by Neal Lemery
Freedom Day came early for me. It always does. I arrive at Camp Tillamook just before six a.m., coffee thermos in hand, ready for my buddy’s first day of freedom.
He could walk out the gate for the last time at 6 a.m. sharp. But, like all the others guys I’ve had this day with, he lingers, not quite ready, not finished with his good byes and his last minute errands. There’s a lot of hesitancy in the air, this first day of freedom after six years. This prison has been his home for all that time, the first time he’s had some stability, and a sense of belonging and purpose. All of his friends are here, and all of the staff who’ve helped him through some tough stuff, all the normal teenaged angst, and all the reforming that a convicted sex offender does in this place. This is family, and it’s hard to say good bye.
This is where he’s finished high school, and where he’s earned his associates degree, and done all of the responsible jobs he’s had in his life. Over there is the phone he’s used to call his seven year old son every week, the son he last saw when he was sixteen, and the boy was only seven weeks old. There’s more than a few tears in the room, voices catching with emotion as they say their good byes.
At last, his release papers in hand, he moves towards the door. His buddies pick up his boxed up belongings, he grabs his knapsack and duffel bag, and we head out towards the gate, towards his new life.
His face changes from a weak smile to almost a scowl. Every emotion is running through him now, and he doesn’t know what to do. The summer rain squall cuts short all of the last hugs as my car fills up with his life, and we finally move out.
“Wow, first time going somewhere without shackles,” he says quietly, as we drive away. I honk the horn in celebration, giving all of his going away group a final wave. They were quiet, too, those last minutes. Happy and sad, the enormity of the moment finally catching up with everyone.
Freedom Day. A new life. The end of prison. But, now what?
We know we are going to Bend, and the first stop is the parole office. But, we don’t know where Joseph is going to sleep tonight. It may be under a bridge, for all we know. If all else falls through, I know he’ll stay with me in my motel room. I’m not leaving him to live under a bridge. That’s my mantra for the day.
In four hours, we need to be in Salem, to have breakfast with his good friend, a guy who did this Freedom Day ride with me fifteen months ago. He’s done well, got himself into a university, working hard on his bachelor’s degree. Three weeks ago, my wife and I sat next to him, seeing him inducted into the national honor society, the university honoring him for his 4.0 GPA in business. That young man had led the way for a lot of the other guys here at Camp T. If he can do that, well, maybe they can, too.
Joseph and I drive down the road, coming to the stop sign. Left to town, maybe a bit of breakfast, or some Starbucks; left to the beach, and, after a bit, the road to Salem and Bend. Or, right, go to Portland, maybe. Whatever he wants.
It’s his choice. We’d talked about that, these last several weeks, but he didn’t have any answers, except, “Whatever you want to do. You’re the driver.”
I always take these boys to the beach on Freedom Day. They haven’t seen the beach in six or seven years, and its something they need to do, before they leave town, before they get on with the rest of their life.
Besides, the beach is a place to talk to God, to be away from people, and be immersed in the energy and the cleanness of the ocean. They need to feel the salt on their faces, and hear the waves crashing on the sand, maybe see some seagulls fly by, and be alone with the enormity of the world, wild and clean.
“Where to?” I ask, and I get his standard response.
“I want to take you to the beach,” I say, quietly. “It’s pretty there, and there’s no fence.”
My little joke gets a chuckle from him, and so I know he really needs to go there, and have a bit of time to think through what we’re doing, that we’ve run away from the only home he’s had for the last six years, the only friends he has in this world.
I take the back road, so he can see some cows and green pastures, and drive along a quiet river, so we can see some herons and ducks, maybe an eagle. We drive through the forest, and then by a bay, until we get to Oceanside, so he can see the Three Arch Rocks, and the quiet, deserted beach.
We get out of the car, and I can see a bit of bounce in his step. Yeah, he needs to be here.
I nudge him down the path, telling him he’s on his own, he needs to be by himself now, and just be on the beach by himself. He nods, silently thanking me for just letting him be, to take some quiet time just for himself, and to be with God.
I stand by the car, the salty air fresh with the incoming tide, mist filtering the early morning light, and watch him out on the fresh sand, gazing out to sea. He walks, and then stops, picking up a stick, or maybe a shell, and then looks out into the infinity of the morning.
He’s twenty two, and he’s headed back home today, and he’s finally free.
Joseph’s not one of the guys I’ve come to see these last four and a half years. He’s been around, and I’ve seen him, and chatted a bit with him. But, he’s kept to himself, and not asked me to come visit him, like a lot of the other guys.
A few months ago, I did a workshop with him at Camp T, about what you needed to do to get ready for Freedom Day. He had a lot of questions and soaked up what I had to say, clutching my checklist for the big day.
About two weeks ago, he came up to me, asking me if I could help him out, if I could drive him to Bend when he got out. He needed some help, but he almost choked on the words, hesitant to ask for help, and apologizing for being a bother.
It was a huge step for him, asking for help. He’s Mr. Independent, doing what needs to be done, just by himself.
When these guys leave, they don’t have a wallet, they don’t have a day pack, and they don’t have a duffel bag for some of their clothes. But the big thing they don’t have is a family to come get them, and make them feel at home. There is no home to go to, and there is no one to give them a ride.
When Joseph asked me for help, we talked about his plan, what he wanted to do, where he’d be living. He didn’t have any answers. And, no one else did, either. We’d be calling the parole office in Bend the week before he left, and find out then. The uncertainty, the not knowing, hung in the air, his face blank, emotionless.
Joseph is a guy who plans ahead. He maps out his school work, his degree program, anything that he’s involved in. His treatment work and his academic work are all neatly arranged in labeled binders. He was the guy around Camp T who organized work crews, and made sure everyone is prepared for and is working on what needs to be done, to get something accomplished. He’s co-facilitated treatment groups, been a teacher’s aide and taught classes, led the kitchen crew, and let the groundskeeping and tree farm crews. He likes to design macros for Excel spreadsheets.
He’d mastered the computer network at the camp, and built and reprogrammed computers, and helped start the new computer repair vocational program. Everyone looked to Joseph to get something important around there accomplished.
Yet, when he wants to move on with him life, and plan the next step, there aren’t any answers, there aren’t any programs to organize and complete, there’s simply no information for the questions he has. Those real questions of Freedom Day, such as where he’s going to live tonight, how he’s going to have food tomorrow, where he is getting emotional support for the life he’s wants. He won’t have that institutional support underneath him, for the first time in more than a quarter of his life.
When we first talked, I found out about his passion for computer technology and programming. I mentioned that Oregon State University has a campus in Bend now, that OSU is a great engineering and computer technology college, that he could get his bachelor’s degree in Bend in something he loves to do. I saw light go on in his eyes, and I thought the seed I had planted might sprout.
A few days later, I talked with Joseph again, trying to flesh out some of the details on what we need to do when Freedom Day comes. He handed me another binder, labeled OSU Computer Engineering.
“Oh, yeah, I did some research,” he said softly.
I flipped open the binder, finding his college application, his financial aid application, his transcript request paperwork, and pages of detailed degree programs, course descriptions, and class schedules for fall term. There’s also a list of textbooks for fall term.
“Yeah, it looks really interesting. I’m going to start fall term there, and get my degree,” he said, his voice edging with some pride and excitement. “I’ve mapped out the six terms of schooling I’ll need to get my Bachelor’s.”
A week later, I come in for our phone call with the Bend parole officer and we get him on the phone, along with a couple of Camp T staff and the prison authority transition specialist. Everyone in our room wants some answers and wants to get a real plan in the works. Freedom Day is in a week, and we need to know what’s going on for this young man when he gets to Bend.
“Not sure,” the voice on the phone keeps saying. Housing, what restrictions Joseph will have, job opportunities, treatment, everything is a “not sure” sort of response.
“I’ll know more next week and call you back,” he says, but he never does. It’s not what all of us in Tillamook want to hear, and its not what Joseph, Mr. Organizer, needs to hear as he’s trying to plan for the rest of his life.
Joseph has another option, another Plan B. He’s done the Interstate Compact work to try to go live with his family in Las Vegas. In the last six years, his family hasn’t come to see him. And, they aren’t much help to him with the Interstate Compact. After a couple of months with the Interstate Compact application in the works, the family’s only housing plan for him is that he can stay three weeks with a grandma. Mom hasn’t committed to even buying the plane trip to Vegas. We all know Plan B is going nowhere.
On Freedom Day, I learn more about Joseph’s family. He never really went to middle school, and when the truancy officer and the juvenile court said he needed to go to high school, he dropped out after a couple of weeks. He found a girlfriend, and then she got pregnant. But, he didn’t live with her, and chose to camp in the woods, because she started using meth and he didn’t want to be around that. His family had gone back to Las Vegas, leaving him behind.
On Freedom Day, when we were eating breakfast with his good friend in Salem, they talked about the money he’d earned at Camp T, mostly earning fifty cents an hour, and how he’d sent about $700 back to his mom and his grandma, to repay them for some money he’d borrowed when he was sixteen. He’d been hoping they’d send the money back to him, and maybe send him some more, now that he was getting out and needed to get settled in Bend.
“They kept it,” he told his friend. “I was kind of hoping they’d help me out now, but they didn’t.”
Joseph comes back from the beach, a real smile on his face. “That was good,” he said. “I needed that.”
“Now what?” I ask, and he doesn’t know. Except, he’s excited about breakfast with his friend in Salem. I’ve promised lots of food and great coffee, and a good visit with a good friend.
We head south, along another bay, spotting a couple of herons. I talk about the oyster farm, and logging and some good hiking trails.
We stop in Pacific City, at a great little espresso place, and get some coffee. I get a cinnamon roll, and talk him into getting one, too. He’s loosening up a little on having me buy things for him, and being nice to him. He struggles with that, Mr. Independent that he is.
The waitress brings us our lattes and our rolls, along with a metal fork. It’s his first metal fork in six years, and he plays with it with his tongue, telling me how it feels strange, the metal clanking and hitting his teeth and his lips. But, the cinnamon roll disappears fast, so I think he’s getting the hang of yet another new experience on Freedom Day.
We head down the road another thirty miles and my cell phone rings. It’s one of his buddies, knowing I’m the driver, and wanting to wish him well.
“Here. Answer it,” I say, giving him my iPhone and the pass code to get it to work.
Joseph and his buddy have a good talk, sharing the story of the beach and the fork and the cinnamon roll, and the upcoming breakfast in Salem.
After the call, he starts looking at some of the apps on the phone, checking it out. It chirps, telling us our breakfast buddy just sent a text.
“Well, answer it,” I say. Mr. Technology fumbles a bit, maybe 20 seconds, before he starts texting back, chuckling to himself about all this newness, how easy and quick it is.
I don’t need to worry about the rest of the trip to breakfast. The phone is his new world, and he’s busy connecting with three other buddies from Camp T, others who have moved out and on their way in the world.
Breakfast is fun and chatty. I don’t get a word in edgewise, as the two college students and good friends reconnect, and the advice and counsel flow rich to this young man. We laugh again as Joseph picks up a real knife, and eats real bacon, and the best biscuits and gravy in the state.
Off we head east, down the road, Joseph cracking a joke as we drive by the state penitentiary. We laugh, our bellies filled with good food and coffee, and our hearts filled with the love of our good friend, Mr. College.
As we head up the North Santiam River into the Cascade Mountains, I ask Joseph if he remembers this road, and he says no. He’s lived in Eugene, and Drain, but that was so long ago. He can’t remember. He says he can’t remember much about his life as a kid; it was chaotic, and he was left alone a lot, or left to babysit his younger sisters. He quiets down when he mentions his family, and so I move on, talking about the river, and fishing, and how salmon can’t get past the Detroit Dam.
He stares at the dam, asking a lot of questions, and wonders about the lake, too, and boats and fishing, and logging. After Detroit, we follow the river for a long time, his eyes soaking up the light, the rapids, and the beauty of this misty June day in the Cascades. All that green, and no fences.
It is, after all, Freedom Day, a day when everything he sees is new and fresh and clean. The world of Camp T is a world behind a fence, and now, that fence and that world are far behind.
I let him know he needs to tell me if he has to pee and if he wants to stop somewhere. We don’t have the rule about asking permission to do anything, we just mention it and what he wants to do is what we will do. Yet another new thing to learn. Something else to add to the list of new things in his world.
We get close to the summit, and we see all the snags and devastation from a big forest fire. It’s a good metaphor, devastation, replanting, renewal, a new season for something new and beautiful. I talk around all that, not wanting to lecture, but I sense he gets it, that he’s replanting his own forest, devastated by his own fire, and let the quiet of the changing scenery do my teaching.
Over the summit, and we are back in his home country. The trees change, the showers and misty air end, and we head downhill, Black Butte, a forested volcanic cinder cone, now in the distance.
I stop at one of my favorite viewpoints, looking over the forest towards Mt. Washington. The mountain is hiding in the clouds today, but we need to stretch our legs, and I want him to smell some real mountain air and take a moment to let his soul catch up with him, for him to feel he’s coming back home.
He takes a deep breath and then another, as we look out over the forest below, and the base of Mt. Washington, and the swirling clouds surrounding the mountain.
“I smell roses,” he says, and soon he is face first into a wild rose bush, inhaling loudly, and sighing. “Ah, ah.”
I smell, too, and then grab a branch of a cottonwood, and then a pine, and then a tamarack.
“These smell good, too,” I say, and Joseph follows suit, breathing deep.
It is quiet here, our faces feeling a bit of midday mountain sunshine, smelling the rose and the pine and the clean air, a bit crisp, smelling the mountains of June and all that energy. The only sound is a breeze in the trees, and a hawk calling out in the distance.
Tears roll down his face, as we look out to all that wildness. There are no fences, no locked gates or doors, no more sleeping dorm with the stinky feet and gas of twenty five men, the stale air of prison.
I put my arm around his shoulders, drawing him to a hug, both of us crying now, both knowing what freedom means. I get a big hug back, in silence. Neither of us needing words to say how we feel. Oh, Freedom Day.
In silence, we drive down the road, down into Central Oregon, his old and his new home, his future awaiting us.
Along the way, we’ve talked a lot, about who I am and who he is and what we are doing with our lives, and what it means to have a good life. He’s seen me around the camp long enough to know what I’m about, I think. I’ve become a dad to some of the guys there. He’s been wanting that, too. A week ago, I went to his going away party, a barbecue he and another guy getting out were putting on. He wanted me there, and his close friends of the last six years. His only friends. Oh, he wanted me to bring the steaks and the side dishes, but I think he wanted family there, too.
And, he’s soaking up that dad stuff today. I keep saying how smart he is, and how I’ve seen the goodness about him over the years, about his ability to do the right thing, make the right decisions, about his leadership, and his drive to improve himself.
He’d mentioned something about how his dad wasn’t much of a father to him, and how he abandoned him and the rest of the family. There’s an edge in his voice in telling that, and I don’t ask any questions. I sense a lot of pain in all that, and a lot of deep anger, even rage.
I’ll be a dad today, giving a ride, and being the cheerleader and the leader in our expedition. I have a lot of opinions about how he’s been raised and how he’s been treated, and how a lot of people have failed him. He already knows that, though, and he doesn’t need me to point that out to him. I’m here to be the sounding board, the supporter, the chauffeur. I’m the Morgan Freeman in this movie, driving Miss Daisy along the road.
I’m getting him a bike when we get to Bend. It’s something he’s wanted for a long time. When he was living in the woods, becoming a father, about to go to jail, his bike was all he had to his name. And, he’s made another bike for himself at Camp T, finding some parts, scrounging a bike frame from the junk pile. It worked, but it didn’t have any foot pedals. And, we didn’t have room on my car to haul a bike to Bend.
So, last week, I told him I’d buy him a bike, a good bike, one that would serve him well in getting to work and getting to college.
He said, “No, don’t get me anything, don’t be nice to me, I don’t deserve it.”
But, it was what I wanted to do, to help him get started. It wasn’t the money, either. A decent new bike doesn’t cost much, and if having a bike got a bright young engineer to go to college, well, then, the bike is just part of helping a guy get an education.
I reach into the console, grabbing an envelope.
“Here,” I say, “Take this. It’s the money for your bike.”
Joseph gulps and looks away, down, giving me that bad puppy after it peed on the carpet and chewed up my shoe look.
“I want to do this,” I say. “You don’t have to pay me back. But, you can pay it forward someday, to someone else, if you think you owe me.”
He takes the envelope, counting out the money a couple of times, before folding it into his wallet. He gets quiet, and I look away when I see another tear slide down his face.
I get quiet, too. I get quiet when I get angry. And, I’m angry, angry about a father and a family who didn’t show up to help their son get out of prison, angry about how they hadn’t come to see him in the last six years, angry about how they weren’t doing a thing to help him move on, not helping him to get started in college. Angry, too, about not raising him right, not getting him into school, abandoning him to live in the woods, to find love and comfort, and accidental fatherhood with a woman child who was slipping into meth.
At breakfast, we talked about good coffee, and Joseph saying how he really wants to go to Dutch Brothers, a well known drive through coffee chain. As we drove through Sisters, I pull off the road, slipping behind another car.
“Dutch Brothers,” I cheer. “Time for coffee.”
I get a laugh, finally, out of Joseph, and he’s remembering a long time ago treat.
“I wonder if they still make my favorite drink,” he says.
“Well, you order, then,” I say. “They’ll make what you want.”
A cute, blonde barista slides open the drive through window, cheerfully asking us what we wanted. I nod to Joseph, who actually has to talk to a beautiful young woman, and tell her what we want.
It is a a serious conversation, two aficionados of coffee discussing the nuances of the concoction. He laughs, and she flirts, and he laughs again.
As we drive away, he takes a long sip and pronounces it perfect, just as he remembered, six long years ago.
“She thought you were cute,” I say, chuckling.
“Oh, she’s just paid to do that,” he replies, but the look in his eyes tells me something else.
As we came towards Bend, we realize we didn’t have an address for the parole office. I hand Joseph my phone again, telling him to use the map function. He chuckles and sighs with pleasure, as he quickly discovers yet another technological wonder. Yet, the app didn’t give us a good answer, and I pull into the Sheriff’s office, next to the jail, to get directions.
As we walk in, he stops suddenly, taking a big gulp of air, and looking away.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
“This is the spot where I was arrested. I put my bike right over there. I never saw it again. I was in county jail for almost a year, and then the intake prison, and then Tillamook. Oh, I remember everything that happened here. Like it was yesterday.”
I can’t make this better. I can’t leave fast enough.
In a few minutes, we find the parole office, and Joseph starts filling out an eight page questionnaire. He fumbles with the pencil, and mutters to himself when the form keeps asking about his residence, phone number, and job searches.
“I don’t know. I don’t know any of this stuff.”
“It’s alright. You’ve only been out seven hours. We just got here. It’s OK,” I say, trying to be calm, trying to put normal on a process that was only going to get crazier.
In few minutes, he’s called back by his PO, who is wearing blue latex gloves. I wonder if they’d strip search him, especially after the PO gives me the evil eye.
“Who are you?” his eyes question me, as he motions Joseph back, through the door marked “Private”.
I sit there, a full hour, until Joseph emerges, his face expressionless, his emotions stuffed deep inside.
“Do you have a place to live?” I ask, as we walk out the door.
“Yeah, here are the directions” he says, handing me a scrap of paper with a crude sketch of three streets and the landmark of a Sonics drive-in.
We have no housing voucher or other paperwork, just that sketch of a map.
We have no box of emergency food for the weekend, as Joseph does not yet have his food stamp card. It’s four o’clock on Friday afternoon, too late to go to the Department of Human Services. He’s done the application process on line, but he didn’t have a home address, not until now. No address, so no card, and no food.
There is no other information or paperwork, no services directory, no meal vouchers, no bus pass, no nothing.
Welcome to Bend, your new home, your future.
Five minutes later, we find the place, the Tom Tom Motel.
When I was a kid, my family would come to Bend once in a while, on our way to go camping, for a week of fishing, or maybe deer hunting in the fall, with my dad. Even then, before the Vietnam War, the Tom Tom was the run down motel of last resort in Bend. Built in the 40s, it had seen its better days just about the time I was born, sixty one years ago.
The Tom Tom was built in a half circle, in the motor court style of the 1940s. Today, the courtyard is overgrown in scraggly sagebrush, a dead juniper tree in the center. Old, mismatched kitchen chairs, some without backs, are scattered around the courtyard and against the outside walls of the ten units that are left. Cigarette butts stick out of old rusty coffee cans on the ground.
Four ancient men, dressed in a variety of torn sweat pants and pajama bottoms, and faded T shirts, sit in the rickety chairs, staring either at us or vacantly into the distance from eyes sunken in colorless, stubbled faces. Their teeth are half missing, and the remnants are snags, poking out through ash colored lips and jaws.
Joseph has been told that the motel had a no alcohol clause. I’d say that would be because all these guys had already exceeded their lifetime allotments of booze, and probably, meth.
A rusty metal storage container, closed with a rusty padlock, lies in the sagebrush at the end of the row of rooms. We later learn that this is the laundry facility and that one may cook with a hot plate there.
A few rusty cars and trucks without engines or tires complete the landscaping.
There doesn’t appear to be an office, and we finally approach one man, saying that we would like to check in. He mumbles something and wanders off, bringing back another hunched over, snaggle toothed man, the manager, the Norman Bates of this establishment.
We are taken to Unit 9, and he nudges the door open. A wooden window flower box adorns the window, filled with powder dry dirt and the remnants of flowers last planted in the Bush administration.
“Here,” he says.
“The key is under the mat. You need to leave it there all the time.”
We later learn that, well, Joseph could have a key, but then, he’d have to pay $585 a month in rent, and then you’d get a key. But, if you’re here because Community Corrections is paying the rent, then he’d get a key. Apparently, the thinking is that you’ll be going back to jail anyway, and they wouldn’t have a key then. So, better to just leave the key under the mat.
Joseph would usually have a roommate, but he got arrested the day before. He may not be back until next week.
We each take a deep breath and then go inside. Surprisingly, the room appears clean, with a Pergo floor, two not obviously stained mattresses, an apartment-sized refrigerator, TV, and microwave. There’s a small bathroom with a shower, and a small table.
We are beyond words.
Joseph mentions something about living under the bridge would be better, and I’m thinking that would be a good thing.
He doesn’t have a choice. He’s been directed to live here.
Mr. Methodical, Mr. Organized, Mr. Plan Ahead and Go to College is beside himself. In my car is the new computer he bought with his work crew money. It is his future, his passion, his career.
He can’t leave that here, and he can’t leave his new suit, his nice clothes, his DVD player, his books. He’s got his life savings in his wallet.
I’m wondering if he could even be safe here, not being able to lock the door, living with the burned out old men sitting inert in the courtyard.
We take another look around, and get ready to leave. We need to come back, but its not yet five o’clock and Joseph wants to get his sex offender registration done at the State Police. He’s been dreading that all day, and wants to just get that done, too.
We head off, and I make Joseph laugh as I scream “F***”. He screams too, and we both laugh, not knowing how to process what we’ve just seen.
I take some deep breaths and we arrive at the Oregon State Police office to get this boy registered.
I’ve done this routine with about a half dozen other guys, and it’s not a big deal. The receptionist is always nice, and very matter of fact. It takes ten minutes, and then it’s over. The Youth Authority has already got them in the system, so its just a matter of updating information, with their new address.
Yes, what is the address of the Tom Tom, I wonder. Well, there was no nice street side sign with that information, and as we never formally checked in or registered, or even have a motel key… Amazingly, Google knows the Tom Tom and so we find a street address to make the OSP lady happy.
As we walk into the state police office, Joseph gets behind me.
“You ask her. I can’t do this,” he says.
So, I ask the lady to help us register and we get the process done in a few minutes. Joseph is angry from the Tom Tom Motel experience, and now he has to deal with yet another process that tells him he’s a failure, a sex offender, worthless.
He needs time to process, and doesn’t have a plan. He’s a guy who always needs a plan, some direction.
“Give it time,” I say. “We will come up with a plan, but we need some time to work on that.”
I head to the college campus, thinking that I need to show him something good in his life, and then take him to dinner.
We’d been planning a celebratory drink, a beer, maybe a Scotch. He’s never had a drink, and missed out on celebrating his twenty first birthday with a drink. And, Freedom Day is worthy of celebration, as well.
“I can’t even have that drink with you tonight,” he says, his voice edgy. “My PO says no alcohol. I don’t have a problem with alcohol.”
I try to calm him down, saying that we will still celebrate, that someday we will have that drink together. All in good time. I’m testing out my Pollyanna voice and attitude, but even I know I’m not pulling it off.
I find the campus, and we spend fifteen minutes driving around all the new buildings, the new technology center, the commons, the gym, the bookstore. Its five o’clock on Friday in late June, so we have the place to ourselves. But, Joseph starts talking about college and courses, and how he could get to campus. We talk about me coming back and going to talk to his advisor in a few weeks.
Joseph starts talking about his plan. I keep his computer, his good clothes, his books. He keeps his DVD player in his day pack. He’ll look for another place tomorrow. He might even tell his PO he’ll live under the bridge. He’s looking at some options.
He’s got sheets and a blanket, stuff he’d brought. I’m amazed. I wouldn’t have thought of that. I guess I’ve never had to think about being homeless.
He can microwave TV dinners. He has his French press coffee maker. He brought a movie to watch tonight. He can make this work.
I’m still mentally back at the Tom Tom, still angry, still seething. All this is not what Mr. Engineering Student needs on Freedom Day. But, then, Freedom Day always has more than its share of disrespectfulness, cold bureaucracy, and emotional disaster.
We head to dinner. He’d like to drive through downtown. Dinner at the Old Mill District along the river would be OK. Good. Let’s do something nice. Let’s celebrate the good things in Freedom Day.
The nice hostess takes us to our table, overlooking the river. There’s linen napkins, and a table cloth. We get fresh bread and salads, and a nice dinner. The waiter is attentive and polite, and calls Joseph “sir.”
We take a breath, we regroup, we plan tomorrow, getting the bike, groceries, the bank. Yes, I’ll stay as long as it takes. I’m not leaving Bend until you are settled.
I’m having breakfast with my old college roommate. I’ve already invited Joseph to that. He still wants to do that. My old roommate works at Goodwill, can be a link for housing, jobs, settling in. He can be a support system.
“Yes. Yes, I’d like to meet him. Yes, this is doable.”
“Are you OK alone tonight?” I ask. “Yes.”
Mr. Get It Done is back in charge.
After dinner, we head to Fred Meyer, Bend’s version of the big box variety store. It’s cell phone time. We had to wait until the PO approved it. He’s limited to a Trac phone. No internet connection. Joseph will put up with anything, anything to make his PO happy, anything so he can move on with his life.
It’s his first time in a real store for the last six years. He’s taken aback, and I can see the shock in his face as he realizes a lot of the folks in the store are kids, and they walk past him, and are around him when he is standing there.
I tell him to breathe, that this is normal, that this is fine and safe.
We head to the bathroom and he is fine. Fine until a boy walks in as we are washing up.
“It’s fine,” I say. “This is normal. Follow me.”
Joseph picks out a phone. We look at bikes, and he finds one he likes. We talk about food to buy for tomorrow, and some other stuff. When we get back to the car, I start a grocery list. Ah, a list. Joseph likes lists. There is order, calmness, purpose in lists.
Back at the Tom Tom, we get Joseph settled in. He makes his bed. charges his phone, finds his movie, and his toothbrush and towel. I give him a hug, saying I’ll be back at eight and we’ll go have breakfast, then get his bike. He’s OK.
I’m not. I leave the Tom Tom, the old men still hanging around the courtyard, the same vacant stares. I guess they won’t rob Joseph tonight. I’m not sure they have enough energy to get out of the chairs and go to bed when it gets dark. Maybe they are already zombies, and will just turn into dust at sunrise.
I check in at my motel. I get a key. I sign a registration form. I have a place to park, and the room is nice, clean, and has a dead bolt. I use the dead bolt and the chain, just because I can. There are no zombies in the parking lot, no dead plants in the flower boxes.
The next morning, Joseph flies out the door as I drive up, ready for breakfast. He’s fleshed out his plans for the day, for finding a new place to live. He mentions other options he has for this place, the Tom Tom. He thinks he could pay $585 a month to live here. It might work.
I am dad again. I say “No. No son of mine should live here. You need to find another place.”
He nods. “I know. You’re right. I was just trying to make the best of it.”
We join my old college roommate for breakfast. It is old home week, and my buddy and I have a great time.
True to form, my college roommate engages Joseph in our conversation, asking about our adventures, his plans, his education, his interest in work.
My buddy brings Joseph out of his shell, and the old Joseph, the old get it done, be organized, be purposeful personae comes out. I see him talk about homes and dreams and possibilities.
My buddy gives Joseph his phone number.
“Call me. If I hear of something, I’ll call you.”
Joseph gets connected with the Goodwill guy who is the employment expert. He’ll see him first thing Monday morning. They need folks with computer skills.
My buddy refers Joseph to a bank, a bank that is open on Saturday. We stop in and soon, Joseph has a bank account, a debit card, and a sense of acceptance, being normal. The bank lady was nice, accommodating, not batting an eye as Joseph hands her his inmate ID card as a form of identification. She waives fees and gets him a free account. She gives him the form so he can complete his student loan application and have his money be direct deposited. She wishes him well, and gives him a lead on some low income apartments.
We head to Fred’s and get his food, an alarm clock, a room deodorizer, a setting of silverware, a glass, coffee, even some dish soap.
Back at the Tom Tom, we unload his groceries, spilling the sack of TV dinners and the coffee on the ground, so that the toothless men in the old chairs can see.
On the way back to Fred’s, to get the bike, and to say my good byes, we mention that.
“Now that they see you have food and coffee, you’ll have to invite them over. A housewarming party,” I joke, making Joseph laugh.
“I’ll never have a life without a purpose,” he says.
Before we left the Tom Tom, he asks me to take a picture of him, using his new phone. He sends the photo to his mom in Las Vegas. A few minutes later, the phone beeps, giving him her reply.
“Shave the beard.”
Joseph sighs, his voice telling me he’d like a little different kind of response. “Mom”, he groans.
Where’s the “Good luck, son. You look so handsome. I miss you,” response, I wonder.
“Well, I like your goatee,” I grin, stroking my own beard, and Joseph laughs.
At Fred’s, he finds his bike again, happy now, no longer having that bad puppy look, accepting a gift from me. He finds a bike lock, one with a key.
He’s changing, right before my eyes.
“I need a lanyard,” he says, as he’s wheeling the bike through the store, one hand filled with his lock and a Camelback drinking water bag for his day pack. I’ve learned his nickname at camp was Mickey, and we’ve been hauling a Mickey Mouse doll in the back for the last day. At the lanyard rack, there are not a lot of choices, but there are Mickey Mouse lanyards and there are Oregon State University lanyards.
He holds up both to me, asking for my opinion. I’m thinking Mickey, the guy he’s been for the last six years.
“I’ll go for Oregon State,” he says. “I’m a Beaver now.”
In my last few minutes with him I try to impart a bit more fatherly advice. I don’t want to let him go. I’m being protective, fearful of what is out there in the world for him to deal with. Yet, as we drove to get his bike, he pointed out restaurants he’s worked at before, places he’ll go to check out job openings. Monday morning, he’ll see my friend at Goodwill, get his food stamps, go to the employment office, and do the other things on his already growing list.
“In two weeks, I’ll get my life in order,” he says, reading my mind, knowing I’m worried, knowing that I care.
The day after I get back home, he texts me, checking in. Its Sunday morning and I’m still reading the paper, sipping the last of my coffee, being lazy.
“Job interview on Tuesday. I’m setting up a college orientation, too.”
I guess I won’t need to worry, at least not so much.
A wonderful and tragic snapshot, Neal. I hope you write again about this young man. Take care, Cindee
Yes, you should write about this young man again and what he has accomplished in less than a year 😀