I went by to visit an old high school friend this past weekend. I was about ten minutes late, the result of a ridiculously long drive through a few Mayberry-looking towns before entering his one-horse village. I had to pull over to rest my eyes at one point. He was waiting on me when I arrived, having joked with a guy that I probably got lost. We both grew up in country, rural Alabama, and he knew as well as me that I wasn’t about find myself lost in country, rural Alabama.
Even though I was late, I still had to take my shoes off at the door. The guy he had joked with grabbed each shoe up and stuffed his hands into them. Eww, I thought (Don’t get me wrong, these were newer dress shoes and I take care of my feet. Feet just weird me out in general is all). Then the guy gave me a quick pat down. “Alright,” he said, but not to me. A huge metal door in front of us slowly began opening and he ushered me into a short hallway where I was met with another similarly huge, equally metal door. The first door, behind us now, finally opened all of the way and immediately began it’s slow crawl back to its closed position.
“How’s he been?” I asked the guy. “Oh, he does pretty good. He messed up here recently, but he understands where he messed up. He does pretty good.” The back door finally shut, all of the electricity buzzing in its frames shot out and made way for the door in front of us. And just as slowly, it started to slide open.
I walked through as soon as I had room, and the guy ushered me into one of a couple of doors to my left. There sat my friend, head down, wrist shackled to wrist shackled to legs. The guy shut the door behind me, and I immediately realizied that there was no handle on my side. There was no crevice for me to stick my fingers into. I scanned the walls. There was no intercom nor was there a button of any variety. This guy better remember me like I remember him, I thought. I didn’t feel like scrapping with somebody who has to deal with defending himself in close quarters every day of his life.
Sitting across from my friend, I got my first good view of him. He was frailer than I remembered, thinner than me. The opposite was the case last we saw each other, nearly fifteen years prior. He looked sad, and not that in-the-moment type of sadness, but the kind of sadness that sets up residence with you. I knew that type of sadness all too well, and I always knew that my friend did too. He just had the ability when we were younger to mask it so well. There was no mask on this day.
He had trouble making eye-contact with me, something else I could relate to. I struggle to this day in making eye-contact. It’s the result of some social anxieties and occassional self-confidence issues, but whenever I look someone in the eye, I’m purposefully doing so in the event that it will end up as habit. I had a feeling as to why he was struggling with eye-contact, but I’m no psychologist.
What I am is a lawyer. That’s how I started our conversation; not as friend but as attorney. I was asked by his family to check on him, and a legal visit had allowed me the ability to name the date and time instead of being forced to more stringent lay person standards. Initially caught off guard by how small my friend had gotten, my first statements were awkwardly and overly professional. What we discussed in those opening moments, I can’t tell you. It’s not my place, and there are rules about that sort of thing. But as we continued on the attorney-client relationship faded away and we discussed life like we would’ve as kids.
As kids, we shared the same life. Our lifestyle choices differed, but our lives…those were point for point identical. We literally lived across the street from each other in our project apartments. He was being raised by a single grandmother. I was being raised by my single mother. We shared the same name, though our nicknames were what we both went by with our classmates. On boring days, we would listen to music in my room or play playstation in his room. On really boring days we would stand on the sidewalks that bordered the road separating our apartments and we would play curb-ball (where we tossed a basketball hoping to hit the other’s curb causing the ball to bounce back to us, resulting in a point and a repeat turn.
Notwithstanding one middle school lunchroom fight (and I say “fight,” it was more like he hit me and I cried) we held each other in high regard. When friends would come over to smoke up with him, he would signal that it might be time for me to go. And though he got the speeches and stories a hundred times before, he would listen and ask legitimate counter-questions whenever I spoke to him about the gospel.
The crux of where we differed as kids was that I was hungry for a role-model and mentor, so much so that I often overwhelmed friends and family with my need for attention. As providence would have it, I stumbled across more than a few folks who would help me. I think my friend simply got tired of looking for help, and many of those who helped me refused to help him to the same extent. They’d say it was the result of his lifestyle, and the kid made some bad choices… but so did I, and so did they. In any event, my friend found peace of mind down a more destructive path. That path led us to the room we were in on this particular day.
As we talked on this day, we literally went from attorney — client to those two kids playing curb ball across the street from each other. We were so quick to get back to that level because that’s always how I’ve seen the guy. When he was charged with the crime that he’s serving time for, and people labeled him every bad name under the sun, all I could do was think back to how many times this [whatever title folks gave him] would scrounge up loose change enough to get some hamburger meat and cook us both burgers on his george forman. I thought about Youthlink 2000 and how happy he looked during my church’s new year’s youthgroup trip. And on this day, having read the case action summary for his case, I can see clear as day how he was screwed over by some lazy lawyers who legitimately did nothing for him for years on end.
I won’t pretend that my friend is or was perfect. He isn’t. He wasn’t. He has alot of work to do, still. But in his life, I understand the simple and powerful quote, belonging to Attorney Bryan Stevenson, that “Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.”