Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.
—Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative
This piece was written in cooperation with my eldest son, Steven Holbrook.
On November 10, 2002, my eldest son was sentenced to ten years in the federal penitentiary. Ten years hard time in maximum security. This wasn’t the first time Stevie was given a number to replace his name. He has spent most of his life behind bars, a short sentence here, a longer one there. But this time it was serious. This time my number-one son robbed a bank in a lily-white suburb of St. Paul, Minnesota, a blue-collar burb with a shamrock as its logo, a thirty-six-mile area fifteen miles south of the Twin Cities whose census data in the year 2000 reported a population of 14,619 white people with a smattering of Asians and Latinos and one or two Black folks for diversity; it’s a community with a median income of $65,916 derived primarily from heavy industry—refineries, industrial waste plants, and the like.
A few years earlier, Stevie was feeling frustrated. “Mom,” he complained, “nobody wants to give an ex-offender a decent job or rent him a decent apartment, especially if he’s a felon.” But my number-one son had held on tight, and to his surprise and my great pride, some good things started to happen for him, a series of firsts: he worked his way off parole for the first time since he was a teenager; he landed a job driving a semi—the job he had dreamed of since I bought him his first set of Hot Wheels when he was barely old enough to walk, the kind of job that allowed him to feel powerful as he guided a mighty rig across the highways of the U.S. of A. praising God for the beauty of the plains, the hills and mountains, the rivers and the oceans that he witnessed along the way.
For the first time in his life, my number-one son had the means to buy a brand-new car, and for the first time he was blessed with a child of his own.
But one morning when Stevie showed up for work, ready to hit the road, he was faced with the shocking news that the company had closed its doors, leaving all of its workers jobless and leaving him vulnerable, in danger of reverting back to his old patterns. Ex-offender/convicted felon seeks employment. Baby’s mama screaming on him cuz the rent’s late and baby needs shoes. Powerless. Ashamed to tell the shrink he didn’t have the money for the meds that kept his bipolar disorder in check. Powerless. Ashamed to call his Narcotics Anonymous sponsor or anyone else, for that matter, including the Almighty, to ask for help.
Shame has amazing power. It can cause a person to turn something around so that it begins to look like what happened was your fault—like Stevie was to blame for the company’s problems.
Shame buried just beneath the epidermis, the top layer of his skin, ready to jump out and bite him in the ass at a moment’s notice. Shame stored in his genetic memory, imbedded in his DNA. Shame that started when his great-great-great-grandparents were shackled and forced to walk through the Door of No Return, locked up on ships that carried them through the Middle Passage shitting and puking all over themselves and their relatives, friends, and neighbors chained close together like they were in a can of sardines, then stripped of their history, their identity, their language, their religion. Shame passed down to him through three or four generations of family members who suffered the pain and humiliation that started with slavery and mutated into deep anger and self-hatred, one of the far-reaching effects of the phenomenon that Dr. Joy DeGruy has coined post-traumatic slave syndrome. It’s the kind of shame that has no place to go except to be visited upon those less powerful, like spouses and children. My mama praised me for having put an end to the child abuse that’s been in our family for all of those generations, but by the time I learned how to show my children that I love them, it was too late for Stevie. Shame. Shame. Shame on you.
It only took a few weeks for the positive energy Stevie had built up over a few short years of living productively to dissipate. He began to spiral out of control, sinking into that familiar black hole of drugs and alcohol. And on November 20, 2001, two months and nine days after the attacks on the World Trade Center, a year and ten days before he was sentenced to the federal penitentiary, my number-one son imploded.
Donna threw me out and I was living in my truck so I decided to head out to Denver. I liked it when I lived there before but it wasn’t the same this time. I got with this beautiful hooker named Celeste and got stranded when she stole my SUV. I tracked down the guy who hooked me up with her and pressed him to tell me where she was. He took me to her place and I met her grandfather. I told him she stole my truck and he got upset, frustrated with his granddaughter, saying, “I don’t know why she keeps doing this to me.” The old man, Calvin, let me stay there for about a week, until the police found my truck in the impound lot. I didn’t even recognize the signs that said I was once again reaching the bottom of my life . . . which is always the stop before prison.
I had no money at all, so I called my little bro and he sent me enough to get my car out and get back home. I promised to give him the money as soon as I got back to Minnesota. In fact, I asked him to pick up my unemployment check and hold it until I got back, which he did.
I called him when I was about six hours away and told him that I would be there around 3 or 4 in the morning. He stashed my check on his front porch so I could pick it up without disturbing his family.
I blazed into town around 4 a.m. Stopped off at my brother’s and picked up my check from the hiding place on his porch, hit the freeway, and headed to the check cashing place on Lake Street and First Avenue. It should have taken me about a half hour to get from his place in the burbs but at that time in the morning, when there isn’t much traffic, it only took half the time.
My plan was to cash the check and run back out to Julian’s crib to give him the money I owed him. But I ended up at the crack house instead. My custom has always been to get my dope and then look for a woman. Not necessarily for the sex, it was more about the company. I found this pretty, petite little Chicana and for the next day and a half, we went bar hopping, went back and forth to the crack house, and holed up in a motel in South Minneapolis.
I don’t know what it was about this girl that made me want to keep her. With street women, time’s up when the money runs out so I was trying to use whatever brain cells I hadn’t smoked up to figure out how to keep her from leaving. When we couldn’t stay at the motel any longer, I pulled into a liquor store and stole a bottle of vodka.
We polished off the vodka in a matter of minutes and right about this time the edge was coming off of the dope. I asked her if she had ever robbed a bank. She said no, but she knew of a way to rob banks by computer. I really wasn’t trying to hear that because I was one of those here and now type niggaz. I didn’t have the patience for all of that long-term hustlin’.
It was Tuesday, right around noon, and we were getting hungry. I pulled into a Burger King knowing that all I had were some bad checks from my account that had been closed, so I went inside where I could write a check instead of tryin’ to order something at the drive-up window.
When I came back out, the girl was gone. I guess all that talk about robbing banks scared her off. But by now I had been talking so much about robbing a bank that I convinced myself to do it. So I pulled into a convenience store and stole a pair of those dark, mirrored sunglasses so no one could tell what I was looking at, and then it was off to the bank.
The first bank I went to was crowded so I left. Jumped back into my truck and just sat in the parking lot for about 20 minutes. As I sat there, I saw where I was heading—back to prison. I thought about all that I had lost in just a matter of thirty days: a good job that I loved, my woman, and my little baby girl. I began to feel tears well up but, Mom, I can’t cry—not one tear fell from my eye. It was almost like those bitter tears were backing up into my soul.
I was in Apple Valley, not far from Hastings where there’s a detox center so I thought, “I’d better get to detox, that’s the only thing I can do at this point.” I pulled myself together, started up the Bravada, and headed off with full intentions of getting off the freeway in Hastings and droppin’ at the detox center. But as I was rolling through Rosemount I caught a glimpse of a sign that said, “TCF Bank Grand Opening.”
Very impulsively, I pulled into the parking lot, a Cub Foods supermarket with a TCF bank attached to it. I circled the building and found a place to park, then I wrote a note demanding money. I put on my shades and my baseball cap, which read Female Body Inspector (F.B.I.—how ironic), and went into the bank and scoped it out. One of the tellers stood out, she was so beautiful. So I walked in, half mesmerized by the beauty of her caramel-colored skin—her long, thick, black hair, and her honey-colored eyes—and half desperate for the money. I talked with her briefly and she told me that she was Persian. Then I slid her the note. I should have slid her my phone number instead and asked her for a date.
She looked at the note and then looked at me like she was confused, like she couldn’t believe what was happening and then she nodded her head in agreement. When she opened the money drawer and began pulling out the cash, I noticed a slot in the drawer that was stacked with $100 bills. Little did I know that slot had the device that would change the next ten years of my life.
The Rosemount newspaper reported that Stevie “used a threatening note and the suggestion of a gun to walk out with an undisclosed amount of money.” Witnesses helped identify him. “As he ran out of the bank he had shoved the money down his pants and a dye pack exploded, which attracted the attention of a number of people. One wrote down his license number.”
I imagine Stevie dropping the bag of loot down the front of his pants and trying to walk fast to the Oldsmobile Bravada, the SUV he had purchased brand new just a few months before, when he was employed. I see him looking over his shoulder because he knows that a Black man stepping into a new car in small-town Minnesota will raise some eyebrows. I hear the dye pack explode. Pow! And I see this red substance cover the front of his pants as he climbs into the truck.
Listen. Do you hear the crowd? Can you see people spilling out of the building? Do you hear them yelling, “Catch him!” “Don’t let him get away!” “Give me a piece of paper. Gotta get his license number.”
And I see my number-one son peel out of the parking lot, out of his mind from the pain in his groin and the crack cocaine that gave him the guts to stop off in white town and rob the bank, his dark eyes shining with a mixture of sadness, wonder, and surprise, glazed and sparkling like stars in a clear sky on a summer night.
I imagine him taking his right hand off the steering wheel and reaching down to unfasten the holster where his cell phone is locked, lifting the phone, and dialing somebody’s number, then parting the mustached lips that hide his perfect teeth. But before he can get the first word out, the dye pack starts to burn in his crotch, making the insides of his bones scream. He muffles the screams, recalling instead the confusion on the bank teller’s face when she realized that the glassy-eyed Black man who stood on the other side of the bulletproof glass, the ginger-skinned desperado dressed in dark glasses, a baseball cap, tight jeans, and a brown leather jacket, stinking to high heaven because he’d been up smoking crack and drinking whiskey for three days and three nights, had slipped her a note commanding her to fork over the cash.
But he can’t hold the screams back for long. He has to keep moving before the cops catch up with him, but where will he go? He has to get that bag of hot money out of his pants before the substance ruins his ability to father another child. He’s trying to keep control of his ride while his crotch is burning so hard that he wonders if he has finally made it to that place where it’s rumored that Satan makes his home. I imagine him digging his sweaty hand down where the Sun doesn’t shine and coaxing the offending bag of cash away from his parched skin, a long, guttural moan barely making it past the Adam’s apple on his thick, brown neck. And I imagine Julian, my younger son, who has built a happy, prosperous life with his wife and three children, feeling hurt, bewildered, and disappointed, wondering why his big brother ripped him off.
I put the bundle of money on the passenger seat and when I picked it up again it was still smoldering, traces of the red dye had burned through the tan leather seats. I attempted to see what I could salvage from the bundle. Now picture this, Mom. Here I am blazing down a dirt road with my pants and underwear down around my ankles, kicking up a thick cloud of dust behind me and tossing all of the destroyed, banded bundles of money that I couldn’t salvage out the window. Then it was off to Rochester where I had a delicious steak dinner and left the waitress a $20 tip.
I hooked up with my dope man when I got back into town. It was the Tuesday before Thanksgiving and I had promised him a month before that I would take him home to Detroit to see his mom for Thanksgiving. You know me, Mom. How could I refuse a request like that? He was just a 20-year-old kid. He called me “Unc” and I called him “Nephew.” I spent $400 with him, then holed up in a hotel room close to his house smoking crack and tweaking so we could hit the road on Wednesday.
I was still on fire from the burn I got from the dye pack so I showed it to the kid on the way to Detroit. He asked me what had happened. He grimaced and then told me that I needed to put some peroxide and Neosporin cream on it so we stopped and got some. Sure started feeling better.
Soon as the youngster and I hit Wisconsin, my cell phone rang. I knew it was Donna. She asked where I was and I told her I was on my way to Detroit for Thanksgiving. She asked me to come back and spend it with her and the kids but all I could think was, “You got some nerve. You threw me out of the house. I’ve been sleeping in my truck and you didn’t care when I was stranded in Denver for five days and now you want me to have Thanksgiving with you?”
I talked with her again while I was in Detroit, told her I’d be back at 6:00 on Saturday morning. I remember telling her that I was on my way to greatness (whatever that meant) and she started crying. It didn’t dawn on me until later what her tears were about.
Anyway, we started back to Minneapolis on Friday night. The youngster was tired from all the rippin’ and runnin’ we’d been doing so I took the first leg of the trip. Mom, I know you’re familiar with Divine Intervention. Well, I believe that’s what happened for the rest of the trip. God was not willing to let me go through with my plans for the next 24 hours.
I drove for about 4 hours and right around 6 a.m. as we were pressing through Gary, Indiana, and were about to head into Illinois, I got so groggy that I had no fight left in me, no energy. I turned the wheel over to the youngster and was about to nod off to sleep when Donna called again and asked where I was. I laid my seat back and went to sleep just as we were about to cross the Illinois/Wisconsin border.
About four hours later, the youngster woke me up in a panic. “Unc! Unc!” he cried out. “We’re getting pulled over!” Being a trucker, I knew how the troopers were in Wisconsin so I said, “Boy, I told you not to speed in Wisconsin.” He assured me that he had set the cruise control at 60 m.p.h. so I told him to pull over and we’d straighten the whole thing out. But he said, “I don’t think you understand. We are getting pulled over!!!!”
I flipped down the visor and opened the mirror and when I looked out the windshield, what I saw was like something you see only in movies. I swear, Mom, Wisconsin state troopers and federal marshals were everywhere. They had completely shut the highway down! You would have thought I was Osama Bin Laden, the way they came at me.
A few days later, as the marshals were transporting me to the Federal jail in Madison, Wisconsin, I naively asked, “What is a marshal? Is he like a deputy or something?” The marshal arrogantly replied, “Let me put it to you this way. I can go anywhere at any time and arrest anyone, including the President of the United States.”
I thought, “Man, what have I gotten myself into?” Then I asked how they knew where I was. He said, “You guys all make the same stupid mistake. We know that if we really want you, all we have to do is hook up with your girl and she will lead us right to you.” I learned very quickly what Donna’s tears were about when I told her that I was on my way to greatness. She knew otherwise. She knew I was on my way to jail. And not only that—she knew that all the while she was working with the feds to catch me.
Something else I found out (speaking of God’s intervention) was that if the police would have caught up with me 10 miles later, I would have ended up going to jail in a county of Wisconsin that is run by the Ku Klux Klan.
So here I am, Mom. 10 years for a bank robbery that I salvaged only $1,000 out of. That’s $100 a year, less than 37¢ a day. Now that’s crazy!
All my love,
Your #1 Son
IT’S NO SECRET that my son is one man among the enormous number of Black men in the prison system. I am incredibly grateful that he has managed to make it past the difficulties that made him vulnerable to the way of life that landed him there. The scars may never be completely healed. But when he tells me now of the young men and women he is counseling through Bible study and the songs he composes, and when I see how hard he has worked to make peace with his wife and daughter for the years they spent without him, and now when I see the pride he has in his granddaughter, I can’t help feeling proud of him, and very, very relieved.