Visiting John, A Life Without Parole

I’ve visited him in prison a number of times: You wait outside the prison in your car; after 7:30 you’re given a numbered form and allowed into the parking lot; after 8:30 you’re allowed into the waiting room to wait for your name to be called (sometimes in numerical order); you take off your belt, shoes, turn out your pockets; you carry nothing inside but a Ziploc bag with dollar bills for the vending machines, your ID, and half the form; an outside area between the two fences and the guard tower; then inside and a walk to the cell block to wait, have another guard take down all the information, surrender your ID, and make ultraviolet sure that your wrist has been stamped with the stamp of the day. Then the key turns, the visiting room door is opened, and you and everyone else visiting that day are passed through, then locked inside. Your ID stays with the outside guard; your numbered form stays with the guard in the visiting room; you’re left with all the dollars bills in the Ziploc bag, and the desire to get to the vending machines while the good stuff is still there.

John and I spend the visiting days, Saturday and Sunday, sitting next to each other at a vinyl table facing front (for the guards’ TV cameras). We drink sodas, eat cheeseburgers and avocados and popcorn from the vending machines, and talk. John is funny, honest, up on most news. He enjoys hearing about my life in the free world. And he’s willing to share some measure of what life inside is like; his essay “My Cellies” (published in the on-line zine qarrtsiluni) was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. And he’s associate editor of a stunning collection of essays written by men and women serving Life Without Parole. It’s called “Too Cruel, Not Unusual Enough;” the subtitle should be “Death Without Parole.”

Relating to someone else a long time ago, a friend advised me that if I was going to extend the palm of friendship, it meant making a long-term commitment. We all know about fair weather friends. I’ve had my share of those. Amazing how many people vanish into the woodwork when calamity strikes (in my case, getting fired.). It’s all right: the tarnish on those friendships would probably have removed them sooner or later anyway. As far as I can tell friendship means continuing to be present in another’s life in a way that’s meaningful.

Isn’t a friend someone with whom you can be your total self? Someone you trust with your innermost secrets? Someone you can talk with about anything? Someone who will tell you when you’re writing isn’t as good as it could be? Or when you haven’t really thought a problem all the way through? Then John and I are friends. And insofar as I can, I try to have his back: by writing letters to Sacramento about ineffective prison medical policy or abuse, for instance; or by finding a way to help him buy new shoes (his family has pretty much abandoned him); and, when possible, by visiting.

My return? A letter that I will carry to the coffee house for a special read, and re-read. An “attaboy” or “do better” on a story. And a true sense that my world has expanded to include a life whose friendship has made my own life immeasurably richer.