Everyone I Know Goes Away
By Chris Dankovich
Getting a visit can almost be harder than not ever setting any at all. The pain of seeing them walk away, for what can seem like forever, or the feeling of being nothing more than a burden or a pity, can be more painful than the high that seeing the person brings. The biggest thing for me has always been stress. Stress always keeps my mind centered on where I am, stuck in this world, and anything else out there seems as foreign as the afterlife would to anyone else. . visitors merely being apparitions or ghosts. What always healed that new pain for me was the memories of laughter that could be made with my loved ones (even in such a small room where we’re not allowed to even walk around with each other) before they left. There became a point for me a long time ago where any memories of my past outside of prison have been drastically overtaken by my memories in here, and the joy of seeing those that come to visit always overtook any pain of watching them leave.
But I remember vividly that feeling of longing, and I always make it a point to try at least some basic conversation with the guy I’m next to in line waiting to leave the visiting room. After what you might think would be the happiest moment possible in a prison setting, a lot of guys, especially the new guys, the younger guys (the really younger juvenile “adult” offenders) will be waiting with no expression or emotion on their faces, staring at the wall or clock with a blank look in their eyes.
“Hey, what’s going on bro?”
“Not much,” says the kid next to me. He’s definitely under 18, a “Youthful Adult Offender” He has not one strand of facial hair, not even the “peach fuzz” which I used to get teased so much for myself around that age.
“How was your visit? You have a good one?”
“Yeah, it pretty good. Pretty good. How ’bout you.”
He continued to stare forward blankly, a thousand-yard stare cut short by the walls forty feet in front of us. He returned the question to me, though the way he said it made it sound less like a question and more like automatic response, though a polite one.
‘’Mine was pretty good too. Been down ten years and ain’t had a bad one yet… I’ve gotten bad news on a visit, I’ve had an awkward visit or two, but never a bad one. It’s never a bad thing when people like you or love you enough to take the time to drive out of their way and go through the hassle of coming in here to see you.” “Yeah, I guess. Wow, you’ve been locked up ten years?” He says before taking a glance back at me, only the second time I’ve seen his gaze break from the wall. He eyes go back momentarily though. “You don’t look like you’ve been locked up that long.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment. I’m twenty-five now. How old are you?”
“I’m sixteen. I was fifteen when I got here. I’m going to be seventeen in another couple weeks. It’s my birthday then.”
I’m a bit of a smart-ass, and I would’ve made a comment on that if he hadn’t seemed so… stoic. A lot of the juvenile adults I talk to often seem to be lost in their own world, particularly after a visit.
“Do you have a lot of time?” I ask.
”1 have another year before I see the board [parole board]. I don’t think they’ll let me go. Not on my first one. I’ve got tickets. I didn’t do nothing to get them though. Officer lied on me on one, and the other the kid hit me. And I have to finish my programming. I have classes to take, but they don’t even offer them here. I’ve been kiting [institutional mail] about getting my GED and into a trades class and substance abuse class even though I never used any substances out there. I swear I didn’t. Not like most of these guys. I’m not like them. I’ve never gotten high before. I’ve never drank before either.”
As he spoke, he continued to just stare forward, not looking at me (the person he was speaking to) once, just rocking back and forth. It reminded me of someone I used to know. I was wondering if mv question had made him uncomfortable, so I stayed sitting in the same position but stopped talking. A minute or two later, still without looking around or at me, he said something.
“It sure is crowded in here. It’s not like a lot of the other days. There’s a lot more people than when I’m normally up here.”
“Yeah, you’re right,” I said, smiling slightly that at least I hadn’t made the kid feel bad. “It’s the end of the month, and this joint generally gets more visitors than other prisons. It’s so much closer to most people than other prisons. Is this place close to where you or your people are from?”
“Yeah, my grandparents live in Milford [a town one county over]. That was my grandma that came to see me. She wasn’t my girlfriend.”
As he spoke that last sentence without any sign of jest, he looked up and made eye-contact with me for the first time, as if to emphasize his point. For my part, I issued forth all my might to keep from snorting as a small but diligent feeling of laughter shook my body and tried to make its way up my spine to mv face. Whatever relation I may have imagined explained the visiting elderly man and woman I had seen visiting him, “girlfriend” was not one of them. (Though what would that have made the young man?)
“Young dog, what the fuck?” asked the adult on the other side of him with a laugh. The three of us had been waiting to be strip- searched (separately) before we could go back to our units for a while now.
The kid barely looked over at him out of the corner of his eye, a stink-eye if I ever saw one. “I’m talking about some real stuff. That’s my grandma. She’s a great woman.”
The adult just started laughing. “Cool, man, cool.”
“As I was saying,” said the kid, giving the adult the stink- eye one more time. “Those were mv grandparents. I used to live with them before I got locked up. I lived with them for a little over three-and-a-half years. We lived in Taylor. Do you know where that is? Before that I lived with my aunt and uncle in Fenton. I lived there for a year and a couple months. Before that I lived with my other aunt in Grandville. I lived there for a year and a couple weeks. Before that I lived with a friend of my parents for three months. They lived in Wixom. Before that I lived with a different friend of the family for a couple months. They didn’t want me though. And before that I was in foster care for eight months. I had lived with my mom for about three years before that in Monroe. My grandparents took care of me before that. I was actually born in Fraser though. I was there for three months before we moved.”
“You remember it there real well?’ I ask with a laugh.
”No not really,” he said, not missing a beat. “I also lived in Florida for two weeks. It was actually on vacation. We stayed in someone’s house though. I’ve been to a lot of places. Do you want to hear where I’ve been?”
I had nothing else to do, and this had already been a surprisingly interesting, or at least amusing, conversation so far. “Sure, go ahead.” I say.
I thought I saw a brief smile on his face, though he still looks ahead. “Well, I’ve been to Florida, like I said. I was there for two weeks. I’ve also been to Traverse City in Michigan, and to Grand Rapids and Detroit and Highland Park and Warren and White Lake and Battle Creek and Kalamazoo and [….]. And I’ve also been to Georgia, but just for a couple days, and I’ve been to Ohio, but just driving through it, and I’ve been to Indiana, but also only driving through, and I’ve been to Illinois. I went to Chicago there. I also went up to Wisconsin from there. Once I’ve even been to Canada. That’s another country, not a state…[…]”
–(Music starts in mv head: “I’ve been to Reno, Chicago, Fargo, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, Winslow, Sarasota, Witchita, Tulsa, Ottowa, Oklahoma, Tampa, Panama, Matawa, Alabama, Bangalor, Baltimore, Salvadore, Amarillo…[..] I’ve been everywhere man, I’ve been everywhere man, across the deserts bare man, I’ve been everywhere man—
“Damn,” I say, nodding my head to show that I was impressed. “You’ve been to a lot of places. That’s impressive that you remember them that well.”
I see him smile with a look of satisfaction or accomplishment. “Yeah, I’ve been to a lot of places.”
A few minutes pass in silence, and we both watch the beautiful sight of visitors interacting in human ways of love and affection (basic human expressions that do not exist within the walls or razor-wire waterfall covered fences of prison) with the inmates. If those of us in prison are dogs in a pound, imagine if the dogs got released into a loving family’s arms (for just a few hours at a time). I look out and see teenage prisoners resting their heads on their mother’s shoulder, men with their arms around their daughters or holding them close, bottle-feeding their infant sons, practically slobbering over their wives or girlfriends. I look around, but I make it a point to never stare, never wanting to do anything to make anyone uncomfortable or discourage them from giving the gift of well-needed positive attention. The kid does not seem to have developed this same disposition, and he gazes, not menacingly but a bit awkwardly, at some of the women around.
“There’s a lot of hot women here today.” He says as he looks back at the ground.
The adult on the other side shakes his head, too cool for the statement. “Dude, what the fuck is wrong with you?”
I laugh, but the kid gets serious. “What? I’m not gay. I like women.” He says, matter-of-factly. “Shit I don’t know what’s wrong with you. I like women. I do. And I’m just saying –I’m just recognizing– that there’s some beautiful ones here. I don’t know about you, but I think they are.”
He looks back at me. “Some people, huh?”
I laugh, then change the subject so he doesn’t keep talking and digging himself into a hole with this other guy I don’t know. “You have a girlfriend?”
“No. That was my grandma that visited me.” He said, restating one of the most interesting statements I’ve ever heard firsthand.
“Oh, okay.” I said.
He continues. “I’ve never had a girlfriend. I’ve never kissed a girl before. I haven’t seen a girl naked before, at least not in person. I don’t ever want to have sex. I wouldn’t want the girl to get pregnant and then have the baby turn out like me,” he says, still looking forward, not showing any visible emotion.
My mouth fell open and my eyes bulged in the biggest ‘holy shit’ moment I’ve experienced in a while. I could feel my heart beat faster as guilt churned my stomach for eliciting what was quite possibly the most depressing statement I had ever heard in my life.
The adult on the other side of the kid looks over at me, and I see for the first time a look of sympathy in his eyes. He raises his hand as if to pat the kid on the shoulder or some similar form of compassion, but then decides against it. I raise my own hands up as if to say ‘whoa.’
“Fuck… kid, bro. . dude, you’ll be okay. There’s someone out there for everyone. You’ll find a girl, man. You’ll be good. You’ll be happy…”
“No. I can’t get a girl pregnant. I can’t have a kid.”
“Hey kid,” interrupts the adult on his other side. “Man, you’ll be alright. You can be with someone without gettin’ her pregnant. You just gotta get some game.”
“Yeah man,” I say. “You’ll be able to find someone when you get out. Just have some confidence, kid. You’ve got something to offer.”
His mouth is partially open and he looks at me blankly before sneaking. “Yeah, like what? I’m not good at anything.”
I think to myself for a moment. I don’t know this kid at all, but I want to do something, anything, to help him. I really don’t know what to say. “Uh, well, if you did have a girlfriend, would you treat her well?” I ask.
“Oh yeah. I’d treat her the best she’s ever been treated. I’d do anything for her.”
“See… you’d treat a woman well. That’s something a lot of guys don’t offer. That’s something that all women want. You’ll find a girlfriend someday, kid.”
He looks back at me and smiles, his eyes lighting up. “Yeah, yeah…”
I see him pondering the image and placing himself in it, and I decide to leave him there for the time being. After a few minutes, the scariest officer of them all, a man who looks like the villain Dr. Robotnik in the Sonic the Hedgehog video games, who plays the villain in every prisoner’s internal narrative, the kind of guy who works double-shifts every day possible and extra shifts on what should be his days off (and whom I can only imagine talks about nothing but those damn prisoners and their antics during the short few hours when the state won’t let him inside the facility) comes to strip-search us. The other adult guy went first, which is a relief because nobody wanted to go first, even though second and third and last are no better. Between the joy of getting to see the amazing woman who has almost adopted me, and stripping naked and “bending and spreading” with a man acting like he’s trying to see the light at the other end, we sat in momentary limbo. The kid continued to stare forward at the ground, but briefly looked at me out of the corner of his eyes.
“Hey what’s your name?” he asked.
I reached my hand forward. “They call me Dank,” I say, giving my prison nickname that I’ve become more comfortable with than my given first name.
He reaches forward, almost unsure at first, and then shakes my hand lightly. “My name’s Zach. They call me Zach.”
“Well it’s good to meet you Zach. I’ll see you around.”
The villain comes for Zach.
“Alright Dank. Take care of yourself. Stay outta trouble.”
I laugh for a second at this kid giving me advice, though I appreciate the place it’s coming from.
“Thanks, you too. And remember that you will succeed in what you put care and effort into.” I say. one of the lines I often use with the students I tutor.
“Hey thanks man. I appreciate that.”
The officer, wearing blue latex gloves, grunts and glares at him.
“See you around.”
“Yeah, see you around.”
I see Zach in the prison school building in passing a lot, and he always says “hi” to me. One day while I’m in the GED school area making copies for the food technology vocation class I work in, he runs over to me smiling, his eyes wide, and almost jumping he shouts my name and shakes my hand. “Dank, Dank! I got my GED! I got it! I out effort into it and T finally got it.”
I congratulate him and let him know that I’m proud before the school officer makes him go back to class. Standing near me, the GED teacher I used to work for walks over to me.
“Hey, was Zach in our class when you worked here?”
“No, I never tutored him before. I just met him on a visit once.”
“Oh. You know he’s a decent kid and works hard. He has a hard time. He’s autistic, you know,” she says, confirming what I had been thinking. I had volunteered to work in a class with some special needs students, including autistic ones, when I was in high school (though I never finished even my freshman year there). “But he tries so hard, and he actually scored decently… on his fourth try. ”
“That’s good. At least he got it. He seemed to remember what I told him about being able to accomplish whatever he’s willing to out effort into.”
“Well hey, at least he listened to you. He needs someone to look up to. Everyone else just messes with him.”
“Thanks. I don’t know if I’m exactly role-model material, but hey, I’m glad I was able to say something that made a difference.”
After students get their GEDs, they’re eligible to take a vocational trade class if they’re within three years of their release date. There are three classes available: Building Trades, or carpentry; Custodial Maintenance, or janitorial services; and Food Technology and Hospitality, also called Food Tech, and basically a basic culinary-arts prep class. I’ve worked in Food Tech as a tutor/chef for two years, having worked as a GED tutor for six. In my opinion, Food Tech is the best class, as it both teaches important and necessary skills, and the most important factor: there’s good food. So naturally, I was impressed to see that Zach had signed up when our new class started.
It had been awhile since I had met Zach on a visit or seen him in the hallway when he had earned his GED. He looked a bit more disheveled, maybe because he wasn’t wearing his good clothes on a visit. His hair was longer, shaggy, messy, and like it hadn’t been washed in weeks. At least he had sprouted a bit of peach fuzz, though it only managed to accomplish what we used to call in high school a “dirk-stache.” All the other new students were talkative and excited, though it might have been as much about getting out of their cells as the beginning of class. Each, however, maintained the same quiet, cautious demeanor I had seen him with on a visit.
He maintained it throughout the class. I made it a point to call on him when going over the lesson, not to front him off but to get him to participate, and he always answered correctly. After class, my co-worker tutor/chef Brandon, a wild former gang-banger, calls me over after baking some homemade Girl Scout cookies.
‘Hey, what the fuck is up with that one kid. You know, the one who looks like he isn’t sure what a shower’s for?”
”Oh, you mean Zach.” I say and smile.
‘Dude, you think he’s ever seen a comb before? He looked lost the entire time you were talking up there.”
“He’s got fucking autism, you asshole.”
“Shit. Man, that must be hard on him, especially being here. Those kids probably pick on him all the time. That sucks man. I actually feel bad for guys like that. The same sentence is a hell of a lot worse for them than a normal person with the same amount of time. That’s what makes it not fair.”
Later that week, Zach came to class with a completely different look. He looked like he had showered, which was a great improvement, but the most noticeable change was his hair. A little disclosure: my own hairstyle is unique, at least out of the 1,200 people at the prison I’m at. The sides and back of mv head is buzzed at a relatively short level, blended into the too… the top of mv hair is about eight inches long, and slicked back, generally with gel both for appearance and so no stray strands end up in anyone’s food. As I write this, I am the only white guy in the entire prison who styles his hair in any way. Zach came in with an attempt at the exact same hairstyle. It was obvious that someone without experience had buzzed the sides, though it didn’t look terrible, just not blended, while the top was swelled back. He did look much better and more normal cleaned up. Unfortunately, the ruckus laughter from Brandon was just barely contained out of sight from Zach. After class I went in the back of the kitchen to see what he had cooked while I taught the bookwork.
“Dude, look at you Dank. I remember when you first came down and was so young and innocent-looking,” he grins, having known me since I was first locked up at fifteen. “Now look at you. You’re all grown up, and are a roll-model for others. You’ve reached the point where others have started to emulate you. Now mind you, the only one emulating you is fucking Rain Man, but hey, apparently you’re doing something right.”
‘You are such a freaking asshole. You know, he ain’t slow, jerk, he actually can be smart. You’re just mad because no one wants to emulate your hairstyle.” I say. referring to the fact that he shaves his head bald due to his early-onset male-pattern baldness (something he’s sensitive about).
“Damn! That was low… hey, at least the kid cleans up well. He actually looked like a real person instead of some feral animal. Shit, that’s probably what he needs is a role-model. Probably no one’s ever taken any time with him before.”
As we get closer to the first test, Zach comes up to me at my desk.
“Dank, Dank. Dank.. I’m going to fail this test. There’s too much stuff and I don’t understand any of it and I’m going to fail and I’m just a failure and I’m never going to succeed.” He says in what almost seems like one single sentence and continuation of thought.
“Zach,” I say as I wave mv hand to get his attention centered. “You’re doing fine. Alright… here… sit down. Lets go over the chapters and see what you need to work on.”
I sit down and quiz him on the material and even the difficult questions that I know are going to be on the test. He knows every single answer, without fault. I ask him why he was so worried and thought ne wasn’t going to do well.
“I just know I’m not going to do well. I’m not going to pass. I’m never going to pass. I’m not going to pass.*’
The next week we give the entire class the test. Zach gets the highest score out of everyone.
There’s one more big test that the students have to take before they can start cooking, their ServSafe exam. I do the preparation for the test with the class, and again, after nearly every chapter, Zach comes to me, freaking out about how he’s not going to pass. When they take the test, Zach passes.
Finally, the class moves on to their cooking textbooks, getting ready to learn some hands-on experience. After each chanter there is a test. At each chapter, Zach comes up to me just about daily, his arms flailing about how he should just quit class because he’s never going to be able to learn the material. And each day, I go over it with him, and each test he takes he passes (sometimes he needs a slight bit of help).
Zach is five chapters into the book. I work with him every day. He works hard, and sometimes he fails. And when no one is around, he won’t pull himself back up. Rut when someone is around, he will. If I could give one gift to Zach, it would be to give him some confidence in himself. He grew up in an environment, and lives in an environment, where he struggles to survive on his own without it. That he will need to the basics of adult life when he gets out from this adult prison sentence and remain out. And so I work with him every day to do everything I can to get him to recognize the confidence he should have earned for himself. The confidence that I have in him. And different from most of the other students I work with is how hard he tries. He earns what he accomplishes. And I wish he could see that.
And if not, well hey, at least he has a good hairstyle…
You can contact Chris at:
Chris Dankovich #595904
Thumb Corr Facility
3225 John Conley Dr
Lapeer, MI 48446