Interview by Ranya Forgotson, The Curbside Chronicle
Booker sells The Curbside Chronicle in Oklahoma City. Though he wanted to be an astronaut as a child, he ended up hanging out with gangs as a teenager and was jailed at the age of 24. It was only while he was in prison that he finally learned how to read. He says that selling a street paper has given him hope, because, “Curbside will help someone like me and still treat me like a human.”
Where did you grow up?
I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. I had a normal childhood like most children. I’ve got two brothers and five sisters. We fought a lot. We got along, but we fought a lot too.
My dad left us when I turned 10 years old. He left my mom with eight kids to raise on her own. He left and we struggled. We didn’t have food half of the time. Our lights weren’t on. Our water was off. We had to go to other people’s houses. This was real hard on us growing up. My mom had a job, but it was barely enough to keep us going.
Are you close to your mom?
Yes, we are real close. She’s a godly woman. No matter what hard times we had growing up, she always trusted the Lord. There were some times when we didn’t have nowhere to go. People were kicking us out at one and two o’clock in the morning. We didn’t have anywhere to go and somehow she managed to make it for us. When times got hard, she would talk to her sisters in Christ. They would get together and pray, and God would see us through.
Was it hard growing up like that?
When we watched T.V., we watched The Cosby Show or Diff’rent Strokes. We watched Full House and all those classic shows. We watched them and thought, “Why can’t we be like that? Why aren’t our parents successful like theirs? Why couldn’t we have that growing up?”
It was hard on us. Growing up, we used to say, “When I grow up and have kids, I can’t let my kids suffer and be like this. I’m gonna grow up and be something.” But with no education and not knowing how to read and write growing up, we really didn’t have a chance.
What were your interests as a kid?
I was always interested in being an astronaut. When I was a kid, I used to draw pictures of a rocket going out to space. That was just my imagination. I was interested in space because I felt like as God’s creation, we had some communication with the heavens.
Later on, my interests were just running around with the homeboys. The junior high that I went to had a lot of gangs. I started getting into hanging out with the gangs and homeboys, skipping school. Not really doing the right things that I should have been. I was out there running with the knuckleheads.
How did you get involved with a gang?
It was just something that you had to be a part of. It wasn’t just a school thing; it was a neighbourhood thing too. There was a lot of gang activity in my neighbourhood. I started representing gangs when I was a kid, from first grade all the way to 22 years old.
Most people in the gang grew up without fathers in the home. Some didn’t have mothers or fathers in the house, so they grew up runnin’ wild on the street, fighting, stealing. We stole to survive. Our parents didn’t have the money to feed us. Some of my friends’ parents were on drugs and didn’t have time for them. So we raised each other.
What was your role in the gang?
I sold drugs for a living. I was 14 when I started. I needed money. We were so poor and couldn’t afford a place to stay. We were living with other people. As a young man, I thought that I had to get out there and do something. I saw other guys in the neighbourhood making all that money with nice cars and jewellery. I was still in school at the age of 14, but I dropped out of school and hit the streets with the drug dealers. I was out there just trying to take care of myself.
They say, “Get in where you fit in.” That’s where I felt I fit in. It didn’t take a lot of education or smarts. It took common sense and a little math. People didn’t look down on me. In school, I was the only one who couldn’t read or write. Other students would laugh and call me stupid. Out on the streets, I was considered normal or cool.
Was school difficult as a kid?
I had developmental problems as a child. I never thought I would be able to read. Going through school, the teachers saw it was so hard for me to keep up. I can read now. I learned at the penitentiary. I was about 24 years old. I learned how to comprehend the Bible first, by doing Bible studies with other inmates. They knew how to read, and I would follow along. They helped me. Before I knew it, I was reading like them. I would practice, and practice, and practice. It took many, many years but I know how to read now.
How did it feel learning how to read?
The confidence that I didn’t have back then, I’ve got it now. As a child growing up, being in a class with people that knew how to do things that I couldn’t, that’s a bad feeling. Hoping that the teacher wouldn’t call on me to answer a question or read something. It was a bad feeling growing up. Now I know that I am capable of what everyone else is.
Why did you leave gang life?
That was something that we did as youngsters, as kids growing up. When you become a man, you put away childish things, and that was childish. When I came of age, I decided I needed to learn to have responsibilities in life.
What did you do after the gang?
I worked at a car wash. My life came to an end when I got that job. The customers were real rude to me on the job. I had patience and tried to work with people, but they pushed me to out of control with my anger. It caused a lot of tension that I could have lived without. One thing led to another and things got worse.
I was 24 when I first went to prison.
What was prison like?
Prison makes you think hard about your decisions in life. Do you want to keep making these decisions? Do you love your freedom? Do you want to be told what to do all your life?
In prison, they tell you what to do. It is for correction. Do you want to be productive in society, or do you want to be behind bars all your life? It’s supposed to change every man that goes. It changed me and taught me to think about consequences.
But we’ve also got repeat offenders. Some guys do 10 or 15 years at a time. Their minds are so institutionalised that they don’t know how to deal with the real world. Society and technology have changed so much since they have been outside. They get out and don’t know how to deal with the world, so they commit another crime and go right back to prison. That’s their home. I didn’t want that.
What was it like getting out of prison?
The best feeling you can ever feel is freedom. That’s the best feeling.
When I got free this time, I said no to things that could bring me back to prison. There’s lots of guys driving around offering to pick you up and have you cash checks for them. You’re their crash dummy. They get rich and it all comes back on you. They usually pursue the homeless because they know we need money. They take advantage of the homeless. When I run into these guys, I push them away now.
What is it like being homeless?
I’ve been homeless since 2007. You can look at it two ways. It’s either a depressing life, or it becomes a comfortable life. To me, it is a depressing life. I can’t let it be comfortable. It degrades a person and belittles you. It makes you feel worthless.
Why do you prefer camping outside to shelters?
I suffer from insomnia, so I stay up all night. I usually stay up from midnight to four or five in the morning. By the time daylight gets here, I’m just falling asleep. But in the shelters, they wake you up around five in the morning. At my campsite, I sleep as long as I want.
I build the camps where I stay. I take old junk and wood. I mainly build using palates. You just need enough space to lie down. I go get palates and plastic and car tarps. The plastic is your waterproof; it protects you from the rain. I usually get rugs for my floor and blankets and stuff like that. In the winter, I insulate it, and in the summer, I let the breeze come in. You get comfortable and it becomes your home…until the city comes.
How do you get around in OKC?
My feets. My legs. God gives me my strength to walk every day, and I’m taking advantage of it. I also bathe every day. My hygiene is important to me.
There’s so many times I’ve got sick from taking a bath in freezing pond water in the winter. The water is like ice. I wash my clothes once a week in a washing machine that I made out of an ice chest.
What do you wish people knew about homelessness?
If you see somebody that’s homeless, you don’t know what they’ve done. The person themselves is going to recognise their own mistakes. We learn from our mistakes, but don’t look down on us for them.
People look at me strange because I’m homeless. I’m so used to it that it doesn’t make a difference what they think. People will move away from me or ignore me sometimes. Even when I’m out working and selling The Curbside Chronicle, some people look down on me. But there are a lot of supporters too. It puts smiles on their faces when they see me out selling. I get to talk to people and get to know people. I like it.
What do you find happiness in?
Music. I like rock and roll, classic rock, and rap: Ice-T, Ice Cube, Vanilla Ice, Eazy-E. I like Phil Collins, Van Halen, Twisted Sister, Poison, and Metallica. I grew up with that stuff. I sit back and shut the world off with music. I shut out society when I listen to music, and it lets me escape the misery.
What are your goals for the future?
My goal is to get a place to stay. Once I get a place to stay, I want to be able to invite people over to my apartment and have Bible studies and grow. That’s what I’ve always wanted. Also, my driving skills suck. That’s why I walk everywhere I go. I would like to take some driving classes and learn how to drive. I might even save up the money to get a car.
Ever since I met Curbside, I feel like I got more hope now than ever. Curbside doesn’t discriminate against me. Curbside will help someone like me and still treat me like a human.
How would you describe yourself?
I look at myself as a pretty intelligent person when I want to be. I say a lot of foolish things and make a lot of foolish mistakes, but I’m very intelligent and caring. I care about the next person and their situation and what they are going through. I’m funny. I can make people laugh. I give. I don’t mind giving.
I’m also spiritual. Whenever life seems like it is falling down, always look up. Know where your help is coming from. My faith has kept me strong.
INSP publishes an international vendor story every week. Come back next Wednesday to read another story from one of the thousands of inspirational men and women who sell street papers.