My friend Alan, an inmate at the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi writes that his life is so monotonous that it is challenging for him to think of topics to write me about. I send letters to him and two other inmates weekly. It is difficult for me too sometimes to dredge up letter material because, although by design and not circumstance, my own life is just about as uneventful.
Michael Santos has been incarcerated in federal prison for over twenty five years. He is due to be released on Monday August 13. He was twenty three when his term began. He is 48 now. Santos has written eight books and is a contributor to the Oxford Handbook on Sentencing and Corrections. He's completed two masters degrees and was thwarted in finishing his PhD by prison red tape. His wife posts his writings at the website www.MichaelSantos.net. Santos chronicles his day-to- day activities, the daily prison menu and his extraordinary exercise schedule. He runs more than 20 miles daily and hasn't missed a day in many years. In addition to his seminal writings about the criminal justice system and guidance books about surviving incarceration he meticulously chronicles every facet of prison life. These accounts demonstrate an amazing self discipline that he's harnessed and enabled himself to grow and flourish during twenty five years of confinement.
I haven't logged anywhere near the mileage that Santos has but walking is integral to my own health and sanity. I walk daily except I usually skip every 10th or 11th day. I take the same 3 ½ mile route Monday through Friday. Our street becomes a dirt trail. I follow it to the end and then ascend a steep incline to what the kids used to call “the top of the world.” It's actually known as Kite Hill and once in a while there really are kites. The view from one side is downtown L.A., the rail yards, Dodger Stadium and the palms that surround it and the Hollywood Hills. The panorama of Mount Washington, green and dotted with cantilevered homes can be taken in from the other side of the street. The ground is usually strewn with trash because, despite the no parking signs, this is what my parents used to call a “make out” spot. Most mornings there are beer bottles, marijuana detritus, used condoms and fast food wrappers. I have mixed feelings when I see discarded used condoms. I also scratch my head when some of the empty beers are actually decent brands. You'd think someone with a discerning palate and the wherewithal to buy good brew would know better than to throw crap around, particularly in such a pretty spot.
There was a decision to isolate Mount Washington proper from the riffraff that assembles late at night on Kite Hill. An iron gate has been installed. For the twenty years we've lived in the area, the gate has been chained open, some free thinking Mount Washingtonians unwilling apparently to create a gated community. This shady street leads to San Rafael, the main drag. I pass the stately Self Realization Fellowship Center, which used to be the Mount Washington Hotel. Originally there was a funicular that ran from there to Figueroa Blvd. SRF adherents wearing saris or long skirts of the Orthodox Jewish persuasion sweep the sidewalks every morning. The sweepers are always women. They do seem very peaceful and self realized.
On the other side of San Rafael is the Mount Washington Elementary School. There is a large modern library and community center on the campus that was financed by neighborhood efforts and named in honor of Jack and Denny Smith. Jack wrote for the L.A. Times for 37 years. His daily column marked my transition from kiddie to adult reading material. Based on his description of his neighborhood, the verdant, quirky Mount Washington I decided at age seven that this is where I wanted to live.
During the week I turn around in front of the community bulletin board which usually has a lot of pathetically optimistic fliers (coyotes...) about missing cats. On Saturday and Sunday I continue on to the Seaview Loop. I pass a number of modern case study houses, and also some unfortunate new construction, to reach a trail that skirts the hillside. In clear weather, Catalina is visible from several vantage points.
I recognize dogs and walkers. I notice new cars and home improvements. Tuesday is trash day and I know which neighbors are boozers or are slipshod about recycling. There are people with shopping carts who trudge up the steepest hills and rummage through recycling bins for cans and bottles. The dogs nearly pull my arm out the socket when they see other dogs but are indifferent to possums, skunks, and squirrels. Once I spot a deer. I remind myself of my own good fortune, the childhood dream of living in such a rustic area, just spitting distance from downtown, realized. I do not vary my route for safety's sake. Sometimes I am hyper-alert to my surroundings but often the rhythm of my steps lulls me into a trance-like state and it is good that my route remains on auto pilot.
On New Year's Day I find a laptop in a case several yards from the top of Kite Hill. Halfway down the next block there is a canvas bag with books and clothing. I assume there's been a car break in and lug the computer and heavy bag of books back home to do some forensic work. I find some invoices and business cards in the laptop case and some bank statements in the bag with the books. I surmise there was no car theft involved, just two separate incidents of New Year's Eve drunkenness. I'm not home when the laptop owner arrives to fetch it. Spuds says he's an old weird guy with a ponytail, still befuddled at how the laptop ended up in the street. He gives Spuds $10 which I let him keep, although I am the one who dragged the thing home. The book bag has tacky coffee table books with wizards and unicorns, and ever judgmental I procrastinate about taking it back to the address on the bank statement. If had been art I liked I probably would have been Johnny on the spot about returning it. Walking one morning I notice a sign on a telephone pole. “My book bag with art books was left beside my car. Please return it. No questions asked.” I make Spuds leave the bag on the door step at the crack of dawn, lest I be caught, despite the promise of no questions.
A few weeks ago there is money, fives and singles, scattered willy-nilly down middle of San Rafael. There is no wallet or anything nearby to identify the possible owner of what turns out to be $28 so I pocket it. My friend tells me that once she found $500 on the street. She left a note on a nearby car saying that if they'd lost some money they should contact her. A caller soon reported having lost $500 and the money was returned. I tell her she should have asked for the denominations because $500 might have been a lucky guess. As hard as I try to convince myself otherwise, I'm almost certain that I myself would have kept that money too.
A few days later amidst the leavings of what appears to have been a particularly raucous party night on Kite Hill I find the California I.D of a young woman from El Monte. I mail it off to her and don't bother with a return address. That she may have moved or already replaced it is really of no concern to me. I like to think that she is delighted to have it returned and therefore avoid a long line at the DMV but I'll never know how it played out. Addressing an envelope and springing 44 cents for a postage stamp isn't as noble as returning $500 but I hope this made the girl's life a bit easier and that if she returns to Kite Hill that she cleans up after herself. Condoms and all.
Sometimes when I walk I am hyper-aware of my surroundings and other times this is eclipsed by the voices in my head. The route doesn't change and whatever my mindset, I strive to keep the overwhelming vastness of the world at bay. Michael Santos has run thousands of miles and I presume that the voice inside, bidden by the rhythm of his feet, has led his mind to soar beyond the confines of a prison camp. On Monday he will step out into the vast world for the first time in over twenty-five years. I have never met the man but I am elated and frightened for him. While it is self imposed, the confined existence I've crafted for myself comforts me. Freedom, the infinite vastness and possibility overwhelms me. I wish Michael Santos all the best as he steps out into a the big world that I struggle to keep small. From prison camp to infinity. I pray he keeps on running.