When I came into the station for my shift that night, there was an envelope waiting for me. I was elated! My first fan letter! As I turned the envelope over in my hands and studied it, the elation gave way to confusion. The business size envelope was beautifully decorated with a pencil drawing of lifelike roses – they covered the majority of the envelope, with a tiny rectangle left for my name and the station’s address in neat, block letters. Still, even with the heavy artwork, I could make out the “Department of Corrections” stamp on the front of the envelope.
I was in Houston, Texas, working the 10pm-2am shift at a “Golden Oldies” radio station – KFMK. It was only my third job in radio – my mentor had been transferred to Houston several months earlier and, the day after I gave birth to my daughter, he called me in the hospital and asked how soon I could join him in Texas. I was excited – the Program Director who had replaced Jim did not care for me. I had heard from some male friends at the station that he had said women, especially pregnant women, had no business in radio, and that he was going to make sure I never came back to work after my maternity leave. So, I wanted nothing more than to leave the station. To join my mentor in Houston, a top ten radio market? That was just the perfect “fuck you” to my new, misogynistic boss! I was also terrified – I had just given birth, for God’s sake – how was I going to pack up my apartment and move halfway across the country with a brand new baby? Did I mention that Jim wanted me there in two weeks? Or that The Loser would be unemployed and I would be the sole bread winner?
But we managed – my mentor’s wife was kind enough to let me drop off my daughter every weeknight while I was at work – she was a wonderful woman and I never worried about my daughter in her care. Jim set my husband up with a job at a local nightclub as the disc jockey, even though The Loser loudly proclaimed to anyone who would listen that the job was beneath him and if anyone deserved to be working in radio in a top ten market, it was him and not me. And I went to work, quickly learning about the artists and songs from a time before I was born and learning to love many of them.
My show was heavily interactive – listeners would call with requests or dedications and I would record our conversations and play them back on the air along with their song. I quickly learned that many of my listeners were insomniacs or people working the graveyard shift – taxi cab drivers, hospital workers, convenience store clerks, and the like. What I didn’t realize (until I received my rose-covered envelope) was that I also had hundreds of prisoners listening to my show from the many Texas state prisons that were in range of the radio waves I broadcast each night.
Within weeks of the first envelope, others followed – each from a different inmate, telling me his story, about life on the “inside”, and requesting songs or dedications to loved ones at home. Most envelopes were beautifully decorated or had prison art on the card or letter inside – flowers, landscapes, animals – and the occasional nude. The men seemed…well, normal, for the most part – but lonely and missing home and little things that I took for granted. As time went on, I began to get my “regulars” – inmates that sent correspondence on a weekly basis.
My mentor, who sometimes treated me like a slightly demented daughter, admonished me not to respond to the letters and expressly forbid me from playing any of the song or dedication requests I received from prisoners. I wasn’t stupid – I wasn’t going to become pen pals with a stranger in the…pen! But the songs they requested usually were in the rotation anyway – so when they played, some inmates assumed I had played the song just for them and sent more requests, along with their thanks. But others were not content with just asking for a special song – they wanted a more personal touch, if you get my drift. These few convicts would write about how beautiful I must be, how my voice drove them wild, and how they fantasized about me in their beds as they listened to my show. One inmate alternated between being very angry with me for not writing him back to telling me how much he loved me and could not wait to see me. I was creeped out more than alarmed, until he wrote one day to tell me he was due to be released and that his first stop would be the radio station.
KFMK was on the fourth floor of a six floor atrium office building – when one left the station (or any office in the building) you could peer over the side of the walkway to the courtyard below. The main glass doors to the building locked automatically after 5pm and a code was needed to enter or exit – and since I left at 2am in the morning, things were usually quiet. Oh, I did run into people from time to time – like the cross-dresser who was in the elevator one morning as I was leaving (I stepped back, alarmed that someone else was in the building – he/she quickly pressed the “door closed” button – apparently not wishing to have my company on the ride down), but generally the place was as quiet as a tomb.
When my incarcerated fan wrote with his amorous/murderous intentions (I wasn’t sure which and I didn’t want to find out), I became hyper-aware of my surroundings. The station, which usually felt like a calm and comfy cave, suddenly was perceived as deserted and dangerous. When I arrived for my shift, I would sit in my car for several moments, surveying the parking lot and walkways for intruders before making a mad dash to the door (and freaking out when I did not punch the entry code in correctly the first time). When I left the station after my show, I would furtively peek over the walkway to make sure no one was in the building before I rode the elevator down – keeping up my vigilant surveillance through the glass walls until I reached the ground floor. I was skittish and on edge – seeing danger in the shadows and behind every potted plant.
The story ends somewhat anticlimactically – I never saw my prisoner of love. Apparently, his first stop was NOT my radio station, but a convenience store where he helped himself to some hotdogs and the contents of the cash register. He shortly was returned to the hoosegow, apparently without letter writing privileges, because I never heard from him again – although my heart would give an apprehensive leap each time I found a beautifully decorated envelope waiting for me at the station. I left the area within the year – The Loser, who had after several months finally found a part time radio gig in Houston, was promptly fired for drinking on the job. He wanted to move back to Utah and, being the dutiful wife (and again pregnant), I gave up my radio dreams in deference to his.
Have you ever had a stranger become fixated on you? Would you ever consider becoming pen-pals with a stranger in prison?