A story of systemic oppression and one man’s insistence on transforming the brutality he was given as a DOC number into his own armor and influence.
It’s late fall, 2002, and I’m 18 years old — full of strength and light. I tripped all the way from Washington Heights in Manhattan to Flushing, Queens, the last stop on the 7 train. Down to my last, I traveled to Home Depot to be interviewed for a job.
Filled with hope and cloaked in desperation, I walked in to meet my potential new employer. His name was Sheldon. We interviewed, and I killed it. I’m sure Sheldon felt my hunger. I detected his Caribbean accent and I tried to find common ground, being that my father was from that part of the world and I, too, was raised in that culture of hard work. He bought in on me working there. He told me how much I was going to love the job and that I would make good money. Sheldon then took my Social Security number and stepped behind his desk to run it through his system.
I would not let myself feel anything but confident as he typed in the 9 digits that would determine my possibilities. I insisted on the image of him returning to me with his hand held out, ready to shake. And that I would return to my abuela with the reassurance of a new job. I had to.
Earlier that morning the stakes had been raised. I had been startled awake — the sounds of bachata music, sobbing, police sirens, and the soft conversation between two individuals outside my building discussing the terms and condition of the pre-purchase of narcotics.
But those sounds are not what woke me. The noise of my neighborhood had become my background music, and in a weird way, it helped me sleep better. I could usually drown out even the loudest of those sounds, but that morning had been different. Something was wrong: there was no sweet, beautiful aroma of fried yuca, eggs and onions that my abuela makes for me and my abuelo every morning. Nor did I hear the sound of Telemundo coming underneath my bedroom door.
When I opened the door to my room, still halfway asleep, I discovered that the sobbing sound that I had grown immune to was coming, not from outside, but from our family living room. It was my abuela who was sobbing. I ran to her side and kneeled down in front of her, “Que estas pasando abuela?” She handed me two letters: one for my abuelo, stating that he would not receive his Social Security for another year; and another from Public Housing informing my grandparents that, because I was on probation for a felony drug conviction, I had to leave my home or my entire family would be evicted. It’s amazing what a day brings and takes from us in our poverty stricken communities.
Just the night before I had a feeling of stability and hope. After all, I had an actual interview for a job! Do you know how many applications an 18 year-old black man has to fill out before they even get an interview? It was going to happen. My babies’ mother’s needed money for diapers and food, and I was going to have it. But now, looking at those letters and my abuela sobbing, the challenge was overwhelming. I didn’t need just enough to support my kids and to start college, I now needed enough for rent, a security deposit and utilities, or hold the possibility of being homeless. And I had to figure out how to help my abuela pay her rent with no Social Security coming in. So, once again — despite the vision that I had gathered for myself in jail of getting a job, making it to college and staying out of the drug game — I was having to consider going back into it and possibly risking my freedom and my life. In the last year I had already lost two friends — murdered over rivalry for selling territory.
Trying to stay strong for my abuela, I kissed her and walked away to prepare for my interview at Home Depot in a new state of mind — one now heavy with threat and despair. But you can’t let people see that and think they will hire you. I showered and dressed, and used every item of clothing I put on to build me up, to regain my hope so I could get on that train and feel it all somehow working out.
So, there I was sitting in Sheldon’s office, practically praying, when his head finally re-emerged from behind his computer screen. But, by just looking at his face, I could tell immediately that everything had changed. I was now dead to him — or at least untouchable. He wouldn’t even look at me. The numbers had rolled out and I was officially “unhireable”.
I started talking fast, trying to regain my ground. I told him I could be on a probation period or something like that and I needed this job to take care of my kids. I shared what I was up against economically. He was unmoved, and his response to my sob story was just, “sorry.”
But I was not going home without a job: “Please Sheldon, listen. I’m trustworthy. I’m an honorable man. I’m asking for a shot, an opportunity, and a chance.” He just looked at me, impervious to what I was going through, and asked that I leave the premises.
I left, not only the premises, but New York. My mom lived out in Colorado Springs and I hoped to find work through her connections and stay out of the drug game. When I got to Colorado, I was surrounded by job offers in the community. None of them legal.
According to the Brooking’s Institute a black man without a criminal record is less likely to get called back for a job than a white man who checked the felony box.
I went to prison in 2006 and was given twice the time for the same crime as the two white men who went up in front of the judge before me. That startled me awake. Even more than the cries of my abuela. I was awake and angry with the injustice of it, and fierce with an intention of alchemy — to take all the steel, concrete, brutality, and disregard they gave me as DOC number 147388 and turn it into my own armor. I may have to fight to survive but I will not be your entertainment. I am not your victim and I will not let you make me your victim.
Every day, I gave myself a new challenge to help me keep my focus and sanity. First, I built up my chest and biceps. Then, I learned how to read and write in the language of my abuelos — Spanish. After that I learned to read Arabic — the language of the black leaders in prison who were resisting with self respect, self-love and prayer. I re-enrolled in college and got several certifications despite all the obstacles to getting my education in prison. And even with this arsenal of strengths, it was hard to stay out of prison when I was finally released.
They let me out with just $10 in my pocket, no fresh clothes and no hope. I almost didn’t make it, despite my nearly 10 years preparing for that very moment. But I did. And now, I work to support other people coming out of our prison system. Guiding them as they take the skills they learned in illegal economies and transform themselves into entrepreneurs with legal opportunities. Because this system wastes our brilliance.
Juaquin Mobley is a Motus Theater JustUs monologist. He is the Vice President of Community Works and co-owner of Community Ties and The Community Barber Shop based out of Colorado Springs. Juaquin helps those individuals who were recently incarcerated and/or at risk at becoming incarcerated to realize their true potential and manifest their limitless potential. Juaquin was once incarcerated for the better half of a decade and knows all too well how a “helping hand,” as opposed to a “hand out,” can motivate one to success. A proud father of three beautiful girls, he refuses to let the next generation follow into the same footsteps and traps as both him and his friends.
COMING 2022: This monologue will be featured in season two of our Motus Monologues and Shoebox Stories podcasts. Listen to Season 1: UndocuAmerica by following the links below.
You can listen to more autobiographical monologues like this on the Motus Monologues podcast, here.
Or, hear prominent Americans step into the shoes of our undocumented neighbors, on the Shoebox Stories podcast, here.
This autobiographical story was written by Juaquin Mobley in collaboration with Kirsten Wilson as part of Motus Theater’s JustUs Project: Stories From the Frontlines of the Criminal Justice System.