All my adult life I have wondered why I rarely meet men my own age. When I finished high school, the mystery deepened. The men I met were either older or younger than me. I remember my first day of working for the Post Office in 1986. I was twenty-nine. There was me and another new hire, a man who remarkably was the same age as myself. I scrutinized his face, his hair, his skin. So this is what it looks like, I thought. How unusual. Over the 13 years I worked there, I often noticed him. My thoughts were along the lines of “Look at that, he’s getting grey before I am, or, wow, I can keep up with him, even pass him on our mountain bike rides.” And still, I continued to meet men either older than me or younger.
The few main relationships I had were with men between 12 and 15 years older than me-same with my platonic men friends. There seemed an abundance of them. They all had gone through the ’60’s first hand and had their own stories to tell about the sex, drugs, and rock and roll, Vietnam, Tricky Dick Nixon…
I on the other hand, was born in 1957. I was 10 years old when the hippie movement started. I did not experiment with drugs like they did, but was surrounded by the art and culture that grew out of that era, as well as the confusion. My parents turned the news off when anything about Vietnam was shown and told me to roll up my car window when we saw any “hippies.”
My musical tastes were fueled by the momentum of rebellious rock and roll. My personal theology was activated by Jethro Tull’s album Aqualung rather than catechism. My friends and I snuck into our local church when it was vacant and played Iron Butterfly’s hit “In a Gadda Da Vida” on the organ. I felt God resonate in the bass notes. For the first time I met what felt like God.
Ram Dass and Timothy Leary spoke volumes to me about finding my own truth and path of devotion. I felt like a voyeur to the explorations and sacrifices of the generation before me, or someone who comes to the feast after everyone else has left. I was nourished by what I found but was intrigued but what it was like to be in the middle of it.
And still, I wondered where the men my own age were. They were too young to go to Vietnam. Were they in college, working towards the wife, two kids, a picket fence and two-car garage? Was it because my own life took a non-traditional path that men of my own generation were lost to me? Is there an abundance of men older than me because birth control was far less common “back in the day?”
One day last year I was preparing to lead a few groups at San Quentin State Prison, in my supervisor’s absence. He had just emailed me the rosters. They are very official looking documents that list the men by their last names first, their CDCR number, cell number, county of parole, and finally, their date of birth. I was fascinated by all these numbers, and knew that each individual number stood for something, much like a VIN number of a car: the year they were first incarcerated; the level of risk they posed; their race, how their crimes were classified. My heart got heavy as I realized how thoroughly this system institutionalizes them, takes away their face, erases their rights to being seen as they are today and cements them into a moment of their past which usually erupted from hundreds of other moments when their gentle infant souls were abandoned by even and especially their own family and communities. I felt sick and conflicted.
I thought about them all as babies, their sweet plump faces without guile or agenda. Then my eyes fell on the column marked Date of Birth. Oh look, I thought, Gene was born in 1957! I pondered his fresh face and deep smile, the love he has found in devotion to his manifestation of God. So that is what a brother my own age looks like. Not bad! Wow! Jamie too-1957-OMG and Will, 1956! I scanned the first roster of forty names and nearly ALL of them were born within a few years of myself. There were just a few younger, just a few older. I was stunned.
Is this where the men my own age have ended up? In prison? I never ever would have thought of this without seeing it with my own eyes.
I went onto the next two rosters and sure enough, the same was true. I was stunned to see that so many of the men I’ve sat with at San Quentin for the past year and a half are within a year or two of my own age. The revelation of this truth both intrigued me and sat me on my heels to reflect. There is no doubt that the 60’s and 70’s shook things up in every way: broken trust in the government, gender role disparity, spiritual unrest, distrust of any authority, expansion of consciousness through new spirituality and/or drugs, change in sexual morality, racial blending, etc. Then the 80’s came along with AIDS and the extreme trauma of losing so many so fast, so young…another war.
I have heard countless stories from these men of being raised in a confusing web where all these distorting factors were present. They were left to sort out the carnage and shrapnel of the ten or twenty years before their birth, usually without knowing much, if any of the history that came before it and definitely without any support for trying to make sense of it.
Now, stuck in cellblocks with disproportionate sentences for offenses judged without this societal reflection, where does the responsibility lie? Who among our political leaders can hold compassion first and history second to say “well, what options have we given them for a different outcome than prison? The truth of “hurt people, hurt people” is the First Noble Truth of prison.
I was immediately stunned, sickened and at the same time driven to action to serve these men and quite likely women of my generation who have fallen from sight. Prison makes people invisible. Will others in the free world ever recognize that so many of our own generation have been “sent to their rooms” for life, yes, for committing tragic mistakes, and yes, for being forced to make sense of our shared mixed-up, crazy, upside down immediate history, with no help at all?
How can we give peace a chance without including our invisible brother and sisters in the big circle?