I walk back to the unit after dinner, cutting through the middle of the yard, through the impromptu flea market where throngs of men gather to socialize and hawk their wares. Among the vendors: a black man pitching Reeboks for fifteen books an Asian passing out warm burritos from a mesh shoulder bag, a Mexican selling handmade Mother’s Day cards. I pass a Hispanic man holding out a Tupperware stacked with peanut brittle. “Amigo,” he calls. “You want candy? One stamp.” I shake my head. ” No, thank you.” My free-world politeness refuses to rub off.
Another bus arrived today, as they do every Tuesday. The compound seems smaller, louder this evening. You can tell the new guys by their feet; they wear the same shoes they arrived in–blue canvas slip-ons, flimsy and laceless so as not to pose a threat during transport. Occasionally you see an orange pair in the crowd, worn by the guys who have come from the penitentiary, but this evening I see only blue feet milling around the market. It astonishes me how easily these men fit in. They stepped off the bus not two hours ago and already they’re negotiating the price of burritos and jostling with old familiar faces. Prison, for many of them, is like a class reunion.
It was two years ago last month that I stepped onto the yard in my own blue shoes, which were too small and pinched my toes. I remember arriving at my cell, a blanket roll tucked beneath one arm, and opening my locker to find the dregs of previous occupant–an empty mayonnaise bottle, a single worn sneaker, and a mug with a broken handle that smelled of Ramen soup on the inside. How strange, I thought, to have my life’s possessions, which had once occupied a 900-square-foot apartment, stripped down to fit inside a 24-cubic-foot locker. That night I laid in my bunk wondering how I’d survive, if I even wanted to survive.
My father told me (I can’t remember if this was before or after my incarceration) that had I decided not to surrender, he would have helped me escape the country. I laughed at the time, unsure if he was serious. But I like to think he would have done it, because I think that’s what fathers are for: to give you all of the good, commonsense advice they can, but to stick by you when you decide to ignore their advice and do something stupid, even if it involves packing you in a create and shipping you across the border.
“What’s up?” I turn to see Bo walking beside me, fists clenched, head and shoulders pitched forward. He always walks as though he’s fighting a strong wind. “How ’bout this flea market?”
Ahead of us, dressed conspicuously in an over-sized jacket despite the mild weather, the Soap Man trudges up and down the walk belting out his familiar sales pitch: “Trash bags! Bleach! Dial soap! I got cherry! I got kiwi! I got tutti-frutti! Keep you clean and smellin’ good! Dial soap! Two stamps! Two stamps!
Bo brushes past him and sighs. “Do you ever look around and ask yourself, Why did I have to cheat? Why did I have to choose the easy way?” He laughs at the irony. “Turns out the easy way is really the hard way.”
I’m struck by Bo’s use of the word “cheat.” It’s certainly applicable to his own crime, armed bank robbery. But I wonder if maybe all crime, even my own, distilled to its basic elements, isn’t cheating.
“Every day,” I say to Bo. “I think about it every day.”