Twelve years, six novels, and more than a hundred essays ago, I found myself living between a landfill and a shit plant at a Florida panhandle prison called Walton Correctional, commonly referred to as Wally World by the 1200 men toiling away inside its razor wire fences.
Fresh off lockdown after nine months of miniscule food portions, minimal sunlight, and three tepid showers a week, I hit this new compound at 132 pounds of malnourished skin and bone, white as the paper I’m writing this on. Dudes I’ve been doing time with since I was a teenager didn’t recognize me.
Since most of my property was either confiscated or stolen during the transfer, I was starting this next chapter of my incarcerated journey with very little—a stack of letters, a transistor radio, my address book. Even my sweet momma was banned indefinitely from coming to see me during that time, the spiteful aftermath of a prohibited relationship with a female staff member at a previous prison. But I had a little money in my inmate account, access to Danny Sheridan’s Vegas lines in the USA Today, and a reputation for having an iron word that preceded me. More than enough to survive.
After all, I had a pretty decent hustle.
Running a parlay ticket in prison can be a lucrative endeavor. Anyone who’s ever bet on a football game knows how difficult it is to pick four teams against the spread. In the joint, that’s what you have to do: Pick four. Usually at 10-1 odds, meaning that if you win, you’ll receive ten dollars for every dollar wagered. If you win. The advantage is definitely slanted in favor of the house, much more so than any casino on the strip. That was me, by the way. I was the house. Only instead of Caesar’s or Harrah’s, I was Bond Money. If you were on any prison yard in the Florida Panhandle between 2006 and 2011, chances are somebody passed you a highlighted Bond Money ticket with the weekend’s games and odds. For those of you who have never lived beneath the gun towers, here’s a brief explanation of how the ticket game works…
I had writers in every wing of every housing unit who passed out tickets, collected money, and jotted receipts that were then turned into me before the games. Writers make a quarter on every dollar they write. That may not sound like much but if you’re stuck in this place and you’re broke, it’s good money. Survival money. The average writer pulls anywhere from $100 to $200 worth of coffee, tuna, and other canteen items from his respective wing over a weekend. (Canteen is currency in a cashless prison system.) Sometimes they write more depending on the financial climate of their dormitory. Regardless, they get their 25% off the top. Then any hits are subtracted. The remainder is mine. And it’s usually substantial. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some brutal weekends, days where the stars aligned and I was forced to empty out multiple lockers. Occasionally, but not often. The key is to always sock it away, so when those bad weekends happen you can cash every ticket with a smile. Along with a flyer for the next weekend’s games and odds.
Within a month I had five lockers full of canteen. After two months I doubled that number. Soon, I began converting those bags of food and hygiene into real money, $100 at a time. All while making sure that every hit was immediately paid as well as running free pools here and there to keep my name ringing. A year passed. Football season bled into basketball season, and basketball to baseball to football again. Money flowed. Life was good. Or as good as it could be for a guy serving decades in prison. So why did I feel so empty?
I couldn’t see it at the time, but a storm was brewing inside of me. An existential crisis. I was 35 years old and all I had to my name was a bunch of lockers full of coffee and tuna and an inflated ego from people telling me what a brilliant ticketman I was. Never married, no kids, no employment skills, no retirement account. I had built nothing, made nothing, grown nothing, done nothing with my life except run a chaingang parlay ticket.
There’s a line in Herman Hesse’s Siddhartha. It comes after the young Brahmin has left home and goes into the forest to become an ascetic, then a beggar, then a traveler where he meets Buddha in a grove but decides against following the master teacher. After his first encounter with the ferryman, after surrendering to the flesh with beautiful Kamala, after becoming a successful businessman and gambling large sums of money, after years go by and his face gradually assumes the expression so often found among the wealthy—the expression of discontent, displeasure, idleness, lovelessness—Siddhartha becomes disgusted with his life. “…But above all he was nauseated with himself, with his perfumed hair, with the smell of wine from his mouth, with the soft flabby appearance of his skin. Like one who has eaten and drunk too much and vomits painfully and then feels better, so did the restless man wish he could rid himself with one terrific heave of these pleasures, of these habits of his entirely senseless life.”
I was with Siddhartha on the one terrific heave thing. I was feeling nauseated myself. All this dissatisfaction timed up with mom being reinstated to my visitation list. She finally wore down the warden after almost two years of relentless phone calls and stakeouts in the prison parking lot. That sweet lady can be a force of nature when it comes to her boy. The fact that she was ever suspended in the first place is indicative of the FDC’s heartlessness and draconian modus operandi. Especially in that era. Mom is a taxpaying, law-abiding citizen. She’s never even had a traffic ticket. I remember walking laps with her in the grass around the pavilion that first weekend. I asked her a question that would change everything. “Hey mom, if I wrote a book, would you type it?”
The following week I shut down Bond Money and bought a stack of lined paper and Bic pens from the inmate canteen. Then I retreated to my bunk and began writing Consider the Dragonfly. I didn’t really know how to write at the time. I remember grabbing Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins off a table in the dayroom to see how she wrote dialogue. Did the comma go inside or outside the quotation marks? But day by day, week by week, chapter by chapter I began learning the craft. Soon, I was falling asleep reading Writer’s Digest magazines and waking up to jot down plot points that bubbled up from my subconscious in dreams. I disengaged from cliché prison conversations and activities. Conversations with the characters in my head were much more fascinating anyway. Gradually, I moved further and further away from my old life. Like a continental drift. Until one day I looked up, and what was once a tiny stream was suddenly the Atlantic Ocean.
For over a decade I wrote, read, meditated, exercised, disciplined myself, addressed every character defect I could find and yanked them out by the roots like weeds. Age 40 came and went. Then 45. Patches of white appeared in my beard. People started calling me Old School and Pops and Unc. My compound VIP status as ticketman diminished as time marched on and Bond Money faded into the past. Every once in a while I would cross paths with someone who knew me from back in the day and they would inevitable ask why I shut down the ticket. My stock answer was that a good year in the ticket game meant fifteen lockers and maybe a grand in my account. But if I wrote a bestselling novel???
I was so confident that success would come with Consider the Dragonfly. But the world looked at it and yawned. In 2013, I began writing With Arms Unbound. Surely this one would blow them away. (I doubt it sold 100 copies to date.) By the time I wrote the prologue to On the Shoulders of Giants—2015—I was beginning to grasp the concept of the long view. “Just keep writing man,” I told myself. “The world will catch on eventually. And when they do, there will be an entire backlog of novels awaiting them.” It was also around this time that it dawned on me that the work was its own reward. I was happiest when I was lost in a project. And miserable when I was idle. Three more novels would follow in rapid succession—Sticks & Stones, Year of the Firefly, and The Weight of Entanglement. Twelve years after I shut down the ticket and bought that first pack of paper and pen, the transformation felt complete. Worldly definition of success notwithstanding, I was a multi-published author. I am a multi-published author. Miles away from my old self.
But how far is too far? If we’re talking armed robberies and crack cocaine and momma crying in courtrooms, I don’t think a million miles is far enough. But that doesn’t apply across the board. A little balance and moderation can be a good thing in certain circumstances. This younger generation of prisoners only know me as the grumpy old boomer who spends all day scribbling in a notepad. They don’t know the old me. They don’t know CC the ticketman. They only know the writer, Malcolm Ivey. My past was calling.
This NFL season, my 18th and final in state prison, I’ve decided to resurrect Bond Money. As of this writing, I’m up to seven lockers and it’s only week 6! Why go back? For one, I could use the money. Two, because I don’t want to retreat so deep into myself to write these novels that I end up missing out on the real life happening all around me. I feel like this was a consequence of sequestering myself to my bunk all these years. Those real-life experiences, even if they’re heavy—especially if they’re heavy—are the very experiences that inform the stories I write. But mostly, I’m cranking back up because I want to leave a legacy. Not just as an incarcerated writer who once walked the yard… but as the legendary ticketman who ran it.
I realize that this is partly an ego thing. (Okay, mostly an ego thing.) Siddhartha would not approve. I’m still a big believer in humility. That hasn’t changed. And I’ll never stop writing. But as the great Steven Pressfield observed in his fantastic War of Art, sometimes you gotta throw down a 360 tomahawk jam to let the boys know you’re still in the building.