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Here we have outdated war-on-drugs laws still on the books, probation and parole officers trained to violate first and ask questions later, and prison profiteers kicking out big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