BALTIMORE City Jail. An ugly building any day, but on this sunny Sunday afternoon, it is more grotesque than usual. There are about 2 billion places I would rather be parking my VW right now. But, I remind myself, that I am here by choice. My friend Charlie isn't. I can leave in an hour. He can't. Charlie has this one hour a week to make contact with the outside world, then it's back to a reality as cold and gray as the hideous building itself. His mother stiffens beside me as I cut off the engine. We sit quietly a moment. She has this one hour a week to see her son. She hasn't missed a Sunday. Once, when nobody could drive her, she took the bus from her home in Virginia. An all-day round trip for a woman about 70 years old.
We walk to the visitors' line at the front gate. The line inches along. Nobody talks, faces serious. I think about the previous time I brought Charlie's mother here: The guard couldn't find Charlie's name on the printout sheet and told us he wasn't there. To relieve the tension, I asked, ``If we find him, can we take him home?'' The guard didn't laugh. Neither did Charlie's mother. Oh well, I tried. Several phone calls later the guard tracked Charlie down in the library.
This time his name is on the list. We walk ``through the gates into the city.'' That phrase comes to my mind from a Bible verse. It's about entering paradise. This is about as far from that as you can get.
We walk down a long hallway and enter a room. The room is crowded, smoke-filled. One by one, visitors go to the window and name the person he or she has come to see. Charlie's mother also leaves some spending money.
A loud click and the iron gate grinds open. We go into the next room. Rows of lockers, a guard telling us to put all personal belongings in a locker and lock up. We've been through this before, Charlie's mother and I. We're old hands. Thang! I had forgotten the sound of that gate clanging closed behind me. It sounds so final.
We go up the steps, slowly. At the top I wait, as the mother carries a bag to another room and leaves it with an officer. Clean clothes for Charlie. When she returns, another switch is thrown. Another heavy door creaks open and we enter another room.
From this room we can see through the bulletproof marble-glass into the visiting room. Dozens of look-alike inmates sit on one side of a long table. On the other side, the visitors - wives, sweethearts, friends, parents - try to squeeze a week's worth of feelings into 60 minutes.
I sit among the blank-faced people and wait. Charlie's mother stands awkwardly.
``Why don't you sit down?'' I suggest.
``I like to see his face the second he enters,'' she explains. Then I realize: she's standing on tiptoes, to catch the first glimpse of her son.
At last Charlie comes into view. He enters the visiting room from the far side, looking grayer than when I last saw him. Not his hair; his face, his complexion.
Then we are admitted to the room and move between the benches toward him. I start to reach across the partition to shake hands, but he indicates that I shouldn't reach across. He sits down on a wooden bench behind the partitioned table. We take seats on the outer side.
``How are you?'' we ask him.
``I have a cold; have had all week, so I haven't slept much. Everything else is OK, I guess.''
``Still working in the library?''
``Yeah. That's going all right. Weekends here are the hardest. Nothing to do. Time doesn't move.''
``Any further word about the parole?'' I ask.
``Not really. They could come tap me on the shoulder any day and send me packing. Or it might be months. That's the hard part - not knowing.''
His mother makes conversation about home and family and his big yellow cat. They talk not just to convey information; they talk to be close. They need that. I let them. I'm thinking, anyway. Mostly of Charlie.
I've known Charlie now about six months. I met him a couple of months before he went to jail. For a year and a half he had been in a limbo state awaiting sentence for a crime he had committed while under the influence of alcohol. ``Booze turned me from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde,'' he told me.
Shortly after the crime, he ad- mitted himself to a program for recovering alcoholics. At first maybe he was trying to appease the court or manipulate the court system - that's been done. But the program seemed to take. He found, he said, something he had been seeking for many years: the realization that he didn't have to drink. To a nondrinker, or even a nonalcoholic, that may seem a simple and obvious fact. Let's put it this way: There are a lot of people who reach for drinks they don't really want. Drinks promised against, sworn against - to wives and husbands and children and judges and bosses.
Between the times of his conviction and sentencing, Charlie had not had one drink. But the saying goes, ``If you do the crime, do the time.'' A person is not sentenced for his character; he is sentenced for his actions. True, Charlie had not been drinking during the year and a half he awaited sentence, but the crime had been committed.
Charlie had found something else in his recovery program - a loving God. He was able to accept God's grace in his life. And that enabled him to accept the judge's stiff sentence. ``God has something for me to learn or do,'' Charlie had said before beginning his jail sentence. Unlike most prisoners, therefore, Charlie entered Baltimore Jail with face and faith held high.
Now here he sits talking to his mother and me with that same attitude. ``I just hope I don't get out of here before I'm ready.''
``What do you mean by ready?'' I ask.
``I mean, I hope I learn all that this experience was meant to teach me, and that I help all the people I'm supposed to help.''
The hour is up. A guard lets us know. The three of us stand. We reach across the partition and grasp hands. We're not supposed to, but we do.
``Let's pray the serenity prayer,'' Charlie says.
We bow heads, close eyes, and pray together:
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.
Somehow the prayer takes on new meaning here, in jail.
A guard escorts Charlie from the room. His mother and I retrace our steps. Tears well up in her eyes now. She steadies herself against a wall.
``Leaving is so hard,'' she says.
``I know,'' I say, knowing I don't know; not the way she does.
In the car, driving away, she's silent. When she does speak, tears are in her voice.
``When he was young he had so many talents, so many dreams. Then the drink ...''
``He still has,'' I reply, ``from what I see and hear. Dreams and talents.''
``I hope he finds himself,'' she sighs.
``I think he already has. And he'll be out soon.''
Then she cries, ``That's my son.''
``I know,'' I say. ``Stop bragging.'' And by now there are tears in my eyes, too.
Since this story was written, Charlie has been released. He lives with his mother in the Washington, D.C., area. Having dropped out of college some years ago, Charlie enrolled at George Mason University. He is a senior now and, upon graduation, expects to continue graduate school to receive a Masters of Fine Arts. His mother, as she has done for many years, continues doing community volunteer work.