and then you Fall Off
E-Mail by Lawson Strickland Bio/Address
Being 'here,' as opposed to 'there.' This reality, not that. A cell block lock-down, the hole; a life sentence, a death sentence. A two hundred and fifty year sentence that a three man team living in relay couldn't defeat. Indomitable time and cold space. Time and place - waking every morning feeling 'there' becomes a little less important, a little less immediate than 'here.' The 'here' of where you are and the immediacy of breathing now, of living today of adjusting your hopes to match your means. Your ability to survive 'here,' as opposed to fictionalizing being 'there.'
Do you know what the greatest change 'here' is? Becoming acclimatized. You get 'here,' in behind all that steel and concrete and wire, that alien wall, and for the first couple of years it's all hustle-bustle. You are shocked and eager and motivated. You're still shaking the 'free world' dust off. But after awhile you get into a routine. You are cut down a couple of times - courts denying your view of the truth, another man answering the phone at home, old friends with more life to live than time to write. You start to forget what the 'other side' was really like. What it felt like, what it tastes and what it smells like. You pay lip service to memories as the days go past, conquering you, and you slowly settle into the idea of living 'here' for awhile. That idea of 'awhile' being as elastic as you need it to be.
You also discover that you can; that it's not that bad. The human animal adapts. And then you fall off. It's not really depression. It's more like living in some small town after moving from the city. You are left to reminisce over all the old things you used to do as the days go by with people who come and go. You know that you'll probably have to go one day too.
It's all slow motion. All the same, day in and day out and you are just 'here.' You settle into whatever makes you most comfortable - reading, writing, music or looking out the window. You let weeks and months disappear into nothing, with you waiting for an appeal, a court ruling, a pardon board hearing or maybe just a visit, a single letter. And there's always someone who has been 'here' one more day than your or who has lost one more appeal on the way to the Death House. There's meaning in that, it gives relief. The necessary perspective "Well, I'm here, but I haven't been here that long"; or, "OK, I'm on death row but I've got five, ten more appeals. I won't be the next one to go. I can sleep well tonight. There's always hope tomorrow. That separation between now and then. I devolve into the blessing of time and I am soothed by it.
It's more a hopeless melancholy, a sort of fatalism. It's seductive and while it may only be that I am naturally predisposed to feel as such, I think it is institutional as well. The meaning of becoming, of being institutionalized.
What happens to spirits crammed into bottles stopped up, plugged and compressed? Small fish in small ponds with little food for growth, for thought, for the soul. Boundaries marked by barbed wire and gun towers carve grooves into souls made myopic. What can one do but cut out a niche to stand in, to live in, if only for 'awhile?'
And I'm no better, even when recognizing the symptoms, even if apologizing for myself. I can lose weeks between the pages of throw-away pulp fiction and not scratch a single day off the calendar I keep as religion. I end up lining Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, holidays, months off en masse. Neat little columns of numbers which get struck down for no apparent reason. Days marked not to count up to anything or down from something but because... because...
If you knew me when I first arrived 'here,' would you recognize me now? Do you remember when I arrived? I believe it was a Saturday, August 28, 1993. I was everything I was supposed to be: nervous, wary, tired, agitated, frustrated and confused. Like an animal snatched up from its habitat and dropped on unfamiliar ground, guts automatically turned towards home. With a sense of direction still finely muscled from use. If I'd been set free that day I could have walked all the way back with my eyes closed. But there are only two ways out of 'here' for most of us and neither of them is through the front gate. It's the courthouse or the graveyard.
A week before I discovered 'here,' so had Glen. He was two cells down from me. We chatted up all the usual stuff, after church talks, cook-out talk: Married? Yes, no; kids? Maybe, yes. And all the usual stuff, cell-block talk, exercise yard bitching. Innocent? Of course. Dirty DA? Dirty Cops? Dirty defense attorney? Dirty system? Racist system? Yes, of course, yes. Going home? Of course, in awhile maybe, but home nonetheless. Did we smile too much'?
We waited and waited a little more. We received copies of transcripts and poured over them. Hi-liters running dry, pens marking in the margins, pages copied, photo-copied, hand copied to prove this point, that point, every single point alone bigger to us than the whole case against ourselves. We became attorneys with stacks of court rulings in boxes, under beds, even under our mattresses. We read the Southern 2nd like third year law students, like it was the Bible, the Holy Grail, promising eternal life. Our old lives out 'there,' not 'here.'
We called our attorneys, bought typewriters learned the two prong test for Brady, for Strickland v. Washington. What 'harmless error' is, what voire dire means and over a thousand tuna fish sandwiches, I nodded my head while Glen told me he'd be home in 6 months. Ok, a year. No really, after this appeal.
We waited against the wire, the stone, the bullets pointed in at us and we waited with ferocity. We waded through thousands of pages of evidence, testimony, accusations and denials and wrote everything down, typed everything up, pointed everything out to the attorneys who represented us and the next guy and the guy behind him. We waited for that first appeal with a purity of purpose, with the knowledge that there could only be one outcome. That we could only be 'here' for just what? A little while longer.
Would you recognize us now? I wake up and read a book, something fast and loose and definitely not 'here.' Glen watches TV. I go on the exercise yard and stare through the chain link fence. Glen sleeps until lunch. I haven't touched my typewriter in a month. I haven't looked in the mirror for a month. I haven't talked to Glen in a month. I watch the sun set and go to bed without having said a word. Glen reads the Bible for awhile now. I lost a religion I never had anyway. Glen's appeal was denied. So was mine. Glen has been denied again since. I'm still waiting. Well, at least he's ahead of me now, right?
What can I do today that will affect my world tomorrow? How can I see results? I'm a case study in futility. How long can you continue to work for the future after you discover you do not really have one? Before you begin to live for today? You put your head down and trudge on and on for some prize ahead, until your legs grow weak, and when you finally look up, the scenery is all the same. You might as well sit down and enjoy it because believe it or not, no matter where you are or however bad it gets you can always get a laugh. It's seductive.
Some of us show up 'here' with a little drive, a lot of good intentions. Some show up with nothing more than a 10 foot stare for the TV on the wall and an overpowering desire to develop an advanced case of bed sores. One in a hundred manages to keep going, keep pushing, year after year, past refusal and denial. The rest of us burn out along the way, some going crazy in a last ditch attempt to go anywhere. We fit in where we come to rest, where friction finally overcomes our momentum. Where we find it comfortable. Burned out husks depleted of high hopes: book addicts, TV addicts, weight lifting addicts or chaos addicts - turning on those around them.
I know a guy on death row who has been 'here' for over 10 years and has yet to file his first appeal. In an argument with another inmate he said, "I live here. You are just passing through." So much acceptance.
I knew another guy who happily traded in his death sentence for a flat life behind these walls. The last time I saw him, he explained it all to me. He said, "Strick, it's a whole 'nother world out there in Main Prison. You can forget everything. All I need is a good job and a punk. It is a whole 'nother world man." Just another dead man walking, populating this little false world with its meaningless prizes and second place clubs: Alcoholic's Anonymous, Toastmasters, the Lifer's Club, Vets Incarcerated on Main Street, Main Prison, Everywhere, USA.
We take the pleasures we can find where they can be found and we don't take them lightly. The key being the seeking of the greatest amount of pleasure with the least requirement for exertion, when so little energy remains which, for the most part, is why we are 'here' to begin with. There is enough primitive human nature on display to justify an anthropological study. All in a system designed to create it. To pull down, numb and deaden with the least requirement for financial exertion.
It is another world in 'here.' One that spirals down to that infinitesimal point where out 'there' disappears over the horizon of attainability pulling in all it can. The unfortunate, the indifferent, the incapable. Convicts and Correction Officers - the guilty and the innocent. All settling to the bottom like so much silt in a slow current of time that holds you down, cuts off your air and teaches you how to live without breathing.
Reader Comments ******************
I was surfing around on the Internet today, and I happened to read your article. In it, you spoke of how, "You are left to reminisce over all the old things you used to do as the days go by with people who come and go. You know that you'll probably have to go one day too." Yeah, it reminds me of my best friend. I met him while we were living in Germany, as I grew up a military brat. You meet people from all over the country, as a military brat. The website said you were in "Desert Storm" so I know you understand where I'm coming from.
Anyway, we met on a hill behind my house. He had an identical twin brother, and as a team, they were really popular at school, so I knew who they were. I had my skis on, and I made a suicidal run down this mountain behind my house, and crashed into the woods that were lying at the bottom. Upon seeing this, they though I was the craziest dude they ever met, so we became instant friends. We went to tons of concerts together, and met rock stars.
We eventually got split up after we left Europe, but I still would drive across the country to see them. Eventually, they moved to the state right next door to us, so I had a couple of opportunities to goof off with them. They'd come see me, usually around the holidays. I called their mom, "Mom". We became like three brothers. Well, my friend got killed, needless to say.
I wonder about him all the time. The circumstances just destroy me. I often wonder, "Is there a heaven?" The only evidence that he even existed at all is within the minds of a few people. The last time I saw them both together, I was moving from Alabama to Texas. I stopped there on the way. I was just gonna stop and spend the night. I got up the next day, and he begged me not to leave yet....."Stay the WEEK" he said. That was the last thing he ever said to me. Looking back, I still to this day kick myself for not staying the entire week. Even before I found out he died, I was kicking my own ass for not staying the week. That's hindsight for you. From him, I learned about death. The earth came, and swallowed him, and now he lies with the worms. It taught me about life. I learned first hand what mortality means, and I went from boyhood to manhood, in an instant. It's been almost ten years now. But the crazy thing about it, is the fact that now, every time I see his twin, It's like I'm looking at him, but it isn't him. He even took on some of his attributes, further compounding the confusion.
But I love him still because he's the closest thing I have to his brother. He's all I have left of that friendship, besides the memories. You know what sucks though? Two years later, their mom, who I called mom, dies of cancer.
So, now, not only has he lost a brother, but he lost his mom. Poof, no more family. Just like that. Incidentally, to top it all off, my friend gets into this industrial accident and cuts off half of his foot. Talk about bad luck man. I love him to death. He's probably gonna move off from Texas soon, as he has no family here anymore. I'll miss him dearly. He's 32 years old, and he's kind of just quiet and happy. He's very loving, and forgiving. I may go see him on the 10th anniversary of my friend's and his brother's death. That will come on Nov. 3, 2002. Mr. Lawson, I wanna personally thank you for being the man that provided me with instant manhood. Thank you for teaching me about death. And thank you for teaching me about life. I too will be "left to reminisce over all the old things you used to do as the days go by with people who come and go. You know that you'll probably have to go one day too."