His eyes are grey, narrow, intelligent. He is one of the regulars in the workshop. He is also one of the published writers and has won the Pen Prison Writing Contest not once, but twice. He knows I could use his help to energize the circle now that Richard has lost his clearance. He and the other men had been led to believe the workshops were history, and that kind of bad news travels fast in prison.
We are on our way out, or rather, I am on my way out. James is heading back to his “house,” his cell, and another afternoon waiting for chow, the next distraction in the grinding boredom of 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," he says, 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" in clipped, fluent Spanish. His black stubble and tattoos told the story of gang affiliation, but I don’t speak that language and couldn’t give more detail than that. "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 he conning me, looking for my reaction? I see that my being here is, in part, a high stakes game, that trust isn’t given easily. In order for the workshops to thrive, I’m going to have to engage more of my passions than I am used to, will have to meet on level ground, as much as possible. That means opening up, not playing a phony role, trying to be something I’m not.
"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 – James’ path to the houses, mine to the control room, the other side of two locked gates, the sally port, the main yard gate, and the bus that runs between the yards.
"We'll see," he says. "See you next week," his tone making the statement almost a question.