from Brothers and Keepers
John Edgar Wideman and his younger brother, Robert, were raised in Homewood in the 1960s, where "it was unacceptable to be 'good,' it was square to be smart in school, it was jive to show respect to people outside the street world, it was cool to be cold to your woman and the people that loved you." By 1975, John was a Rhodes Scholar, and Robert was in jail for a botched robbery that left a man dead. Even though he didn't pull the trigger, Robert was sentenced to life in prison. Wideman's memoir tells the story of how two brothers raised in the same community—the same family—can lead drastically different lives, yet still face certain truths about themselves that surface only once inside the prison walls.
Jamila is the youngest visitor. Five and a half years old, my only daughter, your niece, approximately three feet tall, at the time of this visit, this visit which can stand for all visits. She has very large eyes. Mom's eyes, you christened them in Laramie; she is petite but built strong, taut like her mother. It's summer so her skin is tanned a golden-toned beige. As a consequence of prematurity and having her head shaved so feeding tubes could be inserted in the veins crisscrossing her skull, for a long while Jamila was bald. Now her hair is coming in nicely, tending to blond at the wispy edges where it curls loose from whatever style her mother chooses to bind it in. She is a beautiful child, I think. She moves with an athletic grace and economy. Jamila chatters incessantly and makes friends easily. A blithe, fey quality attracts people to her. Already she's aware of the seductive power of her enormous, curly eyelashes, the deep, brown pools of her eyes. She's remarkably sophisticated in conversation, in her capacity to listen and concentrate on what other people are saying. She grasps abstract ideas quickly, intuitively. Her early flirtation with death has without a doubt stamped her personality. She's curious about graveyards. Keeps track of them when we make trips. When we go to the beach, Mom, there's three. Like her brother, Jake, whom she resembles in skin tone and features, she possesses the gift of feeling. One of her good friends, Vass, resides in the Laramie cemetery. Jamila picked up this buddy by reading his name on a large headstone visible from the road and greets him cheerily whenever we drive past the clutter of tombstones abutting the fence on Fifteenth Street.
Jamila, tell me about going to see Robby. What do you remember about going to visit him?
Usually when we go there, when we go there ... the visiting place ... he eats an apple. And he wears braids. Or sometimes he would ... got that? ... get Doritos instead.
Yes, I got that, smartass. I'll write it down. You just try to remember what you think when we visit.
Looks like Stevie Wonder.
I remember him being sort of happy ... happy to see us.
Why sort of?
Well, because he was sort of happy to see us and not happy he was in jail.
I think about him getting out of cage.
Should they let him out?
Yes. Because he wants to see people and be around other people and have life outside of him and jail.
Do you remember anything he said?
It's nice to see you. I remember Robby saying that. And the activity place. Crayons and stuff. Telling the names of characters up on the wall.
Do you talk to people about Robby?
No. It's sort of like a secret. It's a secret because other people ... why would they be interested in it, because they don't see him and they don't know him and it's not none of their business.
Would you talk to anyone about him?
Maybe one of my special friends like Jens. He would know what I'm talking about. Even though he's the youngest of all of us in Open School. I know Jens would understand more than anybody else because he would understand more. Like if I told Claire she would just say, Oh. She wouldn't know what I was talking about, but Jens he would tell me a different story and I would know he would understand.
Anything else you can remember?
One time when we went there and we were finding out we couldn't see him that day, I heard him call and say come back another time.
Why's he in jail?
So that he doesn't go out and do the same thing again. They're keeping him there till they think that he won't do the same thing again.
When everybody's finally ready and in, I back the Volvo station wagon down the steep, cobblestone street to the intersection of Tokay and Seagirt. There I can turn around, ease the wagon's rear end into Seagirt, point us toward Bennett Street, and we're on our way. Backing down Tokay can be a real trick at busy traffic times of day. It's a chore anytime, fighting the high, broken curb, the blind corners where cars from Seagirt and Bricelyn pop into Tokay. Cars come at you shuddering down the hill, cars behind your back gun their engines for a running start up Tokay. In Homewood you still get points for laying rubber, for flying full blast down the precipitous, potholed slopes of streets like Tokay and Seagirt. People enjoy tearing up big, shiny cars. But early in the morning, at the hour we shoot for when we visit you in prison, the streets are relatively quiet.
Down Tokay, left on Bennett, seven blocks over to Braddock till it crosses Penn Avenue, and Homewood's behind us. That quick. That little snatch of Bennett, then Braddock till it crosses Penn carry us past the heart of the ghetto. Or where the heart once was. Since 1860 black people have lived in a pocket of streets, dirt paths before they were paved, between Homewood Avenue and Dunfermline Street. Kelly, Hamilton, Tioga, Cassina, Susquehanna, Finance--Braddock Avenue touches them all before passing under a concrete bridge that launches trains into the sky of Homewood. The railroad tracks linking this bridge on Braddock with the one over Homewood Avenue separate Homewood from the once predominantly white neighborhoods along its southern edge. When we lived on Finance Street those tracks marked one border of my world. Across Finance the pavement ended. A steep, weedcovered embankment rose to the railroad tracks. Before you were born, my sleep was couched in the rhythm of trains. Some nights I'd lie awake waiting for the crash of steel wheels, for the iron fist to grab me and shake me, for the long, echoing silence afterward to carry me away. Homewood was a valley between the thunder of the tracks and the quiet hills to the east, hills like Bruston, up whose flanks narrow streets meandered or, like Tokay, shot straight to the sky.
Homewood's always been the wrong side of the tracks from the perspective of its white neighbors south of Penn Avenue. On the wrong side of the tracks--under the tracks, if the truth be told--in a deep hollow between Penn and the abrupt rise of Bruston Hill. When we leave for the prison the five minutes we spend negotiating an edge of this valley seem to take forever. Traffic lights on every corner attempt to slow down people for whom driving is not so much a means of moving from one place to another as a display of aggression, fearlessness, and style. When you drive an automobile in Homewood you commit yourself to a serious game of chicken. On narrow, two-way streets like Finance you automatically whip down the center, claiming it, daring anyone to buck your play. Inside your car with WAMO cooking on the radio, you are lord and master and anyplace your tires kiss becomes your domain. Jesus have mercy on the chump who doesn't get out your way.
The trip to visit you in prison begins with me behind the wheel, backing down Tokay then trying to run a string of green lights to get us quickly out of Homewood. No matter how skillfully I cheat on yellow, one or two red lights catch us and that's part of the reason it seems to take so long to cover a short distance. But being stalled by a red light does not slow us down as much as the weight of the Homewood streets in my imagination. The streets had been my stomping ground, my briar patch. The place I'd fled from with all my might, the place always snatching me back.
Memories of the streets are dense, impacted. Threads of guilt bind each tapestry of associations. Guilt bright red as the black blood sealed beneath Homewood's sidewalks. Someone had stripped Homewood bare, mounted it, and ridden it till it collapsed and lay dying, sprawled beneath the rider, who still spurred it and bounced up and down and screamed, Giddyup. I knew someone had done that to Homewood, to its people, to me. The evidence plain as day through the windshield of my car: an atrocious crime had been committed and I had witnessed it, continued to witness it during those short visits home each summer or for the Christmas holidays, yet I did nothing about what I saw. Not the crime, not the damage that had been wrought. I knew too much but most of the time counted myself lucky because I had escaped and wasn't required to act on what I knew. Today, this morning on the way to visit you in Western Penitentiary, the rape of Homewood was being consummated, was flourishing in broad daylight, and nobody, including me, was uttering a mumbling word.
A need to go slowly, to register each detail of violated terrain competes with an urge to get the hell out before some doped-up fool without insurance or a pot to piss in comes barreling out of a side street and totals my new Volvo wagon. Cords at the back of my neck ache. Street names trigger flashbacks. Uncle Ote's laughing voice, the blueflowered china bowl in my grandmother's closet, Aunt Geraldine sneaking me a hot sausage smothered in peppers and onions from DiLeo's late on Saturday night, hiding in the stiff weeds on the hillside, riding on Big Melvin's shoulders. Melvin was a giant and twenty years old but played with us kids and was dumber than a stone and died under the wheels of a bread truck because he was too dumb to cross Tioga Street. Fragments. A blues verse fading in and out. Got two minds to leave here. Just one telling me stay.
The parkway parallels the Monongahela River. Below us, across the water, on the South Side are some of the steel mills that gave Pittsburgh its claim to fame. The smokestacks of Jones & Laughlin and United States Steel. People say better steel is manufactured now across the ocean in Japan and Scandinavia. Better steel produced more efficiently by modern, computerized mills. I don't doubt it. J & L's huge blast furnaces appear antique. Old, rusty guts that the ghost of Fred Willis, the junkman, will rip off one night and cart away. From the colonial period onward, steel determined the economic health of Pittsburgh and it continues to color the city's image of itself. Steeltown, U.S.A. Home of the Iron Dukes and NFL Champion Steelers. Home of Iron City Beer. But for decades Pittsburgh's steel industry has been suffering from foreign competition. Miles of deserted sheds, part of J & L's original mill stretch below the highway. Too many layoffs and cutbacks and strikes. Too much greed and too little imagination in the managerial class, too much alienation among workers. Almost any adult male in Pittsburgh, black or white, can tell you a story about how these hulking, rusty skeletons lining the riverfront haunted his working life.
To get to the North Side of the city from the parkway, I exit at Fort Duquesne Bridge. After the bridge the car winds around Three Rivers Stadium. It's a dumb way to go but I don't get lost. Inside the concrete bowl tiers of orange, blue, and gold seats are visible. Danny and Jake always have something to say here. Danny is a diehard Steelers fan and Jake roots for the team closest to home, the Denver Broncos. One brother will remind the other of a play, a game in the series between the two AFC rivals. Then it's put down and shout down till one silences the other or an adult short-circuits impending mayhem and silences both. I still live and die with the Steelers but I stay out of the bickering, unless they need a fact confirmed, which they need me for less and less each year as their grasp of stats and personalities begins to exceed mine. Even if I'm not consulted (and it hurts a little when I'm not), I welcome the diversion. I listen to them squabble and I pick my way through confusing signs and detours and blind turns that, if I'm lucky, get us off the merry-go-round ramps circling Three Rivers and down onto Ohio River Boulevard.
Again we parallel a river, this time the brown Ohio. To an outsider Pittsburgh must seem all bridges, tunnels, rivers, and hills. If you're not climbing into the sky or burrowing into the bowels of the earth, you're suspended, crossing water or looking down on a hodgepodge scramble of houses strewn up and down the sides of a ravine. You'd wonder how people live clinging to terraced hillsides. Why they trust ancient, doddering bridges to ferry them over the void. Why they truck along at seventy miles an hour on a narrow shelf chiseled in the stone shoulders of a mountain. A funicular railway erected in 1875 inches up Mount Washington, connecting the lower South Side to Duquesne Heights. Pittsburghers call it the Incline. Ride the rickety cars up the mountain's sheer face for fun now, since tunnels and expressways and bridges have made the Incline's service obsolete.
After Fort Duquesne Bridge and the Stadium, we're on the North Side, an adjoining city called Allegheny until it was incorporated into Pittsburgh proper in 1907. Urban renewal has destroyed nearly all the original residential buildings. We skirt the high rises, low rises, condos, malls, the shopping centers, singles bars, and discos that replaced the stolid, foursquare architecture of Old Allegheny. Twin relics, two ugly, ornate, boxish buildings squat deserted on Ohio River Boulevard. When I see these unusual structures, I know I've lucked out, that I've negotiated the maze of dead ends, one-ways, and anonymous streets and all that's left is a straight shot out the boulevard to the prison.
Western Penitentiary sprouts like a giant wart from the bare, flat stretches of concrete surrounding it. The prison should be dark and forbidding, but either its stone walls have been sand-blasted or they've somehow escaped the decades of industrial soot raining from the sky.
Western is a direct descendant of the world's first penitentiary, Philadelphia's Quaker-inspired Walnut Street Jail, chartered in 1773. The good intentions built into the Walnut Street Jail--the attempt to substitute an enforced regime of solitary confinement, labor, and moral rehabilitation, for the whipping post, pillory, fines, and executions of the British penal code--did not exempt that humane experiment from the ills that beset all societies of caged men. Walnut Street Jail became a cesspool, overcrowded, impossible to maintain, wracked by violence, disease, and corruption. By the second decade of the nineteenth century it was clear that the reforms instituted in the jail had not procured the results its zealous supporters had envisioned, and two new prisons, one for the east, one for the western half of the state, were mandated by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. From the ashes of the Walnut Street experiment rose the first Western penitentiary. The architect, a William Strickland known for revivals of classic Greek models and his engineering skill, created a classic of a different sort on a plain just west of Allegheny City. With massive, forbidding bulwarks, crenellated parapets, watchtowers buttressing the corners of the walls, his notion of a prison recapitulated the forms of medieval fear and paranoia.
The immediate successor of Strickland's Norman castle was constructed sporadically over a period of seventeen years. This new Western, grandson of the world's first penitentiary, received its first contingent of prisoners in 1886, and predictably black men made up a disproportionate percentage of these pioneers, who were marched in singing. Today, nearly a hundred years later, having survived floods, riots, scandals, fires, and blue-ribboned panels of inquiry, Western remains in working order.
Approaching the prison from Ohio River Boulevard, you can see coils of barbed wire and armed guards atop the ramparts. The steepled towers that, like dunce caps, once graced its forty-foot walls have been lopped off. There's a visitors' parking lot below the wall facing the boulevard. I ignore it and pull into the fenced lot beside the river, the one marked Official Business Only. I save everybody a quarter-mile walk by parking in the inner lot. Whether it's summer or winter, that last quarter mile can be brutal. Sun blazing down on your head or icy wind off the river, or snow or rain or damp fog creeping off the water, and nothing but one high, gritty wall that you don't want to hug no matter how much protection it might afford. I drive through the tall gate into the official business lot because even if the weather's summery pleasant, I want to start the visit with a small victory, be one up on the keepers. Because that's the name of the game and chances are I won't score again. I'll be playing on their turf, with their ball and their rules, which are nothing if not one-sided, capricious, cruel, and corrupting. What's written says one thing. But that's not really the way things are. Always a catch. Always an angle so the published rules don't literally apply. What counts are the unwritten rules. The now-you-see-it-now-you-don't-sleight-of-hand rules whose function is to humiliate visitors and preserve the absolute, arbitrary power of the keepers.
Onto whose lot we trespass. Pulling as close to the visitors' building as possible. Not too close because the guard on duty in the kiosk adjacent to the stairs of the visitors' annex might feel compelled to turn us back if we break into the narrow compass of his alertness. Close but far enough away so he'd have to poke out his head and shout to get our attention.
I find a space and the kids scoot out of their seats. Tish's girls are with us so we used the way back of the station wagon. For safety the rear hatch unlocks only from outside, so I insert the key and lift the lid and Danny and Jake and Tameka scramble out to join the others.
"We're in a parking lot, so watch for cars!" I shout after them as they race down the broad center lane of the parking area. What else can I say? Cramped in the car for the past half hour, they're doing now what they need to do. Long-legged, snake-hipped, brown children. They had tried to walk in an orderly fashion, smallest one grabbing largest one's hand, lock step, slowly, circumspectly, progressing in that fashion for approximately three steps before one tore away and another followed and they're all skipping and scampering now, polished by the sun. Nobody sprints toward the prison full tilt, they know better than that, but they get loose, flinging limbs and noise every which way. They crunch over a patch of gravel. Shorts and T-shirts make their bodies appear vulnerable, older and younger at the same time. Their high-pitched cries bounce off the looming wall. I keep my eyes on them as I lock the car. No real danger here but lessons, lessons everywhere, all the time. Every step and the way you take it here on enemy ground is a lesson.
Mom and Judy walk side by side, a black woman and a white woman, the white one tanned darker than the black. They add their two cents' worth of admonitions to the kids. Walk, don't run. Get Jamila's hand. Be careful. Slow down, you all. I fall in behind them. Far enough away to be alone. To be separate from the women and separate from the children. I need to say to whoever's watching--guards, prisoners invisible behind the barred three-story windows partitioning the walls, These are my people. They're with me. I'm responsible. I need to say that, to hang back and preside, to stroll, almost saunter, aware of the weight, the necessity of vigilance because here I am, on alien turf, a black man, and I'm in charge. For a moment at least these women, these children have me to turn to. And I'm one hundred percent behind them, prepared to make anyone who threatens them answer to me. And that posture, that prerogative remains rare for a black man in American society. Rare today, over 120 years after slavery and second-class citizenship have been abolished by law. The guards know that. The prisoners know. It's for their benefit as well as my own and my family's that I must carry myself in a certain way, make certain rules clear even though we are entering a hostile world, even though the bars exist to cut off the possibility of the prisoners seeing themselves as I must see myself, striding free, in charge of women and children, across the official lot.
Grass grows in the margin between the spiked fence paralleling the river and the asphalt lot. Grass clipped harshly, uniformly as the bristle heads of convicts in old movies about prison. Plots of manicured green define a path leading to steps we must climb to enter the visitors' building. Prisoner trustees in ill-fitting blue uniforms--loose tunics, baggy, string-tied trousers a shade darker--putter at various make-work jobs near the visitors' entrance. Another prisoner, farther away, near the river edge of the parking lot sidles into a slate-gray Mercedes sedan. A pudgy, bull-necked white guy. When he plops into the driver's seat the car shudders. First thing he does is lower the driver's side window and hang out his ham arm. Then full throttle he races the Mercedes engine, obviously relishing the roar, as pleased with himself as he'd been when the precise, solid slam of the door sealed him in. If the driver is hot shit, big shot for a few seconds behind the wheel, he'll pay for the privilege soon enough when he adds the Mercedes to the row of Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks he must scrub and spit shine for the bosses.
Another prisoner leans on a push broom. The asphalt walks are spotless, but every minute or so he advances the broom another foot, punching its bristles into the gray surface as if his job is not to keep the path clean but punish it for unmentionable crimes against humanity. Others sweep, rake, and supervise. Two or three trustees have no apparent duties. They are at their ease, talking and smoking. A lethargy, a stilted slow-motion heaviness stylizes their gestures. It's as if they inhabit a different element, as if their bodies are enfolded in a dreamy ether or trapped at the bottom of the sea. I watch the prisoners watch the kids mount the steps. No outward signs betray what the men are thinking but I can feel them appraising, measuring. Through the prisoners' eyes I see the kids as sexual objects. Clean, sleek bodies. Young, smooth, and supple. The coltish legs and high, muscley butts of my nieces. The boys' long legs and slim hips. They are handsome children, a provocative banner waved in front of men who must make do with their own bodies or the bodies of other men. From the vantage point of the blue-uniformed trustees on the ground, the double staircase and the landing above are a stage free-world people must ascend. An auction block, an inspection stand where the prisoners can sample with their hungry eyes the meat moving in and out of prison.
But I don't have their eyes. Perhaps what they see when the kids climb the steps are their own lost children, their sons and daughters, their younger brothers and sisters left behind in the treacherous streets. Not even inside the walls yet and I can sense the paranoia, the curtain of mistrust and suspicion settling over my eyes. Except for the car jockey and a runner outside the guards' kiosk, all the trustees in the yard are black, black men like me, like you. In spite of knowing better, I can't shake the feeling that these men are different. Not just different. Bad. People who are dangerous. I can identify with them only to the extent that I own up to the evil in myself. Yeah. If I was shut away from the company of women, I'd get freaky. Little kids, alley cats, anything got legs and something between them start to looking good to me. Yeah. It's a free show when wives and mamas tippy-tap up them steps. And I'd be right there leaning on my broom taking it all in. I don't want to feel angry or hostile toward the prisoners but I close up the space between myself and my two women, glad they're both looking good and glad they're both wearing slacks.
It's crazy. It's typical of the frame of mind visiting prison forces on me. I have trouble granting the prisoners a life independent of mine, I impose my terms on them, yet I want to meet their eyes. Plunge into the depths of their eyes to learn what's hidden there, what reservoirs of patience and pain they draw from, what sustains them in this impossible place. I want to learn from their eyes, identify with their plight, but I don't want anyone to forget I'm an outsider, that these cages and walls are not my home. I want to greet the prisoners civilly as I would if we passed each other outside, on Homewood Avenue. But locks, bars, and uniforms frustrate the simplest attempts at communication; the circumstances under which we meet inform me unambiguously that I am not on Homewood Avenue, not speaking to a fellow citizen. Whether or not I acknowledge that fact I'm ensnared by it. Damned if I do, damned if I don't. I'm not wearing funny blue clothes. I walked into this zoo because I chose to; I can return home and play with these children, make love to my woman. These privileges, which in my day-to-day blindness I often don't even count as privileges, are as embarrassing to me, as galling in this prison context as the inmates' state of drastic deprivation must be to them. Without speaking a word, without having ever seen each other before, we know too much about each other. Our rawest, most intimate secrets are exposed, there's no room for small talk. We can't take our time and proceed in the gradual give-and-take, willed unveiling natural to human interaction. This place where we meet one another is called the slammer and sure as shit it slams us together.
People don't so much meet as explode in each other's faces. I say "Hi" to a tall guy who looks like somebody I might have played ball with once. He wasn't anybody I knew but he could have been. One ballplayer knows every other ballplayer anyway, so I said "Hi." Got back no hint of recognition. Nothing saying yes or no or maybe in his black face. The basketball courts where I sweated and he sweated, the close scores, the impossible shots, the chances to fly, to be perfect a second or two, to rise above the hard ground and float so time stands still and you make just the right move before your sneakers touch down again. None of that. No past or future we might have shared. Nothing at all. A dull, hooded "Hey, man" in reply and I backed off quickly.
Are the steps up to the porch landing iron or wood or concrete? I can't recall. I'll check next time. I feel them now, narrow, metal, curving like a ship's spiral ladder. My feet ring against latticed rungs. I can peer through the winding staircase to the ground. People can look up between the rungs at me. The first violation of privacy. Arranged so that the prisoners are party to it. One privilege conferred on the trustees is this opportunity to greet free-world people first. Form a casual gauntlet of eyes outsiders must endure. Behind the prisoners' eyes may be nothing more than curiosity, perhaps even gratitude toward anybody willing to share a few hours with a man inside. Envy. Concern. Indifference. Any or all of these; but my ignorance, the insecurity bred by the towering walls incite me to resent the eyes.
I don't enjoy being seen entering or leaving the prison. Enormous stores of willpower must be expended pretending it doesn't exist. For the hour or so of the visit I want to forget what surrounds us, want to free myself and free you from the oppressive reality of walls, bars, and guards. And other prisoners. I resent them. And need them. Without them it wouldn't be a prison. In the back of my mind I rely on the other prisoners to verify the mistake committed in your case. Some of these guys are bad, very bad. They must be. That's why prisons exist. That's why you shouldn't be here. You're not like these others. You're my brother, you're like me. Different. A brother behind bars, my own flesh and blood, raised in the same houses by the same mother and father; a brother confined in prison has to be a mistake, a malfunctioning of the system. Any other explanation is too incriminating. The fact that a few twists and turns of fate could land you here with the bad guys becomes a stark message about my own vulnerability. It could easily be me behind bars instead of you. But that wouldn't make sense because I'm not bad like the bad guys for whom prisons are built. The evil in others defines your goodness, frees me. If it's luck or circumstance, some arbitrary decision that determines who winds up behind prison bars, then good and evil are superfluous. Nobody's safe. Except the keepers, the ones empowered to say You go to the right. You go to the left. And they're only safe as long as they're keepers. If prisons don't segregate good from evil, then what we've created are zoos for human beings. And we've given license to the keepers to stock the cages.
Once, on a previous visit, waiting an hour through a lock-in and countdown for you to be released to the visitors' lounge, I was killing time on the porch of the visitors' annex, resting my elbows on the stone railing, daydreaming at the river through the iron spears of the fence. An inmate called up tome. "You Faruq's brother, ain't you?" The man speaking was tall and broad-shouldered, a few years younger than you. His scarred head was shaved clean. He carried extra weight in soft pads on his hips, his belly, his cheeks. Like a woman, but also like the overweight lions in Highland Park Zoo.
I thought, Yes. Robby Wideman's my brother. Then I said, "Faruq is my brother," and expected more from the prisoner, but he'd turned back to the prisoners beside him, smoking, staring at nothing I could see.
A few minutes before, I'd noticed two men jogging along the river. I recognized their bright orange running shorts later as they hustled past me up the steps into the prison. Both greeted me, smiling broadly, the sort of unself-conscious, innocuous smiles worn by Mormon missionaries who periodically appear at our door in Laramie. Young, cleancut, all-American white faces. I figured they had to be guards out for exercise. A new breed. Keepers staying in shape. Their friendly smiles said we'd be delighted to stay and chat with you awhile if we weren't needed elsewhere. I thought of the bland, empty stare of the man who had recognized me as Faruq's brother. Somebody had extinguished the light in his eyes, made him furtive, scared him into erecting a wall around his brown skin, trained him to walk and talk like a zombie. The healthy, clean sweat sheen on the runners' suntanned brows and lean muscled shoulders made me hate them. I wanted to rush after them. Smash them out of their dream of righteousness.
Up the steps, across the porch, through an outer lobby opening out on both sides to alcoves with benches and vending machines where trustees can visit with their families in a less noisy, less crowded setting than the general visitors' lounge. A short passageway next, ending at a floor-to-ceiling guards' cage. To the right of the guards' enclosure a steel-screened staircase. To the left a narrow corridor lined with lockers leads into the waiting room. I sign us in with the guard in the cage. Give him your name and number. He duly registers the information in his book. He's the one who initiates your release to the visiting room. He also holds the key to the rest room, keys to the lockers where visitors must store items not permitted inside the prison. It's a job and the guard treats it like most people treat theirs. Bored, numbed by routine. He wants things to run smoothly, to avoid hassles, and he's learned the best way to accomplish this is not to concern himself with matters beyond his immediate, assigned tasks. The larger scheme in which he participates is really not his problem. Like most of us he gets paid to do a job and the job's basically a pain in the ass and the pay is shitty so why ask for more trouble when you're underpaid for the trouble you got already. He resents having to explain why some people sit for hours and others get shuttled from waiting room to visitors' room in five minutes. He just relays through a loudspeaker the names and numbers another guard inside the prison phones to him.
P3468, Robert Wideman.
He knows it's not his fault some visits last three hours and others thirty minutes. Some days are busier than others. For him too. Fridays are bad. Attorneys always a pain. He wears a dull gray uniform and sits in a cage all day and has nobody to talk to except the con runner who lounges beside the cage or squats in the sunshine on the porch, freer than him, he thinks.
The guard in the cage doesn't run the prison. He just works there. He didn't rob nobody or stab nobody. He didn't pack his kids in a station wagon and drag them at dawn to this lousy place, so just have a seat, buddy. When they find Wideman I'll call you.
Once I counted the walls, the tall windows, estimated the height of the waiting-room ceiling. Eight walls, a ceiling twice as high as an ordinary room, four perverse, fly-speckled, curtainless windows admitting neither light nor air. I couldn't account for the room's odd shape and dimensions. Had no idea what its original purpose might have been or if it had been designed with any particular function in mind. The room made me feel like a bug in the bottom of a jar. I remembered all the butterflies, grasshoppers, praying mantises, and beetles I had captured on the hillside below the tracks. At least the insects could see through the glass walls, at least they could flutter or hop or fly, and they always had enough air until I unscrewed the perforated top and dumped them out.
The waiting room was uglier and dirtier the first few years we visited you. The same directive that ordered beautification of the grounds must have included the annex interior in its plan. A paint job-brown woodwork, baby-blue walls; new furniture--chrome tubing with pastel, vinyl cushions; a good hard scrubbing of the rest room to remove most of the graffiti--these rehabilitated what was most immediately insulting about the area where we waited for a phone to ring in the guard's cage and for him to call the name we wanted to hear over the loudspeaker. But the paint's peeling again already, flaking from pipes and radiators, drooping in clots from the ceiling. The vinyl cushions are faded, stained. In the Ladies and/or Gents the toilet seats are pocked by cigarette bums, graffiti has blossomed again. Wall art of a different sort decorates the main room. Murals tattoo the walls--a Chinese junk, a ship's wheel circling a clock. The most ambitious painting is above a bricked-in fireplace. A full-masted sailing ship plowing through marcelled waves. I wonder why it's only three-quarters complete. Was the artist released, the art program suspended because oflack of funds? Or did prison mayhem cause the picture to be left unfinished? A man beaten or raped or dead or consigned to the hole? A personality change, a soul too crushed even to fantasize anymore a proud clipper ship shouldering its way against sea and wind?
Our group occupies half the seats along one wall of the waiting room. The kids clearly don't belong here. Summer color glows in their faces. They are bright, alert kids somebody scrubs and cares about and dresses neatly. Both my boys sport shiny, digital watches on their wrists. But whose kids belong here? Who fits the image this room imposes on anybody who must use it? You said the prisoners complained about the state of the visitors' facilities and were granted, after much bullshit and red tape, the privilege of sprucing them up. But when it came down to supplies or time to work on the project, the administration backed off. Yes, you can fix up the place. No, we won't provide decent materials or time to do it. Typical rat-ass harassment. Giving with one hand, taking away with the other. If the waiting room's less squalid than it was three years ago, it's still far short of decent and it's turning nasty again. The room thus becomes one more proof of the convicts' inability to do anything right. We said you fellows could fix it up and look what a crummy job you did. We gave you a chance and you fucked up again. Like you fuck up probation and fuck up parole. Like you fucked up when you were in the street. And that's why you're here. That's why keepers are set over you.
I can hear the bickering, the frustration, the messages encoded in the tacky walls. It's a buzzing in my ears that never goes away inside the prison. Like the flies in the rest room waiting for the kids to start trooping in. Like the guard waiting to run his hand down in my mother's purse. Like the machine waiting to peek under everybody's clothes. Like all the locks and steel doors and bars we must pass through when they finally announce your number and name.
I drew the room once but I can't find the sketch. The picture was to serve as a jog for my memory. Documentation of the systematic abuse visitors must undergo from start to finish when they enter a prison. I knew that one day I'd write about visiting you and I'd need a careful blueprint of physical details, the things that bear so heavily on the soul. But it's not the number of doors or their thickness or composition or the specific route from the visitors' annex to the prison, not the clangorous steps and drafty, dank passageways and nightmare-size locks and keys, or the number of guards frisking me with their eyes or the crash of steel on steel ringing in my ears. It's the idea, the image of myself these things conspire to produce and plant in my head. That image, that idea is what defines the special power of the prison over those who enter it.
The process of implanting the idea is too efficient to be accidental. The visitor is forced to become an inmate. Subjected to the same sorts of humiliation and depersonalization. Made to feel powerless, intimidated by the might of the state. Visitors are treated like both children and ancient, incorrigible sinners. We experience a crash course that teaches us in a dramatic, unforgettable fashion just how low a prisoner is in the institution's estimation. We also learn how rapidly we can descend to the same depth. Our pretensions to dignity, to difference are quickly dispelled. We are on the keepers' turf. We must play their game, their way. We sit where they tell us to sit. Surrender the personal possessions they order us to surrender. Wait as long as it pleases them to keep us waiting in the dismal anteroom. We come (and are grateful for the summons) whenever we are called. We allow them to pass us through six-inch steel doors and don't protest when the doors slam shut behilld us. We suffer the keepers' prying eyes, prying machines, prying hands. We let them lock us in without any guarantee the doors will open when we wish to leave. We are in fact their prisoners until they release us.
That was the idea. To transform the visitor into something he despised and feared. A prisoner. Until I understood what was being done, the first few moments at the threshold of the visiting lounge always confused me. There was an instant of pure hatred. Hatred lashing out at what I'd been forced to become, at them, even at you. The humiliation I'd undergone for the sake of seeing you poisoned the air, made me rigid, angry. I felt guilty for feeling put upon, guilty for allowing the small stuff to get inside me, guilty for turning on you.
That to get over first. And it's no simple matter in a noisy room crowded with strangers, in the short space of an hour or so, after a separation of months or years, to convince you and convince myself that yes, yes, we are people and yes, we have something to say to each other, something that will rise above the shouting, the fear, the chaos around us. Something that, though whispered, can be heard. Can connect us again.
You seem taller than you are. Long hands and feet where Mom used to say all your food went because you ate like a horse and stayed skinny. Long legs and arms. In prison your shoulders have thickened. Your arms are tautly muscled from the thousand push-ups each day in your cell. Like Dave and Daddy and Grandpa you're losing your hair. The early thirties, but already your hair thinning, receding from your forehead. On top, toward the back, a circle of bare skull sneaks through if you don't comb your naps just right. Dave calls that balding patch we all sport our toilet seat. Other than that inherited sparse spot you're doing much better than I am in the keeping-your-hair department. More than most women, when you comb it out. When you plait it into braids and decorate each one with a colored rubber band, it gives you a modified dreadlocks look that emphasizes your high forehead and long, gaunt cheekbones. Bob Marley, or Stevie Wonder on his Talking Book album, or Albrecht Durer's marcelled Christ. Faruq, the Muslim name you've chosen, is perfectly suited to your eyes. Burning. The terrible Turk declaring holy war on the infidels.
When you appear, I'm glad the kids are along. Happy that Judy insisted upon bringing them the first time we visited. You scoop them all into your long arms. All five squeezed in one hungry embrace. They squirm but endure the hug for your sake, then for their own as you press them to your need, to your strength, to each other. I'm grateful for the kids, cling to them as tightly as you do. Those are my children, your sister's children. We've brought the best of us into this godforsaken place. As you touch them, pick them up, and hug each one separately, the air is easier to breathe. You are their uncle, you are loving them, and for the moment that's all they need to know. Loving them because they're here, and loving the ones not here through them. That's all they need. All they ask. Jamila, the youngest, who's been here at least once every year of her life, hops up and down and squeals for another turn in your arms. Monique towers a foot above the others, a teenager suddenly remembering to be shy, awkward when you gather her last to your chest.
Look at my big girl. Look at her.
You grasp both Monique's shoulders and lean her back arm's length so you can get a good look too.
Ain't she growing. Look at this big thing. My little sweetheart's getting grown.
Her feet's bigger than Gammy's.
Hush up, Tameka.
Monique glowers at her younger sister. You better shut up, girl. A look full of the anger she can't quite summon up for you even though you're the one teasing and laughing louder than anybody. She turns back to you and a smile cracks the death-threat mask she'd flashed at her sister.
A bear hug and nuzzle for Judy. The same thing for Mom. Then we smack together, chest to chest. Hard the first time like testing shoulder pads before a football game. We grip each other's forearms.
We've made it. The visit's beginning. The room roars behind our backs.
from Brothers and Keepers, by John Edgar Wideman. Copyright © 1984 by John Edgar Wideman. Reprinted by permission of The Wylie Agency, Inc.