To read Part One, click here
A word about being a felon these three decades. I lay no blame for the spirling of my life anywhere by with myself, nor do I indulge in pity. But over the years I have, on occasion, wondered what life might have looked like if I had taken different forks in the road. What if I hadn’t stayed at a motel in Snohomish County. Or if I’d gone with Paige to Eastern Washington. What if she'd gotten the kitten from someone other than her sketchy stripper friend. Or, not brought the kitten home at all. Several of my friends and associates from the scene back then went on to sell pot year after year, decade after decade without ever seeing the inside of a jail cell. Some of them bought homes and started business with their profits. One became a medical marijuana provider and now works for a commercial grower. Weed has been legal in this state for seven or eight years--from what I see on TV you can buy it in specialty shops, no different you would tobacco or jellybeans.
I have never been able to vote. I follow politics with the half-hearted interest you might muster while watching an Olympic event featuring a sport you've never even tried, played by two teams from countries you can barely find on the map. Maybe disenfranchisement has jaded me politically, disillusioning me toward the prospect of any worthwhile election result. Sometimes I wonder whether I've even missed anything by never having voted. Mer or another, maybe I would have been one of those people who fill out a ballot, but votes Independant only because they dislike that candidate on lota less than the other two. From my outlander's perch I watch the free world devolve into ideological fits, hurling polarized vitriol that seems born of genuine hatred. I watch political discussions turn folks who are otherwise sensible into zealots, fever-eyed as they recite tribalist talking points, vocalizing their contempt for others who differ only in political opinions. I see folks who happen to have been born here suddenly vilify those who live here peaceably, but happen to have been born elsewhere. I see celebrities issue threats of violence against kids in Trump hats, doing so with impunity, the outrage I've come to expect from much of the public notably absent. Would I too be so ensconced in one echo chamber or another, had I a say in the process?
My close friend told her husband, prior to the last election, "If you don't go out and vote, I don't want to hear you complain about the outcome afterwards." This is, I think, a common sentiment out there. How would the fact that my abstinence is involuntary make any difference? We don't talk politics much, my friend and I, but when we have in the past I've sensed in her a touch of annoyance because I sometimes fall short of liberal orthodoxy. She doesn't chide me for my shortcomings==after all, Al Gore was considered progressive when I came to prison. Besides, I have had to remind her, political affiliation is a voter's luxury.
I've only ever been fired because of my criminal history. I've been unhired after many successful interviews upon disclosure of my past. Once, I had been working for several months as a mechanic at the dealership in Seattle when a former friend got caught in a stolen car. He told the police he'd bought it from me, at the lot. the Sheriff called my boss, asking him whether the car had in fact come from the dealership. Of course it hadn't. But then the Sheriff asked my boss whether he knew of my past. Of course he didn't. The following day I showed up early, as usual. He called me into the office.
"Look man. I like your work, really I do. You kick ass around here. But I can't take the liability. You understand. Nothing personal, right?"
Since losing the emptied house so many years ago, I've never been able to have my name on a lease. Most apartment complexes and landlords, even the trailer parks you wouldn't want to live in, have a no-felon policy.
Until crystal meth burst into my life I'd forgotten what it was to not feel shambly and false. For months my mind had dwelt on the void where Paige and my son had been, the way the tongue revisits a missing tooth knocked out in a fight the day before. Understand, methamphetamine is a counterfeit poultice, a tourniquet spell cast on the hemorrhaging heart. And how I longed to curtail my memory, the endless loop of relived dissolution I tormented myself with. I hated how much I still loved her, and that left me stricken. Nothing appealed more than to forget the world that had forgotten me.
Dope is ballistic amnesia. Firing your awareness into the moment, it embeds you durably in the spangled minutiae of whatever context is at hand. There is neither then nor when. Nor is there what if, not if you don't want there to be. You can occupy yourself wholly with detailing your car or sorting a closet as easily as committing a burglary. And then, you look away for a second and dope rears up from the shadows, taking on behemoth dimensions and creating its own weather system.
I’d convinced myself I had nothing left to lose, another lie that tells itself. Methamphetamine, above all its other qualities, neutralizes. Your thinking recedes into the impulses of your soluble parts.
I secretly despised most of those who would have anything to do with me, and rigorously avoided everyone else. The first time I injected crystal meth, I realized that with a press of a plunger I could eradicate the outer world, a ramshackle solipsism. Craving the insulation dope offered, I began consuming more than I could afford without sacrificing what integrity I had left, routinely wagering my freedom in the process. But my addiction outpaced even my sense of isolation. And so began the storied tropes of dealing and stealing, the trail of ruin galore.
That fateful morning at Andy's Motel was my first felony but, as these things often go, not my last. Not by a long shot. And over the years I lost custody of my compass, jettisoning circumspection and meaning for the carnival promise of the dope show. I detached myself from the monomyth learned at mother's knee, the celebrated arc of trappings and self-worth, because what's the point when precarity is the overarching theme and comeuppance the twist everyone saw coming. I slid away to the gravity pull of lower strata, my futuring lens myopic, focused on the pageantry of short game profit and solitaire drift. I felt locked out of one world, and locked into another. The stab of alienation was ownable because it served as an identifiable source of the loneliness I wore like a cloak of barbwire pulled in tight around me. As a rule, I sharply curbed my social investments, generalized mistrust the malignant gem now embedded in my chest.
It happened out of nowhere, toward the end of a nondescript day not long after I'd gotten out of prison for the second time. She got on the bus and sat down next to me when there were several empty seats. The suddenness of her presence beside me was utterly three-dimensional, and would have been distracting had I anything else to pay attention to. I repositioned myself slightly to give her proper space. I couldn't blatently look her over without seeming creepy, so I feigned interest in cross-traffic happenings on her side. She was tennis chic, hair like dark liquor against her time-share tan. Her perfume was a stray lyric in the public transit drudge. In a word, unattainable. I wondered what she would think if she were to look at me, really look. Would she know I'd just started doing crystal again, as in, I'd banged a quarter gram in my connect's bathroom an hour ago after a year and a half of clean time in the joint. The bus inched forward in a long backup due to lane closure.
"This is like one of those tedious slow motion scenes in a movie where nothing happens," she said while looking ahead, the casual tack of an accomplice. "I knew I should have driven." I was so startled that she'd broken the passengerly rule of separation that at first I was unconvinced she was even talking to me.
I am incredibly charming and funny, except when talking to people. I almost let the opening close, and then the speed kicked in. "Maybe we're just the slow motion extras, and the hero's ankle deep in action somewhere else." I held out my hand. "Astonishingly Ordinary Passenger #3. Nice to meet you."
And there we were five minutes later, far-fetched and kind of weightless the way you can be with a stranger, our small talk entering a noticeable growth spurt. She was in town, she said, to finish her degree at UW. Charlotte, from Boston. I listened for an accent but instead detected a swerve of interest when she asked whether there was a decent Mexican place nearby. Next stop, I told her, and a couple of limed-and-salted hours later I headed home, her number in my pocket and her tastes on my lips.
We talked on the phone and a couple days later Charlotte picked me up in her BMW for our first real date. I was feeling the allowable flush of speculation. a little dumbstruck at the windfall quality of the moment. We spent the afternoon strolling the shores of Lake Washington and then she suggested drinks at her place. As she drove us down a sidestreet several miles and tax brackets from the neighborhood, the topic of her schooling came up. She started summarizing the thesis she was finishing for her masters in criminal justice. On the coddling of American criminals and why vastly longer prison sentences and harsher conditions would save our streets. I paid whole-eared attention.
She fleshed out her argument for me, outlining how the criminal is your basic societal virus, statistically predictable and soulless. Unchecked, she said, garden-variety deviance is sure to progress like any other malady: into murder, rape and other unspeakable acts. This much is written in genetic stone. Given that criminality is a maladaptive brainwave mutation, a perfect system ought to sift criminals from the gene pool permanently, for first offenses in most types of crimes. I quietly asked that she pull over.
"You really believe this, what you're telling me? That there's no coming back, no way no how, from a mistake? Throw away the first key, this is what you're saying?"
"Mistakes, sure," she said, her plum-colored nails impatiently tapping the steering wheel at ten and two. "But not... crimes. People who break the law harm everyone else. This isn't rocket science. Get rid of the bad actors, and the rest of us win. Besides, they've got it way too easy. Free cable. Pillows. Jesus. I have to pay for my cable."
"Well, I suppose I could sit here and agree with you," I said, and then took a deep breath to give myself three seconds to reconsider the words forming in my head. "But then we'd both sound like idiots. Shit. I figure now's as good a time as any."
The thin annoyance tightening her eyes only made her prettier. "Time for what?"
"I guess you'd call it swapping honesty," I said, and swallowed. The plunge of her neckline was lethal. "I happen to have eight felony convictions, Charlotte. I've been to the joint twice. And yeah, we do have pillows, but they're like a slice of cheese on a turd burger. My first bid was for a violent crime. Well, technically, anyway. Nobody actually got hurt, but the judge said it's the thought that counts."
She recoiled, blinking like a bird in sudden light. Her mouth formed a pale line and her breathing quickened and caught like little hiccups.
"And maybe you're right," I continued, scrutinizing the exclamation point of bird shit at the top of the windshield. "Maybe there is something very wrong with my brain." I turned to face her. Maintaining eye contact, I slowly leaned over as if to kiss her. She drew back, her lower lip quivering.
"I mean," I said, softly, "I came this close to going home with you."
I got out and deliberately locked the door before easing it shut. I spent much of the three hour walk home asking myself why the hell I couldn't have held my tongue until afterward.
Like the time-diluted light reaching us from distant constellations, my stories carry in their wavelengths particles of what was, farflung impulses that now seem alien even to me. Expect neither hero nor moral--mine aren't that species of story. The plotlines are contorted, each character a mongrel of flaws and disquieting motives. We're all repositories of sorts, some for empowering narratives of ordained purpose, others for truths that shy from telling.
In prison the years blow by, untouched. I watch, or think I watch, timelines unfurl for those beyond, the ones with moving parts. From here histories appear episodic, punctuated. I am shown unconvincing pictures of sudden adults who still bear children's names. But now I'm nearing the journey's end, or beginning, depending on your perspective. Either way, I will be free in a couple years, and I could conceivably leave even sooner for transitional steps. My singular focus is on the future, now that I have one. But I still drag behind me this corpus of unwashed stories that is, I guess, what I'm made of.
Had I not become a felon at 18, would I have gravitated to the underworld of methamphetamine? Would I have languished for a decade in the bowelworks of society before sedimenting here? Questions more valuable in their asking, to be sure, than pointlessly attempting to answer them. Causality can be tricky to map.
My descent is the story of anyone, really. Anyone who loses their place in the universe and all hope of reclaiming it. In reality, most of our dreams are stillborn. Imagine the Iowa accountant who dreams of opening a New York dance studio. A notion his friends find too fantastical for him to consider bringing it into existence. But in toying with the numbers and picturing the polished railings he finds a current of hope to carry him through another day, another week. Because he could become a dance studio owner. He could conceivably remake his circumstance, and in doing so reinvent an element of his identity.
But the word ex-felon is itself a fiction. For all but the super rich there is no real world process for uncommitting a felony. I've been, basically, a number my entire adult life, my impression managed in large part by the State's scriveners. Faced with that immutable fact, how, I asked for so long, could I expect my future to turn out any different than my past? I suppose being labeled a felon is no worse, in terms of discrimination, than what some folks endure by virtue of their skincolor. I'm not here to compare hardships. After all, one might say I brought this all on myself. But maybe I can understand better than most why a black kid, treated like a thug and told that's all he'll ever be, begins to act like one. I comprehend the power of labels.
Much about the world is different than it was 17 years ago, when we parted ways. Social climate change is in full, albeit incremental, swing--a global, or at least national, one-degree warming toward felons. Reputable companies are becoming "felon friendly." One of my closest friends, who just released after doing 27 years for murder, is interviewing at Amazon this week—to work in the towers, not the warehouses. They reached out to him after his all-star completion of a one-year coding bootcamp Amazon's recruitment company started inside the Reformatory. Boeing also hires felons, as does Microsoft.
Whatever Donald Trump's flaws may be, he has signed into law Second Chance legislation, which, although non-binding to individual states, has furthered the national conversation around sentence reform and the idea of redeemability. A bill which would bring back parole in Washington State is in the house right now. Seattle has enacted a "Ban the Box" law, prohibiting employers from asking applicants whether they've been convicted of a felony in the past 7 years. (Now they just google or e-verify you.) A gesture, sure, but one that has done some work in drawing attention to barriers to re-entry.
The warden has intimated to me that upon release I should apply here, as the lead (staff) operator for the wastewater treatment plant at which I've been the lead (prisoner) operator for a year and a half. With the State license I already have, I'd make 60k a year to do the same job I get paid $51.25 a month for now. I guess even DOC has become felon friendly.
Where I am now--a minimum security work camp--prisoners mark time in months and days, rather than years. A shift in language reflecting the constricting sense of duration felt near a time horizon. An atmospheric sort of density you don't think about until you do, and then you can think of nothing else, like becoming aware of your ears at altitude. The world hum suffuses the mental space beneath my every running thought, imputing a dim sense of urgency to undertakings I one tinkered at patiently. My paintings have grown smaller, my writing projects abridged, less frequent. At this point I wouldn't buy green bananas.
This Fourth of July I will quietly celebrate the fourteenth anniversary of my own independence from chemicals that is. I've been asked when, during that time, my outlook changed from pragmatic feutilism to that of amateur futurist. I could sooner pinpoint the moment at which one sand dune becomes another. Evolution is the accumulation of manifold changes, some smaller than others. In my inner milieu where not much remains unsorted, there no longer exists the need to shield myself from unsightly features of reality. I meet life head on now. Prison has taught me how to accept anything, even being exiled, in time to walk out into a world where people are waiting to welcome me. I have put what talents I have to use in desolution, steadily creating in a desert, and honing ways to define myself as something other than nothing, to shore up my personhood in defiance of labels.
My storiable days are in antiseptic distance behind me, the angelus of impulse laid in response. After decades of whipsawing in the title role of chaos, I've come to exalt structure. Because to realize an imagined future is to build a translatable reality fit to occupy.
I rarely share my stories anymore, moreso to their ill fit than any particular feelings of shame. What it means to no longer identify with your own history. Stories are how we summarize ourselves, distilling complex motives and nuanced chains of causality into a crafted set of disembodied images. I carefully consider how, and to whom, I vignette myself. As a writer I believe any real life is reducible to words. As someone who's lived an outlier existence, I hedge sometimes at attempting to do so.
Some prisoners get out and go to great lengths to obscure their past. They tell a different sort of story. To what end, I can't say. Everyone is everywhere at once now, hyperlinked and able to scroll on a whim through the cyber archives woven into the fabric of daily life. I have a couple years to decide whether, or how much I want to curate my online identity. Plenty of Charlottes still wander the world, but I've since learned to budget my disappointment by carefully managing my expectations.
Paige and I are friends now, closer than we have been in a lifetime. The jagged edges between us are timeworn. She has raised our son to become the sort of man who is wise enough to have learned from his father, if nothing else, what not to do. He and I have begun reconstructing our relationship, precious brickwork that figures prominently in my future, which has already begun.
Part of my job here is to make daily rounds, driving a van from one end of this complex of five prisons to the other, winding between and around institutions, outside the perimeters. I am unsupervised eight hours a day, alone or with one or two other prisoners. Each morning I spend a quarter hour or so standing on the grass a hundred feet from a main city street, across from a busy Chevron gas station that sits next to an RV dealership. I could walk over to them, if I were still impulsive. But instead I stand still and look at the blinding currents of bustle, and it is real and it is unreal, the tides of routine washing the horizon in heartbreaking beauty.
I gaze out at the realm I am soon to reenter, studying the new ways people do the same old things. The world-beyond has begun to resonate with my daft sense of belonging, a concept as novel to me as the dumbstruck sense of wonder I have about what comes next. My friend is fond of telling me I have no idea what awaits me out there. And she's right. Imagination can churn out slide shows based on longing and obsolete derivatives of bygone epochs, breathless projections made without referent or practicality. So I plan carefully, but in pencil. I expect obstacles, but barriers don't always precipitate collisions. And sure, I will forever be trailed by long and grim-faced ghosts. But ghosts walk past forgotten unless you dignify them with fear or denial.
Out there is a connected country, an America webbed in networks pulsing with desire and achievement, torrents of zeros and ones humanly non-binaried and synapsed in grand sweeps of color, the interplay of bright spires and dark rabbit holes waxing our instinct to qualify all this, our monument to what, the vanity of our species, silhouetted as we are against the dawning age of post-wonderment, and it is my country to rediscover too, my homeland of disruptive clarity, and I can hear it whispering of reconciliation in a tongue I'm beginning to understand.
Everything feels near at hand, for the first time. To believe in the sacred promise of an authentic life is no small thing. Not everyone can stare unflinching at the freedom shimmering across the fiats and know it is no mirage. Today I am the shabbily clad outsider on the grassy margins, a totem of localized yearning and grit, standing alone and largely unnoticed by the morning throng of commuters. Tomorrow I am one of you. And if I should become lonely in the painstaken notch I will have carved out of the swirling surface world, if I should succumb to an aching need for a furry little piece of nature to anchor me to a life under construction, well, this time I will most definitely get a puppy.
|Steve Bartholomew 978300|
P.O. Box 777
Monroe, WA 98272