I was walking along the Strand and saw a guy with a bike digging cans out of the trash. The path was crowded with people, beautiful people, not beautiful people, vigorous people, slothful people, made-up people, ponytail people, all of them there to see and be seen. But no one seemed to see this guy, Jesse, as he opened the garbage and dug around in it with his hands.
“Hey, man,” I said.
He looked at me for a split second, the streetwise analysis, friend or foe? “Good morning,” he said. A lot of the time people simply want to be acknowledged, that they exist. I passed him and continued to to the pier.
On my way back, much farther down, I saw him again and stopped. We had already exchanged that initial greeting, so there was no hesitation on his part when I tried to strike up a conversation.
He lived in Long Beach, took the bus to Redondo four times a week, and then rode his bike along the Strand collecting recyclable trash. “It’s only a few dollars but it helps,” he said. “I’m just trying to make a living. I don’t want to go back to prison.”
“When did you get out?”
“A year ago.”
“Where are you staying?”
“I’m at a sober living house in Long Beach. I got a place to stay and food but I need to make money. Can’t get no work because of my record.”
“What kind of work do you do?”
“How long were you in prison?”
“Twelve years. Started out with nine years and nine months but I got more added on inside. You can’t go to prison and not get time added on, that’s how they set it up.”
“What did you go to prison for?”
“It was at night in front of my house, I had had an argument with some guys that morning and they jumped me with baseball bats and these big pieces of rebar, there was three of them. They was beating me but I got out my knife and then they all ran away except the one guy.”
“What happened to him?”
“You know I was crazy mad, crazy with pain, they had broke my shoulder and my head was covered with blood and I was crazy mad, man, I didn’t even know what I was doing. They wanted to give me 29 years to life but it wasn’t my fault, those dudes attacked me but what was I supposed to do? If I hadn’t done something they would have killed me, it was me or them.”
“So what happened?”
“They got it down to manslaughter, nine years and nine months. Then I had trouble inside, man, you know the politics.”
“There is the Mexicans and the blacks and the whites and when the Mexicans is beating up a black dude you gotta join in or they kill you, right there. Or if the blacks are beating up a Mexican the blacks gotta join in or they turn on you, man, right there, why aren’t you helping? So I was in a lot of prison gang fights and got more years. I didn’t want none of that I just wanted to get out but the politics is what they are, if you are a Mexican you are a Mexican.”
“So how did you ever get out?”
“For the first couple of years it was hard ’cause I was always out in the yard. That’s where everything goes down, you can’t go out in the yard without the politics. That is where they buy and sell the drugs, the alcohol, that’s where they fight, everything goes down in the yard. And the COs they like the violence, man, they love the fights.”
“Who is that?”
“The guards, man. They let a fight go for a long time before they break it up, then they stick you with more years. And they bet on the fights, man, they don’t care if you get beat to death, in High Desert, they were really bad. I was in five prisons during my career. High Desert was the worst.”
“So how did you get out?” I asked again.
“I started going to classes and working in the prison. In the beginning I didn’t like the rules you know, I was a grown man coming from the streets, don’t nobody tell me what to do, why I gotta follow some rules? But in prison, man, you learn the hard way or the easy way, but you learn or you stay there the rest of your life. So I took all the classes I could and every job I could get, so when they was like, ‘Hey, man, we going to the yard, come on,’ I could be like, ‘No, man, I can’t go, I gotta go to class’ or ‘I gotta go to work.’ Anything keep me out of that yard, man, anything. Only thing I want now is I don’t want to go back.”
I gave him ten bucks and couple of ones that I had in my pocket. It was more money than he was going to make for his entire day of work. “If you ever get arrested or in trouble, call me. I don’t look like it, but I’m a lawyer. I won’t charge you anything.”
“Really. What’s your number?” He told me and I texted him my info.
I don’t know if it was the twelve bucks or the knowledge that if the worst came to pass, at least there was someone he could call, but he gave me a warm handshake and a warmer smile.
Next time you see someone digging in the trash, take a second, if you dare. Whoever they are, they are a real person, worthy to be seen, acknowledged, for the humans that they are.