Thursday, December 28, 2017

Dad’s Last Trip

By Wendell Grissom

My father, Bobbie Gene Grissom, was born in Fort Cobb, Oklahoma, on January 21, 1940. He served nine-years in the United States Air Force and, upon leaving, became a truck driver. He married my mother, Mary Katherine Harger, on January 2, 1965, and they had me, Wendell Arden Grissom, on October 11, 1968.

Throughout my childhood, my dad drove trucks, 18-wheelers, cross-country. His CB-handle was “SPUD.” Back in the 1970’s era, trucking was a lot different than it is today. Truckers used the CB-radio all the time, went by their CB-handles, painted their trucks all up, and took pride in their jobs, as well as their trucks. My father’s truck was a blue Kentworth truck with a sleeper on the back. On both the driver’s-side and the passenger side of the sleeper, he had little potato men wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat, holding a CB-mic in his hand painted on it. On the front of the truck, he had a bug shield with his CB-handle, “SPUD,” written on it. This was Dad’s was of making his truck stand out.

My two sisters, Tina and Gloria, and I went on lots of trips with Dad as we were growing up. There were all kinds of “trucking songs” on the radio back then, including David Dudley, ad C.W. McCall. A lot of movies too: Smokey and the Bandit, Convoy, etc. I loved trucks, and all that went with ‘em, and so did my father. Trucking was in his blood. To me, I have the best parents anyone could ever ask for.

In 1981, my parents and I moved to Paris, Arkansas. My mother’s side of the family – my grandparents – owned a farm there; it’s where my mother grew up. But, unfortunately, things didn’t go as hoped. My father’s health took a turn for the worse. I was just a child then, but I know that my father had to sell his truck due to health issues. To make a long story short, things didn’t go as we had planned when we moved to Arkansas, and we eventually moved back to Oklahoma in 1983. Dad went to work for American Airlines as an A&P mechanic. In 1985, he received a job-transfer, and we all moved to Grapevine, Texas, and he went to work for American Airlines at the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. My parents eventually found a nice home in Lewisville, Texas. They bought it, and that’s where we lived. My mother went to work for General Dynamics, and I went to work for Texas Instruments. Everything was really good then, everyone was happy. But my father really missed getting out on the open-road and going; however, he remained working for American Airlines.

My father was a good provider. He gave us everything we could ever need or want. I hardly ever saw him get mad; but, if he did, it was for a good reason – probably something I’d done. My father was a kind man, loving. He was always nice and loving towards my mother, too. He never once, in my entire life, used drugs or abused alcohol. In fact, the only times I ever saw my parents drink alcohol was, but for maybe one-single drink, on like New Year’s Day, or something. So, really, you could almost say the never drank alcohol. My father was a hard-worker too; always finding some kind of job to do on the side – one he could have me helping with, usually. I don’t think it was so much for the money, as it was just him wanting to spend time with me, his son. His favorite side-job was hauling and selling firewood. He even bought a special truck and trailer for it: a 1974 Flatbed 1-ton pick-up and a 34’ Gooseneck trailer. Plus, we used my Ford F-250, with his 16’-trailer. I’m not sure how he’d find these guys, but we’d drive up north, into Texas, and buy firewood, that was already cut and split, and stacked. We would load it, and bring it back to the Dallas/Fort Worth area – where we lived – and he’d literally sell it as fast as he could bring it in. We delivered and stacked it wherever the customer wanted. Yeah, we don’t often stop and appreciate what we have ‘til, oftentimes, it’s too late. Those were the “good ol’ days,” as they say. I really miss them.

In 1995, Dad went in to see the doctor. He was always tired, not feeling very good. The doctor ordered a stress-test to be done and, when Dad took it, they found all sorts of problems with his heart. They took him by ambulance to the hospital and, the very next day, they had him in surgery to do a quadruple bypass. He made it through okay and came home. However, due to Dad’s job duties at American Airlines, they wanted to put him into an office job. Dad didn’t like that at all, so he took retirement instead; then, shortly after, my mother retired from General Dynamics, and they both moved back to the farm in Paris, Arkansas.

My father, after all these years, was finally able to go back to driving a truck – and that’s exactly what he did. Dad never was the kind to just sit at home and do nothing. Boy, was he happy too! He enjoyed getting out on the road and going, seeing new places. See, trucking wasn’t a job to him, it was what he enjoyed doing. But, as fate would have it, his health took a turn for the worse once again. He’d got a job hauling fuel to local truck-stops. One day, as he was driving down the road, some blood vessels burst in his eyes; he went totally blind, while he was pulling a tanker full of fuel. He barely got the truck over to the side of the road, where he stopped. Only, by the grace of God, did he not have an accident, or hurt himself or anyone else. He called Mom on his cell phone, who, in turn, called emergency services to go out and help him. It came to be known that it was issues with his diabetes that caused the blindness. He did eventually regain his eyesight, but it was about a year-long process. He never did go back to driving a truck after that though.

In 2002, he had some more issues with his heart, and ended up getting a pacemaker. He also started suffering some of the complications associated with Alzheimer’s, though none of us realized it at the time. We just thought it was due to him getting older; his personality had changed – not in a bad way – but he was forgetting stuff, and things that go along with that disease.

I, myself, started driving a truck in late-2001. I went to work for a man who lived in Mulberry, Arkansas, by the name of Brent Higgins, who Dad introduced me to. Mr. Higgins was a good man. I would haul chickens out of California, then bring produce back each week. Dad would come with me, off-and-on. He really enjoyed getting out on the road with me. He’d have all sorts of stories to tell me, of his own trucking experiences, as we travelled across the western part of the United States. He basically taught me all I needed to know about trucking: how to work and maintain them, to how to properly secure my load once loaded, to how to do my logbook. He also taught me other important lessons, like how to drive across the Rocky Mountains without burning up my brakes and killing myself. When you weigh 80,000 lbs, and you’re driving across mountain ranges, such as the Rockies on I-70, you better know how to drive your rig down it, or you may not only kill yourself, but others as well. Dad taught me all of this, and it’s because of him that I became the truck driver I was. I miss my father, but I’ll forever hold in my heart all he ever taught me. He may have thought I wasn’t paying attention at times, but I was.

My father’s health started to get worse around 2013 or so. He’d have good days, and bad days. He started suffering from lower-back pain 24-hours-a-day, every day. A lot of his health issues were due to his diabetes. He started losing the ability to walk, and use his legs like he should. He could still walk, but just slower and slower. Throughout all of his health issues, however, I never heard him complain. He just kept going, day-after-day. 

He went back to the hospital for a checkup on his heart in 2014, and they found more blockage; but as soon as they went in to look closer, they stopped. They told Mom it would kill him if they tried to do anything – almost all of his arteries were clogged up. They told my Mom to take him home, and try to make him as comfortable as possible. They told her he could live a month, or even as long as a year or more: it was up to his body now. Half of his heart was dead. How he kept on going, none of us knew, but he did, even though he suffered every day.

That Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease. It really does take its toll; not only on the person who has it, but their family as well. By the grace of God, my mother was able to keep Dad out of a nursing home. It wasn’t easy for her, but she took care of him, basically all on her own. I’m proud to say that she was able to honor her vow to him: “through sickness and in health”. She stayed by his side and took care of him.

On January 2, 2016, Mom and Dad celebrated their 51st anniversary. But Dad started to really decline that same month. Mom had to get help with him, by having hospice come out to the house. She also got a hospital bed, and that’s where he pretty much stayed from then on. Mom started noticing that he would take a turn, be it for better or worse, on Sundays for some reason. Then she started “sensing” something there with her. She said she’d notice what she called “shadow like” and “movements” in the corner of her eye; but when she’d look, nothing would be there. She also recalled these being white. You see, I’m sure I’m not the only one who was praying for Dad, but I prayed every single day for him, as I do all my family and friends. I even wrote to prayer groups, requesting prayers for him too. I’d pray Psalm 91 over him, asking God to keep him covered with His blood, surrounded by His angels, and to put a hedge of protection around him: to help him, and to keep him safe. Since Dad’s death, I’ve come to believe that Mom was sensing angels all around her – literally, in Dad’s very room – watching over him, preparing to take him. I truly do believe in the power of prayer.

I talked to Mom on the phone, Friday, March 18. I tried to talk to Dad, but he’d long got to the point where he couldn’t talk. But Mom held the phone to his ear and she said he could hear me; he’d stop, and lean toward the phone, as if really trying to listen to my voice. I told him I loved him and missed him very much, trying to comfort him as best I could, over the phone. Mom said that he pointed to something in the room, as if trying to show her something, but she looked and nothing was there. Mom told me to call her again that Sunday, because she just felt “something,” so I promised her I would.

Saturday night, March 19, before I went to bed, I prayed a different prayer for Dad; one that was more for him than for us. I knew Dad wasn’t going to get any better. I knew he was in constant pain, and he wouldn’t want to live this way – he was always an active man. So, for the first time, I prayed for God to take him Home. He’d been through enough, and it was time for him to go to heaven, and find rest and peace. Then I went to bed.

Sunday morning, March 20, I woke straight up – I mean I was woken up. I’d had a dream about Dad. In the dream, I couldn’t tell where I was, but I was inside a room, and could see someone laying down across the room, on the other side. I couldn’t make out an actual face or anything, but I recognized it as a human body. Looking at this body, I watched as – I don’t know any other way to say this –  a ghostly spirit, a vapor, maybe you would call it, rose up out of the body and left the room; then, all that was left, was the body. I looked at my clock: it was 7:40am. In my heart, I knew the dream was about Dad. He had passed. I immediately said a prayer, but this time it was to my Dad. I told him it was okay, and that he didn’t have to be in pain, or suffer anymore. I told him I loved him and I’d miss him, and to go in peace.

I tried to call Mom early Sunday morning, but was unable to get through. I didn’t get hold of her until about 7:00pm that night. As soon as Mom answered, I asked her if all was okay? She said: “No, your father passed away this morning”. I asked her: “What time was it?” And she told me he had passed away at 7:34am. She said he’d been having a better day Saturday but, late Saturday night, he had taken a turn for the worse. He was having a real hard time breathing on his own. Mom had had to call some of the family over to help her, and my niece, April, came. Mom said that that morning she’d grabbed Dad, and pulled him close. She had told him it was okay, and how he’d been a good husband, a good father, and a good provider. She told him how much she loved him, and for him to “go see Wendell now.” It was at that moment, he passed away. She said she looked at the clock and it was 7:34am, just moments before I had been woken up by my dream.

I miss my father more than anyone will ever know, but I can rest assured that one day I’ll see him again – for I have God’s word and promise on that.

Mom said that on the morning Dad passed away, there was a whole bunch of white doves in the front yard, which she had never seen before, nor since. She also hasn’t seen anymore “movements” out of the corner of her eye either. I believe that too, because, well, Dad’s not there anymore. I believe these were angels, waiting to receive Dad’s spirit. After all, that’s what I’d always prayed for: for him to be surrounded by angels.

I laugh when I think of the song, Truck Stop in Heaven, sung by Al Read. This is your last trip, Dad. You go; I’ll be truckin’ that way soon, and we’ll meet up once again. We have God’s word and promise on that, and we know God’s word is truth to those who believe in Him.

I love you, Dad.

Your son,

Wendell Grissom 575281
Oklahoma State Prison
P.O. Box 97
McAlester, OK 74502
My name is Wendell Arden Grissom.  I’m 48 years old, 5’10”, 180 lbs, with black hair.   I enjoy reading and writing, motorcycles, hunting and fishing, traveling and family.  I’m divorced, no children.  I’m a truck driver by trade and have traveled through all 48 of the continental United States.  I’m currently on Death Row in Oklahoma.  If anyone would care to write to me, I’d welcome all letters.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Our Little Secret

By Gregory Tate

The day had finally come. I cleaned my prison cell until it was spotless, and placed most of my personal belongings into two boxes – just in case I got caught and was sent to the Adjustment Center (the “hole”) here in San Quentin State Prison. I wasn’t worried about going to the hole. I had been there many times during my incarceration. Plus, I had an objective. 

I took my freshly starched state blues from under my mattress: my jeans, shirt, and jacket. I didn’t have real starch, like from the street. I used the starch from the water after having cooked Top Ramen soups, which I would pour into a spray bottle. My pants, shirt, and jacket looked as if they had been starched at the cleaners.

I had been sleeping on my state blues for six-months, anticipating this day, October 11th. My daughter, Akilah Kesi, was born on this beautiful day, seven-years ago,. I was incarcerated when Akilah’s mother was three-months pregnant. It was the worst feeling I’d ever experienced, not being there for my daughter, nor my future ex-woman. Akilah was too young, to a degree, to understand tat her Daddy was on death row.

I chose her names to represent her character and nature. Akilah is an Arabic name that means: “Intelligent, one who reasons,” and Kesi is a Swahili name that means: “Born when father was in trouble.”

It had been at least six-months since I had seen Akilah. I wasn’t involved with her mother, Lisa, anymore, and she was in another relationship, so she didn’t take the time to bring Akilah to see me. Plus, Lisa thought she was hurting only me by denying me the opportunity to see my daughter but, in reality, it was hurting Akilah just as much. Lisa was trying her best to break off any father-daughter bond between us because of her personal feelings towards me, for hurting her by leaving her when she was pregnant. She failed to realize that I didn’t fill out an application to be sent to death row. I got caught up on a fluke while living the fast life and selling drugs to support us both and our child on the way. I was a product of my physical and social environment, and fell into the misconceptions of life growing up in Oakland.

I laid out my clothing on my bed the way I used to do when I was in school. I made sure everything was in order. I had been shining my prison boots every night for the last six-months; I could see my reflection in the brown leather. After doing a full inspection of my attire, I was content with the outcome. I started looking at the pictures of Akilah I had been sent over the years. She was a carbon-copy of me in a little girl form. Whenever I felt the stress of waiting on the long appeals of death row, or just being held captive in general, I would look at all of her photos, pray and meditate. I always felt better after these three stress relieving remedies. In my earlier years of incarceration, I would instead do hundreds of push-ups, or just get in trouble with the prison and end up in the hole.

There are no words to express the love and devotion I feel for my daughter. She is the good that came out of my life, which otherwise hasn’t been very promising. I saw a new beginning of my life in her light brown eyes. I saw the leadership characteristics Akilah possessed. I knew she was going to do some remarkable things in the world for her people, and would have and do anything she desired. Once upon a time, I too, had entertained these same visions, thinking I could accomplish anything I set my mind to. These visions had nothing to do with a prison cell on death row.

My thoughts, the memories of my past, were interrupted when I heard my last name and cell number being announced over the intercom for a visit. The time had finally arrived. I brushed my teeth for the second time that morning before the correctional officer arrived at my cell to escort me to the visiting room.

“How are you doing, Mr Jackson?” She asked me.

“I’m doing alright, Officer Long,” I replied. “And may I inquire of your wellbeing, Ms. Long? It looks like life is treating you correctly. I like your new hairstyle.”

“Mr Jackson, I’m doing well, and I’m happy to see you’re in a joyful spirit today.”

“I’m always in a mellow mood every time I see your jazzy self, you know you are cruel and unusual punishment on a brotha. It’s a blessing for me to see a beautiful sistah of your caliber. Your hair is always looking proper, your nails are always on point, and I can’t tell you what that fragrance you’re wearing does. Is it Chanel? And to top it off, you have those beautiful green eyes. Damn!”

“Mr Jackson, you wouldn’t be flirting with me, would you?”

Smiling at Officer Long in the same fashion she was smiling at me, I said: “I wouldn’t call it flirting, Ms Long. I’m just keeping it real and acknowledging your beauty, so you won’t stop bringing a radiance of joy to my small space with your fine self. If only things were different and we were in a different setting and place, it would be on!”

Officer Long was one of the few correctional officers that treated prisoners humanely. She knew I was flirting with her without going over the limits. She wore a big smile without responding – there was no need to. I related to her as a black man relating to a black woman, without stepping out of bounds for the sake of her job. 

After I finished dressing, I placed ten photo tickets in my shirt pocket. I was ready to see my baby girl and make some memories of us together to reflect on. Officer Long handcuffed me to escort me to the visiting room. All death row prisoners have to be handcuffed before leaving their cells. Officer Long escorted me to the visiting room holding cage. I spoke to a few dudes on my way to the visit. They could all see I was in a good vibe by my walk and tone of my voice.

I was placed in holding cage two. There were three holding cages in the area. Prisoners going to visits have to be strip-searched before and after their visits. I stripped off my clothing for a male correctional officer. Female officers aren’t supposed to strip-search male prisoners, but sometimes they do it anyway, for their own kicks.

After getting naked as a new born baby, I placed my clothing and boots through the sally port hole in the cage door. The male correctional officer searched my clothing first, then my boots. I went through the ritual of the strip procedure, raising my arms, running my hands through my hair, pulling down my upper lip and bottom lip, sticking out my tongue, and then raising my testicles. The rest of the strip inspection required me to turn around with my back towards the correctional officer. I lifted both feet, one at a time, did three squats while coughing, and finally, I spread my buttocks. This was very degrading. But women who are incarcerated have it even worse and are humiliated further. The ritual complete, I got dressed.

Once dressed, I asked the correctional officer to place me in the other holding cage, which has a toilet and sink in it, so I could wash my hands. I had just touched my testicles and buttocks. I had showered that morning, but I made a habit of always washing my hands after touching my private parts. I wasn’t about to go touch my loved ones and eat food with unclean hands.

I was handcuffed again, then placed in the holding cage with the toilet and sink. I used the toilet, forcing myself to urinate. When I was finished and flushed the toilet, I started washing my hands standing to the left-side of the toilet. I was indirectly looking at the correctional officer who had placed me in to the holding cage. Once I saw his back was turned, I made my move. I took out two small pieces of plastic I had lodged in the corners of my mouth by my upper wisdom teeth. I quickly placed both pieces of plastic in my front left pants pocket. I got a drink of water, and washed my hands again. I’d done it, that had been my main concern. Now, I could go enjoy my visit with my daughter.

I was cuffed again to be let out of the holding cage. I walked about three feet to a security door, which the other correctional officer in the security booth buzzed me to let in. Once in that door, I was uncuffed again through the hole in the door. Once I was uncuffed, the correctional officer in the security booth buzzed the door open that lead to the visiting room. Death row prisoners have the least physical contact with correctional officers by being handcuffed. 

I’ve heard stories of before I got to San Quentin’s death row, about how prisoners used to be uncuffed when they came out of their cells, but that all changed so prisoners could get typewriters. Prisoners were given a choice of being allowed out of their cells without handcuffs, or the opportunity to buy personal typewriters. Prisoners sold out for typewriters.

They were not aware that they would be subject to more harassment by correctional officers once they knew that we had no way of making physical contact with them, which gave some correctional officers the courage of a lion. One correctional officer told a prisoner after a verbal exchange: “That’s why your woman is going to need someone to keep her bed warm, once they execute your black ass, and I’m going to be the one there for her. And don’t think I don’t have her address, I’m the one who picks up the mail from the mailroom and sorts it out for the tiers.”

Akilah knew which door I would be coming through, and was there to greet me. She ran into my arms. I picked her up, and kissed her on her cheek. This was the warmest welcome I could get. I couldn’t truly express my emotions or the love I felt for my baby girl, it was too deep. Akilah was my salvation and redemption, and kept me fighting from one day to the next, to prevail and get home.

I carried Akilah, still in my arms, over to the check-in booth, where I gave a female correctional officer my name, letting her know I was in the visiting room. Akilah directed me over to where my sister, Rhonda, was sitting. The visiting room was crowded. I hadn’t seen Rhonda when I’d first walked in. I put Akilah down to embrace and kiss my sister. I told Rhonda how much I appreciated her bringing Akilah to see me today. Rhonda had already bought a variety of food from the vending machines located on the right-side of the visiting room. There was a number of small tables and chairs situated around the visiting room. Rhonda had purchased jalapeno burgers, burritos, barbeque hot wings, sodas, and a bunch of other foods from the vending machines. Each visitor was allowed to bring $30 in singles or coins.

I told Akilah: “Happy Birthday!” And asked her what she had got for her birthday. She told me about the different presents and clothing she’d received, but that she didn’t get the bicycle and rollerblade skates she’d wanted. I knew she wanted a bike and skates. I could see the disappointment in her eyes. I told her not to worry, she would get the bike and skates soon. She smiled at me, flashing her pretty light brown eyes, which she got from me.

“Daddy, do you want to play checkers?” Akilah asked.

“Yes, I’ll beat you at checkers, Akilah. Don’t think I’m going to let you win just because it’s your birthday.”

Akilah smiled, walking over to the table where all the games for the visiting room were kept.

While Akilah went to get the checkers, I told Rhonda I wanted her to take Akilah shopping after they left visiting, and buy her the bike and skates she wanted. Rhonda looked at me say: “And just what am I supposed to use for money to get those things?”

“Don’t trip, Akilah will have some money when ya’ll leave.”

Rhonda looked at me, knowing I had something in the mix. She knew I was a hustler, and no matter what the circumstances were, I could be industrious. It was a way of life I was groomed in growing up in Oakland.

Akilah returned with some chess pieces and a board saying: “Daddy, they don’t have any checkers on the table. What are these pieces?” I told her they were chess pieces, and asked her if she wanted to learn how to play chess. Akilah answered: “Yes,” with some excitement in her voice.

I set-up all of the pieces, naming them as I did. I showed Akilah the knight and how it moves in an “L” shape, how the pawns move forward, unless they were taking another piece, how the Bishop moves diagonally, the Castle moves forward and cross-ways, and explained that the most powerful piece on the chess board was the Queen. In action, she has more moves than a large box of Ex-Lax. She can go forward, cross, and diagonal. Her objective is to protect the King, which can only move one-square at a time. After explaining all the dynamics of the chess pieces to Akilah, I told her to tell me which pieces were which. It didn’t surprise me that she named all of the chess pieces on her first try – she represented her name to the fullest.

I continued showing Akilah how to play chess, while Rhonda went to heat up the food in one of the two microwave ovens in the visiting room. Akilah told me about school, how she was doing gymnastics and Tae-Kwon-Do, enjoying them both. She was very energetic, just like I had been at that age, I had also taken both arts.

When Rhonda arrived back with the food, Akilah and I stopped playing chess to eat. I told Rhonda I was thinking about composing some novels while I was incarcerated – ones intended to help the youth, so they wouldn’t end up in prison or dead. There were too many youths caught up in the penal system already, the state charging them as adults under ‘Proposition 21’. I hoped my story could help save someone’s child. Rhonda thought it was a good idea and encouraged me to pursue my vision. When we finished eating, we got in the line to take some photos. Akilah and I went, while Rhonda stayed at the table eating. The picture line was already long with visitors and inmates. While we were waiting out turn, I squatted down face-to-face with Akilah.

“Akilah, Daddy is going to tell you something, but you can’t tell no one but Auntie Rhonda, okay?” I said, serious laughter in my voice.

“Okay, Daddy.” Akilah replied, a smile on her face.

“Can you keep a secret, Akilah?” I said with a serious but loving tone.

Akilah smiled again, nodding her head.

“Okay, now you got to be slick, so Daddy won’t get in trouble with the police.”

She smiled, saying: “Daddy, I can be slick.”

“Okay, now don’t do anything, just listen. Your left pants pocket, I’m going to put something in it, but don’t move or take it out of your pocket until you and Auntie Rhonda are in the car, okay?”

Akilah smiled again, then asked in a low, curious voice: “Daddy, what is it?”

“I’m going to put some money in your pocket, Akilah, so you can get the bike and skates you wanted for your birthday. Sometimes, Momma can’t get you everything you want for your birthday and Christmas because she has to pay the bills and provide for you. I’m not home to help you, Momma, and you got to help Momma and Daddy both by keeping up in school and getting those good grades on your report cards, and doing good in gymnastics and Tae-Kwon-do class. You know we both love you very much.”

Akilah asked me how much money I was going to put in her pocket. I had to laugh. She was only seven, and already conscious of the value of money.

“Two hundred dollars.” I said. She smiled even wider. “This money is yours, Akilah.  You don’t have to spend it all in one day. The money is going to have plastic over it, and it’s folded up really small.” I told her.

I looked around the visiting room to make sure no one was watching me. When I saw it was cool, I reached into my left pocket, grabbing the two one-hundred-dollar bills, and quickly stuck them in her pocket. I told her to make sure the money was stuck deeply in her pocket, so she wouldn’t lose it.

I stood up as Akilah stuck her hand in her pocket, then brought it out quickly. She was happy and it showed by her smile and the sparkle in her eyes. We had just established another bond between father and daughter.

Akilah and I took ten photos with all the picture tickets I had purchased from the prison canteen. We did a myriad of poses. I was enjoying this day so much I didn’t want it to end. But, like all good things, visiting was coming to an end. I got to talk to my sister and Akilah for about twenty more minutes before the visit ended. I was feeling good. I hugged and kissed them both, before being told to line-up with the other prisoners to be strip-searched and escorted back to the unit in East Block. I went through the routine again, as I had done earlier, on the way to visiting.

Once back in my cell, I took off my visiting clothes, and placed them back under my mattress – where they would remain until the next visit. I sat back on my bed and thought about the visit with a smile on my face. I was on cloud nine. Just because I was on death row did not make me forget my obligations to my daughter. I wasn’t there physically for my daughter, like I would have liked to be, but I always hustled in here to be able to send her money and buy her things she wanted. I tried to instill morals, and tell her the importance of getting a good education and going to college. Akilah had told me she was going to be a lawyer, so she could get me home with her. I believed my baby girl would do just that.

(About a week after the visit with Akilah and my sister, I got a letter from Akilah at mail call. It was written in a typical seven-year-old handwriting, with a red coloring crayon.)

“Dear Daddy. 
I had fun visiting you on my birthday. I can’t wait to see you again. I hung the pictures we took together on my wall in my bedroom. I get to look at them every day. Thank you for my birthday presents. Auntie Rhonda took me shopping after we left from visiting you.  
Daddy, I got my bike and rollerblades and some clothes. I’ll be happy when you come home, Daddy. I miss you very much. Oh yeah, I still haven’t told anyone our secret. I love you, Daddy. 
Love your daughter,

I stayed on the bed a long time, in the same position, and kept re-reading Akilah’s letter. It felt good to know I had succeeded in bringing my daughter joy on her birthday. Even while on death row. It’s like the old proverb, “Parenting is a life time job,” a job that I will always do my best to honor, no matter where I’m at. Now that I had achieved that goal, I had to start hustling to do something special for Akilah for Christmas…

Gregory Tate H68500
San Quentin State Prison
San Quentin, CA 94974
Gregory Tate is an aspiring writer from Oakland, California. He is currently incarcerated in San Quentin State Prison, where he is a prisoner on death row. He is going, through the long, slow appeal process to overturn his conviction. He was convicted of robbery-murder on circumstantial evidence.

He started writing a few months after his arrest. He has written seven Urban Novels, and over 600 poems, short stories, essays, thesis’s and songs for soundtracks.

Gregory hopes to transform his books into screenplays for movies. He wanted to show the youth the flip side of the street life, in hopes that it will prevent some from getting caught up in the street life and prison.

Gregory was featured in “Big Time Publishing,” which published one of his many poems "POP POP," an excerpt from his first novel The Oakland Kingpin.

He was a contributor to the soul-shattering anthology “This Side of My Struggle,” a book published by Dr. Sandi S. Crosby, who is a professor of sociology at California State University, Chico.

Gregory won the “ALIVE” writing contest. ALIVE is an organization based in Germany that helps to try to abolish the death penalty worldwide.

He enrolled in Coastline Community College, Distance Learning Program, while on death row and is four classes short of earning an Associate of Arts degree, with three different majors, Business, American Studies, and Social and Behavioral Science.

His hobbies are writing, reading, watching movies, swimming, playing chess, dominos, horseback riding, camping, fishing, and going to the beach but most of all, he loves to cook and has been doing it since he was seven years old.

He will respond to all letters.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Fatherless Child: Memories of the Future

By Michael “Yasir” Belt

“Live you that when your kids think of fairness, wellness and integrity, they think of you.” - H. Jackson Brown Jr.
I remember going home after my first state bid.  I used to tuck in my eldest boy, Golden Child, every night. There were times when I would feel anxious, upset, sad, or remember how much I missed him while I was away; times I had to remind myself why I was living and living right.  Those were the nights I´d climb into his race car bed with him and find solace in his sweaty little light skinned face and open-mouthed slight snore.  It reminded me of when he was just a baby and I´d wait up all night for his mother´s parents to go to work just so I could fall asleep next to my son, my first piece of sanity in life.

Gradually, I stopped tucking him in.  I was hardly ever there at night anymore to be able to.  Whenever I did make it home though, his room would be my first stop.  I´d rub his curl-covered head, kiss his forehead and tell him that I loved him.  Sometimes, he´d stir in his sleep.  “I love you too, Abi,” he´d say in his half asleep, raspy little voice.  

Man, I miss that so much.

It´s ironic how, in the beginning of this state stay, he would ask me if I would come home and sleep in his bed again like I used to.  I had to tell him that by the time I will get home he´ll be too big for us to fit in the bed together but that he, his baby brother and I could get the blankets out and camp out on the living room floor.  It felt good to know that he missed being close to me as much as I miss being close to him and that he was looking forward to those times again.  And, now, after I’ve been away so many years from him, the only thing he looks forward to is my non-existence.

When Baby Boy, my youngest, first learned how to crawl, he wouldn´t allow me to leave the house.  We kept our shoes by the front door so I had to stop there before leaving.  If he was downstairs, he´d stop whatever he was doing and haul tail over to me.  He´d grab my ankles or sit up on his knees and give me the rapidly opening and closing hands gesture of “pick me up”.  I´d oblige him, kiss him, hug him.  But then I´d tell him that Daddy had to go, and give him to his mom or his brother. Or I’d simply put him down and leave.

I should´ve stayed.  Every time, I should´ve stayed.  That way, and presumably only then, would Baby Boy have known who his father is.

I reminisce about the little dates my daughter and I would go on.  We went to see the movie Bolt once.  Now I can´t even see the title on the T.V. guide channel without thinking about Sunshine and finding myself compelled to peek at if not fully watch, the delusional little husky run around and play hero while I feel warm inside as if blessed with the presence of my daughter.  And there isn´t a time in our many daily conversations of frivolity that, when restaurants are mentioned, Red Lobster does not come to mind.  Of course, it´s those cheddar biscuits, but it was also Sunshine´s favorite place to dine, and one of our shared moments.

I almost died when her mother wouldn´t allow me to see her.  I missed her so bad…I had to get her initials tattooed on me so I could see her whenever I looked in the mirror. So I could feel as though I carried her everywhere I went.  And then, once I was allowed to be her father again…I was so far gone, so deep into the streets thatI´d pick her up just to drop her off at my house with my wife and her brothers.  I called myself “tightening the bonds of kinship” with my pseudo-justified actions. In reality I was pawning my responsibilities off on someone who probably didn´t particularly care to watch any of my children other than her own.  All so that I could run the streets and live my other life.

Take into consideration that we would almost always go out as a unit on Sundays.  Those were at least good times and – did I fool you with that “take into consideration?”  I sure as hell didn´t deceive myself; not in this sober state of mind.  I should´ve been there; always.

The same goes for my middle son, Mini-Me, concerning the pawning and Sundays, but this one makes me out to be even more of an asshole.  Long story short, I was lied to for years about paternity.  His mother even hid from me when I came home knowing that I questioned her veracity.  But my hunt for my son isn´t the point.  The matter of interest here is the first time I met my miniature clone.

His mother came to me, told me that someone had taken my son from her and gained custody of him.  Not like kidnapped, but, that´s a story in itself.  What she told me, besides, “Hey, surprise, after four years, and blaming at least one other person that I´ll tell you about, you have a son,” was that she wanted my help regaining custody of my child.  So she took me to see him.  And when he walked out of that front door and sat on that stoop…I couldn´t hold my jaw up.  His name is Mini-Me for more reasons than his charming personality.

My son´s first words to me at barely four years old were, “Are you my dad?”

From that moment on, I fought for him.  Under false pretenses, I took the lady who had gained custody of him to court and tried to win my son back. Instead, they granted me visitation; which I now see was the best decision for my son.  He and I needed to become acquainted and accustomed to one another.  And it was frustrating.

I had to spend more time away from the streets than I wanted to.  There were times when he didn´t want to come with me.  There were times when he wanted to go back home once he was at my house.  And, eventually, there were times I just didn´t feel like dealing with him and I didn´t even bother to show up or call. (I feel like liquid excrement right now).

When it came time for court again, in which I had once again filed for custody, I told the judge I was fine with the current arrangements, although, truly I wasn’t enamored with the emotional cumber of them either.  I was a father with no true concept or experience at being a real, complete father.  Even still, I should´ve realized that it takes time and patience to raise a child; especially in a special case such as my boy.

As a quick side note, Mini-Me´s grandmother, though not biological, gained custody of him after his mother relinquished it.  That woman is a jewel.  Over time I have grown to realize that she fought for my son harder than I did because she loved my son more than I did at the time.  And, for that, I have grown to love her. I cherish not only the relationship she has aided me in building and maintaining with my son, but the comradery I share with her as well.  The question comes to mind, “Would there even be a world if it weren´t for people like her?”

One more memory, just to drive the point to Shanghai and back.

The last time I had at least three of my four children together was a Sunday I had actually come home the night before, or, more accurately, I crawled in early Sunday morning  Instead of passing out from exhaustion and sleeping the day down to dusk, I was up with them and out early in the afternoon.  My wife at the time, always referred to as Precious, was still readying herself and Baby Boy, so Golden Child, Sunshine and I went ahead to do some quick shopping before we were to meet up at Chuck-E-Cheese´s. I had to purchase a few outfits, shoes and such, for Sunshine since her mother liked to send her with only the clothes on her back.  Was I supposed to let my daughter walk around in some high boots in the middle of the summer?

Anyway, after seeking her wares, we visited the sneaker store and bought Golden Child the latest G.O.A.T.´s; Jordans that is.  My phone wouldn´t stop ringing the entire time.  At first, I tried to ignore it.  Then I screened a few just to see how much money I was giving up.  The amount accumulated to the point that by the time Precious caught up with me in the shopping plaza, I convinced her to take the kids and “go on without me”.

We exited the plaza in opposite directions.  I was in pursuit of barren wealth, while the true bounty headed in the opposite direction towards true fulfillment, joy and memorable moments.

I still have the picture my children took together that day; them and that mouse. They look so happy; together. I find myself trying to hide my tears.  How much happier would they have been, if only in that moment, if they had had their father there to enjoy the time with them?

Pity on a pitiful I,
Who has fathered and thus left to die.
Beautiful children, gentle of the heart and on the eye.
In the wrong direction I did fly…

After all of my actions, or more so, inactions, would anyone believe that I indeed love my kids?  Do you? Could my children be considered anything less than abandoned and fatherless?

I was a bad father.  There´s no way around that.  It could be said that I hadn´t been given any template to follow, that my examples were less than stellar, but that would be making excuses, placing blame where it does not or should not lie.  The fact of the matter remains that I myself was fatherless and that should have been the grandest exemplar of what not to do and who not to be.  In addition, I watched The Cosby Show growing up. Heathcliff Huxstable was the perfect specimen as a father.

Despite my insalubrious portrayal of a father, my children forgive me. Well, the “twins”, Sunshine and Mini-me, do at least.  Golden Child is acrimonious when it comes to anything involving me; though it´s been said that he reads every one of my letters, then rips them up and chucks them in the trash. Propitiation is not easy, and progress is progress; right, no matter how minute?  Baby Boy is still young, 7 years old; not yet of the age of discernment to fully grasp present and past.  He was still a drooling chubster when I abandoned him six years ago.  All he knows is that his Dad is locked up but says that he loves him.  But…what does in absentia really count for?

Let´s return to the twins for a moment.  I have had with them the pensive conversation concerning the past, which brought us to the present, making promises of the future.  For some reason, they understand, or are understanding, -- as much as possible given their ages, 12 and almost 12. Bear in mind though that my children are extremely precocious. They hold no grievances with me, continue to love and support me, and our relationship continues to flourish. They are the sole cause of any joy I may experience.  And all praise is due to God for it all.

All that has preceded is why I must strive to become the best father of the universe will allow.  This is what my children deserve; what I should have always been.  A fatherless child being a father.  Picture that.

But that´s another picture.

I have my apprehensions, and I would not be honest if I did not voice them.  I´ve felt this way before, mindful of Samuel Beckett´s postulate.  “Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better.”  Yet, to do so, do as the quote says, we must ultimately, continuously, lack the will to prosper.  Is it safe to say, from one the entirety of this “Fatherless Child” series, that I have taken all of the steps outlined by Mr. Beckett? I don´t want to fail anymore.  The greatest psychological feat said to exist is thinking something into existence.  I don´t know how much I agree with that kids are worth more than chancing that it’s true.

I know of a person who, after more than 30 years of their life, moved to a different state to establish a relationship with their father.  For most of these 30 years plus, he hadn´t been around for his own reasons.  But, regardless of reasoning, situational character or whatever the circumstances, I don´t want that to be the case with my children and me.  And, with my children now spread so far apart, and my physical absence forced to continue for at least a few more years…this may be my biggest fear.

We started with H. Jackson Jr.´s direction on living. “Love so that when your kids think of fairness, wellness and integrity they think of you.” I would like to add to his statement that of Dostoyevsky´s: 

“The mystery of human existences lies in not just staying alive, but in having something to live for”.

Golden Child, Sunshine, Mini-Me, Baby Boy, my kids, they are all I live for.  They are all I have and all I need.  Generally speaking, what I show them, what I teach them, is how they should be; not who I was.  I point out the mistakes I´ve made in life, and with them, and explain how I made these mistakes and how they can avoid them. And, if they make a mistake, to learn from it, and fix it if possible.

A reflection of fairness, wellness and integrity is what I strive to see when I look in the mirror.  It is how I hope to appear in the eyes of my children so that they may look to and emulate their father.  I have to.  I have to be their example.

I heard something last night: “It takes the first time to mess up to get it right.”  I don´t know if it sounds right, the way it´s written, but it makes all the sense on Earth One and that´s what matters.  As much as I thought I was a good father, I wasn´t a good anything. I was good at being beguiled by my mediocre mind.  Financial provider, what´s that? Money amounts to nothing without time spent, care, friendship, an ear, a stern hand leveled by a soft heart, guidance, real love, consideration, patience, understanding and the other 99% of what it takes to be a father; a parent.

Yeah, I messed up the first time.  I missed it, at point blank range.  I didn´t know what it took to be a parent nor how good it actually felt.  And thank God for unconditionally loving children and second chances.

Now excuse me for a second.  I need to put my glasses on.  There´s a severe glare coming off of the next horizon.  I think it´s…hold on.  Yeah, it is.  It´s the future, and man is it sublime. Sunshine and I have already scheduled movie nights and cook offs.  If her mom taught her how to cook, I win; hands down.  And she doesn´t like scary movies so I plan on torturing her for the first few movie nights.  Poltergeist, or Pet Semetery, anyone?  Anything but It! Oh, and Mini-Me, he doesn´t really remember much, so I promised him that we´ll make new memories that he´ll never forget!  I have to be a man of my word, right?  Integrity.

As for my other boys…there´s a lot of work to be done. A lot of distance to be covered and tracks to be laid.  Who would I be if I didn´t try vehemently though. My Dad? 

All right, that´s enough.  So much candor and contrition.  And I´ve yet to harp on the epidemic that´s swept society: the invisible fathers; and mothers.  But you know what, they´re not worth the half pence it may take.  How about instead we follow a nouveau example, the new fad? As in, me, the present and futurity of me, the epitome of a good father, a great Dad.

Also, shout out to my pops.  Thanks, soldier, for teaching me how to be a man.  By you not being there, you forced me to become one.  And, I forget who said (obviously not you), “A smart man learns from his mistakes.  A wise man learns from the mistakes of others.”  What do you call a man who is not only smart but wise as well?  Hint: Your son! Damn shame that you never saw it.

“Though no one can go back now and make a brand new start,
anyone can go now and make a grand new beginning." - Carl Sandburg.

Michael Belt KU8088
SCI Houtzdale
P.O. Box 1000
Houtzdale, PA 16698-1000

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Dreaming of Oxen Chapter Three

By Burl N. Corbett

To read Chapter Two click here

An Uptown Gig

Sean's mental alarm clock rang at five. He'd never worn a watch, even before he'd come to the Village in 1966 to be a writer and had luckily fallen in with the last of the beatniks rather than into the clutches of the burgeoning hippie tribe, praise the lord and pass the number! The weekend scouts of the hippie tribe-–the bridge and tunnel teeny-boppers--would soon be followed en masse by the thundering herd itself once the high schools and colleges closed for the summer. But for now, before the deluge, there were more piss-stained winos on Bleecker Street than tie-dyed flower children. On his way back to his loft, Sean passed three of them huddled unconscious on his old sofa, brain-dead to the world.

He entered his building at 6 Bleecker and sprinted up the five flights of dusty stairs to find his door unlocked, a definite no-no in a city-that-never-sleeps full of take-off artists-who-never-sleep. Even the presence of Mark, crashed on his platform bed with his chick Annette, was a poor deterrent: Just two weeks ago a burglar had stolen Sean's eyeglasses from his mattress-side crate while he slept. Nothing else was stolen, an eloquent if sad testimonial to his poverty and the efficiency of his habit of hiding his wallet underneath the mattress when he slept.

"Mark!" he called, changing into a pair of worn, oil-stained Wranglers, a reminder of the not-so-distant days he'd spent working on cars in his neighbor's barn. "Mark! You up, man?"

A shadow moved on the ceiling and Mark groaned. Then, nothing.

"I'm going to Minuteman today, I'm broke." He only had six Pall Malls left, so he "borrowed" four Marlboros from Mark's pack. He could tear off the filters later. "Feel like coming along?"

Mark cursed loudly and pulled the sheet over his head. Sleeping on a street-salvaged mattress and living the beatnik life for a summer or two was a cool listing on his hip resume, but doing without a sheet or pillow was a cat of an entirely different color. "Are you fucking insane?" he shouted. "Fuck no, I'm not going! Just hearing about it bums me out!"

Locking the door behind him, Sean thundered down the steps. He turned right on the Bowery and walked the bum-haunted blocks to Houston, watching alertly for fresh pools of urine and stray turds: the spoor of the wild wino, Urbana derelictus. At Houston, he crossed against the light, walked a couple blocks, and entered the waiting room of Minuteman.

The bald dispatcher glanced up and smiled. Sean signed the register and sat down in one of the dozen folding chairs. Four men were already there, smoking and sipping containers of coffee. They weren't yet full-bore winos, but they bore the stigmata of the chosen: trembling hands, undernourished lanky bodies, and a sour body odor that would worsen as they worked up a sweat. None looked at Sean or the others; they kept their eyes on the floor. The worst part of their day was when they faced themselves in the mirror. They sat inert and silent as more men sidled in and took seats. One man began to gag, then leapt to his feet, ran outside, and vomited in the gutter. He did not return. A few pigeons, pecking and nodding and cooing, examined his offering with cocked heads. Spurning the hot meal, they waddled out of sight. The man next to Sean stared after the departed birds with a haunted expression. When the dispatcher's phone rang loudly, he twitched as if stung.

The dispatcher grunted, mumbled a few words, and scribbled on a pad. He hung up the phone and surveyed the rows of men. No one, except Sean, met his eye.

"You two over there," he decided, pointing to his choices. "Yeah, you two on the end. Come here."

The men, both black, came over and stood quietly in front of the desk. They were given a slip of paper with the job address and the boss's name on it and a dollar bill for carfare. Although they were heading to the same job, once they were outside they walked twenty feet apart, as if mortal enemies.

The phone rang steadily now, and one by one the men were called up to the desk and sent away. As Sean patiently waited, latecomers straggled in. It was always like this; he was often sent out last. At first, he thought it was because of his hair--the dispatcher probably considered him a beatnik, or worse: a no-good hippie/ draft dodger/Commie/dope addict/faggot. But he was always chosen, and usually for the easier jobs. Not for him, the ball-breaking jobs without freight elevators, where the rubble and debris had to be lugged up basement stairs in shouldered baskets. He thought he was just lucky, until the day he noticed something in the man's voice, an undefinable vibe he picked up. Suddenly the meaningful glances, the smiles, the unctuous demeanour, the easy jobs all added up, and Sean's twenty-year-old naiveté took another blow--the dispatcher was hot for his body!

When he told Sam his conclusion, Sam thought it was funny. "Far out, man! What a gas!"

When Sean failed to see the humor in it, Sam explained. "That's great, man! String him along, keep him thinking he has a chance with you. Keep him guessing."

"String him along? I want to do the opposite--disillusion him!"

"No, no, fucking NO! What do you want him to do? Send you out on all the shitty jobs because you broke his heart? Use your head. Think like a hustler! If he tries to get physical, then disillusion him. In the meantime, smile at him, rap with him, let him think he has a chance, dig? Con him, man, con him!"

That had been over a month ago, and so far the easy jobs kept coming, and the gay dispatcher seemed content to just make with the eyes. He's fucking scared! Sean realized. He isn't just in the closet; he's hiding under a pile of quilts in its corner! So, Sean played his role, and the man his, and everything worked out just fine. Since Sean only worked one or two days a week, the charade was easy to sustain. His absences not only made the man's heart grow fonder, but enabled Sean to avoid an ugly confrontation, which steadier employment might have provoked. An old white trash Southerner had once told him that "work is for a mule, and he’ll turn his ass to it," and Sean now saw his point.

All the men had been sent out, except Sean and a black man in his early fifties, "Both of you, come here," the dispatcher called. He slid the address to the black man, who glanced at it and put it back on the desk. Sean stood quietly and said nothing. The three of them appeared to be engaged in an obscure ritual in order to affect an undetermined outcome for no particular purpose.

"It's the address of the Empire State Building," the dispatcher said, He looked at Sean, then the other man. Neither seemed impressed.

"I been there before," said the other. "You got our carfare? We best be gettin' along now."

They were each given a one. When they got outside, they introduced themselves. 

"I'm Sean." He extended his hand.

"Gardiner." He accepted Sean's hand and they shook. "That goddamn fool acts like we owe him a tip or sumtin'. Big fuckin' deal--the Em-pire State Build-in', like we was tourists. Plaster's plaster, whether it be on the first floor or the fuckin' ninetieth. It's still heavy, still dusty, still backbreakin' work for peanuts." He spit on the sidewalk for emphasis.

On the subway ride uptown, Gardiner rapped without pause, bitching and moaning, wishing he were heading home instead of starting out. Sean listened half-heartedly, tossing in a "Right on!" or a "Fucking aye!" at lulls in the tirade. By the time they reached their stop, Gardiner seemed to have talked himself out. A small dump truck was parked at the job in a "No Stopping. No Loading" zone. Its driver sat on the running board sipping a coffee and two tall, muscular black men leaned against a pair of steel buggies bristling with shovels, brooms, and eight-pound sledge hammers. The three men greeted Gardiner and Sean with short nods.

"Each of you grab one of these carts and follow me," one of the demolition men ordered. The truck driver opened a Daily News and said nothing. They pushed the buggies through the chocked-open door and rattled through the lobby to the freight elevator. There was room for only one buggy at a time, so it took two trips before they were all on the thirty-sixth floor. They pushed the carts into a large, empty office, where the demolition men were going to knock down a wall to create a bigger space. Without further ado, they began to hammer down the plastered terra cotta wall, grunting with each swing. Soon the air thickened with dust as Sean and Gardiner began shovelling the debris into a cart. After the first one was full, Sean pushed it to the elevator, and Gardiner began to fill the second.

As Sean and the cart emerged from the building, he overheard a mounted policeman informing the driver he would have to move his truck. While the cop and driver jawed back and forth, waving their arms, the horse whinnied and switched its tail. One or two passers-by looked as if they might attempt to pet it, but they had second thoughts and walked on, making odd kissing sounds. Meanwhile, the driver had maneuvered the cop between the horse and the truck and pressed a twenty into his hand, still making a show of complaining. After more theater and loud warnings, the cop remounted and clopped away. The driver sat back down on the running board, lit a cigarette, and winked at Sean.

"He ain't no Douglas MacArthur -- he won't return. Dump the cart and start shovelling." He picked up his paper and resumed reading.

The morning passed quickly. Sean and Gardiner spoke very little as they shuttled the buggies up and down the elevator. At nine-thirty, the nameless John Henrys lay down their hammers for a coffee break and Sean asked them where the rest room was. Gardiner had worked there before and offered to show him.

"I gotta piss, too, man. C'mon, we gotta go to the next floor."

"Don't they have shitters on this floor?" Sean asked, looking around the room.

"Got the water turned off," Gardiner said. "Can't use 'em."

One of the hammer men gave Gardiner a contemptuous sneer. The other caught Sean's eye, cautioning him with a funny look to "Take care, now."

Sean followed Gardiner to the elevator. "We better use the one for the maintenance workers, seein' that we so dirty," Gardiner explained.

"I'd like to come back when I'm not working and go to the top," Sean said. "But I guess it would cost a few bucks, huh?"

"Yas, that it do, yas, yas, yas-—just like everythin' in this fuckin' town."

"How much do those cats swinging the hammers get?" Sean asked, as they got off the elevator.

"Sheet! Those cats get damn near nine bucks an hour, but, man, they sure as hell earn it!"

It seemed a fortune to Sean. He got about a buck fifty-five an hour, and after the carfare and the various taxes were subtracted, plus the bottle of Rheingold he had to buy to get his check cashed, he was lucky to clear nine bucks for a day's work. But then he could live on a couple of bucks a day, including cigarettes and the occasional quart of Ballantine Ale. His rent was only sixty-five a month and Mark paid half of that. They were paid two months ahead, and after that Sean didn't much care. It was common knowledge that it took at least a year to evict deadbeat tenants in New York City. To a pair of young hipsters, that was an eternity.

The bathroom was at the end of the corridor, and contained a grimy toilet and a deep janitor sink. The shelves of the small room were stacked with cleaning supplies and light bulbs. An old easy chair was in the corner. It was a perfect hideaway in which to kill time. An overflowing ashtray by the chair proved that it was well-used.

"Use the hopper, man. I'll piss in the sink," said Gardiner, bellying up to the porcelain trough.

Sean didn't mind; he had never been what was called "piss shy." He and his boyhood friends had often urinated in groups, writing their initials in the snow, or striving for the longest distance. He had finished and was zipping up when Gardiner turned around, his long, semi-hard cock in his hand.

"I always did have a big pecker," he mused. "Maybe you ain’t ever seen one this big, but if you wanna touch it, I don't mind." He leaned back against the sink and grinned. "Don't be scared, man, show me yours."

"Fuck you, you son of a bitch!" Sean replied, outraged. "You better stay away from me, man! I'm not into that scene!" He walked out, leaving Gardiner standing cock in hand. He took the stairs down to the job, and when he came in the room alone, the hammer men looked up.

"Did that cocksucker try to hit on ya?" one asked.

"Yeah. I told him to back the fuck off," Sean replied, wondering how he knew.

"He tries anymore of that shit, smack him in the fuckin' face with your shovel," the other man advised. "We'll see that you don't get jammed up."

When Gardiner slunk in a few minutes later, no one mentioned the incident and they resumed work as before. Sean and Gardiner didn't speak to each other, but then they hadn't spoken much before. When Sean trundled down the next cart load, the driver climbed up on the thin ledge around the truck bed and checked the height of the mounting debris. Right before lunchtime, he told Sean, "Tell Jim and Hap that if they load much more, I'll have to bill them for a double-load."

Upstairs, he relayed the message to the no-longer-anonymous demolition men. They paused and looked at the remaining wall, then at the debris on the floor. Hap began beating on the wall, and Jim spit on the gypsum-white floor and coughed. He spat again, and then told Sean, "Tell him to figure on a double-load. Tell him we'll be done by two, maybe two-thirty." He pulled up his flimsy face mask and hefted his sledge. Sean returned to shovelling.

At noon, Hap and Jim opened their lunch kettles; Gardiner and the driver went to a corner deli. Sean sat on the curbside running board and watched the passers-by. He recalled sitting in his father's ‘51 Chevy on the main street of Reading, waiting for his mother, while his father passed the time by commenting upon the idiosyncrasies and what he perceived as character flaws of the pedestrians. Eight-year-old Sean had realized with a start that all those weird-looking people had been going by him all life, unnoticed. With a frisson of wonder, he realized that these nameless people, these funny-looking strangers, doubtlessly considered him as much of a curiosity as he did them. Now, only a little more than ten years later, he was in the largest city in America, if not the world, and not much had changed; what little difference was quantitative, not qualitative. He rested in the shade, smoking and enjoying the passing cavalcade of humanity.

Sean liked to work uptown. His hair wasn't long enough yet to offend the prevailing standards and except for his moustache he was clean-shaven. Aside from his genuine Pakistani water buffalo sandals (with the big toe loop) that he wore even at work, he wasn't particularly outrageous. Beatle-length hair had won acceptance, and the truly offensive wildman hair and caveman beards were relatively uncommon, even in the two Villages. By autumn of 1967, however, a running joke was that hippies needed a passport to go north of Fourteenth Street. For now, Sean blended with the masses and could wander the glittery/spacious/awe-inspiring/glorious/lovely/noisy/spectacular/stone/glass/steel/aluminium/concrete canyons of mid–Manhattan, knowing in his heart that, while it was a nice place for tourists to visit, it wasn't too shabby a place for downtown hipsters, either.

New York City was a passion that had possessed him early. His father, a great reader, had brought home a paperback copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer shortly after it had been bravely published in 1961. Although he professed disdain for its "vulgarities" and "shock for shock's sake," and hid it (not very successfully) in his wife's sewing cabinet, he nevertheless bought Tropic of Capricorn the next year. Sean devoured both of them, thrilled by the tales of pre-Depression Brooklyn, Greenwich Village, and, finally, Paris. About the same time, Sean got into folk music and learned to play guitar. By the time Dylan went electric, Sean's mind was already on the train to Grand Central Station, although it took another year for his body to follow.

His senior class trip in the spring of 1965 to the World's Fair in Queens provided the impetus to leave Pennsylvania. Sean's first glimpse of the New York City skyline from the cliffs of New Jersey was to him comparable to Balboa's first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean from atop Mt. Darius, or Jim Bridger seeing the snowy glint of the Rockies the first morning of the rest of his life from the barren plains of Colorado. As soon as Sean got off the bus he left his classmates and wandered about alone, debating whether to catch the subway to Astor Place and leave everything behind. But he hadn't yet the nerve, and instead at the end of the day found an amenable beer stand where he caught his first beer buzz while waiting for the bus back home. Now here he was, two years later, working in the tallest building in the world, in one of the largest cities in the world, for the cheapest son-of-a-bitching hiring hall in Manhattan. And he loved every goddamn, go-to-hell minute of it!

The driver returned at 12:30; Gardiner fifteen minutes later with a pint bottle of muscatel in a paper bag and another in his belly, mumbling obscurely, his breath a forty proof blast.

"'Nother hour, hour inna half, we be finish," he announced to no one in particular, hiding the pint bottle in the cleavage of the truck's dual rear wheels. The driver mocked him in a high, whining voice, ""Nother hour, hour inna half you be layin' in the fuckin' gutter. You best get your ticket punched and take your scrawny black ass back home. These uptown cops don't like you downtown bums fuckin' up the scenery. It ain't good for the tourist bizness." He climbed into the cab and hunted on the radio for the afternoon ball game.

Gardiner filled one more cart, then told Hap he was feeling poorly and was going home. Hap put down his sledge, took Gardiner's time card, and checked his watch. It read 1:15. He wrote down six hours and handed it back.

Gardiner couldn't believe it. "Sheet, man! What's up with this goddamn static? Why ain't you put down eight? What the fuck kinda brother is you, anyway?" He weaved unsteadily, leaning on the buggy, his black skin plaster-white and his anger wine-red. His sweat and wine-funk fouled the air. 

Hap picked up his hammer and lifted it menacingly. "Y'all get your skinny, faggot, wino ass downtown now, before I send you down the elevator with the rest of the trash! And you tell that fairy dispatcher that if he ever sends your worthless ass to my job again, I'll kick both your goddamn asses!" Gardiner made to speak, thought better of it, and without a glance at Sean, staggered out the door and was gone.

The rest of the dividing wall was soon down, and Jim and Hap helped Sean clean it up. "Don't say a word about us helpin' you," Jim warned. "We don't want no union trouble, understan'?"

"Yeah," Hap added, "and if I was you, I'd find another shape-up joint to work outta. One that ain't run by a damn homo."

"Better yet," said Jim, pushing the last cart onto the elevator, "find a real job. This shit is for day-atta-time bums with no future."

After shovelling the last of the debris on the truck, they stored the carts in a basement utility room. Hap gave Sean a full eight hours, then squeezed into the truck cab with Jim and the driver. As the truck eased into traffic, the empty wine bottle Gardiner had drained and left for spite exploded, blowing out both tires with a deafening blast. Sean was a half block from the subway entrance when a different mounted policeman galloped by towards the crippled truck that was blocking one lane of rush hour traffic. He wondered if another twenty would be sufficient to the occasion, but guessed not.

Burl N. Corbett HZ6518
SCI Albion
10475 Route 18
Albion, PA 16475-0002
Born 6/9/47 in Reading, PA.  Raised on a 123-acre sheep farm only three crow miles from John Updike´s famous sandstone farmhouse of “Pigeon Feathers,” The Centaur, and Of the Farm.  Graduated from Daniel Boone High School in 1965.  Ran away to Greenwich Village to become a beatnik in 1966 with only a Martin guitar and the clothes on my back.  Lived among the counterculture for 3 years, returning disillusioned to PA for good in 1968.  Worked on a mink farm; poured steel in a foundry; chased the sun as a cross-country pipeliner; drove the big rigs, baby!; picked tomatoes with migrant workers; tended bar on the old skid row Bowery; worked as a reporter, columnist, and photographer for two Southeastern Pennsylvania newspapers; drove beer truck (hic!); was a “HEY, CULLIGAN MAN!”; learned how to plaster, stucco, and lay stone; published both fiction and nonfiction in several nationally distributed magazines and literary quarterlies; got married and raised four children; got divorced and fell into the bottle; and came to prison at the age of 60 with no previous criminal offenses other than a 25 year-old DUI. The “crime”? Self-defense in my own house without financial means to hire a decent lawyer.  Since becoming the “guest” of the state in 2007, I have won five PEN Prison Writing Awards (two first and three honorable mentions); the first and only prize of $500 in the 2013 Eaton Literary Agency short fiction contest; written a children/young adult book, Coon Tales; a novel of the 1967 “Summer of Love,” Dreaming of Oxen; a magic realism novel, A Redneck Ragnorak, and many short stories and memoirs.  My first novel, A Haven from Violence, and Coon Tales, is available at or