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Photo of San Quentin Chow Hall by Eddie Herena

I lost my buddy Gerald to COVID-19. Like a lot of us here at San Quentin, he contracted the virus needlessly. I’ve found meaning in Gerald’s passing, but I also want to honor him by putting that meaning into words.

I first met Gerald in October 2014, when I was negotiating the tribalism of San Quentin’s North Block Chow Hall. When you arrive at San Quentin, you do not have a tour guide like you might have when you visit a college campus. Here there is no quad, no bookstore, or humanities building. It’s just a dilapidated, dusty, foreboding institution — an incubator for stagnant air, which gives the virus an advantage.

Since I didn’t know anyone, I had to bring myself up to speed on building locations, services, and schedules for the yard, library, etc. New arrivals absorb new sights, new sounds, unfamiliar personalities and uncharted lands. The biggest concern I had when mapping out this hostile new environment was determining which areas are out of bounds, off limits, or segregated areas. In other words, I had to map out the places where I should tread lightly.

Chow Hall is a segregated environment. The dining room holds approximately 200 four-seat tables where incarcerated men sit, digest, and philosophize over meals. The men sit on these stools with a territorial sense of ownership. There is some justification for this mindset; many of them have been sitting in the same seats for breakfast and dinner for years. Taking a seat from one of them would be unwise. 

The first time I walked into the Chow Hall, it was like the cliched first day of high school, except when I looked around I didn’t see cliques of jocks, goths, or geeks. Instead, I saw the projections of composure or intelligence that the men around me wanted me to see.

Naively, I carried my breakfast tray to a table and tried to sit in an empty seat. Over and over, I was rejected. First the Christian area advised me to get back on the road to Emmaus, to keep it moving. Next, I tried to sit in the Native American area, but they asked me to prove my affiliation. In the Los Angeles “Down South” area, my two visits to Disneyland didn’t seem to qualify me for residency, especially since I was born in Oakland. The rejections made me recall the social awkwardness I felt in my youth. Eventually, I was pointed in the general direction of where Bay Area natives ate their meals. It was there that I met my friend, OG Gerald.

Gerald didn’t ask me where I was from. He didn’t size me up. This is crucial to someone like me, someone who wants to be accepted on merit, rather than status, materials, or geographical proximity. These factors weren’t important to him, and he didn’t appraise me like a salesman trying to gauge what I was worth. Instead he said, “Sit down, here, in seat 34.” So I sat there, next to Gerald, for the next six years. 

“I never told OG Gerald how much that small gesture meant to me, having struggled for years with low self esteem and feelings of rejection.”

I never told OG Gerald how much that small gesture meant to me, having struggled for years with low self esteem and feelings of rejection. 

I know about masculine stereotypes from books and pop culture. Gerald resembled the grizzled, irreverent, avuncular, wise “con.” He fostered pathos, humor, and street cred. He had no shortage of proverbs or anecdotes, many of which I recognized from dramedies. His soulful eyes had seen all the movies, and he was always surprised I couldn’t figure out the endings on my own. He was feisty and took things in stride, gruffing through disagreeable days — at least on the surface. He exemplified the idea that when things fall to pieces, you have to stay with them, pick them up,  and keep moving. And that’s hard to do in prison, especially among us lifers who have a love/hate relationship with pessimism. 

I myself am a cynic. Childhood abuse has cultivated this in me. I used to view relationships in prison as necessary, transactional, or calculating. I never saw them as life-affirming. But as I’ve matured, my self-talk has evolved. Now I ask myself, “Who is into me — the real me?” Gerald was such a person. He saw the real me. 

I knew Gerald had pre-existing health conditions, but he never wore those ailments as badges of self-pity. I became complicit in his nonchalance when I bought the occasional candy bar for my friend. I figured he’d live forever. In his stories, he always painted himself as the long-suffering hero that triumphs in the end. Never mind the way he avoided looking at the needle when he received his insulin shot. I’d accuse him of being scared, and he would insist that he just didn’t care to look. His version won. That was Gerald. 

I used to coerce him into going outside for walks around the yard. I’d tell him I wanted to hear some of his grand tales, but I think he knew I was trying to improve his sedentary lifestyle. But it’s tough to convince someone to adopt a healthy lifestyle if they aren’t feeling it. For a while it worked — we’d go outside in the fresh air and walk and talk for hours. Once he hinted at the loss and grief he felt from burying his son. I wanted him to go deeper into his pain, but he could only venture so far. Why do we, as men, continue to wear these masks of stoicism? We suffer in silence, thinking “at least we look good doing it.”

I’d see him in the mornings when he got off of work and he’d have a bag in his hand, a sack so chubby it looked like it was in its second trimester. Mindful of his health issues, I’d say, “What’s in the bag?” Without hesitation, he’d respond, “Granola, carrots and apples,” though the twinkle in his eye told me it was full of cookies, chips and jelly beans. Thank God I’ll always have that twinkle to carry in my heart. 

I know COVID-19 attacked Gerald. I checked in on him one night, and he was his usual affable self. The next evening when I went by his cell, his bunkie said he had developed symptoms and the staff had come and gotten him. Because the administration was not transparent about cases, we had to rely on word-of-mouth to corroborate rumors about those who had disappeared. The photos of those who have passed away while on Death Row have been featured prominently on the local news, but nothing has been done to commemorate those lost from the general population. 

The not knowing brought its own torture. I was in denial. I hid and promised myself I would say the unsaid when my buddy came back. I would tell him what he meant to me. Though Gerald’s death was eventually confirmed, many of us still sit here not knowing the fate of other friends.

I think about COVID-19, and how it assaults us. I wonder if it finds unopened spaces of weakness in its hosts — places of loneliness, regret, bitterness and depression, simultaneously attacking them while it wages a war on our bodies. I know about the five stages of grief. I know I’m still in denial about OG Gerald. I’m convinced this has been a horrible mistake, or some joke concocted by his wicked sense of humor. Every day, I wait for him to come to my cell, to hear his catch phrase, “Hey, hey, HEY!” But these hopeful images are starting to lose their power. We aren’t going to get out of here, buy motorhomes, and go fishing like we talked about doing so many times. 

I’ve lost several close relatives over the years: my aunt, my little brother, my mother. My mother’s final words to me in December 1989 were, “What do you want for Christmas?” In the haste of immaturity, I answered glibly, “Whatever.” She died unexpectedly a few days later on Dec. 23, at the age of 39. I’ll hold that thought forever, having never told her how special she was to me. 

“I like to think I’ve grown up, but I realize the trap I fell into in not telling Gerald how much I appreciated him.”

I should have known better about death’s weird curriculum of unscheduled, unpredictable, unfair pop-quizzes. I like to think I’ve grown up, but I realize the trap I fell into in not telling Gerald how much I appreciated him. I know what he’d say about my maudlin sentiment: “Stop tripping.” He lived for today, he didn’t stress about tomorrow. He overflowed with affirmations like, “Don’t cheat yourself, treat yourself.” I know what he’d say about my tears, too: “Right, right, right,” and then he’d tie it into a rowdy story about the futility of weeping. 

The male role belief system, which pushes traits like stoicism, toughness, silence, and strength, tells us to be unemotional in our manhood. But I’ve found these traits self-destructive, limiting and disingenuous. These labels come with scripts and expectations, but they should come second to what’s in the heart. These qualities have helped me in certain situations, but most have outlived their usefulness. 

I didn’t tell Gerald what he meant to me because I was self-conscious. I didn’t want to appear soft, squishy, emotional, or look like a wuss. I was fearful of how my affection would be received. So I stayed in the box I’ve lived in uncomfortably since the 1970s. 

Gerald lies in the spiritual recesses of my heart in place of the unsaid, near my brother and my mother. I tell them now daily. They mattered. Gerald matters.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Dennis Jefferson Jr. doesn’t think of himself as a writer, but one who respects the power of words. He participates in charity drives, volunteer work and self-help groups, and he holds an associate degree in general studies. He is incarcerated in California.