Pocket change: an interview
By Brandon Astor Jones
Would you mind telling me how long you were homeless before you came to prison?
Altogether, about five months.
Did you work before you fell on hard times, and if so, what did you do for a living?
Yeah, I worked. I was not a bum. I got laid off from the mill [Bethlehem Steel Mill]. That's when everything started going down hill.
What other work did you do, or find after that?
Well, not a lot, but I looked for work every day. Things got so bad there would even be college graduates filling out applications for janitor jobs standing in the unemployment line in front of me. I did find two other part-time jobs, but they didn't last long. In fact, about three weeks after I got them I got laid off again twice in the same week!
What did you do to survive, then?
First I couldn't pay my rent, so I had to vacate my apartment. Then I had to start living in my car. Not long after that I had to start ducking and hiding from the repossession man, because I couldn't make my car payments.
Okay, so now you are forced to live and sleep in your car. I can see that this is hard for you to talk about. What happened next?
One day I went into a McDonald's to fill out an [employment] application, and when I came out, my car was gone.
What did you do then — call the police?
I had too many parking tickets, and a speeding violation, to do that. I knew there was a warrant out for my arrest. Where I come from, you could go to jail if you can't pay your fines.
You mean you stayed silent about your car being stolen?
I knew it wasn't stolen. I called the finance company that was holding the title. They said they had a man trailing me for a week. They just waited until I got out of the car at McDonald's and repossessed it. I asked them to let me get my personal belongings out of the trunk, but they said, "You can get that stuff only if you pay up the two months you are behind".
I would guess that was when you really hit rock-bottom, right?
Yeah. That's when I started sleeping in door [and hall] ways. It was about a week after that when I started asking strangers on the street for money.
Were people willing to give you money on the streets?
That's a strange story, man. Let me tell you something: a coward can't beg for money in the streets. What I mean is that, whatever amount of courage it takes for a man to beg for money, he gotta lose an equal amount of his personal pride. Being hungry will make you do a lot of crazy things.
It is easy for me to understand what you mean. I have been hungry and homeless myself. But tell me, did many people give you any of their spare change?
No-one did. Let me tell you what happened. See, I was seeing all these other people doing it and a lot of the people [that] they asked, gave them change. I guess I didn't have a knack for it. Know what I'm saying? I'll never forget that day man. I asked several people, one right after the other, and they all said, "No".
Most of them was straight-out mean. There was seven of them; and the seventh man was downright insulting. The dude rolled his eyes at me as he stepped around me, like I had some kind of disease that he might catch. After he passed, he turned around and hollered, "Get a [expletive] job!" I started to kick his [expletive].
Sometimes, when people cannot or will not understand the nature of a problem, they can be insensitive to it. So what did you do next?
What he said really pissed me off. I mean, I wasn't one of them people trying to get another pint of wine. I was hungry! I said [expletive] this [expletive]! I walked around until I found an alley that gave me the cover I needed so I couldn't be seen from the sidewalk. That's where I waited until the next well-dressed dude came along. When he did, I snatched him into the alley, and I took his wallet and watch.
Did you hurt that man?
No. He didn't give me any trouble, so I didn't have to hurt him.
What happened afterwards?
I ran through that alley into the next one, and a few blocks later I was sitting down to a big hot meal when two police walked in and 'cuffed me. I didn't even get to eat the meal. It was pretty dumb of me to keep that dude's watch too, but man I was so damn hungry I was just crazy!
Did you ever have a criminal record before you came to prison? I mean, was this your only criminal act?
To make a long story short, yeah. I'm doing a three year bit [sentence]. The watch nailed me.
What do you plan to do when you get out? I guess my question should be: are you going back into the mugging business?
Hey man, I'm going to work — if I can find it — but even to this day I find myself wondering if that dude would have been different from all the rest of them folks.
How do you mean?
I've always wondered if he would have been kind enough to help me, if I had asked him for some change.
We will never know, will we?
[The writer is a prisoner on death row in the United States. He is happy to receive letters commenting on his columns. He can be written to at: Brandon Astor Jones, EF-122216, G2-51, GD&CC, PO Box 3877, Jackson, GA 30233, USA.]