Tuesday, January 5, 2021

"Pimpin' The Blues": Systemic Racism, Heritage Tourism, and the Mississippi Blues Commission

By Tim Kalich, editor of the Greenwood Commonwealth - originally published as "Vendor Selection Dissapoints Jordan" on Sept 17, 2019.

The Greenwood legislator who spearheaded the creation of the Mississippi Blues Commission is unhappy about how the commission selected its vendors. "When you don't follow bid laws, you cut off other people who could have had a slice of the pie," said Sen. David Jordan. The Democratic lawmaker was responding to the report released in the fall of 2019 by MS State Auditor Shad White that heavily criticized the spending practices of the Blues Commission. In the performance audit, White found that the commission--since it began operations 13 years ago--had paid out nearly $2 million to vendors without a valid contract on file and failed to retain documentation to support almost another $1 million in spending. It also questioned why Greenwood ad agency Hammons & Associates as well as some other vendors were awarded work by the commission without putting the business up for bid. 

Hammons, the project coordinator for the creation and placement of more than 200 Blues Trail historical markers, has been by far the commission's largest vendor. The ad agency has received a little more than $1 million of the $2.9 million the commission has generated largely from state and federal grants and private donations. The commission incorrectly designated Hammons as a "sole source provider," according to the audit. That finding, said Jordan, has rankled other African Americans who feel that Black-owned enterprises were not given the opportunity to benefit financially from promoting the music that originated in the African American community. 

"Hammons may have been the best bidder, but there's no opportunity for us to know when he was the only one that was selected," Jordan said. Allan Hammons, president of Hammons & Associates, said it is incorrect to suggest that his agency was "just handed the business" by the Blues Commission. Early on, according to Hammons, the commission was leaning toward hiring as project coordinator a Virginia firm that had put together a Civil War trail in that state. Hammons said his agency designed a prototype marker, including the concept of using a printed vinyl insert on the back to allow for illustrations as well as more text, and paid to have it cast before pitching it to the commission. "We competed for (the business) in my mind and actually invested in it quite heavily on the chance that we could convince them we could do this work," he said.

The "printed vinyl insert on the back" has since faded and peeled away in the Mississippi sun, causing the commission to address the widespread dilapidation of older markers.

The Blues Commission was created in 2004 when Gov. Haley Barbour signed into law a bill on which Jordan was the lead author. Fred Carl Jr., the founder of Greenwood-based Viking Range, was named the commission's inaugural chairman by the Republican governor, although it was apparently two years later before the commission began its work in earnest. 

Jordan, Carl, and a predominantly African American delegation had actually gotten the idea of a blues commission rolling in 2003 while Democrat Ronnie Musgrove was serving as governor, the senator said. Ruben Hughes, president of Team Broadcasting, which owns Greenwood radio stations WGNL and WGNG, was part of that delegation that met with Musgrove. After the Democrat was defeated by Barbour in the 2003 election, "people like myself were pushed back ... and other people came in and took control like Mr. Hammons," said Hughes.

Sylvester Hoover, a blues promoter who is African American, said he has been displeased with the Blues Commission for a while, claiming it deviated from what those who initially advocated for its creation envisioned it to be. "It was supposed to enrich the neighborhood and teach the history of the blues here in the Mississippi Delta, but it didn't work out that way," said Hoover, who operates a blues museum in Greenwood's Baptist Town neighborhood and gives blues tours. "It went to the people that didn't know anything about the blues. They just took it over." 

He objects not only that Hammons & Associates got the bulk of the commission's work but also that Jim O'Neal of Kansas City, Missouri, and Scott Barretta of Greenwood were selected as the two main historians on the project. O'Neal co-founded the nation's first blues magazine, Living Blues, for which Barretta was a former editor. For their research and writing for the Blues Trail markers, O'Neal was paid $136,000 and Barretta almost $55,000, both as sole source providers. O'Neal and Barretta are white, as is Allan Hammons. 

"We said from the start they pimpin' the blues. They making money off the blues."

Sylvester Hoover Knows all About Systemic Racism

"We said from the start they pimpin' the blues. They making money off the blues," Hoover said of the Blues Commission and those involved with the creation of the markers. "That's not fair. They're not distributing money in the black neighborhood. None whatsoever. None. Zero." 

In addition to questioning the commission's spending practices, White has recommended that it be dissolved and its responsibilities turned over to the Mississippi Blues Foundation, a private, non-profit organization that has contributed financially to the commission. The current chairman of the commission, J. Kempf Poole, is receptive to the idea. So is Jordan. A member of the Senate Tourism Committee, Jordan said he would want to know more details before support-ing legislation to make such a change, but he is open to considering it. "If that is going to lubricate the wheels and make it run better for everybody, sure," Jordan said. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Prakash Slim is Nepal's Blues Power

Ram Prakash Pokharel (aka Prakash Slim) is an international artist/performer and educator of the blues. 

He was born in a field on June,17th, 1980. Yes, a field. It was during the rainy season, in a small village called Lamatar, in the Lalitpur district, of Nepal. The village saw its first electric light bulb in 1983, and its first motor car in 1995. Slim was raised by a loving family of modest means, but his father died at the young age of 29, leaving his mother with three children to raise on her own. Slim had an older brother and sister, and his mother worked in the neighbors’ fields, gathering what food she could get to feed her kids. Slim waited until the village's annual festival celebration, an important time in his world when his uncle would give him a set of new clothes. 

Unlike most early blues artists in the American South, Slim got to go to public school, but instead of desks and benches, his school had dirt floors and straw mats. When asked about his ambitions when he was young,  Slim replied, 

"Ambition was a privilege that only rich kids had. 

The only ambition I had was staying alive."

He was interested in music since he was a child.  Slim would use the wood and other materials around their house to fashion his own instruments, he'd play music by drumming against a gallon water jug. He'd also drive his mother crazy singing songs all day.  

Music became his world. 

It called out to him, and he could not resist. His most prized possession back then was a bicycle that his sister gave him after she landed a job. Slim wanted to learn to play the guitar but he did not have one, and he had no money to buy one. He bought his first guitar by selling his bicycle. He told his family that a friend had taken it for a few days. He lied.

For two years, Slim gave up everything to search for a mentor who could teach him what he needed to know about the guitar. He found a teacher, a legendary musician named C.B. Chhetri, but he lived 10 kilometers away from Slim. Nevertheless, Slim never missed a lesson. It stormed; it rained, but he always showed up, usually ahead of time, and ready to learn.

After a little while, Slim became pretty good on the guitar, and he accepted Chhetri‘s offer to join a band. He cut his teeth gigging in a circuit of restaurants and playing rock music. At the same time, he started teaching music in schools. 

In 2008 he participated in a workshop entitled Teaching Music Effectively"  conducted at Kathmandu  Jazz Conservatory by the US  Cultural Embassy envoy, Dr. Gene Aitken. He enjoyed playing in rock n' roll bands for all those years, but Slim's thirst for musical knowledge, and a deeper musical experience, could not find satisfaction. The hole in his soul started to heal when he heard his first BB King record. Overwhelmed by what he heard, Slim started to research the Blues.

He became obsessed with Blues history. He also added Blues licks & grooves to his existing repertoire and gradually learned music theory. He developed a deeper understanding of how chords and progressions were formed both physically and numerically. From 2003 - 2015 he served as the lead and rhythm guitarist, bass guitarist, and vocalist for various bands throughout Nepal.

At 2015, he received an invitation to attend a musical retreat at Walden School of Music, San Francisco, California, USA. But a major earthquake hit Nepal in 2015. Buildings crumbled down to dust and Slim's hopes were shattered as he was unable to attend the retreat. The devastation hit him deep and hard. For the next several years, fear and pain were constant in his life. The Blues became his solace, his best friend.

In February, 2017, he fell sick and was confined to bed rest. While he was scrolling through his news feed aimlessly, he came across a facebook page named “Acoustic Blues Pickers." He was intrigued on seeing a world of blues lovers like himself. There he listened to Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues." He practiced playing it for a week and shared what he played on the page. A Facebook friend, on seeing his post on the page, offered to help him and magnanimously sent him a resonator guitar and some slides.

For now, Prakash Slim is not only playing and doing research in Blues, but also teaching BITS aka Blues in the schools. He's recently finished a Blues exhibition for his school in Nepal. No doubt... he's committed to playing forward BITS programs, and hence, is living, by example the axiom "keeping the blues alive" in Nepal & beyond. 

He's now a recognized, internationally affiliated Artist/Performer and Educator of the Blues with the Mt. Zion Memorial Fund (Executive Director Dr. T. DeWayne Moore) since January 2019. Slim is also active in a Blues mentorship program with T.J. Wheeler, a long time pioneer, advocate, activist teacher/performer of Blues, Jazz & related music and educator, from the USA. As a member of International Singer and Songwriters Association (issasongwriters.com) Georgia, USA Slim's own original Blues composition are also gaining him further attention.


Prakash Slim - "Villager's Blues"

Prakash serves as a member of the 

board of associates for Mt. Zion MemorialFund.


Prakash featured with American Blues Merchandise Wang Dang Doodle Tees, Illinois, USA.

Other exposure has included, being mentioned in America's first and leading Blues magazine - Living Blues in August 2019. A Nepali magazine called Yuwa Hunkar, published his autobiography where he says that Blues can be a music of healing for the people who’ve been through pain in life. His quote "B.B. King globalized the blues" is mentioned by the Phenomenal Scholar, Author and Storyteller Diane Williams in her new book’s presentation - The Life and Legacy of B.B. King at Mississippi Department of Archives and History - 22 January 2020.

He was interviewed in The Nepali Times Australia magazine, Australia, October 2020.

He was interviewed by Tucson Unified School District teacher Patrick Brenan and shared blues knowledge  for 5th grade students of John E White Elementary School Arizona USA in September 2020.

He was interviewed on The Phoenix Radio, Florida, USA with Big Low in September 2020.

He was interviewed on Kalakarmi Broadcasting & Media Production Company, Nepal in September 2020.

He was interviewed in Blues & Co magazine, France in September 2020

He was featured in Washington Blues Society’s Bluesletter magazine, August 2020 issue.  

He was interviewed for Grateful Web media/news company, Colorado, America in July 2020.

He was interviewed for Down At The Crossroads, Ireland  by Dr. Gary W Burnett on 26 June 2020.  

He represented  Nepal in International Blues Festival of Lima, Peru and published his biography in Almas Raices Productions, Lima, Peru.   

He played for the Crossroads Confined Countdown Festival (France) on 4th June 2020.

He performed for 5th Posadas Blues Festival, Argentina, on 6th November 2020. 

He played for Seventh Bleus Festival En El Rio, Argentina.

He has played for “Blues for a Cause” Nepal.

American Blues Scene magazine mentioned him “a living history of the blues” while premiering his instrumental track “Blues Raga” in November 2020.

A major Paraguayan newspaper ABC Color referred to him as a “Nepali Robert Johnson” and published his interview in May 2020.  

He played for International Blues Festival of Asuncion, Paraguay (indoor)2020.

He represented Nepal in “World Unity Open Mic” virtual event hosted by The Fire – a legendary live music venue, Philadelphia, Pennylsilvania, USA on 18 May 2020.

He was interviewed for American Blues Scene magazine, Florida, America in May, 2020.

He was interviewed on Blues Radio International Viral Anti-Viral world Tour,Florida, USA on 17 April 2020.

He was featured as an international blues educator in Central Iowa Blues society for the month of Februrary, 2020 at Where in The World : A Blues Ambassador’s Travel series.  

He was featured on KFMG Radio 98.9 FM Des Moines, Iowa on 11 February 2020.

He was interviewed for www.blues.gr, Greek Blues Union with Michael Limnios in October, 2019

A feature story on him was part of a Vicksburg Blues Society’s screening and presentation at Vicksburg Blues Challenge held in September 29, 2019. This was presented by Mississippi, Ambassador of Hall of Fame and president of Vicksburg Blues Society, Shirley Waring.  

His country blues originals and covers were aired on July 2020 and July 2019 for an entire month on Blind Dog Radio (Blues Hall of Fame Radio) Ukraine, and featured on Highway Blues 2NVR - FM 105.9 (2nvr.au.org), Australia on July 4, 2019.  His music is now increasingly being heard by in different countries in the western world, like USA, UK, Australia, Canada, Ukraine, Brazil, Israel, Chile, Ethiopia and in many others.

He did collaboration with a renown Italian harmonica player, Grammy nominee Fabrizio Poggi on Robert Johnson’s “Me and the Devil Blues”.

A legendary blues artist Rory Block watched his interview on Blues Radio International and congratulated Prakash for his wonderful slide playing and International feel, in her home concert series on 21 April 2020.

Prakash has it in his heart that one day, he will play the Blues with a national guitar in Mississippi. For him it's the Mecca of the Blues ...the land that gave birth to blues, the land in which  he says 'is sacred to him."

You may find some of his country blues originals, covers  and the "Blues in the schools" video clips on his Facebook page, ReverbNation and YouTube channel - "Prakash Slim".

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Furry Lewis - and some 'Religious Songs'...

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, (blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,"  November 1, 2009)

© Norman Seeff, 1974

Walter “Furry” Lewis was born in Greenwood, MS in 1893, or so he claimed. It may have been 1900, or 1903, but who cares. He recorded his first side, ever, for Vocalion Records in Chicago in 1927. After some early success, he slid into obscurity and worked as a street sweeper for the Memphis Sanitation Department until he retired. He was 'rediscovered' in the late fifties and gained popularity in the early sixties through re-issues of his original recordings and new studio recordings.

Furry and I met for the first time, as mentioned, in 1972 when I flew him up to Minneapolis to appear at the University of Minnesota's Whole Coffeehouse for a concert. We were close friends and associates until his death some ten years later.

Furry was about as 'authentic' as you can get. He lived a life, in the classic blues tradition, of hardship and joy. He never married and had no children. His closest relative was a niece, Roberta Glover, who lived in Memphis nearby his home on Mosby Street. He lived quietly and played for friends and acquaintances whenever asked. He was able to supplement his meager income through his artistry, but, most importantly, his music gave him an opportunity to express himself in a way that few ever get a chance to do. I came to find that Furry played for himself as much as for anyone else.

One of the first things to strike me about Furry was the fact that he never did the same song the same way twice. In all the hundreds of Furry Lewis gigs I witnessed, never, ever, did I hear an exact repeat. His music was always timely and unique, reflecting how he felt or what he was thinking at a particular moment. Oftentimes, the changes he introduced in his repertoire were done solely to entertain himself. As mentioned, Furry was always his own best audience.

He began his career playing on the Medicine Show circuit selling, among other brands, Jack Rabbit Liniment from flatbed runways in small southern towns. His job was to attract and entertain a crowd so that the more serious business of selling the goods could be done by the Pitchman. The style he evolved was one that did not depend on a microphone to pick up the nuance of his performance, rather it was one that played to the 'back of the house' in broad form, unaided by electronics. Later, after the Medicine Shows were history, he played for dances and picnics where the production values were often confined to a stage, raised two feet or so above a dirt floor. The result was that Furry never learned the fine points of using a microphone and his performances relied on the physical. Dragging his left arm across the top few strings of his guitar and moving it up and down the neck, while his right hand kept the beat (check out the video below to see what I'm talking about - albeit fueled by a bit too much Ten High bourbon...), oftentimes resulted in live recordings of questionable quality, but drove audiences to cheers. That was the effect he desired. Coming off stage, his vision clouded by cataracts, he would ask, “Are they standin' up?” Nine times out of ten, they were.

The hallmark of any Furry Lewis performance was the emotional intensity he delivered on stage. It was not unusual for him to 'lose it' - breaking down in tears. He was equally as likely to dissolve in laughter at one of his oft-told jokes or an incident that struck him as amusing. When he finished a set, part of Furry the man, as well as Furry the performer, had been shared with his audience. I remember one incident when Furry 'lost it'. Listening to some tapes jogged my memory. We were in Texas, playing to a very enthusiastic house, when Furry, close to the end of his set, launched into “When I Lay My Burden Down”. He always liked to close with “some religious songs” and this was one of his favorites. The chorus begins with the line” I'm goin' home to be with my Jesus...” On listening to the tape, I noticed a shrill and unusual tone to his voice as he began the second chorus. Suddenly he stopped. A chocking sob rose. A second later, he called my name. My hurried footsteps can be heard as I came from the wing to down center. Following is the verbatim exchange as caught on tape. Furry: “I done broke down.” AB: “It's okay...don't worry about it. What do you want to do?” [i.e. which tune do you want to do next] Furry: “I don't know, what should I do?” AB: “Pick “Old Rugged Cross” and we'll hang it up.” I remember thinking at the time that we didn't want to risk another vocal, that it was best to take the set out with an instrumental.

Unaware of the details of this entire exchange the audience, to their credit had the good taste to applaud loudly and appreciatively. Furry picked the “The Old Rugged Cross” slowly and dramatically and, cane in hand, hobbled off stage to a standing ovation.

Furry lost his left leg below the knee in a railroad accident in the late teens or early twenties of the last century. He told me he had been in Chicago and had hopped a freight train back to Memphis. The train was rolling through southern Illinois and was about be begin a climb up a long grade. Furry was riding between cars and lost his footing. His leg slipped into the coupling just as the train started up the grade and was crushed in the mechanism. He spent four months in the Illinois Central Railroad Hospital in Carbondale, IL, and was released with a wooded prosthesis which he wore until his death some sixty years later. I have often thought of Furry lying in that hospital, enduring the loss of a limb, alone and uncomforted. I think of it particularly in reference to an incident that happened in Houston, TX in the mid ''70s.

I was attending a conference of music buyers from colleges and universities from across the country. As a part of this gathering, certain artists were selected to perform a thirty-minute 'showcase' of their talents for the benefit of these college entertainment buyers. Furry had been one of those chosen to perform. The only other traditional Blues performers so selected were Sonny Terry & Brownie McGee. Both Furry and Sonny & Brownie had been placed on the same bill, with Sonny & Brownie going on just before Furry. Evidently, the presenters of the conference thought such a pairing would result in a 'battle of the bands' among geriatric Blues performers. I thought it was idiotic. But what could we do?

I had a meeting with some folks who were interested in presenting the Memphis Blues Caravan at a group of universities and was rushing to get to the auditorium to attend to Furry. In my haste, I fell and badly sprained my ankle. I hobbled into his dressing room. He was very concerned about what had happened to my ankle. I told him it was nothing to worry about and that he should go out there and knock 'em on their ass. He smiled and repeated a line I had heard many times before. “Don't you worry, when I get to pickin', I'm like a rabbit in a thicket...it takes a good dog to catch me.”

After the show Furry would not leave my side. He offered me the use of his cane. He told me to lean on his shoulder for support. He insisted that we go back to my room so I could lie down. I was in no position to argue as the ankle was beginning to look like a small balloon.

It took us thirty minutes to clear the door of the auditorium because of the huge clutch of adoring fans. Furry worked the crowd like a seasoned politician. When we finally got back to my room, he sat on a chair opposite the bed. He said, “I ain't goin' nowhere. I'm gonna sit right here and sing you some religious songs that's gonna get you well.” He was without his guitar, it had been brought back to his room by one of my associates.

Furry Lewis sat with me and sang, a Capella, one hymn after another. The pain in my throbbing ankle slowly lifted and I fell asleep. I awoke an hour or more later. The room was dark. Furry was still sitting in the chair across from the bed...watching over me.

I often wondered if anyone sang for him, in that hospital in Carbondale.

Saturday, November 14, 2020

Alcohol and Violence Part II: "Time - and the OG"

by Arne Brogger, organizer and road manager of the Memphis Blues Caravan in the 1970s, (blog post, "The Straight Oil From The Can: Tales from the Memphis Blues Caravan and other Stories,"  October 2009)

He picked up the ringing phone. “Recovery House, Richard speaking.” The large black man with a scary demeanor listened, interjecting the occasional “un huh.” The story was an old one. He’d heard it many, many times. “Well, you called the right place. You want the pain to stop? Uh-huh…well, then you gotta do something about it. Why don’t you stopover, we can have a chat.” In an earlier time, where menace and threat were a way of life, invitations to chat had a darker meaning.

A Packard pulled to the curb at the corner of Broadway and River Streets. The Passaic River, swollen with the spring thaw, rolled silently a few yards away as it traveled to join the Raritan and the sea. The young man, who had been standing on the corner for the past fifteen minutes, slid into the passenger seat and slammed the door. The car left Paterson, headed south for Newark.

Motioning with his head toward the back of the car, the driver said. “I got what you need in the trunk – you can get strapped before we head for the tunnel. We’ll stop in Quigquake Park - private.” The young man was nervous, his eyes darting. “The first day of school, eh?” The driver smiled. The young man said nothing.

“You’ll be fine, kid. We gonna pick up Pops, get set up and head into Harlem. He doesn’t usually go on runs like this. Guess I wasn’t kidding about the school, huh. You got a name?”

“Yes, I do,” the young man said. He looked hard at the driver. “It’s Richard.” The driver smiled.

“We’re going to Harlem? I thought this was a Jersey thing.” The driver stared straight ahead, “Spanish Harlem, to be exact. A gun makes as much noise there as it does in Jersey. A problem?”

The metal ribs of the Pulaski Skyway hummed underneath them as they, now three, headed for Hoboken and the tunnel. Once into the city, they turned left on Canal and then pointed north on to the West Side Highway, exiting on 110th Street. Just past the top of Central Park, they turned left, traveling north to 118th Street, stopping in front of a five-story tenement walkup.

“Fifth floor, rear. 5C. We’re expected…” said Pops, a late middle age black man. “I’m getting’ too old for all this stair climbing shit.” Nodding to Richard, “You stay behind me on the way up, in front on the way down. Got it?” Richard, now wearing a trench coat, a sawed-off 12 Gage hanging from his belt, climbed out of the back seat. “And you,” said Pops, looking at the driver, “keep the engine on. This should be quick.”

Richard had wanted the Marine Corps; a uniform, training, a purpose, but the streets, the ‘hood, his companions, all conspired in a perfect storm of trouble.

The oldest of nine, care for siblings fell largely to him. Both parents worked – father in a silk factory, mother as a domestic. “You ain’t got a lick a sense, boy! You never gonna amount to nothin’!” his father bellowed in an alcoholic rage. His mother, often with blackened eyes and a bloused lip, said nothing. The young man vowed someday to kill him.

Quick with his hands, the PAL gyms were a second home. He fought well, both in the ring and out. But prizefighting, and a way out, eluded him. The Marines – that was the answer. So he hoped. He was smart, and early on, he was a reader. “Put down that goddamn book, where’s your shine box?!”

As a youngster, the shine box, and customers wearing suits, smoking cigars, provided an introduction of sorts. “Take this envelope to Broadway and Water, see Tony in the tailor shop. Give it to him. These five’s for you…” Numbers, dope, money. Up and down the streets of Paterson. An education. Later, when the shine box was gone, he’d sing doo-wop with his pals on street corners, kid the girls, roll the occasional drunk. “Kick that useless wino, what’s the matter with you?” ‘Soft’ doesn’t play well on the streets. Something inside him hurt, he didn’t want to cause pain, to be without mercy. “Kick that motherfucker!” He swallowed big gulps of that hurt, pounded it down, deep. He kicked. He fought. By late adolescence, stints in a Who’s Who of Jersey reformatories had nixed the dream of the Marines. “We don’t take criminals,” he was told, and summarily dismissed when he applied.

Fresh out of Jamesburg Reformatory, he met Pops.

Pops had had that name since he was in his late 30’s. Big, almost 300 pounds, he’d always seemed older than his years. He favored bespoke three-piece suits, starched white shirts, and perfectly knotted ties. Sometimes, a red carnation boutonniere appeared in a lapel. He had a presence, cultivated and nurtured. And had parlayed that presence into a lucrative career; numbers, then loan sharking and eventually, narcotics. Pops was always on the lookout for talent. Tough, strong, ruthless. He’d heard about a young man in Paterson and sent word to meet at a hotel downtown. Sitting in a high-backed chair in the lobby, the process glistening on his newly conked hair, Pops must have been an impressive sight. Richard shook his hand. He met a way out. He met his future.

The door to 5C opened before they got to it. Pops went in. Richard followed. An envelope was exchanged for a package about the size of a shoebox. Pops opened it, peered inside, then nodded. Outside 5C again, they headed down the stairs, Richard going first. Pops put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, whispering, “The motherfucker called someone, I can smell it. Let’s move fast.”

On the landing of the fourth floor stood a Hispanic man in his 30’s, arms folded. “What you fellas got there?” Richard stopped on the stairs, half a flight above him. “You best step out the way,” Richard said.

“Out the way?” Sneering, the Hispanic man said, “Which way’s that? The Jersey way? Where you think you are?”

Richard pulled back the right side of his trench coat, his hand on the shotgun. “Any old way, so long as it’s out,” Richard said. His unblinking eyes riveted on the Hispanic man.

“What you got in the package there?” the man said, gazing up at Pops. Pops was silent. “Got some dope there? I think we need to have a chat. And I bet you Jersey fucks can’t even shoot straight.”

As those words spilled from his mouth, the Hispanic man suddenly moved his hand toward his pocket. The shotgun swung from Richard’s belt, the muzzle flash lighting the semidarkness of the stairwell into bright, high relief. The Hispanic man’s left leg exploded and disappeared below the knee.

“Oh God! Oh God, Oh God…!” he screamed. Blood and bone splattered over the corner of the landing where he lay, writhing.

Richard walked down the stairs and stood over him.

“God’s not here, amigo. I’m the only motherfucker you got to deal with.”

It would be awhile before God and Richard would enjoy any proximity. Forty years, long stretches in two state penitentiaries. Finally, standing on the second tier, in front of his cell at Arizona State Penitentiary, he looked out on a patch of desert. The same patch he’d looked at for more than two decades. “I’m a drunk and an addict. That’s why I’m standing here.” He’d been told for years that he had a problem. His standard response had always been, the only problem I’ve got, is you telling me I have a problem. For the first time, he told himself, they might be right. He stood quietly as that thought ripened in his consciousness. In time, that thought would grow; it would morph into kindness, gratitude, courage, and Richard, cloaked in perpetual amazement, would find what he had always sought - a purpose.

“No – it’s not a cult. It’s about improving the quality of your life,” he said, speaking into the phone for the first time in more than a minute. “The God stuff is up to you, whatever you want it to be.” He listened some more. Finally, “I’m not here to convince you of anything, partner. You want to chat, I’m here. You don’t have to knock. Just walk in.” He hung up the phone.