By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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My friend and I were hiking in the hills of western Great Britain, somewhere in the Lake District, when the church bells chimed four times, meaning four o’clock: we had a mere two hours until the only pub in town with reasonable prices closed its kitchen. If we didn’t make it back before six, we’d have to spend an exorbitant amount at one of the fancy places.
She and I headed down the trail quickly, our packs jolting with every step. It was at least an hour and a half back to town, and that was if we hustled. The village itself was visible, but the path back wound endlessly and cut back on itself. I proposed a shortcut through the sprawling farms, and we hopped over a knee-high stone wall, thinking of decently priced cheese boards and pints.
We clambered over more walls, sometimes discovering a herd of disinterested sheep or cows. We had only a few fields left to go when we heard five tolls of the bells. Inspired, I jumped another wall.
A ram with prominent horns glared at me from twenty feet away. I’d never seen a ram in person before. They are shockingly large creatures.
My friend peeked over the wall and gasped, then told me to start moving slowly to my right. A short distance away was another wall, and on the other side, a less-occupied pasture. I edged along the rocks, and the ram followed, his horns aimed at my soft, fleshy torso. As I neared my goal, the creature stopped but did not break his gaze. I climbed the wall so hastily that my foot caught on a rock, and I landed on my face right in front of my friend. We resumed our journey.
The bartender was surly but accommodating, eyeing the clock while he jotted down our order. A couple of well-dressed men bought us a round. Turns out they’d been watching our journey from the balcony upstairs — two little figures dashing across empty fields as if they were being chased by demons. They found us terribly amusing.
Hinton, West Virginia
Many inmates have jobs in prison. Mine is to care for the disabled, the sick, and the dying in the infirmary. My coworkers and I clean rooms, fold laundry, help write letters, and assist those who are unable to bathe or go to the bathroom by themselves. We clean up when there are accidents. Often, though, we just provide companionship.
When I started, there was one man everyone said was angry and difficult. A near quadriplegic, he had been in prison for more than thirty years. I decided right away to make a special effort to win him over.
He likes things to be done a certain way. If I fail to follow his instructions, he’ll yell at me, sometimes with such force that his whole body shakes.
Preparing his meals is where I have made the best impression. I do everything he says, exactly the way he says to do it, and always where he can watch. (He’s particular about how the ingredients are measured, added, and mixed.)
One day, while we were making his meal, the nurses interrupted and took him aside. I had already crushed the ramen noodles and added the other ingredients, just the way he liked it. Feeling some confidence after eight weeks of cooking for him, I continued to add the water and began stirring.
When the nurses left, he saw I had gone ahead without him. He began to yell, claiming I had added too much water. I said it was the same amount we always used, but he wouldn’t hear it. Yelling and calling me names, he sent me to the microwave in the hall to heat it up. It was ruined, he said, but he wouldn’t waste food.
I walked out of his room feeling angry. I couldn’t understand why he was so upset. He often snapped at me, but rarely like this. While the food was heating, I realized he was mad because I hadn’t waited. In my effort to be efficient, I’d missed the point of the ritual: to give him some sense of control in his life. For decades he’s been behind bars, trapped in a broken body, depending on everyone for everything.
Now, when I’m caring for him and I’m tempted just to get something done, I slow myself down. I give him the benefit of those few minutes.
“Up here we call them ‘camps,’ ” the real-estate agent told us on the phone when my husband and I asked about a lakefront house we’d seen online. The term dated to the Gilded Age, he said, when wealthy families had built grand, rustic homes in the Adirondacks and given them names, all of which began with Camp. Of the place we’d found on the web, he said, “Little ones like this one don’t last very long.”
The next day we met the agent, who drove us on a country road to the sweet cottage nestled into the side of a mountain. It had a screened porch, a deck, and a wall of windows facing the serene lake. As we examined the well-kept interior, I knew this was it. We signed an agreement right away.
Four weeks later, as we were moving in, we were met by a smiling man. “Hi! I’m Dave, your new neighbor!” He asked if we liked cocktails. We said yes, and he told us to come next door at 5 PM.
When we arrived, we met our new neighbors from the adjoining three camps. (I hadn’t realized so many people lived close by.) They assured us that we were at the quiet part of the lake — until “cocktail time,” that is.
They pointed to a well-worn shortcut that connected our four camps. The path to the Burnses’ led right to our lower deck, which they had to cross to reach the Gallaghers’. “We hope this is OK with you,” Dave said, “because it’s always been this way for us.”
What could we say? In the beginning it was surprising to see a head pass by our windows, but I noticed that our neighbors were practiced at this crossing: they looked straight ahead and didn’t glance in.
As we relaxed into the lake life, the shortcut became a lovely ritual. Sometimes I would take it to borrow sugar or check on the weather. The paths have brought good news (a wedding) and bad news (memory problems) and everything in between. Over fourteen summers, we have used them almost every day.
Schroon Lake, New York
If there isn’t a circle in hell devoted to those who steal laxatives from their grandparents, there probably should be. I downed more chocolate-flavored Ex-Lax the summer I stayed with my grandma than most octogenarians do in a decade. She replenished it regularly, and, to avoid detection, I never let the supply dwindle to zero.
I was too sad to stop bingeing and too impatient to start dieting. Laxatives were my shortcut to slenderness, and at my grandmother’s I could take them without raising suspicion. I just spent a lot of time in the bathroom with the fan running. Maybe I had an upset stomach. My grandma wouldn’t press me.
She grew up during the Depression and came of age in the postwar era, when industrial ingenuity was seen as the answer for everything, including food. Nearly ninety years old, she still lamented her shape, but her kitchen was a mecca of potato chips, processed cheese, and individually wrapped cookies — the “low-fat” varieties. I helped myself like she told me to. I loved to open the Velveeta’s foil wrapper and carve big slices from the block.
Grandma was recovering from knee-replacement surgery, and I was recovering from a relationship that I’d foolishly let get tangled up with my living arrangements. I was staying with her that summer to mow her lawn and clean her house, but everyone knew that, by giving me a loving home, she was helping me just as much. I longed for anything new in my stagnant, late-twenties life, and that longing took the form of consuming too much food.
Fifteen years later, bingeing and purging is still the way I cope.
In my senior year of high school a shy boy named David invited me to a graduation party at the beach. There were two ways to get there: by highway, with boring views of refineries and rice fields; and a shorter, more scenic route that followed the Gulf of Mexico but often flooded at high tide. I told David a drive by the water would be exciting.
David made straight A’s, never dated, and followed every rule. He drove a new sports car, a graduation present from his family. After weighing the options, he reluctantly agreed to take the shortcut.
Halfway to the party we discovered the beach road was closed due to debris from a hurricane. I persuaded David to keep going because driving in the sand would be “so much fun.”
Driving in the sand soon became driving in the surf. The beach had washed out. Waterlogged driftwood blocked the way, and we had to wrestle seaweed-covered logs aside. Then we came to an area where, due to a downed fence, cattle bigger than his car blocked our path. I tried to herd them away, but they charged me and dinged David’s car door as I pulled it closed behind me. I was loving every minute of this, but David was starting to panic that the tide would come in and wash us out to sea.
We arrived at the party hours late, wet, smelly, and covered in sand. David’s new car had beach grass and seaweed caught in the bumpers, one hubcap was gone, and the windows were covered with mud and bugs.
Everyone crowded around to ask what had happened. Tight-lipped, David asked me to get out, stating he would be back later. He found a car wash and repaired some of the damage, then took me home the long way. He never asked me out again.
When I was a child, my family lived in a bungalow in the foothills of the Himalayan Mountains. Our house had four live-in staff, including a gardener, his wife, and their son, Mugnu, who was my age and my only playmate.
The cinema hall in town was our entertainment. Westerns, Disney films, and musicals were all difficult to resist, and there was only one show in English: every evening at 4 PM. School ended at 3:30, and then came the thirty-minute walk home along a hilly trail. Mugnu was always ready and waiting for me. If I hurried, I could change out of my uniform, grab a snack, and make it to the theater in time.
Mugnu and I worked out every detail of our routine down to the second. The off-road shortcuts we took made it possible for us to catch the greatest entertainment of our lives.
During the Easter holiday, when I was in seventh grade, Mugnu had to go to his village to be with his grandparents. He left with his father and promised to return the following Monday so we could see The Sound of Music together.
After class on Monday I dashed home, expecting to find Mugnu waiting, but the house was quiet. My mom was in the garden talking to some people. They all looked so sad. Someone said it was an accident; the bus had rolled down the hill. I looked at my mom. She put her arm around me, hugged me close, and told me that Mugnu had been killed.
I may not remember all of the movies we saw, but I remember taking those shortcuts with Mugnu.
I often took shortcuts in my younger days. I cheated on tests and homework assignments. At cross-country practice in high school, I cut through wooded trails to make better time. In my romantic relationships I was unfaithful to most of the women I dated. As a bartender I stole cash if I thought I was being mistreated by the management. When I sold real estate, I lied about the details of listings. I got away with whatever I could.
All of these shortcuts only led me further from myself. It took a serious, loving relationship — sixteen years with my wife — to confront my selfishness, dishonesty, and unkindness.
Hillsborough, New Jersey
I used to wish my life were a little harder so that I could better understand suffering. My parents never fought, and most of my childhood memories are happy. The worst trauma I faced was a big move when I was a teenager. If my life were more challenging, I thought, I would be a better, more compassionate person. I never consciously wished for something bad to happen, but I saw trauma as a shortcut to depth and wisdom.
Four years ago my ten-year-old daughter found my two-month-old son dead in his bed. I was furious at God, if one existed, and at the universe, and at every other parent out there, especially those who hadn’t suffered such a loss.
I felt robbed. I didn’t suddenly care more about poor people or war-torn countries or motherless infants. I wanted my son back, and everyone else could go to hell. What I had thought would be an opportunity for self-actualization had only warped me into an angry person. Everyone said the wrong things, and I resented them for it. When a friend noted the cleanliness of my house, I yelled, “That’s because my baby died!”
After a neighbor gave birth three months ago, I told her about my son for the first time. Her girl had been hospitalized at two weeks: the baby’s heart rate had soared, and she would have died if my neighbor and her husband hadn’t taken her to the doctor. I was glad they had noticed something was wrong, though I also wondered if I had missed some warning signs with my own baby.
I no longer envy or resent mothers with infants, which is an improvement. But I still have a long way to go before I am the wise woman I fantasized about becoming.
Oak Park, Illinois
When I was in fifth grade, I lived on a block of row houses with postage-stamp yards in Philadelphia. Walking home from school one day, I decided to take a shortcut through the yard of a neighbor’s house. I was halfway across when a woman came out and yelled at me for trespassing. I didn’t know what to say, so I blurted out, “This is an amazing shrub! I love the colors!”
I’m not sure where those words came from. Most yards in the neighborhood were trampled grass. My mother grew tomato plants in our backyard — a risky endeavor because the rats liked them — and my sister had planted purple morning glories. But I had nothing to do with any of this. Plants were a foreign language to me. No one even asked me to mow the lawn.
I thought there was no chance this woman would buy my lame excuse, but she beamed with pride and said, “It is a rare and beautiful shrub!” We had a brief conversation before I moved on.
I am now an avid gardener, and my garden has been featured in at least fifteen garden tours, where people walk through my yard and admire my plants.
The bar where I worked was a half-hour walk from my home. During the day, when the sun was out, this was no problem. Evenings were a different story. Temperatures would drop below zero, and a fresh snowfall might rise to my thighs. Combined with the windchill and patches of black ice, these conditions made the walk feel eternal.
I didn’t know which was worse: those thirty minutes in the cold, or the three minutes in a truck alone with the head bartender, who sometimes gave me a ride. This was a man who’d grabbed my balls on my first shift as a “joke,” who slid off his wedding ring when he served female patrons, and who made suggestive comments to the waitresses. As a mere barback, I knew rejecting his rides would mean less money for me when he divided up tips at the end of the night, so I played along.
One night, one of the waitresses decided she’d had enough of his antics and offered me a ride home right in front of him. He just shrugged when I accepted.
Unfortunately the cold had sapped the life from her car battery. The head bartender, finishing a cigarette nearby, heard the dead clicks of her engine.
With a smirk on his face, he pulled up his truck, brought out a mess of cables, and began teaching the tired waitress how to jump-start a vehicle. I told myself, From now on I’ll walk.
Vancouver, British Columbia
I tried to teach my teenage daughter everything I had already learned. I figured if I told her about my bad experiences, it might help her avoid having any. I wanted her to choose friends wisely, to plan her college career carefully — both things I never did but now knew I should have done.
Because she didn’t like being told how to live, I tried to sneak my lessons in. But no matter how clever I thought I was, she always caught on and reacted with resentment.
I soon joined a therapy group for parents of teenagers. From a book the group recommended, I discovered what I’d been doing had a name: “insight transplants.” As well-meaning as my lessons had been, this technique had been tried by enough parents to prove it was ineffectual, and even potentially damaging to the parent-child relationship.
My daughter was going to have to live her own life, I realized, and learn by making her own mistakes. And I was going to have to let her. Once I did, our relationship improved.
My brother Ethan pointed to an unruly clump of shrubbery to our right. “Can we take a shortcut through here?” he said.
Before I could protest, Ethan started through the elbow-high growth. I gave in and joined him.
This stroll around our Chicago suburb was the first time I had been able to get Ethan out of the house in weeks. He had been a recluse since he was fifteen. (We were both in our twenties.) When he wasn’t in his room with the curtains drawn, he was on the living-room couch, moaning with pain that doctors couldn’t explain.
Now, pushing our way through the greenery, we suddenly stopped. Spread before us was a grassy knoll and a stand of evergreens. In the center was a tiny pond surrounded by pebbles and birds. Ethan bounded toward the water, nearly sliding out of his boots. He gestured for me to follow.
Even though Ethan is two years older, I assisted my mother in taking care of him. I reminded him to take his medication and assured him that the hallucinations weren’t real. On good days he and I made small talk. On bad days I hardly saw him at all.
But there he was, urging me to chase after him. The same sun that he blocked out of his room shone across his face, along with a smile I hadn’t seen in a long time. Though his hands usually clenched and twitched, he ran his fingers through the thickets of grass. His eyes that seemed forever expressionless crinkled with laughter. We were two twenty-somethings tumbling through a field like a couple of kids.
We eventually found our way home, and for the first time in a while, we made real conversation on the way back.
I’ll never forget that evening. It reminded me that there is a light inside of Ethan, after all. I keep waiting to see it again.
Six months after the aspiring autocrat who occupies the highest office in the U.S. had declared African nations to be “shit-hole” countries, I visited my niece in Tanzania.
She was teaching at an elementary school at the base of Mount Kilimanjaro. While I was there, we spent a long weekend on the island of Zanzibar. On our last night my niece wasn’t feeling well, so I left her at the hotel and went to find us dinner.
Confident from a guided walking tour we’d taken earlier, I headed to a tourist area and made my way along the seafront to a restaurant we’d seen, but I arrived at closing. A waiter directed me to another place he thought might be open, but it required me to leave the shoreline and plunge deeper into the city. I quickly became lost.
Whereas before I’d been surrounded by families strolling the harbor, I was now a woman walking alone through quiet, mostly residential streets. There were no discernible street signs to help me navigate, and my phone was useless without any cell service to bring up a map.
At one point I realized I was walking in circles, and I just stopped and tried to remember the path back to the shoreline. Seeing my distress, a thirty-something Zanzibari man approached and offered to lead the way. There were enough passersby that I felt comfortable accepting his offer.
As we walked, I told him I was from the United States. He stopped, placed his hand over his heart, and said solemnly, “Obama.” I gave a quick nod, put my hand over my heart, too, and said, “Yes. Obama.” We stood like that for a beat and then headed off again.
As we turned from a sparsely populated street into an impenetrably dark alley, I broke into a cold sweat. Despite our bonding moment, I worried I was letting my desire to atone for Trump’s comments cloud my judgment. Then he reassured me, “Shortcut. Don’t worry, very close.” My gut said to trust him.
We’d gone as far as the alley would allow when my guide took a sharp right. There in front of me was a brightly lit square filled with people and, just past that, the restaurant I’d been looking for. Using the few Swahili words I knew, I tried to communicate my gratitude, but it didn’t seem like enough.
Cream Ridge, New Jersey
© Jon Kral
“Look, Mom! I won the Word of the Week!” I said. I showed her the ribbon I’d won at the school assembly. “I got it for persistent,” I said. “What does that mean?”
My mom laughed. “It means you’re stubborn.”
Eight years later I was lying on the ground with a boy I liked. We’d been kissing for ten minutes, and I had pine needles in my hair and sap stuck to my corduroys when his girlfriend’s older sister caught us. The boy jumped up and lied: “She was trying to steal my wallet!”
The girl turned to me and said, “You better run.”
Run I did. It was dark, but I was propelled by fear.
That tryst was the second of three times the boy and I made out that summer. I was sixteen, he was a year younger, and his girlfriend was barely a teenager. I had no qualms about this adolescent infidelity. I’d had a crush on him since he’d arrived in middle school, with long hair falling on his camo jacket emblazoned with a Metallica patch.
I got away but spent the rest of that summer certain I would get my ass kicked by his girlfriend or her sister. I didn’t.
The next year, while taking honors classes and applying to universities, I connected with him again. I lost my virginity on his twin bed while Led Zeppelin’s IV wailed in the background.
My crush finally became my boyfriend. I had put him on a pedestal for so long that I could barely speak to him for our first three months together. One sunny September morning he said, “I just wanted to have sex with you, but now I’ve fallen in love with you.” Maybe not the best compliment ever, but I was seventeen, and it was enough.
It is hard for me now, two decades and many love affairs later, to realize that jumping into bed with a man is not the best path to a long-term commitment. Though it worked that first time, sex is rarely a shortcut to love.
Katherine Elizabeth Renz
San Francisco, California
In ninth grade I joined my school’s track team, a repository for misfits and miscreants who lacked the coordination and skills to try out for baseball or tennis.
Coach C. announced on the first day that his priority was building our stamina. Our practices consisted of jogging around the Central Park Reservoir, a mile-and-a-half loop near our Upper West Side school. After a few days one of my teammates came up with a shortcut. Once out of sight of the coach, we would exit the park and double back on Central Park West, then return to the route. With fake huffs and puffs, we’d arrive back at the starting point a few seconds faster than the previous day.
This worked beautifully until the day we lost track of when we’d started and shaved more than a minute off our previous best. Our coach’s grin at our improvement faded to a look of betrayal as it dawned on him that we had accomplished the impossible.
We quickly admitted to our scheme and never pulled that stunt again. We also didn’t win a single meet that season.
Montclair, New Jersey
I loved our annual summer pilgrimage to Yosemite Valley, but the last hour of the drive was always a nightmare. Every year, to shave some time off the trek, my dad would take the Old Priest Grade “shortcut.”
The road was narrow, winding, and steep. My brother struggled not to be carsick while I tried not to look out at the sheer drop beside the car. If a vehicle was coming the other way, our dad had to inch past it, hoping not to slide down the cliff. There had been multiple deaths on this road, and it was considered too dangerous for anything larger than a car.
I’m not sure how much time we saved using the Old Priest Grade. Once he reached the main road, our dad would hit the gas and exuberantly congratulate himself, as if we’d climbed those rocky peaks on foot. “We made it!” he’d say, looking for some sort of pat on the back. My mom would sit in stony silence. My brother would stick his head out the window, taking in gulps of fresh air. I would roll my eyes.
Once we got to the campsite, all was forgotten until next year, when we’d do it all over again.
El Sobrante, California
In the summer of 1980 — one year before I graduated from high school and one year after I’d been diagnosed with muscular dystrophy — I had no summer job and no idea where my future would take me.
One day I was supposed to meet Ellen and Katie at the community pool. I grabbed my beach towel, slipped on my red Speedo and cutoff jeans, and headed out the door. Just shy of the cul-de-sac, I took the shortcut through a grove of trees, up the hill, across a field, and then down toward the sounds of the splashing and screaming, the smells of chlorine and Coppertone.
Even though my disease was barely visible, as I walked through the pool’s front gate, I was sure every eye was scanning my body. Did they notice that hint of a limp? Were they whispering about how skinny I was?
Once I’d settled in, I had a good time. I could swim underwater nearly a pool length without taking a breath. I floated on my back. Sunshine and cute boys and ice cream filled the hours until I returned home.
Today I lie on my sofa, staring out the living-room window. My cane is in the corner. My muscles are withered. I need help walking. I’m too tired to go outside.
I close my eyes and revisit those summer days. I slip inside my young body as I walk barefoot across the spiky grass. The sun warms my tanned, toned arms. I zigzag through the trees. Together, my healthy self and I descend the hill into the water. We take the long way.
San Francisco, California
After graduating from college in 1981, I moved from New York to New Jersey with my high-school sweetheart, Tommy. We got married four months later.
In my new role as a suburbanite who commuted to New York City for work, I was content to take the most direct route on the Garden State Parkway. Tommy, however, was more adventurous and took a lot of what we called “Tommy’s shortcuts,” which were not so short at all. I would convince him to leave earlier than planned when he drove me anywhere, and, if we were running late for something, I would tell Tommy, “No shortcuts. We can’t be late.”
Over the years my annoyance gradually softened. As a result of his curiosity, we discovered a beautiful park with an enormous pond, the historic Thomas Edison Memorial Tower, and a service station with the cheapest gas in town.
When our son, Jordan, was sixteen, he got his driver’s permit, and Tommy and I would take turns accompanying Jordan as he learned to drive. Jordan was proud to show me the twisting routes his father taught him, the back roads with no stop signs, and the “fastest” way to our favorite pizza place.
Just months after Jordan had begun driving, Tommy died in his sleep at the age of fifty-two. The shock was immense. Jordan and I struggled to make sense of our lives without him.
In an attempt to endure the loneliness, I often took one of Tommy’s serpentine routes home from work. I would pass the park, the pond, or the tower, and laugh and cry at once, remembering Tommy’s mischievous smile, and the way he had taken a shortcut straight to my heart so many years ago.
The Readers Write entry by the inmate who slowed down to be patient and kind to a man in the prison infirmary [“Shortcuts,” March 2020] affected me more deeply than a whole book on compassion. Like the author, I, too, struggle with helping people who can be irritating or unkind. But the author took it upon himself to put aside his own needs and try to understand his fellow prisoner’s anger and frustration.
I hope the author sees this letter and realizes what a good person he is.