It was the first time I had ever been frisked. My husband was next. Neither of us said anything. Then about fifty of us were jammed into a small area where guards, holding semi-automatic weapons, stood above us on a balcony. I would call the area a room, but it didn’t have a ceiling, just the blue sky, which would have been nice just about anywhere else in the world. At first, there were three walls, battleship gray. Then the fourth wall, a steel door, came thundering down, “SHUMP!” I jumped, grabbed the right side of my neck, and scanned the crowd. The other visitors looked angry, but not afraid. It was definitely a part of their routine.
Glaring down at us, the guards bellowed, “Tighten up! Tighten up and be quiet!” We got as close as we could get to each other.
To my surprise, my husband yelled back at the armed guards, “You can’t talk to us like that! We’re visitors! We’re not prisoners!”
I was trying to blend in with the crowd. I thought that would be easy since most of us were minorities, but once my husband spoke, I knew he would give us away. Even though we were from the city, neither of us had a strong urban dialect. I squeezed his hand, signaling him to be quiet. I was shocked by what happened next. The other visitors cheered my husband on. He had become their spokesperson. Tattoos, gaudy jewelry, gold teeth, and tight clothes stood in agreement with him. He had gained the support of a group of visitors who looked rougher than the prisoners we met on the other side of the wall.
“They don’t want you to come here,” my husband explained to the people around him, “so they want to make it as unpleasant of a visit as possible. This is absolutely ridiculous-“
The guards continued to bellow commands from the balcony as I grew increasingly nervous. I turned my rings around and pulled nervously on my string of secondhand pearls. I should not have worn any jewelry, especially not pearls. No other piece of jewelry could say, “I have lost touch,” more clearly than a string of pearls on a brown neck, but ironically, I wanted to make a good impression on the cousin I had not seen in twenty years.
In my memory, he was the cousin who took me to his “clubhouse” with his group of “cool” friends. It was an abandoned house that smelled like a combination soot and urine. Yet, I felt special being there, climbing broken steps to the top floor and kicking through bits and pieces of someone else’s past. At seven-years old, I was a tomboy who just wanted to fit in. There were no adults around to draw the line between danger and fun. So when the cops came and my cousin held out his arms for me as I escaped from the second floor window onto a dirty mattress, I thought that was fun, and when he whizzed me home on the handle bars of his bike, I thought that was fun, too.
He was my cousin who introduced me to the streets of Atlantic City before mischief became murder. We were from the same place and the same family, but when my mother and I moved out of the housing projects to the suburbs, my cousin and I didn’t see each other as often. He and I lived drastically different lives, but my affection for him never changed. He was still the cousin I looked up to. I really didn’t know the man I was visiting in a maximum security prison with a 30 year sentence. So when he walked into the sunlit prison yard, bright orange and strong, I hugged the little boy who once held out his arms for me.
Age 7, dressed like a cop
Ironically, it is the only photo I have of me at this age.
By Shawn R. Jones
Author of the devotional book, Pictures in Glass Frames http://t.co/BxiNwWRG
and the poetry chapbook, Womb Rain,