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.)