This post-release blog covers both the big day and events of twenty months or so until I found my footing. Needless to say, crazy shit happened as my offbeat life continued to unfold . . .
An unseasonably warm and rainy morning greeted me on release day. I started it by dressing myself in “real” clothes for the first time since being transferred from county jail into the prison system. I culled my outfit from apparel donated to the prison by local church groups −stuff they’d normally take to Salvation Army. I’d never required pants above a thirty-six waist, but now forty was in order. I chose a pair of brown corduroys and a patterned casual shirt that fit like a tent because the sleeves were long enough. I didn’t care that I looked ridiculous because I had no one to impress. Even better, I used my look to lighten the mood of several inmates before leaving.
Prison administration calls for outdoor headcounts now and then. Inmates line up in the yard according to the barracks they sleep in, usually for thirty minutes or so. (Thankfully the authorities usually choose to do this in mild temperatures, as on this day.) As I stood among the one-hundred-and-sixty others I began clowning with my new clothes. My pants nearly reached my nipples when pulled all the way up. Dudes started laughing at me, so I played along.
“Anyone want a piece of me?,” I shouted, deadpan and with the fly of my trousers nearly mid-chest. “Who fucking wants some?!” I stalked around until a guard told me to get back in line. Lots of laughter filled the morning mist.
Soon enough I met the drizzle on the free side of the property, having exited the front door. My friend Tom greeted me, the same friend that bid farewell to me in the courtroom at my intake. Normally, one would think has it really been almost three years? Seems like one. In this case, it was “Jesus Christ, it feels like I haven’t seen you in five years!”
Like men (idiots), we failed to get a pic of me at the moment of my release, next to the sign for the facility. You know, in case I blogged about it later for my book’s website or something. And this wasn’t even for me being too jacked up from joyous screaming. I felt excited in the same way you are after completing a ten-hour drive to your parent’s house: Glad it’s over but kinda numb.
Our first stop was not to get me the first meal as a free man, per the stereotype. I needed basics until I reached my Dad’s place in a couple of days. Specifically, underwear and perhaps clothes that didn’t make me appear to be homeless. Minutes later I shopped for clothing at Goodwill for the first time. (Not the underwear, don’t worry.) I’d long considered myself above wearing used clothes but had been thoroughly humbled. My forty-five dollars in “walking” money from the prison went a long way in this place. I ended up with a pair of jeans in good repair and a couple of decent shirts. I even pick up a golf jacket that cost well over $50 new for a mere seven bucks.
The next morning I awoke in Tom’s comfortable guest room, something I would repeat twenty or so times before moving on. We headed out to the Atlanta suburbs, to his brother’s house for a Christmas meal. This option helped me feel content on the holiday since I wasn’t about to ask someone to drive me halfway to my dad’s place in Alabama. We enjoyed the outing, and I even got to feed horses. I pulled up grass that they couldn’t reach through the split-rail fencing that surrounded their pasture. Hanging out with pre-teen kids proved equally odd to me, although also fun.
Two days later my best friend Toby drove me down I-85 from Atlanta to the Alabama welcome center. He debriefed me on some of my prison escapades and filled me in on family and friend news I may have missed. Catching up and laughing it up felt amazing. Now I really started to feel alive again. He probably drove two hundred miles round trip for me that day and helped me get back on track both emotionally and practically.
Speaking of practicality, I soon found myself in the passenger’s seat of Dad’s SUV headed into the depths of Alabama. Montgomery, to be exact, not-so-affectionately known as “The Gump.” The good news was winter was an agreeable time to visit because temperatures are mild instead of so hot you want to kill someone.
Seeing Dad again was not an emotional occasion, probably for either of us. Long-lived disputes between us had boiled over in letter exchanges while I was locked up. We’d never respect each other from here on out, so this reunion was pretty much all business. Even the smart-ass humor we normally share became rare.
I spent the next couple of days buying and activating a phone, getting my car registered and insured, and getting new tires. And of course I renewed my membership at Costco. If that doesn’t spell freedom I’d like to know what does. (Special thanks to Tom for spotting me $1,200 to get this stuff taken care of. Especially since I had no prospects for getting a job at the time!)
Dad and I didn’t speak much, as he spent most of his time at his lady-friend’s house. When we did chat he made sure to ask when I planned on leaving. I stopped short of telling him to not flatter himself, it would be about as fast as I could load my Mazda full and organize the rest of my stuff for longer-term storage in his garage/warehouse. Next thing I knew I was headed back to Atlanta, relieved to have that shit over with.
Upon my return, another friend agreed to float me a loan, this one for $3,000. He’s the type who wouldn’t miss the money or sweat when he got it back. I paid back Tom with part of it and saved the rest for whatever came next. And despite what I’d promised myself while locked up, I resisted the urge to run down to Miami to see a few Phish concerts over New Year’s. The old me definitely would have, especially with the extra money that had materialized. Maybe I’d learned my lesson after all. I paused and considered how privileged I was to be presented with such options, believe me.
Although Tom and I got along wonderfully, after three weeks he declared he was not interested in having a long-term roommate. As luck would have it, my maternal uncle, also named Tom, and my Aunt Linda seemed open to me moving in with them. They lived in a large house on the water in rural coastal Virginia, which featured a small apartment above a detached garage. In other words, the perfect place to settle in dig through hundreds of journal pages to write a prison memoir.
Taking Life Slowly
In December, 2014 I lived in a building with one hundred and sixty other people. A month later I lived in Mathews, VA, where the population density was under one hundred people per square mile. You passed a soybean field along the driveway. The closest “real” store (besides a Dollar General and a small grocery) stood twenty-five minutes away. No internet service reached my small apartment. I enjoyed a life of few distractions and made the most of it.
Normally I’d wake at around nine and have breakfast as I read a book I’d checked out from the stellar local library. My “reading the old-fashioned way” habit I’d picked up in prison carried over nicely. I did so guilt-free, too, as I took to heart advice that reading a lot is a great way to improve as a writer.
Around eleven I’d “put my butt in the seat,” as Anne Lamott says in her excellent writer’s guide Bird by Bird. I normally spent four hours working intently, riding the highs and lows of 1,000 – 1,500 words a day. I chuckle looking back on my mentality of the sheer numbers of words being my gauge of accomplishment for a day as opposed to quality. My first draft clocked in at a whopping 116,000 words, at least 20,000 of which ended up pruned.
Next came nap time, followed by a stretching session. This was as close as I got to both yoga and meditation. Chronic back pain keeps me from many yoga positions, and my general idiocy prevents me from seriously pursuing spiritual enlightenment. Perhaps I’m content enough with my resting mental state to not need to slow things down and refocus. Back then, (and even now, actually), I’d go days on end without receiving a single phone call, text, or email.
Loneliness plagued me during this period. Beyond a few giant hugs from former co-workers in Atlanta female contact continued to elude me since before my prison stint. That slump exceeded five years. I tried not to dwell on it, probably with some success, but the drive to fill that hole in my soul is tough to ignore. Luckily, a pleasant family life removed some of my longings.
I enjoyed a home-cooked meal with Tom and Linda practically every evening (I contributed with dishwashing/clean up duty). Their delightful dog Jackson, a schnauzer/westie mix, became my best pal.
My three grown cousins visited the main house regularly, including on each major holiday. Many little ones came with the package and provided a decent distraction from my non-existent love life.
Following dinner, I’d often run around the water’s edge taking sunset pics, as the house faced west and a wide part of the East River.
Besides that I spent most evenings surfing the web, catching up on all the TV series I missed while in the joint, or watching sports. I couldn’t have asked for a lower impact way to recover from the stress and sensory assault of prison life. The price was right, too.
At first, I earned my keep by helping around the five-acre property. Picking up debris from trees following a storm or flotsam after a particularly high tide was a regular chore, as was general home maintenance like gutter cleaning. If I picked up on pine cone, I picked up ten thousand. Once I became gainfully employed after moving out I paid Tom and Linda lump sums that equaled 17 x $500 a month.
My most intense task while in Mathews besides writing the book was working on my golf game. We’d arrange a high-quality driving range mat on the smooth concrete of a basketball court and hit into the front yard that was once a field of weeds.
The tree line/woods stood roughly one-hundred and forty yards away, so practice with all of the wedges was in play. I may have taken twenty-five thousand swings out there, all told. And I still suck. Great exercise, though!
My idyllic lifestyle came with a speed bump, however. Tired of being broke, and in need of car insurance money, I took a job on a local lawn maintenance crew. I planned to do this for a few weeks and save up some cash to sustain myself until the second draft of Lookout For Shorts was finished. My comeuppance for my life as an irresponsible slacker hit hard, and I honestly preferred prison over this experience.
Late July in coastal Virginia means heat and humidity. The day I started saw heat index numbers just short of 110. My outfit of sweatpants and a long-sleeve athletic shirt (to guard against mower debris, the sun, and possible snake attacks) soaked through with sweat by 7:00 am. As the newest crew member, I manned the weed eater or push mower all day. I’ll never look at a deep, one-hundred-yard long v-shaped ditch the same way again. Yeah, I shoulda stayed in college.
The second day I worked was straight-up torture. My already bad back was in spasms from bending over to work the weed eater. Guzzling water barely kept light-headedness at bay. The boss, who was actually a great guy, started to lose patience with my failure to keep up the pace of the crew. Before lunchtime, I threw in the towel and my pride. No amount of financial peril could warrant taking more sheer pain. The boss called my uncle to come to pick me up, thank Jesus.
By June of 2016, I’d wrapped up my second draft and grown tired of being broke and socially isolated. I bid a sad farewell to Jackson − my dawg − and headed to resume a more typical and productive life in Richmond, about eighty miles to the west.
Moving On . . .
I spent the next seven weeks staying at my sister Dena’s house in a cute little neighborhood near the James River in Richmond. She was nice enough to squeeze me in despite already hosting my nephew’s shady friend and his literally stupid hound dog. The two twenty-year-olds shared a small bedroom while I slept on a mattress on the floor of the dining room, which I leaned up against the wall each morning.
The kids worked restaurant jobs and played video games the rest of the time, between doing bong hits. Dena required all of us to clear out when she, a licensed massage therapist, hosted a client on a table in the living room. I spent most of my time next to the washer and dryer in the cramped, old-style basement scouring the internet for job opportunities anyway, so no biggie.
My initial aim was to find work as a server at a restaurant, an occupation that suits me perfectly. I needed quick money and wished to jump-start a social life. Dena held many strong connections to top-notch local establishments, but my status as a convicted felon seemed to neutralize those. I applied to a dozen places and included a short explanation of my crime in the process because my sister didn’t want blowback if I lied about it and got exposed later.
This same prejudice seemed to plague me when I applied in other service industries, too. My habit was to omit my criminal background on applications, assuming I’d impress enough during the interview and drop the dirty detail in at the end. Soon it became clear I’d have to lie all the way through and hope for the best when the boss found out. In the meantime, I endured six weeks of stress and rejection. I scraped the bottom of the barrel.
Dena opened her home to me even though I owed her hundreds of dollars already, lent to me during my months-long writing sabbatical. She also lent me a couple hundred dollars upon my move-in, but that couldn’t last long. To avoid borrowing endlessly from her and to utilize my free time I sold plasma, like a real broke person. I’d drive my trusty Mazda a short way to the shady part of town, thankful I didn’t need to take the bus and add insult to injury. I’d go “donate” as often as they allowed to score bonus cash on top of $40 for each visit. I never felt ill effects from the process, probably because I weigh two-ten and offer ample veins for poking. Reclining in a lounger listening to podcasts or surfing the web for thirty minutes proved easy for me, dicey neighbors notwithstanding. They had nothing on fellow inmates.
This “career” fit perfectly into my stint at my sister’s place, turning sour only at the very end. During my last donation visit I shuffled my position a little after the attendant starting the blood drawing process. This dislodged a doo-hickey, which meant instead of my blood being fleeced of plasma and returned it drained directly onto my seat. By the time I realized the dampness I felt around my butt was my own blood the area looked like a murder scene. It soaked my sweatpants and shirt.
I’d lost a lot of blood, but only enough to give me a slight lightheaded feeling. Following a haphazard cleanup of my person and free Gatorade to “replace your electrodes,” I demanded satisfaction, or at least some bonus cash. Instead, they issued me a second t-shirt and an anticoagulant they promised would rid my clothes of the blood (it did). They also showed me the paragraph in the agreement I mindlessly signed that showed they didn’t owe me shit for their error. Life ain’t easy on the bottom, I tell ya.
I also made a little money working for a cousin-in-law, who needed help with little odd jobs and errands at his tech startup. I enjoyed a sense of accomplishment and purpose for a couple of weeks and got out of my sister’s hair for a change. I’ll never forget one of my co-workers there being amazed at how slowly the OS ran on my shitty second-hand iPhone and wondering what it would be like to afford a phone plan that provided enough data to watch a bunch of videos like he did.
About this time I interviewed for a job at a vending company (beverage and snack machines, mostly) and the results seemed very promising. Especially since I lied about my criminal background and didn’t get dismissed on the spot. The guy took forever to come back to me with an answer so I took it as yet another “no.” This spelled the end of Richmond for me. I’d move West, as I’d wanted to off and on for nearly thirty years. I arranged to stay with a friend in Vegas and pursue business ventures with him. Or something. Anything.
But two days before I planned to depart, the call came. The vending company hired me. The reduced stress and pressure felt amazing, both for me and my sister, who was losing patience with her packed household and worrying about my situation. Three days later her worries multiplied.
Another brush with The Law
Caleb, my nephew’s freeloading friend who’d shacked at my sister’s place for at least two months, finally made himself useful. And for the record, I didn’t trust the kid from the first time I saw him. I’m streetwise enough to recognize a bullshitter when I see one. He’s the type who interrupts almost as often as he directs his gaze away from your eyes when talking to you. Also, my sister had taken Caleb in after an armed robbery took place at his previous apartment, while my nephew was visiting, no less.
Dena isn’t exactly street smart and believed this robbery was random even though Caleb dabbled in selling weed. I found this tough to swallow and even told Dena that he “might as well have ‘hustler’ written on his forehead.” But this day I needed a ride to retrieve my car from my mechanic, and he volunteered. What’s the worst that could happen?
About a mile from the house, Caleb failed to stop at a stop sign and got pulled over. The weird part was a cop in a kevlar vest on the passenger side instructing me to get out of the car, along with Caleb.
I placed my hands on the roof as instructed and passed the frisk test. Three DEA agents explained Cole had been under surveillance since the robbery about four months earlier. And like idiots, the cops explained they were about to execute a search warrant at my sister’s house in a few minutes.
I just assumed the cops would run my license, see my record, and take me to jail as an accomplice to whatever Caleb was being busted for. Before this reality sank in one cop briefly questioned me and merely jotted my info onto a blank notepad. A couple of minutes later, the cop leading the arrest said: “You can either come with us back to the house, or you’re free to continue on to your mechanic.”
“Yeah, I’ll just call a cab and go get my car then,” I said, trying not to sound too cheerful. (I’d yet to secure an Uber account for lack of a credit card.) I wandered a few yards away to place the call while all the cops concentrated on Caleb. Then I eased several more feet away and called Dena.
“Okay. Take a deep breath, because you have a big problem. Cole has been under surveillance by the DEA and they have a search warrant for your house. They may be there as soon as five minutes from now.” My sister became frantic and told someone she’d call them back.
“Okay, what do I have to do?”
“I have a little bag of bathroom items under the dining room table. The interior side pocket contains a clear pouch with three pills (Tylenol 3) and a little strip of white cardboard (three hits of LSD). I need you to grab that and flush it down the toilet.”
“Fuck that!” Dena said in full panic. “I’m throwing the whole bag out!”
Sis had already raced to the basement to grab a picnic cooler to throw all of Caleb and my nephew’s weed paraphernalia into. “I’m taking all the bongs, vapes, and your shit out into the alley!” Turns out her lax approach to the weed smoking in the house could’ve been a terrible idea.
I tried to talk some sense into here, but she’d already hung up the phone and raced out the back door of her staked-out property to dispose of evidence. I assumed the DEA expected such a move and Dena’s goose was also cooked. Maybe she can get a plea deal down to obstruction of justice down the road, I thought.
About ninety minutes later my sister called, at least nine DEA agents had combed through the house, but none bothered to stake out the back alley. All they found was two bongs, both of which Caleb copped to under questioning. Given the way raids like this can go, Dena’s household got merely ruffled. They didn’t even throw drawers on the floor, let alone de-stuff cushions. I wanted to thank them for their leniency and for being dumb enough to tip-off their raid and then let me wander away with a phone in my hand.
The fallout for me was immediate, but it beat the fuck out of going to jail on a Friday afternoon and a warrant never got issued for me. My sister kicked me out of the house for having drugs there. Fair enough. She was right to be pissed off. Livid, actually. And I was stupid to not hide my easily-concealed head stash more effectively. As luck would have it, I had come across a promising room for rent on Craigslist so I’d be “homeless” for only one night.
So began a new low for my personal finances. The money I’d saved to move to Vegas, about $700, turned into $150 thanks to my car repair bill. $50 of that went to a Super 8 motel on Broad Street for that Friday night because I’d yet to learn about staying at hostels. The next day I succumbed to a car title loan to make ends meet until my first paycheck. I borrowed $300 on the $1,200 blue book value of my 2000 Mazda Protégé.
Given the obscene interest rates of such a loan, my neck was on the chopping block. Especially considering my new job might last only until they realized I’m a felon that lied on my application. All I can do at times like these is to be thankful my challenges aren’t even worse. At least I didn’t have kids to support, for instance.
My next trick involved turning a shady-seeming Craigslist roommate ad into my new residence. These fall through frequently for various reasons to begin with, and a drug trafficking conviction on my name would, in theory, raise the degree of difficulty. My desperate position required that I accept any deal offered and hope it isn’t a scam. Such is life on the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
I drove to a surprisingly nice part of town given the rent being asked for the room: $150 a week. E-mail correspondence to this point was with a guy named Luis, who wrote in broken English and claimed to be in Colombia for the next two weeks. Nancy, a pleasant lady, would be my contact for the place in the meantime. This sounded exactly like a flim-flam. For all I knew “Nancy” would take my money for the place and I’d soon learn the lessee didn’t even know her. Still, this stood as my best option.
Nancy met me that afternoon to show me a townhouse in very good condition, albeit poorly furnished and decorated. I expected to talk my way past hoops to jump through, such as promising to provide a deposit only after I got my first paycheck. I only had $250 on me. Instead, Nancy didn’t require a deposit or even ask to see my driver’s license. I traded her $150 and a promise to pay by the week for a key to the front door. She even offered for me to sleep in Luis’ king-sized bed until he returned. Too good to be true, etc.
More amazingly, my new dwelling stood a mere five-minute drive from my new place of employment. I reported there at seven a.m. that Monday, assuming I’d get fired in a few days at the most. I filled out the paperwork and delayed presenting my license to them as long as possible. In the meantime I’d work hard, win friends and influence people. I’d also amass a fresh fortune since the job paid $120 a day.
Four days into my job my boss had had enough with the excuses, so I provided my ID for them to copy. I continued to whistle along and play the part of an upstanding employee, expecting the shoe to drop any minute. I awoke every morning assuming it would be my last on the job. Towards the end of my second week of humping cases of beverages and bins full of snacks in brutal heat, loading trucks and vending machines, the boss pulled me aside.
“We’re liking what we see out of you. We’ll get you a badge to get your feet wet down at Amazon next week.” This would start a background check, and fast.
The company had recently secured a contract with a local Amazon fulfillment center, which immediately became their #1 account. A massive operation that involved sixteen vending machines, six coffee machines, and three large breakrooms “markets.” The main boss that hired had mentioned it as a reason for me coming aboard.
This would’ve been grand news had I not been a “marked man.” Instead, I spent the weekend knowing I had to confess to my past on Monday morning, come what may. I figured being honest with them was my only hope. Next thing I knew I sat in front of the main boss. As I settled in, he asked: “Have you seen Andre out there (in the warehouse) yet?”
“Um, yeah. Actually, he just quit.”
The boss shook his head ruefully. “Well, that’s just great. What can I do for you?”
(Helpful hint: If you must confess to lying on a job application about a felonious past, try to do so minutes after an employee in your same department quits. It may help.)
“Well, before you submit my name to Amazon for badge approval, you should know I have a felony record they will find in my background. I’m sure you’d rather hear it from me instead of them.”
My even-keeled boss took this well and allowed me to babble on breathlessly. On the verge of tears, really. I explained how long I searched for a job being honest about my record, and how limited my options were. “I totally understand if you need to fire me,” I added.
Instead, the boss explained that he’d need to check with their insurer. If they approved my employment he’d keep me on based on my performance, for sure “We really like you around here.” I ended up working there for nearly three years until I resigned to chase a dream in L.A.
My worst fears about my rental situation never came to pass. To the contrary. The third roommate, Romero, a Guatemalan national working construction, stayed in place for only the first month of the ten weeks I was there.
The jovial Luis stopped by only once in a while, but never spent the night and didn’t care that I used his bed. He spent all of his time at Nancy’s place.
Romero and I communicated only with gestures and the Google translate apps on our phones. He was very quiet and easygoing, just like me. He also had a tough time figuring out how to use the dish drainer next to the sink. He’d hand wash a glass or bowl and place it in the drainer right side up, and no gesturing or translating on my part could teach him the right way to do it. Never seen that before from the eighty or so roommates I’ve had.
A nice bi-lingual Latino woman and her husband visited a couple of times over the last month I stayed at this place. The lease was in her name and turns out Luis was subletting his sublet to me from her. I started paying her my weekly rent instead and helped her clean up and move her meager furniture and belongings out when the time came. Apparently, Luis screwed her out of money, but she didn’t hold that against me.
Next stop I rented a room from a sassy lady about my age name Tasia. She sported lots of tattoos and lived in a charming little centrally located Richmond house. This became important because my job soon entailed driving to the Amazon location on the south side of town, six days a week. I busted my ass working there over the 2016 Christmas season, walking miles a day through that warehouse and raking in commission money on top of my $120 daily base.
I used some of my newfound “wealth” to move on from my trusty Mazda Protege, which required significant suspension work. (It still ran perfectly, though.) Plus, it was just time to move up to a better car. People can’t help but judge you based on what you drive. I ended up buying a beautiful, loaded 2011 Ford Fusion off Craigslist for a mere $5,800, which remains among the best purchases I’ve ever made.
I expected very little return for my Mazda, which had logged well over 200,000 miles. I planned on selling it for scrap, really, but posted an ad just to see. Apparently, cars in the $500 range are in high demand because I got five calls and offers in under an hour. The car was worth it, though. That thing never left me stranded or broke down over the many months of being flat broke and living hand-to-mouth, driving it as a courier. Only recently did it cost me anything, as described above, when I could technically take the hit. And I paid only $2,200 to begin with.
Following three months with Tasia I moved closer to the Amazon location, where I split time with other tasks in the field for the vending company. This place was in a much quieter suburb, with a functional alcoholic named Danny, who enjoyed a full career as a bank branch manager. His place was much more spacious, and he never asked to see my license or run a background check on me, either. I must not send off the vibe of an ex-con, thank god.
Danny − outspoken, but not necessarily funny − was amusing to watch operate. He complained about sleeping poorly but rose at 5:30 every morning to be at work (two miles away) at 8:00. He enjoyed watching the local morning news for at least an hour with no device for internet surfing during the commercials. I could always tell when his evening Jim Beam buzz had kicked in because he’d start loud, jovial phone conversations with a revolving cast of characters. The two of us didn’t socialize much, although we kept a nice, witty banter when we crossed paths. As usual, I spent most of my time in my room on my computer working on Lookout For Shorts.
My social life outside of work during this period was practically nil. I didn’t date, to avoid both the time drain and the expense. This suited me fine, though, as I’m an introvert, and being alone had become old hat over the years. I enjoyed visiting my sister or brief trips over to the uncle’s place to see family to keep any heavy loneliness at bay. Oh, and I went to Hong Kong.