A Message in a Bottle

Christopher Aguirre and his librarian, Melisa Gilbert, were sitting in a dimly lit classroom during a StoryCorps sound-check, getting microphoned while they listed-off all their tattoos.

On the right side of his neck like a sprouting daffodil, you can see two hands joined in prayer, growing out from under Chris’ collar — fingertips just barely tucked behind his ear. Melisa described cute, fantastical creatures that adorn her, albeit nowhere in sight.

Beyond ink, Melisa and Chris have a few more things in common.

“They say that if you love your job, it’s not a job at all,” says Chris, who is passionate about auto-body – with plans on building his own shop.

“Absolutely,” replies Melisa, who as a librarian, goes home after work just to continue researching, reading, and mulling over information access. “You see the connection between your art and your work,” she empathizes.

The small room has been sound-proofed – improvised, that is. Layers of soft white linen have been carefully stapled over all four walls to capture bouncing echoes. This StoryCorps field recording was conducted at Arrowhead Correctional Center, a minimum security prison located in Canon City, Colorado – otherwise known as the Corrections Capital of the country. Melisa and other prison-library staff invited StoryCorps across red-tape and barbed-wire fences, to host a day of recorded oral histories for those “offenders” with a desire to speak into a microphone. Chris participated along with seven other men who are also currently serving time at Arrowhead.

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“What is one of your happiest memories?”

“July 19 of ’06 when my daughter was born.” A proud father, Chris went on to describe his daughter’s laughter, revealing that one of the best things about being a parent was being able to put a smile on his baby’s face. “She represents the part of life that I never got to see…that because of my circumstances, I never experienced. She gives it all back to me.”

Recalling his own childhood, Chris described the moment when he realized, at twelve, that he was the only person left to take care of his needs.
“What made you realize you had to do it all on your own?”

“I just got hungry one night.” And so began Chris’s story of a childhood and adolescence spent on the street – a story whose final word was “crossroads”, a word born on July 19th, 2006.

Christopher

“They have this country western song: ‘When tough little boys grow up to be dads, they turn into big babies again…’ She pulls on me like that.”

Libraries are already special places. The prison-library, however, represents perhaps the only ‘space of possibility’ in a setting otherwise defined by stringent limitation. What regularly brings Chris and Melisa to the library has something to do with a self-searching that Chris describes as his first duty as a parent – that is, to know himself. His interview is a dedication to his own future, and to his daughter.

Special thanks to Diane Walden of Arrowhead Correctional Library, Christopher Aguirre, and all the interview participants for collectively creating an unprecedented platform in Canon City. With dreams of developing another oral history project at Arrowhead, Ms. Walden hopes to extend such a conversation in the future to include family-members of prisoners.


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