Breaking free: Minnesota prisoner tells childhood story

By A Contributor

‘My friend Tee got shot in the face.’ Thus begins the debut memoir by Zeke Caligiuri, currently serving a thirty-year sentence in the Minnesota state prison system. His crime remains undisclosed. But this book, at its best, is more about who he was before incarceration.

When Tee got shot it was 1993, Caligiuri was fifteen years old, ‘skipping school and hoping girls would understand my story. Back then I used to say I wasn’t afraid to die. I don’t know where I got that idea.’

These opening lines come from a prologue titled ‘Rearranging Destiny,’ establishing a tension that remains until the end between the author’s romantic desire for unlimited freedom and a fatalistic worldview. He establishes early on that the book ‘is about a boy with various pathways to manhood that coincided with all of the volatile components coming into contact all at once in Minneapolis.’

So why is he where he is? What ‘pathways’ did he choose, or what ‘components’ of the time steered him in the wrong direction? That’s what Caligiuri interrogates through a series of self-analytical vignettes that chronicle his up-and-down relationships with his mother and father, with friends and ‘crew’ members, his schooling, and the atmosphere of Minneapolis in the 1990s, a city dubbed ‘Murderapolis’ by ‘The New York Times’ when the city’s murder rate (nearly 100 in 1995) surpassed New York City’s.

The most vivid and heartfelt moments in this memoir focus on those years of innocence and taking the first steps to maturity. One chapter artfully dramatizes the day when a home alone, ten-yearold Zeke calls upon his Granny’s ‘natural fearlessness’ to ‘fight a house full of bees in a yellow sundress.’

Another chapter evokes a Christmas Day when young Zeke witnesses his parents temporarily take in an abandoned boy in his neighborhood, an experience during which he ‘felt sick, like I could cry.’ Caligiuri in these retrospective narratives comes across as a sensitive and observant youth, a young writer in the making.

He does what many young people do — works at the Dairy Queen, goes to school dances (drunk and unruly, however), has conflicts with his parents, plays sports — but he also does what most don’t do: gets convicted for selling crack, owns a gun, attends a funeral for a friend that requires metal- detectors, and fails to graduate from high school, a sore point between him and his fiercely dedicated mother. (But years later she’s proud when he takes classes in prison and graduates with a two-year degree.) The sections about prison life tend be more generic (‘I was a caged animal’) but also can reveal concrete realities of prison life: ‘I essentially live in a bathroom stall. My head rests a foot and a half from my sink, two and a half feet from a stainless steel toilet.’ Caligiuri experiences debilitating headaches and depression; mental illness seems to be the norm for many inmates.

To counter the deadening prison life, Caligirui takes advantage of writing classes to produce poetry, articles, and this substantial memoir. He committed a serious crime and deserves to be where he is. He’s still trying to figure out his ‘fate,’ but can conclude with certainty, ‘So I took my pen and tried to write myself back together ... and bring back the kid who was supposed to be the promise of a new life.’

David Rathbun is a former Manhattan resident who now lives in Minneapolis as a retired English teacher

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