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The Midnight Special

Here’s some shameless holiday promotion for a cause I believe in: in January the first issue of The Midnight Special, a fledgling literary magazine for Texas prisoners, edited by prisoners in the writing workshop John Speer and I have been running for three years, will appear: just as soon as our friends at the Henry David Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fort Bend County, Texas (Thoreau for short), get it produced and mailed out. Subscriptions to the new magazine, to be published twice a year, are free for prisoners and available to people in the free world for a $10 donation within the USA, $13 for international air mail. At the moment we have nearly 200 subscriptions from prisoners but a scant 5 (count ’em, 5) from free-world people, so we’d sure like to see a few more subscriptions roll in. We need the donations to finance the paper and postage for the prisoners’ subscriptions after our support from an anonymous donor runs out. We don’t yet have a way to take donations online, but I’ll include the postal address at the end of this blog entry.

The idea occurred to me this past summer in Portugal as I was gazing out over the spectacular miradouro in the little town of Melgaco near the Spanish border. I found myself humming that Leadbelly song that Odetta sings so beautifully on an album called Lookin for a Home. Why? I certainly wasn’t homesick, and I wasn’t near a prison nor a train, but it was a spectacularly beautiful day, and maybe I was wishing that all the people who live in cages could be there to see it with me. (There’s a picture of the view from that miradouro accessible through the link to my pictures under “Links” in the bar on the right of this blog, filed under “Assorted Sites, Portugal.”) “The Midnight Special” is a song that I often find myself humming when the workshop enters my mind, because the legend is that Leadbelly wrote the song while he was in a prison that stood on the very piece of land where the prison we teach the workshop now stands, right by the railroad where a train still passes every night around midnight–and although the way the prison is now situated, the headlights of the Midnight Special can no longer shine into prisoners’ cells, prisoners and everybody else in the area can hear the whistle, and I can hear it in my apartment in Sugar Land. I love to hear the train whistle–I think of train whistles like great harmoniums breathing a rhythmic OM across the planet.

So I came home, pitched the idea to John and the folks at Thoreau, presented it to the guys in the workshop who will be the editors and will select what goes in and what doesn’t, talked about it on The Prison Show, and the prisoners’ subscriptions started rolling in. Of course most prisoners are out of range of The Prison Show, so there was a wonderful piece of synchronicity. There’s an in-house Texas prison newspaper called The Echo that has an interesting history but now only prints what the bosses approve, so it’s not exactly full of radical viewpoints, but it reaches all the prisons in the state. It just happened that a fine writer named David West, who now works on The Echo, was listening to The Prison Show the night I first talked about The Midnight Special, and David had just finished writing a feature story about the song–yeah, the Leadbelly song–how amazing is that? David had just finished this article, so he wrote me and offered to run a little box under the feature story, announcing the existence of this new literary magazine for prisoners. Since that issue of The Echo came out, the post office box has been filled to bursting with letters from prisoners requesting subscriptions, including one woman (so far), many letters from men who are spending up to twenty years in solitary confinement and say they really need something to read (!), and some on Death Row. One of the latter joked that he’d like a lifetime subscription.

Having said this much, I guess I ought to offer a sample or two to whet appetites, so here’s a taste:

She’ll be Tired

By Anthony Alegría

I don’t know when I first realized how hard my Mom worked while trying to raise Mando, my kid brother, and me. It just seems like it’s something that I always knew. For a long time we didn’t have a car, so Mom had to ride the bus to and from work five days a week. The bus passes by our house by only about 100 feet, but the actual bus stop, a bench with a glass enclosure, is a little over a city block away. It made no difference if the weather was nice or if it had been raining or even snowing, by six a.m. Mom was waiting for the bus that would take her halfway to work. At the end of this bus’s route Mom had to transfer to another which still left her with a little over a mile to walk before she finally reached her job. The two bus trips and walk took a little over an hour. Years later, after driving to Mom’s job myself, I learned the trip can be made in about twenty minutes.
Mom spent nine hours a day at work. One hour was for her lunch break. As a kid I didn’t always understand what Mom did; I just knew she worked at the hospital. As it turns out she made appointments for pregnant women most of the time. Mom would get off work at four in the afternoon and make her mile walk and the two bus rides home. Mando and I knew she’d be home around five and she’d be tired, so we always tried to have dinner made and at least a glass of ice water waiting. At five o’clock either Mando or I would be looking out the window, trying to catch that first glimpse of the bus so we could have everything ready.
Mando and I are both in prison now, and Mom lives alone. She’s had a Blazer for years, and she comes to see me at least once a month. It’s a six to seven hour round-trip plus the two hours for our visits. Every time she leaves I can’t help wishing Mando or I could be at home to have dinner made and at least a glass of ice water waiting. I know she’ll be tired.

And here’s a poem by a prisoner who was trying to deal with the deaths of some of his young friends and was feeling some anger about people telling him, “God never gives anybody anything they can’t handle,” and “There’s a purpose for everything.” We talked about how irritating it is when people try to soothe us with bullshit platitudes like those, and he came back with this poem:

The Horde’s Prayer

Kevin Maryland

Sons and daughters
who art in heaven,
hollowed be thy name.
No season is fun
but we still are one
on earth, as we are in heaven.
Help us each day
to raise our heads,
and forgive us our misleadings,
as we forgive those that mislead us.
And leave us not,
as we still face temptation
because the world is still evil.
Our time together was
full of power and glory,
for ever and ever.

It’s impossible to provide a “typical” example of the work, because every piece of work is completely different from every other–but they all move me. So maybe they will move others.

Checks for donations should be made out to “TUUC” (which stands for Thoreau Unitarian Universalist Congregation) with “Midnight Special” on the memo line and an address, of course, for the subscription. Send subscription requests to: The Midnight Special, P.O. Box 18814, Sugar Land, TX 77496. Also please note we are only offering free subscriptions to prisoners in Texas, so if you would like to give a gift subscription to a prisoner in another state, please send a donation for that, along with his or her address.


-2 responses to “The Midnight Special”

  1. Rhea says:

    I just read about you in your About Me section. It sounds as if you are on a very intriguing journey. I will keep reading!

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