac Cronin.

All recent prison writing had been concerned, usually for ideological reasons, with proving that the prisoner was an innocent victim of social injustice. Most of these books proffered the penitentiary as the crucible of modern capitalism which epitomized its general oppression. The convicts’ desperate struggle for survival was advanced as the model for a revolutionary movement.

Jimmy saw that the prison model was false, and that even though it arose from the needs of the prisoners’ movement for publicity and a sense of historical importance, it gave a terribly distorted picture of the convict’s place in society and virtually no hint of what prison life is like. The prison system is an entrenched semifeudal bureaucracy recognized as unworkably archaic even by the power structure it protects. Prison life, even apart from the constant physical brutality, is no scale model of life in bourgeois society. On the contrary, it is the most important subculture in the United States, a world apart with its own distinct system of economy, politics, and culture. What is it like day after day? What happens between battles, and how do they erupt? This is what Jimmy wanted to write about, from the unique standpoint of one who’d been at the center of the convicts’ struggle yet had no interest in presenting an image threatening or pathetic enough to appeal to their liberal allies on the outside.

With Jimmy in limbo we were able only to outline our plans. In a short time we’d either be working together or he’d be sending us drafts from Folsom.

December took forever. The Adult Authority Board put off Jimmy’s hearing week after week in order, they said, to have more information. I tried to keep pumping optimism into the visiting room, but Jimmy was sure they were going to send him back, and I began to fear he was right.

A few days before the end of 1971 the phone rang: “Hey, it’s me. How in the hell do I get there?”—as if he’d just arrived in town from vacation. I was so excited I almost forgot how to get to my own house.

“Do you want me to come get you?” I asked.

“No sense bothering. There’s a deputy here’ll give me a ride. We’ll be right over.”

After all the monkeying around, the news broke right before Christmas: Jimmy was reinstated on parole. Then endless bureaucratic delays, till now he was really out!

I ran out to a liquor store for some champagne and beer, though my head was already spinning. A few minutes later a booming knock on the door, and Jimmy grinning through the window. We hugged and pounded each other after all those months of talking through the glass.

Jimmy introduced me to the deputy, a smiling semi-hip Chicano who almost immediately offered me a joint. We sat in the living room drinking and smoking while the deputy told us about himself. I still couldn’t believe it.

When the deputy left, Jimmy called San Jose—he’d told Betsy and Joan (my mother) not to come up since the jail officials had refused to say when he’d be released—and we headed down through rush hour with my friend Sally. After all the talking we’d done in jail, it was a strangely quiet ride. Jimmy asked Sally a few questions about what she’d been up to, but said nothing about himself or the future. I could tell he had no ear for plans at the moment, just R & R.

In San Jose, a beautifully tender, almost subdued, homecoming. Jimmy and Betsy had obviously planned not to freak out, just to be at home with each other and the baby.

Between Jimmy’s reluctance to dive into the job—only he knew how deep our immersion would be—and three successive tape-recorder breakdowns, we took three weeks to get started on the book. Finally, toward the end of January, we began.

We planned originally for Jimmy to dictate the outline of the whole book before we started taping. To do the outline he’d smoke a little dope, drink a little rum, light a cigar, and drift into a sort of trance, putting himself through the events of his life in the quick flashes necessary for remembering them all without going into them.

But since the tapes were to be a straight chronological narrative and Jimmy was quickly able to see the whole story clearly once we’d started, we abandoned this method as being too intense: Jimmy was summoning up memories he’d tried all his life to repress, yet once he’d recalled them he had to move on too quickly. So after a few days of outlining we moved on to taping the story of his early years.

I could see right away how difficult it was for him to rip away all the scar tissue of his life. So many assaults— blows given and received. He’d gotten tough, learned to say “fuck it” to everything, learned to put it all aside, living from day to day because the past and future were equally abhorrent.

But now—back into the depths. Voices from the dead crowded his head.

It took enormous preparation for him to be able to talk. He got up at six in the morning yet was rarely ready to tape before late afternoon. He’d always have to drink and smoke a lot to be able to talk. After an hour or so he’d be drained. It was often frustrating for Isaac and me since we had to wait around, and since our easy job was made even tighter by the amusing stories Jimmy sandwiched in between the more sordid ones. It was only toward the end of the taping that I realized that even some of the funny stories summoned awful memories.

Jimmy never wanted to talk about his parents, no more now than in County Jail. When the narrative required him to do so, he’d skim over their role as quickly as possible, sticking to the events in which he’d played an active part. Childhood was the time before he’d learned to harden himself—he’d never formed a defense against his father’s brutality or his mother’s indifference.

By the time we got to his teen years, Jimmy’s resistances broke down, both because the subject matter was less painful and because we’d built up some momentum in our work, and he was able to move along at a steady pace. His mental preparation still took longer than our working hours, but it became noticeably easier for him.

I think he was quite surprised at how much we relished his life, and how far into it we were able to get. He never had to feel ashamed for our sake about what he’d done, not only because he’d gone beyond his criminal syndrome but because we recognized it as a legitimate response to an alien environment.

With this attitude we were able, through Jimmy, to think about the ups and downs of prison life from the con’s point of view. Thus, he could tell a story about fucking over some helpless con, for example, and we could feel the need to succeed in such an operation, laughing as the poor dude “bought the pig.” It was completely due to Jimmy’s ability to transport us into such a situation that we didn’t have to make the obvious judgments on such actions, even to ourselves.

When we’d reached this point the work often became great fun, with lots of sadistic laughter and slapping of hands whenever some devilish scheme reached its climax. Without dramatizing the events, Jimmy showed the cons and authorities as actors in an epic play. Each character was judged by his ability to play his role with a maximum of force. Sometimes it didn’t matter which side he was on: Captain Hocker, for example, is almost admirable for being such a dog. What is scorned is not the dog but the rat, con or cop. In the pen a strong enemy is judged more favorably than a weak ally, and while the brutal dog is hated, the cunning one is despised. Men are judged by their personal power. No wonder Nietzsche is the convict’s favorite philosopher.

When the work went well we all flew high. Isaac and I would move Jimmy along the way other cons used to inspire the “liars,” the cons who helped everyone pass the time by weaving incredible tales. The more fantastic the story, the more the listeners ride the storyteller with “Hey, Champ, that’s a loada shit,” which makes the raconteur go even further into it. The big difference was that Jimmy’s stories were true. Whenever we’d laugh doubtfully at some incident he’d puff on his cigar, lean back, and remember more details.

The taping took about three weeks. As we switched off the tape recorder after the last session, Jimmy said, “That’s it. Now you know me better than anyone.”

When Isaac and I returned to San Francisco to write the first draft, we figured our task was more than half completed; all that remained would be transcription and editing, with a minimum of reorganization. We worked steadily for six weeks, passing chapters back and forth, talking to Jimmy to fill in gaps. Toward the end of March we completed a manuscript that we thought needed only minor revisions before publication. We sent it to Jimmy for his comments, additions, and corrections.

Throughout the winter I spent a lot of time in San Jose. Several work sessions, more fooling around. Jimmy had planted a garden, and by chiding me enough he’d get me to do work with him. There was much more talk than labor; one time it took us three hours to rake the front lawn.

When he was working alone, though, Jimmy tackled that garden righteously. It was a great release for him, and led him to think about getting a farm. He subscribed to farm journals and catalogs of farms for sale. We talked about going in together to buy one in Sonoma—close enough for trips to the city.

Saturday, April 1st, Jimmy brought Betsy and Gea, the baby, up to the city. We’d finished the first draft a week earlier; he’d gone over it since and we were going to discuss it, but it was obvious when he arrived that he was in no mood to sit at a table and work all afternoon. He was wearing the black leather jacket he’d finally retrieved from County Jail, and he didn’t even take it off—just swept into the apartment bursting with energy, ready to step out.

“The book’s moving along real good . . . . I made a few notes . . . . We c’n deal with that later.” By now he’s pacing around, looking out the window. “Listen I haven’t been in this town since the day I got out—Let’s go fuck around.”

The four of us picked up Sally and drove to Golden Gate Park. It was a rare respite from the spring fog in the Sunset District: hot sun on wet grass in the playing-field meadow. We spread a blanket out, Gea crawled around; we’d catch her when she reached the edge and toss her into the air as she screamed with laughter. We all sat and soaked up the sun, then Jimmy and I sent each other on long runs after a wildly thrown frisbee.

At the end of the day, we made plans to meet soon and “really get some work done”; then Betsy and Jimmy had to go put the baby to bed.

On the morning of April 6th, the phone rang very early. It was Isaac. I was pissed off, figuring he’d disturbed me to ask some little question about the book or when I’d be over. “It better be good,” I mumbled.

“It’s bad.” He could barely talk. “The worst. Jimmy’s dead.”

I was completely lost. If I’d been able to think why this had happened, perhaps I could have handled it, had some preparation. But it was lightning from nowhere.

The phone rang again. It was a close friend of the family who’d done a lot to help Jimmy. He’d taken charge of the situation in San Jose. “I’ve called my office up there,” he said calmly, “and rented you a car. You can pick it up at eight.”

I thanked him and hung up. Now with a little business taken care of I was able to build up enough steam to move, and to call my family.

Somewhere on the way down I hardened myself up enough to help make things easier when I arrived.

By the time I reached San Jose, Jimmy had been dead two hours. The house was surrounded by police and filled with friends. Someone told us that Betsy and Joan were upstairs. We went up and fell together in a tearful embrace.

Later Joan told us what had happened. Jimmy had started doing construction work two days before. That morning, as on the previous days, he left the house at six forty-five to warm up his car. As he got in, two men rose from behind the other car in the driveway and shot him six times in the chest, then ran around the house and drove off. When she heard the shots, Betsy jumped up and started running upstairs for a gun, then realized it was over. Joan went outside and found Jimmy.

The killers were seen by several neighbors. By the time I’d reached San Jose, they had been arrested on Highway 101 heading south.

Two weeks before, someone had left Molotov cocktails in the bushes bordering the house, with an arrow drawn in the dirt pointing to the house. Jimmy hadn’t known why they were there or what he was supposed to do (or not do) about it. He’d called the police, who’d done nothing. They later found many such Molotovs in the killers’ car.

The two murderers, Lloyd Mims and Richard Rodriguez, were convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment. The State made a big point that they’d been hired, but never produced any evidence as to why or by whom. Perhaps no one will ever know. But we—Jimmy’s family and friends—think less about his murder, terrible as it was, than about the joyous fact that he lived, that he lived so well, and that he lived for a time with us.

Dan Hammer
San Francisco, 1974

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