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The Covid Equation

Memory has always been my strong suit. You want the theme song to Diff’rent Strokes, Facts of Life, or any other 80s TV show? No problem. The lyrics to “The End of The World as We Know it” by REM? Which verse? The wide receiver depth chart for any of the NFL’s 32 teams? Coming right up. Yet lately I’ve been having these little moments. Times when my prefrontal cortex is unable to scroll or double-click. Times when I can’t remember shit. Let’s call them glitches.

I keep thinking… maybe it’s some sort of mid-forties brain recalibration thing, or because I’ve had a massive head injury, or the residual effect of squandered gray matter from years of drug use. Maybe. But the more I read up on the pandemic, the more I wonder if it’s something else entirely.

I know I’ve had Covid. Half my dorm was waylaid back in October, the third time we were quarantined. A friend of mine ended up going to an outside hospital for a month and when he returned to the prison, he died within a week. The official line was that he recovered from the virus but couldn’t survive the ensuing pneumonia. That’s why it wasn’t ruled a Covid death on the institutional scorecard. If that sounds sketchy to you, join the club.

No Covid tests were conducted on the other 70 men in my dorm. Just daily temp checks. Not that we wanted them. Quarantines are a massive inconvenience in prison. More punishment than precaution. No rec, no canteen, no movement (which translates to no hustling). Just a biohazard sticker on the door for fourteen days. They do nothing, solve nothing, protect no one. As long as guards are coming in everyday for shiftwork, the virus will circulate. No getting around it. Not in open bay dorms where there’s 12 inches between your feet and your neighbor’s head. It’s gotten to the point that no one reports symptoms. When you have a life sentence, global pandemics mean about as much as presidential elections.

But the way we knew something was up — aside from feeling like hell — was that no one could taste or smell anything. You know those cologne advertisements in men’s magazines like Esquire and GQ? My friends and I would wave strips under each other’s noses. Nothing. It’s a strange experience to breathe deeply through the nostrils and not register a scintilla of scent. Especially in a prison dorm where pungent smells are abundant.

But even stranger are the memory lapses. At least in my experience. Neuroscientists are just now starting to understand the effects of Covid on the brain. I recently read an article by Dr. Sanjay Gupta about some of the devastating long-term and short-term neurological complications of the virus including delirium, depression, temporary brain dysfunction, headaches, brain inflammation, and meningitis. He cites a report in the journal Nature that details the symptoms of a woman in her fifties who saw lions and monkeys in her house and accused her husband of being an imposter.

I guess my forgetting the lyrics to “Come On Eileen” pales in comparison to zoological hallucinations, but it’s still cause for alarm in my little corner of the multiverse. What if this is the beginning of a tumble into the abyss? I researched enough about dementia while writing Sticks & Stones to understand what a terrifying prospect it is.

Covid or no Covid, my defense against cognitive decline remains unchanged: exercise daily, meditate for ten minutes, learn new things, do plenty of crosswords, and write with my hair on fire. (Yeah, I’m bald. 5 books. Where do you think it went?)

As Leonard Pitts once so eloquently put it, “Without memories what are we? We are the equation after the blackboard has been wiped clean.”

Year of the Firefly: Chapter 1

Miranda had never seen a Gucci eye patch before. Funny how that was the focal point of her attention. The patch. Not the ginormous pile of cash on the table. Not the musclebound tattooed man who was counting it. Not the naked woman snuggling with the pitbull on the leather sofa. Not the oblivious little boy tapping furiously on the Xbox controller. All these storylines were riveting, but it was the designer patch that the monocle of her consciousness was fixed upon. She wondered if it was a fashion accessory or a medical device or both. The aspiring author and English Lit major in her needed to know.

Still tingly and warm from the blunt on the ride across the bridge, she followed with hooded eyes as its wearer rummaged through kitchen cabinets in search of a scale. He caught her staring and paused. The sculptured mustache and goatee that framed his mouth pulled back into a diamond- and platinum-encrusted scowl. “Yo Nick, you sure this bitch ain’t troll?”

Uncertain which was more offensive, being called a bitch or a troll, she felt her face redden with indignation as she sputtered to assemble a lethal riposte . . . something Katherine from Taming of the Shrew might serve up in her icy Shakespearean tone. Nice eyepatch . . . are you wearing matching Gucci panties?

Two things stopped her: the small arsenal of urban warfare weapons stacked on the coffee table and Nick’s firm hand on the small of her back.

“I’m positive,” he said, in that deep, confident voice that made her forget her outrage, forget she was standing in a trap house, forget the world, forget herself.

“Well she looks like troll.” Eyepatch found his scale and set it on the counter. “Like one of them redheaded CSI bitches. I don’t trust no redheads . . .”

Nick removed his hand from her back and ran his fingers through his dark unruly hair. His palm left an impression, hot against her skin. A thermonuclear handprint. “Come on, Gucci,” he said. “You know I don’t fuck with twelve.”

Miranda stifled a giggle. His name was Gucci? Was Gucci, the company, like, secretly sponsoring drug dealers or something? She thought of her sociology professor, Dr. Bonilla, and his fiery disquisitions on consumer culture and materialism. He would choke on his own mustache if he ever crossed paths with this walking designer brand billboard.

“She ain’t gotta be twelve,” said Gucci. “She could be an informant. How do you know she ain’t wearing a wire?”

Nick glanced down at her. His eyes were dark chocolate caged in black lashes. A secret smile played at the corners of his mouth. “Because I watched her get dressed.”

His words seemed to hang in the air. She blushed, suddenly as exposed as the naked woman snoring on the couch. Gucci appraised her from over his scale. Fitting, because she felt like she was being weighed. His one eye moved up and down her body. Apparently the MeToo movement had not yet reached the criminal underworld. She wished Nick would put his arm around her.

“Don’t bring nobody else over here,” Gucci muttered as he pulled apart the Ziploc and began heaping Boi onto the didgies with a silver spoon.

Boi and didgies.

The arrival of Nick Archiletta on the timeline of her life had brought a strange new lexicon of colloquialisms and street slang. Words that did not appear in the pages of her beloved Random House College Dictionary or even the online Urban Dictionary. Sometimes it was as if he was speaking an entirely different language.

Miranda loved words. She grew up doing New York Times crossword puzzles with her dad and was a self-proclaimed etymologist by the time she reached middle school. Her plan was to write a novel after the fall semester and midterms, maybe a gritty romance she could self-pub and market herself. The bad boy patois of Nick’s urban ecosystem would make for snappy, realistic dialogue. This was perhaps the sexiest thing about him. True, he was lean and handsome with just the right number of tattoos. True, the danger was thrilling, the passion was electric, the money was fast, and the drugs were convenient. But take all that away and his vernacular alone was worth the price of admission. Especially to a word-nerd like herself.

The dope was the color of Gulf of Mexico sand, a growing anthill atop the matte black digital scale. Gucci added a little, then more, then grunted, shook his head, and sliced off the tip of the mountain, transforming it into a mesa. Satisfied, he spun the scale.

Miranda read the display. 28.7.

“Can I put some cut on it?” said Nick.

“You better.” Gucci shook a Newport from his pack and fired it up. His teeth dazzled beyond the flame. “You know how we rock, bruh. This is that good Frank white shit. Pure as your bitch.”

She winced. He pronounced pure like purr. Calling her rude names was one thing. But lazy mispronunciations she could not tolerate. They circumvented her filter, triggering a response that was almost reflexive.

“I believe the word you’re looking for is pure. P-U-R-E. All you do is take the possessive your and stick a P in front of it. Pyour . . . Pure.” She enunciated with the exaggerated patience of a kindergarten teacher. “You try it.”

He stared at her for a solid ten seconds. He even pursed his lips. Then he looked at Nick. “What is this crazy-ass bitch jaw-jackin’ about?”

Nick shrugged. “She takes off like that sometimes. I think it’s a college thing . . . here.” He reached in his jeans pocket, grabbed a roll of bills and tossed them across the kitchen.

Gucci caught the money, removed the rubber band and began to count.

“Everything good?” said Nick, when he reached the last hundred.

“Better than good.” The one-eyed dope dealer looked up and smiled for the first time that day. “Everything’s Gucci.”

Anything is possible

Dateline: Washington, D.C., Inauguration Day, 2021

As President Joe Biden looks out over the empty windswept National Mall and into the living rooms of 325 million Americans, pumping a message of healing and unity, the odds of his success — of America’s success — could not be longer.

Rahm Emanuel recently framed it like this: “Lincoln had the Civil War, Wilson had the pandemic, Roosevelt had the Depression, and LBJ had the civic unrest of the 1960s… Biden has all four.”

Sobering thought. And this is not even factoring in the bridge-mending that will have to be done with our allies, addressing our crumbling infrastructure, reigniting faith in our cratering institutions, negating the inroads that Putin and the Russians have made into our election system, improving health care, solving immigration, passing criminal justice reform, managing the opioid crisis…

And he must do it while navigating the smoke and noise of a sensationalist, hyperventilating media, as well as the conspiracy theorists, the Trump loyalists, the extreme wing of his own Democratic party, and the binary reality of modern American politics where one side needs the other to fail.

This will no doubt be an extremely tough task.

But he wanted it. He earned it. Fought through the field in a packed primary, survived one particularly brutal debate, an election night that dragged on for days, an iconoclastic incumbent who refused to accept defeat, and an attempted insurrection, all to arrive at this moment in history. Now here he is. Here we are. The question is: where are we going?

One of the many frustrating themes of the outgoing Trump regime was its disdain for the truth. They coined the phrase “alternate facts” from the jump and it would become a cornerstone of the administration for the duration. In order for us to find our way out of the wilderness, the truth needs to be magnetic north on our national compass.

Here are some hard truths that President Biden and congressional members of both parties must come to terms with over these next pivotal years.
— Racism is a massive problem in this country but no ethnicity has a monopoly on it. Double standards have become increasingly glaring in recent years and hate groups are using these as tools to recruit and indoctrinate America’s alienated youth. If we continue down this road of highlighting the skin color of bad cops and unarmed victims only when it suits a certain narrative, we’ll never disentangle ourselves from the baggage of our ancestors. We are Americans first. Black, white, brown, red, yellow, blue, whatever. Our histories and destinies are all entwined. And whenever any American kills another American, it’s a sad day for us as a people.

— Compromise needs to make a comeback. Special interest groups like Planned Parenthood and the NRA view any concession (the banning of third trimester abortions, the banning of automatic assault rifles) as a slippery slope toward their own extinction. They use their money and influence to strong-arm senators into never giving an inch. This is no way to govern. The ability to work with those across the aisle is an asset, not a liability. We should demand it from our representatives.

— American isolationism is bad for us and bad for the world. Biden’s former boss said it best: “If moral claims are insufficient for us to act as a continent implodes, there are certainly instrumental reasons why the U.S. and its allies should care about failed states that don’t control their territories, can’t combat epidemics, and are numbed by civil war and atrocity. It was in such a state of lawlessness that the Taliban took hold of Afghanistan. It was in genocidal Sudan that bin Laden set up camp for several years. It’s in the misery of some unnamed slum that the next killer virus will emerge…” We are all connected. There’s a reason why we helped establish organizations like the U.N., the IAEA, and the WHO. Our failure to lead over the last four years has created a vacuum where China has made significant gains. Do we really want an authoritarian government setting the international tone?

Our nation is often referred to as a “democratic experiment.” And lately we’ve come dangerously close to having that experiment blow up in our faces. Free and fair elections, the peaceful transition of power, the right to assemble, free speech, due process… the very document that guarantees our liberty has come under attack. But we’re still here. Still kicking. Still the gold standard for freedom. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” There’s a reason people brave shark-infested waters and coyotes and narcos and ICE cages and miles of desert to get here. Hope. Anything is possible in America.

So now the nation, and much of the world, looks to Mr. Biden to orchestrate our comeback. It starts today. And his success is our success. Can we pull it off? Again, the odds are long. But I wouldn’t bet against us.

Final act of cowardice

Leaders lead from the front. History is loaded with examples of this. From Alexander the Great to Julius Caesar to Genghis Khan to Napoleon Bonaparte to George Washington. They gallop alongside their troops, swords singing, cutting down the enemy, trampling them as they ride headlong into battle and inevitable victory.

As footage of the events of January 6, 2021, continues to emerge — the beatings, the hurled fire extinguishers, the zip ties and pipe bombs, the chants of “Hang Mike Pence” — I keep going back to the president’s speech. How he urged the throng of proud boys, militia men, and QAnon (“the internet come to life,” as one reporter described it), as well as a sea of devout supporters to march on the Capitol. He assured them he would be right there with them.

Of course, he wasn’t. He was kicked back in the safety of the Oval Office watching it all go down.

This final act of cowardice underscores who Donald Trump really is. A spoiled rich kid with a giant megaphone. A sore loser deficient in every quality associated with great leaders. Honor, courage, discipline, restraint, spine… Our 45th president is more Nero than Julius Caesar. (Although his embattled Veep appears capable of a passable Brutus impression.)

One of the more sickening images from this dark day in American history was Donald Jr’s fiancée, Kimberly Guilfoyle, dancing. Dancing as glass was shattered, shots were fired and blood was spilled. I guess it’s easy to dance in the safety of the West Wing, when you’re not getting crushed in a doorway or beaten with a baton or praying under your desk. But it’s always like this with the 1%. They sip champagne while the poor and middle class die in the service of their interests.

So now the talk turns to whether the president can pardon himself. All the pundits are weighing in. But is there any talk of him pardoning the citizens who believed his lies about the election being stolen and stormed the Capitol at his insistence? I wouldn’t bet on it.

It’s a girl!

If you’ve read any of the Ivey books, you already know that I consider them my children. There’s nothing original about this. Writers have been saying the same thing since the first quill hit the first parchment. I guess it just feels doubly true for me because I’m growing old in prison and will probably never have a biological child. Yeah, Steve Martin and Larry King had kids in their 70s, along with a bunch of other famous dudes, but that feels unlikely for me. My books will be my legacy. I’m at peace with this.

Consider the Dragonfly is my oldest son. I had no idea what I was doing with him. I had to learn on the fly. He got swallowed up by the system early in life, but he turned out all right.

With Arms Unbound was born two years later. My second son. He grew up in some of the darkest years of the Florida Prison System.

On the Shoulders of Giants was born in 2016. Another boy. The overachiever of the family. He won an award a couple of months ago. I’m extremely proud of him.

Sticks & Stones came next. My fourth son. The most mild-mannered of all my boys. And the most kind-hearted.

Now, I’m proud to announce the arrival of my fifth child. A girl! ‘bout time, right?

Year of the Firefly. Available from Astral Pipeline Books on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

First Place

Wanna hear something cool? This is my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, written longhand on my bunk over the course of two years. When I finished it in 2016, I knew it was special. I couldn’t wait to enter it in the annual Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards competition. With Arms Unbound had come close in 2015, winning an Honorable Mention that year. This one was going to win! I could feel it.

So you can imagine my bitter disappointment when it lost to a cookbook. I wasn’t just disappointed… I was defiant. A cookbook? The following year I entered Sticks & Stones, but I no longer harbored any delusions of winning. Those literary snobs wouldn’t know good writing if it yanked them by their turtleneck sweaters. The people Giants was written for — the forgotten, the lost, the state-raised — they recognized its beauty. That’s all that mattered.

But in April of this year, a friend talked me into reentering. Giants was still within the five-year window of eligibility and I was months away from finishing my latest novel, Year of the Firefly, so I had nothing new to submit. Why not, right?

Good thing I listen to my friends. Giants won! First Place out of nearly 2,000 entries! Finally, a little critical acclaim and some much-needed cash. Life is good. And, according to the gold standard magazine on the craft of writing, On the Shoulders of Giants is good, too. (I recant my previous turtleneck accusation, WD staff.)

If you haven’t read it, you can download it for free on Amazon over the next five days (through Saturday, Nov. 21), or access it through your Kindle Unlimited membership. Just hook me up with a review. I’m excited to hear your thoughts. If it’s on your bookshelf right now, then you already know what’s up. Dum Spiro Spero.

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.

One more shot

February 2007. In a cramped courtroom in Milton, Florida, a small town just east of Pensacola, I sat handcuffed and shackled in a jury box, shoulder to shoulder with twenty other crackheads, meth cooks, and burglars. Like most of them, I was awaiting my fate. Unlike most of them, I wasn’t sweating it. My fate had already been sealed. Or so I thought…

One year earlier, a federal judge had sentenced me to 379 months in prison under something called The Hobbs Act. Right around the same time I signed a plea agreement for a concurrent state sentence that amounted to twenty years for armed robbery. Once the dust settled, my release date was close to three decades away.

And I was overjoyed.

Okay, maybe not overjoyed, but definitely grateful. With my record they could’ve buried me. But they left me a sliver of daylight. That’s all I needed. One more shot.

Yet here I was back in court. Considering the lengthy sentence I was already serving, it seemed odd that they would waste money and manpower transporting me back from prison on a violation of probation. Especially since the charges were from 1991, when I was 17 years old. In my mind, the worst was over. A concurrent sentence felt like a foregone conclusion. So inconsequential that the public defender who was assigned to represent me never even bothered to visit the county jail to discuss legal strategy. Since the gain time laws from the early 90s would apply to whatever sentence the judge imposed, even a fifty-year term would not change my release date. I was pretty much locked in for 2035.

So you can imagine my reaction when the clerk called my name and I hobbled over to the lectern where the prosecutor announced that the state was seeking a life sentence. (Excuse me? Did he just say life?)

“Does the defendant wish to speak?” asked the judge.

I scanned the audience for Mom and located her sweet bifocaled face on the second row. The same face that had been attending my court appearances since I was 13 years old. She stood. I turned back to the judge. “Yes sir.”

Different families have different skill sets. The Trumps are proficient at real estate, the Mannings excel at throwing footballs, the Partridges played musical instruments. If there’s one area where me and Mom kick ass, it’s begging judges for mercy. We’ve had a lot of practice.

I told his honor that I was already serving concurrent sentences of 31 and 20 years. Told him that I had pleaded with both the federal magistrate and the toughest circuit court judge in Escambia County for these sentences. That as things stood, I would be in my early 60s when I got out. Mom would be in her mid-80s. I had this one last chance to be a good son, to be there when she got older and needed me, to repay her for believing in me. And even this was a long shot. Lots of things had to fall our way. But a life sentence would extinguish even that hope.

Then Mom spoke. She told him she was a widow, that I was her only child, that we moved to Miami when I was ten where she had to work 14-hour days to support the family and that’s when things started to unravel in my life. She told him that despite my lengthy record, I was a good boy (I was 33 at the time). That whenever I did return home, I would be returning to a strong support system. She told him that she still believed in me. Then she tearfully begged him to have mercy on our family.

By the time she returned to her seat, even the prosecutor was misty-eyed. The judge not only sentenced me to a minimal concurrent sentence, but expressed regret over not being able to legally reduce the sentences that the other judges had imposed.

A lot of miracles have happened since then: the books, new people in my life, new nieces and nephews, soul-stretching experiences, a Supreme Court ruling that resulted in years being slashed from my sentence. I’ll be coming home sooner than expected and, God willing, I’ll have the opportunity to be a better son, better man, better human being…

But I think about that day in court often. More so lately as the national conversation seems to be gravitating toward criminal justice reform. What if my mom was not so meek and soft spoken? What if life made her bombastic? What if my words came stammering from a meth-ravaged mouth? What if we were less articulate, less fluent, less groomed?

What if we were black?

I’m not a fan of the term “white privilege.” It’s thrown around as if it’s some Universal truth that can be applied across the board. There are poor people of Scots-Irish descent scattered from the Bible Belt to the Rust Belt and all throughout rural America who have been scraping out a living for generations. People who have never experienced any privileges, white or otherwise, since their ancestors came west. To lump them in with the wealthy or even the lower-middle class in this country, to call them privileged, is as erroneous and out of touch as declaring racism dead.

But there are also people of color within a five-bunk radius of where I live who share my exact charges, have fewer priors, and are serving life in prison. Were they slammed because of their race? Or did it have more to do with their socioeconomic class? Maybe it was bad luck. Maybe they just had the wrong judge. Or the right judge on the wrong day. Maybe their mothers couldn’t show up to court because they were working, or deceased, or enslaved by addiction, or in prison themselves. Or maybe it’s all of the above — some intricate algorithm in the judge’s mind that distills all of these variables into a term of years.

Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to live in this body, at this time, with this release date, and Ms Doris as my mom. I’m grateful to have another shot… And when I reach the other side, I’m going to fight like hell for the humanity and hope of those I leave behind. This is my mission.

Talk about a privilege.

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