Amy B. Smoyer, PhD

Prison Food, Incarcerated Lives, Health & Social Work

Rolodex

This is a metamorphic rock. See the layers?

I wasn't thinking about Ed when I went to clear out my old office.  My old office, that had become Alana's office, and now will become something else. The study is over and the moment of truth about all those papers and books I had kept in the hopes that someone else might read them had arrived. Get out the recycle bin. I was actually thinking of

George Carlin and his forever funny piece

about all of our stuff and the enormous efforts we make to get stuff, store stuff, move stuff.

My Rolodex was among the more obsolete items that drifted through that space, settling in a bottom drawer, at rest. Are you familiar with the rock cycle that I have been studying with my boy in preparation for Middle School exams week? Rocks start deep in the earth, formed from molten lava or dead birds, and then rise up to the Earth's crust where they are moved around until they settle in a riverbed and are transformed into something completely different by the every day touch of water. And then it happens all over again in a different way. And so my Rolodex, which was a way to keep track of the people I had met and hoped to know, had settled in the bottom drawer only to be brought forth by the passing of time and when I leafed through it the small square papers were no longer the people I know but rather the people I knew. A memorial of sorts to a time and place gone by.

The card with Ed's cell phone was handwritten because his business of advocate, rabble-rouser, person living with HIV didn't issue cards. It was clear that I had written the number quickly, it was slanted and messy, he had probably been sitting in front of me, telling me a story about one of life's speed bumps, when I scratched the numbers into time. To call him on that day or the next would have been effortless; he came around a lot and always made himself available. I thought of how he lay in the VA hospital at the end, so silent and yet somehow still moving, his energy filling the room. If I could call him and talk to him now, what would he say about the boy's rock exam, my job search, the peeling paint on my back porch.

Part of working in the HIV community involves having the names and stories of people who have passed on in your Rolodex, your email contacts, your memories.

A week later, I was interviewing a formerly incarcerated person living with HIV in Rhode Island. Unique and amazing in his own way, he reminded me of Ed: his eyes, slight build, his storytelling, his anger. He told me about coming out of prison to a homeless shelter last winter and losing forty pounds as he drifted between meals and place. Whether Ed was present with me on that snowy morning or not, he heard this tale, he knows it well. It's his story. A story formed from heat, pressure, and chemical reactions that (re)surfaces, settles, and is transformed in the telling, the hearing, and all the little waves that surround it, to form yet another layer in a narrative of bureaucratic apathy and resilience that is rock solid but also capable of shattering into a thousand pieces if slammed hard enough.