When You Can’t Fix It.
Yesterday I returned from a professional conference where I was one of a few dozen people in my field working in my area, at my level, in my position. At times I felt proud, and at others, I felt the sense of disconnect that comes from discovering the ways that a poverty background doesn’t prepare you for being in the room where things happen. Mostly I felt at ease and connected to my colleagues. Sometimes I stood ground harder than I had to, unintentionally, as I have done most of my life to get into those rooms in the first place.
I absolutely know I don’t fight as hard as others do—I have plenty of privilege. But I also have an appreciation for how far I have come and how few people like me make it.
And then I left a hotel, drove back home, and walked into a county jail to drop money into commissary for my cousin.
My cousins were my closest (and usually only) playmates growing up. This particular one buried half of his family, as I have buried half of mine. I have seen him try to pull himself together to raise the passel of children he has made. He has the Lord’s Prayer tattooed on his forearm and a litany of felonies on his record. He walks a shady path, but the last I saw him, he was trying to find his way into the light.
According to the local county sheriff’s office, he wildly missed the mark.
I cannot speak to his guilt or innocence, but I know that I will not see him this Christmas without a bail bond.
There but for the grace of God and overprotective parents go I. My parents leaned on me, as early as I can remember, with the expectation that I would go to college, though I have no idea why. They had no means to send me. Neither of them had a college degree. Between them they had a GED and a diploma and a truckload of hope for their oldest child.
My mother bursts with pride for me. I sag beneath the crushing weight of student loans.
Returning home means coming to grips with what’s fine and what’s ugly. It often means recognizing that they are one and the same. I love my cousin as much as my cheeks burned to walk into the lobby of the county jail.
It smelled faintly like industrial cleaner. The air was stale.
As I stood in the lobby, I watched a woman emerge from a door to my right. I was busy trying to get an explanation from the person through a speaker and window mirrored like cop glasses how to set up a video visitation. She was trying to hold herself together across the lobby and past me and the bail bondsman sitting there. She failed, gasping out tears, and I tensed up for her and her thin coat in the cold, cloudy weather.
I looked away from her and eyed the rack of pamphlets provided by the local chapter of NA—handily in English and Spanish. They asked me to consider “Are you an Addict?” Either none exist in Russian and Ukrainian (the other most common languages in our county), or they have been taken.
After a lot of fumbling with my phone, I set up an account. I was assured multiple times that visitation is free, although the online system the jail contracts with won’t let me complete registration without a credit card number. Then it required at least one cent on the account. Then it drafted $3.50 in a convenience fee, and I cannot recall if that was even advertised in small print on the screen before that. I am choking on the woman’s sorrow and my own frustration and rage at how expensive it is to be poor, but I forbid myself to cry.
I am not the one in jail.
But walking up those steps into the lobby felt like a crime anyway.
The walls looked like any other social service agency, posters stuck to the walls giving advice and direction with tape peeling away at the corners. These informed me in bold letters that all visitation will be via video and that “Family’s and Friend’s can put money in their Loved One’s accounts” using the system with hidden fees.
Most of the rack of resources for local agencies appeared picked over. I wondered if the food banks, bus system, health clinics, and so on think to restock the lobby here. I wondered if it makes a difference.
I know my cheeks are burning when I leave.
I wonder when the day sergeant will approve my visitation privileges. I wonder what my professional colleagues would think of me in that lobby. I wonder when my family will make sense.
At the work conference, we went to a “rage room”—a place for people to break things while screaming as a “therapeutic release” (for, I assume, a healthy price). We were encouraged to shatter plates against the brick walls, write obscenities in chalk, shout, and smash keyboards with baseball bats and crowbars. We could run our “angry music” through sturdy Bluetooth speakers in the walls while we feigned being hooligans.
I was laughingly described as a “champion” by my colleagues for swinging the sledgehammer and the baseball bat with authority, screaming with my whole lungs, and generally acting a menace. They delighted to see me acting out destructive behavior in this controlled environment.
They didn’t see me as an eight-year-old child, led by these same cousins, taking a tire iron to my Grandpa’s rusting cars in the hay field. We beat the hood ornaments from them, shattered Ford and Chevrolet into letters on the ground, and busted windshields. We swung the ball peen hammers they had snuck from his tool shed against the elegant 1940s side mirrors and battered the door handles off.
The cousins swore these cars were junk, moldering away in the tall grasses, waiting to be scrapped. My older cousin told me that this was fair game. So, we collected our metallic mementos—gleaming remnants of our damage—and returned to my grandparents’ house. And when I proudly showed off my collection, I was informed that these cars had been waiting to be restored, and I cried.
The adults knew before I tattled that this had not been my idea. I was the good child, not prone to fits of property destruction. I don’t recall my punishment, so it must have been light, if any. My cousins, who were living in my grandparents’ basement at the time with their parents while their house was being built doubtless did not escape as lightly.
It was not my idea to break things, of course. It had not occurred to me to cross that line. But it took so little for me to join in the fun. And it was fun. Meanwhile, I watched some of my colleagues struggle with the very act of breaking things.
Something within them rebelled at the idea of destruction in a way that I did not.
What stood between me and the county jail then?
I walked out of the lobby and down the steps, and the wind bit at my cheeks and whipped my decorative scarf. I felt alone, and I wondered how much more alone my cousin felt. It had been years between the funerals where I had seen him. I had planned to see him this Christmas. He had been doing better, and my heart had warmed at the thought of a more sober, more stable, less chaotic time with him and his.
I wonder why I waited so long to hug him. Why does it take Christmas?
I dream we can embrace each other in spite of all of the failings between us. I pray he will find it in his heart to love me in spite of my stupid pride and absence. We are both capable of breaking things. The miracle is the grace of repair.