The other night in the cigar shop there was a shaved-headed man who wasn’t talking about the cancer he was still dying from 9-and-one-half-years after the doctors had once given him only six months to live.
No, this gentleman would rather talk about how he has been living the last three years since he finished serving a nearly 25 year prison sentence.
That is: With his daughter who owns a bar I sometimes frequent in South Philadelphia; with his mother who bakes sinfully wonderful Italian pastries; with his brother who owns the Twin Smoke Shoppe where we were puffing away; with himself, and with a very different world that he considers: “strange.”
It must be like Rip van Winkle awakening to a planet in cyberspace.
“I’m not strange,” John said. “It’s not me. Everyone else seems strange. Everything is strange. I’m still the same old guy from the neighborhood. Most everyone else has changed. Or gone.”
Naturally, what’s he’s noticed most is that everyone’s got cell phones and computers they use to make money that ain’t worth what it used to be. And that people seem to be earning more but both the people and their money are valued less.
There’s no neighborhood credit at the local store or bank anymore. Hell, there’s few local stores, and even fewer local banks. People don’t trust each other any longer. They don’t help each other. It’s all take. No give. It’s all about the money – because they need so much more than before to survive. And even though they’re making more, it buys less.
And, of course, there are the wars that rob the poor to pay the rich a lot of that money. The senior Bush getting us into Iraq about the time John hopped into jail; Junior, ‘W’ Bush, accelerating the war and spreading it to Afghanistan, and Obama still not getting us completely out.
You may wonder why I am writing about a man who must not have been too bright to go to jail for all that time. He was in prison for the same reason everybody becomes a guest of the state: simply because he got caught.
So how much smarter can he be now that he got out?
“I’m not smarter,” laughed a 67-year-old John. “I just seem that way because I’m older now. And I don’t know how much older I’ll be getting. It’s not the cancer killing me. It’s figuring out a way to reconnect in this world.”
In truth, I don’t know what makes John so curious, exactly. Perhaps because he has endured — nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps because he didn’t allow himself to be permanently institutionalized by the security of the prison walls and succumb to the terror of ever leaving them.
I think, even more, it’s the peace – if not resignation — I’ve seen that men like John have found from their inexorable circumstances, such as prison, or extended stays in hospital beds, or calls of ineluctable duty.
What such men have discovered is not what their sentient being needs to live, but what they don’t require – what they can live without.
As John has ascertained during his free-from-jail reincarnation: We have cluttered our lives with the steady drone of hyperkinetic noise. Our eyeballs are constantly assaulted. Our brains are steadily verging on overload from the onslaught of technology.
Yet, unlike John, our terror isn’t from the security and dread of fortress walls, but from the disappearance of the unremitting sights and sounds that inveigh against the fortress of our mental solitude. Silence discomfits, if not down and out frightens, a lot of folks.
In a way, we are all prisoners. As I once wrote a dear artist friend in jail years ago: We all build our own prison walls. And our crime of choice: envy. We want not what we think we want, but what we are led to believe we need – because everybody else has got it. So, what’s the matter with me?
Expectations are a killer if you allow others to set the bar for you. But few of us would allow ourselves to dress like the king with no clothes.
For the most part, most of us simply don’t know what we want until we land in jail — even if it is only symbolically.
In ‘prison’ those things denied or withheld from the prisoner become precisely what he wants most of all. And at the top of the list would no doubt be freedom. But freedom from what? To do what? Remember, there is no such thing as part freedom.
The ageless wisdom John has reaped is to simplify, simplify, simplify. Yet to offer such advice to folks in today’s world John knows would only earn him change for his 2-cents.
“I feel so disconnected,” related John. “I don’t have my own place. Friends are gone. I don’t have much. I am thankful that my family has shown me so much kindness.”
John is a man who has obviously discovered his soft underbelly. The toughness, after so many years of tenderizing in prison, has withered, along with his dark side forces of desire, greed, envy and so forth.
That is why I listened until late in the evening to his newfound words from a man trying to get it straight this time. Prison has been known to torture a person and sharpen his appetite for revenge.
However, in John there is nothing left, even his calluses have gone soft. He never was a big man, except in perhaps some of the crimes he committed. But now he is smaller, much smaller.
But only to the people who don’t remember him in his day. In the heart of every man is that of a 10-year-old boy. He did something bad. Some of us, in one way or another, have gotten away with far worse.
I like John’s brother. I like his daughter. I like his mother. And in time – if we have it—I’ll probably like John more than I already do. So far, the only difference I can see with John and most of the rest of us fellow humans walkig free, is that he spent more time in a prison where he had less time – unlike the rest of us — to lie to himself.
And dats yDrewIS on DIS penal colony.