Skip to content

A shining example

A month ago I had a little rift with someone I love very much over Trump. (Who else, right?) This was my first real taste of a phenomenon that free people have been experiencing with friends and neighbors and coworkers since 2016. I have always assumed that anyone intelligent and empathetic and kind would reflexively reject Trump’s lack of humanity.

If only things were that simple.

I’ve known this girl since she was a baby and there is nothing dark about her heart. She is the embodiment of innocence and light. She just has different views. But what was really troubling for me in this confrontation was my own response. The way my blood pressure skyrocketed, the way I stammered, how empty I felt when we hung up. I was so rattled that I began questioning my own beliefs. Maybe I had a blind spot. Maybe I was drinking the “liberal media” kool-aid. Was I biased against Trump from the outset? I thought I had written something around his inauguration saying that he deserved the benefit of the doubt, that America’s success was tied to his success as president. I went back through my essays, searching for evidence of my own open-mindedness and instead found this from 2017.

If you’re reading this, and I know you are, below is some of the back story that informs my opinions. This is what I couldn’t shoehorn into an emotional 15-minute collect phone call. I love you.

A shining example

Blame it on George Orwell. He once said that it’s impossible to enjoy the writings of someone with whom you take political issue. For this and other reasons, I decided to steer clear of politics in 2017. I even made it a New Year’s resolution. I consider my novels to be letters to the world and want these posts to read the same way. I thought this year I would include more humor, more story, more music. But like many Americans, I’m already backsliding on my resolutions, three weeks in.

For this I blame another George: Stephanopoulos. Last weekend I watched him stroll around the White House with President Obama for a final interview and as the outgoing Commander-in-Chief answered each question with the same poise and equanimity that have been the hallmarks of his tenure in the Oval Office, I knew I had one more political post to write.

I campaigned for President Obama in prison visitation parks in the Deep South. I spent much of 2008 convincing mothers and fathers of lifers that the Supreme Court justices and lower appellate court judges that he would potentially appoint could one day mean freedom for their sons. Or at least provide hope. He did not disappoint. Eight years later he leaves the job as the biggest criminal justice reformer in the history of the White House.

He was also the most gifted orator, certainly of my generation. Over and over I watched him run circles around his opponents in presidential debates (horses and bayonets, anyone?). He did it with humor, too. Remember the press dinner in the lingering aftermath of the birther allegations? He had the band strike up “Born in the USA” and came out pumping his fist like Springsteen. His State of the Union speeches were honest and engaging. His presidential addresses, especially after tragedies such as Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombings, and the Dallas police murders conveyed hope and healing to a heartbroken nation.

But it wasn’t just words. It was action, too. Despite being hamstrung for three-quarters of his time in office by a partisan Congress that needed him to fail, he still managed to tame a gluttonous Wall Street, rescue American icons Ford and Chevy from the brink of extinction, steer us out of an economic crisis that cost the world 40 percent of its wealth, and commute the disparitive sentences of hundreds of war-on-drugs prisoners.

Oh yeah, he also got Osama Bin Laden.

However, his legacy will not and should not be tied solely to this historic hit on America’s most notorious enemy. But rather to the kindness, tolerance, and humanity he displayed over the last eight years. Just how kind was he? Well, I wrote him a letter and he wrote me back. Think about that. Amid all the global tension, intelligence briefings, and thousands of voices clamoring to be heard, the leader of the free world took the time to respond to a prisoner.

Critics will point to the ACA as a failure. Maybe. Millions of Americans who are now insured would probably disagree. I have no voice in this debate. As a prisoner, my health care expenses are limited to the five-dollar copay I’m charged each time I visit the clinic. I do believe that no idea is born fully formed and eventually, some future administration, possibly the new one, will iron out the kinks in Obamacare, repackage it, and present it to the American people as a glowing success.

Critics will also point to race relations as a failure. On this I vehemently disagree. Because of President Obama, the issue of race is no longer the elephant in the room. It’s a hot button issue. A water cooler issue. And people from all walks of life are expressing their opinions. If there is ever to be a united America, it has to start with an open line of dialogue. His polarizing presence in the White House alone has nudged us into having these uncomfortable conversations.

But the main reason I admire our 44th president has nothing to do with diplomacy or policy or statecraft. During one of the darkest periods of my life, as I tried to claw my way out of the immense hole I had dug for myself, President Obama was a shining example of what leadership looks like, what self-mastery looks like, what manhood looks like.

I found this quote from Michelle Obama scrawled in the journal I used while writing my second novel, With Arms Unbound. It’s from the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte. “Even in the toughest moments, when we’re all sweating it, when all hope seems lost, Barack never lets himself get distracted by the chatter and the noise. He just keeps getting up and moving forward … with patience and wisdom and courage and grace.”

I hope that one day, when I leave the world of prison behind, my future wife will hold me in similar regard.

I know this election season has been vitriolic and divisive. Despite our new president’s numerous faux pas, head-scratcher cabinet appointments, and thin-skinned cringe-worthy tweets, I do not wish him failure. To wish him failure is to wish America failure. At minimum, I’m hoping jobs continue to grow under his stewardship. His entrepreneurial chops could well prove to be a huge asset for the country. But no matter how prolific Donald Trump’s triumphs, Barack Obama will be a hard act to follow.

Since this has to end somewhere, I’m thinking a good place would be where the journey began: on a Tuesday night in November 2008, Grant Park, Chicago. After an historic landslide victory over John McCain, a younger, less gray president-elect put the following question regarding change to the spirited crowd of thousands: “When are we going to realize that WE are the ones we’ve been waiting for?”

Eight years, three novels, and a couple of miracles later, I can point to that speech as a major turning point in my own journey. Thanks for the inspiration, Mr. President. I can’t speak for the rest of the nation, but in my little corner of captivity, you will be missed.

 

Reconciling Minnesota

In the late eighties, somewhere between Iran-contra, Exxon Valdez, and a World Series earthquake, I was handcuffed and driven from the Dade juvenile detention center to Miami International Airport. I had the dubious honor of being the first Florida juvenile delinquent to be sent to an out-of-state program. A place called Sherbourne House in frigid Saint Paul, Minnesota.

I remember the double takes and raised eyebrows when I stepped off the plane in shorts, a t-shirt, and a mullet, with only a rumpled brown lunch bag as my luggage. It was December in the Twin Cities. Everyone else was dressed for the occasion. The van driver had no problem picking me out of the crowd.

As we drove down the snowy streets to the former rectory that would be my residence for the foreseeable future, I had no idea I was heading into some of the best days of my troubled youth. Ice fishing, Twins games, sledding, skiing, snowball fights… Definitely a different experience for a Florida kid.

But the memory that stands out the most about Minneapolis-Saint Paul is the same takeaway most visitors to the area have: The people are so nice.

In Miami it was nothing to see grown men come to blows in a traffic jam on the Palmetto. Or cars speeding by a stranded, broken down family in the hazard lane. That would never happen in Minnesota. The low income neighborhood where Sherbourne House was located was home to people of Nordic descent, plus Vietnamese, Somalians, and every gradation of black and white on the color spectrum. They all waved and smiled when the van drove by. Every time. But they wave and smile in the south, too. It’s not just that. Minnesotans cared for each other. Like “cared” as an active verb… Checked on each other during brutal winters, shoveled snow from neighbors’ driveways, looked out for the elderly among them. In short, they were a community.

I think this is why it’s so difficult reconciling the Minnesota in my head with the one I’ve been seeing on TV. Where police kneel on the necks of unarmed citizens while the life drains out of them, like big game hunters posing over a trophy kill. Where molotovs fly and struggling small business owners weep and precincts burn.

This is not the Minnesota I remember. But then America as a whole is pretty unrecognizable right now.

2020

They passed out masks at my prison last week. Triple-ply polyester squares made from uniform pants that are mandatory when we’re not eating, sleeping, or bathing. As if the barren, windswept Times Square footage on the evening news was not eerie enough, or the daily death toll on the GMA news ticker, or the images of shiny, late-model SUVs in five-mile-long food queues… Prison life just went from dark to dystopian in the elastic snap of a mask.

Although I’m convinced that a third of my dorm already had the virus back in February (myself included), the pandemic has not officially reached the prison where I am housed. Not since authorities began keeping track, at least. But it has ravaged two of my previous camps. Sumter Correctional had one of the biggest outbreaks in the state, and Blackwater Correctional has had four deaths with hundreds under medical quarantine. I have so many friends trapped in those places. We’ve grown up together in the prison system. Their families and my family brave the weather and the rudeness and the indignity on the weekends in order to spend a few hours with their sons and husbands and brothers. Or they did until visitation was canceled almost two months ago.

I’ve been hesitant to write about the corona virus. In this era of daily televised White House briefings, where Dr. Fauci is a household name and the president is faced with an enemy he can’t dismiss as fake news or a witch hunt, where the NBA playoffs have been canceled and the NFL draft is held online, where everyone is talking about hot spots and flattening curves and social distancing, what can I possibly add to the conversation? I’d rather talk about books and music and football.

But these essays are more than social commentary. They are chronicles. Mile markers. One day I will read over them as a free man and remember where I was when each was written. What was going on. And as much as I want 2020 to be known as the year Tua took his talents to South Beach, the year Brady became a Buc, the year I finally finished writing this novel… all these will be footnotes in the annals of history. 2020 will forever be known as the year of the pandemic. The year when everything changed. The year the handshake died, the mall breathed its last gasp, and the world was reminded of just how interconnected we all are. Rich and poor, black and white, American and Chinese, convict and guard, conservative and liberal. If we learn nothing else during these troubled times, hopefully it will be to put data and science before politics, to say “I love you” while we have the shot, and to take better care of our grandmothers and grandfathers. There is no them… only us.
Stay safe out there.

 

American Dirt

It took Jeanine Cummins seven years to write American Dirt. The story of a middle-class Mexican bookseller who flees Acapulco with her young son after a cartel violently attacks a birthday party she’s attending, in the process killing her journalist husband who earlier profiled the cartel leader… Loaded with tension, bubbling with suspense, as heartbreaking and current as children in cages on the world news, her hard work earned her a seven-figure book deal. Sounds like a Don Winslow novel to me. In fact, Mr. Winslow called it a modern-day Grapes of Wrath. He was not alone. Stephen King said it was “extraordinary.” And Oprah selected it for her coveted book club.

At least that’s what some people say. Others are calling it “trauma porn” and “an atrocious piece of cultural appropriation.” They accuse her of trafficking in stereotypes and “wallowing in ignorance.” I saw where writer and professor David Bowles called her use of the Spanish language in dialogue “wooden and odd, as if generated by Google Translate.” In addition to attacking her on the mechanics and merits of her work, many believe that a white American woman should not be writing stories about Mexican immigrants.

It’s this last part that gets me. If the book sucks, fine. Torch it. Slather it with all the negative criticism it deserves and post your findings in every literary journal on the web. But don’t disqualify art on the grounds of the ethnicity of the artist. By doing so, we perpetuate the same marginalization we claim to be fighting against. Unfortunately, this is not new. There’s a whole movement out there that is pushing this agenda and shaming anyone who does not conform.

A couple of years ago, Amélie Wen Zhao asked her publisher to pull her novel Blood Heir due to the beating she took online for her lack of racial sensitivity. According to reports, she botched the delicate issue of slavery in her fiction. One of the louder voices in this politically correct lynch mob was Kosoko Jackson, an aspiring writer who worked as a “sensitivity reader” for major publishers of young adult fiction. His job description was to read manuscripts and flag them for problematic content. In addition to his day job, he was also part of a small but intense online community that scolded writers who they felt were out-of-bounds. Last year, in an article by Ruth Graham, I read where Mr. Jackson himself, who identifies as black and queer, was called out by that same community for being tone deaf to the atrocities of genocide in his gay teen love story A Place for Wolves, a novel he also eventually pulled. Apparently the outraged eat their own.

I can’t help but wonder what would happen if my third novel, On the Shoulders of Giants, were to pass through the pristine and manicured hands of this Orwellian literary police force. Would they hyperventilate with righteous indignation upon discovering that half the novel is written in the POV of a black kid from a Pensacola project building? Or that the other half is written in the voice of a foster child? Would they purse their lips in disgust as the novel snakes through the infamous Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys? Or label the overdoses and drive-bys and prison violence “trauma porn?” Would they waggle their angry fingers from the anonymity of their computer screens and say I have no right to tell these stories? I hope so. I would welcome that debate.

Right now, I’m two-thirds of the way through the first book in a series about a young incarcerated pregnant woman who’s kicking opiates in the county jail. I’m sure this one would really infuriate the #ownvoices task force. My response would be something like the great Pat Conroy’s to the Charleston school board when his books were banned: On the Shoulders of Giants and Sticks & Stones are my darlings. I would lay them at the feet of God and say “this is how I found the world you made…”

Or I could just follow Jeanine Cummins’ lead. When they asked the author what gave her the right to tell the story of American Dirt, her answer was simple. “I wrote a novel. I wrote a work of fiction that I hoped would be a bridge because I felt that screaming into the echo chamber wasn’t working. For better or for worse, this is the result.”
Nuff said.

Mayor Pete

There is zero political correctness in captivity. No one tiptoes around emotions or tries to figure out ways to put things delicately. Contemporary millennial vernacular with its “triggers” and “safe spaces” is a language alien to the chain gang. Here, racial slurs are commonplace, women are bitches and hoes, and even the LGBTQ community doesn’t bother saying LGBTQ. They just call themselves sissies and punks like everyone else.

It is through the blunt prism of this parallel universe that I first noticed presidential hopeful Mayor Pete Buttigieg. Noticed and immediately dismissed him based on the fact that he’s gay. How could I do such a thing? The same way most people do ignorant things: I did it unconsciously. I live in a world where homosexuals rank somewhere around child molesters and snitches in the food chain. No way a sissy could lock horns with Donald Trump. Much less strongmen world leaders like Putin, Kim Jong-un, or Duterte. No way America would elect a gay dude to the White House.

Then I heard him on the debate stage. Several times. And I watched him on the Sunday morning round-table shows. The more I listen to him speak, the more difficult it is to dismiss him based on who he loves. What business is it of mine anyway? He’s not auditioning for The Bachelor, he’s running for president. It’s his vision and character that matter.

Mayor Pete is an Afghan war vet, Naval intelligence, Rhodes scholar who speaks seven languages. At age 37, he’s the youngest candidate in the field which means, more than any other candidate, he has a stake in things like climate change and the national debt because he’ll still be around when these fiscal time bombs are set to go off. He describes addiction as “a medical problem, not a moral failure,” seeks to end prison profiteering, and abolish minimum mandatory sentencing. He thinks we should measure our economy not by the Dow Jones but by the income of the 90%. He’s moderate in his politics. He’s not out there trumpeting “free everything for everyone and Jeff Bezos is gonna pay for it!” Any far-left president as a knee jerk response to four years of Trump’s America First/Pat Robertson brand of isolationism would only pave the way for another wild over correction in 2024. Too much is at stake for that. We need a uniter. Someone who will galvanize and energize, not polarize. But make no mistake, Mayor Pete would eviscerate Donald Trump on the debate stage. Run circles around him.

And yet.

There’s still this lingering voice in my head. “Come on, man. Really? There’s no way…” I keep thinking of the Conservative Christian wing of my friends and family. Good people who held their noses and voted for Trump not because they’re closet racists or because they believed that Hillary was running a sex ring out of the back of a D.C. pizza shop, but out of concern for the unborn. They believed they were doing the right thing. The Christian thing. How could those people of faith ever reconcile their spiritual walk with voting for a gay president? I don’t know. Seems like the Sermon on the Mount would supersede an obscure line in Romans, but I’m the wrong guy to argue Scripture. Ultimately, I think that anyone who would hold this against him at the ballot box is probably already voting for Trump anyway.

I don’t have a say in the matter. Other than these words. I forfeited my right to participate in our democratic experiment in 2005 when I was arrested for armed robbery. Humiliating but true. But if I did have a vote, I’d be casting it for Mayor Pete. I think he’ll make a terrific president.

Back to work

Five years ago, I was flipping through a writing magazine on autopilot, dismissing various poets and essayists based on appearance — basically being a shallow, troglodyte male — when I spotted a pretty face next to an article. I stopped to see what the author had to say… and was immediately hooked.

She was an adjunct professor at a university up north, was also a memoirist, recovering heroin addict, and former dominatrix in a Manhattan dungeon. Her essay dealt with interviewing for writing faculty positions, packing up her girlfriend and her dog and moving to Brooklyn, and working on her book during the long public transit commute to and from the university.

Although it’s been five years and four prisons since I read the article, I remember this sentence clearly: “The psychic immersion required to write a full-length novel is not conducive to the guy in the next seat on the bus munching pork skins…”

I felt her. Attempting to write books in prison is a similar experience. Only the dude munching pork skins is always there, and the bus never stops. I decided to write her a letter. Why not? We were both scribes. Both part of the same community. Consider the Dragonfly was racking up positive reviews by this time and With Arms Unbound appeared in Writers Digest magazine for an honorable mention in their annual book awards. But when you write in a vacuum — when you live in a vacuum — there’s always that nagging question: Am I really a writer? So in the opening paragraph of my letter, I didn’t just acknowledge the elephant in the room, I grabbed Babar by the trunk.

I don’t remember exactly what I said but it was something like “I’m intimidated by you. Not only because you’re a beautiful lesbian, not only because you’re a published author, but because you’re an adjunct professor. Please don’t grade this letter…”

While I was waiting for her to respond, I ordered her book. Like her article, it was brilliantly written. Unlike her article, it gave a detailed account of her work in the sex trade. Most of her clientele were investment bankers and wealthy hedge fund types who wanted to dress up in diapers and have her shout at them, smack them around, tie them up. Seems like there was something about a catheter too. I’m not sure. I was pretty traumatized before the midway point of the book. Not by the rich guys and their weird sexual fetishes. But by my own words. I told her I was “intimidated” by her. Did she think I was, like, into being intimidated? Was she confusing me with those billionaires in baby bibs? To add insult to injury, she meets a guy at the end of the book who becomes her fiancé and they live happily ever after. In my letter I called her a beautiful lesbian. Oops.

When you write complete strangers from a correctional institution, there’s always a chance that you’ll be mistaken for a deranged stalker. This is why I stick to the one letter rule. Just send it out and let the Universe deal with the rest. Whether it’s an agent, a reviewer, a sentencing judge, or the President of the United States. If I never hear back, then I can breathe easy knowing I gave it my best shot. But this was different. I had to write her again. If only to clarify. So after six months and no response, I did just that.

“First of all, I want to apologize for calling you a beautiful lesbian. I didn’t realize you were engaged to a guy until I read your memoir. Second, when I said I was intimidated by you, I didn’t mean it as a come-on. I’m not into being beat up or wearing diapers and the only time I’ve ever endured a catheter was when I woke up in ICU after a car accident that resulted in brain surgery. A highly unpleasant experience that I hope I never go through again…”

Two weeks later, I heard my name at mail call. I knew it was her when I saw the envelope. She said that she had been meaning to write since my first letter arrived, that time had just gotten away from her, that it never crossed her mind that I was into intimidation, but she got a good laugh out of me worrying she would think that. Finally, she said she IS a beautiful lesbian. So there was no need to feel like a jackass. Her happily-ever-after ended before her book was even published and all her subsequent happily-ever-afters had been women.

I received one more letter from her after that. It was somewhere between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 2016. I was in solitary confinement at Santa Rosa, and Trump had just been elected. Things looked pretty bleak. But I was moved by her words: “The morning of November 9 was one of the worst of my life. At least as an American. That day I had this overwhelming feeling, like I wanted someone (Mom? Obama?) to swoop in and rescue us. But then I realized that I am an adult writer and educator and activist, and it is my job to rescue us. Whatever complacency my generation has enjoyed as a result of the struggles of our parents, that shit is over. It’s time to work!”

I recently came across that letter when I was straightening out my locker. Crazy, that three years have passed since the Newly Crowned King proclaimed his inauguration a glowing success with unprecedented attendance. Three years of illiterate tweets, climate pact pullouts, hush money payouts, inner circle indictments, hurricane map embellishments, ally alienation, enemy enabling, hate group coddling, war hero disrespecting, constitutional nose-thumbing, wedge-driving, name calling, obstructive, divisive, classless, clueless leadership. But we’re in the homestretch now. Last leg of the journey. November 2020 is 10 months away. I took last year off. I didn’t want to participate in the toxic polemic and political vitriol that is driving families and friends and neighbors apart. So I just focused on humanizing the people in my orbit. But my professor friend is correct. Too much is at stake to be complacent. It’s time to get to work.

George

There’s this line in Eat Pray Love about Quest Physics. The idea that life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher, nudging us down the path to enlightenment. I believe this. My most recent teacher is Big George. He moved into the bunk next to me when my friend Menu went home. The exchange was about as seamless as the Obama/Trump White House transition.

George is a 300-pound, 47-year-old man, but mentally he’s somewhere around age 10. It took all of two seconds of conversation to realize this. From the moment he dragged his property down my row and plopped down across from me, I knew he was going to be a character. I had no idea…

“Can I borrow some cookies? What are you writing? Are you eating again? Who sent you that letter? The Dolphins suck!” Big George has not shut up since he moved in. At first it was funny. Then it was irritating. Finally, it reached the point where I had to keep my headphones in at all times. Dude is driven by the compulsion to contaminate every precious sliver of silence with mindless chatter. He can’t help himself. Even as I write this, he’s sitting over there, two feet to my left, narrating the comings and goings of the dorm in his signature whiny nasal voice. Big George doesn’t talk. He squawks. The only time he ever shuts up is when he’s shoveling food into his face.

A few months ago he says, “You think you’re so cool just because you wrote a book. I’m gonna write a book and it’s gonna be way better than yours.” Then a couple weeks later, “Hey Malcolm! You wanna be in my book? I’m a CIA agent with two samurai swords and I own a car dealership with a strip bar on the roof. Buy a car and get a free lap dance!” He’s been over there writing away ever since.

Full disclosure: I was dealing with a vicious bout of writers block for most of 2019 so it was especially infuriating to look over and see his pen gliding effortlessly across his notebook while I thrashed and groped for words. Occasionally, he would catch me staring at the blank page and hit me with that halfwit smile of his. “What are you doing over there? You haven’t written anything! I’m already on page 85.”

Grrrr.

“Wanna read a little bit?” he offered one day.
I did not. But there’s this egocentric part of me that looks in the mirror and sees a writing instructor, sent to assist the unwashed and illiterate. So I sighed and held out my hand.

It was worse than I imagined. Third-grader handwriting, atrocious punctuation, no indentation. The words that weren’t misspelled just trailed off into scribble. I looked up to find him smiling like an expectant chef who had just served up the house special. He raised his eyebrows.

I told him it was garbage. Told him he was trying to fly before he could walk. Told him he should learn the fundamentals first. He needed to write good sentences before he could write good paragraphs, much less good books. He was highly indignant, insisted that I read more. I shook my head and handed him back his manuscript.

“Write me one good sentence and I’ll think about it,” I said. “One simple sentence, but it has to be capitalized, punctuated, and spelled correctly. Can you do that?” He tore a piece of paper from his notebook and went straight to work, tongue out, brow furrowed in concentration as he made his letters. When he finished he passed it across the aisle and gave me the chef look again, obviously very pleased with himself. I glanced down at the paper. “My name is Georg!” Almost, man.

It didn’t take long for the rest of the dorm to smell blood in the water. Prison is similar to the schoolyard. Remember the bullies from your childhood? They didn’t have spiritual awakenings and change their lives. They grew up and came here, where they perfected their methods of cruelty. “Look at you,” one sneered at him the other day. “It’s people like you who make me realize that things aren’t so bad after all.”

He shrugged innocently. “Why? What’s so special about me?”
See what I’m saying? Clueless. Big George was born with a “kick me” sign on his ass. Of course, he doesn’t make things any easier by constantly drawing attention to himself. I’ve even gotten in on the action. One day when he wouldn’t shut up, Mr. Benevolent Writing Professor himself pulled back a rubber band and snapped him right on a fat roll. “Ouch!” he exclaimed. “What’d you do that for?” It left a red welt. Not one of my finest moments.

But it may have been a defining moment. Quest Physics. Life is a spiritual journey and everyone we encounter along the way is our teacher. Even the Big Georges of the world. Especially the Big Georges. That’s not me. Prison is oppressive enough without some dick popping you with a rubber band just because you’re different.

Which brings me to New Year’s… The best holiday in my little corner of the universe. Way better than Christmas. Nothing like another year down, another year closer to home. I spent the final week of 2019 like many citizens of the world, taking personal inventory, getting my house in order, figuring out my goals and resolutions for 2020. For me, it’s the usual suspects — finish current novel, write more essays, build strength, increase flexibility, hydrate, read more, listen better, be more efficient with time… But this year, kindness and tolerance surge back to the top of the leader board. I lost my way over the last 12 months. It took a CIA agent with samurai swords to lead me out of the wilderness. They say that when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I’m fortunate to have crossed paths with Big Georg.
Love you guys. Happy 2020!

 

Juanito

This summer I was assigned to work in the infirmary. Not a bad gig by prison standards. Air conditioning, TV, the occasional extra tray and a phone I didn’t have to share with 70 other inmates. There were just two dudes who lived back there. Shaky and Juanito. Shaky had stage four cancer and was refusing chemo. The prognosis was six months. He told me he was at peace with his situation. His wife had already died and he had no one on the other side waiting for him. He felt like he had a good run. He was just going to read his Bible until the Savior called him home.

Juanito had a different philosophy. Fight like hell. Especially with anyone who tried to bathe him which, unfortunately, was my job. My first attempt was met with stiff resistance. Just trying to dab at his neck and arms with a soapy washcloth was like giving a cat a sponge bath. Wasn’t happening. Have you ever been punched in the face by a little old man? It hurts more than you’d think. He also stabbed me in the hand with a spork, bit, scratched, cussed me out in English and Spanish, pleaded, prayed, cried… I was totally unprepared. I couldn’t even get his shirt off. After round one, it was clearly Juanito 1, Malcolm 0. But it wasn’t over. Not by a long shot.

Juanito is 5 feet and 105 pounds of piss and vinegar. A 92-year-old Cuban American serving life in prison for shooting his landlord. He was 80 when he committed his crime. I don’t know if he had dementia when he pulled the trigger, but he was definitely dealing with it by the time our paths converged. Sometimes he wouldn’t get out of bed. Sometimes he’d just stare off into space. The sides of his wheelchair were crammed with old alcohol pads, tongue depressors and other medical paraphernalia pilfered from infirmary garbage cans. Since I was educated in the Dade County public school system and spent a lot of my childhood just a few blocks from Little Havana, my Spanish has a heavy Cuban dialect. I thought this might earn me some cool points with Juanito, but it only made him more suspicious of me. Sometimes when I was on the phone, he would glare at me from across the room as if he knew I was reporting his whereabouts to the Castro regime.

Oddly, the only assistance he wouldn’t resist was when nature called. He’d just wait for eye contact and motion toward the bathroom. Yeah, it was part of my job to wipe his ass. The only other ass I’ve ever wiped besides my own. Strange experience. In the beginning it was humiliating and awkward. For both of us. Even with the dementia, Juanito was proud. I’m sure it irked him to be dependent on another man for such a basic human function. But after a few times it became mechanical. I’d push his chair to the front of the toilet and lock in the wheels. He’d grab the handicap rail with one hand, the armrest of his chair with the other, and slowly rise to his feet. Once he got turned around, I’d pull his pants down around his ankles, followed by his diaper. Then, he’d sit down and handle his business. After he finished, he’d grab the arms of his chair and stand while I grabbed the gloves and the wet wipes. Easy as 123.

I let the bathing thing go for a few days. I felt like I was failing him but I didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t like he was dirty. Aside from digging in the infirmary trashcans, he lived a relatively clean life. The problem was his clothes. They were smeared with dried snot and food.
“Come on, papito,” I’d say. “Let’s just change you into these clean blues.”
At first he stared at me like I was some babbling idiot. But when he realized I was attempting to remove his shirt, his iron grip clamped around my wrist and his thick yellow fingernails dug into my skin. His eyes filled with terror.
“Okay,” I gave up. “Okay.”
Juanito 2, Malcolm 0.

One day some official looking people came to see him. After they left, the nurses were buzzing. The rumor was that Juanito was going to be moved to an old folks home under something called “compassionate release.” They decided that at age 92, he was no longer capable of harming anyone. Despite the scratches on my arm and the spork holes in my hand, I totally agreed. Society was not being served by warehousing a little old man who didn’t even know he was in prison.
“Juanito!” I told him as I cut up the gray meat on his tray. “You’re out of here man!” He was more interested in stashing salt packets in the side of his wheelchair.

Unfortunately, it was not to be. There was a hearing in Tallahassee, the victim’s family objected, and that was that. No appeal, no second opinion, no mercy. The good news is that Juanito had no clue how close he was. Maybe in some cases dementia is bliss.

That night when we were doing our bathroom routine, I noticed he left a deposit in his diaper. When he sat on the toilet, I took off his crocs, pulled his pants over his ankles, removed the offensive diaper, and chucked it in the trash. Then it dawned on me: I was halfway there. I just needed to remove his shirt and victory would be mine. I could finally get him into some clean clothes. Maybe even scrub him with some soapy water if I could weave his punches while I worked. I moved decisively. His arm was through his shirt before he realized what was happening and it was off before he could protest. Surprisingly, he did not fight. He just sat there and glowered while I went to work on his armpits and neck. Maybe he knew that resistance was futile. Maybe he was just tired of fighting. Or maybe it was something else. Maybe on some subconscious level he realized how close he had come to freedom after all, and was mourning the loss of precious hope within the confines of his diseased mind. Either way, I took no pleasure in the victory.
I’ve since been switched to another job. The prison library. But I occasionally get back to the infirmary to check on Juanito whenever a cool officer is working. He has no idea who I am.

Joker

I met Joker in a poker game at Walton Correctional in 2009. He was fresh out of confinement and new in my dorm. Other than him annoyingly trying to muscle every pot, I don’t remember much about the game. I have no idea whether I won or lost or who else was at the table. What stands out the most about that night is walking past his bunk after lights-out and seeing him on his knees, praying.

I’m not sure why this gave me pause. Ever heard the saying “there are no atheists in a foxhole”? The same can be said for the joint. Prisoners pray. It’s kinda our thing. Prayer is as commonplace as chow hall hotdogs and rec yard stabbings. I guess I just didn’t expect to see it five minutes after a poker game.

I had to ask. “You a Christian or something?”

He shrugged. “I’m praying that my mom stays alive until I come home.”

Joker’s mom is Ernestina. La Jefita. He has her name tattooed on him. Twice. What can I say? The man loves his momma. And anyone who loves their momma is all right in my book.

We became close over the years, me and Joker. Ran a parlay ticket together, ate together, worked out together. I also got to know his family. His brothers and sister, his kids, Ernestina… They live in a little Texas town called Mission near the southern border crossing at Reynosa. Whenever they made their annual trips to Florida to visit Joker, they would stop by my mom’s house with gifts from the region. I still have pictures in my photo album of his little brothers tagging up Graffiti Bridge in Pensacola, Rio Grande Valley style. And when his sister gave birth to her youngest son, she named him Christopher Malcolm, after me. One of the biggest honors of my life. They even call him “Cici” which is what everyone calls me. Except for Ernestina. She calls me “mijo,” short for “mi hijo,” Spanish for “my son.”

In 2015 Joker and I were transferred to different prisons and time did its thing. We still sent cards on special occasions, but by 2018 even that had stopped. I was busy writing books, he was getting close to his release date, his daughter had a baby, his little brothers were growing up. Life was happening.

Then last year I received an ominous message from his sister: Ernestina had to have her leg amputated. Complications from diabetes. It hurt to think about this sweet lady who loved going to dances and playing with her nietos enduring such unimaginable trauma. Unfortunately, things did not improve. Earlier this year, she had a stroke. When I called Mission and got to speak with her, she was crying. Her normal machine gun Español was slowed to an unrecognizable slur. The only words I could make out were in English. “I love you, mijo.” I kept telling her to hang on. That Joker would be home soon. And he would be. April 30 was his release date.

Sadly, Ernestina died on April 15.

Two weeks from the finish line, my good friend who prayed every night for his mother’s health, lost his Jefita.

This Sunday when I’m in visitation celebrating Mother’s Day with my own sweet mom, I will also be honoring the woman who called me Mijo. And my family in south Texas who are spending their first Mother’s Day without her.

 

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.)