It was a sunny day in the year 2000 when I drove down to the Federal Detention Center at Seatac to pick up my old friend Kevin. He was getting out of prison, where he had been for helping friends water pot plants. No weapons, acts of violence, or priors of any kind had been involved. There were just an awful lot of tiny little root systems in the baby beds plus a nice collection of mature plants that added up to a mandatory minimum sentence of 10 years. He was 40 years old when he was arrested on January 13, 1992.
I first met Kevin almost 30 years ago. I was newly arrived in Seattle, had run out of money, and for reasons too silly and bizarre to go into right now, had found a temporary berth in a house owned by a 300-pound crazy man known as "the Captain."
So there was the crazy captain and Willie and Dr. Paul and John (I’m fifty years old, goddammit, and I’ve still got all my own teeth), assorted jazz musicians in the basement, me, a couple of dogs, and Kevin. Willie, always out of work, moved through the house like a stringy piece of silly putty. Dr. Paul visited regularly to get his toenails cut because he was too fat to reach his own feet. He had a miniature dachshund that we called the sausage dog. John paced back and forth through the house at night, telling us all about how American men had lost their balls and asking the jazz musicians, “What’s your favorite note?” I used to clean house for rent and food. Not that anyone cared if I cleaned house, but I felt better about staying there if I did and it gave me something to do besides look for work and listen to John. After a while, I started referring to the living room as the dayroom, and kept threatening to draw bars on my bedroom window. I didn't exactly think of the place as a prison, but it did have the feel of some kind of surreal institution.
Kevin kept me sane. Kevin was a little crazy too; you had to be or you would never have found the place, even by accident, but he was my kind of crazy. Sort of. He loved David Lynch movies. He used to say, "Barbara, you're a Deadhead. I'm an Eraserhead." He had seen Eraserhead thirteen times when I first knew him, and it was up to seventeen times by the time he went away. He took me to my first party in Seattle where The Raging Maggots were playing for somebody's birthday party. They opened with The Eleven, by the Grateful Dead and Kevin said, "This is why I like this band. They don't just do Dead covers. They do some real good improvisational jazz, like this." I didn't tell him it was a Dead song until years later.
He had an almost obscene fondness for sausage (he loved the sausage dog) and condiments, collected globules of plastic grapes from garage sales, and would talk about guinea pigs the way bikers talk about Harleys, but he would sit in the living room ignoring most of the professional craziness, read "The Village Voice" and fill me in on the latest foreign films and books by French neo-existentialists, and he kept me sane.
A few months later I got a job and a place of my own and I left the Captain's (I piped ashore), and I never went back. But my oldest friends in Seattle are still the ones I met there, the ones who are my kind of crazy, the ones who helped just by being there. Kevin and I stayed friends. When he went to prison, folks from the Blue Moon raised funds to keep him supplied with subscriptions to The New York Times and The Village Voice. Friends hosted events like the Spam Carving Party - apparently he loved the stuff - for subscriptions to rags like The Nation or The Atlantic. Kevin, plant waterer extraordinaire, was in prison for nearly 9 years, and we couldn't keep the money flowing for all of that time but, as the years passed, folks did what they could.
Kevin's been out for more than 13 years now, and he's doing just fine. He got a job, found a home with an old friend, and went back to gardening, only this time it was tomatoes, peppers, pansies. Things of that sort. He got a dog. There was a time, two or three years, when I would take the ferry every couple of weeks to meet him and we would hike into the Olympic National Forest for a few hours. He would bring bottles of home-made tea and snacks of cheese and sausages. We hiked trails that wound through towering trees, past fallen giants covered with ferns and mushrooms, over rills that tumbled down the mountain from hidden springs. He was always ahead of me, climbing on strong legs - I had never known him to own a car. He never rode when he could walk. - and he'd wait for me at the places where the trail turned and the trees opened and the spaces beyond were filled with mountains and sky. That's when I would remember the day I drove down to Seatac to pick him up.
If you ever have a chance to free somebody, take it. Oh, I know I had nothing to do with it. His time was up, that's all. I just got to come and take him home. But I remember walking out of prison with him that day. There is no way I can know how he felt, but sharing the moment with him was exhilarating nevertheless. It was a gift. We didn't say anything. We just walked to my car.
"Where do you want to go first?" I asked him then.
"Let's get a burger," he said.