During the summer and spring this tiny, vast population made itself known to me and I in turn made myself known to it. Whether it was to turn over logs to find salamanders and toads to play with, spiders to tease my sisters (the harmless daddy longlegs), or chase other insects unfortunate enough to annoy, sting, or cross my path – I did as boys do. Now that I’m an adult those smaller, lesser creatures remind me of a power dynamic I’ve seen replayed in prison.
Jimmy is mentally handicapped. When I met him sixteen years ago it was obvious there was something “off” about his behavior, but over time his mind has deteriorated and become twisted with delusions of grandeur – he taught James Brown how to dance – and persecution – everybody hates him and the mailroom is throwing away his record company contracts. He rarely sleeps, or if he does it’s done sitting up at a table while watching the Young and the Restless or the Steve Harvey Show.
Too agreeable and overly friendly, Jimmy speaks to anybody unfortunate enough to make eye contact with him, telling story after story like a child who has to say as much as he possibly can before his father walks away. He talks in a “look at me, hey watch this!” fashion even if nobody is listening. Though Jimmy is 60 he capers, cavorts, sings, dances and waves as if on stage or beneath the big top, never really still except in those moments his body reminds him of the years.
Jimmy does not belong in prison no matter what he has been convicted of – a hospital would better suit his inability to function in a normal social setting. This is the case for many who are in prison, but that’s neither here nor there.
Jimmy is a generally likeable person if you can get beyond his more annoying qualities. For some, however, his behavior is intolerable. They believe he has control over his actions and, as a result, feel his “foolishness” is intentional. Jimmy has been beaten for not understanding. One time he was hit in the face with a mop wringer for accidentally exposing himself to a Muslim. Another time he was strangled for changing to a soap opera in the midst of a movie. Slapped, shouted and cursed at, degraded, and disrespected by many people Jimmy is oppressed by the rest of the prison population because he’s incapable of retaliating in any significant way. Much like an insect who buzzes a little too loudly, the man is frequently squashed.
I understand how Jimmy’s antics can be bothersome to other prisoners, but at the same time I can think of a host of behaviors by normal, intelligent people that are much worse. People who are of sound mind and body, at least enough to know when better social etiquette is needed, or required.
This is prison, you say. Better cannot be expected, you think. It’s bigger than that. The feeling of superiority, that sense of being better, smarter, holier, bigger, more well-endowed, and more lawful than another person can be summed up as a problem with taking another’s perspective. In the prison environment most people don’t care and this is why men like Jimmy have the hardest time. Because the community didn’t care enough to treat his mental illness before he committed a crime, and the prison doesn’t care enough to protect those people when they arrive.
I wonder how many times in our conversations we step on beetles? Jimmy helps me to remember that even when we see ourselves better than another person for any reason it may simply be I’ve yet to look up and see the boot hovering overhead.