By Gregory Jordan, an author and journalist
I remember standing with Willie Mays Aikens outside his halfway house in a hardscrabbled corner of Kansas City as night fell in June 2009. I was there to write a book about his life; he was merely trying to make sorts of his life. He would be late for sign-in in two minutes, but showed no urge to rush. He never rushed - his innate cool and Southern style made rushing inconceivable. But that night he seemed unnerved. Not nervous – never that, either. But unnerved at how he would provide for the woman who would soon be his wife, for a daughter at an expensive college, and for her younger sister who had her eyes set on other expensive colleges.
He was an ex-con, a month out of the slammer after learning the hard way what mandatory minimum sentencing is, and he had been offered a job on a road crew fixing potholes. He had two bad hips, two bad knees, an empty bank account, and a used car that broke down every other day. But he also had something he hadn’t had in over 14 years: freedom. And one more thing: spiritual cleanliness. He was not only drug free, not only did he have that cursed addiction tucked in under his hat where it belonged, but he also had what he called “a spiritual life.” He correlated it with God and churchgoing; I equated it with his boundless hope and joy.
As I walked him up the steps of the big brick building that night, I looked at my watch. He walked through the swinging doors, signed in, and the second hand on my wristwatch hit twelve as he put down the pen. 9 p.m. on the nose, and Mr. Cool Faith Hope Joy was heading to his bunk bed.
I walked to my rental car, and thought: if I were a betting man, I’d bet on him. He wants it. He can taste it. Even though they set him up and locked him up and came close to throwing away the key, he had somehow corrected himself. Not cured himself, but set a right and steady course, destination pending.