Welcome to the Monkey Pit

Perhaps you think that it is all gaiety and horseplay here at Washburn Central, that it is only because life is one big lark to me that I am so able to heap humorous shitloads of disdain upon the unworthy. It is an easy thing to triumph in the summer's sun and in the vintage and to sing on the wagon loaded with corn dogs. It is an easy thing to laugh at wrathful elements, to hear the dog howl at the wintry door, the ox in the slaughterhouse moan. It is an easy thing to rip these lines off unnoticed from William Blake, since schools only turn out Friends-watching business machines now. It is an easy thing to rejoice in the tents of prosperity. Thus could I sing and thus rejoice: but it is not so with me.

Rather, I spend a goodsome part of my day staring into the pit of despair.

For those of you without a pit of despair in your home, let me describe it for you. It's really not so deep. You can see the bottom. It's curved, like a swimming pool's. What it looks the most like is the sort of trench they used to have at zoos to keep the animals separate from us, except it is pitty instead of trenchy.

One of my more troubling childhood memories is of being at the LA Zoo and seeing a baboon down in the pit, scrounging for the human food there—candied apples, drying ice cream sandwiches and such. It had evidently swallowed a big wad of chewing gum on a previous foray, as it was fruitlessly trying to tug long strands of it from its pomegranate-hued butt. While the average 7-year-old would be thinking, "Ha, haw" and looking for some more gum to feed it, I was depressed, sensing even then that this was somehow symbolic of man's place in the greater scheme of things. Plato had his cave; I have a monkey pit.

It is there that I repair when life seems particularly devoid of ludic splendor. Sometimes it takes field trips with me. For instance, I spent a chunk of a recent Sunday walking around the Doheny Blues Fest in my own personal gloom. There's Mavis Staples singing "I'll Take You There." There's the Pacific Ocean. There's gloomy me, walking about thinking, "Oh, what a tragic figure I must cut," while anyone else who notices is merely remarking, "Look—that baboon has gum coming out of his ass."

Why so down? I dunno. It's just mundane white-guy stuff, nothing like turning 18 in a stinking hot Central Valley prison for a crime I didn't commit or anything.

I left the fest and headed to the Swallows, where Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts made me happy. They'd done something like a seven-hour gig there the night before for San Juan's big chili cook-off, and they were wasted. They are musicians, so of course they are pathetic. There's no respect or money in music. You probably tip your masseuse more than one of these guys gets paid for playing.

And they make me happy. There's anger and joy and all the other real things in their music. When they play, that's their day you're hearing up there. If Gaffney's hit his ankle with a sledgehammer at his construction job that morning, you'll hear it in his voice. If there's even more bite than usual in Danny Ott's guitar fills, look to his lovingly restored, just-totaled old Volvo. The band has an alchemy that transmutes crap into gold, taking the stuff that can drive you mad and instead driving it ahead of them into a better kind of madness. You could send this band to hell and they'd be okay as long as they still got to play.

They were in a particularly loopy mood on this evening, doing songs that one suspects they'd never even thought about previously, much less rehearsed, and doing them with a loose yet frenzied passion. Gaffney has a voice like a gored rodeo clown, like wet/dry sandpaper doused in whiskey, like George Jones' hair tonic poured down Eric Burdon's throat. He's pretty good. Before they were done, he and the Cold Hard Facts had me laughing out loud over the sheer crash-car joy of their music.

On Sunday, he's playing a benefit show at the Galaxy Concert Theatre for Arthur Carmona, with Esai Morales, 00 Soul, Throw Rag and some other bands who I'm sure are all the better for my never having heard of them. It is hosted by the Weekly's own Commie Girl. You should go is what you should do.

You want to know what's pathetic? On the local music scene, journalists reviewing a show are often better-paid than the musicians playing it. Yet musicians are always the first ones hit upon to help others in these benefits, and they usually do.

The performers don't know Carmona. They only know what we do from the newspapers: that he's a good kid who had the bad luck to be Latino and ensnared by a justice system in which prosecutors care less about justice than expedience and a snazzy conviction rate. (If you have any doubts about doubting Carmona's guilt, check out Bob Emmers' excellent OC Weekly story "The Kid Is Innocent" online; go to our website at www.ocweekly.com, and type "Carmona" into the search engine.)

He had just turned 16 when he was arrested and was sentenced to a term only four years shorter than the total time he'd been alive. So Carmona did turn 18 in a stinking hot Central Valley prison for a crime it's damn unlikely he committed. Now there is something worth getting depressed about.

Even if he had been guilty, 16-year-olds don't deserve that kind of time for anything but the cruelest crimes, and even then it's as much a shame upon our society as upon the kid. Sure, I believe in individual responsibility, but I also believe that when a society is so out-of-whack that there's more profit in punishing kids than in educating and helping them, we're just getting what we ask for.

Criminalizing kids helps no one except those who profit by building and servicing prisons. A kid would have to be a saint to come out of prison after 12 years and not be a screwed-up, bitter, hard case of an adult. And that's just what we are creating, at a cost of some $21,470 per year for every incarcerated citizen.

Carmona has already been inside for two years and, by all accounts, has so far aspired to sainthood. But he was transferred early this year to an adult prison, where the going is a lot rougher. How would you feel if that were you looking at a decade of hard time and you'd done nothing to warrant being there other than walking down the street? That's what the then-Costa Mesa High School student had been doing, and there's a wealth of exculpatory evidence that was not properly raised during the trial.

I don't fault his court-appointed attorney, but rather the system: money does indeed tip the scales of justice. You only get proper representation if you can afford it, and you need it more than ever because our "adversarial system" of justice has become one in which prosecutors often manufacture connect-the-dots fictions that conveniently ignore any facts that don't fit their case. They paint you with horns while your attorney draws wings. That's a game; it isn't justice. Forget Carmona's defense attorney—any prosecutor truly concerned with justice should have been the one to explore and reveal the facts that might free him.

The land of the free is quickly becoming a prison nation, and it is going to be a long, hard road to change that, to ensure that such injustices don't happen to kids like Carmona in the future. In the meantime, help to at least right this wrong. Go to Sunday's show, give what you can, get more involved if you're able and help set this kid free so that we can all then get back to the important business of sympathizing with my existential misery. Thank you.

The Arthur Carmona Benefit Concert, featuring Esai Morales, 00 Soul, Throw Rag, Big Fat Dragster, Chris Gaffney, Wax Apples and Suburban Legends, at the Galaxy Concert Theatre, 3503 S. Harbor Blvd., Costa Mesa, (714) 957-0600; www.galaxytheatre.com. Sun., 7 p.m. $10. For further information or to volunteer, call (714) 740-4099. Checks made out to the Arthur Carmona Legal Defense Fund can be sent to 621 N. Linwood Ave., Santa Ana, CA 92701.


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