Written by: Pendarvis Harshaw
Original Post for Penn’s Station
I looked at the reflection of my 24-year old face in the hand mirror. I was in a barbershop in downtown Oakland analyzing my fresh cut, as I told the gentlemen in the room of my upcoming journey.
It had been about 18 years since I had seen my ole man.
He and my mother had been separated for over 19 years.
A recent arrest left him incarcerated in Alabama, facing up to 20 years.
I hopped out of the barber’s chair and it was confirmed: my hair was indeed thinning at the corners. Another one of God’s clever jokes: give the bighead kid a receding hairline.
That was the final line. I had to have my question answered: Is my biological father where I got my bighead? Is he as short as I am? Is he charming and good looking, like myself?
I bounced out that barber’s chair and setout on a journey.
A 4-hour flight from San Francisco to Chicago, a 12-hour road trip with a friend, from Chicago to Alabama, just to speak to my father for 90 minutes in an Alabaman prison.
We crossed the Blue River, the Red river, and the White River as we drove through America’s heartland. Our trek lead us through the flatlands of Indiana and the Mountainous terrain of Tennessee.
The drive from Chicago to Alabama on Good Friday was a breeze.
There’s truth to the Billie Holiday song, “Stars Fell on Alabama”, the southern night sky proved it. It had been 18 years since I had seen my ole man, and the billions of stars overhead became meek in comparison to the zillions of thoughts running through my mind as I sat in a hotel parking lot in Birmingham the night before the meeting with him.
My mother and father separated when I was three. I visited Alabama as kid, but from the time I was six until the time I was about 23, I had spoken to him only a handful of times; and not seen him since that last visit to the South. Most recently, I had gotten in contact with him through his brother, my uncle Erick, who I met via facebook in 2011. My father and I exchanged phone calls and letters; the last of which resulted in the words: “please don’t write back” written boldly on a piece of paper addressed from him to me.
… this is what I was thinking as I looked at the stars…
The following morning I continued to think about all of this as I waited to meet up with my uncle in a Winn-Dixie parking lot. I drove behind him as we made our way to the State Facility just outside of Montgomery, AL on the Saturday prior to Easter.
I wanted to take pictures, but the guards at the jail informed me that nothing but my ID and car keys were allowed inside the jail; and that I would have to change my shirt: my white-T was too similar to the ones the prisoners wore.
Upon entering the small meeting room, I shook my fathers hand. There was no glass to separate us like on the movies. I sat adjacent to him. He wore glasses when we initially shook hands, and took them off as we delved into our meeting. It was history lessons, light humor, and talks of spiritual growth; it felt like a nonprofit board meeting. It was a stiff room. We we’re two Black men from the hood- and Cancers at that, which means no emotions shall be shown, no matter the circumstance.
“I don’t think I can cry- my tear ducts don’t work.” He literally said that as he described the conditions inside the prison. He said he had seen a man get stabbed just last week. He was solemn, calm, and very centered as he spoke about the incident.
He had been incarcerated for a number of months; it was his second time being in prison. He hadn’t yet been sentenced, but given his charge, he could be facing up to 20 years behind bars.
He was forced to face the window, in plain sight of the officer overseeing our conversation as we sat in that small blandly colored room. We talked about life: His life. My life. The meaning of life.
He showed me his only tattoo, a prison tat on his chest which read “Isaiah 10:13”. We recapped his childhood and his turbulent teens. We discussed the breakup between he and my mom, and how is addiction to crack cocaine pushed her further away. We talked about regrets and what could have been. We mentioned the future, and what will be if we choose to work towards it. We laughed about the origins and the ironies of our shared first name “Pendarvis”. We conversed for an hour and a half. But it seemed more like half an hour. The meeting concluded, and I was escorted out the prison.
The image of him remains with me. His rigid mannerisms- stiff moving, like he just worked out. His height, he is 4 inches taller than I. His hair, he had waves and salt-and-pepper sprinkles of grey… I have waves too- but I’d much rather have grey hairs than this receding hairline.
His skin tone was brown with a hint of red; kind of like the Alabama clay in the morning sun. He had high cheek bones- like my sister. He had an aura of centeredness, calmness, and spoke with eloquence. That reminded me of myself.
I left out of the jail and took one photo of the outside of the facility. The correctional officers barked at me for doing it, and asked me to leave the primacies.
I left abruptly. I had regrets about questions I didn’t ask and words I didn’t say. I wanted to continue the conversation with my father, but I didn’t want to spend another minute in jail.
… Aside from my reflections of his image, six simple words stuck with me: “Prison only exists in the mind.”
He nonchalantly stated this profound sentiment, and subsequently admitted that he has now become a poet.
“Prison only exists in the mind.” A sentiment I had heard before, but it resonated much more, coming from someone on this side of the fence.
He expressed that he would’ve loved to have been with my sister and I during our upbringing; but I could tell the deepest regret was losing the love of his life, my mother.
Four days later I was back at my mother’s house in California, a letter from that jail cell in Alabama was waiting for me. He wrote me the day I left. In the letter he thanked me for traveling to see him, congratulated me on my accomplishments, and asked that I never come to see him in prison again- he stated that being seen in a prison is not the only memory he’d like for me to have of him.
He told me that prison only exists in the mind. Although those profound words came from a man physically sitting behind bars, I don’t believe it.
If nothing else, this experience has shown me that prison is not just a place where you do time or something confining you within your mind. No… Prison also exists in the heart. And the deepest darkest prison a man can be confined to: The regret of a love lost.