443| What Justin Taught Me

July 10, 2016
Sunday, 9:00 p.m.
Letter #443: What Justin Taught Me


Dear Family,

As the days passed by quickly leading up to the Fourth of July Concert here at the prison, I wasn’t sure what I’d do as a performance. I’d signed up as an optional accompanist, but that didn’t work out so well for me.

The first group I was in disbanded without notifying their pianist. The second band, performing a mariachi song, decided they didn’t need the accordion sound I was so interestingly adding to their musical number, and the third performer was a lone opera singer wanna-be (aren’t we all, though?).

The opera guy was so unbelievably sure of himself …“My voice is very unique. Like, nobody here has a voice like mine”… and yet was so unbelievably horrible at singing. He has the distinction of being the worst singer in contrast to his personal assessment of anyone I’ve ever met. At the last moment, he pulled out of the concert when he caught wind of several guys planning to boo him.

With nothing left to do in the concert, I decided to give my buddy, Justin, an opportunity to perform for the first time. His skill? “Beat box,” that is, mouth noises, a form of vocal percussion. I practiced with him at my bunk as I pretended to play keyboard on my heavy gray wool blanket. We chose “God Bless the Broken Road,” spending two hours getting Justin comfortable with the arrangement. Knowing how unstable Justin had proved to be thus far in our friendship, I consciously prepared myself for the possibility of him quitting on me. I figured if/when that happened, I’d just pull out of the concert.

Last Sunday evening, July 3, the stage was set for the big concert. Set up on B-Yard’s basketball court, the guys from A-Yard gathered just 30 feet away behind two razor-wire fences while the guys from B-Yard gathered a healthy distance in front of the speakers. Though small, the prison’s sound system was powerful enough that even the inmates at the prison next door gathered on their yard to enjoy the concert.

To begin, several guys performed rap songs. To say that I am not a huge rap fan is an understatement of epic proportions. However, most of you should recall that I actually formed and performed in a rap band while heading up the music program in La Palma. Why? Because the rap being performed by my friend, Donald, was “Conscious Rap,” with no profanity and a wholesome message. The stuff coming out of the speakers at this concert, however, were some of the vilest words I’ve ever heard, never mind the fact that they were being broadcast with women staff members present. I was shocked, hoping the foul language wouldn’t prove to be a problem in the future as staff determines the future of the music program here.

Justin and I waited patiently for our turn to go on stage, and I went over a few scripted lines with him that we could say ahead of time to make the audience laugh. I suggested that he tease me in front of the crowd, saying he’d wanted to call our group “The Skittles,” and he agreed.

We were up next to last, and while Justin struggled to get the microphone set up, I ad-libbed about him: “Justin here goes home in four days, after having served a grueling six months in prison. I mean, six months? I’ve spent more than six months on the toilet in prison. Six months? You’ll get home before your momma even gets the letter from you tellin’ her you’re in prison!”

Everyone was howling with laughter, and Justin, instead of seeing it as a good thing, lost his cool. Grabbing the mic from me, he said, “Yeah, well, he wouldn’t let me call us ‘The Skittles!’ ”

Not realizing he was now using the line we’d rehearsed as a JAB at me, I played along, feigning as if I was embarrassed: “Yeah, so we stuck with Justin and the Timberlakes.”

With that, I started playing the intro, but Justin didn’t have his mic set exactly the way he wanted, so he didn’t join in. I looped back to pick him up, and still he didn’t start his mouth-generated drum beat. I played a little interlude while hissing at Justin, away from my mic: “Justin! Just start!”

Guys started to boo, which is exciting, since it was a first for me.  🙂  At that, Justin dropped his microphone and stormed off the stage, to lots more boos. Stuck with a song already playing, I had to do what I hadn’t wanted to do all along: sing a solo.

It took a while for Justin to calm down, and he eventually apologized for his poor reaction. I assured him once again how much I care about him, and my motivation has always been to benefit his life in any way I can. He thanked me and had only one more major blow-up where he threatened to fight me before he left, so that was good.

The most profound thing I learned from Justin? The value of family and friends. Just nine days before he left, we were discussing the time we had left, me with seven years to go. He told me how much easier life is for me because of all the incredible people I have in my life.

I’d shown him the birthday card from my parents, for example. He looked up, tears in his eyes, telling me he’d never been told such encouraging things by anyone in his family. He’d see that nearly every day I was writing and receiving letters from sweet, godly friends. Summing it up, he said: “You really do have it better than me. I have no one. If I could, I’d switch places with you in a heartbeat, as long as I get to have your family and friends.”

Nine days vs. seven years.

I stopped, pondering it. Rather than dismiss it as a crazy man’s notion, I wondered if I would sign such a deal if at that moment all the paperwork were laid before us. In one fell swoop, I’d gain my freedom. I could do whatever I wanted … but with whom? In one fell swoop, I’d lose everything, everyone I hold dear. I could think of only two friends I wouldn’t mind losing.  🙂  The rest? All of you?

“Nope!” he told me, “you couldn’t do it, could you?”

“No,” I said, “because I couldn’t stand having you as a friend.” Ahh, how we laughed!