It isn’t so much that my brother lives on the freer side of a prison wall, or that when I’m released—sometime after 2024—I will have spent more years inside than I have lived in the outside world. What’s useful for you to know is that I will bring home with me an overflowing collection of memories, both terrific and terrible, of the people I met in this razor-wired land of misfit toys and wayward boys. It’s the memory of these people that will drag me home alive.
I want to tell you about one such person, my dear friend Anthony, which requires going back to the summer of 2002 in Attica prison. I was 25 years old, had two years in prison, and despite all the horror stories about prison in general—and Attica in particular—I was surprisingly well situated: cushy jobs as an office worker at the maintenance department, a cell in a tranquil housing unit with respectful neighbors. My brother had provisioned me with an army coat, a blanket, and countless other necessities, much of which survived with me to this day. I was accepted into a crew of serious men, and offered a sought-after spot at their table in the yard, which suggested to the wolves that I was a Somebody or at least had the backing of Sombodies. But the guys at the table lacked a certain simpatico-ness. Being a social sort, I ventured around the yard.
And that’s how I happened upon Ant that summer night, leisurely sitting in the grass by the handball court. He was shirtless, tan, very fit. I walked up with the intention of saying, You seem like a decent sort who has things figured out. What I ended up saying was, “Do you surf?
Right. A profoundly weird thing to say in a prison yard, like a page picked at random from a Berlitz Guide to English. This All-American-looking kid with the blond hair and regrettable sleeve of forearm tattoos just kind of squinted up at me in the glare of the guard tower lights, and I realized how much of a jackass I sounded like. Imagining Jones Beach or the Rockaways, I doubled down: “I mean, did you used to surf? You look like you used to surf.” No, he did not used to surf, but he did smoke pot, so we did that.
Thus began a fast friendship, much of which consisted of finding weed and smoking it. He also used heroin, while I’d been clean from that monster for over ten years. Unlike other users, he didn’t offer to provide me with dope should I ever change my mind. Before I ever told him how heroin led me to murder, he simply understood that I had a heavy past. He never asked me again, and went to great lengths to shield me from his occasional use.
I got him a job in maintenance, which got him moved to a cell close to mine. We began to eat together, taking turns cooking. In short order, Ant and I established a tradition of making mac n’ cheese on Sunday night. The commissary sold down-market mac n’ cheese, the kind with powdered quote-unquote “cheese,” but we doctored it with roasted garlic, onions, and fried pepperoni. We sent rhyming notes back and forth, something he started. Two of his survive:
You asked that I kite you
so just not to slight you
These words I now write you
Bring the pan down at chow
And this I do vow
the meal will be kaplow! (the bomb, duh!)
Some cheese and macaroni
onions, garlic, pepperoni
I need the first two, homie
I guess that is all
So I’ll give you a call
when I’m down watching foosball.
And this one:
Here’s a soda to go with the meal
But it’s secondary; here’s the real deal
I need me a pack to give to this kid.
If I don’t I just might have to pop off his lid
So do what you can to find us a pack
And I’ll do what I can to get it right back.
We shared reading material, and he turned me onto The Count of Monte Cristo, a story of escape, adventure, and fortune that a prisoner can’t help loving. It was also the genesis of a joke between us, modeled on the “Bill & Ted” movie line mispronouncing Alexandre Dumas as Dumbass. If he were to joke with me in a public setting, he’d say, in his thick Brooklynese, “Alex-an-duh.” His not calling me a dumbass in front of others, even in jest, showed a conversational savvy that I appreciated.
Being close like that allowed us to be boys again. We were in our twenties; he was a couple years older and was a couple more years into the twenty-five-to-life we were each doing. We moved as a team against a world of cutthroats, like in Lord of the Flies, except the boys on this island had a taste for blunts. He was definitely Ralph, the fair-haired boy, and I was Piggy, deferring to him around the tougher, meaner boys. He was more intrepid and sure of himself, the Huck Finn to my Tom.
Ant was everything we say we value in a friend. He was loyal and honest, an easygoing sort who would jokingly stop me from being overly serious by saying, “Aw, hawse shit.” He was scrupulously even-Steven, ripping a sandwich or joint right down the middle, then letting me choose which side I wanted (I’ll note that equitable sharing is something I still struggle with). And he was caring, after a fashion, like when he offered to punch someone in the face for me.
We shared interests. He had poems written from when he spent months in the isolation unit, while I was just beginning to write personal essays. Ant usually deferred to my knowledge of grammar, though I remember one editorial disagreement. He’d described a “myriad of” something, and I nixed the “of.” We went back and forth, each looking for examples to prove our point, until I got on the phone that night with an authority on English usage, my grandma. When I returned to the table, I said, “No ‘of’ after myriad.”
“My grandma, says who.”
With this, he was mollified. He was a good egg like that. Fun fact about Ant: he taught me how to cut hair, or more specifically, his hair. He would reassure me that it was not biggie if I didn’t do a perfect blend in the back. Ant is the reason I’ve been cutting my own hair all these years, and when someone inevitable gives me guff over the blend in the back, I say what he would say: “Don’t give a fuck, I don’t gotta look at it.” (Except he really meant it.)
Around Christmas, something occurred that was entirely predictable, so said all the fellas, and utterly in keeping with Ant’s standard operating procedure. Yet I, naive and accustomed to good friends departing only on a pre-approved schedule like the end of summer camp, was rocked by the rapidity with which the fit hit the shan. One moment I hear a cell crack open, and by the time I surreptitiously stick a small mirror out the cell gate, all I see is Ant being handcuffed, led away by beefy guards on either side.
During his cell search that was anything but random, the general consensus was that some seller—pissed off by Ant not paying his tab, yet unable or unwilling to fight him—told the guards that Ant had a weapon in his cell. The guards found a sugar packet with some heavily marked-up weed, which, along with the subsequent failing grade on his urine test, earned Ant six months in isolation. After a few weeks, he was transferred from Attica’s isolation unit to Upstate Prison, a facility that’s all isolation units
We kept track of each other through third parties, but our contact was sporadic. He was about to get married, then he wasn’t. In 2010, when I transferred to Comstock, and began working as a peer counselor in the orientation room, I kept my eyes open for him. I also made inquiries among a certain type among the twenty-plus new weekly faces: white kid, knockaround, a drug-hungry look. I’d ask if he knew Eggbert, the nickname Ant was given in childhood, which he let friends know like a secret password. If you used “Eggbert” to ask about him, you were a friend and could trade in information; if not, you were likely someone trying to track him down because he owed.
And then one day in 2011, I walked past him in the hall. He was in a small group of men just brought into the prison, and quiet is strictly enforced in the hallways there, so he just cocked his head like so. Good Ol’ Ant. His hair had thinned a bit on top, his face was more gaunt, but he looked great. I made an expression that I hoped registered as a hug, and brimmed with excitement. In several days he’d be in the orientation group I ran, so I began to tick off a checklist of what I’d tell him: how I’d earned a bachelor’s degree since we last saw each other; found my way into the Attica Writers’ Workshop, where I placed him prominently in one essay; gotten sober; and married a lovely woman.
When the new group showed on Monday, Ant wasn’t among them. I did my due diligence and found out he got locked up over the weekend because of—wait for it—dirty urine. Ant didn’t mind the extended isolation. He wrote poems and read and worked out, so he wasn’t scared of the department’s ultimate punishment. The prison within a prison was his backwards world vacation from the general population. So back he went. Before he left, I sent him tobacco, deodorant, chocolate, and postage stamps, the prisoner’s care package.
Over the following years working orientation, in Comstock, Auburn, and later here, in Fishkill, I kept on the lookout for my old friend. A guy named Eric came through orientation in Auburn and he knew Eggbert, his accent just as thick. To learn what I could, I hung around Eric one night in the yard while he did pull-ups as if they were a religious obligation; he paced in front of the bar, worshipping his bicep and saying, “Like a fuckin’ onion.”
There were guys who confused Anthony and his brother, Joey, which often led to Ant fighting over a drug bill that Joey left unpaid. But Eric knew their backstory, and shared something more with me. Joey was bitten by a spider in Wende Prison around 2005, and the medication administered to him caused his organs to shut down, and he died. Learning that, I reached out to Ant and offered my condolences.
Even through the distance of years I feel that platonic love, and it surprises me, actually, because I’ve met so many good people in prison since 1999. The question remains: Why does he loom large for me? Perhaps because we got separated before growing accustomed to each other. But I choose to believe there’s more to it. We came from different places and imagined different futures, but he was a true friend, a solid person. Maybe he’s firmly pedestaled in my pantheon of friends because I learned from him an important lesson for a newjack, which was that I could live in prison, that I’d meet good people, and find my own way.
I think about him from time to time, wondering where he is, and if the years have been kind to him or cruel. Last I heard he was working in Elmira’s kitchen, staying out of trouble, which, for Ant, is a very relative term. If our paths cross again, I’ll tell him some of what I just told you, but I can already hear him reacting to lines like platonic love, laughing it off with a shove to my shoulder, and telling me, “Aw, hawse shit.”
Photo Credit: Fabricio Macedo from Pixabay