After five years in Arizona State Prison, Jimmy Santiago Baca has been released, and is now living in Hurdle Mills, N.C.
We’ve corresponded regularly during the two years his poetry has appeared in The Sun. It was a joy to meet him when he came here. And a challenge. A touching of hands through different bars, the intimacies of written words contrasting with the newness of “stranger.”
Being published in The Sun was an inspiration for Jimmy, and he was an inspiration for me — free, in his cell, to be, and I asked him to write about being free.
I cannot write how it was. The world shifted me too fast with each event passing before me, inflicting my nerves with flash-bulb rapidity. I was quietly startled at the fresh novelty. Numb still to the fact I was leaving, disbelieving, an embryo in limbo, sins forgiven, the timelessness suddenly and violently meaning something concrete. A thickness at the gates, divided by the gates, a heavy pushing through the thickness as though it were fate, staring at me with its warrior’s eyes, a victorious man it had to release. And once through the thickness of its invisible armor, leaving my print on its shield like a savage blow of an ax, I came upon a new beginning, a reliving of an old dead thing, with my name, me.
Dressing out in the visiting room, it was the first time in five years I had worn anything else but prison-issue blues. In my new shoes, my tan corduroy pants and a cheap flashy shirt, the guard took me out and ordered me to wait in the bull-pen. Overhead were ancient medieval spikes. The sky was blue.
Yes, Time had been crimped for my passage. Looking with an air of a puzzled child, both my hands gripped round black bars, I stared back through the gates, into the prison compound. I was looking at a friend. . . . I recalled the first day they brought me to this prison, late September, a wind spewing up dust across the star-fish network of sidewalks, surface dust blown up and below it hard ground, swept hard with the crisscrossing of so many years of marching convicts. Dust was my destiny, from dust to dust. And from the sight of this dust, on a very gray afternoon, with an edge of chill in the wind, I saw myself for the first time, alone.
And now I looked at prison, it was friend I was leaving, that knew all my weaknesses, one I swore oaths by, one that saw me getting older, one that knew me stripped clean, shivering, to the bone, and it was there where we parleyed and gambled life away, in the bone. Flesh was an unfeeling thing, agreed upon by all, a garment to be used to one’s best ability in the contest. The bones took register of life’s coldness, aloneness. And in the very air hung the omen you would fare against; was the omen, the time, the place, and you.
I came upon a new beginning, a reliving of an old dead thing, with my name, me.
The guard called me and I was boarding a prison van. I was leaving a friend who quartered my life off, fenced it in, for five long years. He now released me, a homing pigeon, expecting me back. On the way out I met the new warden, who had been a captain for twenty years and knew me for five. He said, “Will we see you back for Christmas?” Lifting my box of books off the table with both arms, and heading for the open gate, I turned and said, “Yes, I’ll be back for Christmas.”
On the way down to the bus station, bright and early, I passed the prison fields. Chicanos in brown groups, bandannas about their necks and foreheads, sweating, working with hoe and shovel, stopped and looked at us passing by. I felt nothing for them, only the truth, that each one would fight and the weak would lose, the strong would destroy themselves. What life was forced upon us must be lived. Very few would lie down and die, rather we became cruel, purposeless and mean, constructed a little personal world, with different rules and punishments, where pride was both the sanctuary and hell for all.
Whatever was done, had to be done. So with my head filled with a million incidents, dreams, deaths, violence, hardships, unity, savage pride, struggle, friendships. unbearable mental torture, with this in mind, we were leaving now and turning down a blacktop road toward town, the first blacktop road I had seen in five years, the first time I believed, now, I am free.
A world now burst upon my sight. No image I had conjured up in years past now could compare with the real. Trees and gardens took on a festive importance. The world was innocence, a peak of clean snow seen at dawn after a deep sleep-filled night. No single item or structure could be singled out for thought; everything flooded by as we sank deeper and deeper into the city. I saw a boy riding his bicycle. I saw a young girl in tight pants walking; then fast successions of business shop doors, and signs, and people in cars. All the while I was thinking how little we knew what went on only five miles away, how little involved people were in their daily tasks. I was immersed in the charm, of my freedom, struck with pity for the condition of the people about me, but I let this feeling go by me, looking into their faces, accepting their ways.
Excitement surged in me. We were on the bus and I noticed people did not touch each other. We were not in prison yet no one talked to each other. For them, the world was normal. For me, it was new as never before. I detected in them a sunken individuality, a no-touch unspoken law. In prison everyone talked. Here in the world was a quietness and the inhuman noise of the city. The people were quiet. They were a kind of steel.
We were met at the bus depot by a parole officer. In his car he escorted us, Nick the Russian and myself, to the airport. Nick was flying to Maryland. I was to stop in New Mexico for a week, visit my people, then move on to North Carolina where I had planned to live and write in the country.
We purchased our tickets and then P. O. Jones left us, with a curt handshake and a warning to be on our planes. Nick and I entered the airport restaurant, ordered some tomato and cheese sandwiches, a couple of beers, then a couple more.
I promised myself I wouldn’t drink anything. I was never much of a drinking man unless I set myself down to lose myself righteously in the fire water.
Nick knew me and cautioned against drinking. He said he was accustomed to drinking and that he had to drink a beer for each member of the club in prison. He was the war lord, an important position in the club. He decided whether his club went to war with another one and he meted out the punishment to individuals in the club, sometimes infractions so severe death was called for.
I couldn’t let him drink alone — both of us being friends, having experienced the same horrid conditions together, both of us fighting to the death and breaking on even ground and respecting each other after that. We found it ironic, two respectable enemies, let out together. He opted for the lounge and I agreed.
Two beers. Two more. Two different brand beers. Nick saying, now hold on Jimmy, I’m gonna pick you up off the floor. Two more beers. Me saying, well, I don’t drink much, but let’s switch to some harder stuff. Two boiler makers were delivered. Two more. We clutched the whiskey glasses, he’d ring out a toast to some poor biker in the joint, and we’d gulp. Then order two more.
It was 1:50 p.m. Nick had a plane to catch at 2:00. I put his arm around my neck and we staggered out with my comments on how he had to hurry. He could stand up and maybe he could walk but he certainly wasn’t in shape to run. Unfortunately, to make his plane, we had to run. So, through the metal-detector lady we passed, and proceeded to slip and stagger on the run down this long corridor. Nick, flushed red with heated excitement and unable to mumble his destination, fell forth in a wobbly run at my side.
We got the check-out desk in sight, stumbled up to the clerk, said — with, heaves and heavy pauses — where’s the plane for Maryland? The clerk pointed to the plane taking off on the runway. It was in the air now.
The clerk offered an alternative. Another plane is leaving in five minutes at the other end of the airport. Take your ticket there, trade it in and you are on your way.
We ran back up the corridor. We arrived in the lobby and Nick could barely lick his lips without falling face first on the floor.
I guided him to a chair. I went outside and saw a black baggage porter rapping with some other ones. I said to him, say bro’ can I borrow your dolly? You don’t have to carry my luggage just let me borrow your dolly for a minute. He said he couldn’t. I said, hey, you know I’m from that place bro? You mean dat place? he asked. I said, yes, dat place. I have to get my partner on the plane for Maryland and he isn’t going to make it if I can’t roll him there quickly. The black gentleman helped me roll Nick on the dolly and we started, all three of us, running along the sidewalk with Nick crumpled up in the dolly.
I got Nick up, stuck the ticket in his hand, and said try to sober up. We got to the ticket desk, I took his ticket, exchanged it. We ran again, passed the metal detector lady who said they wouldn’t allow Nick on the plane, but she let us past her anyway. I had Nick around the shoulders, hugging him close to me and running.
I saw the last passenger boarding the plane. I gave Nick his ticket and explained to him in very severe and clipped words that he had better do the best he could and get by that stewardess. Once past her and in a seat he’d be all right. I watched him move across the blacktop, staggering, attempting to look sober and seeming preposterous. Then he paused with the stewardess, they were engaged in conversation, he pointed to the plane, she motioned her head to one side and opened her arms, he shook his head vigorously. I saw him staggering and clambering up the steel stairs and disappear behind the little hatch door. Goodbye Nick. And I’ve never seen him again.
I was on the plane. Everything had been quietly enlarged. I could sit back now and contemplate the hectic worldfair of daily life in America.
From Sky Harbour Airport in Phoenix I flew to Dallas. I got lost in the airport but gradually needled my way to the correct gate and waited among servicemen, businessmen, travelers and tourists. We milled at the gate and boarded the plane.
I took the last seat, settled in and we blasted off. In the monotony of the engine roar, with my eyes on the open sky, the fancy land of clouds. Then, shifting my gaze below, doubts and questionings filled my heart.
It was so impossible at times trying to fix one’s fate according to game plan. Escaping the great giant man-eater that prison is, I felt compelled to a deed of grandeur; I thought I should at least have something, a solid truth, gained from all the roundabout mazes and torture systems. But nay, not an iota. Instead, I was merely a man, my box of books under my seat, I was riding in the clouds. I was thinking of one of Neruda’s poems, where a horse and rider gallop across the sky. Outside the window, I drew on the air legions of marching soldiers, golden helmets and silver spears, their white stallions stamping over the clouds in a parade for my release.
What would happen now? In prison you are given a number. Here in the world, your name means little more than a number. So my name, Jimmy Santiago Daniel Baca, meant nothing. The powers that grind out our sweat are hidden and removed. So if I were to scream, stop! stop the world!, those faceless, logic-thinking, fateless compatriots that are the other people on this plane would only turn around, look at me, and either be disgusted or amused.
It was a fine thing to have one’s own house, to up and go when one desired, to eat selected foods, to dress up, to mingle with friends. Still, what I felt in the world about me was that people lacked a certain reverence for themselves. I envisioned opening up on the outskirts of town a house with solitary rooms. Each individual would step inside the room for thirty days and nights. The crude rudiments of a board bed, a small basin, and a small window were all the furnishings provided. In this atmosphere, people could re-know their feelings. In the isolation they could embark upon contemplation. What and who they had been would be stripped away to silence. One would be able to look at it as a new job: going into an office of rock and working the silence in one’s heart for priceless wages of spiritual struggle.
We bounced through a cross-current of high winds and it shook from me my thoughts. It seemed strange that no one, absolutely no one in this world, could live by themselves, alone. We all need someone in war and peace. And though no one understands us because we keep changing, the fact remains that we need people. I couldn’t make it alone out here. It’s what friends and acquaintances one has that tell the story of one’s life. Cordoba and Alexander the Great are dust under our boots. There is not a finality to one’s life, yet I was expecting one, a sign of my growth, of my change and struggle. And what I found was the dissolution and non-entity of being thrown out into a world where even the most contemporary scholars are baffled by what they see out their windows each day.
I thought I had learned a little of life living in the rock quarry, socially ostracized, hammered with daily neglect and disrespect. Then, when I arrived in Albuquerque, and spent the night with my sister, all changed for me. We sat in the living room all night and she took out old photos of myself. I was shocked. In all seriousness, I looked up at Martina and asked if this was really me. It was beyond belief that I could not remember my teens. But the testimony was here in black and white. My God, how was it that I didn’t recognize myself? Was my change so drastic? What a world!
It was frightening and provoked such an immense wonder for life in me to look at those photos and not recognize myself. I had pushed myself in prison to awaken in me an understanding in life, a passage through hell, learning by blood-letting and tearless endurance to judge and select, to admire and praise, to scorn quietly. How was it possible after such an all-encompassing struggle to see that I was totally blind now?
My family said I was thin and pale. It was beautiful weather in Albuquerque. They fed me to the bursting point. I had not seen my family in seven years. They all remarked how I had changed for the better. Every time I had to meet a cousin of mine, an uncle, an aunt, I grew flustered and nervous and spoke little. My face muscles were tense. They were all impressed with me. Everything I had planned to do in Albuquerque, visit old friends, old places, write a poem, walk, breathe in the grand air, suddenly felt insipidly meaningless.
I wanted none of this world, none of its habits, none of its traditions, its courtesy, its values; I only wanted to be alone and not step into this world. What little sense of certainty I had gained of myself now left me. What purpose I carefully mapped out for my living burned away. I was in a world now that sucked at me, in a world overwhelmed with uncertainty and purposelessness. The norm was indirection, and people everywhere were mere shadows behind their material goods.
We wasted life inside if life is to be considered material goods and responsible positions.
But if life is meant to be a learning experience everyday of ourselves then we had life in abundance.
The satisfaction of being out was now gone. I realized now that the struggle was to begin twofold from what it had been. In prison the violence is outright, painful and direct. There was reason to struggle, to sacrifice, and the situation could be dealt with no matter how severe; the line was always marked clearly and it was only a question of you stepping across that line. It was never hidden from view and each prisoner knew you directly, knew how dangerous you were, what you could do. This set up an understanding between us, crude and aggressive, from which we could strive forward, for deeper bonds, more loyal friendships. We wasted life inside if life is to be considered material goods and responsible positions. But if life is meant to be a learning everyday of ourselves then we had life in abundance.
Nonetheless, I kept my head up and tried not to think too much. As far as novelty went, I enjoyed seeing the outside world again. It had little to offer me except in the way of an amusement park. The resonant echo kept battering me: life is not serious, but vacuous and futile. Life is bound and gagged in pleasures, we are its victims, hurled in honey, spiced with social quips, minted with alluring designs of positions and importance. In this candy shop of a world, I wanted to walk out the back door and know and touch a tree and speak to it. Be human again, have something in me, find a definition to the clatter and gaudiness of this masked ball, where the dancers dallied in idle conversations, and behind their silken robes and black suits their flesh was stale as old parchment, and their hearts were but knick-knacks to ponder at leisure.
Old Mr. Scrooge I was. I rebuked myself not to ponder the faults of this world but to set about constructing another life for myself from all the garbage around me. So much resource we have at hand and yet funnel it to weaken and decrepitate our humanity.
The law is a hoax, imprisonment as well, and the world a court jester. A joke has been played on us. Legislators and governors are elves and fairies, living behind a political smokescreen, fabled for their riches and magical power. We are mice in the fairytale. A fairytale with phones, banks, buildings, and flashy holidaying good-times. In the fairytale the whole town sells its soul. Disaster after disaster befall the once-rich and content inhabitants. They sell their hearts and minds to the elves and fairies. They are dominated, led, convinced of their powerlessness. Then an ogre descends upon the hamlet. He has come from a place where he learned the true character of the elves and fairies. None want to listen. Instead, he is dressed in clothes of the town, pitied and admired. The feast begins and he drowns out the many words on his tongue with wine. His virtues learned in the desert are rusted. His feelings are distant and unclear.
I was going to North Carolina now. On the last leg of my trip, the tumultuous activity of the past week in Albuquerque left me drained and quiet.
I embraced my aunt Jesusita, my sister Martina, my uncle Julian, and I galloped over the blacktop to board my pale- white red-striped plane.
I sat between two people, a gentleman to my left and a woman with her sleeping child in her arms to my right. And what dearly grasped the core of my being was the feeling that all magic had left the world while I was doing time. What to me had been love, kind-ness, struggle all changed now. There was a sort of madness in me now that found something lacking in those things that before comprised my oasis on this earth.
Things had taken on a stern residue and now that I tasted life again it tasted bitter and flat. The glory of snow, the macabre dance of black boiler-rooms I loved to stare at, with the hissing pipes and orange rusted joints, the stuttering needles on meters, the charm of old radiators, a woman’s words, were now fallen feathers when before they filled out to a plump dove or townsquare pigeon. The linen of an old house all these intimate pleasures seemed now, an old house that I once inhabited, with profound solitude and promise: not again could I sleep in bed and dream as once I dreamt.
The people on the plane — the plane droning strictly through bunches of clouds, over mountains and gorges, from windmills and desert ranches, then green forests and riverways, trolleying on air right along — a batch of people with gorged lives, correctly worded, a history we were on this plane, our lives only a flight, a sudden jump, going blindly but for red alert instincts through clouds. We sped forth. . . .
Who was I then, beginning my second life, after shedding snakelike my past? My small dream bubbles, once lit to milky turgidness, were rocks that lined my path, and now the rocks ended, and every direction was open to me.
I was coming out to North Carolina to work at my writing, to take notice of the world again, to diagnose my turns through the years, to dissect my changes and find the germ of mistake that fashioned my ill-wrought temperament.
I was going to disguise myself as the wind, and whirlwind my passion into remote caverns and canyons and reveal the inscriptions on the rock of my heart. I was going to take the coming months like a whetstone and sharpen my senses to sift the purest images unto paper, sand soft, where the reader’s attention would fall, its print upon my beach as I disclosed the island, the lost island of the heart. And I would then speak to you as one native to another, of the secrets in the water and air, of the throttling strings of death and life that hinder and help each of us to sing out our lives in simple words and lies and impulses and emotions.
But there are no sterilizing chambers that would wipe deep recognition and experience from my heart. I am no longer innocent. I pause twice now when thinking of the rose and politics, when seeing the nuclear plants and the sunlight, when seeing a child and an old woman.
I put my hat and coat on and go ramble about the leafless trident branches of winter trees. I read poetry and prose books. I know woman with the suddenness and ferocious reality of her earthly needs, of her blood and bones and beauty all thrashed together like a forest on fire at night, and sudden shotgun blasts that are our biological needs, leave us bleeding and victimized and utterly more humane, dreamless, with dirty dishes in the sink, and kisses that pale with autumn to yellow dirty snow in gutters of our remembrance. I am living in a world getting older and older, one that conceals its secrets and gells its mysteries under my feet, from the shyness of a country boy to a startling pure-faced black-browed woman, with her balance of sensuality and womanly violence preying off deep instincts of my manhood heart. I am captured like a slave of war by common days and their jail of rusty hours, continually work to free myself from the smallness of this world, with which this era has branded me, as though scalding my tongue out to silence. And in the silence the lone breathing of a wounded creature, huddled in himself, afraid, surrounded by snow and cold, living on the fiery fat of faith.
So it is, the disobedience of our young ones who, as lost as the rest of us, step knee-deep in muddy sight, the savage forays of our country into the diplomacy of other countries. There is not a wise man in the land anymore I fear. Lovers assimilate like foreign recipes in the golden bowl of their illusions, the tart tingling of new flesh touching grows stale, and soon the quiet smiles and filled brown eyes are clear and strong, no longer needing sustenance from each other.
There is a root driven like a spike through my tongue that never lets me forget my origen, that I am human and not a full-grown God.
What is this land America I have come to? And what is it I must do? How do I work within this world to full express myself, whether it be bad or good, to choose a center and a robe and claim my words true; to jive talk with the dude on the corner, to turn and be bruised by the early flowers, to speak straight on issues, to be concerned for people, to re-learn the value of never winning, of never gaining a pinnacle to prop my flag, to forever be at the starting point, and speak not of the race but learn the dreams of each racer, that must lose and be overtaken eventually by greed, temptation, by age, by booze, by the weaknesses of the spirit and flesh. The undrained passion that is marginless fills my hands today and wind is but a wind mimicing my yearning, the cold and colder night cools my blood, and in bed I think at night that I am even with all the elements of earth that forever give and take, that forever come and go, forever renew and age again, in a circular style of dying without crying and birth without prerogative experience. The beautiful blindness of learning to blossom again! Like an old man’s fingers smoothing a child’s cheek, something presses against us inside, something old and gentle soothes us in our defeat and simplicity, our innocence and hurt. There is a root driven like a spike through my tongue that never lets me forget my origin, that I am human and not a full-grown God, and the dust of life and death blows into my eyes as I try to see outward, far beyond the horizon to what may be.
I am here, scratching for an unmedicated romance, non-idyllic, grossly shortcoming of my upper pursuits, pampered by winter heat. I’ve made a few clay cups, scribbled out a few tin-can poems from the alleys in my hearts, a man of many hearts I am, all tested and challenged.
Now the world calls out another heart in me, a stronger one, more faithful, tender and open. A heart that will be able to face the world full-faced with all its mistakes and disconsolate meanderings, a rock well cracked blooming weeds from blue rain of North Carolina.
I made it out here Gray-Fox, Juan-Bone, Clifton, Mascara, Wedo, Gambo, and Tommy “mata,” and I’ve seen the land we used to dream about together, and that you all still strive to get to. No, I’ve not forgotten you. The world is not so large that it diminishes my friendship for you all. The gray-fox-Corky, his motto of life as junkie: out by noon and in the spoon. Gambo’s “ojala que dios te bendiga carnal.1 ” Clifton the hustling man with his wares, choochoos and bangbangs.2 Wedo with his friendly young green smile and “Orale est carnal, O si!” 3 Juan-Bone with his jump shot in basketball. Mascara with his quete4 or filero4 or ice-cream on store days (I always passed him one). And Tommy, heart broken and trying to comfort his woman who is in prison, too. Your three minute showers, the garbage food, the tight security and daily violence. All of you like starved warriors, 15 years in prison, 7 years, 5 years, all wondering when you will get out. . . .
1 I hope that God blesses you brother.
2Slang for pastries.
3 What’s happening, brother, O ye!
4Gun and knife.