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.