Five mornings a week, Robert Barksdale wakes up before dawn in his mother’s Oxon Hill home. He takes the B2 bus to Adams Place NE in Washington, where he walks past a cluster of low-slung warehouses and a men’s emergency shelter to arrive at his work site.
Robert’s job starts at 7:30 a.m., but he gets there by 7 a.m., “because being on time means being before time.”
“I learned about being prompt,” he explains, “when I was in prison.”
And this job, laying floor tile, fixing toilets, boarding up windows at various D.C. government buildings, is his shot. His one shot — at staying employed, at earning his own money, at having someplace to take the bus to in the morning, without confronting the possibility that a hiring manager might ask about his past. That he might have to explain how, at 24, he has come to be a felon.
Inside the house where his mom and grandmother raised him, it was all school and church and “do what you’re supposed to do.” But outside, near the corner of Seventh and O streets NW, where people congregated in a park, it was a different world. He was in middle school when that world started to intrigue him.
“They were hustling and making money, doing all types of wild stuff,” he recalls, rolling a long dreadlock between two fingers during an interview outside of his work site. “When you’re young like that, you figure, ‘Oh, man. That’s the thing to do. I want to be like them — they’re cool, they’re getting all the respect, everybody likes them.’ ”
Soon enough, he was like them. And had the rap sheet to prove it.
At 13, he was sent to a juvenile detention center. He had skipped school and was throwing rocks off his roof with friends. A woman who said she had been struck by a brick called the cops. It was Robert’s house; he was arrested. He got out, but soon enough, he was sent back for smoking marijuana while on probation. It wasn’t so bad, going to the juvenile detention center — “I’m gonna know people down there, I’m gonna have buddies down there,” he remembers thinking — so it wasn’t the end of the world when he ended up failing another drug test and going back again.
The big arrest came when he was 16. It was Christmas, and he wanted to buy his girlfriend a present. So he robbed a couple walking down the street, using a cigarette lighter that looked like a gun. This time, the judge said, he would be tried as an adult — a possibility that he hadn’t known existed. When he skipped a court date, a warrant was put out for his arrest. After three months on the lam, he decided to turn himself in, because, he says, “There are things I wanted to do.” Go to school, like everyone else. Train to become a chef.
The night before he planned to go to the police station, he had one last hurrah with friends. They were drinking in the hallway of an empty apartment building. Someone called the police. By the end of the evening, he had new charges to add to his list: unlawful entry, destruction of government property, assaulting a police officer. He was sentenced to nearly nine years in prison.
During the year he spent in D.C. federal prison, he started attending weekly sessions with a group called Free Minds that encouraged him to read books and try expressing himself through poetry. At first, he scoffed. “I ain’t never read no books,” he remembers saying. “I ain’t writing no poem.”
But finally he relented and scribbled down a short poem. “And I was like, ‘You know what? This is kinda good!’ ”
He started reading, and when he was transferred to a federal prison in Pennsylvania, he read everything he could get his hands on — history, philosophy, religion. He enrolled in a program to earn his high school equivalency degree and took training courses in computers, carpentry and culinary arts.
And he made a decision about his future: “I just wanted to be a good person. . . . I just want to be a righteous person, even though I’m in prison.”
But in some ways, he knew, that was easier to achieve in prison. He got reports from the outside — one friend after another was ending up dead in his old neighborhood. Of Robert’s five best buddies from junior high, four are dead. One was sentenced to 60 years in prison.
He began to think that going to jail probably saved his life. “I know so many people who got killed when I was incarcerated. It happened in the same place I used to be standing at all the time,” he says. “And who’s to say what side of the fence I would’ve been on?”
As his July 2014 release grew closer, he steeled himself for what was to come. “I built up a particular mind-state for when I do finally get out — that I’m just going to do what I have to do to become a better person,” he says. “I’m going to get my identification. I’m going to find me a job. And I’m going to somehow be a part of trying to help the at-risk youth that’s out here right now, because once upon a time that was me. And there needs to be a voice that’s been through it so that they’ll be receptive to it.”
It was a godsend that his mother moved to Oxon Hill while he was in prison. The area around Seventh and O looks completely different from what it was like before he left, but he still doesn’t like going back there. he has walked around a few times and found that too many of the same old elements are still there, hanging out between the gleaming new condominiums and expensive restaurants.
“I don’t like standing out there,” he says. “I feel naked.”
Living at a halfway house right after prison, Robert hooked up with the Project Empowerment Program, which helps disenfranchised D.C. residents get jobs. About five months ago, he got his shot with this carpentry job. He would be given six months to prove himself trustworthy, reliable and hard-working — and if he did, he would have the chance to be hired permanently by the D.C. Department of General Services.
Carpentry isn’t his long-term goal — he wants to become a youth counselor — but right now, he loves it. Loves the navy uniform, the bus pass, the paychecks — and the self-respect.
“Working is where it’s at, I’m telling you,” he says one cold gray day at the end of his shift, as homeless men linger outside the shelter next to his work site. “I feel good about this.”
Robert will find out in the next few weeks whether he’ll get to keep his job. If he isn’t hired, he knows that life will immediately become a lot tougher. He’s praying that won’t happen, but if it does, he says, he’ll be okay. He spent eight years preparing himself to be okay.
“I know there are going to be some obstacles,” he says. “But I always remember what the purpose of an obstacle is — and that’s to get through it. And I will get through it.”
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