A maverick poet and old friend asked if I’d like to replace him teaching prison inmates. Why me, Alex? I wondered, and didn’t ask. Men I know don’t often speak directly, even to friends. If pressed, Alex might not have said. Anyway, I can’t ask. He died not long after from a heart attack.

Thirty years later, I still can’t figure out why he picked me. It wasn’t the Ivy education. Maybe he recognized another outsider like him, a guy struggling with his life like he was. I was no tough guy with fists, he knew that, though I’d spent years in gyms. And, sure, I was curious. He knew that too. Back then before the TV dramas, prisons were off the main road. I’d be an explorer and that had appeal, as it did to him.

I’m avoiding saying what’s hard to say, something I don’t want to say, the drift close to loser. Alex saw me wary and defended and suspicious of others, crouched at the edge, an angry loner like him. We’d been pals because of it, I think. Could be he thought I’d learn from the men inside, though he never said, not in so many words.

It was the fifth or sixth week and I was still feeling my way, searching out what was possible, how hard I could push without losing them. They weren’t a trusting bunch. Why would they trust some forty-six-year-old who drove a “Beamer”? That’s what they told me I drove (I drove an old Toyota). Me in a “Beamer” seemed to please them, a few had owned one, me in my Hawaiian shirt and Italian shoes. “I’d get those off you if we were on the outside,” one quipped. I don’t think he was kidding.

Alex may have wanted me to learn about being too far outside, how such people can land in a place like this if they play combative too loud. Maybe he wanted me to see the price angry mavericks pay. Alex wasn’t a preacher. He was crafty.

I’d assigned Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues,” a story that follows a Harlem musician raised around boys “filled with rage,” whose “heads bumped abruptly against the low ceiling of their actual possibilities.” Sonny uses heroin and serves time in prison. He plays the piano, as jazzman Dwike Mitchell said about his own early playing, “to escape the pain—or, possibly, to play about it.”

I divined early that one of the rare times the races mingled was in a classroom. An inmate said, “When I’m in school, I leave the yard in the yard,” the outdoor expanse where violence happened. His practice seemed the general practice, yet the yard was steps away, and a class could be gasoline. I was the rookie too green to know I might be the one striking a match. Inmates proclaimed Enfield Correctional “always about to blow.”

The classroom the size of a large closet, no windows, reeked of sweat and rusted steampipes, the fluorescents casting the men’s blue uniforms into yellow vomit. We sat in a circle, a dozen inmates and me, black men more or less to my right, whites facing them from the left. I judged they would own Sonny, a man who scratches out a purpose for his anger, snarled as these men were in their own.

“What’s it mean,” I asked, “for Sonny to be at the piano ‘playing for his life’?”

Men fiddled with the book’s pages…. No one answered.

“That’s what we hafta deal with daily, this kinda shit.”

Roone slammed the fat anthology down. With a football linebacker’s build, the sitting Roone was a half-head taller than the rest of us. He’d cut to a moment in the story where drunks for fun swerve to scare a black teen on a country road. They aim “the car straight at him” and turn the screaming boy into “nothing but blood and pulp” on the highway. The car kept going “and it ain’t stopped till this day.”

“Those crackers snuffed that kid. That’s a fact, a daily fact for blacks sittin’ right here.”

Roone pounded a fist onto his desk.

Eyes on Roone, then me, then Roone.

“Bro’ got it!” A black voice.

“From the giddy up.” Another.

I sat mute. I couldn’t find words. White inmates, expressions blank.

A story said a pocket-sized man nearly killed one of Roone’s “girls.” Roone had been a pimp, and Alex considered pimps “the worst.” He didn’t explain. When the fellow landed with Roone in the same prison, the latter offered a seat at a card game and, panicked, the diminutive man accepted. In a short time he realized Roone cheated, and continued to play, and pay.

“Know whaddit’s like to be black in this fuckin’ country?”

Roone wasn’t stopping, the entire room suddenly still.

I’d told the men I taught in Alabama at a Black college the year James Earl Ray shot Martin Luther King on a Memphis balcony. The whites guessed I’d picked a side and it wasn’t theirs. Roone might have taken the remark as an opening.

I leaned forward. Stay calm. Keep your head. Sweat dripped down my chest as steampipes popped. Place had to be eighty degrees: no windows, bad light, brown walls closing in. Men stared at the floor and twisted in their seats.

I looked for easier ground.

“Is Sonny’s story only about race? Only race?”

“Honky mothafucka.”

I couldn’t tell where that came from.

Roone’s huge hands gripped the edges of his desk.

“What I know is, those crackers took out the kid. Blacks, we understand that. How can you expect men not to end up in here when they deal with shit like this every day?”

“Any problem, anytime,” a guard had said, “take the phone off the hook. We’ll be there.”

I’d lose whatever minor respect I’d earned if I went for the phone. Inmates spat on guards.

Roone’s eyes didn’t focus. They darted everywhere like a frightened man. He wasn’t stretching out for friends. His heat and bulk howled, Back off, every single one of you bitches. He was out there alone, big, and alone. Tribeless. That’s what Alex hinted in his “worst” remark. Pimps’ lack of trust made them impossible to reach. Later, one inmate spoke for all the men that night: “I don’t mess with that crazy bastard, that big crazy bastard.”

“Go to the last scene,” I said. “Sonny plays and people in that jazz club hear their own pain. What’s Baldwin saying about turning what you suffer into something useful?”

“I dunno,” Roone grumbled, the only response.

“I know,” someone said. “I know.”

Forearms thick with tattoos, Simpson was balding, one of the oldest in Enfield. He’d spent time in an Arizona penitentiary where inmates beat, stabbed, and zip-gunned inmates. Arizona taught you weren’t safe inside alone, he told me later; you needed the protection of others. He was medium-sized and a gym rat—broad shoulders, small waist, prominent biceps. Close to release after twenty years, Simpson had “pulled back,” he said. The reputation stuck. Fool with him… well, men were not sure.

He peered at Roone.

“What happens to the boy isn’t good.”

The room grew still. Faces locked on Simpson.

“I understand.” His arm swept the group. “We all do.”

He glanced at each man, the voice a gruff baritone.

“I can’t get behind the white guys. It happens. Whites on blacks, blacks on whites. That’s not what this story is about.”

He held a beat.

“Sonny’s black. We know. Except we’ve all… we’ve all been down the same road. The smack. The joint. The tryin’ to turn it around. Sonny’s no different from anybody here. No different.”

Simpson sat back.

“Sonny’s tryin’ to crawl out of a shithole, the same hole we’re all tryin’ to crawl from.”

No one moved. The wall-clock clicked the minute hand. Roone sat with arms crossed over his chest, eyes on a spot above Simpson’s head.

There was noise in the hallway, loud, insistent voices, and the scuffle of feet. Inmate blue streamed past the glassed door. Classes letting out. A buzzer sounded. The men silently closed their book and gathered pens and notebook, and hesitated for an instant, before they moved to the door.

I switched off the light and returned to my seat to sit in the unexpected stillness.


Was he what Alex had wanted to teach?


About the Author

Kent Jacobson taught in prisons in New York and Connecticut starting in his forties. His nonfiction appears in Hobart, The Dewdrop, Talking Writing, Punctuate, Sport Literate, Longridge Review, and elsewhere. He lives in Massachusetts with his wife, landscape architect Martha Lyon. 


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