I’ve known Michael since he was released from state prison in early 2018. I’m his probation officer. Michael grew up in Newark, drank in Newark, drugged in Newark, robbed and hustled in Newark, and let his grandmother down in Newark, and then went to prison in Newark. When he got out, Newark wanted nothing to do with him. What remained of his family wanted nothing to do with him and surprise, surprise, just about everyone in his Lower Clinton Hill neighborhood hated him and a few wanted to kill him. Black on black crime does have a price. After a while just being black won’t protect you when all your victims live, work, and survive in the same streets. Something has got to give. And maybe it didn’t help that after he got out of East Jersey State, he wanted to make a big score by stealing three expensive urns from Milson’s funeral home and tried to hock them a few blocks away. Michael must have lost his mind. I could just see him walking down the street, big smile on his face, thinking he made the score, handing them over to Jackie Cool and demanding, not asking, but demanding $500. Jackie looked at the bottom of one of the urns and made two calls. While Michael was planning on having a night on the town, whippin’ out those five bills, feeling like he just signed a big NFL contract, maybe even going across the Hudson for liquor service at some high brow club, Walter Milson, the Walter Milson, not Junior, but Senior, who buried most of Newark’s black community for 40 years and Big Homey, the un-elected sheriff of Lower Clinton, were both on their way down to speak with Michael.
Michael got his ass kicked that summer afternoon. If Walter Milson wasn’t preparing for a big send off for a former Newark Councilman, he would have just nodded at Big Homey to pull the trigger and end all Michael’s foolishness. But as in most neighborhoods that are run by the people; no one called the cops. Michael did call me. I knew it was time to get Michael out of Newark.
* * *
I used all my credit up with Michael. For most of my career I’ve been working with gangsters, thugs, tough guys, wannabe tough guys, kids begging for attention, the real deal and the little frauds of New Jersey’s underclass. Most of these dudes know the drill. They know not going back inside for another stretch means giving in to me. Most can’t do it. I do think about the ones who did make it. I think about Freddy Soles from Irvington, Shorty Marvin from Orange, and Bobby Oscar, the King of Avon Avenue. But they were all old sweats who came so close to jumping off the cliff not even a young Janet Jackson could pull them back.
Michael was different. I had a shot at helping to make something good, something decent, even something law abiding about him. I remember the day we drove out of Newark. He got in my car, finally realizing no one gave a damn about him, not even his family, and asked me, “ Did my grandma ask where I’ll be at?’ I just looked at him. He knew the answer. I didn’t have the guts to tell him Grandma Sherman said I should just, “put the boy on a bus and lose him.”
I got him set up in a halfway house in New Brunswick. One of my boys in Middlesex owed me a favor and now Michael had a bed. In Jersey the counties act like little kingdoms for the gangsters and like-minded criminal class. They don’t stray past county borders. Michael was not known in New Brunswick. If someone had a line on him from Essex, Michael would be dead in a week. My cousin knew a guy who owned a bookshop in Princeton. Cool guy, knows the streets, grew up in Trenton. He was a Michael in- training but a cop got to him and set him on the path to dignity. Now, after Rutgers Business School, he bought an old furniture store and turned it into a bookshop on Nassau Street right across from the University. The NJ Transit 349 line would drop Michael off right in front of the shop.
Things were rough at first. Princeton’s not Newark and Michael’s not your strolling up a tree lined street, backpack wearing, Starbucks in hand type of kid. Usually he wears a white t-shirt, a hoodie, sweatpants with a small caliber pistol hanging near his nuts. But after a few fights at the halfway house, a couple arguments with the bookshop owner Chris, which were small time beefs that Chris remembered well from his days in Trenton, and learning the bus schedule, it was beginning to work.
A week ago, Michael met up with me for his Say No to Drugs piss test. He was in a good mood. Did he meet a nice undergrad from Wisconsin who fell for the rugged city type or did he just buy weed? It’s not fair, I know, but the cynicism of 24 years in this line of work with five years before that as a Newark cop, was making it difficult for me not to question Michael’s near glee at seeing me holding the plastic tinkle funnel.
“Yo, Jenkins, you are not gonna believe this one.”
I never cared about being called Mr. Jenkins. At first, he just grunted, stared, and looked at his feet. This is progress. There are no expectations for a Michael. There is no treatment plan, no therapists, no $100,000 therapeutic and wellness centers on the beach, life coaches, and usually no family. You take what they give and hope with a little pressure, tough love, and some semblance of care a Michael might, just might, stay out prison. That’s it. I’m not trying to get Michael into Yale, I’m not paid to take him for pizza on Friday nights, or to play video games with him. My job is to keep him from killing a citizen. I think it’s working.
* * *
He was late. It happens. He was late because he got caught up writing a letter to his grandma. I believed him because I mailed the letter. It’s what happened after that that makes the old tired cynic in me know all Michaels are not the same.
Because he was late, he missed the 349 bus to his job. The same bus that stopped right in front of the entrance because the driver got to know Michael and felt for the kid. Both were from the same neighborhood. A bond helps. Anyway, Michael began to panic. The next bus rolled up. It would take him to Princeton but stop at Washington Road and Route 1, nearly three miles, 2.6 to be exact, from his job. Michael didn’t have a smartphone. He had an old school flip phone and he had no money for a cab. So, he got on the 335. He took his seat and as he said to me, “I prayed to hell the driver blew some of them yellows on Route 1.”
Michael was fitting in at the shop. Chris took him under his wing and made sure lessons learned on him were not lost on a 23-year-old who had a gun pointed at his right temple four months ago. One thing Chris wanted from Michael was to be on time. Basic rules built character and Michael was learning them.
As the bus pulled up Michael began calculating how long walking the 2.6 might take. Too long for Chris. Better run son. The bus stopped, doors flew open, and as Michael told me, “it was on.” It was a straight shot from the bus, past Faculty Road, up the hill where the University buildings are and then to the bookshop. I think he made believe Big Homey and Milson were chasing him and getting caught was a problem. He said he felt strong when he hit the hill and knew he’d make it. But that was before he saw flashing lights and a barricade at Ivy Lane.
But I got to hand it to him, he didn’t stop. He went left onto the campus, an area he never went, and as he told me, “I ran past all these old ass buildings with people taking selfies, but I was trying to run along Washington so I wouldn’t get lost. I jumped over a couple benches, and people started looking at me. But I didn’t care, I was gettin’ to work no matter what.”
I guess he tried to veer right and get back on to Washington but he couldn’t because as he said, “all these white kids were being led around by another white kid, and I never seen so many white kids in one place looking at a building.”
By now I was starting to laugh, and I think Michael was enjoying his first time on campus. He was dodging and weaving, ducking in and out between a change of class. It was the sight of a black squirrel near East Pyne Hall that slowed him down for just a second.
“What the hell, Jenkins, I saw three rats running in front of me. It blew my mind. I thought this was a rich school.”
I was loving this kid now. This is the Michael that I was fighting for, the kid who should be trying out for the football team was now running to change his life. With just a few more blocks Michael could now see Nassau Street. He was probably by the library when he ran past an older woman sitting on a bench who must have become frightened seeing a young black man running like hell on campus with no backpack or a coffee in his right hand. She must have been really freaked out because she called 911 and reported a, “black man running out of control and scaring people.” Those were her exact words to the police dispatcher, who of course alerted cops in the area.
As this woman stood on the bench, she could probably see Michael run across Nassau to the bookshop, a fact she told police. Two cops were sitting at the South Tulane Street crosswalk and saw Michael dodge traffic to reach work. The cops were now running after him telling him to stop. Michael did not stop. He made it to work on time with two Princeton cops pointing guns at his chest yelling at him to get on the ground.
* * *
Nobody got hurt. Chris told the cops who Michael was, and they apologized. The woman who reported a black man running to work was told the world would be OK and she could now go about her business being on the lookout for black men walking, talking, and laughing.
A month later after this episode passed, Michael was promoted and moved to Princeton. I still stay in touch with him, but another probation officer will monitor him. His grandma never got in touch, but maybe that’s for the better. Sometimes new scenery requires ties to be cut. Michael tells me he walks the campus now with a book and isn’t scared of the black squirrels anymore.
The incident with the cops turned into a positive. Chris contacted the university and a first annual “Black and Orange Campus Obstacle Course Run” for charity was set up. Michael was going to be its first Grand Marshall.
Jason Blum lives in South Brunswick, where his life revolves around his wife, Donna, and Nola, a hound adopted from a shelter.
He works in Washington D.C. as a contractor for the US Government but his loves are watching movies and writing to include short story, novellas, as well as working on screenplays for both a TV limited series and a movie.