"A Song Unowned" 7-31-44
I'm surrounded by concrete, steel, and relentless lighting. Actually, I am entrapped by these things. But even in this brutally cold and hostile environment, I can think of so many inexplicably beautiful memories.
Places, feelings, people. Memory is a world where tangible and intangible collide, where material and immaterial are express equally on the same flashing screen. During this internment, one memory keeps providing me security within myself while in such a despicably depressing, disgusting entrapment.
It is not a memory of the free world, one from the outside, but one born from within similar confines. My first time I was locked up for any meaningful amount of time, I was struggling to survive through a horrible depression and it was during those days that this memory was created.
I spent those days, reading my only inspiration from within, the black and white daily newspaper. Everyday I searched for stories and then the riots in France hit full swing. A real revolution, even if it was just momentarily, became the for the first time in my life, a feasible possibility.
But along with that burning inspiration came the heavy realization of my current confines of only a sympathetic spectator. I was locked up, incapable of escaping the walls burdening my emotional, spiritual, mental, and physical self. I was impaired and disconnected, trying to swallow the prepackaged guilt, blame, regrets, and shame inflicted upon me.
It was then and there while reading those words of inspiration, that it found me. I was sharing the stainless steel jail table with two dark skinned old-schoolers. It's easy to tell who the old schoolers are, because they carry the weight of each year they have served sinking down upon their backs and shoulders. But they always make sure to never let their heads be burdened by the weight. They have been here too long to know, that in this place, you always keep your head up.
So, they sat there talking, laughing, and playing chess. The concrete walls and floors were replaced by trees and grass. Exchanging the steel doors, locs, and bunks for squirrels, birds, and light posts, they soon found themselves surrounded by the landscape of a well-maintained downtown park, late summer. The mold and dust-filled air-conditioning ventilation along with the flicker from the fluorescent lighting transforms into warm sunshine piercing through the tree's canopy, while the first sign of autumn approaching comes from a cool breeze.
The loud shouting of men bouncing off the hardened walls of incarceration diffuse to the sounds of kids playing games and birds singing over the creaking of swing sets, with a mellow swoosh from the traffic in the distance. The large durable gray plastic garbage cans, well, they remain large durable gray plastic garbage cans, but they do become encased by an ornamental, metal frame-work and an assortment of bees and flies battling over the delicacies humans so easily define and discard as waste.
This was not my naive imagination wandering, but an actual transformation of experience refusing to be a just spectacle any longer. So, when they began their game of chess, I, too found myself integrated into the scenery. Into the moment.
We sat at one of those nice, heavy, stone tables. The ones with rounded seats and a chessboard engraved into the top of the table. They took turns making swift but casual moves, and each time one would finish a move, he would sing out a line or two. The other one would then move next also adding a couple more lines. I tried to pin down the song they were singing. Was it an old jazz tune? A newer soul song? Or, any even older tune born from times when slavery was as much a reality as these moments now.
Some time passed before I realized they were not reciting any old tune. The songs they were singing, were being created in that very moment. They were telling a story, a narrative. One in which they each took turns continuing the storytelling collectively, while all the while still competing in an extraordinarily thoughtful game of chess.
They sang the stories of their lives. They talked of old lost loves and childhood adventures, new found loves and current trials and tribulations. They talked of their grandchildren, describing problems and joys they may have to face or embrace. A melody of lifetimes.
Each one of them had won a couple of games, but I soon realized that it was beside the point, and I was the only one keeping tally of a pointless score. We spent the whole afternoon doing this. Being and becoming this. I gained some bravery and on occasion would add to their stories. They did not seem to mind my intrusion and through one of the song's storytelling they nicknamed me "Young Pup."
Eventually, it all started to rapidly fade away. The trees and insects, the grass and cool breeze, all started to disappear, as the unpleasant voice of a guard yelling, "Rack it up!", became more and more prevalent. Until, once again, we were in the horrible jail we began in.
Those old-schoolers shared an amazing thing with me that day. They showed me that we can take all of the horrible punishments forced on us by those abusing power, and turn it into something to benefit ourselves. Unbroken spirits can only partially begin to define those two old men. They had both spent the majority of their lives locked up, they ultimately refused to give up their own self-determination.
It was those stores they sang to each other. Those songs that held the timeless beat of their aging, pounding hearts. Those songs that did not bother distinguishing dreams from realities. Those songs resisted confinement of the towers and walls. Those songs are the songs that I continue on. Those songs have become mine, but they can be as much yours, as no one person can ever own them, really. Those songs refuse this current entrapment of concrete, steel, and relentless lighting. I refuse to be entrapped as well.