Freedom to Read Week: Letter from an Indianapolis Jail—Friends I Made in Prison

Listen:

While I’m writing this, an awesome jazz band is playing over the sounds of a dozen interesting conversations, and earlier I heard Aleta Hodge, Dan Wakefield, and Carl Hines talk about jazz on the Avenue, because that’s the kind of stuff that happens here! Yeah, I’m bragging a little.

Anyway, tonight is the last night of my sentence. Warden Lauren says I’m being kicked out a little early for bad behavior. Regardless, tomorrow night I will see my wife, coach a game with my football brothers, and sleep in my own bed—all things I’m very much looking forward to. However, I will miss this. A lot. I don’t know that I’ll miss the hard cot or the noisy nights, but I will definitely miss the people I’ve been so fortunate to meet this week. I thought I’d spend most of my day reading or grading papers (OK, I knew better than that) or napping and that I’d only have to be “on” when there were events here, but the truth of it is that I’ve been busy all day every day, and a lot of that has consisted of great conversations with dozens of people.

The folks who come to the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library (KVML) are an eclectic, intelligent, creative, and fun karass. And they are kind enough to let me in, too, which is pretty cool of them. They are informed and passionate and humane. They think, they talk, they laugh. I’ve been to many events at the KVML, have stood off to the side and wished I could be bold enough to go introduce myself to the smart and cool people who attend such things. But this week, they found me!

Anyway, as a reward for your joining me in my meanderings this week, I would like to introduce you to some of the amazing people who have visited within the confines of Vonnegut Correctional.

Most recently, just this afternoon, I was visited, out of the blue, by Mike Dell. Mikey is a 1999 graduate of Tipton High School, a former student, and football player. I hadn’t seen him in . . . yikes, I have no idea how long. He brought along a book he is reading, and we talked about Tipton and caught up with each other, and then waded into adult stuff like economic justice and racism and generational change. This kid was an O-lineman, for God’s sake, and here he is, grown up and articulate and engaged!

Brett Stoker’s former student Mike Dell.

I also got to talk with world-class scholar Jonathan Eller the other night! Dr. Eller runs the Center for Ray Bradbury Studies at IUPUI. Yeah, it’s right here in Indianapolis, and Dr. Eller knows more about the great sci-fi author than anyone on the planet! And when he came back into my cellblock to have a chat, he called me Coach, which was cool. We talked about Blue Devil football, Bradbury, and Vonnegut, in that order, which is what they talk about in heaven, I’m sure.

I met Tom Crosby, an attorney at Eli Lilly and a KVML board member, and in the midst of a pleasant and polite conversation, we discovered that we both grew up in Roachdale, Indiana, a town of a thousand people west of Indy.  The world doesn’t get any smaller than that!

I got to see Ed Battista of Bluebeard every day this week. Ed personally delivered the food that the restaurant provided for our events, and he is by far the nicest fine-dining restaurant owner I’ve ever met. OK, the bar for that honor is pretty low, but he truly is a really nice guy, and the special inmate meals that Bluebeard sent over were amazing, even the ones where I had to ask Ed what they were.

Brett and Ed Batista enjoy a meal from Bluebeard together.

The first day I was here, there was this really hip-looking young guy with a cool hat and a curly handlebar mustache. I figured he was one of the smart and hip people who love Vonnegut and the KVML, which turned out to be true, but he is also a brilliant songwriter and musician from Denton, Texas, named Mike Flores. His stage name is Edgar Derby, the name of a character in Slaughterhouse-Five, and he came back the next night and played. Before his set, he hung out with me for a good while, and we told each other our stories. It was one of many highlights of the week.

Mike Flores, aka Edgar Derby, performing at KVML.

I met Emma, the KVML volunteer who has the most badass Vonnegut tattoos I’ve ever seen — a whole arm’s worth! And I got to hang out with Craig and Kim, who came up here from South Carolina for Freedom to Read Week. Craig was the prisoner two years ago, and we swapped inmate stories, and Kim took a lot of pictures. And there’s Chad Perdue of Devlab, who did all of the filming for KVML and was professional and funny and patient and kind. I was interviewed by John Krull from WFYI, whom I’ve heard on the radio a hundred times and who was very patient with me in my nervousness. I sat in on the KVML Book Club, where I heard a lot of smart things said about Slaughterhouse-Five, and met Rico, an intern from Herron High School who wants to be an agronomist. And on and on.

And people I know visited, too. Over 100 Tipton High School students and three of my colleagues took part of their day to visit! Our tireless and smart and amazing minister Linda McKiernan-Allen came by and shared dinner and conversation, and her husband Ron Allen, the intellectual with the poet’s soul, visited on a different night because they are busy people, and that’s the kind of thing they do. Both of my sons stopped by one day to see what the hell their dad was up to, which was so very cool of them. And to keep me from being too homesick, my amazingly supportive wife Karen drove down twice and brought a little bit of home with her.

I truly am blessed by my life in Tipton—great family and friends and colleagues and students and community. But this week away has been so much fun!! Thank you to everyone who stopped by and shared this crazy cool week with me!

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