22 December, 2009


I hadn't even been in prison an entire week when this exchange took place. I was walking back to the cell, having just gotten off the telephone, when a muscular, heavily tattooed con with a dramatic keloid scar across his neck approached. "Hey man," he asked, "you call or write any females?" It's been more than seven years since the encounter, yet I remember it vividly as yesterday.

"Um, yeah," I managed, dumbfounded by the left-field nature of the question.

"Know any that wanna get to know a Saint Louis nigga?"

Speechless, exactly three befuddling issues arose at this point. First, I was waifish and lily-white and young — each quality on its own being a statistical strike against one's safety in this kind of place. A vision of this as a prelude to a bloody disfigurement (or worse) flashed momentarily through my head: Uh oh.

Second was the level of hubris that would allow this man to believe I would simply hand over contact information for any of my precious friends. What kind of an ass does that?

Third, and arguably most pertinent, was that my circle of intimates is made up predominantly of ├╝ber-geeks, artists, and bohemian types who are about as far from identifying with, or understanding, the life of the typical con as you can imagine. They like indie films and art openings, or puns involving computer jargon, or dumpster-diving for home furnishings. Even if I did effect a connection, what would they talk about? Where would be found common ground? I was baffled.

"I don't know if they'd want me giving out their information to a stranger," I told him. As unvarnished truth goes, it should have been an inoffensive answer.

"Just 'cause I'm black — is that it? You racist or somethin'?"

As it turns out, handing out women's contacts to inmates you scarcely know is common practice around here. Rarely, if ever, are matters of shared interests or compatibility taken into account. It doesn't matter if Craig is an animal-rights activist and practicing warlock, and Rhonda is a Seventh Day Adventist who co-owns a factory farm — a connection would be made on the basis that Craig is a man (i.e., has a penis) and Rhonda is a woman (i.e., has a vagina), and that this ought to be enough for the two to hit it off famously. How naive of us to think otherwise!

I diffused the volatile stranger that afternoon, but it took supplying him with satisfactorily exhausting evidence against my assumed prejudice. (A third party, familiar with Kansas City schools, had to be called in to vouch for the fact I attended predominantly African-American ones, at the apex of this ridiculous exchange.) He also grudgingly accepted that none of the women in my life were commodities to be shared. Afterward, on the countless occasions others have come to me with the same question, I have been smart enough to employ the old middle-school DARE mantra and just say, "No."