New Orleans, day 3


You know the guy who spent most of his life in jail, gave beatdowns to hapless cons the way most of us give dirty looks? The guy who got caught burglarizing, stealing cars and taking meth?

He was on my painting crew today.

He hand-rolls cigarettes and attends Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. He awakens several times in the middle of the night to check the doors, then take a smoke outside.

C. is an old hand at volunteering at Hands on New Orleans. At lunch, he told us stories about being in the hole (solitary confinement, for you goody-goodies), why you shouldn’t cut in line in front of him and how he survived a prison riot.

He mentioned starting a blog, and I, for one, would read every mesmerizing word. He wants to share his experiences and misadventures in Iowa’s various correctional facilities.

Meanwhile, the painting and touch-up work went a little faster listening to him regale us with stories about how pot and heroin is smuggled into prison (don’t ask) and the baby oil incident (hilarious, but don’t ask).

I’m glad he’s looking out for us. I’m especially glad I didn’t cut in front of him at breakfast.

Another crew member opened up about his life story. A. works in Los Angeles in theatrical production. He related how seeing his father in prison was a bittersweet experience, and how he promised he’d see him again, but never did.

Once on the outside, his dad died due in no small part to alcoholism.

If you think it was a macabre afternoon, it’s only the beginning.

A.’s sister and brother-in-law disappeared in the early ’90s. It turned out, horrifically enough, to be the work of a serial killer. In 2003, A. and a police detective made the connection to another state’s Jane Doe. They finally found her, buried after brutal torture and murder.

Now, the case is entangled in a jurisdictional battle. And Tuesday’s Election Day would determine who, if anyone, would continue prosecuting the case.

Closure may never happen.

And when C. asked A. how he managed to deal with the grief, the anger, the uncertainty, the trauma, A. said stoically, “Well, you know, these things happen.”

I became a journalist because I had no interesting stories of my own to tell, but I could relate the incredible tales of others.

And while we finished putting the gray and white dabs on the rundown house, I wondered at how I ended up painting alongside a criminal and a crime victim.

And how it somehow didn’t matter as we loaded up our gear to return to base.

• • •

New Orleans 2006


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