The sweet thing about getting out of jail is you are on your own again.
But then it's not long before that's what the struggle is all about.
The truth is, unless you start dealing dope again, nobody particularly cares about a guy who just got out of prison.
I sit in the parking lot at a Hartford warehouse with Tjayda T. Jones, my ex-con friend with the beguiling hot dog cart dream. He's filling out another job application on the trunk of my car because he's out of work again, having quit a demanding position sorting trash for minimum wage.
As I make suggestions on what to say -- "they want to know if I've been convicted," Jones yells to me -- I realize again that I've crossed some sort of journalistic line here. I'm a columnist with a story that has evolved into a cause.
At first I thought I'd find a guy and tell the story of how we must help ex-offenders as they re-enter society. Not just because it's the right thing, but because keeping people like Jones from going back to jail saves us all money.
Often as not, though, this has meant giving a man who has no car and no money a ride so he can apply for another job. One afternoon it meant sitting in my car with him when he despaired after his girlfriend abruptly left town.
This is a critical moment for Jones. Because he has completed his parole, he must move out of the state-funded apartment where he's been staying since June. Other prisoners are being released and they need his bed. Caseworkers say that Jones must find a full-time job and a place to live. They can offer some help, but it's largely up to him.
Meanwhile, he watches other ex-cons around him slip up. The old drug life passes by him daily, an old friend on the street.
"It's everything that hits you at the same time,'' Jones said when we talk about this transition to freedom. "It's not having a place, not having a good job."
One day we drive to a store in Bloomfield, because he has a gift card, given to him through a state-funded re-entry program. I am incredulous as I watch Jones buy five pairs of sneakers.
They're inexpensive -- all five together are cheaper than the single pair of running shoes I recently bought -- but why, I ask.
"When you're in jail,'' he explained, "you don't have any."
I was also surprised that he quit his job at the trash recycling facility, except that for a 300-pound, 42-year-old guy with bad knees, it was certainly the wrong line of work.
Yet, as I've said, it's the hot dog dream and how people have responded that gets me beyond these troubling issues. I met Jones at Carl Robinson Correctional Facility in the spring, shortly before he was released. There, Jones told me about this simple strategy to lead him to redemption: He would operate his own hot dog cart and turn his life around.
Some have called or written to point out my ignorance. Others offered to help or just said Jones' story touched them.
A man who spent 16 years in jail said he'd buy Jones a pair of decent work boots. I met him in a parking lot and he gave me $100.
"It was not until I realized that I was the only one that could change the results that things in my life began to change,'' the man told me, insisting that I not use his name. To succeed, he said, Jones has to get out of Hartford, away from the temptations of his past.
Right now, this is a big deal. Within days, Jones must leave the state-subsidized apartment on Hillside Avenue, his home since June.
"It's the frustration and the pressure of not getting what you want when you want it,'' Jones replies one day when I push him a little. "Me, I just try to deal with what comes my way.''
After a few weeks of job applications, something does fall his way -- a part-time bouncer job at a downtown sports bar in Hartford. He started this past weekend. Jones is out of jail and free. That's the hard part.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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