The Time I Went to Trenton State Prison

prison1I was reminded today of the time I applied for a job as corrections officer at the Trenton State Prison. What reminded me was the news that people who had done well on certain written tests in the early 1960s were less likely to be suffering from dementia today than those who had done badly. “That’s a good thing,” I thought to myself. “I’ve always done well on tests. Probably I’m safe from losing my wits in my rapidly approaching old age.”

Of course, doing well on tests didn’t always mean that I had good sense. There was one test I took that I hadn’t any business taking to begin with, and the fact that I did well on it caused a lot of trouble.

It was 1974. I was a single mother of two boys, making $4750 a year as a clerk in a stationery store in Trenton, New Jersey, weighing in at 107 pounds due to poverty, misery, and general lack of appetite. Meanwhile the State, that source of infinite bounty, issued a fat book every month filled with remunerative jobs. All one had to do was qualify for them.

I didn’t have a bachelor’s degree then, nor was I proficient in typing and shorthand. But I was good at taking tests. So when the State employment book announced a walk-in test for Corrections Officer, no qualifications needed, salary $8500 a year, I hustled right down to the old Arnold Constable building and took the test.

I forget what the questions were, something along the lines of, “When an inmate gets out of line, should you hit him? how hard? or should you try reasoning sweetly with him?” It seemed easy enough, and indeed I aced it, as we used to say, coming in third of all the people—let’s face it, most of them were men—who took the test. Mired as I was in my own troubles, I did not realize that this was the first time the position of Corrections Officer had been offered to women, that it had been offered to women because a new law said it had to be, and that the people who hired Corrections Officers did not want women. Civil Service regulations mandated that whenever a new employee was hired, the first three candidates to place well on the test had to be considered.

As a result the post card arrived at my door, the one that the State used to send out for job interviews. Report to the Trenton State Prison on Saturday morning, it said. Oh, boy! $8500 a year!

The prison atmosphere seemed curiously familiar. It smelled like the gym at North Plainfield High School. So I sort of felt at home. I entered a large room full of tables and chairs with a ladder running up the middle into a opening in the ceiling. On the left was a counter behind thick bulletproof glass, and behind the glass was the only woman in sight. She greeted me and gave me some papers to fill out, sliding them through the slot under the glass. I found a seat at one of the tables among a sea of young men and began to fill them out. $8500 a year. Whoopee.

As I labored on my papers I was dimly aware of an officer announcing that the first group of men must line up and go downstairs for a physical. I thought, “You don’t suppose I’m going to have to—nah.” But before I could start worrying about that, three uniformed Corrections Officers came running into the room carrying shotguns and swarmed up the ladder that led to the roof. I was alarmed to see the way they carried their shotguns as they followed each other up the ladder. It seemed to me that the slightest jostling might cause them to blow each other’s behinds off. Careless. Would I really be safe, working with these people?

A murmur went around the room. “Molloy is out.” “Oh, Christ. Molloy.” “He killed a guard last year.” The officers disappeared through the hole.

“Well, that’s interesting,” I thought, and turned my attention back to the employment form. About then a little red-headed fellow in uniform came over and addressed me by name, inviting me to come with him to a desk in the corner. Ah. Special treatment.

“I wonder,” he said, addressing me by name again, “whether you understand what this job actually involves.”

I smiled and nodded. $8500 a year.

“This is the Trenton State Prison. The worst bad guys in the state of New Jersey are locked up here.”

Well, I thought, they could hardly be any worse-behaved than my boys.

“You would have to strip search them. You would have to take them to the showers.”

At last the penny dropped. “You don’t think I would be right for this job,” I said.

“I would never say that,” he said. “But if you think that’s true, would you mind signing this release?” and he handed me a pen.

So there went my dream of wealth and prosperity. Fortunately I was able to land another State job a few months later as a clerk-bookkeeper, saving us all from starvation. A story for another day.

Clean Sweep

Last month I tidied the attic/guest room once again to prepare for visiting guests. This time instead of the usual job, where I gather everything and stuff it into the cupboard under the eaves, I gathered everything, took it down to the second floor, and crammed it all into my office. Armload after armload. It took a couple of days.

And this time it isn’t going back. The showdown is now, today. It’s me or my stuff. Thirty-three years we’ve been living in this house, maybe thirty-four, during which time we’ve raised a child and showered him with toys, taken up and dropped a number of hobbies, inherited more stuff, written a number of books and saved all the notes and the foul matter (as the publishers call the old galleys and whatnot), and put everything we didn’t know what to do with in the attic. Harold has been more disciplined about getting rid of things than I have. If I didn’t watch him he would throw out my stuff.

But I can do this. Death cleaning, the Swedes call it.

I hardly sew anymore, and yet I have bushels of yard goods. I’m thinking I’ll make maybe two more projects plus some things for the church.  Saturday is flea market day at St. Andrew’s. If you’re looking for interesting yard goods you will find them there.  Also yarn. Maybe even knitting needles. So that’s one class of stuff I’m getting rid of: craft supplies. The end of an era, folks.

Still, I’m going to hang on to the art materials.  I might paint some little pictures, maybe make another puppet or two. And I can’t bring myself to get rid of the toys, We do have visiting children from time to time.

But the papers–!

The wretched papers. For the old bank records I’m going to crank up the shredder, even though those banks no longer exist under those names and the account numbers on the charge accounts were changed every six months due to somebody hacking the bank’s databases. Shred the old bank records! Shred the old gas bills!

Probably I won’t shred the old galleys. I’m too vain for that. Besides, my first editor, Ray Roberts of Little Brown, told me to keep that stuff. He thought I would eventually be famous. In the old days one’s editor got excited about one’s work and prospects.


The most interesting item I found while clearing out the attic shelves was a box of papers that I can’t recall ever seeing before labeled, in my handwriting, “Kate’s Grandparents’ Things.” I opened it up to discover a jumble of folded papers, some of them dating back to the early nineteenth century. Deeds, grants of land, grocery bills. How elegant was the handwriting of the ancestors, with their quill pens and oak gall ink.

And more recent things as well. A program from my high school graduation. A book of half-used ration coupons with my grandmother’s name on it. Then, mixed up among these antique documents, the letters my father wrote to my mother the year before they were married. In the depth of the Great Depression the Sullivan Machinery Company sent him all over the east coast selling rock drills and drill bits. He was sad to be so far away from his dearest, my mother. He wrote all the time, every letter on the stationery of a different hotel. It would break your heart. He wasn’t sure that Sullivan would even give him time off to attend his own wedding. But they did, luckily, and it took place, and here I am after their long life together, happy ever after, cleaning my office.