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Bobby and the Supremes

A prison visitation park is not a park at all. Just a cinder block room packed with folding tables and chairs. Maybe a box of dirty and well-used toys in the corner, a couple of 80s-era microwaves. But it’s the place to be on the weekends. Who wouldn’t want to hug their momma or steal kisses from their old lady or play with their kids? These connections are vital. They remind us that we are human in an increasingly savage world. Plus it’s nice to get away from the fights and stabbings and squawking PA system and just be with family, mask off.

Unfortunately, not many people in here get visits. Some are too far from home and the trip is too expensive or they burned too many bridges on the way in. Others had the years whittle away their remaining loved ones until they found themselves alone. There are roughly 900 inmates in the gated community where I reside and maybe ten are in the visitation park with any regularity. Twenty on Christmas. Some of them I know from other prisons. Their mommas and wives have stood in line with my momma and braved the weather, the pat searches, and the ever-changing rules of the Department of Corrections for close to three decades.

This is how I met Bobby.

He used to come and visit his son J, who is serving a natural life sentence for felony murder. J didn’t kill anyone, but he was party to a crime where shit went bad and a codefendant snapped and did the unthinkable. By 2008, Bobby and his wife had sold their home and pretty much everything else they owned to pay attorney fees. J had exhausted all of his post-conviction remedies. Natural life. He accepted his fate but his family would not. They remain vocal opponents of the felony murder law. Both parents have spent a few afternoons rallying for change on the Capitol steps.

Bobby is a good old boy who lived on the Blackwater River and claimed to have done time himself at Raiford back in the day. His narrow views on race and religion and the world are consistent with the views of other rural white Southerners his age. I don’t hold this against him. People are more than their fears and insecurities. Bobby was a product of his times. I still remember his face when I tried to convince him and his wife to vote for Obama. “I ain’t voting for that socialist…” He may have used a couple other descriptive words as well. This led to a vigorous debate on presidential politics and who represented who.

My position, then and now, is that the only power a president wields that directly effects state prisoners is the ability to appoint Justices to the Supreme Court and judges to the lower appellate courts. That’s it. And for prisoners and their loved ones, whose hopes rest on future rulings of this court, it’s all that matters. It transcends race, supersedes party affiliation, and nullifies petty grievances. A couple years ago, my Christian nieces didn’t understand when I spoke out against Trump’s SCOTUS appointees. For them, abortion is a major issue. For my second amendment buddies, it’s guns. I get it. And I respect their conviction. Climate change, affirmative action, a robust military, national debt, nuclear nonproliferation, transgender bathroom laws… These are all complex issues that voters must grapple with, but they’re not my issue. I’m trying to get my friends home.

I once read a case where conservative Justices Scalia and Thomas said that a prisoner in Louisiana who got his teeth kicked out by guards in a confinement unit at Angola could not seek punitive damages. This is not the exception; this is the tradition. The conservative wing of the court is extremely consistent when it comes to ruling against prisoners, while liberal justices tend to have a more human rights-oriented monocle through which they read and decide cases. If you ever get the chance, read Justice Sotomayor’s masterful dissenting opinion in Jones v. Mississippi, where the conservative majority shot down the possibility of parole for a young man who was 15 when he committed his crime.

I was thinking about Bobby in 2016 when there was an empty seat on the Supreme Court (because the senate majority refused to hold confirmation hearings on Obama’s pick until after the election). During this time there was bipartisan momentum for criminal justice reform. Crime was at a record low and the war on drugs was in a death spiral. For all her warts, if Hillary wins that election she gets to fill not only that opening but also two more during her term. Plus hundreds of open federal seats across the nation. Instead, the biggest upset in the history of American politics occurs and Donald Trump goes on to stock the courts with a record number of young conservative judges who will shape the landscape of the judicial system for years to come. His appointees were former prosecutors by a whopping 10:1 ratio over former defense attorneys. This was obviously horrible for prisoners.

Equally depressing is the fact that violent crime is once again rearing its ugly head. It was a matter of time. Between the opioid epidemic, extreme poverty, and the merging of gang culture with the entertainment industry, no one I know is really surprised. Tough-on-crime politicians are already dusting off their old speeches. Prison profiteers are salivating over the financial possibilities. Here’s what you should know: America is already tough as nails on crime. We are the world’s leading incarcerator. I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers. We make up 5% of the world’s population, yet 25% of the world’s prisoners are caged right here in the land of the free. Getting tougher on crime will only spend more tax dollars to build more prisons that teach people how to be professional criminals. What America needs is a mechanism in the penal system where men and women can earn their way home. Back into the communities that need these reformed mothers and fathers to take up their places in the families they left behind. If their kids are already lost, maybe they can reach their grandkids. The bleeding has to stop somewhere.

Enter Biden. During his first year in the White House, the world watched as desperate Afghans hung from American planes in the botched pullout of our twenty-year war. I think even his most staunch supporters would agree that he gets a triple F minus on his handling of that situation. No other way to spin it. Same goes for the lack of a coherent policy on the southern border. And inflation. And gas prices… Little fires everywhere. He’s had his successes too. Infrastructure, plummeting unemployment, keeping his promise to lower the national temperature. But I’ve got to give it to the old man. He knocked it out the proverbial park with his Supreme Court nomination of Ketanji Brown Jackson.

The fact that she’s the first black female appointed to the highest court in the land is obviously monumental. Volumes will be written about this. But the honorable Judge Jackson is also a Miami native with relatives in prison and in law enforcement. She has a firm grasp of the state of Florida and its broken criminal justice system. For prisoners and the families of prisoners, this is astroseismic. More importantly, she’s a former public defender. This means she’s actually been inside jails and prisons to meet with clients who could not afford counsel. A life sentence is not some abstract idea to her. And by the way, she’s not just any public defender—she’s the first public defender nominated to the Supreme Court. Ever.

The typical path to a judgeship is to be a prosecutor or work for some big law firm. Then with a little luck and the right connections, you might get tapped. Public defenders and civil rights lawyers are generally left out in the cold for these positions. Of the 880 federal appeals court judges in the US, a whopping 318 are former prosecutors. More than a third. As opposed to the 58 former public defenders who make up 7% of all judges. When PDs do get nominated, they are usually grilled about their ability to be impartial. As if their prosecutorial counterparts are beacons of truth and light who put justice ahead of their coveted conviction rates. No need to inquire into their impartiality. Right. For those keeping score at home, three of the nine current Supreme Court justices are former prosecutors: Alito, Gorsuch, and Sotomayor. The Biden administration appears determined to address this disproportion as he continues to nominate more public defenders than prosecutors for all federal judgeships for the first time in history. Time will tell.

I heard Bobby died a few years ago but I haven’t been able to substantiate the rumor. I hope not. I would love to be able to talk smack to him when none other than Ketanji Brown Jackson authors some future majority opinion that renders his boy’s life sentence unconstitutional and sends him home.

It’s not as far-fetched as it was a couple years ago. A glimmer of hope has arrived. Her name is Ketanji Brown Jackson. And it’s official—she’s Supreme.

Aqua and Orange

You will never meet a more diehard Miami Dolphins fan than me. I bleed aqua and orange. Some of y’all have had the misfortune of sitting next to me on the dayroom bench while I roar at the television like a belligerent drunk. I’m ashamed to say that I once even went Oscar Night Will Smith on a vocal Carolina fan after Cam Newton engineered a game winning drive against us in 2013. Not one of my finest moments. But what can I say? I’m passionate. I love my squad.

So a few months ago when Head Coach Brian Flores was fired and he alleged that his ouster was somehow racially motivated, my kneejerk reaction was “bullshit!” Maybe you saw the post. I have since learned that it was the entire league he was accusing of systemic racism. Not the Dolphins specifically. Although he did accuse owner Stephen Ross of offering him money to tank for higher draft picks on the way out the door.

Is the NFL racist? I’m not naive enough to believe that there are not small pockets of bigotry remaining. If not of salivating hate, then of some unconscious tribalism. But even that is dying out. Twenty years ago, the league took steps to eradicate this with what is known as the Rooney Rule, named after the late Steelers owner, Dan Rooney. The rule states that teams must interview a minimum of two minority candidates when searching for a head coach.

After Flores got canned by the Dolphins, he interviewed for the opening with his hometown New York Giants but did not get the job. It later came out that the Giants had already decided on Brian Daboll, a white offensive coordinator from Buffalo, before the interview took place. Flores cried foul and claimed racism, even called his plight “The Audacity of Hope” in a press release before filing a lawsuit against the league. I’m as big of fan of the 44th president as there is, but the brutal truth is that the Giants DID already have their sights set on Daboll. Not because he was white, but because Buffalo’s offense was creative and thrilling and spectacular last year. They wanted some of that magic in the Meadowlands.

So maybe Coach Flores is right to call the Rooney Rule a sham. Not because the NFL is racist, but simply because the rule has outlived its usefulness. In 2017 eight of the league’s 32 head coaches were black dudes. Last year there were more black coordinators roaming the sidelines than ever before. All of these men are potential head coaches. Based on merit and scheme and success. Not on the color of their skin. The league is not racist. And calling it that weakens legit movements deserving attention elsewhere. For the most part, I think owners want a competitive product, an energized fanbase, asses in seats, championship rings…

The Miami Dolphins took massive strides in that direction this off season by parting ways with defensive-minded Flores and hiring offensive strategist Mike McDaniel, then franchising emerging TE Mike Gesicki, re-signing pass rush specialist Emmanuel Ogbah, and luring Pro Bowl left tackle Terron Armstead and RB Raheem Mostert to Miami in free agency. But the coup de grace, the stroke of brilliance, the all-in chip heave was acquiring Tyreek Hill from the Chiefs. Can you say Lamborghini offense? Nobody in the league saw that one coming.

Our GM, Chris Grier—a black guy who shot up the organizational ladder after beginning as a college scout—clearly had a vision for the direction of the team after yet another mediocre campaign. If we make a deep playoff run this year, it’ll be because of his masterful off-season moves. Including the one that sent Brian Flores packing. Not because of the color of his skin. But because he didn’t fit that vision.

Already looking forward to training camp. Go Dolphins.

Cosmic balance

My liberal friends accuse me of being a closet neocon because I think cancel culture is a joke and scoff at this new era of national hypersensitivity.

My conservative friends think I’m a flaming snowflake because I refuse to pledge allegiance to a bully like Donald Trump and I admire Obama’s pragmatic swag.

My fellow prisoners often assume I’m a white supremacist based on appearance: clean shaven head with a beard, numerous tattoos and scars. Anyone who has ever read one of my books knows this is not the case.

You’re probably drawing your own conclusions right now.

All these blanket judgements.

But don’t think I’m over here whining about being misunderstood. I judge too. We all do. It’s hardwired into our DNA. Our brains have developed over millennia to categorize, compare, assess. It’s what keeps us out of lions’ mouths, dark alleys, bad relationships, and bad conversations. Rarely do we see the actual person in front of us though, just the story we’re telling ourselves about them.

One of the most influential people I’ve ever met is a pacifist with a horrible temper, a punk rock anarchist who loves listening to the soothing voices of tea-sipping NPR hosts, a vegan who sometimes eats chicken. I once told her she was a walking contradiction. Her response: “…what you call contradiction I prefer to view as cosmically balanced.”

In her weird and wonderful way, she was telling me that life is more complicated than the binary ones and zeros of the judgemental mind.

Another Malcolm—one who’s sold far more books than the author of this essay—wrote about this in his bestseller The Tipping Point. In it, Mr. Gladwell referred to the phenomenon as “fundamental attribution error”, a filtering system in the brain that sorts people into categories based on isolated instances and small sample sizes. But it’s called a fundamental error for a reason: it’s flawed.

Are you a Second Amendment gun aficionado who still sees no justification for fully automatic street sweepers? A climate science believer who abhors the idea of late-term abortion based on embryonic science? Maybe you’re a Fox News watcher but your gut tells you that Joe and Jill Biden are not inherently evil socialists. Or you’re a black man who cringes every time you see Al Sharpton reach for a bullhorn.

If so, then I invite you to the rebellion.

Life is far more complex than the ideological slots we try to jam each other into. Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, said there were so many sides to him that he defied geometry. This is probably true for all of us. For our handful of years in this world of great wealth and crushing poverty, of hope and fear, love and indifference, the best we can do is seek the truth.

The brilliant David Mitchell summed it up beautifully in his novel Utopia Avenue—“Labels. I stuck them on everything. Good. Bad. Right. Wrong. Square. Hip. Queer. Normal. Friend. Enemy. Success. Failure. They’re easy to use. They save you the bother of thinking. Those labels stay stuck. They proliferate. They become a habit. Soon, they’re covering everything, and everybody, up. You start thinking reality IS the labels. Simple labels, written in permanent marker. The trouble is, reality’s the opposite. Reality is nuanced, paradoxical, shifting. It’s difficult. It’s many things at once. That’s why we’re so crummy at it. People harp on about freedom. ALL the time. It’s everywhere. There are riots and wars about what freedom is and who it’s for. But the Queen of Freedoms is this: to be free of labels.”

Stay cosmically balanced, my friends.

Mr. Wells

“Hey Mr. Wells, how’re you doing today?”

“Just right,” he tells me in that Southern-fried, Florida Panhandle accent that has not faded a lick over the years.

Just right. I love that. Not outstanding or living the dream or groovy. But not worn ragged and world-weary either. Not too up, not too down. Just right. Such a cool answer. Especially for a man who’s been locked up almost four decades for a crime he still maintains he did not commit.

“Sure,” you may be thinking. “What prisoner admits he’s guilty?”

I do. So do most people I’ve met in over a quarter century of doing time, at least to each other. We may search for technicalities and discrepancies in our cases and try to get back into court while legal windows are open, but there comes a time in every prisoner’s life when we toss our court transcripts and resign ourselves to fate.

Mr. Wells has never stopped fighting. Neither has his family. Before his mom and dad died, they sold off countless acres of family land to pay attorney fees. They believed their boy was innocent. His brother was up here in the visitation room most weekends, before he got sick. I’ve watched them both turn gray over the years. This place will do that to you. Life will do that to you. But neither has given up hope or lost faith.

I first met Mr. Wells in 1995 at this very same prison. I was 21 and he was well into his forties back then. I got assigned as a laborer to build the new chapel and Mr. Wells was on the crew. Most of us were doing typical extracurricular prison stuff on the job site—cooking wine in the drywall, smoking weed in the rafters, gambling on breaks. Mr. Wells was always off by himself, reading his pocket New Testament.

Our paths crossed again in 2009 at another prison in nearby Defuniak Springs. I had gotten out and pissed away my freedom smoking crack and committing robberies to support my habit. Mr. Wells was still reading his Bible, still passing out religious material on the rec yard.

Now here we are again. At the prison where I first met him 26 years ago. Same old Mr. Wells. Never misses a church service (in the chapel he helped build.) Spends most of his days with his hands in the earth. He can grow anything. Brings back fresh turnips and kale from the garden and shares with guys who have nothing.

I have a lot of good Christian people in my life—ministers, missionaries, worship leaders—but I’m not sure if I’ve ever come across faith as strong as Mr. Wells’. Sometimes I wanna say “Dude! Give it up. He ain’t listening!” But it wouldn’t do any good. His belief in his God is unshakeable… Job-like.

This is not meant to depict him as a saint. Small birds don’t gather at his feet. He’s made his mistakes in life. His gardening talents were once used to grow some of the best bud on the panhandle. That’s where his troubles began: a long-standing Hatfield/McCoy type feud with a family of dope growers in the area. The state used this as a motive in a 1983 double homicide on the Escambia river that attracted national attention. Throw in a couple crooked Southern cops who have long since been removed from their posts, and an ambitious small-town prosecutor who built a case around the facts that fit his narrative while discarding everything to the contrary, and the result is an old man with nothing left to cling to but his innocence and Jesus.

I was reading his transcripts the other day. What a mess. Missing affidavits, bullied witnesses, a bungled crime scene, exonerating forensic evidence conveniently ignored, a shape-shifting prosecutorial crime theory… No wonder there was a mistrial followed by a reversal from the District Court of Appeals. If these trials were held anywhere other than the rural South in the 1980s, he would’ve been home. If he were anyone other than an old pot farmer from Jay, Florida, home of the peanut festival and the redneck parade, some social justice movement out there would have snapped up his cause faster than you could say Black Lives Matter. Instead he’s in here with me. Two cells down.

Something has been tugging at me to write this for a couple years now. A force almost gravitational in its power. I’ve been putting it off to work on my novels but the pull has gotten consistently stronger over time. To the point where I can no longer ignore it. Maybe something intended for me to write this essay at this exact moment so that some person out there (you?) might be touched, moved, inspired. Maybe you were even meant to help. The Universe is crazy like that. Although Mr. Wells would never call it The Universe. He’d just call it Jesus.

Dead end kids, Lifetime bids

Who were you at age 15? Do you remember that kid? Were you a wild child? Did you ever skip school, or sneak out, or play mailbox baseball? Did you experiment with drugs? Who did you love with your teenage heart? Was it that all-consuming apocalyptic brand of high school love? Where is that person now?

I can no more imagine myself into the head of 15-year-old me than I can imagine my 47-year-old body in his parachute pants. We are two different people. One of us has grown, evolved, failed, rebounded, loved, lost, lived. The other is a little hard-headed know-it-all. Loaded with potential but not there yet. He’s just a kid.

Kids are impressionable. They follow crowds. They want to be cool. They want to fit in. And without solid and consistent leadership, they are easily led astray, sometimes never to return.

My world is full of kids serving life sentences. From baby-faced 18-year-olds just starting out, to men in their fifties who have been locked up since the advent of the internet. Barring some miracle, they will all die in prison for something they did when they were children… for impulsive choices made when their brains were not yet fully formed. And an 18-year-old brain is by no means fully formed. I doubt there is a neuroscientist alive who would debate this. Many believe that age 25 is a more realistic mile marker between adolescence and adulthood, especially in males.

Unfortunately, the United States Supreme Court cares nothing about neuroscience. In a recent decision that split justices 6-3 along ideological lines, the court ruled that minors don’t need to be found “permanently incorrigible” before being sentenced to life without parole. Ironically, it was Justice Kavanaugh who wrote the majority’s opinion, a guy who knows a thing or two about youthful indiscretions.

But the Supreme Court doesn’t make laws. That responsibility falls on the legislature. You’d think that between reform-oriented liberals who at least strive to create the illusion of compassion, and fiscally responsible conservatives who understand that you can’t have “small government” with a gluttonous criminal justice system bursting at the seams, common sense laws might be passed. Especially when it comes to kids and life sentences.

Nope.

Not down here in the South, at least. Our politicians are either too fearful of appearing soft on crime or too busy lining their pockets with the campaign contributions of prison profiteers to do the right thing. There are exceptions. Republican Jeff Brandes for instance. He seems to understand that prisoners and the families of prisoners are citizens of Florida too. And that if anyone can be rehabilitated, it’s our youth. But every legislative session, his innovative ideas die on the House floor.

America remains the world’s leading incarcerator—25% of planet Earth’s prisoners are caged right here in the U.S. Yet our nation only accounts for 5% of the world’s 8 billion inhabitants. Think about those numbers for a minute. Such a staggering statistic for a country that prides itself on being the land of the free. In order to shake this dubious distinction and relinquish it to China or Russia or some other authoritarian government where it belongs, our lawmakers must take an honest look at our outdated and draconian criminal justice system. What better starting point than the kids we’ve been throwing away.

There is no them, only us.

Thank you again

I sent a bunch of property home over the weekend. Ancient letters and cards and photos dating back to when I first began this odyssey in March 2005. I’ve still got a few more miles to go but I’m getting closer. What a long, strange trip it’s been.

One of the more beautiful artifacts I found in my locker wasn’t all that old… 2016. It was a motion to correct an illegal sentence. In a landmark decision, the United States Supreme Court had struck down something called the “residual clause” of the Armed Career Criminal Act. When the ruling was made retroactive, it opened a small window for me.

The prosecution argued that my sentence should remain at 379 months, that I was the exact type of criminal that Congress had in mind when they enacted the law. In response, my public defender authored this masterful brief that took excerpts of the essays I’d been writing for years and wove them into her argument. She also attached copies of my book covers.

When I say writing saved me, this is part of what I mean. I began Consider the Dragonfly because I was sick of the hamster wheel of prison life and wanted to do something different. I was just trying to live right, trying to be a better man, trying to salvage what was left of my dumpster fire of a life. I had no idea that years later, some Supreme Court decision would get me back into court and those same words might help get me home. Yet that’s exactly what happened.

But it wasn’t just my words. It was yours. It was all those letters of support that were attached to the back of the motion.

Reading them on my cell floor the other night for the first time in years had me a little emotional. My mind was flooded with images… Of my brother Keith at his computer, of Kelly and Marcus in their living room working on drafts, of Hailey with a notebook at the kitchen table, of Lindsey in his office between patients, of Mimi after church, of Ashton… Of all of you guys. You know who you are. For a brief moment, I could see you in 2016. Putting your busy lives on pause to write a federal magistrate because you believe in me, because you care, because you want me home. I’m lucky to have such incredible people in my life. Lucky to have family and friends. I’m surrounded by men who have no one. Many don’t even have release dates. “There, but for the grace of God…”

In the end, the judge rejected the government’s argument and resentenced me to 288 months. It still sounds like a lot, right? But those seven years and seven months of freedom I got back represent seven more Christmases, seven more years to play with a generation of nieces and nephews who were born since I’ve been away, seven more years with Mom…

Thank you again.

The Covid Equation

Memory has always been my strong suit. You want the theme song to Diff’rent Strokes, Facts of Life, or any other 80s TV show? No problem. The lyrics to “The End of The World as We Know it” by REM? Which verse? The wide receiver depth chart for any of the NFL’s 32 teams? Coming right up. Yet lately I’ve been having these little moments. Times when my prefrontal cortex is unable to scroll or double-click. Times when I can’t remember shit. Let’s call them glitches.

I keep thinking… maybe it’s some sort of mid-forties brain recalibration thing, or because I’ve had a massive head injury, or the residual effect of squandered gray matter from years of drug use. Maybe. But the more I read up on the pandemic, the more I wonder if it’s something else entirely.

I know I’ve had Covid. Half my dorm was waylaid back in October, the third time we were quarantined. A friend of mine ended up going to an outside hospital for a month and when he returned to the prison, he died within a week. The official line was that he recovered from the virus but couldn’t survive the ensuing pneumonia. That’s why it wasn’t ruled a Covid death on the institutional scorecard. If that sounds sketchy to you, join the club.

No Covid tests were conducted on the other 70 men in my dorm. Just daily temp checks. Not that we wanted them. Quarantines are a massive inconvenience in prison. More punishment than precaution. No rec, no canteen, no movement (which translates to no hustling). Just a biohazard sticker on the door for fourteen days. They do nothing, solve nothing, protect no one. As long as guards are coming in everyday for shiftwork, the virus will circulate. No getting around it. Not in open bay dorms where there’s 12 inches between your feet and your neighbor’s head. It’s gotten to the point that no one reports symptoms. When you have a life sentence, global pandemics mean about as much as presidential elections.

But the way we knew something was up — aside from feeling like hell — was that no one could taste or smell anything. You know those cologne advertisements in men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ? My friends and I would wave strips under each other’s noses. Nothing. It’s a strange experience to breathe deeply through the nostrils and not register a scintilla of scent. Especially in a prison dorm where pungent smells are abundant.

But even stranger are the memory lapses. At least in my experience. Neuroscientists are just now starting to understand the effects of Covid on the brain. I recently read an article by Dr. Sanjay Gupta about some of the devastating long-term and short-term neurological complications of the virus including delirium, depression, temporary brain dysfunction, headaches, brain inflammation, and meningitis. He cites a report in the journal Nature that details the symptoms of a woman in her fifties who saw lions and monkeys in her house and accused her husband of being an imposter.

I guess my forgetting the lyrics to “Come On Eileen” pales in comparison to zoological hallucinations, but it’s still cause for alarm in my little corner of the multiverse. What if this is the beginning of a tumble into the abyss? I researched enough about dementia while writing Sticks & Stones to understand what a terrifying prospect it is.

Covid or no Covid, my defense against cognitive decline remains unchanged: exercise daily, meditate for ten minutes, learn new things, do plenty of crosswords, and write with my hair on fire. (Yeah, I’m bald. 5 books. Where do you think it went?)

As Leonard Pitts once so eloquently put it, “Without memories what are we? We are the equation after the blackboard has been wiped clean.”

Year of the Firefly: Chapter 1

Miranda had never seen a Gucci eye patch before. Funny how that was the focal point of her attention. The patch. Not the ginormous pile of cash on the table. Not the musclebound tattooed man who was counting it. Not the naked woman snuggling with the pitbull on the leather sofa. Not the oblivious little boy tapping furiously on the Xbox controller. All these storylines were riveting, but it was the designer patch that the monocle of her consciousness was fixed upon. She wondered if it was a fashion accessory or a medical device or both. The aspiring author and English Lit major in her needed to know.

Still tingly and warm from the blunt on the ride across the bridge, she followed with hooded eyes as its wearer rummaged through kitchen cabinets in search of a scale. He caught her staring and paused. The sculptured mustache and goatee that framed his mouth pulled back into a diamond- and platinum-encrusted scowl. “Yo Nick, you sure this bitch ain’t troll?”

Uncertain which was more offensive, being called a bitch or a troll, she felt her face redden with indignation as she sputtered to assemble a lethal riposte . . . something Katherine from Taming of the Shrew might serve up in her icy Shakespearean tone. Nice eyepatch . . . are you wearing matching Gucci panties?

Two things stopped her: the small arsenal of urban warfare weapons stacked on the coffee table and Nick’s firm hand on the small of her back.

“I’m positive,” he said, in that deep, confident voice that made her forget her outrage, forget she was standing in a trap house, forget the world, forget herself.

“Well she looks like troll.” Eyepatch found his scale and set it on the counter. “Like one of them redheaded CSI bitches. I don’t trust no redheads . . .”

Nick removed his hand from her back and ran his fingers through his dark unruly hair. His palm left an impression, hot against her skin. A thermonuclear handprint. “Come on, Gucci,” he said. “You know I don’t fuck with twelve.”

Miranda stifled a giggle. His name was Gucci? Was Gucci, the company, like, secretly sponsoring drug dealers or something? She thought of her sociology professor, Dr. Bonilla, and his fiery disquisitions on consumer culture and materialism. He would choke on his own mustache if he ever crossed paths with this walking designer brand billboard.

“She ain’t gotta be twelve,” said Gucci. “She could be an informant. How do you know she ain’t wearing a wire?”

Nick glanced down at her. His eyes were dark chocolate caged in black lashes. A secret smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Because I watched her get dressed.”

His words seemed to hang in the air. She blushed, suddenly as exposed as the naked woman snoring on the couch. Gucci appraised her from over his scale. Fitting, because she felt like she was being weighed. His one eye moved up and down her body. Apparently the MeToo movement had not yet reached the criminal underworld. She wished Nick would put his arm around her.

“Don’t bring nobody else over here,” Gucci muttered as he pulled apart the Ziploc and began heaping Boi onto the didgies with a silver spoon.

Boi and didgies.

The arrival of Nick Archiletta on the timeline of her life had brought a strange new lexicon of colloquialisms and street slang. Words that did not appear in the pages of her beloved Random House College Dictionary or even the online Urban Dictionary. Sometimes it was as if he was speaking an entirely different language.

Miranda loved words. She grew up doing New York Times crossword puzzles with her dad and was a self-proclaimed etymologist by the time she reached middle school. Her plan was to write a novel after the fall semester and midterms, maybe a gritty romance she could self-pub and market herself. The bad boy patois of Nick’s urban ecosystem would make for snappy, realistic dialogue. This was perhaps the sexiest thing about him. True, he was lean and handsome with just the right number of tattoos. True, the danger was thrilling, the passion was electric, the money was fast, and the drugs were convenient. But take all that away and his vernacular alone was worth the price of admission. Especially to a word-nerd like herself.

The dope was the color of Gulf of Mexico sand, a growing anthill atop the matte black digital scale. Gucci added a little, then more, then grunted, shook his head, and sliced off the tip of the mountain, transforming it into a mesa. Satisfied, he spun the scale.

Miranda read the display. 28.7.

“Can I put some cut on it?” said Nick.

“You better.” Gucci shook a Newport from his pack and fired it up. His teeth dazzled beyond the flame. “You know how we rock, bruh. This is that good Frank white shit. Pure as your bitch.”

She winced. He pronounced pure like purr. Calling her rude names was one thing. But lazy mispronunciations she could not tolerate. They circumvented her filter, triggering a response that was almost reflexive.

“I believe the word you’re looking for is pure. P-U-R-E. All you do is take the possessive your and stick a P in front of it. Pyour . . . Pure.” She enunciated with the exaggerated patience of a kindergarten teacher. “You try it.”

He stared at her for a solid ten seconds. He even pursed his lips. Then he looked at Nick. “What is this crazy-ass bitch jaw-jackin’ about?”

Nick shrugged. “She takes off like that sometimes. I think it’s a college thing . . . here.” He reached in his jeans pocket, grabbed a roll of bills and tossed them across the kitchen.

Gucci caught the money, removed the rubber band and began to count.

“Everything good?” said Nick, when he reached the last hundred.

“Better than good.” The one-eyed dope dealer looked up and smiled for the first time that day. “Everything’s Gucci.”

Anything is possible

Dateline: Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 2021

As President Joe Biden looks out over the empty windswept National Mall and into the living rooms of 325 million Americans, pumping a message of healing and unity, the odds of his success — of America’s success — could not be longer.

Rahm Emanuel recently framed it like this: “Lincoln had the Civil War, Wilson had the pandemic, Roosevelt had the Depression, and LBJ had the civic unrest of the 1960s… Biden has all four.”

Sobering thought. And this is not even factoring in the bridge-mending that will have to be done with our allies, addressing our crumbling infrastructure, reigniting faith in our cratering institutions, negating the inroads that Putin and the Russians have made into our election system, improving health care, solving immigration, passing criminal justice reform, managing the opioid crisis…

And he must do it while navigating the smoke and noise of a sensationalist, hyperventilating media, as well as the conspiracy theorists, the Trump loyalists, the extreme wing of his own Democratic party, and the binary reality of modern American politics where one side needs the other to fail.

This will no doubt be an extremely tough task.

But he wanted it. He earned it. Fought through the field in a packed primary, survived one particularly brutal debate, an election night that dragged on for days, an iconoclastic incumbent who refused to accept defeat, and an attempted insurrection, all to arrive at this moment in history. Now here he is. Here we are. The question is: where are we going?

One of the many frustrating themes of the outgoing Trump regime was its disdain for the truth. They coined the phrase “alternate facts” from the jump and it would become a cornerstone of the administration for the duration. In order for us to find our way out of the wilderness, the truth needs to be magnetic north on our national compass.

Here are some hard truths that President Biden and congressional members of both parties must come to terms with over these next pivotal years.
— Racism is a massive problem in this country but no ethnicity has a monopoly on it. Double standards have become increasingly glaring in recent years and hate groups are using these as tools to recruit and indoctrinate America’s alienated youth. If we continue down this road of highlighting the skin color of bad cops and unarmed victims only when it suits a certain narrative, we’ll never disentangle ourselves from the baggage of our ancestors. We are Americans first. Black, white, brown, red, yellow, blue, whatever. Our histories and destinies are all entwined. And whenever any American kills another American, it’s a sad day for us as a people.

— Compromise needs to make a comeback. Special interest groups like Planned Parenthood and the NRA view any concession (the banning of third trimester abortions, the banning of automatic assault rifles) as a slippery slope toward their own extinction. They use their money and influence to strong-arm senators into never giving an inch. This is no way to govern. The ability to work with those across the aisle is an asset, not a liability. We should demand it from our representatives.

— American isolationism is bad for us and bad for the world. Biden’s former boss said it best: “If moral claims are insufficient for us to act as a continent implodes, there are certainly instrumental reasons why the U.S. and its allies should care about failed states that don’t control their territories, can’t combat epidemics, and are numbed by civil war and atrocity. It was in such a state of lawlessness that the Taliban took hold of Afghanistan. It was in genocidal Sudan that bin Laden set up camp for several years. It’s in the misery of some unnamed slum that the next killer virus will emerge…” We are all connected. There’s a reason why we helped establish organizations like the U.N., the IAEA, and the WHO. Our failure to lead over the last four years has created a vacuum where China has made significant gains. Do we really want an authoritarian government setting the international tone?

Our nation is often referred to as a “democratic experiment.” And lately we’ve come dangerously close to having that experiment blow up in our faces. Free and fair elections, the peaceful transition of power, the right to assemble, free speech, due process… the very document that guarantees our liberty has come under attack. But we’re still here. Still kicking. Still the gold standard for freedom. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” There’s a reason people brave shark-infested waters and coyotes and narcos and ICE cages and miles of desert to get here. Hope. Anything is possible in America.

So now the nation, and much of the world, looks to Mr. Biden to orchestrate our comeback. It starts today. And his success is our success. Can we pull it off? Again, the odds are long. But I wouldn’t bet against us.

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