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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.)