July 7, 2011
Thursday, 3:30 p.m.
Letter #181: Making the Big Bucks
I decided to just stay here in Arizona for the Independence Day holidays, rather than plan an exotic vacation. It would take way too much effort, and the travel agencies that advertise “Escape to the Beautiful Bahamas” or “Enjoy a French Getaway” are really frauds who never actually have a plan for escaping or getting away. False advertising! And Arizona certainly is spectacular this time of year. With record-breaking heat nearly every day (up to 118ºF), record-breaking wildfires (over 400,000 acres, or 650 sq. miles, roughly equal in size to a large black spot in Arizona), and epic dust storms rivaling the most severe in Africa (nearly a mile high, 100 miles wide, traveling 70 miles per hour dust cloud), who would want to leave their beautiful, air-conditioned concrete bunker I call home?
I did venture out to yard on July 4th, where we had a basketball free-throw shooting contest. Surprisingly, my first-round four of ten was enough to put me in the next round, where I shot a seven of ten, then finished my shocking win with a final round of six of ten. For such a decidedly mediocre performance (17 of 30?!?) I won a couple of sodas and candies, which I’m trading for 20 oranges with a guy on a kosher diet who gets an orange each day.
The month of June with the three-week lockdown, gave me time to make grandiose plans for my life, beginning July 1. I’m on an aggressive schedule and am sticking to it (so far!) from morning to evening. Gratefully, the staff here listened to my request and did not put me in vocational training (computers, welding, horticulture), as those classes would eat up a large portion of each day. Besides, I’m not interested in welding or horticulture, and my soon-to-be obsolete knowledge of computers is already more than what is taught here.
Also, I wasn’t given a “full-time” job—such as kitchen, or clerical, etc.—but a simple in-pod job: I clean banister rails. They pay me for 40 hours of rail cleaning every week, along with five other guys in my pod. You would think we have rails the length of Amtrak’s mainline, but we have just a two-rail bannister along the top floor of 30 cells, plus two staircases. The daily toll: 10 minutes of my time. Paid at my $0.08 (that’s eight cents) an hour, I make, let’s see … $0.64 a day. Of course, on future résumés, my job history will note: Rail Maintenance/Chemical Technician.
I was speaking with a guy yesterday about how blessed we are that it is so calm and mellow here, with little-to-no “drama.” No sooner had those very words left my mouth, than the two guys seated at the adjacent table in our dayroom began fighting. I had to move out of their way so I wouldn’t get hit. Everyone just stood or sat around and watched it all happen. A few lumps and tumbles later, and the two guys were actually hugging it out (Hugs, not Drugs!) and playfully pushing each other, before calmly resuming their card game. That was weird.
Every day, when they let us out for lunch and dinner, we have to wait around in our dayroom for 30 minutes to an hour. Finding a way to make that time meaningful—and not a waste—was a top priority to me. However, I’ve found that it isn’t wise to make too many commitments before all of the details of my schedule emerge.
So, for at least this past week, every lunch and dinner release I’ve led an acapella quartet practice in the dayroom. I worked with three guys with little-to-no vocal training or experience, and we prepared a barbershop-style arrangement to “America the Beautiful.” It was grueling. Our lead singer sounds like a braying farm animal, and our bass—a godly man who is a great Bible teacher—is more doctrinally sound than vocally so.
With mere days to prepare for our Wednesday chapel service, I had to be content with “good enough,” and it was certainly well-received by the men in our crowded chapel. I led several patriotic songs and familiar worship songs, and it appears I may be leading a choir soon, Lord willing. So, the quartet in the dayroom may change a bit, as I now have several guys who need me to teach them music.
I requested and received permission for our entire unit (three 120-man pods) to use the small multi-purpose room off the unit’s entry hall for group Bible Studies. I passed around a sign-up sheet and got 50 guys who want to join. We’ll get to use the room on Sundays from one to three p.m. for up to 25 men, Spanish-speaking, and again from five to eight p.m. for up to 25 men, English-speaking. It’s a start, and a nice addition to our Wednesday services and twice-weekly in-pod studies.
Thank you for supporting me in prayer. My simple life is made meaningful by the power of God through your prayers.