My Penal Vacation
John Cephas Young was awarded Third Place in Fiction in the 2018 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.
My Penal Vacation
“How are you, this morning?”
“Oh, just great, thanks for asking,” I respond to the Middle-Eastern man lurking in his doorway as I journey down the hall. One thing is clear, neither of us gives a damn how the other is doing. This is just something we do: a sort of predatorial ritualistic dance we perform at 5:30am. It started about two weeks ago, when I moved in with my girlfriend down the hall.
While it’s rather unfortunate, the truth is—as a fairly dark black man at 6’3” and 230 pounds—I’ve grown accustomed to this kind of lurking, “watch him” behavior. It’s an immutable part of my existence. So I live with it. Outside the apartment building, the residual rain litters the ground, the sky is grayish-blue, and the faint aroma of coffee and cigarettes lingers in the air. And while the average person would not automatically associate these smells with anything ceremonious, I smell freedom; a whole 87 days of it. Yes, compared to the stench of mens’ feet and suppressed farts that I was forced to inhale in prison, this is paradise to my nose, even if it just says Summerset Apartments across the building.
On the street, light clusters of patriots, scattered along the sidewalk, are starting their day. Unlike prison, where we all started our day with a somber walk to the chow hall, here everybody’s busy with their own distinctive act of readying themselves; like the father trotting toward the idling van, double-parked in front of his building. He joins his family waiting inside, and off they go. He waves to me as he passes by (another fast-forming ritual). Or the rotund Asian woman waiting for the approaching school bus with her two kids, the giant tires on the yellow bus wrestles and dishevels tiny water droplets as it passes.
Then there’s the white kid with the long denim shorts, with an even longer wallet chain dangling along his leg. His spiky greased hair and black leather choke-chain, featuring shiny spikes, manages to sparkle somehow as he zooms past. Obviously, dress code is not a concern in his line of work, assuming that’s where he’s off to this morning.
I get to the bus stop, directly across the donut shop, and sit atop the backrest on account of the wet bench. I used to go into the little shop for coffee every morning, till I caught myself unconsciously casing the joint: post traumatic-stress from doing a 16-year bid. Whenever I walk into a business establishment, I automatically start searching for cameras, the closest exit, number of employees, etc.
After concluding that the coffee shop had no surveillance cameras, two elderly employees, booming business on account of the college down the street, and a back exit that led into an alley, I decided to skip my morning coffee.
I caught the elderly lady looking toward the bus stop a few times, probably disappointed at the loss of a customer. Count your blessings lady, I think to myself. This is one customer you’re better off without.
Frankly, it’s mind-boggling how just three months ago I was confined to segregated housing, deemed a threat to the general population in prison, cautiously handcuffed through the tray slot, and escorted by two correctional officers every time I came out of my cell. That was until my release date. As if, according to their “expert prognosis,” at exactly 4:00am, May 7, 2014, I became sane enough to push back into society.
Now, I’m not complaining—I love my freedom—I’m merely pointing out that being in an extremely hazardous environment, like prison, for 5,740 days, then thrust into the total opposite within minutes, creates a great deal of mental shock. I don’t think you need to be a psychologist to figure that one out.
Eventually, I spot the green Honda amid the morning traffic. The driver’s name is Jamal, and we work together. Actually, he’s the reason I even got the job. He’s also my girlfriend’s older brother. The only problem is that on any given day, he’ll simply decide to skip work, schedule be damned! So the day I miss the bus waiting for him could easily be the day he decides to stay home. It’s happened twice. I need this job. If the bus comes before him, that’s how I get to work.
My first gig out of prison was at an oil refinery, where they strap a paper-mask over your face—theoretically, this is to filter at the toxic fumes, but that’s like trying to clear a flood with a spoon—fasten a harness to your mid-section, and drop you down an oil well. Most people vomit as soon as they’re pulled up; 11 people die a year. One day was enough for me. It’s a shame that nobody has a decent job for an ex-con. If anything, you’d think they’d offer some kind of incentive to employers that help reintegrate a guy into society, that’s if they wanted to reduce crime. But what do I know?
“Naw, I ain’t think that,” I lie and quickly get into the car. Jamal’s a big fellow—mostly fat—with a gleaming bald spot and a Hitler mustache. He smokes like a chimney: Newports during work hours, and God-knows-what off the clock.
“You ain’t hurd wha’ happened last night?” he inquires as he merges back into traffic. Now, Jamal is the biggest liar I’ve met in my life: another reason I’d rather catch the bus sometimes. I mean, district attorneys could take lessons from this guy on how to fabricate bullshit stories. “Ah man, so I was at the . . .” at this point, I tuned him out. See, Jamal’s one of these guys that’s obsessed with creating the bad boy image for himself. He wants to be seen as hard convict thug, but he wouldn’t bust a grape in a fruit fight.
There’s nothing glorious about a lengthy criminal record and having to pee in a cup for a parole officer. But I suspect that’s the main reason he hangs with me, to come off as some sort of thug or gangster. That’s also why all of his over-embellished stories end with him either pistol-whipping somebody, or telling somebody to “shut the fuck up!” There’s also the occasional “You-must-not-know-who-you-messing-with, Nigga, I’m J-Bone” endings. (I never heard anybody call him J-Bone, mind you.)
He claims we knew each other 18 years ago, before my prison bid. I’m almost certain that too is a lie. I mean after being tried as an adult at 16, being the youngest inmate on a Level 4, 180 Yard, where I mastered the art of stabbing my fellow inmates with prison shanks that I stashed up my rectum, who could blame me for forgetting an 18-year-old friendship that never existed in the first place?
I remember on my release date looking in all four directions and thinking, it really didn’t matter which direction I wandered off. Since the death of my mother while I was locked up, I have nothing anchoring me to any location on this planet.
The wonderful Department of Corrections handed me $200, $80 of which they immediately snatched back for a mandatory ride in a van to the closest bus station. The driver warns you to stay inside the Greyhound station, as the town does not want your kind lingering around.
Thus, 45 minutes after being caged in a 10×16 cell for a little short of two decades, I was standing at a bus station feeling out of place. Out the window, the cars looked too big. Inside, everybody was moving and talking at once, and total strangers kept walking behind me. I bolted into a bathroom stall, where I stayed for close to an hour. Finally, I purchased a ticket to the San Fernando Valley because . . . well . . . that’s the last area I was at before my arrest. I guess home is where you once were. From the bus station in Van Nuys, I found the GR office. I made it to the office before 1:00 but quickly learned that my conviction made me ineligible for general relief (a measly $220).
I did, however, qualify for emergency food stamps ($80 worth) and a two-week voucher at a roach motel in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. I spent my first night out of prison scrubbing mildew at the bottom of the shower, smelling wrack through the vents, and trying to remember the last time I had a tetanus shot.
“So then I said shut the fuck up bitch ‘fore I pistol-whip that ass, must not know who you talking too, Nigga, I’m J-Bone. J-Bone, mutherfucker!”
“Is that right?” I murmur, recognizing the end of yet another episode of “Jamal and the fairy tales!” Oddly enough, all his stories share the odd commonality of ending exactly when we reach the job site. No matter what audacious adventure the great J-Bone goes on, he always gets the girl and walks off into the sunset right when we get to the job site. If there’s traffic that day, the adventure is more daring.
The construction site is in a gated community. It’s several blocks of condominiums in various stages of construction. Wooden framed condos lines both sides of the bare streets, and groups of constructions workers are gathered in front at various spots.
Our work area is at the very back corner of this new community. Three giant pickup trucks mark our specific location for the day. He parks by the trucks, and we exit the vehicle. The foreman is smoking a cigarette by one of the trucks. He signals us over then glances at his watch. He’s a bald-headed white man with tattoos. I had difficulty working with him at first. For 16 years, I’d been warring with white boys in prison. And no, not warring in the metaphorical sense. I mean literally engaged in brutal brawls on the yard while the guards emptied out their M-16s at us. The officers were mostly whites; guess who they were aiming at? I’ve been stabbed nine times, and been hit with more rubber bullets than I care to remember. I haven’t as much as shared a smile with a white man in 16 years. Next thing I know, I’m working for one.
“I’m good, just ready to work.”
“Good to hear,” he responds, emphatically, shaking my hand and patting me on my shoulder. For a split second, I feel the urge to clock him across the jaw. This is just too much contact for me. I give that feeling a second to pass. “Jamal, you’re working with Jose today.” To me, he says, “I got something different for you today.” He leads me around an unfinished condo. Several workers are hammering a giant frame where a door will soon be erected. A boom box fills the air with an accordion and harmonica-driven mariachi. And despite the language barrier, the singer’s somber baritone has its desired effect deep within my loins.
We stop at the back corner of the facility. In front of us is a steep hill with several deep gutters dug across the surface. I’m not exactly sure what we’re looking at, till he points to the hard plastic pipes wedged inside the grooves. “They laid the plumbing a couple days ago. I need you to cover the pipes back up, they’ll probably grow some grass over it at some point.” Now, I’m not a mathematician, mind you, but the incline on this mount is easily about 70-75 degrees. In other words, it’s so steep that none of the dirt they dug up stayed on the hill.
It all gathered at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. He must’ve sensed my hesitation—I wasn’t putting much effort into hiding it—because, finally, he said, “There’s a rope tied to that tree up there. Get it around your waist. It’ll help you maintain footing. There’s a pile of dirt over there.” I simply nod in response. He pats me on the shoulder again before leaving me to my assignment. I exhale deeply, then go over to the dirt pile. After grabbing the shovel stuck in the middle, I reappraise the hill. My initial challenge is hiking up Mount Everest to the rope, then back down to the pile of dirt. Then back up to the highest gutter, balancing a shovel of sand.
I start my ascent to the tree of life atop the incline, thinking if God had just stuck the forbidden tree atop this great mount, humanity wouldn’t be cursed like this.
On the fourth step, mud sticks to the bottom of my hand-me-down boots as I slide back down. That’s when I’m slapped with the realization that there’s no way to climb this thing without using my hands. So, I lower myself, and proceed to crawl on all fours, thinking about all those classes I took in prison, as mud sticks to my fingers. I earned a bachelor’s degree in liberal arts and became a certified paralegal. I bought into the happy endings, the fairy tales. I really believed society would let me back in. You know, forgive my wrongs and allow me to move on. What an idiot was I?
A convict’s debt to society is never paid. I remember a story I read in the LA Times about cleaning up downtown. When identifying the scum of society, the writer named prostitutes, pimps, drug addicts, and felons on parole. I let that thought linger in my mind as I tie the wet rope around my waist. I seriously consider just sitting on my ass and sliding down. Why not? Drug addicts and felons, huh?
After washing up with the water hose while the other workers smiled and snickered, I approached the lunch truck that was idling on the dirt road. This, too, is rapidly becoming a routine. Of all the construction workers surrounding the lunch truck, Jamal is the only black. The fact is, I simply don’t trust him enough to have my back in case they attack. I try to tell my brain: Relax! This isn’t prison, Nobody’s looking to attack you. But it’s not that simple.
For the past 16 years, I haven’t approached one white man without backup. That isn’t something that just goes away when you remove the fence and gun towers. So instead, I stand here starving as the delicious aroma of grilled onions and carne asada fills the air.
“You straight?” Jamal asks, approaching me through the crowd without a care in the world. “You ain’t want nothing?” he adds while trying to squeeze the whole burrito into his mouth. And I think, man, ignorance is bliss. “Could you get me something? I got the money right here.”
“Man, I don’t understand how come you can’t get it” he manages to piece together around a mouthful of hot burrito. “Come on, J-Bone, help a brother out.” With his ego inflated, he motions for the money. I dig into my pocket, pull out a 10 dollar bill, and slap it into his palm. And off he goes, through the boisterous crowd, on a mission to secure my lunch.
At three o’clock, half the gutters are filled. I’m balancing a shovel-load, the scorching sun dispelling rivulets of sweat down my forehead and back, and wondering if the oil refinery will take me back.
I’m within seconds of dropping the shovel, sliding down this hill, and telling the foreman to kiss my ass, when he shows up and switches my position for the day. I’m to deliver piles of freshly cut two-by-fours to different sites, as needed. I fold up my shirt, place it on my shoulder, and get to carrying.
At 5:00, we finish for the day. Jamal’s grinning by the car when I get there. My arms and shoulder are covered in splinters, there’s mud all over my boots and pants, and I smell like a freakin’ Greek gymnasium. I’m asleep before we leave the lot.
“A, yo, Darian! Darian!,” Jamal’s voice interrupts my sleep. I look around and realize we’re a block from my girl’s apartment. ”Man, drop me off right there,” I say, indicating the liquor store on the right.
“You need something?” he asks as he turns into the parking lot. “I’ma wait out there,” he adds.
“Naw, you straight.”
“Yeah,” I say, slam the door and go into the liquor store. Inside the store, I approach the counter and purchase a stick of gum. Out the corner of my eyes, I see Jamal pull out the lot and I sigh in relief. “You okay? You look tired,” the lady at the counter observes. “I’m fine,” I murmur and exit the store.
The truth is, I have no interest in chewing gum right now. I’ve just learned to keep my business concealed. My girlfriend is on Section 8—where the government pays her rent, as long as she does not allow any felons to stay with her. You know, no scum-of-the-earth types. She lets me sleep there at night, reasoning that the Section 8 office shouldn’t send an inspector to her apartment at night.
In the four years she’d lived there nobody’d come by to inspect, until I moved in. I’m almost certain it’s the same Middle-Eastern man in the hallway this morning that’s reporting us. He’s the building manager. I don’t know what I would do if my actions rendered my girlfriend and her four-year-old daughter homeless. So, for the second time today, I sit at a bus stop and contemplate my life: a fierce battle between my ambitions and my reality, my goals and society’s impediments. When the bus comes, I climb aboard, tired and covered in mud.
There are no empty seats, so I hang onto a rail and try not to get tossed around too bad. A few blocks later, a seat becomes available. I collapse into it and pretend not to notice the guy next to me inching away. Who could blame him? A few stops later, I get off the bus. I’m practically wrestling my equilibrium when I enter the gym. It took awhile for me to find a place to wash up without getting arrested. Using my girlfriend’s credit card, I signed up a week ago and incorporated this into my daily routine.
To keep from looking like a bum, I sit at the universal weight machine for a while. The plan is to work out, then go into the locker room for a shower, and change into fresh clothes—except the boots, I need those for tomorrow—then, basically, meander through the streets till a safe time to go to the apartment. But as I sit at the machine, I’m just too tired to even pretend-work out.
So I stare at the machine, then at my sordid pants and boots. Abruptly, I get up and head toward the showers. I glance at the people eagerly exercising—several pedaling away on stationary bikes—and I think of prison. Except there we worked out for survival. There, with all of life’s luxuries stripped away, men are reduced to their most primitive: the survival of the fittest. Literally, the strongest survive: the alpha males. You did everything in your power to get strong. Your life could depend on it.
After my shower, I head to the bus stop to sit for a while. Around 7:30, I catch the bus and head home. It’s a little earlier than we agreed, but I’m tired. Monday down, five more days to go.
Day 96; almost made it to 100. I don’t know if I should be disappointed or proud of myself for surviving as long as I did; surviving in this strange, unforgiven and desolate terrain.
“Baby, what happen? Don’t worry I’ma drive behind y’all to the station.” My girlfriend’s screams reach me in the back of the police car. We’re in the parking lot of the donut shop.
I want to tell her not to bother—that I’m only going back home. But I don’t. Instead, I just stare at the little donut shop and breathe deeply. Finally, the officer gets in the car and drives off. The hard plastic seat digs into my back; tears blur my vision as we turn orto the main street. Prison has ruined me. Unbeknownst to even me, they’ve reprogrammed my brain; reconditioned me into a monster. A dangerous half-witted beast, barely able to function in their society. Ill-equipped to operate their smartphones and skinny computers.
The word convict stenciled across my forehead. My scarlet letter. A label that encourages employers to tip their noses at me. A label that motivated the police to stop, search, and mistreat me, that made my need for assistance a laughing matter at the county office. It’s like the judge’s gavel at my sentencing permanently hammered me into the lower bracket of society. At the red light, I recall my job in prison as a law library clerk. There, other inmates sought my guidance; they venerated my wit. Later—while earning my paralegal certification—I became the inmates’ representative. The one that relayed the warden’s desires to the inmates.
Armed with a folder and a clipboard, I was genuinely respected. For a few seconds, I wonder if it’s better to be a big fish in a small, shallow, pond, or a starving guppy barely alive in the vast and salty Atlantic Ocean. Is it realistic to expect a guy not to get money the only way he knows how while all other avenues are being maliciously closed off to him? Would it be rational for such a person to feel like his failures are his own fault, since he’s purposely overlooking his skills? Would such a person, at the very least, need some sort of psychological assistance to reacclimate himself into society?
I think about the inspector from Section 8 standing in the doorway at 1:00am (I guess, we were wrong) then, me helping my girl and her daughter pack their things, unable to look into her eyes, my shame, palpable and thick, suffocating me. Then I recalled bursting into the donut shop, feeling more like a victim than ever. Who locks an emergency exit? That is illegal, a safety hazard. I guess, so am I.
I let the familiar cuffs dig into my flesh and enjoy the ride back to prison, home sweet home. Or better yet, home is where you once were.