Distancing: to place or keep at a distance <able to distance themselves from the tragedy> (Miriam Webster)
I approached San Quentin with my suitcase of preconceived ideas. I had shored myself up for a trip through an alien land filled with people I wouldn’t recognize, couldn’t identify with, and who certainly would not have impact on my life. I envisioned myself telling stories to my friends and family as if I had been to a foreign country and could regale them with verbal pictures of the landscape and people they had never visited.
I can still do that. However, the stories are different than I had anticipated.
I didn’t see any pitiful people. I wasn’t treated like crap by cold-hearted, stone-faced guards. No one shoved ahead of me in her attempt to get in first, nor was I ignored when I asked for help.
Here’s the real story:
When I drove to the gates of the prison the guard directed me to the visitors’ parking lot and the small building with the sign “Visitors Entrance”. I approached the few women standing in line. My chest was tight with the uneasiness and uncertainty that had begun when I woke that morning. Once they learned that I was a “first timer”, I was shepherded and nudged toward the sign in sheets and into the correct line.
I leaned against a concrete wall, watching and listening to these people who knew each other’s stories. They applauded the beautifully dressed woman who was there for the last weekend; her husband was being released in the coming week. There was a self-appointed entertainer who regaled us with stories of her many tattoos, which helped make her what she termed “the perfect prison wife…so Shawshank”. Her pitch-black spiky hair framed a face that had seen a lot but reflected hope and friendliness. A perfectly made up blond woman, accompanied by her Down syndrome daughter, congratulated another wife on her tenacity in working, caring for children and still attending hours of schooling and internship every week while spending each Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. in the time consuming process of visiting her husband here.
After having studied the “dress code” assiduously and having a borrowed a too small bra without underwire from my great-niece, I still found myself refused at the X-ray machine when my turn came. The compassionate intake clerk led me to the door where I was to wait. Seeing my distress, he patted my shoulder, and said, “Don’t worry. Just knock on this door and I’ll let you right back in.”
And so I waited again for the unknown. Soon a car approached and I was driven up a winding road to the “Visitor’s Center” by a woman who chatted easily. At the center I was soothed, provided with appropriate clothing, and hustled back out the door to my waiting ride.
Honestly, I was waiting for some dehumanizing treatment. Yet from the moment I was picked up by a van for a ride to the H Block, to the time I drove back up the hill to reclaim my clothing, I saw nothing but kindness.
Other than the rigid and regimented rows of block buildings extending endlessly within the miles of coiled barbed wire; the heavy, clanging doors that must be buzzed open; and the continuous X-ray arches; I could have been in a train station where all of the departures were delayed and the waiting passengers were entertaining themselves as best they could.
Families huddled together across from their prisoner, talking and gesticulating about the moments of their lives, their plans for the future and their problems that needed to be solved individually or jointly.
A man in the blue prisoner’s uniform paced the open area with his infant. He nuzzled her with at least a week’s worth of love. Only as he started away from me was I reminded where we were by the prison initials emblazoned on his back. A carefully dressed young girl went to the vending machines and carried back drinks to her mother and father. A young woman and her father waited patiently and watched as a man walked a toddler a few steps around their table.
I recognized men and women from the earlier visitors’ line. Some, of course, had gone another direction to higher security areas where they could only visit through glass with speakers to transmit their weekly news back and forth to their loved one. I can only imagine their experience.
I am a part of this now.
When I think of my nephew in San Quentin I will be wishing and hoping that he gets the call telling him that someone is waiting to see him. (Until he walks into the visiting area, he won’t know who is waiting on the plastic chairs at the end of the room.)
And I will be blessing all of the visitors who are waiting with edgy anticipation for the buzzer to ring, calling them to the sign-in so that they can take the long walk or ride to meet their beloved prisoner.
This is a new cohort for me. Whatever their gender, their ethnic background or the crime their loved one has committed; I join them in the desire that all is well, that all will be well, and that our family will be reunited without the possibility of future separation by barbed wire. We are the same.