She was told it would be in her best interest if she quit while she was ahead. She replied but I am behind that is why I must keep going. Her father looked at her and realized she was serious. This is who Maya is. She is born to be ahead and if she is not ahead she is not quitting before she is ahead. She is competitive to the nth degree. She hates losing and will give it her all even when defeat is obvious. Defeat today is preparation for victory tomorrow. She enjoys her body and handles herself like Jill the Jock. She enjoys competing with the boys in ultimate Frisbee because they are tougher competition. The boys love her infectious enthusiasm and her lithe body but they do not enjoy losing to her.
She is an adventurer. Both in China and New York she would hit the streets at full tilt rushing ahead even though she did not know where we were going. Destinations be damned we were going to have an adventure. There is a world to be seen and she is behind and must catch up. Part of being an adventure gal she is also a stimulus junkie. Always wanting to be on the run. She enjoys life to the fullest. Her laugh is a love hate thing. You love the infectious enthusiasm in the laugh but at full throttle it is ear piercing and all consuming. When she is in this mode expect to miss the next line or two of the movie or conversation you are in.
She is very social. When we returned to China to adopt her sister. Our group of adopting families numbering over twenty would each morning gather with other hotel guests in the elegant and huge dining room. Maya would visit every table of our group saying good morning and asking how their newly adopted child was doing. Twenty minutes later she would join us for breakfast.
She is very bright if not sometimes too concrete in her thinking. They call them Mayaism things she says either before she thinks or takes a little too literal. The first Mayaism came when we were on a rural road and passed the local mail carrier and she wondered aloud how they could possibly be delivering the mail. In her head they did not stop at each mail box but as they drove down the road without stopping they opened the mailbox and threw the mail in the mail boxes closed the mailbox without ever slowing down. How else could they do it she ask.
She works hard. Not many are smarter than she but she will catch up by hard work if she is behind. She is the great organizer. If it’s organizing an event or her studies she has a plan. Once her teacher who had only started teaching that year was proud when she found online the best organized notes for their chemistry class from a study site. Maya sheepishly raised her hands and said they are my notes. The teacher a little embarrassed said sheepishly in return, ‘Yea, that would make sense.’
She is the goddess of DIYs. When she “slows” down she is found crafting. Papercutting, origami, knitting, weaving you name it is her domain. She loves to cook and bake. All of these things make her popular with her family, friends, and sometimes just passer-byers are the beneficiaries of her creations.
She likes to have her way. And if you have a problem with that you first need to dodge the steam engine Maya at full throttle coming at you. She is polite but persistent in her resistance. When she slows down or you make her realize she is behind she will give way. But you always see after the giving way the planning ahead she is doing not to lose this argument again.
And now this bundle of steam is full throttle heading out in to the world. She walks fast ahead even though she might not know where she is going. She and those with her will enjoy the adventure and the sound of her laughter. She may fall behind but know she is working hard and planning to outpace you. After all, it is not in her best interest to quit while she is ahead.
We were two volunteers at a commune founded in the 1940’s in rural southwest Georgia called Koinonia. It was a legendary place where Habitat for Humanity had its beginnings and an off Broadway musical based on an interpretation of the bible of the founder, Clarence Jordan. His name was John Cole Vodicka. He was a journalist and prison reform and anti-death penalty advocate. He was an undiscovered legend. In the Dead Man Walking book (later made into a movie starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon) by Sr. Helen Prejean he is the unnamed person who first involved her in visiting Death Row.
I was leaving my work and ministry in the inner-city of Louisville, Ky with the homeless and mentally ill and he was leaving a hospitality house for family and friends of the women prisoners in a West Virginia prison. Of all the volunteers in that group we had a natural affinity. He had been working in prison reform and against the death penalty for most of his adult life.
He was hard core. He arranged for the downtown Americus protest on Good Friday to remind people that their Savior had been crucified in an unjust death penalty case. He was the one who we held a silent protest at the biggest event in Sumter County the annual Andersonville July 4th Celebration. People were dressed in Confederate uniforms and hoop skirts. It was about as Dixie of an affair you could get. But he felt it was good to be there as a silent witness holding our signs for the conservative Congressman who was to give his patriotic speech. He was also the one that started several of us visiting different individuals who may be future death penalty cases in the surrounding jails. Even in rural south Georgia he was workng how to change the system.
He and I would visit Joseph who was accused of murdering two individuals in a very violent way. Now I had worked with mentally challenged but not like Joseph. He was a decent artist and personable. But I noticed whenever a female guard or visitor passed he would stare and then his eyes would roll back in his head. I would try to distract him from this habit but it was too reflexive. When one heard his story you knew that his childhood had contributed to his current mental state. His mother’s punishment as a toddler was to turn on an electric eye of the stove and set his naked body down on it. He literally had scars of the coils from the electric stove on his butt. He was beaten often and severely by his mother’s various lovers. We would never know if things had been different if his sanity would have been different. The idea was for me to become his advocate especially if he was ever given the death penalty. This never happen for various reasons.
But Joseph enjoyed our visit and the one or two I did by myself. Things got eerie twice. The sheriff had been in the local paper the day before my visit because they head found three women’s bodies buried in a field who had been mutilated. This was similar to the two women Joseph had killed. When I arrived he was anxious and was asking me all sorts of questions about the investigation of the murders. I only knew what was in the paper but he seemed to know more about the murders than anyone else. In the end he shrugged his shoulders and said they are not looking in the right places so they will never find the murderer. They never found the murderer.
The other time was when Joseph had somehow discovered the name and address of John’s home and wife. He started writing her poetry and drawing elaborate pictures of and for her. We had no clue how he learned this information. He presented as an uneducated and close to mentally challenged person. But sometimes he seemed to be playing with us on a level we did not realize. It was these two experiences that made John and I both know that he was someone that should spend his life behind bars unless some miraculous event occurred.
John and I would have several conversations where he would teach me about his experience with Death Row and the Death Penalty. As a journalist he had written articles about Attica and other major prison events. He knew everyone in the field but seemed to have chosen to work in the shadows. After he left Koinonia he started the Prison and Jail Project in the surrounding area. He would visit court cases and monitor the judges and the process. He had at least two judges dismissed for their overt racism demonstrated in their language and by their attitudes toward the black defendants. He was threatened physically but he persisted. He held annual marches from one county jail to the next. I participated in the first one my reward were chiggers and blisters but later the march became quite the event with people from all over the United States participating. He would also help start local citizens organizations to monitor the local court systems. To say the least he was not a friend of the court. But he was a friend of the Peace and Justice Movement who gave him several awards for his work.
John had three sons. One of which was demon possessed. He would victimize his older and younger siblings by biting and swinging bats at them. His running joke was that this son was why he was involved in Death Row work to prepare himself for the inevitable visits to this wayward son. It should be noted none of his children who are grown now ever went to jail.
So our children played together, we talked, we worked and I was happy to call him a friend. But the times do change. We both left Koinonia to continue our work and life’s journey. We occasionally would visit each other but eventually life and distance overcame what friendship we had. He was a mooring in my life at a time when I questioned what was the use of the struggle for justice and peace ? These many years later I think of my time at Koinonia and remember him and the place. It is places and people like Koinonia and John that keep us grounded to the core of our being.
I never quite understood why he chose to come live with us at Phoenix Place, a group home for Persons Living With AIDS. It was not that he was not HIV positive but he was culturally challenged by everything and everyone who lived there. He was a member of a bike gang, he claimed he was not gay, he was confused by the transgender residents, and he did not accept rules. But here he was living with us. He came to us via motorcycle with two presumably other members of his biker gang. They would not come inside so I had to go outside to meet them. The two biker friends parted as soon as it was clear he would be able to stay. They gave Jesse manly biker hugs and left. He told me he did not want to room with anybody who was gay or black. I told him he would have to. He asked if I thought he was a child when I told him about curfew. I said no but it helps to keep the chaos down and if the occasion came up he could ask for permission to stay out. He never asked.
Jesse would try to intimidate the others and me to get what he wanted. But the transgender residents set him straight. He would actually become best friends with Larry, one of our transgender residents, who would always coo about having such a masculine resident whenever he wanted something from Jesse.
Jesse, while not a model resident, managed to stay longer than I ever thought he could make it. But when he decided to leave it was one of the most surreal moments in my time at Phoenix Place. Larry had moved out which had resulted in Jesse becoming very morose but he made sure to tell everyone he was not gay. But on two occasions he had become drunk and had made threatening remarks to other residents. We had sent him to counseling and treatment, which only made him more menacing. He started demanding things from residents ‘Cook my breakfast’ and ‘Go to the store for me’.
I told him to stop which only led to him making sure the residents did not complain through threats. I told him on more than one occasion he would be asked to leave if he did not stop. He scoffed at me looking at me as if I could make him leave. I knew his time was coming to a close with us.
One night I popped in; everyone was out except for him. I was in the living room when who should turn the corner but Jesse with bottle in hand. Seeing me he instantly hid the bottle lamely behind his back. I told him to give me the bottle and he said no. He was close to drunk. I told him I would have to evict him if he did not give me the bottle and enter an in-house treatment center. He said no. And then he did something strange. He asked me if they treated HIV in the local jail. I said that they were now under federal guidelines to and that I had known several folks who had received treatment. I asked, “But what has this got to do with anything.” He looked at me and declared, “I refused to leave and I am not doing anything you say.” I looked at him. This conversation was quite civil considering he was openly breaking the rules and defying my authority. “Look you do not want to do anything you may later regret,” I said. He looked me straight in the eye and said “You are going to have to throw me out physically.” Yet even this remark was said with some decorum bewildering me a bit. I reminded him that I, as a policy, do not lay hands on the residents but what I would do was call the police to remove him. He said, “Well you better start calling.” Now most residents were scared of the police and would at this point leave or comply. He looked at me again, “Nothing personal but you need to call the police.” I reluctantly picked up the nearby phone and placed the call.
Now the police did not like coming to Phoenix Place. The only reason we could summarize was that they were Homophobic and AIDS-phobic. I did not like calling them because you never knew what kind of attitude or action they would bring. Jesse and I talked while we waited. He was thankful for everything we had done for him but he was angry he told me and the police better come. Forty-five minutes later the police had not come. Jesse was restless and I called again and told them of my dilemma and they said they would be right there. Jesse was now pacing and I was afraid I was going to have to lay hands on a resident. Other residents came home and he told them to go to their rooms because he was about to tear the place down. I looked at them, rolled my eyes, and said the police were coming and there was nothing to worry about. Jesse took offense at this and said he had a long criminal record and was a force to be reckoned with. I nodded. He picked up a vase to smash it. I gave him my menacing tone and look, and told him not to do that. He said I do not want to hurt you, I like you. I said likewise and he offered me a handshake.
The police had not come and Jesse demanded I make a third call. I did but in the middle of it he jerked the phone from my hand and yelled He yelled into the phone I am going to bust this place up and hurt someone if they did not get here in a hurry. I looked at him askance because I was worried that he may have come on too strong and the police once they arrived were going to bust his head. He handed me back the phone. I said I think you need to get someone here quickly. He was shouting in the background.
Five minutes later the police arrived. I met them at the door and said I think he will go with you peacefully. I did this to try to co-opt any major pain they had in mind for him. Turns out they did not want him in their car (AIDS phobia as I previously said). Instead they spent a total of ten minutes trying to convince him to calm down and stay with me. I told them that was not an option. They spent five minutes trying to convince me to do this. All this time the officers had kept their distance from him. Finally, Jesse said you cannot leave me with him, I will hurt him bad, and he started name-calling me and the officers and concluded with turning around with his hands in a position to be handcuffed and said, “So help me god, if you do not handcuff me right now I will destroy this place and you.” The officers looked at each other and knew he needed to leave.
Now it is important to mention that one officer was white and the other was black. The white officer looked at the black officer and said you handcuff him. The black officer looked at him the hell with that and said it is your turn. Obviously, there was a preordained way they had of doing this.
It was clearly the white officer’s time to handcuff and the black officer said I will report you if he did not do it. Meanwhile Jesse was screaming handcuff me, and started kicking the walls and generally getting out of control. I looked at them both in total disbelief. The white officer let out some expletives and handcuffed and frisked Jesse. He handed him to the black officer and then went straight to the kitchen sink and began to obsessively wash his hands for the next five minutes.
I took the chance to tell the officer he had no fears of contracting the disease from casual contact and gave him the bodily fluid to bodily fluid contact spill. He looked at me and said I am from New York and I know all about AIDS. The black officer rolled his eyes. The white officer explained to me that he was not prejudiced because, as previously stated, he was from New York. I handed the black officer my business card and said I would be pleased to do HIV|AIDS education for the station if they wanted me to. The white officer said I will not have to take it because, you guessed it, he was from New York.
The officers tried one more time to convince Jesse to just go leave so they did not have to arrest him. Jesse looked at me and said “Thanks for taking me in” I was cool.” The officers took him away. I looked at the clock; it had been three hours since I made my first call to the police.
I never heard again from Jesse. Why did he act in such a way maybe it was that he wanted to tell his biker friends that he was forcefully removed from the house by the police or he wanted to be in jail a place he might have felt more comfortable. I knew he appreciated what we had done for him but he more than likely wanted to live his life on the back of his Harley and not in a group home. Thankfully, I never had to lay hands on a resident unless it was in an act of care. As for the officers I never saw them again. But I did breathe more easily knowing that we had some of New York’s finest at our local precinct.