SCREEN: WHAT WE GOT HERE IS A FAILURE TO COMMUNICATE

I never intended to come home with a convict. I was just going on a drive. A drive down the Great River Road from St. Louis to New Orleans. But I got caught up…

Caught up in the dank mysterious intoxication of the Delta where the blues will lead you unplugged to the banks of the Mississippi River, past catfish farms, high atop a levee, down abandoned rail road tracks where the Southern used to cross the Dawg, to the Crossroads where desperate men sell their souls to the devil at midnight, and right to the front porch of a steadfast but weathered shotgun shack where you will awake to a fuchsia sun peeking up behind a long, lonely stretch of cotton field. And, ultimately, the blues will lead you to Mississippi State Penitentiary, a storied rite of passage for most blues man, mired in the reality of plantation style rehabilitation. Any final resistance to this seduction will fall away as you drive thru MSP with Bukka White’s “Parchman Farm Blues” moaning and droning from your rental car speakers. Gotcha!

* * * * *

When your hotel posts a sign in your room telling you that the water is brown because the river runs underground straight through town, but it’s perfectly safe to drink and bathe in, you have two choices: stay dirty…or get muddy.

The sun is beginning to make its way down towards the horizon as we roll into Greenville, MS and the sky has exploded into a wondrous spray of feathery wisps of clouds and sun spotted rainbows. Greenville is heralded as the heart of the Delta and the region’s biggest city. It has had a history of being a “progressive” town with an overabundance of writers. Today it seems to have an overabundance of strip malls.

Mississippi is all hustle and no bustle: from the lure of instant riches up in Tunica, to the promise of a certain future offered by Sister Marie’s psychic advisement on the outskirts of Greenville. The town’s treasures are scattered. From the meditative tranquility of a weeping willow tree shading the banks of a placid stream at the historic Winterville Mounds, to the barren grittiness of Nelson Street where you can scarf tamales at Doe’s Eat Place and get your juke on at the Flowing Fountain.

And then there’s the intersection of Highways 82 and 1. The intersection buzzes with the accessibility of instantly gratified needs, from the steady stream at the mini-mart on the northwest corner, to the fast-food commodified tentacles stretching to the South and East. By stark contrast, the shell of an abandoned gas station sits in beaten decay under the Mississippi sun across the street. This is the forgotten corner. The one everybody hurries past en route to somewhere else. Across the street they offer “Quick Cash” and “Pay Day Loans.” Over here, you got nothing coming.

* * * * *

“Look! Convicts!!” I exclaim as we approach “nothing coming” corner. Four white men in green and white striped pants with “MDOC CONVICT” stenciled in black across their white short-sleeve button down shirts mill about the empty lot while their overseer, a portly, dark-skinned black man wearing khaki pants, a long-sleeved, button-down chambray shirt, suspenders, a suede cowboy hat, stereotypical mirrored aviator boss man sunglasses and a 1/4 inch thick, gleaming gold herringbone chain, watches them as his left jaw juts out under the weight of a large wad of chewing tobacco.

We stop and we make friends.

* * * * *

The thought of becoming a prison pen pal can be a little scary. Your biggest fear (aside from realizing, as most people do, that you have fallen in love with your convict!) is that they will get released and find you one day. That you will be stalked and subsequently chopped up into little pieces and tossed into the East River. And after a year of finding random body parts washed up on the banks of the FDR Drive and Roosevelt Island, the NYPD will piece the body together and finally ID it as…YOU. So, I take some precautions:

1. Unlist my phone number
2. Rent a PO Box
3. Make sure my dental records are up to date
4. Get a con-ed (convict education)

I read books: You Are Going To Prison, Cell 2455 Death Row, The Prisoner’s Wife, New Jack, You Got Nothing Coming, In The Belly Of The Beast, How To Survive Federal Prison Camp, Hillary Clinton’s Pen Pal, The Prisons, The Serial Killer Letters, Games Criminals Play: And How You Can Profit By Knowing Them.

And I watch movies: Life, O Brother Where Art Thou, Auggie Rose, and, of course, the mother of them all, Cool Hand Luke. (end…for now)

RIP Paul Newman. Cool Hand Luke, the deluxe edition on Blue Ray and DVD, is out now on Warner Home Video.

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