The other day I visited the Rescue Mission of Trenton, with the group, People & Stories, to talk about literature and life. Diane, a volunteer organizer drove me there. When we arrived we entered an unmarked steel door in the side of a cement block building and when the woman behind the glass saw us, she buzzed us through a second door. The hall before us was interchangeable with a thousand other such institutions: florescent lighting, steel water fountain, cinder-block walls painted pale pink and yellow, tan lino on the floor. Diane led me through a maze of hallways smelling faintly of bleach, past poorly-lit rooms in which men and a few women lounged on uncomfortable-looking chairs or sat around folding tables; through a ramshackle courtyard in which mission trucks were parked, past loading docks, and storage rooms full of broken furniture, pots and pans and stacks of plates. Finally we entered a somewhat cavernous room with wood paneling and linoleum tile, nine blue tables set up in a T-shape, and a large wooden cross hanging on the wall.
One by one the men drifted in and sat at the table. Many were recently released from prison, and most had substance abuse issues. Some black, some white. Some in their fifties, some in their thirties, some in between. One young man had a shaved head and beard, another the sort of muscles I suspect came from working out in the prison yard. A couple had the watery eyes and flushed skin of the recently sober. Some met my eyes and smiled, shook my hand, while others found a seat as far down the table as possible and merely nodded. I got up and shook everyone’s hand, asking their names. I asked if maybe we couldn’t sit closer together. They agreed. We joked a little, got iced tea and cookies.
The program with People & Stories is designed so that we read a short story together and we talk about it, and then do a little writing. I had decided I would read a story I’d written called “Neighbors” which is about a father coming to terms with the overdose death of his son, and about wanting to wreak deadly revenge on the person who’d sold his son the drugs. It was written after both my brothers committed suicide, as a result of alcoholism and drug addiction.
When I finished, one by one, the men talked about their own histories with addiction and grief. One man shared that while he’d been in prison he’d been eaten alive by revenge fantasies against someone who’d betrayed him. He’d filled three journals with writings about his thoughts, and then ritually threw the journals away, and the need for revenge with them. A man talked about how it was in his neighborhood, how his cousins dealt drugs, and how he wanted to be like them. He shook his head. It had seemed like the right thing to do. He hadn’t been out of prison long. One man, the one with the big muscles, told us his brother had died of an overdose less than a year ago. He’d heard about it while he was in prison. He was still dealing with it, trying to find a way to grieve. “I was his older brother, and I should have taken care of him. Our father wasn’t ever around,” he said. “I have to live with that.” Another man asked me to read a piece he’d written about the suicide death of his mother.
One by one we told our own stories. Stories trickled out, little streams of our lives, gathering force as they joined together; trickles to streams, to creeks, to rivers… overlapping, blending, mingling, until we were all in the same river together, possibly still floundering a little but maybe forming a human chain across the turbulent waters to safer ground. We’re all treading the same water together. All swimming for our lives.
Finally someone asked me how long I’d been a writer. I said I’d always wanted to be a writer. It was the only thing, other than cooking a mean lamb tagine, that I did even remotely well.
A guy to my left said, “You got a recipe for that lamb? I’m the cook here and Ramadan’s coming up. We’re talking about cooking lamb. I’d love to try that recipe.”
“Absolutely!” I said. “When’s Ramadan this year?”
The man looked down the table at a man with a shaved head and a big beard. “When’s Ramadan, K____? Couple of weeks, right?”
“Starts August 11th, I think,” said the bearded man.
I gave him the recipe and said I hoped I’d be invited. I’ll help with the cooking, too. It would an honor. I’m looking forward to sharing food with my new friends.
If things don’t work out at the mission, there aren’t many more options for these guys. As Diane and I left we drove down the street behind the mission where men sat on the ground, some with black plastic garbage bags, one or two with rolling suitcases. It was blisteringly hot and the men looked wilted and exhausted. If they couldn’t get a bed inside, they’d probably sleep right where they now sat. As we passed by, I couldn’t help but wonder what their stories were.
A young woman asked me once why I teach in prisons and go to places like the Rescue Mission.
“My God,” she said, eyes wide, “Do you know what it’s like in these places? Do you know what these people are like?”
“Sure, I do,” I said. “They’re just like me.”