Peace Activist

by Jarvis Masters
Death Row, San Quentin

When I awoke in the early morning to begin my meditation practice, I tried to envision myself as a peace activist in the rough neighborhood of my prison tier. The night before, the once-empty cell adjacent to mine had been filled with the raging of a new inmate. Although his loud voice had filtered into my deep sleep, I refused, as I did every night, to awaken, to lose that very comfortable place that finally made sleeping on a hard concrete prison floor easy.

Now, in the light of dawn appearing in the window opposite my cell, I quietly placed my folded blanket on the cold floor. My new neighbor began to scream again. “I kill you ... I kill you all, you damn sons a bitches, if y?all don?t let me out of here!”

I could see in my mind his hands shaking and rattling his cell bars. I wondered if I could be just as determined to sit in meditation as I had been to sleep through this thunder of human rage reverberating throughout the housing unit. My teacher, Rinpoche, had once sent me a transcript of one of his teachings, where he mentioned a kind of joy that he felt while meditating at airports, waiting for the flights on his busy schedule.

I wished I could remember why he liked this! I decided the answer could be found in something else Rinpoche had said: that there was no time to lose in practicing meditation. I was eager to try this kind of meditation. I could usually meditate within ear range of lots of noise, but nothing as loud and close as my neighbor?s steel bars vibrating like a jumbo jet breaking through the skies.

I was only minutes into my practice when my neighbor called over to me. “ Hey, dude in the next cell. Save me half of that damn cigarette.”

Huh? I thought, my mantra interrupted. I hadn?t smoked in years. I imagined someone asking

Rinpoche a question like that while he was sitting at the airport. No, they wouldn?t dare!

I chuckled silently.

I could smell someone smoking in one of the cells not far from mine. I had become accustomed to the smoking habits of my fellow prisoners. On my best days I simply accepted the morning scent as my prison brand of incense. With each lit cigarette, the atmosphere became a smoky shrine for my meditation.

When the wall between my neighbor and I started to move as if an earthquake had hit, I was half tempted to ask him to knock off the banging and join me in meditation. But he would have taken it as an insult, which would only have made me a target for his rage, and his mission in life to make our adjacent living situation pure misery for us both. So I tried to quiet my mind, still sitting on my blanket, still wanting to meditate.

“Hey, dude in the next cell,” my neighbor shouted again, pounding on the wall. “Let me have a few tokes of that cigarette. Man, I know you smokin? over there. I know you hear me, man!” He kept shouting and banging.

“Hey, hey!” I yelled. I?d finally had enough and by now was totally convinced I was no Rinpoche. “Man! You don?t need to shout and go on beating the wall like a damn fool!” I stepped up to my cell bars. “Man, whatever your name is, that is not me smoking. I don?t smoke. I haven?t smoked in years. And even if I did smoke, check: the way you?ve been shouting and beating on that poor wall all morning - which, mind you, has been tryin? to mind its own business, just like me, man - I wouldn?t give you jack shit, OK?”

“Ah, man.” My neighbor tried to calm his voice. “They call me Bosshog. And all I want is a damn smoke, you know?”

“Well, I?m Jarvis,” I replied, “and all I want is my freedom. Believe me, Bosshog, this is not to say that I want it more than you want a cigarette right about now, because I know what cigarettes can make you feel. But by beating on the wall, you?re taking what little freedom I have away from me, and that ain?t cool, you know?”

“OK, but do you think you can find me a cigarette?” my neighbor pleaded. “I swear to God, man, I?ve been needing a cigarette all morning, like poor folk in hell need ice water!”

I laughed. I liked the way Bosshog put it - that only poor people needed ice water in hell. As for a cigarette, I always kept extra things for inmates like Bosshog. I would collect old magazines and novels and purchase inexpensive soap and toothpaste and cheap smoking tobacco. I had vowed to do this fifteen years back, when I arrived at San Quentin and had to use kitchen butter from my breakfast tray on my badly chapped skin because I had no money to buy lotion from the prison commissary.

“Yeah, I think I can find you a bit of tobacco and some rolling papers, ” I told him. I sensed from my many years of having neighbors of all sorts that he was one of so many youngsters flooding the prison system for smoking crack or violating their parole.

“But you have to stay cool and not go disturbing the peace on the tier again,” I added. “Will you give me your word?”

There was a long silence. To me, this meant Bosshog was taking his word seriously. This made him a rare bird: few new prisoners took even a second before saying anything for a free cigarette.

“Yeah, man,” he finally answered. “You drive a hard bargain, but you got a deal! I?ll keep it all on cool, my word, man.”

“OK, give me a minute.” I walked to the back of my cell and rummaged in the box underneath my bunk. I found more than half of a six-ounce can of tobacco left. I had no intention of giving it all to Boss. It was likely that other newcomers would need some, too. Also, the length of time it had taken Boss to decide to accept our agreement probably meant that it would be a struggle for him to keep his end of the bargain. By rationing the tobacco I would keep him at bay.

I looked around my cell for something to wrap the tobacco in. I had a photocopy of Thich Nhat Hanh?s book Being Peace that a friend had mailed me. Later, a paperback copy of the book itself had been sent to me from a bookstore, so I reckoned it wouldn?t hurt to wrap the tobacco in one of the photocopy pages. And besides, I thought, Thich Nhat Hanh might appeal to the Bosshog, one page at a time.

“Hey, Boss, do you have a fishline over there?”

“I found one under the bunk,” he answered. “Your last neighbor must have left it.”

He quickly threw the fishline in front of my cell. I retrieved it, using my own, then tied on the tobacco rolled in paper and watched Boss pull it in.

“Man, right on! Righteous!” he exclaimed happily. “I really appreciate all this smoke!”

“No problem. Perhaps I can send you more in a day or so, you know?”

“Oh, this is cool, real cool!” said Bosshog.

The bright sun shining through the window told me there wasn?t much of the morning left to sit in meditation, but it also ushered in a quiet feeling of having done something as a simple kind of peace activist. Boss had stayed quiet, and the other prisoners hadn?t said a word against him moving into our neighborhood.

Over the next months, I kept on sending Boss a daily supply of tobacco, always wrapped in a page of Being Peace. Boss was still a bit off his rocker, but I began to consider him a kind of brother. One page at a time he came to like Thich Nhat Hanh. Every now and then, Boss even tried his best to meditate, but he was never able to stay awake early in the morning, as he put it, “to go on some ol? meditation trip with you, Jay.”

After eighteen months Bosshog was released from the grip of San Quentin and from dependence on me for tobacco and Being Peace. Before he walked off the tier, he stood in front of my cell and together we recited what had become Boss?s mantra - something he?d learned to say whenever he was about to blow his top. We always started off chanting in unison with the words “Man, man,” and then, “If we are peaceful, if we are happy, we can smile, and everyone in our family, our entire society will benefit from our peace.”