If you know Kenny, now is the time to picture him leaping like an antelope down a beach at sunset, shouting “I’m Free! I’m Free!” while trailing diaphanous silk streamers from both wrists and shaking his head as if he had a long mane of thick curly hair.
And then he breaks his foot.
That’s not quite how it happened, except maybe Kenny’s emotions that day might be compared to impulsive improv ballet with streamers on a beach at sunset… and the part about breaking his foot is true (apparently while doing a fancy jump-rope exercise routine, just a couple of weeks out of prison.)
Kenny was released on August 20, 2017, after 39 years of incarceration. He had been arrested in 1978 and was in several different places before arriving at San Quentin in 1993. 1978 was a long time ago. People born in 1978 could technically be grandparents.
Kenny joined the Creative Writing class in 2003, and holds the record for the longest-standing member at 14 years. In that time, he wrote and revised several novels, wrote countless short stories, and helped many other writers with his insightful critique. Kenny’s strengths as a writer, in my mind, are his strong dialogue, his ability to portray a glimmer of human feeling within characters who are emotionally shut down or simmering with anger, and his engagement of complex moral issues and characters who are not easily categorized. He’s had a number of stories published over the years, and has had a story in every edition of the Brothers in Pen series of anthologies. One of the most prestigious accomplishments was his story “Rat’s Ass” being included in the book “Prison Noir,” an anthology of prison stories edited by Joyce Carol Oates. That story will also be appearing in our upcoming anthology.
I’ve seen Kenny a few times since his release, and one of the hallmarks of a Kenny conversation I’ve learned to expect is a rave review of something he’s recently eaten.
I told him he needs to write the “Just Released From Prison After 39 Years Restaurant Review Guide.” It would go something like this:
Taco Bell: “Out of this world! Incredible flavors! Five stars!”
Subway: “Fantastic sandwiches! Unbelievable quantities of fresh meat, lettuce, tomatoes! Five stars!”
McDonalds: “French fries to die for! They’re piping hot! Five stars!”
IHOP: “Phenomenal pancakes, and unlimited syrup! Plenty of butter too! Five stars!”
I called Kenny today, to interview him for this post. Here is how that went:
ZM: How is being out?
KB: It’s fantastic! There’s so much in the way of your ability to function, the food—five stars!—and your ability to have a life that has a lot of variety and people in it, socializing, you can pick and choose who you want to be around to a greater extent and you just have more freedom.
I have been doing a whole lot of 12-step groups, attending church services. I’ve spent a whole lot of time on getting the documentation I need just to exist in this world. The journey of the many trips to the DMV just to get my ID has been a headache.
Making new friends and reacquainting myself with old friends, people that hadn’t been in my life for many years, making attempts to contact old family members (unsuccessfully so far). Going on picnics, giving people a hard time.
ZM: Is it different than you expected?
KB: I left myself open to the experience, whatever it was… of course we all have expectations. I wasn’t completely surprised, but the pleasure of actually experiencing those things, like going to an IMAX movie—I had talked about that but I couldn’t even have imagined it. But mostly it’s pretty much what I expected. We’re not that divorced from life outside, although it is a culture shock on many levels. Things definitely move faster out here. I was definitely forewarned by other guys about what it would be like, like the fast pace, the information age.
One thing that really has caught my attention is how much time is spent on the road traveling from one place to another. In San Quentin, no matter what we do, our commute is very short. On the other hand, out here you have the latitude of taking your time; you don’t have to be back at your cell at 9pm.
ZM: Is there anything you miss about prison?
KB: Some of the people, certainly. Every lifer will say they’ve left behind some good friends. Certainly the camaraderie between those who have done that much time, the concentration of guys who have this similar experience of decades. There’s a few guys here at the re-entry program in that boat. One of the lifers here did 51 years and I’ve known him for almost 30 years.
One memorable high point moment was at the DMV yesterday when I asked the clerk did I get it? and she said yes. So much of my life hinges on getting that one document. I can’t get a job, bank account, nothing till I have that ID in my hand. Being told yes kind of set my life onto the next page.
ZM: Do you have any words of wisdom from your 39 years in prison?
KB: “If you apply yourself, you’re never a failure.”
ZM: What are your hopes and dreams at this point?
KB: One of my hopes is that this old lifer who’s bothering me right now will find somewhere else to hang out.
I do have a dream of being a writer and getting published. I’ve been in conversation with Glimmer Train and they seem excited about bringing me on board. Being published on a bigger scale, that’s a hope and a dream.
The idea of being of service and reaching out to homeless guys and giving them some kind of counsel, helping some get off the streets and into better situations. I’m making contact with the DA’s office in SF and seeing how I might work with them with some of that.
ZM: What are you writing?
KB: I’ve been going through some of my text messaging. I’ve been spending a whole lot of time communicating with a whole lot of people. I’m keeping it for future reference, remembering this experience of what I went through. Talk about journaling—in combination with my email, there’s a treasure trove of things I’ve written and have been written to me. That would make a great story.
Also working on this sitcom with Mike Larsen—we’re working on a story together.
Life is good. I’m grateful to be out. I have many wonderful friends who have embraced me, supported me and loved me very deeply. For that I’m glad. It’s been beyond my expectations and belief.