The money earned selling drugs can’t compete with that earned as a dishwasher, but freedom can.
By Brittany Hailer
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:
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.
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.
Text in italics are Jason's words.
It still doesn’t register that he’s been shot. He is bleeding from his stomach and hiding in a nearby neighborhood.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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 describes to me the shame associated with his most recent arrest in November 2013:
It’s over. His one-hour shift, dealing marijuana from the bathrooms of local bars, taking home $500 to $600, was over.
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.
But something Jason will leave behind? His writing.
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.