The wheels on my truck grew weary.  At least that is what I imagined as the monotonous roll of the tires grew into somewhat of a melodic tune over the radio. This was only about a forty-minute trip, but it seemed to take longer.  My lady was quiet.  Probably sleep. This would be the closest facility that her brother had been in since being incarcerated. Incarceration is never easy, no matter what type of person you believe yourself to be.  This is often doubled with the feeling of solitude when you are held captive in facilities far from civilization and even further from familiar faces. The navigation finally took us off the freeway and over an overpass where I saw the sign for the correctional facility and no longer needed the navigation.  We pulled into the long driveway where you could see rows and rows of barbed wired fences and not much else.  Admittedly, although I have had a few friends and even some family members in prison, I’d not once gone to visit any of them while they were inside. We pulled up and I let her out to verify if her brother could indeed have visitors today.  I waited in the parking lot and realized that it must have been shift changing time because I began to see several officers, guards or whatever they may be referring themselves to these days.  I saw three black males and one white male.  All with stone faces, two with brown bags, the other must does not eat during his shift or has some other way of eating during that time. I recognize the stone faces of the black men.  Not because I know prison guards, but rather because I know the face.  The face that we as black males are forced to wear everyday in our neighborhoods. A face created by fear.  Fear that someone would test you.  The fear that someone would take something from you.  The fear that you had everything to lose.  She came back to the door and waived to let me know everything was good.  Since I wasn’t on the list, I couldn’t come in with her, so I journeyed out of the parking lot in search of somewhere to be while she visited her little brother.

Prisoners Outside the Walls

Before I found something, my phone rang.  It was her saying that I needed to find somewhere to get her a plain black tee-shirt because the thin shirt she had on had a small hood.  Not even a hood that would cover your head in a fall breeze.  Nevertheless, they weren’t having it.  I found a Meijer and some civilization less than 5 miles away.  I grabbed a pack of tees and headed back.  On my return route, I noticed small communities on the road leading to the prison.  An elementary school, a subdivision and a trailer park that looked more like a gated community than what my mind normally creates when I think of a trailer park. During this ride back is when I realized a weird paradox. These people live their everyday lives with a prison in their backyard.  The reality of this though, is that although the prison is physically less than a mile away, it is not a part of their everyday lives. Yet, hundreds sometimes thousands of miles away in an inner-city like Detroit or Chicago or Philly prison is entrenched in our everyday lives.  We are either in prison, know someone who is in prison or related to someone in prison. This forms an odd paradox in my mind generally because even though there is no physical reminder of prison as it is for those trailers and elementary school less than a mile away, we are forced to reckon with the penitentiary life at an alarming rate.  Far more than our counterparts. I pulled up to the administration building again to deliver the tees.  I left out of the parking-lot so she could change into it off of the property because she had been warned by one of the deputies not to change in the parking lot.  Damn, we’re even prisoners when we’re trying to visit a prisoner. This time, we were successful, so I bid her adieu and headed to an Applebee’s I’d seen in town near the Meijer.

Miles From Home

Not contrary to anything I’d thought, I was the only black patron in the restaurant.  I didn’t feel uneasy though.  It never felt like an edited scene from “Get Out,” but it did feel a little strange.  Possibly it was strange because just down the road is an endpoint for many people who look like me.  A place that has claimed the lives of the many prisoners inside as well as the families of those prisoners who were left to fend for themselves outside. Just the pure amount of “heads of households” who are devoured by the system while those households deteriorate thus bringing their communities down with them. The bearded bartender greeted me and asked what I was having.  I ordered a Coors Light on tap and watched the NCAA game that was on the TV from my barstool. I looked around once more, but nothing had changed.  I was still the only black person in the place.  Then I saw an older woman who was a server come from the back.  She would be the only black person I saw working there during my short stay. There was another guy behind the bar.  He wasn’t a bartender though, but was grabbing drinks for one of his tables, I imagined.  He floated in and out of the bar area with what seemed to be a homosexual badge of honor on his lapel. His sexuality made no difference to me whatsoever, but what I do envy is his existence without fear.  The fear that caused the stone faces of the guards down the road.  The fear that got most of the people tossed into the steel plantation in the first place. It dawned on me then while I sipped on my second Coors Light, that if the fear had been taken out of neighborhoods, then we’d be less likely to be housed in the backyards of middle America. The fear of not being black enough.  The fear of not being hard enough. The fear of helplessness. I chewed the last of a small appetizer of boneless wings as Kansas pulled out a close one in OT to make it to the Final Four.  I cheered in excitement as the game came to a close.  Not because I was a Kansas fan, but the excitement of a good game always made me cheer. In fact, I didn’t have a favorite in the game.  It was then that some of the white patrons sitting near me started to engage in idle basketball and celebration gibberish. I grinned and laughed aloud all the time thinking that nobody had said a word to me until that point.  After my football experience at Adrian College, I’d come to realize a long time ago that sports actually do have a way of blending cultures.  Often, it is the only avenue for other cultures to even approach us for the fear of the unknown. I settled up and headed out so that I could reach the compound in time, so my lady wouldn’t have to stand outside in the cold.

Prisoners of War

I pulled up right on time.  It was as if we had some sort of celestial clock synchronized for the pick-up.  She hopped in and immediately I asked about the visit. She gave me a few details and to not spoil the moment, I left it at that.  I could see a range of emotions on her face.  A look of satisfaction that she was able to see her brother and undoubtedly an emptiness of knowing he would not be leaving with her now or no time soon.  We exited the compound and the small town adjacent to the barbed wired atrocity shrank in the rear-view mirror.  At that moment the thoughts of oppression, institutional racism and white privilege that lead so many of the prisoners astray got drowned out once again by the tumbling of the tires moving toward familiarity. We rode in silence, but the statement of incarceration is always blaring loudly in our heads.  I can’t wait until we figure out how to replace it with another tune.  Catch ya’ on the FLIPSIDE.

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