The Idle American Part III, Barb’d Wire column, Beat of the Street newspaper.

   The Idle American Part 4     (see previous issues for part 1&2)

….so as he continued to trade his written words for supplies, he was also discovering much about himself and those around him. In the confined environment of prison pent up emotions can sometimes lead to turmoil, and even violence. Violence for him was not so much a foreign language, but more like an old standby that had served him well as a quick and ready solution in his youth. But this was prison…

    In prison, just like “out in the world” a lot (I mean an awful lot) can depend on who you know. Since he had done work, using his writing hustle, for many of the top dogs on the block, he no longer need worry for his safety; it was a non-issue. Again he could see the power of words–the power of understanding how to communicate was palpable and real, and this was his epiphany.

    If only I could use this skill out in the world, he thought, how much better and meaningful my life could be. But how?

    Finally the day had arrived, not his “end of sentence” date, mind you, but the next best thing–early release on parole. Yes, soon he would be free. This time things will be different, he told himself. His experiences with heroin addiction had taught him some important lessons about the nature of freedom, and the nature of prison. You see, he now understood that in the same way he had freed himself in prison by freeing his mind, many so called free men were languishing in jails of their own design. Prisons, not of concrete block and iron bars, but of addiction, of relationships, of employment, of health and disability, and of all other manner and way of confining oneself to a singular path. These are the prisons we create for ourselves and are often much worse and destructive than the brick and mortar type. Freedom, he realized, comes with responsibility. Responsibility to himself, to his family, and to society as a whole. He had to stay clean this time, and he vowed to do anything to make that happen.

     So one day when he was walking back from the parole office in Hartford CT. he decided to stop at the Hartford Library’s Main street branch. As he walked in that direction, he wondered to himself about his future. He had no job prospects, no place of his own to call home, no money, no special prison training that would give him a direction to pursue. All he owned were just the clothes on his back, and now he carried the label of “convicted felon” as well. Still, what he lacked in opportunity he made up for in desire. A desire to stay clean, and a desire to be a good and responsible father to his daughter (also a victim of his addiction) and who had been silently growing up without him. He had to do the right thing. He just had to.

     When he stepped inside the library, unbeknownst to him at the time, was an event going on that would change his life forever. The title of the event was “The Day of Caring and Sharing” and it was sponsored by a group of people from an organization known as “Hands on Hartford.” When he followed the arrows to the back meeting room of the library, he had no expectations other than the information posted on the sign out front, which said something about raffles, food and music. But there was more. A lot more.

     As he sat there in that room, amongst so many of the tired faces he had encountered from his days of living on the street as a homeless drug addict, and listened to the speakers, something else occurred to him, and it was this–these people from “Hands on Hartford” they really go out of their way to show how much they care, and they do it with action, not just words. These are the type of people I need to be around, he thought. Not only that, but part of the program included time for an open mike, where anyone could perform a poem or song, or even a prayer. In his pocket was a poem he had written for his daughter during his time incarcerated. So he got up and read it to the audience, and in doing so got the attention of one of the members of Hands on Hartford (thanks Anne), who upon hearing his poetry invited him to come to a meeting. It was a meeting for a local newspaper he had never heard of called “Beat of the Street.”

     A few days later when he attended the meeting, he couldn’t believe what he was hearing. They were going to let him write an article on how he felt about addiction, incarceration, and homelessness, and publish it for the world to read, and on top of that he would receive compensation (not Ramen noodles) which he needed just to survive. And the people…the people, the members of this group, they were all working together to make the world a better place, and all the other writers who contributed were previously homeless or addicted, just like him. It was a perfect place for a recently released, previously addicted writer, who was still on parole. Once he joined the organization, he started his own column called “Barb’d Wire” and met the folks from another dedicated group at “Charter Oak Community Center.” They, he found out, had a learning center which they called B.O.T.S School. He started attending classes at the school, everyone liked his writing, but more than that, they just wanted to help him embrace the change in life style that was necessary for him to progress. Once he graduated from the B.O.T.S school, he was told he could attend Goodwin College for free. This opportunity, for him, was just unreal. Totally unreal.

     Yes, he was given a second chance, and after being inspired by all the amazing selfless acts of these two organizations, he vowed never to return to his old ways, and to join in the fight against poverty, against addiction, mass incarceration, and all the other maladies of society, by helping any way he could. Shortly after he was invited to join the “Faces of Homelessness” speakers bureau, where he could tell his story to help educate groups about homelessness and break down negative stereotypes.

    He is still a member of both organizations today, has over five years of clean time, and by the time you read this article, he will have graduated with an associates degree from Goodwin College, and will be starting on his bachelors degree in human services. He continues to write and speak to audiences about his journey, and hopes to continue his schooling, and if possible, attend law school some day.

     All of this would never have been possible were it not for all the dedicated people, working hard every single day, by showing a virtual endless amount of empathy and kindness towards those trying find a their own way through this complicated maze called life. He, that is I, will be forever grateful to all of the dedicated people who have helped throughout this journey. Change is always possible, but sometimes folks just need a little help and a little opportunity. The end.

           Ralph Gagliardo.





Beat of the Street: The Idle American Part Two

Barb’d Wire

                                The Idle American–Part Two     by RJ Wordsmyth

…He relapsed the way addicts often due, and found himself back in prison. This had become part of a pattern that would continue on for many years. And so it did. Clean time in prison sometimes extended into clean time “out in the world” as the other inmates liked to call it. Sometimes he would stay clean for months at a time, but inevitably he would fall backwards, hit his head on something, and wake up in a cage.

    His family “out in the world” had all but given up on him. He received very few letters and almost no commissary, with the exception of twenty dollars from his mom every year on Christmas. Commissary is the store for inmates to get extra things that the state doesn’t provide, or doesn’t provide well. Commissary also cost money, the state allows it because they get a nice little piece of the action. On Christmas they come out with special items that are only available for a limited time, giving the state even more money around the holidays. Stuff like pre-cooked bacon, and Christmas tree shaped Little Debbies are only a sampling of the delicacies available for the man unlucky or deserving enough to be spending his holidays in one of the Dept. of Corrections specially designed cement suites.

    Our hero really could not afford such luxuries since he had no money coming in. Yet, still he was able to purchase them because he had discovered “a hustle.” Almost everyone in jail has a hustle. It is a way to survive, a way to get things you need; It is a job and a business. He had watched the others and so he knew what to do. He saw the artist, who would draw something truly amazing on an outgoing envelope, He saw the laundry worker who would charge you a small fee to fold your clothes, he saw the kitchen worker selling salt and pepper, and the tier man selling cleaning supplies or plastic bags, all with their own unique hustle. He knew what his hustle would be–he would write. Write poems, and letters to girlfriends and wives, and sometimes even the judge himself. By writing he thought “I will keep my mind sharp.”

    Soon his reputation as a man who could literally “put your thoughts into words” had spread throughout the entire dorm, and even into other dorms. On holidays like St. Valentine’s day he would be very busy writing custom poetry for the other inmates. Sometimes he would receive kites for work from the other side of the jail. Kites were messages that could go all the way from one end of the prison to the other end via the laundry or the kitchen workers. He would get some details about the little things everybody’s girls liked and incorporate them into his poems, giving them the idea that their boyfriend/husband wrote it specially just for them. He wrote convincing letters to the judges requesting leniency for any number of specific reasons. As time went on, he saved marriages, got men bonded out, saved people time on their sentences, convinced family or friends to send commissary money, and did custom request which included a whole myriad of other unique types of assorted random documentation.

    In doing so, had access to coffee (top priority), snacks, candy, cosmetics, and was able to contribute to group meals that would sometimes be prepared using food smuggled from the kitchen combined with food purchased on commissary.

…to be continued  

                           Read part three in next weeks edition of “Beat of the Street”                      


“Beat of the Street” article–The Idle American Part I

Barb’d Wire.                             

                     The Idle American–Part One      By RJ Wordsmyth.

I want to tell you a story. This is the story of a guy who lost his way, as sometimes people do. He grew up in the suburbs–this guy–and knew very little about the city life. He was an ambitious fellow with big dreams. He started his own business because he always wanted to be his own boss. He worked hard. He paid his taxes. He was, for all extensive purposes, your typical entrepreneurial American.

    At some point the economy took a downturn and his business went bust. This made him very depressed because he was losing all the stuff he worked so hard to build up. He had to sell all his equipment and the lenders foreclosed on his building. Twelve-plus years of hard work and it was all broken into pieces and sold off to the highest bidder. This made him very sad, but not angry, because he did not blame others, but took responsibility for making some poor choices. Still, there was things that were completely out of his control, like the recession, and this too he understood but could not change.

    Then all of a sudden–BOOM!! He got hurt in a car accident. He recovered fairly quickly from the accident, although his lower back would never be the same. In addition to the disability, he also had a new set of problems. Problems he neither understood, nor had any experience with. He became addicted to pain medication. When the physical therapy ended, and the doctors stopped writing scripts, he did something that he swore he would never do. He turned to street drugs. Opiates. Heroin. Dope.

    He never wanted to be an addict. He, like most young people, felt like he was invincible, like the world was there for the taking. He was an American, and everyone knows in America if you “work hard and play by the rules” you can slice off your own big fat piece of that oh-so-sweet American apple pie.

    Yet, there he was, out of money, out of work, no place to call home, and the worse part of it all–he was strung out on dope. He stayed in shelters, sometimes he slept in the park, in an abandoned building, or a burned out car. He didn’t want to stray to far from the city, because he was always within walking distance of a hot meal at one of the soup kitchens, and where he could always try to hustle up enough money to “get right.” Some mornings he woke up cold and dope sick, so he would get up just as the sun rose and try to panhandle a few dollars just so he could function. It was a hard life. Everything he knew about the American dream now–he put in a needle and shot into his arm.

     Then he got arrested. Arrested and sent to jail. This was long before they gave prisoners any type of medication to ease the suffering of a cold turkey heroin detox. They call it “cold turkey” because of the way your skin looks, and they call it “kicking” because you cannot control the way your legs jump around all night. As miserable as he was, and he was truly miserable, he saw others who were coming off large doses of methadone–and they were even worse. Some would not eat a scrap of food for thirty days. Some even attempting to take their own lives, due to the unbearable nature of a methadone detox. It was his first offense so he didn’t get too much time. And he swore on everything he loved–he would never go back.

     But he did. Addiction, you see, is an insidious monster. He knew how bad it could get, he knew what the experts said was all true–it always ends the same–jails, institutions, or death. Even with the clean time, the miserable detox, the lesson of prison, and the promise to himself–even with all those things, and a loving family who wanted him to get better–even with all of that–he still relapsed. He. Still. Relapsed.

This is part one. Read the next edition of “Beat of the Street” to find out more about the adventures and tribulations of “The Idle American.”



Barb’d Wire

Barb’d Wire                Wake Up and Smell the Justice

       Justice is defined as fairness, or quite simply doing what is correct. Another part of the definition includes the idea of equality, or treating everyone in the same manner, especially when referring to matters of the law. “The law” often referred to “the criminal justice system” is designed to provide a balanced and equal forum to define acceptable behavior in a civilized society. We all know American history well enough to know that all peoples have not been treated equally all the time; this is a fact; we can’t deny it. What we can do is try to improve, try to evolve, try to make tomorrow better than yesterday. One of the ways we accomplish that is through the use of our free press, our right to assemble, or our right to petition our government to apply the rules of fairness, the rules of justice, to all people, all the time, equally.

     There is in the Connecticut court system today, a policy that does not, and is not, equal in it’s treatment of drug offenders. I can testify to this injustice as a first hand witness to the execution of this policy. The policy in which I am referring has been in place for a very, very, long time. This is how it works:

     If a defendant is charged with the victimless crime of possession of narcotics in Hartford they are almost guaranteed to get a lesser sentence than if the same exact crime is committed in the suburbs. Let’s look at one true example: Three bags of heroin in Hartford court, 3rd offense, sentence–community service. One bag of heroin, Manchester court, 1st offense, sentence– two years–one probation, one suspended. Same defendant in both cases. This is not unusual, in fact it is the norm. Defendants in Manchester court routinely get sentences that are longer and stricter than defendants with the exact same cases in Hartford court. This is not by accident, it is by design.

      This policy is so prevalent that most of the minority population in prison refer to it as Clan-chester. The idea is to let the offender population know that if you choose to do something illegal, you should go do it in the city. I am not sure, but this policy seems an aweful lot like civil rights violations to me. What message is this policy really sending?  That the suburbs are somehow more important than the cities? That a crime committed in the suburbs is somehow worse than if the exact same crime were to be committed in the city? It is not just drug offenders, a vast majority of offenses are treated much harsher in the suburbs than in the cities. Maybe they are treating drug addicts like they are treating the homeless: it is more acceptable to be drug addicted or living on the street if you are in a city, “because we don’t want those kind of people messing up our perfect community.” or “If we lock them all up for a long time they will know not to come back here anytime soon.”  Somebody needs to wake up and realize that people are people, and you can’t escape the fact that towns are not safe havens from things like homelessness and addiction. Wake up suburbanite courts! You can’t scare them all back to Hartford.

                                  Coming soon  “Confessions of a Scrap Metal Junkie”  a memoir.

This article was reprinted from the July edition of “The Beat of the Street” newspaper. All opinions expressed are that of the author alone and do not in any way claim to represent the opinions of Charter Oak Cultural Center or it’s employees.

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Barb’d Wire: The Problem With Labels

Is it correct to call a person of color African American? Some say no, because not everyone “of color” has African roots. That makes sense. I am Caucasian and I don’t want someone speculating where my family tree originated, and then labeling me in such a way. European American ­­doesn’t even sound right. So how about “black”? To be perfectly honest, I always felt uncomfortable using that designation. The reason is, that I don’t call people of Indian descent “red” or people from the east “yellow” or even brown people “brown” so why call darker people black, when many of them are not black at all. This brings up another point. I do not like being called white. First of all, I am not white in the same way brown (using this just to make a point) people are not black. The only truly white people I’ve ever seen were Albino’s and they are sort of translucent. So if I’m not white, then what am I?­ off ­white, beige, tan, eggshell,­not too sure? My mother always told me she knew when I was using heavily because my skin turned gray. My poor mom.
In these days of political correctness which should be perhaps changed to “language awareness” everyone is supposed to be selective with their choice of labels. Let’s face it, if you need to describe someone in a hurry, and you don’t know that persons name, you are going to have to use some trait to describe them. Say they just committed a crime and you have to describe the suspect to police, how are you going to do that? Most likely you are going to go with the things you noticed first: Tall, short, male, female, white, black, etc. then maybe what he/she was wearing and so forth. It is highly unlikely, if you get to court that anyone is going to challenge your description because you said “the defendant was black” when clearly the defendant is brown. That won’t happen.
So the whole idea of labeling based on color may be wrong, but in some instances it is a necessary evil. Maybe all this media hype has just made us too damn sensitive? If you are like me, and are just plain lousy at remembering names, then the need to find accurate descriptions for people comes up often. I was always told that black and white were not colors at all. So who are these people of color? If they are darker people, then are lighter people, people of no color? People lacking in color? It’s enough to drive you crazy. Maybe a lot of people (of whatever) are getting sick and tired of all this nit-picking. Maybe the pendulum has swung too far in one direction and is now starting to swing back the other way. It sure seems that way–when you see how many people are supporting Donald Trump.

This was printed in the latest (June 2016) edition of “Beat of the Street” newspaper
Published by The Charter Oak Cultural Center in Hartford CT.