Tuesday, February 25, 2003

Making it on the outside: Part 3

After years of drug dealing and prison, a new life beckons

The Enquirer followed parolee Joe Lowry for a year as he worked to turn his life around. This is his story.

Last of three parts
(Read Part 1 | Read Part 2)

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Joe Lowry stands next to his parole officer's desk, emptying his pockets. Candy wrappers and a pack of Newports fall onto the desktop, loose change clatters to the floor.

Joe's face is impassive. But inside, he's angry. His parole officer, Brian Sweeney, ordered Joe into his Roselawn office for this meeting. Now the shake down. Sweeney must still think he's dealing drugs.

Sweeney looks over the items from Joe's pockets - for rolling papers, crack or any other sign of contraband. He tells Joe to take a seat.

"So," Sweeney says curtly, "how much have you been working?"

It's September, and - nine months through his parole - Joe is hanging on. He leans back in his chair and looks at the ceiling.

"Two or three days a week," Joe says. "Things have been kind of slow."

"That's not enough," Sweeney snaps. "I'll always be concerned about where you get your money."

Joe shakes his head. "I got nothing to hide," he says earnestly. "I'm doing good."

Joe faces Sweeney, feels himself getting more upset, more defensive.

And then Sweeney smiles.

"Relax," he says. "I just need you to tighten things up, get some more work hours. January is right around the corner."

Joe's eyes light up.

If he follows the rules, he could come off parole in January - after just one year instead of three. No more early morning visits from his parole officer. No more taking off work for drug tests. No more worries about a minor parole violation sending him back to prison for up to 18 months.

Joe smiles and rubs his hands together, as if he's about to dig into a great treasure. "That's what I want," he says.

His cell phone rings. It's Rhonda, his girlfriend, checking up on him as she has been for months. She's concerned about the meeting today.

"Hold on a second, baby," Joe says.

Joe turns to Sweeney: "Am I going back to jail?"

Sweeney stifles a laugh and shakes his head.

"Na, baby," Joe says, laughing, "I ain't going back to jail."

Joe leans against the car and pokes his head through the open window.

"How you doing?" he says.

The man and woman inside are friends from Joe's drug-dealing days. He doesn't know how they make their money now. He doesn't ask. He just waves and says hello when they drive past his Race Street apartment in Over-the-Rhine.

He's still talking to his friends, enjoying the warm September afternoon, when he notices a gray minivan slow to a stop 20 yards down the street.

Joe was born in Los Angeles and raised in Cincinnati's inner city. He has learned to be suspicious of slow-moving cars in rough neighborhoods, and his instincts tell him something is funny about that van.

Suddenly, a police car zips through an intersection to Joe's right. Then another and another.

In an instant, cops are everywhere.

"Get on the ground!"

"Get on the ground!"

The minivan door flies open, and more cops pour out, guns drawn.

"Out of the car! Now!"

Joe steps back, a gun pointed at him. "On the ground!"

Joe stretches out on the pavement, face down, arms extended. A cop pats Joe down while others drag his friends out of the car.

Joe's mind is racing. He knew this would happen, just knew it. One day he'd be minding his own business and get caught up in some trouble on the street. How would he ever explain this to Rhonda?

Just stay calm, Joe tells himself, they aren't here for me.

"Man, I'm clean," Joe says. "I got no warrants. I'm clean."

The cop pulls Joe's "offender ID" out of a pocket. The card with his mug shot was issued when he got out of prison.

The cop lets Joe stand up, but Joe can tell by the look on his face that he thinks he's got a bad guy.

"That's in my past," Joe says. "Check me out."

The cop goes back to the car and runs Joe's name through the computer. When he returns, he hands Joe his ID.

"You can go," he says.

Heading back to his apartment and Rhonda, Joe takes a last look at his friends in the back seat of a police cruiser. He can't stop thinking it could have been him.

A few hours later, sitting with Rhonda, his stomach is still in knots.

His friends were charged with drug trafficking and related crimes. They both face years in prison.

Joe remembers his last drug deal, when he got greedy and decided to buy cocaine from a new supplier. The supplier turned out to be a snitch, and Joe found himself face down on the pavement in handcuffs.

"Man," Joe tells Rhonda, "it was just like my bust."

He shudders at the thought of going back to prison. The first time he was in his early 20s, and it was no big deal. He did his time, and when he got out went right back to dealing.

But being locked up the last time was different. The younger inmates were more violent, less predictable. Joe held his own, but three years of looking over his shoulder wore him down.

"They weren't after you," Rhonda assures him. Even now, almost 10 months removed from prison, Rhonda is still the one helping him out. She knows him better than anyone.

"I know," Joe says, "but it scared the bejesus out of me."

Joe picks up his cell phone and punches in the number for his boss, Ron Ward. He's starting to worry that Ron forgot to pick him up on the way to the construction site.

"You coming?" he asks. "OK. I'll be here."

Rhonda is next to him on the couch. She's wearing a dark blue shirt and pants, her uniform for her new job as an aide at a Kentucky nursing home. Rhonda watches Joe root around the apartment for his work boots.

"Don't wear your brown boots," she says. "Wear your black boots to work."

"I know," Joe says, yawning.

They're both tired. In the past few weeks, they have settled into a routine of going to work, running errands, coming home. They are saving some money now. Rhonda is talking about moving to a better neighborhood.

Joe lights a cigarette and takes a long drag. He leans over the coffee table and begins to eat his breakfast: a bottle of Sprite and a package of Snackwell cream cookies.

"It's almost 11," Joe says. "Your bus is going to be here soon."

"I know," Rhonda says.

Joe is getting the feel of this life. After a decade of drug dealing and prison, he still misses the money and status of dealing - but less every day.

Now he would miss Rhonda even more.

Rhonda gets up and goes to the window, looking for her bus. Joe watches her, her body silhouetted in the light of a gray October morning. Ran with him through his drug-dealing days, stood by him through three years of prison. But she's more now. She's his partner.

"You'd better get out there," Joe says.

He follows her to the door and kisses her goodbye. From the window, he watches her get on the bus.

Brochures from the public health clinic are spread out on the coffee table.

Joe picks up a form letter from the doctor. He's read it at least a dozen times since Rhonda brought it home yesterday, but he has a hard time getting past the first sentence.

Your pregnancy test today was POSITIVE.

Rhonda is pregnant again, about two months along.

"Put out that cigarette," she says, walking in from the kitchen.

Joe obliges. After she had a miscarriage in May, Joe realized how important it was to Rhonda to start a family. Losing the baby devastated her. She wants to do everything right this time.

It's Oct. 30, Joe's 30th birthday. The uncertainty of their life ahead still scares him, but not as much as the last time Rhonda got pregnant.

"You know," he says, "we'll be set by June."

He runs through a mental checklist of things to do before the baby is born: His job is still unreliable, so he has to get a new one. They need to move to a safer neighborhood. And he needs to successfully complete parole.

Joe is getting nervous again. He taps his pack of Newports and heads to the kitchen to smoke.

Rhonda comes home from the clinic three weeks later with pictures from her sonogram.

"Look at our little baby!" she says.

Joe turns the fuzzy black-and-white images over in his hands, squinting at them. Together, they point out tiny legs and arms and hands. "He's got a big head," Joe says, laughing.

"They think it's a boy," Rhonda says.

She stares at the pictures, amazed. "This is our baby."

Later, with the pictures still spread out before him, Joe calls his mom in California.

He calls only every few weeks because she spends most of the time lecturing him about staying out of trouble.

Since he told her about the baby, she's been even tougher on him.

"They say we're having a boy," Joe tells her.

"You've got to grow up and be a man," his mom says. "You don't want that baby growing up knowing his dad would rather sell drugs than work."

She asks him if he remembers what it was like growing up without his father in the house. Joe says he does.

"Do you want that for your son or daughter?"

"No, Ma," Joe says.

Rhonda is curled up on the couch, dozing. It's an early December morning, and she and Joe are both off work today.

"I'm hungry," Rhonda says. "It's your turn to cook, baby."

Joe sighs and heads to the kitchen. He returns to the family room about 15 minutes later with a plate of bacon and eggs, a cigarette dangling from his mouth.

"Don't you light that in here," Rhonda says, her hand on her belly.

As she eats, Rhonda tells Joe about her cousin's new home in Kentucky. Rhonda visited her yesterday and walked through the half-built house. It was just a skeleton of wood and brick, but she could make out bedrooms and bathrooms and the living room.

"It's a dream house," Rhonda says.

She looks around their apartment. There's a draft coming through the cracked window in the family room, and every now and then she can smell a gas leak from the heater.

"I ain't going to have a baby here," she says. "We need to move."

Joe nods while chewing his bacon. He knows they need to move, but money is still a worry.

Rhonda says her cousin got in an escrow program that helped her save money for a down payment on the house. She says they need to move to a new apartment in a better neighborhood, and then start saving for a house.

Joe nods again.

"You know," Rhonda says, "some places won't let you co-sign a lease because of your record."

Joe looks up from his breakfast, puzzled.

"I'm doing good now," he says. "That's discrimination."

"No, it ain't," Rhonda says. "That's a choice you made with your life."

Bam, bam, bam.

Joe rubs the sleep from his eyes and heads for the door. It's early morning, Christmas Eve. Much too early for this.

"Who is it?" Joe shouts.

"It's your parole officer!"

Joe leads Sweeney into the family room, where he and Rhonda have been sleeping because of a gas leak in the bedroom.

"Well," Sweeney says, "I'm going to talk to my supervisor about you next week."

He says Joe has completed his drug counseling program, gotten a job, passed every drug test he's taken, shown up for mandatory meetings, paid most of his supervision fees and, most important, stayed out of trouble for almost a year.

Those may not seem like major accomplishments to an average person, Sweeney says, but for Joe it's a big step in the right direction.

"Instead of keeping you on supervision for three years," Sweeney says, "I'm going to recommend we end it after one year. We're cutting you loose."

Joe raises his arms and shouts. "Allllllll right!"

Rhonda gets up, and they all walk into the kitchen.

"Is he ready?" Sweeney asks her.

"I think so," she says.

Joe smiles and hugs her. He puts his hand on her growing stomach. For the first time in as long as he can remember, he doesn't have to be afraid of the police any more. He doesn't have to worry about prison.

Instead, he sees a life, a house, a good neighborhood, cooking out with friends on a back porch. He sees himself and Rhonda with a son. A son who watches his father go to work in the morning, come home at night. How far away all this seemed.

"Congratulations," Sweeney says.

Joe shakes his hand and walks him to the door. He locks the dead bolt and turns back to Rhonda, smiling.

"Merry Christmas," she says.

A few days after Christmas, Rhonda calls a landlord about an apartment she and Joe like in Westwood.

The rent is only a little more than they're paying now, and the neighborhood is safer than Over-the-Rhine. She and Joe want to tour the place.

But near the end of the conversation, the landlord says he'll need $30 for background checks.

"I don't want no felons or criminals here," he says.

Rhonda had hoped she could sign a lease herself. She wanted to leave Joe and his past out of the equation. She tells the landlord she'll call back later to set up an appointment, but she knows she never will.

She hangs up and tells Joe they won't be moving there.

He shakes his head.

"We'll keep looking," he says. "Just keep looking."

E-mail dhorn@enquirer.com

Part 1: As parolee builds new life, temptations of old abound
Part 2: Sometimes the old life still pulls at parolee

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