The Ponz: Michael Cohen’s Prison Memoir

Fiction by Jess Walter

From the headline

“Michael Cohen Living Like a Celebrity in Jail”

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Jess Walter: The Ponz

Michael Cohen, Trump's infamous fixer, was just released from prison to home...

Here in Otisville, everyone betters himself. GREs. LSATs. My cellie is studying for his real estate license.

And me, I’ve lost thirty pounds. And started writing.

I was popular the minute I arrived. Most guys wanted to know if Mr. Trump was as terrible as he seemed (Yes!), especially the black and Spanish guys. They hate him. They’d ask, Is it true he wears adult diapers? (No comment.) Did he do that thing with the Russian hookers? (No comment, but duh.) Some guys wanted legal advice. (I had to confess my areas of expertise were more taxicab medallions and foreign policy.)

My wife was worried that prison would be like Law & Order, but I told her everyone here is nice.

Well. Almost everyone.

The Fat Man has his fans here, too. Fox-fucks and psychopaths mostly.

The Fox-fucks admire him because he tells smart people to pound sand. The psychos like him because he gets away with everything.

Otisville is medium security, like a middle school with razor wire. There are tennis courts and kosher food, and I was the biggest star here once Mike The Situation from Jersey Shore got released.

That’s when I knew it was going to be okay, that life inside wasn’t so different from life outside, the day I saw The Situation outside the rabbi’s office.

“Michael Cohen!” he said.

“Sitch!” I said back. We bro-hugged.

Celebrity is the great equalizer.

Now that I write that—I guess it’s the opposite of an equalizer.

Because it makes you unequal.

Hmm. This is going to be harder than I thought, writing a book.

My lawyer says they’ll hire a ghostwriter, but I kind of want to do it myself. More betterment.

But the words: equalizer. Situation. Stormy. Fixer. Rat. It really makes you think.

I have only one enemy in here. This gray-haired guy doing eight years for fraud. It’s his second stint in Otisville. He’s like the yard bull. He calls me Rat. Fixer. Snitch.

Everyone calls him the Ponz, because he specialized in Ponzi schemes, and because of the Fonz from Happy Days.

Once, we were in the activity room watching the news and Giuliani was tripping on his own dick and the Ponz said he looked like one of those balls you squeeze for stress, where the eyes pop out.

Even you were a better lawyer than that guy, said the Ponz.

Thanks, I said. But it wasn’t a compliment. That even. Words.

Then the Ponz said, You miss it, don’t you, Rat?

I ignored the rat part. Not at all, I said. I’ve lost thirty pounds. My conscience is free.

Come on, he said. You miss it. You fucked up by talking. You could’ve gotten a pardon. Instead, you know what snitches get, right?

That’s when I got scared.

Once we were in the dayroom watching the news and Giuliani was tripping on his own dick and everyone was laughing and saying he looked like one of those balls you squeeze for stress, where the eyes pop out.

There aren’t actual gangs here, no La Raza or Aryan Brotherhood, but it doesn’t mean you don’t have to watch your back.

For instance, the Ponz is in a book club, the WCOG (White Collar Original Gangsters). To get in you have to be doing at least a nickel for tax evasion, fraud, or insider trading. They meet in the quad to talk about CEO autobiographies. Sometimes they mix in a Michael Lewis or Malcolm Gladwell book, but only to trash it.

I didn’t sleep well after the Ponz said that.

Was he right? Did I miss it?

I mean . . . on my phone, he was just T. I can’t tell you how that felt. The president! Calling me!

And now? Would I ever be more than a joke to the MSNBC lame-streamers? A traitorous rat to the Fox-fucks?

I felt so alone.

For a while, there was a rumor that Martin Shkreli was getting transferred to Otisville. I imagined roaming the halls with another celeb, showing the Pharma Bro around: There’s the weight room and here’s the basketball courts and there's the pharmacy. We’d laugh. The pharmacy!

Then the Ponz would see us, and I’d say, Hey, Ponz. You stole millions? This dude stole billions. Suck on that. 

But they ended up sending Shkreli to a different prison. And I was truly alone, the only celebrity on my block. One day I was in the activity room, and a guy tripped on my laptop cord and unplugged it. I looked up. It was one of them, a WCOG book clubber.

He apologized, but I got the message. I wasn’t safe anywhere.

If this was a TV jail, I’d carve a spoon into a knife or fill a pillowcase with soap.

But here at Otisville there was nothing to do but tell my counselor, and he was a Gestalt therapist who tried to frame the whole thing as a patterned reaction I have to feelings of rejection.

It was my lowest point.

But that’s when the virus arrived. And everything changed.

No more activities. No more book club. And without his boys, the Ponz was just another old fraud.

Then came even better news. They were sending some of us home early. And I was one of the lucky ones.

Honestly, I hadn’t wanted to admit how much I missed my family. Even to my therapist. It hurt too much to think about.

But this virus, it put everything in perspective. Life. Death. What did the Ponz matter now? The virus didn’t see lame-streamers and Fox-fucks. To the virus, we’re all just meat. The virus—that is the great equalizer.

So, on the last day of my two-week quarantine, before I went home, I wrote a note to the Ponz. I paid a trustee to deliver it to him, tucked inside his National Review.

Hey Ponz, I wrote. You wanna know what else snitches get? Book deals, muthafucka! Fixer out—

Further Reading and Listening

  • The Many Scandals of Michael Cohen

    Hosted by Matthew Yglesias • Vox’s The Weeds podcast • May 11, 2018

    Recorded at the beginning of the end of Cohen’s relationship with President Trump, Vox’s politics podcast recounts how a two-bit taxi baron from Long Island became a major figure in a national scandal. Thorough but discursive—it includes, Rashomon-style, three versions of how the two originally met—it stands as a record of the moment the nation started to comprehend the labyrinth of entanglements their president was subject to.

  • How Michael Cohen, Trump’s Fixer, Built a Shadowy Business Empire

    By William K. Rashbaum, Danny Hakim, Brian M. Rosenthal, Emily Flitter and Jesse Drucker • The New York Times • May 5, 2018

    It’s hard to pinpoint the choicest detail of Cohen’s business career. Could be that his uncle Morty was a physician to the Lucchese crime family, or that he collected $350 grand from an NHL player for a member of the Russian Mafia, or—draw your own comparisons here—that he scouted Iowa before the 2012 presidential election and set up

  • Michael Cohen’s Last Days of Freedom

    By Jeffrey Toobin • The New Yorker • April 29, 2019

    Toobin writes what is essentially a Scorsese film: From virtually the moment Cohen connected with Trump, he was the very definition of the guy who handles the dirty work. And then, before he knew it, he was the dirty work. (Enter Rudy Giuliani.)