Thursday, May 3, 2018

Lovin' Life

By Eduardo Ramirez

For Donald Hall. 

“I've been by myself so long I wouldn't know how to live with another person.” Dr. G took in this comment and without even looking at his notepad scribbled something. It might've just been a doodle, or something equally meaningless. But Dr. G wasn't given to meaningless activity. He took his job seriously – but in a good way. Some guards take their job seriously and that means not even an extra piece of fruit coming out of the chow hall; there are counselors who will not see anyone without the proper paperwork being filled out first. Some call this professional diligence, I call it overkill. Dr. G was a no nonsense type of guy but he was easygoing too. As the shrink at SCI-Pittsburgh – nostalgically referred to as Western Penitentiary – I suppose he had to be. It would hardly be productive if he didn't use that light touch with the dozens of guys he saw daily. My visit was prompted by an upcoming transfer to a prison closer to my home region. I was feeling tense, mostly because after spending the better part of three years in a one-man cell I was about to lose that privilege and be forced to live with someone else's funk. New house, new rules, you know. I was hoping Dr. G would agree that a cellmate wouldn't be exactly conducive to my “custody, care, and control”; a recommendation from him to have me permanently Z-Coded (administrative lingo for “left the f@#! alone”) would go a long way.

“There's a guy at Graterford I want you to look up. His name is Donald Hall, and he recently got off of death row.” Dr. G tore the paper with Donald's name and number on it from his pad and handed it to me. He gave me his version of a primer on Mr. Hall. He had spent over twenty years on death row before an appeals court overturned his sentence and gave him life-without-parole instead. “You would think that the trauma of facing execution and literally avoiding it by a few weeks would forever scar an individual,” Dr. G said, “but not Mr. Hall. He came out telling everyone he loved life. It got so that people started calling him “Lovin' Life”.” The man was a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, Dr. G told me. “Change is often uncomfortable, but ultimately can prove to be necessary.” 

I wasn't sure what this had to do with me getting single-cell status but the more he droned on the clearer it was that Dr. G wasn't going to give me the relief I was hoping for. 

A few weeks later, I found myself at the legendary – though not for the greatest of reasons – Graterford State Prison. I wasn't even thinking about Donald Hall, nor lovin' life, so much as I was thinking about how shitty life was turning out. I was eight years in on a wrongful conviction – and, yeah, my appeals were offering me some hope but the daunting football-field long prison blocks and the ancient cons who'd been down since the Nixon administration gave me an eerie insight into what I could look forward to. Life was looking anything but lovable.

Graterford was alive, though. Its proximity to Philly's fluid political scene gave the prison a vibrant air of social activism that just didn't seem to exist in the other lock ups I'd been at. It turns out that rather than waiting to die, most of the oldheads were politicking in the hopes for a commuted sentence. I'm sure that more cynical minds would pooh-pooh these activities as being the efforts of desperate men who were only in it for the recognition, and these guys probably did start off with selfish intentions, but given that only a handful had ever made a successful bid for commutation – which made the odds akin to hitting the lottery – at a certain point I have to believe that their rhetoric for social change and ending violence really became a personal philosophy. 

I got involved in whatever group would have me. There was the arts project that painted murals in sections on portable cloth panels so that our finished products could be transported to the city and installed. The End Violence Project was a weekly workshop conducted by Landmark Education that focused on a simple philosophy: the moment you have an idea, life will immediately present you with obstacles to overcome. Temple University offered a criminal justice course in which students from campus studied alongside students within the prison – that venture prompted me to seek enrollment in another college program being offered by Villanova. There was literally no shortage of activities to take part in. 

It was as a result of my newly discovered outlets for my lifelong avocation as a quasi- intellectual/pseudo-philosopher that I found myself in the dayroom expounding on the theological intricacies of the masterpiece known as Futurama. Yes, even a silly cartoon about a 20th Century slacker in the 30th Century, with a crooked sidekick robot, and a slapstick menagerie of characters, can teach us valuable lessons. Sort of like what goes on at Graterford…

There's a particular episode in which Bender – the booze swilling, pocket picking, floozy loving robot – finds himself adrift in the vastness of space. Organic debris collects on his shiny metal ass and evolves into a civilization. Being that Bender can communicate with the life forms that are developing on his classy-chassis, he starts to unwittingly (then eventually, quite wittingly) take on the role of a god. His chosen people need water, he produces a flask from his trunk; they ask for guidance, and he instructs them to build temples in his honor – in the way only a self indulgent narcissist can. Eventually his civilization breaks into warring factions and they annihilate each other, leaving Bender to float on in the loneliness of the cosmos. That is, until he comes across his own personal god – who happens to communicate in binary code. 

Bender pleads his case with this god, telling him how lonely he is and how he understands the responsibility of a god – though he did a poor job of handling those responsibilities. The god assures Bender that he was watching the whole time, and empathizes about how when you do too much for the people they can become too dependent; don't do enough, and they lose faith. “You gotta have a light touch, like a safecracker, or a person who burns down his business for the insurance money – but only if he makes it look like an accident,” the god tells Bender. This is the joke. And in the way artists use lies to tell the truth, the writers of Futurama slip in that little nugget of wisdom: “Sometimes when you do the right thing people aren't sure you've done anything at all.” The episode ends with the god packing Bender's bag and whipping him through the universe to be with his fellow Planet Express crew back in New York.

The guy to whom I'm explaining this smiles through what I imagine is his confusion – although it could've been polite disinterest. We start to wrap up the conversation when the oldhead sitting next to me says, “I've never heard anyone use a cartoon to explain god's love.” He extended a lean, sinewy hand and introduced himself: "My name's Donald Hall, but most people call me “Lovin' Life”." 

He wasn't what I expected – even though my experience was leading me to expect the unexpected. Well over sixty, he still had a boyish smile. He had a boyish build, too; thin, but nothing that made him look emaciated. In fact, he had a frame like the welterweights of old, like Kid Galahad or Sugar Ray Robinson. He smiled like he was about to break into a Nat King Cole number. His smile revealed a pearly row of teeth that could hardly be his own. He didn't look like a grandfather at all. If he wasn't such a straight-laced guy I wouldn't trust him around my mother. But he was straight-laced. 

Donald was a born again, and damned well proud of it! He ushered church services and regularly had bible study on the block. We spoke one time about making mistakes and he told me something I'll never forget: “A mistake is a result you can't expect. Doing something you know is wrong always turns out the way one should expect.” 

I asked Donald how he got the name “Lovin' Life” and he told me it came from the way he would greet people. They'd say, “Hey, Donald, how you doin' today?” To which he'd reply, “Lovin' life”. I pressed him about his sunny disposition and he told me how it had developed on the row.

“It wasn't always this way. At the beginning of my bid, I was angry. I was a five alarm fire in a one truck town and I was ready to burn down everything and everyone. I slept a few hours each night, and my days were restless and filled with anxiety. I hated the white guards ‘cause they reminded me of all the people I blamed for my situation: white judge, white prosecutor, white public defender, white jury. I hated the black guards ‘cause I thought they were sellouts. I hated the other guys on the row ‘cause they were crazy, know-it-alls, or happy-go-lucky fools that didn't realize they were about to die – some even expected a mystery god to come down and pluck them up like a precious flower from this rotten garden. I hated myself, and in the loudness of my anger I couldn't figure out why. I needed a little peace of mind so that I could think straight. It took several years before I realized my peace and quiet were there all along.  
Imagine the quietest place on earth. A church might come to mind, or maybe the top of Mount Everest. But even a church has bells that ring, and rough winds howl atop every mountain. But on the row it's solemnly quiet. Sure, some guys talk in chess moves from time to time, and there's the sound of trays being passed through the bars, but, in general, everyone has too much on their mind that only silence can work out. It was in this silence that my thoughts began to speak with God. It wasn't gradual, the way it is for some. It was instantaneous and surprising to me when I found myself speaking into the silence. And the silence spoke back to me. Whom else could it be but God? I just accepted it. I was too beat down to fight it anymore. So when I did push ups, God coached me between each rep; I wrote a letter home, God inspired my words; but especially when I read the Bible, God directed me to the best scripture at the best times. It really did change the air around me; cooled out my fire, and gave me a different perspective on life. 
With my perspective starting to change – a result that certainly was the culmination of circumstance and godly influence – I started to see things make a change for the better. All of my relationships improved dramatically. My daughters responded more frequently to my letters. My interaction with staff became less contentious and, at the very least, more courteous – by professional standards, if nothing else. But almost as important as my relationship with my Lord and Savior, who had prepared a home for my soul, was my relationship with my lawyers, who were trying to save me here on Earth. I started to see them in a new light: their long hours and hard work in their vocation working against capital punishment, and it wasn't all that pro-salary either. I'm sure my surliness came off as anything and everything but the appreciation I should have been expressing.  
I wanted to be a new man. I apologized to people and began listening to them without feeling compelled to respond. The older guys on the unit began to invite me into their flashbacks of the early days: when they were all as suave as Billie Dee, and as debonair as Sidney. Never mind that these flights of fancy were, for the most part, gross exaggerations of the way things actually were. I had a knack for interpreting these revelries in a way that highlighted our potential for kindness – and as unspoken as it might have been, my brothers and I on the row knew our regrets and eased each other's guilt.” 

Donald's legal drama was unlike anything David E. Kelly or Dick Wolf ever produced. It was more “Law and Dis-order”, and did not at all reflect those kinds of neat storylines with their logical conclusions. In the end, his sentence was reversed due to the Commonwealth's poor choice in words when it came to explaining the death penalty to a jury. Nothing fancy; just enough to spare him from a devil's cocktail. Donald's sentence might have changed but not his outlook – which no one can say was a bad thing.

Donald was transferred from the Capitol Unit at SCI-Greene to the busyness of SCI-Pittsburgh, where all the Philly guys worked on earning a promotional transfer back east. My stay at Western wasn't unbearably long, but I did learn a few things: Pittsburgh winters are cold; when you don't have a baseball field a black top surface will suffice – just don't try sliding into the third; and, what perhaps sticks in my memory the most, just how old the place was. 

Built around the turn of the 20th Century, it originally only had one long building that ran maybe a tenth of a mile, and stacked five tiers up; a guy could get a good cardio workout making the trek up and down those stairs and to and from the chow hall several times a day. Just as old was the plumbing. I mean, as toilets broke down they were replaced with newer models – you know, those cold, metal deals that made Pittsburgh winter mornings feel extra chilly. It was in one of the cells with one of these toilets that Donald Hall saw a reflection of himself that I will never forget. 

“The cell was a nightmare. It looked like it hadn't been occupied since the days of Al Capone, and no one had bothered to clean it since, either. Layers and layers of paint caked on the walls; layers and layers peeling and chipping away. I felt like I was living in a musty shoebox. I could reach out and touch either wall with my fingertips. But amid all the dust and grime that needed an industrial grade sandblaster was a toilet that had a universe of bacteria growing in it. I wasn't sure if it was feces or rust that crusted over the inside of the bowl. I just rolled up my sleeves and went to work with an old toothbrush and scouring pad. It didn't come off easily. It took about a week just to get half the bowl looking decent enough that I didn't wanna retch each time I looked into it. I must've used a dozen pair of rubber gloves on that operation. But as I scrubbed away a thought occurred to me: I was that toilet bowl.
Jesus found me on death row when I was covered in years of slime that no sane person would touch. He rolled up his sleeves and with his word, like steel wool, he scraped away; he got down on his knees and held his breath through the stink and polished me up into a new vessel. No one wants to scrub toilets but we all want our souls to be saved. It just so happens that some souls are filthier than a toilet – someone still has to save them, though. I figured, if Jesus thought I was worthy of salvation than even the filthiest toilet is worthy of bringing back to its original luster. Jesus brought me back to a shine brighter than a new penny, and absolutely worth more too. 
That's how I got the name “Lovin' Life”. I really do love it, and I wanna encourage us all to love it. We've all got our crusty sides to us but God, Yahweh, Allah, Buddha – doesn't really matter which – tends to us nonetheless. I don't just love my life, I love your life. I feel responsible in my actions 'cause I know they can influence others – for either good or evil. If anything, I wanna affect the good.” 

Donald would go on to tell this story in a stage play produced by a community organization. One day I'll have to go online to see if I can find it, to see if I've remembered the details as accurately as he related them to me. I can only hope that its viewing has resulted in the effect that he was trying to bring about. I've got to have hope since I don't normally go for the “prisoner portrayal” thing. I see those activities as largely exploitive of prisoners. The producers have a vision of a flawed human who is deserving of redemption and they seek out a resident to help them bring that character to life. Who the man is behind the character isn't necessarily important as long as he is believable. Once the project is over and the lights go out, once the audience has applauded and the high wears off, these “humanists” go about their way and move on to the next project.

Where were the helping hands when Donald was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer? Who among those noble folks watched, let alone cared for, him as his already slight build thinned out and folded like a dogeared sheet of paper? Donald did what he could to keep his spirits up; he still attended service, and in his weakened state was still the head usher showing guests to their seats. If he ever felt abandoned, he didn't show it. That wouldn't be his way. Maybe a lifetime ago, when the world was a shitty toilet bowl whose drain he was circling, he might have had some sharp words. But “Lovin' Life” wanted to die with some integrity. God made him into a new man and this new man wouldn't desecrate the holiness of that relationship. No, prison activists didn't produce any films of a dying man. It was just his family – on the outside and on the inside – who brought him some soup when he could stomach it, and shared a few jokes to help him smile. 

I don't know if he ever got any letters acknowledging his contributions. Dr. G thought highly of him, so I like to think that he still tells the story of the condemned man who was reborn. And the guys in the chapel still bring up his name from time to time. Donald's spirit does live on. In a recent campaign for compassionate release, a picture of Donald (and other long timers who've passed behind these walls) was featured prominently and exhibited throughout the state. A bill to support end-of-life release is being bandied about. This may be too late for Donald, but not for others like him. We'll just have to see which way the political winds blow. Until then (and long after), I'll still have the same response when people ask, “What's up?”

“Just lovin' life, my man. Just lovin' life.”

Edward Ramirez DN6284
SCI Graterford
P.O. Box 244
Graterford, PA 19426 

1 comment:

AussieEyes said...

I love this story. it's beautiful!