From the May-June 2015 issue of News & Letters
Pelican Bay Prison, Calif.—Twelve years have passed since I entered the Security Housing Unit (SHU) on gang validation. This year I turned 53 years old. My cognitive skills over this past decade have taken an odd turn. The deterioration is discernible. When I first arrived I was attentive and, if you’ll excuse the expression, bright-eyed. I thought I could beat this thing, whatever this thing was. I confess—I was ignorant.
Today, I could be found at my cell front. My fingers stuffed through the perforated metal door, a mechanism forged of heavy gauge. I hang limp. My head angled in a daze. My mind lost in a dense fog of nothingness. I’m withering away, I know it, and I no longer care. Hopelessness is a virus that occupies a quiet space under my tongue like some forgotten stone. But in truth, I am the forgotten one. I am the sum of the parts that make up the whole. Concentration: an abstract invention for those with half a mind if half a mind were the thing to waste. And someone screams behind me: waste not, want not. But what’s to waste when all you are is a virus that no one’s allowed to touch.
Funny. When I think of validation, I remember Fridays after work, cashing my paycheck, handing over a parking stub to the bank teller, asking to be validated. And I thought, how cool is this: validation for free!
Yes, this is me, the ignorant me. Today, wasting what’s left of the other half.
IMAGINING LIFE OUTSIDE
If I were to imagine life outside of Pelican Bay, outside of the SHU, I’d have to imagine a hospital. And between you and me, I don’t like hospitals. I don’t like the stench of sanitized sheets, industrial ammonia. Gowns that open from the back, polka dots and paper slippers.
Looney Tunes in loony beds, leather straps and leather masks. Shocks and shots and broken ribs. The truth is, we’re all broken in our own way. We’ve been undone, unwound. The inside of our plastic skulls—raked and routed. A composition of cracks and fissures where nothing will ever be the same again. To put it in better perspective, or at least one you’d understand: Once, long ago, I adopted a puppy. He was a miniature red Doberman. Naturally I named him Red.
Red had been abused so terribly that in house-training him, if I raised my voice without warning, he’d shake something awful until he wet himself. I remember I had to hold him to feed him, otherwise he’d starve himself. Maybe he thought he was so bad he didn’t deserve food. So loathsome he didn’t deserve to be held. It took a long time for him to warm to me.
I think what did it for Red was when I chose to sleep on the floor with him in my room. He must’ve seen me as his equal. I really liked the way he pressed his wet nose against my neck, in the middle of the night. I think in his own way he was thanking me for treating him, dare I say, humanely. Like family. Like a friend. And today, I imagine life outside of the SHU and a terrible sadness overwhelms me. I can’t help but wonder, what will I not be deserving of?
At 70, 80, who would want to hold and care for me?