Imagine 10 adult men, scarred from years of living in prison or on the city streets, burdened by guilt and failure, shackled by parents who introduced them to crime and drugs, seeking salvation and hope from the only avenue left, living in a two bedroom, one bath halfway house by the railroad tracks in Redding.
Every Saturday morning these social outcasts, some of them covered by black, prison tattoos, pray before they feed the homeless at a parking lot just off of Lake Boulevard, from their own meager supply, cooked by their own hands.
Ten men who have found each other and God. They’ve given it all to God: pain, fears, hungers, compulsions, addictions, angers, hope. The past. The future. They can’t deal with their own lives anymore.
They were kind enough to allow me to get to know them, to tell their stories. Their names have been changed to protect their privacy.
“I did 15 years in prison,” Rico says. “My shrink said that it was like doing 15 tours in Vietnam. I cut off the outside world. I didn’t get any letters. I didn’t have any hope or disappointment. The people inside became my friends. They took care of me. At least that was what I thought. But I had obligations…”
He is 46, has two older brothers, four sisters. Grew up in the central valley. Worked on a farm with his dad. When he was fifteen, he fell in love with one of his sister’s eighteen-year-old girlfriends. His mom came home and caught them, told him to get the girl out of the house. “Why?” Rico asked. “Because I don’t want someone in the house who is going to hurt my son,” she said.
Rico didn’t care. He was in love. She was five-feet-one-inch tall, 105 pounds, beautiful. His dad told him that he couldn’t have a girlfriend until he had a job and felt good about himself, because, otherwise, he would mess the girl up. He left the farm for a better job, assembling air conditioners. He got an apartment for $175 on month. Everything was fine. They had a son, little Rico. “But I couldn’t keep it in my pants,” he says. She found out. Then she started messing around. “It was a spin.” She left him, took his son. Then he started partying, got into coke and heroin, lost his job. He was seventeen. One day he was driving around, picked up a couple of guys who asked him to wait while they went into a 7-Eleven. They came running out, jumped in his truck with a bag full of money.
“Hey,” I said, “We could all do this. We terrorized supermarkets for 16 months. We were invincible. I was crazy. Drugs make you crazy. They took over my life.”
He went home to visit his mom who was dying of cancer. The FBI had just been there and told her that they were going to kill him. After their talk, he drove to the federal building, walked in and told the guy his name. The fellow asked him to sit down and left the room. Rico laughs; when he came back he had nine guys with him. “They put me in cuffs. I never gave them the name of the other guys. I did the time for all of us.”
He became the enforcer for the gang on the inside. “If someone was doing something they didn’t like, me and another guy would go out beat them up bad or stab them. We killed child molesters if they put them with us. We ran the prisons, worked in the offices, knew who was going to be released or moved before it happened. I was a maintenance man. Had a card I wore around my neck. I could go anywhere. I’d pack a wrench, a pair of pliers, say I was fixing a toilet. I carried drugs, took messages, whatever they wanted. If they wanted someone beat up or killed, they’d tell me, I’d get a couple of new guys, do it.”
“You have to learn how to live again in society. There’s things you can’t do. I walk away now. If someone wants to hurt me I tell them that they better kill me because I’m going to try to kill them. But I keep that part of me tamped down. If there’s a squabble in the house I don’t take sides. I don’t care. It’s not worth it. I don’t get involved. I know what I’m capable of. I spent two years learning how to kill someone with a single stab.
“There were some kids, 14-15-year-olds, fighting in front of my wife’s house. She tried to get them to stop. They ignored her. She told me. I went out to the garage, emptied the lawn mower gas tank into a plastic bottle, went outside, doused them with gas and pulled the cigarette lighter out of my pocket. Time to go home, I said. I’ll never forget the look in their eyes.”
Rico has worked in several restaurants in Redding as a cook, including the Gold Street Café. He is married but he lives at the halfway house. His sponsor came over one day and said let’s go to school. They went out to Shasta College. The fellow introduced him to tight-jeaned, dark-eyed Janice. Rico shook her hand, was his usual quiet, respectful self. She gave him her telephone number and asked him to call. He didn’t. But he saw her in the cafeteria and they had lunch one day. She gave him a ride home, asked if he would allow her to get to know him. He got out of the car, faced her, held out his muscular, tattooed arms, said: “What you see is what you get.”
Thirty-one days later they were married. But her mother made him promise that Janice wouldn’t leave the family home, since she was the only child. He agreed. When he tried to live there it didn’t work. Then he fell off the wagon. So he lives at the house with the guys. “She is wonderful. When I was having a hard time, she would let me come in, eat, shower, sleep. She has stayed with me no matter what.” She hauls him around. They were at the Laundromat on Lake Boulevard, washing clothes one morning, without any money for gas to get to church, when a woman came in saying that she had just bought a lottery ticket at the place next door. Let me pray over it, Rico said. She cashed it in, won a hundred bucks, gave Rico twenty.
“God’s always had his hand on my shoulder. He’s never taken it away. My God doesn’t get angry. The only reason I’m alive is God,” he says. He leans forward, tears in his eyes, “I gave it all to God. My problems, my future, my life. I am waiting for him to tell me what he wants me to do. All I want to do is love people. The guys ask me why I’m smiling. They aren’t happy. I tell them that living in the house is a hundred times better than being in prison. I can get a cup of coffee, go outside, sit at the table, look at the mountains across the valley. I can go where I want. Living in the house is freedom. I used to look at guys in prison who were nineteen or twenty, who had a couple of priors and then messed up and were doing life. I tell the guys, they would trade with you anytime. There are thousands who would.”
It’s warm and all these tattooed men show up for the Tuesday night prayer meeting at the Riverview Church in sleeveless shirts, showing their big arms, their wild and intricate designs of beautiful women, beasts and machinery, most of them done in black. Rico is covered with tats. Says he let anyone draw on him in prison. He has the wildest glare, the biggest smile, the warmest embrace. He is disarmingly, charmingly, open. “I got what was coming to me,” he says.
Bill Siemer grew up on a farm in Lassen County, played basketball at Shasta JC, went to Vietnam, became a newspaper reporter and then a lawyer and now considers himself a champion of the story that needs to be told. He lives on the bank of the river and takes pictures.