Thursday, January 31, 2008

A letter to Claudia

I got an e-mail from former Mesa council member Claudia Walters on Wednesday, a very kind, very supportive e-mail. Claudia, as you know, is running for mayor in Mesa. So is Rex Griswold, who offered to take me into his home when I released from prison. That's a testament both to his faith and his character. Imagine, taking an ex-con into your own home!
I do not know the other candidate, Scott Smith. But I have very warm and supportive feelings for both Claudia and Rex.
I will not offer my endorsement for either candidate, operating on the theory that getting an endorsement from a convicted felon isn't exactly a boost to anybody's campaign. Maybe I should endorse Scott Smith, but then, he's never done me any harm.
Anyway, after getting the e-mail from Claudia, I sat down and wrote a reply. I hope that Claudia is not offended, but I've decided to publish my response to her e-mail as a post here, because it is related to what I am doing on this blog, or what I had hoped to do.
So here goes:

It was a delight to hear from you because it brought memories of a happier time. I so enjoyed being the Trib's columnist and this effort via the blog, I suspect, is an attempt to re-connect with that.
You know, all of us have a need to feel as though we belong. And for me, the connection with the Tribune readers created that sense of belonging. And, because of the solitary nature of my life, I think I needed that more than most.
I won't go into the pain, darkness, desperation and disappointment that led to the wrong turn that my life took. I've found most people are too bottom-line oriented to care much about that. This is particularly true of criminals and even more true of DUI offenders. The public demands its pound of flesh, justifiably, I suppose.
You know, when Jim Ripley wrote to me in prison to inform me he had changed his mind about bringing me back, the one line I remember best from his letter was: "I'll be happy to praise your abilities as a wordsmith to any prospective employer.''
I thought to myself, "I was an excellent employee at the Tribune for nine years and all Jim could say on my behalf was that I had a way with words.''
I thought, "How little he knows me.''
And then, a more disturbing thought: "How little I know myself.''
And I realized that if Jim is correct in his assessment, then what a waste my life has been, how morally bankrupt I am, how little character and intregity I possess.
So let me just say that I am thankful that there are those, like you, who are inclined to view me a little more charitably, if not more accurately.
The blog, I am beginning to realize, is a failure. By that, I mean that has not succeeded in creating a dialogue with my former readers.
When I think of my best work as a columnist, I realize that much depended on my interaction with people; hearing their stories, being exposed to ideas that sort of floated around the newspaper. The stories that reporters talked about, but nobody wanted to write. I often found good stories where reporters saw nothing special. I loved mining for those little gems there in the East Valley.
And I think they mattered to readers, somehow and for some reason.
Editors, you should know, were not as appreciative of my work as readers. And that makes me realize that getting an opportunity to do that again at a newspaper will be a formidable challenge. If readers were doing the hiring, I'd like my chances. But readers don't do the hiring.
Beyond that, I am beginning to realize that other circumstances make it difficult - if not impossible - to return to writing my old column. Claudia, my world is a very small one; without a driver's license I am confined to living my life inside of "bicycle range.'' Basically the edges of my world are Rural Road to the east, Priest Drive to the west; Elliott Road to the north and Ray Road to the south. Most of my life these past six months have been lived within those few miles in South Tempe.
My world is simply too small. I have no connection with the lives of the people I used to write about or the people I wrote for.
I am sorry that this is the case. I miss "belonging,'' probably more than anyone could begin to realize. I loved it so.
But then I think of a scripture: Hebrews 11:15. It reads, "And truly, if they had been mindful of that country from whence they came out, they might have had opportunity to have returned.'' When I think about that verse, I wonder if the reason that Jim changed his mind, the reason that my efforts to return to my "old column'' have failed is that it was never intended that I to go back there.
Maybe God allowed these things to happen to move me to some other place (I'm not speaking in terms of geography here). If so, it will be an exercise in faith, for I have no idea, at the present, where I am supposed to be going.
But if God is, in fact, taking me in a new direction, it would be sad indeed to someday reflect on it and realize that I went kicking and screaming all the way.
So my confidence must be in God. His grace must be sufficient for me.
Still, it is pleasant for me to remember the good things of the past, and I am particularly pleased to hear from you because I held/hold you in high esteem.
So very best wishes on the election. You have served Mesa well, and I'm confident you would serve equally well as mayor if it turns out that way.
Again, thanks for taking the time to write. Knowing a little about you, I suspect there were other more important demands on your time.
May God bless you in all you do.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Color Orange

I am the last person you would expect to pose as an expert on relationships. My track record in this department is, well, not good.
Even so, I do believe I have some valid observations on this topic. Even a bad singer knows the lyrics, after all.
So, I'll make this observation on one of the "stages of relationships'' that is often neglected.
Somewhere between casual dating and a committed relationship is a stage I call "Clothing Commitment.''
Couples usually reach this stage after a few months of dating and it is a milestone that should not be ignored. Clothing Commitment is the stage in which the female descends upon the male's bedroom closet and decides which clothing the male is permitted to wear.
Women do this because they love us and it pains them to see us walking around looking like a "winter'' when every female in the universe knows that we are actually a "fall.'' Men do not know this. At least heterosexual men do not know this.
I have reached this point several times. And one time is particularly memorable because of the significance it would hold a couple of years later. The relationship did not last, but the memory of that "closet do-over'' did.
I had been dating this lady for a couple of months when she decided to make "the next step'' in our relationships by going through my closet. So I sat on my bed as she rifled through my stuff. She quickly assembled my wardrobe into three piles: Clothes I could keep and, presumably, wear with confidence; clothes that should be given to the Salvation Army; and clothes that were too unspeakably tacky to be given even to the indigent.
She would hold up each garment, render her judgment and then ask me if I agreed with the verdict, I suppose to give me the illusion of having a real say in the matter.
I grudgingly agreed with most of her pronouncements. On occasion, I'd put up a fight because the garment in question had some sort of sentimental value - say, a shirt my kids gave me one Christmas, for example.
Sometimes she would acquiesce to my protest, moving the garment to the "OK'' pile with sort of a pained expression on her face. Most times, though, my feeble argument would be dismissed and it would be "Goodbye, pants!''
Then, she emerged from the closet with an orange polo shirt. Her expression announced the verdict before she even spoke.
"But I just bought that!'' I whined. "I've only worn it a couple of times!''
She just shook her head, then spoke in a tone that dripping with solemn candor:
"You must promise me to never, ever wear orange,'' she said, as if my entire future relied upon it.
"Uh...OK,' I said, a little startled at the gravity of her plea.
At the time, it did not seem like a difficult vow to keep.
Now, we move forward a couple of years, to a precise date, in fact: April 5, 2007.
For the month prior, my wardrobe has consisted of the black-and-white striped pants and shirt of a prisoner in the Maricopa County Jail System.
But on that April morning, I stood in a room at Alhambra Jail in Phoenix with about 25 other men who were being transferred to state prisons. We stood there naked as a Trusty entered the room with big boxes. Inside the boxes were our new state prison uniforms: white boxer shorts with the acronoym "ADC'' (Arizona Department of Corrections) stenciled on them. Orange pants. Orange T-shirts. Orange canvass slippers.
I began to laugh, for I suddenly remembered the words of my old girl friend: "Promise me that you will never, ever wear orange.''
The other inmates stared at me, wondering why I was laughing. When you are standing around in room full of naked men, being noticed is not a good thing.
So off I went to Florence West prison, home to roughly 500 men wearing orange pants, orange T-shirts and orange canvass shoes.
Early in the morning, when a voice announced on the P.A. system: "The yard is open,'' you would see the men spill out into the exercise yard. It reminded me of some sort of Disney animation - 500 traffic cones come to life.
"Gee,'' I remember saying to one of my fellow inmates on one of my first days at Florence West, "I guess every day is Halloween here, huh?''
As I mentioned earlier, at Maricopa County Jail inmates are attired in those ridiculous black-and-white striped uniforms, almost as though we were extras in some old James Cagney prison movie. I am pretty sure inmates are dressed this way as a form of humiliation. It did not produce those feelings in me, though. I sort of got caught up in the idea of playing a Humphrey Bogart role in some old movie. I often had to resist the urge to turn to a fellow inmate and whisper, "Psst! Me and Whitey are going over the wall at midnight!'' So thanks, Sheriff Joe, for permitting me to "escape'' into fantasy.
But there is nothing romantic about wearing orange, although you understand the reasoning behind it. Orange is highly visible. Hunters wear orange so that other hunters will be able to distinguish them from the prey they are seeking to shoot holes into. This is important in, say, the event of an escape attempt. You can spot a guy in orange from a great distance, believe me.
So, for 84 days, I broke my vow to my old girl friend and wore orange every day. I trust she will understand.
But now that I am a free man, I am back to a life without the color orange. And content.
Who knows? Someday I may even be able to walk into Home Depot.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Remembering Lenny

The headline grabbed my attention right away: "Suit settled for $2 mil in county jail death,'' read the headline in the Jan. 15 edition of the Arizona Republic.
The story reported that the county agreed to pay $2 million to the parents of Brian Crenshaw, a mentally disabled man who died while in the custody of the Maricopa County Jail System, to settle a wrongful-death suit facing the cash-strapped county.
In the story, a lawyer for Sheriff Joe Arpaio said, in so many words, that the sheriff would rather have fought the charge in a trial, but they decided instead to hand over $2 million in taxpayer's money, out of kindness, I suppose.
Crenshaw is one of 11 inmates who have died in Sheriff Joe's care during his tenure as sheriff. Some, like Crenshaw, suffered from mental illnesses, which strikes me as particuarly tragic. If you want the details of Crenshaw's story, go to:
Sheriff Joe characterizes those deaths as accidents, more or less. Nothing to get all worked up about. They're just inmates, after all, not dogs.
Two thoughts struck me as I read the sad account of Crenshaw's death: First, Sheriff Joe's jail must be the most accident-prone place on earth, ya know?.
Second, I wonder what's become of Lenny.
Let me back up a second. As my regular readers know, beginning on March 2 of 2007, I served 122 days for a felony DUI. I was locked up for 34 of those days at Maricopa County's Durango Jail in Phoenix. For about three weeks, I was, for lack of a better term, the leader of a prison gang, which still amazes even me.
Briefly, here's how that came about. In prison, the inmates self-segregate according to race, with each race having its own power structure. As distasteful as that must sound, I found there was one benefit to such a system in that it provided a means of settling disputes between races. If, for example, a white inmate got into a dispute with a black inmate, the matter was settled by the "heads'' of the two races. Assuming the two heads could agree on a resolution, those issues were dealt with such a way as to prevent fights.
I did not aspire to hold office when I arrived at Durango. But when Sammy, the No. 1 head of the white inmates, was moved to another part of the jail, Kurt, the second in command, took over. Only Kurt turned out to have the diplomatic skills of Atilla the Hun. He had the ability to turn a small dispute into an impending race war. And, in prison, when your race goes to war, you go, too. Nobody is allowed to stand on the sidelines.
Fearful that Kurt's reign would ultimately lead to a bloodbath, the other white inmates urged me to take over as head. I think they saw me as something of a father figure, truth be known, someone who could negotiate and keep the peace. Kurt was more than happy to abdicate the post. All these squabbles were giving him headaches, he said.
So I took over for purely selfish reasons. I figured it was in my best interest to see if I could make violence the last resort rather than the first option.
I succeeded, too, although there were some tense moments. I don't mind saying that I looked forward to the day of my sentencing as much to get out of the inmate gang hierarchy as to escape the dehumanizing conditions of county jail.
The day before my sentencing, I met Lenny, which is not his real name. He was one of eight new inmates to arrived in our pod (cellblock). He was an enormous kid, 6-foot-7, probably 260 pounds. My first thought was it was nice to have a big guy on our team. After all, good weapons make good diplomacy sometimes. So I introduced myself, told him I'd meet with him later to fill him in on some things he'd need to know about life at Durango.
He didn't say much. I attributed that to the shock on being thrown into a cellblock with a bunch of strangers. Man, didn't I know that feeling.
But it wasn't 10 minutes until one of the other race's head burst into my cell, where I was writing a letter.
"You gotta do something about your new boy,'' he said.
"What do you mean?''
He went on to explain that Lenny had tried to go to the bathroom when it was closed for cleaning.
Inmates are responsible for what passes for cleaning at Durango. Each night, a half-hour after dinner, a group of inmates clean the bathroom. While they are doing this, no one is permitted to enter. A trash barrel is placed at the entrance so the other inmates know it's cleaning time.
But Lenny didn't figure it out. He simply slid the barrel to the side and walked in. One of the men doing the cleaning stopped him.
"Bathroom's closed,'' he told Lenny.
"But where am I supposed to go to take a piss?'' Lenny asked.
The other inmate shrugged, pointing to the trash can, sort of as a joke.
Only Lenny didn't take it as a joke. In a moment, he had lowered his striped pants and was about to relieve himself when the other inmate yelled at him to stop.
"Are you f------ crazy?'' he screamed.
And, of course, the matter was brought to me.
"I'll talk to him,'' I told the other heads, who had assembled to discuss what should be done about the incident.
I found Lenny sitting in his bunk, rocking back and forth.
"Hey,'' I said. "We need to talk about what just happened.''
"I didn't do nothing,'' he said. "I wanted to take a piss. I did what they told me. And now everybody wants to fight me.''
And I knew, both by his tone and his words, that the huge figure who sat rocking in his bunk was really a little child, an innocent.
"Slim, why does everybody want to fight me?'' Lenny asked.
"I told him that it was all a misunderstanding.
"Maybe it's better for you to stay here on your bunk for a while,'' I told him. "I'll take care of everything. It will be OK.''
"OK,'' he said quietly.
"I'll come back and check on you in a little while, OK? I've got some books. Would you like to look at some books? I can find some magazines, if you would rather have that.''
"I like magazines,'' he said.
"Great. I'll get some.''
"Slim?'' he said as I was turning to leave his cell.
"Slim, I don't like this place,'' he said, his voice quivering.
"Aw, you'll be fine,'' I said. "You'll get to know the other guys and you'll get used to things. Everybody feels the same way you feel when they first come here. It gets better. You'll see.''
I went back to my cell, whether the other heads were waiting to hear from me.
I told them about Lenny, that he was like a little child in his thinking. He wouldn't be any trouble, I told them, as long as they explained things to him in a way he could understand.
A few minutes later, I pulled Raymond aside. Raymond would take over as head of the whites when I left Durango the next day. "Take care of him,'' I said. "Don't let him out of your sight, OK?''
Raymond assured me he would watch over Lenny.
Just before night head count, when all the inmates are required to be in their own cells, I stopped in to see Lenny.
He was still on his bunk, but he was weeping now, giants sobs, heaving breaths, still rocking back and forth.
"Hey,'' I said, trying to sound comforting. "There's no reason for that. You're safe. Nothing bad is going to happen to you.''
"Slim,'' he said between great sobs. "Slim, why won't my mama come and get me? I don't like this place. I want to go home. Mama don't love me. She's mad at me for being bad. She won't come get me out of this place.''
I put my hand on his ernormous trembling shoulder.
"Your mama loves you,'' I said. "But she can't come get you, not right now. You have to stay here, but you're going to be OK. I tell you what: I'll get Raymond to help you write a letter to your mama tomorrow. That way, she can write back to you. What do you think of that? That's a good idea, huh?''
Lenny stopped sobbing. "Yeah, I guess,'' he said softly.
"Good,'' I said. "Now, go to sleep and I'll see you in the morning.''
That was a lie. I knew I'd be pulled out of the cellbock at 4 a.m. to be transported to Superior Court for sentencing. But I just couldn't think of a way to tell him I was leaving. Raymond would find him after the morning count and take care of him.
Lenny stretched out on his bunk and rolled over on his side.
"There you go,'' I said.
"Slim,'' he said. "I don't like this place.''
"I know,'' I said.
And that was the last I saw of Lenny.
I don't know what has become of him.
But when I read to story about Brian Crenshaw, I wonderd about Lenny.
And I wondered if Brian was like Lenny. I wondered if Brian's last months of this earth were filled with confusion and fear. I wondered if a misunderstanding led to a beat-down that ended in his death.
I wondered if Brian's last thoughts were the ones Lenny voiced that night at Durango:
"Slim, why does everybody want to fight me?''
I wondered about all 11 of those inmates who have died in Sheriff Joe's care over the past 12 years.
And the more I think about it, the more surprised I am.
I have lived in Sheriff Joe's hell-hole.
So I am not surprised that so many have died.
I am surprised that so few seem to care.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What about Bob?

With the Super Bowl right around the corner, we've all been hearing a lot about the "economic impact'' of having the Super Bowl in our "back yard,'' i.e. Glendale.
Depending on whose estimates you choose to embrace, the Super Bowl will produce anywhere from $300 million to $400 million in "economic impact.''
That sounds pretty impressive. But pardon me for being selfish: I wonder how that windfall will enhance my circumstances.
I wasn't around the last time the Super Bowl came to the Valley, so I'm not sure how the Super Bowl made life better for folks in these parts back in 1996.
So I asked Bob.
Bob works as a greeter at the Fry's Market Place in Tempe, which is where I do my barista thing at the coffee shop. I figure Bob to be in his late 60s, perhaps early 70s. He's a handsome man, tall and lean, with wavy gray hair, a sparkling smile and a warm personality. I've noticed that many older women make it a point to linger near the entrance where Bob works. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence. I doubt it, though.
Anyway, I asked Bob how much money he made from the Super Bowl in 1996.
He seemed taken back by the question.
"I don't think I even bet on the game,'' he said.
"No,'' I said. "I mean what was the economic impact of the Super Bowl for you?''
"Huh?'' he said.
"Never mind,'' I said.
So, from that bit of anecdotal evidence, I'm thinking the economic impact of the Super Bowl for most of us will be - hold on to your hats - zero.
Sorry to be the bearer of bad news. The apples we sell at Fry's will still be 79 cents per pound (at least until folks like Russell Pearce succeed in driving all the farm workers back across the border). Gas and milk will still run you about $3 per gallon.
Which makes me wonder why folks - OK, mainly the media - blather on incessantly about how the Super Bowl will produce all that "economic impact.''
It's not that I doubt that having the Super Bowl will help line the pockets of some folks in a meaningful way, of course. I'm sure it will be quite the bonanza for some people, just not anybody who runs in my circle.
Fact is, unless you are directly involved in the tourism industry, you're not going to get any benefit at all. And the real windfall won't wind up in the pockets of the folks who are on the ground, selling the trinkets, cleaning the hotel rooms, making the meals, serving up the cocktails, etc. No, the big money will go to the corporate coffers.
One other thing about those projections. They are, most likely, grossly exaggerated. The Business Journal of Houston did an excellent report on that a few years ago prior to the Super Bowl coming to Houston . Go to:
So excuse me if I don't get all worked up about that $300 million worth of "economic impact.''
Why, then, do the newspapers and TV stations make such a big deal of that aspect of the Super Bowl?
Part of the reason, I believe, is that pointing out the "economic impact'' allows our civic leaders to justify providing city, county and state services - services funded by taxpayers - to the NFL for free. And rest assured, the NFL demands a lot of freebies in exchange for the privilege of being the host city of a Super Bowl. The media laps up those rationalizations without a second thought.
Another reason why things like "economic impact'' are championed in the media is a dynamic that I've seen play out time and time again during my 25 years in journalism, most of which was spent as a sports writer and sports editor.
Here's how it works:
Every so often, a sports story becomes big enough to warrant front-page coverage. But there is an unspoken bias against sports as news among the top editors at any newspaper. They reason that if, in fact, a sports story is big enough to grace the front page, then there must be something beyond the actual event that is of greater significance. Those editors are determined to see something transcendent about the event - you know, something dignified and important enough to warrant putting it on the front page.
As a sports editor, I always considered that attitude smug, condescending and totally out of touch with the interests of their readers, whose reverence for the front page often falls below the standards of the high-minded editors.
Me? My attitude has always been to put the most interesting stuff on the front page so that the readers will be sure to see it. It seems like simple common sense, I know, but you would be surprised how resistant editors can be to that notion. Maybe that's one of the reasons why the newspaper industry is bleeding these days.
Well, the simple truth of the matter is that on Feb. 3 in Glendale, two teams will play for the NFL title. Barring some sort of disaster, that IS the news. Period. End of story.
But that is NOT what you will see on the front page of the Tribune or Republic on Feb. 4. No, what you will see is some very minute capsulization of the news (a few paragraphs about the game) and some sort of worn-out, tedious, utterly pointless story, accompanied with a photo, along the lines of "fans enjoy Glendale Super Bowl.'' There may even be another story on the front page about all that "economic impact.'' Uggh.
In the meantime, folks like you and me and Bob will simply enjoy the game for what it is.
But we won't see any "economic impact.''

Friday, January 11, 2008

Why ain't I rich?

I’m sitting here wondering why I am not a wealthy, wealthy man. In fact, I’m wondering why everybody in this country isn’t rich.
Now, it’s not as though I spend a lot of time wondering about being wealthy. In fact, most of my thoughts are confined to being poor.Poverty is not a rhetorical question in my present circumstance.
So here’s what got me to thinking about being rich. The other day, I was half-listening to CNN, when I heard about a woman who was caught stealing a puppy out from a pet store. Apparently, this woman’s dog had been hit by a car and died, so she was looking for a new dog. So, on an impulse, she lifted a pup from the store and stuffed him under her jacket. She got caught, of course. What struck me as unusual about the story is that the pet store owner said the puppy’s retail value was $1,600.
Think about that for a minute. Then consider that that the average annual income in the world is the equivalent of about $800.
So as I’m pondering all this, I realize that about 25 years ago, somebody decided to run some water through a filter, put it in a plastic bottle and sell it to people. Bottled water is now a multi-billion dollar industry. Then, up in Seattle, somebody figured out a well to sell “coffee drinks’’ for $4 a pop. Before Starbucks, it never occurred to anybody that you could get that kind of money for coffee. You never had to have a menu to buy a cup of coffee, either.
You can now spend $200 or more for a pair of women’s blue jeans.
So, the question becomes clear: If you can sell a puppy for $1,600, a pair of glorified Wranglers for $200, a bottle of water for $1.50 or a cup of coffee for $4, what’s preventing anyone from getting stinkin’ rich?
I think the formula is pretty simple. Find a common product, tweak it a little in some inconsequential way, and then price it about 20 times what it’s actually worth.
Wanna get rich? All you need is gall. And advertising


P.S. If you would like an enhanced version of this blog, you can sign up now for the bargain introductory rate of $500 per sentence.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Who Am I?

Because this is my first post, the obvious place to start is by telling you who I am and "what I'm up to,'' as they say down South.
Well, wouldn't you know it, I'm stumped on the very first question on the test.
But I can tell you who I used to be, which will at least sharpen the focus of this otherwise hazy self-portrait.
I used to be the Metro Columnist of the East Valley Tribune. I was fired sometime in April; I'm not sure the date. I got a "Dear John'' letter from the Tribune's editor while I was in prison. By the way, prison is a terrible place to get bad news: there's no place to cry. And in prison, tears are blood in the water. (I'll blog about that subject pretty soon)
I used to be "The Cat's Meow'' to one beautiful woman. But I lost that title back in December, a few months before I went to prison. When I got out, I learned that she had met and married a man after a few month's dating. He's a "senior consultant,'' whatever that is. I suspect it pays well and she's living in the lap of luxury. She upgraded, I guess.
I used to be Dad to my kids, Corey and Abby. I'm still Dad, of course. But my ex moved back to Mississippi a month after I got out of prison and now I sometimes feel as though I'm just a voice on the end of the phone line.
I used to be an extremely-social drinker. Not anymore. Three DUIs in four-and-half years has had, quite literally, a very sobering effect on me. I don't drink. At all. Under any circumstances.
I used to have a lot of friends and acquaintances. What I've found over the course of the last year is that I haven't been abandoned so much as forgotten. I can count my friends on one hand now, but I'm blessed. They are the kinds of friends who will stand by you, no matter what.
I used to be a guy with a good salary, a Cadillac and a good reputation in the community. Now , I make $8.30 per hour as a barista at Tully's Coffee Shop in the Fry's Market Place on Rural and Ray in Tempe. Stop by and see me. We have a special on Mocha Shakes right now. The Caddy is long gone. I won't be allowed to have a driver's license until April 2010. I ride a bike now (If you see a middle-aged man biking around Tempe, it's probably me). I am a pariah at my old newspaper, where they did a seminar on "ethics'' and used me as the poster child. Glad I could be of some use.
So that's who I used to be.
But who am I now?
I guess that's what this part of the journey is all about.
God goes with me.
Maybe you'll want to stay tuned to this site and see where I wind up.
After all, if you know where you're going, it's not much of an adventure, is it?