I say we need to scrape our knee once in a while. I say we need the bumps on the head, the black and blue bruises on the arms and legs. We need the scars from a bad idea to remind us what not to do. I say we all fall. Whether we fall flat on our ass or on our face is irrelevant
Falls are necessary. We need to fall sometimes. How else would we learn to stand back up, start over, and continue? How else would we know our own strength if there was no such thing as adversity or opposition?
I remember some of my worst falls. I remember sitting in a small cell, listening to some of the other inmates singing rap songs, and wondering what waited for me the next morning. The two inmates screamed their songs to bounce off tight walls with an echo that lingered down a long hallway.
This was my first trip to the holding cells. When I walked down the hallway, I was accompanied by a tall guard. His hat was on straight with a shiny brim that branched slightly over his forehead. His keys jingled on his belt. His right hand wrapped around the inside of my left arm with a firm degree of intensity.
My wrists were cuffed behind my back. My long hair covered my face as I walked towards an empty cell while the two men singing rap songs began laughing at me.
I was puny. In fact, they screamed that when I passed by.
“Look at how puny he is,” one of the two men said.
“And he’s white too,” chimed the other inmate.
“Oh, you know how I like me some white meat,” responded the first one.
I was taken to an empty cell. I sat their waiting. My hands bloody from broken glass. My stomach turned and growled with emptiness. I sat on a hard wooden bench with my back against the wall. I stared at the wall in front of me. On occasion, I looked at the steel toilet to my right. Sometimes I looked at the frosted windows that were near ceiling height across from the barred door.
For a moment, the tier became quiet. And by quiet, I mean uncomfortably silent. Out of nowhere the two men would resume their jailhouse rap careers to interrupt the stillness. They laughed to each other from one cell to the other. From what I could tell, they were not in the same cell. They were neighbors. I knew this for sure. They were loud and their rhymes seemed to rant on without talent or any real point.
I sat quietly, wishing I could have changed my mind about an earlier course of events. I looked at the light from a streetlamp that moved through the frosted glass on the upper window, which slightly tilted outward. Even the natural source of light was taken away. The mug warm air was thick with a late August humidity.
I tried to close my eyes. I would shut them as tightly as I could but I was too frightened to open them again. I knew when I opened my eyes, the only thing I would see was the brick wall across from my uncomfortable wooden bench and the bars on the cell door to my left.
I closed my eyes to try and imagine myself someplace else. I thought about a summer I spent in Prospect Park. I was there all day, every day.
I was not innocent, but I was in less trouble. I was at the mischievous age of great exploration. I tried to concentrate on those times with hopes to listen for the laughter of young kids leaping off the high diving board. I thought about the old burned down home that belonged to a woman named Crazy Mary.
Mary was gone. She died long before this summer but her house remained. It was an eyesore, but not as broken and as one would imagine a burnt house would seem. Outside, the siding was in-tact, but inside, the interior was severely damaged.
Mary’s house was at a dead end that bordered the block and the rear entrance of Prospect Park. I tried to envision that summer exactly as it was.
I closed my eyes as tight as I could and thought about the smell of honeysuckle bushes that lined along the back fence. I thought about the toddler playground, which we referred to as, “The Tot-Lot.”
I tried to think about the late nights and great times when we were wild and there was nothing heavy upon our shoulders. I imagined the late night high jinx, the smoking sessions, the beer runs, the minor troubles we caused and some of the local officers that tried to keep us in line. This was the only summer I could safely say I felt cool. We lived every minute of that summer and swallowed every drop that we could squeeze.
I sat in my holding cell, trying so hard to imagine the things I saw that summer. I tried to remember the smells from those times. Unfortunately, all I could smell was the foul stench of dirty men, bathroom functions, and cleaning solvent.
No matter how hard I tried to envision the cement benches near the bicycle racks next to the tennis courts, when I opened my eyes, all I could see was the other side of my cell. Worse, no matter how I tried to remember the sounds of laughter and the voices of my friends from that summer, all I could hear was the two men screaming terrible rap songs. They occasionally made reference to having themselves a nice piece of white meat, which was me.
After a spurt of noise came a brief moment of heavy silence. I found the silent times to be too quick; however, it was easier to imagine myself someplace else when the noise slowed down.
Then there was a different noise. It sounded like a door opened. A corrections officer began to walk another inmate down to the end of the tier. The two men began whistling. They whistled the way an anxious man would whistle at a girl as she passed him. Only this was no girl. The new inmate was an overweight man. He was young, fair-skinned, and very heavy with feminine features. He walked down the corridor as if he enjoyed the cat calls and whistles. The new inmate walked the way a hooker would walk down old 42nd Street passed the sex shops and perverts standing by the doorways in long, concealing raincoats.
“Aw, man,” said one of the loud inmates.
He asked the inmate in his neighboring cell, “Did you see that?”
The other responded, “I sure did. It looks like we gonna have to leave the white meat alone.”
“Why,” asked the other man, “I like me some white meat.”
“Yeah, but you know what they say in jail, right?’
Laughing loudly to play along, I heard the other ask, “No, what do they say in jail.”
“There’s no better joy than a fat butt boy!”
By this time, I went through the precinct. I went through an interrogation that left me with a few deserved lumps on my head. I went through the harassment of the arresting officers, the detectives, and the correctional officers. But two things happened when I heard the man scream, “There’s no better joy than a fat butt boy.”
First, I was grateful that I did not have a fat butt.
Second, I realized I was in the wrong place.
Sometimes I share a story or qualify myself to express a feeling or an experience. I am no longer ashamed of what I did or who I was. The days of my past and the scrapped knees, the bumps, the scars, the hard lessons, which could have been easier, the arrests, the trouble; all of these things led me to awaken and become who and what I am today.
No one goes through life unscathed.
Bukowski once wrote, “Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
We all go through something. We all hit bottom. We all skin our knees. We crash cars. We lose our jobs or file for bankruptcy. We all fall down.
And falling down stings.
But we need the sting. We need it to deter us from surrender and motivate us to win or at least improve so we won’t suffer the same fall twice.
You can’t give everyone a trophy in life. Mediocrity is never truly rewarded. In fact, failure is more rewarded than life as the mediocre.
I have often been congratulated on my sobriety date that will turn 25 years this coming April. I have been given medals and tags that acknowledge my efforts in life. But no one, and I mean absolutely no one has ever given me a trophy for a subpar performance.
If you ask me, that’s a big problem in this world: Praising mediocrity and giving in to a generation with inaccurate sense and unfortunate belief of self-entitlement.