Tasting Freedom’s Simple Joys in the Barnes & Noble
Susan Notes: Ohanian Comment: This is a one of those What good news/what bad news sorts of items. It's good news that people nearly smothered by ugliness in their lives can still grab on to something positive like a dictionary and a trip to a bookstore. It's good news that someone working in the prison system can come up with such an idea as visiting a bookstore. And that a Barnes and Noble employee wasn't freaked out by the plan.
As a teacher, I relate this to kids. I remember trying to persuade the PTA to fund a field trip to a bookstore, giving every child a chit for a paperback book. Our PTA spent gazillions on an annual trip to an amusement part. I made the argument that everything a school does shows children the values it holds. Ignoring bookstores and celebrating amusement parts seemed terribly wrong to me. I think it is an outrage that Anthony Edwards got out of school without ever having set foot in a bookstore.
By Samuel G. Freedman
ANTHONY EDWARDS patted the right pocket of his jeans, just to make sure his dictionary was there. He drew it out, thumbing the yellowing pages, pressing down the packing tape that held the cover. Then he walked through the front door and down the aisles of a shop along Route 22 here. He was 31 years old and going to a bookstore for the first time in his life, and he was determined to be able to understand every single word he encountered.
There was a lot to do in the next two hours. He needed to stop by the business section to look for a book that might help him with his plan to open a barbershop. He wanted to check out the music section, because his sister played the organ. In the children’s section, he hoped to find something to interest his 13-year-old son, to get him off those video games.
Nearly a decade ago, hanging out in a bookstore would have seemed so corny. Back then, Mr. Edwards was a high school dropout, known as Kat on the streets of Paterson, and Top Cat on his arrest record, the one that described his itinerary for the evening of Nov. 12, 1997. With a friend, a stolen car and several weapons, he robbed nine people within an hour. He wound up with a few dollars, some jewelry and, ultimately, a prison sentence of 9 years, 10 months and 4 days.
All that time gave him a chance to reconsider the virtues of corniness. He had gotten his first dictionary in prison, from a friend serving 30 years for homicide. Mostly, Mr. Edwards took it to the law library, doing a felon’s version of homework. Only later, after he was transferred to a halfway house in Newark, had someone suggested to him that reading had purposes beyond filing an appeal.
Her name was Alison Link, and she had the unlikely title of director of leisure education at Tully House, the facility in Newark that Mr. Edwards moved into last winter in preparation for his release in early 2007. Tully House, operated by the private company Community Education Centers under a contract with the State Corrections Department, contains 315 men, whose crimes range from drug possession to murder, and who have an average educational level of eighth grade. As they make the transition from inside, where every waking moment is regimented, to outside, where freedom is formless, Ms. Link has the job of introducing the inmates to recreational activities other than addiction and mayhem.
For all the bravado, the rap sheets and the tattoos, these men had lived what Darryl Hooper, the director of Tully House, called a “narrow existence.” Most had never filed a tax return, managed a checking account, gone to a baseball game, worn a coat and tie, read aloud to their children. Ms. Link taught them how to throw a Frisbee and fly a kite, acts of almost surreal innocence.
The idea of going to a bookstore first came up nearly three years ago, during a discussion of leisure. A couple of the men then said they wanted to learn new things. Someone else said he wanted to do research. Ms. Link thought of the Barnes & Noble bookstore 15 minutes west of Tully House.
And so about a dozen residents, selected because they had no demerits for misbehavior, got to leave the halfway house for two hours, the first time many of them had been beyond its chain-link fence since arriving there.
Fearful of how a field trip for criminals might be regarded, Ms. Link decided not to tell the bookstore. When several of the men headed for the CD section, the part of the store most favored by shoplifters, a floor manager called Debra Lampert-Rudman, the store’s community relations coordinator, to ask, “Is this some kind of event you have?” Which led Ms. Lampert-Rudman to find Ms. Link, who seemed to be in charge, and ask, “Is this some kind of school?”
Ms. Link said something about a halfway house, something about leisure education, nothing explicitly about inmates, so Ms. Lampert-Rudman assumed the group was from a drug rehabilitation center. By the time she heard the full explanation, one or two visits later, she was eager to open the doors.
“My job is to care about our community, and these people are part of it,” she said. “If they can find our store a place to go to avoid doing terrible things, how great is that? The worst that will happen to you here is someone will give you a bookmark or offer you a Frappuccino sample.”
BY this summer, Ms. Link had led 25 trips to the bookstore. On the most recent, Anthony Edwards found his way to the African-American section, where he began flipping through the book “Crowns,” a collection of photos of black women in their church hats. The pictures had him thinking of his mother, the improbable faith she had held, even for him when he was high and running the streets.
Then he and Aleem Duggins, another resident, located the business books, in a corner near the front window. They had heard there was a sequel to one of their favorites, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.”
After that, Mr. Edwards doubled back to the children’s section. He stared for a while at the Harry Potter display, paralyzed. “I don’t even know what my son likes reading,” he finally said. “I’m just starting to get to know him.”
The others in the group had their own destinations. Hratch Zadoyan grabbed a sports almanac to settle an argument about who played quarterback for Dallas in Super Bowl V. Eric Duncan settled into a chair with an encyclopedia of hip-hop. Anthony Martinelli, who has spent 27 of his 46 years in prison, was mistaken for a salesman. And that bit of grace rattled the heck out of him.
“I’m used to people being scared of me,” he said. “Coming from Newark, being wild. I’ve been told I look mean all the time. I was kind of lost today, so maybe I didn’t look so mean. I never been in no bookstore before.”
Before she drove the van back to Tully House, Ms. Link gathered the men for coffee, pastries and a debriefing. Did anybody get lost? Did anybody get bored? Was it stressful? Would anyone be interested in coming back for the chess club on a Sunday night?
“One of the things I noticed,” Mr. Edwards said, “is that freedom is a lot better than being locked up.”
Samuel G. Freedman
New York Times
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