a speaking experience


Daybreak comes . . .
. . . and suddenly
the early sunlight filters through the trees,
which have been growing for generations,
and constantly changing from one season to the next.
(Just like us)

You know, it’s not too much to ask for. . . . if you think about it
Each morning, a new day comes
to settle the affairs of yesterday’s mishaps,
which eventually return if we fail to change our steps
(Or learn from our history)

I suppose we all have our own seasons that change us.
We all have our own private daybreaks and sunsets.
And it makes sense . . . . if you think about it
One is a chance to end another chapter,
and the other is a chance to start something new –


The bus picked us up in Queens and took us onto the island. I passed through a series of different gates. Each time I went through another checkpoint, I went through another search.
Tall guards with angry looks on their faces patted my sides. Each time, they asked the same thing. “Do you have anything on you that you’re not supposed to have?”
After I answered, “No,” the guards nodded their head and then they allowed us to pass through.

There were three of us. First, there was Liz. She ran the meeting. She would bring different speakers to Riker’s Island to share their experience, strength, and hope with an otherwise crowd of hopeless inmates.
Mike was the first speaker and I was to be second.

We arrived in a large room with high ceilings and a caged skylight. The walls were white and so was the ceiling. The wooden floor was glossed and the chairs were lined up in rows.
The inmates were already seated when we came in. Liz took the center chair in front of the group. Mike sat on her left and I was on her right. It was clear that no one in the room was interested in what Liz had to say. Most were making faces at her. Some laughed and some made sexual gestures. But no one seemed to be listening. No one wanted to listen to Mike or myself either. I assume most of them saw this as an opportunity to break away from their usual routine.

Liz introduced Mike. Mike smiled and then he introduced himself to the group. “Hello, my name is Mike and I’m an alcoholic.”
But no one answered.
“I’m like you,” he said. “I’m exactly like all of you.”
“I’ve sat in your seat and now I’m sitting in this one,” he said.
Mike went on to tell his story. The inmates listened and some nodded as if they understood. Some of the inmates in the back laughed at their own inside jokes, and some closed their eyes and fell asleep.

After Mike spoke, Liz introduced me.
I could feel the eyes of every inmate leaning into me. I could feel their judgment and their hatred. I started by saying, “Hi, my name is Ben and I’m cross addicted.” But as it was with Mike, no one answered me.

I told them, “When I walked in here I felt my stomach twist.”
I told them, “I hated walking through the hallways.”
“I hated the sound of opening gates that closed behind me after I passed through them, and I hated the familiar smell of cages.”
“I hated the looks on each guard I had to pass, and I hated the tone in their voice when the questioned me.”

The inmates related to this, but it was hard to hold their attention. Airplanes flew over from the nearby airport, and each time the planes flew overhead, the inmates would point to the sky, and the loud rumble from the jet engines would drown the sound of my voice.

“How many people want to go home,” I asked.
Everyone raised their hand.
“How many people have been here before?”
There were more hands raised than not.
“How many of you swore you would never be back here, but yet, here you are again?”
And once more, all of the inmates raised their hand.

In the angriest times of my life, I sat in rooms such as this. I listened to speakers tell their story and doubted every word. In my own insanity; I thought I knew better.
I was not jailed, but I was not free. I was remanded by the courts to long-term drug and alcohol treatment. And if I refused, I would have served one year, plus 90 days.

Like some of the inmates in attendance, I knew what it felt like to hold a pistol in my hands. I knew what it meant to hear the sound of gunshots. I knew what it meant to have handcuffs wrapped around my wrists and listen to the sound of a cage door roll shut.

I knew what it meant to hate and to hate with all my heart. I knew what it meant to lose and I knew what it meant to steal. Although I was nervous, I spilled myself as honestly as possible.
I told them what it felt like when I crawled on the floor. I explained how it felt to be down on my hands and knees, searching the ground with my cigarette lighter, and hoping to find pieces of cocaine.
I told them about the times I thought I was going to die and the eventual turn to heroin.

“I was unique,” I told them. “Or so I thought.”
“I was not like you, or you, or anyone you could think of.”

I felt the cold hard stares from each of the inmates turn into softer forms of understanding. Many of them nodded their heads. Many spoke under their breath, “That’s right.”
I heard many exclaim, “Me too,” and even amongst the hardest of facial expressions, I noticed tears form in their eyes.

That was the first time I ever received a standing ovation.
Everyone stood and applauded, except for one man. He remained seated with his arms folded and his neck bent to the side. The left corner of his mouth was curled in disbelief and the front legs of his chair were lifted off the ground as the inmate leaned back and rocked the chair, up and down.

When it came to a show of hands; this inmate was the first to raise his.
The inmate pointed at me and said, “I have a question for you?”
He was more defiant than interested.
“Have you ever hurt anybody in your life?”
I answered, “Yes I have.”
“No,” he interrupted. “I mean, did you ever really hurt somebody.”
I answered, “Yes,” and then I asked, “Did you ever hurt anybody?”
“See, now I really don’t think that’s any of your business?” he snarled.

He complained, “See, you come in here and you talk your talk, but I really don’t think you know what you’re talking about.”
“And you do,” I asked.
“Damn right, I do.”
“So you know what life’s about and you know what you need to do, right?”
Still with his arms folded, the inmate snarled, “You bet your ass, I do.”

“That’s fair enough,” I said.
“But let me tell you something I know . . . and I know this for a fact. After this meeting is over, I’m going to walk through the same hallways I had to go through in order to get in this room. Then, I’m going to get on the bus that takes me out of here and go home. Maybe I’ll sit on the couch. Maybe I’ll eat something. Who knows? Maybe my girl will come over or maybe I’ll go out with some of my friends. And this is all fact, right?”

The inmate argued, “Yeah, so what’s your point?”
“My point is after this meeting, I’m going home. And you . . . you’re staying here. You’re going back to a cell. So tell me again, how much you know about what you need to do?”

There was an uncomfortable moment of silence after my comment.
Liz’s eyes opened wide.
The inmate straightened his neck and the front legs of his tilted-back chair quickly dropped to the floor.

“I’m exactly like you,” I said. “I sat in your seat and I hated everything anyone said to me. I argued and I complained. I tried to pick holes in the speaker’s story–because if I tore them down, then I could write them off and nothing had to change. But that doesn’t work, now does it?”

I told the group about my time in treatment. I was hateful; but I was hateful because I didn’t like my choices, which were no matter how I complained or what angle I tried to shoot from; I had to do my time.
“Just like all of you,” I told them.
“But if I was going to do my time, then I was going to make everyone around me pay for it and be miserable.”

One time . . .
one of my counselors asked me about my rage and my ongoing list of complaints.
She said, “Now, now. You complain you have no shoes Ben . . . but what about the man with no feet?”
With all the hatred in my lungs, I stuck out my middle finger and fired back, “Fuck the guy with no feet . . . he don’t need shoes! What the hell does he have to do with me?”

The only difference between me and the inmates is I learned from my history.
I learned to change my steps. Otherwise, I would be locked away.
I would be forced to endure another cold season and wish a new day would come to settle the affairs of yesterday’s mishaps . . .


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