Everyone with SCI faces difficult adjustments and accommodations when getting back into life after so much has changed. But wheelchair outlaws looking for a shot at a so-called normal life have a steeper road to climb. For them, true rehabilitation is impossible absent redemption. And redemption--making amends and atoning for past actions--is a tall, tall order that involves rejecting much of the past.
James Lilly, Eric Gibson, Jesse Marquez and Juan Garibay are all former gang members. Each was shot either doing bad stuff or in retaliation for the bad stuff they'd done. Gang life is exciting--the test of courage, the measure of manhood, even a career path--more than just something to do. It's serious business that can easily escalate into a matter of life and death. The attraction is the excitement, the camaraderie, the rush. These are kids, often with too much time on their hands and too little to look forward to. Looking around, they see that gang members have power and respect, and they want some, too. Once they're into the life, it's comfortable and intoxicating--and very hard to leave.
Knowing little other than gang life, Lilly went back to banging with the homies after he was shot. Needing money to support himself and others, Garibay went back to dealing until he got busted, took a deal and did 22 months of hard time. Gibson went home to months of smoking weed and watching tube. Marquez stayed holed up for over a year before getting his license and going back to his homeboys.
In the mid-1980s Lilly was living what he calls the life of a thug, being tough, doing crime, staking out territory and sometimes shooting it out with rival gangs. He was 15 and with his friends when they were ambushed while walking to someone's house. One person was killed. Lilly and another friend sustained SCIs. Death or injury from a shoot-out was the stuff of legend.
"Gang members dressed in full colors from all over the state showed up for funerals," says Lilly. "You became more well-known and famous dead than when you were alive."
The image of Middle East suicide bombers being lionized by family and friends flashed across my mind.
Like Lilly, Garibay began gang banging in high school. By 19 he was a veteran of the streets and had just finished up 18 months for drug sales. Following release from prison, he spent the summer of 1993 working construction, partying and getting back into gang life. He was a free man less than four months before he got caught up in a gang-related shooting, leaving him with a bad addition to a lousy resume. His biggest skill might have been intimidation.
"If you had met me 10 years ago, you would have met the toughest 19-year-old banger possible," he says, "and you would have been afraid of me. Growing up in the inner city, all I saw was gangs, jail and early death. Being bad and dealing drugs was easy, but I didn't have a future."
That same summer, Gibson felt his life was on cruise control. His future looked fine. Since moving to Los Angeles from rural Mississippi, he'd spent a decade in the gang, working his way up from street foot soldier and into a management position as a drug dealer and OG, an Original Gangster. He had four kids with four different women. He had money and plenty of girls. He had survived several gang-related shootings and was known, respected and feared. At 25 he felt untouchable.
"The gang stuff was a big rush and selling drugs was good money, even if the price--being busted or being robbed--was high."
He was at a known gang hangout one night when he was shot five times in retaliation for past activities. A 13-year-old girl standing nearby died at the scene.
"It could have been anyone that got shot that night--you could be talking to that 13-year-old girl right now," he says. "The fact that I lived was a message to me that I needed to be doing something different."
Marquez had been active in his gang for some time and had been busted for assault with a deadly weapon while still in high school. In the summer of 1990, less than a month and a half after graduating from school, three rival gang members opened fire on him and several of his friends. Marquez was the only one hit; he was paralyzed at T8. Before the chair, his main talent and love was running track and cross country. He had figured on doing labor jobs in the family business for work.
"I knew I couldn't count on that any more and wondered what my options were. I was scared, and the future looked bleak."
The Future--Before and After
Most bangers look at the future with a sense of fatalism, seeing only the starkness of prison or death. They don't dream of college or a great job or a house in the 'burbs. They live in the moment. If they see a future, it's behind bars or being glorified from death in a shoot-out. But there's not much glory here, only a bleak prognosis and a very different reality from what most of us know or imagine. Still, this reality is genuine, often born of poverty, lack of options, brainwashing from peers, an environment of crime and the stupidity of youth.
This dark view of the future drew me to these guys because it is so totally foreign to my middle-aged, middle-class, semi-overeducated white-guy world. I had a degree, work and life experience, skills, great social support and health insurance. These guys had none of that.
Most of us struggle after injury and count on family and friends. So, too, with these men, though their friends came with a lot of baggage. Post-injury life not only looked grim, it was grim. Short on education and saleable skills, lacking the option of physical labor, many gang members dabble in the old life or go back full time, despite being aware of the likely outcomes. Most of us spent time after injury trying to build a second life. What these guys needed was a second chance.
If a second chance does come, wheelers need to have some things going for them. Maybe it's a friend or family to fall back on or someone in their corner; sometimes it's talent or personal skills; usually there's some underlying cultural support needed for them to do their best. Without that support, encouragement, talent or personal skill, people get isolated, discouraged and can easily tumble over the edge. A sordid past of crime, violence or a conviction is a huge load to carry and can quickly morph that second chance, or redemption, into a morality tale of punishment, vengeance and learning one's lesson. Gang life was all these four knew, and as former criminals, they all struggled to break away.
Aside from a little construction, Garibay's only experience was selling drugs. At 15, Lilly was too busy drinking and sneaking off to the beach during rehab to learn about vocational rehabilitation. With 10 years in gangs, Gibson's work skills consisted of drugs and violence. The hard work Marquez liked to do seemed out the window, and he had a felony charge following him around. So much for skills.
Eric and Gesele were married in May.
Social support? Lilly chose his gang over his parents, relying on the support of friends and the status he'd earned from being shot. Marquez turned to his homeboys and resumed the old life as well. Garibay went back to the gang until members began to see him as an easy target. Gibson just holed himself up for a time. Eventually, they all had to reject old friends for a better, safer life. Hangin' with the old crowd was like dragging around a ball and chain.
Marquez spent three months rehabbing at Rancho and a long time after that at home, depressed, scared about the future. Never much of a student, he'd barely graduated from high school and certainly didn't see himself as following his brothers to college. He'd never been afraid of hard work, so he'd counted on doing labor instead, building produce boxes and crates in the family business.
"I was scared for like a year and a half. Every once in a while I'd go work for my dad."
Once he got his license, he was right back to the streets and the gang: hanging out with his homeboys, carrying firearms, giving rides, going after rivals, living the life. This was hard core gang activity, not kid stuff. The neighborhood is a very violent place, says Marquez, filled with hatred, rivalry, grudges and paybacks. But the high toll of gang life--four guys from his neighborhood alone are now in chairs from banging--didn't stop Marquez from going back to the life for six or seven more years. He was arrested twice after his shooting, once for carrying a concealed weapon and then for carrying a dagger.
After avoiding time for a pre-injury assault charge by pleading guilty to a felony and taking probation, he took probation again for the concealed weapon and eventually got the dagger charge dropped. By the late 1990s he began to notice that the homeboys were getting younger and younger. He was the only one getting older.
From rehab Lilly went right back to hanging out, drinking and riding around during chases. Following a "quit the gang or get out" ultimatum from his dad, he chose the gang, lived on the street, sold drugs and waited for SSI to kick in. He was 16 and his mom was bringing him food or money on the sly.
"She worried and cried about me a lot," says Lilly. "I lived that way, house to house with friends, for three or four years before the glamour began to wear off. I'd been to so many funerals, lost so many friends and I finally began to realize it just wasn't for me any more. I knew that if I kept banging I'd be hiding, locked up or dead. That got me started thinking about some changes."
After spending a month in acute care and two more at Rancho, Garibay went back to the streets. Having never envisioned much of a future, he never got depressed.
"I never expected much so I accepted the chair right away. It was sort of weird lying there in the hospital and being paralyzed. I just thought: 'whatever.'"
Whatever. Not the reality most of us know, and certainly not the philosophy most of us adopt.
Abandoned by gang friends, needing to support himself and family members and lacking any real job skills, Garibay was in a bind and soon went back to dealing rock cocaine. When he was busted in 1996 for possession, he took a deal and a three-year sentence.
Gibson left Rancho after nine weeks of rehab with a driver's license, independent living skills and a ton of questions, uncertainties, doubts. He thought about starting over, going legit, being different from other bangers he'd seen in chairs, maybe even getting closer to his kids.
"But then the bowel and bladder accidents started. There was maybe three to six months where all I'd do was wake up, eat, smoke weed and watch TV. I didn't need no TV Guide to tell me what was on. I knew the schedule exactly! That depression comes to everyone sooner or later."
Motivation To Change
You'd think that getting shot and ending up in a chair would be enough to send people on a different career path. But if drunk drivers, serial philanderers and ethically challenged politicians have trouble learning their lessons, can we expect different behavior from gang members on an adrenaline rush?
Some learn quickly. Gibson started thinking long and hard about a job change after spending just one night in lockup. Garibay, Lilly and Marquez took years to embrace the straight and narrow. Prison was the hammer that induced Garibay to swear off the streets. For Lilly it was that "sobering Monday" he spent reminiscing about too many funerals and too many friends behind bars. Marquez was well past his seventh anniversary date before realizing he was growing too old for the streets. The stark recognition of the price they'd already paid and probable costs in the future finally helped them turn the corner.
After that night in jail, Gibson had to give up a lot of friends if he was to build a new life. The transition took a while. "After I got shot I saw wheelers who were still in gangs, others who were working and some who were deadbeats. The first time I saw a successful black man, well dressed and with a good car, I made up my mind to change and start movin' on. I thought, 'I can do that! He knows the things I need to know.' I couldn't stop talking about him."
Eventually Gibson went into business selling medical supplies on consignment, did well and now represents two different outfits in the Los Angeles area. He saw the transition from drugs to medical supplies as simply switching his product from cocaine to hardware. He knew how to handle money and read people, so it was fairly easy, with the bonus of OK money and much more security.
Gibson reintroduced himself to his children and began spending more time with them. He got involved with the community as well. He checked out his local National Spinal Cord Injury Association chapter, got talked into serving on the board of directors for the national organization--the first black man to join the board in decades--and helped put together the PEACE Project programs in Washington, D.C., and Atlanta to reduce the incidence of violently acquired spinal cord injury among minority youth.
In his weekly support group in East Los Angeles, he serves as a "life coach" and shares his knowledge about equipment, employment and being out in the world. Though he now lives in Marina del Rey, Gibson returns to inner city Los Angeles to speak about gangs, peer pressure and drugs in high schools, juvenile halls and detention centers for Teens on Target, a prevention program. Being around the speakers in that program is very special and helpful to him because they're all wheelers.
"We have a shared experience, a shared struggle and they accept me. I felt in my body, my mind and my soul that I was where I was supposed to be. The chair is my culture now, more than race."
Lilly had been banging so long and knew so much that getting out involved a life-threatening beating. Still, he wanted his mom to be proud, to make her smile and not be sad about what he'd done. Once clear of the gang, he struggled to find work and ended up selling roses on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, often crawling up and down the stairs to the train to get there. Next he earned a GED while still living on the streets. Then he headed to Texas with a friend, where he got into wheelchair sports and junior college, relying on Voc Rehab, SSI and a part-time job for money. His turnaround continued at Southern Illinois University, then with basketball and racing for the University of Illinois, where he met his partner Nora. Eventually they moved back to Chicago and started a family.
He has raced for the past 10 years, both marathons and the 267-mile Sadler's Midnight Sun Ultra Challenge--from Fairbanks to Anchorage--the Holy Grail of wheelchair racing. Seven years ago he began making a living as a public speaker telling inner city school kids about gangs, sports, fatherhood and the price he paid to get from there to here.
"If I can touch a handful of kids who begin to think 'I don't ever want to go through all that,' then I'm doing good. Letters from kids telling me that what I said changed and helped them make me cry sometimes. They keep me doing what I'm doing."
Meanwhile, Garibay was locked up, wondering about his future and thinking about some changes. He started by getting a GED while still behind bars. From prison he went to Redondo Beach to live with Marilyn, his girlfriend and physical therapist from Rancho, and spent the next year allowing people to help him make those changes. He volunteered at Rancho, worked with Teens on Target and mentored. He scored a scholarship with Rancho, then a rehab engineering job with them and even began going to college. Seven and a half years later, he's a manager of Rancho's Hands-on Experience in Rehabilitation Engineering Outreach program, sparking the interest of inner city students in the technology and rehabilitation engineering fields.
"I'm still learning," he says. "I want a degree. I want to do rehabilitation counseling or maybe work with at-risk kids. They're like I was: angry, confused, scared, neglected, picked on. When I was banging I was too busy acting the fool and being tough and hard-core," he says. "Now I can enjoy being me and what I'm doing. I'm blessed to have this chance to right the wrongs I did as a young man."
A big part of righting those wrongs is stepping up to his responsibilities. He spends time on weekends with his daughter, who was born during his gang days, and calls her several times a week; he takes care of his financial and emotional obligations and now is concerned with things bigger than himself. Another part is letting go of old friends and old habits. And he's always looking for lessons he might learn.
Marquez was 25 before he began thinking the life wasn't for him anymore.
"I grew out of it," he says. "I just didn't feel right hanging out in a crowd on the street at that age. I thought, 'My time has passed for doing this,' and figured people were probably looking at me, thinking, 'Doesn't this old guy have anything better to do with his life?'"
Leaving was hard, but he realized that the chair was all he had to show for all his years in a gang. He saw himself headed for prison and a lot of time lost behind bars, or a nasty heroin addiction, or coming out and doing more crime and more time, or ending up living under bridges. Or being killed. He decided that wasn't going to be him. Instead of ending up that beat-up gang member with nothing, he turned to the family business.
"Now I'm working with my pop, doing the invoices, keeping track of what's sold, what's needed, doing the dispatching," he says. "What I have now is good, better than lots of the other homeboys. I work hard, I live a normal life and my best years are still ahead of me. I got a house and cars. I got stress in my life, but that's about making payroll. It's not my freedom on the line all the time. I'm surprised--10 years ago, I figured I'd probably be in the joint, not here in Pico Rivera. Instead, I've got a girl and we'll maybe start a family."
In Jean Paul Sartre's No Exit, one of the characters, Garcin, says, "Hell is other people." What these men confirm is what most wheelers eventually learn: that while other people may often be hell, just as often they're the key to salvation. They'll tell you that a critical aspect of atonement and redemption is finding a modicum of inner unity and becoming "at one" with yourself. In order to fully deal with disability and build a present and a future, these four had to overcome and reject their pasts without glorifying or trying to hide them. They now all have jobs and pay taxes. Three of the four work with kids or other crips.
They've built support systems, learned skills and now feel confident about their futures. Their lives may at times be boring compared to the old days, but they're happy with what they've created. They're a long way from 'If trouble came, we dealt with it.' Salvation? Maybe. Making the most of a second chance? You bet.
Garibay is typical of each of them in the way he likes the new predictability of his days--out the door by 8 a.m., work from 9 to 5, home to chores each night, sleeping in on weekends, visiting with his daughter and shooting hoops.
"This is a good life compared to what I had," he says. "It's worry-free--and I'm not looking over my shoulder."
Parts of Juan Garibay's, Eric Gibson's and James Lilly's stories originally appeared in Richard Holicky's Roll Models: People Who Live Successfully Following Spinal Cord Injury and How They Do It, available from www.trafford.com (866/752-6828) or Amazon.com.
Lilly, with son Christian
What do politicians, athletes and criminals have in common? They all love the rush, the adrenaline, the excitement of their jobs. That's why so many of them get hooked on them and can't quit. Once you have the gang life in you, it's hard to get it out.
"Giving up the gang was hard. I was brainwashed and yeah, I missed it. Not long ago a student approached me after a speech and asked me if I knew her dad, who she said was about to get out of prison. Her dad and I were in the gang together and I thought about him for several days after that. I realized I could never see him. I still miss it; it's still hard. In the beginning, racing got me past missing the gang life and the lure of going back to it. I made racing the priority in order to overwhelm the desire.
"Now it's my family, my boys, the kids I speak to. If I didn't have Nora and the boys, I'm not sure where I'd be. Being a dad is very important. It's number one. A lot of people have been good to me."
"Gang life is a dead end and it's been a long battle for me to make the change, but that's what keeps me going when things are hard. My life's not boring, it's just the way it is. I never thought this life was possible, I never thought I had much control, but now I know I can be in charge of myself. Letting people help me has made me stronger.
"I got so many positives now: Marilyn, my daughter, my family, a job, college, knowing good people. It feels good to give and be a service to the community. The chair can make you a better person or cause you to fall apart. I believe I'm a changed man and I'm not going back to the old life. I ain't gonna bullshit you, though, it's still hard."
"The hardest part is, you live that life and you're on the edge every day. You're playing with fire and if you get burned, you're going to get killed. You go out on Saturday night and it's all on the line. You're thinking, 'Tonight is the night I could get killed, or get arrested and sent to prison.' During the week you're wondering if the house will get raided and if you'll get arrested for the crime you already committed. When you leave the gang, none of that is there anymore and it's hard.
"Yeah, it's boring sometimes and I miss the action but that life didn't pay my bills. When I started living a regular life and it was Saturday night, I'd have nothing to do and I'd want to go hang out. There's nothing to replace that rush and I still miss it, but I knew it was time to let go. There's always a temptation to go back because there are some scars that just can't heal, so the challenge is to stay busy. I travel, I do road trips, I go to the movies or the beach, anything to stay out of trouble."
"The old life looked attractive--more money, more fun, more excitement--and occasionally still does. I had to fight with myself about leaving and there's still this sense of doubt all the time about going back. It took me a couple years to get past the worst of it until I found a role model. My friend reintroduced me to God and was the biggest influence in my life since injury.
"Sometimes it gets boring and I have to fight those negative thoughts and temptations. But I'm more involved with God and the church now and volunteer at Rancho some. Those things help. I have to stay occupied by doing for other people. I've got so many resources to share--sometimes it's verbal, sometimes it's physical. That's my mission, what I'm supposed to be doing.
"I'd like to buy a house and choose a wife and own a company again. I'd like to travel around meeting other people in chairs. I need challenges. It's all about helping other people, other wheelers. That's what keeps me going. I feel like an adult now."