Thursday, September 3, 2009

In Jail With Pablo

I went to jail last night. Wasn't a dream. It was reality. Pablo was with me. Seriously. In my bag, I carried a photo of him. That counts, right? Also had a couple Pablog posts that I'd printed at the office. The posts and the photo of our son were for the benefit of the kids I was there to hang with. It was my honor to carry Pablo's spirit and energy into the Los Angeles County Central Juvenile Hall. He would have loved to have been there. I mean, in Pablo's kiddie version of jail, people wore striped uniforms like this....

...and busted up boulders with big hammers for no apparent reason. The jail I went to was a little different. The inmates wore oversized grey tee shirts and grey pants with Chuck Taylors. All the gates were electronic. No guards with giant skeleton keys. Kind of a bummer about the keys. That would've been cool.

Here's how Pablo and I ended up there.

My buddy Todd Rubenstein is an entertainment lawyer by day and a volunteer instructor for the
Inside Out Writers program by night. He invited me to sit with seven young men from Block H. These guys meet with Todd every Wednesday. They listen to Todd read a piece of writing, something that sets the tone for the day. Back in June, Todd carried his own printed Pablog post into the Wednesday night writers circle. He read it as the week's writing sample, to get the kids started on a topic. He told me later that the kids dug deep in their writing that week, that they related to Pablo's story a lot.

These kids, I learned last night, know a lot about loss. One kid described the day his dad hugged him and told him that his sister had been shot three times. Another boy wrote about his best friend losing his life in a gang-related gunfight. Another dude noted the background of everyone in the room based on their neighborhood gang affiliation. He turned to Todd and I and said, 'I don't think y'all bang.' I responded, trying to be funny, but pausing to be sure I wouldn't be inappropriate in doing so, which made me sound like a nervous nerd. 'Not today,' I said. Everyone laughed. But only because I sounded like a lame-o. At any rate, I wasn't there to ask about everyone's crimes. Clearly, the dudes we hung with last night weren't in there for shoplifting.

What was more clear was that the seven participants in the group last night were incredible writers. They lit up as the pens and loose leaf paper were handed out. A young man named Pablo, who was all smiles and very happy to share his name with our Pablo, wrote furiously at the table. When it came his turn to read, he revealed two additional pieces he'd written on his own during the week. Everyone read, and everyone got feedback from the others in the room. People gave compliments and described what they'd heard in the piece. The words 'tight' and 'clean' were used quite a few times. And those were accurate descriptions of what we heard.

The courage and vulnerability of these seven young men was the most impressive thing I witnessed. Where these dudes come from, putting your feelings on paper—or anywhere—is probably not an easy thing to do. Feelings are liabilities in neighborhoods where shots ring out night after night. Feelings are what people have when they know the person inside the chalk lines. Powerful to see people taking a social risk to sit in a tiny airless room and write. Writing words is something I do every day. Sitting in that room, it took on a different dimension.

While words written and spoken were the common currency among the nine of us, Todd and I were on the guest list. We got to leave. The kids didn't. The guy who speculated about Todd and I bangin left early. He was chained at the wrists and ankles along with a few other dudes and walked elsewhere in the facility. The rest of the guys walked out in the block hall with us, and went to their cells. I got to leave and sleep in my own bed.

I opted to thumb type on my Blackberry while everyone else freestyled on paper. Todd's instruction to the group was to write about love for another person, or losing someone you love, and the pain that came from that.

Here's what I read to the group when it was my turn:

I stare at the screen. Pain? Love? For another person, within myself. What f***ing use is love, is what I think a lot lately. How can I avoid feeling anything for anyone, is what I think a lot lately. If I save all my love and spit out all my pain, will Pablo come back? If I wear my white Adidas and not my silver Nikes, will Pablo come back? I play these games over and over and over.

Walking into jail tonight I felt at home. Not because the walls in my house are painted piss yellow, but because I feel like I'm in lockdown. When I wake up in the morning I feel like the walls are closing in. In normal times I feel like that once in a while. Having it start first thing in the morning is pain on top of pain. It feels small, tight, like a jail cell. These rooms also remind me of hospital rooms. You get a bed, a place to wash up, and some people behind a central desk. Here they are called guards or discipline officers. At Childrens Hospital they're called nurses, and they're much nicer. But they don't have to deal with fights and discipline and s**t like that.

Walking in here, I felt hope. Hope for the dudes who live here. I get to leave. They don't. My greatest hope for love and for the dudes in here is that they can connect with their love and empathy and turn around whatever it is that got them here. I grew up not feeling a lot of love. I don't know everyone's story in this room, but I bet a lot of these guys are growing up the way I did. My parents left me with someone who messed me up. Felt a lot of anger, got in a lot of trouble. And that was just what I got caught doing. Somewhere in my 20s I got sick of trouble and started asking for help. That's when the word LOVE showed up on the street signs. I'm not a whole lot different than the guys in this room. A lot of people offered me help. I said 'no' time after time. At some point, after the millionth time, I started saying 'yes.' That's when I opened myself up to the possibility of love. It started with finding a way to accept myself, to stop believing I was a piece of shit. When I learned how to love me, I was able to love others.

Made me want to fight a hell of a lot less.


Tiwanna said...

Wonderful, amazing words. As always thank you for writing, for sharing such amazing thoughts with me and the world.



Doris said...

your writing piece: amazing. Have you ever attended a creative writing class? I feel like you have no need to, but it would perfect your skills and you'd be the most talented kid around.


duke said...

I love this piece Jeff. I do not have any words which could heal your pain. But, I think Pablo's short time here in this world is serving a greater purpose than we can understand. You and your family are reaching so many people all over the world who need to hear words of HOPE and LOVE.I hope your home is filled with incredible Love today
Be Blessed,

Anonymous said...

After 17 months, this might be the most touching yet. Love you Jeff.


Anonymous said...

I first read this post in the wee hours of the morning when I couldn't sleep. As often happens, your writing gives me a sense of connectedness with "the mystery of it all" that brings me comfort and last night allowed me to sleep.

These past few days the words "You're a good guy" have kept popping in my head. They bring me a tear and a smile. What a beautiful gift from your big brother, Scott.

Todd Rubenstein said...

Yes, indeed. It was powerful. Todd here, offering a little more detail. When we walked in, 1/2 the unit was on lockdown. There had been 3 fights earlier in the day and the kids had been restricted to their locked cells all day and would reamain there for the night. It was now 7 o'clock and the PO in charge would not let my students out to come to class. "Sorry, you got zero kids tonight. No class", he said. I pleaded for the PO to make an exception. Out of earshot, I told him Jeff was here on a special mission. He considered it and without much hesitation, he ordered another guard to bring him the 4 boys from the class on lockdown. The boys were brought into the central command, and in front of Jeff and I were told that they didn't deserve to go to class, hadn't earned it, that they were "assholes", that he, the PO "hated" one of the kids. It was demeaning and shitty. We witnessed first hand how dehumanizing and demoralizing this environment is. He said that because we asked as a favor, he was letting the class take place. Phew. I was worried for a minute Jeff's trip would be wasted. It's happended before.

As we walked into the room, a boy, heavily gang tatted and a real thug looked at Jeff, measured him up and calmly said, "Yo, I dig them skinny jeans, you got." Fist bump followed, easy smiles. Conversation opened, others joining in about the pattern on the pockets of Jeff's Deisels. All good. Boys were down with Jeff and his cool ass skinny Jeans. They are teenage boys, care about clothes and being cool and any attention paid to them that isn't negative.

We sat, introduced, Jeff read a piece so powerful about Pablo experiencing internal bleeding and the decision and process of taking him home to die. Whoa. Jeff was in apparent pain as he read, struggled to keep composure to get it all out. Pauses and deep breaths. Watery eyes. Every boy in the room locked in and took the ride. As Jeff does, he reached into every person's heart and soul, grabbed their common humanity and inspired them to match his courage and honesty. And that's what happened. When Jeff was done. There was silence. What do you say? They all had plenty to say, slowly each boy thanked him, then carefully and without pretense, told their own story of loss. The first boy looked Jeff dead in the eye and told a long story of watching his grandparents, who raised him, age, fail and pass and the pain it caused him to be alone and that he had NEVER told anyone how he felt and he thanked Jeff for making him feel comfortable and safe enough for the first time in his life to share his feelings. Wow. And it didn't let up. We talked awhile and then we wrote. Jeff gave the lesson plan, which was to let them freestyle. And they shared their stories. One boy, not a great student, soso effort and tends to hold back, wrote and read a gripping story about the moment he learned his sibling had been murdered, eyes red and teary, heart on display. When he was done, he put his head down on the table and it remained there for the duration. Wiped out. This boy has 3 kids of his own, he's not yet 18, and a gang tat on his cheek. Not a teardrop, big letters forever proclaiming "where he's from". I gave him a hug after class. He thanked me for giving him the chance to get that out. He never says shit after class. For about 90 minutes it went like that. Another boy wrote about his "Uncle Dad", who was his great Uncle, who raised him, who would "beat my ass, then took me fishing." We talked about the complexity of life and unconditional love and the discipline and tough stuff that comes with it, but doesn't erase love. Uncle Dad was now dead and gone. Jeff cracked every heart in the room and started an avalanche of feelings and healing and sharing about love and loss and our commonality in the way we suffer and feel. Doesn't get deeper. Nowhere I would rather be. Thanks, Jeff. You fucking rocked it. Nice jeans, yo.

Sara said...


Thank you for visiting the kids and thank you for sharing yourself with them. Despite your pain and even the darkness you find yourself surrounded by too often, I can't imagine a better man to share his story of hope and love with kids that might not have much. Thanks for being amazing and giving back during such a difficult time. I hope it brings you some kind of peace.

Roberta said...

you dont need any classes, your msg rang loud and true and of course i had tears. todds colleague with IOW, so what i think is you could be a teacher. you are what they need, and they maybe what ur pain needs. they dont mind. they dont expect you to be happy or "just get over it". they healed me. and this was just what i needed as im dealing with a young man in the camp i also teach at, and well, i wrote about pain this week because of him. but there was something missing...i just found it. thank you! the power of astounding and thats all we have to make sense of the tragedies we live thru. and how to make someone live forever, which is what you are doing now. its never how long a life is, but how precious the lived the "jail" picture demonstrates. Precious!

Jen Berry said...

i know everyone says that boy can write. yes you can. but a lot of people can write, articulate, mold, connect. however, you have something more than that. You have an umphf. A raw but eloquent truth.

Tish said...

OK, Jeff... I feel like your older sister (that you never had) when I say this, "I TOLD YOU SO!!!" I just finished reading what Todd added to your post...

Your WORDS are humanizing. They have the ability to touch each and every diverse soul in this world that we live in. The true value of a life - no matter what the age - is not based on material wealth or what is produced or achieved, but rather how much love is brought forth by a life.

You, my friend, are invaluable.

Unknown said...

Wow. And I can't really say much more than that. One of my favorite posts since I have been reading here...not just for the writing, but for your selflessness and example. Changing peoples lives is a gift. Pablove is a are gift, Jeff.

aljav71 said...

All I remember was a great young man that I knew growing up and I knew he would go some where. If there is anyone who can inspire......

Unknown said...

I'm not gifted like you, Jeff. I'm sitting here staring at my screen and NOTHING is coming out, despite the fact that your post has my mind full of thoughts, my heart full of emotion. WOW. You are an inspiration. As Doris said in her post - word.