Exoneree Diaries: 'Take it one block at a time'
“This is my neighborhood. I grew up here. I know everybody. I know the kids, The people in the community, the stakeholders, kind of respect me because I’m active. You don’t have drug deals on the corner right here. You don’t have none of that because even the guys in the street respect me. Because it just ain’t going to happen. Sometimes you have to put your foot down. I ain’t the damn police neither.”
Antione walked past his childhood home. His stepdad still lived there.
“We’re naming the block after my mom,” he mentioned.
Brick bungalows lined the street. Signs with big red X’s marked the homes that were empty, a warning to firefighters that the structure could collapse.
Antione couldn’t take two steps in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood without getting stopped by acquaintances. He spent most of his time there, fixing up old properties in the year since his wife and kids moved out of their four-bedroom home in Villa Park, about a half hour away.
“How you doing? You alright?” Antione called over to a neighbor.
At an intersection, Antione halted in his tracks and smiled as a man named Johnny stopped his car and jumped out to greet him, leaving his car in the middle of the road.
Johnny, a weathered short man, walked toward Antione. His blue pearlescent studded boots clicked on the pavement.
They exchanged pleasantries as another friend, whom Antione had gone to kindergarten with more than 40 years ago, drove past them. Now, the neighborhood’s underpopulated schools were targets for closure. The Chicago Teachers Union had been rallying all week.
Johnny’s face turned somber as he talked to Antione, mid-road.
“When I decide to change, I mean it,” Johnny told him, peering past his ball cap. “I don’t wanna be like I used to. You know, man? It’s scary.”
Johnny had spent the last two months living in a community house.
“I became a criminal in the house,” he said, shaking his head. “You ever become a criminal in a house where you at, where you trying to stay clean?”
Antione, averse to substances, couldn’t relate. He had a drug arrest on his record, prior to his wrongful conviction, but says the stuff was planted because he was mouthing off to police.
“One of the reasons I’m wanting to do that house is guys like yourself that are trying to change and better themselves,” Antione said about the Life After Justice building. “Find it difficult when you living with people that’s not trying to change.”
Johnny had been on disability since 1989, he said, and it wasn’t enough for him to live on.
“I mean disability is only nothing,” he said. “I need more than that! C’mon, you can’t make it! I want to get off disability and work!”
“And you can,” Antione said. “But can you work? What kind of work would you do?”
“That’s a good question,” Johnny shook his head. “I don’t know.”
“So you need to think about that,” Antoine told him.
A kid emerged from around Johnny’s parked car and asked Antione for a light.
The kid walked away.
“He wants a light so he can light a joint. These kids is crazy,” Antoine said, turning back to Johnny.
They talked about rising up and changing the neighborhood.
“Take it one block at a time,” Antoine said.
“You and me, we walk together.”
“Alright, bra’, take care of yourself, man!”
Johnny got back in his car and drove off. Antione lapped the corner and walked to the prospective Life After Justice property, a temporary house that Antione hoped to live in when the organization found a permanent spot. He hired a few guys to help him out.
Inside the house, patches of hardwood peeped through construction scraps and a tarp covering the kitchen and common area.
“We have beautiful wood floors,” he explained.” I just left this down so they don’t scuff them all up.”
He planned to sand and revarnish the floors and doors then paint the walls. Antione had a friend who worked for a paint company and brought him some free cans.
“A bed there, a bed there, a bed there,” Antione pointed to different angles of the same small bedroom.
The kitchen would be a popular spot, as many guys coming out of prison have learned how to cook for the masses. Antione would assign somebody to cook meals for the exonerees because he didn’t believe in having everybody cooking and using the kitchen at once. It’s dangerous and unclean, he said.
Downstairs, music from a boom box blared, and a pot full of wet dog food sat on the ground – for Hannibal, Antione’s dog who had one blue eye and liked to tear holes in the wall when he wasn’t chained in the backyard.
“They’ve had to repair the same spot twice,” Antione said.
Bedrooms connected to bedrooms. One room would be his. It was dark and dusty. He envisioned a Jacuzzi tub all to himself.
“I’m by myself now,” he said. “I don’t need no three-bedroom house no more.”
His young kids, when they visited, would stay in the connecting rooms, what used to be the house’s boiler room. One side for the little girl, one side for the two boys. He needed to tear down a wall to open up the space and rip out the cedar cabinets, saving them for the kitchen.
Antione had hoped the temporary Life After Justice house would be ready before the 11th anniversary of his release from prison. But the crew had gone too slowly, he said, despite pushing his guys to finish on time.
“I wanted to prove to Laura that I could do this in 30 days, 60 days,” he sighed. “It can happen.”
Then, another setback. Someone had stolen all the wiring in the house. He knew who had done it and confronted the guy.
“Told him I didn’t have it,” Antione said. “He brought it back.”