“What is it you’re reading?” asked the lady next to me on the bus stop bench. Her face was pale like a mushroom and unkempt black hair straggled down her back. She was morbidly obese, wearing a gray sweatsuit, and had a walker wedged between her legs. But despite all this, her face was friendly and open and shrewd. Something in her expression reminded me of the moms in the neighborhood where I grew up.
“I’m reading War of the Oaks,” I replied shyly, showing her the cover. “It’s about a girl who starts a band. Then she meets some supernatural creatures….”
The lady rumbled with a friendly chuckle. “You had me at ‘supernatural creatures’!” she said. “I love fantasy, I just love it! Have you ever read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo?”
“No, but I’ve seen it in bookstores. Is it good?”
“Fantastic book. Fantastic book,” she said. Then we started talking about the Harry Potter movies. “I saw an interview with Daniel Radcliffe,” she told me. “I love him, I just love him. But then again, I’ve always been a sucker for a British accent!”
A friendly silence fell over us. Then, “Do you mind if I smoke?”
“Go ahead, I don’t mind,” I told her, and watched her light up.
“Never start smoking,” she said, waggling her finger at me. “It’s a filthy habit. A filthy habit! And it’s so expensive. I can’t afford this, I really can’t. Promise me you’ll never start smoking, dear.”
Amused, I gave my promise. Then she began talking to an elderly black gentleman standing nearby. “I’ve been five months without a smoke. I just got out of prison,” she said. “I’m so relieved that’s over. Riding the Greyhound all the way from New York— boy, I was glad when I saw those Rochester signs on the highway! Wooo-hoo, Rochester, here I come!”
I was startled. But I had been in Rochester long enough that I didn’t find another bench or start edging away. I think my face only betrayed my surprise by the slightest flicker. I leaned back and listened.
“I got out of prison 30 years ago,” the black gentleman told her. “Thirty years I’ve been clean now, and counting. It’s not easy though. It’s nooooot easy.”
“Tell me about it,” she said. “I am so sick of peeing into cups. If I never need to pee into another cup again, that’s all I need for happiness. I’m going to stay clean this time, I really am.”
“If you can go two years without having any, then you’re in the clear,” the black gentleman told her. “Two years and you stop wanting it. Nobody tells you that.”
“Did you ever go to any of those Anonymous groups?” she asked, squinting at him.
He made a Pshaw! noise, and swiped his hand through the air, as if sideswiping her statement. “I went to one of them, once,” he scoffed, “And I was the only one there! Nobody else showed up. I ended up doing it on my own. None of that bullshit for me.”
“I hafta stay clean this time. I have a daughter, fifteen years old.” She turned to me, her eyes shining. “She’s SO beautiful, and SO smart. I’m so proud of her I could just die.”
“You must be so happy to see her again,” I said.
A shadow passed over her face. “Actually, I haven’t seen her yet. I haven’t been allowed,” she said. Then she pulled herself together. “But I have an appointment to see her on Thursday! I’m so excited!” she said, bright and cheery again.
“Okay,” I replied, wondering, what happens to teenagers when their parents are in jail? Do they stay with relatives? In some type of institution? This “appointment,” thing seemed like bureaucracy was involved, but it seemed insensitive to pester her for further details.
She kept on talking to us about her daughter. “She’s so beautiful, and so smart,” she repeated. “She wanted to get a nose ring, a nose piercing. I told her, yes, ON ONE CONDITION. That you promise never to get a tattoo. She can have all the piercings she wants, so long as she never gets a tattoo.”
“Did she agree? Did she get the piercing?” I said, smiling.
“Of course,” she replied. Then she admonished me, “Never get a tattoo. It’s the worst mistake you can make. I have three, and boy do I regret ’em. My daughter’s not going to make any of my mistakes. You see a tattoo on a seventy-year-old woman and wow, is it ugLY! Nobody wants to be seeing any tattoo on any old wrinkly butt. That’s the thing about tattoos. They’re for life!”
“You must be so proud of your daughter,” said the black gentleman.
“Sure am! She’s so smart. She passed all her courses this year. She’s really going places. No thanks to her dad though. Dads never stick around.”
“I visited my children every weekend,” said the black gentleman begged to differ, speaking proudly. “Every single weekend, their entire lives. Didn’t miss a single one.”
“That’s the way to do it!” said the lady, applauding.
“They’re always asking me for something,” he said, his voice a mixture of aggrieved and proud. “Dad, can I have this, Dad, can I have that. But I take care of them. They’re all grown up now. I got three grand children.”
“Oh, and I bet they just love you to death, don’t they,” said the woman warmly. And in the gushing kindness of her tone, I caught it again— that flash. A flash of something that reminded me of the neighborhood moms, on our block, growing up. I’d heard voices like hers saying, “I brought you some more zucchini. Our garden is just going crazy this year!” But in stark contrast, THIS voice was saying,
“Boy, I’m so glad to be out of prison. I was so tired of being around women. All women, all the time. As soon as I got out, I went on the Internet and looked everybody up. There was this one lady— looked like a little old grandmother, tiny and frail. But she was in prison for murder! You would never believe it, would you. And she lied to me, she told me she was in for something else.”
Our new friend had been in the prison’s medical unit, because she had trouble getting around without her walker. Rapidly, she detailed the stories of the other five women in the unit, taking especial pleasure in the story of the grandmother who snuck up behind someone who insulted her son, and brained him with a fireplace poker. “I’m so sick of women,” she said.
The black gentleman laughed. “Tell me about it! I grew up in a house with eight sisters. I was the only boy.”
“And girls, when they fight, they can be nasty. A boy will just punch you, but a girl will pull your hair, gouge your eyes, everything. Were there lots of cat fights, in your household?”
“Were there!” said the gentleman. He stirred restlessly. “Although, growing up like that, with eight sisters and my mother and no dad, I sure learned how to behave. Behave properly. All the young men nowadays push and shove to get ahead of women on the bus. It’s a disgrace! Me, I step back and let the women get on first. That’s the way it’s done!”
“I can tell you’ve been brought up right,” said the lady. She fidgeted. “That’s what I want to do for my daughter. Bring her up right.” A bus screeched to a halt in front of us— not our bus, though. We watched people get on. One young woman in front of us was dressed to the nines in stiletto-heeled gray leather boots that went up past her knees. She wore them with bright silver pants and a cleavage-showing black tank top.
“I’d kill my daughter if she wore boots like that,” said the lady, scowling at the promiscuously dressed young woman. There was a touching kind of bravado, in the way she talked. Talking about enforcing rules and guidelines and standards of proper behavior, on someone she wasn’t allowed to see until Thursday. Someone she hadn’t seen for five months.
Our bus rolled up. “Would you like a hand?” I asked. She grimaced and said, “Okay, sure,” and I pulled her to her feet. Awkwardly she clutched her walker and began rolling towards the bus. I wondered if she only needed it because she was so fat, or if there was another reason. Then I felt a tug on my elbow. Startled, I turned around. It was the black gentleman.
“See?” he said, pointed to the line of people entering the bus. “See what I’m talking about?” I blinked, confused. “What did I tell you! All those young fellas pushing ahead of that mother with her baby carriage. Manners these days!” Then he gestured me in front of him, as courtly as any baron bowing to a duchess. I went ahead of him onto the bus, feeling oddly discomfited. Such a strange world we live in these days. Well, I guess it’s always been a strange world, but I never noticed it so much before coming here.
I think the most tragic thing about jail is the way it separates people from their loved ones. Love can be a powerful motivator, maybe the only thing which can motivate someone to break a drug addiction and live a “clean” life.
A few days later, I was sitting at the bus stop reading an issue of “YES! Magazine.” Every issue was about solving a different world problem. This issue was focused on the prison system. I was reading an article entitled, “Why Punish Pain? A Hit of Compassion Could Keep Drugs From Becoming a Crime Problem.” I read, “In North America, two assumptions inform social attitudes toward addiction. First is the notion that addiction is a result of individual choice, of personal failure, a view that underlies the legal approach towards substance dependence… the second perspective is the medical model that sees addiction as an inherited disease of the brain….. What the choice and heredity hypotheses share in common is that they take society off the hook. Neither compels us to consider how a person’s experience and social position contribute to a predisposition for addiction.”
The article was written by a doctor who works with addicted patients. One of his patients, a 27-year-old sex trade worker, told him the first time she did heroin,“it felt like a warm, soft hug.” The doctor wrote, “In a phrase, she summed up the deep psychological and chemical cravings that make some people vulnerable to substance dependence. Contrary to popular myth, no drug is inherently addictive. Only a small percentage of people who try alcohol or cocaine or even crystal meth go on to addictive use. What makes these people vulnerable?”
The doctor’s medical opinion is that a stressful childhood and negative life experiences make people more likely to get addicted to drugs. He talks about an experiment scientists did separating baby monkeys from their mothers for a few days. Bereft of cuddling and affection during this crucial stage of brain development, the monkeys’ brains didn’t develop as many dopamine receptors. In other words, the monkeys’ capacity to feel happiness and pleasure was permanently damaged by childhood neglect. A human with decreased capacity to feel pleasure might turn to drug addiction for the “warm soft hug.”
If we want to fight drug addiction, the doctor said, we need to give more support to marginalized and excluded members of society. We should especially support parents so that they have the resources they need to raise a child with love and affection. Drug addiction is a social problem. Not the result of individual sin. Not the result of bad DNA. It can’t be solved by punishment or medicine. It can only be solved by compassion. But compassion is hard.
A screeching sound, the smell of smoke and dust, and my bus had arrived. I tucked the magazine under my arm, slung my backpack over my shoulder, and got in line. A man behind me cried, “Whoa! That’s a big backpack!” He pulled on the top to get a feeling for the weight and whistled. “This is so heavy! You must have MUSCLES, girl!’
“Mmm,” I said politely. He followed me on the bus talking. “No way am I ever fighting you! I don’t want to fight you, girl. Muscles like that, you’d probably lay me out with the old one-two.” He mimed two punches to illustrate his point. “Such a big backpack!”
I burst out laughing and smiled at him. He was at least a couple feet taller than me, so I found the situation pretty comical. He sat behind me and kept on chatting. “You a student?” “No, I work in the library.” “Well, now I got a friend in the library,” he said happily.
And then, “What magazine you reading?” I showed him. He read the cover, “Beyond Prisons: 23 Million People Behind Bars. How To Stop Wasting Lives and Money.” He raised an eyebrow.“You got a prison boyfriend, girl?” he asked in concern.
“No!” I said startled.
“Good. Because trust me, it never works out.” He nodded wisely. “It never works out.”
He sounded like he was speaking from personal experience. How many hopeless romantics are waiting for their boyfriends to get out of jail? How many teenage girls are waiting for their moms? How many people are waiting for their husbands, their dads, or their children? The USA imprisons more people than any other country in the world, more than 3% of our adult population. And we call ourselves a developed country. Future generations will study our War on Drugs the way we study Aztec human sacrifices, in awestruck horror that anyone could really believe the wheels of civilization must be greased by blood.