We had all gathered into the gym to say our final farewells. I somehow felt obligated to go. I didn’t know “Little Baby” well; just saw his big smiling face around the hallways, or when I would go through the line during chow. He would always whisper his offer of “Fried rice?” That was his hustle, had been for years. Fried rice. But I liked his smile, big, white, barn door front teeth that contrasted nicely to his blue-black skin. He was as dark as a crow at midnight. I couldn’t begin to guess his age, except for the fact that he had grown up with so many of the guys that I spent time with out on the yard, so that would make him close to my age give or take a decade, in this case probably give.
I always thought that it was odd the way everyone seemed to age so well in prison. I really couldn’t account for it, at least not until my first winter. That was the first year the heat exchange had been broken, missing some part or another, and it would take a while to get here. I ended up gathering everything that I could before I lay on my bunk at night: clothing, books, trash bags, rolls of toilet paper…everything and using those to cover myself in, trying to do whatever I could to maintain whatever heat was generated by my own body. That’s when I had a realization; We weren’t aging any better than anyone else on the outside. We were being cryogenically preserved…slowly…over time. The heater broke every single year that I was down. Every. Single. Year.
Big Baby had fallen dead walking down the hallway one day on his way back to the block, I suppose. Nobody really knew why. A couple of guys that had known him from the streets and had been close with his family had told me that his body hadn’t been released for autopsy yet. The family was furious, but the state owned his body, and they would do everything within their own power and need to cross their I’s and T’s before he was released to the family. It had been a damn week, and we were all righteously angry about this, because whatever happened to Big Baby happened to US!
When they did finally release his body, I heard about it out on the yard. I think it was Tounk who told me. I loved Tounk, like a brother. Tounk had quite literally taught me how to be in prison. He had been my guide, explained to me what hustles to look out for, showed me who was safe and who wasn’t. He had been down for more of his life than not; good looking guy, and charming (Tounk had been both married and divorced four times on state!) So we were close and he was safe, but I didn’t learn until a couple of years after I had been transferred to a lower custody level what Tounk was really in for…and that’s about as real as it gets. He had told me that he had shot a man in the leg who later died and had been charged with murder two, even though it had been self defense. Out of respect for a friend, I won’t say what Tounk was really in for, but even now it disappoints me that the level of trust I had extended to him wasn’t ever reciprocated. I don’t blame him, don’t blame him at all, but it is sad.
Tounk, Y.O., Wisdom, all of us had been huddled up on the yard talking about how they had taken Big Baby’s body out in shackles. For all of us it was the ultimate form of disrespect, and if you’ve never worn shackles, I hope you never understand.
In the gym the prison choir sang some old hymns. My friend Al led everyone. Al was in his sixties. He had a speech impediment that made him tough to understand when he talked, but he loved to sing, and he would proudly tell you that he had only ever read one book in his life, The Bible. What I learned later was that he had taught himself to read using that book. Al had also been in and out of prison his whole life. Al’s brother was on death row in another state, and his sister had been locked up for murder, his parents had been violent towards each other, but Al didn’t consider it abuse, because sometimes his mom would beat his dad nearly as badly as he had beat her.
I had played piano for the prison choir. I didn’t know how to play piano, and this is truly where I learned, banging out chords to old southern black spirituals. I had hired on as a harmonica player when they first put the band together, but they needed someone to play piano and I needed to play music. I played about five nights a week and twice on Sundays, but honestly, I was in the midst of my own existential crisis and didn’t think much about going to anymore church services at this time; so I sat this one out.
Some distant relatives of Big Baby that he was locked up with, cousins and such; Others whom had grown up with him said a few words.
We all had a good laugh about his hustle of selling dirty rice out on the yard and in the hallways. I would occasionally buy peanut butter from kitchen workers out on the yard. Big Baby knew that I was vegetarian and had offered to make mine special, with no chicken or meat, but I just couldn’t bring myself to do it.
Behind me a couple of inmates whispered quiet angry complaints that we should be discussing Big Baby’s hustle so openly while prison staff was present. They weren’t frightened for Big Baby, not anymore. They were angry that we had collectively exposed a future hustle.
That was the only time during this service that I had whispered, “Jesus.”
Part of me had been jealous; I guess part of all of us had been a little Jealous. Big Baby was free.
The rest of us would just have to endure.
The rest of us would have to look for laughter in the hidden spaces.