Samuel Panko was down and out in Connecticut, sleeping beneath freeway underpasses and in the backs of empty U-Haul trucks. All he wanted was enough money to buy a Greyhound ticket to San Diego, where his best friend Jesse Chadwick was setting up shop, living amid palm trees and the promise of a better life.
Panko was desperate; he battled his angels and demons and-after his angels failed to come up with an alternate plan to hustle a lot of money fast-his demons won. Next thing Panko knew, he was standing in line at Liberty Bank in downtown New London, waiting to pass the teller a note.
"Incredible," wrote Panko from his cell in McDougall Correctional Facility. "What a society we live in. Our culture is so thoroughly saturated in fear that I can walk into a bank and pull out not a gun, not a knife, not even a baseball bat, but a piece of paper with words on it and they will hand over fistfuls of cash."
Along with the fistfuls of cash the teller stuffed into an envelope that day was an exploding dye pack that turned Panko into a human purple-smoke bomb. The clean getaway he'd envisioned turned into a mucky disaster that ended with Panko surrounded by cops. Instead of laying down face first on the cement with his hands behind his head, Panko-dazed and disoriented from the chase-reached into his pocket, pulled out a razor blade and slit his throat from ear to ear.
"I slowly dragged the razor lengthwise down my left jugular; I could feel the meat shredding," wrote Panko. "The blood burst forth in torrents, like a breached levee."
Miraculously, Panko survived. He's got four more years left of his sentence, and he's counting the days until he can finally make his way to San Diego.
Under the pseudonym Keino Post, Panko passes his prison time painting and making art with whatever materials he can get his hands on. Using toothpaste as glue, nail clippers as scissors and the notorious "prison blue" paint that coats most prison walls, Panko has created an impressive body of work, which will be shown at downtown's Static Lounge this Sunday, March 12, in his first solo show, Mutiny on the Bounty .
The work captures the pain and frustration that Panko so clearly and so potently packs into the letters he sends to Jesse Chadwick, whose NLDP production company has been the driving force behind the show.
In Panko's most recent dispatch, he told Chadwick he's willing to do whatever it takes to keep up his artwork. "He was transferred to a lower-security prison with dorms of 100 people where he has no place to work on his art," Chadwick says. "So he gave himself a tattoo with a sharpened paper clip of a spider on his left forearm to get his security level raised back to maximum. So much for parole, but he doesn't care. All he wants is to keep painting."
An opening reception for Mutiny on the Bounty will be held from 8 p.m. to midnight, Sunday, March 12, at the Static Lounge, 634 Broadway, Downtown. See the work, then read some of Panko's letters below.
Dispatches from an artist in prison
Excerpts from letters written by Sam Panko
How it all went down
Sent Nov. 10, 2005
I hadn't even done anything yet, but my heart was racing as I headed east on Golden St. I couldn't believe what I was about to do and I felt oddly detached. It was the kind of thing I hear about often enough, but could never in a million years see myself doing. That is, until I notice my reflection the glass door I stood in front of. I took a deep breath and pulled on the handle. Once inside, I headed to right where the entrance of the little rope maze was. I don't remember exactly how many people were in line already. I think it was somewhere in the neighborhood of five. I was hoping it would be more or less empty. The customers are what worry me the most. The bank employees, they've got their procedures and their training. They know the drill and I don't anticipate any static from them. Customers, on the other hand, are totally unpredictable. They're just unsuspecting bystanders who are about to find themselves in a very charged situation. And I'm worried that one might mistake himself for a hero. I've got my trusty switchblade in case superman shows up; but I don't want to hurt anybody. But even more than that, I don't' want to get caught.
As I took my place at the end of the line, I did my best to act casual and just look like a regular clean-cut fellow. I had on my half-assed disguise of glasses and a halt, but I still made sure to not look at the cameras. I've always been amazed by the standard of bank camera systems. I would think that for a business that deals with nothing but pure cash, every aspect of security would be top shelf, but no. Every time you see a news report on TV about a bank heist, it's invariably accompanied by a blurry, grainy, black and white still frame of the suspect. They're not even video cameras! They just snap still photos at set intervals. I've worked at gas stations that had more advanced camera systems.
The gravity of the situation begins to set in. My heart starts slamming harder and I begin to argue with myself, complete with demons and angels perched atop each shoulder. The angels kick of the debate.
"Fuck this shit! This is fuckin' insane! Just turn around and walk out of here!"
The demons counter:
"Fuck that, you got this shit. You know you can pull this off. Just stay cool and it's in the bag."
"Just fuckin' go! You can always think of some other scam, some other way to get the money. This is fuckin' ridiculous!"
"That's cut. If you could think of some other hustle you wouldn't be standing here. There's no two ways about it, you gotta get this money right now."
I kinda stopped paying attention to my little friends and I began to think about the customers again.
"Look at these people. They're just out runnin' an errand. They have no idea what's about to go down. Just everyday people doing everyday shit. When they see this shit on the news tonight, they're gonna flip out."
I snap back to the situation at hand. My perception of time was a blur from the wave upon wave of adrenaline coursing through my body. I felt like I'd been standing there for ages while the same chucklehead gabbed away with one of the two tellers on duty. The guy was short and kinda fat, a grizzly white dude of about 40. From the scraps of conversation I picked up, I think he was the owner of the bar next to the bank. That would explain the obvious report they had.
I noticed he was withdrawing a hefty pill pile of dough. For a moment, I thought about darting forward and snatching it up, cut out all the crap with the note and just cut to the chase, so to speak. Nah, maybe I should just go wait outside for him, follow him around the corner and stick him up. Nah, that won't work, or at least if it did, it'd be real messy. See, there's a big difference between federally insured, victimless bank money and honest, hard-earned "my" money. If I rob this guy, it won't be just showing my knife. I will have to stab him. He won't just hand over the cash, I'll have to take if from him. Nah, better stick with Plan A. I just wish he would shut the fuck up and keep it moving so that I can do this damn thing!
The nerves are starting to get to me and my hands begin to tremble. I put them in my pockets. This is insane. I pull my left hand back out to check the time, 3:45. The bank closes at four and I'm praying that there won't be any last minute customers. I really want this to be just me and the bank employees, no civilians.
The motor mouth bar owner finally runs out of gas and leaves. As I creep forward through the maze, the angels and demons return.
"Don't worry, you got this," say the demons.
"Fuckin' bail you idiot!" reply the angels.
"You can handle this!"
"Don't be retarded!"
Ah, fuck. Someone just entered the bank and got in line behind me. The debate heats up.
"This ain't right man, this ain't right, just fuckin' go man!"
"Fuckin' go where? Huh? Back under the bridge? Back to the park? Back to some empty fuckin' u-haul trailer? What are you gonna do when you get there? Stare at the ground thinking about how dopesick cold, angry, hungry and miserable you are? Fuck that!"
Damn, I can't argue with that. The demons make a hell of a point. The angles are stunned and speechless. I reflect on the closing argument for a moment.
"This ain't no way to live, this ain't no life. This shit has got to change. I can't go on like this, this shit has got to end right here and now. This is either going to be a spectacular, glorious miracle or a devastating, horrendous train wreck. Either way, when I set foot outside this bank, shit will never be the same."
The next few minutes were spent in what I guess was kinda like quiet meditation as I shuffled closer to my fate. A couple more last minute customers came in, but I didn't really notice them. There was nothing left but the doing. Nothing to weigh and consider, no tug-o-war between angels and demons. I stood there in a daze for a minute and before I knew it, I was next in line.
I step to the teller. She's about 30 or so, I can't really tell if she's mulatto or Hispanic. She smiles and asks how she can help me. I don't say a word, I just hand her the note.
Incredible. What a society we live in. Our culture is so thoroughly saturated in fear that I can walk into a bank and pull out not a gun, not a knife, not even a baseball bat, but a piece of paper with words on it and they will hand over fistfuls of cash!
*Skipping ahead to the end of the letter....
Fuck. It's all over. There's no more need to run so I slow to a walk. I'm surrounded. They're fuckin' everywhere! I don't remember exactly how many cops were filling the parking lot. I looked only at the one directly in front of me. His burner is pointed at my face as he stands about 40 feet from me and is screaming as loud as he can for me to get on the ground.
I keep walking, though my body was so racked with adrenaline I couldn't of held still if I tried. I took a deep breath and pinched the razor between my thumb and middle finger, placing my index finger on the front edge. I held my breath as I tilted my head back to meet the cold, gray, uncaring October sky. Then I let it go as I raised the blade to my throat.
This is what it had come to.
As I slowly dragged the razor lengthwise down my left jugular, I could feel the meat shredding. Like I was unzipping my life. The blood burst forth in torrents, like a breached levee.
After reaching the base of my neck, I began carving down the right hand side. There was no pain. I cut into the left side again, digging deeper and deeper, going back and forth between each side until my neck was nothing more than a gaping, pulpy mess.
What it's like inside
Sent Sept. 17, 2004
The other day I was thinking how I'm closing in on one year down and how strange and distorted my perception of time has become. Like how I feel like I've been here for longer than a year but still fell like I just got here, like a year feels like a month fells like a week fells like a day fells like forever. Anyhow, I was just kinda thinking back on the past year and felling bummed "cause I got to do four more years and there'll be no more lazy bullpen days kickin' it with you. So I was like "Fuck this I don't even want to think about this anymore." So I turned on the TV and guess what just happened to be on? Some news coverage of the Republican National Convention featuring a bunch of rich, white blowhards chanting "Four more years! Four more years! Four more years!" I was like, "wow, that's kinda weird." Want to hear something else kind of weird? I don't know if you're familiar with Ivan Pavlov so I'll give you a little background first. He's famous for his studies of the conditioned reflex. Maybe you've heard the term "Pavlov's Dog" "cause he proved the effectiveness of conditioning with dogs, the most famous of which was this: every time he would feed the dog, he would ring a bell. After awhile, the association between the bell and food became so ingrained in the dogs that even without the presence of food, if he rang a bell the dogs would begin to salivate and drool. This clearly proved the theory of conditioning through association. He could trigger an involuntary reflex within the dog at his command. This is what he is most famous for and it is the only thing that most people who have heard about him know about him. Obviously, that wasn't all he did though. He also did a lot of research on suggestibility and stress and the central nervous system. Not exactly brainwashing, but not far from it. Like he determined that, when exposed to physical and psychological stress for a continuous and extended amount of tie, he could induce the canine equivalent of a nervous breakdown. He noted that uppity, easily excitable dogs broke down after the shortest time while calmer, more stoic dogs took longer but every dog has a breaking point. A similar study was conducted during World War II of troops in battle. The average soldier began to show signs of breakdown (or "battle fatigue") after about 30 days of continuous stress from combat. Fuckin' Garbage-ass Pen (Panko switches pens at this point). Anyways, Pavlov determined that during the period just before breakdown the subjects become highly suggestible, and that the suggestions implanted during high stress situations are more deeply ingrained and remain long after the stress is removed (that helps explain Stockholm Syndrome, you know, like Patty Hearst). Key physical stress factors that he cited were fatigue, illness, physical injury and psychological stresses like fear, rage, anxiety and shit that disorients and confuses (like when a dog is kept in suspense, like if he rang the bell but didn't feed them for like a half hour, or when a response is the opposite of what the dog has learned to expect. Like if he rang the bell and the dog starts drooling but instead of feeding it he just kicks it in the ribs) pretty much, Pavlov laid the groundwork for the study of brainwashing. Anyways, I've noticed some parallels within prison. Ironically, they also ring a bell before they pop the cells for chow. Sometimes they ring it and two minutes later they pop the cells. Sometimes they ring it and wait literally up to an hour and a half to pop the cells. Count and Rec are also preceded by a bell. The lack of real darkness and the shitty "beds" and scarcity of quietness make a solid, uninterrupted, refreshing sleep impossible. This, on top of the obvious stress and anxiety of being imprisoned, I guess that's what they mean by "rehabilitation." I guess it's easier to just say "rehabilitate" than it is to say "crush your will and your soul to reduce you to less than a man and, in the process, inflict you with Stockholm Syndrome so you never question authority or think for yourself. Maybe I'm just being paranoid, but I'm pretty sure that whoever designed the modern prison system was familiar with the work of Ivan Pavlov.
Sent Dec. 15, 2005
I just finished a drawing slash collage on pure request forms. It came out pretty good. I'm gonna call it "Dang Y'All!!" Speaking of...I went through and named 20 pieces for the show (yours is called "Self"). I think I want to call the show "For Real?". I need some help though. There are two pieces that I don't have copies of and I don't' know where they are. I put a star by them on the list. See if you can find them cause I want to have them in the show. Damn. I'm still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that it's going down.
I still got to write that blurb you were talking about. I think I'll just talk mostly about how I had to use toothpaste for glue and cut shit out with nail clippers, then make a few vague, ambiguous comments about the "meaning" of my art.