The lead character in her story is a young man, aged 20. He's black, and he lives in our home town of Darlington. His name is James, but that's not really important.
My mother is an auction junkie. She's the sort of person who can find beauty in the simplest of things, and her ability to create a masterpiece transcends budgetary concerns or conventional wisdom. She's also got a big, beating heart. The sort of person who will spend her last dollar - quite literally - on a Thanksgiving turkey for someone needy, her sense of altruism often overwhelms her sense of responsibility. One of the ways she makes money is by purchasing items, restoring them, and selling them at a modest profit. To do this, she spends many days at a local auction yard.
It's there that she met James, and in many respects, he's lucky to have met her. He had seen something he wanted at the auction, and he didn't have the ten bucks he needed to buy it. James works at the auction, but not in any official capacity. He offers to help people carry items back and forth from the block to their vehicles, and in return, he receives a meager pittance of tips from people who might find his effort worth an unwanted dollar.
On this day, James had helped my mother with some things, and he put that item he wanted on her auction account. He told the people in charge that she'd given him permission, and it wasn't until later that my mother discovered what he'd done.
Like she's prone to do, she paid for the item, and she had an impassioned talk with the young man:
"I'm going to pay for this now. Do this again, though, and we're going to have more than a talk."In many respects, she's the forebearer of my tenderness toward the down and out. This stranger had basically just stolen from her, and my family doesn't have a lot of money left over at the end of every month. But she had a unique brand of kindness reserved for James, and she took the chance to get to know him. Over the next few weeks, she'd give him rides from his home to the auction, and she'd take him to his other job, where he holds a sign on the side of the road. There, he's paid minimum wage.
She learned that he has no car, and she wanted to know why a young guy who seems to have a lot of drive is in such dire straights. James is a captivating man with a good heart. He's smart. Why is he stuck working so hard for so little? And why's he been reduced to a place of indignity where thieving becomes acceptable?
My mother came to me recently with this story, probably because she recognized that this is where our passions collide. I'm grieved by the way people like James are marginalized in this country, and I find their stories motivating and heartbreaking at the same time. But she came to me for another reason - James's life has been largely derailed by his experiences within the criminal justice system. And his story up to this point represents a failure of a system too quick to leave behind people who have potential, passion, and the ability to move the planet toward the malleable goal of progress.
James had been in a fight a year or so before he met my mother. He lived in a tough part of town, and according to him, the fight was one of necessity. He'd been charged with felony assault, and he'd been given a court-appointed attorney. South Carolina is among the worst states at funding its indigent defense apparatus, and it ignores the data that suggests the efficiency of dedicated public defender offices. The system there has lawyers overburdened with work, and it appoints criminal attorneys who have no great passion for working with the poor.
The results are predictable and detestable. Young men and women, mostly black, take deals in a system where lawyers are motivated to only greet 'em and plead 'em. For James, this meant a felony conviction. The state makes these offers somewhat appealing. Among the positives for James was the ability to avoid jail time. Instead, he'd have to spend a year on probation. For that, he traded to the state its right to subject him to a lifetime of legal discrimination. Tagged with the scarlet letter that is a felony conviction, James is a 20-year old playing from behind in a game where he was already disadvantaged.
He has found it difficult to find work, his felony conviction serving as a carry-on that never makes it below the seat. In fact, he's still on probation though he's completed all of the requirements for discharging that condition. The problem? In order to complete the program, he must pay $1,000 in probation fees. One doesn't have to study finance to understand how difficult it is to save $1,000 for a person relegated to work for pennies. He had held out ideas about himself as a person bound for some kind of education, but his felony's derailed that. The most basic things that we take for granted - the ability to create and print a resume, the time and knowledge to research potential college programs, and the vision of a brighter future - seem to be outside his reach. He lacks a car in the rural South, where public transportation means a good leg workout.
My mother once helped him pay his light bill, and in doing so, she'd provided him a few weeks of that basic condition that we call survival. The experience has helped her understand a few things about poverty, the most important being the human toll than staying alive takes on poverty's captive. My dad is a compassionate man, but he's one who values principles of personal responsibility. And above cries that perhaps her actions were enabling the young man, my mom noted that without fulfillment of basic necessities, people have little opportunity to look forward.
Circumstances are consuming, and any person who has spent time in poverty can attest to that fact. It takes an extraordinary dreamer to think of the future when the right now brings its reminders in such immediate fashion. But my mother's concerned about the young man and his future. What options does he have?
When one's convicted of a felony, the laws on discrimination are out of the window. Society has decided that our protections do not apply to those who have stepped out of bounds, and because of this, James has been thrown into a cycle of destitution. He needs little more than for one person - perhaps a kind heart like my mother - to take a chance on him. But that's unlikely in a place like Darlington, where the power brokers have little incentive to give people like him that chance.
What he needs is basic career training. He needs a person to sit with him to explore his desires, his skills, and what he might be able to offer an employer. He needs a nice pair of pants for job interviews. He needs a community of individuals willing to help him channel his work ethic and charm in a way that might lead him out of his current pit.
As I listened to my mother tell this story, I couldn't help but be struck by the sheer size of the problem. I racked the most creative portions of my brain to come up with a solution for this one young man. Short of taking on the career and life training myself, I had a hard time coming up with a cogent plan that might lift him. I could only remark that his situation is tragic, and I could only think that there are tens of thousands of young men just like him.
In his Ted talk, Professor David Dow notes that in very rare circumstances, the way to solve a problem is to make it bigger. And I think that's true in this case. When you think about the sheer amount of resources - financial and human - that'd be required to pull James from the depths of his situational despair, the problem becomes overwhelming.
Perhaps the solution is to ensure that our systems prevent people like James from these situations. We must ensure the legitimacy of opportunity for the many men like him who come through our elementary and high schools. We must ensure a legal system that only ruins those lives that truly deserve ruining. We must find a way to support young men who are willing to hold a sign all day for minimum wage, then walk two miles to carry items for nothing more than tips. The young man with that sort of drive must be protected and nurtured, because society can't afford to lose his contributions. We must ensure that even when people are convicted of crimes, they have the ability to successfully reintegrate into society, and we must ensure that our barriers are not so high that one momentary indiscretion wrecks a life otherwise valuable.
I don't know the answer for James. Perhaps this summer, when I have some time off, I will spend time getting to know him. Perhaps I can meet any friends he has in the same situation, and perhaps we can come up with some solutions to get them on the right track. In the meantime, it's a moral imperative that we investigate the societal inequality - economic, racial, judicial - that produces so many people just like him. Because as I told my tender-souled mother, the real tragedy is that her story's been plagiarized. It's been written many times before by a cruel author we call reality.