Walk Down Misery Street

“The FBI busted me. They confiscated all the cocaine and methadone I was selling. The prosecutor asked for the maximum: twenty-five years by the Rockefeller drug laws, but the judge took pity on me and gave me fifteen without the right for parole.” She kept pacing, and her speech floated through the hushed, somewhat startled auditorium. “I was angry, despite the judge giving me such a lenient sentence. I started selling drugs in prison. I saw how people were killed over drugs and some died from overdoses, but I didn’t care. I didn’t use myself. I shot dope a couple of times out of curiosity, and I smoked pot rarely. One day they tested me for HIV and it came out positive. I went to the prison yard and sat there for a long time. I understood that this was God’s punishment for all the evil I had inflicted on others. I decided to kill myself. The day I was going to carry out my plan, they called me to the medical unit and repeated the test. It turned out I was negative! There was an error. They’d just mixed up my prison number with another woman. Since then, I ask God for forgiveness every day.”

Barbara kept slowly pacing from one wall to another, probably as she had done in her cell for fifteen years in prison.

“Next week, I’ll be working at the probation office as a volunteer. I’ll make copies and do filing. During the interview, someone called the officer, and he left for a short while, leaving me alone in the office. His cloak hung on a coat rack. He trusted me. A Probation officer trusted me. Me?! When I got home, I told this to my mother. She held me tightly and said that God is returning me to His grace.”

When Barbara finished, the auditorium was completely silent for a long time—for the first time in the entire, long academic year. Faces were pensive and gloomy. Each recognized his own life, in one way or another, in Barbara’s story.

At the end of the ceremony, assistant director Terri took a stand.

“You’re needed there! There.” She pointed to somewhere outside the window of the classroom.

There, on the streets, young guys stand on corners or in front of bodegas, effortlessly scanning passersby and repeating, like a mantra: “Weed-weed . . . Dope-dope . . . Coke-coke . . .”