I called Joyce near the Bull's Head Road exit--the place where we used to get off the Taconic to visit her aunt and uncle, both now deceased, who'd lived in Stanfordville, where he was a country lawyer; she taught at Bennett College, now defunct, in Millbrook. I always call Joyce there when I'm traveling down the Taconic toward home ... I'm a romantic cuss, you know? I told her that day that I was thinking of coming straight home; she told me I'd regret missing the sites I'd been talking about. She was right--as usual. So on I drove ... toward Ossining ... and Cheever ... and (although I did not know it at the time) prison.
I wrote the story of my adventure in prison as part of a speech I delivered on 28 May 2011 at Western Reserve Academy for their Senior Celebration program the weekend of commencement. I've pasted that story below ...
Late last June, I was in New York, in Sing Sing Prison. It was an accident. I was innocent, mostly.
It certainly began innocently enough: I’d been in Lenox, Massachusetts, visiting my mom, who was about to turn 91 years of age. After a couple of days helping her with a few things, I drove home via New York to see some literary and historical sites on the outskirts of the city. Some were related to the infamous Maj. John Andre, a British officer who had helped American officer Benedict Arnold betray the Revolution.
But some local New York militiamen nabbed Andre, turned him over to Gen. George Washington, camped nearby, who subsequently ordered his hanging. And there—in Tappan, New York, site of the execution—stands a memorial I wanted to see because in his celebrated story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” Washington Irving mentions Maj. Andre several times. I wanted some photographs to show my students.
|Cheever & friend|
The other stop was Ossining, New York, the home of novelist and short-story writer John Cheever. (And, yes, also the home of Sing Sing Prison.) Cheever, who died in 1982 (his ninety-ninth birthday was yesterday!), won both the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and lived the last twenty of his seventy years in a comfortable house in Ossining. I’d recently finished reading all of Cheever’s work, and now I wanted to see that house. I had the name of his street; I had GPS; I had my camera; I was pumped!
In Ossining, a town of about 24,000 on the Hudson River, I stopped for coffee downtown, then headed out to find Cheever’s house. But I got twisted around a little—some one-way streets sending me in directions I’d not anticipated, my slacker GPS failing to find me. And the next thing I knew, I was on some kind of service road—and, looming right ahead: Sing Sing Prison. In a moment I realized I’d blundered into an employee parking lot.
Sing Sing. A maximum-security prison. Opened in 1826. Thirty-one miles up the Hudson River from New York City—the source, by the way, of our expression sent up the river. There, in 1953, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, convicted of turning over atomic bomb secrets to the Soviets, died in the electric chair. Sing Sing. Now the long-term home for murderers, rapists, druggies, and other desperadoes and dangerous dudes. A sort of highly selective boarding school, with no mixers or senior privileges or parietals or pranks or proms.
Well, John Cheever, later in his life, taught some writing classes to inmates at Sing Sing—and used those experiences to inform his bestselling prison novel Falconer. So I thought, chirpily: Hey, as long as I’m here, I’ll snap a few pictures of the prison, then go find Cheever’s house. So I hopped out of the car, moved a little closer, took a few photos, turned, and then …
I looked around.
You—there by the gate! Stop right there! Just FREEZE— And, yes, the word freeze was followed by a very disrespectful compound noun of address.
Armed guards. Running toward me, one barking into a two-way radio. I froze. Then, shuffling, inched toward them. What the hell are you DOING? one demanded, and the others opened the gate and ushered me onto the actual prison grounds. In a moment I’d been frisked, relieved of my camera and ID, taken to … well … the admissions office. Where no one smiled—or offered me coffee and cookies and a brochure about the challenging college-prep curriculum.
I’m a high school English teacher? I offered pathetically. Like a frightened fourth grader caught with a classmate’s missing juice-box, I was putting a question mark at the end of every sentence. The writer John Cheever? He used to teach classes here? To the inmates? I just wanted some pictures? To show my students ...?
A stern and stocky guard interrupted me: That won’t cut it! he barked.
I’m sorry? I whimpered.
That won’t cut it, either, growled a woman built like a Super Bowl linebacker.
Uncertain of just what would “cut it,” I fell silent.
Well, eventually, after some phone calls and some huffing and puffing and some snorts of disbelief at every single word I said, they concluded I was not masterminding a prison break—though they did make me delete my prison pictures (later, I found some much better ones on Google), told me never to come back unless I wanted to move in, escorted me to my car, then followed me in a dark, disturbing van for a mile or so as I, trembling, drove off in search of Cheever’s house …
… which I never found.
It was probably up one of the numerous long winding private drives I saw on his road—but I’d lost all interest in exploring them. I was picturing myself back in Sing Sing, this time not as a day student but a boarder. And did I just see that dark, disturbing van in my rear-view mirror? So I pointed my Toyota west—headed for Ohio and Hudson and home and humility.