#FlashbackFriday: The first time I went to Mississippi

March 2001:

Today is about choices.

There’s a sign in our hotel room telling us that the water is brown because the Great Mississippi River runs underground straight through town, but the water is perfectly safe to drink and bathe in.

Choice #1: stay dirty…or get muddy.

It’s only March, not even officially spring yet, but it’s already hot here.  The sun is going down as we roll into Greenville, MS and the sky has exploded into a wondrous spray of feathery wisps of clouds and sun spotted rainbows.  Mississippi is all hustle and no bustle; from the lure of instant riches up in Tunica’s casinos, to the promise of a certain future offered via billboard by Sister Marie’s psychic advisement. Greenville is heralded as the heart of the Delta and the region’s biggest city.  It’s had a history of being a “progressive” town with an overabundance of writers.   Today it seems to have an overabundance of strip malls. But there are certain treasures too. Scattered about town, you will find the meditative tranquility of a weeping willow tree shading the banks of a placid stream at the historic Winterville Mounds; edgy excitement in the barren grittiness of Nelson Street (where sightseeing prompted city workers to ask us, “Y’all lost?”); world-famous tamales at Doe’s Eat Place, infamous juking at the nearby Flowing Fountain and man’s great triumph over nature, the Great Wall Of Mississippi.

The next morning, the intersection of Highways 82 and 1 is buzzing with the accessibility of instantly gratified needs, from the steady flow 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 decaying under the beat of Mississippi sun across the street.  This is the forgotten corner; the one everyone hurries by en route to somewhere else.  Across the street they offer “Quick Cash” and “Pay Day Loans.”  Over here, you got nothing coming.

We see them as we pass that corner for the first time: four men wearing green and white striped pants and white button-down short sleeved shirts with the MDOC Convict stenciled neatly across the back in black ink.

“Look! Convicts!” I exclaim.

The men are accompanied by a short, portly, dark-skinned black man wearing tan khaki pants, a long-sleeved, button-down chambray shirt, suspenders, a suede cowboy hat, standard issue overseer mirrored aviator sunglasses and a 1/4 inch thick, gleaming gold herringbone chain.   His left jaw bulges out under the weight of a large wad of chewing tobacco.  The white MDOC pick-up truck is parked under the shade of the car port covering the abandoned gas pumps.   The convicts are scattered about the empty lot.

Choice #2: pull over or keep driving?

We pull our bright red Chevy Nova into the parking lot and ask if we can speak to these men. Stopping to talk to convicts is like using a fake ID to get into a bar when you’re 16 or purposely running a red light when no one’s around.  It’s exciting because you know it’s something you shouldn’t be doing.

“If it’s OK with them,” says Overseer, “it’s OK with me.”

We chitchat, we talk and laugh, we ask questions, we line them up to take photos.  We’re all friendly and polite, but suspicious of each other.  Their mouths smile but their eyes say “who are you and what are you up to?”

* * * *

 It’s Good Friday and I’m on my way from New York City to Connecticut for Easter weekend.   I ask my driver to make a stop at Mailboxes, Etc. before we hit the road.  I’m simmering with nervous anticipation.  I take a deep breath as I pull open the plate glass door, walk casually over to my section and crouch down to open the box.  I hold my breath as I turn the key in the lock and pull open the small metal door.  BINGO!  There is a single white envelope in my mailbox.

I snatch the envelope out of the box, slam the door shut, run out of the store and hop in the back seat of the car.  Then I look.

I stare at the front of the envelope.  Flip it to the back.  Flip it to the front.  Flip it to the back.  Study it.   The front of the envelope is postmarked “9 APR 2001, GRENADA MS 38901.”

The back is stamped with black ink:

MISSISSIPPI DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS

THIS IS A CORRECTIONAL FACILITY

THE SENDER OF THE LETTER

IS AN INMATE

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