By Keith O'Brien
JANUARY 5, 1998: Bernard Barry stands on the street in front of his godmother's apartment in Lawndale on Chicago's Southwest Side. He's under the hood of his 1983 Buick LeSabre station wagon once again, toying with something, fiddling with valves or tubes that he knows little about. The beat-up, rusting car lurches and shakes as he gets behind the wheel and revs the engine into the silent night. Thick blue smoke pours from the exhaust pipe and disappears like a whisper in the wind of this early winter's eve. The smell of gasoline permeates the cold. He slams the car hood shut, steps back onto the curb, rubs his huge, crusty hands together and stares at the old Buick. Bernard Barry loves his car. It's where he'll be sleeping tonight.
Barry has been sleeping in the back of the Buick since mid-September, when he bought the car for $390. The station wagon is a lumbering wreck and a total mess. The back is cluttered with sacks of clothes, scattered piles of opened mail and tangles of blankets and sheets. Barry peers into the car with his deep brown eyes -- sincere, thoughtful saucers so dark they're almost black -- and then up into the yellow street lights of the starless city night. It's going to be another cold one. He can feel the wind picking up. He will be doing a lot of thinking before sleep will come tonight.
"A lot of stuff be goin' through my head," he says of the nights he spends lying in the back of his car. "I may be lookin' at a couple of bills I owe or thinking about where my next meal is going to come from. I mean, actually, how I am goin' to make ends meet." Barry doesn't know how much longer he can take this. He doesn't know how much longer he can survive without a job and a roof over his head. He has been back in Chicago as a free man for nine months now, after twenty-two years locked away in Illinois state prisons. But ironically, painfully, the freedom is killing him. Life on the outside is making him feel less like a free man with each passing day. He sleeps in the car and washes up each morning inside his 81-year-old godmother's cramped, rodent-infested apartment, where he used to sleep on the couch before he bought the Buick. Then he hits the beat, calling people he knows for work, flipping through the want ads in the newspaper. But lately, since he lost his job at the Tuffy Auto Service Center around the corner from his godmother's house, he is having little luck. Lately, Barry realizes, with an increasing sense of urgency, that he is a prisoner of his past.
Bernard Barry is a murderer. In two days in the summer of 1975, he killed two people -- one with his hands in a scuffle over money with a guy he knew in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant at Roosevelt and Central Park; the other the next night with a gun issued by the security guard company he was working for at the time. As he explains that second killing, he and his girlfriend were out the night of July 4 with some of her friends when a motorcycle gang of five or six white guys pulled up at the corner of Ashland and Milwaukee and called Barry a nigger. If there was one thing Barry's dad had taught him, it was not to let anybody walk on him. When the motorcycle dudes returned for a second and then a third drive-by, Barry got nervous and let loose a couple of rounds. Later, when police arrested him at his home, he knew for the first time that he had hit somebody.
Barry is not proud of the incidents. In fact, he should never have been issued the gun he used to kill the white guy on the motorcycle that July night. He had changed his name to Anthony Singletary in order to get that job about one month earlier because of the police record he had already compiled in his younger days. From 1968 to 1972, Barry served time for aggravated battery with a weapon. The charges stemmed from a fight he had in a Lawndale bar over a woman he was dating at the time.
In Barry's mind-where right and wrong have little to do with the law, but which still have a great deal to do with who he is-the reason for that incident in the tavern was simple, perhaps too simple. "He was messin' with my lady, you know?" Barry says of the man from that night, still somewhat indignant. "I get my feelings involved too easy."
But he was young then, and his temper was faster and more venomous than the bite of a startled rattlesnake. Now, Barry says, things are different, and in one way, at least, he's right. Barry is 52 years old now, more than two decades removed from the real world, which incidentally, didn't bother to wait around for him as he rotted away in prison cells from Joliet to Danville. His once-proud Lawndale neighborhood is now a haven for gangs. His friends are dead or gone. His family members scattered. He is sorry for what he did back in July 1975 and ready to get on with his life. But to most people, that admission carries little weight.
In the eyes of society, Barry is an old man with few marketable skills. Just another black man with a record not to be trusted by those who know better. He is a murderer once and for all.
But don't tell Barry that, if you know what's good for you. He wants nothing to do with those people who can't see him for who he is now. When Barry drags himself out of the tangle of sheets in the back seat of the Buick every morning and plods inside his godmother's home to see how she is doing, the man he sees in the mirror as he washes up is not the person that others see. "Some, when they found out I was out, were, well, 'How long you gonna be out this time?' Because they know I been in before. I say, 'What you mean? That all you can say?'" Barry argues defiantly, yet quietly as always. "You know, if you gonna think negative of me all the time, I don't need to be around you. And I let 'em know. Have a nice day. I'm gone. Others say, 'Man, you should've been out. Lookin' good.' Stuff like that."
After he checks on his godmother -- "She ain't eatin' healthy these days, with all that junk food" -- Barry begins his day like any other unemployed man, dying for a job and a chance to prove what he can do. He buys the papers -- no small investment for a man without work, savings or any idea where lunch is coming from that day -- and begins his search anew. The only problem is, options are scarce for people like Bernard Barry. Last week, responding to an ad asking for temporary laborers, Barry spent the whole day just sitting there at the temp office, waiting for them to call his name. They never did. "There's only so much I can do," he says, shaking his head. "I can buy all the newspapers and look in the employment sections and make phone calls like I do. But a lot of them places say, 'Fill out an application and we'll get back to you.' Then, they leave you hangin'." Then there's the problem with the applications themselves. They ask for a resume, for experience, for information about past convictions. Barry only has one of the three. Although one can get hired with a criminal record, especially through services run by nonprofit agencies for ex-offenders like Chicago's Safer Foundation, time served usually means a life sentence of mediocre jobs, if any job at all.
"People are afraid. Afraid once you have an offender label put on you. Afraid that as coworkers and neighbors you put their lives in jeopardy because of your presence. They're afraid of the unknown," says Dan Coughlin, the executive vice president of the Safer Foundation, a largely federally funded agency that helps ex-offenders readjust to the real world. "It doesn't take many cop shows to realize that an offender is someone to be distrusted and watched. It is not a question of if, but a question of when they'll victimize again."
Statistically and realistically speaking, the question of when is a valid one. For Barry and other ex-offenders like him, the road of the straight and narrow is long, uphill both ways, and littered with speed bumps and potholes. The 1996 recidivism data, which documents ex-offenders who are released from prison only to return again for another crime, states that nearly 35 percent of all paroled offenders wind up back behind bars. In Illinois, that number is 42 percent.
However, in spite of society's prejudice, the statistics and his current situation, Barry remains determined, even hopeful, that he will overcome the circumstances which have complicated his life. Recently, about five months ago, after washing his clothes at the Laundromat near his godmother's home, Barry ran into a nice young woman named Michelle and they began talking. Michelle, a 34-year-old nurse's assistant, said she didn't want to play games. Bernard said that was fine with him and he began to fall into something reminiscent of love. Then, she broached the subject of marriage.
"That don't usually happen," he says with a smile as wide and serene as floating clouds. "She asked me [to marry her]." So Bernard stepped up and bought his lady a mail-order wedding ring from a Fingerhut catalog for about as much as his precious car cost. Barry isn't exactly sure where they plan to go from there, but he is adamant that he is not going back to prison.
"You know how people say they don't want to resort to something that they did in the old days?" he explains. "I don't want none of that. I'm not going back."
The Safer Foundation specializes in helping people like Barry achieve that goal. Coughlin says the reason for high recidivism rates is simple: There is little stability or possibility for ex-offenders in our society today. And the average parolee is grossly unprepared by the prisons to face the world once again. The situation, Coughlin says, is akin to waking up one day in a foreign land with no understanding of where you are or what you need to do now that you are there.
"You go somewhere and be confined for six or seven years, hypothetically speaking," explains 61-year-old Fred Bobby Gore. "Then one day, the warden meets you at the gate, gives you $50 and says, 'Get outta here and don't come back,'" continues the one-time leader in the Conservative Vice Lords gang, who began working for Safer Foundation after serving nearly ten years on a 1969 murder conviction. "So you go buy a bus ticket to get to where you're going. What's that? Twenty dollars? Then you have those penitentiary shoes on and everyone can see where you're from. So you go buy some shoes, for what? Fifteen dollars, maybe? Bottom end. Then you get back in your community short of money. If there's no support system there in terms of housing or a job to go to the next day, that's a crisis situation there."
Mary Enoch, a Park Forest woman who met Barry in prison in 1969 while she was working as a volunteer visiting inmates, says that Bernard is trustworthy, hardworking, focused and "honest as the day is long." She allowed him to stay at her house for several months after he was paroled and still now, every Sunday, he takes the Metra to her house to do odd jobs, which both Barry and Enoch say he does extremely well. Barry would drive, but unfortunately, the car isn't running lately. Enoch says that Barry's violent past is simply that -- the past. It's the present, that she worries about. "Just like anyone who has been gone for twenty-two years," she explains, "it's hard for him to make decisions and plan wisely."
Plans, yes, Barry has plans. First and foremost, he wants a job and a bed. Both Enoch and Gore argue that Barry could at least solve the issue of a bed by going to a shelter. However, Barry tried that. There was a curfew and heroin hypes hanging around, he says. It felt like prison all over again. So he sleeps in the car, wakes in the morning and walks the beat, looking for work. If he can get work, he thinks, he can save money. And if he can save money, he can get a place. That's the way it's going to happen, Barry believes. That's the way it's got to happen because he's not going back to prison. No way, no how. Nevertheless, Bernard Barry is not out of the woods. Not by a long shot.
Just recently, Barry had a brush with his old self -- the one from his past. While working at the Tuffy auto service center, he says his manager was fooling around with the woman who had proposed to him weeks earlier. He loved her and this man was messin' with his woman. As had happened in the past, first Barry's feelings got hurt. Then he got mad. For whoever he is, Barry says you don't see him going around fooling with another man's lady. The fact that his manager crossed that line nearly got both of them in a world of hurt. "I snapped. I came real close to doing something to him. I ain't gonna tell you no lie. Because my feelings was deeply involved... Let's just say I'd had [a gun] that day. He thought I had one but I didn't. The way I backed off and zipped my coat down, he thought I had one. I faked him out. I didn't have nothin'. I didn't even have a toothpick on me," Barry explains, moving his big hands slowly, deliberately as he talks. "I believe if I had [a gun] on me, I would have been in serious trouble because the way I was thinking at that time, I probably would have did something."
Instead, Barry walked away. Stormed out, actually. And by the time he sat down inside his godmother's house and made several circles of the blocks in the neighborhood, the anger had passed. No shots were fired, although both Barry and the manager wound up losing their jobs, if not over the dispute, then because of growing problems at the shop in general. Barry, for the time being anyway, remains very serious about not going back to prison -- a determination that perhaps saved two lives inside the auto shop that day.
Gore, who met Barry while they were both doing time in Joliet, says that Bernard is not much different from most of the 300-plus guys he sees at Safer Foundation every month. But he also understands that there is a limit to what any man -- good, bad, criminal or honest -- can withstand before the bottom drops out. "Most young guys, from my own personal experience, want to be reformed. They would rather do something positive than do something negative," he contends. "But given the reality, they're not going to starve out there on the street when other people have a sandwich in their hand or fifty cents in their pocket. See what I'm saying? They go for what they know." And then they go back to prison.
Bernard Barry looks around his neighborhood in the street-lit darkness as that winter wind kicks cold air into his face. There used to be a church over there. Down the street there was a movie theatre. Today, the church lot is vacant and that old theatre is long gone. The gangs rule this no-man's land now.
There's a dope spot on that corner and again outside the lounge just down the street from where he used to work, changing oil and fiddling with engines. The dope spots are everywhere. He looks at his car and then up into the streetlights. It's going to be a cold one tonight.
"Things have done changed in the last twenty-two years," he says sadly. "It's like another world out here. A different planet. But I just need a little help, something to push me in the right direction. I'm not asking for a lot of assistance or no hand-outs," he pauses. "Just something."
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