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Writing in prison, and writing to prisoners: the inmate who became the literary darling

I suppose you can't really fault Norman Mailer for being seduced by Jack Henry Abbott. After all, he had already courted Gary Gilmore (complete aside--how wild was it when Mailer & his son appeared on Gilmore Girls?!), who had been acquainted with Abbott in prison. And then of course there's Mailer's whole romance/own problem with violence (i.e. the stabbing-his-wife-incident in 1960--she didn't press charges, but she did eventually publish a book about it).

Their correspondence deepened, and Mailer eventually helped Abbott secure parole. Mailer and his new disciple (perhaps a surrogate for Gilmore; the ktwo never met) became fast friends in New York--Mailer made the callss to help Abbott publish his memoir, In the Belly of the Beast, and the two "did" literary New York--and even appeared on "Good Morning America" together. On July 18, 1981--just one day before the New York Times published a sterling review of his book--Abbott fatally stabbed a 22 year-old waiter in an East Village cafe. He fled town, and when he was apprehended and brought to trial in 1982 he found himself with some celebrity supporters: Susan Sarandon (her son is named after Abbott), Jerzy Kosinski, and Christopher Walken (though, in typical Walken-ese, he told the NY Post: "I often go to court to watch people's emotions").

I'm wondering, though: how many of you have corresponded with prison inmates? My father is involved in prison ministry, I've taught at a prison, but I've never maintained a written dialogue with anyone serving time & I'd be interested to hear from anyone who has...

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This Just In
How Much Does a Missing Comma Cost? For One Dairy in Maine, $5 Million
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Copy editors aren’t the only ones who should respect the value of the Oxford comma. Since 2014, a dairy company in Portland, Maine has been embroiled in a lawsuit whose success or failure hinged on the lack of an Oxford comma in state law. The suit is finally over, as The New York Times reports, and die-hard Oxford comma-lovers won (as did the delivery drivers who brought the suit).

The drivers’ class action lawsuit claimed that Oakhurst Dairy owed them years in back pay for overtime that the company argues they did not qualify for under state law. The law reads that employees in the following fields do not qualify for the time-and-a-half overtime pay that other workers are eligible for if they work more than 40 hours a week:

The canning, processing, preserving, freezing, drying, marketing, storing, packing for shipment or distribution of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish product; and

(3) Perishable foods

Notice that it says the “packing for shipment or distribution” and not “packing for shipment, or distribution of.” This raised a legal question: Should dairy distributors get overtime if they didn’t pack and distribute the product?

The case eventually made its way to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, which ruled that the lack of comma made the law ambiguous enough to qualify the drivers for their overtime pay, overturning the lower court’s verdict that the state legislature clearly intended for distribution to be part of the exemption list on its own.

In early February, the company agreed to pay $5 million to the drivers, ending the lawsuit—and, sadly, preventing us from ever hearing the Supreme Court’s opinions on the Oxford comma.

Future delivery drivers for the dairy won’t be so lucky. Since the comma kerfuffle began, the Maine legislature has rewritten the statute. Instead of embracing the Oxford comma, though—as we at Mental Floss would recommend—lawmakers decided to double down on their semicolons. It now reads:

The canning; processing; preserving; freezing; drying; marketing; storing; packing for shipment; or distributing of:

(1) Agricultural produce;

(2) Meat and fish products; and

(3) Perishable foods.

Come on, guys. What do you have against the serial comma?

[h/t The New York Times]

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California's Proposed Straw Ban Won't Actually Threaten Restaurant Employees With Jail Time
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Drinking straws are easy to find at eateries, but not so much in recycling bins. To curb pollution, California lawmaker Ian Calderon introduced a bill in January that would reduce plastic straw use in restaurants. Thanks to the measure's wording, it caused an uproar, Munchies reports. As it currently reads, restaurant employees would face $1000 fines or jail sentences of up to six months if they provide a straw to a customer unasked.

Calderon, the majority leader of the California State Assembly, says that the bill wasn’t meant to be so harsh. He chalked its language up to miscommunication, explaining to The Washington Post that the California Office of Legislative Counsel drafted the bill into a state health code section with jail penalties. They didn’t have time to fix it, and Calderon planned to amend the bill’s wording before it reached a committee. (He still intends to remove its criminal penalties.)

Backlash aside (one Republican politician called for people to mail Calderon their straws), Calderon simply wanted to introduce a measure that required sit-down restaurants to adhere to a straws-upon-request policy. Fast-food restaurants, cafés, and delis wouldn’t have to adhere to the guideline.

“We need to create awareness around the issue of one-time use plastic straws and its detrimental effects on our landfills, waterways, and oceans,” Calderon said in a statement. “AB 1884 is not ban on plastic straws. It is a small step towards curbing our reliance on these convenience products, which will hopefully contribute to a change in consumer attitudes and usage.”

Straws play a small—yet undeniable—part in our world’s ever-growing plastic waste problem. They typically wind up in landfills, and can end up in the ocean if proper disposal methods aren’t followed. This harms marine life, as fish and other creatures can mistake bits of broken-down straws for food.

Cities in California, including Manhattan Beach, San Luis Obispo, and Santa Cruz, have implemented their own versions of a straw ban. Berkeley and Los Angeles might soon follow suit, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. As for Calderon’s bill: It still needs to be revised, voted on, and approved. So nothing’s set in stone (or plastic) for now.

[h/t Munchies]

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