by Zhandarka Kurti
Around this time last year, I met Mike, a black man in his mid 40s, in the offices of a non-profit organization working with formerly incarcerated people. Its offices are located in a four story building tucked under the elevated trains running through the South Bronx, two stores down from a MetroPCS store which was at the time closed due to a robbery attempt and a McDonalds which serves as the local hub for drug sales in the neighborhood.
I opened the big and heavy metal doors to enter. Tony, the receptionist and also the main janitor said hello to me and I signed my name in the notebook. A young black woman dressed in a skirt and blazer was talking with an older bald light skinned man in a suit.
“I told him that if he doesn’t come to the program there is nothing I can really do. You have to help yourself so I can help you,” she stated bluntly clasping her hands together. The bald man nodded. “Well let’s talk later, I have to go into a meeting.”
I walked up the long staircase and made a sharp right. I faced a door that was decorated with Halloween stickers, a screeching black cat taped to the glass. I entered. Mike was seated on one of the three leather chairs facing a short stocky woman whose head was the only thing visible from her cubicle, appearing like a bobble head. I sat next to him. I noticed three gold rings on his left hand. His right hand clutched a wooden cane and he wore cognac colored sweater decorated with a long chain, gold rimmed reading glasses framed his friendly face.
It was a Friday and there were not that many people in the office. The room was wide; the middle sectioned off by a series of cubicles and along its sides offices and meeting rooms. Once every couple of minutes, the noise from the trains rattled the plants placed alongside the window stills.
I was at their offices to follow up with one of the staffers who spearheaded a mentorship program for young people on probation. The goals of the program were focused on changing the behavior that led to a criminal lifestyle. The prior week, I had attended a workforce graduation program where 20 people, ages ranging from 18 to 45, most of them either formerly incarcerated or very poor and on public assistance were given certificates and congratulated for completing an eight-month program that provided them with the skills to find work.
The master of ceremonies was the director of the workforce program, the bald man I encountered a couple of minutes earlier in the hallway. He spent 20 years in prison for attempted murder. While locked up he became a model inmate, got two master degrees and made connections with the organization he now worked for.
In fact, many of the staffers, most of who were formerly incarcerated knew each other from the inside. They often spoke about their crimes and expressed their hope that their past tribulations could serve as a warning for young people on the same path. On the podium, dressed in a suit and red tie the bald man waxed lyrical about how this organization allowed him to undo his wrongs and to give back to his community.
The CFO of the organization, a Latina woman in a grey pant-suit spoke into the mike: “You may not all end up with work but work provides dignity and self-worth.”
Then a series of guest speakers came up. A young man holding a construction hard hat was introduced. He was a previous graduate, completing the program after doing a year Rikers Island. “This program saved my life. You hear lot of stuff in halfway house that this organization doesn’t work…it does…now got job Carpenters Union …..I just left Bronx halfway house you can do it.” His words met with cheers by families and graduates whose eyes glimmered with hope that a similar fate would fall on them.
I sat down next to Mike while I waited. He smiled at me and asked me if I was also there for the workforce program. I shook my head no. He told me that pretty girl like me must not have such a hard time looking for work. “Whereas for me” he said, “I have to settle for a crappy job when I was making thousands of dollars in a day.”
“Wow, that is a lot of money,” I blurted out. His upper lips curled up into half a smile.
“My name is Mike,” he stretched his hand to shake mine.
“Z,” I said.
“Nice to meet you, Z.”
Right there and then in the waiting room and within an earshot of staffers Mike told me his story.
“I just came back home about a year ago,” he confided in me. He lived in a halfway home owned by the GEO Corporation on the busy streets of Fordham Road. The program is very strict: random drug tests and curfew are imposed on all residents. He showed me the slip from the halfway home, a pass that allowed him to leave the place. “This and my doctor’s appointments are the only time I can leave, “he said. “So, I try to enjoy myself and I take my time getting back.” His only contact with the outside was this workforce program.
He told me he was released earlier than expected by President Obama and was one of the hundreds of people whose sentence was commuted. “I didn’t have that much time left to be honest. But when they gave me the choice of a halfway house or prison, you know I chose coming home.” He had served time in a federal prison for a drug bust gone wrong.
“See what had happened was…” he started his story and I eagerly listened. Apparently after years of hustling in the streets of the South Bronx and a couple of arrests and small time served, he decided to leave for the south. “I knew these two guys down south. I practically raised them. Me and my brother looked out for them because they never had food in the house. We would give them food, clothes and everything because their mom was a crackhead.” The two young men were in the south dealing cocaine. Mike himself was looking for new hustling opportunities and New York City was getting too dangerous. Throughout the 90s he was picked up twice for dealing in the Bronx. The second time he said he thought he finally learned his lesson and tried to get his life together.
It was 2004 and he was going to a church in Harlem to keep away from the streets. A friend introduced him to the choir director, a famous older jazz musician who had since retired. Mike had a good voice and made the choir. He was looking for work in his spare time, constantly battling the lure of the streets.
On a bright Sunday morning, Mike was walking in Harlem and stopped by a bootlegger selling CDs on the side of the road. He told me he was sure he heard his choir’s song playing from the guy’s boom box. He stopped to listen closely.
“Hey, you are playing our song.”
The bootlegger scrutinized him. “Man, please, that ain’t you. You wish.”
Mike asked for the CD he was playing. He handed Mike a copy of College Dropout by an artist called Kanye West. Mike was surprised.
“But this is our song,” he kept telling the bootlegger over and over again.
Mike bought the CD for five dollars and took it to his choir director. They played the song inside the church. It turned out that Kanye West had ripped off that song from their choir. The director was fuming. Kanye West was making money off their song.
“Have you seen the video to Jesus Walks,” Mike asked me. I shook my head to indicate yes. “You see how they are lip singing?”
Through his older connections, the director got a hold of Kanye West’s production team and threatened to sue him. This prompted a personal phone call from Kanye West who not only promised to share his royalties with the church but even invite the choir on tour. Mike thus got a chance to tour with Kanye West and even went to Africa. “I loved it over there,” he told me.
His face beamed as he shared with me the places he had seen and people he had met.
“Damn, that’s crazy,” is all I could manage to say.
“Yup, ain’t that a trip,” he laughed.
“So, what are you doing now?”
“Well, trying to get my life back together again.”
He told me that he knew that this latest arrest was his last. He had gone down south to join forces with the two younger guys who were looking to expand their cocaine dealing business.
“Man people in the South are slow,” he told me. “Me and my boy we were fast…you know how us New York people are. These southerners didn’t know what hit them. We were making bank. Everybody wanted our cocaine.”
Apparently for a while the drug business was good, and Mike’s hustling skills earned the business a good reputation. “I didn’t buy luxury cars or nothing, I didn’t want to tip off the feds,” he said. He told me he lived well. “I was making couple of thousand dollars a day.” He had pretty women around him all the time and the parties, “oh, man those parties,” he chuckled.
One day his luck ran out. He and his boy were transporting cocaine across state lines. Let’s just say that his boy at the time lacked in street smarts. He was on the phone with the guy they were delivering to who sounded very suspicious to Mike. “I kept telling him to hang up the phone on this guy but he wouldn’t listen.” Apparently their phones were tapped and they got pulled over by state troopers crossing from Alabama into Tennessee. He and his boy were promptly arrested and sent to federal prison.
In 2015, Mike’s sentence was commuted by Obama. His boy fared better because he made a deal with the feds. “Damn snitch,” he told me, raising his voice. “But I ain’t mad though, I guess you do what you gotta do. I’m out so that’s all that matters now. That’s life right?” he said as if consoling himself.
Mike told me that he was trying to keep positive. “This is what the program taught me. It’s all about how you see your life. You can change your life if you can control your thoughts. You just have to think positive.” He had just graduated the workforce program and was meeting with the coordinator to go over his resume and try to find suitable work.
“What kind of job do you think you will get?”
“Probably some shitty job” he responded. “I have my resume. The program helps you build it. But what job can I get? I have two drug felonies. Its times like this that I miss all the money I made. I think about it often. But I’m too old to go back to it, know what I mean. But man if I could.”
The staffer I was waiting to meet with entered the room. I shook her hand. She told me that I could now meet with her. I turned to Mike.
“Well, I have to go but it was nice talking with you. I hope you find something good.”
“Same here ya hear. Do you have a number? Do you want to grab a drink sometime? I know a great Puerto Rican restaurant that you would like.”
I smiled. “I’m sure I will see you around soon.”
He took my reply with great stride.
“Oh no doubt,” he said. “Good luck little lady.”