Born 6/9/47, Reading Pa. I was raised on a 123-acre sheep farm three miles from John Updike's home. I graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965. I ran away to Greenwich Village in 1966, with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back. Lived in Haight-Ashbury during the 1967 "Summer of Love". I returned to Pennsylvania disillusioned by the excesses of the counterculture. I worked on a mink farm; picked tomatoes with Mexican migrant workers, poured steel in a foundry, drove the big rigs, baby; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; loaded dynamite, drove a beer truck (hic!)started my own restoration business; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle, was remanded to prison for life at the age of sixty with no prior criminal history; since then I have won nine Pen prison Writing Award, as well as the first prize in the 2013 Eaton Literacy Agency short fiction competition. You may see my work on www.minutesbeforesix.com
When I entered prison in 2007, a sixty-year-old grandfather whose only previous offense was 24-year-old DUI. I considered myself reasonably well versed in the English language. After all, in the mid-80s I had been a reporter and outdoor columnist for two southeastern Pennsylvania weeklies. I had also published fiction and nonfiction articles in several nationally distributed magazines. Editors loved me. I suspect, because I delivered well-punctuated, properly spelled, and grammatically correct manuscripts. Websters New World College Dictionary was my idol, and the Strunk and White stylebook the altar upon which I worshipped it. So, one can only imagine my aesthetic shock upon my first encounter with "prison speak."
As I skimmed through my Inmate Handbook, shouldering through thickets of lawyer-vetted dictates, I realized with alarm that if I expected to thrive in my new environment, I would need a working proficiency in the lingua franca of the Prison Nation--'Bureaucratese," with a capital "B." But before I could begin my studies, I received an unexpected taste of bureaucratic logic during my first medical examination.
After listening to my list of physical woes, I was curtly informed that only my asthma and COPD would receive free treatment, including medicine and inhalers. However, my long-standing (thirty-years-and-counting) toenail fungus was not considered a "chronic" affliction. If I wanted my too-thick-for-fingernail-clippers big toe nails trimmed, I would have to pay $5 every month or so. And despite the fact that at the time of my arrest, I had been collecting Social Security Disability checks for deteriorated knees and arthritic shoulders. I could expect no free treatment for either. Each sick call would cost me $5, and each prescription the same. Although 10 bucks might be a no-big-deal tip to a fetching cocktail waitress, it's a real-big-deal exaction to an inmate trying to survive on a meager monthly "General Labor Pool--GLP" stipend of $15 or $16 bucks, minus the days under lockdown.
Extremely loath to spend a single penny to assist, or more properly, abet, what I considered my unjust imprisonment, I argued to the doctor (actually, a ipso facto "chronic." He reluctantly agreed, but stubbornly cited the Department of Corrections" definition of "chronic," which sure as hell wasn't the same as Noah Webster's. Had I been a victim of cancer, diabetes, or mental illness; AIDS, leprosy, or gender-disorder, I would have been eligible for on-the-cuff, intensive/expensive, 24-hour care. But, by golly!, the state WOULD be reimbursed for the five minutes required to snip a pair of unruly toenails gone wild!However, ever-resourceful (read: "cheap") me devised a cost-free method to tame my ornery big toenails: I simply stripped off my socks and rubbed my toenails across the concrete floor in my cell. A few arcs every few weeks ground them into submission, and a quick swipe of a moistened rag removed all evidence of my penury.
Then my eczema popped up again like a demanding stepchild, and once again I was denied free treatment for yet another "chronic by definition" skin disorder. After another fruitless debate, loser me was advised to purchase from the commissary certain lotions and potions that other eczema sufferers have tried and pronounced worthless. In a fit of unaccustomed optimism, I ordered them anyway, but found no relief. I suppose I could file a grievance, then appeal its certain denial to higher authorities--every mother's child of whom a Koolaid-drinking, true believer, bureaucrat with a condensed version of the Department of Corrections regulations tattooed on their inner eyelids, so that they can study them while they sleep, but at the age of seventy-five, I recognize a losing cause when I see one. Perhaps a class-action lawsuit might effectuate change, but apparently the ACLU is way too busy opening public ladies' rooms to all comers to offer legal assistance.
Meanwhile, I drag my ageing carcass through each day, patiently waiting for a federal judge in favor of my 15-month-and-counting habeas corpus petition, and send me home to a world that speaks an unforked tongue.
I entered prison in 2007, a retired man of sixty whose only prior criminal offense was a twenty-four-year-old DUI. I had raised a family, ran my own masonry business, and was fairly conservative. After a lifetime of exposure to lurid movies and melodramatic TV cop shoot-em-ups, I expected to encounter hefty numbers of inmates proclaiming their innocence. Instead, I found that very few did. Most readily admitted their guilt, while insisting that sometimes the crimes that they actually committed and those for which they had been convicted were not the same. In any event, most of the men were stoically serving their time, hoping for the fickle bird of parole to land upon their shoulder, or haunting the law library in pursuit of the elusive snark: a legal loophole through which to squirm to freedom. In the Nation of the Incarcerated, pro-se jurisprudence is a national pastime; its season never ends.
During their tedious crawl through the "system", many indigent offenders are represented by public defenders, who are occasionally belittled as "public pretenders." Typically, the average public defender office is staffed with a smattering of incompetents, plenty of overworked drudges, and a fair share of shell-shocked veterans building up pension time. Now and then, a lucky defendant snares a rara avis of the legal profession: a talented rookie fresh out of law school who will fight like an idealistic badger for his client. Rightly or wrongly, however, many defendants regard the average public defender as either an untrustworthy pawn of the District Attorney--with whom in some impoverished counties he shares office space--or an untalented novice merely gaining experience, much as aspirant chefs serve apprenticeships as bus boys and line cooks. But the analogy has its limits: An error in the kitchen can spoil a meal, while a mistake in court can ruin a life.
Many defendants insist that because of a public defender's constant exposure to deceitful clients, many a lawyer has lost the ability to recognize an honest person when one shows up. The very act of proclaiming ones's innocence is often assumed proof of its opposite by jaded defense attorneys, and creates a no-win situation for all concerned. Knee-jerk assumptions of probable guilt taint the counsel/client relationship, and can result in relentless pressure to accept a time and money-saving plea bargain. Should a hesitant defendant demand a trial, he or she will be reminded that a displeased judge--irritated that "his" courtroom will be tied up for what everyone but the optimistic defendant considers a waste of time--will exact revenge upon sentencing, if the defendant should lose at trial. Given the reality of these grim options, it is hardly surprising that many impartial observers, as well as the participants, consider the coldly efficient, if not quite equitable, plea bargain system an assembly line of piecework justice at best, and a worst a sanctioned form of legal extortion.
But let us assume for the sake of the argument that a defendant secures a competent attorney of either public or private stripe, and decides to go to trial. And let us further assume that said defendant is either black or Hispanic, as is all too often the case. One might suppose--after a decades-long civil rights movement and numerous Supreme Court decisions--that each pool of potential jurors will reflect the racial demographic of the community. However, one would be mistaken, for during a recent murder trial in Reading, Pennsylvania--a city of 85,000, with a Hispanic population of at least 55%--a grand total of two hispanics were in a pool of 80 jurors, plus only one Afro-American, and a single Chinese! According to long-time court observers, this was by no means an uncommon occurrence.
Defendants skeptical of impartiality are blithely assured not to fret, that justice is blind, and that no matter whom is eventually impanelled, regardless of their race or nationality, they will reach a fair and just decision. But if truth is the mortar binding together the foundation of our judicial system, is it so easily determined? Twenty-six centuries ago, the founder of the Cynic School of Philosophy, Diogenes, combed the agoras in an unsuccessful search for an honest man. Yet today we expect a jury of twelve average citizens to part the seas of conflicting testimony--some of it predicated upon arcane legal theories and confusing technicalities--and judge the veracity of the various witnesses, while weighing the often conflicting opinions and conclusions of a host of doctors, psychiatrists, and specialists, Then, after sorting through this welter of evidence, under pressure to deliver a fair and just verdict, the jury must perform a task that has stymied sages and savants throughout recorded history: decide what is true. And if they fail, which occasionally occurs, the resultant injustice creates more animosity towards the whole judicial process.
This antipathy breeds contempt for not only the law, but is facilitators, the lawyers and judges and all the human gears and springs and whirring shafts that drive its ponderous wheels. And while the mills of God grind exceedingly fine, the millers of the law are not so conscientious. Into their maw all manner of "grain" constantly falls, but the fineness of their milling is largely contingent upon the amount of the miller's gratuity.
Defendants raised in the mean streets of city ghettos find themselves entangled in a bewildering system run by people from literally another reality: sheltered college-educated suburbanites who never went to bed hungry or had to sleep in a roach-infested abandoned row house populated by zoned-out crackheads going bump in the night. Distressed defendants cower in despair as eager-beaver prosecutors anxious to hang another scalp on the lodgepoles of their resumes, run multiple charges up the court's flagpole in the hope that a jury will salute them. As the Assistant District Attorneys compete to impress future law firms and register another punch on their ticket to prosperity, respect, and perhaps an eventual judgeship, it sometimes seems as if the original quarry--justice--becomes lost in the clamor of the pursuit. But from the lowly vantage point of the defendants, the ostentatious parade of well-dressed lawyers is nothing more than a charade performed for the diversion of its principals, instead of a deadly serious struggle in which only one of the contestants runs the risk of losing.
As one inches through the system, from arrest to preliminary hearing, to trial and sentencing, one is struck by the easy camaraderie, the friendly bantering between the various authorities. Everyones role is well-defined, symbiotic upon the others, and each merrily performs his given task as if under a collective delusion that he and his companions are furthering justice, whereas the typical defendant thinks the opposite. And who could blame him if he responds to the weary saw that "Justice is blind," with a muttered sotto voce, "yeah, and deaf, dumb, and up for sale to the highest bidder."
The 17th-century English empirical philosopher, John Locke, famously asserted that "Wherever law ends, tyranny begins." An apt corollary might state, "Where respect for the law ends, anarchy begins." And with millions of former and current resentful prisoners alive, this is a sobering thought indeed.
Clear waters unchanged
in a meadow
I saw long ago:
Will you remember
this face of mine?
My home prison lies at the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, near the edge of Lake Erie, and every winter our friendly neighbor Canada sends us generous helpings of its surplus snow. In the spring, temporary snowmelt pools appear in the depressions of our poorly graded lawns, creating magical mirrors in which clouds may swim, birds fly, and old man me can contemplate the toll exacted by yet another year away from my family.
Although mirrors never lie, memory does, as the tarnished stainless steel mirror above the sink reminds me every day. Although I have changed during my fifteen-year incarceration, my memory--an unreliable witness--tells me otherwise. According to it, my hazy reflection is that of a ten-year-old boy sailing empty mustard jars down the sheep pasture creek, carefree me hurrying their fitful progress with a willow switch as they plummet over tiny waterfalls, bob through timid rapids, and become entrapped in stream-bend eddies.
Except in fading memory, that barefoot lad no longer exists. His cloud-framed image upon the water, embossed upon the blue sky backdrop of an eternal summer day survives in the album pages of my mind, and soon even that evanescent snapshot will disappear into that inevitable oblivion into which all things must eventually pass.
Sometimes when my cellie is away, I turn off my radio and think about my past. I was born an air spirit Gemini, but my boyhood heart was stolen by the naiades, the happy-go-lucky water spirits that mocked the hermit frog of our tin-roofed spring for sitting zazen on a mossy stone instead of joining their frolic among the sunshot spears of water cress and duckweed. Once I followed our pasture brook to its upstream source deep in the "Big Woods" next to our farm, and thought that that I had glimpsed them escorting my reflection from
pool to pool, darting amidst glittery schools of frightened minnows until the creek narrowed to a mere rivulet, then finally plunged underground on a steep hillside, bearing with it like a souvenir of a faithful lover the shimmering likeness of my face.
Baffled by the unsettling dichotomy between imagination and reality, I get up to look in the mirror. Why, I muse, do we invariably perceive ourselves as we were in our youth? Why can't we see ourselves as others see us? Why does seventy-five-year-old me see a thirty-five-year-old version of myself looking back, a man who upon looking into a similar mirror would probably witness an eighteen-year-old boy delivering a cocky wink? And will I , should I have to live to a hundred, in my senility see in another mirror my ten-year-old self grinning back, blissfully happy and in love with a world that will never, ever permit its favored son to grow old?A harsh buzzer disturbs my reverie; yard has ended; my cellie will soon return. An hour later, on my way to chow, perhaps
i'll catch a fleeting glimpse of my weary reflection in a snowmelt pool. Then I'll silently thank the inept landscapers whose shoddy grading created those vernal mirrors. They reflect the illusions I long for, and their visual blarney strengthens me for another year. And if I'm fortunate, perhaps one day after I have left this world, someone whom I once dearly loved will gaze into a still pool in a faraway meadow to see my ghostly visage smiling above their shoulder.
at the scent of cherry blossoms
think of me
when I too
am a person of long ago?
Fujiwara No Shunzei (1114-1204)
The year before I came to prison, in the summer of 2006, I lost my sense of smell after suffering a drunken fall. Yet last night in a lucid dream, I smelled my grandmother's distinctive perfume. Although she died in 1972, and had not appeared in my dream, I sensed her presence when I awoke. I sat up on my bunk, looked about the darkened cell, and prayed that her restive soul has not returned from whatever realm it now enriches to witness her favorite grandchild's precipitous fall from society's grace, or even worse, her esteem. Stripes of slanted light from the outside light towers stretch across the concrete floor, crosshatch the form of my sleeping cellie. In the profound late-night silence, I think of Granny, my deceased parents, and all of the other departed souls who once loved me, and am thankful that they aren't alive to behold my present disgrace. Then I remember the living--my three daughters and seven grandchildren--who are witness to my undoing, and I am overcome with despair: Here come those 3 a.m. dark-hour-of-the-soul blues again.
Unable to sleep, beset with guilt, I recall how I attended each of my grandchildren's births (retreating to the hallway at the critical moments), and was the first person after the doctor, nurse, and mother to hold them in my arms, christening each tiny face with involuntary tears of pride and joy. The oldest girl was nearly eight when we were torn asunder, and now I wonder if the autumnal perfume of woodsmoke and the sweet summer fragrance of new-mown grass conjure up fond memories of me, or does she recall with distaste the reek of spilt beer, stale cigarette smoke, and double-barreled stench of my cat's overflowing litter box and old man's chronic flatulence in my unkempt farmhouse?
I cringe at the memory, grateful that no one sees me blush from relived shame. All of these things--and worse--were the deeds of another man, a man who no longer exists. That woeful person is now as dead as his beloved Granny,
replaced by reformed doppelganger anxious for a new trial, vindication, the right to die a free man, surrounded by his family. But even if that trifecta of wishes were to occur, what then of all the unpleasant memories already forged, what of the foul odors and sordid impressions imprinted upon my grandmother's tender minds? Will someday a chance madeleine-whiff remind them of the outdoor atoma of a cut-on-our-farm cedar Christmas tree hung with home ornaments,or will they merely recall the stink of their Grandpa's bad habits?
With a sigh, I stretch out and drift back to sleep. Morning count is hours away, time enough to dream of those of long ago, who perhaps are dreaming of me.
When the wild goose
has flown far off
beyond the mountain
its companion, left behind
will surely cry.
Minamoto No Sanetomo (1192-1219)
Because it is an eight-hundred-mile round trip drive from my daughters' homes to my prison, I rarely get visits. As a result, my memory of the time before my Fall struggles to stay afloat, feverishly treading the Lethean waters that threaten to engulf it. Not only did I lose my freedom, most of my material possessions, and a considerable inheritance when I was imprisoned at the age of sixty--a man whose only prior conviction was twenty-four-year-old DUI--I also lost physical contact with my three daughters and their very young children, who at the time of my disgrace ranged in age from two and a half to nearly eight. On the day of my fated undoing, my oldest daughter watched in teary consternation as I was placed into a police car. I was too stunned to cry myself, but after the shock wore off the next day, I wept bitterly. God only knows what my grandchildren thought and felt, but through my own experience I know that pain is not measurable, nor its degree computable. It just is, and we the afflicted must somehow bear it. And thankfully, our tears help to lubricate our passages through difficult straits.
I lived in the country most of my life, and each of my many springs was accompanied by the welcome arrival of Canada geese. The annual quacking, piping, and trilling of the mating wood frogs, spring peepers, and chorus toads in the creekside swamp next to our home provided the bass and soprano voices of the nonstop opera, while the passing geese sang the two-note baritone theme.
Often, a pair of geese nested in the marsh, their mournful cries stilled until their brood were able to fly. Then, upon departing their spring quarters for far-flung destinations at the nether end of the continent, they would cry a last farewell. Each time they left, a small part of my soul yearned to go with them, soar into the rising sun and leave my troubles far behind. But then I would think of my family, and allow the foolish thought to pass. For how could I willfully deprive myself of their love?
Here at "modern" prison, whose one and two-story buildings are separated by spacious lawns, there are no frogs or toads, no tiny peepers piping from the crowns of nearby oaks. There are, however, plenty of geese; both year-round residents waddling about in noisy gaggles, defecating at will, and their migratory cousins who like to drop in for raucous chats with their sedentary friends.
They all share a common tongue, the one that I mastered at an early age: the universal language of nostalgia.
They are my friends, too, these geese, and I derive pleasure from their casual joie de vivre; their untroubled existence reassures each sentient being that happiness is their God-given birthright.
As I watch them fly away to unknown shores, I sometimes fantasize that the wind will bear them eastward, over my daughter's homes. Wouldn't it be nice, I think if my grandchildren playing outside look skyward at the mournful sound of the passing geese, ask one another if any geese ever fly over Grandpa's new home, and for a few moments think happy thoughts of a lonely old man who often cries for those he left behind.
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