‘Play the whole tape through’

The money earned selling drugs can’t compete with that earned as a dishwasher, but freedom can.

By Brittany Hailer

Jason Toombs, 36, poses for a portrait at the West End Overlook. He has spent a third of his life behind bars. Now, he is focused on writing in between two dishwashing jobs. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)


Voices Unlocked is a project telling the stories of Pittsburgh-area residents whose life experiences have been shaped by the penal system.

Meet the people behind this project July 7 at 6:30 p.m. at Alloy 26 in Pittsburgh. We will have food, refreshments and a jail cake. Register here!

Explore another voice in this series:

Sarah Womack: A song within a storm

Yeshua David's adaptation

Jason Sauer: Trying as best he can

Luna: Seeking compassion for those cast aside

Cedric Rudolph: One of the Mirrors

Emily and Liza Geissinger: Sisters through addiction, jail time and new endeavors

Robin Tomczak: How a scholarship athlete ended up in ‘the hole’

Jason Toombs was shot in the stomach when he was 16. He describes the bullet inside his body. He remembers it protruding out of his back. He couldn’t lean back because of it.

We were just kids.

Jason, now 36, describes hanging out with friends, getting bored and then amped up by the idea of using a gun to rob someone. He leaves his friend’s house with the gun and finds his target. Next thing he knows, he’s holding a man at gunpoint and forcing him into the trunk of a car, acting out armed robberies he had seen on TV perhaps. It was all a haze then, and his memory of the incident is even spottier 20 years later.

Once the man is in the trunk, Jason doesn’t know what to do. He can’t start the car. He thinks there must be an engine kill switch. He does not know where it is. He figures he can force the driver to flip the switch and start the car. He opens the trunk.

Now my ears ring like a firecracker went off in my face. It felt like somebody punching me in my stomach. But I didn't realize I was shot at the time. I just knew my ears were ringing, and it was burning. Something was burning real bad. My insides was burning like hell.

Jason runs.

Text in italics are Jason's words.

The tattoo on Jason’s left arm includes a “PGH,” a nod to the city where he was born and raised. He says his other tattoo with the text, “In God’s Hands,” reminds him, “That’s where I am, and no one is strong enough to take me from His hands.” (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

It still doesn’t register that he’s been shot. He is bleeding from his stomach and hiding in a nearby neighborhood.

A man asks Jason if he is OK and before he knows it, he’s in the back of an ambulance. The last thing he remembers is a blade cutting into his stomach and the paramedics saying: We're losing him, we're losing him.

This was the story Jason was afraid to tell me. For an hour, he detailed his 12 years inside the American penal system, his various arrests, his life as a drug dealer, but it was this mistake, one he made as a teenager, that he feared would permanently change my view of him. It was his only violent crime, and he didn’t want me to be afraid of him, especially while I was sitting across from him alone in my home.

Ten years after making his biggest mistake, Jason paid close to $2,000 to get his first book self-published. He says he started writing creatively at 16, while incarcerated after his first arrest. He learned to write by penning love letters. He had a girl back home. She left him after she learned he would be serving three and a half years in a juvenile facility.

From his poem “Ocean”: ‘Love, a word I sometimes hear like Ocean waves on Ocean surface.

Crashing, splashing, almost never smoothing out, its wet face somehow speaks... Her body reflects clear blue skies.’

Jason says his letters were filled with metaphors and love scenes. He would read the letters aloud to a fellow inmate, a friend, to see what he thought. His friend, who is Hispanic, could not read or write in English, and he had an English-speaking girlfriend back home.

Jason Toombs wrote this urban fiction novel from jail. He describes it as a mystery thriller. The book is self-published. He paid a transcriptionist, a graphic artist and a publisher about $2,000 to get to the finished product. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Jason Toombs wrote this urban fiction novel from jail. He describes it as a mystery thriller. The book is self-published. He paid a transcriptionists, a graphic artist and a publisher about $2,000 to get to the finished product. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Jason started asking him about his relationship and ghost-writing love letters for him. Jason’s friend would trade him commissary for his writing. Jason says he even got paid to write erotica. When he’s not writing about love, he’s writing about the black experience in America; from his poem “Carry”: ‘I carry reds on my back, different scars from attack after attack, the race of African American; I’m black! Yes, I carry that!’

Over the years, he hones his craft and eventually handwrites 200 pages of an urban fiction novel. Jason says other books from the genre were too fantastical, too unbelievable: 18-year-olds who own clubs, drug dealers who always have a cash flow. Jason wanted to write something that was truer, more in line with what actually happens in the streets.

I really wanted to write a book because I felt like I can do it. I wrote this whole book in jail. It took me five months and two weeks to write this book. So in five months I had 200 pages.
The novel is a mystery thriller. Rows, the protagonist, sets out on a journey to find out who killed his cousin. Jason tells me, One wrong decision could cost him his life.

He manages to find a graduate student from the Chatham University Words Without Walls program who transcribes his novel A Deadly Plan for $200. He pays a graphic designer who he met while working at a restaurant another $400 for his novel’s cover art. All of this he scraped together between menial jobs.

Find out what gives Jason hope

Jason takes his manuscript to Grelin Press and pays to have the book published. Two wads of $600 wrapped in purple rubber bands.

Jason is arrested again right before his books are printed. It takes several weeks for the book to reach him in jail. Everyone on the cell block reads it. They immediately demand a sequel. Jason is already feeling the pressures of writing life. He describes to me the next novel, how hard it is to find inspiration and time to write when working two jobs:

I'm probably like 227 pages in now, 19 chapters already. I haven't been able to get really get into this segment since I’ve been home, so I got to read the whole story over again.

In the sequel to his first novel, the main character continues to discover Pittsburgh’s underground network of drug dealers and thugs. Jason Toombs said he is still working on the book and is carrying the manuscript around in a Ziploc bag to protect it. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

In Part 2, Rows is still discovering Pittsburgh’s underground network of drug dealers and thugs. There aren’t many people he can trust. Characters from the previous novel come back and are not as loyal as they seemed. Jason keeps his second manuscript in a Ziploc bag. He told me the manuscript got wet recently, the ink on the page bleeding. He says it’s still legible, but he is working on getting a laptop to save his work.

Meanwhile, he still has about 30 of 100 copies of his first book left that he sells himself out of a barber shop in McKees Rocks.

Jason writes nonfiction, too. His piece about the shooting is entitled “Struggling;” it starts with the paragraph: ‘This thought is one I haven’t been able to dispose of. Like a flower, it has been preserved in my psyche. The door is open. You’re welcome into my mental Apartment, so to speak.’
The piece continues... ‘Fast pounding heart, African drum sounding so loud, I heard it clearly as if I wore a stethoscope. Face twisted like a twizzler, but I don’t think it was red. ... Pain became my black leech: red fire inside felt hot, so presently unquenchable. There wasn’t any comfort in me whatsoever.’
Jason now works two jobs as a dishwasher at the Commoner in Hotel Monaco Downtown and at Main Event in Robinson Township. He is a former student of the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. His current work exhausts him, but keeps him away from the people, places, things that always seem to land him back in jail. He tells me the panic of keeping up, of never wanting, but always wanting to go back to the money that drug dealing can provide.

Jason Toombs works two jobs as a dishwasher to make ends meet. It’s a stark contrast to the $500 to $600 he said he could earn in one hour of selling marijuana. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Jason Toombs works two jobs as a dishwasher to make ends meet. It’s a stark contrast to the $500 to $600 he said he could earn in one hour of selling marijuana. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Jason describes to me the shame associated with his most recent arrest in November 2013:

I opened the door. A police officer comes to the door like, ‘Where's the weed?’ He's pushing me on the wall, put my hands behind my back. Then I look to the back to the doorway. There's all these police officers coming in and then the feeling ... it's over.

It’s over. His one-hour shift, dealing marijuana from the bathrooms of local bars, taking home $500 to $600, was over.

They took me outside and, you know, my neighbors was looking, and it was probably a shock to them, too. They never saw me [at home]. I'm leaving early in the morning and it’s probably dark. I'm coming back and it’s dark. I'm working two jobs a day. Two dishwashing jobs.

Jason had s started dealing again when one of his jobs ended. He told me he put in 18 applications before another restaurant hired him. During that process, he feared falling behind on his student loan payments, phone bills, car payments, rent, utilities. So he resorted back to selling weed while looking for a second job.

This decision cost him another three years of his life.

Jason Toombs’ most recent arrest in November 2013 was for selling marijuana. He says he only has one violent crime on his rap sheet. At age 16, he borrowed a friend’s gun and held up a motorist. Toombs was shot in the stomach during the ordeal. He was sentenced to three and half years in a juvenile facility. (Photo by Maranie Rae Staab/PublicSource)

Once I was in jail, I started thinking about the whole situation.
Like my mom say, ‘Play the whole tape through.’ My mom always say before I make a decision to play the whole tape.
What Jason means is, if he had slowed down and thought about what he was actually earning, if he would have played the scenario out to its natural conclusion, the consequence, he would have realized he had enough money to pay his bills and that the risk of getting caught again for selling drugs wasn’t worth it. I still feel stupid about it. I never had to do that. Jason could have survived off a dishwasher salary. Survived. This is what he tells himself now.
I'm just trying to stay out of jail and do the right thing. So just trying to be positive.
And that’s the other thing about money, Jason tells me. When I die, I can’t take it with me.

But something Jason will leave behind? His writing.

So what gives me hope is this.
The things I'm doing now, I can pass on to somebody else. They could make money off of it. Somebody will always be out here wanting to read, and they can push it. Just being able to have something to pass on to somebody else, and they can keep passing on. It’s not about being rich. I didn’t come into this writing stuff wanting to be a millionaire. I took a chance. It’s worth the chance.
You know what I’m sayin’?

I tell him that I do.

Brittany Hailer has taught creative writing classes at the Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House as part of the Words Without Walls program. Her work has appeared in The Fairy Tale Review, Word Riot, HEArt Online, Barrelhouse, and elsewhere. You can read more of her work at BrittanyHailer.com.

PublicSource will release three more stories in the Voices Unlocked series. Follow along And, stay tuned for details about an event we’re planning for the end of the series.