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Magical No. 9

I’ve always had a thing for the number 9. When I was a kid, there was a local graffiti artist who used to tag it all over South Miami. I remember riding in the back of our family car and seeing it spray-painted on bus stops and the sides of businesses. Once I was conditioned to look for it, the number began popping up everywhere. Highlighted on taxicabs, gas station price signs, and math homework assignments.

When I was 18 (1+8=9), I came to prison and discovered Coast to Coast with Art Bell on AM radio. One of his guests was a numerologist who spent an entire segment on the number 9, pointing out its unique properties, relating it to the Mayans and ancient mathematicians. It was like he was talking about my childhood friend.

My life is full of 9s. My mom had me when she was 27 (2+7=9). Her mom had her when she was 18 (1+8=9). When the universe blesses me with a love interest and I find out her birthday, my mind instantly begins its calculations (“7/5/1984: 7+5+1+9+8+4=34 and 3+4=7. Damn. Almost. If only she’d been born in September.”). When my nieces and nephews turn 9, they get a long, rambling card from me pointing out the magic of the age and encouraging them to make the most of it. Many of the cell numbers and dates that appear in Consider the Dragonfly and With Arms Unbound are nods to 9. There’s a full-blown tribute to the number via the character Scarlett McGhee in On the Shoulders of Giants.

So of course, 2016 was destined to be a gigantic year (2+0+1+6=9) and after a sluggish start, it is now surpassing expectations. My third novel is in the pipeline, the Miami Dolphins drafted Laremy Tunsil, With Arms Unbound received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest magazine novel competition, and a recent Supreme Court ruling may reduce my release date from 2032 (don’t bother, it’s 7) to 2025 (2+0+2+5=9) and it’s only May! Good ‘ol 9. What’s your favorite number?

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in May 2016.]

Make a real difference

There is something unsustainable going on in this country. It’s happening in every project building and trailer park across the nation. Babies are being born into poverty, if they are lucky enough to make it that far, as many are discarded with the trash.

These kids grow up like weeds, forgotten by incarcerated or addicted parents — many of whom are still kids themselves — ignored by society, bouncing around state foster care systems and juvenile detention centers, raised by the streets.

When I was smoking crack, I remember driving to my local ghetto to score some dope one morning. I was amazed by how many kids mobbed my car. Eleven and twelve-year-olds, pushing and shoving each other outside my window, holding out baggies of the rock cocaine I sought, vying to make the coveted sell. Even in my drug-addled mind, I remember wondering why these kids weren’t in school.

Now, ten years into a 30-year prison sentence, I see those same kids moving into the neighboring bunks in my dorm; 18-year-old boys with 50- and 60-year sentences, their lives already over. I know people will say they made their own choices, but when a child grows up unraised and unloved, when he has to hustle and scrap for everything he gets, when the only environment he knows is one of crime and violence, when the heroes of his community are gangsters and criminals, when the music he’s been listening to his entire life trumpets murder, robbery, and dope-dealing as a realistic, viable life path … it’s difficult to wake up one day and decide to get a GED. Maybe in Hollywood, rarely in real life.

The newspapers say crime is down 4 percent in this country. Somebody is skewing those numbers. With the rise of physically addictive prescription drugs, and heroin rearing its ugly head, there is no way the crime rate is dropping. The problem is not going to go away. It is a festering sore on the face of society that is expanding exponentially. And there’s only one way to stop it: Love.

Naïve as it may sound, if every child in this country were loved and nurtured, there would be a lot less violent crime in America 15 years from now. So let’s set aside the whales and the trees and the ozone for a minute. If we really want to make a difference, we need to save the kids.

Because there is no them; only us.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com in September 2014.]

 

E = mc2

My father’s father was a writer and the son of a philanthropist. His name was E. Malcolm Collins, II. I never met him but his novel, Angel Blood, was a permanent fixture on the bookshelf in our apartment when I was growing up.

The story passed down through the family was that he was an alcoholic and drug abuser, and in December 1971, he ran a bath of scalding hot water, stepped in, slipped and banged his head. He died in the tub. He left behind one daughter, my Aunt Carole, who also struggled with alcoholism and depression, and one son, my father “Mac,” E. M. Collins, III, who had his own issues with drug abuse and compulsive behavior.

In 1990, Aunt Carole checked into a hotel room and shot herself in the heart. Three and a half years later, my father died of congestive heart failure, a lifetime of Camel non-filters and horrible eating habits finally caught up with him. Aunt Carole had two daughters: Kelly and Ginger. Mac had four sons: Scott, Keith, Jeff, and me.

Not to air any dirty family laundry, but I think deep down my brothers and cousins would agree that there’s a little crazy swimming in our DNA; a compulsive gene, a predisposition to addiction, maybe even a touch of psychosis. But there’s also an overwhelming amount of love and music and laughter.

September 5th is the 21st anniversary of my father’s death. It’s hard to believe that over two decades have passed since the prison chaplain gave me the news. At age 40, I can see the evidence of his genetic fingerprints all over my life, and not just in my evaporating hairline or the blue eyes staring back at me in the mirror. I recognize him in my passion for sports, my own struggles with drug abuse, my love for the Blackjack tables in Biloxi, my affinity for cheesecake. There are signs of E. M. Collins II, in me too, and his father, and the echoes of countless generations before them.

When I began writing novels, I took on the pseudonym Malcolm Ivey as a nod to those men: Malcolm I, II, and III, the philanthropist, the writer and the banker. The “Ivey” represents the Roman numeral IV, Malcolm the fourth, my father’s son to the bone and the youngest of four brothers. Ivey.

On September 5th, I will raise a bottle of water to my reflection and salute the Malcolms in me, blemishes and all. As the brilliant Albert Einstein put it, “Energy cannot be created or destroyed, it can only be changed from one form to another.” I drink to that.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com in September 2014.]

Dum spiro spero

dandelion-windIn my latest novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, one of the protagonists, Ezra James, often references the universe when it comes to inspiration. Even the title of the book, which Ezra lifts from a President Obama speech, is more the result of serendipitous coincidence than meticulous plotting.

Like the story’s protagonist, I too am a big believer in the universe. This is the source from which creative magic flows. There’s a reason why so many artists shrug off compliments regarding their work: It feels like a scam to accept credit for something that is clearly ether-born. Sure, the writer provides the discipline by sitting in front of a computer for hours, as does the painter at the easel and the musician strumming the guitar. Sentence by brush stroke by chord, we plod along. Progress is minimal. But if we sit there long enough, lightning cracks, the sky opens, our eyes glaze over and the Bradburian effect kicks in. “…and when their souls grew warm, they were poets.” We can take credit if we want, but the truth is, in that moment, we are plugged into something greater. Something mystical. We are conduits. The universe is moving through us.

I came across the Latin phrase dum spiro spero in a Merriam-Webster dictionary a few years ago while searching for a cool tattoo. The meaning, while I breathe I hope, resonated with me. So much so that I wove it into the novel as a plot point regarding lost love. At least I thought that was the purpose.

Here’s where the universe comes in. It wasn’t until the book was finished and on the shelf that I learned that dum spiro spero is also the state motto of South Carolina. Blew me away.

I’ve never been to South Carolina, don’t know anyone in South Carolina, but like most Americans, I was heartbroken and outraged when Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel A.M.E. Church and murdered those nine black parishioners. Pure evil. But what was also shocking was the reaction of the people of Charleston. There were no race riots, no rumors of retaliation, no violence. Just a candlelight vigil for the victims where people of all races mourned the loss of their neighbors. Even the survivors of this heartless, senseless, spineless execution said they were praying for the killer.

I’m honored that On the Shoulders of Giants, a novel that deals largely with the topic of race, contains the state motto of such beautiful people. Although it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t coincidence either. As Ezra would say, it was pure universe.

Dum spiro spero.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com earlier this year.]

 

Blunt force trauma

Doggy doorI got punched in the face the other night. Long story. It didn’t knock me down, but I was out on my feet. Hurt my pride more than anything. Thankfully, in the parallel universe of prison, standing up for oneself supersedes wins and losses and after spending so many years in a cage, I’ve at least got the standing up part down pat.

But in the groggy aftermath of the fight, as I lay in my bunk with a vicious headache and a wet rag attempting to staunch the blood flow, it occurred to me that I had probably just suffered yet another concussion.

I’m paranoid about my brain. I’ve been that way since I started writing books. Any minor lapse of memory is immediately suspected as a precursor for dementia. I mourn the loss of brain cells I once squandered sucking on crack pipes and water bongs and I even meditate in the neuroplastical hope of rejuvenating gray matter. I’d take three broken legs over another concussion at this stage.

Head-shots, like felony arrests, have been a recurring theme over the first couple semesters of my life. When I was five years old, I had to be stitched up after running full speed into a wall in our apartment. Then there were seven years of head-on collisions in Pop Warner football, then juvenile hall lumps, prison yard lumps, a metal bar stool across the head in my mid-30s… But the most memorable concussion of my crash test dummy life was the car wreck that preceded the above photo. That’s not Frankenstein up there, that’s me. And those are 70 staples in my head.

Luckily there were no other cars involved. The roads were slick, my tires were bald, and my Pathfinder hydroplaned, flipped, and crashed through a fence, smacking an oak tree. The metal roof collapsed on my head.

I awoke two days later in the ICU of Sacred Heart Hospital. The neurosurgeon told my mom that I could be deaf, blind, slow, or paralyzed post-surgery, but that my brain was swelling and if he didn’t operate immediately, I would die.

That was 14 years ago and much has happened since: heartbreaks, hair loss, addiction, a lengthy prison sentence, and yes, more concussions. But in the midst of all this dreariness, something transformative has also occurred… books! And with these books, discipline, honor, maturity. I think even the most skeptical reader would concede that a brain-damaged, crackhead, ADHD high school dropout summoning the concentration to write full-length novels longhand is pretty unusual, if not miraculous. Sometimes I wonder if that near-fatal head injury back in 2002 caused some undeveloped part of my brain to light up and assist me in becoming a normal, fully functioning human being.

My third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, is now available on Amazon. If you read it, you’ll find a character with a scar very similar to my own. This was done not only in adherence to the author’s axiom write what you know, but also as a tribute to my lifelong, toxic love affair with blunt force trauma and banging my head against things.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in 2016.]

The radical choice of militant kindness

The first lesson every young man learns upon entering the prison system is that aggression is king and violence is law. The traits that are valued in the real world — honesty, generosity, friendliness — are viewed as weaknesses in prison. Weaknesses that are pounced upon and exploited. Survival in this world depends on at least the perception of brutality and if you’re not particularly brutal, you had better be a damn good actor.

So that’s what I’ve been doing for the last 22 years. Acting. Acting tough, acting hard, acting cold. Acting as if I don’t see the loneliness and sadness and brokenness that surrounds me. Why? Simple: Fear.

In 1992, a scrawny teenage version of myself looked around at the savage world of prison and said to my mind, “Help! I don’t wanna be jumped or stabbed or raped or beaten to death by abusive guards. I wanna make it back home in one piece!” And my mind, amazing babbling problem-solver that it is, said, “I got this,” and went to work on building a wall and posting the ultra-sensitive ego as a sentry to ward off any potential threats. My job was to act. And act I did. I spent so much time acting that I almost lost myself inside the façade that was supposed to be protecting me. Almost.

But looking at prison through the eyes of a 40-year-old man is a much different experience than seeing it through the eyes of a scared little 18-year-old kid. And recently, after decades of fortifying this hardened exterior and living with a conditioned mindset that places toughness over all other attributes, a series of books, films, and extraordinary people have wandered into my life with an unmistakable message: there is nothing more honorable, more radical, more standup than the path of kindness. Especially in such a hopeless world.

Suddenly — no, not suddenly — gradually, I wanted this more than anything else. Militant kindness. Love without fear. A wide open heart. For someone who has spent years coveting the appearance of fearlessness and physical strength, the concept of kindness, regardless of consequence, was a revelation. A last shot at a life of meaning and authenticity. I wanted to get back to the me I was before all of this acting BS began, back to the kid I built these walls to protect.

Kindness. It seems like such an easy choice. But a crazy thing happens when you drop your guard and step from behind that icy standoffish barrier: people become comfortable around you. Comfortable enough to open up, to confide in you, and occasionally, comfortable enough to hurt you. Or at least say things that are damaging to your ego. But that is what we want, isn’t it? It’s what I want. This lonely half-life of keeping the world at arm’s length for a false sense of safety and to defend the ego is a fool’s game and the exhaustive struggle to continue propping up an illusion is not only cowardice, it’s treasonous. Only kindness matters.

[This post first appeared on malcolmivey.com in October 2014. It was picked up by Huffington Post and appeared on that website in November 2014.]

 

Party animal

I live on a steel bunk in a warehouse. Everything I own in this world is in the footlocker beneath me. It ain’t much; a photo album, a stack of letters, a few books. I’ve been in prison 10 years this time. My release date is 2032. A few hazy, drug-soaked months of strip bars, casinos, and fast living cost me most of my adult life.

I run across old friends and associates from that era on the yard sometimes. They look bad — rotten teeth, track marks, gnawed nails on shaky hands. They give me news of other old friends who weren’t as lucky: overdoses, shootings, suicides. Occasionally I’ll recognize the names of women in the arrest report of my hometown newspaper. Those wide-eyed college girls who were just beginning to experiment with coke and ecstasy in 2003 are now haggard streetwalkers, hardened repeat-offender prostitutes.

This is the natural evolution of drug abuse. Cause and effect. I know you’re thinking it won’t happen to you. I thought I was an exception too. Believe me, no one plans on destroying their life and coming to prison. No little kid daydreams about growing up to rob gas stations for dope money, or getting doused with pepper spray and beaten half to death by abusive guards in a confinement cell, or dying alone in a motel room with a needle in his arm… We call getting high “partying” and like any party, there’s always a mess when the party is over. In fact, the bigger the party, the bigger the mess.

The irony is that the kids we label squares and lames and dorks because they refuse to party grow up to be the doctors who resuscitate us when we overdose, the psychologists who attempt to help us put our broken lives back together, the lawyers who represent us in court when we’re arrested, the judges who sentence us to prison, and the men who step into our families and become the fathers and husbands we failed at being.

So if you’re 15 (or 17 or 24) and you’re popping bars, snorting Roxys or dabbling in meth or molly or whatever, this is what middle-aged drug life looks like. Guaranteed. And if you think it won’t happen to you, we can talk more about it when you move into my dorm. The bunk behind mine is open right now. We’ll leave a light on for you. The one from the gun tower.

[This post originally appeared on malcolmivey.com in February 2015.]

 

Don’t be a lick

Do you know what a “lick” is? Not the generic definition. This has nothing to do with the tongue or fire or even defeating something. I’m talking slang here.

For those of you who have never tasted the misery of being enslaved by a chemical, a lick is what a drug dealer calls his customer. The guy who pawns his mother’s lawnmower for crack money is someone’s lick. So is the woman who sells her body for a 20 rock, or a shot of ice, or a Roxy 30. A drug dealer may pretend to like you, he may act oblivious to your rumpled clothing and declining weight, he may even chill with you for a while after money and merchandise are exchanged. But make no mistake, inwardly he’s smirking at your weakness. Regardless of the illusion of equal footing, this is not some business transaction. You are sick and desperate for what he has in his pocket, and he has all the power. You’re his sucker, his chump, his lick. Pointblank. He’s buying clothes and cars and bling while your life is crumbling all around you.

It’s humiliating to admit this, but I’ve been a lick for most of my life. As of this writing, I’m not even halfway through a 379-month prison sentence for robbing gas stations. Not because I was starving or because there was a recession and I was desperate to feed my family. No. I wish, but no. I was just a lick trying to scrape up money to bring to my dopeman. So you get it, right? Drugs are bad. I know what you’re thinking. “Thank you very much, Diane Sawyer, but this is not breaking news.” There are millions upon millions of stories out there about the soul-sucking consequences of drug abuse.

But this is not an anti-drug rant. This is an anti-lick rant. At the risk of sounding like the illegitimate child of Tipper Gore and Joe McCarthy, I’ll attempt to explain.

The predatory paradigm of dopeman and lick is not restricted to drug culture. It’s everywhere. Millionaire rappers laugh all the way to the bank while the kids who mindlessly, hypnotically repeat their lyrics get shot down in the streets, or come to prison with life sentences for trying to live out these murderous, unsustainable fairy tales that are being spoon-fed to them under the label of “cool.” Metal bands romanticize suicides and overdoses as if they were heroic acts. Violent video games, sexting, internet porn… it makes sense that kids are the biggest licks because they are the most inexperienced and therefore vulnerable. But it’s not just kids. Big Pharma is a billion-dollar industry. Middle Eastern turf wars are reported as ideological clashes but are really all about oil and who gets to sell it to us. Think we’re not China’s licks? Check out the “Made in” sticker on the back of any product sold at the local Super Walmart. Everybody wants a piece.

The Eagles have a terrific lyric in the song Already Gone: “So often times it happens that we live our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” In this case, the key is awareness, knowledge, moderation. Don’t be a lick.

[Originally published on malcolmivey.com in November 2014.]

Video visitation: it’s coming

Visitation was packed. The line to get in barely moved. Tired moms chased screaming kids across the parking lot. Angry girlfriends, denied entry for wearing spandex and sleeveless shirts, stormed off in profanity-laced tirades. A grandfather passed out from heat exhaustion. After a two-hour wait, it was finally my mom’s turn to be frisked, then led through a gauntlet of metal detectors, cell phone detectors, and drug dogs. The guard who escorted her rolled her eyes and smiled, “Come on, video visits!” As if my sweet, 70-year-old mother, who has spent every Saturday for the last 12 years eating microwave food, walking laps, and playing cards with her wayward, knuckle-headed son would share this longing for dystopian efficiency over human contact. She does not. No prisoner or visitor wants this.

It’s coming, though. Not only because these contact visits — which have been standard operating procedure in the Florida Department of Corrections for the last 150 years — are now suddenly deemed a “security threat,” but mainly because there’s a market for it. Companies like Keefe and Access Correctional stand to make millions when video visits become the new normal in Florida prisons.

Most county jails have already made the transition with little or no resistance, but there’s a glaring difference: County inmates are either awaiting trial or serving minuscule sentences. Prisoners in the department of corrections are serving anywhere between a year and natural life. Imagine never being able to hold your daughter again, or give your little boy a piggyback ride, or kiss your wife, or hug your mom. You can argue that the prisoner deserves this. But do his children? His wife? His parents? Families serve sentences together. These types of policies have collateral consequences that extend far beyond the inmate.

John Cacioppo, PhD, a psychologist and social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago studies loneliness and he’s found that feeling socially isolated disrupts not only our brain but also our endocrine and immune systems. Over the long term, lack of human contact can be as damaging to our health and well-being as obesity and smoking (Men’s Health, Jan/Feb 2015).

In this era of Skype and Facetime, my words probably ring trivial. Old fashioned, even. Especially to the millennial who maintains several relationships over a mobile device. That’s not my world. There was no such thing as a smart phone when I was arrested. Many of my fellow prisoners were locked up before the advent of the internet.

Again, who cares? Outside of prisoners and their families, no one. And let’s be honest, the average inmate’s family is not exactly affluent, connected, or politically powerful. The Florida Department of Corrections knows this and passes its draconian rules with little resistance, as I’m sure they’ll do with this one.

To mangle a Leonard Pitts quote: Things like this will continue until the families of prisoners understand themselves as a constituency and organize their voices accordingly.

A nation in reverse

By now I’m sure you’ve heard the numbers — the U.S. makes up only 5 percent of the world’s population, yet 25 percent of the world’s prisoners are locked up right here in the land of the free. One in three Americans has some type of criminal record, be it felony or misdemeanor. Our national embarrassment of mass incarceration and the commodification of human beings is alive and well in 2017.

The sad thing is, we were this close. You can’t see my fingers but… This. Close. There was bipartisan support for criminal justice reform at every level of government. “Non-violent drug offenders” had become a Beltway catchphrase. President Obama was commuting an historic amount of federal prison sentences. The most hard-line conservative seat on the Supreme Court had come open and Hillary Clinton, wife of Bill, with every reason in the world to undo what many view as the last bastion of slavery, was a stone-cold-lead-pipe lock for the Oval Office. What could possibly go wrong?

Blame it on Russian meddling, rust-belt angst, ex-FBI director Comey’s 11th-hour email investigation announcement, or a lack of voter turn-out because Dems thought they had it in the bag. For whatever reason, here we sit. A nation in reverse.

Never mind prison reform. The environment is under siege, Medicaid is under siege, Wall Street is on the verge of running rampant again after the quiet dismantling of Dodd-Frank (a piece of legislation put into place to ensure that the financial crisis of 2008 — an event that cost the world 40 percent of its wealth — would never happen again). Our president is disrespecting long-standing allies while complimenting dictators. The Montenegro shove, the Paris climate pull-out, the Mueller investigation, the Emoluments Clause lawsuits, North Korea, Syria, and tweet after mind-numbing, illiterate tweet. It’s exhausting and riveting and terrifying and hilarious.

Meanwhile, as these pyrotechnics dominate the news cycle, Attorney General Jeff Sessions has doubled down on an outdated War on Drugs policy, urging federal prosecutors to seek the maximum sentences on drug offenders. He’s even asked Congressional leaders to allow the Justice Department to prosecute medical marijuana providers. Stock in private prison profiteers like the GEO Group and Corrections Corporation of America — down 40 percent in the last six months of Obama’s term due to a planned phase-out in the federal system — is once again soaring. Business is good. And with the resurgence of heroin, it’s only going to get better.

Rumors of the demise of the Prison Industrial Complex have been greatly exaggerated.