State of (Maine) Denial
The Way Life Should Never Be
Even if you’re only an occasional consumer of Maine news, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the recent reports about the court-ordered, abrupt release of Anthony Sanborn from the Maine State Prison after 25 years. But in case you missed them – and in case the name Anthony Sanborn means nothing to you – I can assure you that you missed very little in the way of what genuinely matters in this case. Because what genuinely matters in this case can be condensed into a single, humble word: Tony.
“The great can protect themselves, but the poor and humble require the arm and shield of the law.” -Andrew Jackson
In an otherwise beautiful state that bills itself to outsiders as being “The Way Life Should Be,” a teenage boy named Tony was tossed like trash into the bowels of the old Maine State Prison in the early 1990’s. With benefit of personal insight, I suspect that those five words: “the old Maine State Prison,” don’t strike the same fear and foreboding in you; the same adopt-or-die mandate in you; the same necessary choice of predation, acquiescence, defense, or suicidal escape that coursed a mortal race through teen Tony’s heart and mind about the time he began shaving.
*Something to consider…
When juvenile Tony was cast into the hulking human cage that menaced the aesthetics of in town Thomaston, he certainly knew about a recent murder behind those angry walls. Another prisoner had beat and stomped a mentally-disabled prisoner to death, bashed his teeth out on a steel toilet, then handed the dead prisoner’s teeth out to other prisoners as souvenirs.
Tender footed Tony almost certainly heard the (absolutely true) stories about a huge Samoan prisoner nicknamed “Paco” who routinely snuck up on and knocked young, vulnerable prisoners unconscious, then raped and choked them. And fresh-faced Tony was similarly aware of old man Curtis, a man who specialized in prison protection in exchange for obedience within the depraved old man’s harem of young men.
“…For a lead role in a cage.” -Wish You Were Here, Pink Floyd
I often feel plagued by remembering stuff; stuff that I probably shouldn’t remember. Stuff that, in the first place, appears completely random, quirky, obscure, worthless and/or inconsequential. My pockmarked cerebral landscape however, reliably fills in these potholes and paves them over each metaphorical Spring with realization, understanding and clarity. I won’t venture so far as to call it a metaphysical phenomena that my sanity suffers (or benefits?) – I am after all a product of Massabesic High – but when a curious and emotionally polluted mind is isolated in a quiet concrete box for two decades and left to privately ponder uninterrupted thoughts all the way through to a myriad of possible outcomes, a melted modicum of benevolence starts to drip from the tap. And so, I drip…
“There’s a terror in knowing what this world’s all about.” -David Bowie
About forty years ago my paternal grandfather angrily warned me that he was gonna “sit [me] down on a flat rock and make [me] think about it!” If I kept on misbehaving. Naturally, I don’t remember what I had done to inflame his liver spots, or where we were, but I can vividly recall the sight of his throbbing face glowering at me. I can also recall – over the past 22 years – an almost constant clarity ( on perfectly flat concrete) while I have sat here thinking about it.
“Morality is best of all devices for leading mankind by the nose.” -Friedriche Nietzsche
I can also specifically recall hearing Tony Sanborn’s name for the first time twenty-five years ago on WBLM. A short time later I saw him on the news being led into court in cuffs and shackles. The first thing I noticed was that he was wearing a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-Shirt identical to one I had; then I was struck by his slack-jawed, wide-eyed expression. It was the countenance of a scared, bewildered child. Something wasn’t right, and I’ve been plagued with unidentified emotion about it ever since.
“Fictional dramas, like the evening news, tend to focus on individual stories of crime, victimization, and punishment, and the stories are typically told from the point of view of law enforcement. Those who have been swept within the criminal justice system know that the way the system actually works bears little resemblance to what happens on television or in the movies. [W]itnesses are routinely paid and coerced by the government; [ ] and children, even as young as fourteen, are sent to adult prisons.” -Michelle Alexander, former law clerk for U.S. Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, in her ‘Constitutional Commentary Award’ winning book: “The New Jim Crow.” (2010)
I selfishly bonded with Tony Sanborn over a pervasive feeling that began in my gut, and over the Southern Fried Rock T-shirt, years before he even knew I existed. I once welded “Free Bird Tony” into the iron plated hopper of a rock-crusher I was repairing in a Saco gravel pit, and “Tony Ain’t The One” into the floor of a pre-fat Bibeau dump truck body headed to Quebec. I spray-painted “Call Tony The Breeze” at the base of Skelton Dam in Dayton with fluorescent orange surveyor’s paint. For a year or so I took to writing my Tony specific, Lynyrd Skynyrd song titles on paper money, then I spent it.
“Lord help me, I can’t change.” -Free Bird, Lynyrd Skynyrd
From about 20 feet away, I first laid eyes on Tony Sanborn in 1998. I was instantly nervous, aware of my heartbeat, and thoroughly intimidated. don’t get it wrong, Tony is neither physically imposing or aggressive in personality. In fact, I stand a head or so above him and I outweigh him by at least 3 stone. Moreover, his prison reputation was – by that time – already deeply entrenched in respect, passivity and general agreement. And yet, I was still intimidated and crippled speechless at the mere presence of him.
“Ripple in still water, when there is no pebble tossed, nor wind to blow.” -Ripple, Grateful Dead 1970
At this point I hope that anyone reading this isn’t feeling let down when you hear that I have nothing factual or confessional to reveal to you about the guilt or innocence or Tony Sanborn. Tony never uttered a peep to me about himself or his plight in all the years we were caged together. Nor do I have a complete knowledge of the factual case the state brought against him 25 years ago, or of the box of evidence that the cops hid in an attic from his defense attorney. I don’t need to know any of them particulars; I knew Tony got screwed long before Judge Wheeler confirmed it publicly.
I now know that Meg Elam, the prosecutor trying to put Tony back in prison, is going to breathlessly defend her close friend Pamela Ames’ wrongful conviction of Tony, backed by the full power and resources of the great State of Maine. Prosecutor Elam can not admit a wrong. She’s a prosecutor, not a penitent. House painters see peeling houses. Loggers see trees. To a hammer, everything is a nail.
Behind the scenes dynamics of protecting a sacred cow conviction like Tony’s, has tentacles that reach far and wide. How many helpful phone calls do you think prolific media whore Michael Chitwood has made to Meg in recent weeks? Is Pam chirping obfuscatory advice in Meg’s ear, concerned only about the reputation of her private practice? And doesn’t this hasty, careless conviction of a 16 year old boy (hidden evidence, coerced witnesses, other suspects, etc.) cast doubt on all of the other convictions this ‘Keystone Cops’ cabal of characters investigated and prosecuted?
“Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.” -Frederick Douglass
Every time I see Tony’s case on TV, whether it’s the reel of the moments before or after Judge Wheeler tells him he can go home now, or of Tony walking out and into the arms of his family, or the interview with him and his wife, I think about the familiar hell he had to persevere to get where he is today. I think about it, and I drip. Indeed, no man just magically arrives at his destiny, and especially with the degree of dignity and integrity that Tony arrived at his with.
“The very time I thought I was lost, my dungeon shook and my chains fell off.” -The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin
Guess I’ll go listen, think about, and drip to “Simple Man” now. (August 6, 2017)