Coffee and No Cigarettes – For Sundiata

By Walidah Imarisha

You wake up at 5:30 in the morning
the sky sucked clean of stars .
After a burst of cold then lukewarm shower
you drag your body into clothes,
walk out of the door,
and  get into a borrowed car,
try to get used to the unfamiliar  buttons
and the many quirks of the 19 year old automobile.

You drive two and a half hours
singing at the top of your lungs
to the tapes (no cd player) you used to listen to in high school.
The sun begins to poke its head out.

You near White Deer, PA
sipping on your gas station
french vanilla cappucino
squirted out from a machine
at 6:45 am at the Hickory Run Plaza rest stop.
You turn off of 1-80 W onto 15 N
at the exit that says
Snake Reptile House.
You drive pass the Sunoco gas station,
up the hill,
almost to the Subway (attached to the Snake Reptile House),
meticulously adhering to the speed limit
because there are always state troopers out.

You turn left at the wood carved sign that says
United States Penitentiary Allenwood.
The speed limit is posted at 35 mph,
but you drive 20.

You pass the minimum security buildings,
and the medium security turn off.
You drive till the road ends,
turn right
and park in the maximum security
visiting parking lot,
the farthest possible spot from the door.

You walk into the sterilized antiseptic
air conditioned
processing center
sign into the book
make sure you remember your license plate number
or they will make you go out to the car.
Write who you are visiting:
Clark Squire
slave names only
it does not matter how many decades someone has been called
Sundiata Acoli
only slave names permitted here.

Check your keys into a locker
take off a necklace, watch and two rings.
Double check you didn’t wear an underwire bra.
Your shoes will probably go off
because you did not know there was metal in them.
Get your hand swabbed for a drug test
periodic and supposedly random.
The test came up positive
once
for a 78 year old church going sister
who drove five hours to see her son.
They denied her entry.
Get your hand stamped to signal
you are clean
and everything is in order
because
this
is the place of order.

You pass a series of three doors
automatically opened by a guard in
a room with tinted windows
you can not see through.
The doors are metal
but they are encased in plexiglass.
They do not clang
but thud
when they close.
I guess this is progress.

You must show your hand
under a black light twice to get in
because you could be a prisoner
trying to escape…
in.

The visiting room is like a storage freezer:
large, white, bland
and always cold.
Voices echo hollowly
if you speak
above a low murmur.
There are white plastic seats and chairs
to sit at
as if you were at a picnic.
There are vending machines
and from these
you will drink countless cups
of french vanilla capuccino
(which tastes exactly like the coffee
at the gas station)
to stay warm
to stay awake
to keep your belly from rumbling.
See you are a vegan
and can not eat anything else in the vending machines,
which are loaded with meat, dairy and other animal products.
Somehow drinking coffee laden with milk
does not offend your veganness
but a snickers bar would.
These are the asinine lines you draw
for yourself ,
the compromises you make
on things that are utterly meaningless
in this place
where you have no control
over things that are utterly imperative.

You sit and wait nervously.
You go over to the vending machine
and remember to buy
at least one package of the spicy chicken wings
and one bacon cheeseburger
(which you separate,
heating the bun in the microwave for 30 seconds
while the burger is cooked for 2:20
and the cheese is placed on the side until
the machine dings.
The bacon you will throw away:
Sundiata does not eat it;
he is trying to keep his cholesterol down.
This is the only time you have touched meat
in years.)
The chicken wings and burgers go
so quickly
out of the vending machines
by the time hunger comes
they are gone
and the only thing left
is squished tuna fish and egg sandwiches.

You look up every time the
heavy institutional door
at the end of the room opens
and another blue pajama clad figure
walks out.
Sometimes it will take ten minutes
Sometimes it can take an hour.

You watch the families around you in the visiting room.
You watch them waiting
You watch them look like you.
You watch the sun rise in an instant
on faces
as their loved one enters.
Hugs and long stolen kisses are given
under the watchful eyes of guards
who must count in their head
“One one thousand two one thousand three one thousand–
All right, break it up.”

Finally the door opens
and Sundiata walks out,
all 5’7 of him
(which he believes to be 5’9).
His face is stern
his eyes drink in the room
in a second,
seeing who is there,
noticing their locations,
checking out the guards –
in other words,
every day survival.

His eyes fall on you
and his face cracks open
like an egg releases a new born chick
with his wide welcome home smile.
It splits his face,
a watermelon chopped open
on a hot summer day.

After a hug,
he takes a seat.
If you are lucky, you are in by 8:45 am
and you have until 2:45 p.m.
If you are lucky.
If you are unlucky
you missed the visiting window in the morning
by a breath
and you must wait until 10 to start processing,
and not get in until 11 am.
If you are unlucky,
visiting room will be crowded that day,
and there will be need for tables,
and your visit will end at 2 or earlier.

But today
you are lucky.

You take your six hours.
You talk about everything,
about the most important
and the most unimportant things
and they are the same.

You do not agree on everything
but every time you leave
you come away with something to think about,
to write a letter or article about,
to come back and discuss
and sometimes argue
more.

His brilliant mind
and no nonsense attitude
can be brusque,
as you have learned.
But you have always appreciated
people
who speak truth
without malice,
who speak love
without bullshit.

In between conversations,
men who are coming out for visits
come up to your table
and say hello to Sundiata.
Older brothas with kufis
and grey flecks in their beards
will say
“Peace brotha.”
Bald tattooed stone-faced
young bucks will say
“Whassup, oldhead?”
They mean this
as a sign
of respect.

One time a prisoner
was out on a visit
with what you assume to be
his wife/girlfriend/baby’s mama.
He is tall and rough hewn
with arms of granite and ghetto.
This brotha came over
almost shyly
held out a chocolate peanut butter tasky kake.
He rumbled,
“My girl got one of these for me
and I know you kinda feel them.”

Sometimes the two of you play games.
The selection is not the best
but there is a pack of dog eared cards
(just don’t look for the jokers)
and if a group of children
aren’t already playing with them
by the time you sit down and get settled
you might get them.
You showed him a game you learned
in high school called Egyptian Rat Fuck.
The name alone was enough to endear
it to you
in your rebellious stage.
But the game is more about speed
and not so much about strategy
and he was not
enamored of it.
He taught you to play Tonk
and proceeded
to whoop you royally.
Each time you vow vengeance
and each time
he proceeds to beat you
hands down.

He asks for report backs
information
ideas thoughts
experiences
about different political organizations
movements in the world
about the world.
You bring him back
anything you touched
or felt
or saw
or smelled.
You tell him about the beaches of Puerto Rico
and the grave of Albizu Campos.
You tell second hand tales
of the jungles of Chiapas
and the struggles for land and dignity,
second hand tales of the dusty roads of Palestine
lined with bulldozers
and the struggle for land and dignity

You listen
spellbound
to his tales
of life in poor black Texas
life in the Panther party
life in the 60s.
He does not tell so many tales
of life in prison.
He tries to keep these visits
away from guard towers and work crews.
You know he worries about your emotional well-being
and you have shed tears for that.

Six hours
slips away
much as you try to catch it in your
fist.
Your stomach rumbles
but you refuse to break
your self-imposed and utterly nonsensical
fast
and instead get another cup of coffee..
This is, you realize as you walk back from the
vending area,
the only time you ever drink coffee
and coffee
has become forever linked
with hope
and heartbreak.

Sundiata’s mind,
normally a steel trap,
begins to pull in different directions
as the tobacco withdrawal
grabs ahold of him.
He says, “Aw shit,
the nicotine’s got me again”
when he loses the train of his thoughts
for the third time in an hour.
He can not go out to grab a couple of puffs
because that is not allowed
and the visit
will be terminated.
He wants to quit,
but he has been smoking
for half a century
and prison is no place
to quit smoking.
It is the place to develop and encourage
bad habits.
You take another gulp of coffee
and your stomach rolls over
in protest.

Your conversation
which has meandered before
becomes rushed
as you hurry to get everything in.

He’ll tell you
you’re getting too skinny
every visit.
He will tell you you need to make sure you are eating
every visit.
He will tell you to take care of yourself
every visit.
He will mention how much he loves grandchildren
every visit.
You know that he will call you later that evening
just to make sure you got home safe
every visit.
He will remind you of a father
every single visit.

A visit can feel like an entire universe
crushed and compressed until it fits
into a plastic chair,
into a pair of blue orderly pants and shirt
into a styrofoam cup
into one beautiful smile.

Even the universe must end.

A guard will call out
the first batch of people to leave at 2:30.
If you came on the first shift,
your name will most likely be among them
unless you got lucky.

It is a time of hurried goodbyes
of cleaning up the trash
so you have something
to do with your hands.
The time of
I love yous
and
thank you for comings
and
I’ll be back soons
and
I’ll writes
and it is duplicated and multiplied
three, five, fifteen times
through the visiting room
as the collective unraveling
begins.

You give a hug
and then the guard is at your elbow
eyeing you
herding you
towards the door.

You go to separate ends of the room,
he to the inmate door
you to the main exit.
You both must play the
hurry up and wait
game
that ensues.
The men in blue
wave, blow kisses,
hold up hands
as if caressing faces
of their lovers,
sisters,
mothers,
offspring
who must leave them
in this place.

Sundiata flashes you his sun smile
and a raised black first.
Despite the wrenching in your heart,
you feel a smile play on your face
and return the fist.

The door will slide open
and swallow him and the other men up
as you and the mostly women and children
march out in a ragged line,
usually silent.

You must show your stamp again on the way out
twice
because
after all
you might be an inmate trying to escape.

All that is left to do:
return the locker key
get your id back
get the car keys
walk out the doors.

You get in the car
make notes
check your voicemail messages
before you pull out.
You manuever slowly out of the driveway.

At the stop sign right before you clear
the prison grounds,
you look up
and see four deer
two of them newborn fawns
still shaky in the legs.
They are so close
you can see the sheen
of their coats,
and the moisture
on their noses.
They stare at you
with eyes limpid and trusting
twenty feet aware from the outer prison wall
and the
concertina wire.

Inside, one of the guards
said
they had to pull a deer
off of the barbed wire
two days before.
It had gotten caught in it
and struggled
until it flayed itself open.
The guard shook his head
and said,
“Dumb deer.
They’re too stupid to know
they don’t belong
here.”

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