I saw him before he saw me, sitting at an outside table at a strip mall restaurant, wearing sunglasses and drinking a beer. I stuck my hand through my open sunroof as I parked my car and waved enthusiastically. He stood up to welcome me and we gave each other a warm hug. Less than a year ago, this innocent gesture, let alone calling him by his first name, would have gotten me fired from my job.
For two years I worked as a life skills instructor at 4 different reentry programs, the in-between step between prison and the “real” world. I worked with men and women, some who had served relatively short stints behind bars in county jails and some much longer, up to 20 years in federal prisons. I truly liked and respected the vast majority but there were a handful who the thought of never seeing again truly broke my heart. Bob, (not his real name) was one of those.
Bob was a man who from the get go was someone who I immediately wondered “What the hell did HE do to be here?” He dressed in khakis and nice polo shirts. He was a computer whiz, sat with the men and women who had been incarcerated for so long that they had never had e-mail let alone used the internet to search for a job. He had ENDLESS amounts of patience with them, never getting visibly frustrated. He never judged, complained, or bad-mouthed staff. He was resigned and humbled about doing whatever it was he had to do to get through his time there.
Before I learned his crime I learned that he was a pioneer of the computer boom traveling around the country to teach companies how to use the most famous and recognizable software of the time. I later learned that he was making more than I ever have while in his mid-twenties (he’s now in his late forties).
I eventually learned that his was a white(ish) collar crime. He served 5 years in a minimum(ish) security prison doing what was expected of him. To come out and have to start all over again, making an hourly pittance, humbled him completely. He’s grateful to HAVE a job, one that no matter how junior, allows him to use the skills that he worked so hard to develop.
Sitting across from him at lunch, having drinks and lunch was so normal, so natural. We talked about a recent relationship of his that had trickled to an end. We laughed about one of the other residents who happened to be his best friend in prison, one he still sees, and one who I miss terribly. He asked me about my husband’s new job, we talked about his mother and all the typical things that two friends, having lunch, talk about.
I remember very early on in my job my boss saying to me “These people are not your friends.” While employed there I did adhere to the professional boundaries that were expected of me but I’m only human. These people, and by my calculation I interacted pretty closely with at least a thousand of them over two years, were funny, intelligent, compassionate, curious and resigned to the fact that they would have to start over again. They made me laugh out loud, made me cry, made me evaluate my own view of the world, tested my personal ethical code and in general made me feel alive. In my opinion, those are all the qualities I could possibly dream of in a friend.
A couple of months ago I asked Bob to write me a reference that I could use in a job search in the future. What he wrote was touching and meaningful beyond words. This is the last sentence:
“While I was working with Ms. Saks I didn’t just succeed with employment and integration back into society. I also met a wonderful woman I am proud to call my friend.”