If you’re still reminiscing about a high school field trip almost 30 years after your permission slip was signed, it was probably a pretty sweet field trip.
My Sociology class got to go to Rahway State Prison, circa 1989. It was so awesome, I went again the next year, when I wasn’t even in the proper class.
In the late 1990s, the grittiest show on cable television was Oz; HBO’s first one-hour drama.
I was an aspiring stage actor at the time, so I appreciated Oz for the incredible performances and cast, not so much the man-rape and spiteful killing. Oz was a decent show before it devolved into a formula- new inmate enters the prison, changing the dynamic among the prisoners dramatically… for around ten minutes, before the new inmate is murdered randomly. Because, you know, that’s how it works in prison. How else can the administration act frustrated about the futility of their lives? (Again, this was a powerhouse of a TV show as far as actors went.)
Oz was represented in physical form by Rahway State Prison. The interiors were obviously a soundstage, or a decommissioned prison where filming could be safely accomplished. You could place your tongue on any surface in Oz’s “Emerald City”. Rahway? Don’t even open your mouth.
I hadn’t seen Scared Straight! in high school, so Rahway filled that role for me. Once our group of students was safely seated opposite a line of ten “Lifers”, they were asked to call out the reason for their incarceration. One after another, they said “murder, murder, murder”. One guy was such a terrifying, gargantuan berserker that I instinctively memorized his name: Christopher DeLuise.
He made such an impression, without moving a muscle, that I remembered his name when I happened to see him in Scared Straight ’99, on MTV. In 1999.
One of our chaperones on the trip was Mr. Butler, a proper, silver-haired man, who maybe appeared a touch more like Paul Lynde in the presence of these murderous monsters. We all looked like weaklings by comparison. After the Lifers had each imparted the wisdom of their own experiences, Mr. Butler was clearly moved by their effort, and stated that he wished that we could give them something in return.
As I desperately stifled snickers, Mr. Butler, a genteel and erudite teacher from my school, told a group of men serving life sentences in prison, in front of a class of students, “Something’s ass-backwards.”
I still can’t believe it. If I wrote that into a story, no one else would either.
Another chaperone was Miss Kalebic, who was young and blond, so we just assumed we’d have to rebuff the advances of horny jailbirds, with our inherent high-schooler bravado.
When our tour rolled through “Gen Pop”, Miss Kalebic at the lead, the first catcall we heard was “Hey red-shirt!”, bellowed by an inmate at my friend Steve. Steve was wearing a red shirt, like a doomed crew member on Star Trek.
The inmates didn’t seem to notice Miss Kalebic at all. It only seasoned the confusion of the afternoon.
On the floor of Rahway’s common halls, there were cones just under a foot high, here and there, composed of some horrid black-and-yellow jelly. We didn’t go near them, and to this day I don’t know what they were. They smelled atrocious, and we joked on the bus ride home that they were “piles of piss”. This is where the oxymoronic epithet “piles of piss” comes from, in my personal lexicon. For some people, it’s the only appropriate insult.