Last year my 79-year-old neighbor went into my locker while I was on the yard and stole a bag of Doritos. He was positively identified by an eyewitness, a slightly younger old man (74) with eyes like a hawk and no reason to lie.
It put me in a difficult position. A man can’t allow people to steal from him in prison. But on the other hand, come on … the dude is a senior citizen. Spoiler alert: there was no fist fight. I didn’t even want to embarrass him by calling him out on his behavior.
Maybe he was suffering from a bout of dementia and didn’t even remember going into my locker. Maybe he just wanted someone to smash him and put him out of his misery. Or maybe he was just hungry, broke and desperate. In our three years as bunkies, I’ve never seen him receive a money receipt or even a letter.
In the end, I pulled him aside, said I was missing some food and that while I had no idea who stole it, IF it was him, all he had to do was ask. He stopped speaking to me after that. It was no big loss. This is not your stereotypical grandfatherly old man. He’s so abrasive, so grumpy, so racially insensitive that some of the younger inmates nicknamed him Hitler. He snores, his dentures slide halfway out of his mouth when he sleeps. He has tufts of gray hair sprouting from his ears, and he never covers his mouth when he coughs or sneezes. His boycotting of me was more of a blessing than a punishment. He barely existed in my universe anyway. For almost a year we didn’t speak.
Until last night, when out of the blue, he looked over at me and started talking again.
He was born in 1935. He turns 80 this year. He never had a run-in with the law until 1998 when his wife of 41 years died of cancer. Since then it’s been one DUI after the next. As I listened to his story, I could almost physically feel my heart opening. That’s when it hit me. It’s funny how I can do weeks, months, years on autopilot — head down, chest out, face set in a natural prison yard scowl. Me against the world. But then I’ll have a conversation like that and suddenly I’ll remember: “Oh, yeah. Kindness. This feels awesome. This is what it’s all about.”
Unfortunately, the moment always fades and as the days pass, I slip back into unconscious living and forget again. Until the next time. Only kindness matters.