The screams and cries are loudest at night, and they aggravate the inmates who encourage the predators and fantasize about the fate of the prey. It isn’t long before “Om Mani Padme Hum” resonates throughout the cell block and peace replaces terror.  It’s my final night after being incarcerated for five years at Corcoran State prison.  

The tiny plastic mirror above my combination metal sink and toilet reflects the transformation from a slight eighteen-year-old into a formidable man with prison tattoos. The tattoo on my forearm reads, “El Chico de Ajo” which translates into “Garlic Boy.”

Soon after my incarceration, I visited the prison library and randomly selected “The Teachings of Buddha.” Reading it removed the hatred and vengeance consuming me.  I wrote to the Buddhist publisher and thanked them for transforming my life, and I was rewarded with additional Buddhist publications. The transformation I found in Buddhism spread throughout the cell block, and I became a revered Buddhism counselor to the hardest criminals and their jailers.

It’s daybreak and the Warden escorts me to the bus which will take me home. The only possession I took is my copy of “The Teachings of Buddha.”  He hands me a pencil drawing of a family of spiders nestled in their web. The drawing is titled “Peace and Gratitude” and the Warden tells me “Charlie” meditated and gave it to me as a gift.  I tell him to sell it and buy Buddhist publications for the library.


Gilroy California is a farming community known for growing garlic. Our family lived in a trailer home located downwind from a garlic processing plant, a circumstance that gave my family the permanent stench of garlic. There are two Latino social classes living and working in Gilroy:  wealthy landowners tracing their lineage to Spanish land grants and migrant farm workers harvesting their crops.   My parents are migrants, paying the wealthy land owner rent and a percentage of their crop sales. I’m an only child, and was a lonely, quiet, studious kid with dreams of attending college to study agricultural science, perhaps one day owning our own farm. My garlic stench made me an outcast, teased and bullied by everyone, with the exception of Andalina, a quiet, studious girl, exchanging loving glances with me in school.  Andalina’s parents own a beautiful ranch home on hundreds of acres. A relationship was never possible given our economic differences. I received a postcard from Andalina in prison, telling me she graduated from college and was attending graduate school. I was proud of her, but too embarrassed to write back and tell her I earned my GED in prison.

My parents often sent me to buy groceries at the only minimarket/gas station in our neighborhood, and I welcomed the errand because they included money for a “Slurpee.” The owner of the minimarket is Ernesto. He was once a struggling immigrant, but somehow managed to save enough money to open the store.  He’s considered a “Coconut” by Latino’s and prefers to go by “Ernie.” Ernesto was politically ambitious, a “law and order” businessman with aspirations of running for mayor.  His minimarket/gas station has no competition for miles and he charges monopoly prices.

I entered the minimarket and dashed for the Slurpee machine. I poured a tall Slurpee and grabbed the groceries. As I approached Ernesto to pay, a Latino gang entered the store, which was empty except for me and Ernesto. One gang member stood guard at the entrance.  Sensing trouble, I hurried to complete the transaction and get out of the store.  The leader of the gang passed me and smelled my garlic stench. Placing his arm around me, he said, “You’re my garlic boy.”  His grip was firm and he approached the counter with me in tow. He held a gun to Ernesto’s head demanding money. Ernesto opened the register and handed over the money, begging, “Please don’t kill me!” The gunman turned to me and said, “You stink man!” He hit me on the back of the head with the butt of the gun, knocking me unconscious.

I regained consciousness to find Ernesto standing over me. My arms and feet were bound and I was being photographed by the local newspaper. Ernesto assumed I was a gang member and used the robbery as a photo opportunity for his mayoral run. Ernesto planted the pistol dropped by the thief in my pants.  I was arrested and charged with armed robbery. The Public Defender disregarded my story, explaining that “wrong place, wrong time” wasn’t much of a defense. She pressured me to accept a plea deal. I was sentenced to prison and Ernesto was elected mayor.

The bus ride home feels like a prison cell as it crawls up Interstate 5 surrounded by Central Valley farms.  I’m anxious and clutch the “Teachings of Buddha.” We pass a billboard reading: 

Next Services 8 miles.
Ernie’s Minimarket and Gas Station

The billboard reignites hatred and vengeance towards Ernesto but I hold the book close to my heart and chant, “Om Mani Padme Hum” which calms me.  I’ll get off the bus at Ernesto’s minimarket, intending to buy a bottle of champagne and treat myself to a Slurpee, which I dreamed about in prison.

I enter the store and recognize Ernesto behind the counter. I pour a Slurpee and select a bottle of champagne. I approach the register and ask Ernesto, “Remember me?” To which he replies, “No. You all look alike!” 

The doors to the minimarket swing open, and in the store mirror behind Ernesto, I see karma in the shark-like stare of a meth head quickly approaching the register, determined to rob and likely kill Ernesto. I alone will determine if Ernesto lives or dies. I turn to face the tweaker, rolling up my shirt, revealing a skin-sleeve of prison “tats” while giving him my “prison-eye stare down.” I hold the bottle of champagne like a baton. The meth head stops dead in his tracks, saying, “It’s cool man. No hassle from me!”  He backs his way out of the store, runs to his car, and speeds away. 

Ernesto knows he dodged a bullet and extends his hand in gratitude, saying, “Thank you.  How can I repay you?”  I hand him my copy of “The Teachings of Buddha” and walk out of the store sipping the Slurpee like expensive cognac.