I’m not sure if I’ve ever talked about Humans of New York on my blog, but if you know me in real life, you know I’m a huge fan. If you’re not already a fan of his facebook page, get thine ass over there and like it because it will be one of the best parts of your day each day, I promise. I long ago decided I wanted to shamelessly copy his style for a segment of this blog called BUDDHA HOLLA! for people in my own community of Oakland. I plan on making it a regular feature on this blog.
I’ve wanted to do this for a number of reasons. One, because it’s such an amazing concept—the idea of telling people’s stories with a simple picture and the answers to a few direct questions. Brandon of HONY has obviously gotten amazing at it. He’s refined his list of questions and gotten good enough at his approach that he gets people to reveal incredible tidbits about themselves that are so relatable that when you read these vignettes, you feel instantly connected to these people—you empathizewith them (there’s that word again). You feel connected to a pregnant homeless teen on the street rather than feeling scorn for her. Your heart swells for the kid who’s working three jobs to get himself and his three younger sisters out of the projects. He’s singlehandedly doing what all the politicians in the world cannot—he’s bringing us all together, making the world a little smaller for us.
But secondly, I thought it would be a good thing for me and for my depression to force myself to get out of the house and into the world to talk to people in MY community, to hear stories of other people’s struggles and triumphs. It would give me some fucking perspective on my own navel-gazing and get myself out of my own head and my own problems. Enough of my own wallowing about my job discontent or my chronic foot pain—here’s a man with no job and no feet. That kind of thing. And lastly, just maybe it would give a voice to people whose voices weren’t always heard, which makes me feel like I’m doing something more than taking up fucking space on this blue marble we’re on.
That being said, my first subject ended up being more of a full interview rather than more of a “man on the street” type of deal where I just snapped his photo and asked a couple of questions, which is fine by me. Robert is a regular at my wife’s bar, which is in a rather rough area of Oakland. It’s across the street from a halfway house in which Robert is a resident. Robert comes in to watch the games on our TV. He sits at the bar with his bottled water or Pepsi and usually will buy a beer for whomever he ends up striking up a conversation with, but he doesn’t drink. Over the months, he and my wife have struck up many a conversation, and after getting bits and pieces of his story, my wife asked him if he would agree to be my first BUDDHA HOLLA! subject. He graciously agreed.
Robert is a gentle, soft-spoken man. It’s hard to imagine him doing time in some of California’s most notorious federal prisons, but he spent nearly 25 years of his life in places like Folsom and, until a year ago, San Quentin. He was the driver of the car in a drug deal gone bad and ended up with 15 to life for second-degree manslaughter, a deal he agreed to accept on advice from his attorney, who told him he’d probably do eleven years at most. But it was during a time when they were building lots of big, expensive prisons and privatizing them, and they needed to keep those puppies filled, so there Robert sat for twenty-four-and-a-half years.
A lesser man would be consumed with rage and bitterness, but Robert is sanguine about the path his life has taken. Robert accepts the fact that he might not have killed anyone, but he was in prison because he’d made poor choices in his life, and those choices were what landed him there: “We all make decisions…we all make decisions. At the time, did I know between right and wrong? Yeah I knew. I made my choices.”
Robert wasn’t a violent man, but he was a small-time dealer and a junkie. He describes himself as “his own best customer” back in the day, and he acknowledges now that, had he not gone to prison when he did, he would be dead of an overdose. He made the decision once he went inside to get clean and sober and he said he never looked back. Once he made that decision, everything changed for him—he was one hundred percent sure from that moment forward that he would get out of prison and return to his family, and that gave him something to work for. He went back and finished high school and became a prison clerk. He became an NA counselor to other inmates. He was such a model inmate, it was the glowing letters of the correctional officers with whom he worked in the counseling program and in the clerk’s office that helped get him released in 2013.
And now that he’s on the outside, he’s continued his passion for helping others stay sober. He speaks at NA meetings, churches, and schools. “Man, I see all these kids getting high and so I go to the high schools and talk to kids and tell them this is what can happen to them. I am what can happen to them. And when I tell my story, for some reason, everyone’s paying attention. I tell them ‘People, places, and things. Remember when you go out in the world, you’re gonna encounter a lot of people, places, and things. Make sure you make the right choices when you encounter them. Otherwise you’ll end up on the wrong path.'”
When I ask him out of everything he’s done in his life—getting sober, getting his degree, making it out of prison, all of it—what he’s the most proud of, he tears up easily, and he takes my hand in his weathered, rough hands and looks at me with his kind eyes and says “Staying sober for 26 years.” He looks out the window for a minute, out onto Telegraph Avenue, a street that boasts its fair share of junkies, before continuing, “People can do things they don’t think they’re capable of doing. They don’t think they can, but they can. How do I live now? I live by changing my life. I made the decision to live. I didn’t want to be a dope fiend anymore. So I made the decision to get clean and sober. I’ve been clean and sober 26 years. I know who I am. I know what I’ve been through. I can’t tell my story, I can’t help other people if I’m not true to myself, and right now, that involves me being clean and sober. That’s what I’m most proud of.”
Robert just got permission to move down to San Diego to live with his sister and her husband. They have a room all made up and waiting for him. He showed me a picture of it, and it’s gorgeous. He’ll be able to see the ocean from his bedroom window. He’s got a job lined up too. He’s worked around horses since he was a small boy and describes them as his sanctuary. He’s got a job lined up helping with equestrian therapy, helping disabled kids and vets through horse therapy. He’s excited to be working with horses again. He feels he understands them and they understand him. It’s a perfect gig for him. Watching him talk about horses is like watching him become a little kid again, eyes aglow. He tells me stories of his first encounter with a horse as a five-year-old boy, full of awe and wonderment, and it’s clear he can’t wait to pass along that passion to people who desperately need it. Robert, too, has been wounded, and he wants to use that experience to help others heal. His heart is big, and it’s clear he’s made room in it to help as many others as he can.
He’s ready for the rest of his life to start. “I know where I was. I know what I did. I know what my threshold is. I know who I am now. This is the Robert I am, that I want to be. I’m in the sweet spot. I’m tasting the sweet part of life.”