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A baby boomer in a San Quentin Seminar

A “normal” life? Pittsburgh’s Tim Menees wouldn’t know what that means. He has been an Air Force counter-intelligence officer, a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter and columnist, a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette editorial cartoonist. He plays piano and accordion for a band that has opened for the likes of the Neville Brothers and Roseanne Cash. But a big part of Tim’s lasting legacy today is volunteering and teaching creative arts in prisons. Here is one experience he had at one of the nation’s toughest, California’s San Quentin. And although photographs weren’t permitted, he was allowed to sketch, which you’ll see when you read the story.

San Quentin’s Upper Yard plays out under a gray metal open-air shed surrounded by cream-color cellblocks with iron railings, black bars, and two men per cell, their lives packed in around them. A crowd in denim mills around in pairs and clumps. Some head over to the chow hall for dinner. A lumpy kid with a buzzcut and heavy eyebrows joins two pals at the door. A one-legged man hobbles past.

The high-ceilinged arts room sits nearby, also fronting the yard. Sketches and a painting of a ’20s jazz scene line its walls next to an old upright piano. I stand outside the door until a female corrections officer comes by and shoos me inside. The prisoners also step back as guards escort two men by us, in dark blue jumpsuits from death row, for medical checks, the hands of the condemned shackled behind their backs. One clutches a manila envelope.

Dead men walking.

The San Quentin seminar with the cellblock looming outside the window in the background.

Zoe’s writing class for nine prisoners starts at 6:20, but this is prison and men get locked down, get transferred, get out, get shanked. At 6:40 Carl shows up, a big guy with a walrus mustache. Then Robert. It’s his birthday. Was it special? He shrugs. “No one cares.” Others arrive, speaking softly, perhaps having learned how to avoid attention. Zoe is a young woman wearing a small hat and, as usual, sits alone with her students around a table like an MFA seminar. No guard in sight.

Has anyone completed his assignment? Robert takes out paper from a frayed Priority Mail envelope. He reminds the class his story required a child taking another to a magical place. Then he reads it, “Dance of the Forest Sprite,” about two small girls, moonlight on their cheeks, the song of crickets, dark trees holding emotions, an old lady’s house, and fairies.

Tim Menees

He knows prisoners-and-children means violence inside and quickly says, “That’s why I read you the rules.” His daughters served as his muse.

Carl likes the details, but Larry, another student prisoner, says, “You lost me, man. Their responses were too cute, too manufactured. I don’t see kids like that.” Robert takes the criticism gamely. He says he wrote the dialogue as his girls might have spoken, and adds wanly he likes to hear what others think.

John reads a poem, “What Would You Do?” as an air vent rattles overhead, and shouts bounce around out on the yard. His eyes turn intense. A prisoner says, “This is a creative way to vent anger.”

Carl says: “And no bruises on your cellie.”

Zoe reads a short story she has written, and the class listens as raptly as grade schoolers. Jeff says, “That was good. You wrote that?” He reads a poem about his cell, “Afterwork Blues in 3N74.” He pauses. Then, “This place is so overwhelming, so condensed. Some criticize just to be cruel or bad ass.”

Larry puts it succinctly: “Legitimate criticism, we can accept that. The other type, we’ll go to another page. It’ll end up out on the yard.”