Be kind as you read this. It’s my nature to say too much. When my son was twelve, he said asking me a question was like throwing a rock in space. I keep this in mind and try to restrain myself. Things were different with my dad. He said very little. He left volumes of ideas and experience stacked up in the dark behind his immigrant eyes. Even to himself, he made notes by folding up small blank pieces of paper and tucking them carefully into his wallet.
The first time I was locked up was in L.A. County jail in 1967. My cellmate was Vince Kennedy, a 26 year old black boxer from Boston doing two years for auto theft. He said park the car, pahk the cah. He was 6 foot 4 and weighed 260 pounds. He’d recently converted to Islam – instead of being called Vince or V-dog anymore, he wanted to be called Kwame. I was a 21 year old hippie from Chicago doing 5 to 20 for smuggling 3 ounces of hash. I was told I’d be out in 20 months, because this was my first offense -but in fact, all sentences are life sentences. I was 5 foot 10, maybe 160 pounds.
Now some may think it an easy cliché, my report of a huge black man, whose imprisoned ear to ear smile was always trying to escape through his face, looking hard into my eyes those first days, pounding me on my arm, saying, C’mon, devil, let’s box, is a boring racial stereotype. But that’s what he did, and what he said.
I said back, Look, Vincent, my brother, all white people aren’t the devil, man – and my eyes, they’re not blue; they’re brown – doesn’t that mean something? (Of course, it didn’t and doesn’t; and on some level, we both knew it). Vincent just punched my arm again, hard, and said again, Let’s box, devil. I couldn’t keep taking his hits. He was way too much to fight, but taking his hits made me look like food to the many circling sharks. I had to do something.
So in the deep dark of a hellish cell block night still shadowed by screaming neons, after the routine human screams had transformed into snores, and I could think at least a little, I struck. Like a big cat, I slipped down from my upper bunk onto Kennedy’s sleeping mass. I took hold of his soft steel wool hair with my left hand, and with my right pressed a single-edge razor blade against his throat, hard, but not breaking the dark brown skin above his gurgling jugular. He woke up screaming, but controlled himself. I whispered sternly, over the sucking gravity of my own cavernous fear,
If you keep f—ing with me, I’ll cut your throat, I promise.
His suddenly wide-awake eyes said we had a deal, so I climbed back to my bunk. After, he shouted at me for a couple days, but he didn’t beat me to death. Actually, we became friends. We got along so well, the guards made us trustees. We handed out pork chops, mashed potatoes and such. Nothing like a glob of mashed potatoes and gravy to ease an attitude. We sold extra pork chops for a quarter.
I still cried myself to sleep on occasion, hiding my face and muffling my sobs in a smelly government pillow. I thought too much about my ruined life and the pain I’d caused my parents. Only 21, I was struck by the dimness of my present and my future. But Vince and I looked out for each other as best we could, idiots that we were, and that helped. Even today, I miss him. I don’t actually miss him; I recall him fondly. In fact, I recall my whole prison time with some fondness, nasty as it was. I think life, in prison or out, is always as Dickens put it, The best of times and the worst of times. It’s a matter of how we think, what we dwell on, who we choose as our teacher. Ultimately, one place is much like another, and wherever we go, there we are.
After the riot, they transferred me. I had to say adios to Vince / Kwame – and Fast Black, Dirty Jesus, Tall Tex, Billy Goat, Frankie J, Ray Rodriguez, Papa Two Bulls, Mad Dog Red Daniels, original Fierce Freddy, Clarence Low Down Brown, little Jimmy Vasquez and his Hawaiians. So many prisons to see, so little time. I eventually spent time in 13 prisons or lock-ups over a period of 2 years – for pot! I was inmate council chief in one joint. What a trip. A big friendly country boy from Texas, who’d served 30 years for a kidnapping he said he didn’t do, told me once that I might have gotten even more spiritual growth out of my time in prison if I’d been in longer. Maybe so.