To listen to this episode and read more about it, visit theallusionist.org/ear-hustling.
This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, scream, language screams, we all scream for ice cream.
In today’s episode, we are going inside. Inside San Quentin state prison, to visit my Radiotopian sibling show, Ear Hustle, made by Earlonne Woods, who is incarcerated at San Quentin, and Nigel Poor, an artist based in San Francisco. Content note: there are a few instances of strong language and strong imagery in the episode; gird your loins.
Before that, I wanted to tell you about some live fixtures I have coming up. I’ve just added a page on the show’s site - theallusionist.org/events. As some of you have seen with your own eyes, I perform a live version of the Allusionist, with music and visuals and stories that may never appear on the podcast. It’s good, I recommend it. And I have a couple dates set for Australia: 5th June, I’ll be performing the Allusionist live show at Giant Dwarf in Sydney, in association with the Audiocraft festival; tickets are on sale now. Melbourne, not on sale yet, but keep the evening of 6th June free, ok? And if you run a small arts venue or theatre in Australia or New Zealand and would be up for putting on a show, get in touch.
I’ll also be touring with Radiotopia this May, in six cities in the eastern USA. My brother Andy and I will be getting together for a Bugle Allusionist mash-up. And you’ll see Criminal, the Kitchen Sisters, Radio Diaries, Benjamen Walker, and 99% Invisible too. It’ll be fun. Tickets are on sale now at radiotopia.fm/live.
That’s the live shows, now on with the recorded show.
EARLONNE WOODS: My name is Earlonne Woods and I am a co-host of the podcast out of San Quentin called Ear Hustle.
HZ: And what does ‘ear hustle’ mean?
EARLONNE WOODS: 'Ear hustle' means a lot of things now. But it mainly means eavesdropping on other people's conversations, listening in. Somebody might tell you, if you're standing and you're listening, somebody might be like, "Hey man, roll your window up". What that means is, "Hey man, get out of my conversation".
HZ: So presumably there's a lot of vocabulary specific to being here in San Quentin, right?
EARLONNE WOODS: Correct.
HZ: But presumably when you arrive here you're not given a dictionary with it.
EARLONNE WOODS: No.
HZ: So, we started to compile one.
B is for ‘blurped’.
EARLONNE WOODS: Blurped. Oh yes. That's that's a street term, and an in-prison term - blurped is when you're pulled over by a correctional officer. “He was blurped.”
HZ: I wonder where that came from.
EARLONNE WOODS: I think it's the police lights - "blurp". "Blurp blurp blurp."
HZ: I think it sounds a bit like a burp but with something extra in it, like you might burp but also hiccup at the same time.
HZ: B is also for ‘Buck Rogers date’.
EARLONNE WOODS: That's when a person has so much time, cars will be flying before they get out.
HZ: That's rough.
EARLONNE WOODS: Cars are flying now, right? I think.
HZ: C is for ‘cell slug’.
EARLONNE WOODS: Cell slug. Which is a person that stays in the cell, don't go nowhere. You can be going all day and you come back to the cell - because you have cellmates, cellies - and you come back and the person is there, don't want to give you no space, no time. I'm sure even a married couple need time to themselves. Sometimes you need peace. You need that moment, you know. So that's a cell slug, someone that just stays in the cell all the time every day.
HZ: So you're never alone.
EARLONNE WOODS: You're never alone. You want to use the bathroom, you can't even use the bathroom alone.
HZ: In the Ear Hustle episode Cellies, Earlonne talked about when he was assigned a new cellmate: his brother.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yes, my older brother - actually my only brother - is my cellmate.
HZ: Is he any good? Is he a slug?
EARLONNE WOODS: He is a cell slug! But I'm comfortable enough to kick him out. "Hey man, kick rocks."
HZ: D is for ‘dump truck’. A bad lawyer.
EARLONNE WOODS: A lot of people rag on public defenders sometime and they say the public defender is a dump truck - which all public defenders are not. But for the most part, if you feel - because everybody that gets found guilty feel they have a dump truck as a lawyer. It might have been the best lawyer ever, but the circumstances, they just couldn't beat them. You'll still feel that it was a dump truck. One that you feel ineffectively represented you.
HZ: D is also for ‘dick beaters’
EARLONNE WOODS: It's hands - because in prison guys may masturbate or something like that. That's why they call them that.
HZ: Yeah, it happens outside of prison too. I know this is breaking news.
EARLONNE WOODS: You may say, "Don't touch my stuff with your dick beaters!", because you don't know where a person coming from; you don't know what they just did, what happened...
HZ: ...when they last washed their hands…
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah, exactly!
HZ: F is for ‘fish’.
EARLONNE WOODS: ‘Fish’ could either be fish, you know -
HZ: An actual fish?
EARLONNE WOODS: An actual fish.
HZ: A marine beast.
EARLONNE WOODS: But in prison, a fish usually is a newly arrived prisoner, someone that just came into the system. That fish would actually eventually get a ‘fish kit’, which might be just a little portion of soap, a little portion of shampoo, or a bed roll, something like that.
HZ: How long are you a fish for?
EARLONNE WOODS: You're a fish for, I would assume, the time that you're in reception center. And probably your first few months in prison you will be considered a fish.
HZ: And then you don't get to be like a bigger fish, like a shark?
EARLONNE WOODS: Oh, you might become a shark. You might. You might become a shark - you might be a shark that's just a fish at the time.
HZ: Any whales?
EARLONNE WOODS: I'm fairly certain there are some whales, some guppies.
HZ: It's hard for a guppie.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah, it's hard for a guppie.
EARLONNE WOODS: I haven't seen that one yet, but maybe.
HZ: But, don’t get confused: 'fishing' is nothing to do with fish or the fish kit.
EARLONNE WOODS: So if a person is fishing, a person is trying to get something from another cell on their tier, and it might be after hours, it might be there's no porters or guys just walking up and down the tier that can actually hand it to you. So you have to come with a creative way to ascertain what you're looking for. Whether it be coffee, it could be food, it could be a burrito, or whatever. So what you do is, you make a little line out of something, it could be thread, and you might put a little weight on the end of it, which could be a jelly pack or something that can go down a tier. When you're in administrative segregation, this is when you do this the most, because you have no movement so you really want what you want. So you would slide it down, and it become like a little game to see how far it can go.
HZ: It seems like it could be quite difficult to control where the line is going, you'd have to be good at that.
EARLONNE WOODS: You get skillful - you get skill to the point where it might be a trash can over there and you bank it off the trash can just to try to hit it into somebody's cell. None of this is authorized; this is all unauthorized. It's entertainment, actually. There's just nothing to do in administrative segregation.
HZ: So what is administrative segregation?
EARLONNE WOODS: It's when you've you've done something wrong or you are accused of doing something wrong and you have to be secluded from the general population - excluded.
HZ: So how long might you be there?
EARLONNE WOODS: You can be there for a while, up until whatever situation is adjudicated, whether it's a minor infraction or a bigger infraction, until they figure out what they're going to do with you - because you can be found guilty and then you have to go do a SHU term in one of the Segregated Housing Units, so you could be there for a while.
HZ: Just nothing to do but fishing.
EARLONNE WOODS: Nothing to do but fishing and thinking and wondering why are you there. Why did you do what you did? Did you really have to do what you did?
HZ: Did you even do what you did?
EARLONNE WOODS: Did you even do what you did, or you've been accused of doing what they say you did; but when you're sitting in there you have a lot of time to think.
HZ: F is for ‘FeFe’.
EARLONNE WOODS: A FeFe is said to be... a latex glove that's made into a female organ. Now how do you make that?
HZ: Would you fill it with something?
EARLONNE WOODS: I would assume you fill it with lotion, grease, and anything that you feel is slippery.
EARLONNE WOODS: Is that healthy?
HZ: I doubt it - it might go a bit rancid depending on the temperature.
EARLONNE WOODS: That is what the FeFe consist of. Then, I think you roll it up into a tile and you hope it worked. I think it's like a lot of work though. I think it's like too much work.
HZ: Same as relationships.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah, pretty much. And you probably would have a relationship with a FeFe. To my cousin FeFe: I'm sorry that your name is used in prison parlance.
HZ: G is for ‘going out backwards’.
EARLONNE WOODS: Ah, going out backwards, that would be more like: a person is doing something that they shouldn't be doing or getting involved in something that they shouldn't be doing. Say, for instance, if a person that shouldn't be gambling is actually gambling and they don't have no money to pay for whatever they gambling then they pretty much going out backwards because they’re putting themselves in a situation that they shouldn't be in.
HZ: J is for ‘jute ball’.
EARLONNE WOODS: Jute ball is, instead of giving you your food in different portions, all your food will be in one big ball.
HZ: Wow. Just like all the food stuffs pressed together into a ball. But then you eat it like an apple or something like that?
EARLONNE WOODS: Pretty much. I mean, it would be on a plate, you'd still eat it the regular way; but it would just be everything compressed in one. And that was only like when you were in county jail’s administrative segregation. It wouldn't be like that on the main line. It would be just in the hole.
HZ: N is for ‘naked’, as in ‘butt naked’.
EARLONNE WOODS: ‘Butt naked’. What do you think ‘butt naked’ means?
HZ: Well, ‘butt naked’, I would assume, would just mean ‘butt naked’. But I feel naive.
EARLONNE WOODS: Okay, in prison if you say it, you'll say it like, "Man, I'm about to eat a butt naked".
HZ: You'd eat a butt naked?
EARLONNE WOODS: People'd be like "What?" It's just a ramen noodle with nothing in it. It's just an empty ramen noodle with no sausages, no beans, no roast beef; nothing in it. Just strictly the noodle with the seasoning pack, that's it.
HZ: Oh, at least you get the seasoning pack.
EARLONNE WOODS: You get the seasoning pack, yeah.
HZ: I was worried you weren't even getting that.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah that's it, that's all you get. So usually, when you make a bowl - which is a food, a meal - you'll put all kinds of stuff in it, whether it's chopped up onions, bell peppers, shredded beef, or any type of extra stuff you put inside your noodle or rice or whatever. But if a person just say, "Man, I just had a butt naked," it means he's just having a noodle with nothing.
HZ: P is for ‘pincushion’.
EARLONNE WOODS: Well, it's just a saying in passing, but a pin cushion would be someone. And you make light of it sometime, but it be someone who actually got stabbed up a lot in prison, you say a pincushion.
HZ: Would you say to them or about them?
EARLONNE WOODS: You would most likely say it about them, not to them.
HZ: Because if you are recovering from some stabbings -
EARLONNE WOODS: That would be bad. And that's like a real old saying too, a real old saying.
HZ: R is for ‘radio radio’.
EARLONNE WOODS: That means "be quiet". If somebody say that word, you would be like, "Alright, let's be quiet".
HZ: It's odd, because radios are noisy so you would think that it would mean the opposite.
EARLONNE WOODS: Exactly. Exactly. “Let’s talk.”
HZ: Z is for ‘zoom zooms and wham whams’.
EARLONNE WOODS: This is probably my favorite one. ‘Zoom zooms and wham whams’ - cookies, candy, chips. Those are the good things, zoom zooms and wham whams, in food terms. I like food so I love zoom zooms and wham whams.
HZ: Have you ever invented some of these terms and managed to get them to catch on
EARLONNE WOODS: Well. I don't remember people names. So I call everybody ‘skillet’.
EARLONNE WOODS: Yeah. I call everybody skillet and everybody call me skillet, so everybody name is skillet. So it's because I don't remember people names so everybody is skillet.
HZ: So how did you choose ‘skillet’? Were you just like, "Hmm, kitchen wares..."
EARLONNE WOODS: I don't know, ‘skillet’ was just one of those funny words - ‘skillet’. Some of my partners that was real dark, I used to call them ‘skillet’ because skillets are real black. So that's why I used to call them skillets, but it's just a term I used to call everybody in the prison. Skillet.
HZ: It really saves a lot of time.
EARLONNE WOODS: Saves a lot of time. You don't know who the skillet is, everybody is looking around like "Are you talking to me?" “Nah, I'm talking to that skillet over there.” ‘Skillet’, and ‘indeed’. I have a lot of people saying "indeed" or "indubitably". I just do it. “Without a doubt.” If you were to walk by that officer coming in, Officer Reyes, and you would've said, “Indeed," he would have responded, "Indubitably" - guaranteed, on your way out, if you say that, he would say the opposite.
HZ: Nice. And that's your work. You changed the culture in here.
EARLONNE WOODS: Changed the culture with some people. I hit them with the "indubitably". Indubitably. Without a doubt.
HZ: Ear Hustle’s second season has just begun. They bring you stories of life inside prison, shared and produced by those living it. The show is fascinating and funny and heartbreaking, and if you think you’ve heard or watched prison documentaries before, trust me, this show is like no other. The first season had an impact on listeners like I’ve never seen. Listen at earhustlesq.com to hear from Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor.
NIGEL POOR: I always thought I was skillet, and then I learned that everybody is skillet!
EARLONNE WOODS: Helen - see what you've done!
HZ: I'm sorry. So sorry.
EARLONNE WOODS: Let me clarify this for you, Nigel: yeah, everyone is skillet; you're home skillet.
NIGEL POOR: Oh, that's right. That's right.
EARLONNE WOODS: Being free makes you ‘home skillet’.
NIGEL POOR: OK. That is true. I was home skillet, not just skillet.
EARLONNE WOODS: Indubitably.
Thanks to Babbel for sponsoring this episode of The Allusionist. Babbel is the number 1 selling language app in the world; you can learn 14 languages, including Spanish, Russian and Brazilian Portuguese, via interactive fun lessons that are designed to get you speaking confidently in your new language, and to learn words and phrases that are actually useful in conversation. My school taught me French from textbooks written before the Second World War, and while rich in instructions for ordering around your chambermaids, these books were light on such things as directions and buying food. Fortunately/hereusement, I can use Babbel to fill in these gaps, because as well as starting learning a language from the beginning, you can brush up one you learned before that’s a bit rusty. You can even buy a Babbel course as a gift for someone. To get 50% off your first 3 months, use the code ALLUSION when you go to babbel.com/allusion.
Radiotopia is here thanks to you listeners. Your randomly selected word from the dictionary today is...
howbeit, adverb, archaic: nevertheless.
Try using it in an email today.
This episode was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, with help from Martin Austwick, who also makes the music you hear in the show. Thanks to Lieutenant Sam Robinson from San Quentin, and of course Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor. You can also hear them talking about letters in the Open Me part 1 episode of the Allusionist. I’m on Facebook and Twitter - the handle is allusionistshow - and on the show’s website, there are transcripts of each episode, there’re all the randomly selected words of the day, there’s a load of additional reading about each episode - this time, you can see a fuller version of Earlonne’s San Quentin dictionary. Find all that at theallusionist.org.