Coffee and No Cigarettes - For Sundiata
By Walidah Imarisha
You wake up at 5:30 in the morning
the sky sucked clean of stars .
After a burst of cold then lukewarm shower
you drag your body into clothes,
walk out of the door,
andget into a borrowed car,
try to get used to the unfamiliarbuttons
and the many quirks of the 19 year old automobile.
You drive two and a half hours
singing at the top of your lungs
to the tapes (no cd player) you used to listen to in high school.
The sun begins to poke its head out.
You near White Deer, PA
sipping on your gas station
french vanilla cappucino
squirted out from a machine
at 6:45 am at the Hickory Run Plaza rest stop.
You turn off of 1-80 W onto 15 N
at the exit that says
Snake Reptile House.
Up the hill,
meticulously adhering to the speed limit
because there are always state troopers out.
You turn left at the wood carved sign that says
United States Penitentiary Allenwood.
The speed limit is posted at 35 mph; you drive 20.
You pass the minimum security buildings,
and the medium security turn off.
You drive till the road ends,
and park in the maximum security
visiting parking lot,
the farthest possible spot from the door.
You walk into the sterilized antiseptic
sign into the book
make sure you remember your license plate number
or they will make you go out to the car.
Write who you are visiting:
slave names only
it does not matter how many decades someone has been called
only slave names permitted here.
Check your keys into a locker
take off a necklace, watch and two rings.
Double check you didn’t wear an underwire bra.
Your shoes will probably go off
because you did not know there was metal in them.
Get your hand swabbed for a drug test
periodic and supposedly random.
The test came up positive
for a 78 year old church going sister
who drove five hours to see her son.
They denied her entry.
Get your hand stamped to signal
you are clean
and everything is in order
is the place of order.
You pass a series of three doors
automatically opened by a guard in
a room with tinted windows
you can not see through.
The doors are metal
but they are encased in plexiglass.
They do not clang
when they close.
The sound of progress.
You must show your hand
under a black light twice to get in
because you could be a prisoner
trying to escape...
The visiting room is like a storage freezer:
large, white, bland
and always cold.
Voices echo hollowly
if you speak
above a low murmur.
There are white plastic seats and chairs
to sit at
as if you were at a picnic.
you will drink countless cups
of french vanilla capuccino
(which tastes exactly like the coffee
at the gas station)
to stay warm
to stay awake.
Remember to buy
at least one package of the spicy chicken wings
and one bacon cheeseburger
out of the vending machines -
by the time hunger comes
the only thing left
will be squished tuna fish sandwiches.
You look up every time the
heavy institutional door
at the end of the room opens
and another blue pajama clad figure
Sometimes it will take ten minutes
Sometimes an hour.
You watch the families around you in the visiting room.
You watch the sun rise in an instant
as their loved one enters.
Hugs and long stolen kisses given
under the watchful eyes of guards
who must count in their head
“One one thousand two one thousand three one thousand--
All right, break it up.”
Finally the door opens
and Sundiata walks out,
all 5’7 of him
(which he believes to be 5’9).
His face stern
eyes drink in the room
in an instant,
seeing who is there,
noticing their locations,
checking out the guards --
in other words,
every day survival.
His eyes fall on you
his face cracks open
like an egg releasing a new born chick.
His wide welcome home smile splits his face,
a watermelon chopped open
on a hot summer day.
After a hug,
he takes a seat.
If you are lucky, you are in by 8:45 am
and you have until 2:45 p.m.
If you are lucky.
If you are unlucky
you missed the visiting window in the morning
by a breath
and you must wait until 10 to start processing.
If you are unlucky,
visiting room will be crowded that day,
and there will be need for tables,
and your visit will end at 2 or earlier.
you are lucky.
You take your six hours.
You talk about everything,
about the most important
and the most unimportant things
and they are the same.
You do not agree on everything
but every time you leave
you come away with something to think about,
to write a letter or article about,
to come back and discuss
and sometimes argue
His brilliant mind
and no nonsense attitude
can be brusque,
as you have learned.
But you have always appreciated
who speak truth
who speak love
In between conversations,
men out for visits
come up to your table
say hello to Sundiata.
Older brothas with kufis
and grey flecks in their beards
Bald tattooed stone-faced
young bucks will say
They mean this
as a sign
One time a prisoner tall and rough hewn
with arms of granite and ghetto
held out a chocolate peanut butter tasky kake like a crown jewel.
“My girl got one of these for me
and I know you feel them so
I saved it for you.”
Sometimes the two of you play games.
The selection is not the best
a pack of dog eared cards
(just don’t look for the jokers)
He asks for report backs
movements in the world
You tell him about the beaches of Puerto Rico
and the grave of Albizu Campos.
You tell second hand tales
of the jungles of Chiapas
and the struggles for land and dignity,
second hand tales of the dusty roads of Palestine
lined with bulldozers
and the struggle for land and dignity
to his tales
of life in poor black Texas
life in the Panther party
life in the 60s.
He does not tell so many tales
of life in prison.
He tries to keep these visits
away from guard towers and work crews.
He worries about your emotional well-being;
you have shed tears for that.
much as you try to catch it in your
This is, you realize as you walk back from the
the only time you ever drink coffee -
has become forever linked
normally a steel trap,
begins to pull in different directions
as the tobacco withdrawal
grabs ahold of him.
He says, “Aw shit,
the nicotine’s got me again”
when he loses the train of his thoughts
for the third time in an hour.
He can not go out to grab a couple of puffs -
that is not allowed
and the visit
will be terminated.
He wants to quit,
but he has been smoking
for half a century
and prison is no place
to quit smoking.
which has meandered before
as you hurry to get everything in.
He will tell you you need to make sure you are eating
He will tell you to take care of yourself
You know that he will call you later that evening
just to make sure you got home safe
He will remind you of a father
every single visit.
A visit can feel like an entire universe
crushed and compressed until it fits
into a plastic chair.
Even the universe must end.
A guard will call out
the first batch of people to leave at 2:30.
If you came on the first shift,
your name will most likely be among them
unless you got lucky.
It is a time of hurried goodbyes
of cleaning up the trash
so you have something
to do with your hands.
The time of
I love yous
thank you for comings
I’ll be back soons
and it is duplicated and multiplied
five, fifteen, fifty times
through the visiting room
as the collective unraveling
You give a hug
then the guard is at your elbow
towards the door.
You go to separate ends of the room,
he to the inmate door
you to the main exit.
You both must play the
hurry up and wait
The men in blue
wave, blow kisses,
hold up hands
as if caressing faces
of their lovers,
who must leave them
in this place.
Sundiata flashes you his sun smile
and a raised black first.
The door will slide open
and swallow him and the other men up
as you and the mostly women and children
march out in a ragged line,
You must show your stamp again on the way out
you might be an inmate trying to escape.
Little left to do:
return the locker key
get your id back
get the car keys
walk out the doors.
You get in the car
manuever slowly out of the driveway.
At the stop sign right before you clear
the prison grounds,
you look up
and see four deer
two of them newborn fawns
still shaky in the legs.
They are so close
you can see the sheen
of their coats,
on their noses.
They stare at you
with eyes limpid and trusting
twenty feet aware from
One of the guards
they had to pull a deer
off of the barbed wire
two days before.
It had gotten caught in it
until it flayed itself open.
The guard shook his head:
They’re too stupid to know
they don’t belong