Monday, April 23, 2007

...And then One Sunny Day in the Park, I Dreamt of Ex-Cons, Cheap Beer, and Life's Hard Lessons

"I wear my trousers rolled. Karma is a word. There goes Madrid."

- William S. Burroughs,
The Retreat Diaries
, 1976.

"Me carrying a briefcase is like a hot dog wearing earrings."

- George "Sparky" Anderson,
legendary baseball manager, date unknown.

OXFORD, Ohio (ZP) -- She just stood there, staring.

Do you like Fox and the Hound 2? I like it.

I thought she was talking to someone else, so I ignored the disruption.

And then I felt a tiny, sandaled foot kick my shoulder. There would be no ignoring this little girl of maybe six or seven years old.

Hey mister, do you like Fox and the Hound 2? I watched it. My mom said I can watch it after church tomorrow. Do you like it?

I'd just finished lunch. I was sprawled out in the middle of Oxford's Martin Luther King Park, soaking up the April sun like some rodent-stuffed copperhead along a North Carolina highway, reading through the first few chapters of Edward Bunker's The Animal Factory.

Why, I've never seen it, chica. Saw the first one when I was your age, though.

You'd like it.

I probably would.

Whatcha reading?

A book.

Does it have horses in it? I like horses. Princesses? Whatcha reading? Is it good?

I looked up at the child. She stood there, tugging at her dress, waiting for an answer.

* * * *

The book had been recommended to me years ago, by the father of one of the kids I used to mentor back in California.

"Jack" was an ex-con who'd done hard time in places like San Quentin and Soledad. Hardened by more than three decades of life in and out of correctional facilities, Jack lived the life of a retired biker outlaw and every inch of his burly frame showed it.

"Jack's" body was covered with the indigo-and-black artwork of his criminal past. Iron crosses and skeletons were intermingled amongst the names of his former biker buddies and ex-girlfriends, the names of dead Chicanos and other murdered friends. He had an image of the mother of his youngest children tattooed across his chest - a large-breasted, devil-horned caricature of the only "Old Lady" he claimed to have ever loved.

He had his share of unintentional scars, too. Ones earned in prison yard wars and in countless bar fights. He lost his hearing to a gunshot, almost lost a lung to a knife fight.

"Jack" was, and still is, one of the most interesting ex-cons I've ever met. And I've met a lot of ex-cons.

Hell, I've even dated a few female ones, myself.

* * * *

I remember sitting in his half-rotten trailer, at the end of a Central Coast box canyon in the middle of fucking nowhere, drinking way too much warm beer and discussing his youngest son's potential.

Every once and a while, the fifty-ish ex-con's 19-year-old girlfriend, some runaway from some affluent Sacramento neighborhood, would walk into the room, topless, and sit on "Jack's" lap. She'd play with his beard and he'd play with her nipple rings. "Jack," however, remained completely focused on the conversation at hand.

Me? In all honesty, I was fascinated by the fact that this old man, built like a tanned Okie Buddha, teeth missing and scarred, had no problem whatsoever with his rather large-breasted girlfriend dancing around the house topless, with a stranger present.

I was pressing for him to talk his son into entering an alternative high school program, to get an education beyond tenth grade. "Joe" was bright, an avid reader of books, a kid who read the newspaper daily. He wrote beautiful poetry on just about anything that would hold ink.

But I'd hit a dead end. The kid had caught a case for shoplifting, made bail, and then disappeared. "Joe" was facing the possibility of returning to California's notorious juvenile corrections system for a fourth time. He'd quit writing because of his girlfriend, a meth addict. He'd quit reading, even quit joining me for weekly games of chess.

Jack was my last hope.

* * * *

"Joe" was running with a few of his former gang colleagues again, too.

Earlier, one of those gang members had tried to jump me as I left a bar one night. Thinking himself some pubescent assassin, the kid had followed me down a dark side street. He made the mistake of trying to rush me from behind - Helen Keller would've heard the sound of his baggy jeans flopping in the breeze.

That kid ended up with my boot dug into the back of his skull and with a "gat" (an empty beer bottle, improvised) pushed against his spine. The poor bastard wept into the asphalt, caught off-guard by the fact that, well, I wasn't the schoolboy nerd motherfucker he'd thought, that I wasn't going to tolerate a 16-year-old waving a knife at me in the parking lot of my own radio station.

When I smelled shit, indicating that I'd, well, made my point, I let the kid go. Didn't bother calling the cops.

The motivation behind the attempted assault?

Well, some folks just don't like people who try to keep good kids - kids who didn't catch the same breaks they did when they were little hoodlums - from becoming just another statistic in some state agency database.

* * * *

So I tracked down "Jack." "Joe" loved his father more than anything, more than life itself. And, from what I knew, he was the only person Joe looked up to, not only as a father, but as a bona fide badass - he had more than just the mere influence of a parent.

After "Joe's" mother died, the System, in its infinitely fucked-up bureaucratic wisdom, made "Jack's" children wards of the state. He wasn't in any position, as an ex-con on Disability and welfare, to raise his own children, according to that System.

Jack readily admitted that he couldn't raise them and, well, the life of a biker ain't pretty. But he did love his children - loved them more than life itself. He'd do whatever it took to insure that they lived a better life than he had.

Jack's influence over Joe's life was tremendous. He wrote numerous poems about the times his mom would drive him up to prison to visit "Pops," about watching his dad hunt for work after getting paroled, about seeing his dad cry when the social worker shipped the kids off to foster care and group homes, tearing a family apart for "their own good."

"Jack" and I sat in the kitchenette of his mobile home, talking for hours about everything under the sun. He was a good-natured man, highly intelligent, just like his son. And he himself had once thought about becoming a poet and, off and on, had even tried his hand at writing country music akin to that of his hero, Merle Haggard.

At one point, as we nursed our sixer of cheap beer, Jack decided he wanted to show me his most prized possession. He walked me out to a small shed behind the trailer.

The shed was padlocked, to keep his "outlaw buddies" from vandalizing his treasures during their occasional visits and subsequent drinking binges. Inside, rows of books lined the walls of "Jack's" own personal, makeshift library. A comfortable, half-busted couch and an old wire spool were the only other treasures "Jack" kept locked up in his vault.

While in prison, the ex-con explained, he'd learned to appreciate a good book. They kept him out of trouble, just like the pictures his kids drew for him helped him stay sane while in prison.

On the ceiling, stapled to the particle board, were all of his children's crayon drawings, the letters sent to him by relatives, and a picture of actor Danny Trejo.

Jack claimed to have met Trejo while the two of them were incarcerated together. The legendary Mexican-American thespian was another one of Jack's heroes, his muse for living a fairly straight edge life.

, a man who I've also met briefly, happens to be one of my favorite character actors.

Jack had built his library as a result of his having done so much hard time over the course of his adult life. Each time he'd complete a sentence or get early release, he'd leave with dozens of books. And each time, he'd return home, shove them under the bed, and forget about them. He'd screw up again, end up back doing more time. And then he'd remember his favorite reads and restart the twisted cycle, collecting whatever books he could find.

The last time Jack finished a sentence, he came home and didn't shove the books under the bed. Instead, he turned an old tool shed into his own personal monument to lifelong learning.

He'd hoped to leave the books to his children one day. Jack built his "library" as a way to encourage them to read, as a way to encourage himself to read, to make time for something so basic as the freedom to learn independently in a world without razor wire and armed guards.

* * * *

All of his children were avid readers, a thousand times more literate than I'll ever be. But "Joe" was Jack's pride and joy, his gifted one.

I could tell from his face, as I explained his son's return to the bad side of life, that each word out of my mouth caused him great pain.

There was, sadly, nothing Jack could do to help his own son. The two of them had gotten into a fistfight the last time they'd seen each other. Jack, drug-free for more than a decade, wouldn't let Joe's girlfriend smoke pot in the house nor let them fuck like rabbits in the guest room. Joe, who I learned was also using again, apparently swung first, only to have his father knock him out cold.

Jack told me, as we sat on his couch, not to worry about any further risk of gang retaliation. He gave me the number of some guy named Reggie, some really bad motherfucker I was supposed to call should I ever have another encounter. Fortunately, I never had a reason to call that number.

He also advised me to give up on his son. I'd done my best, he told me, but some kids just need to learn for themselves. Maybe going to jail, maybe doing some hard time of his own, would help him. One could only do so much.

We sat on that busted old couch for another couple of hours, talking. His girlfriend, still topless, kept bringing us more beer and, for some reason, giggling at the sight of two men getting drunk in a shed/library, discussing Walt Whitman, Alex Haley, and Sophocles' motherfuckin' Oedipus plays.

Fun night.

* * * *

So I gave up, walked away from a kid I'd spent so much time and energy trying to help.

I never saw "Joe" or "Jack" ever again.

But, according to rumor, "Joe" ended up going back into the juvenile system, ended up continuing his criminal career as an adult, working his way through the dozen or so correctional facilities that his father had done time in before him.

I sometimes wonder if Jack, the Prodigal Father, ever sends his son any good books to read.

* * * *

For some reason, I remembered "Jack's" book recommendation last week. Just popped into my head during a meeting at work, pulled from the asscrack of my memory like a cheap pair of underwear.

So I walked to work Saturday morning, located a copy of The Animal Factory in my library's collections, and set about finding a nice, quiet place to begin reading. I grabbed a bite to eat and headed to the nearest park.

Reading the first few chapters, I realized instantly why "Jack" had recommended it. Not only does Bunker do an amazing job of painting a vivid portrait of life in a hardcore California prison; he also uses fictionalized narrative to paint a portrait of life in the Q.

I guess having a former San Quentin inmate recommend a book by another former Q. inmate isn't necessarily a bad thing, really.

I can't help but wonder if "Jack's" son had read the book, if he would even be allowed to read such a book, while doing time...

* * * *

The little girl waited for my answers to her questions.

I didn't really have any to give. I stumbled over my words, not wanting to be accused of exposing some stranger's kid to vile sorts of things.

If I told her the title of the book, she'd have no frame of reference - that would lead to a child's questions about the subject matter, the reason I was reading such a book, and the like. She'd think of farm animals, of cute little piggies and books like Charlotte's Web.

And I don't do cop-out answers, either, those "you're too young to understand" kinds of answers to children's questions.

Once, a friend's teenage daughter asked me about why he and his girlfriend, one of her teachers, locked the door to the bedroom at night. Without thinking, I blurted out a rather haphazard explanation of the Art of Fucking Your Girlfriend - when you have a boisterous little girl who has no problem walking into, say, a bedroom without knocking.

The friend understood, even thought it was funny, especially given the fact that his daughter doesn't let him use the word "fuck" in the house. His girlfriend, however, was not amused.

No need for a repeat performance of that, especially here in Busted Ass Buckle of the Bible Belt, Ohio.

No matter how I dodged the question, the young child in the park asked more questions - harder questions. Like an angel of mercy, the girl's mother came for the child.

She apologized, said she hoped her daughter hadn't been too much of a pain in my You-Know-What. As the woman walked away with her daughter, I pondered the innocence behind the use of the phrase You-Know-What in polite conversation.

I wondered how an Ohio child would interpret my reading a book about life in one of the world's most violent prisons, how someone who knew a world where parents took them to church and let them watch movies like The Fox and the Hound 2 would comprehend such an act of literacy, right here in Oxford Fucking Ohio.

It's almost obscenity.

Hopefully, the girl will never have such a desire to read such a book for such a personal reason. The world needs more inquisitive children wandering through parks and asking questions, children who grow up innocent and intelligent, and fewer children who grow up to be hardened criminals.

It seems so simple, doesn't it?

- # # # -


xboxgirl said...

''sprawled out, soaking up the April sun like some rodent-stuffed copperhead'' for some reason I find that imagined image quite appealing {ok its because you are sexy and I like snakes}.

''Helen Keller would've heard the sound of his baggy jeans flopping in the breeze'' he he heh. That reminds me of the time I chased after a guy who was trying to run off with a case of beer {from a Circle K store}, he only ran about 200 feet away before tripping on his baggy pants. His stupid friend saw that came over and tryed to spray mace in my eyes but I wrestled him to the ground and sprayed his face {the wind must of blown that crap everywhere because when I sprayed him MY eyes stung like hell} , he screamed then ran off , so me and my burning eyes stumbled back to the store with the case of beer.

Woeful said...

As people pass by, I often wonder about what they do, and how they got to be doing it. Be it the young guy buying the $800,000 condo (inheritance?), the young woman with the older man in the BMW, (biding her time for someone in a Ferrari to come by so that she can trade up?), the old black men talking with each other and smiling as they limp along wearing tattered clothing, or the attractive yet lonely looking woman being dropped off at a restaurant by a man in a SUV... Everyone has a story.

Anonymous said...

That's nice - truer words rarely soken, J. I can relate, as usual - grew up with H/A connections, still have 'em even if I don't really want 'em anymore.

Burned out of writing of late - but I'm still enjoying yours, bro.


Coyote Mike said...

It always amazes me that so many of the people who have nothing find in themselves the ability to truly know the beauty of books, of reading and writing, while so many dumb-fuck students, who think that a hard day's work involves wearing a fast-food uniform, can't even be bothered to TRY to understand books. To relate to books. To even fucking READ the books! I once asked a lit class of 30 students how many of them read books outside of class.

Only one student raised her hand.

I weep.

I hope that little girl does read that book someday (I will, if I can remember to add it to my list). Not because it is about prison, or anything like that, but because to not read the book (or any book) is unthinkable for her.

The ZenFo Pro said...

Yep, mace isn't fun and its quite common for the sprayer to experience the burning intended for the sprayee. Been teargassed twice, pepper-sprayed once - first during a riot I was covering and then during a protest I was covering.

Burns like hell. But, well, that's the point.

There are indeed billions of stories out there, hundreds for each person on the planet. And memory's an equally fascinating thing. I'm still not sure why I even remembered "Jack's" story or recommendation.

Man, I know the feeling about having connections and not wanting them. It's part of the reason I'd probably never move back to my hometown in Virginia, actually. I haven't lived there in a decade, but there are still cats who only remember me as "Pooh Bear" or as a juvenile delinquent. I end up spending more time hanging out with cops, ironically, because they tend to usually be looking for former friends of mine :)

It is amazing, isn't it? I've found , regardless of where I live, there are usually more disadvantaged folks who use things like libraries for serious, old-school scholarship than students or folks from higher income levels.

I've always hated that cop-out "Generational bias" crap that a lot of folks throw around as an excuse. Generational, sure, in terms of parenting and secondary education.

One of the biggest jokes in the higher ed world, the supposed "get students to read" savior, is the so-called first-year reading programs,where everyone is supposed to read one book, then discuss it. It's such a stupid thing, really. And the books tend to reflect faculty politics and in-fighting more than anything else.

Oh well... as if students actually read the stuff.

xboxgirl said...

Gezz, pepper sprayed once and teargassed twice, that must have stung worse then hell {because the meager amount that got on me was really painful).

Steph said...

Reading your posts is like going on a little journey. Every time. Love it.

Leigh said...

Glad I came around to catch that post! Good one Jason!

coop said...

That was great Jason.

I must defend here. It is all about how they were brought up so it is not necessary their fault.

I have some friends, one in particular, who I know read only what was necessary to get through high school with a B plus average, never really letting the stuff sink in. He "found" books in college thanks to what he says is professors and the atmosphere. His quest for it all is now insatiable...he has piles and piles of books everywhere.Don't always blame the students.

This was enjoyable, I will buy any book you write. If I must.

Would hope for a free copy though. :)

The ZenFo Pro said...

Oh hell yeah. The first time, during the Colorado Super Bowl Riots in the late 90s, I was hit while on assignment. Melted my contacts.

Hey, thanks, hon :)

Hey, long time, no hear, surfer chick! Hope things are going well out west! :)

Well, it does vary, I think, from university to university, person to person.

But, as a whole, I've noticed the expectations for college student literacy seems to have gone down signifigantly, despite faculty member and academic librarian in the country somehow claiming that we're seeing advances in overall information literacy.

Hey, be careful, chica. I may just draft you as a ghost editor :)

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