THE LAST HUSTLE
A True Story
As told to Shanti Einolander
This book is dedicated to all those incarcerated, whether in prisons of brick and stone or prisons of the mind. If you are earnestly looking inward for the key to eternal freedom, you will be rewarded. This is the truth.
Throughout my 23 years of incarceration, there were many moments, often in the middle of the night, when I would cry out to my Lord, the only one I knew, and ask to be given a simple life. I sincerely prayed to let this cup of bitterness, confusion, and the insanity of repeatedly going in and out of prison be taken from me.
My prayers in these moments were not eloquent or specific to any certain set of circumstances. I just wanted to be a normal person, a man who was respected and who respected others. This desire was deeply embedded in my heart, and my heart would be searched and read by my creator and dispensation granted.
Yet while my heart was saying one thing, my actions would be telling an altogether different story. As soon as I’d get out, I would be faced with the need to survive and so inevitably go back to the only world I knew. Crime.
That is, until the awakening …
It was not easy recounting this story, and in no way is the writing meant to glorify a life of crime. Rather, the goal was to recapture the vibrant and seductive energy of the culture of those times.
I humbly ask forgiveness from all those men and women, families and business owners, whose lives were affected by my greed and disconnectedness as a thief, robber, con man, and pimp.
All praise and thanks be to all the saints, teachers, and lovers of truth who gave and are giving their lives in service to the liberation of all. For if you all had not drunk from the cup of illusion, there would be no redemption for any of us.
May all beings know peace.
“All our personal stories,
however complex and multi-layered,
however deeply implanted in our genetic structure
are only stories.
“The truth of who we are is not a story.
The vastness and the closeness of that truth
precedes all stories.
“When we overlook the truth in allegiance to some story,
we miss a precious opportunity for self-recognition.”
Steel shackles cut into my wrists and ankles and I had to take a piss. Would this bus ride ever end? Did I want it to? Truth was, I was scared shitless. I was scared to death.
We’d been riding for eighteen hours straight, crisscrossing the countryside, dropping men off at one institution and picking others up at the next. The moonless night outside my window revealed nothing but blackness, a blackness that did nothing to ease the growing panic inside my heart.
It was January 1980, the dead of winter, and there was no heat on the bus. The only thing warming my sorry ass was the fire raging along my nerves and inside my head. Even my bladder was on fire.
It’s too damn much time! my mind screamed into the darkness. This place is crazy dangerous. What if I never make it out?
I was thirty-two years old and facing the longest stretch of time in all my years of hustling, an unthinkable forty years. I would serve a minimum of ten before ever laying eyes on a parole board. All the time I’d been in the game, all the different jails I’d seen the inside of, somehow I’d never really believed I’d be headed here, the “butcher shop,” what every prisoner dreaded the most. What a helluva name to hang on a prison. Finally the worst was upon me.
The men were making their usual racket, chattering away and yelling back and forth. Sweat and stink, pain and fear, oozed from every pore, filling the inside of the bus with an acrid stench like old cigarette butts. I had no idea who the guy shackled next to me was and I didn’t care, lost as I was in my own private nightmare.
I felt it long before I saw it, that hellhole of a prison. Its heavy energy of despair emanated for miles outside the razor-wired walls and armed guard towers. Rounding that last bend in the woods I looked up past the driver and got a glimpse of what was to be my new home, Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary, well known as one of the most dangerous maximum-security prisons in the nation. Same as every other prison, high-intensity lights defined its perimeter, flooding the countryside for miles in unnatural brightness.
My lips and tongue felt as dry as an old cowhide left on a cracked desert floor; my chest constricted, so I could only suck in little sips of air at a time. Taking a deep breath didn’t seem like a good idea anyway. That might make me relax, and this surely was no time for relaxing. All my senses were winding up into a fever pitch of self-preservation.
Suddenly the whole of the prison came into focus. Shit! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Looming above us was Dracula’s castle, huge, ancient, and sinister. The memory of every scary movie I’d ever seen as a child came rushing back at me. Given the amount of fear I’d been generating for the last eighteen hours, Barbie and Ken’s plastic toy home would’ve looked like a monster house. Almost imperceptibly, the conversations of the men around me began coming into focus.
“Man, they got guys in there who’ll just walk up to you and start stabbing,” one guy was saying. My eyes traced the long white scar traveling from the side of his nose to the nape of his neck. He looked like he knew what he was talking about.
“Gotta get you a knife,” he went on. “Gotta be ready to protect your ass.”
My already crazed mind shifted into overdrive. Somebody’s gonna try and stab me? I don’t know nobody here! How am I gonna get a knife?
“Yeah,” another chimed in, “they got mobsters in there who’ll eat lesser cons for lunch.”
But I’m just a little ole chili pimp! A sneak thief. Plus I’m out of my home territory. They’re gonna eat me alive!
Intense light suddenly flooded the inside of the bus. The lines of fear and tension etched on every man’s face jumped out in stark relief. Eyes wide, we were a herd of captive animals frozen in the prison’s headlights. Like a Polaroid snapshot, that instant of collective emotion would be forever branded onto the desolate field of my heart—anger, fear, frustration, doubt, anxiety, hopelessness, faith, prayer, wishing, hoping, wanting to cry, wanting to yell, wanting to scream, wanting to . . .
My jaws clenched. My fists clenched. The muscles in my shoulders corded up like old vines. I stopped breathing.
I felt like I was being squeezed ten miles deep in an ocean of dread, drowned in an infinite, mind-freezing fear of the unknown.
Stealing The Key
“Open the door to my cage,”
said the wild man to the prince.
“The King has forbidden it,” said the prince,
“and I cannot even if I wish,
for I have not the key.”
“It lies under thy mother’s pillow,”
said the wild man.
“Thou canst get it there.”
—from Iron John, The Brothers Grimm
Peaches ’n Sweets
What path had led me to be trembling before the gates of hell? I’d have to say it all began with a hunger for sweets and the desire to impress a girl.
My first act of thieving was in rural Arkansas, living in my grandmother’s house. It was 1955, so I must have been seven years old at the time. We called it the “shotgun house.” Reason was, if you took a shotgun and fired it through the front door, the buckshot would go clean out the back, hitting nothing cause it was just a straight box, one big 20-by-20 foot room smelling of old bacon grease.
Four corner cinder blocks held the house two feet off the ground, leaving plenty of room for the chickens to run back and forth underneath. I used to watch them through the cracks in the bare wood floor. Newsprint papered the walls from floor to ceiling, both for insulation and to keep the bugs out. Grandma used to catch the mice that ran up our walls and drown them in a bucket. A big potbellied stove stood dead center of the room.
In the back was Grandma’s bed where we slept together nights. Grandma always slept on her back with her knees propped up. I did the same. I mimicked everything Grandma did. I wanted to have tiny Benjamin Franklin glasses that sat on the end of my nose just like hers. Grandma was also known to carry a pistol in her waistcoat. Eventually I would grow up to do the same. She was our protector, and the pistol was just part of her wardrobe.
In Grandma’s day, white racist men lynched and killed niggers on a regular basis, yet Grandma, known to the rest of the world as Ollie Ashford, had little fear of white folks. I once heard a story about my grandmother walking down a country road with my mother and me as a toddler. Some young white boys had driven by in a pickup truck, yelling “Niggers!” at which point Grandma promptly turned around, pulled her dress up to show them her butt, and told them to kiss her black ass.
I’d been living with Grandma since I was four. I didn’t know where my mother was, nor my brothers and sisters, nor why I wasn’t with them. Only later would I find out that while I’d been living down in Arkansas with Grandma, my momma had been living up north in Kansas City, as had my auntie, Equator Gold. A lot of people had moved up north from Arkansas to try and make a better life. Apparently, I’d stayed with Grandma because I was the oldest and because she needed somebody to help her.
Saturday mornings I’d get up and go straight to Peaches and Pumpkin’s house to watch Tarzan or cowboy movies on the TV. Peaches was a little older than me, and I was sweet on her. I was always stealing glances on her, admiring her dark, curly hair, and the way it shined like silk. Pumpkin was my age. I loved looking at their skin with its high yellow tones, Peaches, a light caramel with just a hint of blushing red, and Pumpkin, the deeper orange of a pumpkin. I wished I could live with them.
The fact that they had a TV was just one of the stark differences between our house and theirs. One day it dawned on me: Wait a minute; these people got a picture box, whereas we don’t have S-H-I-T at our place. Not even a radio. That’s when I realized we were poor.
All down our dirt road stood beautiful white houses with big front porches. Even Cousin William across the road had cows and chickens. He had a cotton field and pecan trees, which by local black standards made him rich. All we had were some chickens, Grandma’s vegetable garden, and a pond with thousands of mosquitoes and the pointy heads of water moccasins skimming the surface. The grown-ups said that just one tiny bite from a water moccasin could strike you dead, but that never kept us kids from swimming on a hot day. Our water came from a well in the yard with an old big-handled pump. It took all my weight to bring that handle down.
Peaches, Pumpkin, and I had to walk a mile or so down the dirt road to the highway to catch the school bus over to our one-room black school. We didn’t own a car. Anywhere we wanted to go, we had to walk.
Next to the bus stop stood a little candy shack, Buck’s Country Store, and here’s where the thieving comes in.
One day I went into Grandma’s purse and lifted one of her silver coins. It was a quarter. I didn’t know what a quarter was or how much it could buy, but I knew I loved candy. Plus it was a way to impress upon Peaches and Pumpkin that I was worth having around. Little did I know it would become the genesis of a lifetime of stealing, always driven by the desire not only to have something of my own, but also to feel like I was somebody important.
Stealing from Grandma’s purse became routine. It was exciting because it was my little secret. It felt innocent. There was no guilt or fear. All of that would come later on.
One day when I couldn’t find any silver coins in Grandma’s purse, I took a green. That was the day I got caught.
We ran all the way to the store where I laid the money up on the counter and told the clerk, like I always did, “Give me some candy.”
“All right, Kenny Dale,” he said, same as he always did, only this time he gave me back a huge pile of candy, a bunch of “greens,” and some change. That’s when I knew I’d gone too far. We all knew it. I started feeling panicky, trapped just like one of Grandma’s rats.
I shoved the money at Peaches because she was the oldest. I thought she’d know what to do with it. Peaches ran home and straightaway gave the money to Grandma. Next thing I knew she was packing me up.
We walked in silence all the way down to the Greyhound bus station at the end of the road, a little boy, with a tiny little suitcase, holding his Grandma’s hand. It was clear that Grandma loved me, but she had boundaries, rules and regulations, and this obviously was the consequence of breaking them. She simply stuck me on a bus to Kansas City, Missouri, no trial, no discussion, my first conviction and sentencing for thieving.
I was devastated. I didn’t know how to broach what had happened, and so we never talked about it. As a kid I kept everything inside. I didn’t even know how to cry.
I never left my seat on that long bus ride, nor talked to a single person. I was a little boy, and I was all alone.
Yes Jesus! Praise the lord! Glory! Glory! Glory!”
There she goes again! I thought, shivering and peeking into the kitchen from the safety of my little add-on bedroom.
The mysterious force moving inside my mother on Sunday mornings was my first indoctrination into spirit. I would awaken to the sounds of pots rattling in the tiny kitchen and Momma softly singing her gospel music. Mahalia Jackson was her favorite singer, Amazing Grace one of her favorite songs.
That Sunday morning had started with a gentle Just a Closer Walk with Thee… Next thing I knew it was “Yes Lord! Thank you Jesus!” yelping out of her like she was happy just to be alive, grateful for all that she had. Whenever us kids heard that, we’d know there were a lot more “yes Lords” on the way. I braced myself cause I knew Momma was getting ready to “get happy.”
Within seconds she was gone, all her words rushing out in one long fusion of religious fervor. “Yes Lord! Hallelujah! Thank you Jesus! Glory! Glory! Glory!”
Whenever my mother got happy, she might throw herself down on the floor. She might scream or cry. She would be reaching a place inside her soul where there was nothing but happiness that Jesus was in charge.
Her complete infusion with the Holy Spirit scared us. We didn’t understand why she was jumping up and down being thankful when she was the only person in the room. I’d seen it in the church house, when the preacher would preach the people into a frenzy of emotion. The women would suddenly flip out and go running down the aisles blurting out their hallelujahs. Eventually they’d fall out on the floor right in front of the preacher, legs kicking the air in a riot of silk stockings and petticoats flying everywhere.
All of that was crazy enough, but when Momma started doing it all alone in the kitchen, we just didn’t know what to do. Normally the ushers were right there to grab and hold on to her. I was always afraid she might not come back from that place she was visiting inside herself and we needed her.
After a while she started to wind down, getting quieter and quieter. I knew what was coming next: “Kenny Dale, get up boy and get ready for church!”
My mother, Mrs. Geraldine Scott, never took to dressing frilly except on Sundays, when she’d break out her fanciest hats, gloves, purses, and perfumes. Those hats were a woman’s sig-
nature piece back in the day, gigantic and colorful, with ribbons, bows, swirls, feathers, and all manner of plumage.
Most of the time, day or night, Momma could be found in the kitchen in her turquoise polyester pants and maroon blouse, cooking, canning vegetables, or brewing up some honey wine. To me her Sunday morning transformation from a poor, hard-working mother and cook into this beautiful woman I hardly recognized was almost beyond belief.
Momma was short and round, and although I’m not short, everybody always said I was the spitting image of my mother. I was never stoic like her though. Except for those occasions when she was feeling infused with the Holy Spirit, Momma had that same reserved manner Grandma Ollie did. I knew she loved me, but hugging and physical affection were never a part of the picture. It never even occurred to me that I could hug or kiss on her.
My mother was a paradox. Anyone looking at her would mostly see this warm, loving, God-fearing woman. But if I made a mistake, a stern, cold, unyielding side would come out, and I was terrified of it.
Momma loved us in her own way. She loved us by cooking for us. She loved us by giving us a house. She loved us by disciplining us. But the physical love I so desperately craved was just not there.
Why was my mother so serious? Day in and day out she had plenty of worries on her mind. There were seven of us kids. I was the first, then came Cynthia and Lemuel, who had a different father; then Reggie, Lashonda, Maurice, and Robin, all belonging to my stepfather, Bob Scott.
Momma was completely dependent upon my alcoholic stepfather to bring home a paycheck. The many days he came home drunk usually ended in a fight. On those days he’d be so drunk he’d park nose into the curb, ass out on the street. We could always tell by the quality of his parking how difficult our night was gonna be.
From the day I first arrived in Kansas City at the age of seven to the day I got sent away again at fifteen, the one constant in our lives was the AME, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Momma kept us going every Saturday, Sunday, and Wednesday.
The church bus came and picked us up every Sunday morning, even those mornings Momma had already gotten happy, ’cause she never got so happy she couldn’t get ready for church.
I was in all the church plays, and one Easter Sunday my part in the play was to read a single verse from the Bible: Timothy 2:15. On stage that day I experienced a rare moment of total happiness. I felt good about myself because I had memorized that verse, and I knew I’d be able to repeat it. The stage felt like home, as if I belonged up in front of people, speaking The Word. The clapping of the audience was my confirmation. It was the crowning moment of my childhood, and the only time I’d ever felt my mother and I were on the same page. In that moment, I was a servant of the Lord.
Out of all the stuff she had yelled at me, beat into me, and tried to get me to do or not do, the one golden nugget I was left with was that passage from Timothy 2:15—Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.
I’ve always had this image in my mind of a hobo leaving home with his little sack on a stick. In that sack was a nugget of food, which for me was that one passage from Timothy. I didn’t particularly understand its meaning at the time, yet it still resonated somewhere deep inside. Out of the hundreds of passages I studied as a youth, this was the one I know helped shape the man I am today. In my mind “rightly dividing the word of truth” would come to mean the same as “right discrimination.”
Throughout my life I would attempt to separate things out in my mind, to divide the circumstances of each situation according to what felt right and what felt wrong. Often it had more to do with intuition and self-preservation than any particular moral direction. I admit my interpretation of right from wrong could get pretty creative, because, after all, I was gonna be rightly dividing my way through thirty years as a hustler, thief, and pimp. I somehow conveniently left out the first part of that verse, which was: Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed.
All the same, my sorry-ass idea of rightly dividing stood me in good stead in the next decades of thieving, pimping, and hustling. I knew I couldn’t rob women, I knew it would be dumb to shoot the gorilla pimps who wanted to take over my girlfriend, and I knew I had to stay away from heroin. Somehow this little nugget I carried with me sustained me in small ways, kept a spark of conscience alive, until I was ready to understand the real meaning of right discrimination.
© 2011 Kenny Johnson, Non-Duality Press
All rights reserved. Used by permission.
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