Iโ€™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 Yearโ€™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 youโ€™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 youโ€™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. โ€œI heard you write books. Iโ€™d like to read one.โ€ 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 heโ€™s working on his own novel. An urban Game of Thrones set in Gangland America. Heโ€™s been interviewing gangbangers for material. Itโ€™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 heโ€™s Diane Sawyer. And itโ€™s not just them. Itโ€™s everyone. Inmates and officers alike. Dudes that I have never exchanged a word with in the two-plus years Iโ€™ve lived in this dorm, dudes that NOBODY speaks to, Iโ€™ll look around and see Eli on their bunks, legs swinging, deep conversation, pondering the cosmos.

It ainโ€™t all sunshine though. Heโ€™s taken his lumps. Heโ€™s already been in a couple fights. Prison is a difficult place to be when youโ€™re 21 years old. Even if youโ€™re as bright and personable as Eli. ESPECIALLY if youโ€™re as bright and personable as Eli. A lot of people donโ€™t know what to make of this eloquent, black surfer kid whoโ€™s just as fluent in Indie rock as he is in hip hop, whoโ€™s just as conversant in geopolitical affairs as he is in pop culture, who refuses to conform to anyoneโ€™s notion of how he should talk or act or be. Even mine. I give him instruction, he nods sagely, says โ€œgot it!โ€ then proceeds to do the exact opposite of whatever I said. Doesnโ€™t he realize that I know the game? That I can spare him years of misery? That Iโ€™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 heโ€™s so much farther along than I was at his age. I wish I wouldโ€™ve started writing at 21. Iโ€™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. Heโ€™s probably in it for the chicks. Either that or he read my shit and thought, โ€œThis is whack. I can do better.โ€ Hey, whatever it takes. I wouldnโ€™t doubt him. (Do kids say โ€œwhackโ€ anymore? Iโ€™ll have to ask him.) While heโ€™s absolutely one of the most hardheaded people Iโ€™ve ever met, heโ€™s also one of the most intelligent. He gives me hope for the next generation. To quote the great Wally Lamb, โ€œI know this much is true…โ€ if I had a son, I hope he would be like Eli.

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