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Hand drawn sketch of a pair of Nike sneakers
Illustration by DALL-E

The phrase “What goes around, comes around” has been a refrain throughout my life, but its meaning has changed over the years. I used to think of it as a threat, but in prison — one of the unlikeliest of places — I’ve learned how it can be applied to the spirit of giving.

Over 30 years ago, on a drive home from work, I saw a man driving a red Mazda Miata through my neighborhood toss an empty beer can into the gutter.

Irritated, I got out of my raised Chevrolet Blazer and retrieved the can. A short chase later, I pulled alongside the tiny Miata while it idled at a red signal. I tossed the can onto his empty passenger seat and shouted, “What goes around,” and added emphasis with an expletive as I drove off.

Flash-forward a few years, I was cleaning my two-man cell at Calipatria State Prison in California, sweeping up a day’s accumulation of dust bunnies resembling a furry snake. Feeling lazy, I turned my table fan on full blast and sent the fuzzy python slithering under the door onto the floor of the dayroom, the central space with televisions and telephones where people hang out.

A minute later the hulking tier-tender’s head showed up, knocking loudly and sending the string of dust back into my cell under the locked door.

“What goes around, comes around,” he shouted with an expletive before storming off.

But since then, the phrase I had considered to be so negative has taken on a more positive meaning.

Years ago, when I first arrived at U.S. Penitentiary Lompoc in Southern California, I had been exhausted after a three-hour intake process and had fallen asleep on my bunk. Suddenly, I was jolted awake by a hand on my foot. I sat up and reached for the intruder. Just outside my cell was a friendly face: Tony, a serial bank robber I knew from the federal lockup in Los Angeles. He smiled at me.

“Don’t get up,” he whispered.

He pushed a bulging paper bag through the bars. “What goes around, my friend! Meet me at the podium for chow tonight.”

Inside the bag I found an extraordinary “fish” (new person) kit: several stamped envelopes, a pen, half a jar of instant coffee, a writing pad, ramen soups, some clothesline string and a honey bun.

Months before, when Tony had arrived at the L.A. detention center, I had seen he was destitute. He seemed like an OK guy, so I had given him a similar housewarming gift, dropping the bag on his bunk while he showered.

Twenty years later, I walked onto E Yard at Mule Creek State Prison after a bitter encounter with staff because they wouldn’t give me my property from Receiving and Release, the department inside prisons where people entering and leaving are processed. A dozen onlookers loitered around, checking us fish out as we entered the compound for the first time.

With a sidelong glance I spied a shaggy-headed, bearded apparition bouncing up and down in the back of the group and calling my name.

It was Lester, my old cellmate from six years before. I had helped him out with supplies for several months at Calipatria State Prison, where I had a job and he didn’t.

We met up at dinner and arranged to meet in the yard the next day. I told him that my property sat on a shelf, and I probably wouldn’t see my belongings for a week.

Fourteen hours later, Les presented me with the ultimate fish kit: a loaner pair of Nike shoes, a jar of Folgers coffee and everything else I needed to survive.

What goes around comes around.

The expression I had come to know as a warning had evolved and become a sign of mutual respect.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Global Forum Online has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

John L. Orr is a writer incarcerated in California.