Released From Prison, 'Apologetic Bandit' Writes About Life Inside Daniel Genis, son of Soviet emigre writer Alexander Genis, served 10 years for armed robbery. The crimes fueled his heroin addiction. "It was so obvious I didn't fit in," he says.

Released From Prison, 'Apologetic Bandit' Writes About Life Inside

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This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The apologetic bandit is what my guest Daniel Genis was nicknamed in the press after he was arrested for robbing people at knifepoint in 2003. He offered apologies to his victims as he took their cash. The money was to pay off his debt to his heroin dealer. This was not the direction Genis's life was supposed to head in. He's the son of the Soviet emigre Alexander Genis, who is still famous in Russia as a broadcaster and culture critic. Some of the people Daniel Genis met as a child include Mikhail Barishnikov, Andrei Sakharov, Kurt Vonnegut, Umberto Eco, Norman Mailer and Milos Forman. Education and culture are prized in his family, but after college, instead of making a name for himself in publishing as he planned, Genis was convicted of five counts of armed robbery, for which he served 10 years total in maximum and medium security prisons. He was released last year. Since his release he's been keeping busy writing articles and essays for such publications as Newsweek, The Washington Post, Deadspin and VICE. He's at work on a memoir about the 1,046 books he read while in prison.

Daniel Genis, welcome to FRESH AIR. I want to start by reading an excerpt of the New York Post article that seems to follow you around in your biography all over. And this is the article that was published November 16, 2003, after you were arrested. So this is just an excerpt.

(Reading) Cops said in many of the robberies the man - you - (reading) was unfailingly polite, often apologizing profusely to his victims. While he was robbing the victims, he would say things like I'm sorry to do this to you, or please forgive me. I need the money, I'm sorry, said a police source. Most of the victims were women, but the oldest one was an 82-year-old man, police said. The robber's usual method was to follow his prey into a vestibule or lobby, confront the victim with a knife and demand money. Still, in one incident, according to cops, a courteous Genis, after taking her cash, returned a wallet to a woman he robbed after she asked for it back, telling him that it contained all her identification. The crime binge, while prolific, did not net the suspect a considerable amount of money. In 18 robberies between July 20 and August 21, Genis made off with only $700, police said.

OK, so first of all, why did you apologize?

DANIEL GENIS: Well, I apologized because I didn't want to do it in the first place, and the whole reason for doing it was because I - not only did I have a heroin habit, but I owed some money. I owed a $5,000 bill to a pretty bad Ukrainian, and I paid my bill. But it - you asked why I apologized, and I was contrite right at the scene of the crime. And it was because I really, really did not want to do this. I had to work my nerve up every time, and I was also really, really bad at. I had no real access to a weapon, so the knife mentioned is actually a pocketknife. I once used the same knife for camping. But I didn't want to do this, and I did it anyway because drug addiction causes you to compromise. It makes you compromise your morals. William Burroughs said you'd crawl through a sewer just to have the privilege of buying, and it turned out to be true. In my case, it took less than two years to take me to this level.

GROSS: Now, you're from a middle-class family. You maybe could've asked your parents for the money. No one wants to go to their parents and say I'm a junkie now, so I need $5,000 for the Ukrainian drug dealer who might hurt me really badly if I don't pay him. Nevertheless, it seems so especially awful to steal from people when, I mean, you had access to family money, probably.

GENIS: My father is a public figure of sorts in Russia. He's a big shadow to grow under, and I never wanted to disappoint him. I was raised to be a perfect showpiece of a child. I'm an only child. So admitting that I was an addict, even asking for help, all of it was kind of unthinkable in my home. And I hid everything as best I could. I also hid it from my wife. So perhaps if things were a little loser at-home I could've asked, but it wasn't quite possible the way I felt at the time.

GROSS: Your father, Alexander Genis, is a writer, broadcaster and culture credit who is well known in Russia - emigrated here 1997. And their friends are famous Soviet dissidents and artists. And many of their friends spent time in prison for being political or for writing dissident literature - for being culturally, socially engaged. And you were doing time for just making really bad choices. And I'm wondering when you were in prison whether you were comparing your actions to the actions of the dissidents you knew who did time.

GENIS: Well, yes. All through my youth I met people who were in Gulags, who were in Siberia, who had to eat things they found on the floor and all because of ridiculous political accusations. I'm - my father's boss and close friend was a man who had his toes frozen off in the north, and his crime was retyping Barry Goldwater's books, which is actually just a crime against taste, but in Russia it was a crime against the political ideology.

In any case, quite a few people I knew had been to prison. And like you said, they'd been to prison for much better reasons than I was. Nevertheless, the prison experience is not so unknown to anybody who comes from a totalitarian context. So in Russia, pretty much everybody has a family member who's been to prison or has been shot. I mean - you know, in 1937, my own great-grandfather was shot simply for being a Romanian, so...

GROSS: Were you rebelling against meaning in a way - rebelling against a meaningful life - you know, a life of culture and politics and standing up for something?

GENIS: No, in fact, it's rather the opposite. I was totally - I was quite enthralled with beatnik culture. I read everything William Burroughs ever wrote. I read Jim Carroll. I read "Diary of an Opium-Eater," Aldous Huxley, Crowley - all the narcotic literature that exists, I read. And like Rimbaud or Baudelaire, I looked for experience in getting outside of myself through chemical ways.

Of course, that's not what it ended up being. It ended up being addiction and desperation, but it started out as a quest for something beyond myself - something greater than myself because I didn't believe in God, and I didn't have anything that was quite exciting or moving in my life. My own parents, for example, had the Soviet Union to fight against. I was middle-class and went to NYU. The most interesting thing about me was that I happened to speak Russian and have a somewhat famous father. I was looking for real life, and I sure got it.

GROSS: Yeah. So you were sent to a maximum-security prison. You were someone who was defined by the books they read - by the search for some kind of transcendental experience beyond yourself. Now you're in a maximum security prison where a lot of the culture is about power - about what you need to do to earn the respect of others, and that just, like, wasn't the culture you're from.

GENIS: Yes, well, let's talk about that. First of all, it was so obvious that I didn't fit in from - I don't know whether they knew from the way I looked, but definitely from the moment I spoke - when I said my first word, they knew. They knew. Every time, they could smell it on me. I was out of place - didn't belong there.

But in any case, when I first got there, I immediately had to make a decision. Was I going to try and pretend and fit in? I could have really had an interest - pretended to have an interest in motorcycles and pitbulls and cage fighting. I could have gone with the flow and try to pretend and try to make it easier on myself and fit in and not be noticed, or I could take the harder route of being myself and making them respect me anyway. At least it would be easier in the one sense that I wouldn't have to pretend all day. It would be harder because the values that I cherish, which are basically intelligence, are not the things that are valued there.

But I chose the second and harder path and I was myself for 10 years, and it took me a little bit of time to adjust and learn how to maneuver, especially through the hierarchies and status of prisoners. I realized that in fact, it's not the most violent or the strongest or the scariest of guys. It's actually the ones who are the most manipulative who are the most important. And to make sure that I was safe and comfortable, I picked up on what was necessary to do in order to be respected and liked.

GROSS: You're speaking in code now. Tell me something specific.(Laughter).

GENIS: Well, by the end of my time, I was somewhat of - I was well-liked in prison. Everybody knew I had written a novel. I moved prisons. The moment I got to a new one, everybody knew who I was. I was a name that the whole system knew.

GROSS: So what was your identity? Who was Daniel Genis the prisoner?

GENIS: The smart one. (Laughter).

GROSS: So what does that get you? What does it get you to be smart?

GENIS: It got me. It got me. Believe it or not, it got me places because when people needed something answered or done, they went - they came to me, and at the same time, they respected me because I had never snitched. I understood where I had to. I had to fight. There were four times when I had to fight in the first year.

GROSS: Had you ever fought before?

GENIS: As a child. I mean, it wasn't part of my day-to-day life. And that is not the usual case. A lot of men in there have been fighting all their lives. They have hands that look like rubber or something. You know, they don't look human at all because of the fighting they've gone through. Some actually enjoy it.

GROSS: So how did you hold your own in your - in the fights?

GENIS: Well, I didn't win them.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GENIS: But it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter whether you win them or not. The point is that you participate. You know, to be honest, you're talking about violence that comes from prisoners, but the more dangerous type is the kind that comes from prison guards because that can kill. That's what I was...

GROSS: Were you exposed to that?

GENIS: Absolutely. There wasn't a person who wasn't. And that is much - it's a much more dangerous thing. I've seen people lose eyes, teeth. I've seen dead bodies. And I myself was beaten with my own boot, you know, and if I took my - while that was happening, had I taken my hand off the wall, I would've been beaten by six people with clubs. So, you know, in prison, the monopoly on violence is definitely controlled by the prison guards.

So it's a show of force, and they have to be - you know, they're violent. And some of them seek out this career because they have a sadistic or violent streak to them. Others see it as part of the job, but it is a hands-on job. I probably got as little as physically, technically possible. I'm sure - I mean, I think pretty much everybody I met had experienced more than I had, and yet, I had experienced some.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Genis, and we're talking about the 10 years that he spent in prison after committing several armed robberies armed with a pocket knife to pay the drug dealer. He was addicted to heroin. He's now writing a book about the 1,046 books he read while he was in prison. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Daniel Genis. In 2003 when he was addicted to heroin, he stole money to pay the debt he owed his dealer. He was convicted on five counts of armed robbery - he was armed with a pocket knife. He served 10 years in 12 different prisons, maximum and medium security. His father is a Soviet emigre writer who hosts a popular show on Radio Liberty that he records in New Jersey and is broadcast in Russia. Daniel Genis is now a journalist. He was released from prison last year. He writes a column for Vice. He has written for - pieces for Newsweek, The Washington Post, Deadspin, Huffington Post, and he's now writing a memoir called 1,046, which is the number of books that he read while he was in prison.

GROSS: So let's talk about the time that you spent in maximum-security prison.

GENIS: Seven years out of 10.

GROSS: Describe the cell that you spent the most time in.

GENIS: It's nothing pretty, Terry. It's very small. There's a toilet and a sink. It's all one metal unit. There's a cot that's not for anybody who's very wide or very tall. There's a locker, and everything else you kind of build on your own. For example, my refrigerator was a - it was a Styrofoam box that I filled with ice whenever I could get it. Everything is jerry-rigged. I used to cook on a stove made out of a tin can and a heating element from a coffee machine which I plugged into the wall, and I would fry in one of those large industrial-sized tuna cans that has five pounds of tuna in it. I'd clean it out and deep fry in it, except that there's no oil. So the way to get it is to freeze a jar of mayonnaise, and the mayonnaise itself freezes and the oil separates, and the oil comes out, and you poke a hole in it, and there's your oil. So there's a lot of ingenious little methods that prisoners have developed over the years to make life more comfortable.

And what's interesting about that is that, like you said, I read books all through my time and some of those books, especially in the beginning, were books about other people's prison experience because that was useful to me. So as a result, I read all three volumes of Solzhenitsyn's "Gulag Ar -" you know, "Archipelago." And I read everything that there is about prison. And I noticed, even in something as old as Dostoevsky's "House Of The Dead," that the behaviors described were exactly the same. There was a moment when I was reading about how Dostoevsky was being bothered by a convict who was trying to sell him a chess set he had carved, and while I'm reading this, the man in the cell right next to me is making a chess set out of cardboard and spit in order to sell it to me. So despite the 200 years difference - despite the continents and cultures that separate us, somehow prison brings out the same qualities in man.

GROSS: I know one of the things that you did when you were in prison was listen to NPR when you were in maximum-security prison and had your own cell. I don't like to ask self-referential questions, but I am kind of interested in what the experience was like...

GENIS: Oh, Terry.

GROSS: ...Of listening to NPR in prison. And I will say, we do hear from prisoners listening to NPR.

GENIS: You have to understand...

GROSS: Yeah.

GENIS: ...Despite being surrounded by thousands of people, prison was often a very lonely place for me.

GROSS: I'm not surprised to hear that.

GENIS: There were years that would go by when I had no one to talk to other than my family. I mean, of course I talked to people, but I didn't talk to them at the way I would talk to people I knew - but many years of loneliness because I was away from my culture. Even the language spoken was nothing like my own. So that's why NPR was so valuable. Sometimes it wasn't even the show or the content, but just that the grammar was right - you know, just that nobody cursed, nobody screamed, nobody - well, I think you understand what I mean.

And the second window into regular life was the many subscriptions to magazines that I had because not only did I read books, I also read every issue of The New Yorker, Harper's, Atlantic Monthly, Wired. I think the New Yorker was the most expensive one, but every time it came in, I dropped everything to read it cover to cover because it was, yet again, another window into my old life just like hearing your voice, Terry.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GENIS: Your voice was important to me because I didn't have a chance to hear a voice like yours unless my wife visited or my parents came for many years.

But, you know, because of the loneliness, I was a little vulnerable, and I made a big mistake one time with somebody who was a wonderful person it seemed. He spoke good German and good Spanish. He was well-rounded, well-educated. He was kind and very nice, and he made beautiful sculptures out of soap. He played the piano wonderfully, and we could read the same books and talk about them. We both read "Ulysses" by James Joyce, you know?

And he became my close friend for seven months until I had to leave that prison, and when I asked my mother to look him up so I could write him a letter, she looked him up, and she told me that she found him, but she doesn't think I want to write him because the story he had told me about being in prison for vehicular manslaughter wasn't true. He was a pedophile. And he had abused three little boys as a Franciscan monk.

GROSS: My guest is journalist Daniel Genis who spent 10 years in prison and is at work on a memoir about the 1,046 books he read while incarcerated. After a break, we'll talk about his time in solitary confinement and why solitary wasn't exactly solitary. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Daniel Genis. After graduating from college, he was convicted of five counts of armed robbery. He used his pocketknife to steal money in order to pay off his debt to his heroin dealer. His heroin habit came as a shock to his new wife and to his parents. His father is a Soviet emigre broadcaster and culture critic who is well known in Russia. Genis was released from prison last year, after serving a total of 10 years, and has since written articles which have been published in Newsweek, The Washington Post, Deadspin and Vice. He's at work on a memoir. When we left off, we were talking about his time in prison.

You were not only in your own cell in maximum-security prison. You had a couple of rounds of solitary confinement.

GENIS: Oh, three times, yeah.

GROSS: Did you like yourself well enough? Were you comfortable enough with yourself to be alone with yourself in confinement like that?

GENIS: OK, Terry. Terry, solitary confinement isn't solitary. The times when it was solitary, when I was by myself, it was wonderful. It was fantastic. It was everything I could ever dream of. It was like being sent on vacation because all I had to do was read and do push-ups. But unfortunately because of financial issues, solitary confinement isn't. You have a bunky. You have a second person in there. And that is the - that was the trauma of solitary - the second person. But there are - you know, you can - it's the luck of the draw. And there was one time when I was very unlucky and got myself a madman, but the other times I was OK. It's just that the guys, they, you know - I had to take care of them. For one guy, I ordered all of Jules Verne so he could read "Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea" and shut up.

GROSS: What defines solitary if it isn't the solitude, if it isn't being alone in a cell?

GENIS: Well, you're locked in a room - two people locked in a tiny room for eight months, Terry. It's mind-boggling. And the solitary units, which are specially built housing units just for this, they hum with activity from these locked-up men who - they run gambling rackets. And they make friendships, and they fight, and it's - you know, life goes on. It's like flowers growing through a crack in the sidewalk. They manage by throwing lines to each other from cell to cell under the door. It's really actually kind of inspiring because it shows how the human spirit fights oppression. It doesn't allow itself to be trampled. It continues to live. It insists on living. Of course, what that meant for me was that my bunky came in - when he came into the solitary confinement cell, in his anus was enough tobacco to buy up everything in the solitary unit because tobacco is the currency there since it's not allowed. And he had filled himself with quite a bit of it. This was called boofing, and I have an essay on that.

GROSS: Hiding it there is called boofing?

GENIS: Yes. I have an essay on that called "The Prisoner's Wallet." So the boofed tobacco, a little over - you know, it's worth 10 stamps for one cigarette, and it was - it enabled us to buy up every kind of little snack that we could get from - Christmas came around, and Snickers bars were handed out. And we had 30 of them because the tobacco was so valuable. And he had the sense to bring in match heads and a striker. Everything has its own name, by the way. The match heads are red tops. The striker is a skateboard. You know, marijuana is Al Green. Tobacco is Foxy...

GROSS: Al Green (laughter)?

GENIS: Yeah, well, tobacco is Foxy Brown. I hope I'm not giving away trade secrets.

GROSS: That's really funny.

GENIS: I don't want to be a snitch.

GROSS: Right, right.

GENIS: Snitches get stitches, as you might've heard.

GROSS: I hadn't heard that particular rhyme, but I knew the larger truth about it.

GENIS: Yes. There's names for - there's even names for scars, OK? There's a telephone cut, which goes from your ear to your mouth, which you get for using a claimed telephone. There's a buck-80, which is a scar which - requiring 180 stitches. There are curtains, which are two cuts down the face, which make your eyes look like they have curtains. There's the hook, which puts a hole in the cheek. But that's how - you know, these things sound horrible, but in reality, they kind of show that a culture of incarceration has arisen. And it shows that the human beings really aren't - we're more than animals. We make culture wherever we go, and we adapt, just like I had to. I had to adapt.

GROSS: Earlier, we were talking about how, you know, your father's a, you know, very well-known Soviet dissident, how you grew up surrounded by, like, famous Soviet dissidents and then you were in prison for stealing money to pay your drug dealer, something that must've really let down your parents because it was not for, like, a larger goal. You were not in prison for, like, a political, cultural, literary...

GENIS: Well, I don't think they would have been thrilled if I'd been in prison for anything...

GROSS: No, no, no. But it would've...

GENIS: ...But I see what you're saying, yes.

GROSS: It would've represented something, though, that they could've understood and supported in a way that they wouldn't under - they wouldn't support, you know, a drug habit.

GENIS: Yes, but they were embarrassed.

GROSS: But did they support you once you were in prison? I mean...

GENIS: Absolutely. They were embarrassed, of course, but they held me for years, Terry. They were the best. They brought my wife up. They - I lived on $100 a month for the entire 10 years, which was plenty. And they visited, and they brought books. And I have no complaints, only gratitude for them. You know, the fact that they - I don't know if they're ever going to be able to totally forgive, but at some level, they've come to terms with it, that this happened and I dealt with it. No one gives me a pat on the back for surviving because I'm the dummy who went there, you know? So of course nobody applauds me for having survived, but I do applaud them because they once drove 12 hours through a snowstorm to visit me. They brought me half of these 1,000 books that I've read. And they - you know, my father was kind enough to read, sometimes, the same books as me so we could talk about them, or he would suggest something that he felt I needed to round out my knowledge in an area. And my mother was also important in understanding the emotions that I felt, you know? So they were all - and my wife is crucial. She stayed. My wife stayed. She waited 10 years.

GROSS: And you had just gotten married before you were arrested, and you...

GENIS: Seven months together, and I was a terrible husband.

GROSS: Well, you had lied to her. She didn't know that you were an addict.

GENIS: Well, she figured it out eventually, but it took a while. It was after the crimes. And I was horrible - I mean, horrible. I got - see, the thing is, is that I met her when I was sober because during my two and a half years of addiction, I had an interlude, shall we say, in the middle when I was sober, and that's when I met her. And I wooed her, and I dated her. And we got married, and I relapsed immediately. And the poor woman had no idea about anything. She was naive to the stuff, you know? And she - I told her when I - I knew it was going to be a long time. I didn't think it was going to be double digits though, but I knew it would be five years at least. And I told her, you know, you're young. And you're beautiful, and you're smart. Make whatever decision you have to make. I understand. She said she'd think about it, and she ended up staying. She was close with my family. And she had a job, and she was stable. And we're together now, and we love each other very much.

GROSS: Do you think that you're a different person in many ways than you were when you were first imprisoned?

GENIS: Well, Terry, for one thing, it's 10 years since I first went to prison.

GROSS: Sure, sure.

GENIS: So I'm a different person just in that sense.

GROSS: Who isn't after 10 years? Right, yeah.

GENIS: But prison has made me who I am, and it did it twice over. The first thing it did was make a man out of a boy because even though I was a married man and I had a bachelor's degree from NYU and I worked in publishing and I had a business card with a picture on the back of it and a black-and-white Hyundai cell phone - even though...

GROSS: Wait a minute. Didn't your business card say, lifestyle consultant, or something like that?

GENIS: Artist - lifestyle artist. Even...

GROSS: Lifestyle artist - that's kind of - is that kind of obnoxious a little bit? Like, what is that supposed to mean, you know?

GENIS: Absolutely. I was such a wannabe. You know, I look back on myself - because I saw myself - I was molding myself into what I knew how to be, a cultural figure. But the problem was, there was nothing standing behind it. I had never written anything

GROSS: Right.

GENIS: So even though I had all the accouterment, I didn't have the real stuff. And I was really just a boy in a grown man's clothing. But as soon as I got to prison, I had to either become a man or face the consequences, and the consequences aren't pretty, you know? And the evolution in my character is actually the greatest thing that could've happened because prison made a writer out of me.

GROSS: My guest is writer Daniel Genis. We'll talk more about his 10 years in prison after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with writer Daniel Genis. Is 2003 when he was addicted to heroin, he stole money to pay the debt he owed his dealer. He was convicted on five counts of armed robbery. He served 10 years and was released last year. He's since been writing about prison and other subjects for several publications and is at work on a memoir.

So you're Jewish, and you say in prison people are much more receptive to skinheads and the Nation of Islam than they are to Jews...

GENIS: Oh, absolutely.

GROSS: ...And that the guards that you encountered weren't too fond of Jews either. So you had to decide whether you were going to openly identify as Jewish or keep that hidden. Which direction did you go?

GENIS: I openly identified because I worked as the Rabbi's clerk in several prisons. The thing is though...

GROSS: Is that a position you volunteered for?

GENIS: It was my job, and I didn't - it was my job. I was even paid 25 cents a day for it. But the rabbis usually wanted me because I - it was like having somebody from the outside, you know? I can do all their work for them.

GROSS: Did you read the great Jewish text along with all the books that you read in prison?

GENIS: Yeah, I certainly did. Yes. And I...

GROSS: And what did you get out of that?

GENIS: Oh, Yiddishkeit, I loved. I love Jewish tradition, Jewish culture. I love reading Isaac Babel, and, you know - it's just - Judaism is warm and enveloping, and that's why when the holidays would come, I loved it because the candles would be lit for Hanukkah and the Seders would come around. It was always a very special time, and I got myself as involved as I could.

And the truth is is that most people who call themselves Jews in prison are fakes. You know, according to the statistics, about 2 or 3 percent of the 56,000 inmates of New York are Jewish. But, you know, that's ridiculous. That's so far from the truth. In reality, there's probably 20 - 30 actual Jews in prison. The reason why there's these inflated numbers is the kosher diet which is available to people who are Jews. And it's something I never even went on because it's disgusting. It's not any better than the regular state food, but it's different, so guys who've had 20 years in of the same two-week menu over and over - they become Jewish and they eat the kosher meal for a while.

GROSS: What sounds and smells remind you most of prison? You've been out for a year.

GENIS: That's interesting you say that. It just happened to me the other day - that show "Orange Is The New Black." I don't think people realize how good they are at re-creating prison because they do the sounds perfectly. I listened - my wife had the show on, and I could hear it, and that was the first time I actually had, like, sort of like a flashback almost because they had the sounds right because prison is full of metal against metal and banging and shouting and all kinds of chaos. You know, it's a real cacophony. So that - helps when NPR plays classical music of because Beethoven does a good job of drowning it out. Headphones, of course, help. But headphones are also a danger because you don't know what's happening.

GROSS: Oh, right.

GENIS: If you have headphones on, you don't know if the...

GROSS: You're shutting out sound that you need to hear.

GENIS: Yes, and that's why I used to wear only one headphone because I needed to hear if I was about to get, you know, raided by the cops. These things happen all the time.

GROSS: When you say cops, do you mean prison guards?

GENIS: Yes, that's what they were called.

GROSS: So the memoir that you're writing now, "1046," the Armature of that memoir is the 1,046 books that you read while you were in prison, and those books lead to your larger reflections about not only literature but about your life and your life in prison.


GROSS: So now that you're out of prison and have been out a year, do you still read a lot?

GENIS: No, I don't. I don't have time to read like I used to. That's what the luxury of prison was - was that I could follow any interest, you know? I acquired an interest in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and I read all the literature of it. I read Joseph Roth, and I read Musil, and I read history books about it, and I picked up a little German, and that's what I could do. Nobody can really do that in the modern world unless they're independently wealthy or maybe a monk. I don't know. But in any case, I was able to prolong my education, and I was able to guide it myself.

But this is not the case for other prisoners. They - you know, they read because they have nothing else to do. The population is not well. It's - also, it's host to a lot of mental illness. There's plenty of screaming and suicides. Terry, I had a guy who I knew hang himself a few hours after I gave him a bottle of shampoo, and the cops got tired of carrying his body, and they dropped it in front of my cell so I got to look at his blue face for a while. You know, I've seen some things, and there's really little hope.

I mean, there's also people who are never getting out of prison, and they're very scary people because they have nothing to lose. So if they get into a argument which leads to physical violence, they try to kill. They - you know, they stab to kill. On Rikers Island, which is a - not a state jail, but a county jail, people just cut each other. But in state prisons, they stab in order to hit an organ, preferably the heart. That's why there was even a moment when I had to tape magazines around myself, and that was a case when The New Yorker was not the best magazine, and I really got to talk to David Remnick about that because he needs to toughen up the pages. I ended up having to get National Geographics because of the photo paper.

GROSS: They're thicker. (Laughter)

GENIS: Yeah. So I'm going to - I've got to talk to him.

GROSS: So I've got one more question for you. I saw a picture of you that was taken when you were in prison with your wife, and you have arms that are so big. Like, you were so pumped up from working out in prison. I don't know if it was push-ups or what, but I know you had some kind of back injury and had to back off of working out. So what's your body type now? Like, what do you look like now that you're back out in the outside?

GENIS: Well, I look like - I'm a chubby Jewish writer. That's what I look like.

GROSS: (Laughter).

GENIS: I wear a little fedora. I've got a belly that makes me wear suspenders instead of a belt, and I'm 37. You know, I'll be 37 in August, so that's what I look like. But for the first couple of years of prison, yes, I was an active bodybuilder, and I got myself into quite amazing shape. I'm glad there's photographs to commemorate the time. I had conjugal visits with my wife every 90 days, and I wanted to impress her. I wanted her to have something to write home about. So I used weight lifting and nutrition to get myself into that kind of shape.

But I'll tell you, in order to look like that, you really have to devote quite a bit of time, effort and energy and money into it. And these days, the most I can do - you know, I play tennis when I can get there. I ride my bike everywhere I can, but in reality, I just don't have the time.

GROSS: Well, Daniel Genis, thank you for talking with us. I wish you good luck with your new life.

GENIS: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: Daniel Genis is writing a memoir that is scheduled for publication next year called "1046," which is the number of books he read in prison. Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new album by saxophonist Tony Malaby whose new quartet includes a tuba and cello. This is FRESH AIR.

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