Mr. Crew Cut: An Angel Among Monsters

Guest Contributor: Leo Cardez

There is nothing exactly like living in Hell, but there is something close to it. In my Hell, where I lived for most of 2013, there is, as Dante understood, no hope. You wake up every morning realizing that your nightmare will continue into your waking hours. The loss you have suffered is permanent. Life will never be the same. There is no healing, no improvement; but even more important, there is no possibility of any to come. The most unbearable thing about your unbearable life is that you will always be forced to bear it. 

In the midst of my incarceration, alone and desperate to salvage any relationships with my loved ones (and failing), I occasionally wondered if those who blamed me were watching, if somehow they might find my misery enjoyable? I myself might have found it enjoyable if I believed everything that was said about me and on a number of particularly dark nights. I considered doing that. I doubted anyone could hate me more than I hated myself. I removed the mirror from my cell as I couldn’t bear my own reflection.

Cut to Mr. Crew Cut an elderly man from the greatest generation that volunteered to teach creative writing and journaling on my prison wing. He carried himself as if on his own weather event. When he spoke people froze in their spots as if Jesus himself were in the room. He wore a beret, ascot, and handkerchief–matching and bold. In other words, extra AF. Others attended his class, good for them. I had more important things to do like watching for the predators seeking easy prey. I think a part of me was simply scared (and by scared I mean an emotion closer to terror) to crack open the files because then I had to reckon with the pain I had caused. 

Then, a pivot. Inmate Twitter (aka the rumor mill) was trending with gossip about a possible shake-up in our building. Inmates will be moved into other cells or buildings due to a new directive that required mixing races between cell mates. The only guys that were safe were those currently participating in an educational program, like Mr. Crew Cut’s class. 

“Mr. Crew Cut,” Leo Cardez

Writing was hard for me after my senses had lain dormant for so long. I couldn’t express what I was feeling. Prison always felt like a place where nothing happened. Life is elsewhere. When I did write I was angry. Trauma lived on the edges of every story. Mr. Crew Cut asked why I swore so much in my writing? I explained, would “Fuck the Police” by NWA be as artistically and politically honest had it been called “The Heck with the Police”?Plus, he told us to write with raw honesty. He reasoned, if our writing was to mean anything to anyone it must above all be true. Later that month, much to my surprise, he announced to the class that he had changed his opinion about cursing in our writing. He told us, sometimes civility and being politically correct can be counterproductive, even destructive, because it perpetuated falsehoods, while vulgarity could keep us honest. Rudeness could be useful, BUT ONLY if it is being honest. That’s the kind of teacher he was. He listened. He respected us. 

I didn’t realize honest writing will tear your guts out. Like when I saw the pain and shame in my mother’s eyes when she came to visit me, knowing it was my fault and worse, I could do nothing to help her. That feeling of helplessness was like being stuck in a barrel at the bottom of the ocean with no options. There is nothing worse. “Keep writing,” Mr. Crew Cut insisted to the class, “cut deep, close to the bone.” And I did. 

Fast forward five years. I was eventually transferred to another prison, but I kept most of my early writing for that class. As I reread my earliest journal entries I marvel at the hilariously flawed, petty, unhappy person I was. But Mr. Crew Cut never stopped trying to uplift me. In one of his comments on a piece I wrote about the futility of a life lived warehoused on the fringes of the world he wrote, “the universe smiles on a persistent heart, so never stop trying to make a better life for yourself.” And you know what? He was right. Today, in retrospect, I can see that when I did my best to make things better–every now and then–I succeeded. Writing has helped me see and appreciate my circumstances in a whole new light. See, writing wasn’t a diversion  for me, it was my church. It offered salvation in the promise of change. Escaping Hell is difficult, but with enough effort, grace, and the generosity of spirit of angels that live among us, it can be done. When my parents wrote to tell me they were proud of me on my 40th birthday, I wept. I wept again after reading a reader’s note regarding an essay I had written about mental health in prison. They wrote, “In part, you helped me see that I was beautiful from the inside out and find what I had been searching for though not in the places I had been looking.” 

Writing, and specifically Mr. Crew Cut, has taught me how to look inward in order to look forward to the next chapter of my own life. 

Dedicated to all the prison and jail teachers and volunteers who are changing lives and, more often than they will ever know, saving them.

Leo Cardez is an award winning essayist and playwright living in a human warehouse on the fringes of society. He is a two-time winner of the PEN America Award and Pushcart Press Prize-nominated for his creative nonfiction. He is the author of the play Zoo Story (pending professional production) and 2022 book, Visiting the Prison Blues (anthology, PEN America). Mr. Cardez’s writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Evening Review, Under the Sun, The Abolitionist, Crime Report, NYU’s Harbinger Review and elsewhere. He can be reached at Leo.Cardez.Writer@gmail.com.

2 thoughts on “Mr. Crew Cut: An Angel Among Monsters

  1. Hi Leo- my friends call me L. I am formerly incarcerated and the word DANTE caught my eye which prompted me to read your touching article. I was released 2 years ago and was blessed enough to work with a human rights class from Yale Divinity School. I was in the class with others participants like me, similar stories, similar horrors. We studied Dantes inferno and how it related to our own personal struggles. The participants teamed up with the students and created a piece to express our own experience and how it correlated with Dantes masterpiece.
    You’re words have power my friend choose them wisely- Thanks for sharing! L.

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