A puzzling parable tells of a traveler who falls from a rock; below maneating tigers lie waiting upside and sharp stones down. He manages to hang on to something over the abyss. In front of him is a bush of ripe wild strawberry and below death waits up and down. How to solve the dilemma? The answer is to eat strawberries. "Mister One And Half Percent" Igor Abakumov knows the taste of 'strawberries' from the things understood at the opposite side of freedom, on the relativity of habitual values and times when 'our spark of life glows for an hour now and then so brightly'.

It is when a man is confronted with that abyss that he and we know his character. In 1993 fate played me a losing hand and the Feds had me indicted for a serious offence worth a double life rap.
The airlift, Elrino transit prison in Oklahoma, orange jump-suited prisoners in front of the pre-area sorting facility. Beside me stood Gianni Be-Good who had become my Virgil after meeting him on transfer from LA. He had walked through these circles of hell for forty seven years and was with Al Capone in Alcatraz.
"Ruski, be cool, we'll get rest. Like a scout camp. No bullshit. They've got a rec, spare time you can walk or pump-up".

Spare time, in a place of no-freedom sounded a bit weird but so did everything else in this 'Through the Looking Glass' prison world's value system. For example, release takes a lot of time. The prisoner is locked by handcuffs on his wrists and ankles, chains from hands and legs go to stomach that is also locked by chain. All of the stuff belongs to the releasing prison and on arrival it goes back. The new prison uses its own stuff and gets it back the same way, if there's another transfer, making a kind of a chain circle that exhausts body and soul.

I was down but not Gianni.
"How come you're so optimistic?"

"You will be too. Believe me, with a sentence like this, the first ten years are the worst. And then everything changes. First you think that you don't belong here, you belong out side. Then you realize there's no place for you out there and your world is here. This is your reality and the other side is an illusion.

My eyes told him I didn't believe.

"You think the old man's crazy and it won't happen to you. It will! I saw it so many times these forty seven years. Boy, you might not be aware of where exactly you've got to, did the Feds offer a deal? You should have taken it".
"Why would I do that? I didn't do anything. And I won't squeal on people they want to involve".
"Let me tell you a secret. Everyone here is innocent. Statistics tell that only one and half percent of guys arrested get out before trial. If you get out before trial you'll be the first in my experience and you are gonna be Mister One and Half Percent".


At that moment guards passed with two prisoners' corpses on stretchers. I almost heard the death knell putting a big dot ending our conversation.

I turned to Gianni:
"Hell of a scout camp"
"Shit happens" he muttered in reply.
"Why handcuffs, when they're dead?"
"If you have life or more, they bury you cuffed on hands and legs. This way the system says 'You don't escape from here. We keep your body, we keep to the law'. Think on Rusky  if you lose your case, they'll do everything to give you as much as they can. And it will be late then. And if you get double life jail don't count on people out there to remember you long. Do you have friends? A girl friend? Family "Just my mother".

"Your mother will be the only one to remember you and believe me, these memories won't bring any good to her. And when you die they'll bury you in the Prison Cemetery in handcuffs on your hands and legs. All right, enough sadness. They started to let inside. I go and earn some money now".

"You mean?"

"I've been here a hundred times and know all of the old guys. John Gotti's brother serves in the dining. We're friends. He's best to be on side".
When we entered the dining the serving guy hol-loed.
"Gianni, man! Are you alive? I'm glad to see you! Look it's Gianni Tramp! The fucking legend did time with Al Capone in Alcatraz!"

The guys cheered.

Our transfers who'd entered the dining were surprised. After a month of flights together they couldn't imagine the strong lean prisoner of uncertain age to be a living legend. Gianni was discussing something vividly with John Gotti's brother. After we finished our dinner he opened his suit and said 'Well, Ruski, we're rich now!' He had a two litre bottle of liquid coffee mash. That 'coffee' tasted more like diesel oil but it was prison currency. We bought cigarettes, fruits, biscuits, sweets and even orange Braga mexs made of oranges. Liquid money made miracles! That's how it worked! The black water I'd never smell in real life now seemed to be a luxury. Owning that swill put me to the privileged position as if I opened an account in the Prison 'Looking Glass' Bank.

Years passed since the time when I went through prison's nine circles of hell. In Jacksonville before trial I put the damn system down on its shoulder blades and proved my innocence. Then true to his word, I heard from Gianni he'd named me Mister One and Half Percent.

And now I sit on the terrace of my beloved house, looking at the perfectly cared for garden and remem-bering the pleasure of smoking my first cigarette with that cup of coffee after lights out in Elrino. I looked through the grid at the huge dark windows of the prison built in 1936. And nothing was better than my coffee with the taste resembling diesel oil and that cigarette. There was nothing better than 'money' that gave me a taste of freedom. That feeling of far away happiness, out there on the other side of jail. You only value something after you lose it.

"Anyway Ruski, this is it, a man loses only when he gives up".
It was so much right on time, this Gianni's phrase! I tried. And I did it! I did not forget that most precious cup of coffee in my life as well.