Why you should care

Because sometimes it’s OK to talk to strangers.  

In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”

Malik Wade
San Francisco

It’s 4:30 a.m., and I can feel my chest tighten as I sit down in front of my computer. Getting up early is a habit I picked up from my cellmate. I’m learning how to navigate the Internet, but I mostly just end up staring at the screen of my MacBook Pro. After serving a 14-year sentence in federal prison on charges for conspiracy to sell drugs, I feel like an alien in some far away, futuristic world.

Learning how to use technology is like learning a new language. I’ve been out for 10 months, and I’m still figuring out the basics that everyone else already knows, like how to use email. The concept of Google fascinates me. In prison it can take months, sometimes even years, to find a single piece of information. Everything that I ever researched came from a bound book, magazine or newspaper. And I’m totally amazed by texting. I still can’t believe that you can instantly send a message to someone! I have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, but I don’t use them. Exposing myself to the world is daunting.

One of the biggest adjustments that I’ve had to make is relearning how to talk with “regular people.” I’m 41, yet when I meet new people at the gym or in line at the grocery store, I don’t know how to make small talk. I feel awkward and self-conscious. In prison, communication is usually serious and carries an undercurrent of animosity and tension. Direct eye contact can be interpreted as an attempt to intimidate. By nature, I’m stern and stoic; now, I consciously try to be warm and welcoming. I wonder if people knew I was recently released from prison, would they view me differently? No matter how I act, I still feel like I wear a scarlet letter.

There is always that invisible hand hovering over my every move, waiting for any excuse to snatch me back up and lock me away.

 

I’m always confronting the realities of being a felon. There is always that invisible hand hovering over my every move, waiting for any excuse to snatch me back up and lock me away. I get unexpected calls and unannounced visits from my probation officer at my apartment. I have to wear a GPS tracking device on my ankle. During the day, I’m allowed to run errands and go to work — I counsel young guys like I used to be through a nonprofit I started called Scholastic Interest Group — but I have an 8 p.m. curfew. This will be my life for the next five years.

Earlier today, I left the probation office at 1. Around 1:15, my cell phone rang. It was my probation officer wanting to know where I was. She told me to go home immediately. I told her that I was riding the bus and it would be at least another 10 minutes; she gave me 5. Once I got there, sweating after running from the bus stop, she was waiting at my front door. She questioned me in rapid succession. Where were you? What were you doing? Who were you with? Humility failed me and I blurted out, “I just left your office!”

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