Early on, our conversation centered around value. I told Doctor K I rarely felt valued these days. And though it was true, an honest assessment of how I felt, it wasn’t something I liked to openly admit. It always sounded bad, whiny—has, I think, a tendency to evoke groans and eye-rolling in other people. It’s a difficult thing to try and quantify, to prove—value. On the surface maybe I was over-reacting. In certain ways it was clear others did value me, my time, what I had to say. But all of that only ever seemed inadequate compared to the ways in which I felt passed over, undervalued. Soon we began to talk about my felony conviction, which I had mentioned to Doctor K during our first meeting. The conviction was fifteen years old, and though I considered it well into my past and not representative of the person I was today—even forgetting about it from time to time—it still proved to be a raw wound whenever I mulled over it for any length of time. I had a rant all ready to go, and when I got going I couldn’t help myself.
“Thing is—I’m a felon. I did something really stupid when I was eighteen and for the first few years afterward, yeah, I expected there’d be rough times. I expected it’d be difficult finding a good job. I figured I’d have to do a lot of temp work, lots of shitty, meaningless jobs that didn’t pay well, and I did—that’s exactly what I did and I’m not complaining about any of that. I considered it part of my punishment. But at some point the punishment has to end, right? And that’s the thing—the punishment hasn’t really ended. I’ve stayed out of trouble fifteen years and I still have trouble finding a job. On applications sometimes they ask if you’ve ever committed a crime, a felony, in the last five years or the last seven years, but more and more they ask have you ever? and I find myself needing to lie. Otherwise—no chance. I don’t have a chance at all. And I learned that the hard way. I’d be honest on my application and explain the circumstances, thinking there had to be some value in honesty, it still had to count for something. I said to myself, ‘I’ll be one of the good guys, I’ll play by the rules.’ Maybe an employer would see I was being straight with him and he’d think, ‘Hey, seems like this guy’s trying to do right with his life. Maybe I ought to bring him in—for an interview, at least—you know, give him a shot.’ But it didn’t happen very often. During that time all honesty ever got me was a lot of heartache.”
Doctor K mumbled something about them—meaning the authorities, the background checkers, possibly the FBI—finding out anyway.
“I have to lie for a shot and I don’t want to lie. Lying is part of the stereotype, you know? Lying is what those lousy felons do, and you can’t trust those lousy felons because they’re scumbags, they’re the bad guys. Of course they lie! That’s what felons do! But I didn’t want to lie. I just wanted a job so I could survive, something that wasn’t a complete embarrassment.
“But all I ever did was shoot myself in the foot. Despite what they say on job applications, you know about how ‘a felony is not necessarily a bar of employment,’ it is. Especially these days with how competitive the job market is and everything. People out there in the streets fighting for scraps. Between two qualified people, everything else being equal, you think the felon has a chance? No way. No fucking way is an employer going to take a chance on a felon when there’s some other guy waiting, a record and job history so spic-and-span you could fucking eat off it—just waiting.”
Doctor K nodded in quiet agreement.
“Automatically it’s like you’re a sub-citizen, and it’s permanent—a felony never goes away. And that’s the problem here: most of the people in jail will be out at some point. I think the number’s like ninety-five percent. So what happens when you have all these ex-cons coming home to communities that have basically shunned them? You think they’re going to thrive, be a positive member of that community? Maybe for some—the people for whom once is enough. The people with support systems—good friends, good family. But all the others? Man they’re fucked. Their future’s already written. They’ll be arrested and back in jail within five years. What’s the point trying to be part of a community that doesn’t want you?
“That’s a big part of why I don’t feel valued anymore is because I’m trying to move forward in life, just trying to get a decent job so I can live quietly, and it’s been tough to do that. Feels like society’s in my way. Ask anyone and they’ll tell you, yes, of course a person can change in fifteen years, change for the better and be completely different from who he was. But not according to the law. Not according to the job applications where I have to lie.”
“You’re right,” said Doctor K, still nodding. “You’re absolutely right, Jon, and I agree—it is hard. And it will continue to be, especially for you ….”
I was tired. I’d had the same conversation, said the same things, with numerous people over the years. It felt good in the moment to off-load all of that junk, that angst, but it was fleeting. I was just talking to people who already agreed, and nothing was being done about it, and once I realized that sad truth a hollowness and apathy spread over me and I just felt like changing the subject.