“We spoke of the whites. ‘They’re God’s children, just like us,’ he said. ‘Even if they don’t act very godlike anymore. God tells us straight – we’ve got to love them, no ifs ands or buts about it. Why if we hated them, we’d be sunk down to their level. There’s plenty of us doing just that too’.” – John Howard Griffin “Black Like Me”
“Don’t say, ‘I will get even with this wrong.’ Wait for the Lord to handle the matter.” – Proverbs 20:22 NLT
The ‘hater’ with the tattooed proclamations of love for God and hatred for others returned with another man Alan hadn’t crossed paths with yet, but who was familiar to me and everyone else in the unit as the loudmouthed leader of the movement to control people’s lives and suppress the rights of anyone with sex-related offenses.
If Alan was intimidated at all by the physical appearance and demeanor of the first man, the second man’s appearance should have been enough to send his nervous system into sensory overload. To say this man was unpleasant to look at would be an enormous understatement.
Whereas the first man’s eyes were pale, cold and devoid of any friendliness, the second man’s eyes were the eyes of a ferret … dark little beady spots that darted about as they peered out from a greasy-looking face that was scarred and pockmarked, mercifully covered with a beard that was mostly grey. I say mercifully because the beard helped to cover a small weak chin set in an altogether unattractive countenance and helped to mask the fact that most of his teeth were missing. His hair was very fine, thinning, greasy-looking and usually worn with rubber bands spaced a couple of inches apart up its twelve-inch length, giving it the appearance of a rat tail. Like his beard, his hair was predominately grey. He was only about 5’8″ tall. His lower body was slight of build but his arms showed evidence of a view toward “working out” that only consisted of repeated lifting of heavy objects to bulk up his arms. His stomach was huge, fed by a constant stream of snacks and meals whenever he was observed in the unit. Sometimes it seemed as though his eating was the only thing that prevented the unpleasantness of his nasal backwoods twang from permeating the air of the housing unit.
He had a rather offensive habit of wearing only shorts, socks and sandals around the unit in the evenings when he was in “relaxed mode.” His status provided him a front row center seat in front of “his” television and he would sit there, sometimes for hours, staring at the screen, usually munching by spoon or hand from an ever-present bowl of chips or something that had been “cooked,” prison style, in one of our two microwaves.
The man’s stomach was so large and so round, it appeared to sit in his lap and every square inch of it was covered in tattoos, most of which were more than likely applied during one of his many years in state or federal prison. In fact, every bit of visible skin not hidden by shorts or socks was covered in tattoos.
In particular, the ink on the stretched skin of his stomach looked like a freakish collage painted in blue on a flesh-colored over-inflated balloon.
As Alan’s further misfortune would have it, the man was in “relaxed mode” when he was brought to the cell where Alan was waiting apprehensively and he was totally unnerved when he stood facing this grotesque beast.
Alan was asked again, this time by the “beast”, what his charge was and when he began to offer an explanation, he was immediately told to stop, pack up his meager possessions and leave the cell. He was informed that they would have other arrangements made because he was definitely not welcome in that cell.
Holding his bedroll and little bag of toiletries, Alan wandered out into the common area. Observing an empty chair near a game table, he sat down to await his fate.
Unfortunately, there were two things wrong with what he did: it was not his chair and sex offenders were not allowed to sit at the game tables. Alan, of course, had no way of knowing these things at this point so he was probably unaware that his actions were only serving to pump up the overall hostility level and increase the tension which, like the rubber band attached to the propeller on a little balsa wood airplane, was being wound tighter and tighter, approaching the point at which it might break.
Seeing this, someone who sides with those who hate but is a bit more merciful about it, moved him over near the wall and arranged for him to sit in a chair until some sort of resolution was arrived at.
Many minutes later, Alan was approached by both the “hater” and the “beast” and told to go see the counselor again. He was given another room assignment across the hall from his first one and down a few doors from where he had been sitting.
He was met at the door to that cell by its current occupant who made it instantly clear that, “You’re not staying in here!” At that point, he stormed past Alan on his way to the counselor’s office, huffing and puffing, beating his chest and loudly proclaiming that he was not going to have this man pushed off on him.
Given the size of the unit itself and the dynamics of living in a place where small things are big news, word was rapidly racing through the unit that this latest addition to the “chomo” population was getting a hard time. All the while, I sat quietly oblivious in my cell reading a newspaper. Now I am no one’s mother, father, leader or savior. But I do try to make sure that new people are made aware that they are safe and have people to go to with questions or needs.
In a way, I failed Alan that day by remaining in my cell. But I just felt that we had progressed to a level of tolerance where it was not necessary to stand on the rail and gawk, adding to the discomfort that newcomers feel. As evidenced by what was transpiring outside my door and down the stairs, I was wrong.
Once again, Alan was placed in the chair along the wall. Most of the activity swirling around Alan – the angry looks, the cursing and grumbling spoken louder than was necessary, the marching in and out of the counselor’s office – was all for show . . . a lame prison version of “shock and awe.” As it is with gorillas loudly beating their chests and giving their fiercest roar, most of what was transpiring was for show. But to the uninitiated, it can all combine to be tremendously intimidating, demeaning and nerve-wracking.
The individual who had originally “rescued” Alan attempted to calm him down, told him to just sit in the chair and he would be right back. The knock on my door came a few moments later.
Well folks, Alan did survive that day and, as most people do has adapted in his own way – a way that works best for him – to life in an environment that just a short time ago was as foreign to him as one could possibly imagine.
As I have said, most enter this place without any discernable tension. For some, however, like Alan, it can be a frightening experience when you’re the new kid in town.