(Art by spoon+fork.)
Once a week I flossed my teeth and went to downtown Highlands to meet my parole officer. The Shore Points border was the mushy intersection of the Shark River delta with a sand bar that separated the river from the Atlantic Ocean.
I had to take a bus over three bridges to get out. My driver’s license was revoked when I was convicted, but one thing I will swear to is that I had always waited at least half an hour before getting behind the wheel when I was high.
Highlands was the old administrative center for the British when New Jersey was a colony. It was as close to the beach the British were willing to come. Over the years I’ve seen and heard tourists from all over the world, but not Britain, although we do have fish and chips on the boardwalk if they showed up.
Highlands looks like Legoland. Everything’s square, blocky and plastic. They did a good job of trying to make the district parole office look like a dentist office from the outside, with fake brick walls, trimmed hedges and white gravel. It didn’t fool anybody. Cars going both ways would slow down to look at the people getting off the bus at that stop and walking into the building.
My parole officer was a black man named James O’Keefe. He was about 35 and had short hair that was curled tightly to his scalp, and he had a bald spot near the back. If you stared at it, he’d glare at you like he was going to hit you with a left hook. The other parole officers had family pictures or fun little things on their desks like snow globes. O’Keefe had nothing. You had no indication what his life outside the office was like. But the nameplate on his desk was the biggest I’d ever seen, bigger than any of my principals’.
The first time I met him, he said, “Sean Kerry. . .are you Irish?”
“Mostly, yeah,” I said. “James O’Keefe. . .are you Irish, too?”
“Well, not that I’m sure of, but obviously, somewhere along the line, there was a slave master who was.” His face told me that he was thinking about how he could rip my head off and make it look like I’d committed suicide. Luckily for me, he kept talking.
“Maybe that old slave master raped my great-great grandmother and gave my family some Irish blood. But I’m not positive. So I don’t know how to answer your question.”
“I’m sorry,” I said quickly and quietly. That didn’t make it any better. I did almost no talking and a lot of nodding the rest of that first meeting.
“I think this law stinks,” O’Keefe said, referring to my case. “They say it’s made to get tough on drugs, but it’s really just an out so white boys like you who smoke pot and not crack don’t run the risk of serving the same time a brother has to, don’t you think?”
I nodded my head right away.
“You’re all right, Sean,” he said, folding his arms around the back of his neck. “I like you.”
I crossed my legs.
“But don’t get too comfortable, son. If I find out you’ve been smoking pot–hell, if I find out you’re chopping parsley–I’m going to personally drag you back to jail in chains. Ya dig?”
It was a blustery day when I came into O’Keefe’s office again. I saw an odd expression on his face. It was a smile.
“Sean, baby, come in! How are you doing?”
“I’m good,” I said. I came in and sat on the edge of the seat, ready to jump up and run out.
“I’m going to do something nice for you. You don’t have a phone, right? When the wireless companies settled some trade issues with the state, they agreed to provide phones and services for two years to low-income families and other disadvantaged persons. You fall in the latter category.”
O’Keefe gave me an out-of-date Nokia phone that looked like an opened-box special from years ago. The charger’s cord was tied up with a stale rubber band. I weighed the phone in my hand. It was heavy enough to build up biceps.
“Kill roaches with that thing, hunh?” asked O’Keefe.
“Yeah,” I said. “I’m really allowed to have this thing?” When I was convicted, I was banned from having use of the Internet.
“For some reason, yes,” he said, then grumbling under his breath: “Giving criminals free cell-phone service. Makes a lot of sense.”
“Can I get online with this?”
He checked the phone serial number and scribbled something on a piece of paper. “That’s your phone number. Give it out to whoever’s going to call you. You know I’ll be calling.”
I tried to turn on the phone, but O’Keefe cut in. “Sorry, Sean, I didn’t have a chance to charge it up yet.” He looked out the window.
“Want to get a beer with me?” he asked.
“It’s like noon.”
“Don’t give me that. You used to smoke pot in the morning.”
Yeah, used to, I thought to myself.
He took me to a yuppie place, Patrick’s Pub. I guess they were all were in Highlands. To me, bars that had signs like, “NO TANK TOPS OR CUTOFFS,” were yuppie places. Any man or woman wearing a dress jacket was just fooling themselves. C’mon, I want to tell them, this is Jersey, who are you kidding, putting on airs?
O’Keefe didn’t wear a suit. Just a dark blue collared shirt and Dockers. No tie. Sitting in that bar with him made me feel a little proud. People would think that I was cool when they looked at us because I had a black friend.
And people were looking at us.
“Ain’t this a bitch?” asked O’Keefe. “I went to law school and you went to jail, but all them gotta stare at the nigger.” He tilted his pint of Samuel Adams back into the fleshy hole between his scruffy lips and chin.
“We’re just two guys having a drink,” I told him. I had a pint of Guinness and a bowl of peanuts.
“Did you hear me, Sean? I said I went to law school.”
“Do you know what people do when they finish law school?”
“They do law?”
“They become lawyers!”
O’Keefe finished his drink and signaled for another.
“Okay,” I said.
“Am I a lawyer, Sean?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you know why I’m not a lawyer?”
“You didn’t want to be one?”
“I didn’t get to finish law school. Ran outta money. ”
“Yeah, it’s sad, ain’t it? How come you didn’t go to college?”
“I didn’t want to go.”
“Didn’t wanna go?” O’Keefe said as he threw his hands up, “Just didn’t feel like going?”
“That’s fucked up, Sean.”
“No one in my family ever went to college,” I said. “I didn’t see why I should break with family tradition.”
We didn’t say anything for a while. When he was done with his second beer, O’Keefe crossed his arms on the bar and turned to me.
“I’m going to tell you a little about my life, Sean, and it’s all I’m going to tell you. My father had a heart attack and died my first year in law school at NYU. I had to drop out and get a job to support my sick mother. I started at the New Jersey state probation board to be close to her and my girlfriend at the time. My mother needed a lot of my time, the way she was. I decided I couldn’t be bothered with a girlfriend and gave her up. A few years later my mother died. When I came back to work after the funeral, I got an e-mail congratulating me on 10 years of service.
“And it hit me. I started as a probation counselor and now I’m a probation officer. One promotion in 10 years. Ten years. I’m older than the people I report to. You understand how something like that can really weigh on a man?”
“It’s just something you don’t want to achieve.” He pointed at his glass for another beer. When he looked at me again he looked old and tired.
“I have never put any personal items on my desk. I don’t love the job. In fact I resent it deeply. I took the job out of necessity and it derailed my life forever. I have this ongoing fantasy that I could just quit and I wouldn’t even have to pack up anything. Just walk out into the sunshine, dance around and kick a can down the sidewalk. But now that I’ve got you, I sense a new opportunity.
“Sean, I need you to get your life in order to make me look good. See, you’re the first white boy they’ve given me. It’s a test. If I get you back on track, I think they have to promote me to a senior probation officer. If you fuck up, they’re gonna say, ‘O’Keefe can only help blacks.’ I don’t wanna be pigeonholed like that.
“I want to get you into an everyday kinda rut, understand? A pointless job that you go to in the daytime and at night, this bar, or any bar you want, it’s okay to come in and drink. It’s social, you talk to people like you’re talking to me and I’m talking to you. Your days of smoking weed are over. Your new thing is booze. Get drunk. Get laid, too. Understand? Drink, not weed.
“I catch you with weed, I swear I’m going to knock your goddamn teeth out. Knock your gums out, too!
“I call you on that phone, if you’re talking like you’re on the space shuttle, I’m coming over to cave your head in! Understand?”
All the beer ran out straight from my stomach to my bladder.
“Yes, I won’t!” I yelped.
“You won’t what!”
“Won’t smoke pot. I swear.”
I got up to go to the bathroom, but O’Keefe grabbed my arm.
“I’m watching you,” he growled.
I was so scared that by the time I got to the bathroom, I couldn’t piss. I had to splash cold water on my face and neck to get it going.
On the bus back to Shore Points, I felt a lump when I sat down. I pulled the phone out of my back pocket and tucked it into my waistband. I knew The Sign was coming up on the right side, so I moved to sit across the aisle in anticipation. It was always a highlight for me.
On our way back from a field trip to see the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, my gym teacher decoded The Sign to me and I liked to repeat it in my head when I saw it.
It stood at the town limits, on high stilts proudly out of the range of vandals. The Sign read, “Welcome To Shore Points — A Proud Past And A Promising Future.”
The secret message was that the present sucks.
(Part 5 next week.)