Sunday, November 21, 2010

Burrita and the Manger Scene

For the past three years, I have lived in a small guest house on a little ranch in Tempe. There are currently 12 horses on the property, which is divided into nine pastures. With the exception of two stallions – Splash and Rough-n-Ready – each horse shares pasture space with at least one other horse.
A group of five horses – all females – share a large pasture next to the main residence. I refer to them as “The Girls Club.’’ Part of my duties is to feed the horses and while it’s no secret that horses share some of the emotions humans experience, my exposure to these horses has revealed some human qualities I never previously associated with the equine world.
It’s no secret that horses can be contented or afraid or angry, of course. But what I have learned is that horses can also be covetous, petty and, unless I miss my mark, even introspective.
And nowhere is this more evident than when observing The Girls Club. I suppose I could share my perspective on this to make a point, but I believe there is a better point to be made from examining this little society from the point of view of one of its members.
And the point I want to make is about Christmas.
Now that I have piqued your curiosity, let me introduce The Girls Club, starting with the member from whose perspective I will attempt to consider the topic.
I mentioned that there are 12 horses on the ranch, but it is not so: There are 11 horses and Burrita. She is not a horse at all, but a burro.
Now, if you were able to conjure your inner Dr. Doolittle and ask Burrita to introduce her group, she would probably start with Chanta.
At 17 years old, Chanta, is the matriarch of the group and the dominant presence in the pasture. She is smart and wise and seems to understand the humans on the ranch to the point that she is able to anticipate their moves and wishes.
Chanta is the unquestioned boss of The Girls Club. She eats first and woe unto the horse who tries to infringe on her exalted station. The other horses have learned to treat her with great deference.
Next in the hierarchy is Dolly, a black-and-white paint who had a foal last year and is poised to take over the reigns of power someday.
Lena, a newcomer to the group, is a big athletic bay. She was an excellent cow pony in her previous life. She is now pregnant and will produce a fall next October.
Then there is Princess, who although she has reached her maturity is a tiny little horse. Her sweet nature and calm disposition make her an ideal horse for the small children. She is big enough to ride but no so big as to be intimidating to a little child. If she had a pink mane, Princess would be the pony of every little girl’s fantasy.
There is Brynnie, a yearling and Dolly’s foal. Sweet-tempered and beautifully painted, Brynnie is the apple of all eyes on the ranch.
And that leads us finally to Burrita, who occupies the bottom space on the equine totem pole.
She is short – she comes up to about waist high on the average person – and impossibly round. In fact, she is so overweight that the owners have put her on a diet. While the other horses get a flake of alfalfa twice a day, Burrita gets half that – if she is lucky. Sometimes, she is nudged away from her modest portion by another horse that has grown bored with her own rations and has decided to take over Burrita’s.
Funny thing, though, Burrita doesn’t seem ever lose any weight. Sound familiar?
While the other horses boast smooth, shiny coats, poor Burrita’s coat is thick and rough coat and a dull, listless gray. What’s more, her coat seems to have some sort of magnetic quality when it comes to dust. Pat her on her rump and a the Los Angeles skyline seems to emerge. Imagine Charles Schulz’s “Pig Pen’’ character as a burro and you’ve got it about right.
While the other horses vocalize by nickering and whinnying - sounds that are strangely soothing to the ear - the noise that emanates from Burrita’s earnest lips are loud, harsh. If there were an animal version of American Idol, Burrita would be one of those contestants whose audition is aired purely for the sake of public ridicule.
Poor Burrita, huh?
Now, I have no way of knowing if Burrita ever views herself in relation to her pasture mates. But if horses can suffer from fits of anger or fear, it is at least conceivable that they may also suffer from esteem issues.
And if that’s true, it must be painfully obvious to Burrita that she is never going to be the leader of The Girls Club like Chanta. She’s never going to be a mom like Dolly. She’s never going to be athletic like Lena. She won’t be the horse children want to ride like Princess. She won’t be beautiful like Brynnie.
But here is the interesting part: Aside from when she is muscled away from her hay, Burrita seems happy enough. She’s playful in a comic sort of way. She is gentle. She’ll even let you play with her ridiculously long ears, which I would imagine would be something she would be inclined to be self-conscious about.
Yes, she seems pretty happy and if you will permit some license here, I will offer one explanation:
Each year, a nearby Lutheran Church puts on a Nativity Play and Burrita is loaned out as a cast member for a couple of weeks. She is not the star of the show, obviously, but she is a bona fide scene-stealer as far as the younger audience members are concerned. Before and after the show, dozens of little hands compete to spoil old Burrita. They will pat her on her head, rub her dusty coat and treat her with carrots and apple slices.
Imagine that! This is the sort of honor to which regal Chanta, maternal Dolly, athletic Lena, gentle Princess or pretty Brynnie can never aspire. When it comes to the Nativity Play, only short, fat, dusty, bleating Burrita will do.
Does this seem odd to you?
Then stop for a moment and think of what that manger scene really represents.
I want you to peel away the traditions and trappings that have been heaped upon this day, mainly to appease secular sensibilities.
You know what I am talking about. Recently, I’ve seen depictions of Santa Claus kneeling at the manger. I suppose in future depictions we will see Frosty the Snowman and The Grinch jostling with the shepherds for a closer look at the Christ child.
Put all that foolishness aside and look at the scene. Those who can see it for what it really is and for what it really means are blessed.
It is speculation of the wildest, most irresponsible sort to even suggest that Burrita can grasp the spiritual implications of the manger scene.
Still, I like to think that when the Nativity Play is over and Burrita returns to the ranch, she tells her pasture mates all about her role in the manger scene. I doubt they believe it for a moment. Horses, like people, may be skeptics for all I know.
I don’t think it bothers Burrita, though. She knows the truth. It is enough.
For a couple of weeks out of the year, at least, Burrita understands that she is loved apart from all the qualities that demean her among her peers. And that knowledge is enough to sustain her for the other 50 weeks.
And if Burrita can get all that from the manger scene, imagine what it can mean to the human heart.
“Behold,’’ proclaimed the Angel of the Lord, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.’’
Did you get that? ALL people.
Even the short, fats ones who can’t sing and need a bath…

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Our State Fair

From a 1996 Tribune column...

October 16, 2005 - 6:43AM
Tasteless? Tacky? That seems fair
Comments 0 Recommend 0
Slim Smith, Tribune Columnist
The Arizona State Fair started Friday, and I asked a young colleague if she was going.
She wrinkled her nose and said no; it is too noisy, too crowded, too messy, too crude for her tastes, she said.
And I thought, gee, those are the reasons I like the fair.
In our postmodern, homogenized society, our entertainment seems to have been given over completely to technology. It is impersonal, sterile, passive.
Sure, the fair is quirky, flawed, unsophisticated, hopelessly tacky.
In other words, it’s like me.
Go to a mega-theme park and you are nothing more than a consumer. Go to the fair and you are a real person talking to another real person about how he grew a 385-pound pumpkin. You just won’t see that at Legoland.
For all the clutter, confusion and cheesy attractions, state fairs remain popular.
Probably the most famous of the state fairs is the Iowa State Fair, an event so popular that it inspired a Broadway musical: "Les Miserables," I think it was.
So I encourage all skeptics to take another look.
Any dairy-farm housewife can make butter from a cow, but where else will you see somebody sculpting a life-size cow out of butter?
Where else will you find a booth that sells 14-foot fishing boats that can be folded flat and stored under your bed?
Where else can you see hundreds of livestock, thousands of crafts and food items, all the products of folks who might be your neighbors?
I’m talking about folks such as Helen Spangler and Debbie Young. I don’t know either, but I bet they both have big, fat husbands. Spangler won eight blue ribbons for cakes. Young took home five blue ribbons for bread-making.
Nancy Asper only won a third place, which I would protest if I were her. Her "Most Outlandish’’ entry was a cake that looked exactly like a cat’s litter box — one badly in need of cleaning, at that.
The fair is all about stealing a kiss from your sweetie when the Ferris wheel stops at the top.
It’s about eating foods dripping with fat and not feeling guilty.
It’s about winning an enormous overstuffed animal and then realizing you have to tote it around for the next three hours.
It’s about petting a rabbit, mooing at a cow (admit it, you’ve done that).
It’s about giggly girls flirting with the boys and grandpas spoiling the kids on trinkets.
It’s about recognizing all the ordinary people around you and realizing that you fit right in.
It makes me feel sad for my young colleague, who seems to have forgotten what being young — or young at heart — is all about.
Messy, loud, crowded, tacky? What’s not to like?

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Porch swing buddy in cap-and-gown

May is the month of graduations. All over the country, thousands of young men and women will stride across a stage, shake hands with various school officials, take their diplomas and proceed to go out and conquer the world.
The fact that, year after year, droves of young people have been setting out to conquer the world stands as a stark reminder that the world is a pretty tough old bird. Here it is, 10 years into a new millennium and the world has not been sufficiently subdued, apparently.
So I would like to use the space allotted to me here to address that new wave of would-be world-conquerors.
More specifically, I would like to address one particular world-conqueror.
On the evening of May 22, Abigail Nicole Smith will stride across the stage during the graduation ceremonies at Harrison Central High School in Gulfport, Miss., to accept her diploma.
For most of those in attendance, she will be one among many.
Ah, but I know different.
She was not always the tall, graceful, self-assured young woman who will glide across the stage to the applause of a small army of family and friends.
In fact, I have it on good authority that not so long ago, she was short, impossibly plump, virtually non-communicative and blissfully unaware that the world needed to be conquered.
How far she has come. And, so quickly, too.
I guess that’s the way it always is with dads.
I do not understand it, but as the day of her graduation approaches, I’ve found myself reliving memories of her childhood.
It is not a conscious effort on my part. I’ll be making breakfast on morning, and I’ll remember the day when she was 13 and had a friend over to spend the night. The girls disappeared into the bathroom for about three hours to apply make-up and emerged looking like two clowns on acid.
Or I’ll be standing in line at the bank, and I’ll remember the day when she announced she was going to be a vegetarian. As a life-long Southerner, the very idea of someone being a vegetarian seems foreign. But here was this 10-year-old swearing off meat. I didn’t even protest, so certain was I that the lure of a pepperoni pizza would quickly cause her to repent. Two weeks, I figured.
Well, it’s been seven years and she’s still a vegetarian.
I’ll be feeding the horses and I’ll remember how, as just a toddler, she would command my attention by holding my face in her little hands, looking me dead in the eye with wide serious eyes and saying “This is important!’’
For some reason, most of my recollections are dominated by her early years and of the front-porch swing. Getting Abby to bed was my duty – and my privilege - and the front porch swing was where we always greeted the sandman.
When he was just a little bundle, I would swing her on the porch and sing to her and she looked up at me with those big blue eyes. She seemed to favor “Take Me Out To The Ballgame,’’ or so I fancied.
As she got older, the front porch swing was where we could be totally silly.
It was there that she told me her first joke:
Question: Why did the cactus cross the road?
Answer: It was stuck to the chicken.
OK. As jokes go, it probably doesn’t floor you. But to hear her tell it, laughing so hard that she could barely get it out, was to me an eternal pleasure. She would tell the joke over and over and almost collapse in convulsions of laughter, the kind of laughter only innocent children can produce.
It was Abby’s first joke, so it will always be my favorite.
Just before we left the porch swing to go to bed, we played the “I Love You Better Game.’’
“I love you better than chocolate cake!’’ I would say.
“I love you better than a million beanie babies!’’ she would respond.
We would exchange “I love you betters’’ until it was difficult to find comparisons.
Since we did this every night, the game soon became scripted, more or less.
And it always ended with the silliest one:
“I love you better than a dead goat!’’ I would say and she would wrinkle her nose in mock horror and cackle with laughter.
The porch swing exists for us now only in memory.
Circumstances have intervened and I have missed a lot of her teen-aged years, so I’m loath to take any sort of credit for the strong, spirited young woman she is now.
I will not be able to attend the ceremonies, such are my present circumstances.
At the graduation party, someone else will have to make the traditional Smith family toast noting the attainment of a high school diploma with the words, “This don’t mean you’re better’n us!’’
But as she walks across that stage, shakes hands and receives her diploma, a little of bit of me will be there, too.
And at that moment should you see me and notice a tear or two, do not mistake it for sadness or regret.
It’s just that my heart got too full, so a little bit began to leak out.
My porch-swing buddy is all grown up.
But if she’ll permit it – in fact, even if she won’t – I have to say one thing lest the night be left incomplete.
Abby, I love you better than a dead goat!

Monday, March 15, 2010

“It will all come out OK, I hope so’’

In his Pulitzer Prize winning autobiography “Growing Up,’’ former New York Times columnist Russell Baker writes poignantly of what it was like to be a child during the Great Depression.
Baker’s story, published in 1982, chronicles the struggle of his widowed mother and her efforts to raise two children at the height of the Depression.
Taken in by relatives, the young widow’s best prospects for securing “a home of our own’’ appeared to be a marriage and Baker writes tenderly of a doomed romance between his mother, Elizabeth, and Oluf, a Danish immigrant who was a baker by trade.
The story is told first through Baker’s own memories of Oluf’s very proper parlor visits with his mom and later, when Oluf left to scour the country looking for work, through the letters exchanged between the two adults.
Oluf’s story resonates powerfully today. Before the Depression, Oluf had owned his own bakery. But the Depression forced him out of business. Initially, he found work at other bakeries in town, but as the economic disaster deepened, he was forced to hit the road in a wild and desperate effort to find work in his trade.
His letters to Elizabeth detail the story of his decline. At first, they are filled with hope and good humor, even though the job prospects remained unpromising. “Well it will all come out OK, I hope so,’’ he wrote.
But as time passed, Oluf began to lose hope and his letters began to betray his sense of despair. Finally, he wrote Elizabeth a last letter telling her not to write to him any more.
“I am lost and going and not interested in anything anymore,’’ he wrote. And with that, he simply disappeared into the Depression.
In March, the sale of the East Valley Tribune was approved and 19 of the remaining 33 newsroom employees were terminated. As a former Tribune editor and columnist, I found the news heart-breaking, if not unexpected.
I learned the fate of many of those former colleagues through their Facebook posts. As you might suspect, many of their friends and former co-workers left comments saying how sorry they were to hear the news and trying to offer some encouragement.
“I am so sorry to hear the news, but you are talented so you’ll find something,’’ was one of the general themes.
“This just means something better is coming your way!’’ was the tenor of the more hopeful responses.
But there were other comments that seemed to betray a sense of uncertainty.
“Good luck in your search.’’
“Hope you find something soon.’’
“Hang in there.’’
They say history is written by the winners and the survivors.
It is true there was a V.E. Day. It is also true a lot of fine soldiers never lived to see it. It is true that the country survived the Great Depression. But lost in the history are those who did not.
There is no way of knowing how many Olufs were crushed, maimed and destroyed by the Depression of the 1930s.
Similarly, we have no way of knowing how many of millions of Americans who have lost their jobs will become the Olufs of this generation.
It’s been almost three years since I was fired from the Tribune. As an ex-convict, I realize I go to the back on the line when new journalists enter the job market. In that sense, I am farther way from my goal than ever, which is why it is increasingly difficult for me to say, with any real conviction, “Well, it will all come out OK, I hope so.’’
To be honest, the notion that “tomorrow is another day’’ has become more of a necessary lie than a rallying point. More and more, I begin to fear that, like Oluf, I am “lost and going and not interested in anything anymore.’’
So when I encountered those former co-workers on Facebook, I did not encourage them to look to the future, because I have lost all confidence in it.
I simply wrote, “I am so sorry.’’
It is the only honest thing I can say.

Slim Smith is a free-lance writer living in Tempe. You can reach him via email at

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Savin' the Wave

A couple of weeks ago, an old friend from high school, Kathy Wallace, sent me an invitation to join a website dedicated to our high school.
Apparently, this is the latest thing in social networking. All you have to do is plug in the name of your school (be sure to included “high school’’ followed by a dot followed by the letters
Well, I’ve been strolling down memory lane ever since, getting in touch with old classmates, some of whom I haven’t seen in 30 years.Perhaps because of this, I find that long subdued memories from high school are emerging once again.
And, maybe because it is September and football season, my mind drifted back to a particular memory of my days as a member of the Tupelo High Golden Wave football team.
Now, I know what you are thinking: I am going to blather on about how I rescued the Wave from certain defeat with an inspiring heroic effort in the final desperate seconds and was ridden off the field on the shoulders of my teammates and into the embraces of a bevy of lithe, awe-struck young cheerleaders.
Well, if I were Lea Paslay or Tom Alef or Felix Rutledge, that might well be the story I would tell.But even highly selective, much embellished memory does not permit me to tell such a tale, mainly because a bunch of my old football teammates have found this blog and would quickly expose me as a fraud.
So, the story I will tell, while much less heroic, is compelling in it own sort of humbling way.
If memory serves, it was 1976. The game in question was against Pine Bluff, Ark.,
Now, this was a momentous game for the Wave, not because it was a game against a team from a neighboring state, but because it marked the first - and only - time in my football career that we actually got to spend the night at an out of town game.Because Pine Bluff was about a seven-hour bus ride, it was determined that we would bus over early in the afternoon on Thursday so that we would be rested and ready for the game on Friday night.
There was a rumor that several of the players sneaked out of our Holiday Inn rooms and walked a few hundred yards to a Pizza Inn, where they bought pitchers of beer and played the juke box for a couple of hours. I suspect there was some truth to this rumor, mainly because I was there.
Now, in 1976, I was not prominent in the plans for head coach Dennis Waite and the coaching staff. I think I was third or fourth team at about five positions.
So, for me, the trip to Pine Bluff was not accompanied by any pressure. I figured I would do what I almost always did at games - convince a friend in the grandstands to sneak me a bag of popcorn, which I concealed in my helmet.
I figured I would munch on popcorn and watch the game and the cheerleaders; my attention being equally divided between the two.
Let me pause here to discuss the cheerleaders of my generation. They were generally not chosen because of their athleticism, although , of course, there were sometimes athletic girls on the squad. Back in those days, cheerleaders were chosen primarily because they were good looking, energetic and could be convinced to shout, with great zeal, such inane things as "Two bits. Four bits. Six bits. A dollar. All for Tupelo, stand up and holler!''
I liked the cheerleaders a great deal - and from a great distance. The idea of approaching any of these beautiful, flawless creatures would have been, in my mind, an act of unimaginable arrogance.
Girls like that go for the players who don't stand around like a doofus eathing popcorn out of their helmets. So, my strategy when it came to high school girls was to focus on the flawed ones, much like a lion picking out the wounded wildebeest from a great herd of "really hot'' wildebeests.
Well, there were no wounded wildebeests on our cheerleading squad. They were all wonderful, exalted creatures.But I could still admire them from afar, like fine art.
So, while Coach Waite and his staff poured over their game plan with the starting lineup just prior to the game, I already had my game plan down and I was very confident about it, too.
But about an hour before we were to bus to the stadium, word began to leak out: Clay Stewart, one of the starting outside linebackers had come down with some sort of stomach flu and wouldn’t be able to play. Then, I got word that another player had suffered a similar malady. And another. And another.
By the time we got on the bus, about a dozen players were out of commission.And as we moved slowly down the side streets toward the stadium, it began to dawn on me that I might actually play, and not just in the last few minutes when the outcome had already been determined.
Rob Mosely got the start in Clay Stewart’s spot. The back-up to Rob was…well, I wasn’t sure who it was. Heck, it could even be me, for all I knew.
But as the game progressed, I sort of forgot all about what might happen if Rob got hurt.
About three minutes into the second half, with the Wave holding a narrow lead, I was munching on popcorn and ogling the cheerleaders when I happened to turn my attention to what was happening on the field.
Just then, Rob went down in a pile of players and didn't get up.Now by this time, I was well down toward the end of the bench, which is a good spot to be in if you happen to be eating popcorn out of your helmet. Coaches generally frown on players eating snacks on the sideline. You would be surprised how touchy coaches can be about things like that, in fact.
Then, I heard this booming voice: It was Fred Davis, one of the coaches, a wiry black man of indeterminable age who spoke with a gruff, guttural voice that you could hardly understand.
“Miff’’ (Smith),’’ he bellowed.“Miff!’’ he yelled again, as I was trying to ditch the popcorn.
And it hit me: I WAS GOING INTO THE GAME!!!
Sprinting toward the middle of the sidelines, where the coaching staff prowled, I quickly snapped by chin strap.
“Miff!’’ Davis yelled. “I’m here coach!’’ I responded, ready to sprint out onto field.
“Good!’’ Davis barked. “We need your helmet.’’
So, I gave coach Davis my helmet and sort of slinked back down to the end of the sideline. It was embarrassing. Not only that, I didn't have anything to eat popcorn out of.
We bused home after the game and my buddy, Steve Stanfield, gave me a ride home. I walked in the door about 4 a.m. and mama was sitting in her chair in the living room. Mama just couldn't sleep until all her boys were home.
“Who won?’’ she asked sleepily, emerging from her chair to give me a hug.
“We did,’’ I said. “24-16, I think.’
’“Oh, good,’’ she said. “Did you get to play?’’
“Nah,’’ I said. “...but my helmet did.’’
So that's my football story.
I know. It ain't exactly “Rudy.’’

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Breakfast in prison

At 5 a.m., a crackling sound emanates from the wall-mounted speakers in A Pod of Building 4 at Florence West prison and a voice that resembles that of any adult on a Charlie Brown special makes the first of the day’s many announcements. Much like everything else at Florence West (aside from the locks, of course) the speaker is broken, so only a careful listener can make out the message:
“The chow hall is now open.’’
And with that a few dozen traffic cones come to life like a rejected screenplay for a Disney movie: “Fantasia II: Mickey Goes To Prison.’’
In Arizona, all state prisoners are dressed head to toe in orange, most likely for the same reason that hunters wear orange: It is the most conspicuous of colors, which is important to the authorities should an inmate manage to escape the grounds and make a break for freedom across the interminable desert.
So Charlie Brown’s teacher mumbles incoherently into the intercom and a few dozen traffic cones shuffle off across the dirt-and-pea-gravel exercise yard to the chow hall.
Breakfast is optional and most of the inmates choose to sleep through the meal. I was always one of those who roused from their fitful slumber for breakfast, not because I was hungry, but because I had built it into my routine.
As one makes the transition from human being to convict, there are some lessons you learn pretty fast. One of those lessons is that the days are an eternity without some sort of regimen.
In county jail, where the only rules that are enforced diligently are those designed to ensure the inmate’s misery, the routine is as important as it is difficult to create. And if is true at most county jails, it is even more pronounced in the Maricopa County Jail system, the personal gulag of the populist narcissist known Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The sheriff defends the degrading, dehumanizing conditions of his jails by saying they serve as a deterrent, but the man who makes that argument is either ignorant or a liar. The sheriff is not ignorant.
All I know is that virtually every inmate I encountered at the county’s Durango Jail had been in county custody before, some many times.
I spent the first 34 days of my 122-day incarceration for DUI at Durango while awaiting sentencing. There, confined in a pod that was designed to hold 36 inmates but occupied by 70, the long, dark days dragged on in endless tedium. By federal law, inmates were supposed to be allowed an hour of time in the exercise yard six days a week. In my 34 days at Durango, we were given exercise-yard privileges eight times, three of those times before dawn, when the guards knew that few would wake to take advantage of it. So mainly, we spent the days crowded together in that grim little pod.
The small day room was furnished only with four long tables and a battered 19-inch TV, which hung from a high ceiling. Inmates were allowed to watch only two channels – ESPN and Animal Planet, alternating days.
A few inmates had decks of playing cards and some of the men had fashioned crude dominos out of small soaps – the kind you find in cheap hotels.
But you can only play cards or dominos for so long. And when you’ve watched the same pro bowling tournament or the same lion eat the same wildebeest on TV every damn day, the monotony of life starts to weigh on your psyche and your temper. And you find that before too long you begin to despise the other men for no other reason than the fact that they are always there.
Some inmates, I suspect men for whom county jail had become simply another part of life, had perfected the art of sleeping away the long days. In some ways, sleeping was like escaping to freedom, almost like cheating the authorities.
“Wake up and do your time!’’ an inmate would chide a friend who was attempting to sleep off his sentence.
Me? I slept as much as I could, but I was not an expert. So I tried to find other ways to occupy the time. I read whatever printed material managed to get into the pod. I wrote letters, tons and tons of letters, all of them dripping with anger and fear, despair and bitterness and shame. I helped some of the illiterate inmates write letters, too.
But the main diversion, the one thing that I was able to build a daily routine around, was walking. I walked miles, dozens of miles, hundreds of miles.
Estimating that each step was about two feet, I calculated that walking the circumference of the day room 35 times (it took about 76 steps to complete the circuit) would be the rough equivalent of a mile. Using the stub of pencil, I made a mark on the peeling plaster of the wall by my cell each time I made a lap in order to keep track. I tried to walk four to five miles between each “count’’ – when inmates were required to be on their bunks while the Detention Officers accounted for each prison.
At first, the other inmates wondered what I was doing. They would laugh and call me “walking man.’’ But I took it in stride and often I would joke that I was just trying what worked for Joshua.
“You know the story of Joshua, right?’’ I would say, a question mostly met with blank stares. “Well, he ordered the Israelites to walk around Jericho seven times. And when they finished, they blew the trumpets and the walls fell down.’’
“You think it will work?’’ one na├»ve young inmate asked skeptically.
“Probably not,’’ I said, laughing, “unless you have a trumpet in your bunk.’’
Before long, though, some of the other inmates began to join me, just to pass the time. At 47 years old, I somehow became a father figure to many of the young inmates and on those walks I would listen as they told me their stories. They were just kids, I realized, as they began to open up to me. They missed their mamas. They were afraid. They were confused. They were angry.
I walked anywhere from 16 to 20 miles per day, for more than 30 days, until that wonderful day when I was “rolled up’’ and left Durango for good.
Not long after I left prison, while on a visit to the Phoenix Zoo, I happened past the big cat exhibit and saw noticed that the tigers constantly walked back and forth through their enclosure. I think I have a pretty good idea why they do that now. Prison has ruined the zoo for me. Too many cages. Too many animals pacing in senseless boredom around their enclosures.
During my last court appearance before going into custody, I stood in court, officially pleaded guilty and was told by the judge to move to the other side of the courtroom where I would sign various papers and be taken into custody by a pot-bellied county detention officer (a redundant description). The officer extended a pair of handcuffs.
“Can I sign the papers first?’’ I asked.
“No,’’ he said, slapping the handcuffs on my wrist.
That was the only time during my entire prison experience that jail personnel were in a hurry to do anything.
And that explains why it took my five days to get from Durango Jail in Phoenix to Florence West, a distance of about 60 miles. I could walked there is less than half the time.
Instead, I spent five days at Alhambra Jail in Phoenix for “processing,’’ which entailed changing out of those laughable black-and-white striped clothing that county prisoners wear into to the orange pants that identifies you as the property of the Arizona Department of Corrections, being photographed, fingerprinted and assigned to one of the various institutions located throughout the state. They also give you a Department of Corrections number. It becomes your official identity. My number is 215980. No one else will ever have that number. It will be my number, my identity forever. The Arizona Department of Correction, sort of like elephants, never forgets.
For all of that, it took five days.
Anytime I hear about how the jails and prison are understaffed, I have to laugh. There’s not a damn one of them that doesn’t spend the majority of his time on his fat, lazy butts. I paint with a broad brush on this point, I realize, but I’ll stand by the description and extend apologies to the three or four employees for whom it is not an accurate portrayal.
But I had finally made it to Florence and soon started a new routine, which still included walking. It also included getting up at 5 a.m. and stumbling off toward the chow hall.
Just outside Building 4, a half-dozen of the old-timers, men in their 60s and 70s, sat at one of the metal picnic tables, smoking cigarettes and drinking the instant coffee they had heated up in their pods.
They sat there every morning, smoking and drinking their coffee, scowling silently at the start of a new day.
The first time I saw them, they reminded me of the two cranky old men who sit in the balcony on The Muppet Show and rain insults on the actors below.
“Cheer up, boys,’’ I sang cheerily as I passed them on the way to the chow hall, “it’s only prison.’’
Their groans and mild curses followed me as I moved on toward the chow hall and I had to laugh.
“Here goes another day,’’ I told myself.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Another decade, another challenge

My January column for the Times Publications....

A new year and a new decade has commenced since my last column and because that doesn’t happen every day, I feel compelled to note this development in this space, even though I’ve long since lost confidence in the possibility that a man’s fortunes can be altered by the simple turn of a calendar.
It wasn’t always that way, though. When I was younger, much younger, I looked forward to the arrival of each new year with great excitement and the approach of a new decade was nothing short of awe-inspiring.
By a quirk, the ‘10s will be the seventh decade I witnessed, having arrived on this mortal coil at the tail-end of the ‘50s.
I recall that in early December of 1979, I sat in the little closet that passed as the “editor’s office’’ for The Chieftain, the student newspaper at Itawamba Junior College in Fulton, Miss., and pondered the momentous arrival of the ‘80s. As editor of the paper, I wrote the editorial for each monthly edition. Of course, I also wrote the news, sports and just about everything else that got into print, having mastered neither the art of delegation nor recruitment. It seemed only fitting that the last editorial of 1979 note the encroachment of the new decade.
That editorial is long lost to posterity, of course, so I do not recall precisely what I concluded about the impending arrival of the 80s. I’m sure it was a very optimistic treatment of the subject matter. My audience consisted of college freshmen and sophomores, which meant we were all young enough to steadfastly believe that we would change the world, leave or mark, go down in history, that sort of thing.
I fancied that that someday I would be invited back to Itawamba to talk about my journey from editor of The Chieftain to editor of The New York Times. - this was back when being the editor of the New York Times meant something, of course.
Well, if any of the 2,000 or so students who attended IJC (or “Harvard On The Tombigbee’’ as we liked to call it) managed to change the world, they did so without my being aware of it. If you were a student at IJC in 1979 and went on the change the world, drop me a line and I’ll be sure to acknowledge it.
As for me, I obviously fell considerably short of the mark. I never did manage to become the editor of The New York Times, of course, although I did figure out a way to earn a paycheck in the newspaper business for more than 25 years. I know that doesn’t sound like much, but try doing that now.
While I do not recall the particulars of that editorial welcoming the arrival of the new decade, I do remember writing that the ‘80s would be the most formative decade in our lives, reasoning that it would be the decade where we would find a profession, find a mate and even start a family.
And that is precisely what happened to me. I found all three. I began my career in 1982 at the Columbus (Miss.) Commercial Dispatch. I was married in 1986 and welcomed my first child, Corey, into the world in 1987.
A career, a mate and a child: That’s a pretty eventful decade, you have to admit, especially when you take into account how the decade began. I entered the ‘80s broke, uncertain of the future and alone.
Which is pretty much the way I enter the ‘10s.
So much for progress.
Maybe because of those unsettling similarities, I find that the sense of anticipation that young people associate with a new decade is beginning to stir within me now.
Leaving behind the grand schemes of youth, I nevertheless embrace the notion that the new decade will again represent a defining time in my life.
If I am going to have a career as a writer, it will come in the decade. If I am to remain alone, this is the decade in which I will have come to accept it as my lot in life. If I am going to secure my future, it will begin now.
Most importantly, perhaps, is that by the end of the ‘10s, I’ll have made peace with the past; surely by then the wounds – mostly self-inflicted – will be nothing more than scars.
I no longer have dreams of changing the world – even though the world is in no less need of improvement. To tell you the truth, the very idea of changing the world is more than a little unnerving. Who needs that sort of pressure? I guess that’s why it’s a young man’s dream.
All I do know is that it doesn’t take a great degree of optimism for me to believe that the ’10s will be better that the ‘00s. A few of my personal highlights from the decade that has just slipped away: Divorced after a 16-year marriage (2002), lost mama (2004), lost dad (2005), fired from my job as a newspaper columnist (2007), sent to prison for DUI (2007).
A more succinct description: the ‘00s kicked my butt. I will remember it as the decade that I became a Human Timex (“Takes a lickin’, but keeps on tickin’!)
So I enter the decade with the always dangerous point of view that things can’t get any worse, even though I’m looking for love, purpose and fulfillment at an age where most people have had those blessings so long they are almost inclined to take them for granted.
I’m 50 years old, a convicted felon and, for better or worse, a newspaper guy.
Neither prospective mates nor employers rate those qualities very high, I realize.
But I retain just enough Southern-bred stubbornness to believe that the arc of my life can, indeed, swing upward, even though the leading indicators suggest a less agreeable trajectory.
My New Year’s resolution is knock the dust off my britches, stick out my chin and keep dreaming.
So Happy New Year and bring on the ‘10s.
I ain’t done yet.