I barely heard him over the sounds of Kate Nash in my one working headphone ear, but somehow the voice broke through, sure and strong.
"Ya know the first thing I did when I got out of being locked up after 4 1/2 years? I spent a few months with my kids." He shook his umbrella for emphasis at his friend and then continued. "And you know where I was New Year's Eve? That's right, with my Grandma, 'cause that's important, that's where I should be, while I still have time to spend with her."
I took out my working earpiece and reached in my bag. If ever there was a time for a star, it was this one.
"I couldn't help but overhear, and I wanted to give you a gold star, for trying. I'm sure it's hard..." I said.
Isiayah leaned over and took his star gratefully. "Thanks!" he said with a big smile.
"What about me?" his friend asked.
I took out another star and handed it over to Malcolm. "Absolutely...it was just his story I heard," I explained. "I'm sure you're trying too."
The two men happily posed for a pic amidst the flourescent lighting of the F train as if they had received an Oscar.
Recognition of the efforts of the formerly incarcerated is likely far from common. More likely they get a kick in the teeth. Isiayah basically said as much as he went back to advising his friend, clearly a fellow former inmate.
"You've got to come out and make something of yourself," Isiayah coaxed. "I'm not going to lie to you, it will be bad, but it will get a little better, slowly." He paused then and shook his head. "It took me 8 months, but I finally got a job. And you have to try to stay away from the drugs 'cause that's what will put you right back in. It's hard to stop cause that's what we know, that's what we're accustomed to. It's hard to stop, but it's also easy: you just stop."
Malcolm was listening, hard, and nodding. He needed all the help he could get. I can only imagine how demoralizing it is to have all the cards stacked against you, to try in the face of so many closed doors, so much judgment and prejudice, when it is so hard under the best of circumstances to "make something" of oneself.
I waved to my new friends as they hopped off the train at Jay Street to pursue their various endeavors. I'll keep my fingers crossed that they can stay clean, stay out of jail and that people on the outside will give them both second chances, let them try, hard as it is, to change their habits. I pray they have the presence of mind to feel proud of themselves for trying.