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A final appeal

President Trump was in my hometown the other day. Right in my neighborhood, actually. Close enough that Mom could hear “Proud to be an American” blaring from the sound system all afternoon. I caught some of the coverage on the local news. It was interesting to see the supporters as they walked past the TV cameras to the rally. They didn’t look particularly racist. No one was rocking a white hood or marching in neo-lockstep while flashing the Heil Hitler salute. The people I saw looked normal. Most were middle-aged white Pensacolians. Just like me.

But there was polite defiance in their demeanor. And swagger. The overall vibe was: “This is what I believe. And I refuse to be bullied or shamed into silence.” I respect that. There’s honor in it.

Give the conservative movement credit — they have cornered the market on American badassery. At least that’s the perception. Military men vote republican. So do bikers, cops, construction workers, and every red-blooded roughneck in the deep south. The GOP has become the party of the Marlboro men.

I’ll be honest. There have been times over this past year when I’ve wondered if I was wearing the wrong jersey. Times when I’ve asked myself what I’m doing on this side of the street. What do I have in common with these hypersensitive snowflakes and their cancel culture and their woke movement and their safe spaces? What do I have in common with big government and liberal elitists and Ivy league academia?

Not much. But I have even less in common with Donald Trump.

Thin skinned, divisive, reactionary, vain, visionless, petty, devoid of empathy… the exhausting list goes on. There is nothing manly about this guy. He checks off all the boxes for how you raise your son never to be. And he’s a veritable PowerPoint presentation on what you don’t want in a leader.

Can you imagine Tom Brady trumpeting his own greatness after a win? Or blaming his teammates after a loss? Can you imagine Drew Brees constantly whining that the refs are against him? Can you see Patrick Mahomes denying the reality of an ugly interception even as the replay clearly shows otherwise on the stadium jumbotron? Can you hear him claiming “alternative facts”? For four years Trump has been the QB for Team America and for four years he’s been nothing but a locker room distraction and an embarrassment for a once proud franchise.

They say that in the end, life isn’t always about what you did, but what you were willing to tolerate. I’m hoping that on November 3rd, strong and honorable men of every faith, race, and political stripe will step up and reject the sniveling divisiveness of Donald J. Trump.
The soul of our nation is on the line.

Pickatree

This time last year a little old man moved into the bunk at the end of my row. Amphetamine thin with no teeth and two faded teardrops tatted under his right eye, barely visible in the wrinkled roadmap of his face. It was obvious from day one that he was a character.

“Where you from, pops?”
“Pasco.”
“Oh yeah, I know a few people from down there. Where at in Pasco County?”
“Pickatree Lane … I just pick me a tree and go to sleep under it.”

Donny has been homeless for most of his adult life. This is his seventh time in prison. He’s been in and out for the last fifty years, doing life on the installment plan. Because he fits the profile, many of my fellow inmates assume he’s a pedophile. He’s not. He’s one of us. He just got old.
Although he’s not really all that old. Seventy. There are men his age doing pull ups on the yard. But Donny’s seventy is a hard seventy. His pull-up days are long gone. He can barely get off his bunk without help, he pees on himself in his sleep, his hands shake, he’s damn near blind, and his brain is clouded with dementia. But you wouldn’t know that from all the smack he talks.

“Hey George. Does your mother know you’re a damned queer?”
“My mother died last year.”
“Yeah, mine too. Get over it.”
There is not a politically correct bone in the old man’s body. He drops n-bombs without a second thought, mocks my Latino friends by talking gibberish, and openly ogles every female guard on the compound. Some would say Donny’s filter is broken, but I’m not convinced he ever had one. He’s just a relic from the rural south who’s spent most of his life in a cage. Or sleeping on sidewalks.

I had just received a job change from impaired assistant to administrative clerk when he moved into my dorm. I was writing a novel, the first in a series, about a young woman who takes the fall for her dope dealer boyfriend, finds herself in prison, learns her way around the law library, and discovers that she’s a natural in the process. But I knew I couldn’t write convincingly about something as complex as the law without learning it myself. So I got a job in the prison library for research purposes.

I kept seeing Donny shuffle by the window every morning for legal mail. He wasn’t difficult to spot. He’s got one of those Rollator things; sorta like a walker with wheels. One day he banged on the library door demanding assistance. I explained to my free-world boss that he lived in my dorm, had a touch of dementia and was in really poor health.

He entered the library shivering. “Damn it’s cold out there!” (It was maybe 75 degrees. Early October Florida Panhandle weather.) He looked at me. “I need your help, young feller.” He pronounced help like “hep.” When I asked what I could do for him, he slapped a letter on the counter. It was from an attorney representing GEICO.

Between the letter and a maddening hour of circular and sometimes nonsensical discussion with him, the details emerged. He was hit and dragged by a car before he came to prison and the insurance company was offering $50,000 dollars. Problem was, the hospital had placed a lien on him for the weeks he spent recovering. After checking with a couple of the inmate law clerks, it became clear that his chances of ever seeing the money were slim. Even if the hospital mercifully forgave the lien, the Florida Department of Corrections would come after him for all the free room and board. Either way, the consensus was that he would never get a dime. An exclamation point to a lifetime of bad luck.

I wrote the hospital for him anyway. Just to do something. They never responded. I’m not even sure if the letter reached its destination. I’m not even sure I wrote the right hospital. But just after Christmas, fifty grand was deposited into his inmate account. And my status was sealed in his eyes.

Months passed. I was caught up in the world of my characters. He was caught up in his new-found wealth. Occasionally I would look up and see him smashing a honeybun or a nutty bar. Once in a while I would walk into the bathroom and be confronted by a horrific scene involving him, feces, and bad aim. I knew that the guy caring for him was more interested in enjoying Donny’s canteen food than making sure he was okay. But at least he changed his sheets, cleaned up his messes, and walked him to chow. I rationalized what I saw by telling myself that it was a mutually beneficial relationship. Dude was doing something that nobody else wanted to do.

Because Donny saw me as advocate and ally, he would sometimes hobble over to my bunk and say things like “I want to go to the infirmary.” Why man? What’s up? Are you sick? “Naw. I just don’t like it in here…” Well hang in there. You’ve only got 18 months left. “Damn, that’s a long time!” He was always surprised when I told him his release date. He could never remember. It wouldn’t have mattered anyway. He had no idea what year it was. I pacified him by telling him I’d write the warden requesting a transfer to his hometown of Zephyr Hills. But I never got around to it.

Then Covid hit and the library closed. I was in the dorm for six extra hours a day. Suddenly all the things I conveniently ignored were constantly in my face. Donny weighed less than 150 when he got off the bus. Skin and bones. Now he was easily 250 from pounding sweets all day. Itchy red sores littered the landscape of his body. His feet were swollen and purple. His area reeked of urine. His pendulum swung from listless mumbling to angry ranting with fewer moments of clarity in between. The medical department was indifferent. The guards saw but didn’t see. And all his caretaker seemed to care about was eating his canteen food. My conscience grew louder. He needed me. But how could I let the other guy know that his services were no longer required? Especially since relieving him of his duties meant taking food out of his mouth.

In the end, the Universe intervened. A corona outbreak in the kitchen dorm prompted the need for 100 new food service employees. Shady caretaker guy was one of the lucky lottery picks. So he packed his shit (and probably half of Donny’s) and moved to another building. A few days later, someone in my dorm tested positive and we were placed on quarantine. During those 14 days, the old man must’ve peed in his bed 21 times. I’ll spare you the details of some of our other adventures but believe me when I say it was not your typical male bonding experience.

That was three months ago. Today, I’m proud to report that my good friend Pickatree is back to his old gruff, womanizing, politically incorrect self. A steady diet of oatmeal, tuna, eggs, peanut butter, trips to the rec yard, regularly scheduled bathroom visits, and basic human kindness have made all the difference. Sometimes I worry about what’ll become of him when he gets out, but I try to stay focused on the things I can control. My mission is to get him to the door. The rest is in God’s hands.

“Donny. You’re worth 50 grand! What’s the first thing you’re gonna buy when you get out?”
“Ice cold Busch beer. When do I get out again?”
“Right around fifteen months.”
“Damn.” He shakes his head. “That’s a long time.”

Balls and strikes

Most of my family and friends are into Making America Great Again… again. They are not racists. They are good people, religious people, Catholics and Evangelicals who believe that abortion is the most important item on the docket when electing a president. So four years ago, many of them held their noses and voted for a philanderer and a bully and a race baiter because there was a Supreme Court seat open and the big prize of Roe v. Wade was dangling over the plate like a 35 mph fastball.

By the looks of it, they hit a towering home run. In fact the ball is still blasting through the stratosphere.

When Justice Scalia died in early 2016 and the Senate refused to even have a hearing on Obama’s nominee to replace him until after the election, they effectively put a Supreme Court seat on the ballot. A stroke of brilliance, really. But never in conservatives’ wettest dreams did they imagine that two more seats would come open in the ensuing 48 months. A 6-3 conservative majority on the highest court in the land would almost certainly be enough to overturn the landmark abortion case. At least that’s the hope. Or the fear, depending which side you’re on.

I’m not sure where I stand on abortion. Is that all right? To be undecided? To be conflicted about such a polarizing issue? If we’re committed to putting science first on the crucial issues of Covid and the environment, why not listen to what scientists have to say about abortion? Especially late-term abortions. I’m guessing we know a lot more about the human embryo in 2020 than we did 50 years ago, just as we know a lot more about melting ice caps, carbon emissions, and the ozone layer. But I have the luxury of being an armchair quarterback on this issue since I am a man and will never have to make that difficult choice.

Abortion is not my main focus during election season anyway. Neither is the environment nor the Second Amendment nor the economy nor health care. When I’m gauging a candidate, it’s all about prisoners and the families of prisoners. And since presidents appoint not only Supreme Court Justices but lower appeals court judges, these elections have a direct impact and far reaching consequences for my little demographic. (And by little I mean the 25% of the world’s incarcerated who reside right here in the U.S.)

Contrary to popular belief, and despite what they may say in confirmation hearings, these judges are not fair and impartial callers of balls and strikes. That era is long gone. In the 70s, under liberal justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, the Court declared capital punishment unconstitutional, supported Roe v. Wade, and upheld affirmative action. But under Nixon appointee William Rehnquist, whom Reagan made Chief Justice in the 80s, the death penalty was brought back, prisoners’ rights were reduced, and the court ruled that education was not a fundamental right in America. Occasionally some Justice will drift to the center in his or her old age but that’s happening less and less these days. Most judges are now groomed from high school for these lifetime positions and thoroughly vetted before they make the short list. Too much is at stake.

That’s why the idea of a devout conservative like Amy Coney Barrett supplanting a liberal paragon like Justice Ginsburg is so painful. She will be on the court for possibly the next 40 years. This feels like Clarence Thomas being tapped to replace Thurgood Marshall all over again. That was 30 years ago and he’s still the most conservative Justice on the bench.

But the irony in all of this isn’t that Republicans are rushing to ram through Justice Ginsburg’s replacement 30 days before the election, even though they refused to hold a hearing on Obama’s appointee with eight months left. Or that all this is going on despite RBG’s dying wish that they wait until America goes to the polls. Or that the court is moving back into the 1950s while the rest of the nation is moving in an entirely different direction… The irony is that the least intelligent and most polarizing president in the history of the Oval Office, number 45 out of 45, will have replaced a third of the Supreme Court during his rocky four-year tenure. And if he declares this election rigged, refuses to accept the results, and there turns out to be a court battle, guess who will be casting the deciding vote.