Things, stuff, and other items of interest

May 18, 2011

Notes to my Nephew #004

Dear future Jack:

Hey there little dude, I hope this note finds you happy and full of hope. I know it's been a while since I last wrote to you. Sorry about that pal, but there are and will continue to be times where I just run out of things to talk about. Just between you, me and the internet, there's nothing quite as pitiful as a person who keeps talking (or typing as the case may be) long past the point they stopped having anything to say.

As you grow older, you're going to meet all sorts of people. If I were a smarter man I'd be able to offer you some sort of wisdom about how to take a measure of a person in their handshake, or whether or not they look you in the eye. I wish I could share with you some insight about judging a person's character on how they hold themselves or whether or not they square their shoulders and straighten their back. All I can tell you is what I've picked up so far:
  • Someone's posture will reveal less about their personality than it does about their choice of footwear.
  • Vocabulary and diction may offer some clues about someone's education level or reading habits, but it won't help you one iota if you're trying gauge someone's integrity.
  • The quality of a handshake is important only if you're going to be arm wrestling the person to whom the hand belongs. It reveals diddly squat about a person's character.
I guess what I'm saying is that if there is a short cut for figuring out who you can and can't trust, I don't know it. As with most things in life pal, if you want to do it properly, it'll take some time. If you'll bear with me, I'll tell you about a time I wished I had some sort of secret to determining a person's merit.

When I was young man, I wasn't too bright. As a result of some poor decision making skills on my part, I ended up going to jail. Ok wait a sec, that isn't quite what I mean. Or rather, it sounds a lot worse then it actually was. What I mean to say is that I took part in a volunteer program where I and a group of kids / young adults  spent some time hanging out with other 'youths' who were 'residents of the state'. Officially it was called a 'Bible Study Group', and it took place in a room in one of the administration buildings inside the Brookside Youth Detention Center for Boys. In truth, we didn't spend much time studying the Bible, but we did spend a lot of time talking. I can remember quite clearly walking into that room for the first time. As you well know bud, I've always been a hefty fellow. That was just as true back then as it is now. If I wasn't six feet tall yet, then I was close to it. I remember entering that room and having to look up to be able to look those guys in the face. They were giants, all but one of them. I can't recall another time where I've ever been so intimidated.

The guy in charge of our group was called Mike (not his real name), he worked as part of the staff of the facility. The whole program was his idea. Essentially it boiled down to finding some volunteers to come in and just shoot the shit with the guys inside. Mike figured it would benefit the kids inside, as well as those of us on the outside. Your grandparents thought that the program would do me some good, so I got volunteered. At our first meeting, Mike laid down some ground rules:
  1. No last names.
  2. No asking the inmates why they were incarcerated. If they chose to tell us, that was their choice. We weren't allowed to ask.
  3. No bringing anything in.
  4. No taking anything out.
Other than that, it was pretty laissez-faire. We had to gather as a group at the gate house, where we'd go through a security check of sorts. We'd proceed through the gate, under escort, to the administration building. When we'd get to our room, the guys from inside would be waiting for us and  there would be some sort of discussion point for the day usually on topics dealing with trust or ethics or some such thing. We would put in a token effort to follow the suggested topic for about half an hour, inevitably though discussions wandered and no one really cared. We'd meet once a week for an hour, over a period of a few months. For those of us on the outside it was just something we did. For those on the inside it was a highly coveted reward for good behaviour. These guys had to earn the right to be there, and it wasn't an easy task for them to achieve given the nature of their surroundings, and the realities of life inside. This one hour each week was a chance for these guys to let their guard down if only momentarily, and it wasn't an easy transition for most of them to make.

During one of these sessions, I met 'Corleone'. (That's not his real name.) Corleone was a small kid, which was a serious disadvantage given his circumstances. One of the things I did each week was to make sure I had a new & very dirty joke for the guys. The dirtier and raunchier the better. It helped break the ice for what was usually a fairly tense first couple of weeks. Corleone and I hit it off when we started swapping jokes back and forth one session for nearly the full hour. We started talking and soon found out we were both football fans. I of course started talking up my beloved 49ers, while he turned out to be a Dallas fan. After a few more weeks, Corleone decided to tell me what he had been arrested for. He was there for a full term (five years), as he had been convicted of murdering someone.

It's hard to fully understand how powerful a moment that was. Telling me this was a real risk for Corleone, it was no small event. At the same time, information like that obviously impacts how you look at someone, and it wasn't an easy fact to reconcile with the guy who shared my twisted sense of humour. The risk for him was whether or not I'd still feel comfortable talking with him, knowing in the back of my head that this guy had ended someone else's life. Corleone went on to explain that he hadn't really done it, but rather his uncle had. He had agreed to take the blame for the murder as he would only have to do five years on account of his age, where if his uncle had been caught he would have been locked up for twenty-five years. There was no remorse or regret, just an explanation of events as though he were reading a shopping list. A bill of lading, all part of doing business. It was unnerving to listen to to say the least. Going into to this program, it was explained to us that the guys inside were there for good reason, their crimes weren't minor. These were serious criminals who had committed some of the most violent of crimes. This point really came home to roost when I realized the scope of what my new friend was telling me.

Now I already mentioned that I wasn't too bright, so this next part probably won't surprise you too much. Our conversations usually started with me recounting the details of the week's football games, and both of us discussing how we thought the rest of the season would play out. It's no great surprise that we rarely agreed on our respective prognostications. I honestly can't recall who first brought up the idea, but it was suggested that we bet on the outcome of the Superbowl. Being a moron, I accepted. We decided to wager chocolate bars, as it was something he could earn & purchase on the inside, and of course I would have no problem getting them on the outside. This was a colossally stupid thing to do. I can't stress that point strongly enough. It hadn't occurred to me at the time, but if Corleone was to be believed (which was a very big if) he was in fact a member of a mafia family operating somewhere in Ontario and I had just opted to make a sports based wager with him.

Over the next couple of weeks, I didn't really think too much about the bet as it never occurred to me that it would be a problem. It was a chocolate bar, who gives a shit? Superbowl time came and went, and as with every other sport based wager I have ever made, I lost in spectacular fashion. Things became more complicated when I missed the next few weeks of meetings because of a variety of reasons. I was sick, I was out of town, kidnapped by space aliens... whatever. Over the next three weeks, I legitimately could not make it to the meetings. All the while completely forgetting about the wager I had made. Thankfully, a month after the Superbowl I was finally able to make it to one of the meetings and more importantly, I had remembered the bet the day before. I had stopped off at the corner store and picked up three giant chocolate bars. One giant Coffee Crisp, one giant KitKat, and one giant Aero bar. These things were huge. I think they may have cost me a grand total of five dollars.

As per usual, I showed up at the gate house, and went through a security check in. It was winter and I was wearing a heavy coat, so no one clued in to the fact that I had the chocolate bars on me. This wasn't part of a nefarious scheme on my part, but rather glaring stupidity that this might even be considered a problem. We got escorted into the building and once we got in the room, I took off my coat. I pulled the bag containing the chocolate bars out of my pocket and Mike immediately went apoplectic.
Mike: "What the hell is that?!"
Moron: "It's three chocolate bars I owe Corleone."
Mike (Getting angry now): "You can't bring those in here."
Moron (Starting to clue in that I may be in shit): "Oh, sorry. I didn't think it would be a problem."
Mike (Getting angrier now): "What do you mean you OWE Corleone? How do you OWE him these?"
Moron (Beginning to worry now): "We made a bet about the Superbowl, and I lost."
Mike (Now somewhat awe-struck at my staggering ignorance & naivete): "You made a bet with one of these guys? You know this is a prison right? They can't just go buy a chocolate bar, it takes them months to earn one. These guys are convicted criminals."
Moron: "Sorry Mike, I really didn't think it would be a problem. They're just chocolate bars."
Mike: Stunned silence, shaking his head.
After some more discussion I managed to convince him that there wasn't any contraband or drugs stronger than corn syrup in the chocolate bars. Probably more out of a motivation of potentially saving my life than preventing me from welching on a bet, he let me take the chocolate bars in. Truthfully, I think it was at the point where I offered the bars to him that he decided to let it go. I didn't want to cause a problem, it really was a case of me being staggeringly stupid. I have no idea what would have happened if the guards had found them, I assume they would have confiscated them. It didn't occur to me until later that their first suspicion would be that I was trying to smuggle in drugs, or weapons, or God knows what else.

Once the drama had subsided, and I had apologized a millionth time for causing a problem and we went into the room. Corleone was there, and he didn't look happy. As soon as he spotted me his entire body language changed; he became tense, and wouldn't stop staring at me. Shortly after the session started we broke into groups and I went over to talk to Corleone, it was clear he was pretty angry. As I made my way over to him, I reached into my coat pocket and started to pull out the chocolate bars. The instant he saw them, everything changed. His jaw dropped then he started to smile, and then stopped when he saw that there was more than one and that they were ridiculously over sized. It was a weird reaction which I didn't know how to take. I handed the bag of chocolate bars to him and he just sat there holding them without saying anything. I began apologizing about missing the last few meetings and taking so long to make good on the bet. I explained why I hadn't been able to make it and joked that he might have to eat the bars right there on the spot as there was a bit of a problem bringing them in. He never looked up or said a single word the entire time I was talking, he just stared at the bag of chocolate in his lap. At first I was relieved that he seemed to relax, but he was quiet for so long I wondered if something was wrong. It wasn't until he got up to shake my hand, and give me a bear hug that I realized he was crying. Not just crying but out right weeping, almost sobbing.
Corleone: "I thought you had forgotten. I thought you ditched the group so you wouldn't have to pay up. I thought you welched on our bet."
I don't mind saying it was a pretty touching and kind of weird moment. I had had absolutely no idea how important this had been to him. The entire room at this point was completely silent, and everyone just watched this tough as nails, convicted murderer as he hugged me and cried. It was, and remains one of the most sincere, powerful, touching and awkward moments of my entire life. You could hear a pin drop in that room. No one said a word. After a couple of moments, he let go and immediately punched me in the arm and said: "Next time, no coffee crisp. I [Expletive deleted] hate coffee crisp." Then without missing a beat, he started opening up the three chocolate bars and passing pieces out to everyone in the room. I was first to be offered a piece, which I tried to decline thinking that this was a real treat for him and he should be able to enjoy all of it. He would hear nothing of it.
Corleone: "These are mine, and I want to share them with you guys. Besides, if I take them back to my cell, they'll just be stolen or confiscated."
I tried to convince him to keep them, but it was actually Mike who talked me out of it. It gave Mike an opportunity to confirm that there was nothing illicit in the chocolate bars, and it also was a very effective and tasty way to dispose of the problem all together. So the entire room got a small piece of either a KitKat, Aero or Coffee Crisp, and we just sat there munching away for a couple of minutes.

I don't know how to describe these sessions. I won't say that I enjoyed it, because it's not the right choice of words. It wasn't something you would describe in terms of 'liking' or 'disliking'. It was an incredibly potent experience, easily one of the most meaningful things I've ever done in my life. At the same time, it wasn't easy. These guys had done awful horrible things, and it wasn't always possible to take that into account and move past it. That first session made a big impact on me, I ended up taking part in four sessions all together. Corleone was transferred to another detention center after that first session but there were other guys who kept coming back time and time again. I have no idea what became of Corleone. To this day, I still don't know what to think of him. He was a friend of mine, we got along and we joked around. On the other hand, he was convicted of killing another human being. His life lead him to places and circumstances that are outside of my scope of experience. I have no idea if anything he said to me was true, or if he just made it all up. It's about twenty years later now, and with the benefit of hindsight I can say I learned three things that day:
  1. Never welch on a bet. Ever.
  2. There's no quick way to sum up an individual no matter who they are, or who you are.
  3. I really need to stop betting on the Niners.
I hope all is well with you little buddy. Eat your veggies (except the brussel sprouts) and listen to your folks. Be good. I'll see you soon.

Uncle Onion

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