I am just so honored that Kim Powers, author of CAPOTE IN KANSAS, has agreed to visit Booking Mama with a wonderful (and very heartfelt) guest post. Mr. Powers is currently a writer/producer at ABC's Primetime Live and has won both Emmy and Peabody awards for his work on 9/11 at Good Morning America. He has also written a memoir THE HISTORY OF SWIMMING which has been very critically acclaimed (and I'm dying to read.) I think Mr. Powers is a incredibly gifted writer (you can read my review of CAPOTE IN KANSAS); and I was just blown away with what he wrote for my blog.
Oh, good. Diane Sawyer’s still on the jury orientation video, telling us it’s our civic obligation. It’s one of my favorite parts of jury duty, next to the part where the badly costumed extras are thrown in the river to pay for their crimes, in “olden days.” I’m sitting in a crummy Manhattan court room waiting to be called as a juror, and cursing myself for not stopping at Starbucks on my way in. I can already tell it’s going to be a long day. The video must have been shot in the 80s; Diane’s got big shoulder pads and a Mary Lou Retton hairdo. I can’t wait to get back to the office and tell her they’re still using it, and that she should demand an update. I work with her in my day job as a writer for ABC’s Primetime and 20/20. Away from jury duty (and the 80s), her everyday outfit is a pair of black sweatpants, a man’s oversized blue work shirt, and a zippered fleece vest, whatever the weather. Footwear alternates between crocs and running shoes. She comes to the office with her comfy clothes on, her heavy camera makeup from Good Morning America the only sign that she was just on TV for two hours.
She’s almost the best writer I know, and certainly has the best memory. She can ad-lib a long intro on camera, and then remember it word for word for a second take. I started writing for her (not that she needs much help) when I began as a writer at Good Morning America over ten years ago. I hadn’t gone to journalism school (“J-School” in the parlance) like most of the other writers, but I assumed honesty was a journalist’s responsibility over everything else. So when my first assignment turned out to be an introduction to Eddie Murphy, how was I to know this wasn’t what they had in mind: “Even though his last several movies haven’t done very well, he keeps trying, and we’re happy to welcome him today.” The head writer, whom I’d hoped to impress – I was desperate for the job—said, “I know it’s your first day here, but do you want to return for a second?” After that, I learned very fast, much of it at Diane’s red pencil. The other day, when we were racking our brains for the perfect one-word description of a young Obama – having dismissed student, scholar, campus leader, community activist—I suddenly thought of “trailblazer.” Diane thought it was perfect, and it was as if the teacher had given me an A plus.
But remember how I said she’s almost the best writer I know? The best writer I know you’ve probably never heard of, even the best read among you. I consider him one of my best friends, even though we’ve never met. His name is David Crader, although he also goes by the numbers he has to wear everyday on his shirt, while serving a 12 year sentence in a Texas prison. In fact, we jokingly refer to him as my “Pen Pal.” (He started it, not me. He let me know that it was okay to joke, and laugh, that’s how he survived those unsurvivable years. Maybe that’s why I’m thinking of him now, as I sit here waiting my turn in this hall of justice, which I don’t think was served in his case.)
We “met” when he sent me a fan letter about my first book, a memoir about a time when my twin brother Tim went missing, called The History of Swimming. The book did well, thanks in part to a blurb Diane graciously wrote for it, and a segment on Good Morning America. I don’t think David had seen the GMA segment, although he does get to watch TV. American Idol is a favorite, he tells me, with the “guys.” David had read about my book in some magazine, and had his devoted mother order it for him from Amazon. (Prisoners are only allowed books from the “outside world” if they come packaged from Amazon or a large company; they’re not allowed to receive hard covers from friends in the mail – for fear a weapon could be secreted inside.)
David had to type that first letter on what was little more than a toy typewriter, mail it to his sister Debra, then have her RE-type and email it to me, since David doesn’t have access to a computer. He began by telling me of a mistake I had made in the book: it wasn’t the Pointer Sisters who sang “We Are Family,” but Sister Sledge. I knew then that I had a live one. He then proceeded to explain the Federal I. D. number I might have noticed, that he had to include as part of the letter, and his “crime”: complicated, but essentially dispensing prescriptions without a license, and doing what he could to keep a thread-bare AIDS resource center in Texas afloat. Life-saving medicine that was left over when someone died was then given to others, who couldn’t afford any medicine at all. He was offered a plea deal to serve one year, if he’d just say he was guilty. He refused, because he didn’t think he WAS guilty. (Of the letter of the law, yes; of the spirit of the law, no. That’s my opinion, not his. He hasn’t tried to proselytize, or excuse what he did.) A homophobic, AIDS-phobic Texas judge sentenced him to the maximum time in a federal prison, 12 years, without possibility of parole. (I’m from Texas – a “fallen Texan,” as I now describe myself-- and feel I’ve earned the right to criticize a judge in my home state.) David had a special understanding of The History of Swimming, which goes on to recount how my two brothers both died of AIDS. He’d been there, seen that.
You’d think David would be bitter, and while I’ve read moments of near-despair in his meaty, magnificent letters, “bitter” isn’t a quality I’ve ever seen. (Me, I’m bitter if the Duane Reade down the street is out of coffee Haagen-Daz.) His letters are funnier than anything I’ve ever come up with, even on my best class-clown days. His wonderment at the small things in life—from the little kittens outside the prison, to cornbread with dinner--is a revelation. When his father died recently, and he wasn’t allowed to go to the funeral—he got the news in his one weekly 15-minute phone call-- he gave me a lesson in grace and forgiveness more meaningful than anything I learned in eighteen years at North Baptist Church in McKinney, Texas. When he wrote about his scandalous affair with his female high school librarian, it was more moving and erotic than anything Philip Roth has ever come up with. When I sent him a draft of my newest book, that I had just turned into my agent, he gave me better notes than any editor I’ve ever worked with. Most tellingly, when a friend wrote and asked if he ever regretted what he did, he said no, and shared his rationale for that with his big group of friends in one of his monthly letters. That’s the only time I almost got angry at him, because I’m so blind with rage at his sentence and the injustice of it. One day, I hope to help him collect those letters and assemble them into a book. It should be required reading, for anyone who wants to learn how to be a better person.
A sidebar to my friendship with David is my friendship with his sister, Debra, our “go-between.” She is a pistol, with a big heart and bigger hair-do, my kind of gal. She and her mother recently moved to Truth or Consequences, NM, just to be closer to David. David and Debra should have their own show on Bravo, or at least local access. They’re a hoot together. She inserts her thoughts on the letters she still has to send out for him. At this point, I could have David mail the letters directly to me, but then I’d miss our “three-ways,” as I call them. Debra recently wrote me about a trouble-plagued car trip she and her 75 year old mother took to visit David, and it sounded like an outtake from Thelma and Louise.
I am happy to call them two of my best friends, and it all came from getting a fan letter. Now I’M the one who’s the fan.
P.S. I got sprung from jury duty, after only four short hours. Over a hundred of us were called before a judge, who outlined the case we might sit on: a Mobster accused of killing six people. The trial would take a month. The judge then told any of us who felt we couldn’t serve to leave. Nearly everyone did. I wonder why? Now THAT’S the justice system at work!
I want to extend a huge thanks to Mr. Powers for sharing this story with us. After reading it, I'm sure you can tell what a gifted writer he is. Make sure you check out his books THE HISTORY OF SWIMMING and CAPOTE IN KANSAS!