Saturday, October 8, 2016
A Good One
Rain stipples the sidewalk, the stains fading almost as fast as they appear as new, young drops make their mark. A rare October thunderstorm moves down the slope of the Santa Rita Mountains before crossing the wide alluvial fan toward the prison. The leading edge is miles away, but wind carries the scent of the coming storm. Sun still shines as the first drops fall.
The moment juxtaposes a summer in retreat and a fall gaining strength.For me, it's one of those moments of change, surprise, and wonder. The chill and simultaneous heat out here on the yard mixes magic with the routine of rec time. Inmates jog around the perimeter, play basketball, volleyball, do pull-ups, push-ups, just mill around, some of them smoking, thinking, looking at the sky. In spite of the standard orange jumpsuits, the inmates manage to strike a style stance, droopy drawer calf-length pants of the street soldier, hand-made cowboy style orange head-gear, tight muscle enhancing T-shirts. Individuals in a churning sea of orange.
I welcome the cool as I make my way across the Rincon yard toward the education building. October days can still hit the mid 90s, and today is a steamer.
I hear the intercom call out the inmates. A few of them walk to the gate of the rec yard, like school boys who wait for the opening bell. One of them, C., is the barber, and has to deliver the hair-cutting kit to a ramada where inmates line up for a trim. The races mingle, call a temporary truce, like they do in the workshop.
In mundane moments, a sliver of grace appears, even in prison.
I forget that, yet here it is. I am a witness to possibility.
We agreed last workshop that S. would have as much time as he wanted to read a long piece about realizing how much he appreciated his hard-ass of a father. His work was solid, full of rich descriptions of roof work under the tyrannical eye of a father who wanted a son who would not end up in prison.
It is another surprise -- not one I welcome -- when I find I have no copies of his draft in the tub. I rifle through all my files, and, nope, no copies. I had them before. I must have set them aside when I was packing other supplies.
Nothing to do about it. We have to move on, discuss other work.
Then S. asks if he can leave the room for a bit to speak with one of the officers. He takes my copy of the essay with him and says "Take an intermission."
The other 12 men and I sit there before slipping into some discussion about building permits, tile grout, and haiku. I tell I wrote one while standing in line as Costco. A newbie screws up his face at the thought. Haiku? Costco? What the? Someone has painted a mural on the north wall. An inmate's arm extends from the edge, and a wave builds, crests, and breaks over a distant cityscape. We speculate, interpret, argue a bit. I say it looks like what we do in the workshops.
The room is relaxed. Guard is down.
Small talk fills the room until S. returns with twelve copies of a seven page manuscript.
I stutter something like "How... where... what.... ?"
"The CO listens in sometimes. He likes what he hears. I asked him. He made the copies."
I shake my head. Disbelief, challenge to my fixed was of seeing things, robs me of speech. There are allies, in a way, out here. They see, they know, they look the other way when I pass a dictionary, a magazine, a composition book. The men come in empty and leave with possibility in the form of a pad, a pen, some examples, an assignment.
"That's a first." I am floored. This action works to bust up the stereotypes I hold of prison officers. I say so. The statement floats out there, but is absorbed by the business of the day.I have much to learn.
S. is already collating and distributing the copies. No time to philosophize.
He reads. We listen. The work is good, moving. Very good. No one talks when he finishes. We have heard about a man who had been maimed, kidnapped, abused, and who practiced tough love on his wayward son. That son, now a man, is learning to see the man his father is.
We use up our time and have to leave the room, and migrate out of the building, but the gate to the yard is locked. We wait. Minute after minute. A half hour. More.
We stand in the open courtyard surrounded by coils of concertina wire, locked doors and gates. I have no idea where the guards are. We talk. Some of the guys smoke. S. and I share frustrations at our writing. I pull a review copy of a book I am working on and give it to him.
"Read this, if you want. Bring it back if you can. You will find examples of what I am talking about in terms of story, scene, and point of view."
He files the book in his contraband brown satchel.
"You know," he says, "I try to be happy. People don't know that I have been in and out of prison since I was 16. Now I'm in for life. The only thing I have is writing. Well it's the best thing."
He says this looking away. He doesn't meet my eyes. I look away too. I want to say that the mind can be free, in a way, with work, lots of work. That, however, feels trite, a small comfort, if any.
Clouds continue to build, deepening the shadows around the big mountain to the south. It's going to pour.
I think about the officer who made copies. I think about the teachers who decorate the walls with encouraging slogans, the inmates who paint murals. I want the eyes to see the potential, the will to open to what might be. The times are seldom that I get what I want. That's my fault, I see.
There is some generosity here, inside the wire. It lives between the cracks in the sidewalk, like a seed, waiting for rain.