The city of Red Bluff is fading.
Not the whole city, but big chunks of it. The chunks the Chamber of Commerce would prefer you didn’t see.
It’s the sun that does it.
Beating year after year against the side of businesses where profit margins fell short of paint buckets, where money moves like syrup sits, where neon signs flicker and fail.
Peter Singer grew up here, in the far north of California’s central valley.
Here is a picture of his back tattoo:
“Death is only the beginning”
Red Bluff was a mining town and then a railroad town before Peter was born. Today it’s a Wal-Mart warehouse and a window installation town.
And for its poorest residents, it’s a methamphetamine town.
They call it crank, or dope. And it’s not just a drug; it’s an industry for those without an industry.
It’s born into bathtubs and it dies on construction sites.
It stares through wild eyes perched above forearms wringed like dishcloths.
It sleeps under the freeway bridge in shanties set up next to the river.
Shopping carts litter the long grass.
I’ve slept down there. And so has Peter.
But that’s not where we met. We met at a Denny’s restaurant in Red Bluff.
And it’s not where this story begins.
It begins with a felony charge the state gave Peter when he was 19.
Something they call, “Penetration with a foreign object”.
Before puberty had even figured out how to push hair through his chin, Peter Singer was selling over a pound of meth a week.
He’s always been good with numbers. And dope’s been around since the beginning.
So it didn’t take long for him to put two and two together – a zit-faced business-boy with a digital scale and a box of sandwich bags.
But that was over 15 years ago.
Today he lives in a small, beer belly-shaped trailer with a waterlogged floor in a family of faith’s front yard.
He shared it with me on a cold January night.
“The toilet doesn’t work,” he said, “but you can pee into the bathtub – just run the water for ten seconds when you’re done.”
A motel on Main Street in Red Bluff
The trailer sits next to the family’s white house, which sits surrounded by a white picket fence, which sits adjacent to other fences, which sit in fields of dead crops.
We arrived at dusk. Darkness spilled over the central valley’s walls.
He lit a Pall Mall 100, and then we talked.
I learned that Peter’s fingers had been on this planet for 19 years when they entered a vagina that had been on this planet for 17. He’d been dating the girl for a few weeks.
It was the last time he’s ever been trusted to manage his own life.
It was penetration with a foreign object.
Peter Singer became case number K47101 – a Caucasian sex offender. It was 1996.
I learned that on his second day in prison, white inmates forced K47101 to fight another white inmate in order to prove he deserved respect from white inmates.
I learned that “failure to register a change of address” is one of 247 ways to violate parole in California, and that, even though K47101 found work in the town of Chico after completing his sentence, he went back behind bars because Chico isn’t Red Bluff.
I learned that, 10 months later, K47101 got out and found work in construction, which can be a hard thing to do as a registered sex-offender on parole.
I then learned that testing positive for meth-use in your urine is another of the 247 ways to violate parole in California, which K47101 did a few months later.
He came out depressed and “started catching violations left and right”.
He found work at another construction site. Then he failed another piss test.
Then he did it again… and again.
He became an example of what correctional professionals call “serving ‘Life’ on the installment plan”.
There are literally thousands of K47101s in California. Round and round they go – in prison and out of prison – caught in a revolving door of eight to 12 month sentences triggered by complex parole violations that many criminologists argue fail to address their real problems.
I learned that, when Jessica’s Law passed (furthering restrictions on sex offenders), K47101 was living in a trailer next to his daughter and her mother.
Without moving, his trailer became 30 feet too close to a skate park.
“That’s when I wound up being homeless,” he said.
It was one of the darkest periods of his life.
Into prison and out of prison, round and round we go.
I learned that K47101 has stabbed people behind bars.
“If you don’t step up when the Shotcaller hands you the piece (shiv), then your name gets dropped into the hat,” he said. “And what the hat is, is the names of all the people that need to be punished.”
I learned that he recently spent eight months living in his car, unable to find work since the economy sank. When the temperature outside dropped to 17 degrees, it became unbearable. He violated parole on purpose.
“I knew I was going in on Wednesday to see my parole officer, so on Monday I started getting high.”
Round and round we go.
And that’s how we ended up here, in this trailer.
He excused himself and went out for a smoke.
It was dark now.
The night sucked heat from the dead crops.
In the morning, we took the bus back to Denny’s and sat at the counter.
I didn’t have money, but Peter shared his eggs with me.
He filled out an application for employment.
Now Denny’s knows that he’s a sex offender.
His biggest regret, he told me, isn’t losing his family. It isn’t missing out on life’s freedoms. It’s what prison has done to his heart.
“Before I went in, I was a nice, kind person,” he said. “It was all good for me to shed a tear.”
“Now,” he said, “my heart is like granite.”
He wants to change that. He wants to own his own trailer, to provide for his girlfriend and his kid, to no longer be K47101 – a piece of state property.
If only he can get that job.
If only he can make his way through three years of parole without failing a piss test.
If only he can find help getting off meth.