Save Me, Ratso Rizzo

Christine Holmstrom

San Quentin State Prison

Holy Mary, was that Dustin Hoffman? Rising on tiptoes to see over the scrum of correctional officers swarming toward the counter to check in for second watch, I’d strained to spot the famous actor. Yep, it was him, watching the early morning chaos. Dark and unkempt, Hoffman could’ve slithered up from one of the prison’s dank subbasements—a no-man’s land of noxious fumes, clanking pipes, and dripping effluent. Hoffman reminded me of an oversized, slightly comatose rodent—squinty eyes shut like he’d been bopped over the head. I flashed on his death scene as “Ratso” Rizzo in Midnight Cowboy. He looked like he’d just walked off the set—disheveled and sweaty.

What was he doing at San Quentin anyway? Was he planning on making a prison flick?
Maybe Ratso would hire me for his next film. It wasn’t a totally absurd thought. A recent made-for-TV movie, Women of San Quentin, had been partially based on two female officers at the prison. They hadn’t been in the actual film, but their names were in the credits. Money must’ve been involved.

The movie sucked. In the climactic scene a major riot breaks out in the upper yard. The lady lieutenant, who’s bonking a captain on the side, strides into the melee with inmates stabbing and punching each other, holds up her hand, and yells, “Boys, put down your weapons. Stop fighting.” And they do. Absolute horse pucky. In real life the woman would’ve been sliced, diced, and left in a bloody pile on the asphalt. Heck, I could write the script for a more realistic prison movie in a New York minute. I pictured the closing credits, my name in big block letters, “Screenplay by…”

My rescue fantasies went into warp drive as I peeked at Hoffman. I’d get a part in his next movie—make it big like 1940’s buxom, blonde actress Lana Turner, reportedly “discovered” sitting on a stool at a soda fountain in Hollywood, her double-D boobs thrust against her too-tight sweater, her shiny lips parted as if waiting for a kiss. Why not me? I was young and pretty, had a pushup bra in my lingerie drawer back home. But at the moment, swaddled in my prison sergeant’s uniform, I resembled a beige-and-green barber pole. Bits of glazed donut clung to the corners of my mouth. I swiped at my face with the back of my hand. I was about as glamorous as a piece of fried dog shit.

Behind the cops stacking up in front of me, I’d spotted my latest crush, a dark-haired officer, a former tennis pro, who made my skin tingle. Umm. Ummm. Umm.

He threw me a grin. “Number 425.”

“Wait, I’ve diverted you from the visiting room. You’re doing a hospital transport instead.” What I really wanted was to divert cutie pie to my bedroom. That wasn’t going to happen. Last I heard he was living with some babe. Too bad.

Now I’d have to call the visiting sergeant, apologize for stealing one of his cops, listen to him rant about being short-staffed. If this was a popularity contest, I’d be coming in last.

One thing was certain: I was ready to ditch this crummy prison job, where I might get raped or stabbed. Yeah, I acted like a badass bitch, but I was a cream puff pretending to be an Amazon warrior. Ratso Rizzo could be my savior.

Glancing his way, I sighed. Darn, he wasn’t even looking at me. Screw it. I could take care of myself; I didn’t need a man to save me. Even Dustin Hoffman.

I checked off the names of the three officers bellying up to the counter. “Gotcha. Have a safe day.”

Still, I wasn’t quite ready to abandon my hopes. Should I slap on some lipstick? All I had in my Tuffy jacket was a tube of lip balm. Looking good for this job hadn’t been high on my priority list.

Hoffman’s brow was scrunched, his arms folded across his chest. He peered in my general direction. If I weren’t trapped behind the counter with twenty cops barring the way, I might’ve walked over and introduced myself, asked a couple questions. Like: Want the real deal about prison? I’d make a fab consultant. Wanna hire me? By the way, you were terrific in Tootsie.

Was Hoffman married? Maybe I could be his new girlfriend—a headline straight out of the National Enquirer. “Oscar-winning actor falls for prison guard.”

Who was I kidding? The last thing I wanted was amorous interest from a short, swarthy dude who bore an uncanny resemblance to a sewer rat. But wait, hadn’t Richard Burton laid a big rock—a ten-carat diamond—on some waitress just to show off? Last I heard, Hoffman wasn’t carrying any oversized gemstones in his pockets. Besides, he was either terminally bored or taking a nap. No diamonds for me. Still, I kept glancing his way, trying to catch his eye.

When I was a kid, there was a TV show called The Millionaire, where the rich man’s personal secretary would show up on some deserving person’s doorstep and bestow a million bucks on the astounded recipient. Every afternoon I’d wait for the doorbell in our tract house to ring, for my check to arrive.

Brraanng. I snatched the substation desk phone, listened for a moment. “What do you mean you’re down two staff?”

It was a lockup unit, sergeant. Two cops hadn’t showed up for their shift. The clang of cell doors slamming, the PA blasting, and inmates shouting drifted from the phone’s receiver, along with the sergeant’s demand. I could almost smell the stench of moldering trash, the scent of greasy hash browns and fried eggs congealing on breakfast trays stacked on a battered, rolling food cart.

The lockup sergeant repeated, “How soon can you get me a couple officers? I’ve got yard to run in fifteen. Let me know who’s comin’ in.” In the background steam heaters belched like an out-of-tune brass section.

I smacked my coffee mug against the ink- and donut-smudged countertop. The acidic scent of dark-roast Sumatra filled my nostrils. “How the hell am I gonna find someone? No one’s ever home when I call—they’ve all trained their kids to lie. First watch is gone. What do you think I am, a fuckin’ magician?”

“Don’t swear. Just get me two cops.” The phone clicked. Silence.

What was this, frickin’ Sunday school? Cussing was my way of relieving stress. One thing for sure: I wasn’t gonna let this job kill me, like the last two watch sergeants. The first man keeled over from a heart attack. The other one cranked on his car engine inside his garage, a hose strung between the tailpipe and passenger compartment. I’d liked him—he was a real sweetie pie. When I’d heard about the suicide, I’d rushed to a bathroom to hide my sobs. Had to play tough around here. No crying allowed. But I didn’t plan on becoming a victim of karoshi, death by overwork and stress. I needed a ticket out of this hellhole. I’m counting on you, Ratso.

As the seven o’clock rush faded, Hoffman nodded at the prison public relations officer, ready to head out to the next stop on his tour of our lovely little institution.

I scowled. Come on, man, pay attention. Look my way. Have your minions interview me—get some honest background on women working in a men’s max joint.

Hoffman oozed out the substation door, followed by the prison PR man and a couple big dudes who must’ve been his bodyguards. So much for my chances of being discovered.

Tearing the edge off my second glazed donut of the morning, I wondered if I’d consumed enough sugar to amp me up for the day. If a fight kicked off in one of the lockup exercise yards, I’d be in deep doo-doo, especially when the ambulances came wailing in, giving me mere minutes to steal—I mean “divert” more cops from their regular assignments and send them out with the casualties. 

I swiped at a stray lock of hair. Too bad about Hoffman. But why was I always waiting for someone to come rescue me? Probably because this job sucked, and I had no better prospects.

My choices in men had generally been pretty pathetic—never Prince Charming material. Marriage hadn’t worked. Husband number one was legally blind yet planned to be a used car salesman. He had to borrow bus fare from me to scuttle off on his fruitless job search. I’d paid for our Reno Chapel of Love wedding and the divorce six months later. Note to self: just ’cause a guy gives you Screaming Mimi orgasms doesn’t mean you should walk down the aisle with him. Hubby number two was a lying philanderer. Yeah, he’d leap up on a table at our favorite fish joint and announce to the astonished diners, “I love this woman, she’s fabulous,” and pushed misspelled love notes across the bar where we both worked. Yet I knew he was a Lothario before I’d even taken the “till death do us part” vows. Pretty soon I was sitting in a lawyer’s office, forking out the dough for another divorce.

I’d even gone into therapy, trying to unravel the cause of my continual romantic mishaps. A Birkenstock-wearing therapist with a scruffy beard insisted, “You have issues with men.” I’d always thought the problem was that I’d picked men with issues.

As for Ratso Rizzo, he’d evaporated along with my silly fantasy. Time to stop dreaming. I’d made it this far—lived through an armed escape, a death threat, and the Juneteenth riot. Accept reality. I wasn’t a movie star; I was a fucking prison guard. Gulping down the last of my coffee, I focused on the watch sheet, wondering whom to call to fill those vacant positions.


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