by Daniel A. Rosen |
June 28, 2022
Miles and I first met in the jail. I noticed he had a Washington Post, a tough commodity to get in there and my preferred source of news. He was a friendly-enough looking “church guy,” so I approached to ask if he’d put me in line to read it (there’s always a line, in jail). Miles smiled broadly, called me “Brother,” and with just a word breathed a friendship into being.
That was five years ago, back in 2017. Everything has changed since then, but Miles and I are still friends. This is his story as much as it is mine – and I won’t speak for him, but I don’t have to. Some things are so troubling that they speak for themselves. My friend Miles is a lay minister, a devout Christian, a former coach, teacher, and case manager who holds a Master’s degree, a natty dresser with too many shoes, a sports nut, and a junk food junkie. He’s also one of the most relentlessly positive people I’ve ever met.
Jail was a mostly endless litany of indistinguishable days, months – long periods of boredom punctuated by terrible stress – a court date, a shakedown, medical malpractice, a fight, a deputy in a bad mood. Good days or even good moments were elusive. In a place like that, a person like Miles was a lighthouse on a rocky shore.
When Miles “got his time” – went to court for sentencing – I remember being stunned. For the crime of pocketing a few hotel vouchers from his church when he was without shelter, a judge had sentenced him to spend over three years behind bars. Their value was just a few hundred dollars, an amount that wouldn’t even qualify today as a felony. And what was their value in relation to three years of the life of a grandfather, a minister, and a positive force in the community? What did it cost the state to incarcerate a man like that, in his late sixties and with heart problems?
Soon enough, I got my time too. And in 2018, I walked into my assigned prison dormitory at the Haynesville Correctional Center, and there was Miles. Two rows over, smiling like always, reading his Washington Post and watching ESPN. A more welcome sight I don’t think I’ve ever seen. Prison and jail may seem the same to most folks on the outside, but prison is on a whole different level. Once people have been sentenced and the years are stretched out ahead of them, they’ll do what it takes to enforce their reputation and get what they need. Among the young and reckless, Miles was a voice of reason. Not the only one, but a quietly positive influence, working for the Chaplain and showing other men what faith, humility, and patience looked like. And graciously sharing his newspaper with those of us from the District. We did our time the best ways we knew how – telling each other: “Keep your head up,” or “Keep the faith,” when shoulders started to slump.
About a year and a half later, Miles was transferred to a lower-level facility, a work camp. Within days he was back, because his health prevented him from laboring there. Soon after, I was ungraciously packed and on a bus myself – transferred without even time to wish my friends like Miles well, or write down a phone number/address to keep in touch later on. I thought of Miles often during the couple more years that followed, wondering how his health problems were, and whether he’d gotten back home to DC.
A couple months ago, I walked out of my house an hour or so late, en route to an outdoor event down by the riverfront. Nervous about being in a big crowd and still cursing my procrastination, I stood on the corner at a nearby streetlight waiting impatiently for the “Don’t Walk” sign to change. And for whatever reason – a familiar voice, perhaps – I looked over my shoulder at the flower-seller and the guy who’d stepped out of a curbed sedan to buy a bouquet. I did a Hollywood-quality double take seeing Miles not ten feet away. He looked up right then and gave me that broad smile. Both of us stood there dumbfounded for a moment. Without warning I felt my eyes start leaking.
A quick exchange of contact details revealed that we live two blocks from each other. Over the weeks that followed, we talked about everything: his life since being released, the people still there, how the rest of our time inside was spent, these last months of reentry. He shared with me his good news and his trials. He’s engaged to a fine woman from his church, and he’s also battling lung cancer. Both are occasions for Miles to praise God for every moment spent breathing.
Now I have the pleasure of bringing him the Washington Post some days, helping him figure out apps on his phone, or moving his oxygen tanks around. Running those small errands doesn’t even begin to repay the kindness and uplift he gave me during those dark days. Miles wants to see all the live sporting events he can, so we hit up a ballgame recently at Nationals Park. It was a tense 1-0 pitching duel that the overmatched, last place Nats somehow pulled out against the league-leading Dodgers on a beautiful spring day. By the end of the evening, Miles was clearly exhausted, but we wrung every drop out of that game. He and his fiancé are planning a fall wedding while he endures these weeks of chemo and endless medical appointments.
Our meeting on that streetcorner was no coincidence I know. I’m not religious the way Miles is, but have enough experience to see that the universe sometimes puts people in our path for a reason, just when we need them the most. I know Miles wasn’t in prison because he needed to be – he was there for the rest of us, who needed his example. Eight months after coming home I still need him. There’s usually a text message waiting for me when I get up, saying “God Bless, Brother!” And it reminds me what relentless faith and optimism look like, and what it means to show up every day for the people whose lives we can affect without even knowing it.