Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Life Underground (A Meditorial -- Meditation/Editorial)

Life is different on the other side of the electric gates, fences, dogs, and concertina wire. Time passes like thick syrup; a pervasive sameness pervades the days; and the yards are crowded. There are many more men than the writing workshops can accommodate, and, sometimes, the number of men who show up make them unwieldy and chaotic. We don't have the chairs, tables, materials, or time to hear from everyone. Men get frustrated. They walk out. 

I can't claim to know anything beyond the vaguest notions of what life is like outside the workshops on the yards and in the cells. I am not subject to dehumanizing treatment, the brutality, abuse, rape, or politics of predation and power. But I do see that there are more poor, more black/brown/red, more illiterate, and more mentally ill men in prison than I see in random scenes in Tucson. Prison seems a kind of holding bin for both the criminal and the outcast. And the numbers, by my count, are excessive. 

If we counted up all of the people currently under "correctional supervision" in the United States and made them a city, they would be the second largest city in the country. In other words there are more than six million inhabitants in our prison system. We are the world leader in locking people up. Of the people we lock up, too many are non-violent, poor, black, and addicted.

Prisons are also big business. More and more are privately run organizations with powerful lobbyists who buy state politicians. We are "bankrupting our states and creating a vast underclass of prisoners who will never be equipped for productive lives," according to Fareed Zacharia.

The cost for this underground society is one we pay for by cutting education and other social programs. Funding for schools goes down while funding for prisons goes up. Already poor schools in tough neighborhoods get less. More students fall behind and find ways other than school to get recognition, worth, community. Crimes, gangs, homelessness, addiction add up to a cycle that digs deeper into an already underground existence. 

These men and women serve as fodder for a hungry prison business that needs more and more people to sustain growth and keep investors happy. We exploit misery.

In spite of this, most of the men I encounter are bright and want to learn. They come to the workshops a little sheepish until they find their footing, their voices, and some trust in the truth of their experience. Many in the hopeless and stagnant world that prison can be find 12-step programs, some form of spirituality, or reading and writing. The thread they hang onto is so thin and subtle as to be all but invisible. 

It is a thread many of them follow in the dark, the subterrainian darkness that is out of sight, hidden in shadow, as dangerous as it out of mind.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

To Catch a Thief

I've often had fantasies of what I might do if I caught someone riding one of the seven or so bikes I've had stolen since I moved to Tucson.

Yes, I can hear what you might be thinking -- Since you moved to Tucson?? that was like, what, thirty years ago?? And you would be correct in advising me to move on, to forget, let go, and live a life free of trying to recoup my losses.

But I can't seem to help it. I am a bike-ophile, a bike-aholic, an obsessed bike geek-materialist-Americonsumo-cum-laude. I can tell you the make, model, size, color, and components down to the level of minutiae ad absurdum ridiculo of every bike that has been filched, jacked, kyped, pinched, or swiped. That blue Cannondale M-800, for instance, the one that walked out of my back yard in 1998, had White Industries hubs with Velo City rims laced with red alloy nipples and blah be da blah blah. My list of wrongs done to me is long, and my monkey mind can't seem to get off it.

So, two bikes were recently lifted from my front porch. One of them was a Bianchi S.A.S.S., which stands for Shiny-Assed Single-Speed. While still in the throes of grief and violation, I was driving down our fine Fort Lowell Road when I passed a Circle K and saw SASS being piloted along the sidewalk. I knew it immediately; in the time it takes to snap a photo, I saw the the carbon seat post, the Monkey Lite bars, the Avid disc brakes, the gleaming chrome frame.

"My Bike!!" I yelled out the window at a stunned 20-something guy. He jerked his head, and we entered a fast motion comedy of drama and errors.

He crossed the road and I swung a U-turn with no thought of traffic (not recommended), and pulled into a gas station to head him off.

You could say I went bonkers, berserk, ballistic. All of the injustices of life funneled and fused into one white-hot nerve of indignation and righteous rage. I was living the fantasy, the dream of redemption of all that has been lost, the final turn into Ithaca after long years of battling the Cyclops, sirens, and privation. This was IT, the moment.

"Hey! That's my bike," I yelled as the car stalled. It was blocking the driveway to a gas station and the door hung open as I strode up to the startled young man now standing next to the bike. He could see I was shaking, was hopped up on adrenaline, had the blazing eyes of the insane.

"Uh, uh, I bought it off of Craigslist," he said, not so confidently.

I had been monitoring CL for the past week and had seen nothing of the missing bikes, so felt fine challenging this claim. I approached it logically, with all the cool, calculated method of a prosecutor moving in for the kill.

"Bulls%$t!!!" I sputtered, foam forming around the edges of my mouth.


"Bulls*&t!!!" I said again, even louder and crazier than the first time.

I stepped forward and began poking at his chest with my bayonet of a finger.

Now, the youngster started to wilt, to back down.  He released the bike. He put up his arms as if to say, "Whatever..." and backed away.

It then dawned on me that it might be a good idea to call the police, so I pulled out my phone with my free hand and dialed 9-1-1.

I noticed he had turned and was walking briskly down the street. He was getting away. I had the phone in one hand, the bike in the other, the car stalled in the entrance to a gas station, its door still open, the keys still in the ignition, lights still on.

The words were out of my mouth before I could think."I'll get you, you a**hole. You and your family too. All of your children, ancestors, and distant relations. I'll find you and yours and ... I'll...I'll...." I'll what?

"Hello. What is the nature of your emergency?"

As I spoke with the operator, I came down from my adrenaline rush.

The whole scene became ridiculous and unseemly. I was standing there with the bike, wearing my teacher nerd pants and button-down shirt watching a young guy run followed by a mob of ghosts -- angry, wounded, hungry ghosts.