by Kenneth Rudich
Someone with whom I’ve lately developed a friendship has a very dark and sordid past.
He turned to gangbanging early on in adolescence and kept it up for several decades. He sold drugs on the street, fought violently with rivals, routinely wielded knives and guns, mugged people, robbed businesses, prompted the police to perpetually chase him, and passed through prison gates as though they were revolving doors. Alas, he was the epitome of a thug, with all the nefarious dealings it entails.
Then at age 51 he had what I suppose might qualify as an epiphany of sorts, during which he became dedicated to changing himself. His cellmate at the time helped to jumpstart the process. He was a much older man who, after years of experiencing similar struggles, eventually softened around the edges and reformed his way of thinking about life and how to lead it. With plenty of time on their hands and no other option but to spend it together, they discussed and debated this fresh narrative on the meaning of life. It was during that period my friend came to look upon his older cellmate as a mentor.
Among other things, the old man convinced him to sever his gang affiliation, which involved reversing the ritual of being “jumped in” by getting “jumped out.” When my friend finished recounting to me the beating he took on that afternoon, a small smile crept across his face, baring his perfectly fitted dentures (which he obtained for three dollars as per prison policy). “Maaannnn, I was hurtin’ real bad all over,” he said. “But you know what? I never felt better!”
Shortly after that my friend, who was five years into an 18 year prison sentence, was suddenly and miraculously released. To this day he doesn’t know why they let him go, but he’s sure glad they did.
Then he met a woman on the outside, the daughter of a preacher who became a nurse; they fell in love and got married. They live in a condo along with her 14 year old daughter, whom he cares for as if she were his own. They’re church goers, and he’s recently completed his probation – in an era, no less, when recidivism for people with his type of background is at an all-time high.
Though it’s hardly a fairytale existence these days, he’s living better than he’d ever imagined he might. It was as if all things good converged at once and fell where he could find it. It has left him with a vaguely familiar sensation, like being “jumped out,” only better.
I met my friend in a nearby park where we both walk our dogs. I might never have gotten to know him, except my male dog and his female have grown terribly fond of each other. While they romp, we talk.
Much to my surprise and wonder, I’ve come to learn just how little he’d been taught about the concept of civility as a child, things like manners and empathy and caring or compassion. He’s in process of learning them now. He watches and listens intently to others in order to see what he might do. When he sees something he likes, he’ll mimic it until it finally feels natural, like breathing in and breathing out. He’s actually adopted a fairly broad and admirable sweep of new behaviors already. He no longer smokes or drinks or swears, he graciously says please and thank you, holds open the door for his wife, picks up after his dog (and even goes a step further to do it for others who’ve neglected this task); and perhaps most importantly, he seems just a little more comfortable in his skin on every occasion I see him.
I sometimes wonder what might have been if he’d been taught about civility somewhere in youth. Even if only the basics: like civil good, uncivil bad. Or if he’d been born into a world where such behavior was commonly practiced. Might it have nurtured someone who respected humanity rather than chose to defy it? Might society have witnessed the blossoming of an asset as opposed to the forging of evil? Would he have been inclined to enrich others instead of ripping them off? What might have been? Indeed, what might have been.
Mostly though, as we sit and talk while our dogs frolic, I’m struck by the realization that he has in fact shed his old skin and climbed into a new one. This alone says something loud and clear that everybody should know about the nature of civility as a character trait: while it’s never too early to start, it’s also never too late. One need only look to the horizon to see this simple truth.