The prison in Soledad harbors some of California’s most violent and recidivist criminals, many of them members of prison gangs such as La Eme, Nuestra Familia, Aryan Brotherhood, and their street-level offshoots. Coalinga State Hospital inters some 800 plus of the state’s most violent sex offenders, held indefinitely under treatment under Jessica’s Law.
I’m always severely fascinated by those facilities as I drive by. It’s hard for me to keep my eyes on the road because I stare at the towers, the razor wire topped fences, the tiny window-slits, the isolated landscape.
I’m a big believer in the rank equality of the human animal. We are all born and we will all die. None of us are chosen. None of us are better than the other. None of us deserve better because of what we can do or where (or to whom) we were born. We have zero influence on the chance/luck at work in the DNA lottery our parents played, and most of us still play, in the throes of bodily passion, that spurting moment of physical intensity that determines which numbers come up on the bingo balls that hold our helices together.
While this concept opens up an entire nexus of conversations, there’s just one that stands out for me, that rings between my ears like the aftermath of an M-80 that went off a little too soon. Whenever I drive by and see those towers, those walls, those fences, I realize how fucking lucky I am. I’m not an extreme determinist, at least not to the point that I think we’re not responsible for our actions. And, being an atheist, I’m certainly not a Calvinist.
But I know I won the lottery. I fucking won – 5 numbers and the MegaPowerSuperBall. I’m smarter than the average guy – 99th percentile smart. I’m reasonably talented – I play half a dozen instruments, most of which I taught myself. I can sing, and sing very well. I’m a pretty decent thespian and not too bad at directing. I can lead: when I start something, when I reach out, people gather around, they get on board, they trust me. Without a college degree I managed to work my way into a career in which I do way better than average.
Is this bragging? It may sound like it. But I know better. I know I lucked into this. Sperm meets egg and somehow all the elements in there pop out a guy who, with all his flaws, is just gifted with all of these little elements that enable him to have a pretty damn good life. I wasn’t born in a refugee camp in Chad. I wasn’t born in Rwanda in the midst of ethnic cleansing. I wasn’t born a female in a conservative family in Saudi Arabia, destined to be married off at the age of ten to a man four times my age. I wasn’t born a Dalit in Delhi, India, an outcast from birth. I wasn’t born a starving Ethiopian child. I wasn’t born black in the American South. I wasn’t born blind, deaf, dumb, mute, or crippled in any way.
I was born white and middle-class in America. My disadvantages, and they are few, are very first-world; dysfunctional family right from the very center of the modern American experience.
It’s true that I could have gone another direction, like so many do. I could have made decisions that destroyed my future, my life, my relationships, my marriage, my whole family. But I had it within me, somewhere in my DNA, to make enough of the decisions that provided me with a relatively charmed life.
I won. I win every day I’m alive. And when I’m finally dead, I will have lived the life of a winner, not a winner who hit a home run, but a winner who was born somewhere on the chalk line between third and home with enough sense to run the short rest of the way home.
I drive by the prison, the hospital… I see those walls, those fences, that lethal razor wire and towers full of guards trained to kill the people inside if necessary, and I wonder…
How can I not write? How can I not take at least a few minutes and just fucking try to make it? One word, one page at a time? I’m not one of the ones who lost. I’m not one of the ones who went batshit crazy and raped, killed, maimed, robbed, or whatever. I don’t have to live with the demons that drive a person to act in such a way that they have to be hidden away from the rest of the world for everyone’s own good.
If I don’t try to fulfill my dreams, then I piss on the very luck that put me where I am. If I don’t try to be a little more decent, a little nicer, a little gentler, a little more peaceful, I spit on the one single chance I have to enjoy what I’m so lucky to have.
It would be like winning the lottery and holding the winning ticket in my hand and saying, “Well, fuck it, I don’t feel like turning this in today. I’ll just stuff it in a drawer somewhere because I’d rather watch The Bachelor on TV.”
We have just this one chance, this one life, this one existence, this fleeting dawn of consciousness where I’m lucky enough to know that, whatever else may be true, I am, and I am here, and I have just this one chance to live it with the volume all the way up.
Hugging my children and telling them I love them.
Kissing my wife and holding her close, cherishing every moment.
Feeling the warmth of the sun, the soft damp of the rain, the bracing cold of the snow, and biting snap of the wind.
And opening my heart to write with the courage that comes from knowing that this chance, however long it may be, is and always will be, my last.