My girlfriend Kristi once asked, in response to a piece of writing I had shared, how is it, or why is it, you do that? Her question followed a visit I had made to a friend held in prison.
Fear, I answered.
Fear is a great motivator for me. Fear of failure, fear of becoming the person I don’t want to be.
Fear of what, she persisted in asking.
Fear of crossing the line, I stated, then clammed up. She did too.
That conversation came to mind as I was out on my walk yesterday morning. I had ambled through the backside of the Pendleton neighborhood, avoiding the streetcar construction cacophony, and as I approached the front of Horseshoe Casino, there stood a skinny, young man on the sidewalk on the opposite street.
He was standing in front of the Hamilton County Jail, signaling to someone through the slotted windows towering above. As I approached, I could make out his fingers showing a “3”, then a “2”, then he seemed to be emphasizing a “2” again.
I gazed up at the jail through the hazy glare, while I continued walking in his direction, though I could detect no movement from any of the half cut windows, designed for that very reason. Nothing in, nothing out. Or maybe the signal was, you’ll get nothing out of coming in here, you’ll get even less when you get out.
As I’ve been want to do, I stopped to chat.
Can you really see up there?
Who’s up there you’re signaling to?
Yeah, what’s she in for?
Ugh, for how long?
Yeah, sheesh, he repeated. So, I’m givin’ her my cell cuz I keep changin’ it.
I’m sorry, I whispered, I’ll say a few prayers. I moved on.
I glanced back at the young man, with WEBN tattooed in a jagged font on his arm, jeans torn, shoes beat. Stereotyping would have been so easy.
The phrase, “There but for the grace of God,” hammered me like the humidity.
It really is a fine line I am walking in life. I certainly have acted in my past in ways that could have caused harm. I certainly could have lost a job or a marriage or my mind, and found myself on the other side of that imposing block wall.
I am reminded of these circumstances in daily interactions with the homeless, the veterans, women on the streets. They don’t need me to give them a voice. They need me to keep them out of the arena of my judgment.
He was still gesturing long after I had shuffled another four or five blocks down Eggleston, the more gritty side of the CBD, the underside of the highways, the belly of the city. How ironic the casino was situated in that same locale as well. That too a reminder, there but the grace of God – or a payout of $10,000 – go I.
John Bradford, an English martyr, is credited with that historic phrase. It was said in reference to prisoners led off to execution. Mindful of its original meaning, I see how close a line we all walk.
When I think of lines, I recall the slit of sunlight streaming through the jail house windows, life attempting to slice through the stone. Humanity attempting to break in, instead of despair trying to break out. And I think of the scrawny man, body lined with tattoos. And somehow my world becomes infinitesimally smaller, almost balancing life on thread.
Photo above is the Hamilton County Jail, as viewed from the courtyard of the Horseshoe Casino. Juxtaposition possibly intentional 🙂