“Man down, one forty-seven! Man down!”
My neighbor shouted out my cell number, breaking the silence, past midnight. Awakened, other prisoners joined in. I had asked my neighbor to get the guards, because my leg was killing me—I felt like it was about to explode.
“Man down! Man down!” rang up and down the tier, and echoed around in circles. This is what you call out when someone is in big trouble. Without prisoners calling out to the guards, a man could be dead by morning. Everyone knows they might need the same help some day, and everyone is glad it’s not them in trouble. But it was me this time—all those voices were calling out for me.
That morning I had gone to a hospital in San Francisco as an outpatient, for minor surgery on my knee, and in a few hours I was back in my cell. But something had gone wrong, and by night, my knee was swollen up to the hip.
“Man down! Man down!” resounded through the block.
The guards came to see who needed help. They had to go through all the “What-if’s” before they opened a cell after midnight. What if it’s an escape plan?
The pain was unbearable. The minutes until they opened my cell door were hours. At last, they lifted me into a wheelchair and rolled me out of the housing block and into the night. The night sky opened up, a sky that no gun rail or tower lights could defy. It was a whole different world out there. Night was night. There’s a wind that comes to the night sky that’s different from anything else.
My knee was hurting bad, but now I felt another pain—realizing I hadn’t seen this sky of night for over thirty years. This night-sky pain hurt worse. See, everybody goes out at night—even people who meditate in caves for years step out of their caves at night to look at the sky, don’t they? But I’d lost the whole idea of being out at night. Now, just two hundred yards from my cell, I was “out at night.” I was the only inmate out there, on the upper yard. Three ordinary little words: “Out at night!” What in hell is that? I felt both fear and joy.
I could have died in my cell without feeling the night wind. But now, I will never lose it. I was rolled into the San Quentin hospital clinic and lifted onto a bed. Scissors hurried to remove my sweatshirt and pants, like in the movies. I heard a chatter of voices, and everything became a blur. They looked at my knee and decided to send me back to the hospital right away. I’m grateful for that.
When they put me in an ambulance, I knew it was serious. I had become a Buddhist in San Quentin, and I had practiced various death meditations, but these once-familiar practices didn’t help me now. Buddha didn’t check in on me—at least I didn’t think of him. Strapped onto a gurney inside the tiny ambulance space, I turned my head to left and right as far as I could, to look for Life and Death, in this place where people lived or died. There was a strong disinfectant smell, and I thought maybe they had just wiped the place down from a dead person.
How would it feel to die in the ambulance? I thought of prisoners I knew who had died of fatal illnesses, I thought of stabbed friends, of suicides, maybe even executions. Had their bodies been moved out at night in an ambulance like this? I also thought of the survivors whose lives had been saved by riding this way, in an ambulance.
At the hospital, my feet were shackled to the bed rails because I was a prisoner. They gave me an IV loaded with antibiotics and painkilling drugs—so many drugs I began to hallucinate. Then I heard the people around me plotting to kill me. They were going to do it here at the hospital instead of in the death chamber, and that was why the leg shackles, I thought. Everyone was in on it, from the doctors and nurses and guards to the janitor—even though he was black, I was sure he was not on my side. The IV and even the water in my cup were part of the plan. I had to keep an eye on everyone, especially the janitor and the way he held his broom, or I’d never leave this hospital alive.
After they treated me at the outside hospital, they wanted to take me to the prison hospital for observation. Not gonna happen! I pretended I was A-OK and refused to go. I wasn’t going to let them kill me there, either! So they took me back to my cell.
It was only after my “escape” from certain death in the hospital that my hallucinations began to subside, and my senses returned to me. When I was wheel-chaired back inside my cell I was amazed how it expanded. I remember unrolling the thin mattress on the floor and lying on my back, resting my knee. I just lay there and breathed in gratitude. I sucked the air in. And with every outbreath I let go of some more bad feelings. I thought: “Damn! What was that all about?” or, “That was some way-out shit happening!” And the weirdest of all was that it was only when I was back in my cell that I finally felt like I had enough space—space for my mind to count my blessings, space to meditate, to heal, to be alive. I saw how large my cell was in relation to the ambulance and how tiny compared to the night sky. I had been closed in by fear in both those places, and now I finally came to myself. Every place in life is a good place to be at peace.
I can’t hold myself up as a Buddhist who doesn’t trip out. That night I experienced what it was like to be in the prison of fear. This is the state of mind a lot of people live in twenty-four hours a day. I thought about the prisoners who stop eating because they believe the prison food is poisoned. I imagined making a trade with a man who lived in constant fear; if in the mere couple of hours I suffered, I could have given that same short space of time to someone to be completely free from fear, to be with his family that way, or to catch a glimpse of the night sky and to appreciate all its dimensions. What would that do for him? Lying on my back in a cell, on a thin mattress, I wondered: where is the prison I was so entrapped in just a few hours ago?
I’ve grown from that experience; I know it can happen to me. I talked to a friend about it and he said, “Yes, it can sweep under you and sweep you away, just like that!” He said, “Man, whatever you do, don’t ever stop counting your blessings. Those things, your blessings, are all around.”
“And up above, too,” I added, thinking of that vast night sky.
“What? You turned Christian on me?!?”
“No,” I said, “but get a load of what I saw.” And we sat outside on the yard and talked the whole morning.