In 2012, I was a resident in a maximum-security correctional facility in upstate New York. My home was known as “the box,” the area for the most difficult inmates. At that time, I was stressed to my maximum capacity, brewing in negative emotions. Day by day, I could feel myself becoming increasingly dark, possessed by something angry and evil.
One day my stress levels exceeded my self-control, causing me to lash out in order to release some stress, anger, sadness and confusion.
My unlucky target was Moshe Canty, my neighbor in the facility and a former Blood leader who still had plenty of influence throughout the prison system despite “dropping his flag.” At that moment, I could have cared less who he was.
Moshe had a habit that really bothered me. He was constantly “on the gate,” as we called it, talking through the bars of his cell. He spoke about legal work and about books he read. He quizzed other inmates on their knowledge of history, philosophy and law. He never seemed to shut up. On that day, I had had enough.
“Bruh,” I finally exploded, shouting through the bars of my cell. “People are dealing with their own issues. Nobody wants to hear you all day.”
“Look, when I’m on the gate, I’m building,” he shot back. In other words, engaging in progressive conversation that builds the mind. “This is how we deal with our issues,” he went on. “Furthermore, young man, know who you’re speaking to and have some respect when addressing your elders.”
“I don’t care who you are or how old you are,” I said. “I don’t want to hear that shit all day. You talk like you know everything. You act like you can’t be alone. Like you’re scared of yourself. I respect militancy not politics.”
“You stupid little ignorant boy!” he said. “Do you know who I am? Militant?! I am that. We don’t politic. We send troops. You need to watch your mouth before I violate your dumb ass.”
I kept at it.
“Fuck you,” I said. “I fear no man. You bleed like I bleed.”
We argued for three days after that.
On the fourth day, Moshe called all of his associates and me to the gate.
“I want to apologize to everyone for conducting myself like a child,” he said. He called me by my nickname, Flip (short for Feddy Flip, as in someone who moves or flips a lot of confetti or money).
“Flip,” he said, “I’m old enough to be your father, and I don’t want any man talking to my son like I have been talking to you. I want to apologize to you for that. I will be more considerate of people’s quiet time in the future.”
That riled up his associates, who insisted he had no need to apologize.
He quelled their fury, insisting, “That’s not who I am anymore.” Then he asked to speak to me face to face the following day.
I felt triumphant. I’d made him back down. I didn’t yet understand the power of submission.
The next day, during our daily hour of recreation, I was basically face to face with Moshe, yet separated by a wall of fencing. Five feet and 10 inches of compacted muscle mass, he was a bulky and defined 215 pounds. He didn’t approach me directly, instead moving to the back corner of his cage.
“Flip, pull up,” he said. Instead, I also moved toward the back of my cage.
”What’s shaking, Mo?” I asked casually.
“So, young brother with the Hulk syndrome, where you coming from?” he said.
He wanted to know where I’d grown up, how I wound up in the box and more. I lied or exaggerated every answer that I gave him, wary of falling into a trap.
When the corrections officers started to shackle people to return us to our cells, he turned to me one last time.
“You’re young and more afraid than you believe,” he said. “That’s why you’ve lied more than you’ve told the truth in this conversation. I give you my word: we’re good.”
“Why, then, are we even talking?” I asked him.
“You remind me of myself,” he said. “Young, angry and don’t give a fuck. I have a book for you when we get back. Read it.”
The book was called “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” Honestly, I couldn’t get through it. It was beyond my intellectual capacity at that time, and I returned it the same night. Moshe tried again, handing me another book, “Huey P. Newton and the Black Panther Party.”
A couple of days later, I finished the book and returned it to him.
“So what do you think?” he asked.
“They were about their business,” I said of the radical group.
We talked about the history of our struggle, about nationalism, racism, black militancy and activism. The conversation went on for hours, then started up again the next morning.
From that day forth, Moshe and I were both on the gate, talking about everything, the past, present and future, about my life, his life, our goals and aspirations. These were deep, intimate conversations that I didn’t even have with my own father. He probed my mind, questioning everything. He taught me to think. At night, when the sun was down, we would sit facing the windows in front of our cells, the reflections on the glass allowing us to see each other, and talk some more.
One night, when everyone was asleep, Moshe became sentimental.
“I came in when I was 19,” he said. “I’m 34 now. My mother’s getting old. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to see her again. If I could take back everything negative that I did, chasing behind a name that will be forgotten, I would. When I see you young brothers coming in here, young and misguided, I see myself. I want to break that cycle.”
A few months later, I was released from the box. I haven’t seen Moshe since.
At first, I thought that I had won the battle with him. It only began to dawn on me slowly — whenever a situation occurred and I found myself reacting differently, less aggressively, with more openness — that my one-time rival had changed my life. I hadn’t beaten him at all. In fact, by submitting, Moshe had actually prevailed. And in the end, by absorbing his wisdom, I had too.
Read more from The Wallkill Journal’s April 30 issue here.
Email Rakeem Golson at [email protected]