Fill a Man's Day with Life

MIKE BOWLER

February 27, 1993|By MIKE BOWLER

The first submission of the new year from Harry B. Johnson Jr. arrived January 13 with the usual chatty cover letter. ''As you can see,'' H.B. (as he calls himself) wrote, ''I'm really in a serious pickle now. But don't despair, my friend. I'll be OK.''

Well, he won't. Which is why I cried over this man I've never met in person and with whom I've had only brief telephone conversations. But we have become friends through his writing, and the news contained in his first article of 1993 -- that he has AIDS -- was devastating.

H.B. Johnson Jr., No. 177373, 954 Forrest St., and I, No. 516-46-5644, 501 N. Calvert St., ''met'' maybe seven years ago when he, doing 35 years at the State Penitentiary for robbery and attempted murder, began sending me, editor of The Evening Sun's Other Voices page, poems, essays, then journals, plays and novels. I've published perhaps 20 items, just a bite of a 10-course feast of H.B.'s work. The pile in my office is 6 inches deep.

Op-ed editors get lots of prisoners' work, and Other Voices, one of the few in the nation that is open daily to all kinds of writers, has published the work of many inmates. But H.B. is different. His work is confessional, always redemptive. He does not claim his own innocence and promote reform that would make his life easier. Rather, he looks back on a wasted life. ''I wept for my mother,'' he wrote in the essay about contracting AIDS, ''because she did not want this kind of life for me . . . My father is left behind to absorb so much foolish hurt.''

No exemplary life here. The son of a minister and a domestic, he was tossed out of Booker T. Washington in the eighth grade. He went to jail at 17. (He's now 46.) He assaulted a police officer. He served time in the City Jail. Eleven years ago, he and a friend, high on gin and cocaine, held up a Glen Burnie insurance agency. H.B. says the gun went off by accident. One of his poems is dedicated to the employee he wounded.

''Of once being a tortured soul incapable of treating myself properly, and consequently considering even less the treatment of others, I -- with the utmost shame -- am guilty,'' he wrote me. ''But of being a cold-hearted creature guilty of trying to kill another human being, I am not.''

Last year, H.B.'s play, ''A Gift From the Hunters,'' about innocent children dying in drug-related shootings in Baltimore, won the 10th annual competition for black playwrights sponsored by WMAR-TV and Arena Players. H.B. wasn't allowed to attend the premiere -- and then they took away his typewriter.

All summer, H.B. sent me prose and poetry in longhand. ''What delight it must come to you,'' he wrote the warden, ''if I burned all my pens and broke all my fingers, if I ranted and raved so you could throw me deeper into your dungeon. But I will never give you that control.''

I've learned through H.B.'s writing about his life. I've learned about the hellish conditions inside the Pen, about prison guards and their way of thinking. H.B.'s riveting Other Voices essay eight days ago about Stan Cherry, a former pro football player turned State Pen guard who died of a drug overdose earlier this month, demonstrated again that the ''guard, the keeper, the captor intrusively fuse with the prisoner.''

H.B. Johnson has other friends from the outside. Sister Mary Ellen Dougherty of the College of Notre Dame has been his academic adviser. Drew Leder, a philosophy professor at Loyola College, addressed a poem to H.B. called ''The Yard.'' ''Words can climb the walls,'' the professor wrote, ''circulate, like free men, in and out of prison -- teach, ponder, laugh, cry out, whisper and scream, accept and think. And in the thinking grow planted seeds. You planted a seed in the hard-packed dirt of prison.''

H.B.'s latest effort, a 158-page novella called ''Baltimore Badlands,'' arrived this week. Begun five years ago while he was in solitary confinement, it's a thriller with a villainous Baltimore mortician and a hero who declares, ''Fill a man's day with life, and he won't fill your lawn with graves.'' I finished it at 3 a.m., amazed once more at H.B.'s potential. He's not a polished writer, not a polished poet, but he could be, and he works harder at it than anyone I know.

Sadly, H.B.'s own days now appear to be numbered. He makes me think hard about crime and punishment, rehabilitation and redemption. One of his poems goes this way: ''I am proud/ Even when it is time/ To show my son/ How one should die.''

Mike Bowler is editor of The Evening Sun's Other Voices page.

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