You never know when a face-to-face conversation with strangers may expand your world. Ordinary moments cause people to enjoy a serendipitous encounter and spill their guts to each other. The reason: They know they’ll most likely never see each other again.
It happened on a recent morning at 6:45 a.m. in a bus/train terminal in the city of St. Louis. I had decided to take the Amtrak line from St. Louis to Chicago for a book signing. Barbara was flying to Chicago from New York City to meet me there.
I entered the bus/train depot where dozens of people were seated in a large room. In a corridor to the right, passengers were lined up behind a sign fixed like a starting line of a race. A man in uniform placed his hands on his hips and with the energy of an exhausted school principal, he addressed the line: "Time to board.” And he stood aside.
I walked over to the line. It wasn’t my train.
I wasn’t sure where to go.
Having never done this before, I didn’t know the routine. A broad-shouldered young man who was 30ish with greasy brown hair, a chin of dark peach fuzz, dressed in dirty jeans and a white shirt stained in front from either food or coffee, was walking toward me. I asked him where I was supposed to catch the train to Chicago. He pointed and added that the train was going to be 2 ½ hours late. “Ugh,” I grumbled. “Thanks” and grabbed a seat in the atrium. (The cliché “Hurry up and wait,” seemed apropos.)
Next thing I knew, he plopped down in the seat next to me and announced in a loud voice. “I just got out of prison.” And he proceeded to tell me his saga.
He wanted to talk. He needed to talk.
He pointed to the hard case he was carrying that I thought contained a laptop. “This is a leg monitor,” he said, and pulled up his pant leg.
“What were you in prison for?” I asked.
“A drug charge,” he said. “Five-year sentence.”
“Seems severe for a non-violent offense,” I said.
He served his term, was handed $5, and sent on his way. He had nowhere to land, no home, and homeless shelters in the city of St. Louis were full. He was waiting for a bus to Kansas City where he had a better chance of finding housing and maybe a job. He had walked around in the rain for hours the night before looking for shelter. His clothing was still damp.
He needed to talk. I was poised to listen. I had done advocacy work for abused and neglected kids in the foster care system several years ago. I was a good listener then and have been told I still am.
He had scars. Terrible scars. Deep. He had grown up in foster homes. His mother, a schizophrenic, pressed his legs against a heater causing third degree burns. DFS heard about the abuse and a social worker removed him from his home. Living in foster care from the age of 2 until 18, he was bounced around like a pinball. The frequent moves from foster home to foster home made him angry and rebellious. At 18, he aged out of the system, entered the army and earned a GED, fought in Afghanistan as a Specialist E3, suffered from PSTD, and began using drugs to anesthetize the pain. A few years later, he was caught with drugs, given 10 years, and in a plea bargain (he was accused of selling) took a reduced sentence. Someone ratted him out, he said.
We talked about the stupidity and high-cost of locking up non-violent criminals with violent ones. But one thing seemed clear: nothing was done to rehabilitate the inmates who Andy said are a cash cow for the state prisons. “Each prisoner who enters the system means a payment from the government of some $40K a pop,” he said.
He was locked up as a frightened 25-year-old where he was repeatedly emotionally, physically and sexually abused. Other inmates were creepy and lascivious. “I haven’t slept through the night in five years.” He was often awakened by the sounds of other inmates fighting, or of rats skittering across the floor of his cell. He has terrible nightmares still.
Prison was like a war zone. Any day could be your day. With the prison gangs, to become a member in good standing, you’ve got to go up against someone or submit, he explained. “The food was worse than the slop they served in my grade school cafeteria,” he added. “I always ate quickly dreaming of escape and hoping that I wouldn’t get cornered and hurt. You feel safest locked in your own cell.” He survived because he tried to keep to himself, spending most days working and reading.
Now free, he seemed steeled for new challenges but no one had taught him the skills needed to survive outside the system. “Department of Corrections”—he scoffed—“what a joke. We were warehoused. I was paid $8.50 a month to do manual labor and out of that money I had to buy personal items.”
He resented having to wear a monitor and couldn’t leave the state. “Do I have any recourse?” he asked me. “I want to get this removed,” he said pointing to the device wrapped around his leg.
I didn’t know.
Did I know a lawyer?”
I explained there are free legal services in Missouri with which I wasn’t terribly familiar.
“Joe,” a law student sitting across the aisle from us, made eye contact with me. He joined our conversation and had a solution for Andy. Find out what he comes up with in Part II next week and be introduced to the other strangers I met on a train.