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Holiday at the Grocery Store: Conversations with a reformed convict (part 2)

Interviewer’s Note: Last October, we ran the first half of this interview with Cesar Dominguez, who was a drug-addicted residential burglar until caught by the local constabulary.

Since that time, we’ve received a number of e-mails regarding the interview and his story. That interview, as well as Anonymous’ Outburst rant published earlier this year, have raised a lot of hackles over how Journal of Mundane Behavior seems to betray its name.

The point of running this interview, as well as Anonymous’ piece, is twofold. First, even for those who run afoul of the law, there is mundanity – trying to score drugs, casing houses, or worrying about one’s safety in a prison shower, once taken out of the media spotlight and made an everyday part of one’s reality, become mundanity.

The second point is to show how tenuous everyone’s hold on normalcy is. Cesar had a promising career in retail management before he lost it all/gave it all up and became a thief. He did the crime, he did the time – and this portion of my interview with him shows how after he did the time, he had to work incredibly hard to regain at least a modicum of a normal life. And for that, he should be commended – after all, he shows us how hard maintaining our everydayness really is.

You mentioned earlier that you escaped a lot of jail time because of bureaucratic mishaps in the criminal justice system. Describe your experience with the system; is it all Law and Order, or is it more like Keystone Kops?

It’s a little bit of both worlds. I could tell you some hilariously amazing stories about how I escaped jail time for various crimes I was hideously guilty of, but I would be incriminating myself. And having spent so much time straightening my life out, I’m scared to death of losing it all. Which reminds me, it’s important to say that everyone gets caught. Eventually you find yourself in a position where your judgment is clouded (stoned out of your mind), your hearing is impaired (stoned out of your mind), and you just don’t give a fuck (stoned out of your mind). Next thing you know, you’re in a holding tank eating bologna and mayonnaise sandwiches, sipping a 6 oz. “fruit punch drink,” and figuring out how the hell you’re going to get out of this one. All the while you’re getting fingerprinted, your picture taken and being assigned a day in court.

Now the thing about going to court (and this is how they get you) is that it’s a lot like going to hell. I swear to God. Allow me to explain: you’ve already been in a cell for three days, eating shitty food, wearing shitty clothes, and watching somebody else take a shit. Life at this point is pretty much the shits. Being a dope fiend makes it even worse. First, they wake you up at four o’clock in the morning so you can go stand in line and wait to stand in line and wait. The next line you wait in is to eat at 4:45am with the other drug addicts going to court. After you finish chow, you get in line and wait to wait. This line is to get into a holding cell at 6:30am. The holding cell should actually be called the waiting cell, because that’s all you do – wait. You sit on a cold stone floor roughly 18 feet by 18 feet, with a toilet in the corner, with about 20 other drug addicts all waiting to go to court. Sometime around 9am your wrists are cuffed, your ankles are cuffed, these are chained together and chained to the next man whose ankles are cuffed, and so on. There’s usually about 8 guys to a line.

Then, you finally get to court – sort of. You’re shoveled off into another holding cell, where you’re fed bologna sandwiches, an apple, and (hold on to your hats, kids) a chocolate chip cookie. If you’re not a “lame” and your cookie doesn’t get taken away from you, this damn chocolate chip cookie will be the highlight of your court experience, because if you’re dressed in blues, shackled and appointed a court attorney, you’re done.

Tell me about your first day on the outside. How difficult was it to not slip into old routines and habits?

My first day out was a motherfucker. For some unknown reason, when a con leaves the gates with his $200 and a hard-on, he also thinks he has his CDC (California Department of Corrections) number stamped across his forehead. He thinks everybody is staring at him thinking “there goes another worthless ex-con; he’ll be back.” No shit, you think everybody knows.

The day I got out, a couple of friends of mine rented a car and a hotel room in town so they could pick me up and we could celebrate my release. I hadn’t had anything but a hand-rolled cigarette in more than a year and I couldn’t wait to puff on my first “tailored smoke.” So on the way home, we stopped at a convenience store (and it’s important to note that prior to my lockup my brand, Marlboro 100s, came in a gold box; while I was locked up they changed it to a red box). So anyway, we pull into this convenience store and I walk up to the counter where there’s a display of Marlboros. I must’ve looked stoned out of my mind (what are the chances?) because all I could do was sit there and stare at the display. I couldn’t find the damn 100s. I don’t know how much time had passed, but when I looked up, the girl behind the counter asked me if I was alright. (I should also note that after I was locked up, girls’ mini-skirts had this slit to the front, almost up to the panty line – and the counter girl was wearing one. Wow.) I look around, and the two people in line are staring at me wondering if I was alright.

Multiply this experience times looking for a job, times trying to convince someone to take you in, times trying to beat drug addiction, and you might have a fair idea of what life on the first day on the outside is like.
For me, not slipping into old routines was pretty simple. I did the only thing I could do. I didn’t go back to the old neighborhood; I didn’t hang with my old friends; and I understood that the drug was more powerful than I am. In other words, I gave up my entire past so I could avoid repeating it.

What was the hardest “normal” thing you had to get used to on the outside? The easiest?

The hardest thing to relearn was how to pay bills. You’ve got to figure all the time it took for me to begin a life that would end up with me locked up to end that life (in other words, become a normal functioning member of society) was about five years. How do you explain to an employer where you’ve been for five years? How do you explain to a landlord where you’ve been for five years? Imagine five years’ worth of screwed-up credit, unpaid bills, and every other kind of imaginable debt that you can think of, and you begin to understand how the easiest, simplest, most mundane things can become the most challenging, difficult, and unimaginable things at the same time.

The easiest thing to get used to was the mundane. I can absolutely guarantee that I have a finer and deeper appreciation for the most mundane and minimal things that any of your readers know. I like doing laundry. I love cooking and doing the dishes. Grocery shopping is a great time. Taking my girlfriend shopping is a holiday. Getting up and going to a job that I totally love is a blessing and a reward that I value everyday.

When I find myself thinking, “fuck this, I don’t want to go do laundry,” I remember having to wait in line to wear somebody else’s underwear, and I am more than happy to go do laundry. There’s this street in Silverlake called St. George that passes right by Marshall High School. I take this street to work every day. As you come down the hill and pass MHS, the view straight ahead is palm trees, pine trees, and houses in the foreground with the Angeles Crest, topped with snow, in the background, and I swear to God I can’t pass this street without totally loving the way it looks and the effect it has on me. I can still vividly remember the 1’ by 3’ rectangular hole in the wall that they called a “window” in the pen.

You’re engaged now. How hard was it to find a relatively “normal” relationship with your checkered past? What kinds of problems did you have to face?

The difficult part in finding normality in a relationship didn’t come from my checkered past, but in learning to deal with my life as I would begin to know it on a sober and spiritual level. It’s important to say that even when I did go through short periods of sobriety in my life, I still had no life skills or point of reference for what “normal” was. As I mentioned before, my father was (and still is) an old lowrider/gangster/alcoholic/drug addict, and my mother was the “all-American wife and mother” who stayed at home taking care of the kids and minding her husband. So all I had known up until this point in my life was dysfunction.

Fortunately, I have a strong relationship with my lord. With His guidance, I have a clear understanding of who I am and what I want and need out of a relationship – respect, honesty, care, thoughtfulness, teamwork, tenderness and intimacy, as opposed to just sex like it used to be. These are the things that I value and hold dear to my heart.
I value the woman in my life more than I could ever say. Before I met Jane, I was asking God to put a girl in my life that I could love, honor, and cherish, and that if he did I would take care of her and seek his wisdom in doing so. So, when He came through, I came through.

I live my relationship sort of like a profit and loss statement. By that, I mean that I try as hard as I can to make sure that my presence in her life is a positive one. Every day, I make sure that I’ve done something to make a positive difference. When we lie down to sleep together, I always feel like she can’t wait to wake up and see me in the morning.

Tell me about your life routine now. How much like “normal people” do you think you’ve become?

I don’t even know what “normal” is, so I don’t know how to answer this question. If by “normal” you mean “The Man” and his “bourgeois” class, then I’ve never been normal, nor do I care to be. Screw middle-class America and its values. I’m a half-breed Mexican American Angelino punk and I always will be. Middle is boring, middle is tedious, and to me, middle is nothing. I can’t imagine being somewhere in between two kinds of extremes.

Life is all about drama, the ups and the downs, the highs and the lows, and even more importantly, the rise and the fall. Life is a continuing saga, like high school, and if you’re not being challenged, if you don’t have to pick yourself up once in a while or even be so low that you have to be picked up, how can you learn resilience? If you don’t shoot for the moon, how can you fail miserably once in a while and know the pain of broken dreams? If you don’t take a chance on love, how can you know what it’s like to have your heart ripped from your chest or learn how to know tenderness and compassion for another human being without even knowing them?

As far as I’m concerned, there is no “normal” – or at least there shouldn’t be. “Normal” is just a way of measuring people against one another, of making everyone work really hard to be exactly like one another. So they end up with the same SUV, the same TV, and the same mindset. What fun is that? Why can’t we all be extreme in our own way?

Look, I’ve got my shit back together. I’ve got a great job, a beautiful fiancée, good friends, and I’m taking care of my business. So I’m learning how to be responsible again. But “normal”? What are the deciding factors for normal? Mr. Brady was gay, and he was supposed to be embodiment of middle class normal America.

Do people really think this can’t happen to them? What, only bad people do drugs and get high? Dope is everywhere, whether it’s crack or a fine Scotch. Here’s a warning to “middle class normal America” and what they wish for drug-offending criminals: be careful what you wish for. Everybody gets high. Drugs know no prejudice. That convicted user could be your daughter, your cousin, your wife, or your best friend.

I’m not that much different from anybody else. I speak two languages. I was skipped a grade in school and almost became a math teacher. I manage a really nice restaurant and my work is respected. And some of my best friends include doctors, professors, social workers and teachers. And that’s as close to normal as I get.

One of the supposed claims of the criminal justice system is that prison “corrects” people – it makes them good members of society. Did you see anything along those lines on the inside?

Let’s get this straight: There is no “correction” in the corrections system, and there sure as hell is no rehabilitation system. When you’re doing time, that’s all you’re doing – time. If you believe numbers, eight of ten guys that I was locked up with are now back inside, and it’s not hard to tell why. The only thing you have when you get out that you didn’t have when you got in is $200 and your world ripped out from under you.

You have no job, nowhere to go, and you’ve been given no head start. Every reason you had before that made you turn to drugs or crime is still there. You haven’t learned to deal with those things, and you’ve been given no skills to move ahead with. Most guys locked up have no education, no skills, and are dirt poor. That’s part of the reason they turned to crime in the first place, and if they’re users, that’s why they started getting loaded.

They’re thrown back out in the mix and it’s assumed that because they’ve been locked up that they’ll do whatever it takes not to be locked up again. But if you put a child in a 8’ by 8’ room on the day of their birth and leave him there for the rest of his life, that’s all he knows. And this life – crime, drugs, prison – is all the guys I was in with know.

Compare your life now with how you think it would have been if you’d never fallen from grace. Which would you rather have had, and why?

I wouldn’t change a thing. I like who I am now, and if it took going through everything I went through to get here, then so be it. I wish I could have done things differently, easier. But as I said before, I like extremes. Whatever I do in my life I do with all my soul and heart.

I’ve seen some amazing things, met some incredible people, and have had a life filled with unimaginable circumstances. For every low point filled with heartache, there’s been a high point filled with joy and wonder. And having gone through everything I’ve gone through, I have a strength and resilience knowing that there’s nothing I can’t get through. I wake up every day with a deep appreciation and knowledge that this day is a blessing. Nothing is secure, nothing is permanent, and nothing is guaranteed. The world could end tomorrow, and I want to know that today I loved today.

What is the one thing you think the story of your life has to show other people? What should we take away from knowing all about Cesar?

[Interviewer’s Note: Cesar elected to have his fiancée Jane answer this question.]

I think Cesar’s life experience shows that people can learn to change and learn for the better if they choose to. Despite the circumstances Cesar has come from, what he’s become is a sensitive, caring, intelligent individual who is now fully responsible for himself and his actions, has learned from his past, and understands that life is a continual learning process.

But it’s even more than that – he has a way of engaging you, taking you in, and charming you, despite his loud, obnoxious surface demeanor. Part of him taking you in is sharing all of himself with you – the obnoxiousness, sure, but also his experience and his sense of responsibility and love for others.

In terms of our relationship, and I’m sure this is true of all his relationships, he takes everything as an experience to either be thoroughly enjoyed or learned from to enhance that relationship and break down any walls that may have existed between himself and other people. He is without a doubt the best emotional communicator I have ever met. It’s quite funny, really – when we’re children our parents try to teach us everything they can to help us survive in life. But they neglect to show us how to deal with our emotions. And maybe if they did that, then people wouldn’t have to go through what Cesar’s gone through.

Author: Cesar Dominguez, who until his thirteen months in LA County Jail and Claremont Custody Center in Coalinga, California, had avoided prosecution through a variety of miracles and bureaucratic mishaps, now works as a café manager in Silver Lake, California.

Published inIssue 2.2Issues
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