Spotlight on Bayview

img_2862smallI got a call from NYWC workshop leader Jaclyn Perlmutter about an hour before I was set to visit her writing workshop. She’d called to remind about the dress code at Bayview Correctional Facility, where Jaclyn has been leading a NYWC workshop since July 2009. Because the facility wants to create a somewhat formal atmosphere for visitors, there are no open toe shoes, spaghetti strap tanks, overly revealing clothing, green attire (inmates wear green), or blue jeans allowed. I was, naturally, wearing jeans. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’ll bring you a pair of pants.”

Jaclyn met me outside Bayview, a medium security women’s correctional facility across the street from the Chelsea Piers, with a very small pair of charcoal grey corduroys. The security procedure to get inside the prison made a trip through JFK look like a walk in the park. After checking-in my cell phone, we were buzzed into a room with lockers where we were wanded down and searched before being buzzed through more security doors and escorted up a flight of stairs. There I was shown a bathroom where I changed my pants, and was escorted back downstairs to the lockers to stow the jeans. Once back upstairs we signed in again at a different desk before being taken in an elevator to the workshop. By this point I was feeling sufficiently anxious.

The corduroys didn’t exactly fit. Thankfully, I could zip the pants, but I’ve got a good four inches on Jaclyn, and they hit me at least two inches above my ankle, showing off my brilliant white socks from beneath my maroon clogs. If the women in the writing workshop noticed my odd high water fashion, they were gracious enough to not say anything.

There were seven women present that night, gathered around four faux wooden tables pushed into a square. They spanned several decades and crossed racial lines. They wore beige and black work boots, white sneakers and pink shoe laces. They had dread locks, upswept buns, hoop earrings, no earrings, tattoos, golden crosses on chains, and lip gloss. When they sat down to write, the only sounds that could be heard were the scribble of pens across composition books (spiral notebooks prohibited) and the faint hum of an air ventilation system that sounded vaguely like a refrigerator.

The mood was surprising light. Jaclyn first prompted us to imagine the world one hundred years from now. While my imagination painted a rather bleak picture of the future, I was surprised when it was time to share what we’d written, that without exception, the women’s writing was exceedingly optimistic. The women wrote about pollution free futures filled with blue skies; our world’s problems solved. They wrote about robots, hair clips, and Diet Pepsi. They spoke of their families on the outside, their children and grandchildren. If not for the forest green prison uniforms each woman wore, for most of the evening it seemed like we could have been anywhere.

But there were reminders. During a short break one woman said to another, evidently talented visual artist in the group,  “I’m still waiting for you to draw my portrait.”

She responded with an exasperated smile, “We’ll, we’ve got time! I’m not going anywhere.”

Later, the air changed more dramatically when a workshop member shared a piece of writing in response to a different prompt. It was a melancholy poem about a room, but was a metaphor for the prison. At one point the narrator says to the room, you  “swallow all my happiness.” Clearly the words resonated with the other writers, who eagerly jumped in, at times talking over each other, with responses that were thoughtful and clear. And when it was time to go there was a sense of gratitude. The women rushed off to catch some fresh air on the enclosed rooftop that served as their only outdoor space, which closed for the evening five minutes after the workshop ended. But through the scurrying, I sensed their time together was unique, and that the women were glad they used some of their free time to gather and write together.

It was a lot easier to leave the prison than it had been to get in. I was happy to be  back in my own clothes on 11th Ave., looking over the Hudson at sunset. But I couldn’t help but think of the seven women I’d recently met, who could not just walk out the front door as I had. They were still inside, in their government issue prison uniforms.  I hoped that during their time in the writing workshop they were able to forget about their surroundings, and for at least two hours each week could enter another kind of room, one where they were, first and foremost, writers.

* * *

Save a Heart

by Nakia Whitmire

Here I am sitting here on a beautiful Sunday morning.  Birds are singing, sun is shining so bright.  Yes this is what I’m talking about, me time, no saving lovers, no mending broken hearts.  Just me, sitting on my patio in my heart silk boxers, reading the paper.

Let me see what I want to do today for “me time.”  Oh yes, I do have to wash my outfit, you know, my job can get dirty, especially when I am mending broken hearts.  Ring ring (telephone is ringing), ring ring.  “Hello,” I answer.

“Hey, Hearts, what’s going on, didn’t expect you to answer.  I was going to leave a message.”  This is my sister.  I’ve saved her heart a couple of times.  Her name is Spade.

“Yeah well don’t you think I need a day off from saving broken hearts,” I ask her matter-of-factly.

“Of course, of course, it’s just that you know, there’s always a broken heart somewhere to be saved.”

“I know, I know, I just hope not today.  I hope that everyone that’s in love stays in love for a while so I can have more me days.”

Spade cuts in.  “Well, speaking of me days, I have someone for you to meet.  So when you finish doing you, come over.”

“Okay.”  I hang up and just think about the time ahead.

I grab a shower, gel my hair, brush my teeth, and throw on some comfy clothes.  I walk to the basement and start the laundry.  Then I run upstairs and start cleaning the house.  By the time I finish all the house chores it’s 3:45pm and I’m tired, so I kick my feet up and chill.  My clock reads 3:55pm, I think to myself where did the seconds go.  I get up right quick and grab a beer.  Just as I’m about to lay down, my super heart cell rings.  Love on the line, love’s on the line.  Damn, just when I thought this was my day.

“Save a heart here.”

“Oh I was just playing, just wanted to see if you’ll answer.”  It’s my crazy sis Spade playing.

“Listen, I’m out, can’t you see I’m chilling,” I ask her.

“Okay okay, I’ll see you around 8:30, okay?”

“Okay,” I answer, then hang up. Back to doing me.

Love is on the line, love on the line. I’m not paying that any attention, wait I can’t ignore it because love is really on the line. Somebody needs me. Somebody is getting their heart broken, okay okay. “Save a heart is here,” I answer.

“Hi, Save a heart, it’s me, Kiki, my heart is broken, I need you.”

“Save a heart is on the way.” Another heart to save. Love is on the line.