I was at work one morning back in February 2007 and the owner of our company stuck his head into my office to tell me he had hired a new messenger.
I felt there was something strange as he tried to act like he was in a hurry. “His name is Eric. And, oh yeah, he used to be a gang leader and spent 24 years in prison…He came recommended though…” He left other details for later.
I can only imagine the look on my face. I was the only female in the company at the time, and I already managed men of all nationalities – American, Indian, Italian, Chinese, Latino. You name it, we’ve got it! And all of these cultures do breed men with a certain “attitude” toward women, especially in the workplace. (In other words, all of them without exception were “macho.”) Now I could add former criminal to my list of challenges.
Eric arrived 10 minutes early on his first day and I couldn’t help but sneak a look at him on the security cameras as he entered the building. Actually, he was not walking, he was running! He was so excited to be starting his new job!
Progress and Challenges: Eric versus Smokie
Since the day Eric was hired by my company, I, as a manager and a life coach, was given an opportunity to test my own skills. I must say that it was not easy at all.
There were two different sides to our new employee. Sometimes he was Eric – a reformed man who was trying to get on with his life – helpful and polite. Other times he would transform into Smokie, his nickname when he was a gang leader. His mood would grow dark. He would become aggressive and verbally abusive. I had no way of knowing what he had lived through and what anger and sadness he carried in his heart.
“Smokie”, I would say sometimes when he was in a bad mood, “Where is Eric?”
“Eric is not here today”, he would grumble.
“OK”, I would say, “Send Eric my best regards when you get home and ask him to come back to work tomorrow.”
To tell you the truth, there were moments when I was ready to give up. After all this was a place of work, not counseling, but fortunately, I didn’t. I had learned from some of our conversations that Eric believed in God, and on a few extremely heated occasions, I simply asked him to go to church. St. Patrick’s Cathedral was conveniently right around the corner from the office and Eric followed my advice. Each time, he would come back calm and ready to embrace his good side.
Sometimes, however, I would confuse Eric with Smokie. “Smokie?” “No, Jurate, it is me, Eric.”
Eric was still carrying the Prison Inmate ID in his wallet. There was something morbid about his holding to something that represented such a dark period of his life. I convinced him to destroy it in order to break with his past for good. We did it together with enthusiasm. We cut the Prison Inmate ID card and tossed it into the garbage.
Eric was making steady progress. Almost every day we had at least one short heart-to-heart conversation about his life — past, present, and future. He was struggling with feelings of guilt killing another human being – In a gang-related act of revenge, he killed the man who shot his brother. He also beat himself up constantly for making his mother go through so much suffering because of him. He shared his life’s story with me.
Eric became a gang member at 12.
I asked why a twelve-year-old joined a gang.
“Because I was afraid of the gangs in my neighborhood”, he explained. “A gang is a group of kids from the neighborhood who look out for each other. They also take care of the people from the neighborhood… and”, he added, “It was a rush. You got respect, nobody else tried to mess with you. There were always lots of girls around. That’s all we had to live for and all we knew”.
Well, there must have been lots of girls around, because he got six of them pregnant! Today, at age 56, he is a father of 7 (one of them had twins) and a grandfather of 10!
Seven children is a serious responsibility. I asked him, probably inappropriately, if he at least enjoyed “producing” them.
“Nah….not really,” was his response. But he was a macho guy. He would stay around the pregnant girl as long as he could to make sure that she would deliver the baby.
The stories of gang life on the streets of New York were just what one would expect, but such things always take on a more shocking element when hearing them from a real-life perspective.
“The Renegades of Harlem”, “Manhattan Brothers” and other gang groups that he was part of, used to shoot other gang members without hesitation. They would attack rival gangs with baseball bats, knives or simply beat them up. It was called, I quote, “Ass whipping.” “Manhattan Brothers” was a gang group of ten that he created himself. They would rob, steal, fight other gangs, get high on drugs, alcohol, cocaine, heroin, and Elephant tranquilizers, the substance that hunters use to knock the elephants down.
“Which prisons have you been to?”, I asked him.
“ Which prisons haven’t I been to?”, was his answer.
Eric went through three stages of jail life:
2) Rikers’s Island or detention
3) State prison. “Attica”, “Clinton”, “Constock”, “Fishkill”, “Mid-Orange”, “Kauga”, “Sullivan”, “Max & Camp”, “Sing-Sing”.
He never made it to the 4th stage – a federal prison. He is proud of that. He used to last up to 90 days on the streets, but no longer. He admitted that he was scared to be on the streets. Life was safer in prison. It was predictable and life on the streets was not.
The Turning Point
“What was the turning point in your life?”, I asked.
“The turning point was when I was granted custody of my 3-year old son who was about to be adopted, he said.
That was in 1995. At that time Eric had just gotten out of prison. He got a job as a window washer and he was no longer the king of the streets. He was raising his son by himself with very little help. It was work, school, and home – cooking, cleaning, and washing. No longer was he taking drugs, alcohol or hurting other people nor chasing the girls from the neighborhood.
Overcoming Health Challenges
In the summer of 2014, Eric was forced to face his past again. He was diagnosed with liver cancer. Besides that, he also had hepatitis C.
Eric was acting as if nothing happened. He was patiently going through all medical procedures and working almost full time. He never complained. He didn’t ask for sympathy or special treatment. He became softer and easier going like never before.
Finally, the operation was successfully performed and he was slowly getting back to normal. We did a lot of alternative healing together, including energy healing and repeating affirmations. It was delightful to watch him repeating the affirmation, “I am love. I am a divine love and I am blessed.”
Becoming a True Gentleman
Today, at the age of 56, Eric is cancer free and hepatitis C free. He is getting closer and closer to becoming a true gentleman. He feels great. He is in love again and his 7 children, including the son that he raised, and 10 grandchildren are being raised as good citizens of our society.
Eric looks at least 15 years younger than his biological age. “I preserved well in prison”, he jokes. And I have to agree with him.
I could leave a million dollars on my desk in cash and not think twice about it! Actually, he would watch that nobody else does! He is extremely polite and nice with our customers and he always tries to follow my advise — “Stab people with kindness.”
He never has enough money to help all of his children and grandchildren, but he feels a rich man. “I have God in my heart”, he says. He also helps the pastor of his church teach young kids how to deal with the challenges.
I have to say that I have never met a more reformed person in my entire life.
Photos with children, grandchildren, and friends from Eric’s photo album