December 23, 2005

Christmas with Conviction

I took a walk down Red River Street just before sundown yesterday, after I’d finished working – I hadn’t left the house all day -- and after a few blocks a man shouted at me from across the street, asking directions. A black man in his forties, about six feet tall with a strong wiry build, wearing clean work clothes and a neatly trimmed mustache. I couldn’t hear what he was saying above the traffic so I started walking across the street toward him, but he indicated that he would come to me.

When he got to the sidewalk next to me, the first thing he said, as if he had to get it out of the way, was that he was on release from a prison term for robbery.

“That’s okay,” I said.

He explained that he was in a special program of Governor Rick Perry’s called “Your Will to Be Free” whereby, after serving 18 months of a two-year sentence, he was being sent to a pilot program at a halfway house. He had been put on a bus from his Dallas-area prison and sent to a city he didn’t know – Austin – to test his will by making him find his way to the halfway house. He had a map, which he showed me: a somewhat fuzzy, wide-zoom map showing no details other than major highways. From the bus stop he’d walked a few miles to Red River on the basis of directions from strangers, making some big wrong turns on the way. By my estimate he still had five to ten miles before he reached the halfway house, a star on the map just east of the airport, which is on the outskirts of town. He had to get there by 8:30 or he’d be expelled from the program. It was about 5:00.

He was worried he wouldn’t make it, but I assured him he had time. Then I had an idea, “I’ve got nothing to do, and I live near here. You stay here – or you can come with me – and I’ll – “

He cut me off, knowing what I was going to say. The program prohibited him from accepting rides with individuals. His group had been shown a film about what can happen when a civilian gives a ride to a seemingly trustworthy con… a mother with a baby giving a nice man a ride…

Okay, so I walked with him as I gave him general directions to Airport Boulevard via 19th Street. I told him he could probably get a bus, but I don’t know the bus system well. How much did the bus cost, he asked. Maybe fifty cents or a dollar, I said.

“If it costs fifty cents, would you please let me have fifty cents?”

“Sure,” I said.

As we walked up and down the hills on the eastern border of the UT campus, I stayed at arm’s length beside him. We talked about things we had in common: I asked him if he had kids. He has three, and two grandchildren, a daughter starting college at Texas State thirty miles down the interstate, which he called “down the street.” The comparative troubles of raising boys versus girls. How his daughter’s mother had foisted his daughter onto him once she became a teenager, but he’d been too strict with her and ruined their relationship, and he wanted to see her in college – one reason why he was glad to come to Austin -- but didn’t have her phone number. He asked me how I was going to spend Christmas and I told him, in broad outline. He asked me if I was a teacher and I said no, but my wife was, and he laughed and said, “You got that professor look,” and I said it was because I hung out with professors. He asked what I did and I told him, and explained how I don’t have any benefits but I do have a lot of freedom. “You’re a smart guy, you can figure out how to save for the future,” he said, which I wish was true. “And now you’re going out for your walk for exercise after you finished working,” he said, and I smiled and told him he’d guessed exactly right.

We talked about how nice Austin is: he’d noticed the many pecan trees and live oaks, more than in his hometown Dallas. And the water – wasn’t there a river or lakes somewhere? He’d worked for the city of Dallas for seventeen years, he told me. I didn’t ask what he’d been doing or what kind of robbery he’d committed.

Up and down the hills, and the sun sinking orange ahead of us, and the football stadium just to our right and the tree-filled campus spreading beyond it. His feet hurt walking the hills in steel-toed shoes, and I told him the east side of Austin is flat, he’d do better there.

We stood on a hilltop on the border between east and west Austin and looked at the orange horizon line, the green-blue sky with one bright planet burning steady white, the highway and the low-rise city flattening out for miles at our feet. He kept saying how glad he was to be here – kept repeating the city’s name in a tone of wonder and approval.

“This is my Christmas present: Austin!” he said. And I felt it was a Christmas present for me, too.

We walked downhill to 19th Street, and by the time we shook hands goodbye it was dark. I got out my wallet and gave him two-fifty, which was all I had in small bills and change. I said it was great talking to him, and wished him good luck, and he said he hoped he’d see me again.

Back home I did a Google search for “Your Will to Be Free.” A simple search gets literally a billion hits; a search for the exact phrase gets 721, of which most are song lyrics. Checking the first few pages, I didn’t find anything relevant. A search for “Rick Perry” plus the phrase gets zero hits.

It’s a good idea for a release program, though: transport a well-behaved con to an unfamiliar city, wearing an electronic homing device (I assume), and ask him to find a destination with only the vaguest map and no money as a test of his determination. I hope he made it by 8:30.