Welcome to Otisville
By Jonathan Stone
Yisgadal v'yiskadash, shmei raba . . .
That's his cue.
B'alma divra chirutei . . .
The Mourner's Kaddish. His signal to alert the other guards that the morning service is coming to an end. The prisoners will be shifting into the yard. A few hanging back to chat with the rabbi.
B'agala u'vizman kariv, v'imru, ameyn.
This morning, fifteen of them, chanting it together. A minyan - at least ten males - is required for worship, according to Jewish religious law. But no more than twenty at one time, according to State of New York policy and Federal Bureau of Prisons guidelines.
Yisbarach v'yishtabach, v'yispa'ar v'yisromam . . .
At this point he can just about chant their prayer along with them. He's had the morning shift for six years now.
"Big Willie, you're like an honorary Jew!" Simon Nadler calls out to him with a big toothy smile. (Bank fraud, five years. Completely fictitious loan applications, fourteen million in loan approvals. The investigation turned up phony applications all the way back to his Wharton School admission.) "Join us anytime. You probably know the service as well as the rabbi at this point, eh, Rabbi?!"
The rabbi smiles gently. (Rabbi Morton Meyerson. Five years. Embezzled three and a half million from his New Jersey congregation. He's the minyan's spiritual leader. Their guide in worship and discussion.)
The fifteen of them, huddled together in their circle of metal chairs. Big Willie standing by the door all alone.
Their wild grey beards. Their round bellies. (Otisville Correctional, Otisville NY, is the only prison in the Federal system with a kosher deli, and these guys take full advantage: pastrami, corned beef, tongue, gefilte fish, blintzes, rugelach.) Big Willie would never say it out loud - he knows how it would make him sound, and he knows it probably says more about him than about them, but he can't help thinking it: Prison is making them all look more Jewish. Sound more Jewish. More like one another. Their intonations going up at the end of their sentences, everything a mild question, like nothing is definite. Maybe yes, maybe no. Like they still don't believe in the definiteness of their verdicts. Most of them have this constant look of amusement. Or contentment. Cheshire cat grins as if they got away with something. Like they're sharing in some mild, continual little joke. Like they're a bunch of mischievous kids at some fancy Jewish day school or sleepaway camp.
Other prisoners, when they get here, commit themselves to getting back in shape - weightlifting, exercise, working out, getting in the best shape of their lives. Not these guys.
V'yisnaseh, v'yis'hadar v'yis'aleh v'yis'halal sh'mei . . .
He watches them all praying, muttering, swaying forward, backward, and side-to-side in their metal folding chairs. Trying to impress who? The rabbi? Each other? God?
And when they're not praying, they're laughing. Telling dirty jokes. Tilting back in their metal chairs and philosophizing. He has to sit here and listen to it. He tries to tune it out. He tries to be invisible.
He's been a guard here at Otisville twenty years. Married, two kids. Steady paycheck, raises are built in unless you have a violation. Even in a government shutdown, prisons need guards. They get by on his pay - barely. They shuffle their credit cards. The bank called their home loan last year on a couple of late payments, but he worked it out with them. Both his kids are at SUNY. He keeps to himself. And keeps an eye on this morning's minyan, in their circle of folding chairs, going left to right:
Matt Sorcher (Four years. Founded a chain of tax return centers in strip malls on Long Island; discovered a way to funnel a portion of his clients' electronic refunds to his own bank account.)
Abe Rosen (Eighteen months. Art dealer; forgery of Old Masters paintings. Had archival photos of European nobles and Nazi officers holding the art. But the paintings were counterfeit, the photos were staged, and the nobles and the Nazis were hired actors.)
Saul Solomon (Eight years. Solomon Automotive Auctions; hired bidders to inflate sale prices on his Ferrari and Lamborghini collection, declared the inflated value, and then "suffered" - staged - a warehouse fire to collect the insurance value. The same Ferraris and Lambos showed up in the auction market years later with new serial numbers.)
Manny Levinson (Bribery, graft. Six years. Congressman from Queens. Jar of candies in his office. Literally a favor bank. When he invited you to take a candy, it signaled that he'd do the favor you asked, and when you brought a candy back to his jar, it signaled you were ready to pay him. Someone finally told the authorities that taking candy wasn't just taking candy.)
The cojones. The balls.
Twenty-six million. Ten million. Eighty million. Fraud numbers so large Big Willie can't really get his head around them. Standing here watching the minyan one morning, with his cellphone's calculator, he figured that at his salary - nine hundred and fifty a week, forty-nine thousand four hundred a year, call it fifty grand - it would take him sixty years to earn even the lowest amount that anyone here is convicted of stealing. And the higher amounts - say ten million - would take him around two hundred working lifetimes.
Oseh shalom bimromav, hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu . . .
Another time, watching them, he added up the total theft and fraud in the room. Two hundred and eighty million. Give or take. Definitely take. All take.
Rabbi Moshe Samuelson (Tax Evasion. Four years. Owned a chain of funeral homes. Had only one in ten bodies buried according to custom. Shipped the rest to a low-cost industrial oven facility for cremation, allowing him to re-use coffins, shuffle burial plots, save on corpse storage, and skim millions. Violated Jewish, federal, and state law all at once. His sixteen children - sixteen! - come to visit him every Wednesday. The younger ones gather around his shoes and knees, as he tells them a Bible story, which they discuss afterward.)
Two rabbis here. Meyerson who runs the service is Reform. Has a degree in psychology. Samuelson is ultra-Orthodox. Looks down on Meyerson as not really a Jew at all. Two rabbis. Which originally stunned Big Willie almost as much as the two hundred and eighty million fraud figure, but now doesn't surprise him at all.
Dr. Phil Steinerman (Seven years. Chain of blood-testing labs across Miami Dade County that weren't testing much blood. Another doctor eventually noticed that dozens of his patients were receiving precisely the same blood test results.)
Marty Adler (Nine years. President and COO of three successful family businesses. A parking garage empire. A Honda dealership. A Pepsi bottling plant. Marty managed to marry into all three of the families - no law against that, except if you do it at the same time. Three loving spouses, in three different cities. Finally discovered at a bar mitzvah whose guest list included two of the wives.)
Greg Lerner (Ten years. Stockbroker to the stars. Took thirty mil all told from his clients. Moved money out of their accounts without their knowledge into exotic investments pretty sure to lose money - air rights in western American cities, treasure-diving expeditions - then harvested the tax losses and took the write-offs for himself, something Big Willie doesn't even pretend to understand. Invested several clients in a new Caribbean island resort development that GPS revealed to be nothing but ocean. That part Big Willie can follow.)
V'al kol yisrael, v'imru, ameyn.
Mourner's Kaddish. And sure, they're all mourning. But commemorating departed family members like you're supposed to? Come on. They're mourning the sentences they got. Mourning the one dumb little mistake they made to get caught.
To Big Willie, the dirty little secret is that they're pretty happy here. Sure, they're caught, they're broke, their assets are pretty much gone. They're outcasts in their own communities. But here at Otisville, they're comfortable. They're with their peeps. For a lot of them, at this point in their broken lives, there's no place they'd rather be. Only a handful of people in the world really understand what they've been through - only a handful of people have been through it too - and at Otisville, they're literally surrounded by those people. People who get them, who can truly understand - every day, all day.
He's no shrink, but here's how he sees it: All of them did what they did because in some way they didn't feel good enough. Not rich enough, not successful enough, not secure enough, not in control enough. And when they did what they did, they had to keep it a secret, right? The more people you tell, the more you risk being caught, so generally they were keeping it a secret, and that was lonely, anxious, nerve-racking. But now that they're caught, now that they're here, the truth is out, and the loneliness is gone; they're with their own, and they no longer feel like outcasts.
And by the time their sentences end - five years, eight years, nine years (all Otisville sentences are ten years or less) - the world will have pretty much forgotten, and they'll be a long time out of the news. Maybe even forgotten enough to scam the world again.
Meanwhile, plenty of bagels and brisket, plenty of good company, plenty of storytelling. They look all sorrowful and remorseful when visitors come, but behind closed prison doors, they're having a pretty good time.
The Mourner's Kaddish? Big Willie smirks: some of them are already mourning the day their sentence ends.
The Mourner's Kaddish? They're pretty damn happy as they chant it.
"Come on, have a seat, Big Willie," says Simon Nadler again. "Take a load off, you know we're not gonna bolt for the door." They ask him to join them, and they know he won't. They know he can't. So they get to have it both ways. They get to look good for being friendly, inviting him, trying to include him, but they know he'll never be in the club. Even if he was to go over and sit with them and be part of the service, he's not in the club. They know it, and he knows it. He's kind of a loner anyway, and this guard duty, watching them, just reinforces it. With all their friendliness toward him, they get to look good to themselves and to each other.
They tease him about being a Gentile - "Big Willie, you're a Size XL goy!" - and about his measly paycheck, and about his believing in heaven and hell, but they also ask him about his kids, and give him financial advice. So they get to be assholes, but they get to be good guys - they get to have it both ways.
Same thing with his nickname, in a way. You'd think it comes from him being six-foot-five, two hundred and sixty pounds, so they can't help but imagine his big wiener, right? So maybe his nickname is their way of trying to get comfortable with that. Flattering him, buttering him up, to bring him down to size. But here's the thing. He's five-ten. A hundred and sixty pounds. Smaller and lighter than most of the other guards, but normal-sized. So okay, "Big Willie" is ironic. Then is the nickname supposed to be only about his wiener? Which they've never seen, and which is as normal-sized as he is? This is the kind of shit they've got him thinking about, as he stands there watching them, listening to that prayer, and keeping an eye on their morning service.
Lately, they've been tossing around ideas for a new nickname. Not for him. For a new inmate who's arriving shortly. The Minyan is trying out nicknames aloud, to hear how they sound. Trying to one-up each other, to see which nickname will stick.
"The Cashmere Canary."
"The Songbird Nerd."
"The Songbird Turd."
"The Mouth from the South." (Meaning New York City, Big Willie knows: seventy-five miles downstate from here.)
"The Tasselled Tenor."
"The Rat Man of Seventh Avenue."
A pretty clear theme to them all. Someone who squealed. Who snitched. In normal prison culture, a snitch is the lowest of the low. A known snitch would be doomed already, about to be kicked, shivved, ready to meet his Maker, if he were coming to prison. But Otisville doesn't have a normal prison culture, and the guy who's coming is a celebrity snitch, and if you're a celebrity, it cancels out everything else. Like in the world beyond prison: if you're a celeb, nothing else much matters.
"The Unruly Stooly."
"The Fink Who Got Ink."
"The Opera Star."
"What's a pisk?" Big Willie asks Nadler.
"Yiddish for mouth. A loudmouth. A blabbermouth." Nadler smiles at Big Willie. Perfect, isn't it? thinks Big Willie. Yiddish for Mouth. Couldn't be simpler. A nickname understood only by The Minyan, a custom nickname that's theirs alone. Big Willie senses already that it's going to be the winner.
The Pisk, who didn't make a quick perp walk with his face hidden under a raincoat like the rest of The Minyan, but instead strutted around on national TV for weeks, climbing into and out of cabs in his loud sport coat, going in and out of that gleaming Fifth Avenue headquarters.
The Pisk, whose confession wasn't in front of an annoyed judge in an empty courtroom like the rest of theirs, but instead in front of millions of viewers. To half the country, a devil in a dark suit. To the other half, a possible savior. Hah! How'd that turn out?
The Pisk asked for Otisville, the Jewish prison. Known for its Sabbath services and kosher menu by just a small circle of prosecutors and defense attorneys. But suddenly, Otisville is in the spotlight, too.
And will The Pisk get beaten up? Shivved? Get real. They've already got a folding chair saved for him at morning prayers.
Stepping right out of the national news, off the national stage, into a cell at Otisville. Because he's one of them.
Big Willie had watched the Minyan all listening silently to his testimony. Heads tilted up, as if to heaven, at the TVs mounted high on the dayroom wall.
Not caring what The Pisk said so much - whatever the mix of truth, lies, shades of grey - as who was saying it, and how he said it.
Like a guy they knew. A guy from down the street. A guy at the next table in some overpriced New York steakhouse.
Squirming, blustering, bragging.
In the context of Otisville, a totally unremarkable guy.
Arriving from a totally remarkable situation.
Welcome to Otisville.