1) INTRODUCTION – A Prologue to My Memoir
2) CHAPTER 1(A) – The Blue-Bird & The Welcoming Party
3) CHAPTER 1(B) – An Introduction To My New Reality
He looked at me, paused briefly, then repeated his words. “You Cuban?”
“Oh,” I said, my fists becoming hands again. “No, I’m Puerto Rican.”
It hit me, right then, that an extreme level of heightened alert can be counterproductive. It twists innocent statements into dangerous threats. Recognizing a possibly hazardous situation is one thing, but seeing a problem where none exists could actually create one. I made a mental note.
“My cell is right down the hall. I saw you pass by.”
“Yeah, I just got here,” I responded, still wondering why this man was in my doorway.
“Is this your first time in prison?”
“How old are you?”
For a couple of weeks I’d wondered how I should answer that question. Nobody needed to know my age. People would get the idea I was weak and vulnerable if they knew I was a teenager, but if I lied about my age and people found out then it may be worse. Opting for truth, I said, “Seventeen.”
“Seventeen? Why aren’t you in the juvenile dorm?”
“I was tried as an adult.”
“I know, but those kids in the juvenile dorm were tried as adults too. Why weren’t you sent to the Youthful Offender dorm?” It was another variation of the same question, an inquiry I’d have to answer over and over throughout my prison stint. Why were you tried as an adult? Why weren’t you sent to the juvenile dorms? Why weren’t you sent to a Youthful Offender camp? Why are they housing you here with the adults?
“I was arrested once before, for another Armed Robbery charge.” It was the best answer I had, and I didn’t elaborate because that time we robbed a pizza delivery guy, which was another crime that could’ve landed us on a show called America’s Dumbest, Silliest, Most Idiotic Juvenile Crimes Ever, that is, if there was such a show. And we didn’t take, nor try to take, his money, no, we robbed a man for a pizza pie and ran away laughing. Nobody thought it funny when we got arrested for it a couple of hours later. But, as I thought of it, that I think I’m in the adult dorm of an adult prison because I previously robbed a pizza guy, and then, three months later, I stole a pair of shoes, I realized how ridiculous and unreasonable it sounded. I was puzzled because he had a point. Why am I not in a dorm with people my own age? There were kids who stabbed and shot people who were in the juvenile dorm.
“That doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “You’re too young. You shouldn’t be allowed in this dorm.” He seemed bothered by it.
“The truth is, I’m not sure why I’m here in the adult dorm. I just figured it was because it’s not my first charge, but I don’t know.” It was something I didn’t want to think about. I wanted to deal with my days as they were, without the belief that the judge had it in for me, without the belief that I was maliciously dealt a bad hand. I didn’t want to think my ethnicity was a factor. Owning my mistakes was something I wanted to do. I committed a crime and was being punished for running afoul of the law, that’s it. I wanted that to be the story, but this man’s reaction was forcing me to consider a side of it that was unjust and unfair to me.
He took a step back, as if just realizing his positioning in my doorway could be interpreted as threatening. “You smoke cigarettes?”
“Yeah, I do.” It was as random as a question could be, but a welcome one, I mean, I really wanted a cigarette, but I didn’t want to ask so I hoped he’d offer one, which he did. I still paused a second before answering.
Back in Orange county jail, when I was still housed with dudes my age, there were a couple of guys in the pods who’d already experienced prison life. It was understood that those guys knew the ropes, the rules, and when they spoke of prison, people listened. This skinny kid named Eddie was the most vociferous when it came to telling prison tales. I remembered him saying, If anyone offers you anything for free, don’t take it, because they’ll come back later asking for their stuff back, and if you don’t have it, you’re still going to have to repay them, somehow and in some kind of way, you’ll have to repay them. He referred to this type of behavior as “prison games.” I knew what that meant, what Eddie was warning us about, but I really wanted a cigarette, and my adrenaline was still speeding from a few minutes earlier when I thought this guy called me cute, so I didn’t care if this was a “prison game.” I’d handle that if it came to that, which was more of a tobacco addict decision and less of a ‘tough kid’ decision.
“Yeah, I could use one.” I hoped this wasn’t a “prison game.” I didn’t want to get into a fight over a cigarette.
He pointed down the hall. It looked like he was gesturing toward his left shoulder. “They’re in my locker. I’ll have to go over there and get’em.”
“I’ll be right back. By the way, my name’s Jeff,” he said, extending an open palm.
I shook his hand, told him my name is John, and we exchanged the standard Nice-To-Meet-You before he stepped down the hall to retrieve his cigarettes. “Hey John,” he called out, “you can come down here if you want. I have to roll them.”
Roll them? I stepped out of my cell, looked right, and saw right into Jeff’s cell. It was at the corner, his doorway was at a ninety-degree angle from mine. He was sitting on his bunk pouring something into a rolling paper. He’s not rolling weed, is he? He looked up when I stood in front of his cell. “You know how to roll?”
“A little. I’ve rolled a few times.”
“You’ll get used to it,” he said, “this is how they sell cigarettes here. You have to roll’em yourself.”
I reached for the rolling papers, then the yellow packet of Top brand tobacco and dumped a mound of it onto a small rectangular, loosely-held white paper. The smell of loose tobacco wasn’t as bad as I’d thought it would be. It reminded me of varnished wood and raw coffee. As if I were preparing to roll a joint, I spread the tobacco evenly across the paper. The feel of it was mostly dry with a hint of moisture and I figured it was fresher than any tobacco I’d find in a pre-rolled, tightly packed Newport cigarette. My fingers fumbled clumsily, struggling to tuck the brown strands beneath the paper while rolling my thumbs upward. The finished product was a cigarette that was tight at the center and kind of loose on both ends. I held it up, shrugged my shoulders and said, “I gave it a try.”
“That’s not bad for your first time. You’ll get better,” he said while handing me a red, scratched-up Bic lighter.
The non-filter cigarette was harsher than a Newport, and the smoke beat and clawed its way into my lungs, but it was my first cigarette in six months so I exhaled with pleasure. The cloud made its way upward, touching the ceiling in the gentlest way. It was the calmest moment I’d experienced all day.
“Hey, John,” he said, “me and a couple of guys have a bible study every Sunday, right here in my cell. I would like to invite you to join us this week.”
It was another question I wasn’t expecting. There I was, trying to figure out if this guy was one of those prisoners you see in the movies who preys on the youngest, newest arrivals, wondering if the cigarette he offered was part of some twisted ‘prison game,’ yet instead, here was this burly, mean-looking dude inviting me to bible study. “Thanks,” I said, “I might do that.”
“Are you a Christian,” he asked.
“I try to be. I was raised in a Christian family.”
“Are you saved?”
It was the first time anyone asked me that question. I knew what he meant, but I wasn’t sure how to answer. “Uh, yeah, I think so. When I was in Broward County jail, you know, for the other robbery charge I was telling you about, the first time I was arrested, back then I had the craziest experience.”