You might wonder why I am posting such a huge article about this subject. It’s because my next book is on this subject. Of course, I write fiction. I’ve never been in prison myself … except to visit … but I know people who have and, eventually, those stories wanted to be written. From that came What If … Wasn’t, which will debut around the 1st of the year. For reasons of confidentiality, I chose to share this well-written article rather than share the real stories of men and women who I have interacted with through prison and prison-reentry ministries. Incarceration is a HUGE problem in the United States. I seek to tell the story of one guy who any of us might know.
New York Times Magazine
Carlos and Roby are two ex-convicts with a simple mission: picking up inmates on the day they’re released from prison and guiding them through a changed world.
Two men were sitting in a parked car, waiting to pick someone up. Carlos Cervantes was in the driver’s seat. He was 30, with glassy green eyes — quiet by nature, but with a loaded, restrained intensity about him. He had picked up Roby So at home in Los Angeles around 3 o’clock that morning, and they’d made it here, to this empty parking lot in front of the Richard J. Donovan Correctional Facility, on the outskirts of San Diego, just after 6. Now, the sun was rising over the bare, brown mountains in the windshield. A hummingbird zipped around an air-conditioning unit outside. Already, they’d been waiting close to an hour.
Roby was three years older than Carlos but carried himself like a large and joyful child. He was hungry. He wanted biscuits and gravy and was still laughing about how, earlier, he caught himself telling Carlos that, unfortunately, he’d have to wait until tomorrow for biscuits and gravy, because today was Monday, and Monday was pancakes day. Part of his brain still tracked his old prison breakfast menu. ‘‘Why do I still know these things, man?’’ Roby said. ‘‘It’s been four years. I was supposed to. … ’’ His voice trailed off, so Carlos finished his sentence: ‘‘Delete.’’
Roby started reciting the weekly prison menu, to see if he could still do it. When he got to Thursday — peanut butter and jelly, four slices of bread, Kool-Aid — Carlos, without turning to look at him, chimed in with ‘‘sugar-free gum.’’
Roby went on. (Roby tends to do most of the talking.) The trick, he said, is to save those packets of peanut butter and spread it on your pancakes, the next time there are pancakes. It sounds gross, but it’s not. ‘‘The only way I eat my pancakes now is with peanut butter — because that’s the way I ate them in there,’’ Roby explained.
Carlos understood. He still put peanut butter on his pancakes, too. ‘‘It does have a different flavor,’’ he said.
‘‘Yeah! And you can put it in your oatmeal!’’
‘‘Oatmeal is real good with peanut butter,’’ Carlos said.
‘‘I still do that, too!’’ Roby blurted.
He continued with the menu. After Sunday — eggs, ham, hash browns — he looked at Carlos and said, ‘‘You put it all together?’’ to make sure Carlos knew to heap the whole thing between two slices of toast and squeeze jelly over it. Carlos knew. ‘‘That’s a pretty fat sandwich, right?’’ Roby said.
‘‘Yeah,’’ Carlos said emphatically.
Roby still puts jelly on his egg sandwiches, too, he explained. Strawberry, grape — he doesn’t care. ‘‘People look at me like I’m crazy!’’
‘‘People don’t even know,’’ Carlos said. They were laughing at themselves now. Carlos had done almost 11 years; Roby, close to 12. Now they were free men, sitting outside a prison, waxing nostalgic about prison food.
They waited some more. Waiting came easily to them; incarceration makes you patient. Finally, after three and a half hours, a white corrections-department van pulled into the parking lot. It was going backward, fairly fast, then made a wide turn — still in reverse — to roll in beside Carlos and Roby, who jumped out of their car to meet it. As the van turned, the prison guard driving it leaned his head through the window and hollered, ‘‘I’m doing it on a dare!’’ He sprang out of the van, grinning and chuckling — he seemed overstimulated, as if he couldn’t believe they were letting him drive the van today — and went to open the back door. But then he stopped short: All the backward driving had confused him about which side his passenger was on.
Eventually, Dale Hammock appeared. Hammock was 65, white, his head shaved completely bald, both arms wrapped in black tattoos. He wore sweat shorts, a white T-shirt, canvas slip-ons and white socks pulled up near his knees. All his clothes were bright and brand-new. As he approached Carlos and Roby, he thrust his chest toward them as far as it would go. Inside, this might have signaled strength and authority, but out here, it looked bizarre, as if he had some kind of back deformity.
Carlos shouted, ‘‘Welcome home, Mr. Hammock!’’ Roby shouted, ‘‘How are you feeling, Mr. Hammock?’’ They introduced themselves and hurried to collect his few possessions — a brown paper bag and a pair of work boots — moving as if they’d done this exchange dozens of times, which they had, while Hammock stood between them, looking stunned.
Carlos handed Hammock the key and asked if he wanted to pop the trunk. But the key wasn’t a key; it was a button. After squinting at it for a second, Hammock handed it back and said, ‘‘I wouldn’t know what to do with that.’’
He’d been in prison for 21 years.
Hammock was sent away in 1994, at a time when stiff sentencing reforms around the country were piling more people into prison for longer amounts of time. These included California’s ‘‘three-strikes law,’’ which took effect just months before Hammock was arrested. The law imposed life sentences for almost any crime if the offender had two previous ‘‘serious’’ or ‘‘violent’’ convictions. (The definitions of ‘‘serious’’ and ‘‘violent’’ in California’s penal code are broad; attempting to steal a bicycle from someone’s garage is ‘‘serious.’’) Similar laws proliferated in other states and in the 1994 federal crime bill, becoming signatures of that decade’s tough-on-crime policies and helping to catapult the country into the modern era of mass incarceration. But as the criminologist Jeremy Travis, then head of the Justice Department’s research agency, later pointed out, America had failed to recognize the ‘‘iron law of imprisonment’’: Each of the 2.4 million people we’ve locked up, if he or she doesn’t die in prison, will one day come out.
It wasn’t until the mid-2000s that this looming ‘‘prisoner re-entry crisis’’ became a fixation of sociologists and policy makers, generating a torrent of research, government programs, task forces, nonprofit initiatives and conferences now known as the ‘‘re-entry movement.’’ The movement tends to focus on solving structural problems, like providing housing, job training or drug treatment, but easily loses sight of the profound disorientation of the actual people being released. Often, the psychological turbulence of those first days or weeks is so debilitating that recently incarcerated people can’t even navigate public transportation; they’re too frightened of crowds, too intimidated or mystified by the transit cards that have replaced cash and tokens. In a recent study, the Harvard sociologist Bruce Western describes a woman who ‘‘frequently forgot to eat breakfast or lunch for several months because she was used to being called to meals in prison.’’ I met one man who explained that, after serving 15 years, he found himself convinced that parked cars would somehow switch on and run him over. So many years inside can leave people vulnerable in almost incomprehensibly idiosyncratic ways, sometimes bordering on helplessness: ‘‘Like that little bird, getting his wings’’ is how one man described himself on Day 1. Many spill out of prison in no condition to take advantage of the helpful bureaucracies the re-entry movement has been busily putting in place.
This became clear in 2012, after California voted to overhaul its three-strikes law and a criminal-justice group at Stanford Law School, the Stanford Three Strikes Project, started filing petitions to have roughly 3,000 prisoners serving life sentences set free with time served. (So far, close to 2,300 have been released.) Many were serial offenders who were sent away for life after one last witless screwup, like Lester Wallace, who was caught trying to steal a car radio on the first morning the law went into effect, or Curtis Wilkerson, who did 16 years of his life sentence after shoplifting a pair of socks from a department store called Mervyn’s. When Wilkerson got out, he sounded as if he couldn’t believe the whole thing: ‘‘Ordinary white socks,’’ he told Rolling Stone. ‘‘Didn’t even have any stripes.’’
Unlike typical parolees, third-strikers are often notified of their release just before it happens, sometimes only a day in advance. (It can take months for a judge to rule after papers are filed.) They’re usually sent out the door with $200, a not-insubstantial share of which they often pay back to the prison for a lift to the nearest Greyhound station: An inmate might be released from a prison outside Sacramento and expected to find his way to a parole officer in San Diego, 500 miles away, within 48 hours. Stanford’s Three Strikes Project was setting up transitional housing for its clients, but initially, a lot of the third-strikers weren’t making it there — they were just blowing away in the wind. Then, Carlos and Roby started driving around the state and waiting outside to catch them.
The job started as a simple delivery service, to carry some of these discombobulated bodies from one place to another. In late 2013, the director of the Three Strikes Project, Michael Romano, contacted a nonprofit called the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, which has built up a close community of formerly incarcerated people in Los Angeles. (Romano, who is also an A.R.C. board member, is a friend of mine.) Romano asked if A.R.C. could dispatch one of its members to pick up third-strikers and drive them to their housing near the Staples Center in Los Angeles. A.R.C. recommended Carlos, a dependable young man just three years out of prison himself, who — most important — also had his own car and a credit card to front money for gas. Carlos was hired, for $12 an hour, to fetch an old man named Terry Critton from a prison in Chino. On the way back, Critton asked if Carlos wouldn’t mind stopping at Amoeba Records, so he could look at jazz LPs — he’d been a big collector. They wound up spending almost two hours in the store, just looking. Then, Critton wanted a patty melt, so Carlos found a place called Flooky’s, where they ordered two and caught the end of a Dodgers game. It was extraordinary: All day, Carlos could see this man coming back to life. He wanted to do more pickups, and he wanted to get his friend Roby involved. He told his bosses he needed a partner.
By now, Carlos and Roby — officially, A.R.C.’s Ride Home Program — have done about three dozen pickups, either together or individually, waking up long before dawn and driving for hours toward prison towns deep in the desert or up the coast. Then they spend all day with the guy (so far they’ve picked up only men), taking him to eat, buying him some clothes, advising him, swapping stories, dialing his family on their cellphones or astonishing him by magically calling up Facebook pictures of nieces and nephews he’s never met — or just sitting quietly, to let him depressurize. The conversation with those shellshocked total strangers doesn’t always flow, Roby told me. It helps to have a wingman.
‘‘The first day is everything,’’ Carlos says — a barrage of insignificant-seeming experiences with potentially big consequences. Consider, for example, a friend of his and Roby’s: Julio Acosta, who was paroled in 2013 after 23 years inside. Acosta describes stopping for breakfast near the prison that first morning as if it were a horrifying fever dream: He kept looking around the restaurant for a sniper, as in the chow hall in prison, and couldn’t stop gawking at the metal knives and forks, ‘‘like an Aztec looking at Cortez’s helmet,’’ he says. It wasn’t until he got up from the booth and walked to the men’s room, and a man came out the door and said, ‘‘How you doin’?’’ and Acosta said, ‘‘Fine,’’ that Acosta began to feel, even slightly, like a legitimate part of the environment around him. He’d accomplished something. He’d made a treacherous trip across an International House of Pancakes. He’d peed.
But what if Acosta had accidentally bumped into a waitress, knocking over her tray and shattering dishes? What if that man had glared at him, instead of greeting him, or snapped at him to get the hell out of the way? Ann Jacobs, director of the Prisoner Re-entry Institute at New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, told me that even the smallest bungled interactions on the outside leave recently incarcerated people feeling ‘‘like they’re being exposed, like they’re incompetent. It’s feeding into their worst fear, their perception of themselves as an impostor who’s incapable of living a normal life.’’ Carlos and Roby have learned to steer their guys through that perilous newness — and to be nonchalant about it, to make the sudden enormity of life feel unthreatening, even fun. On one ride home earlier this year, I watched a third-striker venture inside a convenience store, alone, to buy a candy bar while Roby pumped gas. The man seemed emboldened after a few hours of freedom, actually hopping a bit as he walked. But then he tripped over the curb and tumbled forward, arms thrashing, nearly face-planting in front of the door. Roby just shrugged and said, ‘‘Well, you’ve got to get that one out of the way.’’
‘‘Been a long time since I looked at a menu,’’ Dale Hammock said. He was sheltered in a corner of a booth at a Denny’s near the prison. The restaurant was overcrowded, loud and full of the kind of hyperdifferentiated nonsense that ordinary Americans swim through every day, never assuming it can or should be fully understood. But Hammock was having trouble sorting the breakfast menu from the lunch menu, and the regular Denny’s menu from the Denny’s Skillets Across America limited-time menu. There were two kinds of hot sauce and four different sweeteners on the table. On the Heinz ketchup bottle, it said: ‘‘Up for a Game? Trivial Pursuit Tomato Ketchup.’’
The first meal after a long prison sentence is an ostensible celebration laced with stress. The food tastes incredible. (Roby gained 60 pounds after his release, desperate to try the Outback Steakhouse Bloomin’ Onion and other fast-casual delicacies he’d seen commercials for on TV.) But ordering — making any choice — can be unnerving. Waiters are intimidating; waitresses, especially pretty ones, can be petrifying. So at Denny’s, Roby started things off, ordering a chocolate milk. Hammock ordered a chocolate milk, too. Then he reconsidered and said: ‘‘I want a milkshake! I’ll just have that!’’ He ordered a Grand Slam. Then he changed it to a Lumberjack Slam. And when the waiter shot back with ‘‘Toast: white, wheat or sourdough?’’ Hammock went stiff momentarily, then answered: ‘‘Toast, I guess.’’
One morning 21 years ago, Hammock was pulled over for not wearing a seatbelt, and the cop found a half-pound of methamphetamine under the passenger seat. (Hammock was driving a friend’s car and claims he didn’t know the drugs were there, but the police report also notes that he had a small amount of meth in his pocket and was carrying close to $1,000.) He’d been an addict most of his life, flying in and out of prison with some 30 arrests and a dozen other drug or drug-related charges behind him. In 1973, he shot and injured a man while trying to rob him, and in 1978 he snatched a 19-year-old woman’s purse. (There was $2 inside.) Those two charges both counted as ‘‘strikes.’’ The meth in the car was Hammock’s third. He was given a sentence of 31 years to life.
He moved through 10 different prisons and watched firsthand as the age of mass incarceration took hold. In the 42 years between his first strike and his release, the state’s prison population quintupled. Facilities started running at 135 percent capacity, gyms were converted into dorms, all kinds of privileges were discontinued (some prisons even outlawed fresh fruit, to crack down on homemade alcohol) and everyone, Hammock said — the inmates and the guards — started walking around with more abrasive attitudes. Hammock, meanwhile, had mellowed somewhat, become an old man. For the last five or six years, he’d been the prison barber, which required him to shuttle among the different housing units and stay on good terms with everyone; a supervisor’s report praised him as an ‘‘asset’’ who mentored younger, more volatile inmates. He was too worn out to be menacing anymore. Gabbing with Carlos and Roby while they waited for their table, he explained wearily that, years ago, ‘‘I stabbed two guys in Soledad. But you know how that goes, those situations arise sometimes’’ — either them or you.
Freedom hadn’t instantly re-energized him. From the moment he hopped into Carlos and Roby’s car that morning, he’d seemed less gung-ho than accepting — a good sport. ‘‘Oh, boy, it’s going to be different,’’ he kept saying, or, ‘‘It’s going to be an experience, brother, I swear to God.’’ Several times, he told them: ‘‘I was thinking about trying to get into barber college,’’ latching onto that phrase like a handrail on a shaky train. This was the one thing Dale Hammock knew right now: ‘‘I’ve been thinking about barber college, if I could get enrolled in barber college.’’
His milkshake came. He took a tentative sip, then removed the straw and started gulping. Roby took a picture on his phone, showed it to Hammock, then zapped it off to the team at Stanford. Hammock was amazed. ‘‘Everything now, you just touch it, and it shows you things?’’ he asked. It was like having breakfast with a time traveler. Was he correct in noticing that men didn’t wear their hair long anymore? Was it true that everyone had stopped using cash? Later, in the restroom, he wrenched the front of the automatic soap dispenser off its base instead of waving his hand under it.
Carlos and Roby had been careful so far not to overwhelm Hammock, but with his milkshake in place, they eased into discussing some practicalities. They talked about cellphone plans and how to get two forms of ID, so Hammock could register for welfare and other assistance. This was the beginning of Carlos and Roby’s signature re-entry crash course, rooted in their own experiences coming home, which they casually threaded through the duration of every ride. Hammock seemed determined to figure it all out. He didn’t see an alternative. ‘‘I’m too tired of prison,’’ he told them. ‘‘I know that.’’
If he was serious about cutting hair, Carlos said, there was a government rehabilitation program that might pay for his licensure classes. Roby offered to buy him a set of clippers so he could get a little business going right away, giving haircuts to the other third-strikers at the housing facility where they were heading. In fact, Carlos added, he commuted past there every day. ‘‘I was thinking you could hook me up, and I’ll pay you to cut my hair.’’
‘‘No problem, no problem at all,’’ Hammock said, tilting his head to size up Carlos’s fade. ‘‘You keep it short like that?’’ He sounded just like a barber.
Carlos encouraged him: He’d have to hustle and find a niche, just as prisoners are accustomed to doing inside. ‘‘You already have the tools,’’ Carlos explained. ‘‘It’s just about applying them now to a different environment. You know how to dictate how people treat you. You know how to tell who’s going to scam you and who’s not. Using that same psychology, you’re going to be all right.’’
Hammock nodded. This seemed to make sense to him in a way that nothing else had so far. ‘‘I’ll be all right — it’s just going to take a minute, that’s all,’’ he said. ‘‘Looks like it’s time to eat.’’
His breakfast took up three separate plates. He ate inelegantly and quickly, working the food over with his half-set of dentures and toothless lower gums. When he was done, he bellowed, ‘‘Well, I’m not hungry no more!’’ Then, with that out of the way, he looked across the table at Carlos and asked, ‘‘How long you been out?’’
The first ride home Carlos and Roby did together was in February 2014. They were dispatched for an early-morning pickup at San Quentin, seven hours from Los Angeles in Marin County, and Michael Romano, the director of the Three Strikes Project, suggested they drive up the day before and stay at his house in San Francisco. He expected to take them out to dinner — get to know them, spoil them a bit. Instead, Carlos and Roby rolled in after midnight and unceremoniously bedded down on a couple of couches.
Lying there, it hit them how unusual this was: They were both still on parole at the time, but here they were, welcomed into this white lawyer’s home in the middle of the night, while his wife and two little children slept upstairs. ‘‘That really changed everything,’’ Carlos remembers. ‘‘It changed our perspective of how people actually viewed us.’’ He and Roby had been locked up so young that they’d never lived as regular, trustworthy adults. This, they told each other before falling asleep, must be what it feels like.
Carlos grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, east of downtown L.A. His father walked out on his mother while she was still pregnant with him, and Carlos had the misfortune of reminding her of his dad, he says, which made her resentful and abusive. Soon she remarried, but while her new husband bought his own two sons new clothes and Super Nintendos, Carlos and his older brother got none of that. Once, when Carlos was 11, his father mailed him $50 — $100 actually, but his mother took a cut — and Carlos immediately picked up the phone and ordered a medium pizza. When the doorbell rang, he paid the delivery guy, took the pizza inside and ate it out of the box, very methodically, in front of his family. He remembers the scene clearly — how shocked everyone was that he had something of his own and wasn’t giving any of it to them. ‘‘And I was like: ‘Yeah, but it’s my pizza. I’m going to sit here and enjoy this pizza.’ ’’ He liked the feeling of satisfaction money brought. So he started stealing bikes and breaking into houses. ‘‘After that, my life was thieving,’’ Carlos says. ‘‘I was a thief, for sure.’’
His childhood turned even more formless and reckless. He had started smoking pot at 9, and by 15 he was a heavy meth user who spent all day in the street. His mother warned him he would end up in jail — sort of. ‘‘She said, ‘I hope you [expletive] end up in jail,’ ’’ Carlos remembers. ‘‘And in Spanish, trust me, it sounds even worse. Two weeks later, I was arrested.’’
One afternoon, some older gang members jumped Carlos, knocking him off his bike and beating him, and Carlos enlisted two friends to drive around with him, looking to retaliate. One of them wound up shooting at a young man from the car, Carlos explained, injuring him; Carlos was the only one arrested. After waiting in a county jail for nearly two years, he says, he was finally offered a deal: He could plead guilty to attempted murder and be sentenced as an adult to 12 years, or he could fight the charge and get 35 to life if he lost. Carlos took the deal. He was 16.
Carlos floundered in prison but found a mentor after a few years — an older cellmate, also named Carlos. Under the older Carlos’s influence, he began willing his way into adulthood: studying, reading, examining his anger. A girl from his neighborhood started driving out to see him, and they eventually married. After a few conjugal visits, they had a baby, a daughter Carlos met one Saturday morning in the prison visiting room. Over the years, Carlos saw inmates go home and then wind up back inside; the system seemed to offer little preparation for release, setting them up for failure. He started mailing away for details about advocacy groups, housing, Social Security, driver’s licenses — not just in Los Angeles, where he’d be living when he got out, but in counties around California, so he could share what he learned with other inmates. He made packets of information and put a notice on the prison bulletin board, next to the day’s menu: If you’re getting out and need any ‘‘resources,’’ as he called them, come talk to Carlos in Bunk 28 Low. The prison’s chaplain told me, ‘‘He was basically a social worker behind bars.’’
By that point, Carlos was housed at the California Rehabilitation Center, not far outside L.A. He was part of a small circle of more mature inmates who, having done time at high-security prisons, were taking college classes, looking for calm in the last years of their sentences. Among them was a wisecracking Asian guy whom everyone knew as Big Head. His real name was Roby So.
Roby’s story was less gothic than Carlos’s, but it had led him to the same dismal place. His parents escaped the killing fields in Cambodia and opened a Laundromat and a bargain store in Los Angeles. He grew up in Echo Park, near Dodger Stadium, a dangerous neighborhood in the 1980s, where he fell in with a gang of other Cambodian kids called the Oriental Boys. Roby was seven years into a 13-year sentence when he met Carlos, having pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder in 1998. (Roby says he drove four friends to a party in San Diego, and one fired a handgun at a rival there and missed; the gun was still in Roby’s trunk when they were all arrested at a gas station the next day.)
Prison society is usually strictly segregated, so it was no small thing when Carlos, a Mexican, and Roby, an Asian guy, struck up a friendship. Roby would walk across the dorm to Carlos’s bunk and sit down on the other bed — oblivious to, or uninterested in, whether he was welcome on it — and they’d fall into long conversations about books and life. Breaking bread with another race is especially taboo, but Carlos and Roby frequently cooked meals for each other anyway, improvising with ingredients pocketed in the dining hall or bought from the commissary. Roby made the first one for Carlos on the floor of his bunk, cooking rice, canned mackerel and rehydrated bean soup in a bucket of water, which he heated with a ‘‘stinger’’ — a metal rod resembling a curling iron. Then he puréed all of it, piled it in an egg-roll wrapper and topped it with sriracha. (In retrospect, the dish was symbolic: an Asian-fusion burrito.) On Saturdays, Carlos and Roby would sit side by side watching a block of cooking shows on PBS: ‘‘Yan Can Cook,’’ ‘‘Simply Ming,’’ ‘‘Mexico — One Plate at a Time With Rick Bayless.’’ They picked up techniques and gathered ideas. ‘‘Like, instead of onions, let’s try a little more ginger,’’ Roby explains.
‘‘Once we started talking, it was like I knew this guy already,’’ Carlos remembers. ‘‘He had the same energy, the same mentality.’’ They discovered they were scheduled to be paroled one day apart, and plotted their re-entry into Los Angeles together. Then, once they were out, they started executing the plans they’d assembled on Carlos’s bunk. They went to file for government relief payments together. They waited at the D.M.V. together, wondering why everyone else there seemed so impatient and aggravated. And they held each other accountable to their respective to-do lists. Eventually, Carlos found a job as a contractor, and he now works for a nonprofit that guides kids through the juvenile justice system. Roby started fiddling with a GoPro and taught himself video editing. Last year, he lucked into a job on a show that streams on Yahoo.
Waiting outside the prison for Hammock that morning, Roby got an email on his phone that The New York Times had just published the first review of the show, ‘‘Sin City Saints,’’ online. He started reading it out loud to Carlos. But the knocks came pretty quickly — ‘‘a disjointed and not particularly funny series’’ — and his excitement curdled. ‘‘Blah, blah, blah. You’re just giving your opinion,’’ Roby finally said to his phone. ‘‘Let’s let the viewers decide.’’ Then he put the thing away and started digging idly through the glove box.
The opening riff of ‘‘Good Times, Bad Times’’ kicked in on the stereo as they hit Los Angeles County, just before 2 p.m. Carlos bobbed his head in the back seat. The mood in the car was up — for a minute or two. Then, construction work narrowed Route 101, and Roby grumbled as they slowed nearly to a stop. ‘‘See that, Dale?’’ he asked Hammock. ‘‘I’m complaining about traffic. You know what that’s called?’’
‘‘No,’’ Hammock said.
‘‘That’s called ‘free-man problems,’ ’’ Roby said.
They fought through the congestion to their next stop, a Target in downtown L.A., where Roby put Hammock in charge of the big red shopping cart. ‘‘There you go, pushing a cart!’’ he shouted as they set off into the aisles. ‘‘Who would’ve thunk it!’’
Every ride home includes a stop to get the third-striker out of his sweats and buy him some real clothes and basic toiletries. It’s typically the last thing Carlos and Roby do; walking into a crowded big-box store asks a lot of these guys. Roby was released on Presidents’ Day weekend, and his father and cousins took him straight to an outlet mall. The swarm of bargain-seeking humanity overwhelmed him. In prison, people move slowly, drag their feet and keep their distance; all of a sudden, Roby was being jostled and bumped. And after 12 years in the same state-issued clothing, he had no idea what to buy. When his father asked him what size he was, Roby told him: ‘‘I don’t have a size.’’
Now, Roby tends to take the lead at Target, working as a kind of unflappable personal shopper for the third-strikers, like a kid eager to do tricks on a piece of playground equipment that once scared him. ‘‘You look like a 34,’’ he told Hammock. He led him to a dismayingly large wall of jeans: several different brands; slim, boot cut, carpenter. When Hammock finally reached for a pair, Roby told him to gauge the waistline by stretching it around his neck.
‘‘Around my neck?’’ Hammock asked.
‘‘Yeah,’’ Roby told him. ‘‘I learned it from Oprah.’’
Soon, they moved on to shirts. Then underwear. Then socks. It was like marching Hammock through the stations of some consumerist cross. He peered into the racks of razors with names like military fighter jets: Schick Xtreme, BIC Hybrid Advance 3. He confronted the toothbrushes: Colgate 2X Whitening Action, Colgate 360 Degree Whole Mouth Clean, Oral-B Indicator Contour Clean. In the deodorant aisle, there was an entire section of Old Spices named after wild animals. Carlos always likes to recommend AXE — he believes in the company’s products — and this time, he gasped slightly when he noticed the apparently rare AXE White Label antiperspirant on a high shelf. He took off the cap to smell it — Forest Scent — then extended it to Hammock. ‘‘Are you an AXE man?’’ Carlos asked. When Hammock decided to go another way, Carlos seemed hurt.
They got toothpaste. They got soap. Roby upsold Hammock on a reversible belt. Often, as they arrived in front of the next expanse of products, Roby and Carlos would shoot each other side-eyed glances, eager to see what Hammock would do. Their policy was to throw the third-strikers into these challenges, rather than coddle them. This was ordinary life. It was safe; it was fun. ‘‘Take this and slide it,’’ Roby now told Hammock, handing him his credit card at the register. Hammock dragged the card through the slot methodically, formally, turning to face Roby’s camera, as though at a ribbon-cutting ceremony. But it didn’t catch. ‘‘I think you gotta go faster,’’ Roby said. And so Hammock slid it again. The machine gave off a satisfying beep: success.
There was one more thing, though. Carlos was already in line at the Starbucks kiosk near the entrance, ordering Hammock what he described to him as a ‘‘Cadillac’’ — prison slang for sweet, milky coffee. Soon came the announcement: ‘‘Grande caramel macchiato for Dale!’’
Hammock took a sip. He looked nearly as stunned as he had the moment they met him that morning, when he was driven out of prison backward after 21 years. ‘‘Wow,’’ he said. Carlos and Roby burst out laughing. But Hammock was not laughing. He was very serious. ‘‘Wow,’’ he said again. ‘‘Coffee’s come a long way! This here’s the Rolls-Royce of Cadillacs!’’
He took another sip. He shook his head and peered down, through the sip hole in the lid, trying to understand what this stuff was and how it came to be his. Someone had even written his name, ‘‘Dale,’’ on the side of cup.
It was a short drive through downtown from Target to their final destination. Everyone seemed drained. Carlos said almost nothing, while Roby crammed a few last bits of acclimating information into the conversation, seemingly as they occurred to him. (Some parking spots downtown cost $192 a month. ‘‘There’s this thing called a Keurig.’’) He turned to Hammock and asked, ‘‘How you feel so far?’’
Hammock didn’t know what to say, so Roby rephrased the question: ‘‘Are you free yet?’’
‘‘I’m getting there,’’ Hammock told him.
Soon they were all climbing out of the car in front of the Amity Foundation, the housing and rehabilitation center where Carlos and Roby have been delivering most of their third-strikers for the last year and a half. One of them, Stanley Bailey, was meeting them downstairs to help Hammock get settled.
All day, Carlos and Roby had been slipping inspirational details about Bailey into their conversations with Hammock. He was a solid role model: a 53-year-old longtime heroin addict who had been locked up for 25 years. Carlos had picked him up at Ironwood State Prison in October. Now, five months later, he was doing public speaking at criminal-justice nonprofits and universities and working doggedly to get his truck driver’s license. Recently, he’d run the Los Angeles Marathon. ‘‘He’s the story I always tell,’’ Carlos said.
Bailey met them at Amity’s registration desk, dispensing big, wholehearted bro hugs. ‘‘Hey, Running Man!’’ Roby shouted. Like Hammock, Bailey had zero hair on his head and a full, black sleeve of indecipherable tattoos on each arm. But he was slimmer, healthier-looking — glowing, comparatively, in a light blue polo shirt. When he introduced himself to Hammock, it was like watching him shake hands with some wrinkled and diminished alternate self.
The two third-strikers sidled into an easy back and forth, comparing which prisons they’d been in, finding some overlap. Hammock took another sip of his Starbucks drink — he was still nursing it — and lifted the cup to show Bailey. ‘‘This thing here,’’ he said, and made a whistling sound. He still couldn’t put it into words. Then, after a while, Carlos and Roby wrote their phone numbers on a slip of paper for Hammock and said goodbye — nothing dramatic; they’d stay in close touch. They always did. Hammock corralled each of them into a hug, one at a time. ‘‘Thank you, brother,’’ he told Carlos.
Bailey followed Carlos and Roby into the hall. He wanted a word, in private. He’d called Carlos earlier that day to ask for advice and wanted to finish the conversation. (They still texted and spoke frequently; whenever Carlos was downtown, he’d take Bailey out for tacos.) The truth was, Bailey was struggling and frustrated; he was being held up as a re-entry success story, but his situation was precarious. He seemed to be hustling in all the right ways, volunteering at several nonprofits and now at a trucking company down the street too — sweeping up, or doing odd chores, just so he could sit in their truck cabs with his driver’s manual and study. But things still weren’t coming together. He’d gotten stalled for months, trying to track down a copy of his birth certificate, without which he couldn’t get other forms of ID, access to government aid or his learner’s permit. All the celebrated speaking gigs he did were unpaid, and his funding to stay at Amity was almost up. He wasn’t sure where he’d go. Though he’d reconnected with a woman in Colorado, one condition of his release was that he wasn’t allowed to leave the state. It was as if Bailey were swimming determinedly away from some monstrous undertow, trying to keep the distance he’d put between himself and his past from closing. ‘‘To be honest, I’m not looking for a big, big life,’’ he said. ‘‘I just want to be remembered for more than what I was.’’
Carlos slipped some money into Bailey’s hand as he shook it and said goodbye. (That night, he’d start emailing people on Bailey’s behalf, even asking if Stanford and A.R.C. would consider hiring Bailey to ride along with him and Roby sometimes.) Down the hall, meanwhile, Hammock was finishing his intake interview and getting to know a couple of former lifers in the building. An older man who was paroled last Christmas Day after 31 years asked how his day had gone. ‘‘You been inside a store yet?’’ the man said.
‘‘Yeah,’’ Hammock told him. It sounded like nothing, but it wasn’t. He’d made it all the way here, to the beginning.