The room speaks of a bygone age, with vaulted high ceilings and crenellated baseboards, heavy curtains and floral wallpaper faded from the light of many summers shining through the large, open windows. The summer air comes in with the slight breeze, bringing with it the scent of eucalyptus trees that surround the nearby lake. There is the hint of ozone teasing the air, perhaps with the approach of a thunderstorm in a few hours. It is late in the day and the sun, low in the sky, creates an orange luminescence in the room highlighting flecks of dust floating lazily in the early evening.
The floors, old and wooden, shimmered with a wax that made them sparkle and were buffed to sheer perfection by Red. They made from strong wood, carefully chosen by men who cared how their work would be seen. They were craftsmen of old who did the kind of work rarely seen today. The kind of work a man did when he could be proud of his efforts, when he made something that would last. Once these floors were shined, that work could be enjoyed by all. And it was for more than six decades. While the building is old, it is still cared for by Red, whose relationship with it is more like a lover, providing tender ministrations, and helping the ballroom maintain a quiet dignity as the decades pass.
Coming to work here more than five decades ago, he and the ballroom have aged together, each retarding the forces of time on the other. Red, a large and still vigorous man moves lightly on his feet, as if he was listening to a music only he could hear. He always bustles about the place, and becomes invisible after a few trips to the building. He knows all there is to know about the place and manages to get two salaries due to his historical knowledge of the building. He is a curator of the many object de art that reside here and has personally taken a third of the photos that make up the photo gallery on the second floor. His work has been compared to the greats but he has remained a humble man, giving thanks to his old camera, his blessings of a sharp eye for the right moment to take a picture and the grace of God to allow him to keep taking pictures of things that mean so much to so many.
In the middle of the main ballroom, on the first floor are a bunch of folding chairs, looking out of place, small, insignificant, misplaced, lacking the elegance to even be here, splayed out in a circle, reminiscent of something out of an AA meeting or a psychologist’s encounter group. The ballroom, once a place for socials and dances, had sat quiescent for many years, until the city turned it into a community center. The building and her janitor are now, happy to be of use to someone, one more time. The room is scented with the subtle aroma of vanilla, designed to boost attention, without distraction. The ballrooms lighting is diffused with a slight manipulation so that it intensifies and overlaps in the center of the room. These lights, added later in the ballroom’s existence, could be directed to alter the appearance of the room, diversifying its potential uses.
The chairs were the hard and cold metallic ones you remember from church or from your prom. These happened to have the padded back and seat with a swirling pattern I was never fond of as a kid. They are arranged in a circle, two layers deep and has only a small pathway through the center of it. My beautiful assistant, chosen exactly because she is beautiful and secretly intelligent, thought this might be a better way of promoting equality and brotherhood. With no single point of focus, this would be a circle of potential energy. I liked the idea, the only thing we were missing were armor, swords and a Round Table.
Each chair is filled with a man. But not just any man. He is a man that has been recently released from the prison-industrial complex. I do not know their stories yet. But I will. For me to do this thing, I must. They sit, some twisting, twitching, stirring, never still, some have turned their chairs around to lean on the back. I do not discourage this. I want them to be as attentive as they can, so they are allowed to sit in whatever fashion facilitates that. They have been asked to remove their hats and their coats.They are all eating something. My assistant, Carolyn, arranged to have a variety of crackers, fruits, vegetables, nuts, cheeses and a few assorted meats available so that if anyone came hungry, they would leave full.
I let them eat for a few minutes. Most don’t know each other but I can see them sizing each other up, and they are at least aware that everyone here is a recently released felon. They were informed of that from their parole officers. At the moment, everyone is content to let any issues go, while they decide if this is worth their time to continue. At exactly 7:30, Carolyn leaves the room and heads home, her work done. Cleanup will be done by Daniel and Peter, two of the programs support staff who will be part of the training, should these gentlemen wish to continue.
While Carolyn is leaving, I enter the room at the same time. It is not an accident. I timed this to transition their awareness from her to me. I can leave nothing to chance. I walk in and move down the path to the center of the room. At the center of the room is a small table and a bottle of water, nothing else. No microphone, I want them to hear my voice, just as it is, not amplified or distorted because I want the message to resonate with them. They are used to tuning out those types of messages, they have had plenty of practice.
“Brothers,” I intone. “I call you Brothers, because that is what you are to me. Not in the filial sense, because we do not share parentage, brothers in the spiritual sense in that we share a common history, a common sense of the system, of the absurd, of the idea that we have been told that we are less than men, less than fathers, less than brothers, less than family. We have been told that there is no place in this society for us. That we can never pay our debt to society because we have been and will always be failures.”
I sense their bristling, some turned on, others turned off, but I know that I have their attention now. “What if I told you that no one expects for you to do anything with your life. What if I told you that ultimately the system has only one agenda for you; that you return to prison as quickly as humanly possible. Would you be surprised to know that? I am betting you are not. I think for some of you that will be not only likely, it will be inevitable. You will not hear what I am saying today. You will assume that I am just another crazy do-gooder, trying to keep you from making your money and getting back into the game. If you think that is the case, you should leave now. Feel free to get some food on your way out, tell your parole officer, that you could not be bothered with that crazy man, and you will get back to your life as a parolee, looking over your shoulder, making your appointments and hanging with the homeboys until you end up making that mistake that sends you back to the Big House or gets you shot by some police officer with an ax to grind and uses your back for target practice. I can wait while you collect yourself.”
I see them looking me over, trying to find out something about me. Trying to size me up, figure out my weaknesses. I am a black man of modest build, formerly military, so my statue while under six feet, still has the impression of size, and compact power. I am dressed in all black from head to foot. A black hat, not quite a Stetson, but not quite a fedora, something from the Australian outback. A pair of casual black slacks, a black mock neck long sleeve shirt, a long black coat from China, one of my favorites, a pair of black shoes, recently shined for effect. I have on my wedding ring, no watch and a pair of stylish but dull wire-frame glasses. My goatee, clean and trimmed was recently touched up by my wife, so I am crisp and flaw free. I take this time to take off my hat and show that my head is completely bald so they get a feel for me. This is also done to let them know that the warm and fuzzy conversation is over. Now it’s time for business.
Nobody moves. My opening gambit was good.
“I assume that by coming here, you decided that you wanted more out of your life than you have gotten out of it to date. To do that, we must change your habits. Your life is comprised of your habits. You may not realize it, but your habits are what made it possible for you to be here, and will make it possible for you to be anywhere you want to be. We are the sum of our experiences, gentlemen. Never forget that. For most of you, that means your experiences sucked. Some of you come from broken homes, some of you are just not educated and for a few of you, you just don’t give a good goddamn. That’s okay; because today is your birthday. And the present I have for you, is one you have not had for a long time. It is a chance to live your life the way it was meant to be lived. A chance to make right what is wrong with your condition. You are not your condition. Your condition is where you ended up when you made poor decisions without thinking about the consequences. Today, I want you to let that go. I know it will not be easy because you are sure that you are everything that you are supposed to be and there is no way for you to be better. That is what you believe. I tell you that you are wrong.”
I point toward a section of the room that has a set of free weights and a bar bell already set up on the floor. There is also a small wooden triangle and a number of pieces of wood in varying shapes and sizes. Peter turns the light on near the setup and backs away. “I will pay anyone who can lift that bar twelve inches off the ground, one hundred dollars cash money.”
And they do. No one, not even the strongest of them can move the bar even a tiny bit. Many try stacking the wood in a number of fashions but nothing that will get the weights off the ground twelve inches high. The bar and wheels weighs seven hundred-fifty pounds. After everyone has exhausted themselves trying to lift the bar, there is an energy in the room, palpable, even a bit angry. I can hear the muttering, why did he bother to put that there if none of us could lift it? I don’t see the point. I think he was trying to make a fool of us. I am getting out of here. It’s impossible to move that thing…
Now it was time for phase two.
“I can lift the bar 15 inches off the ground. And so could any of you. I told you this was your birthday and I was going to give you a gift. And here it is.” I walk over to the bar and take the triangle and the piece of wood to it. I place the triangle and wood into a lever and fulcrum position. After a bit of adjusting for placement and getting a yardstick from the corner, I ask Daniel to stand near the bar with the yardstick for measuring. The board are strong, and I had tested this earlier so I knew it would work. With only the most modest of effort, I am able to raise the bar off the ground the requisite twelve inches. I hold it there for a few minutes and direct everyone to head back to their seats.
“I bet you think I cheated, huh? How many of you think so? A few hands went up, maybe a bit less than half. Technically, I raised the bar twelve inches from the ground. I obeyed the letter of my request. The results are what mattered. No one was harmed by my feat. No cheating took place. It was an adaption of a scientific principle called leverage. I know most of you have heard the word, now you have seen an application of it. And to quiet the anger I see in some of your faces, no, this was not done to make fun of you, it was not done to show you that I am smarter than you, no it was not done to make you look bad.”
I look around the room at them. Their faces, in various states, from bewilderment to outright frustration. But they sit and wait a bit longer. “To be fair, if you are angry, it was not about you at all. But it was. Because, this is how you ended up here. You listened to other people tell you about yourself. You listened to your teachers, your friends, your guidance counselors, your parents, and you did what they said, whether you realized it or not. I noticed that once one of you decided it was impossible to move the weight, most of you stopped trying to really move it. You are all reflective of a mindset that defeats you before you even try. I want to change that. I want you to believe that it is possible for you, despite all of the things that you have learned to date to do things you did not think was possible. Now lets be real for a moment, after all of you had tried to move that weight, when I said I could do it what did you think?”
There was polite laughter in the room. “And after I did it what did you think? I know what it was. ‘I could have done that.’ And you would be right. You could have done that. If you knew that was a choice. The work we will do in the coming weeks will be about learning about your choices, learning about the choices you really have and the choices you must learn to make if you want a life different than the one you have had to date.”
I go back to the center of the room, because up until then I was moving around, to make sure I had their attention, focusing my eyes and my will upon them. I wanted them to feel my intensity about this and to have it burn into them. “But just so you know, I have sat where you are sitting today. I was once smarter than everyone around me. No one could tell me a damn thing. I knew it all. But I never took responsibility for anything bad that ever happened to me. I always blamed someone else. When I got caught stealing, it was my friends idea. I could always lie and blame someone else. And I lied like a dog. Because it was easy and I felt like I was getting over on people. And I would have kept on doing it. Except that someone precious to me paid the price. They died because I lied. And then reality caught up to me. I had to learn a new way of doing things. And I resented it and the man who taught it to me. And I resented the way he taught me, he cut me to the quick with his words, his cruel words, his truthful words. And I learned from him. Twenty years later I have everything I could want from my life and then some.”
I directed my will into the center of the room, focused my voice, softened it, to make them strain just a bit to hear me.” But this is not about me. This is about you. This is about your chance to do all those things you never knew you could. But I am going to need something from you. And you will think it is a small thing at first, but you will realize with this thing I ask, it is the greatest thing you could do for yourself or for anyone else. If you can’t do this thing, I will understand. You can leave right now and no one will fault you for it.”
I pause, waiting to see if anyone is going to leave. I know they won’t they have not heard the pitch yet. “In every interaction that you do from now on, I want you to tell the truth. I want you to be honest in all of your dealings with everyone you know. This means if you know you should not be doing it, don’t. If you know that it will hurt someone if they knew it was happening, then don’t do it. If you have kids and you have not seen them and do not want to because you are not ready to do so. Say so. Know that it will come a time that I will expect that you will want to see your kids, meet your families and stand before them, as new men. But for right now, I ask for this simple cornerstone of character from you. Tell the truth, all the time. And yes, I know. In the beginning, no one will believe you. Why should they? Tell them you are starting over, you had a birthday and you want to make your next birthday something you can be proud of. To tell the truth in a world filled with lies and liable, is an act of rebellion. This will be your first most important act of rebellion in your new life. Telling the truth will be the key to your new life. Will it be easy? No. Especially if you are not living a life above reproach. But if you are going to be telling the truth, tell the truth to everyone, including yourself.”
“There is one more thing I wanted you to think about before you go. There was one other way to get access to that one hundred dollars. Daniel, Peter, if you please?” Dan and Pete are both strapping lads who work out every day. Together, they walk over to the weight and each takes a side and together they lift the bar bell more than twelve inches off the ground. I walk over to them and give them fifty dollars each.
“Think about the idea that you are no longer in the world alone. For you to make the next steps toward success, you will need to learn to work together. We will be starting the program next week for anyone who believes that they can learn something useful here. When you come back next week, I want to hear your adventures in truth-telling. Take all the food you want, and if you find yourself in need, there is local soup kitchen open every day down the street.”
As I put on my hat, someone said to me that I did not tell them my name. “Paul, you can call me Brother Paul.”
Brothers © Thaddeus Howze 2011. All Rights Reserved