Two months after his parole, Jerry Williams could only imagine how six years of life at the Lorton Reformatory had affected him. But there was no mistaking what time had done to his city.
He hardly recognized the place, and a recent visit to his old Adams-Morgan neighborhood left him numb and depressed.
"Wayne!" Williams smiled as he walked inside the California Liquor Store near 18th Street and Kalorama Road NW.
"Jerry?" said Wayne Smith, the store manager. "Is that you? I heard you were dead, man."
They laughed, briefly. Then Smith turned sullen.
"Damn, man, a lot has changed since you been gone. You know Matthew is dead."
"Remember Chic? Walked with a cane?" Smith continued. "Buried him two weeks ago. Remember the Manhattan? Well, it's a Chinese restaurant, Lloyd's is a Korean deli and the Post Office is where Tic Toc's used to be."
And the worst was yet to come.
Walking past a row house at 2307 18th St. NW, Williams did a double take. This was where he and his family had lived. Now it was the Axum Restaurant, and his bedroom had become a bar.
A few doors down was the apartment where he was living on Jan. 24, 1978, when 10 FBI agents stormed through the front door at 5 a.m. and arrested him for robbery and burglary. It was now called the Noteworthy Card and Gift Shop. A rack of greeting cards filled what had been his living room, and novelty sweat shirts lined what had been the kitchen.
Suddenly, it dawned on him. "This is like stepping into the Twilight Zone," Williams said.
Not only had the places changed, but so had the faces. The corners and doorways where his longtime black friends once hung out were now the turf of Cubans and Central Americans. Familiar haunts were now off-limits to him.
The challenge of his new-found freedom as a parolee was to adjust to these changes. But with the exception of skewed accounts of life on the outside by recidivist inmates, he had no idea what to expect.
"To tell you the truth, no punches pulled, what I really want to do now is go get spaced out," said Williams, who is 34. "But I can't, right? Got to block that out. That's the hardest part: wanting to do something that you just can't do."
The consequences were clear enough. Since his release from prison, he had been fired from one job, missed a scheduled meeting with his parole officer and had a questionable finding on his urine test for drugs. He said the problems stemmed from a toothache and the medication he had taken for it.
But now he was under pressure to find a job, stay clean and make a report to his parole officer on Feb. 19. After what had already happened, one more slip could send him back to prison.
And he would be tested at virtually every turn.
Inside a Roy Rogers Restaurant, he made the mistake of heading for the fixin's bar with an order of chicken. "You ain't allowed to do that," a shrill- voiced Hispanic woman scolded him. Williams was stunned. All he wanted was a little salad to go with his chicken and biscuit. "Only with burgers," the woman snarled.
Embarrassed and feeling out of place, Williams sat down at to a table and stared at a a chicken leg. As others moved freely to and from the fixin's bar, Williams' eyebrows quivered and his jawbone pulsated. He gritted his teeth, bewildered and mad.
"This parole thing is like a battle," he said, settling down to eat. "If the fellows down at Lorton think it's a fight to get out of that place, then staying out is like doing 15 rounds toe-to-toe."
When Williams got angry in Lorton, he could sometimes put on his sweat suit and jog for hours on end, or go to the gym. Before going to prison, he used to work out at the Ontario Lakers Youth Club, which was in Adams-Morgan.
He thought he would go there now. But when he arrived with his gym bag, he discovered that it, too, was gone.