Years before Facebook, if I wondered about some of my old middle and high school classmates, I could always check the Illinois Inmate Search. It was a handy tool to keep track of some folks I hadn’t kept up with after leaving home. It couldn’t help me with my eighth grade science partner, who was in federal prison for drug trafficking (although just recently released — apparently the federal government now has a tool, as well, but it’s much less informative and doesn’t have pictures.) But for the state level offenses, I was rather adept at guessing who I’d find.
I’m not surprised. Rockford, IL was in the midst of a drug war in the 1990s. Crack arrived sometime around 1991, and between 1992 and 1995, I was confounded to watch kid after kid I knew from the arcades transform from goofy adolescent middle schooler to crack dealing drop outs. The mother of one of them, a long time alcoholic, began smoking crack herself. She’d never been the mother who’d make sandwiches for visiting kids, but it was shocking nevertheless the first time I realized she’d stolen money from my school bag. I didn’t know moms could do that.
The kid who broke my heart was the goofiest at first. I tried so hard to do something. I spent the equivalent of weeks on the phone with him as his stepfather began the process of cutting his mother out of their lives. I took his stepdad’s side, arguing against my friend’s “he’s not my real father” defenses. Being, you know, fourteen years old myself, I didn’t tell any of the responsible adults in my own life the extent of my distress. Within a year, his stepdad was losing the battle for C. Mr. S. always worked at least two jobs, caring for four children, only two of them his own. No matter how many hours he worked, though, it was never enough.
When we were about fifteen, C’s mother devised this plan for how her son could come live with her. Shortly after that, a mutual friend from his neighborhood called me to tell me C had been arrested. I thought maybe that would be a turning point. It was not. It was only the first stone in the downhill cascade. My heart cracked. I was sixteen by then and able to drive myself to his stepdad’s house after C’d been released into his custody. Looking back now as an adult, I realize C was proud he’d been arrested. No one made fun of him anymore.
One thing never changed, however, in all the years I knew C. Every day, at 4:30, he watched Power Rangers. Before I could drive, we’d be on the phone. I’d be doing my math or Latin homework while he watched Power Rangers. If we went to a playground, he’d want to act out Power Rangers. This didn’t change throughout high school. I felt, for the longest time, that as long as he maintained his love for Power Rangers, we were still kids. Nothing was over yet. Roles weren’t set. The future could change.
The last time I saw C was after my sophomore year in college. He was on probation, and I’d gotten him a job via my internship with the Hull House. He screwed it up. I went to his apartment to yell at him. We went for lunch, and he promised he’d change. At some point that day I asked him, “Do you still watch Power Rangers?”
“No,” he laughed.
I didn’t say anything, but I never saw him again.