This post-release blog covers both the big day and events of twenty months or so until I found my footing. Needless to say, crazy shit happened as my offbeat life continued to unfold . . .
An unseasonably warm and rainy morning greeted me on release day. I started it by dressing myself in “real” clothes for the first time since being transferred from county jail into the prison system. I culled my outfit from apparel donated to the prison by local church groups −stuff they’d normally take to Salvation Army. I’d never required pants above a thirty-six waist, but now forty was in order. I chose a pair of brown corduroys and a patterned casual shirt that fit like a tent because the sleeves were long enough. I didn’t care that I looked ridiculous because I had no one to impress. Even better, I used my look to lighten the mood of several inmates before leaving.
Prison administration calls for outdoor headcounts now and then. Inmates line up in the yard according to the barracks they sleep in, usually for thirty minutes or so. (Thankfully the authorities usually choose to do this in mild temperatures, as on this day.) As I stood among the one-hundred-and-sixty others I began clowning with my new clothes. My pants nearly reached my nipples when pulled all the way up. Dudes started laughing at me, so I played along.
“Anyone want a piece of me?,” I shouted, deadpan and with the fly of my trousers nearly mid-chest. “Who fucking wants some?!” I stalked around until a guard told me to get back in line. Lots of laughter filled the morning mist.
Soon enough I met the drizzle on the free side of the property, having exited the front door. My friend Tom greeted me, the same friend that bid farewell to me in the courtroom at my intake. Normally, one would think has it really been almost three years? Seems like one. In this case, it was “Jesus Christ, it feels like I haven’t seen you in five years!”
Like men (idiots), we failed to get a pic of me at the moment of my release, next to the sign for the facility. You know, in case I blogged about it later for my book’s website or something. And this wasn’t even for me being too jacked up from joyous screaming. I felt excited in the same way you are after completing a ten-hour drive to your parent’s house: Glad it’s over but kinda numb.
Our first stop was not to get me the first meal as a free man, per the stereotype. I needed basics until I reached my Dad’s place in a couple of days. Specifically, underwear and perhaps clothes that didn’t make me appear to be homeless. Minutes later I shopped for clothing at Goodwill for the first time. (Not the underwear, don’t worry.) I’d long considered myself above wearing used clothes but had been thoroughly humbled. My forty-five dollars in “walking” money from the prison went a long way in this place. I ended up with a pair of jeans in good repair and a couple of decent shirts. I even pick up a golf jacket that cost well over $50 new for a mere seven bucks.
The next morning I awoke in Tom’s comfortable guest room, something I would repeat twenty or so times before moving on. We headed out to the Atlanta suburbs, to his brother’s house for a Christmas meal. This option helped me feel content on the holiday since I wasn’t about to ask someone to drive me halfway to my dad’s place in Alabama. We enjoyed the outing, and I even got to feed horses. I pulled up grass that they couldn’t reach through the split-rail fencing that surrounded their pasture. Hanging out with pre-teen kids proved equally odd to me, although also fun.
Two days later my best friend Toby drove me down I-85 from Atlanta to the Alabama welcome center. He debriefed me on some of my prison escapades and filled me in on family and friend news I may have missed. Catching up and laughing it up felt amazing. Now I really started to feel alive again. He probably drove two hundred miles round trip for me that day and helped me get back on track both emotionally and practically.
Speaking of practicality, I soon found myself in the passenger’s seat of Dad’s SUV headed into the depths of Alabama. Montgomery, to be exact, not-so-affectionately known as “The Gump.” The good news was winter was an agreeable time to visit because temperatures are mild instead of so hot you want to kill someone.
Seeing Dad again was not an emotional occasion, probably for either of us. Long-lived disputes between us had boiled over in letter exchanges while I was locked up. We’d never respect each other from here on out, so this reunion was pretty much all business. Even the smart-ass humor we normally share became rare.
I spent the next couple of days buying and activating a phone, getting my car registered and insured, and getting new tires. And of course I renewed my membership at Costco. If that doesn’t spell freedom I’d like to know what does. (Special thanks to Tom for spotting me $1,200 to get this stuff taken care of. Especially since I had no prospects for getting a job at the time!)
Dad and I didn’t speak much, as he spent most of his time at his lady-friend’s house. When we did chat he made sure to ask when I planned on leaving. I stopped short of telling him to not flatter himself, it would be about as fast as I could load my Mazda full and organize the rest of my stuff for longer-term storage in his garage/warehouse. Next thing I knew I was headed back to Atlanta, relieved to have that shit over with.
Upon my return, another friend agreed to float me a loan, this one for $3,000. He’s the type who wouldn’t miss the money or sweat when he got it back. I paid back Tom with part of it and saved the rest for whatever came next. And despite what I’d promised myself while locked up, I resisted the urge to run down to Miami to see a few Phish concerts over New Year’s. The old me definitely would have, especially with the extra money that had materialized. Maybe I’d learned my lesson after all. I paused and considered how privileged I was to be presented with such options, believe me.
Although Tom and I got along wonderfully, after three weeks he declared he was not interested in having a long-term roommate. As luck would have it, my maternal uncle, also named Tom, and my Aunt Linda seemed open to me moving in with them. They lived in a large house on the water in rural coastal Virginia, which featured a small apartment above a detached garage. In other words, the perfect place to settle in dig through hundreds of journal pages to write a prison memoir.
Taking Life Slowly
In December, 2014 I lived in a building with one hundred and sixty other people. A month later I lived in Mathews, VA, where the population density was under one hundred people per square mile. You passed a soybean field along the driveway. The closest “real” store (besides a Dollar General and a small grocery) stood twenty-five minutes away. No internet service reached my small apartment. I enjoyed a life of few distractions and made the most of it.
Normally I’d wake at around nine and have breakfast as I read a book I’d checked out from the stellar local library. My “reading the old-fashioned way” habit I’d picked up in prison carried over nicely. I did so guilt-free, too, as I took to heart advice that reading a lot is a great way to improve as a writer.
Around eleven I’d “put my butt in the seat,” as Anne Lamott says in her excellent writer’s guide Bird by Bird. I normally spent four hours working intently, riding the highs and lows of 1,000 – 1,500 words a day. I chuckle looking back on my mentality of the sheer numbers of words being my gauge of accomplishment for a day as opposed to quality. My first draft clocked in at a whopping 116,000 words, at least 20,000 of which ended up pruned.
Next came nap time, followed by a stretching session. This was as close as I got to both yoga and meditation. Chronic back pain keeps me from many yoga positions, and my general idiocy prevents me from seriously pursuing spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps I’m content enough with my resting mental state to not need to slow things down and refocus. Back then, (and even now, actually), I’d go days on end without receiving a single phone call, text, or email.
Loneliness plagued me during this period. Beyond a few giant hugs from former co-workers in Atlanta female contact continued to elude me since before my prison stint. That slump exceeded five years. I tried not to dwell on it, probably with some success, but the drive to fill that hole in my soul is tough to ignore. Luckily, a pleasant family life removed some of my longings.
I enjoyed a home-cooked meal with Tom and Linda practically every evening (I contributed with dishwashing/clean up duty). Their delightful dog Jackson, a schnauzer/westie mix, became my best pal.
My three grown cousins visited the main house regularly, including on each major holiday. Many little ones came with the package and provided a decent distraction from my non-existent love life.
Following dinner, I’d often run around the water’s edge taking sunset pics, as the house faced west and a wide part of the East River.
Besides that I spent most evenings surfing the web, catching up on all the TV series I missed while in the joint, or watching sports. I couldn’t have asked for a lower impact way to recover from the stress and sensory assault of prison life. The price was right, too.
At first, I earned my keep by helping around the five-acre property. Picking up debris from trees following a storm or flotsam after a particularly high tide was a regular chore, as was general home maintenance like gutter cleaning. If I picked up on pine cone, I picked up ten thousand. Once I became gainfully employed after moving out I paid Tom and Linda lump sums that equaled 17 x $500 a month.
My most intense task while in Mathews besides writing the book was working on my golf game. We’d arrange a high-quality driving range mat on the smooth concrete of a basketball court and hit into the front yard that was once a field of weeds.
The tree line/woods stood roughly one-hundred and forty yards away, so practice with all of the wedges was in play. I may have taken twenty-five thousand swings out there, all told. And I still suck. Great exercise, though!
My idyllic lifestyle came with a speed bump, however. Tired of being broke, and in need of car insurance money, I took a job on a local lawn maintenance crew. I planned to do this for a few weeks and save up some cash to sustain myself until the second draft of Lookout For Shorts was finished. My comeuppance for my life as an irresponsible slacker hit hard, and I honestly preferred prison over this experience.
Late July in coastal Virginia means heat and humidity. The day I started saw heat index numbers just short of 110. My outfit of sweatpants and a long-sleeve athletic shirt (to guard against mower debris, the sun, and possible snake attacks) soaked through with sweat by 7:00 am. As the newest crew member, I manned the weed eater or push mower all day. I’ll never look at a deep, one-hundred-yard long v-shaped ditch the same way again. Yeah, I shoulda stayed in college.
The second day I worked was straight-up torture. My already bad back was in spasms from bending over to work the weed eater. Guzzling water barely kept light-headedness at bay. The boss, who was actually a great guy, started to lose patience with my failure to keep up the pace of the crew. Before lunchtime, I threw in the towel and my pride. No amount of financial peril could warrant taking more sheer pain. The boss called my uncle to come to pick me up, thank Jesus.
By June of 2016, I’d wrapped up my second draft and grown tired of being broke and socially isolated. I bid a sad farewell to Jackson − my dawg − and headed to resume a more typical and productive life in Richmond, about ninety minutes north.
Moving On . . .