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American Dirt

It took Jeanine Cummins seven years to write American Dirt. The story of a middle-class Mexican bookseller who flees Acapulco with her young son after a cartel violently attacks a birthday party she’s attending, in the process killing her journalist husband who earlier profiled the cartel leader… Loaded with tension, bubbling with suspense, as heartbreaking and current as children in cages on the world news, her hard work earned her a seven-figure book deal. Sounds like a Don Winslow novel to me. In fact, Mr. Winslow called it a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. He was not alone. Stephen King said it was “extraordinary.” And Oprah selected it for her coveted book club.

At least that’s what some people say. Others are calling it “trauma porn” and “an atrocious piece of cultural appropriation.” They accuse her of trafficking in stereotypes and “wallowing in ignorance.” I saw where writer and professor David Bowles called her use of the Spanish language in dialogue “wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate.” In addition to attacking her on the mechanics and merits of her work, many believe that a white American woman should not be writing stories about Mexican immigrants.

It’s this last part that gets me. If the book sucks, fine. Torch it. Slather it with all the negative criticism it deserves and post your findings in every literary journal on the web. But don’t disqualify art on the grounds of the ethnicity of the artist. By doing so, we perpetuate the same marginalization we claim to be fighting against. Unfortunately, this is not new. There’s a whole movement out there that is pushing this agenda and shaming anyone who does not conform.

A couple of years ago, Amélie Wen Zhao asked her publisher to pull her novel Blood Heir due to the beating she took online for her lack of racial sensitivity. According to reports, she botched the delicate issue of slavery in her fiction. One of the louder voices in this politically correct lynch mob was Kosoko Jackson, an aspiring writer who worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishers of young adult fiction. His job description was to read manuscripts and flag them for problematic content. In addition to his day job, he was also part of a small but intense online community that scolded writers who they felt were out-of-bounds. Last year, in an article by Ruth Graham, I read where Mr. Jackson himself, who identifies as black and queer, was called out by that same community for being tone deaf to the atrocities of genocide in his gay teen love story A Place for Wolves, a novel he also eventually pulled. Apparently the outraged eat their own.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, were to pass through the pristine and manicured hands of this Orwellian literary police force. Would they hyperventilate with righteous indignation upon discovering that half the novel is written in the POV of a black kid from a Pensacola project building? Or that the other half is written in the voice of a foster child? Would they purse their lips in disgust as the novel snakes through the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys? Or label the overdoses and drive-bys and prison violence “trauma porn?” Would they waggle their angry fingers from the anonymity of their computer screens and say I have no right to tell these stories? I hope so. I would welcome that debate.

Right now, I’m two-thirds of the way through the first book in a series about a young incarcerated pregnant woman who’s kicking opiates in the county jail. I’m sure this one would really infuriate the #ownvoices task force. My response would be something like the great Pat Conroy’s to the Charleston school board when his books were banned: On the Shoulders of Giants and Sticks & Stones are my darlings. I would lay them at the feet of God and say “this is how I found the world you made…”

Or I could just follow Jeanine Cummins’ lead. When they asked the author what gave her the right to tell the story of American Dirt, her answer was simple. “I wrote a novel. I wrote a work of fiction that I hoped would be a bridge because I felt that screaming into the echo chamber wasn’t working. For better or for worse, this is the result.”
Nuff said.

Mayor Pete

There is zero political correctness in captivity. No one tiptoes around emotions or tries to figure out ways to put things delicately. Contemporary millennial vernacular with its “triggers” and “safe spaces” is a language alien to the chain gang. Here, racial slurs are commonplace, women are bitches and hoes, and even the LGBTQ community doesn’t bother saying LGBTQ. They just call themselves sissies and punks like everyone else.

It is through the blunt prism of this parallel universe that I first noticed presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Noticed and immediately dismissed him based on the fact that he’s gay. How could I do such a thing? The same way most people do ignorant things: I did it unconsciously. I live in a world where homosexuals rank somewhere around child molesters and snitches in the food chain. No way a sissy could lock horns with Donald Trump. Much less strongmen world leaders like Putin, Kim Jong-un, or Duterte. No way America would elect a gay dude to the White House.

Then I heard him on the debate stage. Several times. And I watched him on the Sunday morning round-table shows. The more I listen to him speak, the more difficult it is to dismiss him based on who he loves. What business is it of mine anyway? He’s not auditioning for The Bachelor, he’s running for president. It’s his vision and character that matter.

Mayor Pete is an Afghan war vet, Naval intelligence, Rhodes scholar who speaks seven languages. At age 37, he’s the youngest candidate in the field which means, more than any other candidate, he has a stake in things like climate change and the national debt because he’ll still be around when these fiscal time bombs are set to go off. He describes addiction as “a medical problem, not a moral failure,” seeks to end prison profiteering, and abolish minimum mandatory sentencing. He thinks we should measure our economy not by the Dow Jones but by the income of the 90%. He’s moderate in his politics. He’s not out there trumpeting “free everything for everyone and Jeff Bezos is gonna pay for it!” Any far-left president as a knee jerk response to four years of Trump’s America First/Pat Robertson brand of isolationism would only pave the way for another wild over correction in 2024. Too much is at stake for that. We need a uniter. Someone who will galvanize and energize, not polarize. But make no mistake, Mayor Pete would eviscerate Donald Trump on the debate stage. Run circles around him.

And yet.

There’s still this lingering voice in my head. “Come on, man. Really? There’s no way…” I keep thinking of the Conservative Christian wing of my friends and family. Good people who held their noses and voted for Trump not because they’re closet racists or because they believed that Hillary was running a sex ring out of the back of a D.C. pizza shop, but out of concern for the unborn. They believed they were doing the right thing. The Christian thing. How could those people of faith ever reconcile their spiritual walk with voting for a gay president? I don’t know. Seems like the Sermon on the Mount would supersede an obscure line in Romans, but I’m the wrong guy to argue Scripture. Ultimately, I think that anyone who would hold this against him at the ballot box is probably already voting for Trump anyway.

I don’t have a say in the matter. Other than these words. I forfeited my right to participate in our democratic experiment in 2005 when I was arrested for armed robbery. Humiliating but true. But if I did have a vote, I’d be casting it for Mayor Pete. I think he’ll make a terrific president.

Back to work

Five years ago, I was flipping through a writing magazine on autopilot, dismissing various poets and essayists based on appearance — basically being a shallow, troglodyte male — when I spotted a pretty face next to an article. I stopped to see what the author had to say… and was immediately hooked.

She was an adjunct professor at a university up north, was also a memoirist, recovering heroin addict, and former dominatrix in a Manhattan dungeon. Her essay dealt with interviewing for writing faculty positions, packing up her girlfriend and her dog and moving to Brooklyn, and working on her book during the long public transit commute to and from the university.

Although it’s been five years and four prisons since I read the article, I remember this sentence clearly: “The psychic immersion required to write a full-length novel is not conducive to the guy in the next seat on the bus munching pork skins…”

I felt her. Attempting to write books in prison is a similar experience. Only the dude munching pork skins is always there, and the bus never stops. I decided to write her a letter. Why not? We were both scribes. Both part of the same community. Consider the Dragonfly was racking up positive reviews by this time and With Arms Unbound appeared in Writers Digest magazine for an honorable mention in their annual book awards. But when you write in a vacuum — when you live in a vacuum — there’s always that nagging question: Am I really a writer? So in the opening paragraph of my letter, I didn’t just acknowledge the elephant in the room, I grabbed Babar by the trunk.

I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like “I’m intimidated by you. Not only because you’re a beautiful lesbian, not only because you’re a published author, but because you’re an adjunct professor. Please don’t grade this letter…”

While I was waiting for her to respond, I ordered her book. Like her article, it was brilliantly written. Unlike her article, it gave a detailed account of her work in the sex trade. Most of her clientele were investment bankers and wealthy hedge fund types who wanted to dress up in diapers and have her shout at them, smack them around, tie them up. Seems like there was something about a catheter too. I’m not sure. I was pretty traumatized before the midway point of the book. Not by the rich guys and their weird sexual fetishes. But by my own words. I told her I was “intimidated” by her. Did she think I was, like, into being intimidated? Was she confusing me with those billionaires in baby bibs? To add insult to injury, she meets a guy at the end of the book who becomes her fiancé and they live happily ever after. In my letter I called her a beautiful lesbian. Oops.

When you write complete strangers from a correctional institution, there’s always a chance that you’ll be mistaken for a deranged stalker. This is why I stick to the one letter rule. Just send it out and let the Universe deal with the rest. Whether it’s an agent, a reviewer, a sentencing judge, or the President of the United States. If I never hear back, then I can breathe easy knowing I gave it my best shot. But this was different. I had to write her again. If only to clarify. So after six months and no response, I did just that.

“First of all, I want to apologize for calling you a beautiful lesbian. I didn’t realize you were engaged to a guy until I read your memoir. Second, when I said I was intimidated by you, I didn’t mean it as a come-on. I’m not into being beat up or wearing diapers and the only time I’ve ever endured a catheter was when I woke up in ICU after a car accident that resulted in brain surgery. A highly unpleasant experience that I hope I never go through again…”

Two weeks later, I heard my name at mail call. I knew it was her when I saw the envelope. She said that she had been meaning to write since my first letter arrived, that time had just gotten away from her, that it never crossed her mind that I was into intimidation, but she got a good laugh out of me worrying she would think that. Finally, she said she IS a beautiful lesbian. So there was no need to feel like a jackass. Her happily-ever-after ended before her book was even published and all her subsequent happily-ever-afters had been women.

I received one more letter from her after that. It was somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2016. I was in solitary confinement at Santa Rosa, and Trump had just been elected. Things looked pretty bleak. But I was moved by her words: “The morning of November 9 was one of the worst of my life. At least as an American. That day I had this overwhelming feeling, like I wanted someone (Mom? Obama?) to swoop in and rescue us. But then I realized that I am an adult writer and educator and activist, and it is my job to rescue us. Whatever complacency my generation has enjoyed as a result of the struggles of our parents, that shit is over. It’s time to work!”

I recently came across that letter when I was straightening out my locker. Crazy, that three years have passed since the Newly Crowned King proclaimed his inauguration a glowing success with unprecedented attendance. Three years of illiterate tweets, climate pact pullouts, hush money payouts, inner circle indictments, hurricane map embellishments, ally alienation, enemy enabling, hate group coddling, war hero disrespecting, constitutional nose-thumbing, wedge-driving, name calling, obstructive, divisive, classless, clueless leadership. But we’re in the homestretch now. Last leg of the journey. November 2020 is 10 months away. I took last year off. I didn’t want to participate in the toxic polemic and political vitriol that is driving families and friends and neighbors apart. So I just focused on humanizing the people in my orbit. But my professor friend is correct. Too much is at stake to be complacent. It’s time to get to work.

George

There’s this line in Eat Pray Love about Quest Physics. The idea that life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher, nudging us down the path to enlightenment. I believe this. My most recent teacher is Big George. He moved into the bunk next to me when my friend Menu went home. The exchange was about as seamless as the Obama/Trump White House transition.

George is a 300-pound, 47-year-old man, but mentally he’s somewhere around age 10. It took all of two seconds of conversation to realize this. From the moment he dragged his property down my row and plopped down across from me, I knew he was going to be a character. I had no idea…

“Can I borrow some cookies? What are you writing? Are you eating again? Who sent you that letter? The Dolphins suck!” Big George has not shut up since he moved in. At first it was funny. Then it was irritating. Finally, it reached the point where I had to keep my headphones in at all times. Dude is driven by the compulsion to contaminate every precious sliver of silence with mindless chatter. He can’t help himself. Even as I write this, he’s sitting over there, two feet to my left, narrating the comings and goings of the dorm in his signature whiny nasal voice. Big George doesn’t talk. He squawks. The only time he ever shuts up is when he’s shoveling food into his face.

A few months ago he says, “You think you’re so cool just because you wrote a book. I’m gonna write a book and it’s gonna be way better than yours.” Then a couple weeks later, “Hey Malcolm! You wanna be in my book? I’m a CIA agent with two samurai swords and I own a car dealership with a strip bar on the roof. Buy a car and get a free lap dance!” He’s been over there writing away ever since.

Full disclosure: I was dealing with a vicious bout of writers block for most of 2019 so it was especially infuriating to look over and see his pen gliding effortlessly across his notebook while I thrashed and groped for words. Occasionally, he would catch me staring at the blank page and hit me with that halfwit smile of his. “What are you doing over there? You haven’t written anything! I’m already on page 85.”

Grrrr.

“Wanna read a little bit?” he offered one day.
I did not. But there’s this egocentric part of me that looks in the mirror and sees a writing instructor, sent to assist the unwashed and illiterate. So I sighed and held out my hand.

It was worse than I imagined. Third-grader handwriting, atrocious punctuation, no indentation. The words that weren’t misspelled just trailed off into scribble. I looked up to find him smiling like an expectant chef who had just served up the house special. He raised his eyebrows.

I told him it was garbage. Told him he was trying to fly before he could walk. Told him he should learn the fundamentals first. He needed to write good sentences before he could write good paragraphs, much less good books. He was highly indignant, insisted that I read more. I shook my head and handed him back his manuscript.

“Write me one good sentence and I’ll think about it,” I said. “One simple sentence, but it has to be capitalized, punctuated, and spelled correctly. Can you do that?” He tore a piece of paper from his notebook and went straight to work, tongue out, brow furrowed in concentration as he made his letters. When he finished he passed it across the aisle and gave me the chef look again, obviously very pleased with himself. I glanced down at the paper. “My name is Georg!” Almost, man.

It didn’t take long for the rest of the dorm to smell blood in the water. Prison is similar to the schoolyard. Remember the bullies from your childhood? They didn’t have spiritual awakenings and change their lives. They grew up and came here, where they perfected their methods of cruelty. “Look at you,” one sneered at him the other day. “It’s people like you who make me realize that things aren’t so bad after all.”

He shrugged innocently. “Why? What’s so special about me?”
See what I’m saying? Clueless. Big George was born with a “kick me” sign on his ass. Of course, he doesn’t make things any easier by constantly drawing attention to himself. I’ve even gotten in on the action. One day when he wouldn’t shut up, Mr. Benevolent Writing Professor himself pulled back a rubber band and snapped him right on a fat roll. “Ouch!” he exclaimed. “What’d you do that for?” It left a red welt. Not one of my finest moments.

But it may have been a defining moment. Quest Physics. Life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher. Even the Big Georges of the world. Especially the Big Georges. That’s not me. Prison is oppressive enough without some dick popping you with a rubber band just because you’re different.

Which brings me to New Year’s… The best holiday in my little corner of the universe. Way better than Christmas. Nothing like another year down, another year closer to home. I spent the final week of 2019 like many citizens of the world, taking personal inventory, getting my house in order, figuring out my goals and resolutions for 2020. For me, it’s the usual suspects — finish current novel, write more essays, build strength, increase flexibility, hydrate, read more, listen better, be more efficient with time… But this year, kindness and tolerance surge back to the top of the leader board. I lost my way over the last 12 months. It took a CIA agent with samurai swords to lead me out of the wilderness. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I’m fortunate to have crossed paths with Big Georg.
Love you guys. Happy 2020!

 

Juanito

This summer I was assigned to work in the infirmary. Not a bad gig by prison standards. Air conditioning, TV, the occasional extra tray and a phone I didn’t have to share with 70 other inmates. There were just two dudes who lived back there. Shaky and Juanito. Shaky had stage four cancer and was refusing chemo. The prognosis was six months. He told me he was at peace with his situation. His wife had already died and he had no one on the other side waiting for him. He felt like he had a good run. He was just going to read his Bible until the Savior called him home.

Juanito had a different philosophy. Fight like hell. Especially with anyone who tried to bathe him which, unfortunately, was my job. My first attempt was met with stiff resistance. Just trying to dab at his neck and arms with a soapy washcloth was like giving a cat a sponge bath. Wasn’t happening. Have you ever been punched in the face by a little old man? It hurts more than you’d think. He also stabbed me in the hand with a spork, bit, scratched, cussed me out in English and Spanish, pleaded, prayed, cried… I was totally unprepared. I couldn’t even get his shirt off. After round one, it was clearly Juanito 1, Malcolm 0. But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

Juanito is 5 feet and 105 pounds of piss and vinegar. A 92-year-old Cuban American serving life in prison for shooting his landlord. He was 80 when he committed his crime. I don’t know if he had dementia when he pulled the trigger, but he was definitely dealing with it by the time our paths converged. Sometimes he wouldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes he’d just stare off into space. The sides of his wheelchair were crammed with old alcohol pads, tongue depressors and other medical paraphernalia pilfered from infirmary garbage cans. Since I was educated in the Dade County public school system and spent a lot of my childhood just a few blocks from Little Havana, my Spanish has a heavy Cuban dialect. I thought this might earn me some cool points with Juanito, but it only made him more suspicious of me. Sometimes when I was on the phone, he would glare at me from across the room as if he knew I was reporting his whereabouts to the Castro regime.

Oddly, the only assistance he wouldn’t resist was when nature called. He’d just wait for eye contact and motion toward the bathroom. Yeah, it was part of my job to wipe his ass. The only other ass I’ve ever wiped besides my own. Strange experience. In the beginning it was humiliating and awkward. For both of us. Even with the dementia, Juanito was proud. I’m sure it irked him to be dependent on another man for such a basic human function. But after a few times it became mechanical. I’d push his chair to the front of the toilet and lock in the wheels. He’d grab the handicap rail with one hand, the armrest of his chair with the other, and slowly rise to his feet. Once he got turned around, I’d pull his pants down around his ankles, followed by his diaper. Then, he’d sit down and handle his business. After he finished, he’d grab the arms of his chair and stand while I grabbed the gloves and the wet wipes. Easy as 123.

I let the bathing thing go for a few days. I felt like I was failing him but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t like he was dirty. Aside from digging in the infirmary trashcans, he lived a relatively clean life. The problem was his clothes. They were smeared with dried snot and food.
“Come on, papito,” I’d say. “Let’s just change you into these clean blues.”
At first he stared at me like I was some babbling idiot. But when he realized I was attempting to remove his shirt, his iron grip clamped around my wrist and his thick yellow fingernails dug into my skin. His eyes filled with terror.
“Okay,” I gave up. “Okay.”
Juanito 2, Malcolm 0.

One day some official looking people came to see him. After they left, the nurses were buzzing. The rumor was that Juanito was going to be moved to an old folks home under something called “compassionate release.” They decided that at age 92, he was no longer capable of harming anyone. Despite the scratches on my arm and the spork holes in my hand, I totally agreed. Society was not being served by warehousing a little old man who didn’t even know he was in prison.
“Juanito!” I told him as I cut up the gray meat on his tray. “You’re out of here man!” He was more interested in stashing salt packets in the side of his wheelchair.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. There was a hearing in Tallahassee, the victim’s family objected, and that was that. No appeal, no second opinion, no mercy. The good news is that Juanito had no clue how close he was. Maybe in some cases dementia is bliss.

That night when we were doing our bathroom routine, I noticed he left a deposit in his diaper. When he sat on the toilet, I took off his crocs, pulled his pants over his ankles, removed the offensive diaper, and chucked it in the trash. Then it dawned on me: I was halfway there. I just needed to remove his shirt and victory would be mine. I could finally get him into some clean clothes. Maybe even scrub him with some soapy water if I could weave his punches while I worked. I moved decisively. His arm was through his shirt before he realized what was happening and it was off before he could protest. Surprisingly, he did not fight. He just sat there and glowered while I went to work on his armpits and neck. Maybe he knew that resistance was futile. Maybe he was just tired of fighting. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe on some subconscious level he realized how close he had come to freedom after all, and was mourning the loss of precious hope within the confines of his diseased mind. Either way, I took no pleasure in the victory.
I’ve since been switched to another job. The prison library. But I occasionally get back to the infirmary to check on Juanito whenever a cool officer is working. He has no idea who I am.

Joker

I met Joker in a poker game at Walton Correctional in 2009. He was fresh out of confinement and new in my dorm. Other than him annoyingly trying to muscle every pot, I don’t remember much about the game. I have no idea whether I won or lost or who else was at the table. What stands out the most about that night is walking past his bunk after lights-out and seeing him on his knees, praying.

I’m not sure why this gave me pause. Ever heard the saying “there are no atheists in a foxhole”? The same can be said for the joint. Prisoners pray. It’s kinda our thing. Prayer is as commonplace as chow hall hotdogs and rec yard stabbings. I guess I just didn’t expect to see it five minutes after a poker game.

I had to ask. “You a Christian or something?”

He shrugged. “I’m praying that my mom stays alive until I come home.”

Joker’s mom is Ernestina. La Jefita. He has her name tattooed on him. Twice. What can I say? The man loves his momma. And anyone who loves their momma is all right in my book.

We became close over the years, me and Joker. Ran a parlay ticket together, ate together, worked out together. I also got to know his family. His brothers and sister, his kids, Ernestina… They live in a little Texas town called Mission near the southern border crossing at Reynosa. Whenever they made their annual trips to Florida to visit Joker, they would stop by my mom’s house with gifts from the region. I still have pictures in my photo album of his little brothers tagging up Graffiti Bridge in Pensacola, Rio Grande Valley style. And when his sister gave birth to her youngest son, she named him Christopher Malcolm, after me. One of the biggest honors of my life. They even call him “Cici” which is what everyone calls me. Except for Ernestina. She calls me “mijo,” short for “mi hijo,” Spanish for “my son.”

In 2015 Joker and I were transferred to different prisons and time did its thing. We still sent cards on special occasions, but by 2018 even that had stopped. I was busy writing books, he was getting close to his release date, his daughter had a baby, his little brothers were growing up. Life was happening.

Then last year I received an ominous message from his sister: Ernestina had to have her leg amputated. Complications from diabetes. It hurt to think about this sweet lady who loved going to dances and playing with her nietos enduring such unimaginable trauma. Unfortunately, things did not improve. Earlier this year, she had a stroke. When I called Mission and got to speak with her, she was crying. Her normal machine gun Español was slowed to an unrecognizable slur. The only words I could make out were in English. “I love you, mijo.” I kept telling her to hang on. That Joker would be home soon. And he would be. April 30 was his release date.

Sadly, Ernestina died on April 15.

Two weeks from the finish line, my good friend who prayed every night for his mother’s health, lost his Jefita.

This Sunday when I’m in visitation celebrating Mother’s Day with my own sweet mom, I will also be honoring the woman who called me Mijo. And my family in south Texas who are spending their first Mother’s Day without her.

 

Menu

The dude in the next bunk is named Menu. That’s not his government name, but in here nicknames are all that matter. He earned the handle because of the way he takes great pride in coming back from early chow and announcing what’s for dinner.

“All right y’all, listen up!” He pumps chain gang chili mac, beans and carrot coins as if it’s five-star cuisine.

Menu has been to prison seven times. He started smoking crack in the 80s and has been enslaved ever since. Well, at least all the way up till 2015 when he was released the last time.

When you’re released from a Florida prison and you’re indigent, you get $50 bucks and a Greyhound ticket to begin the next chapter of your life. The first five times Menu arrived at the Tampa bus station, he made a beeline straight to the dopeman. On the sixth, he decided to take a different road. One that substituted the temporary bliss of the crack pipe for a job, a home, and church on Sundays. In the land of happy endings this would’ve been enough. In the Sunshine State, not so much.

Here we have outdated war-on-drugs laws still on the books, probation and parole officers trained to violate first and ask questions later, and prison profiteers kicking out big bucks to keep bodies in bunks.

In 2017 Menu was working overtime for a renovation company and missed his curfew. This is what’s known as a technical violation, meaning no law was broken, just a rule. He was still arrested. Despite 21 consecutive clean urinalyses, a vouching boss, and a probation officer who recommended reinstatement, Menu was sent back to prison for violating the terms of his parole. This is how our paths crossed.

I’ve never met a gentler spirit. Despite growing up in the Jim Crow south, despite his decades-long battle with addiction, despite serving multiple terms in one of the most violent prison systems in America, Menu has somehow managed to remain untouched by hate and bitterness. I wish there were more people like him in here. Hell, I wish I were more like him.

He’s read all four of the Ivey novels and is taking an autographed copy with him when he gets out next month. I feel kinda stupid autographing a book, like I’m Hemingway or somebody, but he insists. And believe me, he never insists on anything. In fact, the entire time we’ve been living next to each other, my locker has been stocked with food, coffee and hygiene items bought with money sent by my loved ones, while his has been virtually empty except for his Bible. Yet he won’t accept so much as a saltine cracker. See why I can’t refuse? I’m just happy he finally asked for something.

He actually asked for two things. He wanted me to help him write to the halfway and transition houses in the Tampa area for a place to go when he gets out. So that’s what I’ve been doing this week. Writing letters seeking room and board for an elderly gentleman who will be starting from scratch in a month. I can’t even imagine what that’s like. Getting out of prison with nothing and no one. Happens everyday, though.

Sometimes I forget how blessed I am.

(Next up: Mi hermanito. Joker.)

Viejo

Picture a freeway in some metropolitan city. Traffic zooming at 90 mph in both directions. Revving engines, blaring horns, road rage. Sleek little sports cars maneuvering around SUVs and trucks, with even faster motorcycles weaving in and out of tight spaces. Chaos. Now picture a rusty little El Camino chugging along in the right lane, doing 55. That’s my friend Viejo on the soccer field.

Soccer is my sport. Always has been. And if you’re one of those people who considers soccer soft, I bet an afternoon on the rec yard would change your mind. Make you a believer. It can get pretty brutal. Twenty or so prisoners, many serving life, mostly from places like Mexico, Honduras, Haiti, Jamaica, Trinidad, Colombia… Some wearing state-issued boots, some in hand-me-down tennis shoes, some barefoot, all highly skilled, on a field of scorched clay and patchy grass with sand spurs that collect on the rolling ball like hitchhiker assassins (ever had a sand spur lodged in your forehead? Ouch!). Fights erupt frequently, dirty play is a given, and the uneven terrain is murder on the ankles and knees. It was in one of these violent games that I first met Viejo.

January 2017. I was new to this camp and determined to establish my dominion on the field. I’m no ordinary guero. My nickname is “Salvaje.” Legendary defender, known throughout the state. I was eager to prove this. I might’ve been a little overzealous though. Just a smidge. Because this sneaky little Guatemalan grandfather-type was hanging out near the goal and when they passed him the ball, I drove, he juked… and scored. Easily.

“Haha,” he said as he ran off, “sucker!”

His teammates celebrated. To be honest, my teammates celebrated, too. Even some dudes on the track applauded. I was probably the only one glowering. The next time they passed him the ball, I was ready. I broke hard and intercepted it just before it reached his little size 7 shoe.

“Ah la Madre!” he cried as he fell down and gripped his knee in a classic World Cup flop. All play stopped. Time stopped. Trust me, you don’t want to be the big bald bearded outsider who injures Viejo. I imagined the rustle of knives being pulled from waistbands and hidden pockets while my death was discussed in several dialects of Spanish. Miraculously, he popped back up. Well… as much as one can pop at his age.

“It’s okay,” he said in his horrible English, still limping a bit just to sell the performance. Then, in the waning moments of his Oscar-caliber grimacing, he flashed me a quick mischievous smile.

Viejo means old man in Spanish. He was born on Christmas Day. I know this because last December he made it a point to tell everyone on the yard, “Today is my happy birthday!” Just a side note here: When I say that Viejo speaks horrible English, that’s not an exaggeration. The only words he has mastered are the same ones you got in trouble for when you were a third-grader. And he lets those fly with naval precision and almost flawless enunciation.

Yeah, Viejo is a character. But he wasn’t always Viejo. Before that he was just plain old “Guate,” a Guatemalan immigrant who made the long trek north seeking a better life. He found one, too. Or he built one. I’ve seen all his pictures. Three grown children and four grandchildren, all American citizens. He’s the only person in his family who does not have citizenship. And now he’s facing deportation back to a poverty stricken country that he hasn’t seen since the 1980s.

When I showed him my novels and told him that I’m an escritor, he pointed out that the name on the books is some gringo named Malcolm. I think he still thinks I’m full of shit. But he always comes to my bunk when he needs help with a request or some other form. I’m his designated writer. I wish I could file some motion so that he could be released to his family. Sometimes I wonder if he thinks I can. I hope not.

Prison is the great equalizer. It forces people of all ages, races, and religions to be tolerant of one another. The system just throws thousands of us, millions of us, into these warehouses and says “There you go. Coexist!” Most still gravitate toward their own groups, but not always. Just as 30-year-old Josh is like a little brother, and 21-year-old Eli is like a son, 73-year-old Viejo is like a granddaddy. I’m already planning a trip to Guatemala in 2023.

(Next up: my neighbor. Menu.)

Eli

I’m institutionalized. I admit it. I never thought it would happen to me, but all these years on my bunk, in my cell, in my head are adding up. Writing has been both a blessing and a curse. The same craft that pulled me out of my old self-destructive bullshit, gave me transcendental hope, discipline, and structure has also made me insular, cynical, even crotchety. To the point where I prefer the company of the characters in my notebook over the real live people around me.

But no one writes in a vacuum. Not for long at least. Life informs art. And after four novels it got to the point where I felt like I was tapping an empty well, not to mention becoming a grumpy old convict. Things got so bad that I set a New Year’s resolution for 2019 to connect more, to laugh more, to find the humor in any given situation. Not just because it would make me a better writer but because it would make me a better man.

The universe heard and sent me Eli.

Most people enter prison dorms tentatively, if not fearfully. You never know what you’re walking into. Not Eli. He blew through the door with an infectious smile, slapping backs, shaking hands and high-fiving everyone that crossed his path. Mostly handshakes though. High-fives are difficult to pull off when you’re only 5 foot 5.

The son of a Senegalese father and a Jamaican mother who died when he was four, Eli is now 21 years old and serving 15 mandatory in prison. We have the exact same charges. I have often wondered how any judge could listen to Eli speak and still banish him to a prison cell for so many years. Especially considering how he easily could have been classified as a youthful offender and given no more than six.

The day after he moved into the dorm, he walked over to my bunk. “I heard you write books. I’d like to read one.” He gobbled up all four in a week. Then he devoured every other novel in my locker. David Mitchell, Donna Tartt, Nathan Hill, David Foster Wallace… not exactly light reading. Now he’s working on his own novel. An urban Game of Thrones set in Gangland America. He’s been interviewing gangbangers for material. It’s amazing to watch him penetrate the hearts and minds and histories of these violent men. The most stoic, militant, knife-scarred murderers open up to Eli like he’s Diane Sawyer. And it’s not just them. It’s everyone. Inmates and officers alike. Dudes that I have never exchanged a word with in the two-plus years I’ve lived in this dorm, dudes that NOBODY speaks to, I’ll look around and see Eli on their bunks, legs swinging, deep conversation, pondering the cosmos.

It ain’t all sunshine though. He’s taken his lumps. He’s already been in a couple fights. Prison is a difficult place to be when you’re 21 years old. Even if you’re as bright and personable as Eli. ESPECIALLY if you’re as bright and personable as Eli. A lot of people don’t know what to make of this eloquent, black surfer kid who’s just as fluent in Indie rock as he is in hip hop, who’s just as conversant in geopolitical affairs as he is in pop culture, who refuses to conform to anyone’s notion of how he should talk or act or be. Even mine. I give him instruction, he nods sagely, says “got it!” then proceeds to do the exact opposite of whatever I said. Doesn’t he realize that I know the game? That I can spare him years of misery? That I’ve been doing this prison thing since before he was born? Makes me think of how frustrated my family must have been when I was young and inexperienced and hell-bent on running head first into walls.

But he’s so much farther along than I was at his age. I wish I would’ve started writing at 21. I’d like to think I inspired Eli, that my books were tangible, physical evidence that even in this hopeless place, we can dream big. The truth is likely less syrupy. He’s probably in it for the chicks. Either that or he read my shit and thought, “This is whack. I can do better.” Hey, whatever it takes. I wouldn’t doubt him. (Do kids say “whack” anymore? I’ll have to ask him.) While he’s absolutely one of the most hardheaded people I’ve ever met, he’s also one of the most intelligent. He gives me hope for the next generation. To quote the great Wally Lamb, “I know this much is true…” if I had a son, I hope he would be like Eli.

(Next up: Viejo. My 72-year-old Guatemalan soccer teammate.)

 

Josh

I’m so sick of talking about self-mastery… and the redemptive power of writing… and race. Ugh, race. I wrote a 140,000-word novel on the subject and still feel no closer to closure. How about Trump? Anybody wanna argue some more about Trump? Such an easy target. Lately, I’ve been noticing how all my essays adapt this stuffy, professorial tone. Like I’ve got it all figured out. Weird how I do that. Especially since I’m writing them from my bunk which, let’s be honest, is a clear indicator that I don’t know jack.

There is, however, one subject that I’m fluent in: Prison life. After two long bids and a quarter-century behind the razor wire, I feel like I have a PhD in this violent little microcosm of civilization. Since it’s the anniversary of my last arrest (March 2005) and my time is finally winding down, I figured I’d write about some of the people who populate my world… Starting with Mustafa.

Crazy name, right? Mustafa is his Muslim name. His real name is Josh. And he’s the smartest person I know. I can guess what you’re thinking: The yard is not exactly a Mensa convention. Agreed. Still, I think you’d be surprised.

I used to walk the track with a dude who taught literature at a state university. And every compound has a few former doctors and lawyers that walk among the uneducated and gang affiliated.

Not that all gang members are uneducated. Josh was a gang member. He was 16 when he got locked up. And that’s what young Latino men are expected to do when they come to prison, join gangs. So he did. It didn’t hurt his résumé that he’d been boxing since he was 12 and was a technician with his hands. One of the first things you notice about him are the words “Thug Life” tattooed across his knuckles. So misleading…

At age 24, right around eight years into a mandatory 25-year prison sentence, he found himself alone in a confinement cell, hungry, lonely, miserable, cut off from his brothers, cut off from his family, cut off from the world. His only company was a paperback someone had left under the mat, a book on the Jewish religion called The Road Less Traveled. He read it. Then he prayed the prayer that most of us humans pray in our darkest hour. There was no bolt of lightning, no sun breaking free from the clouds, no cliché calm that fell over him. But if there was a watershed moment in his life, a pivot point between the unconscious gangbanger he was and the brilliant young man I call my friend today, that night was it.

The way back was gradual. Ground was gained incrementally. He spent two weeks in his bunk healing from the beating he took upon renouncing his affiliation. Then he went to the chapel. Ironic that a confirmed Catholic who found God via a Jewish book in confinement finally settled on Islam as his spiritual path.

But it’s not jailhouse religion that makes him unique, it’s what he’s accomplished. He’s now a GED tutor with an unbelievable success rate. Once his students have demonstrated a firm grasp of the required criteria, he pushes them even further. He teaches them physics. He’s teaching ME physics. In addition to English and Spanish, he’s fluent in Italian and is now tackling Japanese. But the coolest thing about Josh is his ability to impersonate any inmate or guard on the compound. He’s one of the funniest people I’ve ever met. Keeps me rolling. Keeps my time moving.

It could’ve gone either way. A 16-year-old gangbanger with a 25-year mandatory sentence does not have much incentive to evolve. Not in a beneficial direction at least. But against all odds, Josh has.
I’m proud to call him my friend.

(Next up, Eli. A half-Senegalese, half-Jamaican, 21-year-old surfer with the sunny demeanor of a Walmart greeter and the hardheadedness of an eighth grader.)

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