Over the last few weeks, I’ve had a few frustrating phone calls* with customer service for registering my cell phone with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and Purple Video Relay Service. My last name is different from Christian’s who is the account holder of my AT&T cell phone account. Hoo boy, did the patriarchy take umbrage with that one. That meant we had to be in the same room to call in and register. Harder than it should be as we’re often together after business hours.
Anyway, I got word today that I am approved. I can receive video calls from My Jailed Deaf Dad. Great! Great? Grreeaaat. I don’t know. We’ll see if I immediately regret this. I can confidently say that I won’t have any problems with the rules, thankyouverymuch. Egads.
Just ended a text message conversation with my mom with “sksksksk” which in ASL Deaf life means “Nanu Nanu”. It’s the end of a conversation, you’ll hear nothing more from me.
During our chat we talked about her mom, my deaf grandmother with whom I spent many a summer and shared tons of great memories. Signing off with that shorthand gave me a flashback of answering our phone at the trailer and, essentially, instant messaging with my grandmother back in 1978.
We didn’t type on a sleek little smartphone made of breakable glass but on a honking piece of green, industrial metal taller than me. Deaf people have been ahead of the curve on all sorts of technology and Grandma, who was born in the 1920s, was using emoticons and shorthand using a clunky teletypewriter before you –maybe even your parents, too– were a squirmy worm. We miss her greatly. My present-day superior typing speed is owed to her frequent phone calls.
To read more about the shorthand of TTY / TDD communications, check out this Wikipedia article. The pic here isn’t our TTY (sadly I can’t seem to find a single picture of it) but it’s a close representation. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Telecommunications_device_for_the_deaf#Etiquette
I’m at the Rock House and had a Skype call with a book club in Minnesota comprised of deaf women and mental health professionals working in the Deaf community. The whole thing took place in ASL.
Man, I love technology and so wish this convenience had been around for my parents and grandparents. How wonderful to simply click a button on my laptop and be visually connected with no need for a special service or interpreter.
We had a nice chat about my book, family, the Deaf community, and mental health issues before signing off so I could make a trip to the dump and walk with Griswold around the lake.
While they’re busy reading books to help them in their important (thankless?) careers as therapists and DV counselors, I’m busy reading, too. I read THE BEDWETTER by Sarah Silverman (enjoyed it) and just finished Tina Fey‘s BOSSYPANTS (really enjoyed it). Tonight I’m starting Sara Barron‘s latest book THE HARM IN ASKING then it’s GIRL WALKS INTO A BAR by Rachel Dratch.
I’m highbrow, what can I say?
Had a long but rewarding day at 47 ASL High School yesterday. The students were about 20% Deaf, HoH and CODA and the rest hearing but immersed in a school that embraces ASL. How wonderful.
I met 180+ great teens from all parts of NYC some who shared with me privately about their hopes to be involved with producing, dreams of being a writer, and brushes with domestic violence, drugs & alcohol, mental illness and more. I donated a copy of my book to the library and signed it to the kids. I went home and collapsed –exhausted but inspired– and awoke to this nice email from the coordinator today:
“You are the talk of the town! [T]eachers and administrators who made it to your presentation were touched and impressed by the way you shared your experiences with the students. And, of course, the kids are all going to be reading your book now and they are so excited and honored to have it autographed by you!”
I was honored to share with them. I’d take a repeat of yesterday Every. Single. Day.
Part way in, my cable box froze & rebooted. Murphy’s Law! From what I saw my dentist will be very angry that I have rebuffed his repeated requests to fix my bottom teeth, I need Botox, my family was upgraded to the suburbs and no one really knows or speaks sign language in the reenactments.
But my cable box came back to life quickly and the rest I saw was really well done. Even if it had been awful, I am grateful for any opportunity to share my story.
Seeing how they edited my interview was very interesting. They condensed it into an average domestic violence case (What? No shed? No trailer? No Deaf Culture commentary? Just a dude who beats and tries to kill women?) and yet still made it compelling.
Of course, personally, my CODA / Deaf experience and my dad’s childhood and our collective isolation and poverty is what fueled my story for my book, so that’s important for me to still tell and get across should I get another chance. And I learned a lesson to make sure to understand the angle the producers are going for, so I can speak to that and they won’t have to edit so much!
My sweet Paquita made a brief posthumous cameo. She is looking longingly at Christian who is lavishing love and kisses on Griswold. Awww.
Anyway, I hope you enjoyed it and thank you again for all the kind words and support!
*The collective outrage of the women posting on Lifetime Movie Network’s Facebook page about the movie network not showing movies is worthy of being a Lifetime movie. If I -and all of you lovely people- didn’t have a life with better things to do, I’d suggest we flood the LMN Facebook page with overflowing praise. Hopefully we’ll still get a movie made and we can tell the whole white trashtastic tale and satisfy all those disgruntled LMN subscribers. So much time on their hands these women! Sad.
Hey you! I’m super excited to say that I’ve been invited to speak on 8/21 at the New York Public Library. It’s a FREE event, open to all ages and will be ASL interpreted by Jon Wolfe Nelson from “The L Word”. Here are the details:
WED, AUG 21 @ 6:30PM
NY Public Library – Mid-Manhattan Branch
New York, NY
I will give a couple of stories presentation, read a bit , conduct a Q&A and sign copies of my memoir. Books will be available for purchase.
** For fun, check out this video of me singing a medley of songs -including “Runnin’ With the Devil” by Van Halen!- in ASL:
The reviews are in for Burn Down the Ground: A Memoir by Kambri Crews and they’re raves!
“Poignant and unsettling.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Crews’ story has heartbreaking depth and complexity... this is a rich read.” —Library Journal
“A compelling testament to the strength of the human spirit.”—Booklist
“Harrowing . . . A remarkable odyssey of scorched earth, collateral damage, and survival.” —Publishers Weekly
“Crews’ account (the title refers to lighting brush on fire to clear out snakes) is as well-paced and stirring as a novel. In her fluid narrative (she’s also a storyteller on the side, a gig that helped her develop this book), Crews neither wallows in self-pity nor plays for cheap black-comedic yuks. Instead, this book stands out for what matters most: Crews’ story, bluntly told.” —Elle magazine
ABOUT THE BOOK
For fans of Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle, an unflinching, emotional memoir by the hearing daughter of two deaf parents, about the rampant dysfunction of her rural Texas childhood and the searing violence that left her father serving a twenty-year prison sentence.
Successful New York producer and publicist Kambri Crews always knew that her childhood was unusual– she spent a portion of it in a tin shack deep with her family in the woods of Texas. But when, in her early 30s, her charismatic and adored father is sentenced to twenty years in prison for stabbing and nearly killing his girlfriend, she must confront for the first time his violent, destructive behavior. In her brutally honest, completely captivating memoir, Crews struggles to forge a relationship with her incarcerated father and revisits her unconventional family and the long road she took to her current life
I sang an ASL medley of all the songs featured in stories on “The Soundtrack Series”. FF to 2:55 if you want to skip to the ASL.
I’ve had the book Far From the Tree on my wish list since it was published late last year. His inclusion of deafness and Deaf culture sparked my interest. In his book, “Andrew Solomon tells the stories of parents who not only learn to deal with their exceptional children but also find profound meaning in doing so.
Solomon’s startling proposition is that diversity is what unites us all. He writes about families coping with deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, with children who are prodigies, who are conceived in rape, who become criminals, who are transgender. While each of these characteristics is potentially isolating, the experience of difference within families is universal, as are the triumphs of love Solomon documents in every chapter.”
He spent a decade on this project and that intensive research is reflected in the book’s length, a whopping 976 pages. That’s partly why I haven’t read it yet, as I have a full Kindle & bookshelf. But after watching Mr. Solomon’s incredible Ted Talk, Far From the Tree is now next on my reading list. Watch his speech here:
I’ve always fancied myself a bit of a sleuth. In the mid-90s, during my days as a big shot banker, I collected on multi-million commercial dollar loans. To hunt down debtors, I searched all sorts of public records. The internet was still fairly new and most documents were not available online. I became somewhat obsessed with how much intimate information I could find out about a person from yearbook and wedding photos, past and current relationships, favorite restaurants and bars, you name it, simply by going to the library or the local courthouse.
I was in a toxic personal relationship at the time and actually “stalked” a couple of people we knew (in the paper sense of the word) to hone my “skills” convinced I could turn my obsession into a money making business like being a P.I. for hire. Always the entrepreneur, I guess, but ultimately detective work is a tremendous time spent alone which is not my thing. Plus, it’s steeped in negativity.
Fast forward to February 2012. My memoir was going on sale in a matter of days, and I needed something to occupy my thoughts besides the looming possibility of failure, criticism, and public shame. So, I joined Ancestry.com. Minutes gave way to hours that spanned into days of my pouring over legal documents and Google-sniffing out my mother’s family history. Finding a long lost document or a tidbit of news was exhilarating and poignant. For example, I found this article in the Emporia Gazette about my uncle Billy who was killed when a train struck the car he and several other deaf people were riding in. With just one click, I was reading an archived article, documenting the tragic accident. His name, his life and death, were summed up neatly in one sentence:
Billy Thornton Fitzgarrald, 29, Tulsa.
I burst into tears upon seeing it so plainly. I sobbed for the life cut short and for the pain his family —my family– suffered at the abrupt, violent and senseless loss. My emotions surprised me –I had never even met Uncle Billy– but seeing his name (misspelled) struck an emotional chord in me on a cellular level.
My comfort was knowing that Billy’s story is still alive, like that of his twin sister, my Deaf grandmother Betty. She lives on through her letters I’ve saved and the stories and the book I’ve written. She will always be more than a simple sentence:
Betty Mae Fitzjarrald Worth, 81, Tulsa.After a few weeks, I had reached the end of the family line; or, at least, tired of researching the same few people without results. Trips to government buildings will be needed to get any further. Bored, I considered what other things I could investigate. Then I remembered two postcards picturing the town where our cabin is located in the Catskills. Christian & I purchased them at an antique store in Liberty, NY, and I recalled there had been writing on them.
One was in pristine condition and was postmarked November 18, 1910. The almost one hundred and two-year-old note reads:
Dear Ida I got some cards last night so will send yours did you get my letter?
Hoping you are all well as this leaves me about sick in bed with a cold it is raining hard Harry has gone over home it was a journey. Over if it had of been a nice day. How is ___? Lula was looking for me last night but I guess she ____ come. Ha Ha. Ira is home. Good by. From Cora.
My clues were rich. A complete address plus names including Ida Martin, Cora, Harry, Ira and Lula. I judged by the date of the postmark and it being addressed to “Miss” that Ida was a probably a young girl and, therefore, born after 1890. I easily found a census report listing Ida Martin, age 37, living in Pennsylvania with her widowed mother, Nellie Martin, age 57. Ida’s birthdate was approximately 1893 making her 17 at the time she received the postcard. Further searches yielded few details since it seems Ida never married or had children.
I turned my search to Nellie. Combing through her records, I discovered her maiden name was Bishop and had sisters named Cora andLula and a brother named Ira! A jolt of adrenaline shot through me. I got antsy pants as I put dots together and searched Cora Martin’s records to find out who she married. Her husband’s name? Harrison.
Bingo! I had found them! Nellie’s siblings Cora, Lula, Ira and Ida were all actually around the same age as Nellie’s daughter Ida. I emailed the few Ancestry users that had the members in their tree and forwarded them the photos of the postcard. They all replied with overwhelming glee at the discovery of what probably seemed humdrum to Cora at the time. Seeing the names of family, the street where they lived, a simple day in their life and, especially, seeing the handwriting fade where Cora needed to dip her pen in a well to freshen the ink transported us all to another place.
My efforts did not go unrewarded. One Ancestry user emailed me back to say that while researching Nellie (Bishop) Martin, she discovered an author named Clara Gillow Clark had written a book. It was a children’s book about her great grandmother named Nellie Bishop.
I know. Right?!
A lump grew in my throat and, again, I was struck with deep emotion. Nellie and her daughter Ida will be more than a simple sentence, too.
The irony of this story is that the internet is at once the thing that allowed this to happen and the thing that is making precious documents like these extinct. Archived newspaper articles and handwritten letters serve as tangible wrinkles in time allowing us to travel across decades. One hundred and two years from now, will your great grandchild cherish your Facebook postings?
Another great, funny drawing from Dad for my husband Christian’s birthday which is on April Fool’s Day. For new readers, Christian is a stand up comedian. I’m not sure why I look like a Latina.
Click here for last year’s birthday card from Dad to Christian.
Wow, what an amazing night I had celebrating the launch of BURN DOWN THE GROUND: A MEMOIR. It was like a wedding! I did not have nearly enough face time with my friends but think I at least greeted and thanked them all. My mother was on CLOUD NINE with all the well wishes, kind words, support and love everyone selflessly showed her and me. Even the manager Lillie & bartender Doug at Rodeo Bar agreed: I have amazing friends. They had as much fun as we did! You should absolutely have your event there. It was effortless.
The gift bags were all snapped up so everyone got to enjoy Mrs. Renfro’s Salsa donated by my Richland High School guidance counselor Mrs. Angela Renfro, hilarious & cheeky fortune cookies donated by IllFortune.net, really clever & fun bungee bookmarks by Twin Cottage Industries and Admit Two passes to Gotham Comedy Club.
Christian had a custom cake made that has to be seen to be believed. It was Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” album but my name replaced Ozzy’s, BURN DOWN THE GROUND replaced “Bark at the Moon” and my face was superimposed on the werewolf’s. I gotta submit it to CakeWrecks.com. Weird and fun.
The bags themselves had my book cover on the front and were provided by my dear, dear high school & Tex in the City friend Scott Ramsey. As an added surprise, Shelby Rodriguez, the chef of the now closed Comix, made brownies from scratch with the help of another lovely Comix friend John Meyers. They even showed up early and helped put all the bags together! I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve so much love and wonderful friendship, but I am ever grateful.
Okay, now on to the fun stuff! More pics and video of the night to come, but in the meantime my pal Lisa shared a snippet of my mom and I singing in American Sign Language (ASL). Here it is for your viewing pleasure!
Y’all. Mom found my Penthouse magazine while searching my office for paper!
I flew Mom up to New York City so she could attend my book launch party. Not just any book…my first book. A memoir, you know, about my whole life. And the publishing process took four years. Having a publication date is a monumental event –much like a wedding or a birth– and I couldn’t NOT have Mom here to celebrate. It’s her life, too. Plus, I had a fun idea for her and I to perform a little something at my party*. It would make the event even more special for her and my guests.
Mom arrived and we had a few days of tromping around New York City and rehearsing our surprise treat. I was also dragging her around Manhattan on not-so-fun errands in rainy weather with her achy knee and my split jeans. In the book, I divulged many things that Mom would probably prefer to keep in the closet with the other dusty skeletons. The time for her to accept that our laundry was about to be aired and for me to unleash my life to anonymous reviewers was drawing near.
To distract us and work on something that had zilch to do with book stuff, I suggested she and I work on our new Ancestry.com project. Her face said it all: “GREAT IDEA!”
She leapt up and said, “I’ll grab some paper.”
Quicker than a wink, she was at my office printer.
PRECISELY WHERE I’D HIDDEN MY PENTHOUSE! I thought that had been the perfect spot for it, but lo how wrong I was.
“Why did I have a Penthouse?” you ask.
For the articles, of course. Duh. Seriously! I swear! Well, one article in particular: a review for my book. It was a good review, too.
So, why hide it then? Well, I know my mom better than most people and I knew –could lay my life on it– that she would take offense to it. Not because of the vaginas, boobs, penises and balls, silly, but because of the very first line:
“Kambri Crews grew up dirt poor…”
Whether you agree or disagree with that sentence, makes no difference. Mom disagrees with it and vehemently so. It’s one of those things that really gets under her skin in a hot second. It’s a pride thing. The same way I fight tooth and nail over small injustices. Justice is my thing. Pride is hers. SO…anyway…
In the mere seconds it took her to fly off the couch into my office heading straight for the offending material, two choices flashed through my mind:
1) Let Mom think I had a girly magazine hidden in my office and was possibly a closeted lesbian; or
2) Show Mom the review and face the ensuing argument.
I can’t have Mom thinking I like looking at nekkid girls! EEEEEWWW! So, I swallowed my fear and said, “Oh, hey, my Penthouse…did you see the review?”
Instant relief swept across her face. I cringe and laugh out loud thinking of what must’ve gone through her mind in those brief moments.
As predicted, she was offended. We hashed it out: There are finite lines in a girly magazine; ya gotta have a strong lede. We were poor to some people and had it good compared to others…it depends on perspective. Yadda, yadda, yadda.
At the end of the day, I wrote a book. It got reviewed in a major magazine. It was lauded. Let’s celebrate! And, boy, did we ever! We raised our glasses and laughed and hugged and smiled till our faces hurt.
We’re done keeping secrets, she and I. If there’s anything writing a memoir taught me it is this: While it might hurt to bare the truth, secrets will make you sick. They will corrode your love and trust until all that’s left is a rusty heap of worthless scrap.
*Here’s the fun idea I had for my book party. Enjoy!
I just received a text from my mom that read: I’m RETIRED!
It made me strangely weepy. My mom is the hardest working person I know. She used to build helicopters and was in a Budweiser commercial during the “For all you do, this Bud’s for you!” advertising phase.
My mom helped wire a helicopter for the NYPD and got a hat from it. My dad put it in the rear dash of our junky Thunderbird to try to deter cops from pulling him over. It didn’t work. We got pulled over one day and he grabbed the NYPD hat to try to butter up the officer. I was with him and acted as his interpreter. My dad told the truth to me, and I interpreted a lie to the cop which was better. It worked. We didn’t need the hat.
Years later, when I first moved to NYC, I worked for the attorney that represented the NYPD in their precedent-setting licensing efforts and confiscated unlicensed NYPD hats. Funny how things go full circle.
Throughout my life, Mom never once turned down overtime and sometimes logged as many as 80 hours a week. Congratulations to her for finally being able to take a break and reap the benefits of a lifetime of hard work. Mom, for all you do, this Bud’s for you.*
*Bud sucks. How about I give you a Brooklyn Lager?
People are curious about vaginas. Specifically, those in American Sign Language (ASL). I’m used to bizarre searches landing folks on my sites, so when I noticed a surge in traffic to my websites for people searching the term “ASL Vagina” I didn’t think much of it. That is until my friend Sarah shared a link to this article about the Oregon Ducks in the NY Times.
When fans of the Oregon Ducks hold their hands in an “O” shape to cheer on their team, they are “screaming” the ASL word for “vagina”. (Click photo at right.)
The headline says it all: Oops.
Technically, the sign for “vagina” is flipped with the index fingers pointed toward the ground, the thumbs toward the sky and the other fingers tucked under as presented in the following examples.
— At left is a spread (heh) I got in Time Out New York to promote “ASL in the Raw” at the now shuttered Comix.
— In the center, I perform on a Drink at Work show at the now shuttered Ace of Clubs. (Hmmm….I’m noticing a trend.)
— And, at right, the First Lady shows us her family values.
But as you can see from the drawing below of My Jailed Deaf Dad’s prison tattoo, the Tasmanian Devil is hungry for some, umm, “kitty”, and the reverse “vagina” is shaped by two “I love you” signs joined together. It’s lousy with double entendres.
While Oregon Ducks fans aren’t really shouting “vagina” in ASL, they come close. And when you’re a young kid talking about the human body, close is good enough.
I am truly honored to have been invited as the Keynote Speaker when DeafHope presents their 8th Annual Tea Party “Defying Gravity” in Livermore, California. The tea party is a fundraiser to support direct services for abused Deaf women and their children at DeafHope. I will read or tell a story or something (guess I’d better get cracking on that) along with Mistress of Ceremonies and President of the National Association of the Deaf Bobbie Beth Scoggins and this year’s DeafHope Trailblazer Award Recipient, Marlee Matlin.
The September 26, 2009 event includes delicious food by the Food Divas catering and tea with a free mug made by Hildy Licht and a silent auction.
The tickets are $75.00 per person and address and directions will be sent to you after your payment. You may pay via Paypal (link and info on their site, here) or send check payable to DeafHope to following address:
470 27th Street
Oakland, CA 94612
One last thing…on DeafHope’s site, they have a banner that rotates various photos of people and their completion of a sentence that begins “When violence against women stops…”
Mine will be: When violence against women stops, I will ride the subway alone after 11:00 PM.
I’m featured on pages 36 & 37 of this month’s issue of “Kiss Fist”, a beautifully laid out magazine that caters to the Deaf Community. All contributors and those featured are either deaf or a CODA. Check out the third issue here: http://read.kiss-fist.com/issue-03 and be sure to bookmark it to read about all the wonderful things happening in the Deaf world.
ASL in the Raw got a nice plug in this week’s Time Out NY with someone signing “vagina” in a full spread. Nice! Even better, they ran a step by step “yo mama” joke with Doug (one of the two deaf comedians) doing the signs and a quiz that you can take online. Check it out here.
Anyway, see this “deaf” comedy jam live at Comix on November 21st or 23rd at 8:00 PM. Tickets are selling fast so buy yours today.
The NY Post might run something, too. If so, I’ll be sure to post it.
I related a funny story about the small Deaf world to my friend the other night and decided to write it down:
When I was about 19, I moved to Ohio and worked as a teller during the day while attending paralegal school at night. An older deaf couple we’ll call the Wilsons regularly visited the bank but never came to my window. Finally, one day I saw them come in and I waved them over. Of course, the first question the husband asked was how I knew ASL.
“Mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, aunts & uncles, everyone all Deaf,” I told them.
Read the rest over at Love, Daddy.
Saturday night I saw a childhood friend who was in New York on vacation. Our grandfathers and our parents grew up together at the deaf school in Oklahoma, and my brother & I grew up with him and his sister. The eight of us, at one time, were inseparable even moving into the woods of Montgomery together and eventually buying matching trailers. We talked and talked and danced and laughed till 4:00 in the morning. The next day I woke up and my hands were stiff and sore from all the signing!!!
I was excited to tell him about “ASL in the Raw,” the show by and for the Deaf produced by and starring Doug Ridloff and Jason Norman (pictured below) which I am promoting this November at Comix. Maybe he’ll come back to NYC for that one. For you New Yorkers or those in town for the Thanksgiving holiday, pencil it in your calendar. Or, better yet, buy your advance tickets at ComixNY.com.
Aren’t they cute?
I and a few of my Tex in the City friends are getting a team together to “change the course of an epidemic” by walking 6.2 miles through Manhattan for the annual AIDS Walk New York. We had a lot of fun the last time we did it and managed to raise a decent sum of money, so we figured what the heck…let’s do it again! So Gawker Stalker, on May 21st you can find me somewhere in or near Central Park.
Even Paquita took part and she will lead us again this year when I walk in memory of my uncle Darold Carnes and surrogate dad George Zein, Jr. (both of whom are listed on this Deaf Lost to HIV/AIDS site) and family friend Lisa Hillard. May they rest in peace and may a cure be found.
Last year we capped off the walking by drinking wine at an outdoor cafe and resting our tootsies. Paquita was too zonked to even beg for food! I wonder if she dreamt of meeting John Spencer?
Want to join in on the fun? Fill out this form and show up with your walking shoes.
You’ll get a free t-shirt and some exercise, too.
The prison in Huntsville, Texas was a lot less ominous than I was expecting. Everyone was extremely nice and helpful . . . from the guards who inspected our rental car, to the guards who checked us in and scanned us, to the guards who supervised the visiting area. Even the other prisoners were . . . well . . . nice.
I halfway expected to burst into tears upon seeing my jailed deaf dad. I imagined him in an orange jumpsuit and flip flops, shackled and with a beaten spirit. Instead, he came into the visiting area with his trademark strut clad in tennis shoes, a white short-sleeved shirt over white thermal underwear and white pants, and gave a big smile and wave through the glass.
“See, there’s nothing to cry about,” I assured myself. “He is totally fine. Totally.”
The eight years that have passed since I last saw him have not been kind. He has more tattoos and a receding hairline (no gray, though!) which is to be expected of a man fast approaching 59 years in age, but his teeth. . . I don’t know what happened to them! A few of his top back teeth have been pulled and a few others knocked out and his formerly beautiful white front teeth are deeply yellowed with spacing in between them that was never there before. The gaps from his missing teeth cause his cheeks to sink a little more than normal, making him appear skinnier than he already is.
His glasses are broken from his many fights with other inmates. Every time he adjusted them, I noticed how perfectly the metal frame fit into the fleshy divots on the bridge of his nose. Another man’s fury imprinted on Dad’s face.
“Who did this to you?” I thought. Angry. Disgusted. Embarrassed. “I’ll fix this. They can’t do this to you. We’re better than this. Aren’t we?”
“What made them do this to you?” I revised internally. “You provoked them, didn’t you? You accused them. You called them names. You insulted them. Just keep to yourself, Stupid.”
His glasses haven’t escaped injury either. They are clumsily taped together in various spots and the nose pads are broken off. His dingy thermal shirt, which has sleeves too short to fit his long arms, are stitched in some places and holey in others. I started noticing how the uniform of every other prisoner had a bright white hue. Dad’s was a dull ecru at best.
There is still an impish charm that even the strongest steel bars can’t cage. It is so apparent in his smile and eyes and they way he tells a story, that my boyfriend Christian and I both wanted to give him all our money. Buy him new clothes and glasses and whatever food and books and periodicals he wanted. This is the same charisma that has allowed him to charm woman after woman after woman — none of whom are deaf — to fall in love with him, learn sign language and open their homes to . . . a scoundrel.
I spent much of our four hours together translating to Christian as my dad regaled us with tales of his various escapdes from his days in the “Free World”, many which involved either weed, drinking or gambling. At one point we were all laughing so loudly everyone around us stopped and stared. One story he shared:
A family friend, Clyde, also a deaf-mute, was riding in his car with his young, hearing daughter Cherie. At a stop light a stunningly beautiful woman pulled up beside them. Clyde, wanting to get her attention and look cool, cranked up the radio and began grooving in his seat to the “music” he could feel but not hear while staring over at the woman. Cherie kept tugging on his arm trying to get his attention and Clyde kept brushing her off before finally getting annoyed and turning to see what Cherie wanted to tell him. “WHAT?” Clyde angrily signed. Cherie pointed to the radio and signed back “You’re dancing to the NEWS!”
The next day we repeated the process of driving two hours from downtown Houston, having the car inspected and us getting scanned. The chocolate chip cookies and gum I had stuffed in my pockets remained undetected. I was hoping for an hour or two of a “contact visit” so I could pass him my secret stash. A stick of gum sells for $1.00 on the inside. That fat pack of Juicy Fruit could result in a whole lot of loot for Dad! I caught Christian, a proud smile on his face, watching me try to turn a $20 bill into a square tiny enough for Dad to hide in his shoe. “You’re so awesome,” he beamed.
This time we were greeted with a more tired looking version of the man we had seen the day before. He signed, “I just woke up, took a sh*t, brushed my teeth, sat down when the guard showed up and said I had a visitor.” He looked tired and perhaps a little depressed. He had a very long list of items he wanted to be sure to tell us before our time ran out.
— Teach Christian the sign he made up for the phrase, “Come here, asshole.”
— Smuggle in a $100 bill: He can buy 8 packages of loose tobacco and make over $500 profit and not have to do any of the selling. My $20 just wouldn’t cut it.
— Get him the Sunday New York Times. Just Sunday . . . you know, to see what the big deal is. Oh, and Discovery Magazine . . . he really loves reading about new technology.
— Go through his boxes of photographs and send him specific photos.
— Buy him fancy stationery with matching envelopes. He can sell other inmates a set of two pieces of stationery and one envelope for $0.75.
— Send a letter on his behalf to his friend Larry who was transferred to another prison after suffering severe beatings at the hands of the guards because they found drawings of nude children in Larry’s cell during a shake down. “Larry is not a child molester, he’s just a flasher! And they beat him like that? Larry said they weren’t drawings of children, just midgets — not dwarves — midgets.”
— Get him a new pair of glasses. The next time I visit, pretend the glasses are mine during security check in. Then, during a contact visit, we will swap out his old, broken glasses with the new pair I smuggled in.
And, most importantly:
— Help him write a letter for an appeal: There was a lack of evidence in his case, he insists. He spent a great deal of time telling me about his version of events the night his girlfriend Gloria* was nearly killed. He dramatically acted out a story: “She was mad because we didn’t have money for more beer. She was already drunk and wanted to fight with me. She tried to kill herself with my knife by cutting her own throat. In the struggle to get the knife away from her, she was stabbed a few times. She wanted me to go to jail for it so she could keep my apartment and all my things. Twenty years? Why me? Why me? Why me?”
If he doesn’t win an appeal, he has six more years till he is eligible for parole. He shook his head slowly in disbelief. His chin wrinkled and his pursed lips turned downward.
“I will tie sheets around my neck and hang myself,” he signed.
“No,” I scoffed, scanning his face for a sign he wouldn’t do it.
He stared back, scanning my face for one good reason not to.
We sat silently for a very, very long time.
*Named changed to protect identity.
If ever a picture were to beg for a caption contest, this photo of Coach Pat Summit is the one:
Come on, send in those entries. Winner gets a prize!
Even though we have been dating for nearly two years, Christian met my mom for the first time yesterday evening when she arrived safely from Houston, Texas. He treated us to dinner at The Brick Cafe before we headed in to the City for a gig Christian had at The Slipper Room.
The show was going well enough though one British comedian did call my mom out (“there’s a deaf woman in the house”) when I had to sign to her in sign language what the comedian had just said. Then Christian was called to the stage as the final performer. He did a few minutes before segueing into a bit called “How is This My Fault?” in which he talks about traveling with me, his girlfriend.
“Speaking of my girlfriend, that deaf woman in the audience is her mother. She is in town visiting. She’s actually not totally deaf. She can hear if you YELL AT HER! In fact, Christy–that’s her name–why don’t you come to the stage?”
[Audience applauds and searches the room for “Christy”.]
My mom looks to me with excited, wide eyes and signs, “Does he really want me to go up there?!?!” Her look hints of uncertainty and slight fear that she will be made butt of some terrible joke.
I pull her out of her chair as I sign, “Yes, they’re waiting for you!”
[Christy gets on stage to wild applause. They engage in mild banter.]
“You’re here visting New York. Where are you from?”
[No applause, save for a tepid clap or two.]
“But you voted for John Kerry?” Christian asks.
“Oh yes I did,” Christy replies emphatically.
[Wild applause. Some hooting.]
“You and I have just spent about two hours together, what do you think of your daughter’s boyfriend so far?”
“I think he’s pretty cool.”
“Do you think your daughter and I have a future together?”
She skeptically replies, “Oh I don’t know about that!”
[Huge laughter from everyone but Christian. A few people turn to look at my horrified reaction.]
“Oh, really? Well, maybe you would like her to give you grandchildren?”
She glances my way with raised eyebrows, “Well, yes, but Kambri has always said her career comes first.”
“Well, we have a little surprise for you.”
[My mom’s eyes grow the size of silver dollars as she whips her head in my direction. Audience gasps, shocked & thrilled giggles & laughter fill the room.]
She simultaneously mouths and signs, “You’re pregnant?!”
Christian says, “Were. We aborted it.”
[My mom grabs her forehead in mock shock. Even more shocked & thrilled gasps and giggles fill the room.]
He continues, “On that happy note, why don’t go back and take your seat. Come on everyone, give a round of applause to my mother’s girlfriend!”
The “DJ”, comedian Craig Baldo, chimes in, “Whoops! Mother’s girlfriend?”
Christian responds with his trademark, “Paging Dr. Freud!”
After the show, the comics approached her to compliment her on her “performance”. She said, “I wish I had known he was going to do that, I would have prepared some funny answers!”
[What? Is she a comedian?]
“Oh, no, you did just fine.”
She was up at 7:00 in the morning (?!) on the phone with my stepdad telling him the whole story. Well, actually, she was trying to tell the story but had it all wrong and couldn’t remember most of the important details which meant she had to interrupt the conversation every two seconds to ask, “How did it go again?”
Out of all those people walking for the cure, I ran into my neighbor Steve; his large, horny-for-Paquita German Shepherd named Turbo; and a coworker who wasn’t walking, but saw our signs and ran over to say hello. Funny things, Timing and Chance. I walked in memory of my Deaf family lost to AIDS: Darold, George and Lisa. May you rest in peace and may a cure be found.