Monday, March 7, 2016

Word Wasn't Good (The Beginning)

J. bends down to light his cigarette on the electric coil atop a steel post outside the Programs Building in the Rincon Unit of the Arizona State Prison, Tucson Complex. He takes a long drag before standing up again and meeting my eyes with the question of whether or not I was coming in next Saturday. I told him I was, and that seems to satisfy him for a minute. 

His eyes are grey, sharp, and intelligent. He is one of the regulars in the workshop. He is also one of the published writers in the workshop and has won the Pen Prison Writing Contest not once, but twice. He knows I could use his help to kickstart the writing workshops now that Richard has lost his clearance.  

We are on our way out, or rather, I am on my way out.  J. is heading back to his “house,” his cell, and another afternoon waiting for chow, the next distraction in the grinding boredom or prison life.

There are the violent flashes, the race riots, the endless politicking and negotiations with the gangs, but mostly the days are dull. 

"You know," says J., looking at me over his smoke, "the guys think you're too soft, that the workshops need more pressure, mas animo, you know." He said "animo" with his clipped, fluent Spanish. His black stubble and tattoos told the story of gang affiliation, but I couldn't speak that language. "And they think your hair is fake. Look, I know it's not, because I know you, but you need to know word isn't all good." 

I don't know how to take this. Is J. conning me, looking for my reaction? 

"I'm not Richard," I said. "The workshops are going to be different.... I can't do what Richard did, but I am going to do what I do." 

We walk along the sidewalk to where it splits -- J.'s path to the houses, mine to control, the sally port, the gate, and the bus that runs between the yards. 

"We'll see," he says. "See you next week."    


That, eight years ago,  was my first take of J., the man who would come to embody the writing workshops for me. I owe him for his part in giving me some cred, for talking up writing to guys on the yard, for his tireless desire to get the words right. He was like a brother to me. He was in the workshops for six years. He published a newsletter on one of the yards until a race riot ended that privilege. 

When he was released, I got him a guitar, invited him into my house, my family, my social circles. I loaned him money (too much) and let him use my car to make probation meetings, my phone to call in drug checks. I think my cat may have taken to him better than to me. 

But I am getting ahead of myself here. This is about the workshops, about the years leading up to today, about a crash and burn and rise again only to repeat the process. 

That day at the electric coil was after my first solo prison writing workshop, and I thought things had gone pretty well. Still, J.’s confiding in me shook me a bit, not so much for myself as for the workshops. I wanted them to continue as they had for the previous thirty plus years under Richard Shelton. He had lost his clearance and it was now up to me to keep the program running.

The program soldiers on. It has received some support from interested donors and may become part of university curricula. 

But more on that later. 
J. became a good friend. When he got out I helped him find a place, a job, loaned him some tools, connected him with people who could help him get back on his feet.

That was before he went off the deep end, bolted to Mexico, and died after being beaten up for his phone, a few bucks, and being a soldado in the wrong territory, or getting too close to a drug deal going bad. He had a way of living beyond his means, especially when heroin was involved.

Now I am going to his funeral and I can’t seem to put on my tie. It’s ten o’clock in the morning, but the third beer is sitting on my desk, getting warm. God, how it gets warm here in Tucson in April. Summer just won’t take a moment to knock on the door before barging in and loud-mouthing off, a big, boorish lug who comes to the party too early and stays too late. 

So J., is gone, but the workshops continue. I don’t know what will happen next, how long they can go on, but I want to try and make some sense of this as I get ready to see J. off on his final soiree into another dark night. 

How can I begin? Well, I guess it would be best to go back, way back, to a chance office visit to a Regent's Professor who happened to run writing workshops and happened to give me a copy of the prison magazine.

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