Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hard Time

You're covered with large, intricate tattoos. You're also handsome, and you know it. I can feel you turning on the charm, and I wonder how many women you've seduced with it. I don't trust you.

But you're a patient in our ER, and I'm the chaplain, and I know I'm not supposed to judge you. So even though I want to leave the room, I sit down instead. I know you can't hurt me here. "I like your tattoos. Will you tell me about them?" When patients tell me their stories, I can almost always find common ground with them.

So you tell me about the tattoos, glibly and at length, although a lot of what you say doesn't make much sense. There's complicated personal symbolism here. You talk about your totem animal, about the names and portraits of your lover and child, about the barbed wire on your shoulder, surrounded by skulls. "That's about prison," you tell me matter-of-factly. "The skulls are the souls inside."

"You were in prison?" I ask. "For how long?"

You grimace. "Twelve years, and two on probation. They got fourteen years of my life."

Twelve years, I think. That's hard time. You must have done something really bad. But you're out now, off probation. I'm not here to judge.

I point to a tattoo on your arm, which looks like gang insignia to me. "Is that from prison? I've heard you have to join a gang there to survive."

You nod. "I got it in prison, but I didn't join a gang. I walked alone. I'm not a racist. I like other people." I wonder if you're telling the truth, and if you really walked alone, how you survived. But I wasn't there, so I have to believe you.

"How long have you been out?"

You grimace again. "Five years."

"I've heard it's really hard to come out. I've heard other guys who've been in prison talk about reentry."

You nod, and when you speak again, something in your voice has changed. The BS is gone. You're no longer trying to charm me. You're telling me the truth. "Yeah, it is hard. It's really hard. There's too much choice, you know? You go into a store and there are twelve kinds of crackers on the shelves and you just stand there, frozen. It's too much to take in."

"Oh, no kidding! I feel that way when my husband and I go to the store, and I've never been in prison." You laugh, and I think about the time I stood in front of the wall of canned tomatoes and counted how many different kinds there were. Factoring in brand, preparation, and size, I came up with over a hundred different kinds of canned tomatoes.

I've found our common ground.

"And you don't know how to be with people," you tell me, "what to say to them. You don't know the rules anymore. I still haven't gotten used to it. That's why I'm homeless now. I'm more comfortable with the guys on the street, because they don't lie or steal from you."

I catch a whiff of BS again, or at least of strangeness. For one thing, I've seen a lot of homeless people here, and you don't fit the description. You're too clean and well-groomed. And I'm curious about this claim that homeless people are more honest than the rest of us. I want to ask you about that.

I don't get the chance, though, because the doctor comes in.

"I'll come back in a little while," I tell you, and go to visit other patients.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later -- not long at all -- I go by your room. You're not there. You're gone. You've left, or they've discharged you. You're back out there now, still doing hard time in a different kind of prison.

I remember something you told me. "When you get out of prison, you have to learn how to buy cheese again."

May you learn to buy cheese, friend, and may you always have enough to eat.


  1. Nicely done, Susan! This integration or reintegration is a strong subject for you isn't it? Parallels to TNB and Shelter, my mind is trying to play compare and contrast with the two situations and your hospital patient's.

    Peace! Hope! & Joy!

  2. Thanks for an interesting post!!
    I was reminded of people emigrating from 3rd world countries to Australia saying things like "I can't go shopping...I can't deal with the entire aisle full of different brands of potato chips!!".


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