Freedom, I won’t let you down

I was passing by the federal prison at 7th and Market after work tonight on my way to the bus, when a guy stopped me to ask if I could call his mom for him. He had no phone on him, and he heeded her to pick him up.

“I was just released from federal prison,” he said — as in, just moments before, he had walked through the front doors of the fortress across the street.

It seemed a detail I might have withheld if I were in his shoes. You know … prison. Makes people nervous.

So of course I said yes. He just got out, and he needs a break, and I’m going to thumb my nose at him? He gave me her number, I entered it, and it began to ring. It seemed inappropriate for me to do the talking, so I handed him the phone, which seemed to surprise him.

“This a 7?” he asked me.

At first I thought he was asking me for the time, which of course I didn’t know, because he was holding my timepiece in his hand. But then it hit me. “Ah, no,” I said. “It’s a 6.”

I wondered what was the last version of iPhone he had seen.

He spoke to his mother in Spanish, so I don’t know what he said, but the conversation was short. No more than 10 or 15 seconds.

While he was talking I noticed he was carrying only a plastic zipper bag containing some folded documents and what might have been a prescription bottle. I didn’t want to stare.

Briefly I was nervous, hovering over him as he spoke to his mother from a stranger’s phone. I am naturally nervous and skeptical around strangers who ask me for favors on the street. (I don’t know how many times I’ve stumbled through some directions for an out-of-towner, and then realized a minute later that I’d just sent them off in the wrong direction.) But the nervousness faded.

I’ve never been asked for a favor from someone fresh out of prison. The street was well lit, there were many people around, and it occurred to me rather quickly that outside of a federal prison was probably among the least likely places someone would try to steal my phone or rob me. And statistically, he seemed as likely as any other stranger to do me harm — which is to say, not very. I could assume nothing about him. I had no more reason to have any prejudice against him for leaving the federal prison than I would if he had just left the Federal Reserve Bank.

So, yeah. Of course he told me he was just released from prison. Why wouldn’t he? He was proud of it. He was done. He was back. It signified that he wasn’t about to try any funny business. And what did I have to worry about? He was probably the most trustworthy person on that block at that moment, including myself.

He handed me the phone back and said thank you.

“You’re welcome,” I said. “Have a great night.”

(Because what else does one say? “Say hi to your mom for me”?)

As he walked away, he looked relieved — elated, really — to be breathing the evening air, I suppose. To be talking to a stranger. To be calling his mom without a time limit and a queue behind him. To be free.

And I guess I was happy to be part of a friendly, helpful encounter. Welcome back, buddy. Good luck out there.


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the untallied hours

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