Going Straight

“I figured out how to move the dope to London.”

We were standing at the back of the wind energy classroom regarding the larger of two decommissioned turbines. Or at least I was. Joe’s attention was elsewhere. For the past month he’s been devising a way to ship drugs to Europe, where he heard that ten kilos of heroine can fetch around 70,000 euros. Traveling by plane, he told me, is too risky; an ex-drug felon purchasing air fare tends to raise eyebrows. He’s found a better way.

“Cruise ship,” he said. “You know, one of those family-of-four all-inclusive packages. I can make money and take a vacation at the same time.”

I asked him where he was going to find three conspirators to pose as his family, to which he waved his hand. A trivial matter. Apparently there is no shortage of people willing to swallow a few kilos of dope and risk prison time for a transatlantic cruise, endless buffets, and a small cut of the profit. I imagined Joe arriving at the dock with his family in tow: a black uncle covered in prison tattoos, a jaundiced Hispanic half-sister, and a redheaded youth with nary an intact vein in either arm.

“What happened to the restaurant you wanted to open?” He told me once of an idea he had for a Hooters competitor. It would be called Culos.

“Oh, the restaurant would only be a cover for the dope business.”

“Have you ever considered,” I hesistated, “perhaps, going straight?”

Joe guffawed. “I’m forty years old and have no skills. I’ve been selling drugs since I was ten. It’s the only thing I know.”

Over Joe’s shoulder a single turbine blade arched upward like a dinosaur rib bone stopping just shy of the fourteen-foot ceiling. Last week we dissected the great beast. First we removed the plastic nose cone. Then two men lifted the rotor and composite fiberglass blades from the shaft and leaned the assembly against the wall, careful to avoid hitting the fluorescent lights. Resting on a steel pedestal, the body, or nacelle, of the wind turbine is a menacingly industrial gunmetal gray egg with severe grooves carved over its shell. It looks like something the Soviets might have designed. As we gutted the vessel of its generator, inverter, and circuitry, Mr. Jones rattled off a list of specifications: maximum and minimum operating wind speeds, decibel output, conversion efficiency. This particular model, he said, was capable of outputting two-phase current at 240 volts or three-phase current at 460 volts, for residential and commercial applications respectively, whatever that means.

I might have mentioned to Joe that wind energy is a burgeoning field with plenty of job opportunities. But the prospect of Joe becoming a turbine cowboy is almost as ludicrous as me suggesting he quit hustling drugs. Joe is no more inclined to scale what amounts to a 400-foot lightning rod than I am.

We are, Joe and I, in similar situations. I’ve been tinkering with computers for almost as long as Joe’s been pushing dope. Computers are the only hobby, passion, profession I’ve ever known. My education is in computers. But with the terms of my (life) probation banning me from ever using a computer again, a career change seems inevitable. Even if this heavy-handed, not to mention impractical, restriction were overturned, there aren’t many high-tech companies clamoring to hire ex-felons. Especially not ones convicted of computer sex crimes. This I happen to know.

In late 2010 the company I was working for inadvertently discovered news of my indictment online. My dismissal was a feat in human resourcing agility. The words “child pornography” were never uttered. The HR Coordinator said, with hands pressed flat on the conference room table, fingers spread, that some “information” had come to light that made the company feel “uncomfortable.” I gave no protest, no explanation for my behavior. My only concern was getting the hell out of there to some place where I could grieve and lick my wounds in private. By the time I’d signed my resignation, my belongings were already packed and sitting in a crisp cardboard box at my elbow. Such efficiency! It seemed they were just as eager for me to leave as I was.

At the time I had already pleaded guilty and was awaiting sentencing. It was certain I’d be going to prison in a few months, yet my probation officer insisted I look for work. I updated and posted my resume. It was a fine resume: a four-year technical degree with honors, six years’ experience in the field, a modest but promising portfolio. I received a great deal of interest and went on several interviews, which I enjoyed as they got me off of house arrest for the afternoon. And then one day while sitting in a coffeehouse I got a call from the creative agency representing me. The woman on the phone said she was calling to warn me that some unflattering documents had been published online. “It must be a mistake?” No, I said, as a matter of fact the reports are true. For a minute I thought we’d become disconnected. Then she revived herself and said carefully, and with great sympathy, that her agency could no longer have anything to do with me. She was sweet. She even wished me luck before hanging up, to which I, by dumb reflex, thanked her. I set my phone down and stared into my chai.

Later that week at a mandatory sex offender treatment session, I asked my counselor what his recently released clients now do for a living.

“Well, I believe one young man just recently found a job.” He flipped through a stack of papers in his lap. “Ah, yes. He works at Churches Chicken.”

“Please tell me he’s the manager.”

He moved his finger across the page. “Mmm. No. Drive-thru.”

We went back and forth like this for some time. I slumped deeper into the couch at the mention of each low-wage, low-ambition job. That he had to flip through so many sheets of paper confirmed that many of his clients had yet to find any employment at all. He mentioned that a former doctor was barred from practicing medicine since sex offenders are restricted by law from holding professional licenses. A sex offender cannot even legally cut hair.

At visitations my father sometimes asks me what I plan to do when I get out. I press my napkin into a ball and tell him that my release is still five years’ distant and seemingly implausible. I haven’t any inkling what to realistically expect or plan for. What is certain though is that Joe will have a much easier time cracking back into his former life than I’ll have of rebuilding a legitimate one.

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