Monday, September 23, 2013

Of Bean Bag Bullets and Riding Alone

Sean and I walk to the car in the dark. We need to drive downtown to meet friends who will take Sean to the airport. I still go to the driver’s side out of habit, but he intercepts me and holds out his hand for the keys.

“Wait until you see how smooth I can shift now – totally pro,” he says as he puts the five-speed coupe into reverse and revs the little engine.

He was right in that we did not stall backing up as he usually did before he got his license and took over the car. 

Before the license, we had gotten into a routine of riding bikes together to work and school during the spring semester. It was a six mile commute, and we talked while rolling along some of the back streets of Tucson. That was a while ago. It is summer now, and spring has receded along with cool days leaving us in long days and the heat of desert summer along with the vacation that goes with it. Sean wants to travel rather than stay home. I remember the feeling. 

The back seat is filled with the gear he is taking with him to visit a friend in Rhode Island: a long-board, a duffel stuffed full with a shorty wet suit, beach togs, and sunblock.

“I still can’t believe what happened with that guy in the red Mustang the other night..” he muses, looking at me for a response. Seeing a blank face, he says “I haven’t talked to you for quite a while.”

“Yeah, you haven’t been around much for the last couple of weeks.” 

He had been spending time with a girlfriend when I was at home, or spending time at home while I was at work. He was asleep when I woke up and I was asleep when he was coming home. Despite living in the same house, we had not seen each other much all summer.

Now that we have some time, I have forgotten those things I want to tell him, so he takes off with his story about the red Mustang.

“So this guy driving a red Mustang convertible is skidding sideways down on Broadway. There is a big cloud of dust and smoke and there are police cars following him, so we pulled over where we could see what was going on.”

I sit and nod, noticing that he has a stubble of beard, much more than I had at sixteen. His lean and muscular arms broadcast his love of rock climbing; the blonde fur on his legs, his Norwegian heritage. He shifts smoothly, but waits too long to brake for my tastes, revving the engine up toward the red-line. 

He has not yet introduced me to his girlfriend, but has no trouble sharing action stories.

“So, when the car stops, the driver refuses to get out and the cops start shooting at him with these guns that shoot little beanbags. Pop, Pop. You can see them exploding on his chest in little puffs of dust. The guy raises his hands, and they stop. But then he puts them down again, like he is going to reach into his pockets, and they shoot at him all over again.” He stops and thinks about this for a moment and then continues. 

“The guy kept putting his hands up until he couldn’t take it anymore, putting them up and then doing it all over again. The cop cars appeared out of nowhere. Pretty soon they were all around him, in a big oval, just shooting at him. But he wouldn’t give up.”

I listened. And wondered what else he would see around Tucson now that he could drive and be out at night. I realized I had no control over what would happen to him or around him, no control of either the hazards or the wonders. I suspect that the wonders will rain down and far outnumber the adversities. I pray that the hard times come in doses that he can handle.

Sooner than I hoped, we arrive at the house where he meets his friends. He has his ride to the airport. We load up the little station wagon with the skateboards and the luggage, hug, slap each other on the back, and wish each other well. Then he returns the car keys, joins his friends, waves, and drives off.

I take over the driver’s seat again and start the car. There was a sad acoustic ballad playing on the radio. I can't help but feel a little lonely as I turn and drive in the opposite direction, going home to the solitude that I thought I wanted so much.

Sean had not filled the car with gas for a while. The tank was pretty near empty, so I stop and put in more gas. 

As the gas passes through the hose, I realize that I will ride my bike to work in the morning alone.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


An inmate in the prison workshops sat in the back for months before speaking.  When he finally spoke, it was to challenge my take on one of the stories we were discussing. The story, to me, was a dead-end event of violence and the comforts of drugs. He disagreed, with thinly veiled contempt, with my recommendation that the writer consider an audience bigger than a prison audience, other inmates.

He said he didn't care what the "free world" thought or understood of prison life. He did not care if the story never incorporated some larger significance, went beyond the mere incident. Further, he called into question my authority to make any judgment about prison writing. I, after all, knew nothing of prison life.

He scared me, and that was the first time, doing the workshops, I had felt that way.

He was a "brother" in the AB, the Aryan Brotherhood, and had the tattoos to broadcast his status. He was also an imposing figure, a wrestler with the crushing hands, bulk, and neck of someone to steer clear of.

One time, during a lock-down, as chance would have it, he and I were the only two in the workshop. Face to face for two hours. I told him he scared me, the only inmate ever to do so. He smiled, and let down his guard a bit. He said he had a reputation to maintain and that he could not afford to be seen with me, or as anything like a teacher's pet, or even someone interested in something as effete as writing.

I got it, and we began to play out our roles as nerdy teacher and tough-guy disruptor with a little more humor. He began to write in ways that defied the AB code. He even wrote a piece about a Jewish guard saving the life of a skin-head. That piece was published recently in the The Sun, A Magazine of Ideas.

He was transferred  after about two years in the workshop, and I was sad to see him go. I missed the energy he brought to our meetings, the incentive he gave me to stay alert and on my teaching toes.

After the piece in The Sun came out, I heard that he was beaten nearly to death, and had many bones in his face broken. The last news I heard was that he was under protective custody. I don't know the motive behind the assault, or who the perpetrators were, but doubt and disloyalty in certain groups is not tolerated.

I also do not know it he ever saw the pieces I published in our inmate magazine or if he ever received his copies of The Sun. I do know that he had the guts to speak words that might get him shunned or worse, that he found a way transmute some of his hate into a harsh and beautiful truth.

I will take copies of his story in to workshop this week and will see how the inmates respond.  I will let the truth speak for itself.

Here is a short version of the piece:


            A few years back I served time in the State Penitentiary in Winslow, Arizona.  They moved a middle-aged man into my cell who called himself Tattoo D.

            The first time we went to the shower I noticed the swastika tattoo on his chest, and when I asked about it, he confirmed that he was a skinhead.  D. was nice enough to me, but he had a habit of heckling the Correctional Officers, especially if the C.O.’s name plate above their badge read “Cohen” or “Rosenberg.”  There was one C.O. in particular that Tattoo loved to hate.  His name was Goldberg.  D. would swear at C.O. Goldberg for the most trivial infractions C.O.s are expected to follow.

            About six months after D. and I were cellies he overdosed on heroin.  He was not conscious or breathing, and I could not find a pulse.  His lips, eyes and nose were the blue of death.  I panicked and did the only thing I could think of; I started kicking the cell door like a donkey and yelled “MAN DOWN!!” out into the cluster.  When the C.O. came and looked into my cell, I thought his eyes were going to jump out of his skull.  He popped the cell door and began CPR on my corpse of a cellie.  Then more C.O.s came and watched the scene unfold for a few minutes, until I heard one of them say something I will never forget.  He said, “Hey, Goldberg, give it up, man, let that Nazi die.”

            Goldberg did not give up. He performed CPR on Tattoo D. alone for the entire 45 minutes it took to get the medical staff to my cell.  When a female nurse finally took over for C.O. Goldberg and he stood up, he looked exhausted¾his hair was messed up, he was dripping sweat, and his glasses were at an odd angle.  All he said as I was being locked back down in my cell was, “I couldn’t stop.  I don’t think it would’ve been right.  Maybe he’ll change his mind about some things . . . if he lives.”

            I heard D. did live, although I haven’t run into him or Goldberg again throughout my years in the system.  I can’t say whether or not a Jewish C.O. changed a skinhead’s mind about some things, but he sure as hell changed mine.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Seven Minutes Without Shade

Must be a sign of the times. Someone stole the sunshade out of the car yesterday. They did not take anything else – quarters on the console, books on the back seat, beach towels left by my son, an old Sunday paper – but they did jack the shade.

I think the shade qualifies as one of those things people don’t want to spend money on, but see the benefits of owning. It’s still summer after all in Tucson, and shade has value. It’s also an energy saver. The cooler your car, the less AC you need once you start driving. It also saves the dashboard from "photo degradation" i.e. sun rot, solar energy run riot.

I understand why someone would desire that sunshade, that brand-new, still shiny, fully reflective, high-tech fabric, pop-open sunshade -- from Costco -- the best sunshade I’ve ever had, a jumbo sunshade, the likes of which I may not be able to afford again any time soon. 

There should be a summer commandment for the state of Arizona – thou may covet, but shall not steal thy neighbor’s sunshade, especially in times of summer solstice, stock market surges, Syria nerve gas, rising deficits, state budget shortfalls, job insecurity, food riots, high gas prices, high food prices, inflation, international recession, age spots, sweaty shirts, hope hanging by a thread, global warming, hot September in Arizona, bad summer movies, bad fall movies, cultural illiteracy, holes in socks, in short –  an end to the world as we know it. Of course I’m not reading too much significance into this sunshade or anything, or so I thought as the interior of the car continued to heat up in the muggy 100+ air.

I thought about putting a piece of cardboard or something over the windshield but I had no way to fasten it, and with these monsoon winds, it would likely just blow away, get soaked by a monster chubasco, and get plastered up against a fraternity fence. I then considered my work-out shorts, realizing they would not only provide shade but would be styling on the windshield. I had to nix that because some of the co-eds at the sorority would likely admire them too much, and, thinking they were my son's, run away with them.

I sat, just for another moment or two, and wondered what I had at my disposal. I looked in the trunk, lifted the hood, checked the inflation of the tires, searched beneath the car, looked in the back seat. I found one of my son’s beach towels and decided to put it on the dashboard.  There, I thought, that would at least protect the dash, give it a little more time before it cracks under the weight of photons and political crisis. That would do nothing, however, for the radiant heat pouring in through the windshield. The car would become an oven if I left it that way, probably pushing up to 130 degrees or so.

Then, arising from some distant universe of inspiration, of innovations under duress, the idea of putting a beach towel on the windshield and anchoring the ends by closing them in the doors popped into my head. I opened both doors, hung the corners of the towels over them, closed the doors slowly so the draft would not blow them away, and then put the base of the towel under the wiper blades. Eureka! It worked.

I guess that’s the way it’s going to be for a while. Make do with wits and what you’ve got.

Hmmm. What we need, more now than ever, is education that generates creative problem solving.  That’s our ticket to our survival, that and shady car characters.

Loosening the Grip

A waft of cool breeze washed over me as I entered Bear Canyon on my Sunday morning bike ride yesterday. Along with the chill came the smell of fall -- wet leaves, fall wild flowers, wood smoke. The sweat running inside my jersey suddenly felt cold... cold.

It was the first chink in the armor of a long summer. The inevitable swing of the seasons happens even here, the Oven of America, the Baked Apple, the Old, Sweltering Pueblo. Hallelujah.

That small taste did not last, and the rest of the day felt like the convection heater that is Tucson in September. I trimmed trees as sweat ran down my face and off my chin; I moved a bed while sweat dripped onto the tile; I lubed a bike chain with both oil and sweat; I changed a belt on the swamp cooler to squeeze an extra degree or two of cooling out of the ancient box. By afternoon, my skin was caked with salt.

But through it all, I remembered that taste of cool breeze, that smell of fall, that sliver of chill that is proof that change comes, incrementally sometimes, but as inevitable as the tides.

The mornings will soon begin to carry a brief chill. That chill will give way to the still strong momentum of summer, but, as the days pass, that chill will come again, stubbornly, lasting a moment or two longer, speaking to the trees. The trees will listen and respond with a blush of leaves that dry and fall and twirl in the breeze of October. The change starts small, but grows into the sweet clarity that is winter in the desert.

I have been waiting for a break from the heat and toil of a summer that has been unusually long and labor-filled, but rich and productive. I am torn between wanting it to end and giving it up, that season of strength and production.

As I sweat my way to work today, I will watch the younger men pull ahead. It is their time now. I am weary from years of teaching, coaching, providing, driving, feeding, nurturing, postponing, caring. It is still too hot to miss the heat of summer, but as the chill of old age settles in, I turn eyes of memory that way. I have no choice but to let it go.

When I take the bike down for my commute to work, a dry leaf blows toward me, directly at me, scraping along the concrete of the porch. It is curled, dry as a bone, pushed along by the hot wind.