Editor’s note: About six months ago I bumped into Mayor Gonzo Sammie Mays online. What the hell is a Mayor Gonzo Sammie Mays? I wondered. Turns out she is a Kentucky Colonel & Honorary Mayor of Key West, Florida, a real (if not “official”) elected position and not just a nickname for some colorful local character…which she also is. Shortly thereafter I received a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card from The Right Honorable Mays, entitling me to one free political favor (as opposed to those based on graft and backroom conspiracy). Also turns out that the Mayor has lived a very interesting life; from moonshiners to biker brawls and survived to tell us about it in her enormously entertaining book Damn the Carnations: Full Speed Ahead. Here we excerpt the story of how, after losing her bar, she managed to get into prison to snap a photo of baseball legend Pete Rose for the National Enquirer that the tabloid called “The sports coup of the decade.”
A published writer and columnist since 1986, Mays’ stories and exploits have appeared in: People Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Los Angeles Times, National Enquirer, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Post, Time Magazine, Miami Herald and Key West Travel Host Magazine.There is so much more to say about her I don’t know where to begin. Read the book. Here’s Bill McKeen’s take:
“Sammie Mays is a Category 5 literary hurricane. Here’s a full-force gale of stories about the adventures that earned her the nickname ‘The Gonz’ and a place as the honorary mayor of Key West. ‘Damn the Carnations’ has the added attraction of making you reconsider your approach to toilet flushing. The book is full of piss, vinegar, wisdom and advice for living the good life.” –WILLIAM McKEEN, Professor & Chair, Boston University, Dept. of Journalism
HOW CHARLIE GOT HUSTLED
The call was taken by British story editor Joe Mullins. Having zero time to play footsy I dived into the Brit, asking that he put me on the most difficult assignment the tabloid had to offer; the assignment that pays the most money–and before he could answer, to hopefully enhance a more favorable response, I threw in, “If I’m not successful, whatever the assignment, the tabloid won’t owe me a thing, only my expenses. What do you have?
The words, the tone, the desperation in my voice, the Brit had to know he held my state of mental health in his hands. I was a puppet handing over the strings to the puppeteer. All he had to do was pull them and there was nothing that I wouldn’t do. “Now Pete Rose is in prison but nobody can get to Pete Rose! Now can they?”
With the burglary [recounted earlier in Damn the Carnations] my clock and patience had long left the building and just barely keeping it together, I shot back, “I don’t know, Joe! Can they?” He continued cool and calm, “Newspaper and magazine reporters from across the country have tried and failed but, if successful, we’ll pay you $100,000.00 for a picture and story of Pete Rose in Prison!”
Again I took another hard look around at the devastation.
Through different eyes, different mindset, I had hoped to see
something different, and I saw something different. I saw prison
in my future. One way or the other I was going to prison, and the
choice to choose the lesser of the two evils was upon me. With
the guidance of the attorneys of a corporate giant as successful
as that of the National Enquirer, surely they wouldn’t steer me
wrong? I’ve been given a swinging chance.
Working with anything salvageable, I devised a working
plan to entertain the poor lost forgotten souls of the prison system
and hopefully, through the grace of the great architect of
the Universe, snag that coveted photo of the incarcerated baseball
I passed the idea by Joe and he thought it was just plausible
enough to work. He then wished me luck which sounded more
like I was headed off to face a firing squad. “I’ll make arrangements
in the name of Sammie Mays for a one night hotel stay at
the Marion, Ill. Holiday Inn and will overnight vitals to assist
in your endeavor. You can expect history, schematics and Pete
Rose’s inmate number. When you check-in be sure to ask the
front desk for your FedEx package and keep in touch from the
road in case anything new developments.” And just like that “Q”
Considering the risks that I could be held hostage, incarcerated
or worse–with nothing more to lose I placed a call to the
It stunned me when the receptionist put me directly through
to the warden. In what I thought to be my playful and provocative
southern drawl I introduced myself and told the warden
that I have scheduled (in my mind) a trip to the prison to play a
little mini concert for the inmates and I’m phoning to verify that
this is all okay.
“What day do you plan to come through?” Warden inquired.
Flinging open the Rand McNally map I estimated the time it
would take to drive from the Mississippi Gulf Coast to Marion,
Illinois. “Day after tomorrow!” I said. “Hold on, Sammie, and let
me check the prison calendar.” In the background I could hear
him flipping through pages. And then, the planets start to align.
“Yep, I’ve got you in! Call me when you get to town and I’ll personally
take you on a tour of the prison.” I gushed, “Thank you,
Warden. That’ll be great.”
SuperMax was the first and only SuperMax at the time, built
to take the place of Alcatraz. It’s housed some of the world’s
most notorious criminals: Carlos Lehder, the Columbian cocaine
kingpin; Cartel associate General Manuel “Pineapple
Face” Noriega; Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski; World Trade
Center bomber Ramzi Yousef; Okalahoma City bomber Timothy
McVeigh; Gambino crime family boss, John “Teflon Don” Gotti.
When Pete Rose first arrived at SuperMax the request for
interviews poured in. To curtail having to answer each request
individually the warden put out a press release vehemently stating,
“As long as Pete Rose is in my prison there will be no photographs
or interviews––not today, not tomorrow. Not ever!” Later
the National Enquirer would chime in and be quoted as saying,
“That statement was like waving a red flag at a bull.”
Few were brazen, dumb or desperate enough to attempt such
a foolhardy feat. In one of the briefings with Joe he mentioned
that a reporter on visiting day had tried posing as a family member
of an inmate. He slipped a camera into a baby’s diaper and
the screaming red-faced child blew the reporter’s cover. A week
later the judge still had not set his bail. Another reporter hid outside
the prison’s perimeter until he could catch the attention of
an inmate bush hogging the grounds (my grandfather Bravo’s
job when he served two, separate “college” terms in Atlanta).
The reporter gave the inmate a five-thousand dollar cash wad
and a loaded camera to take a picture of Pete Rose. All he had
to do was snap the picture and chuck the camera back over the
fence. The inmate relieved the reporter of his cash and ran the
camera over with his tractor. I believe I know who this reporter
was and if it’s who I think it is, he later died of altitude poisoning
on assignment in Aspen.
I needed a foil. Someone to bounce the what-ifs off of.
Someone who might keep my secret (but no one can be trusted).
Someone fearlessly crazy and musically inclined. I cringed at
the only name fitting the description … DOUG!
Off earning himself a lengthy arrest record, Doug, keeping
true to the “Drug” nickname, was off on one of his legendary
weekly binges–showing up on occasion to pilfer the place,
drink my vodka and takeoff with my bar’s operation money.
The worst was putting me on the hit lists of the drug dealers:
trading my pistol for poison, telling them I’d make good on his
debt. If you don’t know then let me tell you … this is the ultimate
shitty move, real dangerous stuff which opens a world
of never-ending extortion and threatens the life of every innocent
Before meeting Doug I heard his name and music on the radio.
He was a signed singer/songwriter with legendary record
producer Rick Hall of Fame Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
Doug was one of the talented ones from the Coast who actually
made a name for himself. The first time we met was no accident.
How was I to know he was in cahoots with a radio station to randomly
choose me as the winner of a single front row ticket to the
Biloxi Beach concert which he and his gold record band Storm
There were a multitude of warning signs. I remained oblivious,
in some sort of trance–all logic out the window. I ignored
every sign, including the article in Rolling Stone magazine that
a friend shoved up my nose. “Doug “Mississippi Funk” Mays arrested
in his hometown of Pascagoula, charged with inciting a
riot between concert goers and police.” Why flags didn’t go up I
cannot explain other than it may have had something to do with
that funny tasting rum drink he plied upon me, prior to taking
the stage. I remember the drink but nothing of the band’s performance.
I came out of a cloudy head while traveling South on
Florida’s I95, confused in the backseat of a taxi cab with Doug,
speeding towards Miami International Airport–bound for a remote
Caribbean island in the West Indies–under the aliases of
Don and Debra Light–names on travel documents he had prearranged.
I barely recall the day I signed my name on that island
marriage license, but there it was. It would eventually take my
deportation to get back stateside, and, even then, I would never
be forgiven by the one true love I was stolen from.
His glory days gone, Doug was insanely delighted to be on
the road again–and not in the least did he seem fazed by any
part of the trip having to do with going to prison. matter-of-fact,
he was completely comfortable with the idea. Thinking
back on some of his jailhouse episodes: instead of using his
one phone call to phone an attorney he’d instead use that call
and order a pizza to be delivered to him in the clink. And then
there was this other time of arrest when he complained to
guards of having a bloody stool. The officers transported him
via cop car to the emergency room where he walked in the
front door of the emergency area and right out the back. Such
a long list of disruption that I could go on and on, but that’s
another book for another time.
An earlier trip to Wal-Mart yielded a pack of smokes and two
identical thirty-five millimeter cameras–the cheapest I could
find–thirty-dollars each. For safekeeping I put the receipt in the
glove box so I could later return them (not the smokes) if needed
for gas money to get back home.
Doug had me pick him up on an unfamiliar street corner in
a questionable area of town. Immediately I knew by those wild
juju eyeballs that, clearly, he had been up for quite some time.
At his feet, having seen better days, was a small two-speaker
PA system which had space convenient for storing the necessities:
power strip, extension cord, you know, etc. His six-string
had only four strings and was banged up to Hell and back. From
experiences past, my guess was that this poor underprivileged
instrument was more often used these days as an instrument of
destruction. And in his contaminated backpack–instead of basic
human grooming essentials: toothbrush, hairbrush, deodorant,
change of dirty underwear–he pulled out a half consumed
half-gallon jug of rotgut vodka which he pours down his throat
and face throughout the trip. Up and out from his side of the car,
reeking from his pores, was this peculiar chlorine-type chemical
funk that not even the vodka could mask–and though the
Bullet’s top was down, I could smell him but didn’t dare look in
his direction for fear of provoking an attack. It has happened before
and so to my destiny I drove faster.
As Doug continued his quest to maintain stinkin’ drunkenness,
not only was I in fear for a couple of obvious reasons, I just
couldn’t help wondering if his plans were to become so rancid
and disgusting that I’d cave-in and lend him my stuff. Oh god
I am so much more desperate than I ever even realized. I could
have used some intervention.
Following the advice of Rand McNally, the Bullet shot
through Biloxi, Hattiesburg, Jackson, Arkansas, Tennessee toward
Memphis, entering Cairo and up the long, lone, linear
stretch of Highway 57 to Marion–through field after field of
some strange green something or another that looked to resemble
a white pineapple on a freakishly tall corn stalk. Whatever
the plant life, it was weird and excellent for crop circles and rabbits
on the run.
Straight through, twelve grueling, nervous, nail-biting hours
with the fictitious Don Light seated at my side. Through the ongoing
babbling of senselessness there were points between here and
there where I felt the urgency to save the blameless from detonation–
to purposely drive the Bullet off the road, up a tree, over a
bridge–only to slam on brakes in the final second, refusing to turn
the wheel and time of death over to Lucifer. “I’ve lived off the grid
my entire existence,” he boasted and heinously cackled. “Without a
driver’s license I am a ghost and they can never find me!” And, yes,
there’s more. Of course there’s more. There’s always more! But for
now there will be no sympathy for the devil. I will beat the beast for
the next seventeen hours and one day for the focus required to stay
alive. If karma is indeed a bitch then I have certainly done some terrible
things in my life that need rectifying. Pronto!
In a state of mind worse than when I left the Coast, I arrived in
Marion and drove directly to SuperMax to get an idea of what I was
up against. High-tech security cameras followed my car as I drove
the mile-long stretch of secluded road leading up to the electronic
zoo. Ominous and terrifying to the core, colossal coils of razor wire
encompassed the prison’s perimeter. If all the gold’s in California
then surely all the razor wire surrounds SuperMax. It is home to the
twenty-four hour lockdown where guards wear riot gear round the
clock and are in constant combat mode. Up-close and personal the
penitentiary is a sight so disturbing it’s rumored that many family
members never again return to see their loved ones after a first experience.
(Doug is literally having the vomit scared out of him and
in the floorboard lay his intestines. I too am suddenly ill.)
Day before prison playdate check into Marion, Ill. Holiday
Inn … arrangements under Sammie Mays … one night only …
Fed Ex package containing Roses’ inmate number, photos and
other pertinent info await your pick up at front desk … Ask!
At the Holiday Inn I check myself in and poured Doug out
into a double room with an ugly view of the parking lot. The
room’s phone rings immediately. No one but the assignment
editor and other National Enquirer staffers know that I’m even
here and I’m not expecting a call from Joe, not here, not in this
manner anyway–far too risky with the potential of a nosey front
desk clerk listening in. I therefore convinced myself that it must
be the front desk calling to inquire as to how I liked my room
and so I answered the accursed thing, and no one was there.
No one responded to my “hello” yet there was someone on that
line. I knew all the hardline phone tricks, we all did, and I could
tell the line was open, and there was no such thing, yet, as accidental
butt dialing. So, again, I said with a little more force in
my voice, “Hello. Operator! Are you there?” It was not the sweet
corn-fed country girl who had checked me in at the front desk as
I had hoped, but, instead, the warden!
Not in a million years would I have expected the warden to
have phoned me in my hotel room. Holy crap! Hell I wouldn’t have
answered the damn thing figuring he would have left a message,
giving me ample time to develop the most correct response. The
warden sitting in silence like that, before speaking up, listening
for sounds in the room and no telling what else, maybe tapping
the room’s phone line, had me completely bugged out. How
in the name of God did he know that I was even staying at the
Holiday Inn and had only moments prior checked in?
The warden asked that I come on over to the penitentiary
and get my clearance and that he would take me on a personal
tour of the compound and show me where I’m to setup for tomorrow’s
performance. Now I may not be technically savvy but
I have lived enough to know that it’s not paranoia if it’s really
happening, and shit was happening all around me. Why I had
not thought to pack my brown corduroy trousers is beyond me.
Having missed two mattresses completely, on the floor,
between two beds, I left Doug passed out colder than the proverbial
well-digger’s ass while I made my way back over to the
SuperMax. There, there were checkpoints to clear before being
allowed onto the prison grounds. Following the signs I am directed
to pull up as far as possible into a stainless steel isolation
cage and stop next to the intercom system which places me
in communication with the guards. I could have crawfished all
the way back to the Gulf Coast when that second gate of razor
wire slammed shut behind me, encasing the Bullet in fear and
without way of escape. Hearing firsthand the cold, hard, lonely
sound of metal bars clanking shut, to tell the truth I don’t believe
Hollywood movies have reproduced the sound with justice.
Why? Don’t exactly know why the mind at this most unusual
time wishes to remind me of a kangaroo court experience where
a lowlife ratchet barfly conned my bartender, Fatty Patty, into
believing that I had sold him the Key West Bar & Grill. He offered
Fatty Patty a substantial ten dollar an hour raise if she’d
stay on as his bartender, and because of her eagerness to please
the new, generous, bar owner, he easily persuaded her to hand
over all the money from the register and to toss a party in his
honor. That night, as long as the beer and booze held out, everyone
drank for free.
The next morning I discover the beer coolers totally empty
and every drop of booze drained from the bottom of the liquor
bottles. I’m elated by the rush in business. I should stay away longer
and more often, I thought. Oops, Fatty Patty has not put the
money in the secret hiding place–so much cash that she probably
decided it was safer to take it home. I leapt into the Bullet and
sped over to the trailer park where Fatty Patty lived, and knocked
on the door. There’s no answer and so I knock harder, and then
harder. When Fatty Patty didn’t come to the door straightaway
I knew something was wrong. Her car was in the driveway! Had
she been killed and the money stolen? “She had better be dead
up in there because if she’s not and she doesn’t have my money,
I’m going to kill her!” Wigging out on her doorstep and shouting
“I think my employee might be dead inside this trailer,” the
neighbors began circling. Hearing the disturbance Fatty Patty
breaks her silence and talks to me through the locked door. “I
gave the money to the new owner.” She timidly said. “What new
owner, Patty?” I am so glad she was not so dumb as to open the
door. “Don’t you think that I would have told you that I was selling
the goddamn bar before I sold the goddamn bar? Who did you give
the money to, Patty?” “Slide!” She said. “I gave it to Slide! He told
me he bought the bar and then he gave me a ten dollar an hour
raise and I can really use that money!” The idiot bartender was
still this morning believing in the con even though I am standing
on her porch telling her differently. Symptoms of fight or
flight syndrome I suppose.
I raced over to Slide’s house where the forty-something year
old twerp still lived with his mama. He must have been expecting
me because he was peeking out the window when I drove up.
I stood in the front yard wanting to rip his head off his shoulders
but instead composed myself and calmly and very businesslike
said, “Slide, I know you have my money and I know you probably
spent some of it. I’m not mad at you and you’ll be welcomed back
into the bar if you give me the money that’s left.” He closed the
curtain in my face. Okay, so diplomacy doesn’t work here. Must
get tougher. “Slide! If you don’t open this goddamn door right now
and give me my money, I’m going straight from here to the police
station and pressing charges!” Okay, so the slimy slug doesn’t
respond to threats involving the police either. As promised I
filled out a crime report and pressed charges against Slide. A few
months later his court date is on the docket and Fatty Patty and
I are there to testify. Slide shuffles out, shackled in an orange
jumpsuit. We’re all sworn in by the bailiff and the presiding
judge asks the accused con man to plead his case. “Your Honor,”
he said. “I was just kidding with that bartender when she gave
me the money and got me drunk.” Without calling Fatty Patty
to the witness stand and asking for her account of the event, the
judge slams down his gavel and rules, “Case dismissed! The man
was just kidding!”
(Note to Self: If Mission Prison goes south must consider
borrowing clever “just kidding” defense.)
Rudely, I am snapped back to present prison by a hostile
voice coming from out of the intercom. The voice box is interrogating
me, demanding I fess up. “Are you carrying any contraband,
firearms, drugs, paraphernalia or cameras?” For a split
second I paused. My eyes dart. I spot a sharpshooter up on the
watchtower–decked out in combat gear and drawing down in
my direction with his assault rifle. In the trunk of the car there
are two cameras in one of the speakers and I didn’t want to admit
it and I didn’t want to get caught in a lie. I needed time to
think. I needed a stall tactic. I ask the voice to repeat what it
was he said. “Are you carrying any contraband, firearms, drugs,
paraphernalia or cameras?” Detecting a slight crackling noise
coming from the speaker it gave me what I needed not to lie.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I can barely understand what you’re saying.
Something in this speaker is distorting your voice. My name
is Sammie Mays and I am one of the two entertainers up from
Pascagoula, Mississippi, scheduled to perform for the inmates
tomorrow. Warden phoned me less than an hour ago and asked
that I come on over for clearance. He’s expecting me!” And with
those words, the gate to Hell made an evil, metal-to-metal, high
pitched squeal as it shook and scraped its way open.
The sharpshooter held a bead on me until I got to where I
was to be. Two female officers met and lead me to an examination
room. I was told to disrobe. One guard observed as Officer
Gung Ho snapped on a rubber glove. She started with a massage
at the top of my head and then felt me up all the way down. I
was then told to bend over, grab my knees and cough while she
examined the excretory opening of the alimentary canal. In Los
Angeles they pay big bucks for this kind of action so no complaints.
Given the all clear I was taken to the warden.
The warden sat behind a drab gunmetal-green army desk
and was closely monitoring something on his computer. He
stood up and dismissed the guards. It may or may not have been
helpful to the situation, but I believed he and I were sharing a
physical connection. Warden pulled up a chair and asked that I
come sit with him behind his desk; he wanted to show me something.
“It’s the latest in high-tech computer systems. The brain
of SuperMax!” He emphasized. On the screen was a long list
of bold black numbers–rows and rows of them. Being dyslexic
(diagnosed, much later, while driving down Hollywood’s famed
Sunset Blvd., when I exclaimed to my passenger–so a giant inyour-
face advertisement towering above Tower Records wouldn’t
be missed, “Look at that freakin’ cool “ELVIS” billboard!” I’ll never
forget the peculiar look she gave me when pointing out that the
billboard did not read “ELVIS” but instead, “LEVIS.”) the numbers
were too many and too jumbled to make any sense. “Each
of these numbers represents an inmate housed in the penitentiary.
I’ll show you how it works. Pick a number!” He said. I hesitated
asking myself, “Do I dare spit out 01832-061? The inmate
number of Pete Rose?” The number was posed and ready to roll
off my tongue but is this what the warden is expecting me to do?
Yes, I am certain of it! It is just too bizarre a show and tell. “You
pick one, Warden!” I said. Immediately he became disinterested,
stood up and said, “Let me show you the infirmary.”
The focal point of the infirmary was another gunmetal green
army desk, and prominently displayed on the wall, along with
the doctor’s certificates, is a framed 8 x 10 signed photograph of
Pete Rose. Not once did Warden take his eyes off me. It may be
of interest to know that I was born with exceptional peripheral
vision which allows me to see all movement within 180-degrees.
Therefore, I was able to see the expressions and eye movement
of the warden without looking in his direction. If he can see me
I can see him.
There was absolutely nothing unique about this office. No
real reason why it should have been a part of the tour other than
for me to see that photo and for the warden to see my reaction to
it. With respect to the warden’s time, I casually glanced around
the office, never focusing on the picture–although it was a very
nice piece of sports memorabilia! Satisfied he moved the tour to
the mess hall where the inmates were chowin’ down.
The warden and I stood against the back wall of the cafeteria.
The scene was of a sea of khaki uniforms and while taking in
all that sameness, suddenly, I spied him! There he was, silently
sandwiched between two black inmates (possibly his protectors),
listless with his head hung low over his plate. Seeing him
was as exciting as a bases-loaded moment with the hit king at
bat! I may have even stared a split second longer than I probably
should have, but for Pete’s sake it was the legendary bad boy of
baseball himself, Charlie Hustle!
The potential now feels really real for scoring that $100,000.00
National Enquirer payload; but seeing Pete in the pokey like this
makes me realize that he and I have something very much in common–
we are both crapshooters who gamble with our freedom.
There has been just too damn many Pete Rose coincidences,
and if I weren’t totally convinced before, I am certainly convinced
now the warden is suspicious–just having himself a little
bit of fun before he slams my foolish ass in a cage with the rest
of the goof ups–and since the point of no return passed long ago
it is from the frying pan into the fire I will go with the warden to
the housing pods.
The unusual thing about the pod tour was, that, there were
many of them, up and down the housing corridor–row after row
of drab colorless cubicles without doors–iron beds, thin mattresses,
gray flannel blankets and no pillows, each divided by a
movable partition–the sort of thing the Government might provide
after a natural disaster or perhaps the mass housing of the
future. Never have I been to nor do I intend on visiting, but this
prison housing unit thing is what I’d expect telemarketer Hell
to be like: no privacy, monotonous in every way and having to
smell each other’s farts.
It was Warden’s show and so he did all the talking as he lead
me through the corridors, passing numerous pods and stopping
at only one–the pod of Pete Rose! It was the ballplayer’s pod alright
because in it was his Cincinnati Reds ball cap and a photo
of the wife. “Yep, they’re all the same, Warden,” I said as I turned
to get the hell out of Dodge. Oh yes I was! I was being baited and
this time there was no doubt in my mind. Paranoia you still say?
Well I think not!
On the last part of the prison tour Warden and I spent it outside
in plain view of the watchtower and armed guards. He took me to
the rec-yard and showed me the location of the power source and
where I was to setup the music equipment, and in doing so apologized
for having to miss tomorrow’s performance–says he won’t
be able to make it due to guest speaker duties at a convention. But,
not to worry, the guards would be looking out for my safety. “Be
vigilant of your surroundings,” he cautioned. “Don’t get yourself
in the vicinity of any doorways or openings because they’ll pull
you in, rape you, hold you hostage, and probably kill you! And,
whatever you do, don’t choose music that’ll incite a riot.” From
Warden’s closing tour statement the odds just don’t seem all that
good for getting out of the joint unscathed.
In less than twenty-four hours, for better or worse, my life will
have changed so tonight I will try my best to surrender the mind
games and rest my head. But, before I rest, lastly, I need to make
a run to the local farmers feed store for some new khaki clothes.
As expected morning has broken, but truthfully? I’d rather
take an ass whipping from Mike Tyson than to face it.
Apprehensively I rolled out of bed and stumble over to the sink
where I made a pot of the crappiest coffee I had never not been
able to drink. Checking myself in the mirror I was not surprised
by the hideousness. Uptight and in a terrible mess, I leaned in to
have a closer look at the depth of the dark circles–it was all there,
the telltale signs from the whole ugly story, for anyone to see
who looked close enough. So in an effort to minimize the scars
left by life’s little experiences, I took a cold shower–one as cold as
I could stand–painted on a straight face and dressed all up in my
new Farmer John khaki outfit–to better blend in and downplay
the female attributes while crisscrossing the prison grounds.
The adrenaline is beginning to rise. Back and forth I pace
the floor, sweating, lathering up like a thoroughbred ready to
run the race, head about to explode, processing the what-ifs.
In an instant the room has become much smaller now that the
thing is awake, spewing worthless, negative noise, causing my
brain excruciating pain and it to react claustrophobically. The
PC is again attempting another malfunction, and so I opened
the curtains to let in the sunlight and enlarge my perspective
when, unexpectedly, I am faced with that old reoccurring nightmare
of having fallen into shock and so afraid that I am unable
to scream for help–the entire bottom floor of my hotel room is
completely surrounded by police cars. The parking lot was full of
them–twenty, thirty, forty, maybe more. I didn’t bother to count
but I knew they were there, armed and out of sight, just waiting
for me to step out or perhaps preparing to batter-ram the door. I
snatched the curtains closed, doubled checked the deadbolt and
backed away from the door. In complete panic mode, with my
teeth chattering and knees knockin’, I picked up the phone’s receiver
and dialed the front desk.
I couldn’t stop stuttering as I tried to formulate the question:
“Is it safe to go outside?” “Well, what do you mean?” The desk
clerk said as if a parking lot filled with cop cars was a normal
everyday occurrence. “Have you not noticed that the parking lot
is full of police cars?” “Oh that!” She said. “Don’t worry. You’re
safe here. This time every year they take over the entire Holiday
Inn. It’s the annual Illinois State Police Convention!”
Holy mother of fucking conventions! The heart can only take
so much stress and brain so much strain, and this little episode
has me just about done in. And I haven’t even gotten out of the
parking lot yet! I didn’t bother to pack. I grabbed yesterday’s
clothes and slung them into the back seat of the Bullet–mindful
to buckle up and not spin gravel on the way out.
Now, earlier, having mentioned karma, I’d like to just go ahead
and fess up before going to the prison to having appropriated a
bath towel when running out of the hotel room, and only because
it was seriously needed to conceal the vomit on the floorboard
that I felt even slightly vindicated for the transgression. If all goes
well I plan to return the towel.
Over the fields and through the woods, for the third time in
two days SuperMax is again coming into view–and I am as nervous
as one of Colonel Tom Parker’s dancing chickens on a hot
plate. I just kept telling myself that by day’s end, if I can manage
to shake off this old snake eyes streak, I will have scored a
$100,000.00 tabloid payload and made myself well. You’ll have to
pardon me as I refuse to address the flipside as failure is not an
option. Destined to do what I’ve come to do–if all goes to Hell in
a hand-basket there’ll be plenty of time to address the flipside
tomorrow, and thereafter.
The time had come to place that final last phone call to Joe
Mullins, and par for the fucking course it’s produced a major
“We’ve brought in the legal team and it’s been decided that if
you’re successful today the National Enquirer will promote the
Pete Rose in Prison Story as a world exclusive! But for us to legally
do this you must introduce yourself to Rose as a reporter from
the National Enquirer.”
Uh. You say what? Not exactly what I had planned. I mean, I
figured on just shooting Pete Rose from a distance like a snatch
n’ grab sort of paparazzi style undertaking–and that’s if he
comes to hear the music. Certainly uttering those words would
seal my fate. I could admit to having stolen the Lindbergh baby
and get the same results.
Having this additional layer of added danger Joe wished me
luck, and offered these final words of encouragement: “If you get
caught we’ll get you out if it takes us twenty years! Now, won’t
we?” The disturbing part with what he said? He meant!
(Note to Self: Fleet Street journalists have peculiar habit of
finishing statements with a question.)
While keeping an eye peeled for Pete, Doug and I began
unloading the PA system, lugging it slowly across the prison
grounds. As an additional safety precaution I tucked my hair
up underneath my khaki baseball cap which allowed me a little
more freedom of movement. Doug set up the sound and removed
the cameras from the speaker. We each took one and advanced
the film to the third frame and put it on our bodies.
The time was flying by and with every passing minute the
window of opportunity was closing. As dangerous as the move,
with only twenty minutes left until show time, I realized I was
not going to get Pete Rose without enlisting some help. Fancying
myself a fairly good judge of character, I eeny-meeny-minymoed
me a criminal.
Before letting the cat out of the bag I had to quickly deduce
if my criminal was a good criminal or a bad criminal when
another criminal hustled up the scene, demanding I give him
immediate attention. I brashly told him to fuck off elsewhere
while I finished talking to my criminal. “Do you see that man
over there?” He said all puffed-up and pleased to be mob connected.
“He wants to talk to you. Now!” Thinking I’ve something
good going on right here, and didn’t feel I wanted to be spreading
my business any further; I lowered my already low voice and
snarled, “And who in the hell is he to think I’ll step and fetch
because he wants me to?” A toss of his head into the man’s direction,
he said, “That there is the candy bar king!” “Well hells bells
you should have said so right off the bat. I love candy bars! And so
I asked my criminal if what the other criminal said were true–if
the man over there was indeed Candy Man. Upon confirmation,
I put a badass Clint Eastwood mug on my face and approached,
keeping him and his posse of henchmen at arm’s length.
Like a blue-footed booby in heat I mirrored the Candy Man’s
every move. He stared deep into my squinted eyes. I stared back.
Candy Man was reading me, as well I was reading him. He held
back on the verbiage. I too held back. Then he cracked. “That guy
over there? The one you’re talking to? That’s the prison’s snitch.
I just saved you from having a serious problem, Missy.” I jacked
my right eyebrow up higher. “So you think you’re smart, don’t
you, Missy? Well you don’t have me fooled.” He scolded. “I know
what you’re up to. You’re here for Pete Rose!”
The plan to confide was to confide in only one criminal and
now the whole goddamn prison yard knows. Hmmm, what to
do? What to do? I didn’t yet want to verify his suspicion as he
hasn’t given me an inkling of which side of the fence he’s on. And
then, after what seemed to be a lifelong pause, he breaks out in
laughter. And let me tell ya … when the Candy Man breaks out,
all the boys’ breakout!
The Candy Man shared some sweet information: a radius
of three feet where contraband is passed between prisoners
which, according to Candy Man, could not be detected by video
cameras or the guard tower. Depending on who shoots Pete
Rose the tentative plan is to rendezvous at the radius and swap
cameras. The purpose of the camera swap is that whoever
snaps the photo may have drawn unwanted attention to themselves,
be detained and the camera destroyed. By swapping
cameras the film would be safely on its way back to the confinement
of the speaker. The advancement of the film frames
was crucial to the camera swap. If the camera was confiscated
it’s likely the guards would look to see how many pictures were
taken. If the camera’s count showed no advancement in frames
then someone is likely getting wool pulled over their eyes.
I had been frantically searching for Pete for nearly two hours
and the inmates are now in the rec-yard pounding on tables,
chanting, “Music! Music! Music!” The racket reverberated off the
walls and could be heard around the prison. It was time to give
the inmates what we came for–and just as the last of my hope
dwindled, the Candy Man sent a messenger to tell me that Pete
Rose is in the laundry room.
The laundry room was on the second floor of the pods–surrounded
in glass so you could see out and you could see in, ensuring
no privacy for anyone. The chanting of the inmates set
my pace and actually turned out to be the perfect smoke screen–
drawing the guards’ attention away from me. I hustled casually
through the pods, toward the laundry room, rounding third for
home, and slid right into Pete Rose!
When I caught Pete Rose he was seated in a reclined position,
bum knee propped up on a chair and going nowhere.
His time in prison is spent recovering from knee surgery and
coaching both prison ball teams–a tactical move to stay alive.
Because of the novelty of the situation, on both sides (a sports
legend in prison and a woman free roaming a man’s prison),
we stared at each other getting our freak on. I detected that he
was smitten in his expression. Feeling the moment, I blurted
out the words I most dreaded, “Pete, I’m a reporter from the
National Enquirer and I’ve come to take your picture. It’s going
worldwide!” Inmates scattered like rats jumping ship–up
until that point he was surrounded by inmates who were washing
clothes, watching Cincinnati in the playoffs, betting with
prison vouchers called chits. Pete obliged on the photo and we
briefly spoke. “Hey Pete,” I said, “If you could be given a second
chance, what would you do differently?” Unwavering, Pete replied,
“Not get caught! And you better get your ass out of here
before you get caught!” That was it. The camera flashed and the
As planned, Doug and I split up and rendezvoused at the radius
to switch the cameras and, on the spot, decided to forfeit
the music equipment for a hasty exit. We began pace walking
towards the car, the inmates in the rec-yard were anxious and
shouting louder than before, when suddenly I was stopped dead
in my tracks by another one of those out of nowhere jolts of lightning.
In an instant it became crystal clear that if I didn’t go back
and perform for the inmates, the reason Warden allowed me
onto the prison grounds to begin with, I would have defrauded
the Federal Government. I would have arrived at SuperMax under
the pretense of doing one thing and left having done something
else. That’s fraud and I didn’t want to go there and so we
The inmates attending the performance erupted when
we picked up the instruments. At any moment I expected the
guards to swoop-in in military style and haul us away. The cameras
were placed back into the safety of the speaker. The first
guitar chord was struck. Eric Clapton’s Cocaine is dedicated to
Carlos Lehder who’s over in twenty-four hour lockdown and unable
to attend. Prisoners raised the noise bar!
With each song performed my mojo seemed to be returning
and with the help of the Candy Man I may have actually pulled
off one of the biggest coups in the history of journalism. The way
I figured it to go down, if I had been exposed by the camera’s
flash that had lit up the laundry room, twenty minutes earlier,
then surely, by now, the guards would have marched in and taken
me out. Had I seen the guards coming I was totally prepared
to throw myself onto the ground, spread eagle and eat some dirt
without having to have been manhandled.
From the stage platform, I was wide-eyed to the razor wire,
the criminals, the watchtower, the armed guards–it was just all
so surreal. I’ve never experience a miracle before, not one that I
recognized anyway, but it seemed evident that one was in play,
otherwise this episode makes absolutely no sense. I have merely,
robotically, been reacting to the cards having been dealt me.
From the get-go I have had zero choice in the matter–had I been
able to turn it around, I would have turned it around when I first
laid eyes on SuperMax. However this whole crazy ordeal winds
up playing out, I can be certain of only one thing: I will not be returning
as a participant in the sequel of the Pascagoula Hunger
For the encore, tongue and cheek we performed Eric Burdon & the Animals “We Gotta Get Out of this Place” – and that we did.
-The National Enquirer touts Mays’ Pete Rose in Prison story as “The sports coup of the decade.”
-Chicago Tribune “… the prison’s chief psychologist, said:
“It’s all fabrication.”
-With film in hand, Sammie arrives at National Enquirer headquarters in Lantana, Florida, where a 60 Minutes television crew is on locale producing a segment intended to expose the tabloid for fabricating stories.
-The Pete Rose in Prison “World Exclusive” directly shuts down the 60 Minutes’ investigation and becomes the landmark story to the validity of the National Enquirer.
-The newspaper giant uses Sammie’s story as the momentum to take The Enquirer/Star Group, Inc. stock public.
-With the promise of being made a millionaire, the N.E. convinces Sammie to take a position in Hollywood on their celebrity desk. Upholding her end of the bargain she’s cheated of the deal money and instead given “death by assignments” which in the event of her untimely demise she claims the paper would avoid paying her up.
-Mays’ prison story becomes a favorite tell-all in the written memoirs of “Iain Calder, My 20 Years Running The National Enquirer, The Untold Story.”
-Sammie Mays lives in Key West and continues to wait for her money but remains cautious of opening any National Enquirer correspondence for fear of encountering the contents of another envelope dusted in white powder.
-She has created her own signature brand of margaritas.
-October 2015, Sammie Mays begins writing for Gonzo Today.
copyright 2015 Sammie Mays