Several months ago, as summer was mercifully sliding into a languid and temperate fall, I drove down the spine of California to spend my weekend visiting a friend doing time in one of the state’s middle of nowhere megaprisons. I’d never been to a prison of any kind before and though I’d done my research (no spaghetti straps, no jeans, no hoodies, no nothing, lady), the word on the street was that the regulations could be a bit arbitrary (all black clothing was OK last week but isn’t this week, etc.) so I was a little nervous about not being let in. After driving hundreds of miles and booking a nearby hotel, a sista wants to visit her people, ya know?
But it all went smooth as silk. My papers were in order, my outfits were acceptable, I had the requisite clear purse full of quarters, and after pulling all my pockets out and turning around to do the hokey-pokey in front of the inspecting C.O., I was ushered through the metal detector and found myself in a sort of outdoor chainlink holding pen. We’d all hang out there, folks giddy and excited to see their loved ones, until a small herd of visitors had gathered. Periodically they would buzz the gate open and allow us through to make our way several hundred yards down a dusty footpath to the visiting house.
It’s a strange sensation to walk, unescorted, through a prison, even if it was just was on the periphery. I must admit that it was more reminiscent of a community college campus, with its attractive landscaping and quiet hush, than Sing Sing or San Quentin, but all that curly razor wire on top of the omnipresent chainlink kept any illusions in check.
At the visiting house, we were again rounded up into small packs and let through the thick glass doors at regular intervals, assigned a table, and instructed to sit down and wait for our respective inmates to arrive. It took my friend a long time to show, so I had plenty of time to observe – very discreetly – others waiting, as well as the visits already in progress, and to think about how each of these guys had his own story, his own stack of paper, an arraignment, a sentencing, a first day inside. People were playing board games, laughing, stockpiling food from the vending machines, talking with heads bowed, hugging tastefully, and trying very hard to maintain a human connection in the middle of an overly warm, mildly chaotic room that reminded me of any junior high cafeteria.
Finally my friend came down and that day and the next we sat outside, on the small visiting patio, talking about things both deep and trivial. I told him how on certain parts of the journey the highway had smelled like blood, and then all my life’s secrets came out of my mouth and I told him all the things I never knew if I would, things only my best friend knows, even some things he doesn’t. It was easy to forget where we were, with the flowers blooming on the other side of the fence, the hawks flying overhead and wild cats prowling around the grounds. He told me of finding a broken bird and feeding it with food and creatine until it was ready to be let go, and how when the time came, it didn’t want to – but, he had told it, we all have to grow up sometime.
On Sunday at 3pm they called time and all the visitors and inmates dejectedly dragged their feet back inside, stretching out the goodbyes until the very last minute. They herded all the visitors back into our glass pen and let us go one by one, each visitor waving frenetically to his or her inmate, still in the visiting room, as we exited through the sliding glass doors. Then it was back on the footpath and groups of us waiting again by the gate to be let through to the parking lot, our cars, the freeways, home.
Unlike Saturday afternoon, when the mood had been jovial and nearly ebullient due to the next day’s impending visiting hours, the vibe on Sunday was somber; shoulders slumped, feet shuffling, grief borne both nobly and nakedly. There would be no visits tomorrow, and all of us were going to get in our cars and drive many, many miles home, while our guys, whomever and whatever they were to us, would stay there, in their state blues, for a long time.
I started talking to a couple next to me, black folks in their 40s, who had driven all the way from LA. The Mom told me they’d come up to visit their son, and about how she’d bought all this food from the vending machines and kept feeding and feeding him until he pleaded, “Ma, stop, I’m gonna get sick.” The beauty of her simple act, a mother trying to feed her child, caught in my throat and I pushed my sunglasses down over my eyes, trying to be a stoic German girl.
I looked around at these people that I’d gotten to know just a little bit over the last two days – the woman with her wheelchair-bound mother whom I’d discussed different strategies for getting over the coastal mountain-range with; the girlfriends I’d seen putting on blush in the early morning light of the parking lot, the parents of the overfed young man, the young wife of an inmate struggling to get in a cuddle – and thought about how far all of us had driven, the money saved for hotel rooms and gasoline, the time spent hitting redial for the visiting-appointment line, the hours on dark freeways, the clear purses full of quarters, the careful attention paid to wardrobe, and the all the men, some who’d done terrible things and some whose mistakes weren’t so terrible, now shuffling back to their cells in buildings we couldn’t see the inside of, and I realized I’d never in all my life been to a place so overflowing with love. In the middle of nowhere. Beneath all that razor wire.
And this is the thing about love: sometimes I think it thrives best in the ugliest of places; where hope and joy are in short supply, where suffering and shame are as much a part of the day as sunrise and the inevitable night. You can’t stop it with judgments, or prohibitions against spaghetti straps, or miles of freeway. You can’t stop it with time. Just like the cats that didn’t know they were living amongst the exiled and the wicked, love wanders where it wants, knows no cage, and obeys no man.