A few minutes before Grace Plummer died, she remembered that someone other than the regulars at the Moire Club had called her Amazing Grace. She was drifting, conscious of the blood-slick leather upholstery underneath her, vaguely wondering about the dim dome light overhead. What did it illumine, there in the back seat? Other, disconnected thoughts floated in and out – who had sung the Witch in Hansel & Gretel at the opera last season? “Who’s that mousey/nibbling at my housey?” the Witch sang. And was it cinnamon or something else with a “c” – cloves, cardamon, on top of the tiny holiday pastries her grandmother made. She didn’t really struggle for the answers to these questions, she felt a little pleasant disconnect, like breathing deeply of nitrous oxide, feeling pain, but not really caring about what hurt or why. Or who was doing the hurting. But it was a surprise, wasn’t it? The hurtful one. And then, she remembered – it was cardamon, for sure, and with that the image of her grandmother, tall, shoulders back, one beautiful white braid wound round her head, teasing her, “Come, try one more, Amazing Gracie, just one more bite of the kuchen. And then, she was gone.
Chapter 1--The Gasworks Gang
Here’s a piece of useful fashion advice: Don’t wear a metal underwire bra if you’re visiting San Quentin. They’ll turn you away at the jailhouse door, when the underwire sends the metal detector into overdrive. And you can’t just take the bra off, because braless ladies are not allowed inside. Those are just a few of the things I learned when I found myself in the middle of an attempt to spring an innocent man from Death Row.
It all started when I took a break from doing a bookshelf purge in our family room, slapped the dust from my hands, poured a cup of coffee and sat down with the Wall Street Journal. Love that paper. Their editorials suck, since they perversely take political sides in opposition to my own, but wow, what great writing. The WSJ, as we fans call it, goes in for stubbornly conservative editorials, whereas I, a journalistic giant myself, as editor of San Francisco’s trendy, superficial, but oh-so-readable city magazine, Small Town , am an unreconstructed, kneejerk liberal. Sitting there, surrounded by bags and boxes of books, slated to go directly to the book drive at our sons’ school, I began reading a front-page story about publishers sending remaindered books to prisons. Inmates, with time on their hands, and a less-than-great selection on the prison library shelves, regularly write to publishers and ask for their overstock to be donated. “Most grievously word-hungry,” read the Journal, “are the Death Row inmates with their segregated, pitifully stocked library.”
I lowered the paper and surveyed the family room floor. Books, books, and more books. Bags and boxes of books. “Hey, babies,” I said softly. “You’re going to jail.”
Within a few minutes, I had a polite community affairs officer at San Quentin on the phone.
“Bags of books,” he said patiently, “You want to bring me bags of books?”
“Right,” I said, “for the Death Row Library.”
He sighed. “Wall Street Journal article?”
“Right again,” I said.
“Prison,” my husband, Michael corrected me that evening when I told him where our extra books were going. “Jail’s where you go to wait, prison’s where you end up. There’s a more technical explanation, but it’s more than you need to know.”
“What does a tax lawyer know about jail or prison?” I asked.
“Where do you think tax evaders go?” he countered.
“Congress,” I said, “Maybe the White House. Corner office in some Fortune 500 company.”
“Very amusing, Maggie. Did those bleeding-heart criminal defense Gasworks chicks put this idea in your head?”
“They did not,” I said indignantly. “I read an article in the Wall Street Journal. But Gasworks, that’s a great idea. I’ll bet they can cut through some of this red tape for me.” The Gasworks Gang was an ad hoc group of stay-at-home mommy-lawyers who handle death penalty appeals. Since the community affairs officer at San Quentin had been less than enthusiastic about my proposal to bring those bags of books over to the Death Row Library and personally stock the shelves, I knew I’d need some insider help getting access.
“I know the Dewey Decimal System,” I had burbled over the phone. “I worked as a library aide at St. Agnes High School.”
“Well, now, Mrs. Fiori,” he began, “you have to understand that we have procedures....” which roughly translated into, “Okay, lady, drop your books at the gate, get on with your sweet suburban life, and keep your friggin’ Dewey Decimal system to yourself.”
Oddly enough, Michael raised that very question.
“Maggie, why can’t you just drop off those books at the guard gate? You don’t have to turn this into ‘Avon calling’ on Death Row, do you?”
I was silent.
“Cara?” prompted Michael, “what are you up to?” He used Italian endearments primarily when he felt I wasn’t listening to him.
“I’m just curious,” I said. “I’ve lived in the Bay Area almost 20 years and I’ve never been to San Quentin.”
“It’s not a tourist attraction,” he said.
“Well, I know...” I vacillated. “This whole thing about books and --”
“And felons. Killers,” Michael completed my sentence.
“Books and desperate people,” I said. “It interests me. Maybe there’s a story.”
Michael sighed. “Well, maybe,” he said. “But they’re not going to let you take a little library cart around so you can interview these guys. Which is,” he added, “a big relief to me.”
But Michael had planted the Gasworks Gang idea in my head, and it seemed like precisely the access I might need. I had discovered the group via Edgar “the Invincible” Inskeep, a ruthless and very successful criminal attorney. We’d met when Michael introduced him to our friend, and my former managing editor, Glen. There had been that awful mess when Glen had confessed to murdering our former, joint boss, Quentin Hart, the late, great editor of Small Town. Edgar had, in turn, introduced me to his wife, also a criminal attorney. Unlike her money-grubbing husband who defended drug dealers, society batterers and their ilk for big bucks, Eleanor Inskeep was a public defender. Like many other women, when she became a mom, she looked for more flexible ways to run her professional life. She began doing death penalty appeals. But it’s lonely, isolating work. To her surprise, she kept bumping into other new moms who were doing the same – and feeling the same. Ninety percent of the time, you’re researching and writing, all alone by the computer and the phone. No more offices full of gossipy colleagues, willing to dish fellow members of the criminal bar or commiserate when the same clients showed up for 1, 2, and then 3 strikes. Even your clients don’t call – or at least, not often. And when they do, it’s collect.
In the process of thanking Edgar profusely for mitigating Glen’s troubles, I’d made one of those “anything I can do for you” offers we all live to regret.
“Yeah,” he said, “take my wife out to lunch. She’s going stircrazy home with the new baby and she’s taken up with a posse of other new moms,
death-penalty types. I think they’re up to no good.”
Eleanor was delighted to go out for lunch, especially when I dispatched Anya, our live-in, Scandinavian art student/au pair to babysit.
“Lunch?” she said, “and you’re sending a babysitter? You’re my new best friend.”
She explained Gasworks to me over sanddabs and Chardonnay at Tadich’s. Tadich’s is a long wooden bar and boothy, clubby-looking San Francisco fish house, where they put mashed potatoes in the tartar sauce and the waiters are all old enough to have been honourably discharged after the War of 1812.
“Hope it’s not too noisy,” I said when we sat down. She waved her hand at the room, “An entire dining-room full of people who aren’t eating rice cereal? This is my idea of heaven.”
“So, tell me about Gasworks. What is it and why is it?”
“Okay, first there’s the isolation of being a new mom, “ Eleanor began. “Nobody but your little bundle of ‘sacred precious’ to talk to most of the day, baby spit-up on all your clothes, tender boobs, and when you look past those little rivulets of stretch marks on your tummy, down to your legs, you can’t for the life of you think when -- or if -- you’ll ever get around to finding that Lady Schick again.”
“I remember,” I said grimly.
“But then,” she continued, warming to her rant, “you’re a trained professional, you’re a criminal defense lawyer. So, you’re trying to hold on to your career self-respect and bring some money in, so you agree to accept death penalty appeals.” She buttered her sourdough with more vigor than necessary.
“No kidding. It takes months and years and the only people you talk to have bad news and horrible stories. Investigators who keep turning up tales of hellish childhoods, social workers who want to let you know that your client’s mother just died and that her deathbed wish was that you ‘take care of her boy.’”
“Holy shit,” I said politely.
Eleanor’s eyes brimmed. “I was nursing Tyler when I got that particular call from the social worker.” She swallowed. “I looked down at him and thought: once upon a time my awful, terrible, pathetic, dumbass violent client was somebody’s baby. Once upon a time he was innocent.” She took a big sip of Chardonnay.
“Plus, you know, all that post-partum emotional stuff. I was falling apart. That’s when I got on the phone and started calling around to my old buddies in the Women Defenders.”
“Women Defenders? They sound like superheroes.”
She laughed, “Well, we think we are. It’s a statewide group of women members of the criminal defense bar. Anyway, within a few days, I’d assembled six of us who were new moms and all did death penalty appeals. And that’s how the Gasworks got its start.”
“And the name?”
“Come on, Maggie,” Eleanor said, “surely it hasn’t been that long since you had babies. What did you obsess about?”
“Getting back into size 8.”
“No, I mean about the babies?”
“Oh, colic, poop, and naps.”
“Exactly,” she said. “So, at our first meeting we realized that we were talking about gas, gas, and more gas.”
“Yuk,” I said.
“Yeah, well, that’s how it goes with new moms. We’re lousy conversationalists. Plus, there’s the fact that we stop combing our hair and putting on socks that match, and we’re not even all that interested in getting laid. Who’s got gas? Who hasn’t? What do you do about it? And then, before lethal injections came along, what was the execution mode du jour at San Quentin?”
“The gas chamber?”
“Right. So, we decided we were the Gasworks Gang. And that,” she said, “was that.”
After my lunch with Eleanor, I assigned a writer to research a feature on the Gang for Small Town. I sent Calvin Bright, my favorite photographer, and willing sidekick during my debut days as an amateur sleuth after Quentin’s death, to shoot one of their meetings. He swore it was one of his best assignments.
He showed up, contact sheets in sweaty hand, and delivered nonstop commentary as Linda Quoc, Small Town’s art director, and I looked through the shots.
“Those women are fine, fine, superfine,” he said.
“They do very good work,” I agreed. “It’s thankless, but somebody’s got to do it.”
“Oh, loosen up, Mags. I mean, that was one sexy group of broads.”
“They’re all new moms, Calvin. Have a little respect. Plus, didn’t they look awful? Circles under their eyes and everything?”
“I don’t care. All those hormones in one room, all that ‘fullness-of-womanhood’ shit, cooing over each other’s babies....”
“Unbuttoning to breastfeed,” Linda Quoc added drily.
“Yeah,” said Calvin, “that too. Icing on the cake. Really, I think we ought to do a once-a-month follow-up for a while.”
Linda and I exchanged glances. “Get out, Calvin,” I said, “you’ve got the mind of a lecher and the maturity of a 12-year-old.”
“And that,” said Calvin, on the way out the door, “is why you girls find me so irresistible.”
The Gasworks piece was a big hit in the magazine, and Eleanor and I became friends. So now all these many months later, it was my turn to call for help. The Gasworks Gang, with their up-close-and-personal relationship with San Quentin, seemed like the perfect way to make sure my books got delivered to the Death Row Library.
When Eleanor answered the phone, I explained my request.
“Bring your books over,” she invited promptly. “There’s somebody in our group who wants to meet you anyway.”
“Advice on criminals or colic?” I said.
“Something weird has come up,” she said.
“Isabella Fuentes, she’s the member who wants to meet you, she’s got an innocent client on Death Row.”
I laughed, “Hey, Eleanor, isn’t that what they all claim?”
“I’m not kidding, Maggie,” she answered. “I don’t mean legally innocent; I mean really innocent.”
“Yeah,” she said
seriously, “it’s one-of-a-kind. We need some ink.”
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