A long time ago, in a land far, far away (O.K., so it was Vancouver’s Chinatown — the corner of Columbia and Pender), some philosopher king carved his manifesto in wet cement. “TRUST YOUR GUT,” it announced. The sidewalk it was scribed into rolled right up to the shiny front doors of a Toronto Dominion bank that was a regular distraction for me. Nah — too close to the cop shop. They’d be here before you could get out of the vault, the devil on one shoulder would whisper. Yeah, but think of all the restaurant cash these guys get, his twin would crow from the other. Then my eyes would fall to the omen in stone. I wonder if there were others like me, who took a pass on that bank because of some vandal’s spur of the moment whimsy. If so, then I may have discovered an elixir for the most entrenched problem in Canadian penitentiaries today.
“Hey man, you know somebody I can talk to for chronic?”
I shook my head at the six-foot-two, two-hundred-fifty pound Burundian. “Not my trip, bro. I quit smokin’ the stuff seventeen years ago. A life sentence is chronic enough for me.”
“Awe yah, you doin’ life too, man?”
The kid and I first met on the flight from hell last December, when we came across Canada on Con Air. We parted company at the Montreal airport, but last week he arrived here from the max. Mine was the first face he recognized. In prison, that’s what doubles as a lifelong friendship.
“Yeah. How much you got in on yours?” I asked.
“Five? How old are you?”
“Twenty-three,” he said without a blink.
I did the math. “Wow. A homerun first time up to bat, eh?” The kid looked away. I don’t know what brought him here — the pen was “don’t ask, don’t tell” long before the American army ever was. But for a flicker in time, I felt empathy for a little boy stuck in great big shoes.
“Well, you’ve landed in a good joint,” I said. “They’re set up here to help guys. There’s a pretty good library, and you can buy your own books there too. Plus, they have shops. You can learn a trade, and even get your first year’s hours if you go to work in CORCAN. You can do university courses too, if you have the money.”
“Awe yah?” He looked about as interested as a twelve year old at a tax seminar. “Well, I see you round man. If you hear about some weed, you let me know, awe right?” I offered a plastic smile and went back to my keyboard. Empathy 101 — class dismissed.
If there is one obsession that unifies the keepers and the kept in this place, it’s dope. The former spend millions trying to keep it out, the latter devote their every waking — and more than a few sleeping — moments to getting it in. This is not news. The US (with Canada in hot pursuit) has built entire kingdoms in tribute to drug abuse. They call them Super Prisons. For those walled up in those death depots, drugs aren’t a problem. They’re the solution.
“Expanding drug use is a warning sign of the weaknesses and faults in our society,” British author Ben Whittaker wrote at the end of the last century. “Besides loneliness and despair why would a significant number of talented and privileged people prefer drugs to the reality of our day?” While I’m no expert on talent or privilege, I think I have a good feel for why prisoners prefer the trip instead of life on the farm.
Prison equals pain — which according to a majority of Canadian voters, is a good thing. And like any human in pain, those who sleep behind bars will do almost anything to make it go away. It’s that simple. In my own case, the quill is how I get out of my head. But trading rolling papers for writing paper took me nearly fifteen years — and friends who finally convinced me that the hot Jell-O between my ears was good for more than memorizing the order of AC-DC albums. Many around me aren’t there yet. For them, dulling the lash’s sting is a full time adventure in creative chemistry.
“I see they hauled that new black kid away to the hospital,” Mac said to me.
“You mean the one from Burundi? What happened?”
“Some guy working in the kitchen stole a pound of nutmeg. Apparently, he heard that if you drink enough of it, it’s like taking acid. The big dummy drank half the bag and got food poisoning. The bull on my block said he was puking blood.”
Somewhere from the far ago reaches of my mind, a communique carved in concrete whispered its timeless caution. At least the young African will live long enough to laugh about his near-death audition for the Spice Girls. What won’t be so easy to live down is the new nickname: Cookie.