Sheila asked if the twenty-eighth was a Sunday, and when I confirmed it was, she smiled and said she also knew what had happened to her on that day because it had, in a small but important way, changed her attitude toward life.
On that day she'd just passed her twenty-second birthday as an inmate at the women's correctional facility at Jessup, Maryland. She was serving five to fifteen after having been caught with some extremely unsavory individuals in a stolen rental car with guns in the trunk. The takedown came in the parking lot of a suburban shopping mall, outside a Hecht's: weapons drawn, orders shouted, handcuffed facedown on the asphalt. Sheila might have avoided jail time—they got her only on conspiracy because she was just a ride-along—but she skipped her court date and fled to Atlanta. That added a fugitive warrant, and also pissed off The Man, and that meant time.
From the age of pigtails, Sheila Knox had been in hot water, a smart little girl who did well in school but thirsted for mischief. At eight, she broke into a locked room and stole money from a church. At eleven she stole her mama's car. At twelve she got a juvie record when, at his wit's end, her dad turned her in for breaking into houses, stealing guns, and selling them.
On December 28, 1986, at Jessup, she was in solitary for giving lip to the guards. ("Pick that up, Sheila." "Do I hear a please?") At noon, they told her she had visitors. In the visiting room were her mother and her father's father and her mother's mother, all part of a loving support matrix for her son, Willie, who was five. Willie was there, too. (The little boy had been the result of a one-time thing with the friend of a friend. Even in romance, Sheila was reckless.)
Prison conversations with family in an antiseptic common room tend to have a familiar flavor and structure. It was no different with the Knoxes. On days like these, someone would ask Sheila whether she was ready to turn her life around, and Sheila would dish the most earnest I've-come-to-Jesus bullshit she could, and Mom would nod and Grandpa would roll his eyes, and sometimes there were silences when no one seemed to have anything to say.
On this Sunday, one of those silences got filled when Sheila's mom, Shirley, mentioned the peculiar thing that had happened on Christmas: A stranger had stopped by the house and dropped off two presents for Willie—a nice sweater and a toy racecar set.
Grandpa didn't like hearing this at all. He was a proud man, and he grumbled that the family doesn't need or want charity. But Sheila shushed him. She asked her mother to repeat what happened, because it was inconsistent with any reading of the world as Sheila Knox, twenty-two, understood it.
Yes, strangers at the door. Gifts for Willie.
Sheila remembered the two women who had come to the prison around Thanksgiving, saying they were a charity organization that arranged for kids to get Christmas presents. Sheila figured they had an angle—every stranger in her life had an angle, and most were acute—but she couldn't figure this one out, so she ponied up her son's name and her mother's address. That's when the ladies asked her something that made Sheila sure they were phonies. They asked if she had a favorite clothing designer—like they're gonna go shopping for a black woman in prison. "Ralph Lauren Polo," she said, with affected sophistication.
In the barbershop, Sheila laughs at the memory.
"I remember thinking, 'Yeah, whatever,' and forgetting about it right away. Nobody gonna do something for somebody for nothing."
But someone had. The organization turned out to be Angel Tree, a church-based prison ministry. They had gone shopping. And the sweater for Willie was, indeed, Ralph Lauren.
Sheila Knox remembers December 28, 1986, as the first day in her young, reprobate, passionately cynical life that she understood that even among strangers, and even through institutions, there can be such a thing as unconditional kindness.
It wasn't seismic; it was one of those "huh!" moments. They happen and you move on, maybe with a slight adjustment of attitude. When Sheila finally walked out of Jessup three and a half years later, she'd lost none of her iconoclasm, but her adolescent war on authority was over. She played mostly by the rules, which took her, by and by, to Brice's, where she remains the barber for whom men wait.
And Willie now volunteers for Angel Tree.
The Only Deity I believe in is the one I have always called the God of Journalism, to whom I attribute unanticipated gifts in reportage. You know He has shown up when facts align in unlikely ways to make a good story better or a great story perfect, or when you casually mention something to the lady cutting your hair, and a splendid little tale spools out (and then checks out).
The God of Journalism is just. He rewards effort. Time and again in my life He comes through for me, but only after I decide to conduct that last interview, the one I don't really think I need, or badger someone more than I'm entirely comfortable with, or stay at a scene longer than I'd planned, just to see what happens.
This excerpt ends on page 17 of the hardcover edition.
Monday we begin the book Travel Light, Move Fast by Alexandra Fuller.