I recently had an interesting conversation I’d like to share. I was at work and like most other days multitasking to no end; composing a letter, talking on the phone and searching frantically for a file on a desk that resembles the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. Unexpectedly and without fanfare a man opened the door to my office.
Sticking his head in the door he said “excuse me”, but someone in a black BMW left their lights on. Is it yours or do you know who it belongs to? If they don’t turn them off soon, their battery will go dead and they’ll be stranded without a jump.”
After assuring him that the car was not mine and having no knowledge of who it belonged to he asked “well then who should I talk to?” I quickly directed him to the front office.
But before he could leave I engaged him in conversation. There was just something about the man that needed further analysis. So I put down the phone, delayed the letter and reasoned ‘to hell with the file’, at least for the moment. Somehow I summoned the courage to pose, “do you mind if I ask you a few questions”.
A puzzled look crossed his face and he tilted his head, slightly to the side as if trying to figure out what the hell I wanted. After thinking for a moment he smiled and said “sure, no problem”. I offered him a seat and the discussion was on and poppin.
Interesting enough, I never asked his name. Not that it mattered. Clad in jeans, a white sweatshirt, a cap turned to the side and a toothpick dangling from parched lips, with more than a few front teeth missing, he appeared to be aged, at least in his mid to late fifties, with a rough hewn, worldly look about him. He spoke with an intelligence, honesty and self awareness that was noteworthy, often punctuated his comments with the suffix, “real talk”, especially when trying to make a point.
I often talk to ex-offenders finding their stories both fascinating and depressing. Surmising that he too was a formerly incarcerated person and lacking any sense of decorum, the first words out of my mouth were “have you ever been to prison?”
“Yeah man, I been locked down three times”.
The force of the revelation caused me to lurch forward, “damn, three times”, “Dude how in the hell did you go to prison three times. And more importantly, how did you survive?”
Giving no hint of how he felt as a three time prisoner or about me daring to ask the question, he replied. “When I first went to jail, I was afraid. But the secret to surviving prison is simple. If someone gives you grief or tries to take advantage of you, you got to fight back. If you get busted up, if you get your ass kicked, that’s alright. But you got to fight back. If you don’t you got problems, real talk.”
Completely engrossed, I wanted to hear more, my work and the incessant phone calls be damned. “So why did you go to prison and how did you get to this point in your life?”
“When I was growing up “the Game” was all around. Everybody was a pimp, a playa, into drugs, a banger or a “wanna be”. My uncles were in gangs, my brothers sold dope and all my friends did crack. It’s all I knew.
“I been a gang banger, a dope dealer and a crack head. I been shot 10 times, almost died at least twice,” he offered as casually as saying good day. “My stomach was sliced open in a knife fight by someone crazier than I was. Once somebody hit me with a brick upside my head”, a permanent mark on his left temple and a slight droop to his left eye, giving evidence to the assault.
“The last time I went to the joint was because my parole got revoked.”
Outside my office, trash cans were being pulled, kids were crying and people navigated the hall, asking for either money or directions. But none of the usual craziness was as interesting as this. “Why did they revoke your parole?”
“Because I didn’t report to my agent”
“Why didn’t you report to your parole agent”, a question so obvious that I voiced it without thinking.
“Because I was stuck on stupid, that’s why, real talk. I even almost lost my leg, real talk.”
“Yeah Man, I got shot by an A-K and was so hung up on the crack pipe, that I left the hospital and started hustling again. My leg got so gangrene it smelled. If the police hadn’t arrested me and taken me to the hospital I would have lost it. My youngest brother was killed by a stray bullet and my older one is in prison for armed robbery, up north somewhere”.
All I could offer in response was another feeble “damn”. Still, despite it all he was a nice guy, pleasant, respectful, helpful and very self aware. So I inquired “how did you turn your life around?”
Pulling his ear as if by habit he replied, “one day a few months ago, I just woke up and realized that I am a 53 year old man who ain’t got nothing. So I told myself, enough of the dumb stuff. I threw away my crack pipes, stopped using and haven’t looked back since. I even joined church, real talk.”
After a few more minutes of idle chit chat we said our farewells and “Real Talk” was on his way. Every now and then we see each other in the halls or on the street, always speaking and exchanging pleasantries.
To many this may seem like no big deal. But I found the conversation and “Real Talk” enlightening. This Brotha had been through hell and back, but he appeared to be on the right track. Clearly his age is a major factor in his evolution from ex offender to wise sage. Walking with a shuffle, his gaze tilting downward, “Real Talk” is well past his prime-crime-time. He has neither the energy nor desire to be “all dat”.
Yet, his reflection on how his dysfunctional environment contributed to his own dysfunction was spot on, proving that criminality is a matter of nurture, not nature. His conclusion that those who are having children are themselves children, no better at raising law abiding citizens than they are at raising themselves, is discerning. He even spoke of talking to others so that they might avoid his gaffes.
We do not contend that “Real Talk” is atypical. He is not. He is lucky to have lived long enough to learn from hard times, big mistakes and stiff consequences. Many ex offenders never get a clue no matter how long they live. And his experiences, his prospective are neither scalable to a larger population nor a prescription for success.
Still to the frustrated, to the bone weary like me, that one hard knock ex offender has retained his humanity in spite of all that he has endured, all the wrong he has done, is a ray of light in an otherwise pitch reality. Dim as that ray may be.
Leo Barron Hicks, Founder and CEO, Blackacre Policy Forum