By: Charles Manou, Contributing Writer
I turned forty recently. (Please hold the applause.) Never in a billion years would I have ever envisioned that I would hit the big 4-0 on death row.
When I was free, I was known for having grandiose and extravagant parties to celebrate my birthday. Everything was free, i.e. food and beverages, while it lasted. Anyone who was somebody within our little bourgeois community would attend. Club owners would petition me to have my parties at their clubs because they knew they would reap the economic benefits from the overflowing patrons.
Life was good. Or so I pretended it was. Then I was arrested on my 24th birthday. My date of birth was a cursed reminder to me of how quickly things can change for the worst. So I told everyone I didn’t celebrate my birthday any more.
Sure, it sounded good back then. But no one paid my wishes any mind as every year they still threw parties on my birthday. And I would be flooded with cards/letters from family, my children, and supporters who wished me well on my birthday. And “be thankful you are alive another year” would be the reoccurring theme. Everyone seemed to think I needed and wanted those messages. In hindsight: Perhaps I did.
As months turned to years and years added up to a decade, as my immaturity turned to maturity, I began to embrace my birthdays – even my gray hairs. I gave up on my hopes and dreams, and I began to embrace that my once Billy Dee Williams’ good looks just aren’t as Billy Dee-ish these days.
I also noticed that the older I got, the fewer birthday well wishes I received. My siblings began their own lives, including their own families. My children began to grow up and where I once played a major role in their lives, I’ve unconsciously (to them) took a backseat to Twitter, Tumbler, Twerking and all the internet T-isms. My older relatives are living out their ‘golden years’ by “Keeping Up With The Kardashians.” Or attempting to begin their own version of The Real Housewives of their own towns.
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I won’t say that I’ve become a memory to them. Rather, so much drama consumes their daily lives that I get the absentee ballot treatment some times. I’d be a prevaricator if I said that such neglect doesn’t sting. Cause it does.
Then 2014 came and I decided to mark December 6th, 2014 as the day I would put aside my childishness to celebrate being “alive” forty years — especially given the fact many pundits swore I would not be alive to witness 35-years old — let alone forty.
To help me prepare for my day, I began to work out in my cell. I lost some weight. Grew a six-pack — OK, maybe not, but still. With every fallen sweat drop, I felt more invigorated. Or, as the French would say, I felt a slight “joie de vivre” — for the first time in my incarcerated years.
Hell, I even tried some of that Yoga bullshit, which is proof that it’s not made for everybody — and not for me. And if I had a cell phone, I would have taken a nude photo of my body like them celebrities do all the time. Then swear the photos was stolen, when all along I had been the one to release them in hopes that it would find itself within the internet Cloud mainframe and later be released and exposed in one of them gossip magazines making me instantly famous. Ok, maybe not. But it’s a thought – LOL.
Days before my big day, I noticed I hadn’t received any mail. Nor any e-mails. “Maybe I’ll get them all on my birthday,’’ I surmised.
My birthday came and so did mail call. I was emotionally devastated. I did not receive any mail. Not one piece. And you’re damn right I was hurt. I swallowed my disappointments and tried to sleep the pain away. The 80s song that had a hook that went “It’s my party and I can cry if I want too” really took on new meaning for me.
There was a slight knock on my cell’s door. A pair of officers stood at my door including, I kid you not, the female C. O.
“Happy Birthday!” they said simultaneously. (They found out from their roster sheet that holds general information about each inmate.) I would normally talk to them, and their acknowledgement was genuine, so I thanked them — but I cringed at their verbal openness about my birthday.
Why? I didn’t want to explain to other inmates why I hadn’t told them or why I wasn’t getting a visit or receiving mail. So I pretended it wasn’t a big deal and rolled over on my bunk with my face towards the wall.
On Texas death row, we are held in isolation with no possibility of physical contact with other people. Sure we can verbally communicate with other inmates and penal engineering allows us to pass stuff from cell to cell by using “lines” [called “kiting,” see Prison Slang.]
A few hours later I hear a knock on my wall, which is how we get one another’s attention in here. “Hey, can you get the line,” my neighbor asked. I assumed he was passing me some magazines or newspapers. I fished the line in as if I was deep-sea fishing, reeling in a huge Florida Keys bass. I could feel some weight on the line, more than usual. And knew that it was a bunch of something. It would take me a few minutes to wiggle everything in my cell through a hole at the bottom of the door that’s no bigger than two inches wide and three-and-a-half inches in length.
But I did. Once I unwrapped all the items, releasing them from the outdated newspapers’ protection, I noticed several pastries and candy and four homemade tacos — representing my 40th birthday. Sure, my momma told me about eating from strangers. But, really? I am on death row, and I somehow don’t see the importance of such careful teachings. Plus I was hungrier than a muther and wolfed them tacos down.
Also enclosed was a card that was signed by each of the men that pitched in. There was a satanist named Austin, who looks like “Mr. Sulu” from the original Star Trek. There was an atheist named Mark, that looks like a overweight George Lopez. And there was Shawn, a self-professed Agnostic who not only looks like Samuel L. Jackson, but also has the famed actor’s sailor’s mouth as well. He cusses so much that I feel the need to pray for him.
The birthday card that was sent was beautifully crafted. Truly a work of patient art. When I opened it, it had a pop-out inside, showcasing a drawing of a smiling and cute stripper that pops out of a birthday cake. She had Kim Kardashian’s gluteus maximus, holding two champagne glasses in each had. On one side was the huge letter drawing of a four. On the other side was the drawing of a zero, with several dolla bills cascading down all around. I kid you not: Hallmark would be as impressed as I was at how these guys were able to make this card. Even now, I’m still in awe.
I told each one several thank yous, because I deeply appreciated their kindness. Austin and Mark said little. Shawn was more like, “Man, don’t you worry about that muther f%$#en treat. Enjoy yo F%#*EN-self! The way I see it, how many more of these muther f&£%$en b-days you got? We none is no pussy ass pussy cat. And f%$£ Sylvester the Cat too.’’
Uh? Yeah, he drifts quite often. You just got to play it off, agree, and move on.
Their kindness took on a whole new revelation. To the world, I didn’t matter anymore. To the world, perhaps I was becoming just a faded memory. In a fast-paced, technology-obsessed world, my birthday didn’t mean shit to no one, unless I could invent the new IPHONE 10.
But to a devil-worshiper, to some “fruitcake” who believed there was no God, only a Big Bang Universal Boom that created a lot of snot-looking goo from which mankind was formed, to some guy who claims not to believe in any Being — to these men my birthday mattered.
To them I mattered. They displayed more humanity than I had ever received from anyone on my birthday, when you understand that if our existance is a figuratively-speaking Titanic, then we all was in it and we all are sinking. The rule of “every man for himself” would be appropriate.
But rules are made to be broken. We all have the capability to be selfish or self-centered in nature and be justified in feeling such a way.
But they weren’t. These men displayed the acts of kindness that we all inwardly possess, but don’t appreciate or use much. These men displayed the type of rehabilitative traits that this bias and flawed judicial system said couldn’t be obtained.
lt wasn’t about snacks, nor a amazing homemade card. In fact, it wasn’t even about my birthday. lt was what I learned about perception and how incorrectly men on death row are perceived. I thank these men because I was able to witness humanity in the nude. I was able to hope again and believe in a race of people that has become too much like a reality show, that is in no form real.
I was able to cry if I wanted too, ‘cause it was my birthday and I was surrounded by people who cared.
Charles “Chucky” Mamou is on death row for killing a 22-year old man then sexually assaulting and killing a young woman during a drug deal.
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