I always wear slacks, a T shirt and sneakers. Along with mostly ladies and some children in line, a huge young black man the size of pro football lineman in slacks and polo shirt stands behind me, and we begin talking. He's here to see his younger brother. He is a teacher at a Catholic high school down in LA. He is the only black teacher in that school. He is engaged to a white woman. Yes, he played high school and college football but is no longer interested in it. He's angry because he got pulled over on the drive up and received a ticket for going 8 miles over the speed limit.
Seldom has anybody divulged so much personal information to me in so short a time, but I also know that sometimes it is a great release to unleash your problems or concerns to somebody who is a stranger you know you'll never see again.
The line begins to move, but we keep talking. I tell him I am visiting David for the fifth or sixth time after we exchanged letters, that he is just a friend and an interesting and engaging person. The big man, Roger, shows me a smile and praises me for visiting a prisoner who needs to make human contact, but I admit that I not only visit David because he has become a dear friend, but because I am a person who for his own benefit uses people for learning and writing material.
We are just about ready to enter, and he says, “My brother is in here because he just can't stop fucking up. He just can't stop fucking with authority. He's not really a hard-core criminal, just a fuck-up. He won't listen to me, but he's my little brother, and I love him.”
We enter. At a desk I show my papers. I go through searches, taking my shoes off and checking in my keys. A door automatically squeezes open and I walk through some sunlight and into the drab, spacious waiting room, which is packed on this Saturday afternoon, and sit down at a table to wait for David. All around me are families, many of them playing board games or cards, or sharing food. Roger comes in and a tall slender black man with a wild thatch of hair enters from a door and they hug and sit down. Roger spots me and waves. I wave back. Guards stand nearby, in corners or against walls, watching. There is the babble of voices. David enters in his blues, smiling, and I stand when he comes over, and we shake hands, and as always he thanks me for coming, tells me how much my visits mean to him, because it is hard for his mother and brother to come up all the time from LA. But hell, I only drive 20 minutes for these visits.
David tells me about the books I sent him—Steinbeck, Hemingway, Charles Willeford, Elmore Leonard, etc.--that will help him become a writer. Already, this highly intelligent, articulate 30 year old, who is not a tattooed gang-banger but an ardent and creative conversationalist who networks daily to make friends from the outside to improve his quality of life inside the prison, has published a cover piece for the county alternative paper about life in prison.
I fetch some soft drinks and sandwiches, which David relishes after poor prison food and nasty water, and we talk about the lawyer his blue collar family is paying to try to get him out of this shit-hole, which he says is always loud and actually smells like a shit-hole. We talk about his case and I tell him stories about the characters, and especially the women, at the rowdy bar where I now work, and as always, he tells me about some of the characters he lives with. From the beginning David employed his social skills to find a way to walk a treacherous tight-rope and get along with the really dangerous gang Mexicans, who recognize him for who he is, do not try to coerce him, but actually respect him for his education—a couple years of college before imprisonment—and went out of their way to show him the ropes when he first arrived, so he could survive. He has a magical way of getting along with anybody.
He points to a wizened, pale, stooped man sitting with an old woman who is holding back tears.
“He's got liver cancer and probably won't last another week,” David explains. “She flew in from back east. He's been here thirty some years. This is probably the last time she'll see him. I know him pretty well. I don't see how he could've murdered anybody, but you never know.” He winked at me. “We're all innocent, you know, but I actually am, and a lot of these guys know it.”
I spot Roger waving to me. He stands and comes over. I introduce him to David. They shake hands. He says that the place is packed, and why not he and his brother join us to open a table. David is fine with it. We've been visiting over an hour already. His brother shuffles over in the rhythm of a boulevardier. Reggie. Unlike Roger, who is calm, Reggie is animated and jittery, like he can't sit still. Earlier, when I pointed him out to David, he said he did not know him, as he mostly keeps to himself or converses with old white guys or fellow Latinos. The prison is huge, like a mini city. Most of the people in the visiting room are black.
Right off, Reggie takes the stage, almost like an entertainer, and he talks rapid-fire, and warns me, an older white man, “Don't fuck up, man, or you end up in this mothafucka, no rights, they put yo ass in here for nothin' if you black, mothafuckin' prison industry. These mothafuckin' guards, they fuckin' worthless, can't get no job outside, they sign up for this booshit cuz they ain't worth shit, they got a mothafuckin' union protect their asses, the nigger guards ain't no better'n the white mothafuckas, prison industry, man, what it is, lock up the niggers, get our black asses off the street fo' mothafuckin' dope, fo' mothafuckin' weed, fo' one mothafuckin' joint! It like when we fightin' them folks in Veet Nam, get the niggers off the streets, get they asses shot off in the jungle, they ain't worth shit, lives don't mean shit, same thing here, doin' time, lives ain't worth shit to nobody, we ain't nothin' to nobody, ain't mothafuckin' humans...”
David is smiling at me. Reggie is oblivious to us as he goes on, his brother seeming to go into a trance of his own, as if he's heard this spiel a hundred times and tunes it out. He glances at me and shakes his head. I did not ask him what Reggie was in for but he hinted it was drugs and fighting with police. This is his second tour. He's got five years. David and I lean back in our chairs, listening, as David is as good a listener as a talker, and when Reggie finally halts and sips his soft drink, Roger says, “Yeh, you have to watch your step in white land. I drive to work in a Mustang rag-top. I teach in a very affluent area, almost all white, except for a lot of Iranians, and the cops see my big black ass in a fancy car, and they pull me over, they hassle me, and when I explain I am a civics teacher at a private Catholic school, they don't believe me, even if I'm wearing a shirt and tie. I don't ask them why they pulled me over. It's not wise to do that. They will fuck with you. I stay quiet and calm, but I'm boiling inside, I want to grab these peckerwoods by their necks and squeeze the life out of them. After all that has gone down in this country, civil rights, lynchings, it's still the same, the white man has the upper hand, he can fuck with you, and like Reggie says, even the token black cop fucks with me. They cannot believe I am educated and articulate.”
“Fuckin' A,” chimes in Reggie. “They lookin' fo' yo' black ass, you in white land, or the ghetto, ain't no mothafuckin' way out.”
Roger continues. “I'm engaged to a white girl, a Catholic. Her parents, they like me, but they don't approve. They want it ended. They're fearful. They're fearful we'll end up social outcasts. They're fearful I'll lose it and beat somebody up and end up here, with Reggie, but man, I'm in control. I work hard at it. Same thing at the school. I'm the only black teacher. They're either scared of me or fucking with me. I feel like I'm always in the cross hairs, man, because the principal, he's always on my ass, it's like they're just waiting for me to fuck up so they can get rid of me, and I'm a good teacher, I prepare, I get along with the kids, the kids love me...it's never the kids, it's the politicians...”
Reggie guffaws, sneering. “Yeh, THEY the mothafuckas fuck you over. The black politicians, they got they noses up whitey's ass, shee-it, my brother, you got yo big black ass in a mothafuckin' sling, they comin' after yo' ass. even if you a law abidin' white-actin' nigger, them politicians ain't gonna stop fuckin' with yo' ass until YOU the mothafucka makin' the rules, and that ain't gonna happen, brother...”
Roger and Reggie go back and forth, and Roger tries to calm him down, explaining that 'negative energy' is not going to get him anywhere, but Reggie doesn't hear him. I peer up at the clock and discover I've been here almost three hours. It's closing in on 4 o'clock, when visiting hours end. I have not had time to tell David funny new bar stories. I am drained, as always, and start to feel the oppressive, suffocating claustrophobia I always, as a free man, experience after several hours in this environment. I cannot conceive of living here.
I yawn massively. David recognizes my waning interest in being here, and I am suddenly restless, edgy, anxious to get out of here as he stands. I stand. People are starting to leave after we are warned we only have 15 more minutes. David and I hug after he thanks me for the visit and the food. Reggie and Roger hug. Roger and I walk out of the waiting room together and through the sunlit area back into the office where our keys are returned and then we are out the door into the parking lot on this sunny afternoon. We shake hands. I tell Roger I've enjoyed talking to him and wish him luck with what's going on in his life. He says he hopes we can meet again here, and continue talking. We part and head for our cars.
I am, as usual, bludgeoned with guilt at leaving David behind, an essentially forgotten shard of humanity, rotting away his vital, prime years in a nothing existence where he can only dream of and fantasize over the women who visit him and masturbate when his cell mate leaves their room. I am going straight to the bar in the small beach town where I live, as usual.
David gets transferred hundreds of miles north to a tougher maximum security prison a year later and we both believe the cause was his powerfully true depiction of prison life in the county weekly. I cease visiting him, but we continue writing, and he begins publishing a monthly story about prison life in a literary journal I publish, until it closes after three years. He has several girl friends and eventually marries one. He finally gets out near the end of his sentence, a man in his 40s, his hair now gray, but his positive attitude and energy, which has preserved him during prison life, already has him optimistic and forging ahead with learning the new technology for future employment and writing a memoir. He is in a halfway house many miles from here. Knowing him has been a sort of treasure and I am a different person because of it, hopefully a better one.
I never saw Roger again. But I'll see David soon.