One day I was sitting in my living room watching something stupid on TV when I got an email from Ang. And it kind of threw me for a minute. She wanted to talk about inequality. Her own (not so unique) inequality. And honestly, though my parents work in the justice system and I have grown up hearing stories about lots of people who make mistakes, who have mental illnesses that prevent them from not making mistakes, and the people who make so many mistakes that they can never ever ever drag themselves out of the hole they’ve dug, this still tugged at me. Because Ang is so honest. Because Ang is a real person who is trying to lead a normal life. Because Ang is doing the best she can. Because she is me and you and that girl down the street who doesn’t even know what life is yet. And Ang’s story makes me breath catch in my throat, and it makes me feel vulnerable, and it’s challenging. So, here we go…
Sitting at a red light, a habitual glance in my rear-view mirror, and I see the blue cop car behind me. My blood runs cold, the light turns green as I slowly press down on the accelerator, hating how conspicuous the deep rumble of my truck’s engine is. I signal for a left hand turn, so does the cruiser. My hand is shaking, the ashes from my cigarette flaking everywhere, I’m too afraid to flick it out, to give him an excuse for pulling me over. I can feel my heartbeat in my eyes when his lights come to life, only to have him whip around me and tear down the street. Pulling over, I grip the steering wheel until I notice the cherry from my cigarette has fallen off and burned my hand. The pain doesn’t register because of the adrenaline, but I know it’ll hurt like hell in a little while. For now I just take comfort in the fact I’m not going to prison today.
See I’m a criminal. Ten years ago, in the throes of teenage (But still a legal adult) invincibility, I stole money, a lot of money from my workplace by falsifying returns. It started out because a friend’s girlfriend’s drug dealer was going to hurt her if she didn’t pay him, but once I helped him out, others came to me, and being stupid and naive, I wanted to help them too. The single mom who’s power was going to get shut off, in spite of working 50 hours a week. The old man who had to pick and choose what medications he got that month. The lonely guy who was painfully socially awkward got a puppy. I looked at myself as a modern day Robin Hood, taking from the soulless conglomerate who treated all of us like shit, and giving to the downtrodden. I never kept any money for myself, always giving it away to someone else, or using it to fund a pizza party. Even now, looking back at it, I know where I went wrong, where I got too greedy, took too much at once. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m sorry for what I did, I know it wasn’t right, and I regret it, but it’s human nature to look back at our mistakes and wonder how we could have avoided them.
To this day, I honestly have no idea how much I took. Two hundred here, a hundred fifty there, a few times a week, over almost a year. My last day, the day before I was going to leave for college, I got called into the back office, with the store managers. In hindsight, I see what they did, how they scared me, broke me down, alluded to having cameras that I KNEW didn’t exist, used words to confuse me. But I was young, I came from a good home, and I was scared shitless. They could have asked for anything and I would’ve given it to them.
The only thing I didn’t give them were the names of my “accomplices”. “We know you couldn’t do this on your own. You had to have help. If you tell us, we’ll go easy on you.” I knew it was true, since another manager had embezzled over $400,000 from the company a few months ago and was simply fired. I may have been a thief, but I wasn’t a snitch, and insisted no one else knew about what I did. Management quickly had a signed confession from me, detailing exactly how I took advantage of loopholes in the system. (Side note: Since I left, this multi-billion dollar company has totally changed the way they handle returns, based on the information I gave them.)
We hit a road block when they asked how much. Tears in my eyes, I blubbered “I don’t know…” I vividly remember the associate manager getting eye-level with me, a nasty grin on his face. “Write a number, and make sure it’s big enough, because if it’s not, if you lie to us, you will never see the light of day again.” So I scribbled down an obscenely large number $35,000-$50,000, just to make sure it was big enough. When they had to provide evidence, they included enough receipts to make it to that number. Most weren’t even on my cashier numbers, others weren’t even returns. My public defender was overworked, and my insistence that those weren’t right never got addressed, putting me on the hook for the full amount. Since I was a good kid, not even a traffic ticket, I got off with probation and restitution, but due to lack of dedication on my lawyer’s part I got stuck with two class B and two class A felonies, entering adulthood with the not so enviable title of “convicted felon”.
To look at me today, you’d never know, in fact I still have people who argue with me about it when it comes up. What, you think some suburbanite girl who’s almost thirty is going to lie about that crap? For what, street cred? It’s something stupid I did when I was a silly kid who wanted people to like her. It doesn’t define who I am, and fortunately, I live a totally normal life, still haven’t gotten a traffic ticket, and for the most part I never even give it a thought.
Until I lose a scholarship to college.
Until I can’t get a job for two years, because of that damn checkbox asking if you’d been convicted of a felony. Even McDonald’s won’t take you if it’s money related. Druggies are fine, but not thieves.
Until I can’t go to Australia, because they don’t accept felons, ironically.
Until I get a job at a place that didn’t have the checkbox and get dismissed two weeks later for “no reason”, walking out past people who can’t look me in the eye. This one happens repeatedly, never long enough for me to qualify for unemployment.
Until my husband admits he lives in fear of me being taken away.
Until I get a job in marketing for a dry cleaner, and some cashier I’ve never met in a different state is off in her drawer and since I’m the “career thief”, I get blamed.
Until my mother’s family un-invites her to family events. Because of “the Angela situation”. Similarly when they return invitations to my wedding with “RETURN TO SENDER” on them.
Until I think about having kids, and how my mistakes will affect their chances at having an amazing life. Have I hurt them too?
Until people find out I don’t vote, and decide to lambaste me for not fulfilling my patriotic duty. Do I shut up and take it, or do I tell them I’m a non-voting felon, thereby making them shut up and treat me like an imbalanced psychopath for the rest of our acquaintance?
Until I get pulled over because my vanity plate was easy for a police officer to check at a stop light.
I got arrested because there was a bench warrant out, due to an issue with my wage garnishment because we switched to a new payroll company. The city officer who arrested me was incredibly pleasant, didn’t cuff me, let me keep my cell phone, and we chatted about their new computer system. Since my crime was federal, after booking me at his local station, he had to turn me over to two sheriffs, who weren’t as friendly as he was. They manhandled me, put me in those four way shackles Hannibal Lecter wore, chafing my ankles and wrists raw. They stood back, arms crossed while I tried to get into the van, it was way too high for me to reach with the limited motion I had. While they laughed when I slipped and slammed my face on the step, they sobered up enough to put their hands on their guns when I wiped the blood off my lip. The younger one finally shoved me in the van, and ran my chains through hidden loops so little five foot nothing me couldn’t over power them. The older one locked the door of the little space I sit in, which looks suspiciously like a tall dog crate, and they take me to the infamous “county lockup”. Knowing I won’t get a chance to later, I sob quietly to myself. For the first time in my life, I feel worthless, sub-human.
My shoes are taken away and they give me worn used socks, and an inmate number I’ll have to memorize to make my one phone call. It will be my number for the rest of my life. I sit in a dark cell with a steel door and tiny window, hiding in the only corner without shit smeared on the wall or piss puddled on the floor. I can’t blame whoever left them, this is a holding cell in real life, not TV. There’s no toilet in the corner, and we aren’t allowed to ask. I try not to think about where the red for the graffiti everywhere came from. Curled up in a ball, I only look up when they bring man after man in orange jumpsuits to my cell, not realizing I’m in here, or that I’m a girl until I squeak out a hello. I still have nightmares about the looks in some of those jump-suited men’s eyes as the guards lead them away. I’m told if I don’t make bail by tonight, I’ll get my own orange jumpsuit.
A woman is brought to my cell, she’s pregnant and coming down off a high of some sort. She’s scratching her arms in long lines, talking about how her baby is going to die. I don’t interact with her, I just stare vacantly at the tiny window in the door. She’s mumbling about her baby rotting inside of her when they come back to take her away. The guard pops his head in and tells me someone is here to pay my bail, but the one person authorized to sign off on it is nowhere to be found. After twelve hours, I finally get to leave. The county sheriffs say if I had just paid bail at the city station I never would have had to come here. I have to track down my car and pay for it to get out of the impound lot. The next six months are court dates I have to show up for, but are cancelled or rescheduled minutes before they come up. Because of the court dates, I lose my job, a job that knew about my past, was OK with it, trusted me, loved my work, but couldn’t keep giving me last minute time off.
That experience messed me up for a long time. My record inconvenienced me for a big chunk of my life, but I always glossed it over. People were judgmental, they sucked, but I was still me, I was fine. But the night terrors started, and I still get them when I’m stressed. I involuntarily freeze whenever I see a police officer, wondering if they’re looking for me, if the mention of my name will have them pulling out the cuffs.
But you know what? If I hadn’t gotten arrested I would’ve gone to the college my parents wanted me to, and likely been miserable with a degree I had no intention of using. I wouldn’t have married my amazing husband, I wouldn’t have met or helped the wonderful people I have in the past ten years, and I wouldn’t have been so frustrated at the horrible job opportunities out there that in desperation I started my own business. I don’t mourn the life I could have had if it weren’t for my stupid choices, I revel in the opportunities they gave me to fight harder, to do better. It reminds me not everyone is what they seem, and sometimes, the people society looks down upon are the game changers.
My goal in life is to be a game changer. Any ex-con (A mis-nomer, since once convicted, you’re always a convict. You never really get to the “ex” status) has a hard time getting a job, but men almost always have manual labor jobs like construction to fall back on. Women don’t. Think of the “typical” women’s work industries, teaching or nursing. Good luck getting something in either of those fields. When you try to be a secretary, you need to get into an industry where they don’t care about your record. The only two jobs I was able to get that stuck, were office work for construction and landscaping companies. That’s assuming you have training, there are tons of women out there who haven’t had the opportunities to learn the most basic of work skills. I want to change that, to start a non-profit for woman with records, to help them get job training, partner with companies to give them jobs based on their skills, jobs they can be proud of and succeed at. Find mentors to help them start their own businesses (because I’m also passionate about small businesses), find ways to get them child care if they need it. Give them counseling, hold them responsible for taking charge of their life, instead of being forced to go on welfare or sell drugs because there are no other options. I don’t want anyone else to ever have to feel their mistakes make them less of a person, that they need to give up, that the system has them beat.
I’m going to be really, brutally honest here. When I initially thought about writing this post, I had every intention of it being anonymous. I mean, I have a baby business, mostly online, people will see this, they’ll put two and two together, it could totally sink everything I’ve worked so hard to build up. But then Lauren said something to me after I approached her. She said ‘I think it’s incredibly brave to admit openly and I think it would challenge a lot of peoples’ initial thoughts on “felons”.’ I realized my being anonymous because of the fear of what others would think, that’s not brave, and I would be participating in the very stereotype I’m trying to fight.
For those who are curious, I am very aware of my clients and what my past may or may not mean to them. Many planners will hire vendors on behalf of their clients, handling mass quantities of money. I won’t do that, not because I’m afraid I’ll be tempted, but I know if something happens, I’m going to be the one everyone comes after. I pay vendors on the wedding day, but only with checks made out to them before hand, put in sealed envelopes by my clients. There have been occasions I’ve been given envelopes full of cash, to dole out tips, so I write what I gave each vendor on the back of the envelope, and if there’s anything left I return it to my clients. I do every thing in my power to track everything I do and take away any possible questions.
I don’t broadcast my record, not because I’m ashamed of it, or it needs to be hidden, but it just isn’t relevant. How would you feel about meeting someone and leading off with all your biggest life mistakes? All it would do is make people uncomfortable, or alienate them. Sometimes my clients figure it out on their own (I work for a LOT of lawyers, funny enough), or we become close and it just comes up in conversation. So far no one has had a problem with it. Because I do my job, and I do my job well. The emotionally mature part of me says if someone has a problem with it, there are plenty of other planners out there who can help them. The little girl in me who was never accepted mourns the thought of people not liking me, of talking about me in hushed whispers around the dinner table, or in nasty anonymous comments. But while my past in no way defines me, it has shaped me into the person I am today, and I’m damn proud of who I am.
I know that people typically come to me for the funny, not hard hitting personal exposés. I have a tendency to make anything, no matter how taboo, something that you can walk away from laughing. It’s a point of pride for me, and I started out trying to do it here. Anyone who personally knows me, and knows about my record, will tell you I have no problem making light of it, and revel in poking fun at myself. But in this post it felt forced and crass. I think it’s because too many people have been hurt by this very thing, and they aren’t in a position to laugh about it. I’ve been lucky enough to make it through the sinking tunnel of depression, and see how far I’ve come, so I can afford to joke about my “dark and sordid past”; safe at home with my loving husband while I bake cookies and get semi-steady paychecks. But many people aren’t there yet, and don’t feel they’ll ever get to the point where they’re safe and loved and good enough. There are enough stigmas and jokes about felons, cons and criminals, I just can’t add to it. My goal isn’t to make anyone feel bad for me, or anyone else. Instead, I hope anyone who reads it is perhaps more open to giving someone a second chance. To anyone who has been in a position similar to mine, it’s not the end of the world, even though it feels like it, especially on really bad days. But you can come out the other side and have a “normal” amazing life better than anything you could have dreamed. People as a whole are flawed, beautifully, wonderfully flawed, and they deserve a chance to embrace their flaws and use them to make them stronger.