Last night I broke into a prison and freed myself.
For some time, life had lost its luster. I was breathing, and doing the things I was supposed to be doing, sure, but it didn’t feel like I was alive. I was going through the motions of life, but I was really walking around dead. Somewhere along the way I’d lost the capacity to cherish the moment, to stop in my tracks and gaze in wonder at something, to be lovable and, perhaps worst of all, to have hope for a better tomorrow. It was as if I lived in black and white, and everyone else lived in color.
It wasn’t always this way.
Born in the Bronx, my youth was darkened by drugs and violence. When I was seven I came home from school and found my mother passed out on the living room floor, syringe sticking out of her arm. They saved her body but they couldn’t save her life, and I went to live with my grandmother in Yonkers. Mother would stay with us whenever she wasn’t in a mental hospital or rehab. She had wild mood swings and a temper.
I hated drugs. I did my fair share, from thirteen to seventeen, then quit when I almost died. Drugs ruined everything in my life, including my mother and many of my closest friends. So during the winter of 1990 I killed a neighborhood drug dealer. I pointed a shotgun at him, gave him ten seconds to run but started shooting after three. He was so coked-up he ran 200 or so feet with three rounds of 00 buckshot in him. A jury took pity on me and found me guilty of manslaughter instead of murder. I served nearly thirteen years before being released in 2003.
When I was first released, life gleamed like a brand new car. Everything sparkled. I skipped down the street as if it were a yellow brick road. The legendary civil rights attorney Ron Kuby gave me work as a paralegal, investigating prisoners’ claims of innocence. NYU accepted me into its creative writing program. I had an apartment in the Village. I was loved by many. I was happy, and determined to be the best ex-convict ever, in every way, to set an example for those who would come after.
Then everything slowly slipped sideways, as my future prospects dimmed and the world closed in around me. First, despite graduating NYU with the highest honors, no one would give me a job. They never said it, but it was always my criminal record. Deprived of a legitimate way to earn a living, I lost my apartment. Slowly I lost many of my friends. Lovers disappeared. Then, instead of a gun, I picked up a camera and shot my way onto the pages of the New York Post, becoming a freelance news and documentary photographer. Life didn’t suck. In fact, it was pretty good.
But the cops still wouldn’t leave me alone. While doing my job I was re-arrested, repeatedly, for not following orders to not take pictures; as the police called it, “obstructing governmental administration.”
As a photojournalist, people are always yelling at us to “stop taking fucking pictures.” If we listened every time someone told us not to take pictures there would be no fucking pictures.
Other photographers facing this distinct occupational hazard routinely had their charges dropped, but I was always put through the system. While covering a protest outside the Republican National Convention in 2008, cops shot the camera out of my hand with a rubber bullet, presidential press pass swinging from my neck, useless, before attacking my face and genitals with their nightsticks, then holding me in solitary confinement for three days.
It didn’t help that Bloomberg and the Banksters turned my town into a platinum-plated chapel for the rich, where the gilded worship the golden calf of excess and the rest of us serve on our knees, wondering what life would be like if we only had a few billion to spare. It was enough to drive a man to whiskey, or whatever. Even daylight was dark.
Then the sun came out.
Jackie and I had tried to make it work years before, shortly after I’d been paroled, when we were still starry-eyed. She worked as an assistant to a literary agent; we met at a Jay McInerney reading in the Union Square Barnes & Noble. She was young, poor and happy.
Now, ten years on, she was older, rich and miserable, managing rentals for a real estate magnate, the kind of person who calls you up when your lease is about to expire and says your rent is going up forty percent — do you want to stay or not? If not, don’t forget you need to be out by such-and-such, the place has to be broom clean or we’re keeping your deposit. Still, she was a good friend who saved my ass on many an occasion. Last November she called me out of the blue and offered me work photographing apartments for her boss’s website. I said yes, and soon I was shooting freshly-renovated, freshly-painted apartments all over town.
It was money, but the more I photographed the sicker I became, until one day I was literally nauseous. I couldn’t figure it out at first. I thought, “Maybe it’s the paint,” but it was all in my head, as uneasiness turned to dread. One bright fall afternoon, while starring through the fancy double-paned windows of yet another place I’d never be able to afford, tears leaked from my eyes and I realized what it was.
I needed a new beginning, a fresh start, but I wouldn’t be able to afford one in this New York.
But I couldn’t leave either. The meager living I’m able to fashion is tied to this town, and I doubt I’d be able to find work anywhere else.
Staring out the window of a Hell’s Kitchen tenement on a gray fall day, like a prisoner gazing through the tiny window of his cell, I remembered a bit of news I’d heard some time before. The prison I was released from a decade earlier, the Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, had closed and now lay empty. I remembered the days I spent there and became oddly yet amusingly sentimental.
I remembered waiting for the clock to tick out the time I owed, reading books, working out, planning for a life of freedom — hopeful, eminently hopeful.
As I reminisced my heart warmed and a smile brightened my face. I realized what must be done — I needed to be hopeful again. In order to do that, I figured, I needed a new beginning; some kind of ritual to mark a clear and clean break with my present.
Last night I broke into a prison and freed myself.
I went back on a crisp, clear early April night. The sky was full of stars and the moon nearly full. I carried a backpack with camera gear, a tripod and bolt cutters. As I do when approaching any job with an established security perimeter, I walked 360 degrees around it, looking for the easiest way in. I was prepared to cut through the fence if I had to, but I figured there was going to be an easier way in somewhere, I just had to find it. Maybe they’d even left the place open. I mean, why would anyone want to break into a prison, after all?
There was a weak spot and I cut my way in with one clip. I walked right to my old housing unit, where I lived for those three and a half years. I remember sitting out front on the stoop here many afternoons, in all seasons and weather, returning from the yard, waiting for the C.O. to come and unlock the door. The housing unit, what would ordinarily be called a cellblock, was locked up tight, but I found a way in, again with one clip. It occurred to me that in doing so I was committing not just a misdemeanor, but a felony. I was undeterred. This was something I had to do, something that simply had to be done, before the place was sold to a developer and sanitized from history.
I wore a miner’s headlamp with a red filter and gripped a camera tight in my hands, like a pistol. This was something I had not expected — to be back in this place, after a decade, my life on a totally different trajectory from what I had planned, from what I had hoped. And yet it felt right. I walked down the dusty hallways of my memory, passing the old phone booth, known in prison parlance as “the jack,” and remembered the hours of time I’d passed on that phone talking to old friends, family, lawyers, lovers; and the realization struck me that this, indeed, had been my home. I had been a prisoner, and not just for a few months, but almost thirteen whole years. In the hectic, full-throttle existence that is my current life, it is a fact unbelievably easy to forget, and deny, even to one’s self — maybe especially to one’s self.
Then I was there, standing in the doorway of my old cell. I sat down inside. I remembered. I reminisced. I rejoiced. I forgot. I reset. It was time to move on.
I took a selfie, and I left. I didn’t smile. There was work to do — I had to tour the place before the sun rose.
—April 21, 2014.
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Nick Brooks is the nom de guerre of an independent and award-winning photojournalist based in New York City. His work is regularly published around the world in every medium, and has appeared on the covers of Paris Match, the New York Post and the New York Daily News.