What can you get for two bucks these days?
Not much, I think. Well, I used to think that. The coffee I like is more than two bucks, except for the cup of Americano when I’m trying to cut back on calories, but not the taste and caffeine of a dark roast. And, two bucks for a tip for lunch is pretty much the norm. The Sunday paper is two bucks now, at the grocery store. But, even the two buck Chuck wine at Trader Joe’s is really a buck or two more now for a bottle of cheap red. The good stuff in life usually costs a lot more.
Today, I was visiting my buddy at the youth prison. He was telling me of one of the inmates, I’ll call him Joe. It seems Joe hasn’t gotten a visit from family for the last four years, and hasn’t seen his son for all that time. The son’s birthday is coming up and he wants to send his son a photo of himself. And, the son is old enough now that he probably is a little curious about who dad is. Joe wants to let his son know that he cares about him, and wants him to remember who he is. A photo is probably the least of what a dad can send his son on a birthday.
Pretty tame stuff, you’d think. Even though this is prison and every guy here is a sex offender, it seems like pretty common sense, decent stuff. People just trying to be people, and live decent lives.
And, Joe wanted to send his mom a photo, too, just to say hi, and let her know he cares about her, and is really a part of the family. Most moms I know are really proud to show off the photos of their kids, not to mention grandkids.
But, the photos cost two bucks in prison. I’ve spent that, a couple of times, so the guy I’m mentoring can have a picture of me and him together. And, I keep those photos around, too, on the mantel, with all the other family pictures. He’s part of the family now, and a photo on the mantel just is a nice way of saying that. When people see his picture, I brag about him, and let them know I’m proud of the guy. He does that, too, with his bunk mates in his unit. I’m part of the normal part of his life.
Joe doesn’t have any money, though. He makes a big 25 cents an hour working in the canteen at the prison, but he spends all of that to help new inmates when they first arrive, buying them a few necessities, and a few snacks, making them feel welcome. At the end of the month, he’s broke, and won’t ever save up any of his wages to buy something nice for himself. I’m sure there’s some pretty sad reasons for all of that.
I guess other inmates pick on him a bit, because he doesn’t quite fit in and keeps to himself. And, I can see some pretty deep pain in his eyes, even though we’ve never talked, beyond taking orders for snacks and coffee at the canteen.
My buddy asks me if I could spare two bucks for Joe today. It would be a nice thing. Yeah, and I think I could afford that, and spend money so a dad can send his son a picture of himself for the son’s birthday.
So, we go to the canteen, right at closing time, and I ask Joe what he needs to get the pictures taken.
“Oh, nothing. I’m fine, sir.”
Yeah, right. You’re not fine and I’m already digging out the two bucks from my wallet so Joe can get a few photos taken, and send them off to his son and his mom.
Joe looks down at the ground, still mumbling that he’s fine and doesn’t need anything, including a couple of bucks from a guy who shows up on visiting days for a couple of hours, and occasionally buys sodas for all of the canteen crew.
The rest of the room falls silent, his co workers and the guard obviously knowing the story about Joe and his money and him wanting to connect with his son.
I put my two bucks down on the counter, and the silence deepens. I glance at a big burly guy, a guy who looks like he ought to be a lineman on some college football team, and I see a tear roll down his cheek. Joe is looking down at the floor, and I don’t dare say anything more to him, as he’d probably burst into tears. And, if he started, the whole room would be crying.
My buddy and I slip out the door, not saying a word, and not daring to look at each other. We’ve done something good here today, and nothing we could say now would make it any better.
Joe will get his picture taken today, and will get something mailed off to his son and his mom this week. He’ll feel good about himself, for reaching out to his family and letting them know he cares.
And, I’ll keep knowing that I’ve spent the best two bucks I’ve spent in a long, long time. I know now what two bucks can buy these days.
Neal Lemery 9/25/2011