Meet James..

“Growing up too young, my life was defined by fixing items that most of society considered trash. This became my therapy, filled my pockets, and quickly became my favorite hobby.”

James, 51

Incarcerated: 21 years

Housed: Stateville Correctional Center, Joliet, Illinois.

Today, I can wear growing up poor as a badge of honor, though I didn’t always feel this way. My parents were the too-busy type, allowing me to be a free-range latchkey kid happily. This enabled me to meet people from all walks of life. Our family of seven had a lovely home in Hoffman nestled between the affluent homes in South Barrington and Inverness, Illinois. In grammar school, we needed to help our parents keep the light and water on. My two brothers and I did this with many newspaper routes. Once I was done rolling up the papers, I would go garbage picking while they delivered them. The pickings were good in Barrington and Inverness, and the benefits of giving trash a second chance were better.

I was a resourceful WHY-WHY-WHY kid who saw all my neighbors as a network of knowledge that raised my profit margin. My neighbors taught me how to problem-solve and about diagnostics, what a drip of solder on contact will do, and glue under a screw is cheap. I learned what a $14 fuse, a new switch, or a power cord can do, or simply a little cleaning. If I couldn’t fix it, I researched the repair. I was selling my friends and neighbors fixed TVs, video equipment, curling irons, blow dryers, radios, stereos, toys, and vacuums. Most of all, I liked fixing bikes, power tools, and yard equipment. After all our hard work, the power in our house still got cut off occasionally. I noticed being handy attracts older friends. In junior high, one of my neighbors, Yaakob, loved my WHY-WHY-HOW questions. After answering all my questions, he dropped me twenty dollars in cash. I had a blast helping him with side jobs customizing limos and van upholstery. He would hold a coffee and cigarette in hand while racing me, cutting foam and material for the seats and winning. I loved hearing about his homeland of Turkey. Although, I wanted their cultural dinner leftovers more than money.

Skateboarding past my neighbor Wendel’s home one day, I gained another mentor by helping him hang a punching bag. He told me how loud my skateboard was on the sidewalk next to his window and that my girlfriend’s car was loud dropping me off at midnight. I would drop by to hit the heavy bag and weight lift and help him with home projects. While discussing planning a family and his career, it didn’t take long for my 14-year-old arm to outdo his 24-year-old machinist arm.

I got many invites, having my garbage-picked dirtbikes and having my own money. Having my booze and weed certainly helped, too. Volunteering to help a high schooler fix his truck got me invited on their camping trip. The older ladies were a tough crowd! They all picked on me until Todd told everyone I was his mechanic who fixed his truck; I enjoyed conversations with older people, even today. I received many life lessons on this trip. A guy, Dave, sat next to me on the picnic table, telling me how embarrassing it was for his Dad to hit and kill a pedestrian while driving home drunk. He went through all the emotions as I put myself in their shoes. My eyes were opened to the reality of our actions. He was telling me how unfair the system was not allowing him to interact with the victim’s family. Someone declares from the next campsite over, “HEY-HEY, I remember you!” starting over at me; my gut sank further when he yelled over,” I was in sixth grade when you were in first!” This got everyone’s attention from all four campsites. Laughing now, he yells, “We were playing tether ball while you were sitting on the curb with David’s sister Kim french kissing, fingers tangled in each other’s hair.” Everyone burst into laughter, including the tough crowd of ladies. I didn’t receive a single jeer being dragged to the lake by a group of female mentors who wanted to give me a swimming lesson.

When I went to high school, I kept in touch with some of them, although I kept all the memories and life lessons. As a hyper high schooler, age didn’t matter; it was all about daily celebrations of life. I happily jumped in between many uplifting groups of friends, keeping the vibes positive, staying busy, learning, helping, and fixing trash because the rewards were more significant. I loved fixing anything with an engine. It was easy to replace it with a bigger engine and make it stop faster. When my parents divorced, my Dad was stingy with his money, so I helped by renting a garage bay from my mom. While in high school, I opened a mechanic shop with all the tools I had accumulated. Cash was good, with my many legit side hustles and one organic one that wasn’t. Many would guess when I grew up, I would’ve become a mechanic, appliance repair man, or garbage man; however, I loved remodeling more and restoring homes to better form and function. I built room additions and custom homes bigger than I would ever want to live in.

I once added a bunch of classrooms and a gymnasium to the school. I built a vast medical center in Tucson, Arizona. Nonetheless, restoring and depositing the checks were more rewarding at the end of the day. I enjoyed fixing basements, kitchens, and bathrooms, adding entertainment centers, bunk bed shelves, custom closet cabinetry, libraries, studies, home offices, and wet bars, and many customers were happy to pay me. Working in oversized homes, I learned first-hand why garbage picking was so good in a disposable society that loves filling garbage bags and landfills. My excellent customers would pay me to remove construction debris like cabinets, wood scraps, appliances, granite vanity toppers, expensive faucets, and other trash; I would then recycle or sell them. If their generosity wasn’t enough, they would ask me if they could fill my construction dumpster with a broken mower, vacuum, electronics, and some of my other favorite trash to fix and sell. Some of the stuff I didn’t even need to fix. Growing up too young, my life was defined by repairing items that most society considered trash. This became my therapy, filled my pockets, and quickly became my favorite hobby. However, today, I’m rotting away in the Stateville Prison Dump in Illinois, hoping to be recycled or fix my situation by showing the courts the value of the truth of my wrongful conviction.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Receive more inspiring stories and news from incarcerated people around the world.