This was written shortly before the closest friend I made in prison was released. He spent three years as one of the head aides of our Educational Department, doing everything from maintaining and compiling databases in Excel to distributing class rosters across the entire facility, he worked side-by-side with a bunch of middle-aged civilian ladies who treated him like a son.
And sometimes a bit like a gigolo, but that’s another story.
Certain memories from prison never leave you, like the time I strolled by his cell and heard needy chirping – I stuck my head head in and watched him carefully spoon-feeding three bare-naked tiny little birds some mushed up dog kibble from the end of a plastic spoon. We lived on a tier with a dog-training program, and whenever any of the guys in that program would find any wildlife-in-need on the compound they knew to bring it to him. A few weeks later I’d have a little bird on my finger, helping it learn to fly by dropping my hand quickly to make it flap its newly-feathered wings.
And because of his job, guards would turn the other way as he accumulated a massive and technically contraband library of books on zoology – we were only allowed a certain volume of paperwork in our cells, but he was allowed to keep a huge volume of books on everything from bird-watching to herpetology, and everything in between. This almost came to a head during our massive annual shakedown, when the guards searching his cell discovered that the wastebasket with a holey t-shirt over it was chirping… Red, handcuffed hands behind his back out in the hall but looking into his cell explained the avian adoption with a huge grin on his face. After the other guard picked up a plastic container that looked to be full of just toilet paper and tiny dead bugs what was going on, Red explained, “Oh there’s a black widow in there, she’s a bad bitch.” The guard careful placed the container back and simply said, “Of course there is.”
But despite getting his GED and taking multiple computer learning classes, and effectively functioning as an employee of the state for three years, when it was time for him to go home Maryland did absolutely nothing for him except give him enough money to make a few phone calls and tell him how to check in with his PO. He could’ve been easily placed into any office job run by the state government, but of course that’s no place for criminals.
In the following years he’d spend months at a time camping in the woods and biking to job sites when he couldn’t find somewhere to crash, chasing off rabid bands of raccoons with his faithful pooch Odin at his side, and cooking over an open fire – pedaling miles to and from work around 12 hour days of manual labor.
After sending this email out to about a dozen of my closest friends, I got a hint of what was to come for me when only one of them reached out – a social worker who’d already interacted with plenty of ex-cons.
Turns out most of America considers Redemption something better left to tv movies and novels as opposed to something they’re actually willing to live out.
This post contains racially insensitive language, so if that kind of thing offends you when you’re reading about what incarceration is like – unbunch your knickers and fuck on off down the road.
More than anything else, this place has taught me what it means to hate. Coming in I’d always conflated anger and hatred in my mind… but they’re cousins at best. Anger is hot and brief and easy.
Hate is different.
Laying on the bottom-bunk while stuck in Intake, looking up at all the illiterate graffiti peeling off the metal bunk a few inches from my nose, I felt hate gently uncoil in my belly for the first time. The idiot coon I’d been stuck in a cell with for 23 hours a day for the past two weeks had been starting to act real chippy, and I was growing increasing certain that we were going to have it out within the next day or so.
Earlier that night as we stood a few feet apart in the caged-in shower I’d shampooed careful to keep one eye open, but confident that if it went down – I wouldn’t be the one who ended up in Medical. And now back in our cell my mind had started to mull over what a degenerate shit-head he was and catalog everything that was fucked up and inferior about his life and his culture, and then – seemingly out of nowhere – the Holocaust made sense.
There’s a clarity to hate, a certainty. This fucking jackass had spent his entire life exploiting and hurting people, both those close to him and strangers unlucky enough to wander close-by, and his kind of life needed to stop existing. The cold certainty that roiled around in my belly wasn’t white-hot nor impulsive nor snarling to be let out.
It just was. And I’ll be damned if it didn’t have impeccable grammar.
So holy shit, here I was – stuck in prison for the first time and it hadn’t even taken a damn month and already I was ready to strap on my jackboots against an entire culture, against a people. Despite years and years of my token black best-friend, and coaching this fucking guy, and becoming a Godfather to a wrestler’s child who I’d only coached for a season but reunited with after he was expelled for smacking the weave off a girl who’d given him an STD.
First stones and all that, right?
A week later, someone else from that same culture would be holding a pen a few inches from my eye while screaming about killing me in my sleep with one hand, and holding a letter with my parents’ address with the other – threatening to send people to kill them too with his next breath. And I didn’t panic or even feel all that scared really, because down in my gut that strange cold certainty unraveled itself and seeped down my arms into my hands and was welcomed into my soul, and I knew that if things really went sideways – I would still be breathing afterwards.
And this thing jabbering in front of me never would again.
Even after checking into protective custody and then getting into Open Housing afterwards, a watered-down version of the same bullshit persisted and more of my thoughts drifted into territory that I never in my life could’ve imagined them going. And so I begin to grow increasingly worried about how much this place was going to shape me and which parts of me would make it out.
The sorta good news was that after dealing with two white-trash tooth-lacking cell-mates who were shitty in their own special ways, it occurred to me that maybe the issue was poor people in general, and not just poor black people.
Why were most of the biggest assholes missing so many teeth? Possibly for the same reason they became such assholes in the first place: terrible parents. If you can’t get your kid to brush for two-minutes a day, odds are you aren’t passing along morals or teaching algebra. Whatever the reason: wealth, race, or just plumb stupid – this place was eating away at me.
But then one day I was sitting in the day room reading, and some random fucking ginger comes up and asks what I’m reading, and we get into an hours-long conversation about different books and authors. And before I knew it, I’d made a new friend.
At the time, I didn’t realize how important this friend would be to me. You never dare to hope that you might’ve just made a new best friend.
Have you guys seen the episode of Nature about the cross-species animal friends? One of the segments was about a horse that’d gone blind, and been helpless, until out of nowhere a random goat on the farm decided to befriend it and spend hours and hours each day leading it to and from its favorite grass-munching spot deep in the sun-mottled woods.
Every day the goat would walk a few paces ahead, stop patiently, and wait for its equine buddy to catch up. Walk a few more paces, wait, and then go on leading the way.
Well, since none of y’all are blind horses – by now I’m sure you get where I’m going with this. As socially retarded and awkward as I can be out there, imagine my goofy white ass in prison – a culture with expected norms of behavior that I have absolutely no experience with at all. Trying to feel my way around this place on my own was insanely anxiety-inducing, there were several times where I nearly checked back into protective custody simply to get away from the everyday stressors and confusion of dealing with interacting with all the stupid raging assholes in here.
So had Red and I not become friends, had he not explained how to go about things in here and looked out for me unconditionally, there’s a very good chance I would’ve at the very least broken one of my past cellmate’s fingers, which at the very least would’ve destroyed any chance I have at parole or a sentence modification, if not added years onto my sentence. And had we not become friends, I definitely wouldn’t have the job I do now, working for a wicked cool teacher whose computer I’m now using and who’s raised two daughters into their twenties and so understands how a dumbass and a predator are two very different things.
Although Red is technically a colored, he’s the Irish kind – but, for lack of a better term, he grew up poor white trash and so culturally is in some ways closer to the poor blacks in here than any of us. And so because of him – more importantly than getting me this job with this awesome teacher, more importantly than helping keep me out of segregation and keeping my sentence as short as possible – because of him I’ve been able to keep the hatred at bay and continue to see everyone in here as an individual and not a member of their group. Because of him I have a tutoring job helping learning-disabled teenage inmates from the worst parts of Baltimore learn to read and do arithmetic. And because of him I can still see each student as an individual, and not just the product of their broken-ass neighborhoods.
For what it’s worth Red has all his teeth, but that should probably be beside the point. So here’s the thing.
After spending the past five years in prison, Red finally got let out a couple weeks ago. I’d say “went home,” but that wouldn’t be true. As the first of nine kids, with a career criminal father who either relocated his family every year or so or once burned their house down for the insurance and a mother who never had a chance to be one to Red because the next kid’s head was basically breaching before he was off the teat, Red has never been able to rely on anyone. His family turned their back on him, not offering him so much as a couch to go “home” to. Without steady electricity growing-up, he often had to get up early to either chop wood or do a few miles round-trip to buy kerosene so that his younger siblings could have warms baths before school. Without any money coming in, it was up to Red to join his Dad on his industrial burglary runs or go around collecting monies owed from his Dad’s “customers.” (Because, at least in theory, who’s going to stiff a cute little red headed kid asking for his father’s motherfucking money?)
And without ever having had a real friend before, without knowing what it’s like to know those you held dear were there to have your back and not stab you in it, Red’s never known what it’s like to be surrounded and supported, no matter the fuck what, by friends like each and every one of you.
One of the many things we’ve playfully argued about in here (maybe the only good part of no internet is that you can have the same silly-ass arguments about meaningless shit as you did in high school, without a smartphone handy you can’t just google the answer) is various aspects of music, and along the way my taste has widened a lot to include some bands I would’ve previously dismissed as “way too screamy.” To get me there, Red would give me a CD with his thoughts jotted down about each song. Included in the second or third CD of notes were these two notes jotted down:
Song 1: I’ve never been able to count on anyone in my life. Whenever I have, my life became more twisted each time. This is an ode to someone who had to toil alone for minimal gains or praise from others.
Song 7: cannot stress the pivotally important role this song had in helping me realize how self-destructing/y miserable I was about my … socio-economic standing as a child and how its symptoms manifested into an all controlling presence of hatred that severely held me back. Until I learned to let it go.
Laying on my bunk a little over a year after I’d come in, looking up at different ridiculous graffiti, I cried and cried and cried. I don’t want to put him out there any farther than I already have, but as smart as I like to think I am – I cannot, for the life of me, figure out how Red’s has gone through everything that he has and still emerged as such an incredible friend, someone who looked out for this half-retarded blind horse, and someone who if I don’t literally owe my life to, I do quite literally owe a few years of it to.
But now that he’s gone, there’s only so much I can do to pay him back. Which is where y’all come in. Although we’re handling the financial end of things, although Red has a motley group of well-meaning ex-cons who he’s loosely stayed in touch with, and although he currently has a place to stay with some people who want the best for him – after everything he’s gone through, and after everything he’s done for me: Red deserves a chance to at least start to get to know each of you, and hopefully become your friend along the way
He shares a little bit of common ground with each of you. He’s wicked bright. He’s a tireless reader who’s introduced me to a few quality fantasy writers I didn’t know were out there. He’s an amazing storyteller who I think has a shot at making it in stand-up. He loves the shit out of his siblings, who he worries about and even now feels responsible for. In addition to being a gifted dog-trainer, he’s a shameless herpetological nerd. At one point he saved up for months to get a guitar which he loves dearly- music has saved his life at least once. He’s got two-and-a-half kids (I’ll let him explain). And he’s hardly every known the acceptance and kindness all of you and your families have provided me with my entire life,which is why I’m hoping you’ll drop him a line.
During his last few weeks here he opened up about some deeply personal events, and without using the exact words let me know I was the first unconditional friend he’s ever made in his entire life. Thinking about that now, and about him and everything he did for me, again I’m crying.
Last I heard he only has about seven friends on Facebook now so if you dropped him a line with a link to your profile I’m sure he’d be very glad for the cyber-community, and he’s going to be posting a fair amount of videos about dog-training among other things – I think it’s a safe bet that you’ll find his feed entertaining.
At this point a job as a dog trainer for PetCo is still pending, but whether or not that works out he may try and get his college degree, pursue the stand-up thing to one extent or another (he’s suffered enough and is charismatic enough that I think he’s got a legit shot), look at getting certified as a vet tech – he’s not really sure. His first order of business is getting his driver’s license, he’s never driven before. Beyond that, it’s a very big world out there, and at times it can be scary.
So after all that he’s done for me, the least I can do for him is begin to show him why I am the why I am. Which is largely because, in your own way, each of you have spent time as my seeing-eye goat at one time or another and in some way or another. And although there’s a chance I make parole or get my sentence modified and make it home this summer, the strong odds are that I’ve got about two more years in here – and as much as your letters and visits have meant and continue to mean, I’m gonna be okay. But that’s only because I had you guys, and now he needs as many friends as possible to help keep him from going astray.
Thank you for being there for me, and it would mean the absolute world to me if you could reach out and do a little bit to help keep Red on the right path – a whole herd of seeing-eye goats is obviously much better than just one.
You kids are the best.