Prison Face-Off

By Joe Loya

Most men fantasize about getting laid, or getting high when they get out of prison. But as my release day neared, I fantasized about getting a facial. This from the man who once bit off a piece of a guy’s nostril because he had sold my Playboy magazine that I loaned him for a one-night date.

By the time I landed in jail in 1989, I had robbed more than 24 banks. I never wore a mask. That is, until I got to prison. Just take a look at my mug shot. People say I look like a corpse, with my dead stare and slack facial muscles.

I wanted to be like Gambino family crime boss, John Gotti, capo di tutti capi, who, prison lore tells, scrubbed his face with a hard-bristle brush in his cell on the morning of a court appearance to make his face look tough for the cameras and jury. I fed into the macho prison ethic that bad asses aren't supposed to look pretty in prison. In fact, the first time I met Steven, a lifer who as a teenager was likened to James Dean by courtroom journalists, I couldn't believe that he was actually incarcerated like me. Such was my expectation that beauty was a currency that could keep people out of prison.

I was never mistaken for one of those pretty boys. During my seven years in prison, my skin broke out badly because of severe stress and cheap soap. I picked at the unruly pimples on my face. They finally scabbed so badly that the blemishes turned brown, and eventually became permanent craters on my face. My nose was dotted with grimy blackheads. But I wore the scars and acne and dark circles under my eyes (from insomnia) as a badge of honor, evidence to other men that I survived in those mean corridors because I had overcome the outside world's preoccupation with looking attractive.

My father had slugged my face so hard sometimes when I was a boy that he forced me to stay home from school to hide the bruises. I finally could only imagine my facial features as permanently contorted, after years of seeing it swollen and bruised in the mirror. But now I wanted a facial.

I'd paid for girlfriends to get facials. Bought them gift certificates for birthdays or Christmas. If it hadn't been for Oprah, I'd never have thought about getting one myself. That may sound corny, but that’s the truth.

Almost every inmate in the prison owned a 13-inch TV. They mostly watched cartoons in the morning, Ricki Lake, Montel or Jerry Springer, in the afternoon—the Columbians and Dominican bettered their English with cartoons, and Ricki Lake often featured young, half dressed, heavy cleavaged, slutty girls, strutting on stage, defending their dangerous promiscuity. Incarcerated guys love watching all that wild fleshiness. I considered daytime talk shows beneath me. They reminded me of wrestling: phony, and vaudevillian.

But one day, when the entire prison was on lockdown because an Irish kid stabbed a black guy, and I was alone in the cell, I stumbled across an Oprah “make-over” show while channel surfing. Her guests were five women from domestic abuse shelters. Some of the women were strikingly pretty, which threw me for a minute. Why did they need makeovers? Then the confessions came out, one interview after the next: they all saw themselves as ugly. Only after months of intense daily therapy did they finally feel like they deserved to become attractive.

Normally, I'd be embarrassed to watch, or be caught watching, all that touchy-feely crap, but the seven months of daily therapy for the women put me in mind of my seven years in prison. I thought, “Could I, dare I, risk becoming attractive to society again?”

I couldn't think about getting a facial without thinking about my fear of having my face rubbed and massaged intimately by a stranger. When the occasion called for it, I'd hugged friends in prison. Bear hugging like Cossacks. But I hadn't been touched sensually for seven years. A simple touch from a woman sounded scary. I was afraid of feeling something, anything, but especially of remembering my father's punches.

When I was a kid, I associated every blow and explosion of feeling in my head with eroticism. And why not? Nerves are densely bundled in that small oval space. It's an intimate, sensual zone. When the head gets slapped or punched hard enough, or pounded with a metal teapot like my father once did to my head, it’s easy to suffer major head concussions. Movement slows, things turn blurry, and the body goes numb. Like a stunning orgasm after exhausting lovemaking. That’s why I was terrified of loitering too long in a woman’s bed after sex. I both desired and feared erotic human touch.

I didn't presume that I'd be made handsome by the facial. In fact, I was a bit put off by the whole Palm Spring's treatment I'd seen in magazines, with red mud caked on the face and cucumbers worn on the eyes like matching monocles. I just wanted to wipe clean the grime that seemed to cake on my face in those dungeons. And it would be a real challenge to see if I could allow myself to be touched without flinching. I wanted to prove, right out of the joint, that I could accept a softer version of myself.

Five years out of prison, I still hadn't gotten a facial. But when I threw a party to celebrate my release from parole, a friend gave me a gift certificate for one at a European-style skin care salon in Berkeley. A tiny facial gun gently suctioned clean the pores on my nose and cheeks—which felt like small kisses, under the warm bath of light. As I lay relaxed on the table, I could not miss the irony that a gun had been used to accelerate my downfall, and now another kind of gun was being used for my cleansing.