|Michael Koran's Psicorn
Prose and Cons: Liberating Stories from Prison
Relationships are Hard - Especially with Other People
Prose and Cons:
Liberating Stories From Prison
copyright 2003 by Michael Koran
When I come for the first time to teach in maximum security prison, I see a huge glass wall. I don’t know what to do. I eventually see a little glass slit in the wall and I go and stand near the slit.
Many guards, behind the glass wall, are moving about. No one seems to notice me. It appears that they have taken a course in not noticing. The principal told me on the phone “if you show even the slightest impatience they will take an even longer time before they notice you.” I am being tested. If I show any impatience to get into maximum security prison I won’t be able to enter.
I stand motionless. I give the impression that I am honored to stand in front of a glass wall and watch eight guards ignore me. I pass the test. A guard ambles over and asks: WHO ARE YOU?
I’ve come to teach in the school here.
What’s your name?
Koran: K, O, R, A, N.
I know how to spell. Do you think I’m stupid?
Where’s your I.D.?
I give him my driver’s license. He walks away with it. I stand there for over 5 minutes. He finally returns and says:
What’s it worth to get your license back?
I’m proud of my answer: You’re friendship.
He even smiles a tiny bit as he flips my license through the slit.
The first step in getting into maximum security is to lock your wallet and keys in a locker. It costs twenty-five cents to get a little key that locks your valuables in this locker.
[The Teacher puts wallet and keys under his chair.]
You can’t get into prison for free. This is America. We only value what we pay for.
The next step in our initiation rite is to go through seven gates. At the first gate a woman asks me to stretch out my hand. She stamps it with a rubber stamp. Without that stamp you can’t get out,” she says.
As I walk on, a door closes behind me. I’m standing in what looks like an elevator shaft, with a locked gate in front of me. I can see a skylight a hundred feet above me. I’m being checked to see if I’m worthy of entering maximum security prison.
Apparently I am worthy and I eventually get to the last gate—behind which are several rooms that make up the school. The principal introduces himself. He takes me to a small room he shares with his female secretary.
He says: Never never say “NO” to your students. Even if they ask for a sawed-off shot gun say “Yes. I’d be happy to get you a sawed-off shotgun. I just need to check it with the principal.”
The secretary adds: If there’s trouble yell. I almost always hear a yell and I’ll press a button and guards will come and help you. I tell her, this is not totally reassuring.
The classroom is a nicer classroom than I usually teach in. Old stained wood. Good lighting from the sun even if it the sun has to come through barred windows.
When I walk in there are about 18 men, all dressed in dungarees. I ask them to move the chairs into a circle like this one. As soon as the seats are arranged one of the students, John, asks me: “Why are you here to teach us Philosophy?”
One of the writers I admire, Dostoevsky, wrote that if you want to find out what your society really is like go to their prisons. It’s like checking the bathroom in a restaurant. It can tell you how the restaurant treats employees and food. Prisons can reveal what going on in government and schools. Inquiring minds what to know.
John says “I don’t care what Dostoevsky said, why are you here?
There are other reasons: Jesus said to his students “Did you visit me when I was in prison? His students said, “You never were in prison.” Jesus said: Any time anyone is in prison, that’s me.”
John says, Teach, we don’t care what Jesus said, Why are you here?
I live in Cambridge. The newspaper columnist Mike Barnicle once described Cambridge as a city surrounded on four sides by reality. I wanted to find out the truths we’ve learned from books are true for you.
“Teacher, would you please stop talking about other people and tell us why the Fuck you’re here?”
O.K. When I grew up I was a high school nerd. Black glasses and all. Many of the girls loved tough motorcycle gang guys like you. I always wanted to be accepted, respected, learn from men who were brave enough to rob a bank.
One of my students says: I loved robbing banks. I always considered prison an occupational hazard. What’s your occupational hazard Teacher?
When I studied at the University of Chicago they taught us to live "the “life of the mind.” “The Life of the Mind” wasn’t good enough for life. My sweetheart and I have just separated. She said “you’re trapped in your head.”
“Are you one of those swado-intellectuals, Teach?”
Yup. One of my colleagues teaching in this program-- honest his name was Dante-- said, Most all of us are in prison and we’ve written on the bars: PLEASE DON’T TAKE ME OUT OF HERE. IT’S THE ONLY HOME I HAVE.
I tell my students that we’re going to have an oral rather than a written final. Everyone has to present a story, essay or poem that will help us break free from the prisons we are in.
When I walk in for the final, my devoutly religious student raises a Bible and screams: The Bible is the word of God. It tells us to love our neighbors as ourselves. If you don’t, you’re going to hell.
Another student gets up and says: The Bible is a crutch for cripples. How whimpy to believe a Big Daddy in the sky takes care of us. You’re a baby who needs someone to tell you how to live.
Another student slowly walks to me and says: You’re the wimp, professor. You can’t even control the classroom.
I point my finger at him and say: You sit down.
He says: Don’t you point your finger at me teach.
I pull my finger away.
John says “Teach, you gotta be braver if you want to teach us. My old man taught me to be tough. He’d hit me whenever I stayed out late. And that didn’t stop me once from comin in late. I had this wild dream the last time I ever let the ol’ man hit me. I go to my priest and tell him the dream that freed me from church.
I died and would you believe it, father, I was sent to heaven. It was nice for about one minute. Bloomin’ harp music made me crazy. I told the angels I’m goin’ to hell. They said, there’s an infinite distance between heaven and anywhere else. I didn’t care. I had to escape. They didn’t pay much attention to me when I left. But nothin was going stop me. And if nothin’s gonna stop you, then nothin, not even infinite distance, can stop you. I could feel them watchin my back as I got closer and closer to hell. This angelic attention spurred me on.
When I get to hell-- it’s cold. I think the reason people think it’s hot is because it’s so bloomin frezzin that you gotta think hot all the time. But I’ve generated all this heat from my infinite journey. The ice starts to melt. It makes great creakin sounds. ENHHHH, Achhh. This is the music I like. I start bangin out more sounds on the ice. It’s a great racket. More meltin. People start comin out of their freeze. We have a great blooming time making jazz, father.
So forgive me father, for I know what I’m doin’. I’m never goin to listen to no church music ever again. I’m gonna be a jazz pianist.
My student Arthur De Tulio, a friend of mine who is now out of prison, says: I wrote a poem I call “A Wizard of Sorts.” It’s about how I could not free myself from my own prison.
Deep within my solitude, beneath a bloated moon,
I gather in my basement with a needle and a spoon,
Wrap a belt around my arm, then penetrate my vein
To feed the hungry demons that exist within my brain.
I mix the precious powders with my potions and my pills,
That work twisted magic and unleash pagan spells
Which ward away the darkness as it satisfies the pain
And calms the hungry demons that exist within my brain.
A wizard of a sort am I, but not without its toll
I conjure grand illusions, but I sacrifice my soul.
And reality is silent as it slithers down the drain,
To drown the hungry daemons that exist within my brain.
I’ve practiced every spell I know in hope of some relief,
But nothing that I seem to try can satisfy the beast.
Be it heroin, opium, crack or cocaine,
They cannot kill the demons that exist within my brain.
John: I hope your moved by his pain, teach. It’s so touching to be moved by someone else’s pain instead of YOUR OWN!
I worked in a home for emotionally disturbed children. Tommy, our best athlete, tries to escape while playing center field. He makes a run for the stone wall around the outfield. While he’s climbin’ over the wall I grab him. It’s my job as a counsellor to keep him from escaping. He yells at me, “let me go; Let me go!” While he’s screaming a gentleman in suit and tie walks by, looks up at us and says, “You leave that child alone.” Tommy looks at the gentleman and says “You mind your own business, Sir. The guy walks away and Tommy turns to me and screams, “You Bastard let me go.”
John: Oh, Teach, you’re so proud of a story where a kid seems to want to remain stuck in prison?
Smitty stood up straight as a rod of steel. Dante said that maximum security took men, even if they were made of iron, and either broke them or turned them into steel. Smitty looked like a blacksmith had indeed molded him into steel.
I’m 12 years old. I’m playing basketball in the living room and I knock over the lamp and break it. I’m always breaking things in the living room. I call my younger brother, Charlie and I tell him, when Mama comes home tell her that you broke the lamp. Charlie says, “that’s not gonna do you any good. You’re responsible for me.”
O.K. I say, tell her, please, that the cat came in from next door and broke the lamp. My mother comes home and Charlie runs to tell her, “Smitty said to tell you that the cat came in from next door and broke the lamp.”
As soon as I hear him, I run and hide under the bed in our bedroom. My mother does not come in after me. After a long time I carefully sneak out from under the bed and peak into the living room. My Mama’s crying on the living room couch. I quietly sit next to her on the couch and ask, Ma, why are you crying. She says, “I’m a lousy Mother. I’ve taught my son to lie to me. I look at her and say, Ma, I don’t want you to cry. I’d rather you hit me than cry. And she looks me in the eyes and says, “Oh Smitty, you warm your Mama’s heart [as she slaps me across the cheek.]
Hey! [Audience cries HOO!]
John: Why can we only find love by hurtin each other Teach?
(To audience: Any feelings, thoughts, questions or answers.) [Audience participates.]
My small skinny student, Jeff, I’m in prison because I discovered my wife in bed with my friend. I went to my room, got a gun and killed them. Because I went to my room to get the gun they convicted me of pre-meditated murder.
I read a story by the English writer Charles Williams. It’s called Descent into Hell.
I see a beautiful woman in one of these adult education class like this one that I was takin’ in the free world. I’m usually shy but I go right up to this lovely woman after class and I say, “We’ve got somethin special between us. How about getting to know one another in a cabin I’ve got in New Hampshire.” She says, “that’s a great opening line, but you must be kidding.”
I’m a sensitive guy Teach. So I can’t go back to that class. Instead I go on a retreat all by myself in that cabin in New Hampshire. I picture this sweetheart and I together every day and night. We watch the leaves turn color, when the pond freezes we cut a hole in the ice, catch fish, cook it over a fire and keep each other warm in every imaginable way at night. Each day we see either sunrise or sunset together. We do this, in my imagination until Christmas. And then Christmas day I hear a knock on the cabin door. I open it. It’s her. She says, “I’ve been thinking about you every day and night and I think your right. We should spend time together here without distractions and get to know each other.” I take a good look at her and then I say, “You’re not at all as beautiful as I imagined you. Don’t disturb my dreams.” And I close the door on her.
When I try to imagine her after Christmas I can only see her in black and white. And then in the New Year all I can see is a blooming black hole.
John: Ever love someone for real teach? Or do you prefer to teach about love?
Rocky gets up. He used to be a state trooper and then he quit for a more lucrative job. Robbing armed vehicles. He told me that “our last robbery was a big one. We drove to our get away car, but unfortunately someone saw us change cars at Burger King. We did not know this and were happily driving over the mountain congratulating ourselves on our success. And then we see this roadblock. We have a choice. We can try to shoot our way out or give up. I have never killed anybody. This was not the time to start. We surrendered.
Whitey gets up. Smiling. A torso sculpted by weight lifting. Arms you wouldn’t want to get crushed by.
I discovered how to make work fun. I read in this poetry book by Robert Frost that we should make our avocation (that’s our hobbies, guys) into our vocation (our work.)
I loved to go into people’s homes and handcuff them to their beds. One of the perks of the job was that when I asked for the money the wife would say “Don’t tell him where the money is, honey.” It didn’t take much to get her to say, “Tell him where the money is, honey.”
It was a great job. Night work. You meet a lot of interestin’ people and you make a lot of money. But I read in the Globe that if you’re caught in a crime with a mask on you get twice the time. So I made a big mistake and took off my ski mask. The work was even more fun without a ski mask, but someone recognized me.
When they put me in prison I started a new fun business. I sold Dope to the prisoners.
Teach, don’t look surprised. You can get dope anywhere in America and certainly in the prison. The guards are pissed cause I’m having a better time than they are. One of them comes into my cell and says, take that book off your bed and put it underneath your bed. Now I’m not going to put no poetry book on the floor. The punk couldn’t get me to do it himself so he calls three of his buddies. I hurt them all. They have to pay for making me put poems on the floor.
They get back by putting me in solitary confinement. All there is to the cell is a faucet with a sink, a hole for bodily functions and a slab for a bed. I rip that faucet out of the wall. There’s a little glass circle on the door that the guards look in. I hit that circle of glass with the faucet again and again until I break through. I then throw my shit at the guards, my piss and even some baby powder somebody left in there. They do not like this so they put me in the prison of prisons—a federal penitentiary, Levenworth.
I’ve graduated. Now I really get can a business going. I have employees. One of them, Micro Mike, comes to me and says “Big Sam ain’t payin’ for the dope.” If people know they don’t have to pay for my merchandise that’ll be the end of my business. It’s Micro’s job to get the money. But I tell him, you’re a father and you’re getting out in four months. I’ll do you a favor. I’ll get the money from Big Sam.
So I eat my lunch of chop suey and I go to meet Big Sam in the gymnasium. And even I am surprised. Sam’s got a knife. And he stabs me and he stabs me. I’m lyin’ on the gymnasium floor and I think I’m goin’ to die. And when I die everyone is gonna think that the asshole is dead. I’ll be remembered as an asshole.
And then the doctor comes. Micro had called the guards. The doc stops my bleedin’, examines me and says “You’re a lucky son of a bitch, Whitey. He stabbed you seven times but missed your heart and your lungs.
I look up at the doctor’s eye glasses and I tell him: I ain’t gonna be an asshole no more Doc. Don’t get me wrong, if someone commits an inetiquette against me I’ll push ‘em back. I’m not a religious man. Never liked no churches. But I must have been saved for a reason.
I come to this class, guys, to find our what the reason is.
[Whitey cries] Hey! [The audience cries HOO!]
John: Is that the reason we’re here teach. To say Hey and Hoo?
(To audience: Any feelings, thoughts, questions or answers.) [Audience participates.]
Ray gets up and says: The readings in this philosophy class are very similar to the readings I do on my own for my own personal delight.
I’ve often been exposed to the idea that there is complete unity in the universe. That we are all an equal expression of the universal consciousness that pervades the entire world. In Taoism this is called the Tao. In Christianity, the Holy Spirit. But its one thing to understand this on an intellectual level. It’s another thing to understand this on a getting from this moment to the next level.
A few years ago, in August, I get a call from my sister. She tells me that my brother “died of a heart attack two days ago. I told the authorities that you would not be invited to the funeral.” My family had two brothers and two sisters. Both my sisters still had a brother. I alone was brotherless. I had just begun my practice of meditation. This was going to be a test to see if I could keep my center. I was barely able to do so. And as time went on I thought about this less and less.
About three years into meditation I get a flash of insight. We create our own reality by assigning a value to each and every event. I took my being sentenced to prison as an example. To some, the courts and the families of the victims, me being in prison was a good thing. To others, my family and me, it was a horrible thing. I therefore concluded that the event itself, me being in prison, had no inherent value. It depended on what I put in it. I thought if this was true of me being in prison, this was true of every event across the board.
Well, I’m bopping along, working out, going to school, doing my own thing, when I get a call from my other sister. I try to get back to her. It takes two days. I finally get through and get her husband. He says, “your sister’s gone to live with her mother. We had a fight.”
Now I didn’t know where my mother lived. She disowned me when I was sent to prison. I didn’t even know her name because she remarried. So I asked my brother-in-law: Could you give me the name, address and telephone number of my Mom. He knew I wasn’t suppose to have that, but he was angry at my mother and my sister. So he said, “Sure.” This led to a reconciliation between my Mom and I, but I gonna save that for another story.
My brother-in-law gave me other information I was ignorant of. He said, “Your brother didn’t die of a heart attack. He slit his own throat.”
Now this was really going to be a test to see if I could keep my balance. Not only did I have to go through another grieving process, but I had to face up to having been lied to in such an important matter. I consider myself very fortunate to have been exposed to the spiritual journey I am on. I was very sad for a few days, but I was able to feel the sadness without becoming the sadness. This was the first time I ever was able to do that.
Along my spiritual journey, I discovered that joy and grief emanate form within. I could decide how I felt at any given time. I now decided to see what I could learn from my brother’s death. It was the last lesson he could teach me. Probably the most dramatic lesson was the pain he left to his family in the wake of his actions. My Mom had suffered greatly--one son a suicide and the other sentenced to life in prison. Recognizing this pain I was filled with—compassion. I myself had tried to kill myself a few years ago. I now knew I could never take my own life.
It was my sister, Katie I most thought of. She is four-eleven and weighs 96 pounds. It took everything she had to make it through my imprisonment and my brother’s suicide. She had been institutionalized, in and out, the last few years. I now understood why and I wouldn’t and couldn’t be the cause of more suffering to her.
I feel that my brother’s death and my father’s a year later, played a huge part in my spiritual growth. I am the sole surviving male of my clan and I now know that I can depend on myself. I am a responsible adult and I have the strength and courage to take the path I am on to its ultimate destination.
[Ray shouts] Hey!! [The audience shouts HOO.]
(To audience: Any feelings, thoughts, questions or answers.) [Audience participates.]
Arthur de Tulio, again. I need to make up for missing many journals. Can I get extra credit for another story?
It better be a great one.
My most intense experience making love occurred with a woman I was very much in love with—Cindy. It happened only once—that moment where the minds become as connected as the body. And it occurred in of all places a cemetery.
She and I were hitchhiking back to Pennsylvania from Portsmouth New Hampshire. We ended up getting stranded on Route 17 in Binghamton, New York, at about two in the morning. The highway was deserted: a flat, black ribbon of emptiness and the only sounds were the buzzing of the arc lamps above us and the echo of our own voices. The area in which we were stranded was a residential suburb which seemed to offer no shelter besides rows and rows of quiet back yards. But from where we stood, which was an elevated vantage that looked over the sleeping neighborhood, we could make out what appeared to be a park of some sort, maybe a quarter mile from the highway. It was a large patch of trees and dark shadow from which no sign of life or light showed. We were tired and the road was a void, so we scrambled down the embankment and headed towards the spot to see if we could camp for the night. What we found was not a park at all, but a large cemetery surrounded by a high fence of brick and spiked iron rails. After circling almost the entire cemetery, we finally found a spot where the iron fence was dented and spread enough, as if by some giant hands, or perhaps an out-of-control car, for us to slip inside.
To this day I can remember the name on the headstone where we slept: William Quirk. His grave was sheltered on one side by his enormous stone, and by two rows of fir trees which created a three-sided stall with a thick carpet of fresh green grass. I can’t remember if we intended to make love, but once we were together in our sleeping bag that was irrelevant.
There are those who would contend that our making love on his grave was a sacrilege and a sin disrespectful of the dead, and others who would call it just plain disgusting. But I had a sense as did Cindy that Mr. Quirk approved. I know I would.
The cemetery was cool, dark and silent except for the symphony of our bodies and we made love that night with an intensity and a single-minded passion that neither of us had ever experienced. It was strangely beautiful, perhaps even surreal: a celebration to life in a place meant for the dead. Our lovemaking had an almost desperate quality to it, as if we were defying death by performing the ultimate ritual to life in death’s own bedroom. I remember that, for one brief moment, perhaps only twenty or thirty seconds, Cindy and I were tapped into something as ancient as life itself and our minds were as connected as our bodies. That was the night I discovered the difference between sex and making love.
I remember I was above her, my body held up by my outstretched arms, and we looked into each other’s eyes and it just happened. This isn’t about good sex or the ultimate orgasm or anything physical, this transcended the very concept of sex as I knew it. For that one short moment I was her and she was I, and we were both together joined with some life force, some energy—call it what you will—that connected us to every living thing that surrounded us.
I know now, almost ten years after it happened, how ludicrous this sounds, like the love scene from some trashy romance novel, but we were there and we both experienced it. It was as if I saw myself through her eyes and she saw herself through mine and we were both part of something that is inside of us, yet is also external in that it connects us all to each other by invisible chords.
The moment was incredibly brief and we were never able to reach that level of consciousness we had ever again. But we both knew it happened and it also changed both of us in very significant ways. For Cindy it was a reaffirmation of her beliefs on love. From the way she described what she felt in that instant, she experienced it on a much more personal level than I. To her, it was a link between just us. For me, I felt connected to something in which we were only two out of millions: We, or at least I was part of something in that instant that is in every living thing, be it tree, flower, animal or human. Where Cindy was satisfied to have felt it once, I wanted to find it again.
[Arthur yells] Hey! [The audience yells: HOO!]
John: Do ya wanna make love teach?
I thought that’s what we’ve been doing this entire class, John. Hey!
I hope the registrar doesn’t get me fired for giving you all the “A” you deserve.
The bell rings: the guard unlocks the gate to the school complex. Whitey walks through the open gate with me and says: remind people that the recidivism rate for people who get there Bachelor of Arts in prison is almost zero. When I get out I can now get a good job. [Which he did. He became the security guard at a high school in Charlestown.]
At the last gate the women checking me out discovers that my hand had not been stamped. I told her: I was too excited coming in for the oral final and the woman on duty before her had forgot. She calls the front desk. After a few minutes I hear someone yell through the phone, You can let him out. He’s a teacher.
[I pick up my wallet and keys.] Any questions, feelings, thoughts, answers?
2007 by Michael Koran
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